I tapped a green pen against my teeth as I squinted at the clipboard. “Try-Outs for the New Protagonist” was typed in all-capitals at the top. Next to me the resident Antagonist Sarre, pronounced Sarah but spelled that way because some author somewhere thought creative spellings for normal names made them original, banged her bleached-blond head against the casting-desk.
“What’s wrong, Sarre?” I prodded between my tapping. “We’ve had some awesome applicants.”
“M.I.A.’s not here yet,” Sarre complained. M.I.A. was the Edgy Love Interest. Nobody actually knew what his real name was because according to the plot-outline he was only going to be introduced in the fifth chapter and we were still casting for the prologue. So we just called him Missing In Action.
Personally I enjoyed having the empty seat next to me. Being the Generic Love Interest was hard enough what with my completely average golden hair and my not-at-all-penetrating green eyes…just kidding. Being the Generic Love Interest was awesome. Not only did I look way more stylish then any average teenager, but I managed to get the girl. All of the time. Never the boy, though. One time I brought that up with the Author and she told me that post-apocalyptic teenagers don’t have time to explore their romantic orientations.
Still, no extra Love Interest let me keep my sights off the over-arching plot device: the Protagonist. The exact one we were casting right now. Most of the applicants were carbon copies of one another, and though their collective ability to run in heels was quite impressive it was unlikely I would be able to feign any attraction to the majority. There was one Tara with the springiest hair ever, and I could have faked it by staring at and pulling at her hair in some odd display of flirtation for twenty chapters, but the Author said that she wasn’t allowed to have mixed-race characters in a novel not focusing on being mixed-race. Bummer.
“Excuse me?” a weak, fluttery voice called, breaking me out of my reverie. It was yet another applicant. Pin-straight brown hair and brown eyes. Oh, help us, that was probably going to be her entire personality. At least the Feisty Red-Heads had half a personality.
I nodded and the applicant tip-toed lightly into the room. She had freckles. She probably felt insecure about them. I contemplated kicking her out right them to avoid inducing a chapter of self-consciousness. As if anybody was concerned about their appearance in the apocalypse.
I cleared my throat. “My name if Geph-“
“Jeff?” she interrupted.
“No.” I narrowed my eyes. “Geph. And I’m the confirmed Generic Love Interest, which means you’ll need to get comfortable with kissing me.” I tilted my head back to show off my naturally plump lips. I had even put on raspberry-chapstick to ensure that they were smooth.
“I’m Sarre. I’m the mean one.” She twisted a strand of hair on her finger as if to explain. “Get on with it.”
Sarre was always better at being blunt.
The instruction took a moment to process in this applicant’s head, though I’m not sure if it even fully did because she stuck out her hand. “I’m &, and-“
“Excuse me?” Sarre demanded. “How do you spell that?”
“&.” & smiled brightly. “Like the ampersand symbol.”
The Author was going to have a field day with that. Sarre flicked her hand in continuation.
“So, like I said I’m & and I’m applying to be the new Protagonist of Young Adult Novel.” Her smile widened. “You should select me because I’m not like the other girls.”
Funny, because literally every other girl had said the same thing.
“I can run in painful shoes on the muddy, beaten ground,” & boasted. “One time I got a concussion and I was crowned princess right after.” Sure. And she was probably the one who fixed said concussion, right after complaining that she only knew how to after being bullied at school for paying attention in Science class. “I never smell stinky and I never grow hair, even if leading a rebellion for years.”
“And can you fight?” Sarre prompted.
“Yep. I’ve been learning for half a week and I’ve already beaten everybody else I know.”
I massaged my forehead. So far nothing was distinguishing her from anybody else. Bor-ing!
“Tell me, Sweetie,” Sarre added with sarcastic kindness, “are your parents dead?”
“Of course!” Why wouldn’t they be? This was a Young Adult Novel, after all. The Author was required by law or something to find a dramatic way to get rid of our parents.
“Come on!” Sarre chastised. “Don’t say it like they’ve been killed 50 times already!”
Slowly &’s cheeks reddened and a tear leaked out of her left eye. “M-my parents are dead,” she choked.
“Better.” Sarre turned to me, her thighs sticking slightly to the leather casting-chair. “How’s she looking.”
I sighed. “Ticking every box.” She was a textbook Protagonist. And her unique name sure wasn’t hurting her.
Another knock sounded on the door. I buried my head in my hands. The definitively worst part of being a Generic Love Interest was interviewing thousands of the same Protagonists.
“I think I’m late?” An unnaturally deep voice drew my head up. I must have lifted too quickly because I felt purely dizzy. M.I.A. was here, clad in leather and hair-grease and…sparkles.
“Don’t get me started.” He held up his hand, probably to tell me not to talk, but I couldn’t have even if I wanted to. I felt as if my breath was caught in my throat. I tried to inhale slowly so I wouldn’t throw it all up like a gross, embarrassing cat. “I just came from this stupid love story that was a stupid knock-off of some other stupid love story where I had to wear these stupid sparkles.”
How could he make stupid sound so smart? He turned around and flashed me—and probably Sarre, too, but I imagined it was just for me—a gleaming smile. I noticed that he had on chapstick. I was weak for anybody with chapstick. “Who’re you.”
I opened my mouth and tried to force something out, but I couldn’t. My neck felt hot and my abdomen felt like it was going to give out at any moment. I leaned forward on my elbows and noticed how M.I.A.’s eyes were more sparkly then any rhinestones the knock-off novel could embezzle him in.
Sarre pointed her thumb at me. “He’s Geph and I’m out. I’m taking five. Or ten. Or one million pages.” She stood up. “I really can’t with all of you. I’ll be back for the next book.” She huffed and stomped out.
M.I.A. arched his eyebrow. “What’s her problem?”
“She….uh….she….” But I wasn’t thinking about her. I was thinking about how whatever dystopian the Author could throw us into would pale in comparison to the destruction I would feel when & would inevitably choose me and I would be forced to hold her hand and long for M.I.A. at a distance. Darn the Author, always pairing me up with the dullest girl.
& said something but I wasn’t listening. She sounded like a gnat in my ear, and I had thoughts to deal with. “Be quiet,” I commanded. She gaped at me, offended. “Or don’t,” I said more gently. I was rarely so snappy. But like I said before: I had thoughts. “You know what, you’re hired. Just please leave.”
She squealed and jumped up and hugged—I mean hugged, and I so wanted to pull her away—M.I.A. and bolted out the door.
“So,” M.I.A. said jauntily as the door slammed behind her, “I guess it’s my turn?”
How could anybody ask questions so alluringly? I nodded. Probably stupidly, but it took everything in me for my neck to not completely give out. Too bad the Generic Love Interests never payed attention in Science class.
He did his whole spiel about how he was misunderstood and abandoned at a young age, blah blah blah, and I don’t mean that what he said was useless, but it was just so hard to comprehend much of anything when his words sounded crafted like a virtuoso’s handmade violin. It sounded like what I imagined nice wine or velvet would be to royalty or what a passing grade would be to a failing student. It sounded like equality and liberty and wealth and happiness. I didn’t want it to stop but alas, it did, and left me feeling breathless and speechless and like a useless little island alone in the roaring ocean, seeing the glimmer of a lighthouse in the distance but unable to reach it.
M.I.A. cocked his eyebrow at me. “I’m done. Any questions?”
“Yes,” I breathed, grappling for my clipboard and ripping through the pages. “Let me see.” There it was. The most important qualification for a post-apocalyptic character. “Can you fight?”
Already I knew it was a redundant question. Of course he could fight! Anybody who could rock leather and glitter could fight. But something in my wanted confirmation or proof, like seeing that he could fight. No, not seeing. Just him fighting. Him fighting for me. Me laying stranded in a ditch and him swooping me up, bridal-style. For the first time I longed to be the Protagonist, to have no action myself but instead be at the glorious whims of the Love Interests.
M.I.A. chuckled and tilted his head. “Can I fight? Well, let me see.” He rolled his head back as if contemplating to the ceiling and I tensed up in anticipation.
He stepped forward a few paces. Wow, he was really stringing me along. Finally, M.I.A. looked at me. He stared at me and winked, inviting me. “I can only fight if I have the right partner.”