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Seven Steps to Perfection

by Charlie C 9 months ago in Short Story
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Perfection Sold Separately

“Are you ready to achieve the real you?” asked the attendant, all painted grin and shining enthusiasm.

Barney Coyle nodded before his vocal cords complied. His voice emerged soft, weak, croaky and strained. “Yes.”

The attendant, one of a small legion greeting the attendees, nodded back with much more vim. “Trust me, when you leave, you’ll be so much better.”

Better. Yes, that’s what I’m here for.

But, oh God, the crowd was growing by the minute, more bodies cramming in around him. Barney tried to loosen his muscles, tried to be natural, tried to exude confidence. These people were all here for the same reason as him. They’d all see through his charade.

The attendant handed him a pamphlet. Danny Cleave dominated the front page, the sun a mere tennis ball against his enormous presence.

Danny Cleave’s Seven Steps to Perfection©, said the pamphlet, ACHIEVE THE REAL YOU.

Barney looked at the displays around him, the people trying to smile through their nervousness, the manic glee of the attendants. All it reminded him of was the seven hundred dollars this course had cost him.

It was the only choice. If I have to see one more Jake Worthington promoted before me, another Abby Marchant, another Harry Deacon…

This is the only way.

Still, seven hundred dollars? This probably won’t even work, just like all those useless lessons about ‘coming out of my shell’ in school.

Well, it won’t work if I go in with this attitude.

Gritting his teeth, Barney waited in the lobby with a bunch of other losers. No, he reminded himself, they’re future winners, just like me.

The attendants opened the doors to the theatre and let them shuffle in, packed together and murmuring in awe. Barney avoided conversation by looking at the pamphlet. He tripped on one of the chairs.

Barney couldn’t look at the two who reached out to stop him falling. He wheezed out his thanks, head down.

God, this was a mistake! I’ve already embarrassed myself. And they probably didn’t hear me thanking them, so they’ll think I’m an asshole.

What had Stella said about negative thinking? Negativity begets negativity?

But she hadn’t understood, and, ultimately, that was why she’d divorced him.

The amphitheatre was dark and humid. Barney itched at himself as he found an unclaimed seat. People plonked down either side of him within moments, making him shrink in on himself, desperate not to touch either of them. The heavyset man on his left gave him a tentative smile, which he pretended not to see. The woman on his right fumbled her phone out of her bag, dropped it, reached for it, knocked over her bag, swore, then clapped a hand to her mouth.

At least it wasn’t me.

Barney drummed his fingers on his knee, then realised he was doing it and stopped. He sat still, feeling awkward. He wanted to relax, but then the people around him would know he hadn’t been relaxed. God, some of them looked so smart, so successful, so confident. What the hell were they doing here?

One man in a suit was actually slouching in his chair. Barney admired the man’s adept relaxation.

I don’t know what he’s going through. He could be as terrified as me.

Bullshit, look at him. He thinks he’s nervous, but I bet he has no problems making sales.

Barney’s throat itched. He resisted the urge to cough, but it made his eyes sting. Tears brimmed, and the woman on his right turned to him. People always chose his weakest moments.

“My name’s Clara,” she said. “I’ve never been to one of these before.”

Oh God, Clara, just shut up and-

“My…” Barney coughed, blushed, then cringed at how he’d blushed like a child as an adult. “Barney.” He offered a hand already damp. He didn’t want people to see him wiping his sweaty hands on his trousers.

Clara flinched away, looking to the stage. The Platinum Members were sat closer, while the standard ticketers – the losers like Barney – were stuck at the back. Luckily, there was a massive TV screen above the stage, so they’d definitely see Danny Cleave when he appeared.

He’s not sasquatch. The image of sasquatch waltzing out from behind the curtain made Barney gag on involuntary laughter. No, God no, he couldn’t burst out laughing here. They’d think he was insane!

“You ok, buddy?” asked the heavyset man on his left.

“Fine,” said Barney, clearing his throat.

“It’s the humidity,” said Clara, as if she was the prime authority on the humid conditions of amphitheatres. “It was the same when I went to Turkey. I’m Clara, by the way.”

“Greg,” said the man, and they shook hands across Barney. “You know, I was actually just in Istanbul a month ago on business…”

Barney had never been to Turkey, so had nothing to contribute as they talked across him. Might as well be an empty chair. Greg or Clara would occasionally glance at him, and he’d smile to show he was all right with being left out, even though he wasn’t.

The lights dimmed. Greg and Clara stopped their awful conversation. God, I might’ve ended up officiating their wedding if they’d gone on. He choked down another gasp of laughter, but the roar of the speakers drowned it out. He took the opportunity to clear his throat too.

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, DANNY CLEAVE!”

Barney poked at his ears to make sure there wasn’t permanent damage. No one paid any attention to him anyway.

Danny Cleave bounded onto the stage – extravert Hercules, charisma on steroids, the salesperson sublime. His grin was like a sword, threatening everyone with its supreme confidence. You will love me, it told the crowd, but they didn’t need telling.

Danny waved his arms, generating huge cheers. He kept waving, screaming into the microphone strapped to his face.

“Come on, people. Let’s get some energy flowing in here. Everyone, get up, let go, relax.”

Some saccharine sap came spilling from the speakers. Barney sat in confusion. Fear settled in.

Oh God, I’m going to have to dance to this.

He’d almost thrown up when it’d come time to dance at his wedding. In front of hundreds of strangers? There was no chance.

But the strangers rose, throwing their limbs around and shaking as the spirit of Danny Cleave possessed them. Greg jumped up, his chair clattering. He began to beat at his chest, aping what Danny Cleave did on stage. Clara leapt to her feet a moment later. Twitchy at first, she actually started to smile as her movements became more frantic.

There was nothing else to do. If he stayed sat down, he’d be singled out. There could be no more embarrassments. So, Barney stood and started to dance, copying the person in front of him.

He felt like an idiot. The cheery music deafened him, but he couldn’t help imagining how the others must be laughing at his dancing.

After an excruciating three minutes and thirty seconds, Danny’s rockslide voice boomed out through the speakers instead of the old Top 40 tune. Barney dropped to his seat faster than he’d done anything in his life.

“All right, all right,” said Danny. “Now, I’m going to get my first volunteer up here.”

It’ll be someone in the front row anyway. I can relax.

His muscles didn’t listen to his brain, tensing as Danny vaulted down from the stage. Murmured excitement swept through the crowd, and Barney clicked his finger joints to distract himself.

“Now, what are the Seven Steps to Perfection?” boomed Danny.

“Ambition!”

“Purpose!”

“Devotion!”

“Belief!”

“Consistency!”

“Thankfulness!”

“Openness!”

What does that even mean? They’re just words!

“To be perfect, you must have an ambition to be perfect. You must see it as your purpose.” Danny stopped to let out a roar and fist-bump some of his exalting crowd. “You must devote yourself to this new way of life, and you must believe you can accomplish your purpose. Everyday, you must tell yourself you can be perfect, consistently. And, when change comes, be thankful for it. But, most of all, spread this message. Be open with your friends and family, and tell them they too can learn these steps.”

This is starting to sound like…

No, Barney needed this to work. Everything else he’d tried. The videos on body language, the books on improvement… none of it made a difference. But Danny Cleave was supposed to be the reborn Jesus of confidence – instead of healing lepers, he healed the socially mangled.

Danny strode closer, swinging his head in every direction, giving out fist-bumps. The nearer he came, the more Barney wanted to just get up and leave.

In front of all these people? I’ve already embarrassed myself today.

Besides, wouldn’t it make him a quitter? He had to get something out of this. The money he’d spent…

“You, buddy!” said Danny.

Barney stared along the pointing finger. His insides melted as if a wizard was pointing a wand at him instead. Greg clapped him on the shoulder. Shakily, he rose from his chair. People erupted in cheers.

All he’d done was stand up. Well, it’d been quite the struggle between his mind and body, to be fair.

“Come on up, buddy,” said Danny, wrapping a muscular arm around Barney’s neck and propelling him towards the stage and the lights.

Oh God no!

Maybe this was what he’d come here for though. His heart pounded so hard he thought he’d collapse, and sweat dribbled down his temple.

He climbed the stairs like a zombie, shunted on by Danny. As Barney stood at the edge of the stage, Danny bounded ahead of him, gesturing him forward.

“What’s your name, buddy?” asked Danny, his voice punching Barney in the eardrums.

“Barney,” Barney managed.

“What a name,” said Danny, grinning at the audience.

Barney cringed at the cheers that got. They’d applaud him if he said he ate babies for breakfast.

Why have I ever cared what they think?

Danny clamped a hand on Barney’s shoulder. He winced but Danny didn’t notice.

“Now, Barney, buddy, why did you come here?”

“To be perfect.”

Danny laughed, but Barney noticed now there was no joy in the man’s eyes. When he’d watched the old videos, he’d seen Danny practically glowing at the opportunity to help others achieve greatness. That’d been years ago though.

Barney looked to the crowd, most of them obscured by the blinding lights. Hundreds of people. Some had paid thousands to be here. They all stared rapturously at Danny. Barney supposed he might’ve been the same if he’d spent so much to be here. Shit, he had spent a lot to be here.

“Barney, buddy, Earth to Barney.” Danny waved a hand before Barney’s eyes. Now, he looked annoyed, like he knew he’d picked someone who wouldn’t fawn all over him.

Barney looked around the amphitheatre. Attendants stood in deferent ranks near the back. Barney’s mind began to work through calculations. As a former accountant and current salesperson, he had a knack for numbers. His final result: no wonder they smiled so much.

“This is a scam,” he muttered.

Danny whirled back to him, plain black shirt outlining impeccable muscles. Barney met his eyes evenly though.

“I thought you said something there, Barney. Now, what hurdle needs to be overcome for you to achieve the real you?”

“I have a problem with confrontation,” said Barney.

“Confidence comes from within,” said Danny. Barney figured he would’ve said it no matter what his problem had ended up being. “Say it with me, guys…”

They repeated it, a wave of noise rushing against the stage, carrying the flotsam of shattered confidence.

Maybe these people just need to believe him. Maybe it does help some of them.

But maybe those people would keep coming back. There would always be another seminar, another course, another book. Another few hundred dollars per person.

And, if confidence came from within, why did they need Danny Cleave at all?

Barney clenched his fists. Danny had been saying something to the crowd, but now he turned to Barney.

“Barney, I want you to tell me the thing you want the most in the world, your ambition, your dream.” His eyes were dull above his grin.

“I want to go home,” said Barney.

Danny chuckled. “Well, we do get the occasional quitter here. You just have to think: do you want to waste what’s left of your life, or do you want to live it?”

He turned to Barney and Barney punched him right in his grinning face. The microphone bent under his fist, mashing into Danny’s cheek. Danny staggered back, flabbergasted, and Barney ambled away, still shocked by what he’d done.

It felt good though. He wasn’t a violent person though, but he was tired of trying to be someone he wasn’t. Maybe he had achieved the real him after all.

“Hey, Danny,” he called, as he headed through the silent crowd, “I think I’ve found the Eight Step to Perfection.” He laughed as he sauntered out through the doors.

Short Story

About the author

Charlie C

Attempted writer.

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