“You look like Hell, kiddo.”
When Byron asked to see me, I almost ignored him; and when he said that, I wished I had. I couldn’t speak, any morbid quip in my arsenal hurled out the nearest window and lost to the wind. I stared at the window like the words had become tangible, fluttering away like I wished I could.
If I opened my mouth, I didn’t think it’d be words coming out anyway. I must have looked pretty pathetic, sitting there rubbing at the endless itch in my arm, too wrapped up in my own head to even talk to him; too preoccupied with how ungodly hot my apartment suddenly became. I thought about checking the thermostat for the fortieth time, despite knowing it wouldn’t serve any other purpose than distracting me from that comment.
I ached everywhere, even in places I was hardly aware of half the time, and that was enough to keep me grounded in place, just staring out the window in silence, watching my words with no hope of getting them back so I could redirect them at Byron. This wasn’t the way we operated. I was supposed to tell him to screw off, but I didn’t have it in me.
“Sorry…” he muttered. From the corner of my eye, I saw him shifting around in his seat. I wondered if he regretted his decision to come by. He had to have. No one in their right mind could have ever wanted to be there. Even I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be anywhere. The whole time we sat across from each other, I pretended to be on a beach somewhere where no one expected a thing from me; where the insufferable itch couldn’t bother me; where the chilly wind would have been enough to keep me from suffocating in my own skin, and I could hold a meal down for more than two hours.
“No, I know I do,” I finally said, but still couldn’t look at him. “The I Just Threw Up Like Six Times aesthetic doesn’t really have the glow I was hoping for.”
“There’s Casey.” Byron laughed. “So how do you feel? About the video?”
“Like an idiot.” I had to be pretty f***ed up to cry on camera where the whole world could see it, right? There was a time where I didn’t let anyone see me cry, no matter how close they were, but it felt light years away right then. “I guess I deserve it, huh?”
I couldn’t bring myself to say any of it out loud. It was silly to hate that he couldn’t just tell, and I knew it was, but that didn’t stop me.
“Hey, look, don’t be so hard on yourself. You had a slip, Casey, it happens. And I knew you’d be sitting around doing this, which was why I wanted to come see you.” I saw him stand out of the corner of my eye, walking over to the window to crack it open. “I didn’t want you to be sitting here alone if you felt like that.”
“You’re my personal suicide watch now or something?” I raised an eyebrow.
“Maybe a little.” Byron let out a long sigh. I imagined it was probably what it looked liked like when you disappointed your parent. “You remember when you first auditioned on Talent?”
I wasn’t sure where he was going with that one, and wasn’t sure I wanted to either. “Yes?”
“You marched into that little room with ripped up pants and a split lip and you weren’t gonna take no for an answer. By the end of your audition, we didn’t even care about those things, we cared about the kid behind them because we knew he was gonna rise to the top. We knew if he wouldn’t take no from us, he wouldn’t take it from anyone.”
Still not sure where he was going. “Yeah, and then I got eliminated. What’s your point?”
“Sure, you did. You slipped, but you caught yourself, you see? Look where you are. You, Jacob and Isaiah, all at the top. You didn’t take no from an answer. You built your own way. You’ve been here before, Casey. When we called you in to let you go, you looked a lot like you look right now.”
“Oh, great.” I laughed. I didn’t get it at all, unless maybe he was trying to scare me, that seemed reasonable. “So I just keep doing this over and over.”
“Not necessarily. When we called you in that day, you were distracted and tense like you are now. You were tapping your heel and biting your nails, we’d never really seen you like that. But there was a difference too, so bear with me, pay attention. You were ready to fight us on whatever we had to say that day. You yelled at us for inviting you to play one more time, remember that? Because you didn’t wanna be embarrassed or cry on camera. And now you just showed the whole world that you’re human too.” Byron came to sit beside me. If everything didn’t hurt so bad, I’d have moved away. All I could really do was sit there staring at him, trying to process what he had to say.
“You’re human. You cry like everyone else. You make mistakes like everyone else, and just like everyone else, you can learn from them. This is the very bottom, and now you have a choice; sit here, or pull yourself back up the ladder, you know?”
“Yeah…”He made perfect sense, but it didn’t stop me from wishing I hadn’t done it at all. If I hadn’t slipped at all, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I wouldn’t be crying again for the hundredth time in three days. “I know.”
“I know you do.” Byron patted my shoulder. I flinched without meaning to, and he retracted his hand. “I didn’t come here to make you feel bad about all this, I hope that isn’t the case.”
“I made myself feel bad, man,” I remarked. “None of this is anybody’s fault but mine. I appreciate you coming to check on me.”
“You’ve got people in your corner, Casey. Whether you think you deserve it or not, okay?”
“I appreciate that.” I was furiously swiping at my face, trying to knock it off, but holding it together also felt like a very distant memory. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize, learn. It won’t be easy and you know that now, but I know you can do this. Don’t take no for an answer, Casey, okay? Don’t take no for an answer.”