It was nearly six in the morning, far too early to be awake and working, but that was when Josie Marks thrived. There was a chill in the air that signaled the impending October, the leaves on the trees outside the auditorium morphing from green to yellow. The ghost light flickered on stage, standing proudly in front of the velveteen red curtains that were drawn shut. It wasn’t strange to see the rows of seats empty, extending all the way to the back of the house and up towards the tech booth. They were completely unoccupied, almost like a sea drained of all its water. But that was typical for rehearsals.
The far left door to the house was always left unlocked. It was for those who knew that early was on time, on time was late, and late was as good as dead. Josie made sure the door shut quietly behind her, then slipped into the end chair in one of the back rows. A brass plate on the wooden arm displayed the number 365. Breathing in the familiar smell of wood, paint, blood, sweat, and tears, she smiled. Although she’d spent nearly the past four years in this very building, she was still filled with the same quiet excitement every time she walked in.
One of the only blemishes to the perfect atmosphere was the cast list taped to the door, as if to remind everyone of their place. Neat Cambria font spelled out each actor’s success (or failure) to secure a part in the final show. There was also the mic list by the tech booth, names listed in order of their importance, so the techies knew who to prioritize and whose voices needed to be heard the loudest. Josie was used to scanning the cast list with her heart in her throat, waiting to see where her name fell in line. But this time had been different. Understudy. Backup. Second best. It hadn’t mattered that her skin tone matched the character’s background perfectly, or that she’d been speaking Spanish since she was three years old. It didn’t matter that she had nearly twenty pages of character analysis written out in her meticulously neat script, tucked away in her show binder. She still wasn’t good enough, and didn’t have any idea why.
Still, the cool air that filled the theater welcomed Josie like a warm hug, and she wrapped her sweatshirt tighter around her arms. Even through the rejection and disappointment, the theater was still her happy place, and where she went to forget the rest of life’s problems. On opening night it wouldn’t feel this cold though. The cast would be burning with anticipation, jumping out of their skin and racing through their lines before their first entrance on stage. And having an audience would warm the place up immediately. The hustle and bustle of grabbing concessions, flipping through the playbill, and chatting with neighbors, friends, and family across the aisles of seats would be sure to fill the building up with that old, familiar glow. It was magical. It always had been.
But the side of the curtain moving, sending ripples of red from one side of the stage to the other, had pulled Josie out of her opening night daydream. Hushed voices followed and superstition gripped her for a moment, as she wondered if somehow the ghost light hadn’t been enough to ward off the spirits who wanted to haunt the theater. It was an old building, that wouldn’t have been entirely implausible. Decades of shows had been performed on that stage, millions of butts filling those seats. There was plenty of history there, more than enough to warrant a ghost or two.
Glancing behind her at the tech booth, Josie saw no one. The front doors to the auditorium were the only ones that were unlocked. Only the actors and the techies would have known about the house doors that were left open. That left two possibilities: One, the ghost, which Josie had initially suspected. Or two, it was simply another actor who had decided to show up just as early as she had. Nobody ever seemed quite that dedicated, especially not to this particular show, and Josie doubted her typically rational brain for a moment.
Pushing herself up slowly from the chair and letting it swing gently back into place, Josie grabbed her dance bag and headed up the aisle toward the front row. It was easy to hide her footsteps on the carpeting of the floor, the sound of her movement being absorbed by its weave. She debated making herself known, calling out and asking who was there. But then, on second thought, maybe anonymity and silence would serve her better.
As Josie got closer to the stage, the curtain still rippled as though people were moving behind it. She could almost imagine sitting in the crowd as the lights went down, hearing the shuffling of feet as actors moved to their places, knowing that the curtain would be moving with the energy of their excited bodies. There was definitely someone (or something) back there, and Josie was primed and ready to investigate.
She set her dance bag in her usual seat, three chairs into the front row of the middle section. When the full cast was there, the center seats would be filled nearly six rows back, but the house was ghostly quiet so early in the morning. Josie took care to unzip her bag slowly, praying the noise wouldn’t alert whoever was behind the curtain to her presence. Lowering herself softly to the floor, she untied her tennis shoes and slipped on the soft, tan jazz shoes that were typical for all the ensemble members. If anything, she could explain her early arrival away and use the shoes as an excuse; wanting to get out on the stage and warm herself up for the day before everyone else arrived.
Padding slowly up the wooden stairs, Josie ignored the electricity she felt when she stepped on the stage. As she began to roll the ghost light away from center stage, she knew there was no turning back. Whoever was haunting the set would surely hear the rolling of those old, squeaky wheels. And sure enough, Josie heard whispering voices behind the curtain as she pulled it aside, moving the light back into the wings. She paused for a moment, leaning her head toward the curtain and trying to hear through the thick velour fabric. Unfortunately, it did its job, blocking the sound and making it nearly impossible to discern what the ghosts might be saying. The only thing she could make out for sure was that there were two voices now, likely a man and a woman.
“Hello?” Josie asked hesitantly, stepping around the curtain and finally revealing herself. Her eyes fell on the wooden skeleton of the set, still unpainted and unfinished. The techies had gotten further than when she’d last seen the structure, but that wasn’t the real shock Josie received. What surprised her was the director, Mr. C, standing all too close to Bella Davis. The girl’s back was pressed to one of the sturdier walls of the set pieces, and Josie could just barely make out the movement of Mr. C’s hand, jerking away from the young girl in front of him. Bella looked like she had in fact seen a ghost, but Mr. C quickly plastered on a charming smile.
“Oh, Josie, how nice to see you so early this morning,” he grinned, walking over towards her as he spoke. “I was just answering some of Ms. Davis’ questions about the notes from last week’s rehearsals. I trust that as her understudy you’ve been paying attention, too?” he asked. All Josie could do was nod. It didn’t look like they were practicing any kind of scene from the show, which Josie knew now like the back of her hand.
“Y-Yeah,” she stuttered out. “I was just showing up early to get a headstart on warming up,” Josie explained.
“Perfect! I love the initiative that you’ve always taken in this department, Josie,” Mr. C said. “Bella, if you have any other questions I’ll be in my office until rehearsal starts. Keep up the good work, you two.” And with that, he exited stage left, leaving behind a nervous Bella, and Josie, who was just now realizing why exactly she’d been skipped over for the part of the lead.
Josie silently headed over to the rope hanging at the side of the wings, focusing on the methodical pull and jingling as she drew the curtain open. It was enough to drown out Bella’s pleading voice saying “I can explain!”
All she could picture was the way Bella sat beside Mr. C while she wasn’t on stage, peering over into his lap at the notes he was writing. Was it dedication? Maybe, but not to the show. And Josie was left with a sick feeling when she remembered how Mr. C closed his classroom for lunch on Thursdays, and how it was those days when Bella was never anywhere to be found. Her stomach churned with disgust. This person, this grown man whom the students all loved and trusted, was sneaking around doing God-only-knows-what with one of his students, the lead in the fall musical. What Josie had come to understand in that moment, was that sometimes no amount of initiative was ever enough in that theater. And still, she took the stage.
Hannah Duffield is a sophomore at UW Platteville majoring in Forensic Investigation. She has been passionate about writing for as long as she can remember and dreams of publishing a novel one day. When she isn't writing, she is found baking or dancing. She can type 85 words per minute.
Jeff Weiland graduated from UW-Platteville Baraboo Sauk County in the 1980's and has always enjoyed photography.