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Saturday morning was hell. Always, without exception. Twice as many tourists came on that day than any other. Gretchen could've asked off to go to the audition, but there was no way she would have done that to Barbara. Even with Barbara's nephew Michael helping them, they would still be swamped. So she dressed up in a crisp white blouse, black slacks and did her make-up before going into work. When she arrived, Barbara struck a pose and pursed her lips. "Well! Someone didn't get the call about the dress code!"
Gretchen blushed and quickly covered her blouse with the Funky Junk smock. She went around the counter and said, "Where's Michael?"
"In the back room. What time did you want to leave for your audition?"
"Um..." Gretchen mentally calculated the distance to the theatre. "11:30?"
"I'll let you loose a little before then. Just to be safe."
Gretchen looked at the front door. Tourists were already milling about on the boardwalk. "What if we're swamped?"
"Mike and I will deal with it."
Gretchen hesitated again. "Well... what if I get a part? With rehearsals and all that, I'm going to miss a whole lot of work. I should probably just not show up..."
Barbara waved her hands as if dispelling bad karma. "No, no, don't talk like that! Look, you take however much time you need. This is big!"
"It's just a play!"
Barbara shook her head. She stepped closer and put her hands on Gretchen's shoulders. When she spoke again, her voice was lower and more personal. "No. Not for you. This is something outside of work that you're actually excited about. You come in here, you work eight or ten hours and then you go home. You need this, Gretchen Cole, do you understand me?"
Gretchen was almost too shocked to speak. "Y-yeah."
Barbara smiled and her voice returned to normal. "Great! So, you be ready to leave at about 11:20 and I'll make sure you're not too busy."
She watched Barbara waddle over to the front door and reach for the latch. She looked over her shoulder and said what she said every Saturday. "You ready to unleash the hounds of Saturday morning shoppers?"
"As ready as I'll ever be," Gretchen said.
Barbara turned the lock and flipped the sign over to open. As usual... no one came to the newly-unlocked door. Barbara looked out at the street and placed her hands on her wide hips. "Yep. It's going to be a real bloodbath today."
Gretchen chuckled and used the cash register to clock in.
Despite Barbara's joking, Saturdays did get busy. It just wasn't an immediate onslaught that began as soon as the doors opened. It was more insidious; a slow, never-ending trickle of customers that made sure they were always busy, always ringing something up, always answering a question. They were lucky if there was a lull between ferries, but it wasn't something they counted on. Saturdays, invariably, sucked.
As Gretchen was filling a customer's bag, the bells announced another customer was entering the store. She didn't stop what she was doing, but tossed a cheery, "Good morning and welcome to Funky Junk," over her shoulder towards the door. To the paying customer, she said, "Thank you and enjoy your stay on the island." The bells sounded again, and, "Good morning, welcome to Funky Junk." To a customer who'd just approached the counter, "Hi, did you find what you were looking for?"
Michael was busy restocking the shelves, but occasionally he'd come up front to help customers who had questions. "Animals," Michael murmured. He had just finished straightening a display of stuffed whales that had been knocked over by a tourist's little brat. The store was still in one piece, but barely. Gretchen sent the latest customer out the door and, to her surprise, another one didn't appear to take his place.
"Dear God," she sighed. "An actual break in the action."
Barbara had been wandering back and forth between the counter and her office, making sure Gretchen was keeping an eye on the clock. She arrived behind the counter during the sudden lull and poked Gretchen's arm with one lacquered fingernail. "You've got your monologue ready?" she asked.
"Yes," Gretchen said, embarrassed to be talking about it in front of Michael.
"Yes," Gretchen admitted.
"How come she gets a Saturday off and I don't?" Michael asked.
Barbara said, "Because I'm so worried about being accused of nepotism, I only practice it in reverse. Now shush."
Michael glared at Gretchen, who tried to shrink into her smock. Just then, another customer entered the store and rescued Gretchen from further discussion. "Hi," she said with an unmistakable air of relief. "Welcome to Funky Junk."
"Your total comes to $32.56. Out of forty..."
"Eleven fifteen," Barbara said. She swept behind the counter with a ballerina-sort of fluidity that belied how large she was. She patted Gretchen on the shoulders and shooed her away from the counter.
"I know what time it is," Gretchen said. "Sorry, sir. Uh, your change is $7.44. Thank you for visiting us and enjoy your stay on the island." To Barbara, she said, "We said eleven-twenty."
"Pft, five minutes." The door jingled and Barbara said, "Good morning and welcome to Funky Junk." To Gretchen, she said, "Go. Take a little extra time to go over your lines."
Gretchen rolled her eyes and pulled off her smock. "Fine! If it'll make you happy."
Barbara beamed. "It would. Immensely. Break a leg!"
Gretchen sighed and finally cracked a smile. "Do you really think I'll make it?"
"I do. Go! Before you're late and they give your role to any ol' Julia Roberts!"
Gretchen left the store and stood for a moment in the sunshine. She started to walk at a leisurely pace, but quickly began to jog. She felt like a kid let out of school early; everything seemed slightly off-kilter, brighter, more dazzling. Under her breath, she recited, "'You treat it like it's evil or rotten or something. It's not. You treat it like it's evil or rotten or something... you treat it like..." As long as she had that opening line, the rest would flow without a hitch. If she had the starting point, she would be able to do the whole thing, no problem.
She'd consulted a town map the night before, just to make sure she knew where the Rose Theatre was. She speed-walked the entire way, working her monologue over and over again in her mind. She pictured Bianca, bitter and angry and wishing she was anywhere else. She imagined Leah, by her side. She pictured the front porch Alice talked about and felt her lips pull into a nostalgic smile.
Before she knew it, she was at the theatre. She was taken aback by the size of it; she'd always thought it was a small little theatre set off the beaten path. It looked like a museum, a throwback to the grand old buildings of past centuries. Hurricanes, floods, nothing would take this beast down.
There was a large sign posted in the strip of grass by the street and she walked over to read it. "AUDITIONERS!" it read it large print. "Enter Through Stage Door, South Side of the Building." She walked around the parking lot, noticing it was only half-full of cars, and found the simple gray door tucked behind a waist-high brick wall.
She didn't know if she was supposed to knock or walk right in, so she pulled it open a little and peeked inside. When her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw concrete stairs leading down to an even dimmer backstage area. "You here for the auditions?" a man called from the shadows.
"Come on in."
She stepped inside and went down the stairs. The backstage area was flooded with people. They were milling around like animals in a pen and muttering furiously at themselves. Some were carrying folded pieces of paper and squeezing their eyes shut to resist the urge to cheat as they recited their lines. Others were hissing lines at their cupped hands, the palms of which were covered with tiny black writing.
Some of the actors were wearing period clothes, the men with their hair slicked back and their pants held up by thick suspenders rather than belts. The women wore gingham dresses and had their hair styled like Judy Garland or Shirley Temple. Gretchen pawed at her modern-day jeans and blouse - not exactly period and even less girlish - and felt very conspicuous.
The man who'd spoken was sitting at a long table placed in front of the stairs. He had a clipboard in front of him and a Sharpie in his left hand poised like a weapon. Gretchen walked up to him and shuffled her feet nervously. "Name?" he prompted.
He scanned down the list and said, "Ah, you're early." His face darkened and he snapped, "You have no place in the theatre. Get out!"
His eyes widened when he saw her reaction. He smiled and held both hands up in surrender. "Whoa, whoa, sorry. I'm sorry. I'm just joking. Honestly, punctuality is preferred. Sorry."
"Gabriel is an ass." Gretchen gasped at the familiar voice and spun around. Dana was walking past and smiling at the man behind the table. "Don't let him be mean to you, Gretchen." She patted Gretchen on the shoulder and said, "Tell me if he's mean. He'll have to put a dollar in the ass-jar. Do you have your head shot?"
Gretchen's eyes widened. "Oh, God. Oh, no... I-I didn't..."
Dana interrupted her. "No worries. Gabe, camera." Gabriel reached down and plucked up a Polaroid camera. He handed it to Dana, who said, "Every year, someone forgets a headshot. It's no big deal." She held the camera up and said, "Smile!"
Gretchen did her best and blinked at the flash.
Dana pulled the photo out as it developed and then handed it to Gretchen. "Write your name on the front under the picture with Gabriel's Sharpie." She paused and then said, "With Gabriel's Sharpie."
Gabriel handed her the marker.
"And put the rest of your information - phone number, address, height, stuff like that - on the back. Okay? Break a leg." She handed the camera back to Gabriel and hurried off. Gretchen wrote her information down as quickly as she could, giving herself an extra two inches since five-foot-four always sounded positively Lilliputian. She checked to make sure the picture was decent - Eh, she thought, at least it beats my driver's license photo - and handed it to Gabriel.
"Okay, Miss Cole. The director will call you when he's ready for you." He shifted in his seat and added her photo to the stack of headshots. He folded the paper on his clipboard and read a few lines before he realized Gretchen was still standing in front of him. He looked up and said, "You, ah... you're done here. Go, have fun, mingle. Green room is to your left, dressing rooms are to your right. Or you can watch the other auditions from the wings."
"Okay," Gretchen finally managed to say. She walked away from the sign-in table and scanned the crowd for Dana. She'd apparently evaporated. People kept walking towards her and Gretchen would nearly trip over her feet to get out of their way. It seemed like everyone backstage belonged there except for her. She twisted the hem of her shirt between her fingers and chewed her bottom lip.
From the stage, a woman said, "You treat it like it's evil or rotten or something. It's not."
Gretchen felt her breath catch in her throat. Someone else was doing Alice's speech! She kicked herself; she should've known other people would pick the one speech long enough to form a monologue. She should've known there would be other people trying out for Alice. What chance did she have? It was a dumb idea, she decided. She looked at the stairs and made her decision; she would walk aimlessly around town for about an hour, grab some lunch, and then in a few days, tell Barbara she hadn't made it. She couldn't control the director's decision, right?
She had taken half a step to the stairs when something cold was pressed into her hand. She looked down, saw a can of root beer, and then looked up into Dana's face. "Is root beer okay?" She held up her own can. "I have cherry, too..."
"Root beer's fine," Gretchen said when she found her voice. "Hi."
"Hi. Sorry about Gabriel." She motioned at the stage. "You about ready? I finessed it a little so you could go on early, just in case you have to get back to work."
"Oh. Thank you. I'm ready whenever they call me, but... that woman. She's doing the same..."
Dana laughed. "Oh, don't worry about that. So far, four people have done that speech. The director isn't listening to the words so much as how they're said. You're fine. You'll do great. Just say it like you did at the restaurant yesterday and you'll do great." Something caught her eye and she said, "Um, I have to go take care of something. Will you be all right here?"
"Yeah," Gretchen nodded, unable to say anything else. In the next instant, Dana had evaporated once more and Gretchen was left alone. She looked at the stairs again, considered fleeing, and then popped the top of her soda can and settled in to wait.
Dana hurried to the edge of the stage, where Steven Fraser was motioning her over. He was one of the lucky few who'd remained on the permanent cast, since he'd only been with the theatre for two years. His paycheck was small enough to keep around. Dana approached just as the actress on-stage finished her speech. She heard Owen from the house say, "Thank you very much. We'll be in contact with you."
Dana squeezed between Steven and the curtain and whispered, "What?"
He gestured towards the house with his chin. "She just arrived..."
"The Bitch who Stole Christmas," Steven grimaced.
Dana pushed the curtain aside slightly. Owen was sitting as close to center as possible. A workspace stretched out in front of him, balanced on the backs of several chairs. To his left was Jill Colby, who would be their stage manager for the third summer in a row. And to his right, still settling into her seat, was Sofia Fucking Chambers. The middle name was purely ceremonial.
Sofia Chambers had been born on Squire's Isle, had worked in the Rose Theatre like almost every other performer who came from the island. The difference in her story was that she went further. To Seattle, then to Vancouver and finally Los Angeles. People knew her face even before she debuted in her summer blockbuster. She had a strong chin, haunting green eyes and "a mane of flame-red hair that seemed to catch all the light from the sun and toss it back with double-heat." Or so said a hack newspaper critic after seeing Sofia's movie.
The movie - an action-packed flick about a housewife who was forced to fight government agents who were trying to get her minivan because it was wired with... well, whatever. It had helicopters, explosions and Sofia wore a tank top for the last two-thirds of the movie. No one paid attention to the plot anyway - had debuted at number one. Sofia was a bona-fide star, well on her way to Pretty Young Thing royalty.
She spent a year coasting on the success of her movie. The only appearances she made were at awards shows and charity dinners. More people saw her in the tabloids at the checkout line than they did on television. Her agent finally got through to her that it was time to go back to work and she got a job on a brand-new legal drama for FOX. She was the lead in a cast of six. Four young women opened their own law firm to stand up for the little guys in the world. All the ads showed Sofia - with her penetrating gaze and hair flaming out behind her head like a halo - in an impossibly short miniskirt and high heels. The show was going to be huge. It was a critical smash before it even premiered. Everyone had high hopes.
It lasted four weeks before it was cancelled due to low ratings.
Sofia remained in the tabloids, but her stories were being pushed farther and farther away from the front cover. She still arrived at awards shows in stretch limos, but the photographers usually took her arrival as a signal to change their film. The people who put together the charity dinners stopped calling.
Sofia spent so long trying to decide the perfect next project that, by the time she realized fame was slipping away from her, it was gone. It had been years since anyone of influence had mentioned Sofia Chambers, she of the one hit movie and the one failed TV show. Sure, she'd been gorgeous, but she must not have been much of an actress.
And now, here she was, back where it had all started. It had been Colin's idea to approach her. She was the hometown girl made not-so-good. But her name was one people knew. It would bring in not only locals from December Harbor, but theatre-goers from Seattle, from all over Washington. People from all over the state would be drawn to the tiny island for a chance to see a real-life celebrity. So what if she was kind of washed up? How many celebrities got their second chance at stardom on Broadway? Despite her fall from grace, people still recognized the name Sofia Chambers. And it was a name that had not come cheap.
Colin's people had contacted Sofia's people, half-hoping she'd say no due to the budget concerns. Sofia's people had come back with a not-exactly unreasonable offer and Colin had, in essence, accepted a deal with the devil. The price of one well-known actress was equal to thirteen loyal men and women.
Sofia had accepted because she was desperate for a chance to prove herself as an actress and get a fresh start. The Rose, even in the midst of a budget crunch, was eager for a big-name attraction to get people in the seats. Spend a dollar to make fifty cents, it seemed to Dana. Not exactly the best logic.
"Sofia Fucking Chambers," Dana hissed.
She was wearing a heavy black coat, despite the fact that it was almost seventy degrees outside. She was wearing big black sunglasses and her signature red hair was pull back in a severe ponytail. She seemed to be trying her best to be inconspicuous, folding her coat around her like a security blanket.
Dana sneered. "When do you want to start ignoring her?" she whispered. "Now?"
"Now's good," Steven nodded. He stepped back and wrapped his arms around himself. He was a few inches taller than Dana and whippet-thin. He was only twenty-seven, but he looked a good five years older and generally got cast as the father figure or the wise professor. "Who are you going to be playing?"
"Leah," Dana said. Owen had handed out a few cast assignments that morning. "You?"
"Steven," Steven said. "I play Alice's husband."
"Steven as Steven," Dana chuckled. "Revolutionary."
He laughed and said, "A bunch of us are heading to Daoine Maite after the auditions. Talk about the old times and--"
"God, no. Sorry. I've gone twice in the past couple of days and I'm starting to lose chunks of time. Chunks of time I would be very interested in remembering. So I'll have to pass. Sorry."
"No problem," he said. "But... very interested in remembering? What, pray tell, has sweet little Dana been up to?"
Owen's voice came over the speakers: "Gretchen Cole, please."
"Oh, hold on," Dana said. She pulled Steven to one side and searched for Gretchen.
Gretchen's blood went cold when she heard her name over the speaker. She put down her soda and made sure her blouse was straight before walking towards the stage. She spotted Dana standing next to the curtain with a tall, thin man. "Break a leg!" Dana whispered.
Gretchen smiled to her and took a deep breath before she walked out onto the boards. Every memory she ever had of being on-stage in high school came flooding back. The smells, the hazy sight of the theatre seats and that god-awfully bright spotlight bearing down on her. She walked to the black tape in the center of the stage and turned to face the house. "Hello, my name is Gretchen Cole... and I'll be reading for the role of Alice Sutherland."
"Whenever you're ready," a voice came from the halo of light.
She took a breath and focused on the light. Her mind's eye filled in the set; the farmhouse with newspapers on the kitchen table and an old cat asleep in the window. She felt like she was a young girl in the thirties, she felt like Alice Sutherland. When she spoke, she made sure to push her voice out to the back of the room. "You treat it like it's evil or... rotten or something. It's not." She smiled as if at a happy memory... and then stalled. Her hands began to shake as her mind went absolutely, utterly blank.
In the wings, Dana and Steven were unable to look away. It was like a train wreck and a car accident rolled into one. Steven winced and put a hand on Dana's shoulder. "It happens. She's just too scared."
"She's not too scared," Dana whispered. "You should've heard her yesterday, Steven." She closed her eyes and whispered, "'It's just home.' Oh, Gretchen, please... You know this! 'It's just home.'"
She remembered the line about the milkman, but knew that didn't come until much later. She closed her eyes and tried to stall. "It's not any of those things." Of all the things for her to forget. Oh, of course she knew "Good morning, welcome to Funky Junk." She had that down by heart. But try to get one damn monologue memorized and it didn't even stay for two damn days.
She was about to apologize and flee the stage when something brushed her hair away from her ear. A gentle voice, so close the speaker had to have been pressed against her back, said, "It's just home. It's where we grew up, Bianca."
Gretchen spoke the words without thinking. As soon as they were out, the rest of the monologue flooded her mind like a wall had been shattered. She walked forward and reached up to trace an imaginary picture from. "You remember when we used to sit on the front porch and Mama would make up stories about everyone who walked by on the sidewalk?" She covered her mouth coquettishly and giggled. She swung her hips and pretended to fan out a dress as she walked. "The sinister milkman... and the eccentric millionaire who was dressed in rags so people wouldn't ask him for money? That's what I remember, Bianca." She stopped swaying and focused on the spotlight. Tears sprang to her eyes from staring into the light and she gave her voice a slight tremor. "And... I don't know why you always only remember the bad times."
She turned to fully face the house and bowed her head to signal she was done. She said, "Thank you," and walked as fast as she could to the curtains. She felt like she was going to throw up. She clasped a hand to her stomach and nearly ran into someone. "Sorry," she muttered.
He said, "It's all right. I wanted to introduce myself. My name is Steven Fraser. I'm going to be playing your husband in the play."
Gretchen blinked and looked at Dana. Dana said, "Steven is playing Alice's husband. You nailed it. You were better than last year's Alice."
"Who was last year's Alice?"
"Me," Dana said. She put her arm around Gretchen's shoulders and said, "Come on. I'll show you the green room."
Gretchen beamed and let herself be led away.
To be continued in Chapter Six
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