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Gretchen was naked in the dream.
She was standing upstage-center, where Gus had left the ghost light. She was trying to conceal her nudity without making a big deal about it. She clasped her hands in front of her crotch and moved her arms forward in an effort to cover her breasts. Her hair was longer than it had been since high school; she could feel it on her shoulders when she turned her head. The entire Sutherland house was gone, the stage standing as bare as she was. She faced the audience, but couldn't tell if there was anyone out there. The spotlight burnt her eyes, but she didn't dare raise her hands to block it.
The voice came from her left. She turned to look, but saw no one in the wings. "Hello?" she thought. "M-my name isn't Alice." She had, for the moment, forgotten all about the play. Being naked on-stage wreaks havoc on the memory. "Is someone there?"
There was the sound of high heels on the cement floor. Slowly, the other woman appeared in the outer limits of the spotlight glow. Maura Hunter, looking just as she did in the photographs Gretchen had found. She stopped at the edge of the light and looked towards the audience. "Maura?" No reaction. Gretchen hesitated and remembered the play. "Bianca?"
Maura smiled and closed her eyes. "Yes, Alice?"
"Why am I here?"
Maura walked forward and dragged her fingers along a set piece Gretchen couldn't see. As she got closer and was illuminated by more of the light, Gretchen could see rope burns around the other woman's neck. Where she'd hung. She looked away. "Did you kill yourself?"
"Alice knows," Maura said.
Gretchen frowned. "But I... I don't..."
Maura laughed and moved closer. She gathered Gretchen's long hair in her hands and pressed against her from behind. Gretchen gasped. "You should wear your hair up, Alice, dear. You wear it like a shade to hide behind. Like a veil. And who needs that?"
"I wore a veil when I got married," Gretchen said, automatically saying the next line in the play.
"Exactly," Maura snorted. She let the hair fall and settled her hands on Gretchen's shoulders.
"You wore a veil when you got married, too."
"I made a lot of mistakes when I got married," Maura sighed. She patted Gretchen's shoulders and then stepped back. She swished her dress as she moved to where the bed should've been.
Gretchen turned. "What happened to you, Maura?"
"Alice knows," she said, the first time she'd responded to her real name.
"I don't, Maura. I wish I did."
Maura laughed and folded an imaginary blouse. "Oh, honey. You think people haven't tried to figure it out? I've been dead for sixty years. Forget the police, there have been hundreds of people over the years. Other actresses playing Bianca. Other actors in the production." She waved her hands. "I stay around because they keep me here. Their will. They refuse to let me go. Not that I'd want to go." She stepped forward again and addressed the house. Applause began to rise from the shadows. She breathed deep and held her hands out. "I once climaxed during a curtain call," she said, painted lips pulled wide in a glamorous smile. All those people, clapping for me. A standing ovation, but I called it my Standing O." She looked over her shoulder and winked one green eye.
When she turned back to the unseen crowd, she said, "All those people trying to figure out what happened to me. When all this time, Alice has known."
She dropped her arms and walked back upstage. She cupped Gretchen's face in her hands and said, "Alice knows." She leaned in and kissed Gretchen hard on the lips. Gretchen's eyes widened and, by the time she thought to push away, the edges of the dream were fading into light. "Go ask Alice," Maura said as she faded, and her voice became someone else's...
"That was White Rabbit for you, a little Jefferson Airplane. Go ask Alice, right?" The deejay chuckled. "All right, I am Nadine Butler, this is KELF and whether you're listening on purpose or sitting in the dentist's office, I am happy you're here. Give me a call at 232-KELF, tell me what you want to hear. I'd love to get it on for ya. Right now, we've--"
When she managed to get her arm untangled from the bed sheets, she slapped the alarm clock and silenced the voice. She sat up and held the blanket to her chest. "I'm still wearing clothes," she told herself. "That's a good sign." She got out of bed and dragged her body into the front room. No one crashed on the couch. That was also a good sign.
She reached up and tousled her hair. Bad idea; it only intensified her headache. She grimaced and searched the fridge until she found what she was looking for; a bright, shiny, yellow banana. Vitamin B6, and a tall, cold glass of water. It might not take the headache out completely, but it would sure help things along. She peeled the banana at the counter and bit off almost half of it.
As she chewed, she tried to remember the night before. She and Dana had arrived at the bar to a Norm-from-Cheers-type greeting. Dana was apparently quite beloved and Gretchen, dragged along in her wake, found it disconcerting to be in her shadow. People bought Dana drinks, celebrating the fact that Sofia had turned down her paycheck and the company was being rehired.
Sofia had been at the bar when they reached it. She was buying everyone drinks, which might have accounted for the general merriment of the crowd. When the lead singer of the house band came down and spoke to Dana, Dana had steered her towards Sofia. "Have you met Sofia Chambers?" Dana asked over the cacophony.
"Not in person," the singer said, her voice a lilting Irish melody. "I'm a big fan of your movie."
"Seriously?" Sofia had said.
The singer smiled. She ran her eyes over Sofia's body and shrugged. "Well. A certain five minutes of it."
Sofia had disappeared into the crowd with her and, as far as Gretchen could remember, had never reappeared. The singer had never retaken the stage, either.
As she finished her banana, she glanced out the front window. Heavy rain clouds were hanging over the island, casting a gray pallor over everything. She thanked the weather gods; sunshine would be a little hard to take right now. She remembered drinking. She remembered the beers in her hand refilling as if by magic. She remembered sitting in a booth with Dana and kissing.
Oh, God. She sat up and blinked. There had been kissing. A lot of kissing. God damn it, there had been kissing and she barely remembered any of it. If she'd been any less hungover, she would have slapped herself in the forehead. She closed her eyes and focused. A dark booth, jukebox blasting, Dana's hand on her thigh under the table. And kissing. Oh, God, she could almost taste it.
She sighed and pushed her hair out of her face. Maybe after she'd had a shower she would be a little clearer. She pulled off her boxers and tank top and walked naked into the bathroom.
Dana turned away from the sink, toothbrush still in her mouth, and yelped.
Gretchen, who had never had a dream come true this quickly after having it, covered herself and screamed.
"Sorry again," Gretchen said. She waved as she closed the door and, when she turned back to Dana, her face was beet red. "Leave it to Nancy Schroeder to be passing by the guest house when I just happen to scream."
"You mean that wasn't an every day occurance?" Dana asked, smiling coyly. She was sitting at the kitchen table in a pair of Gretchen's sweatpants and her own white undershirt.
Gretchen glared at her. "I'm mortified enough as it is. Don't make it worse."
"Sorry," Dana said. "If it helps, I slept on the couch. We were both too drunk to make any, um... l-larger decisions."
If there was any blood left in the rest of Gretchen's extremities, it soon joined the pool in her face. She put her head down on the table and then immediately sat up. "I have bananas."
"Do you?" Dana said. "What... does that have to do with anything?"
"Vitamins. I don't know. I always heard it was a good cure for a hangover."
Dana shrugged. "I'll try anything once."
Gretchen went to the fridge and pulled two more bananas free. She got a glass of water for Dana and handed over her breakfast. She peeled her banana and said, "So we didn't do... anything last night?"
"Just kissed," Dana said. "But in our defense, we did a lot of that."
Gretchen smiled. "I had the weirdest dream last night. I was naked on-stage..."
"Every actor has that one."
"Maura was there."
Dana shook her head. "Never had that one. Other people have, though."
"I asked her about her death and she just kept saying 'Alice knows.'"
"Alice in the play?"
Gretchen shrugged. "I sure as hell don't know. And I don't remember anything in the play she could be talking about."
"Alice knew about Bianca's suicide. Could she have meant that?"
"I asked Maura."
Dana smirked. "Excuse me for expecting a ghost in a dream to be literal."
Gretchen straightened in her chair. "She kept calling me Alice."
"So you know why she killed herself thirty years before you were even born?"
"No, not me. Alice!" Gretchen got up and went into the living room. She opened a drawer and began rummaging. "Yesterday, the dress the seamstress said was ruined. She said it was worn by what's her name... the Alice in 1946... Mabel...?"
Gretchen pulled the phone book out of the drawer and said, "Right! Yes. So... if she said Alice knew... maybe she was talking about her own Alice. The Alice from her performance." She thumbed through the phone book until she found the right name. "Shelby comma Mabel! This phone book is from--" She checked the front cover. "This year. It's from this year, so... she might still be there."
"At this address."
Dana frowned and pinched the bridge of her nose. "I think you're still drunk from last night. You're getting all bouncy."
Gretchen came around the table and knelt in front of Dana's chair. "You said yourself, she's been reaching out to be more than anyone else. Maybe it's finally time for someone to solve this thing."
Dana closed her eyes and leaned forward to look into Gretchen's eyes. "Gretchen, I hate to break this to you, but... it's almost a rite of passage. Almost everyone who does Sound of Your Voice for the first time tries to solve the mystery. I did it. Owen Childe, the first time he directed, swore he would have a solution printed in the handbills. But it never happened." She took Gretchen's hands in her own. "I'm sorry to break it to you when you're this excited, but... it won't ever be solved."
Gretchen softly said, "She lives on the other side of the island. Out in the country. I can't get there by myself, so I'd need you to drive me. Please, Dana. I think I need to do this."
Dana hesitated, looked at Gretchen's knuckles resting in her own hand, and then shook her head angrily. "I can't believe I'm doing this."
"So you'll do it?" Gretchen asked. Her smile returned and her face brightened.
"We're going to stop by my place so I can change clothes."
Gretchen straightened, still on her knees, and kissed Dana. Due to passion and sobriety issues, they both realized this would be their first kiss. Dana turned her head and brushed her tongue across Gretchen's bottom lip. Gretchen rested her hands on Dana's thighs and squeezed the muscles that Dana's slender build didn't even hint at. Dana moaned into Gretchen's mouth and slid forward in the chair. Gretchen sighed and tugged at the hem of Dana's shirt, eager to touch bare flesh.
Dana moaned and pulled back. She ran her hands through Gretchen's hair and looked into her eyes. She whispered, "We should... probably be putting clothes on if we want to get on the road before noon..."
"Uh-huh," Gretchen said. She was looking at Dana's lips.
Dana smiled and leaned back. "Hey, this was your idea. If you don't want to go..."
Gretchen bit her lip. She squeezed Dana's thighs one more time and then stood up. "I'm going. I'm going."
They were at Dana's apartment building long enough for her to change into a denim skirt and a white button-down shirt. Her hair was up in a ponytail and she'd exchanged the sneakers from last night for a pair of tan, knee-high boots. As she climbed into the car, Gretchen ogled the way the denim parted and showed an extra helping of Dana's tight thigh. Her legs were long, wiry, and she knew from experience they were strong as steel. She felt a shudder at having so much of them on display.
They checked a map to make sure they knew where Miss Shelby's house was while they were still in the parking lot. When they had a route planned, Dana folded the map and stuffed it back into the glove compartment. Dana's car stereo was tuned to KELF and Nadine Butler kept them company as they ventured out into the boonies.
The island wasn't particularly huge. It was ten miles from side to side at its widest point. From tip to tip was fifteen miles. The land bowed towards the sky in the middle, the tip of the undersea mountain that formed Squire's Isle, giving hikers and outdoor enthusiasts hundreds of acres of wilderness to explore. As "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" started playing on the radio, fat raindrops began to splatter against the car's windshield. Dana ran the wipers and asked if Gretchen was sure she wanted to do this.
"Really sure," Gretchen said. "Really, really sure."
Mabel Shelby's house was at the end of a long dirt laneway that was blocked by a wrought-iron gate. It currently stood open, so Dana turned onto the lane and followed the winding path through the trees. "If we find a gingerbread house at the bottom of this road, I am out of here."
Gretchen just smiled.
The house wasn't gingerbread, but it did have a grandmotherly feel to it. It was a small A-frame house, painted yellow with green shutters on every window. An old rusted-out pick-up truck was parked to one side, the knee-high grass all around it the only sign of neglect on the property. Far to their left, they could see the sparkling water of a small pond. There was a rocking chair on the front porch and a tall pitcher of iced tea stood next to it.
As they pulled up to the porch, the rain passed by. It was still overcast and humid, but there was enough of a cool breeze to keep them from sweating like the iced tea. Before they could announce their presence, the screen door swung open and a tiny old woman backed out. She was carrying a tray with both hands, loaded down with cookies, an empty glass and a folded newspaper. An umbrella was hooked over her forearm.
She turned and saw them standing in front of her house and didn't look alarmed or even confused. She put down her tray and said, "You can leave them in the front room, please. I'm too old to escort another new girl."
Dana frowned. "Ma'am?"
The woman adjusted her glasses. "You're not from the library with my books?"
"No, ma'am. I'm Dana Purcell, this is Gretchen Cole."
Gretchen said, "We'd like to talk to you about Maura Hunter."
The woman put her hand to her forehead. "Oh, dear. Dear. I see. Are you with the newspaper?"
"No," Gretchen said. "I'm playing Alice in this year's production. Dana is Leah."
"Who is playing Bianca?"
"An actress named Sofia Chambers."
Mabel scoffed and said, "Hollywood girl."
Mabel looked at the sky and said, "Well, my umbrella ain't big enough for all three of us. Should we take this inside?"
Dana hurried up onto the porch and offered the woman an elbow. "Sweet girl," Mabel said. She took the arm and let Dana led her inside at a slow, shuffling pace. The inside of the house was far from spacious, but it leaned closer to cozy than cramped. The only light came through the windows, meaning that everything was currently several shades of gray. She offered them a seat by the window and lowered herself gingerly into a giant armchair.
Gretchen sat on the couch next to Dana.
"That play," Mabel said with a weary sigh. "Have you noticed? It makes things happen."
"What do you mean?" Dana asked.
"People associated with it. They're blessed. Some of them, anyway. Some say it's Maura's ghost watching out for her 'eternal costars.' I think that's a bunch of hogwash. Superstitions and we all know the theatre has enough of those. But there are a lot of coincidences. Like the woman who played Bianca immediately after Maura. Maura's understudy. She left the theatre and went on to win an Academy Award. People have met their soul mates working on this play."
Gretchen and Dana looked at one another and shared a shy smile.
"I married my Steven," Mabel said. "We lived together for nearly fifty years after we played the part of husband and wife. Good times, too."
"Ms. Shelby," Gretchen said, "is there any reason someone might think you know what happened to Maura?"
Mabel tilted her head and then scanned the room. "Well, no. Not that I know of."
"Did anything unusual happen that night?"
Mabel barked a laugh and said, "Did it ever! Maura and our director had a screaming match right before the show. Maura was late and the director told her it was going in the show report. Maura was adamant that it couldn't be avoided. They went back and forth and back and forth and finally she slapped him. Oh, but hard! I jumped at the sound of that god awful slap."
"Did she say why she was late?"
"Not to me. People speculated, you know, like people will. The big rumor was that she was pregnant. Of course, the coroner never said one way or t'other publicly. It was a lot more hush-hush secretive back in them days. A lot of people thought the director had gotten her pregnant and killed her because she wouldn't give up the baby. There was no proof either way, but people like their lies.
"And then... well..." She smiled. "A couple of days before it happened, Maura had a note with her all the time. She kept unfolding it and reading it and slipping it back into her pocket. No one else ever saw what the note said, but my favorite theory was a boyfriend on the mainland."
"Maura was from the mainland?"
"No, Squire's Isle born and bred. But she was over in Seattle a lot of the time. Bigger theatre crowd there. She had dreams of being a big star and Seattle was step one. Didn't matter who she stepped on. She was a sweet girl, don't get me wrong. But I figured she'd met someone over there, most likely someone married, who she planned to use to seduce on her way to the top. Maybe someone who had the connections to make that harness get unhooked."
"So you think it was murder?"
Mabel nodded. "There's no doubt. First of all, that harness wouldn't just slip free. If you'd seen those people hook it up..."
"I have," Dana said.
"Well, then, you know. For it to just slip free? No way. Not accidentally. And Maura was a blessed little thing. I couldn't see her committing suicide in that way. Alone in her room, maybe with some pills, sure. Depends on how depressed you are and how willful you are. Come to think of it, that sounds like an oxymoron, that you have to be strong to commit suicide. But you have to admit, it would take a lot of moxie to kill yourself on-stage in the middle of a play."
"True," Dana muttered.
Mabel fiddled with her hands for a moment and then said, "I'm sorry, dears. But if someone said I had some kind of magic clue, I don't know what it could've been. Maura and I were just costars. We never interacted outside of the play. I do think I'm the only actor from the production still living, so maybe that's why they thought I had some secret. If I did have a secret, it wouldn't have stayed that way for long. I'm a terrible gossip. It would've been out long before you girls showed up on my doorstep."
"We understand," Dana said, leaning forward. She'd heard all she needed to. "We're sorry to have interrupted your morning, Miss Shelby."
"Oh, please, call me Mabel. I'm sorry I couldn't be of more help," she said. She adjusted her skirt and then said, "But if you're interested, I have a load of stories from behind the scenes, back in my day. If... if you have the time, that is..."
Dana glanced at Gretchen. The loneliness in Mabel's eyes was easy to read. Gretchen shrugged slightly and Dana relaxed. She smiled and said, "Yeah. I think we have some time."
When they finally took their leave, the rain was falling lazily from the sky. Gretchen and Dana declined Mabel's offer of taking her umbrella and ran to the car with borrowed newspaper over their heads. They climbed into the car and waved good-bye through the rain streaking down their windshield. Dana laughed as she fastened her seatbelt. "Guess we should've brought coats, huh?"
"Hindsight is twenty-twenty," Gretchen said.
"Of course, I didn't think we'd spend two hours talking about the great old time theatre tradition," she laughed. She backed up and flipped the car around to drive up the laneway. The car was freezing and Gretchen cranked up the heater. She held her hands in front of the vent and Dana reached over to rub her back. "Thanks for making me come out here."
"Thanks for bringing me. I don't think we learned very much about Maura, though."
"Maybe we learned a bit about me, though," Dana said softly. Gretchen looked at her. "The whole 'determined to be an actress' thing. Determined to make it no matter who she stepped on. It hit a little close to home."
Gretchen blinked. "You've never stepped on anyone."
"That you know of."
"Look at me. I'm brand-new. I'm a novice here and you're driving me to meet talkative little old ladies on your day off. You're not the kind who steps on others to get your way. You help up people who've been stepped on." She thought about that for a minute and then chuckled. "Or... o-or something like that."
Dana laughed as they pulled out of the front gates. She reached over and squeezed Gretchen's thigh. The rain washed over the front hood of their car like they'd just driven into the ocean. Dana clicked the wipers up to full speed and said, "Damn. It's starting to look like a waterfall out there."
Gretchen moved her head back and forth, looking for a clearing. "Can you even see the road?"
"Barely," Dana said. She slowed down to almost five miles an hour, inching forward through the deluge. "Do you have a cell phone?"
"No problem." Dana reached into her pocket and fished out her own. She flipped it open and held it against the steering wheel so she could keep her eyes on the road. She grimaced at the screen and snapped it shut again. "No signal. The mountain is probably blocking it."
"Can we just pull over and wait it out?"
Dana nodded. "Looks like we'll have to." She angled the car to one side and rolled smoothly over the edge of the road. They had only gone a few feet when the car lurched and there was a muffled explosion from below them. "Shit!" Dana cursed. She slapped the steering wheel and put the car in park.
"Did we blow a tire?"
"Yeah," Dana said. She reached into the backseat and pulled out a windbreaker. "I just had to show off my legs in this stupid skirt."
Gretchen smiled apologetically. "If it helps, I really appreciated it."
Dana returned the smile and pulled off her boots. Her feet were bare and she wiggled her toes in the cold air. "At least I haven't gotten a pedicure in a while. One thing that won't be ruined." She tossed the boots in the back seat and opened the car door.
Freezing rain slapped against them both as Dana pulled the coat on. "I'll be right back," she promised. She used a console button to pop the trunk and ducked out of the car. She almost immediately disappeared into the rainstorm. Gretchen watched as the silhouette moved around to the back of the car.
Through the back seat, she heard a muffled curse. Dana kicked the car and it lurched forward slightly. Gretchen covered her face when the door opened again and Dana dropped inside. "What?" she said. Dana was fuming. She looked like a drowned rat, her hair plastered to her head and her clothes soaked completely through. Her legs were shivering under her denim skirt. "Dana?"
"There's a halibut in my trunk."
Gretchen blinked. Of all the problems she'd expected to hear... "Um..."
"Instead of a spare tire," Dana expanded, "there is a fucking halibut in my trunk." She pounded the steering wheel. "Gabriel Fucking Lee put a halibut in my trunk and he took my spare fucking tire!"
Gretchen looked around, then looked at the cell phone without a signal. "So..."
"So we're stranded," Dana said. She crossed her arms over her chest and sagged against the seat.
To be continued in Chapter Thirteen...
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