Part 3 – The Production

Clay Ross was angry. Not that he wasn't usually angry, assuredly. This time was only different because he actually had a tangible reason for being angry.

"No, Nolan!" he shouted into his cell phone. "I will not allow you to miss this performance! You are physically able to be here, and you will be here! I guess we'll have to do without Carol; Teresa will take her place. But you have no understudy – and no excuse! Stop arguing with me, or I'll dock your grade. You're already late. Get over here NOW." He flipped his phone shut and then hurled it at one of the auditorium seats.

More than a few of the Creston High drama students had been listening in on their teacher's telephone conversation (and the rest had heard it because Mr. Ross's voice could carry for miles), but only one gave him any sign of acknowledgement. Teresa Burke ran to him, her blacker-than-black hair flying out behind her as she went. "Mr. Ross?" she asked breathlessly. "Did I hear you correctly? Carol can't make it tonight?"

He shook his head in rage. "Car crash. She's in a coma. They just got her to a relatively stable condition, but she won't be acting for a long while. But Nolan Jones will be here, or so help me, I'll wring his neck." He looked at Teresa as if noticing her for the first time. "You'll have to take her place for the rest of the run. Go get Mary to get you Carol's costume."

Teresa nodded and hurried up onto the stage and behind the curtains, out of sight.

A low buzz of whispers swept all over the auditorium. Anyone within the vast earshot of Mr. Ross was muttering fretfully. The only person who didn't say anything was Delia, who sat against a wall, trying to commit all her lines from the difficult bus stop scene to memory.

Before she could fully tune out everyone's feverish mumblings, a shadow fell over her. Slowly, she looked up to see Jace Alexander staring at her expectantly, just like the policemen earlier. In fact, if it weren't for the shaggy blonde hair that fell over his eyes, Delia might have mistook him for one of them.

"I know you know what's going on with Carol, Ambrose," he said flatly. "So spill."

All he needed was a swinging light bulb and he'd have his bad cop impression down pat. "I don't know anything, Jace."

"Oh, please," he scoffed, planting himself on a patch of floor across from her. "You're Carol's best friend, which in itself is a mystery. You would be the first person they'd call, after her mother. You two practically shared an umbilical cord."

Delia turned away from him, trying to shield her face with the script.

"Ambrose, tell me what's up. You look like you need someone to talk to, who can help you figure things out."

Delia took a deep breath and then proceeded in a monotone. "We got in a car crash. I got out. She didn't. I'm here, perfectly healthy and in one piece. She's at the hospital in a coma." She turned still farther away from him, determined not to let him see the tears forming in her eyes.

Jace blinked once, twice, and then shut his jaw, which had gone slack. "Wow. So you were—"

"I'd really rather not talk about it."

"You'd really rather not talk ever," Jace said sharply. Then he caught himself and tried to soften his voice. "So why'd you come tonight? I wouldn't have even—"

"You heard Mr. Ross yelling at Nolan. He's her boyfriend. As a rule, he cares about her more than I do. If Nolan has to be here, I definitely have to be here." She swallowed a painful lump in her throat. "And being here is a lot better than being at home."

"What's wrong with home?" Jace inquired.

Immediately Delia realized that she had gone too far. "Nothing."

I'm no idiot. I can tell something's wrong, Jace thought to himself. But he decided to lay off Delia for a while – the girl was hyper-sensitive. Instead of pressing either issue, he looked at the script she was studying. "Which scene are you on?"

"Bus stop," she said shortly.

He cringed, remembering how that scene had played out the night before. They had only salvaged it thanks to Nolan, and something told him Nolan wouldn't be at the top of his game tonight. He offered an absent, "See ya, Ambrose," to Delia and hurried off to see if he knew where his script was.

Delia watched him walk off. If he's trying to be friendly he really should use my first name. Then she turned back to her script.

Ten minutes later, Nolan Jones burst through the auditorium doors in a rage to match Mr. Ross's. Gym bag slung across one shoulder, he flew past the rows of seats toward the stage. Mr. Ross moved to stop him and speak to him, but Nolan flipped him off without stopping. "I'm here, all right? What more do you want? And if you threaten to fail me I'm out of here."

For the first time in a very long time, Mr. Ross was speechless. Jace, who had been crossing the stage toward the supply closet to see if there were any extra scripts, was nearly speechless.

"Jones has got guts," he said to the person nearest him.

The person nearest him happened to be Teresa Burke, who was fully frocked in Carol's first costume. She raised a hand in greeting and cheerfully piped, "Hey, Nolan!" He blew by her without a glance, cussing Mr. Ross out under his breath. Nettled, Teresa followed him into the hallway, which she immediately registered as unoccupied. The only person present was that Delia Ambrose girl, and she never said anything anyway.

"Hey, don't ignore me," she said in a hurt tone.

"I can ignore you if I damn well please."


"Teresa!" he yelled, rounding on her. Then his eyes shifted momentarily to Delia. She was sitting absolutely straight, and he could tell she was listening. He glared back at Teresa. "Not now, all right?"


"Not. Now."

He stalked off in the direction of the makeshift dressing room. Teresa pursed her lips, turned primly on her heel, and scurried in the other direction.

Delia waited until they were both out of sight, and then she let her posture relax an inch. Now what was that all about?

And to keep her mind occupied, Delia focused on the spiraling path that emerged from Teresa Burke's initials. Teresa Burke… TB… tuberculosis… The Bitch… all appropriate…

"Get out there for your damn curtain call," Mr. Ross hissed at Jace and Delia, shoving them out onto the stage together. Delia only stumbled once, and Jace managed to keep her on her feet so they could take a bow. After the bow, Delia quickly withdrew her hand from his. Jace didn't seem to mind either way.

After them came Nolan and Teresa. The former barely gave a nod to the audience; the latter smiled, bowed, waved, bowed again, and giggled slightly. Then the entire cast, lined up onstage, took hands and gave a group bow. After the customary two bows were made, Nolan snatched his hand out of Teresa's grasp. Besides Teresa, only Delia noticed.

Mr. Ross veritably floated onstage, all smiles. Ever the showman. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," he said jovially to the assembled audience, who was still in the process of sitting down after a standing ovation. "Thank you for coming out to tonight's performance. Your attendance is greatly appreciated. We had a tragedy within our Drama Society this morning; the actress set to play June got in a car crash and is in the hospital. Luckily, we were able to find a replacement, and I'd like to ask you all to applaud one more time for Miss Teresa Burke. Teresa, come on up and take a bow."

Smiling demurely, Teresa took a step forward and dropped a quick, almost comical curtsy. The cast clapped out of pure tact. Nolan tried to keep a seething expression off of his face. His insides were churning. He hadn't even mentioned her name, for God's sake. Or how she was doing. Or anything important. It was all praise for Teresa. It was always praise for Teresa. Nolan felt sick to his stomach.

Mr. Ross dismissed the audience with an amiable wave, and then whirled around to tell the cast to clean up and get everything ready for tomorrow's matinee, the last show. The cast dispersed.

Delia headed to the bathroom to change out of her costume and back into normal clothes. She found it easy to pretend that Jace was not following her. However, it was harder to ignore him when he tapped her on the shoulder. She looked at him slowly and reluctantly.

"You did awesome tonight, Ambrose," he said with feeling.

Delia replied flatly, "Thanks. You too."

"How come you don't like to talk?"

She shrugged. No use giving him an answer when there wasn't any to give.

"I think you're really interesting, Ambrose. You know that?"

She just shrugged again.

Almost out of frustration, he grabbed her and kissed her. Hard. Delia went absolutely limp, numb all over, until he pulled away. He had a slightly defiant grin playing on his lips, which were stained with Delia's stage makeup. "Well?" he said.

"Well…what?" Delia was clearly shaken.

"Did it work?"

"What are you talking about?" Her shoulders were shaking, and it wasn't even cold. Every nerve in her body had short-circuited.

"That always works in the movies."

She shook her head and wiped her mouth. "This isn't the movies, Jace. You can't just go and do that if you don't know if a girl likes you."

He eyed her from under his hair. "So…do you?"

"Do I what?"

"Like me."

She sighed. "No, Jace. I wish I could say I do, but I don't."

"So you…want to like me?"

She nodded, still a bit shocked.

"Couldn't you if you wanted to?"

"I tried. I don't."

"You tried to like me?"

"Yeah. I've known for a while."

"Who told you?"

"No one. I figured it out. But really, Jace. I have more important things to worry about. Carol, for one thing – I – I have to go."

She ran, not wanting to see the look in his eyes.

Jace just stood in the place he had been in when he had kissed Delia. He couldn't quite wrap his mind around it. He spent fifteen minutes before it finally registered that he had been rejected.

Nolan arrived at the hospital half an hour after the curtain had closed. He had cleaned up all his junk and reset all his props, so he could come and visit Carol. She was still in a coma when he arrived. A dozen or so machines were hooked up to her to regulate bodily function down to the last detail. Mrs. Newman must have been out eating dinner at the hospital cafeteria or something. Nolan moved into the room so none of the nursing assistants would catch him lingering in the halls.

Making almost no noise whatsoever, Nolan scooted a chair up close to the bed. He took one of Carol's limp hands in his. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I'm sorry."

Dr. Anderson, carrying a stack of medical charts, turned into the doorway and stopped. Nolan Jones appeared to be praying over his girlfriend's motionless form; at least, that's what Anderson deduced from the bowed head and moving lips. He quickly sidestepped the room and traveled farther down the hallway.

A/N: This chapter is subject to change because I'm massively changing the ending, which involves a huge rewrite...

And to anyone who's read You Know What They Say (or would like to go read it now), that story is up for nomination for Best Cliche - Complete at the Some Kind of Wonderful romance awards, which can be found at www(dot)freewebs(dot)com(slash)skow. I'd really appreciate votes! Thanks for reading, and reviews are always appreciated.