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Chapter Six,

The green room wasn't green.

Gretchen didn't know why she was surprised by that, but she was. The walls were instead slate gray, the carpet was brown and the ceiling was just plain old acoustic tile. Mirrors completely covered one wall so actors could check their costumes, rehearse their blocking or just stare at themselves. It was currently full of people waiting to hear their names called for auditions. Over the speakers in the ceiling, they could hear what was happening on-stage. During shows, it was a good way to make sure you didn't miss your cue. Today, it was being used mostly for eavesdropping.

Dana led Gretchen into the room and said, "Everybody, this is Gretchen Cole. Gretchen, this is everybody."

The crowd murmured a hello - not being impolite, just aware that sound travels in a theatre - and Gretchen blushed furiously.

"You scared us out there," Dana said as she walked Gretchen towards the couch in the corner. "I thought you'd really forgotten your lines."

"I did!" Gretchen admitted. "I went absolutely blank! But then... I guess... I don't know. It was like someone whispered the next line in my ear."

Dana froze. The people in earshot stopped whatever they were saying mid-sentence and turned to look at her. Sure she'd just committed some sort of unforgivable faux pas, she said, "I-I'm sorry... was I..."

"No, it's all right," Dana said. "You said someone whispered it in your ear?"

"Yeah..."

Dana smiled.

Someone at the back of the room said, "We have our first Maura sighting!" and the room began applauding.

"Maura?" Gretchen asked. "The woman from the forties?"

Dana continued towards the couch. "Yeah. Ever since she died in the middle of the performance, she kind of haunts the theatre whenever we do 'Sound of Your Voice.'"

"Not bad," Steven quickly added. "It's not like *Poltergeist* revisited or anything. She rearranges the sets, she moves the costumes around backstage, stuff like that. A couple people said they've heard her reciting lines after everyone else has gone home."

"Has anyone ever *seen* her?" Gretchen asked hopefully, remembering those beautiful eyes she'd seen in online photos.

But Dana was shaking her head. She sat on the couch and draped her arm across the back. "No, no actual sightings. We've had people try to take pictures before, but they never had any luck. She's a shy one."

"Which is odd," Steven said, "considering the fact she was an actress. I mean, you'd think she would be eager for the attention."

Dana laughed and gestured at the couch. "Why don't you have a seat? I'll go see if I can find our sodas from earlier."

"I really can't," Gretchen said. She checked her watch and saw it was already a quarter to noon. "Oh, wow. Um... I have to get back to work."

"Oh, damn," Dana said. "Right. Sorry. Steven, will you cover for me? I'm going to give Gretchen a ride back to work."

Gretchen shook her head. "You don't have to do that..."

"It's the least I could do. Steven doesn't mind, right?" Steven shook his head. "Right. Come on. We can talk about the rehearsal schedule on the way." She grabbed Gretchen's hand and said, "Help me up."

Gretchen pulled and Dana came up and pressed tight against Gretchen's side. She put her arm around Gretchen's waist and guided her towards the door. "Let's go before I get you fired. Bye, guys!"

Another murmured good-bye. Gretchen followed Dana out of the green room and upstairs to the stage door. After the darkness of the theatre, she was nearly blinded by the sun as she stepped outside. She and Dana both covered their eyes with cupped hands. Dana said, "I'm right over here."

When they got into the car, Dana tapped the steering wheel with the flat of her hand. She hissed and twisted around to reach into the backseat. "Damn it. Can you believe a couple of days ago, I almost froze to death walking home?" Gretchen tried to answer, but she was too intent on how Dana's blouse was pulling across her breasts to form a coherent sentence.

Dana found what the towel she had been searching for and dropped back into her seat with a sigh. She wrapped the towel around the wheel to protect her hands. "Okay. Funky Junk, right?"

"Uh, yeah," Gretchen managed to say.

Dana pulled out of the parking space and swung the car around. "This parking lot is kind of tricky to get out of... hold on." She slid between two other cars and aimed the car for what Gretchen thought was a curb. She went up and over and then slid out onto the street.

The radio was playing quietly and Gretchen was content to let it fill the silence between them. She toyed with the hem of her blouse, which she'd untucked as soon as she came off stage. She watched the town speed by and knew that they'd get to Funky Junk in a matter of minutes. She looked over at Dana and said, "You think I really have a chance getting cast?"

"We didn't get as many people at the audition as we were hoping. And when you combine that with the performance you gave... I watched a lot of people audition with that scene today and you blew them all out of the water. I'll have to tear Owen a new one if he doesn't agree."

"Okay, but... well. Do you think you and I could pass as *sisters*? I'm... I'm nowhere near as-as..." She wanted to say 'attractive as you,' but Dana didn't give her a chance.

Dana scoffed. "Please. Just because I'm blonde and you're brunette. Sofia Chambers, who is playing Bianca, is a redhead. We'll either just ignore it or use wigs. Either way, it'll work out all right."

She pulled up in front of Funky Junk and let the car idle. "The rehearsals won't be too bad. A lot of people have other jobs, so Owen tries to work around their schedules. They usually go from five to nine or ten and he's really lenient for the first couple of practices, but the two weeks leading up to show time? Miss it and die."

Gretchen smiled. "Okay. Thanks for the ride."

"Any time. If you ever need a ride to rehearsal, give me a call."

"I don't..." Again, she was going to say she didn't want to impose. But Dana beat her to the punch.

"Oh, right," Dana said. She slapped her forehead playfully and rooted around for a pen. She scribbled a phone number on the back of a receipt that was laying on the dash and said, "There you go. I'm happy to be your taxi service."

"Great," Gretchen said. "Well... I'll see you at rehearsal, maybe."

"No maybe about it. The cast list will be posted in the theatre lobby Monday afternoon. I know I'll see your name there."

Gretchen smiled. "Thanks for all your support, Dana. I don't think I'd have had the courage without you there."

"Happy to be of help." Dana leaned in and kissed Gretchen's cheek. "You'll knock 'em dead."

Gretchen smiled and got out of the car. She waved as Dana pulled away from the curb and tried to ignore the moisture on her cheek where Dana had kissed her. It was barely anything, less than a tear or a raindrop, but every nerve in her face felt connected to that little spot of wetness. She waited until the car turned the corner and was out of sight before she touched her cheek and, in a daze, walked into the store.

She was happy to see they weren't too flooded with customers. Two or three people were milling about by the back of the store, and a woman was showing her daughter the different coloring books they had available.

Barbara was behind the counter giving a customer her change. When the customer stepped aside, Barbara spotted Gretchen standing a few feet away. She squealed, clapped her hands and said, "You're back! Oh, how did it go?"

Gretchen went around the counter and retrieved her smock. "Okay, I guess." It already felt bizarre... Gabriel and his Sharpie, the whole ghost story in the green room... it was like she'd hallucinated it all. She looked at her watch; she'd only been gone forty-five minutes. How could she have done all of that in less than an hour? It all felt so surreal. She realized Barbara was still staring at her, so she said, "One of the actresses is sure I nailed it."

"Ooh, that's so great!" A customer walked up to the counter and Barbara said, "Hi, did you find what you were looking for?"

"I'll take it," Gretchen said.

"You sure?"

"Yeah," Gretchen laughed.

Barbara patted Gretchen's shoulder and headed back to her office. She turned and said, "I want to hear everything!"

Gretchen waved and then focused on the customer. "Sorry about that. Did you find everything all right?"

~

"Dana," Steven said as she walked into the green room. He looked more than a little surprised to see her. "I... didn't think you'd be back so soon."

"Gretchen works at one of the gift shops by the ferry dock. It took, like, five minutes to get there."

Steven nodded. "Yeah. And if I thought you were really just 'taking her back to work,' I would've expected you back. But... well... you're you. And she's not exactly unattractive."

"I don't jump the bones of every woman who passes me," Dana defended herself.

Gabriel was passing and scoffed, "When did that start?"

Dana blushed and said, "Gretchen's a nice girl."

"So she's not your type," Steven said.

Dana thought of Regan, of drunken nights with women she barely remembered. "No. She's really not." She was surprised by how much the thought saddened her. She grabbed the papers from Steven's hand and said, "Where are we?"

He caught the tone in her voice and wisely allowed her to change the subject. "We still have about twenty auditions left to get through," he said. "With any luck, we'll be out of here by one. Owen wanted to go ahead and call the tailor, set up appointments to have the costumes adjusted."

"Okay, I'll do that. Cast list goes up on Monday... you think schedule Wednesday for the alterations?"

Steven nodded. She started off and Steven said, "Hey, Dayne. Sorry about... you know, what I said."

"It's all right," she said. She turned away from him and bowed her head to look at the schedule in her hand. She whispered, "I'm really sorry, too." She walked away from the mass of actors gathering in the wings and headed for the backstage access door that led to the house. She was so focused on her own thoughts that she nearly ran into someone standing in the shadows. "Oh, excuse..."

The woman shook her head. "No, I was kind of lurking."

"Oh," Dana said. Sofia Fucking Chambers, she thought.

"I was just looking for the bathroom and I saw all these people and... I really don't want to face all these people just yet."

Dana tried to keep her voice steady. "The bathroom is, uh... straight ahead. In an alcove to the left. It's marked so you don't accidentally end up in the men's dressing room."

"Okay. Thank you..."

"Dana Purcell."

"You play Leah, right?"

Dana nodded.

"Owen showed me some tapes of you in last year's show. Outstanding, really. I look forward to performing with you."

"Um..."

"Anyway... bathroom..." She gestured in the direction Dana had pointed and walked away.

Dana watched her go and shook her head, as if to break the woman's spell. "We hate her," she reminded the part of her brain warmed by the compliment. She walked into the darkened house and leaned against the wall. "Don't screw me up and start trying to like her."

Onstage, a young girl - if she had claimed to be eighteen, Dana would have checked her ID - was hemming and hawing her way through Alice's speech. Dana winced and shook her head. If only Gretchen could've seen what she was up against, maybe she wouldn't have been so unsure of herself.

The Alice audition ended and Owen called out the next person. "Thank you, dear. Next... Arthur Daley, please." Dana was surprised to hear the name; Arthur Daley was her dentist's name. And, sure enough, there he was, striding out onto the stage. He was a big bear of a man, with broad shoulders and practically no neck. He had snow white hair and his face was contorted in a constant sneer.

"Ah-thur Daley," he said in his thick New Yahk accent. "I'm readin' for the part of, uh, Nathaniel Sutherland."

"Whenever you're ready," Owen said.

Dana hoped he was at least passable; most of the men auditioning were younger and, therefore, going to be cast as the husbands. And with the layoffs, the company didn't have anyone old enough to pull off the role convincingly. If push came to shove, she supposed they could always do age make-up, but she always hated that and it never came off right.

She crossed her fingers as Daley began to speak. His voice was low, civil. "You will keep a civil tongue at my table or you will not speak. Do you understand me? No!" he snapped. "You will not sit here and badmouth me... badmouth your mother like that. The dinner table is no place for-- No!" Dana jumped, despite knowing the outburst was coming. On-stage, Daley was breathing hard, his normally kind face red and infuriated.

"You listen to me, missy. You wanna blame me for your horrible childhood, fine. You want to blame me for the fact you treat your husband like garbage, go right ahead. But I will not take the blame for something that is *your* fault. You feel guilty about your Mom dying, maybe you oughta take a good, long look in the mirror, girlie. Because that was all you." He pushed an imaginary plate away from himself and said, "I'm done here. Take this out."

He straightened his back, bowed his head and then looked out at the house. "Thank you."

"Thank you, Mr. Sutherland," Owen said.

"It's, uh, it's Daley."

"For now," Owen said. "Thank you very much."

Daley smiled, back to his regular genial self, and walked off the stage.

Dana felt a hand on her back. "He's good, isn't he?" she said.

"I got chills."

Dana tensed slightly and looked over her shoulder. Sofia smiled and said, "Thanks for the directions."

"Uh, yeah, no problem."

Sofia stepped around Dana and headed back down to her seat. Dana watched her walk and, as an afterthought, glanced down at her ass. "We hate her," she reminded herself. "But God bless whoever made those jeans..."

~

Gretchen spent the rest of the day on autopilot. She was thinking about the theatre, Dana's kiss, all the wonderful people backstage, the thrill of being in the spotlight, Dana's kiss... She had seemed so sure that Gretchen would get the part. Now it was all Gretchen could do to keep her hopes from rising too high. There was still a chance of rejection. There was still a chance they'd choose someone else, someone better, who auditioned later in the day. There was always a chance they'd say no.

Fortunately, Gretchen was well-versed in rejection. It was why she didn't go out very often, or at all. Lonely was hard, but it was easier to ignore. A flat-out rejection was a hard thing to get over.

Through some miracle, she managed to finish the day without short-changing or overcharging anyone. She shed her smock, said good-bye to Barbara and Michael and headed home. Along the way, she recited the monologue in her mind. She, naturally, remembered the whole thing flawlessly this time. She let herself continue, to the other dialogue that was memorized but just a bit fuzzy. If she was cast, she'd have to have the whole play memorized in just a handful of weeks. No small feat, but at least Alice was meek and mostly quiet.

As she neared home, she saw Mr. Schroeder out in the front yard of his house. No problem; she was in a good enough mood to make small talk for a few minutes. He was crouched next to the front walk and working at the base of a sapling they'd planted a few weeks ago. Mike Schroeder was a large man with a permanent smile and a tight, blonde crew cut. Gretchen always wondered if he'd served in the Marines, but nothing in the house implied any kind of armed services in his past. He wore a red polo shirt almost as a uniform, tucked into his jeans and always with a crisp and straight collar. He was forming mulch around the young tree when she reached the driveway. "Hi, Mr. Schroeder."

He looked up. "Hi, Gretchen! Long day at the store?"

She sighed wearily and nodded. "Long day all around."

"You wouldn't know it by looking at you." He gestured at her with his spade and said, "That smile looks good on ya."

She blushed and headed up the drive. "Thanks, Mr. Schroeder."

"Nancy's making meat loaf tonight," he called after her. "More than enough if you'd like to join us."

"I'm planning on staying in tonight," she said. "But thank you for the offer."

He nodded and went back to his landscaping. "You're welcome any time."

She thanked him again and slipped into her house. Away from the hustle of the store, away from prying eyes, she finally let herself cry.

She didn't know why she was crying. She was happy. Like Mr. Schroeder had said, she was smiling. But she'd been holding back the tears ever since she'd left the theatre. Dana had been sweet to her. Everyone had been so nice. They'd welcomed her in. Maybe that's why she was crying... it had been so long since anyone had been that nice to her, anyone besides Barbara and the Schroeders, that is, that she had forgotten what it felt like. She knelt next to the door and covered her face with both hands.

After a while, the tears dried and she patted her face with the sleeve of her blouse. She looked at the clock and pulled herself to her feet. The store was always closed Sunday morning because Barbara had church, so Gretchen wasn't due in until noon. Since she'd be able to stay up late, it was the perfect opportunity to really dive into the play. She turned on the lamp, gathered her printed version of the script, and curled up on the couch.

They could still cast someone else. But just in case they didn't, where was the harm in getting a head start?

~

The last audition ended just after one, so Owen decided to be civil and let them go. "The complete cast list will posted on Monday," he said as he gathered his things. "Flee into the night, enjoy your last few hours of freedom. For if your name appears on that list Monday, I own your asses for the next two months. Good night, all."

Gabriel had taken down the sign-in table and returned it to a backstage storage closet. He stood next to the green room door with a can of soda in his hand and stopped Dana when she walked by. "You sure you don't wanna come to Daoine Maite with us?"

"Trust me, I'm sure. Toss one back for me and say hi to Regan."

"If she'll talk to me."

"She'll *talk* to you," Dana said. "Just don't expect her to take it further."

Gabriel sighed and toasted her with his soda can.

Dana continued on her journey from backstage. She was hoping to catch up to Owen before he left, but he was too fast for her. She managed to snag Jill, however, and pulled her aside. "Hi... I know I'm not supposed to ask this, but you have to let me know. My friend, Gretchen Cole. How did she do?"

Jill adjusted the binder she was holding so she could flip it open. "You're right, I'm not supposed to tell you. But I guess since you're already cast..."

"And I kind of told her it was a lock..."

Jill smiled. "That's always a bright idea."

Dana shrugged. "Well?"

"Ah. Says here that he thought she was brilliant." She smiled. "He's going to cast her as Alice."

Dana whooped and clapped her hands together. "Thank you, Jill. You just made my day."

"Probably didn't hurt your friend's day, either. I'm happy to help. Just don't tell Owen I gave you a sneak peek."

"My lips are sealed," Dana said, drawing her finger across her mouth.

Jill wished her a good night and Dana headed backstage. Steven was waiting and she gave him a thumbs-up. He grinned and returned the gesture. "What was all that about?" Gabriel asked.

"Top secret," Dana said. "What are you still doing here?"

"Waiting for a ride to Daoine Maite. We need a designated driver, otherwise our car would end up in the parking lot all night. And, you know... terrible things happen to cars left overnight." He took a casual sip of soda.

Dana glared at him and said, "Yeah. I know all too well."

He hid a smile behind his hand and slipped around the corner. Dana glared after him and, after a moment, broke into a smile. She ran upstairs and out to her car, speeding off in the hopes she had enough time to pull off her evil plan.

á

By the time she got back to the theatre, everyone had climbed into Steven Fraser's van to go to the bar. She parked by the stage door and made sure it was locked. Nice and tight; everyone was home and there would be no witnesses. She walked through the parking lot until she found Gabriel's car. "You may not have been alone," she muttered, "but you made the mistake of bragging about it."

She set the bag down and pulled on a pair of heavy-duty work gloves. She kept them around in case she had to change a flat tire, but now they were going to help her with another, decidedly much dirtier, job. The butcher at the supermarket had looked at her oddly, but he'd come up with a salmon fresh off the boat. It had cost her a pretty penny, but it would be worth it.

She ran her hand under the wheel well of Gabriel's car and found the hide-a-key. "Oh, Gabe. Sweet, innocent, na´ve Gabriel..." She unlocked the driver's side front door and pulled the fish from the bag. It wasn't too bad now, but given a few days - hell, even a few hours - under Gabriel's seat... well, she didn't see him taking any girls home from the bar for a while. So really, she was performing a public service.

Under the driver's seat was a little too obvious. It was the first place he'd look when the odor began to waft through the car. Passenger seat would be the second place. She crawled over the console and peered into the tiny backseat. It was really just a bench where the driver could stow things; she couldn't see anyone actually fitting back there. There were thousands of fast food containers, hundreds of empty coke bottles, a few actual napkins, and a light dusting of old script pages.

She put the newspaper-wrapped fish on the passenger seat and cleared a hole. Deep below the trash, she found a tiny, tiny space between the seat and the floor. She wedged the fish into the space and let the trash fall back over it.

She allowed herself one "evil mastermind" laugh, slipped out of the car and returned the hide-a-key to the wheel well. She threw away the butcher paper and the shopping bag, pulled off her work gloves and walked casually to her car.

Game, set, match.

To be continued in Chapter Seven

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