Just One Line
Aaron was all nerves when he signed up for drama club. He stumbled through a brief audition for an extra in “The Pirates of Penzance” and was somewhat amazed to land the part of Pirate #4. The casting director diminished his achievement by glumly saying he only got the part because nobody else auditioned. In fact, there would be no Pirate #4 if not for Aaron’s last-minute try-out.
Aaron’s hands shook as he held his copy of the script. He scanned the cast list but wasn’t familiar with most of the names. He noticed that Vinny, the boy he fought yesterday, would play Frederic. There were about two dozen girls in the cast, some of them playing male roles for lack of boy actors. Aaron pictured the girl in the auditorium’s face as he read each name, but he couldn’t decide which fit her best. Sarah Oaken in the role of Ruth might be the one. Then again, she might not be. Aaron wasn’t very familiar with the story.
He met the director that afternoon. The tall blond man with a mustache shook Aaron’s hand and gave him a skeptical look. “Aren’t you the boy who got into a fight with our lead?”
Aaron nodded. He knew that the bruises on his face would be attributed to Vinny, though he was only one-third of the cause.
“There had better not be any conflicts between you two,” warned the director. “I’m giving you this chance. Don’t blow it. I need you both to heal up so we don’t have any shiners onstage.”
Aaron followed the director into the big, mostly empty auditorium. There he saw the cast dispersed among various props. Quick scan for the girl who met his eye earlier. Nowhere in sight.
Vinny, however, was easy to spot. He too sported some bruises, and his scowl could be felt across the room.
“Stand over there, Hotchner,” ordered Vinny, pointing to the far corner of the stage. Aaron wasn’t sure why he was giving orders, but the director nodded for him to comply.
“We’ll go over the opening scene again,” said the director. “Everybody, introduce yourselves to Aaron. He will be playing Pirate #4.”
A few snickers skittered through the group.
“I’m going to pick up some cardboard swords from my office,” the director went on. “I expect you to have gone over the scene once before I return.”
As soon as he left the room, the kids started murmuring amongst themselves and resuming their preparations. Two girls who were seated on a big trunk stared impolitely at Aaron and started whispering behind their hands.
Aaron stood awkwardly flipping through his script. Handwritten notes told him to sing along with the songs, or preferably pretend to sing, but apart from that, he couldn’t find any lines for his character. Of course, he only got into the play in hopes of meeting a girl who smiled at him, but still, didn’t he get one single line?
Vinny leaned back against a stack of boxes and took a small bottle from his jacket pocket. From the corner of his eye, Aaron saw the bottle touch his co-star’s lips.
“Vinny, what’s that?”
“More strength in a bottle than you’ll ever have in your finger. Bug off.”
Aaron didn’t need to point out that drinking in high school was against the law. Vinny carried a superior air about him that conveyed not only a knowledge of the law, but a self-entitled disregard for it. Nobody else seemed bothered by it.
In the few seconds Aaron spent staring at the older boy, trying to decide if he should say anything else, he noticed something of greater significance. While Vinny sported light bruising on the bridge of his nose and his jawline, both gifted by Aaron, he also wore a faint black eye and other mottled yellow to gray marks that Aaron knew he wasn’t responsible for. Gazing at the past injuries, then at the boy’s long-sleeved sweatshirt, a realization dawned on Aaron. He wasn’t the only abused kid in town.
Vinny glared. “What are you looking at?”
Aaron felt his mouth go dry. He was saved from answering by the sound of the double doors across the room swinging open. He looked up to see the pretty blond junior, weighed down with books, a bag, and costumes, rush down the aisle, all a-frenzy. The sight of her soft features and hair tied in a ponytail made Aaron inhale in awe. What a sweet face she had.
“Sorry I’m late, guys,” the girl said as she deposited her load on the edge of the stage. “I hope you’ve gotten started.”
“Actually, we were waiting for you, the star,” said Vinny with faux adoration. He had returned his bottle to his jacket pocket when the girl entered.
“Alright, then.” The girl tossed her ponytail and looked over the cast. Spotting a new face, she smiled and approached Aaron, hand extended.
“Haley Brooks. I’m playing Mabel.”
The lump in Aaron’s throat threatened to block his airway. “Aaron, um, Hotchner. I’m Pirate Number... Four.” He was surprised to find her hand slightly calloused despite obvious over-lotioning. Her nails were painted a quiet lavender. The scent of honeysuckle hung around her, just enough to notice.
“Nice to meet you.” She broke away from his awkward handshake, too soon for Aaron. “Now why don’t we get into our places and run through the first scene?”
Aaron fumbled through the rehearsal. He tripped twice and once ran into Pirate #2 while stealing glances at the leading lady. He wanted to understand her better. Why was she so gentle? Most girls her age used secrets and intimidation to make him feel unwanted. Haley not only welcomed him; she did not seem annoyed to death by his presence. Even when he repeatedly followed the wrong stage cue and ended up everywhere but his assigned place.
When the pirates finally got into their proper places, Vinny and the boy who played the pirate king practiced several lines of dialogue. Aaron was getting antsy. Haley wasn’t in most of these scenes, so she stood below the stage and offered advice to the struggling thespians. He wanted very much to talk to her, but he had no idea what about.
A lull in the dialogue snapped Aaron out of his thoughts. He then realized everyone was staring at him.
“Uh, Aaron,” Haley said.
She said his name! “Yes?”
He blinked. What did he miss? He looked at the wrinkled script in his hands, and sure enough, there was his line scribbled in the margin: “Aye, cap’n.” His very own line, all two words of it.
As the day went on, Aaron’s performance skills did not improve much, but he did gather enough nerve to approach Haley after the rehearsal.
“Hi, Haley.” There! Got that part out of the way.
“Hi, Aaron.” She was again holding an armful of books, and she looked at him expectantly. The spotlight was back on him; she awaited the next line.
Only the next line hadn’t been written. Aaron found himself tripping over his tongue worse than any clumsy tumble he’d taken onstage. He broke into a nervous smile to dissipate the tension.
Haley smiled too, but with a touch of impatience.
“I just wanted to say, thank you for all your help,” Aaron blurted.
“Sure. You’re welcome.”
“Well, see you tomorrow.”
“Yep. Bye, Aaron.”
Then she was gone through the double doors, and Aaron was left alone to bang his head on the wall in frustration. Nice line.
Despite his painful awkwardness, Aaron looked back on the day as much happier than most. He wondered if he dare feel happy about something, for fear it might be snatched away. But today gave him hope, hope that he could find something worthwhile to do with himself. Hope that there were still good people in the world.
On the way home, Aaron debated whether or not to tell his mother about his theatrical pursuit. In the off-chance that she actually cared, he wouldn’t want her to miss what could be the most interesting event in his life. But more likely than not, she wouldn’t give a rip, and he would wish he had kept it to himself. He decided to gauge her mood of the evening.
One step inside his home and Aaron came down from the carefree delight he had allowed himself to experience. Sean’s wails filled the house, and the voices of Mother and Charles could be heard arguing at top volume. Aaron smelled smoke from his stepfather’s heavy nicotine addiction, and he saw more than half a dozen beer bottles, mostly empty, lying on the floor. Real life had returned.
He leaned against the front door and sighed. His latest injuries were too fresh, too sore for him to risk running into either adult today. May as well head straight for the basement.
The sound of something breaking caught Aaron’s attention. The next thing he heard was Charles’ raspy yell that barely topped the sound of Sean’s cries: “First thing to do is get rid of that baby! If it can’t stop crying, I’ll make it stop!”
Mother gave a shout of protest, and Aaron heard a thumping sound. Serious trouble was brewing. Though he wanted no part, he did feel concerned for a helpless baby caught in the middle of this screamfest. So he turned and walked deliberately up the stairs and into the melee.
He would both regret and be grateful for that choice over the days to come.