Authors: Laura Langston
Tags: #JUV031000, #JUV013070, #JUV039150
Grandpa frowns. “They can’t just have fish. Too many people have allergies.”
“They do. It’s a Japanese place.” Panic sends my voice into squeaky-mouse territory. “Raw fish all the way.”
“Surely they’ll have rice. The Japanese eat lots of rice. And all those delicious deep-fried things with that sweet dipping sauce. I can’t remember the name.”
“Tempura,” Dad offers helpfully.
I glare at him, but he’s looking at Grandpa.
“That’s it! Tempura. And we can get one of those private rooms!” Grandpa’s cheeks are flushed with enthusiasm. “I love those little rooms. Even if they do make you take your shoes off before you get in.”
The air disappears from my lungs. This can’t be happening. I know I should be grateful, but I don’t want them here. For sure I don’t want to see them tonight. As I’m scrambling for another excuse, Mom says, “You know, Dad, Paige shouldn’t have to change her plans for us. Especially the night before the big event. Why don’t we let her see her friends tonight and we can go out tomorrow night?”
I shoot Mom a grateful look.
“What, we’re not going for dinner tonight?” says a familiar voice from behind me.
It’s Brooke. I swivel around. She’s carrying a small gold bag from the gift shop and standing between Twin One and Twin Two. I stare at their feet. Who wears stilettos? With
? Especially when it’s raining? The three of them do, obviously. My jaw tightens. I’d give my right foot to be able to wear stilettos. Seriously. I’d be thrilled to get rid of the thing.
“Paige can’t make it,” Mom says.
Brooke pouts. “Oh, that’s too bad.” It’s a real pout. A
one. The ice around my heart starts to thaw. My sister actually wants me there for dinner.
“We were looking forward to the steak house.” She looks at the twins. “Right, girls?”
“Right.” Said in unison. With synchronized nods. Like little soldiers answering to their general.
“Well then,” Dad says. “We’ll go to the steak house tonight, and we’ll find someplace else for tomorrow night. Because tomorrow night we’ll be celebrating the fact that Paige made the finals.” His voice is laced with pride. “And that deserves a special dinner too.”
Like, no pressure. As I try to figure out what to say to that, Brooke adds, “Oh good. I wouldn’t want to miss celebrating Paige’s crack at the big time.” But her smile is brittle, and there’s a vaguely sarcastic inflection to her words. “I’m so glad I’m here to see it.”
Sure she is. The ice around my heart hardens again. I know the truth. Brooke has come to Portland to watch me fail.
he shuttle drops me outside the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall at quarter to six. My heart does a jumping-jack routine when I see the crowds on the sidewalk and the marquee blazing with lights. It reminds me of Broadway. Plastering a smile on my face, I join the people lining up to get in. At least tonight all I have to do is listen and blend with the crowd. But tomorrow…
Don’t go there.
Forcing myself to stay in the moment, I study the people around me. Most of them are gazing awkwardly into space, trying to avoid eye contact. I check out their clothes. At least I’ve hit the right note of casual chic in my dressy black pants, midnight-blue chiffon top and jeweled flats.
“Excuse me.” A plump guy with hair the color of maple syrup materializes at my side. He’s wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a slouchy tweed jacket. A bright-orange name tag hangs from his neck. The same kind I’m wearing. A contestant’s name tag. “Aren’t you Paige Larsson?”
It takes me a second to place him. He’s the teen comic from Spokane who was featured in the newspaper article with me. “You’re Jacob Muller.” The muscles in my shoulders loosen a little. It’s great to see a familiar face. Even if it’s a face I’ve never actually met. “Talk about good timing.”
“I’m all about the timing,” he says solemnly. And we both crack up.
As we make our way to the front door, we compare notes on who we came with (he drove with his parents), where we’re staying (he has an uncle in town) and our worries about tomorrow.
“My straight stand-up category starts at eight thirty,” he says. “You video guys aren’t on until eleven. At least you can sleep in.”
“I doubt I’ll be doing much of that.”
After a woman checks our names off a list, we’re ushered past a white-and-gold
Annual Teens in Comedy Festival
sign and into the lobby. Crystal chandeliers hang over a shiny checkerboard floor. An elegant staircase sweeps up to a mezzanine crowded with people. My mouth turns dry. That’s a long walk. And I’ve never been great on stairs.
A guy about our age steps forward. He’s wearing thick black glasses and a burgundy blazer with a small silver usher pin on his lapel. “I’m Drew,” he says. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you the theater before taking you backstage.”
The theater is as beautiful as the lobby, with its grand balcony and incredible vintage detail. I spot other ushers showing contestants around, but I can’t tell if they’re in my category. They’re too far ahead and the lighting is too muted to make out facial features.
Drew leads us past plush bluish-purple seats, filling us in on the building’s historic past before going into the specifics of where everyone will sit this weekend. “Judges, officials and the media will sit in the front rows.” He stops about twenty rows from the stage beside section A. “You and your friends and family will sit here. You’ll get your seat numbers in a few minutes.”
“My category doesn’t start until eleven, and my welcome package said I don’t need to arrive until ten o’clock,” I tell him. “Do I come into the theater?”
“Nice way to be supportive,” Jacob mutters. But he’s smiling.
“There’ll be ushers at the main entrance when you arrive.” Drew leads us down another aisle to a side door. “Identify yourself to one of them, and they’ll take you backstage.”
We follow him down a hall and past a series of closed doors to an open doorway. “This is the main dressing room,” he says. “Tomorrow you’ll wait here for your name to be called.” Tonight it’s a blur of people, wardrobe racks, makeup stations and random chairs.
An older woman with brilliant red hair asks us for our names. Seconds later she hands us each an envelope. “You’ll find your seat number in there,” Drew says as he steers us out the door and back down the hall. “It’s good for both days—plus there are drink tickets for the mezzanine upstairs. You can head up to the reception after I’m done showing you around.” He grins. “Don’t even bother asking the bartender for booze. You won’t get it. But they have lots of soda.”
When he stops beside a door marked
, my heart skips a beat. This is where it’ll all happen. “You’ll always have an escort, so don’t worry about finding your way around. An usher will bring you down here five minutes before you’re due to go on.” He opens the door. Nerves thrumming, I follow him and Jacob into the wings.
The lighting backstage is dim. Cables snake across the floor. Fist-sized clumps of wires curl up the walls. Tracks of lights and booms hang from scaffolding overhead. A few guys wearing crew T-shirts are huddling by a computer station. Drew leads us over to a couple of other ushers standing beside a red velvet curtain. “You’ll wait here until you’re introduced. And I know we’re talking tonight, but obviously tomorrow you’re expected to be quiet.”
I peer over his shoulder. The spotlight is on center stage. Two teens—a guy and a girl—are standing in front of a microphone, looking straight ahead. Oh crap. He doesn’t expect us to walk out there
, does he?
The teens walk back to the wings. I stare at them as they go past. I don’t recognize the girl, but I’m pretty sure the guy is in my category.
“Your turn,” Drew says. “Walk out and get a feel for it.”
It’s my worst nightmare come to life. “I’m good,” I say. “Really. I’ll wait until tomorrow.” I know I’m being stupid. If I can’t walk onstage tonight, when no one is watching, how will I walk out tomorrow, when everyone is? But I’m suddenly überself-conscious of my limp, of how I must look.
“Come on,” Jacob says. His face is the color of milk, and perspiration shines above his top lip. “Don’t make me go out there alone.”
Heat creeps up my neck. I need to get over myself. Jacob is too busy being nervous to care how I look when I walk. “Okay.”
Jacob matches his pace to mine as we walk to center stage. A bead of sweat trickles down my back as I stare into the empty theater. The spotlight is hotter than I expected. The theater lights are on, and even with the spotlight shining into my eyes, I can see every single empty seat.
Tomorrow they’ll be full.
“You good?” Jacob asks.
There are nineteen others in my category. In terms of skill, I figure I’m about midrange. “Not as good as some, but better than others.”
He snickers. “I meant, are you good to go?”
The heat races from my neck into my cheeks. “Yeah, I’m good to go.”
We turn back to the wings. “I hope you break a leg tomorrow,” Jacob says.
I snort. “I hope I don’t. I’m already down one leg. I can’t afford to wreck another one.”
It’s the first laugh I’ve gotten tonight. As we walk offstage, I take it as a sign of good luck.
ere you go, kiddo,” Dad says as he slows to a stop in front of the theater at ten the next morning. Thank goodness Brooke and the twins aren’t with us. When I met Mom in the hotel lobby a few minutes ago and she told me they were making their own way to the competition, I almost cried with relief.
I’m too nervous to see my sister right now.
My stomach flips as I stare out the window. I see a couple of news vans parked ahead of us: KPTV and KOIN 6. Reporters and camera operators too, standing by the theater entrance. I’m too nervous, period.
I can’t believe
news is here.
I can’t believe
I can’t believe this is
“I’ll find parking and let Mom and Grandpa walk you in.” Dad glances back and winks at me. “Go get ’em, Paige. Show those guys just how great you are.”
Mom opens the van door and gestures me out. The gray sky looks threatening, but it hasn’t rained yet, and that’s good news for my hair. In spite of all the expensive hair products Carly insisted I buy, and though I spent more than half an hour styling it this morning, I’m worried about frizzing up.
We walk toward the entrance. My heart begins to race. I’m about to face the biggest opportunity—and the biggest challenge—of my life. Making a crowd laugh. But I have to limp out onstage in front of them first.
Frizzing up is the least of my worries.
Grandpa slows in front of a heavily made-up blond holding a microphone. A bored-looking camera operator stands behind her. “This is my granddaughter. Paige Larsson.” Grandpa drops his arm across my shoulders like he thinks I might run away or something. I look at Mom for support, but she’s staring at the reporter and grinning like a fool. “She’s competing in the
video-comedy category. You’d better memorize her name. That’s Larsson with two
’s. You’ll be hearing a lot about her in the coming years.”
My cheeks burn. Where’s that mega earthquake when you need it? Right now, I’d give anything for the ground to open up and swallow me whole.
The woman gestures to the camera guy, who hoists his machine to his shoulders. She sticks the microphone under my nose. “How does it feel to be competing, Paige Larsson?”
I mumble something about it being a great opportunity and an honor to be shortlisted. I’ve barely finished speaking when someone else comes up, and the woman switches her attention to them.
Mom and Grandpa present their tickets at the entrance. I hold up my name tag for inspection. The petite ticket checker, who’s wearing eyelashes the length of my baby finger, smiles at me. “Go on in. And good luck.”
Inside the door, a middle-aged usher with longish hair and kind brown eyes is waiting to take me backstage.
“Why don’t I walk down with you?” Mom straightens my vest, brushes something from
my shoulder. I know there’s nothing there. I spent over an hour primping. My jeans and vest are perfect. My makeup is perfect. If only
could be perfect. “Give you some support.”
“Thanks, Mom, but only contestants are allowed backstage.” I have no clue if that’s true, but I don’t want a mother escort.
“Okay then.” Her blue eyes are full of emotion. “Remember, we love you, and we’re proud of you no matter what happens up on that stage.” She folds me into a hug. I breathe in her special mom smell: minty toothpaste, floral perfume and comfort.
The usher leads me through a metal door that goes backstage. “The first category is just wrapping up,” he says as clapping breaks out in the theater. I hope Jacob makes it. He seems like a nice guy.
I follow the usher down the hall, past the turnoff to the stage and toward the dressing room. When I hear a burst of laughter, my heart starts to thrum. They’ll stare at me as I walk into the room. I hate that.
They’ll stare at you when you walk out onstage too.
Sometimes I wish I had a
button for my thoughts.
The usher stops by the open doorway. I freeze, suddenly conscious of my limp. “Here you are.” He smiles before he turns away. “Good luck.”
I stare at the crowd. There has to be at least sixty people in the room. Contestants wearing the flamboyant orange name tags, ushers in their burgundy jackets, a pile of organizers. But everybody is huddled around three
monitors. Nobody is looking at me. I take a breath, walk in and stand awkwardly at the back of the group.
Jacob comes over. His face is flushed, and his hairline is damp with sweat. “Hey. Good morning.”
He’s dressed casually in jeans, a white shirt and blue high-top runners. Aside from a few girls wearing leggings, and one guy wearing khakis, jeans seem to be the outfit of choice. My nervousness eases just a little. My walk may be messed up, but my clothes are perfect.