Rise From The Ashes

The abandoned ruins of the Delgrand Theatre stood like a scar in the heart of L.A., a testament to a great tragedy that had occurred one year ago. The roof was broken in several places, letting dawn’s orange light illuminate the stage. The seats were torn and tattered, the material showing scorch marks in many places. Charred supports precariously held up the stage, ready to give up the fight and collapse at any moment. The stage curtains were full of holes and the scent of burnt dreams seemed to hang in the air.

<i>Still that unforgettable smoky smell remains after all this time</i>, Alice realized as she stood at the base of blackened curtains, looking out onto the stage. Her body trembled as she stood in this place of powerful memories and emotions, but she knew the nightmares would never end unless she returned to face her ghosts. <i>I have to find closure, </i>she thought. <i>I have to put that night to rest or I’ll never be able to get on with my life.</i>

She tentatively allowed herself to step forward onto the stage, testing it with her foot first to see if it still held her weight. Her body weight made the weakened boards creak in protest, but they did not give way. She tiptoed to the edge of the stage, and looked down over all the rows of seats. <i>How many faces did we see there, sitting though the first and second nights of our magnum opus? It seemed like every seat in the house was full.</i> <i>We made them laugh and cry, but it’s over now.</i> Alice looked beyond the theatre to the outside world, where her new life awaited her return. <i>No. I’m not ready to leave. The ghosts are not done with me yet.</i>

Alice carefully sat down on the edge of the stage and let her legs hang down. The past flooded into her mind, thoughts and feelings long repressed coming to the surface. Allowing herself to remember, she let her mind wander back into the past and the events leading up to that fateful night, one year ago…

~

Alice Hartman left yet another casting office with a sinking feeling. <i>I’ll never get a movie part. They all look at me the same way. I’m not a size eight and and I don’t know the right people. I’m just wasting my time dreaming of the silver screen.</i>

Slamming her car door, she cranked up the radio and drove away. She was zoning out on the highway when a radio article caught her attention.

<i>“We’re reporting from the Delgrand Theatre, where new owner Thomas Grady has received a lot of heat for his controversial play Nailed in which Jesus is depicted as gay. Many actors have left the theatre and Grady is looking for new talent for his next project, which he promises will draw less protestors, though he refuses to back down from his stated goal to bring more exciting and challenging plays to L.A.”</i>

<i>I wonder if I could get an acting job there? It’s a small gig, but I’m sure it would be a good talking point for my resume. </i>Alice pulled her car over to the side of the road and jotted down the phone number on a used envelope.

<i>~</i>

Alice sat nervously twiddling her fingers in the theatre’s little office. The wallpaper was peeling and the reception desk sat empty. A yellowing phone rested beside a pile of papers and Alice wondered if the theatre even had a receptionist.

A balding middle-aged man stepped out from the back office. “Alice Hartman?” He extended his hand and Alice shook it. “I’m Thomas Grady. Come into my office and we’ll talk.”

Alice followed Grady into the back office, where he offered her a seat. Alice sat down and felt the peeling red leather digging into her legs. She fought the urge to pick at it.

“I’ll be honest,” Grady said, “We’re in dire straits. Our last performances have been poorly attended. I thought I could do something different with this place, but I’m running out of ideas. The last play received a lot of media attention, but that never translated into ticket sales. I guess I’m just not finding a market. So I had my writer come up with a script, and this is going to be our last effort to make this place work. It’s a lesbian love story, and we hope to bring back more of our GLBT customers without attracting too much unwanted attention for offensive content,” he said. “Perhaps if we build a good name for ourselves, we can tackle religious content another time. Anyway, I think there’s a part that would be perfect for you…”

“…I don’t know,” Alice said. “I mean, I’m not–”

“It’s not about who you are, but who you can pretend to be,” Grady said. “That’s an actor’s job, correct? I’m offering you a leading role here. If you do well, it could be a good break for a young woman like you.”

Alice thought about it for a moment. <i>A leading role? I can’t turn that down because of my instincts. He’s right, it’s just acting.</i> “What would it entail?”

“There’s a couple of kissing scenes,” the owner said, “It’s about a princess who loves the princess of an opposing kingdom but is due to be married to the prince of a neighboring kingdom. It’s a beautiful tragedy. Take the script and read it for yourself. It sounds a lot better in practice.”

“That’s rather cliché,” Alice said. “I really don’t know.”

The office door opened to reveal a young woman somewhere in her twenties. She stepped into the office with an air of confidence about her. Brown hair hung around her shoulders in ringlets and she was wearing a rich cream-colored ball gown which emphasized her figure. Her eyes seemed to sparkle blue, and she glanced at Alice, offering her a quick smile before turning her attention to Grady.

“Dad, do you like the costume?”

“It looks magnificent, Lucy,” Grady said. “Alice, this is Lucy, my daughter. She’s playing the other lead role, that of your character’s love interest, Princess Rosetta. Lucy, this is Alice, who I’m hoping to recruit for the part of Princess Sasha.”

Lucy smiled. “Nice to meet you, Alice. I hope you take the part. This play is my brainchild. I’ve been writing it for years, wondering if it would ever make it to the stage. You’re just as I imagined Princess Sasha.”

“So,” said Grady. “What do you say, Alice? Will you at least read the script?”

Alice looked back at Lucy again. <i>Can I really pull off a role where I have to kiss another woman?</i> <i>Lucy’s beautiful, yet that just seems to make the thought of kissing her more awkward.</i> Excitement mingled with fear in her gut as she mulled over the thought of kissing another woman.

“All right,” Alice said, swallowing to ease her dry throat. “I’ll take home the script and read it. I have a couple of other jobs that might come through; I’ll get back to you by Thursday morning.”

“I hope you take the role,” Lucy said as Alice stood up, “I think you’d be well suited to it.” She led Alice to the door and opened it for her, saying goodbye with a warm, welcoming smile; the first one that Alice had received in the harsh world of acting.

~

Alice left the script on her bedside table, reading it every night before she went to sleep. <i>It’s good, a lot better than I expected, but the kissing scenes are passionate and intense. Will I be able to handle it?</i> <i>I’ve acted in kissing scenes before and they were never a big deal. Why is the thought of this one bothering me so much? </i> She imagined kissing Lucy, their bodies pressing together in low-cut princess gowns and the heat rushed to her face. She pushed the thought away. <i>It’s just the excitement of doing something taboo. It’s got nothing to do with who I am. It’s just an acting job.</i>

Thursday rolled around without a single call from any of the other parts she’d auditioned for. <i>I knew they were unlikely prospects, but I hoped anyway. </i>She sighed and her eyes strayed back to the script sitting at her bedside. <i>It’s a demanding play with a lot of lines to learn, yet something inside me also quivers with excitement at the thought of taking this role. If I can prove myself in this challenging role, other opportunities might open up to me. </i>She picked up the phone and made the call, twiddling her hair around her finger like a nervous teenager as she made an appointment to discuss the part.

~

Alice found herself sitting in Grady’s office with the script on her lap. Lucy was standing behind the desk with her father, flipping through the script and making some final edits. <i>I felt confident about this yesterday, but now I’m back to my usual nervousness. What if I freeze up when we reach the love scenes? Will Lucy judge me if I can’t kiss her?</i>

“I’m glad you’ve decided to take the role,” Grady said. “Most of the parts are filled now. I want you two to concentrate on your chemistry together for the moment, though. We will bring in the other actors when you are comfortable with your roles. The production begins in four weeks – you have until then to get it right. I’m not going to be up behind you – it’s up to you to arrange time together to practice. The dressing rooms, costumes and props are all yours to use. You’ll be under Lucy’s supervision from now on – this is her play.”

Lucy finished scribbling on her script and walked over to Alice. “Well then, to start with, we should probably just read the script through together,” Lucy said. “I’ll show you around, too – it’s not a big place, but the stage is nice, and you’ll need to get used to it.”

Lucy unlocked a door and held it open for Alice, who walked through onto the stage. She walked to the edge and looked out at all the empty seats, thousands of them stretching back into the darkness. <i>This must have been a grand theatre once upon a time, a place where the greatest actors came to entertain. Now stage acting is a dying art. Can I really pull this off with so many eyes watching me?</i>

“We’ll be lucky if we fill a third of that,” Lucy said, “so don’t worry too much about all the eyes on you. But a third would be good, and certainly more successful than my father’s other plays.”

“Do you really think we can save this place?” Alice asked.

“I don’t know,” Lucy said, “but I begged my father to give it one last try. It’s been my life’s dream to write and act in my own production. If we fail, I’ll at least have achieved that much. Acting work is hard to come by, so if the theatre closes, I’ll probably take a day job. Dad put a lot on the line for me, so I have to try my best to make this play as good as it can be.”

“I’ll do my best too,” Alice said, suddenly feeling invested in the theatre’s fate. <i>Lucy deserves to achieve her dreams. I can’t imagine such a passionate soul working nine-to-five in an office. I have to do my best and not let her down.</i>

~

Two weeks passed in a blur and before she knew it Alice was arriving at one of the last costume rehearsals before the production opened. Grady and some of the other actors were sitting in the audience, and Alice felt her stomach rumble nervously as she contemplated kissing Lucy for the first time. <i>We’re friends now, sharing a common dream together. That should make this whole thing easier, but somehow it only makes it harder than kissing a stranger.</i> She let out a quiet sigh and they ran through the early parts of the script.<i> It’s just an acting role. This isn’t me. It’s just my character, kissing another character.</i>

Yet she felt all eyes were upon her as she delivered the line; “Oh, my dearest Rosetta, please don’t leave me again!” Lucy moved closer, slipping her arms around her back and drawing Alice into her embrace as their lips moved closer. Alice could hear her heart pounding in her ears as Lucy’s soft lips met hers for a brief second. Lucy’s hand moved up to caress her cheek and the kiss deepened before Lucy pulled back, smiling. The audience burst into applause and Alice felt her cheeks redden as if they were on fire. She felt light-headed and quickly pulled away, staggering back towards the stage door.

“I… I think we’ll call it a day!” she muttered, suddenly feeling the intense need to be alone. She hurried through the door and down the hallway to the dressing room, where she shuttered herself inside as she saw Lucy following. Lucy knocked on the door as Alice slid down it, trying to still her ragged breathing.

“Leave me alone!” Alice yelled.

“Just let me in,” Lucy said. “I just want to talk, that’s all.”

Alice felt her body betraying her mind as she shakily found her feet and stood up, unlocking the door and letting Lucy enter. Lucy gently closed the door behind her and pulled up a chair for Alice and one for herself. They both sat down. Alice’s hands were in her lap and she looked down at them, unable to meet Lucy’s gaze.

“You’ve never kissed a girl before, have you?” Lucy asked.

“No… of course not!” Alice stuttered. “I mean, I don’t mean it like that… I just…” Suddenly she was five again and on the stage for the first time. The stage makeup felt like an alien mask over her own face and she felt like everyone was laughing at her as she stiltedly delivered her lines, fighting the urge to run away the whole time.

“It’s okay. I can tell,” Lucy soothed. “It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s an acting role, Alice.”

“I know. It’s just… everybody was watching, and…”

“Everybody will be watching on opening night,” Lucy said, “They’ll be expecting a convincing display of affection. You can’t worry about your own personal inhibitions, otherwise that will show through and nobody will believe that Sasha loves Rosetta.”

“I’m sorry,” Alice said, “I know I’m being unprofessional. Perhaps I just need some practice.”

“So we’ll practice here, where nobody is watching. Next time we go out on stage, it won’t be a big deal. It’s my fault, I should have realized you’d never done this before. I shouldn’t have asked my father to watch us act this out so soon.”

Lucy moved closer and Alice felt her heart skip a beat. She felt her instincts telling her to run, but she fought against them. <i>If I can’t even kiss Lucy in private, I’ll never be able to pull it off convincingly on stage. If I can’t do this, than my role in this production is over.</i>

“Just relax,” Lucy said, putting her hands on Alice’s bare shoulders. Alice felt her touch jolt through her like ten thousand volts of electricity. “Don’t pull away, just let me kiss you. Think about somebody you like if it helps you to stay calm.”

Alice felt Lucy move closer and tried to think of a boyfriend she’d known for a brief time back in high school. Yet nothing blocked out the intoxicating, feminine scent of Lucy, who smelled like the sweetest ocean breeze. Nothing stopped the feeling of Lucy’s plump breasts pushing up against hers through their costumes, or the soft feeling of her lips as she kissed Alice, their lips meeting in a gentle whisper of a touch. To her surprise, it was Alice who lingered when the kiss threatened to end.

“There.” Lucy smiled. “Just let it come naturally and everything will be okay.” She squeezed Alice’s shoulder before opening the dressing room door and closing it again behind her as she left.

Alice stood rooted to the spot. Her shoulders seemed to burn where Lucy had touched them. Her lips felt cold without Lucy’s warmth, and she felt turned on by the feeling of their breasts rubbing together. She finally managed to sit back down in her chair as her mind raced. <i>Have I been without a boyfriend that long? I suppose that must be it. I haven’t dated since high school, because I’ve been busy working on my dream. </i>She pulled herself together and changed out of her costume, leaving the theater and rushing back to the safety of her apartment as fast as she could.

Lucy’s touch haunted Alice that night. She woke up from a dream in which Lucy had whispered sweet nothings to her as they made love in the dark. She tried to forget the dream even as she longed to hold onto it and the feelings it gave her, the excited chills running through her body and soul as she contemplated doing more than kissing Lucy. She let her hand slip beneath the covers and down between her legs, touching herself as she thought of Lucy naked, Lucy eager to kiss and touch her. Her back arched as she came, Lucy’s name on her lips.

As she came back down, she felt embarrassment fill her at the thought of what she had just done. <i>I’m not a lesbian. I’m not. This is just some kind of curious phase caused by trying out something new, that’s all. I need to be a professional and put it aside for the sake of the play. </i>She rolled over and closed her eyes, sleep rolling over her like a warm blanket.

~

Alice went back to the play with a clear mind the next day. She breezed through the kissing scenes. <i>Now that I’ve gotten it out of my system, this is so much easier. </i>Kissing Lucy seemed to become routine, yet she could never quite rid herself of the anticipation and excitement that flowed through her veins every time Lucy drew in close for her kiss.

They sat on the edge of the stage after practice was over for the day. Opening night was just a week away, and Alice was still afraid that when she kissed Lucy in front of a live audience, she would choke.

“You’re doing much better,” Lucy said. “I told you everything would be okay. I knew from the moment I first saw you that you were my Princess Rosetta.”

<i>She doesn’t mean it like that, </i>Alice thought. <i>She just means I have the right look for the part. </i>“So you wrote this play, right?”

“Yes, why?”

“Writing about two women falling in love… I guess that means you’re a lesbian, right?” Alice looked away, trying to hide away from the awkward question she’d let slip past her lips.

“Yes,” Lucy said, looking down at her hands. “I’m sorry if that makes you uncomfortable. I wasn’t trying to keep it from you. I figured it was obvious from the nature of the play.”

Alice did feel uncomfortable, but she swallowed it down. Lucy had been kind to her, and those kisses hadn’t meant anything, they were just part of a play. Weren’t they?

“I consider you a friend,” Lucy said, “so I apologize if I misled you…”

“You have nothing to apologize for,” Alice said. “It’s all right.”

“I’m really nervous about this play,” Lucy said. “I’m not out to a lot of people besides my family. Once this play begins and the media reviews the play and profiles its writer and lead actress, everybody will know about my sexuality. I’m afraid of their reactions. Just because this is L.A., doesn’t mean everybody will accept me.”

“I’m sorry,” Alice said, empathy and guilt mingling together. “I made such a fuss about doing the kiss. I hope you don’t think I meant it personally. This is such a beautiful play. I’m honored to be a part of it, Lucy.”

“Thank you,” Lucy said. “I’ve worked on it since high school. I never thought it would see the light of day. Even when my father bought the theater, he had lots of experienced writers at his side. I’m lucky to have this chance to bring my play to life.”

“You’re a talented writer and actress. Maybe you’ll get noticed on opening night. You never know who might be in the audience.”

“I can only dream of things like that,” Lucy sighed. “I’m already working on another script, though. Would you like to come up to my apartment and read it?”

Panic flooded into Alice’s mind. She tried to think rationally and cautiously. <i>I can’t go to Lucy’s apartment. I can’t let myself get that close. We’re just actors in a play, friends at most. I don’t deserve to read her new script.</i> Yet the more reckless part of her argued back. <i>You want to go. You want to get close to Lucy, don’t you? Closer than anyone else. It’s been a long time since you’ve had a friend; even longer since you’ve had a lover. Don’t you want to see where this goes? Or would you rather sit alone at home, waiting for a phone that never rings?</i>

“I’d love to come over,” Alice decided. “Where do you live?”

“In the apartments above the theater. My father used all our money to buy this place, so we have to live here too. Come on, I’ll take you up.”

Lucy led Alice through corridors she didn’t even know existed, up through dark, dusty storage rooms and up several flights of narrow stairs until they reached a door, which Lucy unlocked and opened. It led into a large living room, with windows that looked down upon the whole city. Lining the walls were framed newspaper articles with reviews of plays. Alice noticed that a child that looked like Lucy was in many of them.

“Are these all pictures of you?” Alice asked, inspecting the frames.

“Yes,” Lucy replied, “I wanted to act ever since I first stepped foot on a stage. My father was a playwright for much of his life, and we moved around selling scripts wherever we went. I used to love to see my father’s stories come to life. After my mother died, he stopped writing to go into the management side of things. He always said that some day I would perform one of my own plays. I’m grateful to him for the chances he’s given me. I’m just sad that this theater hasn’t worked out for him financially.”

“We may still save it,” Alice said. “If the play is well-reviewed, you could make a lot of money.”

“I wish that was a likely outcome.” Lucy said. She slumped down on her bed. “It’s a cruel world. Chances are that this will be our last production, and that it will go virtually unnoticed. People want to see mainstream productions, things they can relate to or at least laugh at. If they want to see science fiction and fantasy, we just can’t compete with movies and digital effects. Let’s face it, the play is a dying art form.”

“There are plenty of people who want to escape from their real lives,” Alice said, “Boredom eats away at them, and they want to be reinvigorated, have something to believe in again. They want to be challenged as an audience.” <i>I don’t want Lucy to give up hope. This play has already changed me and opened my mind in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I know it would be a great loss for the world if Alice stopped writing and acting.</i>

“I don’t know,” Lucy said. “I started writing this new play, but my inspiration has dried up. I can’t tell if I’m putting down genius or garbage.”

“Can I see it?” Alice asked. <i>I want to see what Lucy has written. I want to see what’s on her mind, what’s inside her very soul. I want to know her, even if we never see each other again after this play.</i>

Lucy stood up and walked across the room to an old wooden writing desk where some papers lay. She picked them up, shuffling them into a neat pile before walking back and handing them to Alice.

“I’ve never let anybody read my unfinished work,” Lucy said, “but this time I’m really stuck, and I think you might be able to help. At least tell me if what I’ve written is any good. Take it home, and bring it back when you’ve finished.”

“I’m no genius,” Alice said. “What I like may not please critics or indeed anybody else. I’m just a regular girl who likes to act.”

“I trust your opinion,” Lucy said. “Please help me.”

“Okay. I’ll read it.” She carefully clutched the papers to her chest like they were precious gold as Lucy let her out of the apartment.

~

Alice entered her apartment and put Lucy’s script down on the kitchen counter. She considered reading it at once, but a piece of her considered returning it unread. <i>What was I doing, agreeing to read Lucy’s script? I can’t offer her any practical advice. I’m just being nosy, trying to read into a friendship that can’t be anything else.</i> Yet the papers seemed to have an inexorable pull to them and Alice soon found herself sitting on her bed, reading the elaborate tale that Lucy had woven. She laughed and cried often, and found herself completely captivated by Lucy’s work in progress. The night wore away, yet she could not tear herself from the papers to get some sleep.

She woke to the sound of the phone ringing, the pages curled up in her arms like a lover. She reached for the phone, grabbing at thin air before reaching the phone and picking it up.

“Hello?”

“It’s me,” Lucy said. “Alice, opening night is tomorrow! I thought we agreed you’d be here for practice?”

“I’m sorry,” Alice said, rolling out of bed. “I was reading your script last night and I fell asleep without setting my alarm. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“What did you think of the script?”

“I haven’t finished reading yet but what you have written down is perfect. You have to finish it, Lucy. I know you’ll find a market for this play.”

“Thank you,” Lucy said. “I really appreciate you reading it. We’ll get started down here. Come over when you’re ready.”

When Alice arrived, practice was in full swing. <i>In just a few short weeks we’ve come such a long way, </i>she thought, looking at the stage. All the sets were ready, the costumes were finished and the theater was buzzing with staff and actors.<i> I’m just relieved that everything is under control. I’ve got enough to do just keeping my own part in check. </i>

She took the wrong door by accident and ended up standing in the seating area. Looking up at the stage, she could see Lucy standing there in her costume, singing the Lament of Princess Rosetta, a song about Princess Sasha’s death. Alice had heard it before, but standing in the audience, it seemed many times more powerful. She walked closer to the stage, captivated by Lucy’s beautiful voice, and took a seat in the front row. By the time the song was over, tears were streaming down her face and she clapped. Lucy looked down in surprise.

“Alice, what are you doing there?” Lucy asked. “I didn’t think anyone was watching.”

Alice climbed up onto the stage. “That was amazing. Why have you never sung it like that before?”

“I guess this sounds silly,” Lucy said, “but I get nervous when people are watching. It’s like they can see right through me. I know I’m an actress and I need to get used to it, but I always feel more relaxed when I can sing on my own.”

“You’re beautiful,” Alice said, before she could even think about what she was saying. “That script, that song… it’s all so lovely. Everything else just seems ugly and insignificant in its wake.”

“Now you’re sounding like Princess Sasha.” Lucy smiled.

“I guess I am,” Alice said, embarrassed at her sudden outburst of emotion. <i>What was I trying to say, anyway?</i> <i>But it’s true, Lucy is beautiful. She has the power to move me heart like nobody else I’ve ever met. Her words and songs captivate me and hold me in thrall, and I want to be held there. I want Lucy to make me feel this way. </i>She took the hand that Lucy extended to her and allowed herself to be pulled in close until her hands were resting on Lucy’s bare shoulders. She felt her entire body tremble as she realized what she wanted more than anything. Lucy gave her time to make the first move and so she did, moving closer until their lips met in a gentle kiss that grew deeper. <i>Not a stage kiss. A real kiss. This is–</i>

Lucy pulled away as Grady walked in with some of the set managers, “…and I want those put over here…”

“Oh, my dearest Rosetta, please don’t leave me again!” Alice said. <i>It will explain away the kiss if Grady saw us. I don’t even know what this is yet. I’m not ready to explain it to anybody else.</i>

“Why are you not in costume?” Lucy’s father sighed. “Come on, Alice, this production begins tomorrow! We should be practicing the final version now, in full costume and make-up.”

“Sorry,” Alice said, “I ran a little late. I’ll go and change right away.” She scurried away, leaving Lucy and Grady behind her. She virtually ran down the hallway, yearning for the privacy of her dressing room. She rushed in and shut the door, grateful the dressing room was empty. Her lips tingled from the kiss, and she ran her fingers along them.<i> I kissed Lucy in the heat of the moment, a real kiss, born from this feeling deep inside. But I’m not a lesbian… am I?</i> Desire and love flowed through her veins and she felt helpless and afraid. <i>I can’t fall in love with Lucy. I can’t allow myself to lose my self-control. Even though acting is a generally liberal profession, I could lose the chance at future roles if people knew I had a lesbian relationship with my previous employer. It’s just a crush, caused by our closeness because of the roles we’re playing. It doesn’t mean anything. I’m not a lesbian. I’m not.</i>

Alice put her head in her hands. Memories of past times, a look at a girl here, appreciation of another’s beauty there all pieced themselves together in her mind and screamed at her. <i>Still, I’ve had boyfriends. I like men, but I’ve never been moved by anybody as much as Lucy moves me.</i> <i>Lucy is a special person, somebody who shares my dreams and my passion for acting.</i>

She considered packing her things and leaving the theatre forever. Opening night was racing towards her at lightning speed. <i>I have to put my feelings aside and do the job, otherwise the theater will fail and so will Lucy’s dreams. I don’t want Lucy to be heartbroken because of me. I have to stay and see this thing through.</i>

Alice picked herself up and found her costume. It was hard to put it on by herself, but she managed to tighten the zipper the best she could. She applied her makeup in the mirror and roughly brushed her hair into the right style for Princess Sasha, then left her own personality and problems behind in the dressing room. <i>If I’m going to do this, I have to give myself up and become my character, not let myself get dragged down by my own personal worries and fears.</i> When she kissed Lucy, it would be Sasha kissing Rosetta, when she wept it would be Sasha weeping for Rosetta, and when she sang her song would be for Rosetta.

They acted their way through a perfect dress rehearsal, not worrying about anything except being in character. After they had finished the final lines and their audience of ten had left, Alice rushed to her dressing room, changed into her ordinary clothes, washed off her makeup and left before Lucy could come to her with questions about their kiss. <i>I can’t answer those questions because I don’t know the answers, I don’t know how I feel. I just want to be alone. I need time away from the stage and the performance so I can think.</i>

She crept out of her dressing room and walked down the hall at a swift pace, needing the silence and the solitude of her apartment. It was raining heavily outside and she was soaked through by the time she reached her car and fumbled with her keys in the dark.

“Wait! Alice, please!” Lucy cried from across the parking lot. Alice considered getting in her car and speeding off, but something inside her hesitated. She stopped and turned, waiting for Lucy to catch up.

“You don’t have to run away. I just want to talk. I know you’ve been avoiding me since we kissed. Even your acting seemed distant and far away, as if you were no longer there. I understand if you’re confused, but please, come back to my place. I just want to discuss things with you.” Lucy’s makeup was running in the rain, her street clothes soaked through. She looked desperate and pitiful. Alice’s heart went out to her but she turned away regardless, unlocking her car and opening the door.

“I can’t do that,” Alice said. “It was just a mistake. I just got carried away in the heat of the moment. I’m not a lesbian and I can’t do this, whatever this is.” She climbed into her car and slammed the door.

“Please, Alice!” Lucy said, “I don’t want to lose your friendship!” Alice looked away, starting her car and backing out of her parking space without meeting Lucy’s sad gaze. She sped off into the night without hesitation and didn’t look back.

Lucy stood there in the rain, looking after her with sadness in her eyes. <i>I pushed her too far. Now I’ve lost everything. </i>Dejected and lost, she headed back to the lights of the theatre, avoiding the questions in the eyes of the other actors as they left for the night.

~

Alice slammed her apartment door, feeling an incandescent rage building in her body. She was annoyed to see Lucy’s script still sitting on her bed, so she gathered it up and threw it on her coffee table in a disordered pile. <i>Everywhere I go, Lucy seems to have invaded my thoughts, my life. I never asked for her to get involved in my life. All I wanted was to land an acting role and get paid for doing what I love. I never asked for any of these feelings.</i> She slumped on her bed face down, burying her head in her pillows but Lucy’s sad face in the parking lot swam into her thoughts. She threw the pillows away in anger. <i>I’m not in love. It’s just some crazy crush that will go away when I finish the production.</i> She moved over to the sofa, turning on the television and letting its mindless talk wash over her, but still she found her mind wandering back to Lucy. She put her head down on the coffee table, feeling the cool wood against her forehead and beating her fists against it in rage.

“I’m not in love!” She yelled out to the walls of her apartment, needing to confirm it out loud. “I’m not in love with a woman! I’m not a lesbian!” Memories swam back into her mind of a girl she had liked in high school. <i>I didn’t act on it then and I won’t act on it now. I don’t want a new identity that I have to defend. I don’t want everybody to hate me. I don’t want my entire life to be a struggle. I just want things to be simple.</i>

The phone started to ring, but she ignored it and let the answering machine pick up. “Hi.” Lucy’s voice sounded downbeat. “Look, maybe you don’t want anything to do with me, but if you do want to talk, I’ll be around. Even if you don’t want to talk, please don’t give up on the production. You’re the perfect person to play Princess Sasha, and your understudy could never replace you. Please, Alice, I’m counting on you. I believe in you.”

<i>I don’t believe it. She should hate me. I’ve been nothing but cruel to her, giving off mixed messages and yet she still called</i>. <i>She still found it in her heart to say “I believe in you”. I’m not even sure I believe in myself any more, but for some reason she still does.</i> <i>Did Lucy like me all along? Did she wait in the wings, hoping and praying that the awkward straight girl who had pulled away from a simple stage kiss would come around to love her? </i>

Alice’s head was spinning, confusion and exhaustion washing over her. <i>Am I in love with Lucy? I don’t know. Lucy has been kind to me, has inspired me, has moved me to tears on several occasions, but is that love? I want to touch Lucy, to feel her hands all over my body, but is that love? I want to be with Lucy all the time, I have her on my mind constantly, but is that love? What exactly is love, anyway? </i>

Alice shut off the T.V. and went back to bed. She stared up at the ceiling sleeplessly.She thought about the way it had felt when Lucy first kissed her. <i>I was excited and afraid, yet I’d never felt so alive inside. When I read Lucy’s plays, I was moved by her characters and beauty in her mind wrote such things. I wanted to see more of that beauty, more of Lucy’s inner soul. Then I heard her sing, such a beautiful sound that came straight from the heart. I was lost then, woven into her magic spell. In that moment I wanted to take her in my arms and keep her close, like she was the most precious thing in the world. </i>She found herself hugging a pillow and wishing Lucy was here with her, that sweet companion who had brought so much into her life in such a short time.

Alice closed her eyes, squeezing back her tears. <i>It’s all true. I do love Lucy. I’m in love with Lucy. I want Lucy to be a part of my life. If that means I’m a lesbian than I guess I am. I just didn’t want to believe it. I’m not as strong as you, Lucy. What should I do?</i>

~

Alice woke to the sound of her alarm, reluctantly pulling herself out of bed. It was early afternoon, and she had slept late knowing that the production would keep her up until early the next morning. She showered, dressed, ate and left the house with mixed feelings of dread and anticipation. <i>What will I say to Lucy when I see her?</i>

She arrived at the theatre and hurried backstage, calling her assistants into her dressing room to help her get ready. <i>I want to be ready before I see Lucy, so that I can’t back down from playing my part.</i>

Once she made it through hair and make-up she headed out onto the stage where the final preparations were being made. Of Lucy, however, there was no sign. She walked the entire theatre looking for the other woman to no avail before deciding to head up to the apartments. She carefully ventured upstairs, making sure not to let her dress get too dusty. She reached Lucy’s apartment door and knocked.

“Lucy, if you’re in there, I want to talk to you.” Alice said, “I’m sorry about what I said. I never meant to upset you. Lucy, I… please don’t leave this role because of me. I can’t do this without my Princess Rosetta.”

She waited for a response but never received one. <i>She must not want to talk about us right before the play. I understand. We’ll have plenty of time to discuss it later. I just hope she hasn’t bailed on this whole thing because of me.</i>

People started to arrive and be seated, and Alice continued to worry as there was still no sign of Lucy. She saw Lucy’s father running around, but he was busy and she couldn’t find a moment to talk to him. She sat backstage, trying to relax and center herself. <i>I know I have to focus now on getting my lines right, regardless of whether Lucy shows up. Still, I can’t imagine myself playing the part with Lucy’s understudy. Lucy and I have a special chemistry together, on stage and off. I need her to be here tonight.</i>

She stood backstage with the other cast members, who seemed unconcerned at Lucy’s non-appearance. Lucy’s understudy was goofing off with a man she’d met from the cast, while Alice silently prayed that Lucy would make it to her own show.

She let out a silent sigh as the narrator began the tale. <i>Either Lucy will come out or she won’t. I can’t change that now. All I can do is go out there and try my best to bring Lucy’s play to life.</i>

When she stepped out onto the stage, her heart skipped a beat as she saw Lucy emerge from the other curtain. The relief and joy that Alice felt nearly overwhelmed her, and it took all her courage to focus herself and deliver her first line. It was Princess Sasha and Rosetta’s first meeting, at the peace talks between the two kingdoms. Sasha and Rosetta liked each other the moment they met, talking at length in private while the men discussed peace and war. Weeks passed in the story, and Sasha and Rosetta arrived at their first love scene. Rosetta was about to depart, the peace talks having broken down.

“Oh, my dearest Rosetta, please don’t leave me again!” Alice said. She took Lucy into her arms and kissed her with all her heart, wanting to communicate to the woman under the costume how she felt without words. <i>How sorry I am for being so confused when everything has been so simple all along. How good it feels when I kiss you; how natural, how right. </i>She let go of Lucy reluctantly and saw tears in Lucy’s eyes. She went off-script and took Lucy’s hands in hers, squeezing them tightly before letting go.

“We will meet again, dearest Sasha, of that I am sure,” Lucy said, her voice tight with emotion, her eyes sparkling.

The first act concluded and the audience spilled out for the intermission. Alice raced backstage, searching for Lucy. Lucy was waiting at her dressing room doorway with a smile on her face that told Alice everything she needed to know.

“We have to go back out there now, but later, we’ll talk. I promise.” Lucy squeezed Alice’s hand and they walked back behind the curtain as the audience took their seats for the second act.

Rosetta sang her final song of mourning for Sasha as she lie surrounded by roses. Alice felt tears brimming in her own eyes at the sound of Lucy’s song. It was even more magnificent than it had been at practice, and she heard sniffling from the audience that told her they bought it too. The curtain closed on the final act before they came out for an encore. The crowd were on their feet clapping, many with tears in their eyes. Lucy and Alice held hands as they bowed for the audience before heading backstage. Lucy didn’t let go of Alice’s hand as they walked back to the dressing room.

“I was in my room before. I heard what you said when you came up,” Lucy said. “I’m sorry you couldn’t talk to me before the play. I had to be alone to center myself, because of my intense stage fright. Being around all the hustle and bustle of the cast and crew makes me nervous, so I usually stay alone in my room and come down right when it’s time to go on stage.”

“I wanted to talk to you so much,” Alice said, hugging Lucy, “I’m so sorry about everything. I was afraid of my feelings. I was scared of what they meant.”

“It’s all right,” Lucy said, “I’ve been there myself.” Lucy ushered them into her private dressing room and shut the door. She pinned Alice up against the wall and kissed her until they were both breathless and yearning for more. “Soon,” Lucy whispered. “Just let me wrap things up down here and we’ll go up to my room.”

A knock on the door parted them and Lucy was all business as she opened the door to find her father standing there.

“I wanted to thank you two,” Grady said. “You did a splendid job out there. I appreciate it.”

“Do you think the theater will be saved?” Alice asked, standing behind Lucy.

“I don’t know. We’ll have to see. But regardless, it was an amazing performance. You couldn’t have done better. It was the greatest opening night I’ve ever seen, with fantastic chemistry between the two leads. I’m sure the papers will be talking about you.”

“We’ll do it all over again tomorrow,” Lucy said. “Thank you Dad, for giving me this opportunity.”

“Thank you for all the effort you two put in. You go and get some rest now. I’ll finish things up down here.” Grady gave them a knowing nod and walked away.

“Would you like to go upstairs?” Lucy asked. Alice nodded, unable to find her voice. <i>We’re going to be alone together. I want to do more than just kiss, and I’m sure Lucy does too. God, everything is moving so fast, but I don’t care. I feel on top of the world right now.</i>

Lucy took her hand. They ran like teenagers through the halls, careless and carefree, on top of the world with their success and their love. They rushed up the back stairs until they reached Lucy’s apartment. Lucy fumbled with her keys before getting the right one into the lock and turning it. They stepped inside and locked the door again. Lucy turned on a lamp and pulled down the blinds before returning to kissing Alice slowly and passionately. Alice melted under her touch, not protesting at all when Lucy’s hand reached the zipper of her dress and pulled it down, turning her around and slowly pulling the fabric from her shoulders. Alice felt the tender touch of Lucy’s slender fingers over her shoulders and down her back and she shivered with anticipation. The dress pooled at her feet and she stepped out of it, turning around to show Lucy her naked body.

“God, get this dress off me before I melt,” Lucy said. Alice unzipped it and pulled it off, exposing Lucy’s ample breasts. Alice reached her hand up and touched them experimentally, and she felt a jolt of electricity run through her as Lucy gasped.

“You are so beautiful,” Alice said, feeling boldness come from some place deep inside her that she had never tapped into. “I want you to show me what you want. I’ve never done this before. Show me what you want.”

“I was captivated by you the first time I saw you,” Lucy said, “I knew I didn’t want anybody else to play the part of Sasha. The first time I saw you in that dress, you took my breath away. I’ve dreamt of this moment every night since then.”

“I want you,” Alice whispered, and Lucy led them to the bed. Lucy reached her hand down between them and Alice gasped as Lucy’s fingers brushed across her clit. Lucy’s breasts ground against hers and Alice pulled Lucy down for a kiss. Tongues met without hesitation as Alice moaned into the kiss.

<i>I’ve never felt so turned on. This is what I’ve wanted all my life. I never let myself even think about it. </i>Her thoughts melted away as Lucy pulled herself down the bed and parted Alice’s legs. One experimental lick and Alice’s back was arching. Another and another and she was crying out Lucy’s name as she came, tears welling up in her eyes from the intensity of her pleasure.

She came down and regained her breath before pulling Lucy up on the bed. She spent time kissing Lucy before kissing down her breasts and licking her nipples. Lucy moaned and Alice stopped, kissing further down. <i>Don’t be nervous, </i>she thought. <i>Just let instinct take over. You know what a woman wants. </i>She explored first with her finger, savoring the gasps and moans that Lucy made as she teased between her legs. She drew in close and licked. Lucy tasted like the sweetest honey to her and she savored the taste of her, sucking and licking until Lucy was writhing in pleasure, unable to hold back. She came with a cry, holding Alice’s head and stroking her hair.

Alice crawled up the bed to lie in Lucy’s arms. They kissed again before Alice rested her head on Lucy’s chest, listening to her heart beat. Somewhere in the warmth and joy of their greatest night, they fell into a deep, contented sleep.

~

When they awoke, it was to bright sunlight creeping in through the cracks in the blinds. Alice woke first and studied Lucy’s body in the stark light. <i>She’s beautiful. I can’t believe she’s all mine.</i> With a smile, she gently kissed Lucy awake.

“I think I’m in heaven,” Lucy mumbled. “My play went well, and you are here with me. Tell me I’m not dreaming.”

“You’re not dreaming. Sadly, though, I have to interrupt this happy moment. It’s ten already, and we should start getting ready for the second night.” Alice stroked Lucy’s hair and sat up, reluctant to leave the warmth of Lucy’s embrace.

“That’s a shame,” said Lucy, “I wanted to spend more time here with you.”

“We’ll have all the time in the world,” Alice said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

They showered, dressed and headed down to the theater, where preparations for the evening’s performance were already underway. Alice kissed Lucy and headed to her dressing room. Lucy returned to her apartment to center herself, while Alice rested backstage, eagerly awaiting the second night and all that would come after. She felt at peace with herself for accepting her love for Lucy. A great calm had settled over her like a storm had passed, and all that was left of her denial was debris on the beach of her soul.

* * *

The theatre was buzzing that evening, full to capacity. It was a sight that made Lucy smile when she came down from her apartment in full costume and saw for herself. Alice took her hand and squeezed it before Lucy stepped out to begin the night’s performance.

They kissed with as much passion as before, the play reaching its crescendo. As the kiss ended and they parted, Alice was sure she could smell a strange, familiar scent in the air which made her stomach turn in horror as she realized what it was. <i>That’s the smell of smoke.</i>

She turned around to look and saw a small plume of smoke curling out of the curtain from backstage. Lucy didn’t seem to have noticed, however, and continued with her part for several minutes. Alice responded without skipping a beat. <i>The show must go on. Perhaps it’s just a lighting malfunction. Maybe somebody’s smoking back there. Grady will soon have it under control.</i>

The stage started to fill with smoke. Lucy noticed it, her eyes widening in horror. The crowd started to look restless and worried. The more nervous viewers stood up, making their way to the exits as the smell of smoke became more widespread.

<i>It has to be a fire, </i>Alice thought. She stood rooted to the spot, frozen with fear. <i>What should we do?</i>

As if in response, the fire alarm sounded, a long, unrelenting bell that pulled the audience out of its fantasy and back to real life. The sprinkler system kicked in, raining down on audience members who were rushing to the exits, trampling other people on their way. Lucy rushed backstage, into the smoke and away from Alice.

“Lucy, no!” Alice yelled. “We have to get out of here!” She fought through the smoke to follow Lucy, covering her mouth and nose with the hem of her dress.

“I have to find my father!” Lucy replied, coughing.

Alice paused for a second, her lifelong fear of fire overwhelming her as she looked back at the stage. <i>I could jump down from the stage and leave with the audience</i>. Fellow members of the cast and crew rushed out from backstage, climbing down into the audience to take their chances with the mob. <i>I can’t leave Lucy. I won’t leave this place without her.</i> Steeling herself, she mustered every ounce of courage she had left and followed Lucy. The air was thick with smoke and it stung her eyes, making her barely able to see the corridor in front of her.

“Lucy, come back!” Alice yelled, trying to keep up with Lucy as she rushed through the corridors, indifferent about her own safety as she raced out of sight, inhaling the smoke as she raced up the stairs two at a time and disappeared from Alice’s sight. She reached the bottom of the stairs that led to Lucy’s apartment a good thirty seconds after Lucy.

“Help!” Lucy screamed from somewhere up above. Alice scrambled up the stairs, racing towards the source of the sound through the thick fog. She thought her trembling legs might collapse beneath her and send her tumbling down the stairs but she forced herself to go to Lucy, who was trapped underneath a supporting pillar that had collapsed on top of her. Flames licked up the beam, hurrying towards Lucy but Alice found herself completely immobile, her monumental fear of fire swamping her decision-making skills with a feeling of pure terror.

“Get this beam off me, Alice! Hurry!” Lucy looked up at her desperately, with terror and confusion in her eyes. Alice tried to take another step closer and her legs gave way. She grabbed hold of a wooden rail and stopped herself from falling, regaining her balance as the flames grew closer to Lucy.

“I can’t!” Alice cried, tears streaming down her face from the smoke. “I can’t do it, Lucy! I’m terrified of fire! I can’t help you!”

A window exploded, causing a dangerous backdraft that fueled the fire. The orange flames started to eat away at the stairwell. <i>I don’t have much time, </i>Alice realized. <i>I have to do something! </i>She looked at Lucy, then downstairs at the rising fire, then back at Lucy again, a sob choking her along with the thick black smoke. Something inside her snapped and she started to run downstairs, away from Lucy and the fire. She fled through the corridors, out onto the stage and jumped, landing heavily on her ankle. Energized by adrenaline, she pulled herself up and dragged her ankle in a limping run, out of the deserted theater and into the parking lot where fire trucks and ambulances were pulling onto the scene. She pushed past the people who were directing questions at her, hearing none of them. She made her way to her car and fumbled for her keys behind the visor, pulling out the keychain with relief.

She raced home, pulling her car into the parking garage at speed, then broke down coughing deeply in the driver’s seat. She blocked her ears from the sirens wailing in the distance and let out a strangled sob, followed by another coughing fit. She dragged herself out of her car, limping to her apartment and turning on all the lights inside. She pulled off her dress, shoving it in the closet where she wouldn’t smell the smoky scent, then ran a hot shower and washed away the stench of fear and the soot that clung to her hair and skin. Dressing in fresh clothes, she turned on the television and found a shopping channel, the cheerful voice of the presenter making everything seem normal.

&nbsp;

Sitting on the sofa, the truth hit her like a ton of bricks and she sobbed uncontrollably, shaking as she did so. <i>I left Lucy behind, abandoned her to die in the flames when I could have lifted the wood from her leg and helped her escape. I allowed my fear of fire to overwhelm my fear of losing Lucy and now she’s gone.</i> Her vivid imagination showed her an image of Lucy, dead, burnt and charred beyond recognition and she clawed at the sofa, sobbing and yelling as she tried to get rid of the picture. She wanted to go back to the theater but her legs threatened to give way when she stood up. <i>It’s too late now. Far too late</i>.<i> I said I loved her, but I couldn’t even bring myself to help her when she needed me. One simple action and she would be here by my side right now.</i>

Alice wept for a long time, long after the shopping channel had changed to automated informercials and the sirens had stopped. Her head pounded, every breath taxing on her clogged lungs. She sat and flipped through the channels, specifically avoiding the news ones. <i>I don’t want to see the fire. I can’t bear to hear that Lucy is dead. I killed her. I killed the woman I love. </i>Those thoughts brought fresh tears to her eyes and she started sobbing again.

Eventually she dozed on the sofa, but her sleep was plagued with nightmares and she woke with a scream on her lips. Alice’s mind played tricks on her and she thought she could smell smoke everywhere. She spent the next day checking repeatedly that she hadn’t left the oven on, going out into the hallway to check there was no smoke billowing out from underneath the doorways of her neighbors, hoping and praying that somebody else hadn’t set their place on fire. Thoughts of Lucy haunted her twenty-four hours a day. She was tempted to turn on a newscast, but could not bring herself to do it. She didn’t go out for a week in case she saw a headline on a newspaper about the fire.

Alice’s parents called, but she simply pretended everything was all right. She couldn’t tell them about Lucy, about what had happened. She was tempted to move back home, but could not bring herself to face the inevitable questions about what had happened to make her give up her dreams. <i>I gave up my dreams. I let them burn with Lucy. I never want to act again as long as I live. </i>

<i>* *

</i>A year passed, the seasons cycling around until she came back to the long winter nights that reminded her of the play. Alice found herself driving to an office job day after day, hiding her feelings in the mundanity of paperwork. <i>It’s not what I wanted, but it is what I need. What’s done is done. I have to try and forget about that night and move on with my life. </i>She took a right turn, driving out of her route to avoid the burnt-out shell of the theater. <i>I still can’t stand to look at it, even now. I haven’t changed. I’m still a coward. I’m still the woman who killed Lucy Grady.</i>

She pulled into the parking lot and sat at the wheel for a few moments. <i>Almost a year has passed, and I’ve done nothing to change who I am. If the same thing happened today, I would still leave Lucy behind. </i>The sobering thought hit her like a sucker punch and she rested her forehead on the steering wheel, fresh tears welling in her eyes. <i>I re-live the past every night in my dreams. I kill Lucy every time. I loved her with such passion, yet when it came down to it, love was not enough.</i>

<i>Lucy, I’m so sorry. Tell me what I should do. Tell me how I can change. I don’t want to be this person any more…</i>

She looked up at a billboard that overlooked the parking lot. <i>Trauma? We Can Help! </i>A smiling woman looked down at her from the sign. <i>Perhaps it’s time to let go, Lucy. I can’t go on like this. </i>She took down the number and made the call.

~

On the first anniversary of the fire, after two months of counseling, Alice found herself not avoiding the route to the theater, but purposely taking it. She parked in the empty parking lot, her shaking hands gripping the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white. <i>This is the place where Lucy died. I have to face what I did that night.</i> Her counselor had encouraged her to visit the newspaper archives, and she had found that thirty people had died in the tragedy. <i>I couldn’t bring myself to read their names. I couldn’t stand to see Lucy listed among them.</i> Knowing that there was thirty was enough, somehow, to know that Lucy was dead. She looked at the blackened husk of the theater, unrecognizable now from its previous grandeur. <i>It’s not enough just to look, </i>she realized. <i>I have to go inside.</i>

The windows of the theater had been boarded up, but Alice scouted around the building and found that some of the boards in the back had fallen off, allowing her to climb into the building. She found herself shaking as she followed what was left of the corridors, black soot staining the walls like blood. The smell of smoke was still strong, and she quailed. Paralysis gripped her and she thought about turning back. <i>No. I’ve come this far. I’ll never be free from her ghost unless I do this.</i>

She hovered in what was left of the backstage area before tentatively stepping out onto the charred stage. Looking out over the burnt seats, she looked back upon the year and allowed herself to open the closed box that was the memory of the time she had shared with Lucy, practicing for the play together and discovering their love.

~

Alice looked up, her reverie interrupted by the feeling of a presence in the room with her. There were tears on her face that she had shed while remembering, and she wiped them away, looking around her. She saw nobody and was about to dismiss it when she saw the charred curtain move.

“Who’s there?” Alice yelled, standing up.

“Alice? Alice, you’re still alive?” Lucy’s familiar voice called to her from backstage. Alice stood to follow the sound of her voice.

“Dom’t come back here. I want to talk from a distance.” Lucy said. “Are you a ghost, or is my Alice standing right before my eyes?”

“I could ask the same of you,” Alice cried. “Lucy, I left you for dead! I was scared… I’m so sorry… Lucy, I want to see you. Please come out.”

“You were overcome by fear,” Lucy said, “I don’t blame you, Alice. I never did. I’m just glad to know you escaped safely. When they couldn’t find you, I…” she broke off, her voice trailing into nothingness. “I thought you were dead, Alice. They couldn’t account for you, but never found your body either. I hoped you would make contact if you were out there, but I never received word. I put ads out there looking for you, but nothing.”

“I didn’t watch the news,” Alice said, “I couldn’t bear to hear if you were dead because I ran away and left you. I left the acting world because I lost the heart for it, and I work in an office now. I’m sorry if you thought I was dead. I thought some of the crew saw me leaving.”

“I’m just glad to know you are safe,” Lucy said. “Even if we can never be together.”

“What do you mean?” Alice asked. “You’re here now. I’m here. Just come out, please!”

“I’m not the same person I used to be,” Lucy said. “I survived, but was burnt badly. If you looked upon my face now, you would turn away in disgust.”

“I spent a year thinking I would never see you again. I would never turn my back on you now.”

“I’m truly hideous to look upon,” Lucy said. “It’s easy to promise you wouldn’t turn away, but you haven’t seen me. There’s no acting in my future any more, unless I want to join the circus.”

“I did this to you,” Alice said, “If only I’d lifted that beam, we could have left this place together! How can you say you don’t blame me when your whole life has been taken away from you?”

“It wasn’t your fault, Alice,” Lucy said. “I found out later that my father started the fire. It turns out that he had so much debt, even a completely full house for a year wouldn’t have paid it off. So, he planned to burn the theater for the insurance money. To make it look like an accident, he did it while the play was in session. He wasn’t smart enough to determine that the investigation would discover he rigged an electrical fault backstage. He survived, but he’s in jail for life for murder and arson.” She paused, her voice thick with emotion. “The worst thing is, I know he did it for me. He wanted to use the insurance money to pay off his debts and start over. Now I never want to see a play again. Those beautiful actors only make me feel like a monster.”

“I can’t believe Grady did that,” Alice said. Some of the burden seemed to lift from her shoulders. <i>Don’t excuse yourself just yet, </i>a voice in her head said. <i>You still left her to die. You could have saved her. Now she lives in misery because of you. </i>She bowed her head, listening to the voices of doubt. Pushing them away, she took a tentative step towards the curtain, wanting to reveal the form of the woman she loved. <i>I won’t believe she’s real until I hold her in my arms again. I have to see her. I have to know the full extent of what I did, and make it right somehow.</i>

“Please Alice, don’t come over here,” Lucy said. “I’m not sure that I could bear it if you saw my face now. Just forget about me and get on with your life.”

Alice kept moving towards the blackened curtain. “I don’t care. I left you a year ago and I won’t leave you again. I made a mistake, one that destroyed my whole life. I let the woman I love face death alone because of my fear. I won’t just let you slip away into the shadows. I can’t. I have to see you. I have to see what I did to you. I have to know you’re really here, or I’ll never find a moment’s peace as long as I liv–”

A board snapped under her feet and Alice fell through the stage. She managed to grab hold as she fell, but her fingers slipped on the broken wood and she could feel blood trailing down her arm as her legs dangled beneath her. She looked down, but the darkness extended right into the basement of the building. I<i>f I fall here, I could die. The fire could claim me after all. It would be a fitting end, for Lucy to survive and me to die here. It would set things right.</i>

“No!” Lucy’s mind echoed her own will to survive and she saw the shadow of Lucy, her face obscured by a scarf, looming above her. Lucy extended a hand to her and Alice took it, allowing herself to be drawn up into the light and back onto the stage.

Lucy moved to escape into the shadows but Alice gripped her arm before she could retreat, pulling the scarf away and taking a look at Lucy. She was truly burnt beyond recognition. Multiple plastic surgeries had tried to give her the semblance of a normal face, but she looked like a melted wax statue. Yet her eyes still sparkled blue, brimming with tears as Alice gazed upon her. Alice saw the hand she held was also burnt and scarred, the skin crinkled and ruined. She held onto that hand, and brought it to her lips, kissing it gently. It was as if she was walking through fire herself, seeing the other side of it. <i>Lucy walked through the flames and survived. So did our love. I still feel the same way about Lucy, even as my mind struggles to accept her new face. </i>She raised her hand, letting her fingertips explore and map Lucy’s face, up to the hairline of her wig. “You really are here,” Alice whispered, in awe, as if seeing the most beautiful woman she had ever laid even upon. “It’s really you. Lucy. My Lucy. You’re still alive. It’s a miracle.” Fresh tears stung at her eyes and she let them fall freely.

“How is it that you don’t look away?” Lucy said, “Even my own father can’t stand to look at me, and children give me rude comments in the street. I live on disability and I’m afraid to go outside. I’m no use to anybody now. I’d be better off dead, Alice. Some miracle.”

“That’s not true,” Alice said. “You can still hold a pen. You can still write.”

“My heart’s not in it any more,” Lucy said. “I haven’t touched a script since the fire. I’m done with the acting world.”

“I still have your script,” Alice said. “I kept it safe, even if I couldn’t bear to look at it. You could finish it.”

“I wrote that play for you,” Lucy said. “If our first play went well, I was going to hire you to play that part, but all those dreams are ashes now. You’re not an actress any more, you said so yourself. I would never ask you to take the stage again after everything that happened.”

“It’s true I haven’t acted in a year, but I could do so again, if it was with you by my side.  You can write, and I can help bring it to life on stage. Even if it’s some kind of small local production we run as a hobby. It doesn’t have to be over, Lucy. Our dreams still exist as long as we are alive.” Alice felt her sorrow and pain falling away like a second skin, the realms of possibility opening up to her once more.

Lucy shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’m not sure. I still get nightmares. I’m not sure I have the same spark to put into my plays as I used to. The world’s a lot darker for me now. I suffered sixty percent burns, Alice. It’s not just my face that’s ugly, it’s almost everywhere. I’m not the same person I used to be. Life is filled with pain and surgery, and I can’t bear to look in the mirror.”

“I’m not the same person I was either,” Alice said, “I suffer from nightmares, depression and flashbacks. But we’ll start over, we’ll rise up from the ashes. I know that we can still have our dreams, if we keep trying. As long as we have each other. Write what you know. Light or dark, hopeful or pessimistic, it doesn’t matter. I’ll play any part you want me to, slip into any role.”

Lucy put her hand on Alice’s shoulder, squeezed, then turned around and walked away. “It’s a nice thought, Alice. But I don’t want you to play a role for me. I love you. If I can’t spend my life as your partner, I don’t want the torture of seeing you every day. It would be too much to bear.”

“You don’t understand,” Alice said, grabbing Lucy’s arm. She turned Lucy around and drew her into a kiss, and it was as if the whole world fell away around them and they were two princesses again, playing their love story to a crowded theater. Lucy’s lips were cracked and broken and yet she still kissed with the same fierce passion she had one year ago. They parted and looked at one another as if seeing for the first time.

“I love you,” Alice said. “I never stopped loving you. That’s why I couldn’t let you go. I don’t care about your appearance. All I know is that you’re my Lucy on the inside, and she’s the most beautiful person I’ve ever met. I don’t want to spend a day without you ever again.”

“I think… I think I have an idea for a play,” Lucy said, tears rolling down her face. “I must write it down, quickly.” She turned to Alice. “Will you be my lead actress?”

“Always,” Alice said. She took Lucy’s hand and they left the theater together, new hope rising from the ashes of the theater behind them.