The form of things unkno.., p.7
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       The Form of Things Unknown, p.7

           Robin Bridges
 
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  * * *

  I climb up to the balcony to watch Cast Three’s rehearsals. Hermia and Demetrius are onstage right now, plotting to run away from Athens. The jealous Helena is about to thwart their plans.

  The short nap I took didn’t help, and I’m yawning up here in the shadows. I wish I had some coffee.

  There’s someone hiding up here already. Lucas. I start to leave, to give him some privacy, but something in his face makes me want to stay. To cheer him up. “Why are you up here lurking?” I drop down in the seat next to him. He doesn’t make a move to get up or run away, so I think that’s a good sign.

  He looks up at me, with barely a raised eyebrow. I see hints of that eyebrow peeking through his floppy blond bangs. “ ‘Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.’ ”

  “Ha. I see no moonlight.” I put my feet up against the railing in front of me, sliding down in my seat. Now I can’t see the stage. But it doesn’t matter. They won’t be ready for Cast One for a while. “Avoiding the fairies up here?” I ask. And ghosts, possibly?

  Lucas shifts in his seat, restless. His eyes follow the line of my (just shaved, thank God) legs. Is he checking me out? I wiggle my toes. I just painted them a metallic lavender last night. I thought it looked like fairy dust.

  “If only. Caitlyn has been wearing her wings twenty-four-seven, and insisting on fairy sprinkles on all of her food. Even her macaroni and cheese.”

  “What are fairy sprinkles in the Grant household? Colored sugar?”

  “Cinnamon and sugar.” He shudders.

  “Oh dear,” I say. “Tell her fairies don’t eat macaroni and cheese. Tell her they prefer oatmeal. Or toast.”

  “If Caitlyn could eat breakfast food all the time, she’d be perfectly happy. French toast, oatmeal. She loves all of it. But Dad doesn’t believe in breakfast for dinner. He says it’s unnatural.”

  I can’t tell whether Lucas is joking or not. I know nothing about his father, so I don’t know if I’m supposed to laugh or offer sympathy. Lucas is paying so much attention to the cast down below us, his face gives me no clue how he feels about breakfast for dinner. I glance down to the stage. Helena has appeared and is trying to talk Hermia and Demetrius out of running away.

  Does he really like Starla after all? I guess I should find out before I do something stupid, like decide that I like Lucas. Not that I don’t already like him, just a little. He’s funny in a weird, quiet way, and even when he scowls at me, I don’t think he hates me.

  But I’m not so stupid that I’d do anything crazy like fall in love with him. Still, it would be a good idea for me to know what his feelings are. If he is secretly pining for anyone. He looks like he might be pining.

  We share an uncomfortably long silence as the scene plays out below us. “Did Winter Oaks fix you?” I ask suddenly, before I can change my mind. I feel like we need to acknowledge this huge secret we share. “Because I think they fixed me,” I add, when he doesn’t answer right away. “At least I hope they did.” I just want Lucas to know that I’m okay. He doesn’t have to be afraid that I’m going to freak out on him. “And, of course, I’m not going to tell anyone that you were there.”

  He laughs. “Most of the people around here know already. But don’t worry. I’m not going to tell them that you were there. I guess your brother knows, of course.”

  I nod. Even David doesn’t know everything leading up to why I ended up at Winter Oaks. He and the rest of my family just assume I inherited Grandma’s crazy genes. The drug screen that they did on me in the ER didn’t show any traces of ecstasy.

  “Yeah, I guess they did fix me,” Lucas says finally, staring at his hands. “I was having trouble handling stress. And now . . . now I can handle it better. I have to.”

  “I’m sorry about your mom,” I say. I could say I just lost my grandfather, too, but I know it’s not the same. I wouldn’t be able to function if my mom died.

  “Thanks. It gets a little better every day. And I try to stay busy. It helps when I don’t have to stay at home and think so much, you know?” He stretches his legs so they are propped up against the balcony, just like mine. “Sorry, I try not to burden anyone with my crap.”

  I think about Dad and how he works such long shifts at the hospital. “It’s not a burden. Thanks for trusting me.”

  I really want to ask him more about Winter Oaks. About how he ended up there. But I’m not ready to tell him the details about my “incident,” so why should I expect him to share? I’m trying to think up a nice way to ask, By the way, did you really try to kill yourself because your girlfriend dumped you? But before I come up with the right words, he stands up. “Damn. I forgot I was supposed to get something for Caitlyn.” He practically climbs over me to get out of the balcony. “See you later, okay?”

  That warm, fluttery feeling in my chest is gone. “ ’Kay.”

  He escapes from the balcony, not looking back.

  I sit there after he leaves and listen to the voices down below. The empty space around me closes in and I feel so lonely. I forget that I came up here originally to be all alone.

  Now the solitude is frightening. I wonder if I make Lucas nervous after all. If he thought the crazy girl was going to start hallucinating in front of him, or have a psychotic episode. Or maybe he just didn’t want to talk anymore.

  Andria and Trista seemed nervous around me when they visited Winter Oaks. They brought me a mocha from my favorite coffee place, but they didn’t know the staff would confiscate it. Neither one of them knew what to talk about. They tiptoed around everything, waiting for me to ask them about their lives. How was everyone at school? Oh, they’re good. How was Alex? Oh, he’s great. How was Hank? Oh, he’s wonderful.

  Nobody volunteered any news about Caleb. And I didn’t ask.

  * * *

  Mrs. Green looks around, with her hands on her hips. Then she looks at me for an uncomfortably long minute. “All right, everyone back to their places. We’ll take it from Puck’s lines.”

  Everyone scrambles into place and I wait for my cue.

  “Fear not my lord, your servant shall do so.”

  I enter the stage, joined by my fairy minions. After I argue with Oberon and conveniently fall asleep, he drops the love potion in my eye and I have to lie here pretending to sleep through the next few scenes. Mrs. Green promises I’ll have something soft, like a giant bird’s nest, to lie in during the performance. I hope I don’t look like Big Bird.

  I curl up uncomfortably on the wooden floor through Lysander and Helena’s lines, through The Mechanicals’ rehearsal of their play within the play. Puck casts his spell on Bottom and the donkey head goes on.

  Bottom frightens off the other actors and it’s my cue to wake up.

  “What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?” I ask, rising with a dramatic, regal fairy yawn. “Come, sit thee down upon this flowery bed, While I thy amiable cheeks do coy, And stick musk-roses in thy sleek smooth head, And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy,” I say to the donkey head. Mrs. Green has decided Peter has to practice with the head on even before dress rehearsals so he can get used to it. And I guess so I can get used to it, as well. It’s really kind of creepy.

  Colton and Starla are laughing out in the dark audience. I know Raine is watching, as well. If I get too friendly with Peter, I might get turned into a frog by a jealous voodoo priestess in training.

  Not that I really believe that Raine is training to be a voodoo priestess. And not that Raine has anything to be jealous of. Peter the Paste Eater? Ugh.

  “Scratch my head, Peachblossom,” he says to one of the little girls. The little fairies hasten to follow his commands.

  “It’s Peaseblossom!” Mrs. Green shouts from the darkness beyond the stage lights.

  “Scratch my head, Peaseblossom,” he repeats. Caitlin giggles.

  “Titania, you are supposed to be besotted with your Bottom,” Mrs. Green’s voice grows louder as she moves toward the stage. “Show me how besotted you are! Let me see th
e love!”

  I want to roll my eyes, but I try my best to stay in character. I smooth Peter’s furry head, but there is no way I am going to kiss his fair large ears.

  “Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms. Fairies, begone, and be all ways away.”

  And away with the rest of you imps and spirits in this building, as well, I think, glancing up toward the lighting as I cradle Bottom’s donkey head in my lap. I have to slink down to the floor and pretend to fall asleep, as well, so Oberon and Puck can find us in the next scene.

  “Okay, we’ll stop right there for now,” Mrs. Green shouts. “Cast Two, get in your places, please. Good job, fairies! Good job, Titania. I am starting to believe you really are in love with Bottom! And Bottom, I want you to work on your lines. You’d better have them all down by tomorrow. Got that?”

  “Yes, ma’am,” Peter says, pulling his mask off. He hands it to Cast Two’s Bottom.

  I go backstage to get my purse when I hear a little girl giggling. There’s no one waiting on this side of the stage with me. I look up at the ropes above me, and search through the curtains. Nothing, except for clouds of dust.

  The hair on the back of my neck stands up again. I try to focus on my script and read my lines over and over, but I can’t concentrate now. Is it getting colder back here or am I imagining it?

  Icy hands grab my ankles. I shriek, almost tripping over myself as I try to push the curtains back. There’s no one behind there. I pull the curtains all the way back so I can see behind the stage.

  There’s no one here.

  My heart is pounding so hard I can feel it in my throat. Is it the ghost?

  “Natalie?” Bethany and Maizy come running up backstage to see what’s wrong.

  “What is the problem up there?” Mrs. Green shouts. I see that the scene has stopped, and everyone is looking at me.

  I’m horrified. EVERYONE IS LOOKING AT ME. I can’t talk. I would feel stupid saying someone just grabbed my ankles.

  “Sorry,” I whisper. “I thought I saw a rat back here.”

  The little girls squeal and even Bethany jumps back. Maizy rolls her eyes.

  Mrs. Green is not amused. “Settle down! Colton, do you see anything back there?”

  He and David pick up prop swords and investigate the area.

  I’m going to die of embarrassment.

  “It’s clear,” Colton says. “Might be some rat droppings back here, or it might just be Oreo crumbs.”

  “That was us,” Hailey and Bailey say.

  Raine and Colton are talking with Mrs. Green. Starla helps me put the rest of the props away. “Want to go get some dinner with us?” she asks.

  “Where are you going?”

  “Don’t know yet. Colton says Mexican, Raine says sushi. I’m really not craving anything in particular. Got any suggestions?”

  I glance up and see Lucas walking out with Caitlyn. “How about IHOP?”

  Lucas stops and looks up at us. I think he heard me.

  Caitlyn definitely heard me. “Pancakes? Lucas? Can we go?” She tugs on his shirt. I don’t know why that makes me jealous, but it does.

  David shrugs. “I could eat some pancakes.”

  “Breakfast for dinner is always awesome,” Colton says, as Mrs. Green leaves us to go call an exterminator. “I’m on board.”

  Lucas shrugs and smiles at Caitlyn. He can’t say no to her. “Sure, why not.”

  Raine puts her hand on my wrist and pulls me back away from the rest of the gang and pushes me toward Starla’s car. “We need to talk.”

  CHAPTER 10

  “Are you okay?” she asks, her eyes wide and serious. “It wasn’t a rat that made you scream back there, was it?”

  Starla unlocks her car and Raine hops in the backseat. I get in the front with Starla.

  “Nat, you can talk to us,” Starla says. “Was it the ghost?”

  “I honestly don’t know. It all happened so fast.” I really can talk to them. Not like David. Or Lucas. I feel so grateful. “But something cold grabbed my legs. Like two tiny hands.”

  Raine’s eyes are even wider. Starla’s jaw drops open in surprise. “Are you serious?”

  “Holy crap,” Raine says. “We need to bring the board back and do another séance.”

  “Or an exorcism,” Starla mutters. “Maybe we shouldn’t be messing around with that thing after all.”

  Is Starla actually scared? I didn’t believe that girl was afraid of anything.

  Raine is plotting in the backseat. “Maybe if we called those friends of yours.”

  “I know someone who does the haunted ghosts tours downtown,” Starla explains. “Maybe they’d let us borrow an EMF meter.”

  “No way,” Raine says. “Seriously? Have you asked if he knows any stories about the theater?”

  Starla shrugs. “Thomas used to date my cousin. It didn’t end so amicably with him and Colton, so I thought it would be awkward.”

  “True,” Raine says. “And besides, he’d have to get permission from the Arts Council and probably your aunt, too. But if we can borrow the equipment, we can say we’re staying late to work on the set again.”

  “Let’s think about this,” Starla says, as she pulls into the parking lot. “If it’s a little girl ghost, she can’t harm us, right? And maybe we should talk to her again to find out what we can do to help her. You know, help her toward the light.”

  Raine rolls her eyes. “We need a cross and some holy water to help her. And someone needs to watch over Natalie.” I turn around and she’s looking at me curiously, her head tilted to the side. “It seems like the ghost has taken a special interest in you.”

  Now, that doesn’t creep me out or anything. I try not to shudder. “I’m hungry. Are we going in?” I ask. Because bacon and pancakes will make it all better.

  Raine sighs. “Fine. But we’re not done talking about this. Don’t worry, though. We’ll make sure you’re safe.”

  Something beeps on the floor beneath my seat. My phone must have fallen out of my purse. I reach my hand underneath the seat, but can’t reach it. It’s slid too far back.

  “I’ve got it,” Raine says. “Hey, your prescription is ready at the pharmacy.”

  “Oooh, is Natalie on birth control?” Starla says, pulling into the parking lot at IHOP.

  “No!” I say, too fast. My cheeks feel warm.

  Raine passes me the phone. “Don’t tease her, ho. You know you’ve been on BC pills since you were twelve.”

  “Have not,” Starla says, grinning. “And whatever, we’re talking about Nat, here. Not me.”

  “We don’t need to discuss me,” I say.

  “You know it’s not birth control,” Raine says. “That text is for her crazy pills.”

  “What?” I feel sick. What will they think of me? I didn’t want them to know just yet.

  They both giggle. “No, it’s her STD cream,” Starla says, and they are having way too much fun teasing me.

  Right. They’re just teasing me. Because we’re friends. I take a deep breath. They can’t possibly know about my prescription.

  IHOP is packed. It’s senior-citizen-appreciation night, and this IHOP is also close enough to the interstate that there are a lot of truckers eating here, too.

  I spot Caitlyn and Lucas sitting at a booth, across the seat from David and Colton. Caitlyn looks up from her coloring sheet and waves at me.

  Starla squeezes in next to Colton. Raine pushes me toward Lucas’s side. “There’s plenty of room for us over here,” she says. “Caitlyn’s a little squirt.”

  “Hey!” Caitlyn says, frowning.

  Raine gives me a bump and suddenly I’m mashed up against Lucas. “Oof. Sorry.”

  “No problem,” he says, turning away from me.

  My phone beeps again and I look down. Oh my God.

  Raine leans over to peek. “Who’s Caleb?”

  My stomach drops. He can’t be back. Not now. I don’t need him in my life. I look back down at the screen. R U there?<
br />
  No, I’m not. “Evil ex,” I whisper.

  “Want me to answer for you?” Raine asks. “I can tell him you found someone new and you never want to talk to him again.”

  “Tell him she’s having so much fun with the new boyfriend she had to get her birth control prescription refilled,” Starla says with a wicked glee.

  “Please don’t!” I say, covering my face in mortification. My stomach is twisting into knots. Why did I think I’d never hear from him again? Why now, in front of all these people? In front of Lucas?

  Starla grabs the phone from me. “Here, let me take care of this.” She types rapidly. Who is this? Why are you texting me?

  Raine leans a little closer to me. “Is there a story there?” she asks, nodding toward the phone in Starla’s hands.

  I shrug. “Not suitable for children,” I whisper back, even though everyone at the table can hear us.

  Starla hands me back my phone. “I told him this number now belongs to a forty-seven-year-old gay Elvis impersonator and that he was welcome to meet me in my van at the river for a private performance. I don’t think he’ll answer. You’re welcome.”

  “What’s an impersonator?” Caitlyn asks.

  Colton raises one pierced eyebrow at her. “You know what an Elvis is?”

  “Duh, Viva Las Vegas.”

  Lucas’s little sister is weird in the most awesome kind of way. I don’t think Lucas approves of the table conversation. He hurries to change the subject. “Cait, what kind of pancakes do you want? Blueberry? Strawberry?”

  “Chocolate!”

  “I want chocolate, too,” Colton says, as Lucas frowns at him.

  “Can’t you at least pick the kind with fruit on it?” he asks his little sister. “So we can pretend it’s healthy?”

  “Chocolate,” Caitlyn says. I guess she’s kind of stubborn.

  Lucas sighs and lets it go. The waitress arrives to take our orders, and I excuse myself. In the bathroom, I check my phone. No more messages from Caleb. Maybe Starla’s trick will work. I resist the urge to text him back myself. Why now? I want to ask him. Why me? I text Andria instead. When did Caleb get out of jail?

 
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