by Dallin Hunt
In the custodial closet-turned-dressing room beside the stage, Brandon stood wearing purple robes and a red vest in front of an old vanity mirror. His friend Austin, dressed as a sheep in fluffy felt and cotton, assisted him with the final pieces of his costume. He wrapped Brandon’s arms and wrists in gold cloth and fit velvet gloves over his hands. Brandon’s appearance in the mirror was one of regal magnificence. The words of the play’s director, Ms. Cheryl Szymoniak, went through his mind:
“This play is the most important event in Hankins. It’s a transcendent, unifying, and beautiful experience, and you are the star, Brandon. You are a hero in our community.”
This was the first time Brandon had ever been in a play. He’d never considered himself much of an actor, but after he was cast as Duke Gespar, lead role in the biannual school production of Kingdom Awakening, he hadn’t missed a rehearsal. He had also watched numerous YouTube tutorials on how to kiss passionately in preparation for his stage kiss with Jamie Linklater, in her role as Lady Chontaine. And he understood that, in keeping with tradition, Jamie would stab him to death in the final scene.
“The moment you pass from this life is the moment the play ceases to be a simple high school production and becomes something magical. Something eternal,” Ms. Szymoniak had said, waving a pencil and clipboard in large, sweeping motions. “In that moment, Brandon, you will become a legend. Just like Travis, and all those who have come after him. It’s been over thirty years since the first performance of Kingdom Awakening, and everyone in town still remembers Travis.” She was right about that. Brandon had learned all about Travis as a young child. It was he who wrote the play and gave his life in its first performance.
“So, are you nervous?” asked Austin, interrupting Brandon’s thoughts.
“Are you ready for the kiss?” “Ha. I don’t know. I hope so.”
“She looks freakin’ hot. I’d kill to be you. I don’t know how you made it through rehearsals without just going for it!”
Brandon gave a small laugh. The kiss was to resemble a true expression of love. Like his death, it was not something that could be rehearsed. It was to be performed only once, in its pure, sacred nature. Despite countless rehearsed embraces and gazes into her eyes, Brandon had not yet tasted Jamie’s tempting lips. The two of them had even been instructed to avoid contact with each other outside of scheduled rehearsals, just as an extra precaution.
Austin handed him a cardboard sword and shield, and then placed a bejeweled plastic crown on his head.
“Is that everything?” Austin asked.
“I still need the uh, the alb—bolu—” Brandon began. “Oh yeah, the ablution! Hold on.”
Austin picked up a grimy Dixie cup from the vanity and dipped his fingers in it, then smeared them across Brandon’s acne-scarred forehead.
“Is that all I do?”
“Yeah I think so.” Brandon replied.
“Okay bro, well you look good. I’ll see you backstage, alright?” Austin said, then patted Brandon on the shoulder and left the room. Moments later the door swung open, and there stood Jamie Linklater. She wore a midnight blue, backless gown and a gold choker necklace. Her blonde hair was done up in a tidy and intricate braided bun. Brandon’s stomach
quivered as it had so many times before in his hallway encounters with Jamie.
“Bran!” Jamie said, out of breath. “Oh my gosh Bran, I’m freaking out. Have you seen my um…my…” She began to dig through a pile of costumery on a table.
“No…the dagger. Have you seen it?”
“Oh. The dagger.” Brandon looked around the cluttered room. A golden handle was visible on the floor beneath the vanity, half concealed beneath a felt duckbill. He picked it up. It was heavy and sturdy, ornately designed, with a long, clean blade. It looked like it had never been used.
“Is this it?
“Yes, oh, thank goodness! Thank you, thank you! I was starting to worry I’d left it at home!”
“She let you take it home?”
“Yeah, she told me…it would be a good idea to practice on something.” Jamie looked down at the floor to her side.
“Ah.” Brandon continued to examine the dagger.
“I don’t even remember bringing it in here,” Jamie said. “I’m such an idiot. I don’t think you’re supposed to see it until the end.” Jamie reached out for the dagger. Brandon ignored her.
“Oh, here. Sorry.” He gave her the dagger and she hiked up her gown to put the dagger in a sheath fastened around her thigh. Brandon couldn’t help but stare.
“What’d you practice on?” he asked.
“I actually didn’t…I was going to use a watermelon, but it seemed… wrong…sort of. I don’t know. It can’t be that hard though, right?”
“Mm-hmm,” Brandon replied. He started to imagine where the dagger might enter his body, how much resistance it would meet. At that moment, Ms. Szymoniak peaked into the room and announced that the play was to begin shortly. Brandon and Jamie joined the other actors backstage.
The curtain opened on a stage covered in bodies. A deserted battlefield, as indicated by the wrecked chariots and dead horses painted on the wooden backdrop. A freshman girl in ragged black clothes stepped across the stage, wailing lamentations about the battle which had just taken place. The scene lasted six minutes, and afterwards came Brandon’s introduction as Duke Gespar. A short, overweight boy walked to center stage carrying a bugle.
“His royal highness approacheth!” the boy called, and Brandon entered, greeted by warm applause from the crowd. There was his mother, sitting front and center with a jubilant grin, and beside her his little sister Caitlyn, a fifth grader. She had a scowl. Brandon recalled a conversation with the two of them from the day he was given the role.
“I always knew you were born to do something amazing. Something really special,” his mother had said, teary-eyed. “I’ve never been more proud.”
“Okay Mom,” Brandon had replied with an eye roll. He’d never thought of himself as someone with a special purpose. He got B’s and C’s in school, and played football one year, but the team lost every game that season.
Caitlyn had been much less enthusiastic. “It’s not worth it!” she’d said. “He’s going to die just so he can kiss Jamie Linklater! He obviously has a crush on her!”
“Caitlyn, what an ugly thing to say!” his mother had replied, hurt by the accusation. “Brandon is doing this because he cares about the community, and he’s been given a very special opportunity. It’s noble, brave, and honorable, just like him. Right, Brandon?”
Brandon had nodded, but he hadn’t attempted to deny Caitlyn’s claim.
As Brandon stood on the stage and began to recite his lines, he avoided making eye contact with either his mother or his sister. It was possible that this would be the last he would ever see of them, but he didn’t let that thought take complete form. In some past performances, the lead actor’s family members had been allowed backstage to say goodbye before the final scene, but that depended on whether the director felt it was appropriate or not. Some years they got to, some years they didn’t. Brandon hoped for the best and postponed thoughts of goodbye.
The play went on for three hours, with short breaks every hour for the audience to stand and stretch. Finally, the scene of the kiss arrived. A spotlight fell on Brandon and Jamie as they stood holding each other on a tiny wooden bridge over a paper river. A tenth-grade boy dressed as a frog hopped around in the background.
“We mustn’t!” Jamie cried in the posh British accent of Lady Chontaine, “Me, a lady of the fallen kingdom! Nothing more than a lowly maiden! You, a duke! Blessed of the high lord’s counsel! I cannot dishonor you so!” At this line she focused her eyes on his, and her body stiffened as she readied herself for the kiss.
Brandon took her hands and leaned close to her deliciously feminine frame. She was right there. Her lips soft and waiting. It was now. Now. His vision blurred, his heart nearly broke his ribs. He closed his eyes.
And Jamie sneezed.
Warm mucus droplets hit Brandon’s nose. He opened his eyes to see a thick bit of brown snot hanging down to Jamie’s upper lip under the blinding stage lights. Her eyes were enormous with panic.
Brandon didn’t move. Sweat began to gleam on his forehead beneath the lights. He glanced towards the audience and saw his mom and sister again. Both had their hands over their mouths. Torturous seconds passed, and then he went for it. His lips mashed against Jamie’s and the snot was folded into saliva. The crowd gasped, and Jamie drew back with a loud grunt.
The curtain closed. Audience members began to mutter. Some laughed.
Ms. Szymoniak rushed onto the stage, grabbed both Brandon and Jamie by the arms, and dragged them behind the plywood backdrop.
“What the hell just happened!” she hissed.
“I’m so sorry!” Jamie said, tears forming in her eyes. Brandon stood with his mouth agape and bits of mucus on his lips. Austin, now dressed as a bright yellow sunflower, appeared beside him. A halo of petals surrounded his face.
“Dude, that was a freakin’ disaster!” Austin said, almost laughing. “That was shameful. Shameful!” Ms. Szymoniak said in a rough
whisper. “Do you realize what this play means to all those people out there? Do you want to let them down? Think of your poor mother!” She glared at Brandon.
Jamie was crying. She banged her fist against her forehead. Brandon didn’t say anything.
“What can we do?” Jamie asked through a sob.
“You two need to get your (Ms. Szymoniak mouthed the word asses) in gear and make the finale spectacular so this play isn’t a failure, got it? This is a sacred event. I won’t have it tarnished under my direction.” Jamie straightened herself, sniffed, and wiped her eyes, “Okay, okay, we’ll fix this, Ms. Szymoniak,” she said. “Right, Brandon?” Brandon
didn’t answer. His head began to ache. “Right, Brandon?” she repeated.
“Yeah!” Austin chimed in. “Mistakes happen, it’s not the end of the world. You guys are going to rock this!”
“You’d better,” Ms. Szymoniak said. “Now, all of you get in position. When that curtain opens again, you’re going to perform the sunflower
dance flawlessly, and Brandon and Jamie, I expect perfection from here on out, especially in the final scene. Understand?”
“Yes,” Jamie said. She took a deep breath and made her way to the left stage entrance. Brandon noticed her adjusting the dagger against her thigh as she walked. Austin moved to follow her.
“Austin…” Brandon began. “Austin—”
“You’ll do great, dude. We’re still proud of you,” Austin said as petals drooped over his face. “Everyone will forget about this after the big moment anyway.” He squeezed Brandon’s shoulder and then joined Jamie at the entrance. The lights went out backstage as the final act began, and Brandon was left in the dark, alone.
After the big moment.
His throat tightened and he couldn’t swallow. He started to shake.
The sunflower dance was flawless. Austin and the other performers twirled around the stage in perfect synchronization to a brass-band march played over the auditorium speakers, each with petals flapping around their faces and gold ribbons in their hands. It was such an impressive spectacle that they were given a standing ovation. Then came the final intermission, during which cast members were not allowed within eyesight of the audience. While his fellow actors filed into the green room, Brandon remained backstage, leaning against the old brick wall in a dusty corner behind the backdrops. Following the intermission, eight scenes remained before the finale. Brandon was to appear in three of these, but he would not share the stage with Jamie again until the very end.
The shivers grew more violent, though Brandon did not feel cold, and he was sweating. It seemed as though the school janitor had not bothered this corner of the stage with a mop for years; clumps of lint and hair lay all around Brandon’s legs. He rolled these around in his fingers until they were warm and gooey and listened to the audience members mingling in the auditorium. He tried to find his mother’s voice, or his sister’s, but the noise was overcome by the painful thud of his heart. The house lights had turned on, but he was still in darkness.
The door to the green room opened, emitting a broad beam of light across the area backstage, and Ms. Szymoniak emerged.
“Brandon,” she said gently, beckoning to him with waves of her long fingers. “Brandon, come talk to me for a moment.”
He stood up and picked bits of hair and grit from his robe, then followed her into the room. Jamie was in one corner, studying a printed-out script covered in highlights, and a handful of other students in various costumes were gathered in a circle in the middle of the room. Nobody paid attention to Brandon as Ms. Szymoniak led him out a side door into a dim, empty hallway. When she closed the door behind her, the small amount of light made her look like a ghost. She took her glasses off and rubbed her temples.
“Brandon, I want you to know that I am proud of you. You’re doing a great job. I was harsh earlier, but that’s just part of being a director, you understand? We’re all under a lot of pressure, and the fact is, what happened was a natural occurrence. As much as I’d like to, I can’t place the blame on anybody. So I’ve decided to forget about the kiss. So has Jamie, and so should you.”
Brandon nodded. He wondered if she could possibly hear the quivering in his throat. She only looked at the wall to her left and paused, an expression lingering on her face like that of a concerned mother.
“You know, I was hesitant to cast you in this role at first,” she continued. “But after I got to know you, and I saw you with your friends, after I saw you with Jamie…I just knew you were the obvious choice. Your innocence, your lack of experience, your childlike purity—what some perceive as weaknesses can actually be your greatest strengths. These are things that a lot of actors in your role have tried to fake, but it just can’t really be done. Do you see what I mean?”
Brandon shook his head. He had no reason to pretend to understand her point.
“What I mean, Brandon, is it doesn’t matter so much whether or not you can act. What matters is who you are. That’s what makes this play so powerful, and that’s what touches the audience. You have what it takes to master this role.”
Brandon nodded. He hadn’t heard any of her words.
“So I’ll let you decide whether or not you’d like to see your mother and sister right before the final scene—if you feel like it will be beneficial. Most who have directed Kingdom Awakening believe that separation is key, and typically I would agree. It creates vulnerability, strips the actor of all but his true being, naked and pure. Some have even kept the lead actor in an isolated environment for several—”
“I want to see them.” Brandon said. He gagged a little as he spoke, as though his heart was trying to escape through his mouth.
“In your case, perhaps the encouragement from a loving family would be more helpful,” she said. “Just remember that the performance is paramount. This community relies on it.”
Ms. Szymoniak clasped her hands and half-bowed her head, then returned to the green room without another word. Brandon went back to his spot in the dusty corner and waited through the intermission, and then through five long scenes, until his next entrance.
When he stepped into the stage lights, Brandon expected to hear renewed mumblings about the dreadful kiss scene. Instead, the audience burst into applause and cheers. Some even began to chant, “Gespar! Gespar!” Brandon’s mother was still in the front row, only visible through the glare of the spotlights because of her radiant grin. Caitlyn sat beside her, blank-faced. Somehow, despite the shaking and the nausea, Brandon gave his lines and played his part as well as he’d done in any rehearsal. But in his mind were no thoughts about the performance.
What did come to his mind was a memory, one that he couldn’t push out. It was of an autumn day from years before, when he and Caitlyn had been jumping on a trampoline together as children, throwing leaves in the air, and smashing mosquitos that landed on the trampoline net. They had both lost their voices from laughter. Then Brandon had jumped off of the trampoline onto the grass and hit his knee on a protruding tree root, and Caitlyn had stayed with him as he cried for his mother, who was nowhere to be found. For an hour they huddled together until the pain went away and they were laughing again. He could now see the red of the leaves and the blood on his knee just as clearly as the day it had happened.
When the penultimate scene arrived, Brandon hurried to the same hallway in which he and Ms. Szymoniak had spoken earlier, according to her instructions. Ms. Szymoniak quietly retrieved his mother and sister from the audience before the lights came on and brought them back to join him. As soon as they arrived, Brandon’s mother pulled him into a tight hug, resting her chin on his shoulder. For a small moment, his heartbeat softened.
“I’m so proud of you.” She said, and then released him, keeping her hands on his shoulders and looking into his eyes. Caitlyn was beside her, staring at the floor. Brandon tried to say her name, but his mouth muscles were no longer under his control. His lips were numb.
“You’ll do great, and I’m not just saying that because I’m Mom,” his mother said. Brandon looked at her sincere smile, and tried again, harder, to speak.
“Mom…” he said. “Why—I…won’t you…Mom, I can’t—”
“You’ll be a hero, Brandon.” His mother’s voice sounded hollow in his ringing ears. You’ll be a—”
“Oh hell, you’re about to be up, Brandon!” Ms. Szymoniak interjected. “Thank you, Nancy, this means a lot to him, but he’d better get back up there.”
“Of course,” Brandon’s mother replied. She grabbed Caitlyn by the hand and headed towards the door leading back to the auditorium. As she was opening the door, Brandon lurched forward.
“Wait!” Brandon gasped. His voice became loud and shrill. “Mom! WAIT!”
Caitlyn lifted her eyes from the floor and had just turned to look back at him when the door slammed closed. He began to faint. The hallway around him went dark and the next thing he knew Ms. Szymoniak was holding his arm over her neck, leading him back through the hall, the green room, and to the right entrance to the stage. There Austin stood, now wearing a black cloak and a silver, pointed bird’s beak mask.
“Dude, good job! They’re loving you out there!” Austin said, his voice muffled behind the plastic. “This is going to be so good!” He produced a length of rope, brought Brandon’s arms behind his back and began to tie them together. Brandon’s wrists throbbed with each furious beat of his heart.
“Can you move?” Austin asked. Brandon tried to wiggle his wrists. “No.”
“Great, I think we’re good to go then! Good luck, buddy. Break a leg!” The stage lights turned on, and Austin led Brandon to the center, then turned and exited. Jamie entered from the opposite side, in the same blue gown which Brandon had found so breathtaking earlier. He hardly recognized her. There was no sweetness in her eyes, no friendship, and her dark lips were pressed together. Her jaw was clenched, emphasizing the angles of her cheek bones. The appearance that had been so seductive was now horrifying. The two of them stood in front of a magnificent blue backdrop, adorned with painted rocky cliffs and galaxies. A giant cardboard planet hung in the air above them. The spotlight was so bright that Brandon could not see the audience at all.
He did not have any lines in this scene. He had been directed to simply stand still as Jamie circled around him multiple times, delivering her final monologue, finally revealing the dagger from beneath her gown, and slowly coming to stand just a few feet in front of him.
“Now,” she said in a voice both smooth and piercing. “Now, we shall have our awakening. The kingdom will be glorified, and you will be our sacrifice.”
Brandon’s vision blurred again, and his mind returned the day he and Caitlyn had been playing on the trampoline. He remembered calling out for his mother. A gleam of light reflected off of the golden dagger as Jamie lifted it in front of him, but he could not see its detail. The long blade was perpendicular to his body. Brandon closed his eyes.
“Brandon! NO! Don’t—”
The voice was Caitlyn’s, and it was immediately muffled. Brandon couldn’t see her through the light, but he heard commotion from the front rows of seats. People gasped, and Brandon’s vision became clear again. He looked into Jamie’s dark, empty eyes. She had not lost focus. She pulled the dagger back, preparing to plunge it into Brandon’s chest. He jumped backward, stumbling over a cardboard rock.
“What are you doing!” Jamie spat.
Brandon continued to step backwards, struggling to stay balanced, unable to use his hands to steady himself. Jamie lunged and Brandon dodged, leaning to the side. When Jamie pulled back, he head-butted her in the ribs below her armpit, knocking her to the ground. The audience went silent, and Brandon looked down at her for a moment, surprised. He had hurt her. She clutched her elbow, where there was a small abrasion. Her eyes were wide. Brandon slowly backed away and began trying to free his wrists from the rope. After seconds of silence,
a few audience members began a new chant. “Lady Chontaine! Lady Chontaine!” It started as a whisper and grew to a shout.
The rope was too tight. Brandon could not free himself. He turned to run, but was apprehended by Austin, who had rushed onto the stage. He wrapped his arms around Brandon and held him still while Jamie slowly got to her feet. The chant grew even louder.
“Lady Chontaine! Lady Chontaine!”
Brandon fought, but he couldn’t move. Austin’s hold was too strong. Jamie came closer and closer until she was only inches away, and Brandon closed his eyes. When the dagger slid in between his ribs, he saw bright circles behind his eyelids. They began to turn into colors, and he thought they looked like the fall leaves on the trampoline.
Audience members exhaled, letting the thrill of the moment wash over them. Jamie, breathing heavily, helped Austin lower the bleeding body to the ground, and the two of them made their exits. A student standing in front of the stage held up a sign on which the words Please use blindfolds to show reverence during death sequence had been painted, and each audience member reached beneath their chair for a black blindfold, which they then tied around their heads. All except for Caitlyn, who never touched her blindfold, but watched her brother as he lay dying. The spotlight was reduced to a soft glow while glitter fell from the ceiling, looking like a million stars against the dark blue sky. A violin played over the speakers, and Brandon lay gasping until he was quiet. Then the curtain closed.
A roar of applause and whistles filled the auditorium, and the audience all rose from their seats. Amid the ovation, Brandon’s mother removed her blindfold, walked up to the stage, put her hand on the curtain, and began to cry a bit. There was no curtain call, no bowing. The curtain stayed closed while the cast members simply joined the audience. Cheers and congratulations continued on, and Ms. Szymoniak approached Brandon’s mother.
“He was incredible, Nancy,” she said, putting a hand on the mother’s shoulder. “One of the most real and honest performances I’ve seen.”
“He was, wasn’t he?” The reply came with a sniffle. “I know this can be hard.”
“Well, I’m just one of those crybaby moms. What can I say?” Brandon’s mother gave a light giggle. She turned to see Caitlyn, who was sitting in her seat, also in tears. Austin walked past, still wearing the pointed mask. Brandon’s mother called out to him.
“Austin, we’re having a celebration at my house for all the cast and crew! You’re coming right honey?”
“Oh absolutely!” he replied. “But I might be a bit late. I’m in charge of cleaning up the body.”