Chapter Nine: Stage Lights

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Four hours later, after inputting Divya's number (with great ceremony) in Sabrina and then (with great whining) helping her mom mend costumes, Freddie found herself at Berm High. It looked just it had when she'd left it Friday afternoon—except now the sky was dismally gray and the parking lot was dismally empty. Only Mr. Binder's GT convertible (he was the Pageant director every year) filled any of the spots by the auditorium.

Even the forest behind the school looked depressing. A windstorm in the night had knocked off most of the pretty fall leaves, leaving the old picnic tables exposed (the ones where the Bad Kids went to smoke cigarettes—and some of the Bad Teachers too).

"Oh dear," Mom murmured, easing her Camry into the spot beside Mr. Binder. "This is even worse than I'd feared."

"We're ten minutes early," Freddie offered. "People will come, Ma."

"Yeah. Maybe." Mom didn't sound too hopeful. "At least I have you, I suppose, and if we must, we'll make it a one woman show."

"Frederica Gellar." Freddie splayed her fingers like a marquis sign. "In Three Acts."

This earned her a grin as she followed her Mom out of the car and toward the school's backdoor. It was actually just a loading dock with a ramp, and the door had been propped open. Presumably Mr. Binder's doing.

Inside the school, life was no brighter. The lights inside the auditorium were on, but not outside, casting the mustard halls in shadow, and Mr. Binder was the only person around when Freddie followed her mom into the gaping maw of the outdated theater. He was a lone ranger amidst a dusty cavern that spoke of asbestos and lead-based paint.

Mr. Binder spotted them, and with an animated wave, he scurried up the main aisle. "Frederica!" He pulled Freddie into a hug that smelled like pine cones.

Mr. Binder always smelled like pine cones.

And his thick-framed glasses were always just a little bit dirty, which always drove Freddie bananas.

He broke the hug, and the businessman efficiency that marked all his movements took hold. He ran three local shops—an endeavor he'd taken on after "abandoning the rat race of Chicago finances." One of them was the Frame & Foto, which had a state-of-the-art darkroom. His partner Greg (a fine art photographer) had taught Freddie how to use it a year before. Now she had her very own key for developing Buffy's photos whenever she wanted.

Mr. Binder and Greg were awesome.

"Greg printed the scripts for us." Mr. Binder motioned for Freddie and her mom to follow. "He wasn't going to perform this year, but..." Mr. Binder opened his arms. "This does not bode well for us. We may need him."

So much for Frederica Gellar in Three Acts.

"I don't suppose you have any friends you could call, Frederica?" Mr. Binder peered back, dipping his glasses. "Some strapping youths in need of a distraction."

"No," she said meekly, hoping he didn't press any farther. The truth was she'd rather swim in Lake Michigan in winter than invite her new prank squad friends to this.

Mr. Binder reached the first row, where a pile of stapled printouts waited atop a seat. He offered a copy to Freddie and then to Mom. "I tweaked the story a little this year, if you want to look it over."

"I'm sure it's fine, Jim." Mom didn't even glance at the pages. She was chewing her lip and staring at empty seats. "I just don't understand," she murmured. "I put up fliers in all the usual places."

"There's still five minutes." Freddie patted her mom's shoulder. "People will come—I'm sure they'll come."

People did not come. Literally, no one showed up, and five minutes later, after opening the curtains (which made Freddie's allergies go haywire), Freddie found herself standing all alone in the middle of the stage lights while squinting mournfully down at her mom and Mr. Binder in the front row.

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