Next In Line (Cake #6) by J. Bengtsson


Quinn: Fine Print

“Quinn, you’re on in two.”

I nodded, stretching my arms back to loosen the shiny brown vinyl jacket vacuum-sealed to my body. I’d been assured the suit was the height of fashion. It wasn’t. But what did it matter what I looked like, anyway? I wasn’t here to walk the runway. I was here to make a name for myself, and truth be told, I’d prefer to do that in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. The plastic suit was… well… not my idea. Rest assured, when the stylist sprang the getup on me during rehearsals, I’d protested loudly. I think my exact words were, “No way am I getting up on stage looking like a Slip ‘N Slide.” And that was when I learned my opinion was not required—nor appreciated. Apparently, there was a clause in the contract I’d hastily signed giving the show the right to dress me any way they saw fit.

In hindsight, yeah, I probably should’ve paid more attention to the fine print, but at the time, if they’d asked me to sign over my left nut—it would’ve been missed, but I still had another. I’d been advised to hire a lawyer to look over the contract, but patience had never been one of my virtues, and I was convinced that taking extra time to comb over the document would just slow down the process of fame and fortune. Besides, the show had been around for fifteen years. If there was anything nefarious going on, I would’ve heard about it, right? Well, not quite right. I later discovered there was a gag order hidden in the fine print I did not read.

But here was the deal: It wouldn’t have made any difference. Even if I’d known in advance they were going to make me cut off my rocker locks—another unfortunate casualty of the fine print—and turn me into a vanilla pretty boy, I still would have signed. Nothing was going to stop me from competing. This was my chance to make a name for myself, and I wasn’t going to let it pass me by on technicalities.

Ignorance really was bliss. In the beginning, everything was fine—great, even—and I felt nothing but positive vibes as I was encouraged to stay true to the artist I wanted to be. I’d auditioned as the token rocker, and had then gone through four grueling elimination rounds as the token rocker. But with the live shows looming, suddenly the token rocker wasn’t good enough. The song I’d chosen—a stripped-down version of an Imagine Dragons song—was nixed by the show’s producers in favor of a more upbeat number by an artist I didn’t follow.

Trust in the process, they’d said when I’d fought for my song. We know what we’re doing, they’d said. And who was I to question the producers of Next In Line, the most popular televised singing competition in America—a show that had spawned huge names in the music industry? They were the experts, I’d been told.

Oh, man. I should have fought harder for my song… and for my hair.

At this point, though, I didn’t have a lot of options left. I’d toured the country playing in dive bars and fairgrounds in a couple of no-name rock bands. I’d gone solo. I’d gone duo. I’d even considered a boy band for a hot Hollywood minute, but nothing caught fire until I stepped up to the audition table a couple of months ago and sang for my ever-loving life. They’d sat up, taken notice, and it truly felt like they’d heard me—just in the nick of time. I mean, at twenty-three, I wasn’t getting any younger, and in an industry that valued youth and looks over all else, I was pushing middle age.

And so, I bit my tongue and learned the new sugary sweet lyrics. In rehearsals, the judges raved about the performance, assuring me the song was the perfect fit for my vocal range. I’d even been awarded the pimp spot at the end of the show, given to the singer they thought would make the biggest impact on the audience. That was good, right? So then why did it feel all wrong?

The stage director pointed to me and whispered, “You’re on.”

It was too late for second thoughts now–too late to make my stand. Willing my legs to carry me across the stage, I squinted into what I hoped would be the blinding lights of the rest of my life. If all went as planned, I’d be exiting left in seven minutes’ time, flushed with the thrill of accomplishment. The spirit of the crowd energized me, adding a spring to my step that bordered on boyish enthusiasm. Oh, shit. I had to get that under control right away. Skipping across the stage was not in line with the rock star vibe I was going for, although one glance at my boogie nights dance party outfit and I could be moonwalking across the stage and still no one would think I was cool.