Kelsey Burns takes her place center stage amidst an auditorium of red velvet chairs. Vacant. But nonetheless, hers. Her theatre. Her spotlight. House lights cast a dreamless view of empty seats, an amber glow against a sea of red—one row after another after another. The girl perpetually cast in a supporting role, somehow forgettable in the grand scheme of a show. Rather, the unavoidable light that is Alice Grey.

Kelsey is no Alice Grey. A fact repeatedly made clear every time they audition for the same role, every time Alice is cast as the lead while Kelsey trails as a supporting female lead. Ensemble. Or worse, Alice’s understudy. You know, almost there but in a perpetual state of never good enough.

The show opens tomorrow night.

To be fair, it’s not a great show. Another community production of another classic script done at every high school in the country. And for the sake of this story, it doesn’t matter what play. More than that, Kelsey would kill me if I told you. There’s nothing worse than being cast as the shadow in an already lame community production.

But there she is, Kelsey Burns, in all her tortured glory, center stage before an audience of none. Eyes closed, basking in the unsettling silence of deflated dreams.

Kelsey does this thing, she’s doing it now, where she acts an emotion to feel truth. She calls it her emotion practice. Usually in her bedroom she sits in front of a vanity mirror propped on her desk, a silver oval on an ornate carved stand. Kelsey stares in that mirror, contorting her face in what can only be described as emotional Olympics. From tears to rage to laughter in a matter of minutes. Sometimes she makes up dialogue, speaking to herself as though to another person:

Do you love me? she’d ask.
I vow my love to no one, she’d respond.
Answer me. Do you love
No, Florence. I don’t love you. I never have.
(through tears) Then what is to stop me from ending my life?
My dear, only you can know the answer, not I.
(tears, burst of anger) Leave me, Charles, Get out!

With a fierce swipe of her arm I’ve seen Kelsey throw the entire contents of her vanity to the floor in a fit of rage—perfume bottles and makeup fly across the room. She improvises the whole thing, I mean the dialogue lacks substance but you get the idea. And that one night she sat in the mirror for maybe twenty minutes screaming at herself in an English accent, switching from Florence to Charles. Anyone else would think she’s schizophrenic, like certifiably fucking insane. But I don’t know, there was something kind of spectacular about the whole thing. At her desk, blinds wide open for anyone to see, like a grease fire.

Other times she’ll perform her audition monologue from Miss Julie, usually five or six times. I’ve pretty much got the thing memorized now. But lately she slips into these emotion practices. The other day we were all in the cafeteria—me, Kelsey, and Drake, when she starts to cry about her cornbread. It was chili day, which unanimously sucks, but this was full on hysteria. Drake and I watched not knowing what to say. Through tears she cries that her Papaw and Memaw left their family cornbread recipe before taking their own lives. She hasn’t been able to stomach a slice of corn bread since. In an even more bizarre turn of events, Kelsey chucked her bread across the room, which slammed into a nutritional poster and exploded upon impact. By then the whole cafeteria was quiet, save for some trickling laughter. Her southern accent was pretty on point, but became more pronounced as her character developed. Eyes bloodshot, overhead fluorescents glistened off her tear stained cheeks. With a final gasp, her head collapsed on the food tray, dark brown hair flying outward like cobwebs against the table.

Then she lifted her head, sort of half-smirked, and asked if she could have my cornbread. Which I gave her because what the hell else do you do in that moment? You give the lunatic your cornbread. The show was over and she went on like nothing happened. And so did we. I’m not sure why no one said anything about it, that time or any other. Kelsey may not be the best actress in Homestead, but she’s certainly the most committed. She is unpredictable, wild, and creatively refreshing. To be honest, it’s all kind of intoxicating.

Twenty-nine hours before opening night and Kelsey remains center stage for at least one of them. She performs her monologue from Miss Julie, threatens blood to an invisible audience, then falls into another emotion practice. She dances with herself, something like a seduction scene, slowly lifts her silk black dress ever so slightly up her thigh. She speaks, so soft I can barely hear. And in a way, it feels like she knows I watch from the wings, like she performs just for me.

****

Drake leans against the row of lockers as I place my books inside.

“Crazy about Alice,” he says.

“What about Alice? I ask.

“That shit about the New York agent? You didn’t hear?”

True to character, Drake knows something before it’s public news. Like Homestead’s Katie Couric but cuter in eyeliner. We’ve known each other since fourth grade when my parents moved to Homestead. Our desks were side by side so call it fate, the universe conspiring or whatever, but we were put together and stayed together. He’s always had an offbeat independence that manifests in his style and give-no-fucks attitude, even then at ten-years-old. You’d think Drake would be an easy target at school, the boy who wore his grandmother’s floral silk scarf tied round his head, a pair of combat boots, singing The Smiths because it’s all his mom played. But everyone liked him. We sat together in class where he’d draw me pictures of animals with giant dicks, and I’d draw him vampire clowns. It didn’t take much but at that age it meant everything.

Drake stayed at our house almost every weekend. Sometimes I went to his, but not as much. His dad left a few years back and his mom is an alcoholic. They have two dogs and a revolving door of cats, so the house has a distinct smell that permeates your clothes. My mom asked I not wear anything nice to the Malloy’s, which was her way of telling me to avoid their house. So Drake started to come over more, and eventually every night. I guess my parents took him under their wing. We’ve been tight ever since.

I ask about the New York agent. He says it’s a friend of Alice’s dad, some guy with connections on Broadway coming to see her perform.

“Kels is gonna freak.”

The thought of Kelsey finding out an agent is coming just for Alice makes me lose my shit. It’ll be dramatic, uncomfortable, and glorious. To be honest, I feel bad for her. No matter how hard Kelsey tries, she can never step out from Alice Grey’s shadow, like a boulder always in front of her.

“I think that’s an understatement,” I say. “She’s been off lately, don’t you think?”

“More off than usual? I dunno.” Drake scrolls through his phone.

“That shit in the cafeteria? And I heard she lost it on Saxton for giving her an F on a paper.”

“Do you like this?” He holds up a photo of him reading Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground at The Coffee House.

“Yeah it’s good. You look all pensive,” I say. “But are you really reading the book or was it on the shelf at the café?”

He raises an eyebrow and gives one of his tight-lipped grins, the same one he’s given since we were kids. No need for words.

“‘Cause it’s a good book, just saying.”

He puts the phone in his pocket. “Well it only got like 68 likes. Sucks.”

“People just don’t appreciate the classics anymore.”

“Anyway, do you know what Kels’s paper was on? Why Saxton gave her an F?”

I shake my head.

Katie Couric straightens his posture and looks at me intently. I can already tell this is going to be good. “The Donner Party,” he says. I shrug. “You know those families that ate each other?”

Well that seems pretty fitting of Kelsey. “So what’s the big deal? Was the paper bad?”

“The assignment was to write about family or something for Thanksgiving.”

“Nothing like cannibalism to unite a family.”

Kelsey has always kept to herself. I was in art club, sometimes helped out with the school paper. And Drake connects with anyone, works at The Coffee House, floats from circle to circle. Usually there are community events where families gather at Stone Mill Park for a concert or farmers market, but even if Kelsey’s parents are there, she isn’t. Or if she did show up, you’d see her reading a book under the trees, writing in a notebook. Most people don’t notice her, but I do. Dark hair parted in the center, angled at the chin. Ocean eyes framed by black liner, porcelain skin like a ghost in the trees. You’d hear kids talk about Kelsey, sometimes parents – but mostly not, mostly she kind of disappeared unless on stage. On stage she tries her best to be seen.

She rubs people the wrong way, others don’t understand her like I do. But she’s the good kind of weird. The weird that makes you feel special when she’s around, like you have something the rest of the world doesn’t. And maybe that’s part of her intrigue. But while she seems so fuck-the-world, Alice Grey is her kryptonite. A bright light in an otherwise dimly lit room. You can’t help but notice Alice Grey with her olive complexion and dark blonde hair. Top of the class, kind to everyone, involved in most school functions. She has a way of shining even when she takes a step back to let others do the same. Some people are born with a nauseating gene that enables them to excel at anything with little effort or struggle. If she wants the lead in a play, she gets it. If she writes a paper, it’s outstanding and complex. If she knows not a soul in the room, they swarm to her like moths to a flame. Some pheromone shit.

I can’t say anything negative about Alice Grey. I’ve known her long as I’ve known Drake, we were all in that same fourth grade class. Our parents are friends, we hang out every so often. Two years ago Alice showed me two of my drawings framed in her room. She asked me to sign them, “for when you’re famous”, she said. And sure they were weird, shitty drawings; one of a clown holding a human head balloon, the other of two aliens hovering over a kid’s bed. But Alice Grey believed in me and that meant something. Alice has everything Kelsey wants and hates, is the epitome of what Kelsey isn’t. And that burrows in her like a rapidly ticking bomb.

“I don’t know,” I say, “the Donner Party fits the theme of family, right?”

Drake grins. “You’re just as sick as her.”

“Maybe. But I think that’s what you love about me.” I lean into him, Drake wraps his arm around me.

“Maybe,” he says as we walk to class.

****

Taco Tony’s food truck is parked at Stone Mill. He hands Kelsey her order – always the same: brisket taco with goat cheese, avocado and lime. She sits in shadow on a bench beneath the trees. Large black sunglasses reflect hands pulling brisket from the shell. I keep my eyes on her. She takes a notebook from her bag and writes. Her blunt bob falls forward, casting two dark curtains along the sides of her face. The three rings she always wears dance as she scribbles—all silver, one with a purple stone I learn is amethyst. I found an amethyst ring awhile back in my mom’s old jewelry from college. It doesn’t look near as good on my thick fingers, but I squeeze into it sometimes.

I’m curious what she writes in that notebook. She carries it everywhere, sometimes scribbling nothing but lines during lunch. Other times intently writing, but it’s never shared. Kelsey is either composing her theatrical masterpiece or a hit list. Maybe both. Maybe it’s the same thing.

She lays her plate on the bench, removes her sunglasses, eyes closed. Still. You’d think she’s a Duane Hanson sculpture, stoic and lifelike on display in the park. I try to see if she’s breathing when I notice I’m holding my own breath. Stale oxygen rests dormant in my lungs, begging for release. But Kelsey is. Breathing. Albeit slow breaths, but indeed alive. Peaceful. You’d never know it’s the same girl who threw cornbread across the cafeteria while crying about fictitious dead grandparents in a bullshit Southern accent. How does she go from crazy to composed so easily?

In cinematic fashion a gentle gust catches Kelsey’s hair, hands rest upward on her knee in a sort of meditation. Fuck. Taco Tony only ever gave me gas, never serenity.

The first day I met Kelsey was sixth grade in Ms. Shelbourne’s English class. We had an assignment to write a poem about any feeling. I wrote this terrible thing called “Love”, one of the verses went something like:

Love is gentle, love is kind
Our soul mate it will find.

In hindsight, I should’ve been kicked out of class for writing the most revolting collection of words ever written. Blame it on my youth. But there was sixth grade me reading that shit in front of the class. Dad made a big deal about it, framed the stupid paper on his dresser for three years until I threatened patricide if he kept it any longer. I drew our dog Iggy with a moustache and fangs to put in its place. I think he was equally, if not more, proud of that one.

Before reading her poem for the class, Kelsey stopped at my desk and whispered, “love is also fucking blind.” I didn’t know what she meant or why she said it, I still don’t know, but it was the first time she talked to me. She then stood in silence at the podium. When Shelbourne asked Kelsey to recite her poem, she simply said: “I feel nothing. Therefore I say nothing”. Shelbourne gave an ultimatum to either write a poem or get an F. The next day Kelsey came back with a short paragraph titled “Fear”. Her eyes remained fixed on mine as she read to the class. She said everything we do is a result of fear or love, two parallels that drive every action, any decision we make, and no other emotion matters.

I never forgot that day. And all these years later a little bit of Kelsey philosophy wanders my brain.

Alice Grey naturally wrote a polished poem on Joy, which was so well received by Shelbourne that it was published in the school paper.

I text Drake to meet me at the park.

Me: Taco T’s?
Drake: can’t. going to get more props for the show
Me: But taco’s…
Drake: noooo ok fine but you buy.

I walk to Tony’s, wait behind two other guys who order. One of them asks for the NotyoNacho’s. I can tell he’s never been to Tony’s before by the way he pronounces the order, like he’s in South America trying to flex his Spanish after one online course. I debate on whispering that the Nacho’s are a toilet crasher, like a surefire gut punch, but decide it’s not my place. Plus if you wait long enough after someone partakes in the Notyo’s, you’ll see a gloss of sweat appear on their paling skin, which typically means thirty-seconds to shit town. It’s a Taco Tony’s initiation. From then on you’re able to enjoy the rotating menu of delicious seasonal tacos. We’re all convinced Tony keeps the nachos on the menu just to fuck with people.

Kelsey looks up, white sun slashes shadow across her face. She crumbles a page into a ball then discards it on the bench; tucks the notebook in her bag and slides off the seat. She leaves the park and for some reason it feels like the sun dims ever so slightly. Like a spark that sizzled through the air now ceases. One you know could ignite into flames, fireworks even, at any moment. Something like magic. Or better yet, chaos.

Tony asks if I want the usual and I say yeah. He tells me it’s $12.50, but I’m already handing it to him. I wander to Kelsey’s bench where she left her shit. I gather the trash and walk to the bin, tossing the Styrofoam plate and napkin. But curiosity unwraps the balled notebook page she left behind. I feel like an asshole looking at her paper but this is a prime reason why people should throw their shit away. It’s fair game.

The tan page has a million veined creases but otherwise nothing. Blank.

Tony calls out my order is ready. I look over as Drake walks toward the food truck. Black leather jacket, brown Boy Scouts t-shirt and faded jeans chewed with holes, the same pair of black high-top Converse he’s had forever. The ones I signed my name on a few years back after he had a rough night with his mom. He called me scared to shit that night, locked in his bathroom with Lorraine pounding on the door drunk off her ass. Eventually he got out, had to shove her aside to get to the front door. By the time we met up on Birch St. it was 10:30 at night. He was shaking, blood on his neck from where Lorraine clawed at him. I hugged him for what seemed like hours. We didn’t say anything, just held each other in silence as her cried. For as strong and confident as Drake is, his mom is the one who has always been able to break him to tears. But it felt good to be his comfort, to be the one he called for help. Once Drake calmed and we got to talking, I said he’s the closest person to a brother I’d ever have.

I had the marker in my back pocket. I grabbed his shoe and signed my name, told him if he’s ever scared like that again, to look down and know I’m with him. We’d be strong together, I said, no matter what. And he still wears those shoes almost everyday.

He asks if I’ve ordered.

“Yeah. Sorry, couldn’t wait. I’ll get yours though, whatd’ya want?”

“Notyo’s.” He smirks and raises both eyebrows. “Pre-show shits?”

“Yeah, no thanks. See those dudes over there?” I point to the guys who ordered the nachos.

“Green shirt?”

“Yeah and the dude in the blue shirt. They should be breaking out in sweats in a few. Wanna get front row?”

“It’s like you know me.”

“Hold on a sec.” I run over to the bathroom. When I get back, he asks where I went. My mouth scrunches to a tight-lipped pucker. “I may have locked the bathroom doors from the inside.”

“What?” His eyes widen, mouth agape in laughter disguised as shock. “And those dudes are eating NotyoNacho’s?”

I nod.

“They gotta learn I guess.”

“That’s what I was thinking.”

“But you’re a total ass.”

Drake points to the crumbled paper in my hand and asks what it is. I shrug it off. But as sunlight pierces the paper, I notice a faint marking on the back. I flip the page over and written small in Kelsey’s distinct, all caps penmanship:

Meet me at the theatre tonight. Midnight. We need to talk.

Is the note for me? Did Kelsey know I was watching her?  Slightly mortified, slightly intrigued, I crumble the paper and push it in my bag. That spark sizzles insidiously through my body till it’s pure electricity, a heartbeat in my throat, fire in my skin. Do I meet her?

I order Drake a Belly Up taco: pork belly, caramelized onion, sprouts and smoked aioli. Aioli is such a dumb word for flavored mayonnaise. I let Tony know this and he agrees, but says it steps up his food truck game a notch. I don’t disagree.

“And here’s yours,” Tony says. “Brisket taco. Goat cheese, avocado. Here’s some lime.”

Drake laughs because he says I always get the same thing, and I laugh because he’s right.

“Where do you want to sit?” He asks.

I point to the bench in shadow under the trees. We head over just as Green Shirt darts toward the bathroom, pulling frantically at the locked door.

****

Kelsey Burns sits at her mirror applying a blood red lip. That matte shade she wears when she wants to be seen, her full lips accentuated as a form a seduction. I only know this because I’ve seen it in action three times, each with the same lipstick.

The first was in Principal Snyder’s office last year when her math grade needed some TLC. She wore those lips as a mask and slipped into character, somehow managing to work out a C rather than the D she really earned. Kelsey says she has a general disdain for the educational system, especially mathematics, which is why she often skips class. She told me math is an archaic subject in a digital world, and would rather invest energy on her craft and higher vibration things. I pretended to know what that meant, nodded my head, then Googled it. I guess she’d rather meditate in a forest surrounded by deer than go to math class. I mean, I get it. Another Kelsey-ism swirls my stratosphere. And when I told my dad I want to dedicate myself to higher vibrational things rather than go to school, you know, to raise my consciousness, he said to start leaving a rent check every week for room and board. A balance of energy, he told me, to help along my spiritual quest. I didn’t know what to do, so I went to class.

The second occurrence was a date with some girl Kelsey met online. She was with James Astor at the time, but he advocates polyamory and Kelsey advocates doing whatever Kelsey wants. The online girl was Jasmine Holland. She spells it with a z and y, like Jazmyn, but I refuse to humor that bullshit. I’m all about stripper names if you’re indeed a qualified stripper, but Jasmine was a subpar Freshman art student at the community college with pierced nipples and a sparrow tattoo on her hand. The epitome of art school cliché. I’m sure Kelsey fed into Jasmine’s pathetic adoration. And when I saw them at Gallery Crawl one night admiring what looked to be a local artist’s attempt at Pollock, Kelsey had those matte blood red lips.

The third time was other-worldly. It was last March during cabaret night, March 6, and I only remember because it was Drake’s birthday. Kelsey performed mid-show, sandwiched between Jimmy Abram’s overly enthusiastic performance of “All That Jazz” and Jessa Turner’s nasal pitched “God Bless The Child”. But once Kelsey began no others existed, it was the first time the spotlight was entirely hers. Maybe because she sang a strange, emotional cover of “Sweet Transvestite” from Rocky Horror Picture Show. A slow and sultry version entirely her own that entranced the audience. She stepped on stage in black tights that sparkled beneath the light, a baby doll dress the color of death, skin like the moon; she was an oil soaked dove. And those lips, that color. The room stopped. She remained still as she sang, so sad and enigmatic in that moment. It’s not that she’s an impressive singer, but Kelsey has a mystique that leaves you curious for more. She knows how to play people.

Kelsey places the lipstick down and walks out her room. I pull the crumbled paper from my bag; body shakes as I unravel it, a chill under my skin makes me twitch.

Meet me at the theatre tonight. Midnight. We need to talk.

No fucking way, I’m not going to the theatre tonight. Not only is it crazy, but I’m sure it’s considered breaking and entering. No, Kelsey, I will not meet you at midnight. I’ll be soundly asleep, well rested for opening night tomorrow.

I look toward Kelsey’s window and see my reflection in the darkened glass. And just beyond, my face caught in her mirror, stares back at me.

****

“Are you excited for tomorrow?” Mom sits across the circular dining table. A wall of condiments and serving dishes filled with steak, mashed potato, and salad sit between us.

“Yeah,” I say, because I really am. I’m one of the lead roles opposite Alice Grey. “I can’t believe it’s tomorrow already.”
“Nervous?” She bites a piece of lettuce off her fork, eyebrows lift with light-hearted inquisition.

“Mom you can’t ask me that, it’s bad luck. Besides I’m always nervous before a show. Remember Wizard of Oz?”

“I do—”

“—and I was only a munchkin.”

Those eyebrows lift once again, this time silently recalling my Exorcist inspired pre-show exercise that left the other actors gagging and running off to puke like dominos. Mom said the whole auditorium smelled like her Freshman year of college.

I’ve seen a therapist since I was a kid who told my parents I suffer from anxiety and depression. They put me on some pills for a while, but I hated it and so did my parents. He taught me breathing exercises, one where you breathe in for ten count, breathe out for ten count. Sometimes when I get anxious I do it, but mostly I don’t. Mostly it passes after a while, or I try to focus on something else. Because if I get lost in anxiety, it’s hard to come back. Like I have no control over my mind or body, I go on auto-pilot and can’t breath. Everything gets tighter and tighter until all I want to do is scream. Tear down walls. Crawl into a hole. Explode.

My dad sits, asks what we’re having for dinner. He’s still in work clothes, which he hates. The man could forever live in a concert t-shirt and jeans, but has to wear what he calls his Big Boy Uniform: a pale blue button down shirt, necktie, and grey slacks. Once in awhile his grey tweed jacket makes an appearance, the one with camel leather elbow patches. I love when he wears that jacket because he looks like a professor, which he is, but like a professor from a movie. He teaches Contemporary Literature and Writing at the University, my mom is a therapist at the hospital. She always wanted to own a restaurant though; she’s usually testing new ideas in the kitchen. She says to run from recipes and act on impulse.

“Where’s Drake tonight?” Dad helps himself to a spoonful of potatoes, swaps the serving dish for a heap of salad.

“He’s doing stuff for the show, getting props I think.”

“You think Lorraine’ll be at the show?” mom asks. In the years we’ve been friends, mom has met Drake’s mom maybe four times. She not so secretly wants to dropkick the bitch and adopt Drake.

“Of course not.”

“Well if you talk to him tonight, let’m know we have the potatoes he likes.”

I fork a piece of steak, appetite nonexistent. The clock behind my dad reads 7:48PM. No, Kelsey, I will not meet you tonight.

“We found out there’s some agent from New York coming to see Alice Grey perform.”
Dad looks genuinely interested by this news. “Really?” he says. “Good for her. Greg

told me he was trying to get someone down to see her.”

“I dunno, it’s pretty unfair to everyone else. That there’s an agent just to see her.”

Dad chews a piece of steak, points at his plate with the fork. “This is serious steak, hon.”

Mom looks pleased. “You like it?”

“Better than the Argentinian place on Highland.” He finishes chewing then looks at me. “We have endless opportunity at our fingertips, kid. Don’t ever forget that. You’re not in this world to let life pass you by, you’re here to seize those moments and build a life you choose. So there’s an agent from New York for Alice? That doesn’t mean he’s not going to see every other kid on that stage. And if there’s a part of you that wants a shot, then you take it. You give your best fucking performance and make yourself proud.”

I laugh when he says fucking.

“He’s right,” mom says. “There’s no reason you can’t shine as bright, if not brighter, so long as you’re true to you.”

“Kid, you got all the magic of the universe inside you. Let the world see it.” He said that to me every night before bed when I was little, still says it sometimes. You have all the magic of the universe inside you.

I wonder if Kelsey knows about the agent yet. It’ll crush her. For a moment I imagine myself on stage, lights and all, mid-show, and see the agent staring right at me. As a kid I thought about being a big famous actor but it never felt real. I guess I never wanted it bad as someone like Alice Grey. Or Kelsey. And in that split-second, reality slows. Dad’s mouth moves but I hear nothing, the world is silenced. Mom reaches across the table, her arm floats as if under water. Everything stops. It’s like just before snow when an icy chill cuts through you, every cell in my body opens their eyes. Something in me blooms, there’s no other word for it.

I have all the magic of the fucking universe inside me. How’s that for high goddamn vibration?

Mom grabs my wrist and the world spins again. “You there?” She asks.

“I have to go—.” My hand knocks a glass; water devours the potatoes like a wet blanket, it rolls off the table and shatters at my feet.

****

The first time Kelsey Burns stepped on stage, she felt alive. Under lights, rows of admiring eyes, a time to unleash something restless inside her. She was seven but remembers it vividly. Her class performed a scene from Peer Gynt. Kelsey was the Troll Princess, draped in scraps of green fabric, a mesh veil over her head. She inherently understood what it meant to step into someone else’s life, to transform into someone other than herself. For that one hour in drama class, Kelsey lost herself in character. She became the Troll Princess. And like a first high, nothing has ever topped that innocent discovery of passion, the childlike pursuit of fulfilling a dream.

Inevitably passion is jaded by our humanness, losing its purity along the way. A hungry desire tainted by self-doubt, greed, lust, arrogance. Where passion was once fueled by love, it’s root system can easily shift to fear. Fear of being less than, not as good as, failure to achieve. And in a way Kelsey is still that little girl in Peer Gynt, finding purpose on stage then loosing it once she steps off. Once the title of Troll Princess is given to another girl, Kelsey placed in the ensemble. Always searching for a feeling, a character to fill some black hole, when if only she saw what—

Kelsey enters stage left like a ghost.

I see her milky glow first, then those blood red lips. A blur of iridescent gossamer haze trails as she moves along the curtain to backstage left. I stand in the darkened hall unsure of my next move. The house lights are out, the theatre black. Backstage is dimly lit, the echo of Kelsey’s footsteps dance in the darkness. Two empty chairs face each other like an open invitation; a black tote on the floor, two mugs and a Thermos.

Kelsey sits.

Her chair faces my direction, but she doesn’t see me. Not yet, at least. She waits as I hide in the shadows like a moron. I don’t know why I hide, I mean, it’s Kelsey fucking Burns. I sit with her almost every day at lunch. Its just, I dunno, now she knows. I think she knows I’ve been watching. A secret all mine now revealed, and it’s over. And she probably knows how I feel, fuck I’m not even sure how I feel.

And before you start thinking I’m in love with Kelsey Burns, let me shut it down. Because I’m not. Don’t get me wrong, she’s beautiful and cool and weird, but Kelsey is a total narcissist and kind of a bitch. That assignment in Shelbourne’s class, the one about emotions, after she read her piece on fear Kelsey sat behind me and whispered: fear will always beat love. A gentle slap that her assignment was better than mine, that she’ll always beat me. It’s shit like that, little jabs over time, never a direct insult but always punched a nerve. And God-forbid we were cast in a show together, or worse, if I was cast in a better role than her, Kelsey made sure to tear me apart. Pick at my performance, question my choices.

The worst was Wizard of Oz. Kelsey was the Wicked Witch but everyone knew she wanted Dorothy. The part went to Alice Grey. Her critiques got worse, especially toward me because Kelsey decided I was to bear the burden for Alice earning the coveted role.

The night before Oz, Kelsey brought tea and cookies a peace offering. We sat on my bed, Kelsey offered words of encouragement knowing my nerves before a show; she even confessed to being depressed over Alice getting Dorothy. It was a reminder that despite her bullshit there’s someone good tucked beneath the self-centered facade.

Hours before the show my nerves took over. I shit and puked like it was a full body experience, my insides wanting outside, tearing through my stomach in a way I’d never felt. Kelsey came to the dressing room a few times to pet my hair and comment about the smell, how everyone knew it was me. It must be so humiliating for you, how terrible. Minutes before going on stage, head hung over a trash can, I looked up and saw Kelsey in full costume–green face, black pointed hat and dress, holding that stupid fucking broom. And I swear she was smiling. In that moment I knew it was her fault. I’d never been sick like that before, not from pre-show anxiety. Kelsey Burns’s teatime peace offering was a power play for no other reason than to fuck with me. I could see it all over her smug green face as I puked in a trashcan. I’d never be able to prove anything but I knew.

After OZ wrapped, things carried on like normal. The occasional undercut to ensure she felt a few pegs above me, but that’s part of being in Kelsey’s orbit.

I imagine what it would feel like to push her down a flight of stairs, watch her eyes widen as she falls backward on the cold concrete. The last thing she’d see is that same smug grin on my face. But then there she is, those blood red lips and porcelain skin, heart shaped chin, large brown eyes filled with expression yet completely vacant. I see her and remain eternally curious. I can’t imagine a world without Kelsey Burns and it drives me crazy.

Anxiety takes hold of my breathing. I feel it immediately. At this point there’s no option other than to show myself. She sits, waits for me to appear. To talk about something. My first step is slow and uncertain, the second a little easier but cautious.

And suddenly—

“There you are.” Kelsey cuts the silence.

I stop and hold my breath. Here I am. I practice the words in my head, too anxious to speak.

“Here I am.” A voice steals the words from me.

Alice Grey walks out the dressing room; stands behind the empty seat facing Kelsey.

“What am I doing here, Kelsey?” Alice is beautiful in a traditional sense, olive skin, dark blonde hair; timeless but ordinary. A white t-shirt, faded blue jeans and gold sandals plucked from a fucking Gap ad.

What the hell is Alice doing here?

“Can you just sit down?” Kelsey nods toward the seat.

Alice drops her shoulders, sighs, “What is it Kelsey? I’m tired and the show’s tomorrow.”

“When were you gonna tell me about the agent?”

“Seriously? My dad set that whole thing up, it’s so embarrassing. I’m sure the guy doesn’t want to see our lame show but he owes my dad a favor. It’s nothing. You couldn’t text me about this?”

“No. I wanted to see your face. See if you even give a shit–”

“—about what?” Alice interrupts.

“About us. This. Whatever the fuck this is, Alice.”

Alice places a hand on Kelsey’s knee.

“Yes, of course, Kels. I’ve just got a lot going on with auditions and school.”

Kelsey places her hand over Alice’s and like two slow moving ships their lips meet. They kiss.

What the fuck is going on?

A surge of heat in my blood, breathing short. Not enough oxygen in my lungs and it’s suffocating. I think of those damn breathing exercises: ten count inhale, ten count exhale. Inhale. Exhale. I shut my eyes as the hazed frames of Alice and Kelsey interlock. I need to sit.

Inhale ten. Exhale ten.

Was the note for Alice?

“I made this for you.” Kelsey pulls away, opens the bag off the floor and pulls out a food carton. She unscrews the Thermos and pours two cups.

“So the big night is almost here and I wanted to make you a break-a-leg toast. I couldn’t swipe any booze from my parents but I figure tea is better for your throat anyway.” She hands Alice a cup then reaches for the carton. “And the market was closed but I got the next best thing. Kind of.”

Alice giggles and all I can think is, what the hell am I watching? Seriously, what’s happening? Kelsey is offering the same pre-show generosity she gave me before Wizard of Oz. If Alice is anywhere near as lucky as me, she’ll be puking in a few hours.

“Nachos?”

“I know it’s not grade-A heroin, but a guilty pleasure all the same. I made it for you.”

Bullshit. I can spot NotyoNachos anywhere. After watching unsuspecting newbie’s make frantic bathroom runs, I’ve had many opportunities to see Tony’s signature chili dusted sour cream, jalapeno rubbed bacon and refried bean nachos.

Alice drinks her tea and moves to the nachos. Kelsey watches intently.

My heart pounds as the walls close around me. Every part of my body wants to scream. Kelsey Burns is a sociopath, but even in her most deceptive moments she is ruthless and beautiful. I was never supposed to find that note, she planned to make Alice sick and take her place opening night.

A ringing in my ear becomes overwhelming.

Inhale ten. Exhale ten.

My knees buckle and I fall to the floor, eyes shut tight as they can. I try to balance against the wall but my hand knocks a broom, followed by a loud smack as the handle hits the ground. Everything goes silent.

“Who’s there?” Alice is alarmed.

Silence. I can’t say anything. Still can’t breathe.

Footsteps approach.

The backstage lights flicker on.

I’m crouched on the floor like a sweat-drenched gremlin as Alice and Kelsey stand over me. Caught. My eyes fix on Kelsey and, beyond hating her, beyond the resentment, all I can think is how confident she looks. The way her body leans to one side, left hand gently grips the nape of her thin neck, silk dress rising mid-thigh. I could sketch her right here. Because even now, despite poisoning me, despite the insults, despite clear psychotic tendency, Kelsey Burns inspires me.

And maybe that’s it.

Questionable personality aside, Kelsey Burns has been my source of fire for years. Every strange, enigmatic, awful part of her has instilled an intangible spark in me, a blind infatuation that’s kept my sketchpad filled, my curiosity piqued.

And in that moment a smirk appears on her face.

“There you are,” she says, “I wondered if you were going to show.”

****

I painted my first portrait of Kelsey Burns when I was thirteen. I most remember the lighting, how the sun hit from the west, casting a sharp shadow against her face. Half of her in darkness, the rest bathed in a warm glow. She sat against the wooden fence along her house, reading a paperback much too thick for a thirteen-year-old. The pages were worn and stained at the edges; I could see it from a distance. Drake and I were photographing each other with his mom’s old manual; one of the few positive traits he inherited from Lorraine was an eye for photography. We setup photo shoots around the neighborhood, developed prints in a makeshift darkroom in the shed behind his house. Lorraine started it one year but never got around to finishing, which is to say she was too drunk or hung over to finish much of anything besides a bottle.

That afternoon we dressed as gypsies. Flowing layers of clothes found at the thrift store, Drake wore an elaborate yellow silk turban adorned with a costume diamond pendant. I photographed him by a tree at the Davidson’s house when I saw Kelsey. Baggy, torn black jeans, skintight ringer-tee and worn-to-shit black Converse. Her hair was dyed violet at the tips, natural black roots seeped in.

She knew I was watching. Kelsey looked up from her book, stared back at me, her eyes deep and heartbreaking. There was something lost in her gaze, even back then, yet full of life. It took everything not to run over and carve a tunnel into her soul through those eyes. On impulse I raised the camera, peered through the lens and focused on her face. She liked being photographed.

I developed the photo in our darkroom, and since then no subject offered the same creative fuel. A clothing line spanned one side of the shed to the other, clothespins held our photos as they hung dry in red light. Thirty or so photos strewn about; Drake in his bedazzled hat, myself in an oversized kimono. But the only image I saw was Kelsey – sitting along the fence, book in hand, knees to her chest, an asymmetrical composition that made for a perfect photograph. And those eyes. She stared through the lens, deep inside of me.

I painted that photo the next day.

It was the first of many images of Kelsey Burns. Most of which were candid, though many she knew I was there. Lately I’ve caught her in an emotion practice, sometimes through her window as she cried into her mirror, moments later bursting into laughter before falling solemn, almost vacant. Then the light would switch off, the room black as she went to sleep.

I’m not an idiot. Kelsey has been playing me since we were kids. She’s fucked with me for years because she knows she can, because in some messed up way not only do I resent Kelsey Burns, I need her. Without her, the sizzle evaporates. Inspiration dissipates, mystery vanishes. It’s a crappy joke from the universe.

“I take it you found my note,” Kelsey says as more a statement than question.

I stand between Alice and Kelsey, an awkward threesome I’d rather avoid. She motions me to sit, but I don’t. My brain screams to leave, but my body is anchored. Plus I’d really like to know what’s going on.

“We were hoping you’d come. Kelsey says you’ve got a little thing for her. She was certain you’d get her note. I didn’t believe her, I always took you for the independent type who didn’t care much what others did. But here you are. Just like she said.”

My clothes are damp with sweat. I look to the floor for answers, but there are no words. So I say I’ve got no idea what they’re talking about.

Kelsey drops her chin, stares at me with a grin. “Sure you do,” she says. “You’ve been my little shadow for years now—”

I stammer something.

“It’s fine. Really. I mean I like it. Most of the time. Sometimes it’s a little weird. You border on creepy when I catch you out my window, but otherwise I’m cool with it.”

“I dunno. It’s all pretty fucking weird to me.” Alice says. But Alice doesn’t know shit.

“We’re friends, right? I mean I hope so after all these years. Right?”

I twitch.

“Alice is my friend, too.” Kelsey takes Alice’s hand, pulls her closer. “Sometimes a little more,” she laughs. “Sometimes a little less.”

Alice pushes her.

Is this how threesomes start? Is this where it’s going? Because if she asks me to—

“You’re wondering why you’re here, right? Why I left you a note?”

I nod my head.

“You know about the agent who’s coming to see the show, right? You’ve heard that? Right?”

I nod again.

“Well Alice really wants a shot at Broadway. And so do I. That agent is going to sit in our audience and watch this lame show, most likely want to shoot himself in the fucking face, right? But here’s the thing. We want him to want to shoot himself in the face until he sees me come on stage—“

“Us.”

“Same fucking thing. We want him to think this was a big waste of his big shot Broadway time until he sees us on stage and realizes we’re the real fucking deal. But we need you to go away. And obviously I wouldn’t ask you to forfeit your role if it wasn’t really important to me.” She rolls her eyes. “Us.”

“What are you saying, Kelsey?”

“I need you to play like Oz and go crawl into a toilet somewhere and miss opening night.”

It’s like Kelsey pulled a trigger in me. Pressed a button only she knew how to press. A heat began to rise that calmed my anxiety but overtook every limb on my body. Because here I am again, the night before a show with Kelsey Burns trying to get me out. I want to punch her blood red lips till they’re actually bleeding.

“Why are you so set on getting me out of the show?” My tone is laced with rage.

Alice unexpectedly jumps in. Kind, generous, thoughtful fucking Alice Grey jumps in.

“Why do you think? We need him to only see us. And we can’t do that when you’re there.”

“What?” I yell back, “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would he give a shit about me?”

Kelsey rolls her eyes. “Forget it. Let’s just—”

But I ask again.

The girls go silent. A welcome pause to the insanity. They look at each other, Kelsey’s jaw tightens, she shakes her head.

“Because if he see’s you, he’ll want you. I’ve had to earn this shot.”

Well you’re dad got it for you, I think. But it’s irrelevant.

“Why would he be interested in me when you both—“

“Cut the modest bullshit,” Kelsey says, “It’s fucking old. I’ve had to work my ass of to get parts, and you don’t put effort into anything. You’re art, acting, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got that thing people just fucking like. That agent will see it too. You’ll ruin it for us.”

“This is crazy. Both of you are crazy. I don’t even get lead roles—“

“—it doesn’t matter. What matters is who people remember. And they remember you. For some unknown reason, people remember you.”

And there on the ground is Alice’s cup of tea, the nachos, pieces to a puzzle that connect for a far more glaring picture. That suffocating anxiety quickly forms an unhealthy relationship with the fire racing through my spine, as though I’ve been ousted from my body. My conscious mind a fly on the wall for something I’ve never experienced within myself. Because apparently when rage mixes with anxiety, a sort of calm takes over, a sort of mental clarity and physical strength I’ve never felt. I feel like a fucking superhero.

“So you want me out?” I say to Kelsey. “Why not just feed me nachos and poisoned tea?”

“What’s she talking about?” Alice asks.

Wizard of Oz. You remember, Alice? I got sick as hell. Ask Kelsey how I got so sick. And friend to friend, you may be dealing with your own situation in a few hours.”

“Kelsey, what’s she talking about—”

“—like full blown shits. Front end, back end. A Fourth of July spectacular.”

When Kelsey came to my house the night before Oz, it was like a little slice of the universe opened for me. A pocket of magic where she and I cocooned as we sat on my bed, side by side, Kelsey holding my hand as I sipped the tea and she opened up. Kelsey Burns saw me for the first time, really looked into my soul and understood whatever the hell was inside. The weird parts, the awkward bits, all of it. Kelsey was lightning in my veins.

Alice says something but no one really cares.

It’s just me and Kelsey.

For the first time in her life, Alice Grey is irrelevant, and part of her senses it.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Why would I do anything to you?” I’ve seen Kelsey make the same face of innocence in her mirror.

“You poisoned me. Admit it, Kelsey. You poisoned me to get me out of the show.”

She’s silent for a moment. Then her body loosens as if shedding a costume She says, “Fine. It was a stupid prank I didn’t think would work anyway. Don’t be so uptight.”

“Are you kidding me?”

Her shoulders shrug and she gives her mischievous grin.

“Ok I totally knew it would work.”

Alice cuts through the oncoming explosions with a full scream. “Did you slip me something, Kelsey?”

We speak at the same time. Kelsey says no, I say yes. She looks at me, rolls her eyes then says yes. She crouches to the floor, sifts through her bag and pulls out a knife. It’s a B-rate horror movie butcher knife she probably swiped from her mom’s stupid woodblock in the kitchen, which feels anticlimactic given the circumstance.

“Ok, yes, Alice I slipped you something. Get the fuck over it. Pull it together. We came here for one reason.”

Kelsey turns to me.

“Now we have to kill you.”

There’s loud crack, followed by a sharp pain against my skull. That’s the last thing I remember.

****

There’s tape over my mouth. I used this exact roll of tape to mark where I stand for my monologue in Act Two. I open my eyes, but everything is blurry, head throbbing.

Alice and Kelsey argue from the costume room. I hear Kelsey whisper something about not hitting me. A bat lay to the side where Alice knocked me out. At some point the surreal becomes reality, and the reality that Alice Grey and Kelsey Burns are trying to kill me sets in. It’s completely deranged, totally fucked up but, if we’re being honest, kind of flattering.

“She’s awake,” Alice’s voice is behind me.

Footsteps echo in the empty theatre. Kelsey and Alice circle like dogs dressed in costume. Kelsey has changed into a French maid uniform, Alice in her Dorothy costume. Ruby fucking slippers and all.

Alice tells me to sit in the chair, so I do. She tells me to close my eyes, so I do. But there goes my heart pounding, a flutter in my throat and racing thoughts. I’m going to die and part of me accepts it, like maybe it’s what’s supposed to happen. I think about my mom and dad, Drake, my stupid dog Iggy with his big brown eyes. And I hear my dad whisper to me as a kid, you have all the magic in the universe inside you.

I move my mouth to loosen the tape and it breaks off.

“Alice, Kelsey tried to poison you. It’s you she really wants out of the show. You’re going to kill me, but then what? Let me go, I won’t tell anyone, no one.”

She tells me to shut up.

“What about the drawing? The one I gave you that’s still in your room? Remember that? I thought we were friends, Alice.”

“Is that what you thought? My parents told me to be nice to you ‘cause our parents are friends. They all just think you’re weird and felt bad for you. My mom made me keep that dumb picture.”

I know I can take Alice Grey, but the two of them with a knife seems impossible. But I have do something quick.

And then a loud churning sound followed by a moan. I open my eyes to see Alice clutch her stomach, the knife drops to the floor. She turns to Kelsey, “You bitch. You really did poison me.” Her face has gone pale, sweat lines her forehead. “Oh God I’m gonna be sick.”

“Well someone’s gotta take the lead, Alice,” she says.

With a shrill scream she lunges toward Kelsey and grabs her by the throat. Kelsey struggles for breathe, squeezes both hands firmly around her neck. Her milky skin takes on a blue veneer, eyes water and widen. Kelsey shifts her gaze to me, as I watch Alice overpower her.

It’s one of those moments when you don’t know what to do. You think there are all these choices to make, like maybe run. Or yell for help. Let her kill Kelsey. Anything other than grab the knife and shove it deep into Alice Grey’s back. But it’s what I did. Some unexplainable primal urge to save Kelsey, to ensure she lives another day. It’s nothing against Alice, I mean she did try to kill me and all, but I couldn’t let her kill Kelsey.

Alice screams.

I pull the knife from her back as she spins around, eyes wide and accusing. There are no thoughts, just movement as I draw the bloodied knife back and force it into her chest. There’s a noise, a sort of dense thud that punctuates the moment. I’m shaking violently.

Alice repeatedly exclaims I stabbed her, which become less as her breathing slows. As if stating the obvious would change the outcome. Yes Alice, I stabbed you, let’s not forget you were about to do the same to me.

Then it hits me like the fucking Titanic as her blood stains the floor, some on my hands. What did I just do? It happened so fast. I couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. We should call an ambulance, should help her, but everything seems like a bad idea now.

Alice Grey is covered in blood, holding the wound with a softening hand. She quietly pleads for help as Kelsey hovers over her.

All I can think to say is, “Were you two really a thing?”

Kelsey laughs, which is not the reaction I expect, but then again everything is a bit off kilter at the moment. As Alice’s breathing shallows, Kelsey shrugs her shoulders and says, “Not really. Definitely not anymore. I think you killed her.”

“Fucking shit.”

“Well this is a fucked up turn of events,” she says.

A line of blood drips out the corner of Alice’s mouth. Her eye transitions from panic to distant. Alice Grey is dead.

It’s another one of those moments when you make a choice. Call the police. Run. Try CPR. Get help—

Kelsey screams. A deafening wail followed by a roar of sobs. Her body heaves, she clutches her chest. “What have you done,” she cries. “How could you do this? Alice is dead!” I can barely understand Kelsey through her tears. I can’t tell if she’s serious or putting on one of her emotion practices. Her body drapes Alice like a blanket, like a grieving widow burrowing her face against Alice’s chest. Blood quickly spreads across the Dorothy costume, white and blue-checkered fabric eclipsed by red. So much red. On the costume, her skin, the floor.

Kelsey lifts her head. Her pale face covered in Alice Grey’s blood like a vampire. I used to babysit for a family down the street, and Kelsey looks exactly like Ossie Adams after Spaghetti Saturday. Wild-eyed and red faced.

“Why?” She screams. And again, this time more of an exclamation, “Why!”

I don’t know what to say. Just like I really don’t know what the hell happened. Kelsey Burns in a French maid costume covered in Alice Grey’s blood. For a moment I forget I’m the one who was going to be murdered. For a moment I feel—

Guilt?

Fear?

It’s funny, really, I’m not sure I was ever afraid. Like part of me knew Kelsey would never hurt me. Because in a way, I don’t know how Kelsey would live without me. Maybe she knows it, maybe not, but all roads lead to Kelsey Burns. Drawings, paintings, late night walks by her window. I’m forever intrigued by this frustrating human and she’s forever in need of my intrigue.

She needs to be seen, bathed in the golden light of admiration. She needs my constant gaze, the study of my eye, stroke of my brush, because no one sees her as I do. She needs my relentless infatuation to exist just as I need her to shine. Otherwise we may both wither and die. Her magnetic pull keeps something in me nourished, a radiance that waters an ever-wilting rose. Something with an insatiable thirst for more. And if you cut the water supply, the garden will rot. We exist for each other, to complement each other, to keep one another in bloom.

But Kelsey is like a kid who knows only to show her feelings by shoving me in the sand. Infatuation can turn to sporadic cruelty if gone unacknowledged, and until now I never knew how entrenched I am. Don’t get it mixed with sex or anything like that, because it’s not. It’s not that at all.

I think, maybe, it’s love.

But love cannot exist without fear, nor fear without love. It’s the balance of things. And while love is blind, so is fear.

Kelsey begins to laugh hysterically, falls backward on her ass. How quickly tears can turn to whatever this is. The grieving widow lay to rest. I guess those emotion practices have paid off. But quickly as her laughter starts, the heavy breathing and wide grin fade to resting state like a baby ready to nap. She sits in a puddle of blood staring vacantly toward the stage.

Alice Grey’s body lay like a morbid alternate ending to The Wizard of Oz.

“Holy fuck,” she says.

The moment stretches.

“Holy fuck,” I say.

“Holy fuck,” a voice echoes in the theatre.

We turn toward the stage door as if snapped from a daze. Someone is here.

“Who’s there?” Kelsey’s voice is loud and demanding.

A figure steps out from shadow.

My eyes squint to process who has caught our mess. My mind scrambles to explain what has happened, how I’d prove it’s not what it looks like. Alice Grey is dead as an act of self-defense.

And there he is—

Drake steps forward, eyes opened wider than his mouth. He looks first at Alice, a knife protruding from her chest, terror painted across his face. He then sees Kelsey seated in Alice’s blood. Then me.

“What the hell—“

“Drake. Drake, it’s not what it looks like.”

“No, it’s exactly what it looks like,” Kelsey interrupts. “You came just in time. I’d be next.”

Drake looks at me in disbelief.

“You did this?” He asks.

I tell him no, well, yes I killed Alice. But no, it wasn’t my fault. There’s a lot of stuttering and heavy breathing because when do you find yourself in this situation? I almost cry. Almost, but I don’t. To be honest, there’s a sick humor in it all. Is that fucked up?

There’s a bunch of back and forth between me and Drake. He says he was dropping off props for the show. Kelsey is quiet. She stares off. I’m not sure what she looks at, but there’s something so very Francis Bacon about the moment and it’s beautiful. Grotesque. But, yeah, beautiful. Draped in lace and blood.

She speaks. To herself at first, then repeats it louder.

She says, “This idea was shit.”

Drake and I watch Kelsey stand, smooth the front of her maids apron, which now resembles that of a butcher; and with a swift motion she pulls the knife from Alice Grey’s chest.

“I’m gonna puke,” Drake moans.

“Don’t be a pussy,” Kelsey says. She turns to me, “Now what are you gonna do about this bitch?”

“Me?”

“You killed her. Your mess.”

“You’re kidding me? This is your fault. I wouldn’t be here if—”

“I didn’t think you’d kill her!”

“Seriously what the fuck is going on?” The last time I saw Drake panic was when Lorraine attacked him. He turned the same shade of pale, eyes brown saucers, lip quivered. Although now his best friend stabbed Alice Grey in the chest. So there’s that.

“The way I see it,” Kelsey says, “this can go two ways. We call the cops. Tell the truth, that you killed Alice. Maybe your accomplice here, Drake, lures Alice to the theatre tonight. You both get arrested. And most likely the show gets cancelled. The Broadway agent stays in New York. Everyone loses.”

“That’s ridiculous, Kelsey, and you know it! You were going to kill me. You and Alice. And Drake’s got nothing to do with it. No one would believe you.”

“But they’d believe you?”

Tears well in her eyes, lip trembles. “Officer,” Kelsey cries, “I was so scared.”

“Or?” I interrupt the show.

“Or. We get rid of the body,” she says.

“Are you crazy?” Drake shouts.

“Ok. Hold on. Let’s say we get rid of Alice, act like it never happened. We do what then, Kelsey? Go on stage tomorrow like nothing?”

“A regular Nancy Drew.”

“And what about the show? What about her role? Let me guess—“

“No one knows it better than me. No one. I resume her character. You keep your mouths shut. We go on like nothing happened. Because—“

“—because nothing happened.” The words fall slowly from my mouth.

“Exactly. Nothing happened.”

And she’s right.

I killed Alice. I wouldn’t be able to prove anything and Kelsey would never let me put the blame on her. The show would shut down. Police everywhere. Any sliver of normalcy would be destroyed and my life would play out like a shitty Dateline special. I’d be the High School Thespian Murderer. And while there’s an odd excitement burrowed there, it would be miserable. Even if I managed to prove self-defense despite Kelsey’s best under-oath performance, I can’t imagine her carried away in handcuffs to spend life in prison. Although maybe she’d do well in there. A captive audience.

“You can’t be serious?” Drake says, but I think he understands. He knows how it looks and what would happen if discovered. “This is fucked.” Deflated, he shakes his head and says, “So what do we do?”

We don’t do anything,” I tell him. “ You go home and pretend you never saw anything.”

“No way—“

“Go.” Kelsey cuts him off. “You don’t need to be here. This is our mess.” She pauses, looks at Alice. And in that moment Kelsey Burns is the most human she’s ever been. Her face is washed in defeat like someone woke her from a very long, very upsetting dream. She looks soft. Delicate.

Kelsey and I now have something. We share a slice of chaos that welds us beyond separation. Linked.

“Fuck it,” I say. “Let’s make Alice Grey disappear.”

Kelsey looks up. A shimmer of mischief reignites in her eyes. There she is.

Drake takes my hand. Those Converse sneakers, the ones with my signature, align with my stance. His grip tightens. “Let’s cut the bitch up.”

“Classic.” Kelsey laughs.

****

Drake pukes after the first cut into Alice Grey’s arm.

Tools were left from the set crew, a few saws lying around. I’d only used a saw once in my life when Dad and I built a wooden Boston Tea Party display in fifth grade. All the other kids used typical folding board, but he saw an opportunity to bond in his tool shed. I sliced my finger pretty bad but won Best In Show.

Cutting through Alice was easier than wood until my saw hit bone. I hacked back and forth with every bit of strength but it was impossible. I became so focused I forgot it was an arm. Once the blade broke through, the rest was easy. I took the right arm, Kelsey the left. Drake worked on the blood that pooled around us. He laid drop cloths but those filled fast. We didn’t anticipate the splatter let alone the amount of blood, but somehow it was contained.

Now we move to Alice’s legs. Kelsey will take the left, me the right, starting at the upper thigh then one more cut at the knee. We haven’t decided what to do once Alice is in pieces but like any great plan, that part will come later.

I grip her thigh, which is thinner than I imagined. Alice has always been slender, but her thigh is the size of my upper arm. Fortunate for us. I push on her near translucent flesh, purple lines like road maps on paper white skin. I wonder if the blood has drained or if this next cut will cause an eruption.

The handsaw rests against Alice. Kelsey and I exchange glances, she’s more pale than usual. Her expression serious and determined. She pushes a strand of hair from her face, a streak of blood smears. Kelsey is near covered in red, the maid costume no longer black and white but a gradient of death. I look down at myself, also covered, jeans soaked, arms saturated in a brilliant red gloss.

“What do we do about our clothes?” I ask.

“Burn ‘em.” Drake answers.

“And Alice?”

Kelsey hacks at Alice’s thigh with surprising force. “Stop asking questions,” she says, followed by one word, “Cut.”

Cut.

Our director yells cut when we need to perform a scene differently. Or when he thinks a performance sucks. You’re in the moment, then: CUT! How many times had Alice heard cut? Or Kelsey? A word that’s taken a whole new meaning.

Alice Grey’s body jiggles with each motion. For a corpse, a thin corpse at that, you think there wouldn’t be much movement. But her whole body vibrates as me and Kelsey attack her legs.

I look at Alice’s face for the first time. I wasn’t avoiding her gaze, maybe I was. But there’s a moment of clarity when I lock eyes with her, mine fearful and ashamed, hers dead. Vacant. Two hours ago I was almost murdered. Now Alice Grey is dead and I killed her. I killed her and am dismembering her body with Drake and Kelsey. But just as clarity sets, it fades. Because it has to. There’s no option but to follow through with this fucked up dismemberment plan.

“It’s not working,” Kelsey yells. We can’t cut the bone in Alice’s thigh, the blade gets stuck. She tugs fiercely, growing angrier with each pull to the point where Alice’s body seems almost alive.

Then a sharp snap.

The blade breaks, caught in bone.

“What do I do?”

I’d give her mine but it’s no better. If we’re going to finish before morning, we need reinforcement. Or a new plan.

Drake runs out, I think to puke again. He’s cleaned a lot of blood but there’s still so much. A mound of red soaked drop cloths have amassed in the corner with only two clean ones left. And the question of what to do with Alice still lingers.

Kelsey panics. She thinks the same, though we don’t share it. It’s in her eyes, between exhaustion and dismemberment, she’s loosing it. It’s a side of Kelsey Burns I’ve never seen. Real human emotion, no practice necessary. Fear washes over her face, complex and internal, like something from a Munch painting. Her eyes, often glimmering and mischievous, are now sullen and distant. If you stare long enough, you can see it tucked in her core like a frightened child shroud in black, deep in the corner of her soul. She’s always been mysterious and detached or wildly in control, but this is new. And I wish I could photograph her.

Kelsey grabs my hand, pulls me close. Those layered eyes lasso mine. We stare for a moment, share the emotion in its uncomfortable stillness. I feel like I know everything about Kelsey but nothing at all.

And I wonder what she tastes like.

Our lips meet, soft and gentle. The red across our face, cold and thick, smears as cheeks graze. Her saliva marries with Alice Grey’s blood in my mouth. Blood mixed with years of adoration like iron and wine, a partially dismembered body alongside us.

She laughs. I laugh. Because what the fuck?

“I’m sorry,” she says. And she means it. “I don’t know why I did that.”

“How about the rest?”

“What do you mean?”

“The attempted murder? Almost killing me?”

She smiles. “No, that was Alice. And the only murderer here is you. But I’m sorry for the kiss, that was totally out of line.”

She makes me smile. I lean against Alice, a much-welcomed pillow as my mind and body shut down.

“So what now?” she asks.

A sudden blast echoes through the theatre; the deafening, unmistakable roar of a chainsaw. We turn to see Drake proudly revving what will be our savior.

“Who’s first?” he asks with a devilish grin.

I love that sick fuck.

****

The cool embrace of night, a gentle breeze against my blood-stained face. It’s a moment of solace. A fire blazes in front of us; a mix of scrap wood and bloody clothes. Burn the evidence. We sit in our underwear, Drake with a brown suede cowboy hat swiped from the costume room, me with a black sequined vest and top hat from last summer’s production of A Chorus Line.

“Look,” Drake points toward the night sky, “Full moon.” Orange and yellow flames dance against his skin.

The ivory ball glows overhead, magnificent and purifying.

I need to feel purified.

One thing they don’t teach you in school is how to properly remove a head from the human body. Rather the head of someone you’ve known since fourth grade. We’ve seen horror movies, enough zombie apocalypses to know how it goes. One swift dramatic Texas Chainsaw Massacre slice through the neck, followed by a thud as it hits the floor.

But you’re never prepared for the smell of flesh and bone against raging metal. Or the overspray of blood. And when your friend suddenly has no head, it takes a moment to grasp the visual. Reduced to a basketball that bares striking resemblance to someone you used to know. I could shoot a three-pointer with Alice Grey.

Drake sits on the sidewalk behind the theatre. I lean against his arm, head on his shoulder. Kelsey cleans inside.

“How are you doing?” he asks.

“Like I just woke up. You?” I give him a nudge.

“Same.”

“I don’t know how this happened. Alice. Fuck, Drake. Alice is dead. I killed—“

“You know I love you, yeah?”

I nod.

“Well this is some fucked up shit. I mean, really fucked,” he says.

A groan escapes my mouth, I bury my head in his shoulder.

“But,” he continues, “You did what you had to do and we’ll figure it out.”

He throws the last cloth into the fire. It is engulfed in flames as embers fly to the moon. Drake lifts the cowboy hat and pulls out a Sharpie.

“Give me your shoe,” he says.

I smile, slide my grey, beat up Doc’s to him. He carefully signs his name.

“No matter what,” he says. Then throws the pen to the fire.

“The sun’s gonna be up soon. We should get going.”

“What about Alice?” he asks. “I mean, her parts.”

“Put her in the woods, maybe? Bury her in a few places?”

He shakes his head. “We don’t have time. It’s gonna be light, someone’ll find us.”

And again, it’s one of those moments when a thousand options are at your fingertips. But you have to make a choice. Quick.

“Come on.” I stand, grab Drake’s arm and pull him up. “We’re going back in the theatre.”

The fire burns bright behind us, black smoke trails with the wind, a needed warmth against my back as we walk toward the stage door.

“So,” Drake says, “Saw you and Burns make out back there.”

I give him a shove. “Fuck off.”

****

Kelsey turns to me from her rightful place center stage, under bright lights and a sold out audience. A small grin curls at the corner of her mouth, one only I can see. But it’s there.

I stand in the wings off stage left, Drake is opposite stage right. He catches my stare, nods, arms crossed against his chest. My last scene ended a few minutes ago, a pretty solid performance—all things considered. I haven’t slept, haven’t eaten, haven’t had a still mind since, well, you know.

The New York agent seated with Alice’s dad, who was there for about ten minutes before realizing his daughter wasn’t coming on stage. Soon he’ll find an e-mail from Alice that says she ran off to California to pursue dreams of Hollywood stardom. Kelsey sent the letter this afternoon from Alice’s account. It’ll buy some time to make sure there’s no sign of a dismembered Alice Grey lingering about.

Kelsey stepped into Alice’s role as if it were already hers. And honestly it’s the best she’s ever performed. As if killing Alice Grey unleashed a depth in Kelsey no one of her emotion practices ever could. All those hours she spent searching for authenticity in her mirror, through tears and wild tantrums, it came only when she let her guard down. When she became vulnerable. Amidst severed arms and bloodshed, Kelsey Burns transformed from an actress playing a human to someone almost human. Still totally dysfunctional, now more than ever with decapitation on her list of skills. But lighter, somehow. Free. And with Alice out of the way, Kelsey shines brighter than ever. I think Alice was to Kelsey what Kelsey is to me, a symbiotic relationship that breeds only fire. But with her muse suddenly extinguished, the world can watch as Kelsey burns.

In those last moments of her monologue, just before the curtain closes and well-earned applause ensues, Kelsey is bathed in golden light.

All eyes on her.

Not a sound, not a breath can be heard throughout the theatre. She takes a dramatic pause that sends chills up my arm, before delivering the last line of the show.

It’s Kelsey Burns’s moment.

And it’s perfect.

But there by her feet, a small spec of red only the knowing eye can see. The tiniest drop of Alice Grey manages to stain Kelsey’s spotlight. Maybe that’s how it’ll always be. And there, below her feet, below the single remaining stain of blood, is the dismembered body of Alice Grey. Arms, legs, torso sheathed in plastic beneath the stage. Her head rests atop a mound of limbs center stage, as she would have wanted. And, sure, at some point we’ll move her, especially before the smell takes over. But for now, Alice is where she belongs.

The audience applauds Kelsey who takes it in with a sort of glittery-eyed stoicism. And as she places a hand to her heart in what looks to be her best imitation of gratitude, a thought slithers to the forefront of my mind like a parasite. One that since acknowledged will not go away. Had Kelsey Burns staged the whole thing? No matter how hard I try to disregard it, I can’t shake the feeling Kelsey used me to kill Alice.

As the curtains close, Kelsey bows once more, and I think what would happen if she disappeared? If Kelsey Burns was dismembered from me like a rotten limb? Our unhinged connection broken.

Would I shine?

And I wonder, how’s this going to end?
 

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