***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof*** Copyright © 2018 Jennifer Donaldson
Storm clouds clot the edge of the night sky, stained purple from the city lights; but somehow, right over the yucca-fringed yard, the stars are still visible. I spot Orion there at the center of the sky. It’s the only constellation I can consistently pick out: the belt, the sword, the stars dripping away like blood. On the horizon, lightning flutters.
It’s late September, the Austin air dense and heavy. I sit in my swim trunks, dangling my feet into the pool. The flagstone patio, the carefully tended native plants, and the high-end bourbon in the monogrammed glass tumbler next to me all belong to my girlfriend. To Sasha. Sasha, whose parents are out of town. Sasha, who’s swaying down the path from the house with a wooden tray of snacks, in a black-and-white bikini and a pair of flip-flops.
“Need another drink?” She holds up the crystalline decanter, waving it enticingly.
“Still nursing this one,” I say, taking her in. Her long, muscular legs. Her flat stomach and gently rounded hips.
“Lightweight,” she says. Her blue eyes sparkle as she pops the stopper out of the heavy bottle and takes a huge swig. “Aren’t you getting in?”
“I like to get used to the water first,” I say, splashing my legs up and down a few times.
“Oh yeah?” She sets the bottle down on a patio table with a heavy clunk.
Without warning, she launches herself straight at me. At the last moment she vaults over my head, coming down in a cannonball right in front of me. A wave of cool water washes over me, a shock in the heavy night air. I shake out my hair, laughing, as Sasha surfaces.
“You’re gonna get it now.” I slide into the water and push off the side. She shrieks and swims away. I launch myself across the pool, my stroke clumsy but strong, my heart racing. She lets me catch her. I slide my arms around her narrow shoulders, and every cell in my body wakes up with a jolt at the feel of her body against mine. Her skin looks so pale next to my light brown complexion. The strings of her bikini top press hard against my chest. She slides one of her long, smooth legs between mine, and my mind goes silent. Smiling, wordless, she reaches behind her neck and pulls at the knot of her halter, slowly tugging it free. Her bikini top flutters away and lands on the surface of the water, a black-and-white lily pad drifting aimless around us.
“Sasha,” I whisper. It’s not my first glimpse of her small, perfect breasts. We’ve messed around plenty of times, in the backseat of my car, in an empty bedroom at a house party, anywhere we can find privacy. But we’ve never done this so openly, without worrying about time or exposure. Shielded by the foliage, we are open to the sky above.
And then the phone rings.
Sasha’s eyes go wide, her mouth flinching into a tight-lipped scowl. “They can leave a message,” I say, but she ignores me. She gently detaches herself from my body and wades back to the side of the pool, not even bothering to cover her chest with her arms as she climbs out.
She scoops the phone up from the tray on the patio table, where it glows green between a bowl of tortilla chips and a plate of prepackaged cookies. The citronella torch gutters as she moves near it, the orange light leaving deep shadows across her face.
“Mom,” she says.
I swim toward the stairs, my stomach tight. Suddenly the idea of Mrs. Daley hovers over the backyard: her strained smile, her perfect red nails, the way she taps her foot. Sasha’s parents are lukewarm about me, at best. I’m not sure if it’s the mediocre grades, or the fact that I’m a Chicano skateboarder dating their very white daughter—never mind that I grew up in the same bougie neighborhood as them, never mind that my mom’s family has been in the U.S. for generations. They’re old money. They could find any of a hundred reasons not to like me.
The dreamlike mood of a moment earlier starts to dissipate. I suddenly realize the clouds have rolled in overhead. Orion is gone, the sky glowering and low.
Sasha still hasn’t covered up. I can see gooseflesh along her arms as I climb out of the pool. I pick up the towel hanging on the back of a deck chair, try wrapping it around her, but she pushes me away.
“How’s Aunt Patty?” she asks. A ring of black surrounds her eyes where her mascara has smeared. She pauses, her eyes flickering quickly toward me and then away. “What? No, Gabe isn’t here. Yeah, I promise. Jesus.”
Something in her face changes. Her mouth goes slack for one quick second, and then tightens to stone. She takes a few steps away, muttering into the receiver, so low I can’t make out what she’s saying. My fingers knot anxiously at my sides; I absently pick up the tumbler of bourbon and sip from it. But the biting, burning thrill of the alcohol is gone. Now it hits my stomach like acid.
“Whatever.” Sasha’s voice rises again, clipped and angry. She ends the call, and for a moment she stands still, phone in one hand.
Then she turns to the patio table and grabs the decanter, throwing it with all her might to the ground. Glass and whiskey explode at her feet, glittering in the moonlight. Before I can say anything, she launches herself across the patio toward the house, stopping just under the eaves and raising both middle fingers into the air.
“Sasha!” I sidestep the broken glass and run toward her. “They’re watching us,” she spits. She nods up toward the roof. Sure enough, I can see a tiny red light. A camera. “She checked the security cameras on her laptop.”
Watching? A sick, slimy feeling runs over my bare skin. I tug the towel more firmly around my shoulders, feeling exposed. “Holy shit.”
She grimaces. “Perverts!” she shouts at the camera. I wonder if there’s an audio feed, or if she’s just hoping her parents can read her lips.
I imagine her parents sitting in a darkened room, the light of the laptop bleaching their faces. Or maybe they’re at her aunt’s kitchen table, drinking red wine and laughing at the two of us. The whiskey churns in my gut.
I walk back to the patio furniture and pick up my shirt.
It’s halfway over my head when I feel Sasha tugging at it. “You don’t have to go,” she says. “They’re three hours away. What are they going to do, drive all the way back just to kick you out?”
I pull the shirt down over my head and raise an eyebrow at her. “Do you want to spend the rest of your junior year grounded?”
She snorts. “They can go ahead and try. It’s not like they can make me stay home.”
Typical Sasha. She’s never been into picking her battles. She prefers conflict so she can show off what a badass she is. “Yeah, I’m not really feeling this anymore. Let’s just call it a night,” I say. “Look, tomorrow we’ll head out to the Greenbelt—get out of the house, go hiking. Steer clear of cameras.”
She steps closer. “Come on, stay. We’ll go up to my room. I don’t think there’re any cameras in there.” She slides her arms around my neck. “And if there are, fuck it. We’ll give ’em a show.”
I gently disentangle myself from her grip. “Yeah, that’s not really my thing.” I pick up my skateboard from where I had leaned it next to a potted agave. Last summer my best friend Irene painted a winged eyeball across the wood. At the time I thought it looked awesome. Now it makes me think of Mrs. Daley: one more unwanted eye, spying.
“I didn’t know you were such a prude,” she mutters waspishly. I walk toward the gate at the side of the house.
“It’s just not worth getting in trouble over,” I say, reaching out to push it open. She darts in front of me, her spine whip-straight.
“Oh, I’m not worth getting in trouble over?” She’s working herself up—I can see it in the sharp angles of her limbs, the jut of her chin. If she can’t stick it to her parents, she’s going to stick it to me.
I put my hands on her shoulders, but she jerks away. “Sasha . . .”
“No, it’s okay. I guess I’m not worth the effort.”
I glance up to see another camera, under the eaves of the house. Her parents are probably still watching, enjoying the little soap opera that they set off.
“You’re worth sacrificing one stupid night for,” I say. “I’m leaving now so I can still see you later. I mean, you might not care about getting in trouble, but I care if your parents won’t let you see me.”
She opens her mouth to say something, then shuts it abruptly. For a moment she stands there, her breath heavy, her face pale with anger. Then she grabs me by the collar and pulls me down, pressing her lips to mine.
It’s rough and urgent, her tongue pushing forcefully into my mouth. I almost lose my footing but catch myself on the door frame. A part of me recoils deep inside, unnerved. She’s doing this to punish her parents; this is her flipping them off, one more time, for the cameras. The idea that they could be watching still makes my skin crawl. But something about her fierceness pulls me in, too, like it always does.
She finally pulls away. Without another word, she walks back across the patio, toward the house.
Out on the street, leaves catch in eddies of wind, skimming the roadway and then lifting off to fly away. It’s eerily quiet, and then I realize the crickets have gone silent. It’s going to rain.
I throw my skateboard down onto the pavement and kick off. It’s a relief to get away. Sasha’s engaged in a lifelong war with her mom, a former debutante from an old Dallas family, prim and tight-lipped. I don’t like feeling like I’m just a prop in the melodrama.
A sliver of lightning cuts across the clouds just overhead, and a moment later the thunder snarls. I hop up the curb and off it again. I’ll have to hurry if I want to get home before the downpour. I lean into the downward slope of the hill.
It comes out of nowhere: a flash of light, and then impact. I am flying. The wind streams around me, seeming for an impossible moment to buoy me up. It’s in that infinite moment, caught aloft, that I understand: a car. I’ve been hit by a car. The headlights surround me like a nimbus, like the light that surrounds the saints in a religious painting.
Then the second impact comes as my body hits the pavement.
The first heavy raindrops splatter around me. An icy chill unfurls through my body, spreading along my arms and legs and coiling the muscles into shivering knots. I don’t feel any pain—just the force ricocheting through my bones—but there’s something weird about how my arm is twisted. The clouds overhead swirl and glitter, pops of color exploding in their depths now. Or is that just my vision? I try to lift my head, to get a clear glimpse of my arm.
A black shape flutters into view over me, and I struggle to figure out what it is. A bat? A kite? No. An umbrella. The patter of rain on my face ceases as someone holds an umbrella over me. The someone is hard to make out; they keep splitting, dividing, merging back together, all in the strange and shimmery air. I squint up, trying to make out a face.
A cool hand rests on my cheek.
“Shhhhh.” The voice is a woman’s. A girl’s, maybe. “Don’t move.”
I stare up at her, trying to blink my head clear. The shifting world seems to be tinged with flares of sickening color now, shades of bile and blood at the corners of my vision. I hear a cell phone’s key pad and then the girl’s voice again. “I need to report an accident.”
Lightning streaks across the sky, and in its split-second illumination I see her. She’s young, a teenager. Maybe my age. Her face is thin and pale, sharp-angled. Her hair is long and dark. Then the lightning passes and all I can see is the glow of her phone against her cheek, the silhouette of the umbrella against the sky.
And then that starts to fade, too. Her voice gets farther and farther away. She’s saying something about my arm, but I can’t bring myself to worry too much about it. The sickly colors at the corners of my vision close in, throbbing for a few beats of my heart before I slide away into darkness.
“Tis almost morning. I would have thee gone,” says Brynn Catambay, touching her cheek lightly. “And yet no farther than a wanton’s bird, that lets it hop a little from his hand like a poor prisoner in his twisted . . . twisted . . . shit.”
“Gyves,” I say, reading off the script. “Twisted gyves.”
“I don’t know why I can’t get that.” She knocks her forehead lightly with her fist. “What’s that even mean?”
“It’s like a leash,” I say. She looks at me, eyebrows raised. I shrug. “I looked it up the other day. When I was going over lines.”
“Only you would prep for an audition by doing research,” she says fondly. “Nerd.”
It’s Friday, early October, and the theater swarms with activity. Last week the drama department announced that East Multnomah High’s fall production will be Romeo and Juliet, and dozens of us have gathered for the auditions. Most of the drama club is here—Frankie Nguyen, Nessa Washington, and Laura Egan hang out in the wings, running lines, and Kendall Avery sits in the front row on one of the faded theater seats, eyes closed in meditation, which she always claims helps her “get in touch” with the character. There are people I don’t know, too. A goth girl with a septum ring sits on the edge of the stage leafing through the audition packet. And there’s a guy I recognize from the basketball team, sipping from a bottle of water and laughing in the middle of a gaggle of girls. Brynn looks around the room and sighs. Everything she does shows just how comfortable she is with the attention of the world on her. Today she’s wearing tights printed all over with cats under a puff-sleeved dress. She looks like she’s either ready to attend a mad tea party or catch a train at Harajuku Station. If she weren’t also unbelievably pretty it wouldn’t work. Lucky for her she’s got pillowy lips and thick black waves and the innate ability to contour without the use of a mirror.
“Who are these people, anyway? They didn’t audition last year when we did Antigone or A Raisin in the Sun. Do something popular and every poser in Portland comes out of the woodwork.”
“Hey, watch it,” I joke. “I’m vying for one of those poser spots myself.”
“No way!” She frowns at me. “You don’t give yourself enough credit, Elyse.”
Brynn’s always pushing me, always telling me I should go for better parts. She was the one who got me into theater in the first place, back in freshman year, back when I was so shy I couldn’t meet anyone’s eye. I don’t know how she looked at me and saw actress material, but she’s stood by that assessment ever since.
“Hey, everybody, welcome.” The room quiets down almost immediately. A young, dark-haired man has stepped out onto the stage. His face is smooth and chiseled, his frame lean. He’s wearing a button-down shirt and a pair of black-framed glasses, glinting in the spotlight.
My heart speeds up a little. I twist a lock of hair around my finger; the blond looks almost dark against my Portland- pale skin.
“I’m Mr. Hunter. I’m the new drama teacher.” He smiles, revealing a dimple in his left cheek. “I know a few of you already, but I’m looking forward to meeting the rest of you. Thanks so much for coming out. Now, some of you are theater veterans by now . . .” A few people laugh, including Brynn. “But even if this is your first-ever audition, don’t worry. I want to give everyone a fair chance. So when you come on stage, tell me your name and what part you’re trying out for. You’ll start off with the monologue you’ve memorized, and then I’ll have you read a little from the script so I can get a good sense of how you approach different characters.” He claps his hands a few times. “Okay? Let’s get going. Break a leg.”
We sit down in the creaky old seats. Next to me, Brynn jogs her leg gently up and down. It’s her only sign of nerves. She’s used to this by now. She got the lead in Antigone last year and starred as Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest the year before, the only time I know of that a freshman’s gotten such a big part. She’s almost certain to get Juliet.
We watch the parade of would-be actors, some nervous and stuttering, some hamming up every line. A slouching girl with gum in her mouth starts giggling hysterically right in the middle of the “wherefore art thou” speech, and the goth I noticed before barely speaks above a whisper. But Frankie and Laura both nail their readings, and the basketball player does a surprisingly good Tybalt, pacing angrily back and forth across the stage. And when Brynn slides into the spotlight, I can feel the whole room catch its breath. She commands the entire stage, the warm glow picking up the gold in her skin. She somehow makes her Juliet both flirty and innocent, both lovesick and playful. When she comes back to her seat, I hug her with one arm, and she gives a sheepish grin.
“Elyse McCormick?” Mr. Hunter says it like a question.
For just a moment, I freeze, my limbs suddenly senseless.
I hate going right after Brynn.
I manage to get on stage without falling flat on my face, which feels like an accomplishment in and of itself. When I’m there, vertigo tugs at my body, turning my stomach over and over. Darkness billows all around me. It flutters in the wings, it wells up from the audience and threatens to overtake me. The spotlight lands on me and I feel, for just a moment, like I’ve erupted in flame.
“Go ahead.” It’s Mr. Hunter. I can’t see him, but I know he’s a few rows back. His voice, coming so clear and so sure from the obscurity, feels like a tuning fork against my spine.
I find myself imagining that he’s the only one there—the only eyes, the only voice, the only person in the audience. My focus sharpens to a razor’s edge.
“Hi, I’m Elyse, and I’m reading for the part of the nurse,” I say. I take a deep breath, raise my chin, and begin. “Even or odd, of all days in the year, come Lammas Eve at night shall she be fourteen . . .”
I can feel the change come over me as I recite the words. It always happens—or it happens when I’m focused, when I’ve found something in the role to love. My shoulders round for- ward, my mouth quirks upward into a wistful grin, and I slide into character with ease. People always play Juliet’s nurse like she’s silly, but to me there’s something so sad about her. The first thing she talks about is her own dead child, and then she’s hushed and dismissed for speaking so fondly of little Juliet. There’s a whole tale of loss and longing beneath the surface, and it’s treated like a joke. I feel a little anger creep into my words, and I let it come—I let it flavor the warm, loving language, ever so slightly.
I’m not like Brynn. She’s been doing theater since she was seven, a tiny diva in the making. I only started going to drama club because I was looking for something to do, for a way to avoid going straight home after school. I hadn’t intended to fall so head over heels in love with it. Brynn was right—there was something in me that wanted to perform, to speak loud and clear at the center of the stage. To be seen. To be heard.
My monologue comes to a close. The air on the stage is almost stifling in the heat of the lights. The nurse fades away, and I’m just me again, awkward and exposed. My hands come together at my heart, anxious and fidgety.
His voice returns. Deep, but light, agile. He must be an actor himself. Our previous drama teacher, Ms. Harris, was an old kook, a free spirit in caftans and shawls who had us pretend to be a leaf on a tree as a theater warm-up. But Mr. Hunter exudes a kind of articulate calm; it’s easy to imagine him on stage, speaking poetry to the darkness beyond.
“Thank you, Elyse. Can you go ahead and pick up that script there . . . yes, right by your left foot . . . and read from page forty-two?”
I pick up the packet, leaf through. Then I frown. “This is Juliet’s line,” I say.
“I want to hear how you read a few different characters, please. Juliet’s just found out that Romeo’s been banished for killing Tybalt. Go ahead when you’re ready.”
I scan the monologue briefly, wishing I could wipe the sweat off my forehead but not wanting to smear my makeup. Juliet, caught between loyalties. Juliet, who’s just now realizing the full weight of her decisions. I start to read out loud. “But wherefore, villain, didst thou kill my cousin? That villain cousin would have killed my husband.”
I take her on like a mask, and I turn into someone worthy of a spotlight.
When my words finally fade, there’s a long silence from the auditorium.
By now my eyes have adjusted a little, and I can just barely make him out, a faceless shape beyond the footlights. He shifts his weight; I hear papers rustling. But his voice betrays nothing.
“Thank you, Elyse. Who’s next?”
After everyone’s had a chance to audition, Mr. Hunter takes the stage one more time. Now that I can see him clearly again, the spell is broken—all the intensity of his voice replaced with mild-mannered cheerfulness.
“There’s so much talent in this room! I’m going to be faced with a very difficult decision in the coming days. I plan to have the casting list up outside the ticket office by end of day Monday. Thanks so much.”
The room breaks into scattered applause, and then the lights come up and we’re all rubbing our eyes and gathering our things. I pick up my backpack and turn to see Brynn, a slight frown creasing her forehead. She looks at me in mild surprise, as if she’s just now noticed something.
“He asked me to read. What was I supposed to do?” I can’t quite keep a note of apology out of my voice, even though I know I shouldn’t feel bad. That’s how auditions work; everyone gets a chance. Even me.
“I didn’t say anything.” She holds up her hands defensively. “I’m just annoyed because you were good. I didn’t realize I was about to get upstaged.”
I’m spared having to answer by Mr. Hunter, coming down the aisle toward us. He’s smiling, eyes sparkling behind his glasses.
“Elyse, can I talk to you privately for a moment?” he asks. Brynn’s eyes narrow slightly. I feel my cheeks grow warm again, my pulse a staccato beat against my temple.
“Um . . .okay. Brynn, I’ll text you later, okay?”
“Sure,” she says. She picks up her purse and slides it slowly over her shoulder, frowning a little. “Bye, Mr. Hunter.”
“Good work today, Brynn. Thanks for coming out.” He watches Brynn make her way down the aisle.
And then we’re alone. The theater suddenly feels cavernous, the two of us huddled close together against the echoing dark. His glasses catch the light just so, and for a moment I can’t see his eyes. My fingers twist anxiously around one another. Did I do something wrong? Am I in trouble already? But when he turns to look at me again he’s smiling. My throat feels dry and tight, but I swallow hard and force a smile back.
“I’m not supposed to do this,” he says softly. “But I can’t resist. I wanted to tell you that you’ve got the part.”
His words don’t make sense at first. I stare at him. “What part?”
“Juliet.” He grins. “Don’t tell anyone else yet—I’m posting the final decisions next week. But I wanted to see your face when you found out.”
My mouth falls open. I shake my head mutely. “But . . . but I auditioned for the nurse.”
“You’d be wasted on the nurse,” he says.
I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. A bright, warm feeling fills my chest. I don’t want to be this easy to flatter, but hearing that he thinks I’m talented makes me realize just how hungry I am for exactly that kind of praise.
“I don’t know, Mr. Hunter. I’ve never . . . I’ve never carried a lead before. You probably want to pick Brynn. She’s good. And she’s already done some Shakespeare; at theater camp last year she played . . .”
He’s shaking his head already. “Brynn is good. She’s quite good. But she’s not what I want in a Juliet. You, Elyse . . . you’re really quite remarkable.” Our eyes meet. This close I can see that his eyes are hazel, the kind that looks blue, green, and gold in equal measure. For a second I’m unable to move.
“I . . . what if I can’t do it?” I whisper. “What if I’m not good enough?”
“I’m not worried about that,” he says. He puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes.
It’s starting to sink in, starting to feel real. The lead. He’s giving me the lead. A smile spreads slowly across my face.
“You’re actually serious?” I ask. “I’m going to be Juliet?”
“Yes,” he says.
I can’t help it. I throw my arms around his neck, squealing softly. He’s taller than me, so I have to stand on my tiptoes.
“Thank you!” I say. “Mr. Hunter, thank you.”
“Don’t thank me. You earned it. Congratulations, Elyse. I’m really excited to start working with you.” He gently disentangles himself from me.
I look up at the stage, the scratches and markings on the wood intimately familiar by now. I can almost picture myself, limned by light, in Juliet’s dress. Standing on the balcony. Dancing at the masquerade. Dying in the crypt, heartbroken and beautiful.
“I won’t let you down,” I say.
He’s suddenly serious. He looks me in the eye again, appraising, intent. Then he smiles.
“I know you won’t,” he says.
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