Barry straightened his tri-corner hat. The ruffles of his cravat tickled his throat but he lifted his chin and stared onto the stage.
Mrs. Chadnick waved on Mary-Sue and, with a flutter of her good-witch’s skirts, she floated from behind the proscenium. Her pink sequins gleamed like tiny flames and while applause replied, Barry raised a hand to shield his gaze. Between his fingers, he watched her twirl on the end of the walkway, waving her star-tipped wand in one hand and offering red slippers smothered in glitter to those in the first row.
“It doesn’t work without the munchkins,” said Ashton.
Barry glanced over his shoulder, the musk of his coat teasing his nose. “What do you mean?”
Ashton shrugged, disturbing his epaulets and their braided tassels. “She just looks like a fairy princess out there instead of like the one from the movie. She’s playing dress-up and there’s nothing authentic about that.”
“They seem to like it.”
“They,” said Ashton, stressing the word, “don’t matter. Only the judges and the rules matter.”
Fiddling with the buttons on his waistcoat, Barry turned back around. Through the lights, he spied the table where Mr. Vender, Mrs. Park, and Principal Reynolds sat, notebooks before them, pens in hand, the reports each contestant had written a tower of paper alongside. Vender jotted something when Mary-Sue twirled for what had to be the third or fourth time, and Park offered a slim smile. Reynolds, with his bespectacled scowl, seemed unimpressed.
“Let’s hear it for Glinda from the Wizard of Oz, everyone!”
After speaking into the microphone, Mrs. Chadnick started the resurging applause.
Mary-Sue skittered down the stage right steps among hoots and shouts of her name. Her glittering costume dimmed without the blazing lights, faint twinkles following her into the roped off section for contestants. She exchanged high-pitched squeals with her best friend Susan, for today Dorothy, and after an embrace, they held hands and perched on the edge of their seats.
Barry noted their eyes on the stage and felt the rest of the audience targeting the same sight. The walkway remained empty, however, and he looked about expectantly for the next student. He stiffened in his coat, breeches, and buckled shoes when he saw only Ashton behind him. Another glance at the chairs confirmed the rest, including a Doctor Who Robot, Mt. Vesuvius, Wyatt Earp, and a Bengal tiger, had already performed.
“And now,” said Mrs. Chadnick, “we have one of our founding fathers. Everyone please give Mr. Benjamin Franklin a warm welcome.”
She beckoned and her hand’s urging seemed to take command of Barry’s feet. The light struck him in the face but the applause reminded him of his ingrained routine.
With a tip of his tri-corner, he swaggered forward, the sway made more pronounced by the padding duct-taped around his middle. Hefting the linen-and-dowel kite in one hand so its key-burdened tail wouldn’t drag, he adjusted his grandfather’s bifocals. The prescription lenses made the judging panel wobble, but maintaining his stride, Barry found the blue X drawn on the floor, stopped, and circled. The hem of his coat flapped against his stockinged calves and his heeled shoes made a satisfying thump on the wooden floor. His wig began emitting a faint burning smell and the brief thought about the combustibility of the powder started his heart racing. The seconds seemed to fly by faster than for Mary-Sue but he felt grateful for Mrs. Chadnick’s dismissal as sweat soaked the wool at his armpits.
Clomping down the stairs, he plopped into the nearest seat. Bengal slapped his back with a matted paw while Earp tipped his broad-brimmed hat.
Barry grinned at both of them and then slouched into his chair.
“And finally this evening, we have Major General Robert E. Lee!”
Barry smirked when Aston marched out on stage. The Confederate grey soaked in the light, leaving only the medals on his chest to glimmer. The sash around his waist had stains and wrinkles, and the saber at his side kept smacking the ground. His boots could have used polishing and Barry spied the strings of Ashton’s beard disappearing beneath the bill of his hat.
Reaching the chalk mark, Ashton smiled, the gleam of his whitened teeth aglow like a Jack-o-lantern. He strode another step, and circled, his boots snapping together with military precision. A pivot later, he saluted the panel and then offered a bow to the audience who Barry couldn’t help but notice seemed less than enthusiastic.
Chadnick squeezed out a more fervent response with her vigorous clapping while Ashton descended the stairs, the saber tip smacking each rise.
“Nice job,” said Barry, when Ashton sat beside him.
He shrugged and doffed his hat while Chadnick announced of the judges’ decision would be forthcoming.
“You’re so going to win,” said Mary-Sue.
“No, you are,” said Susan.
They tittered and a few around them agreed or offered contrary opinions, starting the cycle off again.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” whispered Ashton.
Barry frowned, but Ashton gestured with his tasseled hat and Barry followed the motion to Mrs. Chadnick.
A shadowed figure behind the plump master of ceremony leaned toward Chadnick’s ear. She nodded energetically, balked, and then tilted forward again, pressing a hand to her chest. Her eyes widened to the point Barry could see the whites all the way around. She grabbed the shadow’s arm in a farewell squeeze and when she darted for the judging panel, Barry thought he saw an Ashton worthy glow of whitened teeth in the dark. The seal of lips hid the gleam, but he squinted trying to see if it was indeed Mrs. Masterson or not.
When he glanced at Ashton, he found his friend’s face as still as one of the Confederate photographs they’d found in their research. Swiveling back around, he noted Chadnick gesturing at her hip, mimicking the curve of a saber as she spoke to the judges. Vender and Park rose off their chairs, peering at Chadnick’s hands and then to the row of contestants while Principal Reynolds leaned to the side, looking in the same direction.
Barry gulped at the trio of boring gazes and slouched deeper into his chair. The girls’ tittering escalated and the Robot’s arms clanked with his shifting.
“Finally,” whispered Ashton.
Barry leaned toward him, although his gut already seemed to know the answer to the whispered question leaping from his tongue.
“What’s going on?”
“They got the message.”
“That someone actually has something authentic as a part of their costume.” Ashton patted the saber. “I believe that will tip the scales in the right direction.”
“It’s not about one piece, though,” said Barry, wishing he believed his own defense, “I think it’s about the whole presentation.”
“I think it’s up to them,” said Ashton.
Barry frowned, then eyed the judges and waited to find out.