He stared at himself in his dressing room mirror, gold headpiece on but without any other part of the horrendous outfit to complement it. It looked even more absurd against his normal grey clothes. He was supposed to be at rehearsal an hour ago, but there was something that forced him to stay. Or maybe a lack of something to make him get up from his chair. Not that it really mattered if he showed up; the general layout to every Quid Pro Quo episode was the same anyway. The thrill of the novelty and the hope for new, exciting things had worn off long, long ago. Waz had tried to think on numerous occasions exactly how long he’d been hosting the show, but with little success; the years blurred into each other. The monotony had made it feel like an eternity and that’s all that really mattered. A thousand episodes. No wonder he always felt exhausted.
He stared at himself, studied his own face like a stranger would, trying to see himself for the first time. He sighed, carefully taking the headpiece off and ruffling his hair. Ela had briefly mentioned that she saw potential in him to be free (or maybe Free? As in to be a Free Spirit?). He couldn’t see it. When did he ever feel free? Who had that kind of time on their hands in this world? He looked at himself again without the ornamentation. It took all of his strength to not divert his eyes from himself like usual. He needed to stop being a coward with his reflection. He wanted to see – no, needed to see – what Ela saw, what her friends saw in him. What they saw in each other. After another staring contest that felt like forever, Waz sighed again, defeated and frustrated, as he leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling.
When was the last time he ever felt free? Free from judgement, free from expectations?
He closed his eyes in thought. Surely there must have been a time at some point in his life? He dug through his memories for anything remotely close to what it felt like being surrounded by the Free Spirits… Definitely nothing with Quid Pro Quo. And school was living hell for him, to the point of multiple considerations of just dropping out, even up until graduation year. But his mother never let him.
Waz opened his eyes. His mother. She had always supported him, always encouraged him to follow his dreams. Had he? Could he really call being a Super Elite his dream? He supposed it was everyone’s dream at some point in their lives, either giving up on it or achieving it; but for him to actually have it, it felt more like a burden than a gift. Dreams aren’t supposed to make you miserable. He wondered if, while she was watching over him, she was upset at or disappointed in him for where he ended up. Waz smiled to himself; no, that woman never had a bad bone in her body. She would see how he persevered beyond his obstacles and be proud of him regardless. He glanced at the headpiece resting on the desk in front of him and his smile turned into a frown. No, he never really persevered over anything did he? He just continuously hid behind hats, hoods, masks. Hid from the public, hid from himself. All because of what? Hair? He supposed that the only person he ever really disappointed was himself.
He always hated his hair. Well, maybe not always, but almost as long. Since he first left the safety of his home and realized it wasn’t normal. It was unruly, sticking in far too many directions. He’d lost count how many different hair products he’d tried in order to find something compatible with feathers. Any time he was overly stressed some would drop and leave a trail all around his apartment. At least the bright blue he could get away with a bit, pretending it was dyed… But his mother always loved it, saw it as a sign of him being special, unique, meant for something important and exciting. No pressure, he had thought on numerous occasions and even directly told her a few times. She always more or less had the same reply:
“All you need to do is embrace yourself. Everything else will naturally flow into place once you do, just like how the gentle breeze takes this bee where it needs to go.”
The last part she had added on when they had been picking wildflowers that grew along the back fence behind their house. Summer had just started and she wanted a new centrepiece of fresh, bright colours for the dinner table. And he wanted to never go back to school ever again, just like the previous summers. Maybe summertime was when he felt free? Comfortable to be himself since he didn’t have to leave home; his mother never forced him to go to camps or set up play dates with other kids (not that he really had any friends to organize those with anyway). There was enough going on in their backyard to keep him curious and entertained, and if not there then the field behind it and the small pond it contained. Trying to catch frogs or watch dragonflies flit about, there was never any fear of name-calling or shoving or hair-pulling. Waz wondered if that pond was still there, or if the field had been turned into more houses at some point. He hoped not.
His phone buzzed with a text, bringing him back to the present, and he leaned over to see who it was from. “SKW: Where are you??? In one of your moods again? Well fyi today’s theme is modern dance” the text read. Waz couldn’t be bothered to reply. Dance was one of the recycled themes for almost every third episode, the odd adjective slapped on to give some genre variance for the viewers. Although he was sure if they did the same theme over and over again, no one would bat an eye; their fans would be equally ecstatic at their hopes for fame.
His mind returned to his old backyard in the summer. The two of them spent a lot of time dancing, to practically any kind of music they could find on the radio, sometimes making up moves that didn’t necessarily go with the genre of music. They often ended breathless from laughter, lying in the grass, before cooling down with lemonade or heading inside to eat. Letting the melodies guide the movements with little thinking of the next step... Maybe that was freedom for him. From what he could remember of those moments, it definitely felt liberating, a good way to release stress and improve his mood.
So he figured out at least one possibility for where he could find freedom. What next? Ela definitely didn’t tell him that. He would text her but he never thought to ask for her number during their brief encounter. He didn’t expect her words to leave such an impact on him in the first place. Did any of the Free Spirits even own phones? He wouldn’t be entirely shocked if none of them did.
Maybe he should trust his mother’s advice, that everything will fall into place on its own once he felt comfortable in his own skin. Waz scoffed at his reflection. Easier said than done. He looked at his headpiece again: well, first thing would probably be to get rid of that monstrosity as soon as possible. Maybe...now. Today. And after that, maybe he could travel a bit and busker with some of the Free Spirits, or maybe move to another town and open a dance studio to teach others, or both, or maybe something else he never thought of before... Possibilities were really endless, and a complete mystery if he really let the wind decide where to take him. The thought of leaving it all up to chance shot a spike of anxiety through him, but the thought of something new made his heart race with excitement and he couldn’t help but grin like a fool. After this episode, he should find Ela and thank her. He wasn’t entirely sure what for exactly, but he felt the need to do so. Although chances were that she’d somehow find him again first...
There was a knock on his door, followed by a stressed voice: “Waz? You in there? Show time’s in fifteen! Get yourself ready to wow! Now!”
“Yeah, yeah... I’ll be there, Shood.” Waz smirked to himself, putting his headpiece back on, decidedly for the last time. “No need to get your frills all ruffled...”
He was definitely going to wow them, but not in a way any of them would expect.