Chapter One

 

 

“WHAT are you doing?” his mother asked, standing behind him in the doorway with her hands on her hips.

Embarrassed, Corey spun around and tossed the extension cord to the ground. “Nothing!” he said. “Um, I don’t know… being silly, I guess.”

“Baby, don’t stop,” she said. “Your voice—it’s beautiful.”

At six years old, Corey had never sung before an audience. Well, at least not a solo performance. In preschool and kindergarten, and even in church, he’d sung with the other kids. It was when he was alone in his bedroom that he stood in front of the big mirror, and belted it out. He imagined himself on stage in front of a cheering crowd as he held his microphone. The mic was actually an extension cord with a big block plug on the end. He held it in front of his mouth the same way the performers did on TV.

His mom slipped into his room and sat on the bed, waiting for him to continue. “Go ahead, Corey,” she encouraged him. “Please….”

For a brief moment he hesitated, but then dismissed his fear. How would he ever be able to sing in front of a real audience if he had stage fright performing for his own mother? He picked up his microphone, squared his shoulders, and took a deep breath. Then he began to sing

a capella. His song choice, “Moon River,” was one of his mother’s favorites. He knew because he often heard her humming the melody while doing the dishes, and Corey knew every single word.

As he stood there in the center of the room, moving his arms animatedly and maintaining eye contact with his audience of one, he crooned the soothing lyrics to his mother. By the second verse, she was reaching up to wipe the tears from her cheeks.

“Baby, you gave me chills,” she said. “When did this happen? When did you get this gorgeous, beautiful, perfect voice? Honey, you are amazing! You… you have a gift.”

He smiled at her proudly and shrugged, and then started right in on another song. Corey knew a lot of songs. He knew songs from many different genres of music. In fact, he didn’t know why, but he could pretty much hear a song one time and remember it. Not only did he remember the lyrics, but in his head he could hear every single note. At age six, he didn’t yet know what pitch was, but soon enough he would. Before long, he’d be used to hearing about his “perfect pitch.”

With it just being the three of them—his mom, his sister, and himself—Corey’s family didn’t have much money. Private voice lessons were not an option, but he did participate in every musical activity available to him at school. In high school, he joined choir, drama club, and band. He entered the competition for the school’s annual talent show and won first place during his junior year. As a senior, he came in second place, losing only to a silly comedy sketch performed by the high school jocks.

Corey often performed at his church, both as a soloist and a choir member. He sang the gospel songs and hymns with as much passion and sincerity as he conveyed when singing rock or country. Everyone who knew Corey told him how talented he was.

Corey couldn’t count the number of times admiring fans suggested to him that he try out for the Superstar talent show. That was what everyone called it, but “Superstar” was actually an abbreviation for the internationally popular reality music competition that was officially titled Choosing America’s Next Superstar. Contestants from all over the country entered the competition every year, and it was the most watched program on television. Millions of viewers tuned in every week to watch the performances of the contestants and then voted on their favorites. They used their cell phones and laptops to cast their votes, and it was the standing joke that more people voted on Superstar than in presidential elections.

The dream of being America’s Next Superstar was about as distant to Corey as winning the lottery. So many people tried out for the competition every year—tens of thousands—and there was only one winner. The show traveled around the country with its panel of celebrity judges and held auditions. Mobs of people showed up to try out, and only a handful were chosen from each location. The lucky winners were then flown to New York where the elimination-round show was recorded. The four hundred contestants that had been selected from around the country competed for forty top slots.

At last, when the celebrity judges selected the top forty, the judges made one final round of cuts, paring the number by almost half. These twenty-four contestants were the finalists who would fly to Hollywood to perform on live broadcasts for the general public. Viewers were allowed to vote, casting their ballots via phone lines, text messages, or the Internet. The ten competitors who received the most votes during the first week would remain. The celebrity judges would select three other “wild card” contestants from the bottom fourteen, affording them a second chance. After the top thirteen were selected, their fate was in the hands of the voting public. The person with the lowest vote total each week was eliminated, until only one Superstar remained.

Superstar was Corey’s absolute favorite television show, and every year he watched it with rapt enthusiasm. He got to know every one of the contestants—he felt like he knew them personally, and he allowed himself to get emotionally invested. Sometimes he selected a contestant to identify with and prayed with all his heart that they would win, then he’d use his computer to vote for them numerous times. It was sort of a way for him to live vicariously through them. He imagined himself as a contestant on the show. He couldn’t help fantasizing about what it would feel like to get up on stage and perform for the entire world like that.

When one of his favorites was voted off, it was devastating to Corey. He would feel depressed and almost go into mourning thinking about the fact that when he turned on the television the next week, they would no longer be there. He hated seeing these dreams shattered, and he couldn’t imagine what it would be like to get that close and suddenly have it all ripped away.

Corey’s family lived in rural northern Michigan, not near any major cities. When Corey graduated from high school, he chose to attend the local community college, not yet sure what to do with his life. He couldn’t think of any career he wanted to pursue that did not involve music, but it was just such a long shot. People constantly told him how impractical it was—how unlikely it would be that he’d make it big enough to actually be considered successful. Even his mom, who believed in him with all her heart, advised Corey to choose a path that offered him guarantees. She wanted him to succeed as a singer but more or less told him that his fantasies of stardom were pipe dreams.

So Corey began his freshman year at community college, still living at home. He worked a part-time job as a cashier in a supermarket and lived a lifestyle that was not atypical of a college-aged American kid. He hung out with friends, went to parties, and did all the things most other kids his age did.

“Did you see this?” Megan whispered. Corey and Megan had been best friends since eighth grade. They were in the college library, and she had her laptop open. She turned it so he could see the website she had open.

“Yeah, I know,” he said, a little too loudly. He looked around to make sure he hadn’t disturbed anyone. In a quieter tone, he went on. “The Detroit auditions are next week. I’m scheduled to work… plus how would I even get down there?”

“I’ll drive you!” she said. “Dude, you can’t pass up this chance!”

He shook his head, sighing. “Meg, if I lose this job, I’m screwed. I can’t just blow off my schedule for this one-in-a-million chance. Do you know how many people audition for Superstar every year?”

“Fifty-seven thousand,” she said matter-of-factly. It says so right there in the article.”

“Exactly! And out of that many auditions, they only pick four hundred. And out of the four hundred, only one person wins.”

“And that one person is you!” she said with enthusiasm. Now she was the one raising her voice.

“Shh,” he said, holding up a finger to his lips. “Thanks, Meg… but it’s just not possible. But, hey, I promise to watch the show with you every night.” He smiled at her and winked.

Shaking her head, she grabbed him by the wrist. “Listen to me, Corey Dunham! You are not going to pass up this opportunity! You’re going to call your boss right now and tell her you need the time off. Say it’s an emergency. Say you had a death in the family. Say anything you need to! But one way or another, I’m dragging your ass to that audition. You have the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard.”

“Megan, please….”

“No! Don’t ‘Megan, please’ me. You’re doing this.”

He pushed his chair back, leaning backward so he was balancing on the back legs. “Okay. I’ll think about it. I’ll see if someone can switch with me, but if it comes down to choosing between my job and the audition, I can’t lose the job.”

“It won’t. Seriously, there are, like, a million kids that work there. They can find someone to cover your shifts.”

“We’ll see,” he said. He smiled as he thought about the possibility. “But what will I sing?”

 

 

MEGAN, who usually wore her long red hair in a bun, was letting it down on the road trip to Detroit. With all four windows open, she and Corey cruised the interstate at 85 mph, the stereo blasting. Corey was so thankful for his best friend, and he couldn’t begin to express how much he appreciated the faith that she had in him and his talent.

As per Megan’s prediction, it all had worked out. When Corey told his boss about his chance to audition for Superstar, she was quick to rally the troops and get his shifts covered. Janine was actually his department manager, and she was a huge fan of Superstar herself. She made Corey sing a song for her in the office and was moved to tears.

“You’re gonna make it!” she exclaimed. “Oh my God! I can’t believe one of my employees might be America’s Next Superstar!”

When Corey informed his mom that he was headed for Detroit, she was not quite as optimistic. “Oh, baby, you know I’m proud of you. I just don’t want you to be disappointed. There are so many people who try out every year. You know I believe in you, but I’m a realist.”

“I know, Mom,” he said. “I won’t get my hopes up too high. But can you imagine if….”

“You listen to me! No matter what happens, you will always be my superstar.”

In a way Corey was sad that his mom didn’t want to go with him to the audition. He understood, though. She had to work. It also would have completely changed the dynamic of their road trip had his mother accompanied them.

Corey was riding shotgun with his feet propped on the dashboard, and they spent almost the entirety of their five-hour drive singing and listening to the stereo. Of course, Corey already had his audition song picked out, and Megan forced him to sing it to her at least a dozen times, critiquing him with brutal honesty.

They’d always been this way in their relationship with each other. Corey could tell Megan anything without fear of judgment, but he also appreciated the fact that she was always going to offer her honest opinion. He could accept criticism from her in ways he couldn’t from any of his other friends or family. He was quite self-conscious, and a lot of times, when people said mean things to him, it hurt his feelings. He knew when Megan said something critical, she wasn’t being harsh. She was simply speaking her mind.

That type of relationship was extremely valuable to Corey. He could trust Megan and knew she’d never lie to him. When he bought new clothes, got a new haircut, or even started crushing on a new guy, Megan would tell him exactly what she thought. Corey felt as if he’d always been out to Megan. There never was a big coming-out scene. She’d just always known.

There were a lot of other people in Corey’s life that were in the dark about his sexual orientation. He’d told his mom and sister, and he had a few gay friends from high school. At work it wasn’t really an issue. Male coworkers would sometimes talk to him about girls, assuming that he was straight, and Corey didn’t feel the need to correct them. He’d simply listen and nod. With a lot of straight dudes, the idea of a guy being attracted to another guy was so foreign to them that the notion of gay coworkers never entered their mind. Unless it was a girly guy, swishing and sashaying across the room making passes at them, they’d just assume that the dude was heterosexual.

Corey was not exactly what you’d consider a masculine guy himself. He wasn’t flamboyant—didn’t go around snapping his fingers all the time and flopping his limp wrists in front of everyone—but he definitely related emotionally to girls more than to guys. His best friend was female, after all. He liked the sappy romantic-comedy movies that everyone called “chick flicks.” He loved shopping and fashion and romance novels. He never accepted the theory that men and women were just wired differently and that their thought processes and feelings were diametrically opposed. If that were the case, then why was it that he could always understand and relate to the girl’s point of view more than the other guy’s?

The auditions were being held in Detroit at Ford Field, the indoor stadium that the Detroit Lions used for their home games. The most challenging thing was finding parking.

“Holy fuck, look at all the people,” Megan said. Contestants were lined up outside the stadium entrance for what looked like at least a quarter mile.

“Oh my God,” Corey said, suddenly feeling very small and insignificant. “I don’t think this was such a good idea.”

“What do you mean? You have just as good a chance—no, more of a chance—than any of these people. I bet half of them couldn’t carry a tune if it had a handle on it.”

“Meg, I probably won’t even make it through the interview process. How can you expect them to get through all these people in just two days?”

She rolled her eyes exasperatedly. “Corey, you gotta have a little faith. Once they hear your voice, they’ll be blown away.” She pulled into a parking lot that had a “$10.00 Parking” sign. She rolled down the window and paid the attendant, who then directed her to park at the end of the line.

“Well, I’m glad we brought our cooler,” Corey said. “I think it’s gonna be a long wait in the hot sun.”

“It’ll be fun,” she said, a little too much cheer in her voice. “You’ll see. We’ll make lots of friends.”

Corey didn’t doubt that. Megan had a very outgoing personality. Her gregariousness allowed her to easily strike up conversations with complete strangers. There were times Corey wished he could be more like his best friend, and he especially envied her eternal optimism. Meg was always upbeat and happy, and she always seemed to see the glass as half full.

As expected, once they were in line, Megan began chatting with those around them. One of the other contestants in line was a punk rocker named Jeremy from Toledo. “This is my third year,” he explained.

“Really?” Meg said. “So what’s it like?”

“This here’s the worst part. You wait in line for hours just to get an interview.”

“But you’ve been through it before,” Corey said. “What happened?”

“First year, I never even made it to the preaudition,” he said. “They cut me before ever even hearing me sing.”

“Really?” Corey couldn’t believe it. “How could they cut you without even knowing if you had talent?”

Jeremy laughed. “Dude, this isn’t about talent. It’s about show business. It’s reality TV. They’re looking for a mix of interesting people who’ll mesh together in a good drama. That’s why you see all the shit auditions every year. They deliberately let in some really suck-ass singers—a lot of them are obviously horrid—just to make an entertaining reality show.”

“And they pass up a lot of genuine talent?” Megan asked.

“Exactly. There are only so many spaces.”

“So what do we have to do to make it through the initial interview?” Corey asked.

“Anything unusual. If you have a sad story to tell, that’s a biggie. Talk about your humble background. Tell them you’re living under a bridge or in a tent, that you’re homeless. Tell them your mother died when you were five, and you’re doing this so she sees you from heaven. Tell them you have cancer….”

Corey’s mouth dropped open. “Seriously?”

“Dude, I’m dead serious. My second year I gave them a hard-luck story about how I was estranged from my father who was a drug addict and going through rehab. They ate it up.”

“But you didn’t make it all the way….”

“I made it to New York, and was voted out during the group performances. I got stuck with the lamest group of the competition. It totally sucked.”

“And what about last year?”

“I didn’t even get through the first interview. That was in Cincinnati, and I got there too late. They’d already filled all the spots.”

“What are the judges like?” Meg asked. “Is Reuben as mean in person as he is on TV?”

“Reuben doesn’t know jack,” Jeremy said, laughing. “He has virtually no musical talent himself. He couldn’t tell you if someone had pitch or not. To him, it’s all just showmanship. He’s the mastermind behind this whole scene. He says humiliating shit to people because it makes an entertaining show. Like I said—drama.”

“So what’s he really like then?” Corey asked.

“I never really talked to him one on one other than in the audition. He made fun of my hair and said I needed a makeover.” Corey could believe it. Jeremy had a fluorescent green Mohawk, and he was totally right about Reuben. He was a complete asshole. He made fun of everyone and offered very little constructive advice.

“My favorite judge is Krystal,” Megan said.

Jeremy laughed. “Yeah, everyone likes her. The girls like her ’cause she’s sweet, and the guys just like her tits. Half the time she’s either drunk or stoned.”

“Really?” Corey asked. “I always thought she was the best judge.”

“You do realize that the celebrity judges are not the real judges….”

“What do ya mean?” Corey asked.

“It’s a show!” he exclaimed, holding his hands out for emphasis. “The producers of the show ‘consult’ with the judges before they make their final cuts. Even during the auditions, the so-called judges are wearing earpieces. They’re actors, doing what the show tells them to.”

“Is the voting at least real?” Corey asked. “I mean, after they begin broadcasting the live shows.”

“Supposedly,” Jeremy answered. “Who knows. I think it’s probably pretty much legit. But everything prior to that point—all the auditions and various rounds of competition—that’s all rigged. The producers are looking for a mix of contestants who will make a great entertainment show. It has very little to do with musical talent.”

“Damn,” Corey said. “What the hell am I even doing here?” He turned to Megan. “I don’t have a sob story or anything….”

“What are you talking about?” she said, slugging him on the shoulder. “You have an awesome sob story. Tell them about being raised by a single parent who worked all her life in a factory. Tell them how you knew from the time you were six that you wanted to be a singer.”

Jeremy guffawed. “Dude, that’s everyone’s story.”

“Maybe,” Megan said. “But not everyone can tell the story the way I can. I’ll have them bawling their eyes out. I’ll tell them how Corey won the talent competition in high school and told everyone how he felt his dad looking down from heaven….”

“I never said that—”

“Yes, you did!”

“Megan, my dad is still alive!”

“They don’t need to know that,” she said. “And you don’t have to lie… let me do it.”

“You might have something there,” Jeremy said. “Don’t worry, everyone lies about shit to get on the show. If they don’t at least fib a little, they don’t even make it in to the auditions.”

“But don’t they eventually find out?” Corey asked. “I mean, the show. Don’t the producers find out these stories are bogus?”

“Eventually. They don’t care either. Like I said, it’s all fiction. They’re just putting together an entertaining show. If you’re lucky enough to make it through the auditions, then you can set everything straight with the media when they start hounding you for interviews. It’s all just part of the game.”

“So let me do the talking,” Megan said. “You just stand there and look pretty.”

“Meg, they probably aren’t gonna even let you into the interview with me….”

“You’ll see when we get in there,” Jeremy said. “There’ll be chairs set up everywhere. After you fill out your application, they’ll give you a number, and then they’ll come around and interview you right where you’re sitting. After that, you just wait and hope they call your number.”

“How long do you wait?” Corey asked.

“Till they say it’s over. You might be waiting until tomorrow night….”

“Oh, man, that sucks!” Corey complained.

“We won’t be waiting that long,” Meg said with confidence. “You watch. You’re gonna get your audition… or I’m gonna die trying.”

 

 

THREE hours later, when they at last made it into the auditorium, it was as Jeremy described. On the main floor, there were tables and chairs set up. Corey took an application and began filling it out. Meg snatched it from him and took over.

“I’ll do it,” she said.

“At least let me see what you’re writing… so I know when they question me.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Like I said, I’ll do the talking.”

After completing the form, she jumped up and stepped over to the cubicle where the applications were collected. She had to wait in line for about five minutes and then returned to Corey. “Okay, now we go over here to these chairs and wait for them. Here’s your number.” She was holding a big white label with red print. It had the number 748 on it. “You wear this like a necklace,” she explained, sliding the rope over Corey’s head.

“Wow,” he said. “Like a beauty pageant or something.”

“Or a marathon.”

Corey pulled out the small cooler from under his seat and grabbed a bottle of Diet Coke. “Want one?” he offered Megan.

For the next hour, they waited as the chairs around them filled up. Corey glanced around him to see if he could spot any other contestants being interviewed.

“They’re over there,” Meg said, pointing to one of the female contestants. “And she’s number 722, so it won’t be much longer.”

“Do they only have one person interviewing?” Corey asked. “That’s crazy.”

“I think they have one per section. We’re in the seventh section which is why our number is in the 700s. When they get up to 799, they start over with the numbering.”

“God, it’s taking long enough,” Corey complained.

“This is nothing,” another contestant said. Corey turned to see the boy seated beside him. “I hear that the real wait comes after the interview. That’s when we have to go camp out in the audience section and wait to see if they call our number for an actual audition.”

“Yeah, we heard that,” Corey said. “Have you been through this before?”

The kid shook his head. “Nah, it’s my first time.” Corey looked down at the guy’s number, and it was 781.

“I’m Corey,” he offered. “Aka, number 748.”

“Jimmy, number 781,” the dirty-blond kid said, smiling. He looked to be about Corey’s age but a little better built. Corey couldn’t help but notice his muscular chest. He was wearing a navy colored T-shirt and jeans, and he had a bit of a Southern accent. “Where are y’all from?” Jimmy asked.

“Up north… do you know where Petoskey is?”

He shook his head. “Nah, I’m from Kentucky… northern Kentucky.”

“Is this the closest audition for you?” Corey asked.

“They had one in Louisville, but I missed it,” he said. “My brother was having surgery that day.”

“Really? Is he okay?”

Jimmy shrugged. “I hope so. He was born with a rare heart condition. This is, like, the sixth operation, but they say he’s doing pretty good.”

“Aww, wow.” Corey suddenly felt a pang of guilt for the sob story he knew Megan was planning to tell on his behalf. “You should tell them about your brother,” he said. “I mean, when they interview you.”

“You think so?” Jimmy asked. “Why would they want to know that?”

“I dunno. I just think it’s a touching story, how you almost missed your chance at an audition in order to be with your brother. Is he older than you?”

“He’s two years younger. We always been close, though.”

“Well, I’ll keep him in my thoughts,” Corey said, smiling sincerely.

“Thanks, man. You know what you’re gonna sing?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Corey said, “if I’m lucky enough to get an audition.”

“I’m singing Garth Brooks,” Jimmy said. “‘The Dance’.”

“Oh, I love that song. I like a lot of country, but I’m gonna go with a boy band song. ‘Shape of My Heart’ by the Backstreet Boys.”

Jimmy started singing the chorus to the song, smiling at Corey. “Lookin’ back on the things I’ve done….”

“I was tryin’ to be someone…,” Corey finished.

They both laughed. “Cool, so you know a variety of stuff?”

“I love all kinds of music,” Jimmy said. His chocolate-brown eyes seemed to light up as he smiled at Corey. “What about you?”

“Yeah, I guess I’m the same way. I have this knack for remembering song lyrics. If I hear a song once, I’ve pretty much got it in my brain.”

“Me too… I thought I was the only one like that.”

“Do you know this one? ‘When superstars and cannonballs are runnin’ through your head’,” Corey started singing.

“‘Television freak show, cops and robbers everywhere’,” Jimmy continued.

Corey cracked up. “Dude, you have an awesome voice!”

“You too, man.”

“This is my best friend, Megan,” Corey said. He thumbed his fist in her direction, but she was busy talking to someone else and had her back turned.

“I came alone,” Jimmy said. “It was a five-hour drive.”

“That’s almost exactly how long our drive was, but we never left our state. Weird.”

“Hey, maybe we’ll get lucky and both make it through,” Jimmy said. “We can hang out together.”

“I’d like that,” Corey said.

“Are you number 748?” a voice said from the other side of him. Corey quickly turned to see an official-looking lady carrying a clipboard.

“Yes! That’s me,” he said, jumping up from his seat.

“Corey Dunham?”

“Yes, ma’am, that’s me.”

“I’m Renee, and I conduct the preaudition interviews.”

“I’m Corey’s best friend Megan.” Corey heard his companion introduce herself. “I’m the one who brought him here.”

Renee shook hands with both of them. Looking around, she located an empty chair and pulled it over in front of them. “Well, let’s just talk for a few minutes. Tell me about yourself, Corey, and why you want to be America’s Next Superstar.”

“Forgive me,” Megan blurted out before Corey could open her mouth. “Corey is a little bit shy when it comes to talking about himself, but he has the most amazing story.”

“Oh?”

“Corey has a brother—two years younger than him—his name is Jimmy, and he has a heart condition.” Corey’s mouth dropped open in shocked disbelief. Megan must have been eavesdropping on his conversation. “Jimmy and Corey are very close, and Jimmy just had to have a life-saving surgery. Corey wasn’t even going to come to the audition, but Jimmy insisted. He told Corey to go and win his way to New York. Corey’s doing this for him, his dying brother.”

“Wow,” Renee said. “Has he been ill for a long time?”

“It was a condition he was born with, and they didn’t expect him to even live this long. Jimmy prays every day he will be able to hang on long enough to see his brother crowned America’s Next Superstar.”

“Amazing, that’s truly a touching story,” Renee said.