Keep the Drama On the Stage, Ye Bloody Kids!

It was a bleary December Tuesday, and I had study hall fourth hour. I regularly accomplished next to nothing in there, and of that nothing, the countdown to lunch hour required the most brain power. (Liberty approaches in fifty-four, fifty-three, fifty-two …) For most December days, I spent the class staring into space, reflecting on my life and the fast approaching horror that would be semester exams.

But on this particular day, I really wanted to let my REM cycle do the reflecting for me. I was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted after performing in the school's drama production only a few days before. Ten minutes into fourth period, I got a pass out of the room so I could try to find my precious CD case. I'd lost it the previous Saturday, probably buried under used makeup sponges in the girls' dressing room.

As I approached the back of the auditorium and the dressing rooms, I nonchalantly slid my hand across the top of a trophy case. The director, Ms. Carson, would regularly leave the key up there so the cast wouldn't ask her to unlock doors all the time. But try as I might, I couldn't find the thing. I ran my fingers over the top of the case again, then stood up on tiptoe to peer over the edge. Great. Someone probably lost the key in the mess of set tear-down on Sunday. Well, I reasoned, maybe they're still open.

Unfortunately, the girls' room door remained securely shut. If the boys' room didn't open, I'd have to trudge all the way back to the English department and get the other key from Ms. Carson. In one, overly forceful, movement, I turned the handle and shoved the door with my shoulder. It flung open, and I staggered into the boys' dressing room, my knees crashing to tile floor.

The lights came on. Not just the fluorescent overhead ones, oh no, the ones lighting the mirrors, too. If I hadn't been so focused on the pain in my kneecaps, I would've thought I had died and the blinding rays of heaven shone upon me.

But I doubt God asks the newly deceased, "What the hell are you doing?"

This unexpected burst of language scared the living daylights out of me and I promptly fell over backward onto my butt. The source of the heavenly proclamation? A boy across the room, sitting on the makeup counter, one hand on the light switch. His other arm, encased in a green plaster cast, held up a cigarette.

I just stared at him for a few moments. When I did speak, all I could get out was, "You smoke?"

He looked at his cigarette, back at me, then at the cigarette again. I swear it took him half a minute to do so. "No." His expression was blank.

I rolled my eyes. "Then why do you have that?" To give him credit, I noticed he hadn't actually lit the thing – yet.

He leaned back against the mirror, setting his feet up on a chair. "I don't know, Annemarie," he said scathingly. "Why did you ram the door when it was unlocked?"

I glared at him.

Now it was his turn to roll his eyes. "Okay, fine." He threw the cigarette into a nearby sink, stood up, and walked over to me. "Are you alright? That crash looked pretty intense." He offered his (unbroken) hand and pulled me up from the floor, holding his grip a little longer and a little tighter than I expected. He had his perpetual smirk, but smirks looked really good on Doyle Merriman.

I quickly let go of his hand. Tearing my eyes off him, I focused on brushing the dust from my jeans.

Doyle leaned around me, peering out the door to scan up and down the hallway. "Eh, don't worry, Annie. I don't think anyone saw your gravity problem."

This was just like Doyle. Being a total jerk one second, perhaps a decent human being the next, but always back to a jerk. He even called me Annie, which he knew was taboo. But then again, it wasn't like I embodied human kindness, either. I looked critically at his lime green cast. "I have a problem with gravity?"

He smirked again. "What, this? I got this in a gang brawl. In 'Nam."

He's so cute when he's nerdy. No, he's not. Yes, he is. No, he's not …

I shook my head, partly at his stupid joke and partly at my own stupidity. "You know perfectly well you fell down the stairs, Doyle." I walked over to the mounds of unclaimed stuff on the makeup counters. "Now, have you seen my CD case? The one with the—." I heard a thud, and looked up in the mirror to see Doyle with his back against the closed door.

"Beatles sticker?" he finished for me. "I think it's in the girls' room; Mason put it back there after tear-down." He started to swing his arm, his cast making a thumping noise when it hit the wall.

I pretended to ignore the fact that Doyle remembered what stickers I had on my CDs. "Why did you shut the door?" I asked his reflection.

Thump, thump, thump. "So we don't bring any attention to the fact that I'm skipping out on being a library helper."

I turned from the mirror to face him. "So you can get cancer in the dressing room," I added.

Thump, thump, thump. "I didn't even light it. I don't even smoke, really." He didn't sound sarcastic, but I couldn't be sure. Doyle's first language was Sardonic. "And I'd never get another part if Carson found out I smoked, much less in the dressing rooms." Thump, thump, thump. Still no smirk.

I realized I hated it when he was serious, because it meant I couldn't be a smart-ass either. No more masks of sarcasm to hide behind. I sighed. "Yeah, okay. Well, I'm going to check the girls' room, then. Can I have the key?" I stretched out my hand, indicating he should just toss it to me.

Doyle stopped swinging his arm against the wall long enough to pull the brass key out of his pocket. But instead of throwing it across the room, he began to tap it against his cast-covered palm. His face had that blank look again.

His little rhythmic exercises really wore at my patience. "Would you please stop hitting things with your cast? It's getting annoying."

Finally, he focused on me and stopped tapping the key. I thought, for once, he would actually say something worthwhile. "Listen, Annie …"

"Annemarie," I automatically corrected.

"Annemarie. Listen, about what happened at the Guzmans' on Saturday, I just wanted to—."

Oh great. I knew where this was going. He wanted to have a heart-to-heart with me. I was not good with heart-to-hearts, especially not ones that involved Doyle. "Yeah, well, whatever. It's no big deal, is it?" The words escaped from my mouth in an unintelligible rush. I needed to leave before I did something stupid … like rip his head off. I crossed to him and held out my hand for the key. I should have tapped my foot for good measure.

He held the key above his head, far out of my reach.

Oh, no. I was not going to jump for that thing. "Come on, Doyle—."

He held it still higher. His face held no hint of a grin. "Annie, listen to me—"

"Don't call me Annie! How many times do I have to tell you? Just give me the key!" I threw my dignity to the wind and jumped up, snatching the key from him.

Without explanation or warning, the lights in the dressing room flickered, went out, and then came back on full force.

Doyle looked just as confused as me. "Is it storming or something?" I asked him.

He shook his head slowly. "No … Well, I don't think so, anyway. Maybe it was Ferdinand?" He added the last part with a slight grin, but he still looked confused.

"Whatever," I muttered, and headed towards the stage door.

"Wait, Annie, where are you going?"

I ignored him. If I turned around, I might actually want to hear the rest of what he had been trying to tell me earlier. I opened the door to the stage and slipped out quickly. Unfortunately, before my moody exit, I forgot to turn on the work lights backstage. I was not about to reach back into the dressing room, though. Doyle would think I was a total idiot, running out like that and then coming right back in.

I clenched the key in my right hand, using my left hand as a guide along the wall as I felt my way through the darkness. Streams of unanswerable questions flowed through my mind. Why did the lights go out? Why did Doyle have a cigarette if he wasn't going to smoke it? How did he remember that sticker?

Why should I worry what Doyle thinks about me, anyway? He probably didn't worry about me half as much as I did about him. But after what happened Saturday, it was obvious I was just fooling myself and wasting my time. I just wanted to scream or something, to let out the frustration from my pathetic existence.

I reached the girls' room, but fumbled with the key. I dropped it. Of course. I banged my head against the door. Idiot. Idiot. Idiot.

The work lights came on, a low glow softened by the forest of black velvet curtains and pulley ropes. "Thanks," I called, but Doyle gave no response..

I dropped down to look for the key. Under a props table next to the door, I found one, but it wasn't for the dressing room. This was one of those huge, golden, ornate ones; very Victorian, and very weird, considering our musical was Grease, not My Fair Lady. Intrigued, I reached to pick it up, but just as I touched it, the work lights went out.

My first thought was, Doyle, you stupid jerk. But something changed. I felt queasy. And then couldn't feel anything – not the stage floor I was standing on, not my aching knees, not even the key I had been holding. But I could tell when something violently pulled me off my feet. I either fell down or soared upward, through a deafening rush of color and sound. I let out a scream, but the Willy Wonka Tunnel of Terror drowned me out.

And, then, just as suddenly, it stopped. Slowly my senses returned to me. I stood on a stage, in front of an audience that stretched into oblivion. Then the sound came next, a clash of horns and cellos and violins that I swear made my ears bleed from the sheer chaos of it all. Somehow, in-between cymbal crashes, there came three words:

"Oh. My. God."

I didn't say it. Doyle did. He was standing stage right of me, facing that enormous house. He was in a pirate's costume, sword and all. There was even a parrot on his shoulder. His mouth hung open.

Around us was the most ornate, lavish, hideous set I had ever seen. A monstrous ship set piece stretched along stage right, with at least a dozen pirates dancing on its deck. They were singing, too. They were bad singers.

Doyle turned around, staring at the surreal spectacle. When he finally saw me, I think he jumped about four feet. The stuffed parrot flew off his shoulder into the tangle of fake palm trees behind him.

"Holy crap, Annie, what are you wearing?"

I looked down at myself. "Oh, my God." I think I was supposed to be a pirate hooker. I tried to cover myself up, but the corset pretty much defied all attempts at modesty. "Doyle, what is going on?" I hissed through my teeth.

Doyle stopped ogling my outfit and looked out at the audience. The music continued to play and the pirate dancers of doom continued to sing. Doyle's mouth continued to hang open. He looked like he was going into shock.

"Doyle!" I grabbed his parrot-less shoulders and shook him. I noticed a lot of big, gold, jingly bracelets on my wrists. How tacky.

He looked at me, his eyes wide. Slowly, his gaze drifted downward. Far downward. I shook him again. "DOYLE! Now is not the time to be checking out my boobs!"

Of course, this pronouncement came out at the exact moment the music ceased. The audience emitted a low hum of whispers, the only sound in the whole theater. We both looked up at the ship's deck; all the dancers hung from rails and ropes, their expressions broad. They were obviously waiting for something.

"We have to say a line," Doyle whispered.

I felt the hysteria rising in me. "Line! What line? How can we say lines if—"

Doyle stepped forward, flung his left arm out, and proclaimed, "Now, my dear Ambrosia, we shall sail away from these scallywags and live together without the treachery of Ferdinand the Ferocious!"

Then, as if some one else had taken control of my voice and body, I too stepped forward. My arms flung themselves around Doyle and I sighed, in the loudest possible way, "Oh, Antonio, my hero!"

The music started up again, but with blatantly ominous tones of "Dun dun dun!" The lights quickly dimmed to semi-darkness. Someone grabbed my waist and wrenched me from my bear-hug of Doyle. I screamed, thinking I was going back into the Tunnel of Terror. When the lights came up again, I realized I was still in Pirate Hell, and a very big, very smelly guy with a short beard and a feathered hat held a knife to my throat. Well, a piece of wood painted silver, but still a knife. Big Smelly Guy bellowed, "I have deceived you once again, Antonio! Mwa-ha-ha!" He jerked the wooden knife up against my neck. It really hurt.

"Avast, ye scurvy wanker! I'll have me maiden!" Doyle stepped back, threw off his hat, pulled out his long wooden-painted-silver sword, and … dropped it.

Doyle let out a string of curse words and grabbed his right arm with his left hand, a grimace on his face. "My arm's broken!" He made no attempt to keep his voice down. The audience started muttering again and the orchestra faltered.

I rolled my eyes. "You just now noticed? Wasn't the crash on the Guzmans' basement floor enough to tell you that?"

"No, seriously, look!" he pulled up the insanely ruffled sleeve of his costume to reveal a bare forearm, no cast present. Obviously lime green plaster it wasn't period appropriate. I wasn't so sure about the historical accuracy of that bone sticking out, though.

"Er … No ye won't!" yelled Big Smelly Guy, a bit too loudly. He went on, totally glossing over the previous off-script exchange. "Give me your treasure or I, Ferdinand the Ferocious, keep her for eternity!"

I ignored Big Smelly's cues. This was too much. Without thinking, I called back to Doyle, "You know, if you weren't such a bitch, these things wouldn't happen to you!"

"What the heck is that supposed to mean?" he spat back at me.

I laughed without mirth. "Oh, like you and Hannah planned to make out and fall down the stairs at the same time?"

"Oh my God, Annie, I tried to tell you, it wasn't—."

Big Smelly coughed pointedly. I felt the line "Oh, my dearest, save me!" rise in my throat, but I pushed the words away. I ducked out of Smelly's chokehold and advanced on Doyle. "What were you trying to tell me earlier, Doyle, huh? 'Hey, sorry, Annie, I know I said I liked you and all, but I'm really a slut and can't keep my hands off every other girl in the cast!' Was that it?"

Doyle stared at me, a mixture of disgust and disbelief contorting his face along with the obvious pain from his arm. He said nothing.

I didn't know what to do now that I got that off my chest. I looked helplessly around me. The orchestra had finally given up the show and started playing some polka number. The curtain swung closed and muffled the twittering house. Big Smelly rubbed his forehead, his eyes squinted shut. The dancer-pirates on the ship stood crowded on the railing, an audience to the drama.

Doyle stepped closer to me. He glanced at the pirates and at Big Smelly, then said in a low voice, "Maybe if you had allowed me to apologize and explain, we wouldn't have been sent to our own private pirate hell!"

"Are you saying I asked for this?" I motioned wildly at the stage and my ridiculous outfit.

Doyle pointed at Big Smelly with his unbroken arm. "Don't you get it, Annie? That's Ferdinand, our theater ghost! You know how the director always says, 'keep the drama on the stage'? Well, when we couldn't talk out our problems, he sent us here to – to –," he stopped, and made a sweeping motion with his free hand. "To teach us … something!" he finished, rather anticlimactically.

I looked over at Big Smelly Ferdinand. He did kind of smell like an exaggeration of our auditorium – a mixture of old paint, makeup powder, and sweat. He was tall, but not really all that impressive – which probably explained why he haunted a high school instead of an opera house. But, still, I couldn't really doubt the possibility that he was some kind of inter-dimensional mastermind. After all, I was in a corset, playing a character called 'Ambrosia,' on a stage with pirate dancers. Things could be weirder.

Ferdinand lowered his hand from his brow and looked sadly at the both of us: me, heaving with indignation in a too-tight costume, and Doyle, with half his outfit dismantled and part of his arm-bone poking through the skin. Ferdinand sighed. "Doyle's right, Annemarie," he said in voice totally unlike his 'Ahoy, matey!' tone. "I do so hate when my actors aren't keeping a cheery existence. Makes me gloomy, you see, that's why I need to borrow those Spice Girls music discs from time to time." So that's where my 90s mix went, I realized. He continued, "I don't try to intervene that often, but sometimes I just can't stand the unhappiness. Unfortunately, I'm a bit out of practice, and this whole scenario didn't work the way I'd planned. You two just can't stay in character, I don't know what went wrong …" He sighed dejectedly, and covered his face with his hands. "What am I to do? How can my theater go on if the cast is constantly at odds?" He pulled out a large lace handkerchief and blew his nose.

Doyle and I exchanged looks. It kind of depressed me that our theater ghost was so pathetic.

Doyle reached out and patted Ferdinand awkwardly on the back. "Er … yeah, it's not all your fault. It's just that I've got this broken arm and it really, really hurts without the cast …"

I stepped forward. "We promise we'll work this out back – um – in the real world." I sincerely hoped we weren't in an actual theater.

Ferdinand sniffled. "Alright … It does seem the best thing, after this fiasco. I'm so sorry. Here you go." He produced a big, golden key. It had to be the one I'd found under the props table. "Just grab a hold and try not to move … Oh, and will you tell that Eric to please stop saying 'Macbeth'? Stopping those lights from exploding is getting to be tedious." Ferdinand held out the key, and Doyle and I took it at the same time. With one last watery smile, Ferdinand released his hold.

I was instantly flying through the Willy Wonka Tunnel of Terror again. I came to in front of girls' dressing room door, just where as I had been. Doyle wasn't with me.

I panicked. What if he was still stuck in Pirate Hell? I rushed over to the boys' door and yanked it open. He stood in the center of the room, examining his cast with exorbitant interest.

"Doyle! Doyle, Are you okay?"

He looked at me. "Was that for real, or is the pain medication getting to me?"

I shrugged. "Do you remember a lot of dancing pirates?"

He nodded slowly. "Yeah, and you had on this really hot costume, too." I smacked his arm, but playfully. He grinned. "Annie …"

"Annemarie." I couldn't stop myself.

"Okay, Annemarie, about the cast party. I'm really, really sorry about Hannah. It's just that she was there, and I was there, and then she grabbed me … it meant nothing. I tried to back away so I wouldn't hurt her feelings, but you know the Guzmans' stairs, they're in that spiral thingy, and it's hard to keep your balance, and – Well, you know what happened." He held up his cast. "Honestly, I don't like her and I'm sorry it took me two days to explain it to you."

I sighed. "And I'm sorry that I jumped to conclusions and called you a slut in front of an imaginary audience and that I got your arm broken again. How is it, anyway?"

He examined his cast again. "It'll still work." He stepped towards me and slid his arms around my waist.

I knew what was coming. My heart raced and butterflies exploded into my stomach. I composed myself enough to say, "Got your balance?"

Doyle laughed. "I think so."

And then, he kissed me. It was a good kiss.

The lights flickered happily.