“You’re on in five. Ready?”
I stare at Alyssa. She jerks her head to the stage, giving me the all-too-familiar “what the hell are you doing?” look.
“Well? What the hell are you doing? This is it! Go!”
My body moves on its own accord. I look down, rather surprised to see my legs moving forward, robotic and stiff, toward the stage.
I glance up. I’m at the edge of the curtain. My eyes drift around the material, and I swallow.
Hundreds––no, thousands––of fans are spread before the stage. They’re one massive, unintelligible blur of a screaming and shouting and cheering populous. The sound rolls toward me in waves, and one after the other, I’m pushed backward to the safety of the dim lights. But the waves continue, on and on, shoving, pushing, drowning me––
“Go.” Alyssa’s voice hisses in my ear. Rough. Powerful.
I glance at her. Her eyes are so dark that they appear black in the dim backstage glow, monstrous and grotesque. For a moment, the lights distort her features, so that her eyes are thin and snake-like. Her teeth flash. They're eerily white.
She shoves me forward, and I stumble from behind the curtain.
The screaming and cheering and shouting intensifies, the waves towering before me. Again, my legs fumble toward the center of the stage, aimed for the microphone in the center. A guitar––my guitar, I suppose––rests in its stand beside the mic, the pale brown surface sparkling in the stage lights.
I arrive to the microphone. I gaze outward.
A moving, throbbing, pulsating mass of souls moves before me, their voices melding into one, the sound slamming into me with a force so robust that I step backward. I cannot see any individual figure; instead, they move as one, threatening to overcome me. Their cheers transform to jeers, and my heart thuds in my ears, bile rising in the back of my throat.
This is not what I wanted.
I look slowly to the left, where Alyssa and the rest of my crew stand in anticipation for this concert, the one that will––apparently, anyways––determine if I make it big. As I stare at them––that short girl with the pixie cut, that older man with the purple bowtie, that young woman with the red blouse––I realize I have no idea who they are. I've spent a year with them on the road, shuffled from one concert to the next, the size of the crowds always growing just marginally larger.
Until this one. The pivotal one. This concert will determine not only my futures, but all their futures and all their dreams.
And yet I don’t even know their names.
Then there’s Alyssa, of course. She stares at me with narrowed eyes. I can see the sweat beading on her forehead from here. My “guardian angel”, or so she called herself. At first, I believed her. I especially believed her when she picked my voice out of all the other auditions. She chose me. I remember how she smiled at me that first day. I remember all the promises.
And, oh, how she’s fulfilled them. My stomach furls.
I look back to the pulsating horde in front of me, and then to the monster that led me to believe in this life, this me. I peer down at myself.
My body is no longer one I recognize. Pencil-stick thin with bony fingers and bony arms and bony legs and a short skirt with my midriff exposed from this ridiculous tube top.
I stare at my flat stomach. The one I’d always wanted. The one Alyssa promised. And I feel nothing.
I feel hungry, actually.
Slowly, I lift my hands to feel my face. They'd spent hours covering it in makeup until I couldn’t be found again. I can feel the strange textures beneath my hand. I can feel the clay-like substances melting in the scorching heat of the lights.
I am not myself.
I don’t know who this person is.
I am a prisoner trapped inside here. This stage. This body. This life.
I turn to the right, to the black passage that lies beyond, dark and in shadow.
And then I follow it.
I walk off the stage.
Away from the throbbing horde, the snake-like eyes, the purple bowtie and the red blouse and the pixie cut. Away from the life that I thought I wanted, that I’d dreamed of. The one I’d written about in my journal day after day when I came home from school with a black eye and a broken spirit.
I walk off the stage.
The sounds fall to silence.
It’s cold and dark back here, but not frightening. It’s quite nice, this darkness. For the last year, I've been surrounded by lights. By brightness. My eyes are tired from squinting into blinding places. They long for this darkness.
I wander through the concert hall, absorbing the darkness peacefully, before arriving at the exit doors. And I walk through.
The streetlights are different from all the others that I've grown accustomed to. They’re…normal. Easy. Dim. They don’t hurt.
I wander along the street, not daring to look back at the concert hall behind me. A few people pass by. Some give me strange, confused looks, unsure if I’m who they think I am in the dim lights. But most simply walk past without a glance, either staring down at their phones or the sidewalk or chatting with a friend.
Another light––still, an easy one––catches my eye from across the street. A burger joint. I walk toward it, this time sure, this time leading my own feet.
A faint bell chimes as I walk in. A few families lounge at the tables and booths, chatting away happily as they dig into their meals. I walk to the back, to the restrooms. I close the door behind me and lock it.
I look at myself.
Who is this girl?
What has she become?
It's not too late. I know I can find her. Me.
I start by rubbing away the makeup.
The foundation comes off. The blush. The eyeshadow, the mascara, the eyeliner. The red lipstick is last. I rub it off mercilessly. The paper towel is stained as red as blood when I toss it in the trash.
I look back into the mirror.
There she is.
I haven’t seen that smile in a long time.
I let down my hair. It tumbles down, long and wavy and messy and perfect.
Lastly, I glance down to my heels. Without a second thought, I take each shoe and break the two-inch sticks protruding from the soles. I tosh the heels in the trash.
I walk back out to the restaurant and to the counter.
“Hello.” A young man glances up from the restaurant. He lends a friendly smile. His bright blue eyes are warm and kind. “How can I help you today?”
“I’ll have…” I stare at the menu. At the endless possibilities. “I’ll have one of everything.”
“Er…” his eyebrows scrunch. “Uh, are you sure?”
“That’s a lot of food for one person,” he says, cracking a smile as he rings me up. His eyes widen, and he shakes his head quickly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean––”
“You’re right. Want to share with me?” I blurt the words without thinking about them. But as soon as I say them, I feel confident about them. They’re my words. For the first time in a long while, I’ve said what I wanted to say.
“Really?” His face brightens. He glances down at the watch wrapped around his wrist. “I get off in ten. Does that work for you?”
He smiles at me, a bit shyly, his cheeks reddening. “See you soon.”
I wander to a table and sit, sinking into the comfortable booth. For the first time, I slouch, letting my back bend and relax. I lean against the cushion and close my eyes, feeling my muscles finally soften and unwind after a year of tension.
It really is all about the simple things in life.