Read an Excerpt
THERE ARE A NUMBER OF horrible ways to die at Carnegie Arts Academy. You could be crushed by a piece of falling scenery, strangled with piano wire, even kicked in the throat by an angry ballerina.
But the worst way to go would be under the daily stampede in the halls. To survive at CAA, you have to follow the crowd . . . literally.
When a swarm is on the move, it’s either to reach something good (free ice cream in the caf) or to escape something bad (Jill Hudson practicing opera scales). You can usually guess the reason based on who’s leading the charge, but there’s always a voice in the crowd who shouts it for all to hear.
On the second Monday of January, mine was that voice.
“Play results are up!” I cried. “Know your fame or know your shame!”
The principal, who was leading a tour, pushed his group aside right before they were trampled.
“And those would be the ambitious students in our theater department,” he said, sounding annoyed.
I wasn’t sure why. We’d skipped the sparklers this year, and his new wig looked way nicer than the old one. It was probably less flammable, too.
Plus, we had a good reason to be excited!
Every semester, CAA’s theater department put on a major performance, and every spring, it was produced by the graduating class of eighth graders. This spring, the show was an updated version of Mary Poppins called Mary Pops In. And since there weren’t a lot of female parts, I was beyond nervous.
CAA followed the unwritten rule of all drama departments since the dawn of time: Any theater production should star the same three or four kids each year. Always. Unless one of them dies.
Sadly, that never happened, so I remained a bit player, tackling such gripping roles as Girl in Crowd or Villager Number Three. One semester, I didn’t even make it onstage. I just shouted from behind a curtain for background noise.
My parents were so proud.
In my defense, it wasn’t that I lacked talent. Nobody at the academy had a louder voice, according to my teachers, and my best friend, Chase, assured me I was plenty dramatic. Not to mention, my mom had been a famous actress in Korean cinema. Theater was in my blood.
Yet my name, Sunny Kim, always fell somewhere on the bottom of the casting sheet. And when the playbill came out, I was listed under Extras, like an unpopular topping on a sundae menu.
I was the shredded coconut of the theater world.
So why was I excited about audition results this time? For starters, my friend Ilana was on the selection committee. She thought I was a good actress and she would keep things fair . . . unlike last year’s committee.
(I burped once during a death scene. Like nobody has gas at a funeral.)
But this year, besides having Ilana on my side, my acting coach, Stefan, said I’d nailed my audition. It was just a matter of finding out which starring role was mine.
I sprinted toward the theater with students tussling and shoving behind me, and more joined the stampede, including Bree Hill. She and I grinned at each other, and Bree shouted something to me.
I couldn’t hear her, partly because of the crowd, but mostly because of Bree’s soft voice. Her shouting isn’t much louder than the squeak a hamster makes when you accidentally tap-dance on it.
But Bree doesn’t need volume to be a great actress. She has poise and confidence and a way of really stepping into character. I know because she and I have been audition buddies since we started at CAA. And like me, she never gets the big parts.
I leaned closer, and she shouted again.
“I’m so excited!” she said. “I’d love to be Mary Poppins . . . or even Jane Banks!” She raised her pinky and I hooked it with mine.
“I know!” I shouted back. “As long as I don’t end up in the potato sack, I’ll take any speaking role!”
The potato sack wasn’t a theater term. It was literally a potato sack that had been my costume as Villager Number Three. While the main cast wore professionally tailored costumes, the ones for bit players were cheap, homemade, and badly sewn.
Bree smiled sympathetically. “You’ll get something great. Suresh and I both think you rocked the auditions.” Suresh was Bree’s boyfriend and another member of the theater crowd. He always wound up with slightly better parts since he was a natural at dance numbers, but he still wasn’t a Chosen One.
“Thanks,” I told Bree. “Maybe lucky audition five will be the winner!”
Instead of answering she squeezed my arm and pointed at the bulletin board outside the auditorium. A sheet of yellow paper was pinned to the cork . . . a sheet that hadn’t been there Friday.
Bree and I both dashed forward. The other students pressed up behind us as everyone struggled to find their names on the top of the list.
“Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins,” Bree chanted over and over. Her finger settled on the name, but before I could see what was written beside it, a tall, redheaded guy stepped in my line of sight.
“Chase!” I bent from side to side, trying to see around him.
“Hey! What part did you get?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” I pushed him aside. “Bree! What’s it say?”
Bree turned to look back at me, her expression one of sheer disappointment. “Sunny, you—”
I didn’t need her to finish that sentence. The look on her face, the “S” I could clearly see her pointing at . . . I gasped and dug my nails into my cheeks.
I was Mary Poppins!
My excited shriek sounded far and wide, much to the annoyance of the kid standing beside me. With an apologetic smile, I reached for my cell phone to snap a pic of the casting sheet. Photo number one in my dust-covered album of success!
“Sunny?” Bree tapped me on the shoulder.
I shooed her away while I pulled up the camera feature on my phone. “Pay attention, people!” I bellowed to the crowd. “Something amazing has happened!”
“You’ve learned violence isn’t the answer?” asked Chase.
I punched him and held my phone up to the bulletin board, trying to pick the best angle for my victory photo.
“Sunny . . .” Bree tugged on my arm.
“Oh! Take my picture!” I thrust the phone at her and stood against the wall, reaching up to point at Mary Poppins. “I want to . . . uh . . .”
I paused and leaned back to study the board. Now that I was closer, something seemed off. “Wait,” I said, frowning. “Sunny isn’t spelled S-a-r-a.”
I turned to Bree, whose crushed expression had returned.
“That’s what I was trying to tell you,” she said, her voice quieter than usual. “Neither of us got it.”
“Oh,” I said. The joy that had been bubbling inside me was rapidly cooling to a sludge of shame. “Well, maybe . . .”
I searched the board for my name, hoping, praying for something almost as good. But I wasn’t Jane Banks. Or Mrs. Banks. Or Mr. Banks. The sludge in my stomach thickened to a hard lump. My eyes scanned down, down, down the list and finally spotted my name at the bottom.
Sunny Kim . . . Villager Number Two.
I stared at the bulletin board, willing it to rearrange the letters into something else. Or to explode into a billion pieces.
Even with a friend on the selection committee, I couldn’t get better than an extra. Was I really that bad?
Chase bumped against me. “All right! Villager Number Two!”
I gave him a pained expression. “I thought I was Mary!”
His forehead wrinkled. “Married? I guess you could be Mrs. Villager Number Two.”
I stared at him. “Mary! As in Mary Poppins?”
“Ohhh.” Chase’s confused expression turned into a frown. “I’m sorry, Sunny.” He put an arm around me.
“Thanks,” I said. “What part did you get?”
Chase stiffened. “Nothing.”
“No one,” he tried again, stepping away. “Definitely not the male lead.”
I rolled my eyes and glanced at the casting sheet. He was Bert the Chimney Sweep, Mary Poppins’s quasi-boyfriend.
Chase was one of the Chosen Ones, partly because of his talent and partly because of his scruffy red hair and green eyes. He was pretty cute, and girls willingly forked over allowance to see “pretty cute.”
“Awww, think of it this way.” He put an arm around my shoulder. “At least you’re not Villager Number Three!”
I took his face in my hands and smiled sweetly at him. “Hold very still. I’m going to headbutt you.”
“Not his nose,” murmured Bree, who was still staring at the bulletin board. “That’s our moneymaker.”
Chase pulled my hands away. “All I’m saying is that this role is an improvement.”
“But I wanted a lead!” I groaned in annoyance and joined Bree. “This is so lame.” I flicked the casting sheet with my fingers. “Sara doesn’t even like being onstage. And the first time she tries out, she gets the spotlight?”
“Maybe she has natural talent,” said Bree.
I shook my head. “Remember when she read Macbeth in class? I thought Shakespeare was going to dig himself up and smack her with the shovel.”
“I don’t think Shakespeare was buried with a shovel,” said Chase.
“My point,” I said, giving him a look, “is that the casting is always wrong and always unfair. I’m Villager Number Two, Bree’s the . . .” I looked closer at the sheet.
“Village whisperer,” she supplied.
“You see?!” I threw my hands in the air. “And we’re not the only ones in ridiculous roles.” I rattled off names as I scanned the rest of the audition results. “Suresh is a backup dancing chimney sweep, Anne Marie’s the pigeon lady in the park, Wendy Baker’s Villager Number One . . .” I paused. “How come she gets to be Number One?”
“I think because she’s actually British,” said Bree.
I frowned. “But she doesn’t even like tea.”
“Focus, Sunny,” said Chase, eyeing the clock on the wall. “I’ve got five minutes before baseball practice.”
CAA didn’t have an athletics program, but Chase’s dad wanted him to have a “sensible hobby” to balance “this acting nonsense.” So Chase pitched for an intramural baseball team. He wasn’t bad, either.
“Right,” I said. “My point is that the starring roles in the spring production are never about talent; they’re about who you know.”
“Thanks,” said Chase.
I grabbed his arm. “I didn’t mean you. You have plenty of talent. Someday, they’re going to rename the auditorium after you.”
“That’s enough,” he said.
“I thought the whole point of Ilana being on the selection committee was to keep things fair,” said Bree.
I snapped my fingers. “And that’s why I’m talking to Ms. Elliott. She may not be running this production, but as the drama coach, she should know what’s up, right?”
Bree and Chase exchanged a look.
“What?” I asked.
Chase put his arm back around my shoulder and steered me in the opposite direction of Ms. Elliott’s office. “Sunny . . . we’ve been friends a long time, right?” he asked.
I nodded. “Ten years. Since you moved in down the street.”
“Right.” Chase smiled. “And in ten years, I’ve seen the look in your eyes right now a dozen times.”
“What look?” I asked, standing a little taller. “Grim determination? Unfailing courage?”
“Insane madness,” he said.
“Hey!” I ducked out from under his arm.
“It’s the same look you had at seven when you tried to jump off your roof in a cape,” said Chase.
I studied my reflection in a window. “There’s no madness in these eyes.”
“And last year when you asked the caf to stop serving fish so your hair wouldn’t smell,” he continued.
I crossed my arms. “The cute guy from my math class said I reeked like tuna.”
“He was a jerk,” said Chase. “You smell nice. You always have.”
I blinked in surprise. “Really?”
Chase blushed. “My point is that you look like you’re about to charge off and do something dumb. Don’t.”
Clearly, Chase didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. I was meant to follow in my mom’s theatrical footsteps. Success flowed through my veins, not the mediocrity of being The Eternal Extra.
“I have to take care of this,” I said. “I can’t go back to my parents with another bit part. And what if I’m not auditioning correctly? I need to know.”
“I thought you paid that high school guy Steven to help with that,” said Chase.
“Stefan,” I corrected him. “He changed his name when he got back from Paris.”
Chase didn’t look impressed. I placed a palm on his chest and pushed.
“Go,” I said. “If you’re late, your dad’s going to flip and lose the last patch of hair on his head.”
Chase grabbed my hand. “Just promise you won’t make things worse.”
I snorted. “Yeah, it’d be tragic if I lost this part.”
Chase continued to stare at me.
“I promise,” I said.
I shooed him away and turned back toward Ms. Elliott’s office, almost colliding with Bree.
“I’m coming with you,” she said.
“I don’t need supervision.”
“Actually,” she said with an apologetic smile, “I’m coming to ask Ms. Elliott about my part.”
“Oh,” I said, leading the way. “Then let’s go find out why we’re not famous.”