Forty Years of Porcelain

An insistent vibrating pulled Ryan’s attention from the violent war on screen. It wasn’t his playstation controller.

It was his phone. Who would call him?

Someone threw a grenade and no matter how Ryan tried to avoid the blast, his character was blown into little pieces.

Sighing, he picked up his phone. Unknown caller.

“Hello?”

“Is this Ryan Grieves?”

“Yeah.”

“This is Meryl Tander, the casting director for Forty Years of Porcelain. You’ve been selected for the part of Gordon Townson.”

Ryan ran a hand through his hair, heart pounding. He didn’t know the part, or the film but he’d been taking a lot of bong chops recently. Realizing that the pause was elongating, Ryan cleared his throat.

“I-I can’t tell you how great this is.”

“Great. Our first table-read will be tonight at ten.”

“Awesome.” Oh my god. “I’ll be there.”

“Sounds good.” Holy shit. “See you then.”

Ryan sat in open-mouthed rapture, holding his phone. Then he exploded into cheers and whoops, swinging his arm around in windmills and running in circles before settling into a flurry of air punches. His eyes were leaking and he didn’t care. Happy tears were different. He danced, he sang in operatic tone, he did push-ups just for the hell of it before he finally collapsed againt the counter.

Ryan picked up his phone and dialed his mother.

“Mom, you’ll never believe it. I got a part.”

“Ryan?”

“Yeah, it’s me. I got an acting job. In a movie.” Ryan exploded into a flurry of giggles.

“Really?” The pause stretched beyond normality and Ryan’s teeth ground together. “That’s great.”

“Seriously mom, I did.”

“Did you audition?”

“Probably.”

“What does that mean?”

Ryan sighed and slapped a hand against his thigh. “It means I may not remember auditioning.”

Silence on the other end. “Okay.”

“That’s all?”

“I don’t know Ryan, what do you want me to say?”

“I don’t know, how about good job or congratulations or I love you?”

“Ryan you’ve been ignoring the entire family. You never call. L.A. may as well be a black hole for all we hear from you. Then you call with some smoke-headed story about a movie you don’t remember auditioning for and you want praise?”

“Fuck you,” Ryan screamed into the phone before slamming his pointer-finger so hard against the end call button that the screen went black for a blink.

Stupid bitch, he thought. Why would I call? To admit I’m a failure? No ma, I don’t have any work. I’m washing dishes at a couple places. No, I’m not excercising. Yes, I’m still smoking pot.

His mother’s voice was a cheese grater against his skull.

“Fuck everyone,” he said before striding over to the TV. Someone was waiting for his character to spawn and then shooting him. He was getting a lot of deaths, it wouldn’t be good for his kill-death ratio. He shut it off the TV with a punch of his thumb and picked up his bag of frosty buds from the coffee table. Toed through the piles of mess to the bathroom and turned on the shower.

Ryan Greives had just begun the worst day of his life.

He picked up his bong and tapped out the bowl. The ashy remains of his last hit were tumbling into the sink when he froze. A dark coldness overcame him. Meryl Tander, the casting director, hadn’t told him where the audition was taking place.

Oh fuck. Oh FUCK.

Ryan leaned against the wall with his shoulder, eyes heavy with disdain and heart jack-hammering in his chest.

He put his bong on the floor, the bowl on the counter and then pulled out his phone. Call history. He redialed the unknown number.

The line was silent for a second. Then the operator’s voice said “This number is private and cannot be reached using our callback service. Thank you.” Crushing silence.

Collapsing on the tiled floor, Ryan slumped forwards. He had the worst luck. No matter how hard he worked, the world just buried him with bullshit circumstance and cruel twists of fate.

Sighing, he picked up his bong again. This colossal disaster would be something that he wouldn’t want to remember.
His mind sang;
First it takes a bong rip, one, three, four.

Then it takes another and starts to ignore,

who wants to pay attention to this

world full of shit

all I want, ya know

is another bong hit.
An hour later, Ryan lay on the couch, a bag of cheetah-cheesies resting on his stomach, fingers orange with delight. He smiled at a joke on TV and looked at the time. Nine fifty-five.

He considered that he should’ve tried to learn about the studio and maybe contact them but embarrassment had stopped him cold. How can a man admit failure to the dream? Keep the dreary grey far from the land of colour.

There were no missed calls on his phone. An urge overcame Ryan and he examined his stained hand. Shrugging, he tucked it into his waistband and used it to relieve himself. The characters on screen were two nerdy males and a bombshell blonde. Eyes glazed, he began to pant heavily.

There was a sharp rap at the door. Ryan sat up, the cheese snacks falling to the floor. He didn’t know a single person who would just show up at his house. A solicitor?

He thought that he might have imagined it, but then he heard voices beyond the door. Voices. More than one.

There was another urgent knock.

Ryan stood up slowly and looked around for a towel before brushing his cheesy hand on his sweatpants. He walked to the door and looked through the eye hole. The hall outside his apartment was occupied by people. There were women. Some were quiet attractive.

Straightening his back, Ryan opened the door.

The woman immediately in front of the door, short and older with pretty eyes behind glasses, beamed up at him.

“This is him. This is our man.”

They all began to clap. Ryan couldn’t believe it. Was this a joke?

“Who are you?” It came out harsher than he intended.

The woman looked taken aback. “Why, I’m Meryl Tander, we spoke earlier today on the phone. Remember?”

“Of course.” Ryan said, hiding his hands behind his back and rolling on the balls of his feet. “I didn’t know we were doing the read through here.”

Ryan wiped his cheesy palms on the back of his pants.

The people outside laughed.

“Where else would we do it Ryan? This is your movie.”

Ryan looked at the group. Learning their names would be a challenge. It always was. There were three women and a man.

“Can we come in?”

“Of course.” Ryan stepped aside and pointed them into his home.

Meryl Tander winked at him and then walked inside. Had he left anything undesirable out?

A beautiful, smiling woman with large dark eyes and generous cleavage walked up to Ryan and held out her hand. “I’m Yasmine. It’s so great to finally meet you. I really admire your work.” Was this a case of mistaken identity? As much as Ryan appreciated praise, he hadn’t been in anything for years. The bad luck hung over him like a noose, warning people away.

“What work exactly?” He asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?” She said airily, gripping his hands in hers. “You’re spectacular.”

Ryan smiled and decided he would go with it.

“Thank you kindly.” She stepped past him and into the apartment.

The next woman was equally charming. Blond waves hung to her elbows, contrasted with stormy blue eyes. She had an impressive figure. Ryan leaned into her warm hug. She stepped back, ending the hug and held his shoulders.

“I’m Dana. I know I’m sounding like a broken record right now but you are magnificent.”

“Thank you very much.” Ryan muttered, rubbing the back of his head. She smiled adoringly and went inside.

The final guest was a man in his mid-fifties with a salt and pepper goatee. He had a heavy gold watch on his wrist and was wearing a crumpled Angel’s hat.

“Sam Nathan. Can’t tell you how pleased I was when Meryl broke the news that you’d joined the project. I’m really looking forward to working with you.”

“Thank you. I’m looking forward to working with you too.”

“Wonderful. Shall we?” Sam rested an arm around Ryan’s shoulders and led him into the apartment. The door closed.

The women were standing around his tiny dining room table. It was across the apartment from the couch, and Ryan was glad that they’d chosen this side of his home.

He regretted only having one chair.

Sam Nathan was saying, “-you really stand as the perfect example of the film’s theme so I think the key will be to just let you be yo-“

Ryan started towards the women. “Sorry about the table. I don’t normally have big groups over.”

“Oh that’s perfectly fine. We’ll stand.” Dana pulled out the chair for him to sit in. He took a seat, and the others closed in around him. They stood elbow to elbow and formed a kind of ring.

“Alright. Everyone take a script. ” Sam Nathan said as he handed thick books of thumbtack bound paper to Dana, Yasmine and Meryl.

“I think the beginning is crucial to the evolution of Gordon,” Sam nodded at Ryan, “as a character. We need to establish what he is, what he represents, in a very strong way, so that the ending hits the audience like a knockout punch.” The director looked at Ryan from behind stylish glasses, as if waiting for input.

“Yeah, totally.” Ryan said. His backside was slick with sweat. Had he forgot to wipe earlier?

“Why don’t we start at-“ The director flipped forwards through the script and then back again. He went back and forth between two sections several times, eyes rapidly reading. The others were scanning the script as well. “page seven.”

In a jolt of panic, Ryan flipped to page seven and scanned it rapidly.

Page seven was entirely dialogue. It streamed down, continued from the page before. A monologue? Ryan saw that Gordie, his character, was the person who the lines were assigned to.

“Whenever you’re ready.”

Ryan inhaled and started at the top. “What do you want me to say? That my life is great? That I’m not a joke? I can’t.”

The others began clapping, drawing Ryan’s eyes up from the page.

Sam came over to Ryan, put an arm over his shoulders and whispered conspiratorially into his ear, “That was great Ryan. Really top notch. I am wondering, though, if this time you can put more emphasis on each can’t. They should be growing in intensity – you’re realizing that the word can’t is the prison you’ve built yourself. Each can’t is a new realization of your failure, your shame.”

Ryan nodded and looked back down at the script. Sam stepped back.

“I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”

“Much better Ryan. Well done.” The other three clapped again.

“Okay, let’s turn to page eleven. Everyone got it? Okay. Dana, this is you baby, this is your moment. You’re telling Ryan what a fucking loser he is and why you wouldn’t touch him with a biohazard suit on. Go for it.”

Ryan swallowed a lump in his throat and turned to Dana. She cleared her face and then focused in on him, eyes sharp.

“Look at you. You’re fat, you smell like shit. I mean, a woman would have to be blind, deaf and dumb to touch you. Get away-“

Ryan broke her off with a loud sob. He was hiding his face in wet hands. The embarrassment, the humiliation. Sam’s gentle voice brought Ryan back into the light.

“What’s wrong Ryan?”

Ryan sniffed and looked anxiously at Yasmine and Dana. They both wore expressions of concern and sympathy.

“I guess – I guess it’s just too close to the truth.”

Sam shook his head in amazement and turned to Dana, “He’s already memorized his lines.”

“I’m impressed.” Dana crossed her arms under her breasts making them appear even larger. “The pause is perfectly placed.”

“What page again?” Ryan asked. How long could he keep up the charade of knowing what the movie was about? What was the movie about?

“Page eleven. The scene where you try to prove your love to Dana. Of course, you’ve taken so many tokes that you’re delirious. You completely misread her. She isn’t interested in the slightest. I mean, you’re disgusting. Despite this, you ask her what you need to do for her love and she tells you, in jest, to get down and pretend to be a pig.”

Ryan’s intestines tingled in his disgust. He broke eye contact.

“You of course say no and she asks why not? You respond ‘I guess – I guess it’s just too close to the truth.”

Tears were silently trickling out of Ryan’s eyes again. He thought he was ready for this, when he got the call but it was too mean. It reminded him of high school, and his parents and it made him feel shitty.

“Is everything alright?” Concern filled Sam’s eyes and made them soft.

“I don’t know. It’s just kind of mean, isn’t it.”

“But of course it’s mean. Is your story a happy one? Does the fat boy in school get the cheerleader?”

Ryan looked up hopefully.

“Of course not. But that doesn’t mean no one cares. That’s what this is all about. This movie is for all the boys like you. Never been told they’re worth anything.”

Ryan straightened and met Yasmine’s eye for the first time since they started reading. She smiled supportively. He looked at Dana.

“And you’re just so wonderful. It would be a crime to deny the public your genius.”

Sam smiled at Dana. “Exactly. So, what do you say champ? Why don’t we try a really challenging scene for you to cut your teeth on?”

Everyone waited on Ryan who eventually nodded, lost in nervousness over Dana’s beauty. She was stunning. He didn’t like the sound of ‘really challenging’ at all, though.

The girls whispered to each other excitedly.

“Page fifty.”

Ryan flipped to page fifty and began to read the page. Pressure set in behind his eyes and in his sinuses. The scene was horrible.

Sam began reading from the top, “Interior. Night. Gordie Twoshoes apartment. Garbage litters the floor in heaps,” Ryan looked around his apartment and saw that there were literally piles of garbage. What must these people think of him?

“Wait.” Ryan interrupted. Sam stopped reading and raised his eye brows. “I want to clean up quickly.” Ryan went to stand but Meryl held him in his seat with a firm hand on his shoulder.

“Why?” Sam asked with a grin. “This is perfect, it’s just like Gordie’s apartment.”

Ryan swallowed and looked at the script before nodding, avoiding anyone’s eyes.

“Gordie is lying on the couch like the glutton himself, food piled on his large stomach, fingers orange with artificial cheese.” Sam paused dramatically. “There’s a knock at the door.”

Ryan felt panic overcome him. Was this some kind of fucked up reality show about shaming fat people? Had they been watching him on the couch?

“Gordie answers the door and finds four people in the hall outside. They’re strangers but he welcomes them into his house like the friends he so desperately wants and needs.” Sam began flipping through the script again. “Let’s skip ahead to fifty-three. Dana, take it away.”

Dana found the page, smoothed it in her lap and cleared her throat. She looked straight at Ryan, eyes full of contempt.

“Really impressive Gordie.”

“Alright Dana, keep in mind your character is lying to Gordie about this. It would be like being impressed with a fish’s ability to swim or a bird’s ability to fly.”

“Didn’t she just say that to me in real life?” Ryan asked, throat dry.

“I meant it then silly,” Dana laughed, eyes thinning to slits as she patted his hand.

“You seem uncomfortable Ryan.” Sam stated. “Is there anything we can do to make you more comfortable? You are the foundation of this film. Without you, everything crumbles.”

“I am a little uncomfortable.” Ryan said, hunching and leaning forward. His face screwed up in shame. “To be completely honest, I don’t remember auditioning.”

The others eyes shot wide open and they looked at each other for a moment. Dana began howling in laughter, stomping her foot against the floor, face completely red. Yasmine laughed gracefully, a hand held over her mouth while Meryl Tender came down with a fit of the giggles and kept saying, “unbelievable.”

Sam Nathan wasn’t amused at all. He knelt in front of Ryan and looked up at him. “Ryan, you assured us that your enthusiasm for marijuana wouldn’t hold this project back.”

“I’m sorry.” Ryan cried, tears welling in his eyes. “I can’t stop. I’ll think to myself that I’ll just take a little toke and next thing I know I’m blitzed.”

“We know.” Meryl said, hiding a smile with her hand. “You told us at the audition. You said the reason you wanted the role was that it was so true to your life; you thought you could do it justice and we do too. So what’s the problem here?”

Ryan covered his face in his hands, desperately thinking and wiping his tears away. He hadn’t had a toke for awhile. “I think I need to get high.”

“You wouldn’t be the first.” Sam said gently. “Why don’t we get you properly inebriated and we can try again.”

Ryan nodded and stood, then walked to the bathroom. He turned and saw the others were following him. Panic. “Only Sam.” He barked and then regretted it when the girls looked hurt.

Sam nodded knowingly and they went into the bathroom.

“There’s no greater closeness than between an actor caught up in the storm of his role and the director who guides it.”

Ryan looked at Sam. The man was smiling fondly like an indulgent father, head tilted to one side.

“Thanks Sam.”

Ryan closed the bathroom door and loaded the bowl. The ground bud burst under the flame and Ryan inhaled sharply. It hit him instantly. A smile spread over his face as he looked at Sam’s interested expression.

“Well we won’t have to rehearse this part of the movie.”

Ryan laughed. “There’s a scene where I take a bong toke in the bathroom with the director of the film?”

“Yes.” Sam chuckled.

Ryan’s smile faded. Sam opened the door and held it while Ryan stepped out into his apartment. The three women were standing outside of his bathroom. Dana was scrawling cursive on the wall in crayon; Here walketh thine darkest Beast! Beware! Ignorance o’ h-

Yelling, Ryan pushed her away from the wall and snatched back the purple crayon.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“I’m in character.” Dana said, glaring back at him.

“You wrote on my wall.” Ryan felt rage bubbling inside of him. Dana’s expression like he was a slug on a log didn’t help his temper. “I don’t like getting mad but sometime I can’t help it.”

Dana’s face melted and she smiled encouragingly at Ryan. Glancing over at a script which Meredith was holding open for her, she nodded slowly to herself, reading and looked back.

“Is this part of the script? She draws on my wall?”

Ryan glanced at Sam who nodded.

“That’s fucking bullshit. What kind of movie is this?”

“The question of an artist. It’s an epic, a love story, a tragedy, a feel good drama, a comedy, a buddy cop movie, a stoner flick, a slasher, a torture porn special, a mockumentary.”

Ryan glared again at Dana. “Well you better pay to get this crayon fixed. My landlord will take a pound of flesh off me for this.”

“You could stand to lose a pound of flesh.” Yasmine said above crossed arms.

“Excuse me?”

“You’re fat Ryan.” Sam broke in, piling on. “It’s perfect for the role but in real life – is there anything more damning then the bloated human? It’s a signal fire for lack of self control and discipline, for weakness.”

“Is this part of the script?”

Sam ignored him. “Let’s turn to page three hundred and thirty three.”

Ryan punched a hole in the wall. “What is going on right now? Why are you being such assholes? I didn’t audition for this movie to be mocked by you.” Ryan glared at Sam. “Also, what kind of movie has a three hundred plus page script?”

“It’s a rough draft Ryan.” Sam then backed away and nodded to Yasmine.

She held a warning hand up to him, “Mr. Twoshoes, I need you to calm down.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“You’re imperfect right now and it’s not your fault. Over-eating is a genetic disorder, as is drug and alcohol abuse. You’re God’s mistake.”

Ryan was past the film and in a state of rage. “I’m just fine the way I am. It’s society who has a problem with thick people,” he turned on Dana, “and it’s fucks like you who set an unattainable standard of beauty. I’m done. Get out of my house.”

Sam exchanged a meaningful look with Yasmine.

“Ryan, I’m gonna have to ask you to calm down.”

“Fuck that.” Ryan screamed, his spittle painting the wall. “Get out of my house.” He ripped back into the bathroom and picked up his bong like a club. The bowl dropped out with the stem and they both shattered on the floor but Ryan was already tearing back into the hallway.

Yasmine was holding a syringe in her right hand and waving disarmingly at him with her left. “Ryan. All we want is to help you. We need you. Society needs each and every one of it’s beloved children. Not the way they are but they way they should be.”

Ryan raised the bong and threatened to hit her with it. She didn’t flinch.

“I know you won’t hurt me Ryan. It’s not in you.”

Stepping past Sam, Dana and Meryl, Ryan raised the bong over his head like an axe. The water poured out of it and soaked his fingers, so that when he swung it back over his head, the bong slid, then flew out of his hands and shattered near the couch.

“It’s alright.” Voices murmured and something sharp stuck into his neck. Darkness rapidly swallowed him.
When Ryan woke, his entire body ached. He raised an arm to scratch his face but it felt different. Lighter. Looking through blurry eyes, he saw that his arm was muscled, tanned and that his skin fit tight. Gasping, Ryan sat up and ran his eyes down his arm. It could’ve belonged to a life guard.

He didn’t feel the familiar weight of his breasts and stomach and looked down. His abdomen was flat and hard like a river bed. He was wearing a sleeveless shirt. His legs were hard as tree trunks and well developed.

Glancing around in a panic, he stood and stumbled to the kitchen counter. The mess in his house was completely gone; the take out boxes, the dirty towels and napkins and the stains had all vanished. Everything was pristine.

Except for his bong and half ounce on the counter. Ryan leaned against the counter and ran his hands through his hair. What the fuck was going on? They must’ve given him a powerful hallucinogen.

Ryan thought of the mirror and ran to the bathroom. He looked at himself. Someone out of an orange county teen soap opera looked back; Ryan was tall, chisel-jawed and with eyes like gleaming sapphires. His chest was like two clefts of rock, his skin was golden brown. Still, the person looking back at him was Ryan Grieves. The same face and person who’d looked back from the mirror since kindergarten. Although he noticed with a wave of delight that his eyes were much bigger when his face was thin.

Where did the others go? What did they do to him? He wasn’t hallucinating. No, there were none of the tell tale signs like euphoria, colour trails or anything else. He was stone sober and ripe for casting on Baywatch.

Ryan lifted his shirt. There were no scars or lines on his body. It was as if everything had reverted, as if he had never eaten to excess and always taken care of his body. Even the stretch marks under his arms and on the sides of his stomach had vanished, as if they’d never been. Struck by an idea, he lifted the leg of his shorts, Nike in a baggy basketball style (he didn’t own a pair like it) and sighed. The scar on his knee from a bicycle accident in childhood remained. It was his body.

A tune played from the apartment, strings and horns with an ambling melody. It seemed to come from everywhere; the ceiling, the walls, the floorboards. It wasn’t a bad tune really – it reminded Ryan of a theme song from a bad television series.

He walked out of the bathroom and into his spotless kitchen. Picking up his buster in one hand, he unscrewed it with the other and placed a generous pinch of catatonic chronic into the bowl of his bong. He applied a flame and the chamber filled with thick, milk-white smoke before he snapped it into his lungs.

Ryan began coughing heavily. This wasn’t unusual, but the severity of the attack was. He felt it all the way from the top of his skull, down to his seizing lungs, and down further to the veins of his penis. It was a tight, seizing pain.

Falling inert, red-faced onto the floor, Ryan lay on his side, tongue extended, eyes bulging from his skull. His vision became framed by a thick bar of black. He couldn’t inhale, his body was trying so hard to exhale. Ryan raised a shaking, veiny hand to his face and pinched his own cheek so hard that he felt the skin break. The shock worked; Ryan inhaled in a harsh tone, like a man saved from drowning.

Breathing returning slowly to normal, Ryan turned on his back and closed his eyes. What had happened? It must be his bong – must be extremely dirty.

After he felt strong enough to stand, Ryan hoisted himself up to the counter and loaded another pinch of weed into the bong.

He raised it to his mouth when someone called “No.”

Freezing, Ryan put his bong gently down on the counter and turned. It was Dana. She was standing next to his couch, wearing lingerie with a garter belt. Her tanned legs were covered only by fishnets.

“You’re too beautiful to lose.” Dana whispered.

“What did you do to me?” Ryan screamed. A vein in his neck pulsed.

Dana moved closer, looking up at him in awe. “We just showed you how good you could be. A little surgery, that’s all, and by the best in the world.”

Her hand raised slowly to Ryan’s cheek and grazed it.

Ryan screamed. He grabbed a knife from the nearby holder, it’s handle was ribbed for better grip, and plunged it into Dana’s stomach. Noiselessly, she fell to her back, holding the knife between fingers which did nothing to stop geysers of blood.

Red painted Ryan’s floor in an increasingly large puddle. He found himself worrying about how he could get rid of it before the police arrived.

The music stopped. He forgot it was playing until it stopped. Someone screamed from outside the apartment.

Ryan’s oven began waving gently. This was it then, everything was going to fade out and Ryan was going to discover that he’d taken too much acid. The oven waved at him more intensely.

The entire wall collapsed inwards, apparently made of thin cardboard. It was a set. There was a man focusing a camera on him, face somber. Sam Nathan was walking slowly forward, hands gripping his ash coloured hair.

“It was a movie.” Sam said softly, tears filling his eyes.

Ryan walked slowly to the boom operator holding a mic nearby. He ripped the mic from the man’s hands and slammed it against the floor repeatedly. The stand broke.

The studio was tiny, a room only slightly larger than the set for Ryan’s apartment. There were only two others on set and they were sitting on the floor, eyes empty.

“I’ve been such a fool.” Sam Nathan whispered to himself in a manic voice. “I never should’ve trusted a pothead for something like this. I should’ve known.” He turned on Ryan. “We told you about the surgery Ryan. Don’t you remember? Or were you too fucking high? Well look now,” he gestured at Dana’s pale corpse. “make sure you remember this. You’re going to pay for it.”

Ryan fell to his knees by Dana’s body and held shaking hands above her, willing her back to life. The corpse was still. She wasn’t as pretty in death, but she was still a looker. He kissed her gently on the cheek.

“I fucked up.” Ryan said softly.

He stood and walked over to his bong, grabbed it in both hands and smashed it against the wooden floor. It broke into two pieces. Ryan picked up the chamber and threw it at the wall where it shattered.

Ryan slid crying to the floor, his back against the wall. His hands were wet with bong water. “Never again,” he managed between sobs, “never.”

A loud theme song played, this one victorious. It was being played live. A bright light, a spotlight, shone in Ryan’s face from above and blinded him momentarily. His eyes adjusted to the light as he absorbed the sound of hundreds of clapping hands.

His apartment’s walls lifted upwards, as did the studios which Ryan could see now was not thick concrete but yet another set.

Ryan was slumped on stage before a live studio audience. Sam Nathan waved kisses at the crowd and bowed deeply.

Dana stood with a hand up from Sam, brushing away flakes of paint from her supposedly wounded belly. The audience roared. She was beaming. Yasmine and Meryl came out of the woodwork and joined the other two. Ryan could only see their backs. He was still on his knees.

“Let’s give it up for our leading man,” Sam was saying. His voice was magnified as if he was speaking through a mic.

The audience erupted and stood, clapping uproariously.

Ryan stood weakly, hand on the counter. Dana was urging him to step forward. He felt light headed.

Walking slowly to the front, Ryan squinted. The lights were very bright. A pretty girl and her mother in the front row were beaming at him.

Ryan raised his arms and bowed deeply. He’d made it.