Fraser Valley High’s volunteer crew really outdid themselves for this year’s talent show. George considered the thousands of chairs fanning from the stage; they’d be full of fawning people in less than an hour. The first audience members piled in already, filling seats, so George followed his feet behind the stage to the designated waiting area. A large congregation of cool kids blocked George’s path through, but he thought he might squeeze through with some luck.
A month ago, George might’ve taken the long way around the stage, but now he felt strong enough to brave the straight line through the crush of people. George took a deep breath like he’d practiced with his psychiatrist and felt relatively okay as he shuffled forward. He’d done his very best to find his marbles leading up to the show, and for the most part, he’d been successful.
As George wove his way through the bodies a big guy stepped in front of him, bumping George into another big guy on the other side. “Sorry,” George said. He tried to convey apology with his face. The big guys ignored the jostles, apparently used to minor physical commotions.
George made it through the meat tunnel, emerging behind the stage, and so he went down the back to a lush grassy patch. The performers sat in comfortable groups with their friends, waiting for their shot at fame. About fifty brave students filled the grounds as circles of kids played games and clapped excitedly.
Justin Bieber brought fame to the talent show twenty years earlier and his eventual stardom assured the show’s continued relevance. As the talent show’s audience grew, celebrity judges started attending, ‘always looking for the next Justin,” which boosted attendences into the thousands.
Fewer and fewer school seniors performed each year, and the audience began booing acts they disliked. These days, only the most serious or the most desperate of the graduation class took the stage.
George sat on the grass alone, in the midst of his fellow performers. His classmates’ circles became deeply entrenched after all these years but George belonged to no group, so he sat alone.
George avoided the pain of boredom by immersing himself in the deep study of Felicia, a reedy, dark-haired girl with a radiant personality. Felicia stood in front of her enormous group of friends, spinning a hoola hoop lithely around her middle as a smile of pure joy lit her face.
Most of George’s memories played black and white in his mind. The past few months seemed like an old movie, and Felicia shone with colour. She radiated kindness and love like soft morning sunlight on the backs of freshly hatched chicks.
George sat alone because no circle accepted him, they never had, and with graduation two weeks away, they never would. “I’m a loner, never seen, never thought of, and certainly never spoken to,” thought the voice in his mind. As if being completely friendless in high school didn’t sting enough, George’s mind liked to play his own worst enemy.
“You don’t have a talent, you’ve got nothing prepared, just go home with your tail between your legs before you get hurt,” his mind’s voice said. George prepared for months for this day, though his mind didn’t seem to care for facts sometimes. Felicia’s friends hooted and hollared, clapping wildly as she added a third hoop.
George’s phone buzzed in his pocket, a rare occurence, so he pulled it out and unlocked the screen. His mom texted him again, as if his life could be anymore sad, excited for a text from someone who loved him unconditionally.
“Good luck baby, you’re my shining star. So sad I can’t be there, but I can’t turn away a shift. Remember, you don’t have to believe everything your mind thinks,” Mom texted.
George’s eyes unfocused as the phone hung in his hand, remembering the words and closing his eyes. The voice in his head remind him of the events from a month earlier; “you almost killed yourself, but you were too scared, that’s it. Truly, that’s it. You really think anything you do will change the fact you’re a fucking loser?”
Instead of falling into despair, George focused on his mom, who took five minutes out of her day that very morning to pour him a bowl of his favourite cereal and cut bananas. George remembered Felicia and the time she smiled at him in the hallway, for no reason except to share her joy. He smiled and he imagined Ripper, his rotweiler, and remembered Ripper’s raw, slobbery love. George drank from the love in his life and the love gave him strength. He focused on the feeling you get when you first adjust to the temperature of a warm bath; all of your muscles relaxing and loosening as you soak in gentle heat.
When George opened his eyes again, he blinked away tears of joy and absorbed the beauty surrounding him. Gentle sunlight warmed the cool grass beneath his legs. He ran his fingers over the tips of the green blades, finding the sensation enjoyable. Almost any tactile sensation could be enjoyed if one truly, fully focused on the feeling.
More wild cheering drew George’s eyes back towards Felicia and her rollicking crew. Five hoops now circled her body from armpits to ankles, incredible. George stood, drawn forward from pure amazement, and his feet pulled him towards this new circle.
Felicia somehow ducked out of the hool-a-hoop tunnel and swung the rings one, two, three, four, five onto her extended arm. The rings wavered, settling in the stillness following her performance, and her friends broke into applause and whistles as she made a deep bow. George clapped along without realizing it, mesmerized by the most enchanting creature to walk the earth. The way she moved made motion into art, every moment became a celebration worth remembering thanks to her infectious personality. She walked towards him with a smile.
Felicia stopped a few feet from George, a curious eyebrow raised. “Heya, I don’t think we’ve met before, I’m Felicia,” she said.
“I know,” George said. Her friends laughed uproariously, pointing at him, and one of the guys began to howl like a rabid wolf.
“You’re stupid,” George’s mind said, “look what you did, you had a prime oppur-“
Seconds passed them in awkward silence as Felicia waited for an explanation.
“Sorry,” George said.
“For what?” Felicia asked.
Tom, one of the cool kids, stood up and met George’s eye.
“Get lost mandroid,” Tom said.
George looked at Felicia, who smiled in welcome, but the pressure of her friends’ eyes turned him around. He walked back to his place in the grass. His ass left a depression in the grass outlined like a parking spot.
“You stupid fuck,” George’s mind said. “You fucking blew it, the best girl in the whole world and you fucked it up. This is what happens when you don’t listen.”
George squeezed his eyes tighter, trying to block out the voice, but his mind actually laughed in his head at his pitiful attempt, and an image filled his thoughts; the enormous champion of his mind raising a boot, while he crawled and struggled beneath like a bug.
George shook his head and opened his eyes, staring around while shaking. Felicia’s friends looked at him and whispered nervously, though Felicia sat facing away from him.
“You’re never gonna look her in the eyes ever again and it’s what you deserve,” his mind said.
Standing, George focused on his breathing like he’d been taught, though his mind lauched an armed assault on his emotions, climbing the castle walls and pouring hot oil all over his wounds. An enormous round of applause from beyond the stage marked the beginning of the Talent Show, and George’s legs buckled. His mind went halfway mad and he pleaded for an end to his self-inflicted suffering.
George sought the source of his pain like a man bleeding to death feeling at his wound with a cloth. If only he could find the source.
George heard the insane nattering of his overactive mind. The thoughts never stopped coming, rapidfire from every direction, an assault from twelve S.W.A.T. teams and the Royal Justice of the Supreme Court. The attack from his mind terrified him; he felt simultaneously worthless, powerful, angry, and self-righteous, yet completely detached and apathetic in the same breath.
As he became aware of the influence his thoughts held over his emotions, his mind fell silent once again, like someone dialed down the volume. George stood up in the summer sun, lit by warm light and surrounded by excitement. He marvelled at the majesty of the Skyshine stage, built by loving parents, and felt awe at the immense beauty of a nearby forest. Trees stood proud, shoulder-to-shoulder, the supportive and steadfast guardians of the air he breathed.
His mind spoke no words save those he desired to hear as he honed in on the beauty of the moment. Tears filled his eyes and poured down his cheeks in glistening streams as laughter bubbled softly in his throat. The sweet feeling of relief!
The Principal’s voice rolled through the sound system like raging thunder. “Welcome to the twenty-first annual Fraser Valley High Talent Show!” The earth shook with applause, and George felt his mind creeping back into control.
“There’s a lot of people out there,” his mind said. Just a fragment of a thought, but concerning all the same.
George turned around and saw his classmates gathering around the show-runner, a young art teacher named Ali, who spoke animatedly to the performers.
“You guys know the order, and if you forget, we emailed it to you, so it’s on your phone,” Ali said. He nodded continually as he spoke. “We got a bit of a shock today, actually, Justin pulled some strings to bring us Hillard Cowl, from Canada’s Next Hot Celebrity.”
The students began screaming, jumping up and down and the principal laughed on the mic, a booming sound.
“We can hear you out here,” the principal said, addressing the students.
Laughter roared from the thousand-strong crowd of parents, relatives and citizens as the students rolled their eyes and shared chagrins. George laughed at the joke despite his classmates, and found he couldn’t stop. All fifty student performers turned to fix melodramatically judgemental gazes on the weirdo who liked the same jokes as their parents. The expressions on the other student’s faces ran an amusing range; dumbstruck, stupefied, disgusted, mortified and one person even looked a little bit sick. George tried to slow down the bucket full of chuckles he was chuckin’ with his buckles, but found himself unable to mute his amusement.
“Moving on,” Ali said, “People deal with nerves differently. Some people sweat, some people shake, and apparently some people develop dad humour.”
The students laughed at Ali’s joke and turned their focus back on him. Ali’s joke really killed George who fell to his knees in a fit, unable to stop howling with laughter.
George belted out a full five minutes of laughter, until the urge left him and he stood slowly, breathing heavily and wiping tears from his face. Felicia stood a few feet away, arms on her hips and grinning at him. “Is something funny?” Felicia asked.
“I waited too long for that laugh, and so when it came – BOOM,” he said.
Felicia nodded and reached out a hand, touching his chest. “I’m glad you shared it with us,” she said.
Ali got George’s attention by pulling his sleeve and dragging him aside. George smiled apologetically to Felicia who turned back to her friends. Once they were away from prying eyes and listening ears, Ali turned on George regretfully.
“Are you high?” Ali asked. “I don’t want to ask you this, but I have to.”
“No,” George said, laughing.
“Can I smell your hands?” Ali asked politely.
“Sure,” George said. He offered up a wrist like a sample of fine perfume.
“You’re clean, or you’re good at washing. Either way, I don’t care. Go on,” Ali said.
George smiled, nodded and walked away.
“Even the teachers don’t want to hang out with you,” his mind’s voice said.
George rolled over the thought with the memory of Felicia’s touch, the heat of light pouring between them in a river.
“Now, for our first contestant, Hans Rutel,” called the Principal. Hans sprinted on stage full of energy. He’s better than you, physically stronger. They love the strong ones. George let the thought pass through him without sticking in his gut, so the mind’s voice faded.
The rest of the performers gathered around TVs watching the action, but George needed to hold on to calm. A techno beat blasted on the speakers for a few minutes, then ended with a smattering of applause, nothing too enthusiastic.
“Well, he certainly did have energy,” Hillard said. The crowd roared with laughter. “I’m afraid you need to work on the substance side of the equation. All the same, good show.”
After the stamina of his entrance, Hans’ dour exit paled and every student’s heart went out to him. His shoulders slumped, and his head slung down on his chest.
“Give it up for Whitney H,” said the Principal. Whitney flipped her way on stage enthusiastically while a catchy song blasted. The jocks and cheerleaders always performed in numbers, a side-effect of true confidence. About two minutes passed, and the music ended to applause.
“Not bad, you’re a skilled athlete. That said, I’m not sure what you just did qualifies as a performance. It might be more impressive if you’d trained a chimpanzee to perform it,” Hillard said.
A notable shift occured in the perfomers standing by as Whitney burst weeping from the stage. The remaining performers shook and hyper-ventilated and some students looked at their feet. Kurt approached the stage shaking like a leaf, and he smoked enough leaf to sedate a guerilla.
George felt all right, this judge didn’t matter to him in the least, though he felt bad for his classmates. Everyone at Fraser Valley High looked forward to this night, for their own stage, but now this big shot ripped them apart. “He’s a son of a bitch,” George’s mind said. Unsure how to feel, George tentatively agreed; when you’re right you’re right. Kurt played some minor chords until a horrible feedback sound squealed through the powerful speakers.
“Turn that shit off,” Hillard shouted over the mic. A loud thump sounded from the stage. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“I’m sorry,” Kurt said.
“Get off the stage,” Hillard screamed.
The crowd’s boos filled the air with disapproval. Kurt ran off the stage crying while the thousand-strong audience jeered. An empty drink cup flew through the opening after him.
“Jesus,” Ali said. George turned and saw a pained expession on the teacher’s face.
The next few contestants performed their acts only to get reamed out like raw silk. Hillard demonstrated a talent of his own, he seemed to have the flair of a performance magician. Every contestant entered the stage confident until – alakazam – the judge said the magic words to vanish them backstage, shaking and broken.
Judge Hillard Cowl’s evaluations made a notable impact on the atmosphere, the audience seemed to get meaner; jeering louder and louder to match the Judge’s dissatisfaction. A ginger-haired guy next to George took a break from shaking in fear to vomit nervously.
“Next up,” called the Principal. “Felicia Day.”
Felicia bounded out on stage full of bravery, as if unaware the class of 2018 batted zero for twenty so far. George walked up to the waiting stage proper, and watched Felicia’s routine on a television screen. The synthetic sound of stars shooting through the air marked the beginning of Felicia’s act, followed closely by a catchy bass line with crunchy female vocals.
Felicia began shaking her hips with a solo hoop. A man in the audience cat-called, turning an innocent hoop routine into something suggestive, and the audience bubbled with laughter. George watched her act through his fingers, feeling more nervous for her than he did for himself.
The audience gasped when Felicia added a second hoop without missing a beat. By the time she worked all four at once, the music dropped with an immense wave of bass. Felicia spun the fifth hoop on one foot while keeping the other four going before adding it to the group on her torso. The audience applauded. The act ended the same way it did on the grass; Felicia spun one, two, three, four, five hoops up on her arm and clicked her heels together. She stood straight-backed and proud, like a gymnast who just stuck the final flip of her routine.
Silence emenated from the crowd, as the masses waited for Hillard to signal his reaction, they needed a cue.
“You dance well, and the trick with the hoops is a nice addition to the real attraction, your incredible body,” Hillard said. The audience began to laugh and George saw Felicia’s shoulders slump through the screen. “You do understand the hoop thing is elementary, don’t you?” Hillard said.
“I like the hoops,” Felicia said. “I think they’re fun.”
“Maybe for a musical festival but outside of raves? Actually, a hoop act might go over well at a strip club,” Hillard said. The audience murmured. “You could be something of a model, or maybe an actress, provided the lines don’t have too many syllables.” Felicia turned without responding and slouched for the curtains. “No? Oh well. Next time leave your little kid tricks at home with your dolls,” Hillard said. The audience laughed, rumbling like a shifting continent.
Felicia came through the curtains again, and though she didn’t cry, pain painted apparent across her normally bright features. A dark cloud lingered over her face, blocking out the sun George so loved to soak in.
“Next up is George Yamaka,” the Principal called.
George’s focus centered on Felicia and he fought his mind’s nattering rage with all of his willpower.
“Well?” Ali said, looking at George.
“Nothing,” George said. He closed his eyes and focusing on his breathing.
“Yes, you’re up,” Ali said, pushing George towards the opening.
George walked, feeling shaky but committed. He took slow steps to the stage, focusing on the heat of the lights and the warm sensation basking over his forearm. His breath came deep and easy, filling his head with fresh oxygen until a small smile hung itself on his lips.
“I think this one might be scared,” Hillard said in a lazy drawl. The audience exploded in laughter. George walked easily through an opening in the curtains and out into the spotlight. Thousands of eyes fixed themselves on George, and he felt overwhelmed at the attention.
“Well, do you have anything for us George?” asked Hillard. Hillard sat stage-front in a lofty leather armchair. He recognized Hillard from TV; jet black hair with a perfectly cosmetic touch of grey above sharp, blue eyes. The man carried a generous ponch around his middle. “You brought us a present,” Hillard said. He referred to the black instrument case at George’s feet, prepared by a stage-hand.
George forgot the audience and found his eyes locked easily onto Hillard’s, banishing everything around them. “I think a few words should be said before I do my thing.”
“If dogs could talk? Guess we’ll find out,” Hillard said
The audience chuckled.
“You’re a real harsh critic to a bunch of teenagers,” George said seriously.
Hillard chuckled, though his grin strained his pink cheeks. “Oh really?”
“You’re also incredibly rude. How could you possibly say what you just did to Felicia? She’s the most amazing person I’ve ever met and you missed it.”
“Have you met so many people?” Hillard asked, and the audience laughed. The Principal gave George a warning look. “Do you have a talent or not?”
“Someone needed to say it,” George said. He bent down and unlocked his music case, so the lid snapped open.
“Let me guess, you’re going to play three blind mice on the clairinet – no, the recorder?” Hillard asked.
George focused on the bright, golden body resting in the case. He pulled the sleek instrument out, swung the flame-adorned strap around his back, screwed in the neck and fit a mouthpiece into place.
“This one is for Felicia and all the other performer’s here tonight. I love all of you guys, fuck this guy, Hillard Cowl’s an asshole,” George said.
George took a few seconds to feel the saxophone reed on his tongue before he belted out the melody to careless whisper. The audience went crazy, and Hillard hid his face in his hands. “Good lord,” he said.
“You’re incredible, all of you,” George said. The Principal came towards him with outstretched arms and the audience got louder. George belted out the melody again, a bit spotty this time, because he dodged the school administrator. Deking left, George spun to the right and jumped up on a big speaker. He belted out the melody again, from on top of the speaker. The audience stood, clapping and raising their hands in the air, loving every moment of his act.
“That’s about the end of my performance,” George said.
“Yes, it is,” the Principal said. He stood on the ground with crossed arms, apparently unwilling to climb up.
“What can be said about the worst performance ever performed? Abysmal. Awful. Misguided,” Hillard said. “Pathetic, even. You think a pretty girl will give you any affection?” Hillard laughed. “Girls like Felicia find the richest man they can, and this little display only serves to humiliate you. This is going to be on youtube forever, a viral teenage blunder.”
George felt his mind seizing in on the moment, screaming and rattling around in his head.
“You think I did that for Felicia?” He said. “I did that for me. I wanted to give back to all the sources of love in my life, after you shredded them.”
“Will the maidens please bring flowers to the stage, we’ve got a white knight,” Hillard said and the audience chuckled.
“I always did like a white knight,” Felicia said, standing at the stage entrance. Ali stood behind her, supportive, a small act of rebellion from the faculty. Felicia strode towards George and climbed up on the speaker next to him.
“That was absolutely incredible,” Felicia said. “This guy is a jerk, for real, like he said I have a nice body.”
The crowd started muttering.
“You’re seniors aren’t you? Well, this is real life. Get ready for it. All I’m trying to do is prepare you,” Hillard said. He faced the audience, pleading his case.
“Bullshit,” George said. “You’re mean because you’ve got a tiny penis.”
Felicia started laughing, the audience joined in, and Hillard started spluttering.
“You little shit,” he snarled.
The audience roared with laughter, and Hillard realized he crossed the line.
“This is gonna be on youtube forever, Hillard Cowl’s viral mid-life crisis,” George said.
Hillard took a few dangerous steps towards George when Tom Forester, the Football Coach, jumped on stage and defended the end zone. Tom tackled Hillard heavily and the audience exploded in a state of wild pandemonium. The dazed celebrity judge was best described in puddle terms after the take down; wobbly, wet and without distinct form.
George laughed as Tom celebrated like he sacked the rival team’s quarterback. Felicia laughed beside him, a hand on his arm. Their laughter fell away, though they both wore smiles, and he moved closer, breathing in her presence.
“You’re amazing,” George said. The audience groaned at the cheesiness.
Hillard laughed cruelly from the ground. “Maybe I’m wrong, you might have a future in writing soap operas boy,” he said.
Felicia grabbed George and leaned up to kiss him. The crowd applauded wildly but George focused on fully absorbing the best moment of his life as he kissed the girl.