Stage fright is a funny thing. Some people get so terrified they can’t even stand up and read aloud to the class. Others are essentially fearless, and thrive in the spotlight even when everything is crumbling into chaos around them. And for some of us, nine out of ten times we’re fine; we take a deep breath, carry a lucky penny, say a quick prayer to Saint Genesius if necessary, and step on out.
It’s that tenth time that gets us.
When Gareth and I were in the eighth grade, we were both in our school’s rather ambitious production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. I was already almost six feet tall, and naturally got cast as Theseus, the “Duke of Athens.” Gareth, nearly a foot shorter and already shaving every day, landed the role of Puck. Naturally, he didn’t particularly care if he was in the show or not, and was oblivious to how many Drama geeks he alienated by taking the role. (And he was great; scampering all over the stage like a chimp on uppers, walking on his hands, doing pitch-perfect impressions of the other kids in the play, making the iambic pentameter sound as fresh as a sit-com. Anybody else would have been “bitten by the bug” as our sweet little Drama teacher Miss Cartwright used to say, but Gareth never auditioned for another play.) I had wanted to play Oberon, but would have been thrilled with either of the young lovers, or even the comic lead, Bottom. But I was tall and had a deep voice, so the thankless role of Theseus it was.
Opening night: Five minutes before curtain, Gareth has his pointy ears on and is taking a nap in a ratty old overstuffed chair in the corner of the Boys’ Dressing Room. I’m going through my warm-up (again)—deep breathing, touching toes, reciting mindless tongue twisters. The stage manager, Emily, sticks her head in the door and shouts “Places!” Gareth isn’t on for a while; he opens his eyes, but closes them again as soon as Emily is gone. As it happens, I have the first lines in the play; I’m at center stage with two other actors when the curtain rises. The others are already there; Emily walks me out on stage with a flashlight, whispers “Break a leg!” and skips off. I wish I had peed one last time before I came out here. Miss Cartwright finishes her little curtain speech on the other side of the drape. A taped fanfare blares tinny ruffles and flourishes. The curtain rises. The lights dazzle. The audience applauds our cardboard set. A spotlight finds me…
Even today I can recite that first line: “Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace; four happy days bring in another moon…” Et cetera.
The phrase in Theatre is “went up.” Call it what you will: Brain freeze. Drawing a blank. Stage fright.
The seconds tick by. Two, three, four. Feels like hours. Finally, my ‘fair Hippolyta,’ Tara, realizes I am not going to speak, and goes ahead with her line, bless her. I manage to find my voice after that, the rest of the show goes about as well as could be expected from a bunch of thirteen year-olds doing Shakespeare, and I’m not too embarrassed by the time we take our bows. Even Tara decides to forgive me. But all these years later, I still remember those four seconds of silence as the longest of my life.
Jake had taken us on a convoluted path to a back door of the Diamond Horseshoe building, figuring accurately enough that most of the other Strays would have already gathered out front. Even so, we were met out back by two of the girls, Kimberly and Danielle. Kimberly just might have had a little crush on me; in any case, she ran up squealing “Mister K!” and jumped up into my arms. This was wildly out of character for her, and she quickly backed off and pulled herself together as her face went red. Little Danielle stepped up with her fist extended for a bump. I obliged; she said, “Go Pirates.” (It was a little ritual between us; we were spoofing the Oceanside High Principal, Mr. Williams, who was famous for these fist-bump encounters in the school hallways.) Then darned if the little darling didn’t tear up.
Jake took over, shooing the girls away and telling them I’d be out on stage in a few minutes. As Danielle turned profile, I thought I noticed a bump of a different color—once they were clear, I whispered, “Jake, is Danielle pregnant?”
He took a breath. “Yep. And she’s not the only one. Pretty much everybody’s paired off. She’s with Geoff; they even found a preacher to marry them. Another few months and we’re going to have ourselves quite a baby boom, no doubt about it.”
“So what about you? Who’d you pair off with?”
He gave me a lopsided smile. “She just jumped on you. Kimberly.” I raised my eyebrows. “Yes and no. Yes, we’re, you know, together. No, we’re not married, and no, she’s not pregnant.” He shrugged. “Yet. We’re only human, and birth-control options are hard to come by.”
He was tensing up; I told him I wasn’t judging them. Plainly this had long since stopped being a high school field trip. They were bound to write their own rules. He relaxed and led me inside.
This place had hosted Disneyfied cornpone for decades; backstage was full of racks of coonskin caps and polyester hillbilly outfits and the like. It was a little creepy. Jake parked me in a folding chair and said he was going out front to make sure everybody was behaving themselves. He’d holler for me in a minute.
Now, I’d been a substitute teacher off and on for years; I was accustomed to stepping in front of high school kids with very little preparation. Heck, that was practically the job description. So I wasn’t really nervous despite the fact that I had almost no idea how to tell them what I needed to tell them.
Waiting backstage, my eyes adjusted to the low light. I could see the center split in the curtain where Jake had stepped through. I could hear the hubbub of the kids in the seats settle down as Jake said a few words. Then he stuck his head through the curtain and called for me.
He pegged the curtain back as I walked out. A spotlight hit me in the face. I squinted, shielded my eyes; directly in front of me in the first row, I could just make out my kids, big smiles on all their faces. They started to applaud, but Jake waved them down. My eyes adjusted—every seat in the theater was occupied, and quite a few stood in the back. Far more than the forty-two Strays. They all stared at me with a wide variety of expectations. I opened my mouth to speak.
As I said, stage fright is a funny thing.
One second. Two. Three. Finally, Jake stepped over to me and spoke quietly in my ear: “Sorry, man. Word got out. ‘A Man from Outside.’ It’s… huge. Sorry. I shoulda told you. You want me to get you a chair?”
“No. Just kill the spots and turn up the house lights. I’ll be fine.” Jake turned and shouted out those instructions. The lights shifted. I walked to the edge of the stage, hopped off and shook hands with and/or hugged the handful of kids that I knew. Jake hopped down and joined Kimberly. They all started talking at once; the rest of the crowd started making noise as well. This was more like it. The awestruck silence had been too much for me; this I knew how to handle. I held up my hands for quiet. As everyone settled down, I sat on the edge of the stage.
“So. You’re probably wondering why I called you here today...” It was a lame icebreaker, but it served its purpose. Everybody chuckled or groaned, and the tension went down a few notches. There were still more folks squeezing in the doors every minute; even the Zacks were powerless to stop them. Soon it wouldn’t matter; no more would fit anyway. “Kids,” I said. “Ladies and gentlemen. My name is Graham Kristopolous. The kids call me Mr. K; I was just their substitute teacher, along for the ride to the Happiest Place on Earth. What is it they say? Timing is everything.” They relaxed a little more. Everybody here had probably thought, If only I hadn’t come to Disney that day…
“I know you have a lot of questions. I even have some answers, although a lot of them fall into the ‘Believe It or Not’ category.” Now I needed to drop the first little bombshell: “The rumors you’ve heard about me are true... I am one of the seven who disappeared on day one. And I have in fact been outside.” This indeed occasioned a sudden incredulous outburst from all the strangers in the room. I held up a hand again. “There’s more: While you have passed the last six months here, just two days have passed outside.” The protests welled up again. “I know, I know: How? Why? Who? But you could all see it for yourselves, right? Through the barrier? The slow motion plane crash? The long, long nights? I know it seems impossible. How can time pass one way here and another out there? Honestly, I don’t know. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. A man named Arthur C. Clarke once said that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ So it’s fitting that here we all are in the Magic Kingdom. Why? I have no idea. That doesn’t really matter, either. And who or what is responsible? To that, the only answer that matters is ‘our new masters.’”
This created a bigger stir, but I’d anticipated that. I jumped up onto the stage and shouted it down. “Outside, every plane in the sky fell to the ground! Outside, there is no power, no mysterious supply of food! Outside, millions of people are dead, and the survivors are left to deal with the bodies. And unless I miss my guess, outside, before this is all over, many millions more will die.”
Someone near the doorway shouted out, “Who the hell are you to come here and tell us this? Why should we believe a word you say?”
Another man near him said, “He’s right! It doesn’t make any sense! How do we know this isn’t some huge government experiment? Some mass-hypnosis thing?”
Across the room a woman with long, wavy gray hair stood and shouted, “It’s what I’ve been saying all along! We’re all lab rats in a giant Skinner box!” Shouts on all sides of this started rising in a raucous rhubarb. Jake jumped back up onto the stage, stuck two fingers in his mouth, and let loose a whistle that could stop a Buick. I’ve always wished I could do that. Everyone stopped for a collective breath.
“Listen to yourselves!” Jake shouted. “Which of you has been outside? Huh? Who else here has met one of them? Now shut up and listen!”
In the sudden quiet, Kimberly stood up and looked at me with her huge blue-green eyes. She has just the slightest lisp; she was wearing her usual knit cap right out Oliver—just now she was the very embodiment of innocence. “Is it true, Mr. K? You’ve seen them?”
I had intended to sneak up on this part of it for a while, building their trust. But I hadn’t reckoned on a roomful of hostile strangers, either. “Yes, sweetie, it’s true. Or, to be accurate, Jake’s right—I’ve met one of them.” What the heck, if you’re going to drop a bomb, you might as well go nuclear: “It called itself Gabriel.”
I don’t know exactly what kind of figurative mushroom cloud went up, because at just that instant I was pulled back into the abyss of Transition.
What is it they say? Timing is everything.