It is April in South Park, Colorado, two weeks before spring break, and the whole of the elementary school is abuzz with anticipation. This time of year is special, because this is the week before the prestigious, spectacular Sixth Grade Talent Show!
That may sound like sarcasm to some people, but it's actually pretty accurate. People really are excited for the competition. It seems like the show is all anyone is talking about lately. Well, that's what you get when any kind of unusual event happens in a small mountain town like this.
I'm not performing myself, but I do agree to help Red with the costumes. Some people have their own wardrobe items, but others need a few odds and ends to enhance the look of their act, or put in a request for fancy shoes or something so they don't have to go buy items themselves, that kind of thing. Red asked me about a couple days earlier in the lunch room. I usually sit with the fellas, but Red and I had been talking in the food line. She can't enter as an act herself since her schedule is real busy, but she wants to be involved somehow.
I'm pretty much the same way. Not the busy schedule part, I usually have nothing really important going on. I mostly just stick to myself. I pay attention to my studies, of course, but in terms of extracurricular events, I've got nothing. Honestly, it's partially due to the frequency I get grounded. It would be awkward to have to miss a team practice for five days straight three times in the season, or miss half of the weekly club meetings cause I'm not allowed to leave the house. So, I usually don't bother.
Red and I agree to meet in the drama room right after school on Thursday. She'd been to the director's meeting the day before, and has all the specifics that she wants to go over with me. We sit at a couple of prop chairs and a table to go over each act and their individual needs.
"It's really not that much," Red says, glancing over her notes. "I mean, the meeting was a nightmare 'cause Cartman was being a grade-A jerk, as usual, but the information I got from the people in the acts themselves was pretty straightforward."
Eric Cartman is directing. Everyone else is in the show or too busy to commit that much time, so Principal Victoria had (very) grudgingly allowed him to be in charge. Needless to say, things are already tense, but most of the other technicians pretty much agree amongst themselves to just go on with their jobs and ignore most of what Eric tries to tell them to do. It's working pretty well so far.
"Well that's good," I say. I get along with Eric most of the time, but he can be insanely domineering if given any kind of power. Thankfully, with the accord among the techs, this position was power in name only.
"Yeah. So, Butters, if you can look in the school wardrobe for the stuff on the list I gave you, I'll see if I can find these few things at the thrift shop this weekend."
"It's nice you have a small budget to work with."
"Yeah, the whole school's really into this show, even the staff. Oh, yeah, I meant to ask you. First, thanks again for agreeing to help me out on this stuff. I don't have a lot of time with volleyball practice, especially with the tournament coming up."
"No problem! I'm happy to help," I say, then give her a small smile.
"And I really appreciate it. But, I did wonder, why aren't you doing an act for the show?" Red knows I'm not involved with any other club.
"Oh," I say, my smile dropping into a frown. "I didn't want to bother. I'm not really that talented anyway."
"But, I remember overhearing Stan say you're a good dancer. He said you used to compete even? What kind of dance did you do?"
"Oh," I repeat. I am sure Stan must have mentioned this fact in passing to not allude to the reasons why I had stopped. I shake my head. "It was tap, and I did used to compete, that's true. But I haven't danced in a real long time. I probably couldn't do most of the steps anymore."
"That's too bad. What's stopping you from getting back into it?"
I cringe internally and try not to let it show on my face. Red looks genuinely concerned, but I don't want to unload my whole sordid history to her. Images flash through my mind of people screaming, losing limbs, gored through their middle, gushing all that blood. So much blood...
"I don't associate it with happy memories," I state simply, hoping it's enough.
Some of my repressed horror might pass over my face, because Red hums concernedly but understandably before looking down at her notebook and scanning her list of acts one more time. "Well, I think that's all we need to worry about. I should get going to practice now; it starts at four and I still have to change beforehand."
"All right. I'll go ahead and look for the stuff in the wardrobe."
Red give me a warm smile. "Thanks, Butters."
"Of course," I reply. We say goodbye and she leaves for the locker room. I pick up my list and my bag and head for the door at the side of the room. Above the door are black letters that read "COSTUMES."
I open the door with the key Red gave me and turn on the light. Inside is a deep closet filled with the school's modest collection of clothes and various worn accessories. I drop my bag by the outside of the door and look at the top of the list Red has given me. The first item is a tuxedo jacket for Kenny. Maybe he's going to sing some, I think. I know Kenny has a great voice. (I don't have any information on the nature of the acts, so I have to guess.)
I move to the metal bar to the left of the large closet where several items of clothing are on hangers in some semblance of order. I find the area for jackets and begin going through them. Most of the items in here are from past talent shows, so there are actually a few finer ones from which to choose. I find one with tails that will probably fit Kenny and take it off the rack. Behind it, another jacket comes into view, and it is one of oddest things I've ever seen. It must have been a part of someone's clowning routine, because that's the only reason I can think of why anyone would wear it. The jacket is a light purple with giant green dots all around it. I chuckle and take it out as well.
I place Kenny's would-be jacket on a nearby box and look at my list. I scan it and check that, yes, Tweek needed an "odd colored" coat for his act. Maybe he'll be a clown? The image of Tweek smiling through clown make-up while twitching doesn't seem like the most fun idea to me, but it's not for me to decide. That's the judges' job.
The jacket seems a bit big, though. Tweek and I are about the same size, I think. I slide it off the hanger and swing it around my shoulders. It fits me pretty well, but, when I slide my left arm through the sleeve, I notice there's a rip along the front third of the arm, causing the fabric to fall loosely down instead of encasing my forearm like it's supposed to do. Red can probably fix it, but I look for another option to have for Tweek just in case. I find a multi-colored patchwork jacket that I lay atop Kenny's tuxedo. It's kind of fun, picking these things out, I think.
I take my pen and place a check next to the items I've found. Next is a pair of black leather shoes for Craig. He also requested a black dinner jacket and a red bowtie. I know he's performing a magic act, because he keeps demonstrating his tricks around school, all of which involve him somehow disappearing and reappearing his middle fingers. Not the classiest act, sure, but, I have to say, his sleight of hand techniques are very impressive.
I find Craig a suitable jacket, then move to the opposite side of the closet, where the shoes are all lined up by the back wall. There's a bunch of black men's shoes from which to choose, so my biggest challenge here is to find the right size. I look around for a bit, then take down a box under a pair of size 10s (what elementary schooler needed size 10s is beyond me). I open the box and stop.
For a minute, I don't move. Inside the box are tap shoes. Black, heeled tap shoes. I haven't held a pair of tap shoes in over two years, very intentionally. If I had a personal dictionary, filled with definitions of things as I saw them, then there would be a picture of tap shoes as the entries for the words "unfortunate," "tragedy," and "horror." I had caused two separate disasters directly related to my dance routine. I was directly responsible for the death of dozens of people. I carry that knowledge with me and had vowed to never dance again. It is apparently my curse to destroy lives whenever I danced.
I slap the lid back onto the box and shove it resolutely back on the shelf.
I keep looking for a pair of shoes for Craig, carefully avoiding touching the box. I find some and continue my search through my list of items. Against my will, my eyes keep falling on the box every so often. I don't want to think about them. I'm not thinking about them. I'm getting my work done, being a good friend to Red. Red, who asked me just moments ago about my dancing past. This is getting far too dramatic for me.
All too soon, I am done with my list. It really wasn't that much, and it only took me twenty-five minutes to find everything. I take all my found items out into the classroom. I still have to take them all to the auditorium, since we're not allowed to leave items where they can impede class. However, I don't just lock the closet door and go. I return to the small room and clean up the things I shifted during my search. I toss a pink feather boa around my neck to keep it out of the way while I reorganize an area in particular disarray. I'm being respectful, tidying up my mess. Still, my eyes keep falling, unbidden, on that stupid box. After ten minutes, when the closet is definitely neater than when I first entered it, I stand in the center.
I look at the shoebox, internally debating with myself. I shouldn't, I know I shouldn't, but I honestly do miss it. I miss the twirling and the speedy footwork. I miss the sounds of the taps clicking on the floor as I move. I miss how, no matter what else was going on in my life, I was always happy when I danced. It was the only thing I was ever really any good at, but not just good, great. I try to be humble most of the time, but I can't deny that I was great at tap. I honestly was a champion, the junior champion of the whole state. It felt like my calling.
I rush up to the shelf and pull the box down.
I still refuse to take any chances. I lock the closet door and gather all my personal items, stuffing the shoes in my bag so I'm free to carry the various wardrobe pieces.
I leave the drama classroom and head toward the auditorium. I had to go here anyway, to store the items I found. So I'll stay a little bit longer. No one has the space booked to practice until 5:30; I made sure to check with Red that I wouldn't disturb anyone bringing things here.
The auditorium is empty, as I figured it would be. I take my found pieces to the backstage dressing room. I put it all in the girl's room, since Red has to go through it first and give her okay before we can divvy it up. I quickly organize the things into a neat pile. Then, I go to the stage doors and make sure they are all locked securely. I run down the right audience aisle, realizing for the first time that I never took off that purple jacket and pink boa, being too preoccupied until now when the boa blows up in my face while I run. Oh well, I'll return them in a bit. When I reach the back of the auditorium, I make sure all the doors there are locked as well, especially the one I entered. I do another full sweep of the space to make sure I didn't miss any entrances.
I stop in a backstage wing and assess the situation. No one is here. The auditorium is completely empty except for me and I know no one else is allowed in here for about an hour. Also, there are no windows, so there's no chance of a shoe flying outside and causing damage that way (I'd thought of all the horrible possibilities). I should be all right.
Yet, I am still incredibly nervous.
I bend down to where I placed my bag next to the curtain, and gingerly remove the box. I place it atop my left knee and, with a large intake of breath, open the lid. They're still there, the shoes. I carefully reach into the box and pick one up, handling it as if it were a live bomb. I hold the shoe in front of me. It shines in the stage lights, the metal glinting brilliantly. Nothing has exploded yet. I place the box on the floor and sit. Still holding the shoe in my right hand (I'm afraid if I set it down I won't have the courage to pick it up again), I untie and slide off my sneaker with my left.
I take another large breath and gingerly slide the tap shoe onto my foot. It fits. A brief thought flashes through my mind that it fitting means that this was meant to be, but I quickly dismiss it. Only one thing will convince me if I was meant to dance and that's if no one gets hurt this time.
That becomes my mantra as I just as carefully put on the other shoe, No one will get hurt, No one will get hurt, though it's really more a wish or a frantic hope.
I must be really dumb to try this again.
I place my feet on the ground, but do not move them as I stand, using my arms and my balance to keep steady. Upright, I try for a more settling breath, but it still comes in shaky. I hold the exhale and take a step forward.
The resulting tap of the metal on the stage floor echoes through the auditorium, nearly a gun crack to my ears. I wait for a proverbial bullet to hit its target, but nothing else changes in the room.
I tempt fate and take a step with my other foot. Another shot, this one not quite as loud. Still, nothing happens.
Only then do I release the breath I held so long.
I continue walking for a bit, just to get the feel of it again. After a rotation of the stage, I take another chance and do a shuffle. Everything seems to be going pretty well. I start throwing little moves into my steps as I walk, finding that I remember a bunch more than I had claimed in the drama room. Eventually, I'm making up a routine as I go. I'm not going to perform the one that caused so much horror before, I can't. So, I go with my instincts.
And I feel freer than I have in a very long time.
Even though I'm dancing on land mines.
I don't care. I'm gone at this point. I keep dancing. There's no music, but I pick up my own rhythm. My arms are flowing with every step I take. I use the boa as a prop, twirling it out and around my hands as I move. I take a leap with all my limbs extended but one, bending my left knee. Landing, I can't help but laugh. I'm having such a good time.
I continue dancing for a while, enjoying every minute. Confident now, I set up for a final move. I pull one leg behind me, sweeping along the floor, and use the other to propel me up into a kick.
I make it to the kick. Then, my balance gets thrown off and I just manage to land with my feet underneath me.
I'm missing a shoe from my kicking foot.
I hear a sharp clatter before I look up and see my missing shoe hit a light fixture. The focus panels on the front of the instrument, the barn door, is knocked lose. I don't know where the shoe goes, but the barn door obeys gravity and falls straight down.
Right on top of my head.
I'm out cold.
The next thing I register is a voice calling my name. I swim back to consciousness and guess I move, because the shouts change to a more excited pitch. I keep my eyes closed to calm the throbbing in my head. I distinctly hear the voice say "Go get some help!" and I groan in what I hope comes across as a negative response. I don't want a big fuss made over something I wasn't supposed to be doing.
The voice, which I finally identify as Token's, then says, "Butters, dude, are you all right?"
I open my eyes slowly and see the outline of his face against the glaring lights above. I'm still a bit woozy, but I manage to sound more put together this time. "Yeah. I've got a really bad headache, but I'm okay."
"We should get you to a doctor," I hear another voice say, a girl, and I raise my head up (slight mistake) to see Nicole standing not too far off. That's right, I remember they were the ones who had the space booked to practice their duo dance routine.
Then I realize something. "What time is it?" I ask.
Nicole says, "5:40. We were supposed to start practicing at 5:30, but the doors were all locked, so we had to find a janitor to open them for us."
I groan again, not really from pain, so much as embarrassment. I sit up with Token spotting me. He asks, "How long have you been here?"
"About an hour, I guess," I say.
"Oh, man, we really should get you to a doctor. I can call my dad, if you want."
Remembering Token's dad is, in fact, a doctor, I still say, "No, I'll be okay, really. I'm awful sorry I took time out of your rehearsal."
"Butters, don't worry about it. We want to make sure you're really okay first."
In the end, Token does call his dad, but mainly to give me a ride home, since I missed the last bus. Mr. Black examines my head, and briskly tests my reflexes, but agrees that I should be okay, aside from a large bruise developing on my temple that'll stick around for a while.
Before we leave the auditorium, I take off the polka-dot jacket and the boa, placing them in the girl's dressing room with the other items I gathered earlier. I'll explain to Red tomorrow why the extra items are there, and ask her to return the tap shoes; I really don't want to touch them again. I took off the remaining tap shoe before I even stood up, and retied my sneakers. We can't find the other tap shoe, although Nicole and Token helped search. We don't have access to the catwalk, so I think it may be stuck up there somewhere. I'm super nervous about leaving it out of its box, on the loose like that. I voice concerns of more lighting equipment falling and Token and Nicole promise they'll be careful and will call the technician as soon as they get in a few run-throughs of their routine. I'm still nervous and make Token promise to text me when they're done to let me know they're all right.
By the time I get home, it is dinnertime, and I'm late, so that means Dad grounds me. I don't really mind. I still get to eat dinner and I don't want to do anything but rest in my room anyway. I don't tell them about the incident, for fear of even greater punishment. Instead I remember playing baseball during recess, and tell them that the bruise on my head is from a stray bat being tossed aside from a hitter leaving home plate.
Afterwards, my mom gives me an ice pack from the freezer and I take it upstairs to lay on my bed while I apply it to my head. I rest for a while, but my mind keeps playing back all those horrible images again. At least, this time there was no blood, and the only person hurt was me. I was the victim of my own pride.
Token texts me during dinner that he and Nicole are fine, and that they contacted the right person to have a look at the lights as soon as possible. Thankfully, no one else had the space booked that night.
About ten minutes later, my phone buzzes again with an incoming call. It's Red. She skips "hi" and opens the conversation with "Butters! Nicole texted me what happened. Are you okay?"
I pull the phone away from my ear a bit, just so it's not too loud, and relate the story to her. I apologize a lot in between my description, but Red kindly dismisses them all, instead prompting me to relate the details of my injury. After many more assurances that I'm fine, she seems to calm down some. Realizing I left out the task she'd given me that afternoon, I say, "And don't worry about the list. I got all the items first thing, before any of the rest happened."
She says, "Oh, Butters, honey, I don't care about that. I want to make sure you're taken care of."
That's the second time today someone said those words to me, and I can't help but be grateful for my friends. "Gee, thanks, Red."
We agree that she can handle the rest of the costume stuff on her own, since I not only got all the items from the wardrobe, but options as well. She says she'll look for me when we get to school tomorrow and we hang up.
I think about my friends again, about Red, Token, and Nicole all wanting to be sure I was safe before anything else happened, before they got on with their own responsibilities. I realize, I have more friends this year than any other. Pretty much everyone in my class, plus a few others from previous grades that had been moved into other classrooms in the annual shuffle. I hope we'll all stay close during middle school.
Even with these happy thoughts, my mind still returns to the unfortunate ones. I can't help it. When it's time for bed, I pull out the shoe box with my old tap shoes and the clippings from the horrible incident. I don't really look at any of that though. I just pull out the picture of a younger me being so happy in my tap outfit. I was so sure then, so certain that I would keep dancing for the rest of my life. I knew my talent and I was set on pursuing it. Now what do I have?
Friends, my mind tells me, true friends who care about you. There's no denying that's the truth. So what if there are some things I can't do anymore, even if I did enjoy them? I still have a good life. I still have devoted friends.
Besides, I can always find a new talent. I smile. Yes, I can always find something else I enjoy as much, maybe even more, than dancing, something not so dangerous. I look once more at the picture of the boy dancer in my hand, then place it back in my box of memories and close the lid, content now to let the past be the past.
I turn off the light and get into bed, considering what I may want to try as my new talent. Maybe I can come up with a brand new act by the eighth grade talent show. Costumes have potential. I had fun today going through the wardrobe, putting outfits together and coordinating colors and such. Maybe a fashion show? I can ask my friends to be the models for my outfits.
I smile as I drift off to sleep. I don't know if costumes and fashion will pan out, but I have a direction in which to go. I have something new to try. For now, in this talent show, there will be a little bit of my talent in almost every act. That makes me a winner in my book.
If you enjoyed this story, remember to check out the original artwork that inspired it!