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No one could really tell what was wrong with her, at a glance. She definitely didn’t look normal in a foreign city, with all that black clothes and silver spikes, but wasn’t too obviously naked in the sense that she blended in well enough with most crowds at Calistoga. It was only when you were around Bingo enough to meet her gaze more than once that you realized that something was wrong, something that went deeper than any physical appearance. Most could not put a finger on what it was, exactly, and they dismissed it as something personal that one just got used to after a while. But some, not content to do so, could later describe it as more like a sudden feeling, an unexpected rush of goose bumps, or something of the like.
While most peers easily placed one another in the usual categories, like the populars, the geeks, the jocks, the preppies, etc. based on what the important majority of the school body thought…Bingo had nothing personal enough to label. She stood out among them all, unnamed and alone, for that weird aura she gave off sometimes gave others the feeling that she was some kind of ghost in an shell; something unable to categorize. She asked for no favors, she received none. She offered neither smiles nor opinions, and was not expected to. She certainly wasn’t disrespectfully unkind or offensive, but she wasn’t friendly either, and thus while no one treated her cruelly, she also had no friends.
And that was how it was. No one ever expected anything to change for or about Bingo, least of all Bingo herself. That was how it was assumed it would always be. But if life were that predictable, there wouldn’t be anything for people to look back upon and marvel at how different things used to be, and how they once thought it might end up being.
“Please keep in mind there will be only three awards given out tonight at GetReal. Surely there should be many more for all those talented contestants out there, but I am afraid that just three shall be honored at this time.”
Ben felt his skin burning up in the cold night air as he waited for them to get on with it. His cheeks were flushed with excitement, and his hands were clenched tight around the neck of his guitar.
“And the first place winner of this year’s annual GetReal’s Band contest is…”
There was a very pregnant pause. Ben held his breath, and the inaudible whoosh of air from all around told him that everyone else was doing the same. He closed his eyes, hoping, praying; every fiber in his body pleading desperately for the sweet sound of his name being called…
“Alice!” boomed the announcer, reading off a card. “The first place winner is… Alice! With their smash hit that won them the place of Champions of the 3rd GetReal, ‘The Indigestible.’ Can that band please come up to the stage?”
Ben scowled fiercely as he watched several sweaty but pleased young men clambered through the sea of disappointed faces to stand beaming beside the microphone. “You have battled your way through several dozen bands tonight, you members of Alice, only to defeat them all and claim your right as victors of the GetReal contest! Do you have any words of advice for your adoring public?”
One guy with a nose ring and a large pimple on his forehead stood closer to the mike, unable to resist a big grin and not bothering to try to conceal the insolence of it. “Uh…” he said sheepishly.
“We love you, Mikey!” several girls shrieked faintly from the back of the huge crowd. Mikey blushed a little, obviously recognizing them. “Uh…” he repeated, still wondering what to say.
“Show them your tattoo!” The girls screamed helpfully.
Mikey hesitated, and it was evident he had wanted to say something. But then he shrugged, abandoning the whole speech concept altogether and, much to the delight of the female portion of the crowd, gave into their demands and pulled up his shirt. There were many awed gasps as a large green snake with a forked tongue was revealed, curling evilly from his belly button to his nipple. After a moment’s hesitation, a deafening roar of applause and a series of astonished whistles filled the stadium.
“Thank you, Alice! Let’s give them a hand,” the announcer said swiftly, hoping to interfere before a real strip-show could take place, and the band reluctantly but happily marched back down the stairs, the boy named Mikey still showing off his tattoo to those that were still looking while the enormous crowd shrieked and stomped their feet in approval.
The announcer scanned his card again. “Okaay. The second place winner is…”
Ben again felt the slight twinge of hope, but it was weaker this time.
“Hiked Skirts! With ‘Sweat Stains’!”
“Dammit!” Ben snarled, spitting dismally on the grass as four cheering girls bounced onstage, shrieking and laughing, one with tears of joy running down her face. The blonde one out of the brunettes, unmistakably the leader, did not wait for the announcer’s suggestion but leaned forwards and immediately snatched up the mike. “Thank you to all my friends and family out there who came to see us perform tonight,” she gushed, and cheers came from random sections of the massive gathering whose thanks was being given to. “I’d like to thank my boyfriend, David, and my best friend, Kayla, and my sister, Darlene…”
The names went on and on. Ben began to get a headache as he listened to the girl’s unceasing list of credits, and he absently noticed he couldn’t even remember the name of the band. Not that it mattered.
Finally, they were done and the band giddily flounced offstage. The announcer mopped his brow with a handkerchief and continued. “There is only one more award being awarded tonight. For third place…The winner is… Malcolm SOS! With their song ‘Everybody Shits.’”
The final band, a pair of fierce black leather-clad Goths with tall mohawks and glittering chains leaped triumphantly up to claim their title. One of them was clearly heard, shouting, “Goddammit, It’s Falcon SOS, not Malcolm! For crissakes!” He shook his head. “Every time,” he snarled.
“Lighten up,” his friend said flatly, seizing the microphone, not caring about the name as long as they had won.
Ben felt his last bubble of hope pop viciously over his head. He had not won. Though only a few minutes ago he had high hopes for his playing, now that the awards had been given away to contestants other than himself he discovered suddenly in a burst of low self-esteem that he had very low opinions of his work… and, he decided, he hated his own music. “Aw, who am I joking?” he murmured softly, half to himself, half to the world. “No way could I ever come out clear in something like this. Look at me! Jesus Christ, this is pathetic.”
“Naw,” said a lazy voice close to his ear. It took a few moments in din of the loud crowd for Ben to realize that someone was talking to him.
“What was that?”
“It’s not pathetic at all,” said a girl with a chin piercing and bright pink hair, raising her voice to be heard over the noise of the people around them. She squinted up at him, and Ben saw she wasn’t pretty. “You just don’t got what it takes.”
“Yeah, I know that already,” Ben said glumly, but the girl laughed.
:No, no,” she said cheerfully, “not like that. You’re a one-man band, right? Bands-of-one aren’t very accepted anymore, that’s all. It has nothing to do with your skill. Get some other people, maybe three or so, jam out a good tune, and you’ve got it made.” She smiled at him as he looked doubtful, showing perfect teeth, and suddenly she was very pretty. “Hey man, I heard you out there. You were fucking-A awesome. Come back next year, all right? Only next time bring some friends, and I guar-an-tee you’ll win.”
And just like that, she was gone, back into the depths of the crowd before Ben could utter so much as a thank-you. He hesitated, then picked up his guitar and headed back to the parking lot where awaited a bus that would take him back to Calistoga. Maybe the girl is right, he thought as he walked, Maybe that’s all I need to do is group up…
Then he shook his head, in disgust at himself for believing that some stranger’s advice could actually work.
Yeah. Right. Sure. Whatever.
But what the girl had said had spawned a tiny ray of hope…