Chapter 8: Stage Lights

Four hours later, after inputting Divya’s number (with great ceremony) in Sabrina and then (with great whining) helping her mom mend costumes, Freddie found herself at Berm High. It looked just it had when she’d left it Friday afternoon—except now the sky was dismally gray and the parking lot was dismally empty. Only Mr. Binder’s GT convertible (he was the Pageant director every year) filled any of the spots by the auditorium.

Even the forest behind the school looked depressing. A windstorm in the night had knocked off most of the pretty fall leaves, leaving the old picnic tables exposed (the ones where the Bad Kids went to smoke cigarettes—and some of the Bad Teachers too).

“Oh dear,” Mom murmured, easing her Camry into the spot beside Mr. Binder. “This is even worse than I’d feared.”

“We’re ten minutes early,” Freddie offered. “People will come, Ma.”

“Yeah. Maybe.” Mom didn’t sound too hopeful. “At least I have you, I suppose, and if we must, we’ll make it a one woman show.”

“Frederica Gellar.” Freddie splayed her fingers like a marquis sign. “In Three Acts.”

This earned her a grin as she followed her Mom out of the car and toward the school’s backdoor. It was actually just a loading dock with a ramp, and the door had been propped open. Presumably Mr. Binder’s doing.

Inside the school, life was no brighter. The lights inside the auditorium were on, but not outside, casting the mustard halls in shadow, and Mr. Binder was the only person around when Freddie followed her mom into the gaping maw of the outdated theater. He was a lone ranger amidst a dusty cavern that spoke of asbestos and lead-based paint.

Mr. Binder spotted them, and with an animated wave, he scurried up the main aisle. “Frederica!” He pulled Freddie into a hug that smelled like pine cones.

Mr. Binder always smelled like pine cones.

And his thick-framed glasses were always just a little bit dirty, which always drove Freddie bananas.

He broke the hug, and the businessman efficiency that marked all his movements took hold. He ran three local shops—an endeavor he’d taken on after “abandoning the rat race of Chicago finances.” One of them was the Frame & Foto, which had a state-of-the-art darkroom. His partner Greg (a fine art photographer) had taught Freddie how to use it a year before. Now she had her very own key for developing Buffy’s photos whenever she wanted.

Mr. Binder and Greg were awesome.

“Greg printed the scripts for us.” Mr. Binder motioned for Freddie and her mom to follow. “He wasn’t going to perform this year, but…” Mr. Binder opened his arms. “This does not bode well for us. We may need him.”

So much for Frederica Gellar in Three Acts.

“I don’t suppose you have any friends you could call, Frederica?” Mr. Binder peered back, dipping his glasses. “Some strapping youths in need of a distraction.”

“No,” she said meekly, hoping he didn’t press any farther. The truth was she’d rather swim in Lake Michigan in winter than invite her new prank squad friends to this.

Mr. Binder reached the first row, where a pile of stapled printouts waited atop a seat. He offered a copy to Freddie and then to Mom. “I tweaked the story a little this year, if you want to look it over.”

“I’m sure it’s fine, Jim.” Mom didn’t even glance at the pages. She was chewing her lip and staring at empty seats. “I just don’t understand,” she murmured. “I put up fliers in all the usual places.”

“There’s still five minutes.” Freddie patted her mom’s shoulder. “People will come—I’m sure they’ll come.”

People did not come. Literally, no one showed up, and five minutes later, after opening the curtains (which made Freddie’s allergies go haywire), Freddie found herself standing all alone in the middle of the stage lights while squinting mournfully down at her mom and Mr. Binder in the front row.

The one woman show was back on the marquis—which meant Freddie was now going to perform as Traveler Number One and Traveler Number Two.

Agreeing to this had been a very huge, very terrible mistake. Even wearing her favorite peasant top wasn’t helping.

“You’re a such good sport,” Mr. Binder called. “I’ll get Greg to come next practice, but for now, why don’t you go ahead and get…” He trailed off. “Wait, Patricia—do you hear that? I think people are—”

The doors to the auditorium crashed wide. Voices thundered in. Voices carried by actual human throats from actual humans who had come to volunteer.

At first, Freddie was like, OH MY GOD, THANK YOU, JESUS. There were at least thirty people walking this way, a mob of shadowy figures she couldn’t identify through the stage lights.

But then the people got close enough for her to notice, Huh, they all sound like teenagers. And, Huh, I don’t know any of those faces.

Then one figure—a lanky, sauntering person at the fore—came close enough for Freddie to recognize.

“Oh shit,” she said at the same time her Mom squealed with delight and pushed to her feet.

Freddie darted for the stage steps. “No, no, no, no, no.”  She leaped down two at a time, and suddenly she understood exactly how Tybalt had felt when he’d learned Romeo had crashed his party.

She also realized Luis had not overreacted on Friday night in the least, and by golly, these Roberta Hughes shits were going down.

Freddie flew over the mustard floor and reached the first row right as Theo Porter did. He grinned at Freddie in much the same way she imagined the Big Bad Wolf would: hungry and very pleased with himself.

What,” Freddie spat, marching right up to him, “are you doing here?”

“What does it look like?” He bobbed his shoulders innocently.  “We’re volunteering.”

“No you’re not—”

“Freddie!” Mom cried. “Stop that!” She shoved in close and thrust out a hand. Her eyes glowed with excitement. “I’m Patricia Gellar. Thank you so much for coming. And so many of you, too!”

Theo—curse him—bared a smile that oozed Romeo charm. What with his perfectly combed hair, his perfectly fitted gray sweater, and his exceptionally clean Vans.

Boys didn’t dress that nicely outside of catalogs. And oh how Freddie wanted to destroy him.

“You must be Freddie’s mom.” Theo shook her hand. “I’m Theo Porter, ma’am. And can I just say how much we love your daughter over at Roberta Hughes?”

“You do?” Mom’s eyebrows popped high. “I mean, of course you do!” She giggled before twisting to Freddie and whispering, “You are officially the best daughter ever. What a surprise!”

Freddie held her tongue. Because of course, what else could she do? She was not the best daughter ever, and Theo was obviously up to no good.

Well, over her dead body would he ruin this pageant.

“Oh, Freddie, his means you won’t have to play all the roles!” Mom’s elated gaze swept over the auditorium—which now had three rows filled with students.

“Yay,” Freddie said, her gaze never leaving Theo. To think that only yesterday she thought he might not be so bad.

“And now Greg won’t have to perform!”

“Yay,” Freddie said again. Theo was staring right back at her, but instead of murder in his eyes, there was only mischief.

“Well, get back up on stage, Traveler Number One!” Mom poked Freddie’s shoulder. “You’re up first, remember? And,” she lifted her voice, waving a script high, “we need a Traveler Number Two to join her on—”

“I’ll do it.” Without breaking eye contact, Theo snatched up the script. “Lead the way, Gellar.”

Freddie spun on her heel and stalked back to the stage. There was nothing she could do. Absolutely nothing. Since the RH students were volunteers, she couldn’t tell them to just bugger off.

It was, Freddie had to admit, inspired. And if she weren’t so angry with Theo Porter, she might have been a little impressed.

She skipped up the steps, two at a time, then strode for the center of stage. Theo joined her a heartbeat later.

He was really smiling now.

So were all the RH students, lounging in their seats and looking like they owned the place.

“Quiet everyone!” Mr. Binder bellowed. He moved onto the stage and proceeded to introduce the pageant, laying out how parts would be assigned (to whomever raised their hand first) and what the goal of the project really was (to raise money for City-on-the-Berm upkeep).

Freddie took the opportunity to step in close to Theo.

“Why are you here?” she whispered.

“I told you.” He batted those long lashes of his. “We’re just here to volunteer. You see, Gellar, I don’t know if you heard”—he bent down conspiratorially—“but we all got arrested last week, so we now have to do community service.”

As he was saying this, a thought occurred to Freddie. One that only added to the murder on her mind. “Did you take down all of my mom’s fliers?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied in a way that very much suggested he knew what she was talking about.

“Listen to me, Mr. Porter.” She closed the space between them. His blue eyes glittered in the stage lights. This was not the Theo Porter out of her weird dreams, offering her a heart of stone. This was a creature of darkness and evil and rich boy terror.

A Level 25 Cleaved that only a natural twenty roll could bring down.

“If you in any way mess with this pageant,” Freddie whisper-hissed, “I will destroy you. Do you understand? This event means the world to my mom, and my mom means the world to me.”

“Understood.” He flashed another innocent, lazy smile. “But you don’t need to worry, Gellar. I told you: we’re only here here to volunteer.”

“And I’m Miss America.”

“You could be, with cheekbones like those.”

Freddie scoffed, a sound that she pulled straight from her belly. Theo had stolen that line from her, and now she really, really didn’t understand how she’d ever smiled at him yesterday.

“Alrigthy,” Mr. Binder said with a flourish of his script. He turned to Freddie and Theo. “Let’s get started, shall we? Today, we will read our lines while I take you through the basic stage directions. Does that sound good?”

“Absolutely,” Theo declared while Freddie simply mumbled, “Yep.”

“Great. So Travelers Number One and Number Two are a young couple—”

“What?” Freddie recoiled.

“—who have just found City-on-the-Berm after months of hard travel. I want to see relief and adoration on your faces. Can you do that?”

“Absolutely,” Theo declared again while Freddie simply chomped down on her tongue. She was doing this for Mom. For Mom, for Mom.

“Fantastic.” Mr. Binder strode to the edge of the stage. Then, with a pointed finger he called, “Begin.”

Freddie sucked in a long breath and lifted her script. She could do this. For Mom, for Mom. “Thank goodness we have finally arrived—”

“Louder!”

“—FOR ’TIS COLD HERE IN AUTUMN.” She was practically yelling now. She lifted her gaze to Theo.

“It’s all right,” he read. Then he splayed a hand to his chest. “I am here to keep you warm, my love.”

Oh god. Freddie gritted her teeth. For Mom, for Mom. “Look, there’s a light through yonder—”

Mr. Binder coughed. “You skipped a part, Freddie! Read it again. All of it.”

“Just shoot me now please.” She inhaled through her nose. Exhaled through her mouth. Then she read the line again—properly and loud. “LOOK, MY LOVE, THROUGH YONDER TREES. Maybe ’tis a logging camp.”

Theo’s nostrils flared, like he was trying to hold back laughter. “I think you are—”

“Louder!”

“I THINK YOU ARE RIGHT, MY LOVE. LET US APPROACH AND SEE.”

“Good.” Mr. Binder clapped lightly. “Now you kiss and walk off stage holding hands.”

“Wait, what?” Freddie rounded toward Mr. Binder. “There’s no kiss in here.” She rattled the pages at him.

“There most certainly is.” He lifted his own copy. “Page two, Frederica.”

No, no, no. She tore back the first page…

And yes, yes, yes. There it was in very simple words: Traveler Number One and Traveler Number Two kiss.

“But, it’s just a rehearsal,” Mr. Binder said, “so I won’t make you do it now—though you will have to in the performance.”

“Over my dead body.” Freddie twisted toward Theo, thinking surely he was as horrified as she was by all of this. But he was simply grinning his stupid grin.

And then, as if all of that weren’t bad enough, the crowd of RH students seemed to have figured out what was going on.

“Kiss her!” one guy hollered from the back.

“Right on the lips!” a girl sang.

“Kiss, kiss, kiss!” chanted another, and in seconds, they were all shouting it.

Freddie was definitely going to murder Theo Porter.

Except that as she watched him, his cocky grin melted away. In fact, he began to look slightly uncomfortable, one hand on the back of his neck and the other tapping his thigh.

“I’m sorry,” he said after several seconds of this. “Just ignore them and let’s walk offstage.”

Kiss, kiss, kiss.

Somehow, the fact that Theo was trying to be nice only made Freddie hate him even more. Like, he couldn’t just flip from being a Bad Human to a Good One in the space of ten seconds. That was not how this worked. Plus, if Freddie walked off stage right now—as Theo was currently twisting around to do—then that would be letting all of the brats in the audience win.

Kiss, kiss, kiss.

No. Freddie was the Prank Wizard here. This was her school, her auditorium, and those RH shits had messed with her mom.

“Wait.”

Theo was halfway across the stage now. He didn’t hear Freddie above all the shouting.

Kiss, kiss, kiss.

So Freddie said it louder: “WAIT.”

This time he heard. This time he paused and glanced back. And before Freddie could really consider what she was doing or that her mom was watching or that she might seriously regret this once it was done, she kicked into a jog.

Five bouncing steps later, she reached him. His forehead creased. “What is it?” he began. Then he seemed to realize what she was doing—why she was rolling onto her toes and bringing her face to his.

She gave him a split second to pull away. A chance to escape if this wasn’t what he wanted.

But Theo didn’t pull away. Instead he leaned in, and Freddie’s lips reached his.

 

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