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Gretchen didn't realize anything was wrong until she was about to pull open the front door of Funky Junk. She had been so focused on the sunshine and reliving the lunch with Dana, she hadn't noticed the interior of the store was dark. A "Sorry, We're Closed!" sign hung in the glass of the front door. Gretchen frowned and knocked on the glass. "Barbara? Hello?" She pulled on the handle but it was, of course, locked.
She stepped back and looked up and down the street. Still plenty of tourists around. The next ferry was in half an hour, so there'd be even more... Why would Barbara have shut down in the middle of the day? She turned around and went back the way she'd come. Joe Lack's Pizza was right on the boardwalk and she stepped inside. Immediately, the smell of pepperoni and cheese slapped her in the face. The burly man kneading dough behind the counter looked up as she entered. "Pay phone?" she asked.
He used his chin to point her towards the back of the restaurant. She thanked him and slipped through the dining room. The payphone hung on the wall next to a huge painting of Italy's wine country. She admired the artwork as she dropped in her quarters and dialed Funky Junk's number. After a half dozen rings, the line clicked. "Hello, you've reached Funky Junk!" Barbara's chipper voice told her. "Our hours are seven in the morning until..." Gretchen disconnected and fished another fifty cents from her pocket.
She dialed 411 and told the operator, "December Harbor, Washington. I need the number for a Barbara Taymore, please?" She spelled the last name and then let the operator connect her. She leaned against the wall and watched the man behind the counter prepare a pizza. After a long moment, the operator returned and said there wasn't an answer and asked if she'd like to try another number. "No, um... no. Thank you."
Where could Barbara be? she thought as she hung up the phone. With her nephew? Gretchen didn't know his last name, so she didn't even know where to begin looking. She walked back towards the front door, muttering a thank-you to the counter man as she passed. She'd almost made it outside when the payphone rang.
The man behind the counter said, "You better answer. It's probably whoever you was calling. Star 69."
Gretchen hurried back and picked up the phone. "Hello?"
"Gretchen! This isn't your number."
"I'm at the pizza place down the street. What happened, why is the store closed?"
Barbara said, "I thought I gave you the afternoon off?"
"Things worked out better than I thought," Gretchen said. A lot better. She smiled and said, "I got through at the theatre and they told me I could go back to work. Why are you at home?"
Barbara sighed. "Do you know where C Street is? Can you get there without too much trouble?"
"Yes," Gretchen said. C Street was near her house, not too strenuous a walk from the boardwalk. "Why?"
"We need to talk and we better do it in person."
She gave her address and Gretchen scribbled it down on a notepad next to the phone. She tore off the paper and stuffed it into her coat pocket. "I can be there in twenty minutes." She hesitated and then asked, "I-is everything all right?"
"It is, I promise. Don't worry, Gretchen. I just think we need to talk about some things, okay?"
Gretchen said, "Yeah. Okay, I'll... be there as soon as I can."
She hung up, thanked the man again and stepped out into the sunshine. It was the same sun she'd seen after being with Dana, but now it seemed a little too harsh, a little too bright. As images of horrible and life-changing catastrophes filled her mind, Gretchen hurried down the boardwalk towards C Street.
Someone as bright and vibrant as Barbara usually echoed their personality in their house. Barbara's home, unlike her, was small and unassuming. There was an ankle-high white picket fence around the front garden and an actual gnome statue sitting by the front porch. Gretchen smiled as she stepped past the tiny man and pressed the doorbell. After a minute or so, the door swung open to reveal Barbara. She was in her pajamas, covered by a large robe. Her red hair, normally piled high atop her head, was smashed as if she'd been lying down.
"Are you okay?" Gretchen asked.
"Yes, yes, come on in."
Gretchen stepped inside and saw the outside of the house was just a veneer; the inside was where Barbara truly shone. Three cuckoo clocks stood on the living room wall over the couch, which was a huge, plush love seat with a multi-colored afghan draped over the back. There was no TV, just a huge radio that looked like something out of the fifties standing in one corner. Newspapers and magazines dotted the landscape, but not in a way that made the room look trashy. It merely looked lived-in, comfortable.
Barbara settled herself on the couch and pulled the afghan over her legs. Gretchen sat in the armchair next to the radio. "You hate closing down early. A-and the summer tourist season is just starting, so..."
"I know, I know," Barbara said quietly. She lifted the tea cup that had been resting on the coffee table and took a sip, gathering her thoughts. "A couple of weeks ago, after you went home, I had a mild - mild - heart attack. Just pain in my chest, not even the falling down kind. I got myself checked out and, well, you know. I'm a big lady and I like my red meat." She smiled and waved at the concern on Gretchen's face. "Oh, put away those Kewpie Doll eyes. I'm not about to keel over or anything. I just need to take it easy."
"Have you been closing down the store every time I went to the theatre?"
"Not every time," Barbara said. "But you did give me the excuse I needed to take longer lunches, spend less time worrying about customers and stress. It was time I needed to take, according to the doctors, so I'm grateful to you for that. I should've told you so you wouldn't worry. But now that you know..." She looked towards the window and sighed. "I was thinking about this while you were on your way over. You're going to need a lot of time off in the next couple weeks, getting ready for the play and all. And the doctors would like it if I'd just take a damn vacation."
She slapped her thigh and said, "So! I've decided we'll both make everyone else happy. I'm going to close down the store for a week or two. My sister has been angling to take me to Alaska for a while, so I think I'll finally take her up on it. You take the time, go to all the rehearsals you need to, take all the time you want. I'll be back to see you perform, don't doubt that for a minute, but... well, closing the store makes sense right now."
"But," Gretchen said, tears brimming in her eyes. "The tourist season... it's the busy time! Won't it affect your profits?"
"Maybe. The store's never done remarkably well, but we've never been too deep in debt, either. We'll find a way to make it work, dear. You let me worry about that."
Gretchen said, "Well... considering your heart... maybe you could let me worry a little. Okay?"
Barbara smiled. "Deal."
Gretchen stood up and hugged Barbara. Barbara laughed and patted her back. "You're a good girl, Gretchen. You focus on that play and everything else will work out."
Gretchen buried her face in the warm material of Barbara's robe and squeezed her eyes shut, hoping to keep the tears at bay. Her conversation with Dana at lunch had overwhelmed her with memories about her family and how unaccustomed she was to this sort of kindness. "I wish you were my mom," Gretchen whispered. She hadn't meant to say it out loud, had barely even formed the thought before it was out, and Barbara laughed.
"Oh, dear! And if I had a daughter, I'd want her to be just like you. Well..." She pulled back and toyed with the short strands of Gretchen's hair. "Maybe a bit more red up here, and a bit longer."
Gretchen laughed and batted Barbara's hand away from her head.
Other actors had already cleaned out the dressing rooms and make-up area. All the backstage areas had been swept, the set was constructed and the stage cleared of any random debris. All the myriad little things they had to get done before the show began had been done. When Dana returned from lunch and Gus informed her there was nothing left to do, she resigned to the audience with her script.
Steven and Gabe were both there, focused on their own lines. She sat in the row in front of them and folded her legs up into the seat. "Superwoman," Steven said. To Gabe, he said, "Did you see her yesterday? Like Bugs Bunny, playing all the bases."
"Shush," Dana said. She opened the script to the first page and began reading. She skimmed past the first scene, with Bianca and her husband and the messenger. She'd seen and read the play so many times that she could see those scenes perfectly clear in her mind.
She was reading Leah's first scene when someone lightly touched the back of her neck. "Cut it out."
She looked up and saw Gretchen standing in the aisle next to her. "Gretchen! I thought you had to go back to work...?"
"Long story," Gretchen said. "Can I sit?"
Dana looked at Gabriel and Steven, both of whom had disappeared behind their scripts. "No," Dana said. "Not here, anyway." She stood up and took Gretchen's hand. She heard the men snickering, but ignored them. She led Gretchen to the back of the theatre, on the opposite side of where they'd sat the day before. Dana curled her legs under her again and gestured at the seat next to her for Gretchen. "So you're off for the day?" Dana asked.
Gretchen nodded. "Actually, for the duration of the play."
"Fuck," Dana said. "You didn't get fired, did you?"
"No," Gretchen said. "The manager just has some, uh... health issues. She's letting me focus on the play and taking some stress-free time for herself."
"Well good for her," Dana said. She smiled and lifted her script. "Do you have yours? We could run lines together."
"I don't have my script, but I could probably see if I can do it from memory."
"Ahh, a risk taker. Okay, um... well, Leah and Alice don't really have much to do without Bianca until Act Three. Want to start there?" Gretchen nodded. Dana flipped through the script and said, "I'm not as well prepared as you, unfortunately."
"That's okay," Gretchen said. "I could use a cheat sheet."
Dana found a page with a lot of interaction between Leah and Alice. She cleared her throat and said, "Okay, it starts with you. 'Do you think...'"
Gretchen closed her eyes and put her hands together. She toyed with her fingernail and said, "Do you think Bianca hurt?"
Dana's brow furrowed. "What kind of question is that? Of course it hurt."
"No, not that," Gretchen said. She shook her head. "I meant, do you think Bianca was hurting? All these years?"
Dana shrugged. "She must have been."
"Why couldn't we see it?"
"When was the last time we saw Bianca?"
"But today. With Momma's funeral, you'd think we would've... noticed."
Dana shook her head. "We were too caught up in ourselves. Our own things." She lifted her left hand and held it out. She broke character and said, "We're supposed to hold hands here."
Gretchen took Dana's hand without thinking, but immediately realized the significance of it. She laced her fingers with Dana's, let their palms rest together. There was a weight to holding hands, she realized. Being tugged, tugging someone else in return. She squeezed lightly and let their linked hands fall to rest against Dana's thigh. Gretchen used the toe of her right shoe to push off the left. She folded her legs as Dana had and found the chair was even more comfortable in that position. She had to resist the urge to put her head on Dana's shoulder.
Dana looked down at their interlocked fingers and turned back to the script. "Um. Even if we had noticed, Bianca always tried to protect us. She wouldn't have let us see her in pain."
"But she'll let us see her hang herself?"
Dana closed her eyes and stroked her thumb along the heel of Gretchen's hand. "I don't know, Alice."
"We've got to be brave," Gretchen said. "It's what Bianca would have wanted."
"No," Dana said. She raised her voice and straightened in her seat. Her hand tightened around Gretchen's, but it wasn't painful. "Bianca would have wanted us to show Daddy how we felt. Come on. We're going to get out of this house, but first we're going to finish what Bianca started." She turned the page and said, "After that, it's mostly me and Daley." She turned to Gretchen and said, "See? You were fantastic! Owen is going to love you during rehearsals. Most people don't know their lines by dress rehearsal. You have them down before the first read-through."
Gretchen shrugged. "Memorizing all those prices at Funky Junk, I suppose."
Dana jumped and her hand pulled free of Gretchen's. They both looked towards the stage where Owen was standing, hands on hips. "May I see you for a moment please?" He turned and stormed off again.
"What the hell?" Gabriel said, looking between Dana and the stage.
Dana shook her head. "No clue." She stuffed her script into her back pocket and stepped out into the aisle. Gretchen hesitated and then stood to follow her. Gabriel, as they passed him, sang, "Da-na's in traaah-ble."
Dana flipped him off over her shoulder and pushed herself up on stage. She curled her body into a ball and rolled the rest of the way on stage. Gretchen, not knowing the rule about making an entrance, merely swung her leg over the edge and climbed up. She followed Dana backstage, where Owen was standing with the seamstress. He had a long brown dress in his hands and was examining it closely. "What's wrong?" Dana asked.
The seamstress snatched the dress from Owen's hand and shook it at Dana. "Do you realize what you did? What were you thinking?!" When she stopped waving the dress like a flag, Dana saw that it was Alice's costume. Gretchen's.
"What the hell is going on?" Dana asked.
Owen cleared his throat. "Where'd you find this dress, Dana?"
A ghost gave it to me, she thought. That probably wouldn't fly... she shook her head and gestured towards the ladder. "Down in the basement with all the others."
"It was in the basement?!" the seamstress said. She turned her rage on Owen. "This should be in the display case with the rest of the memorabilia from that program! And it was in the basement?!"
"It was with all the other costumes," Dana said. "What is the big deal?"
The seamstress took a deep breath and touched her forehead. "The big deal, Miss Purcell, is that I had already started alterations on this costume when I noticed. Now, it's basically ruined." Before Dana could ask again, she explained, "This is the dress worn by Mabel Shelby in the 1946 production of Sound of Your Voice. It should have been in a museum, not lying in some musty basement with hundreds of other costumes."
"We're very sorry," Owen said. "We'll try to find the other..."
"No, there's no reason now," the seamstress said. She fluffed the dress out and said, "This will have to do. I've made the alterations for the current actress. Just be sure to tell her to be extremely careful with it."
Gretchen started to speak up, but Dana grabbed her hand and squeezed. Good point, she thought. Best not to put myself in the middle of this if I don't have to. She squeezed Dana's hand in thanks and tried to fade into the shadows.
"Okay," Owen said. "Okay. All right. Very sorry."
"I started with this one," the seamstress said, "because I thought it would be the easiest, the least change. But now even those tiny changes are like arrows through my heart." She sighed and thrust the dress at Owen. "Take it. I don't want to see it anymore. This is the last time I spend my lunch break getting ahead on work. It's not worth it." She shook her head and walked, defeated, back to the green room.
Owen folded the dress carefully over his arm and walked up to Dana. "Is this the only Alice dress that was down there?"
"Yes," Dana said. "It was stored and labeled like all the others. And..." She picked up one sleeve and turned it over. "Does this look like a sixty-year-old costume?"
"No. Doesn't even smell musty. Was it at least buried at the back?"
Dana glanced at Gretchen. "Actually... it was... kind of right on top."
"I think Maura gave it to me."
Owen frowned. "Mau-- Maura?! The ghost?"
Dana winced. "Well, I certainly didn't pull it out. I don't know where it came from. It was just... there."
Owen sighed and turned to Gretchen. "You take exquisite care of this, do you understand me?"
He sighed and said, "I'll put this in a bag, hang it in the dressing rooms. Honestly. Ghosts. At least we're getting our bad luck out of the way early."
When he was gone, Gretchen said, "Maura gave you the costume? You didn't tell me that."
"It happened while I was setting up your audition, actually. I didn't want to freak you out. I took it as a good sign that you were supposed to get the part."
Gretchen shuddered. "To be honest, I'd rather the ghost wasn't taken such an interest in me. It kind of freaks me out."
Dana put her arm around Gretchen and guided her back onto the stage. "Don't worry about it. When it comes to stalkers, it's best to have the kind that can't actually grab you."
"Isn't that the truth?" Sofia said.
Dana froze. Sofia had stepped out a few feet in front of them, carrying a stack of books that were supposed to be set dressing. She smiled at Dana and put the books down in Bianca's bedroom. "Hi, Dana. And, um..."
"Gretchen. Cole. She's, ah, playing Alice," Dana said.
Dana's arm had been a comforting weight across her shoulders. Now it was stiff, heavy as a branch, threatening to pull her down.
"Hi," Sofia said, oblivious to Dana's discomfort. "I'm Sofia--"
"Sofia Chambers," Gretchen said. "I know." She wasn't sure what to say in this situation. 'I'm a big fan'? 'I've seen all your movie'? "It's... ah... an honor to meet you."
"I watched you audition the other day. Really impressive. I don't think I'll have much to worry about with a supporting cast like you."
Gretchen beamed. "Thank you."
"Dana," Sofia said. Her smile widened and she said, "Are you all right?"
Dana nodded and managed to say, "Fine."
Sofia said, "Well, okay. The three of us should get together sometime. Try and work on that whole sisterly dynamic, right? We'll set up a time, all right?"
Dana nodded and Sofia went back to adjusting the stage. Dana hooked her arm around Gretchen's elbow and said, "Come on. Let's go this way."
"Nothing," Dana said. "Everything's fine."
Gretchen frowned, but let herself be dragged away.
The day dragged on and, as more and more of the cast arrived, the groups of people reading lines got larger and larger. As the noise pollution increased, Gretchen and Dana abandoned the crowded house for the women's dressing room. The room was just like Dana had described; it was long and narrow, with a bench running along one side. The door on one end opened into the main backstage area, the door on the other led to the make-up room.
They straddled the bench, facing each other, and recited lines back and forth. Gretchen hardly paid attention to the words and just reveled in having nothing else to do, nowhere else to go. So far, she'd spent the majority of the day with Dana and it was pure and utter bliss.
Owen called everyone together once to make revisions to the rehearsal pages - adding more do-not-miss dates and making sure everyone knew what was expected of them. Arthur got special compensation in case of dental emergencies, but everyone else was told that understudies could and would be cast. "I am not here to make friends," he assured them all.
When they realized it was almost six-thirty, Dana stretched and put her arms behind her head. Gretchen tried not to stare. "Come on," she said with a groan. She stood and held her hand out. "Let's go to Daoine Maite."
The super-secret cast bar? "Oh, I don't know," Gretchen said. She took Dana's hand, just to feel those fingers again, and was pulled to her feet. "Do I really belong there?"
"You're part of the cast," Dana said. "And besides, you're my guest."
"Okay," Gretchen said. She stood and realized she was missing something. "Where, ah... are my shoes?"
Dana looked down and saw Gretchen was barefoot. "Did you take them off?"
"Somewhere," Gretchen said. She had a vague memory of being uncomfortable, and had just popped them off without thinking. "They're in the house somewhere."
"I'll go get the car warmed up. You go find your shoes. I'll wait for you."
Four little words, but they warmed Gretchen considerably. "Okay. I won't take too long." They left the dressing room just as Steven was passing by. He arched an eyebrow, but didn't say anything. Dana whistled and said, "Daoine Maite!"
There was a shuffling of people closing scripts, dropping what they were doing and heading for their cars. Owen came out of the green room and spoke to the fleeing masses. "Be back here Thursday for the first read-through! I will not tolerate lateness!" He turned and went back into the green room, slamming the door behind him.
Gretchen went against the flow and returned to the house. As she was searching, the main lights began to click off. "Wait, wait, wait," she muttered. "Don't lock me in with a ghost..."
She found her shoes along one of the back rows and picked them up. As she hurried back towards the stage, she saw Gus pulling a pole. The pole was black and nearly as tall as Gus was. It was topped by a single light bulb in a wire cage. He pulled the light to center stage and turned it on.
"Don't lock me in!" she said.
Gus jumped and spun around. "Geez, girl. Don't do that to me."
"What is that light for?" Gretchen asked as she got onto the stage.
Gus smiled. "This is the ghost light. It's supposed to keep ghosts from taking up residence, but... well. You've heard about Maura, right?"
"Oh, yeah," Gretchen said. "But what is the light for?"
"Depends on who you ask," Gus said. "Some people think it's so the ghosts can put on their own plays at night. Me, I think it's a practical enough thing. See all this shit on the stage? When I come in tomorrow morning, it would be pitch black and I could trip and fall into the orchestra pit if I wasn't careful. The actors like it." He looked at her. "You got a ride home?"
"Yeah, she's waiting for me outside."
"See you in a couple days, then." He waved and walked off in the opposite direction. Gretchen backed off the stage, keeping her eyes on the ghost light. She scanned the stage, the Sutherland house now shadow-filled and foreboding. With the light burning, the theatre looked like someplace ghosts would thrive. Why would anyone think it repelled them?
Before she turned away, she said, "Good night, Maura. Have a good show." There was, naturally, no reply. She pulled her shoes on and walked to the stage door quickly lest something come out of the shadows and grabbed her.
To be continued in Chapter Twelve...
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