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The worst part about falling asleep in the middle of the afternoon, Dana thought, was that you woke up at bedtime feeling fully-rested. Details came slowly; the premature night of a stormy day, an unfamiliar bed and an arm wrapped around her. It was the arm that brought everything back. She'd had many arms around her like this in the past, but this was the first time in a long time that she didn't feel the need to remove it. Its presence didn't make her feel trapped.
Or... maybe it did and she just didn't mind.
Either way, she was content to lie in bed for a while longer. Gretchen's arm, with its fine dark hairs, rested lightly across her hip. Her fingers were curled in against Dana's stomach. She hadn't paid attention to the bedroom earlier, and took the opportunity to do so before Gretchen woke. It looked like a typical, sweet girl's bedroom; big fluffy blankets, a white teddy bear perched on top of the white bureau. There was a full-length mirror on the closet door and a lamp with a frilly white shade next to the bed. The pale yellow glow of a streetlight outside came through the window and gave everything a golden tint.
Gretchen murmured in her sleep and rolled over, taking her arm away. Dana lamented the loss, but decided it was probably for the best. Nature, realizing she'd been freed, was now calling more intently. She eased out of bed and tiptoed to the bathroom. She found her discarded panties and tank top and dressed in them once she'd taken care of business. She attacked her hair with her fingers and eventually tied it into a sloppy loop. She'd deal with tangles later.
In the hallway, she debated whether to go back to bed or see if there was any food. A large part of her was pulling for bed, but she managed to suppress it. If she was in bed when Gretchen woke up, there would be only one outcome. And, as lovely as that sounded, she was actually kind of sore from their afternoon. So, instead, she went to the kitchen.
She turned on the light over the stove and searched the fridge. A bit of leftover Chinese takeout, a pizza box and a six-pack of soda. She was about to check the drawers when she heard the faint ringing of her cell phone. She hurried back to the bathroom and grabbed her skirt, fishing in the pocket for the phone before it woke Gretchen. She answered without checking the number. "Hello?" she said in a hoarse whisper.
"Miss Purcell? This is Mabel Shelby."
Dana hurried towards the front of the house. "Oh. Hello."
"Am I calling at a bad time?" the woman asked.
Dana glanced over her shoulder. "No. There's someone asleep in the other room. Is something wrong?"
"No, no, I'll be quick so you won't wake up your friend. I remembered something else about Maura that may be of interest to you. Whenever we were in rehearsals, she would refer to everyone by their character name. I don't think she ever knew my real name... I was always just Alice to her. That's why I never thought it was strange."
"You never thought what was strange?" Dana was hovering by the front door. It was the farthest point from the bedroom without going outside. She assumed Gretchen would appreciate it if her nice, church-going landlords didn't see a half-naked woman prancing around on her porch.
"Well, the last scene of Act Two," Mabel said. "Maura always referred to it as her suicide. Not Bianca's. We never thought much about it, and after it happened we were all so shocked to think about the implications. But your visit this morning got me to thinking about those old days, so I called up information and tracked you down. Hope you don't mind."
"No, of course not. Thank you for calling."
When she hung up, she turned and saw Gretchen coming out of the bedroom. Her hair was tousled from sleep and she was wearing a white cotton robe. Her eyes were mostly closed; she was still trying to rise from sleep, apparently. Dana couldn't help but smile, because she was also wearing a pair of fuzzy white bunny slippers. "You actually own bunny slippers?"
Gretchen smiled and wandered towards the kitchen. "Who was on the phone?"
"Mabel Shelby. She said that Maura never referred to other actors by their real names."
"She called me Alice a lot in the dream," Gretchen said. "Do you want some oatmeal?"
Dana looked at the green numbers of the microwave's clock. "It's eight o'clock at night."
"Is that a no?"
"No," Dana said. She pulled up a stool and sat at the kitchen counter. Gretchen got a pan out from the cabinet and filled it with water from the tap. She set it on the stove and turned the heat on low. "So what does it matter if she called people by their character name?"
Dana said, "According to Mabel, she always referred to the end of Act Two as 'my suicide.'"
Gretchen picked up a box of oatmeal and said, "Brown sugar? And please don't imitate Mick Jagger."
"Brown sugar is fine," Dana laughed. Gretchen tended the stove and Dana watched her from across the room. She finally said, "Gretchen? What happened this afternoon...?"
"I know you think I'm... experienced. But I wanted to let you know that it's never been like it was today."
Gretchen turned to face the stove so Dana couldn't see her face. "Really?"
"I was worried. I'm not... I mean, I know it was good for me. I just... I was..."
Dana stood and walked around the counter. She put her hands on Gretchen's shoulders and pulled her back into an embrace. "You made me come," she whispered in Gretchen's ear. She closed her eyes and brushed her face through Gretchen's hair. Her hands went around Gretchen's waist and toyed with the belt of her robe.
"The oatmeal," Gretchen moaned.
"You can eat oatmeal if you want," Dana said. She licked the shell of Gretchen's ear and slipped away.
Gretchen looked at the water, which had yet to even begin to boil, and turned the stove off. She moved the pot to another burner and shed her robe on the way back to the bedroom.
They walked to the police station the next morning. A sweet old woman had called at 7:15, effectively destroying any morning sex Dana had planned. Her car had been retrieved and could be picked up at sheriff's office 'any old time you pleased.' She and Gretchen took turns in the shower to ensure both would actually get some bathing done, and set out on foot. They stopped at a grocery store on the way to pick up a bag of Oreo cookies for the deputy.
After proving her identity with a driver's license - and backed up by the fact the sheriff himself recognized her - Dana was allowed to leave with her car. She gave the cookies to the receptionist and told the sheriff to thank Deputy White for them.
They drove to Dana's apartment and she changed out of the clothes she'd been wearing since yesterday. Gretchen was sad to see the skirt and boots go, but the tight blue jeans and white t-shirt were a good replacement.
Even after running their errands, they still had time for a quick lunch before the read-through. Dana chose a cozy little diner on the outskirts of town, nearly vacant save for the woman behind the counter. They ordered burgers and fries and sat in a booth at the back of the restaurant. Gretchen slid into the seat and was vaguely surprised when Dana sat beside her rather than across. "What?" Dana said at Gretchen's look. "We are on a date, right?"
Gretchen pecked Dana's lips and bent over her food. They ate quickly, occasionally squeezing each other's hand under the table. When they finished, Dana stood up and went for her wallet. Gretchen moved her arm and tipped over her half-empty water glass. "Oops," she said.
"No problem," Dana said. She grabbed a handful of napkins and began to sop up the mess. When she was finished, she turned and saw Gretchen was at the counter. She handed the clerk the money and then turned to smile at Dana. "Sneaky devil."
Gretchen smiled, thanked the clerk and followed Dana outside. Dana drove them to the theatre and parked at the far end of the lot. Dana got out and waited for Gretchen at the front bumper. When she came around the front of the car, Dana took her hand and squeezed. "What are you doing?"
"With this group?" Dana said. "I'm putting up a neon-lit billboard with a picture of us having sex."
"You sure you want to do that?"
Dana squeezed Gretchen's hand in response. Dana held the stage door open for Gretchen and followed her inside. They were already halfway down the stairs when Dana's eyes adjusted to the darkness and she saw Gabriel Lee sitting on the floor at the bottom of the stairs. He glanced up casually, saw who was standing above him, and tried to scramble to his feet. Dana was too quick. She released Gretchen's hand and leapt to the bottom of the stairs.
She grabbed Gabriel by the collar of his shirt and pulled him back. He yelped and brought both hands up to his face. "I thought you'd just get stranded here at the theatre!"
"So that makes it better? Where is my spare tire?"
"In my trunk."
She released his collar and smoothed his shirt down. "Prank war over?"
"Believe me, when we have to get the cops involved, I'm ready to call it quits."
She smiled. "Good. No harm, no foul." She turned and saw Gretchen standing beside her. She took Gretchen's hand again and walked away from Gabriel.
He looked at their hands, looked at the back of Dana's head and said, "Hey, wait a minute. Are you..."
They ignored him and kept walking. They could see the round table set up on the loading dock on the opposite side of the stage. Owen and Jill were already in place, pouring over a sheet with a drawing of the stage. Jill had a pencil and Owen was pointing to certain parts of the set for her to mark. He saw them coming and said, "Ah, two-thirds of the sisters Sutherland. Hopefully our Bianca will deign to grace us with her presence before this read-through begins."
Dana and Gretchen took seats next to Jill. Gretchen saw Dana's blush and whispered, "What?"
Dana glanced at Jill and leaned in. She pressed her lips against Gretchen's ear and whispered, "I just realized. I've had sex with both of my sisters."
Gretchen laughed, "Oh, God," and covered her mouth. Owen and Jill glanced at her, but said nothing. She stifled her laughter and gestured at the papers. "What is all that?"
"Blocking notes," Dana said. "Figuring out where to put everyone."
Owen nodded. "Can't have three sisters all with their asses to the audience. No matter how nice those asses might be."
"Harassment," Jill said without looking up.
"I'm gay. I can make all the lewd comments I want about women."
Jill glared at him through her eyelashes.
Owen sighed and held up his hands in surrender. "Fine. Ladies, I apologize. I feel extraordinarily neutral about your asses. Better?"
"Much," Jill said. "Now, at the beginning of Act 2..."
Gretchen pulled her script from the back pocket of her jeans. She opened it to the first page of dialogue and watched as Dana did the same. Gretchen smiled. "Were you always the good girl, had her homework out and ready to hand in as soon as the teacher asked for it?"
Owen noticed the exchange and said, "Oh, God, our sisters are sleeping together."
Gretchen's smile vanished and her face turned a deep red. Jill said, "Owen!"
"No hanky-panky on-stage. I'm not adding an incest element to Sound of Your Voice, twenty-first century or not. Of course..." He glanced at Jill and shook his head. "No. No, out of the question."
"We'll try to contain ourselves," Dana promised.
Owen sighed. "It's the least I can ask for, I suppose."
The rest of the actors were starting towards them. Owen checked his watch and pushed aside the blocking notes. Steven took a seat across from Owen and leaned forward. "Dana. Everything okay?"
"Everything worked out fine," Dana said, glaring pointedly at Gabriel. "Thanks for making the call."
He nodded and leaned back. His own script had become tattered, the cover ripped, in the few days he'd been in possession of it. He opened it, cracked the spine and sank down in his chair.
"And here's the woman of the hour," Owen said. The cast turned and watched Sofia cross the stage towards the table. She was wearing black tights and a white shirt that flowed around her like butterfly wings as she moved. Her hair was up in a bun and, behind the thick eyeglasses she was wearing, it seemed like she wasn't wearing make-up. She put down her bag and bottled water and took a seat next to Dana.
"Sorry," she said. "Sorry, everyone." She settled in and, when the conversation had turned away from her, leaned towards Dana. "Your little friend doesn't believe much in sleep, does she?"
Dana blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"Regan," Sofia said. "I haven't gotten any sleep since you introduced us the night before last."
"Oh," Dana said. She covered her smile with her hand and said, "Sorry about that. I, uh..." She glanced at Gretchen and said, "I never took her home."
Owen clapped his hands and said, "All right, ladies and gentlemen. Now that we're all here, let's begin our first cast read-through. The lovely Miss Colby will be providing the stage directions. You all read your parts and she'll fill in the actions. We'll work on blocking later. For now, all that matters is hearing the voices of your fellow characters. Miss Colby?" He took a seat.
Jill had her script folded in front of her and she leaned forward to read the opening stage directions. "Interior. A well-kept apartment in a large city. A woman is standing with her back to the door ironing. Her husband enters the room with the newspaper as the doorbell sounds."
"Who could that be?" Gabriel said.
"Grant McNeal folds the paper and walks to the door," Jill provided. "He opens the door to reveal a young messenger in a white uniform shirt. He is holding a slip of yellow paper in his hand."
Donald Harp, the high school kid who'd been cast as the messenger, said, "I have a telegram for a Miss Bianca Sutherland."
"It's Bianca McNeal now," Gabriel said. "I'll take it."
"He takes the telegram, offers the messenger a tip."
"Thanks," Harp said.
Jill said, "Grant closes the door."
Gretchen let her mind wander as the scene continued. She looked at Dana and saw her leaning forward over her script. Her face was drawn with concentration and Gretchen saw a strand of hair caught in her eyelash. It took all her willpower not to reach out and brush it away. She sucked her bottom lip in and turned to her own script. It was almost her first scene and she didn't want to hold anyone up.
"You leave us alone," Dana hissed. "You killed Mama, you killed Bianca, but I'll be damned if I let you have Alice, too."
"Watch your tongue, you little..."
"No! No more. Bianca was right. She should've spoken up a long time ago."
Jill said, "She reaches back and takes Alice's hand."
"You stay away from us from now on. We'll bury Bianca with you, but that's it. You'll never see us again. Gretchen is my responsibility now."
"Alice," Owen said.
Dana's eyes snapped up, then went back down to the text. "A-Alice is my responsibility now."
Jill, smiling at Dana's slip, said, "She leads Alice out of the house. Nathaniel returns to his armchair and lowers himself slowly. We hear Bianca and her mother singing."
Elizabeth Parrish began singing Hush, Little Baby. After a few notes, Sofia joined in. Gretchen actually got chills and leaned back in her seat.
When they reached the diamond ring line, Owen said, "Okay, that will do. We'll record that sometime before the show to make sure it's perfect. Excellent work, everybody." He checked his watch. "You're all dismissed until tomorrow at... one. Does that work for us all?" He scanned the table and said, "Fantastic. Any questions?"
Sofia raised her hand. "I have some questions about the hanging scene."
"Okay. Jill, could you walk her through the specifics of it?"
Jill nodded and stood up. She and Sofia moved towards the back of the stage while the rest of the cast dispersed towards the stage door. Gretchen took Dana's hand and said, "Plans for this afternoon?"
"None," Dana said.
"Want to go back to my house?" Gretchen asked.
Dana grinned and nudged her elbow against Gretchen's side. "Maybe we can finally get that oatmeal you promised me."
"Yeah, maybe not," Gretchen chuckled. She leaned in and kissed Dana's lips. When they parted, they saw Sofia examining the bungee cord that would hopefully keep her from being choked to death. "She's really focused, huh?"
"More than I expected," Dana said quietly. She knew how voices could carry in the theatre. "I was thinking she'd be a diva. Sleep through the role. But she's really taking it seriously."
Gretchen started to turn away when she saw Maura standing a few feet away. "Not again," she said. Maura was so unsubstantial that Gretchen couldn't tell if she was standing next to the curtain or behind it. She seemed to have folded herself in the material and was staring at Sofia and Jill.
"Are you coming?" Dana said.
Gretchen started walking and let Dana lead her out of the theatre. She never took her eyes off Maura but, by the time they got off the stage, the ghostly actress had vanished.
It was supposed to have just been a quick make-out session before they found something else to do. They started out on the couch and moved quickly to the bedroom. They'd quickly given up on making other plans and ended up underneath the covers. When she came, Dana brushed her hair out of her face and rolled to one side. She dropped onto the mattress next to Gretchen and pulled the blankets back up over them both. "Wow."
"Am I getting better?" Gretchen asked.
Dana laughed and cupped Gretchen's face. "Not exactly a lot of room for improvement. I was just... it's been a long time since I've... well... since I was with the same person..."
"Oh, I understand," Gretchen said. "Not too familiar, then?"
"Not at all," Dana said. She kissed Gretchen and said, "In fact, I'm ready for an encore, if you're willing..."
Gretchen brushed the tip of her nose across Dana's. "I'd love it. But I think we should rest a little."
"Is this how it's going to be? You're going to be the practical one in the relationship?"
"Is that okay?"
Dana nodded. "Yeah. It actually works out really well for me. I'm just making sure we're on the same page." She kissed Gretchen again and said, "Have a good nap."
"Oh, definitely," Gretchen said. Dana curled against her side and rested her head on Gretchen's shoulder. Gretchen started at the ceiling, her hand on Dana's naked back, and enjoyed the sensation of a naked body pressed against hers. After a moment, Dana's breathing steadied and her arm went slack against Gretchen's stomach. "Night," she whispered. She kissed the top of Dana's head, closed her eyes and hoped for a dreamless sleep.
She was in the Alice costume, her hair the same length it was in real life. She turned around and saw that the set was behind her, but subtly different. The clocks were all ticking away, and through the windows she could see fields and trees. She walked into the living room and ran her fingers over the back of Nathaniel's chair. When she looked back to where she started, she could still see the theatre seats stretching away from the stage like a red sea.
The front door of the house opened and Maura, Bianca, stepped inside. Through the door, Gretchen could hear the sounds of cars. A dog barked just before Maura closed the door and cut off all the sounds. "Hello, Alice," she said.
"Where are we?"
"Home," Maura said. She smiled in a way that told Gretchen not to be a dunce.
Gretchen pointed towards the seats. "What's that?"
Maura looked, but didn't seem particularly interested in the fact that half their house was missing. "The Rose. Lot of good memories there." She touched her throat. "Some not so good ones..."
"I talked to Mabel. T-to Alice."
"The sweet old thing. How is she?"
"She's fine. She seemed to think you were... depressed. She said you had a note that you kept reading."
There was a puff of air on her ear and she heard Dana's soft voice. "Gretchen, hon, you're muttering..." She closed her eyes when phantom lips kissed her neck and then settled against her shoulder.
Maura hadn't heard the real-world intrusion. "Yes," she said. She kept her eyes down, refusing to look at Gretchen. "I had a note."
"What was in it?"
"I can't tell you that."
"Can you tell me why you were upset?"
Maura shook her head.
Gretchen sighed and held her arms out. "Can you tell me where we are at least?"
"I told you. Home."
Gretchen pointed at the seats. "But that's the Rose."
Maura frowned and finally met Gretchen's gaze. "Why can't it be both?"
"That doesn't make any sense."
"Yes, it does," Maura said. "Think about it. If it's one or the other, and both look as likely, there's a chance it's both."
Gretchen rubbed her forehead. "This can't be the Sutherland house and the Rose. Was the Sutherland house a real place?"
"No. But we're not talking about houses."
Gretchen growled in frustration. Something lightly patted her cheek and then kissed her lips. She squirmed and the house began to fade. "If it can be one or the other, it could be both," Maura said again as she faded.
Gretchen woke to find Dana next to her, propped up on her elbow. "You were growling," Dana said when Gretchen's eyes opened. "Muttering to someone and, like... literally growling. Are you okay?"
"If something can be one thing or another, could it possibly be both?"
Dana blinked. "What?"
"I had another Maura dream. The Sutherland house was real, and it was on stage. Maura said that it was both the house and the theatre. She said if both choices were equally possible, they both might be true."
Dana frowned. "That doesn't make any sense."
"Thank you!" Gretchen cried. She put her arms around Dana's neck and pulled her down into a hug. Dana laughed and ran her fingers over Gretchen's side. "It's almost seven. Do you want to get up and think about dinner?"
"Yeah," Gretchen said. "But first bathroom. And shower."
Gretchen said, "No," and pushed her off. "I need to get clean. This time. Next time."
"I'll mark my calendar," Dana said.
Gretchen stopped at the door and turned to look back at the bed. Dana was sprawled across the bed, her leg stretching out from under the blanket. From her position, Gretchen could see the swell of her breast, but no nipple. She bit her bottom lip and stood, naked and unashamed, in the doorway. The picture was just so perfect she didn't want to leave it. She gestured with her head and said, "I could use a hand getting my back, though..."
"And other hard to reach spots?" Dana suggested.
"We'll see," Gretchen said.
Dana jumped from the bed and chased Gretchen into the bathroom.
To be continued in Chapter Fifteen
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