You own the stage, Dani-girl.
Those words came in a text from my father, three weeks ago. Maybe they’d feel more sincere if he’d bothered to call. The voice I hear in my head—my own—makes the words feel narcissistic. This doesn’t make sense, though, because my insides are trembling and I can’t look at the faces of my competition.
They already have reason to hate me. I don’t belong here, and they know it.
I’m a hundred miles away from my former life in Asheville, North Carolina. A hundred miles from my school and friends, from my favorite stores and coffee shops, from the professional thespian company that admitted me as its youngest cast member, and from the ballet school where I’ve taken classes since I was six.
It's unlikely that I’ll ever fit in at this school. For that reason, I question my sanity at coming to this audition. But I need to be here. I need to hold onto who I am. Getting a role in Quincy High School’s production of Much Ado About Nothing isn’t about impressing anyone. It’s what I must do to prove I’m still myself.
The stage I’m supposed to own is in a gymnasium, not an auditorium. A brown and mustard-gold banner with a painted bear on it hangs at the back, covering the cinderblock walls. The room smells like floor polish and basketball players’ sweat. Mrs. Bailey’s instructions echo off all the hard surfaces. Metal bleachers press into the backs of my thighs, and my light cardigan isn’t enough to keep me from shivering, even as I pull it tighter around me. Wearing a dress in February probably wasn’t my best idea, but I can’t be just another longhaired girl in jeans and a hoodie. I need every advantage I can get when my turn to read comes.
A boy and a girl stand on the stage, holding the pages they were given. It’ll be interesting to hear what Shakespeare sounds like with the elongated vowels and dropped consonants of their Appalachian accents. To thah-n own se’f bayee true, yee-awl.
The guy squints at his pages in a way that makes me think he usually wears glasses. His companion is pretty, with doe eyes and tawny hair draping over her shoulders, but the Quincy Bruins bear on the banner behind her looks like it’s about to swallow her head. Mrs. Bailey tells them to begin.
“Lady Beatrice. Have you wept all this while?” His eyes are on his pages, not the girl.
Ah, Act Four. This is where Signoir Benedick promises to avenge Beatrice’s cousin, Hero, after her betrothed accuses her of cheating and leaves her at the altar. I read the entire play four times and rehearsed all of Beatrice’s lines in front of my mirror at home. I watched the movie version—the one with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson—once. Enough to inspire but not to copy.
My finger traces someone’s name written in marker on the bleacher. I study Mrs. Bailey’s untamed curls with dark gray roots and last year’s bleached highlights, then stare at the industrial lights hanging from the ceiling, a couple of them missing their protective grills. The real-life tragedy taking place onstage is too painful to watch. I feel bad for the guy, trying to get the rhythm of the words along with the strength and wit of Signoir Benedick when he hasn’t got the voice or the stamina for the role. He’ll get cast somewhere in the play, though. There are only a few guys at the audition and more male roles in the play. Mrs. Bailey might cast the guys in multiple roles.
“Or have girls play guys.” I mutter.
Papers rattle beside me as Alexis crushes her script pages. “What did you say?” She’s freaked out about auditioning, so she’s not whispering.
“Shh! There aren’t enough guys here. Girls might have to play male roles.”
“I have a deep voice. Will she make me be a man?” A strand of black, frizzy hair clings to her lips. “Why did I agree to this?”
I ease the hair away with my pinky finger. “Because you’re a good friend, and I love you for it.”
“Quiet backstage,” Mrs. Bailey says.
Backstage? There isn’t one. They’ll probably bring in curtains and lights, but right now the stage is a bare, collapsible riser, and the only thing around it is the hardwood floor painted with lines for basketball.
“Come, bid me do anything for thee,” the boy says.
Whoa. Those words, full of venom and need, grip me deep inside. While I wasn’t watching, the girl onstage found her muse. She crumples her pages in one hand and glares at the boy as if he could actually avenge her against some dude who broke her heart.
“Who is she?” I whisper.
Alexis presses her cheek against my shoulder. “Mary O’Connor. Senior.”
I’m done. I might own a stage somewhere, but this girl owns the role I want. She’s got the fire and the chops to deliver a stunning portrayal of the sharp-tongued daughter of the Governor of Messina. And if she has an accent, she’s squashing it.
“Wow. I didn’t expect—”
“That a country bumpkin could have talent?”
I jump at the deep voice and turn, even though my brain says to ignore him. The guy leans against the bleacher behind him, his hands dangling over the edge. Ethan somebody. And definitely somebody. Gorgeous, popular, and influential. To see him walking down the hallway is to know he’s in control. If he hates me, my life is over. A single tweet from this guy, and the “Daniella Cooper is the Enemy” movement will be in full frontal assault by tomorrow.