His soft footsteps pad gently along the carpet of the backstage. He is the essence of coolness, complete with tuba and magician’s wand. His hair flows ever so neatly in the direction of his audience and they are watching in rapt silence as he demonstrates his talents. They are many. His teeth glisten like lined up marble marshmallows; straight and white in his mouth like soldiers of a bonfire army ready for battle.
This boy is no ordinary boy, but instead a boy so full of shrimp and crackers that he barely has room for a brain beyond being marvelous and wanting everyone to admire him. This is a boy who knows nothing but greatness. His mother and sister, friends and extended family members cheer him on from the small crowd. They probably make up half of it anyway. But who wouldn’t come to watch this lovely person play the tuba and perform wittily commentated magic tricks? Apparently not them, because this is how they are choosing to spend their Thursday night, from six to seven in the evening. And me?
I loathe every step he makes. He has been (probably) ruining my chances of winning this talent show since year one. This person, this wicked, wicked evil magician child, has a name and I will not disclose it because the letters foul my keyboard and leave my fingers feeling guilty of crimes not to be spoken of. I sit in the back of the lounge, arms crossed over my chest in a sign of discomfort and attempted nonchalance. On the inside, my heart is leaping and bounding and pretty much trying to beat me to death or jump out of my ribcage. Whichever comes first. I give this person a seemingly polite glare in which I hope I don’t show the intent of my darkening expression. He probably thinks I’m just constipated or something. He wouldn’t know because he doesn’t ask. This boy is a wonder of stars in his own eyes. He doesn’t speak to peasants like me.
I nudge the contestant next to me, alerting her that the six and half (the half is the time he won by default when no one else bothered to show up) time winner has entered the room. I lean toward her and whisper that I wish he would give up once and for all so we could have a shot at winning. She just winces and shakes her head, not wanting the Great and Mighty Evil Magician Child to hear us whispering about him. Fine then. Be that way, Contestant Number Nine. See if I care. (I really don’t.)
The Evil Magician Child sits across from me and my head drops to my hands. I will not engage in a conversation with this demon. Not today, Satan. He looks at his phone, as does the girl next to me. How antisocial of them. I recross my arms and clear my throat. No one acknowledges my presence and so I wish I could shrink or float or just do something to be not here anymore. It’s much too late for that now. I signed the papers, I did the practices, I put up with the treacherous Evil Magician Child all these weeks and weeks of rehearsals, just like I have for the last six and a half years.
This year, though, I’m ready to win.
More like: Just beat the Evil One. (I’m shortening it because why not? It’s my story and I can do what I want to do.)
But still. I need to win. Or someone other than him needs to.
I look at the tag on my shirt. In thick black marker, the tag reads that I have a name, my name is Soandso, and that I am contestant number four. I don’t want to be a number. I don’t like being labeled so blatantly. But I keep the tag on and I glare silently up at the Evil One, knowing that he is going right before me and if he wins again I will inevitably lose my ever loving mind. Forget about finding it again. As far as I know, there’s no GPS for tracking down lost minds and misplaced senses and scattered marbles.
A pretty girl in a twirling costume stands up and smiles nicely at me from across the room. She’s going first and I can hear them announcing her name now. It’s a light name with no substance, like she’s but a paper piece and could fly away at any minute. Too bad her talent isn’t kite flying. I wave at her. She could win third place, I guess, if she didn’t drop the batons or throw her flags at one of the judges. That was the worst case scenario. I mouthe, “Good luck,” and the girl with the paper piece name nods and goes up the steps that lead to victory or ultimate dishonor to us all. I tense. The music starts and I can just glimpse the back of the girl. She moves like the wind. She’s fantastic.
When she finishes, all the other contestants including me stand up and clap, holler, and whoop emphatically. She’s never competed before. We have hope in her to outrank the evil angel child and to win. She is our dancing angel, our high flying majesty. We are a common enemy against him; us the army of tryers, and he the one soldier alone in his battle.
And yet he has won all these past years.
Still. Our white flag of surrender has yet to go up. We are tryers and fighters and darn the metaphorical farm we are talented! This Evil One has been blinding the judges from our outstanding inner lights; covering our candles with his tuba and magical ribbons; his smug smiling and his polished frame. I can only hope that tonight will swipe that smile and, well, unpolish his frame.
Next and third in the contest are a rather slumpy boy named Magellen and his pet raccoon doing a political debate, and a duet of siblings that sang a song called “We Are Banned From Ramen Noodles.” I love both of them, but they aren’t good enough to beat whatever the Evil Magician Child has up his ever conniving, ever ironed sleeves. I’m up next and my heart is still rioting. Have I ever swallowed a thunderstorm, to feel this way?
I stand up and go to the stairs. My vision blurs and my knees knock. I’m so scared of losing to someone who has always won that I’m not giving myself a fair chance. I take a deep breath and step out onto the stage. This is NOT for you, Evil Child Who Plays The Tuba Among Other Things That Win Talent Shows Six Years in a Row. This is for everyone who you keep from shining. This is for me, and the raccoon and slumpy boy. This is for me last year, and the baton twirling girl. This is for me the year before that one, and for the children who never had a cup of sodium in noodle form. This was for our army of losers, and our hopes for the future.
I finish my act to a couple of polite clappers and reserved giggling. The judges are not impressed. I bow awkwardly and stumble back down the stairs and into the lounge. The Evil One looks up at me and smiles so strangely I have to blink to make sure I’m not dreaming. “You did a good job.” He smiles again. I nod. Why is he nice to me when all I can think about is how to beat him?
“Hmm. Yeah. You next?” I gesture towards the stairs and sweep my trembling hands back towards him. Why am I even talking to this person? He has cheated me out of so many medals and trophies. He doesn’t deserve my smile or wave or time or anything. I sit down and don’t wait for an answer. He’s already up the stairs and getting settled on the stage. I close my eyes and my clenched fists get tighter as the tuba music grows louder and louder and I know the magic comes from within it.
The crowd goes wild at the end of his act.
I don’t congratulate him when he wins first place.
As I walk back to my car, after the lights of the county fair have quieted and I have eaten my last turkey leg, the Evil Magician Child approaches and I freeze. “Hey.” He’s not wearing his costume anymore, which makes sense. What did I think, that he traipsed around his high school wearing a full cape and rabbit filled hat? No, he wears shirts and jeans, like any normal, non evil guy would.
“Oh. It’s you.” I bite my tongue to refrain from calling him Evil Magician Child. “Um, what do you want?” I hope my face isn’t too marred by loose tears. I would hate to seem like a sore loser, after all.
He looks at his feet. His eyes, I can tell, are stormy. Something is troubling him and I don’t know what except why should I actually care? This kid’s a lunatic. He’s won this thing ever since he was allowed to participate. We were both ten, waiting for the winner to be announced. We stood on the stage, our little, hopeful faces beaming radiance. I watched as he won, and I remember feeling just a little disappointed, but happy for him.
And then he came back the next year like he had something to prove. And he won. The cycle of winning and coming back to beat us all again and again and again seemed like it would never stop.
“I just wanted to say you did a really good job tonight. I’m going to state next week and I wanted to know if…”
“If what?” I reached for my door handle. “I don’t have all night, darling.”
“Would you like to come with me?” He smiles again and I kick him in the shins mentally. How dare someone evil be so stupidly nice? “There’s an open spot and I think they could give it to you.” He’s biting his lower lip and bouncing lightly on his heels. He’s nervous? Of what? The girl who’s lost over half a dozen times because of him and his wretched tuba? Well. What a weirdo.
“Ummmmm. Why are you asking me?” I’m laughing now, laughing right at this ridiculous boy and his fantasy suggestions. “I didn’t even win second or third place… if anything I should…”
“It’s okay if you don’t want to. I just feel like you try so hard every year and don’t get appropriate appreciation of your talents. You’ve really improved over the years. I know I can come off like a Little Lord, but I don’t mean it.”
“In a different setting, I think it would be okay, but I don’t know you. I don’t think I really want to know you. You have a condescending tone. All the time! You feel sorry for me.” He doesn’t dispute this. Pity scrawls across his face and I know it’s true. “Well. I don’t want the consolation prize. Bye.” I open the car door and get in. “But if you want to do me a favor, don’t come back next year.”
He nods and backs up. “Huh, yeah, okay.”
I start the car and start to the ice cream parlor, where I will eat the largest scoop of ice cream legally allowed to minors. I think about the evil magician boy while my brain freezes; about his soft footsteps padding gently along the carpet of the backstage.