The fairies flew suspended on wires despite their tendency to get tangled together. Beatrice Shakespeare Smith, busy assessing her reflection in the looking glass and thinking perhaps she shouldn’t have dyed her hair blue on this particular morning, turned to glare at them when they rocketed past the end of her nose for the third time in as many minutes.
“If you make me spill this stuff on the stage,” she said, “I’ll squeeze you until your heads pop off.”
Unperturbed by the threat, Mustardseed swung by her like a demented pendulum. “Going in there with fairy guts on your hands isn’t going to make a good impression!”
“Nervous about your call to the Theater Manager’s Office?” Moth asked, chasing Peaseblossom in circles.
“Not the best of timing,” Cobweb singsonged, hanging upside down at the end of his line, “mucking up your head right before a ten o’clock summons.”
“I’m not getting called on the carpet with my roots showing.” Bertie coated another section with Cobalt Flame liquid concentrate, pilfered just an hour ago from the Wardrobe Department. “Do we like the blue?”
“Better than Crimson Pagoda,” Peaseblossom said. “Your entire head looked like it was on fire that time.”
“Maybe I should have taken Black Cherry.” Bertie stuck her tongue out at the Beatrice-in- the-mirror. “Maybe Cobalt Flame will encourage the Theater Manager to get creative with his punishment.”
“He’ll probably just remove the desserts from the Green Room again,” Peaseblossom said.
The others groaned at the prospect, then Moth perked up to suggest, “He could make you scrub out the toilets in the Ladies’ Dressing Room instead.”
“Or scrape the gum off the bottoms of the auditorium seats,” said Cobweb.
“Ew.” Bertie wrapped another strand of hair in aluminum foil and crimped it against her head. “An excessive punishment for whistling a scene change, don’t you think?”
“ ‘Whistling a scene change’?” Peaseblossom giggled. “That’s a euphemism and a half! You set off the cannon, blew holes through three set pieces, and set the fire curtain on fire.”
“Quite the valuable lesson in emergency preparedness, I think,” Bertie said.
Moth twitched his ears at her. “Pondering our recent criminal history, I must admit there have been more pyro-technic explosions than usual.”
“Maybe the Theater Manager thinks you’re doing it to impress Nate,” Cobweb said.
Bertie felt the blood rush to her face until her cheeks were stained Shocking Pink. “Shut up.”
“It is like you’re acting a part for the dashing pirate lad’s benefit,” Mustardseed said.
Bertie snagged his wire, reeling him in until he reached eye level. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
The fairy twitched. “You know. The hair dye, the black clothes—”
“The clove cigarettes!” Moth added from below.
“The drinking and cursing,” said Cobweb.
“Is it method acting?” Mustardseed asked.
“This is a theater.” Bertie, annoyed by the inquisition, dropped him onto the stage. Several feet of slack cable landed atop the fairy in a slithering heap.
“Oh!” Peaseblossom said. “You’ve buried him alive!”
“I told you it was silly to use the wires when you can fly perfectly well without them,” Bertie said.
“But they’re fun to swing on!” Moth protested as the fairies shed their harnesses and went to investigate the tomb of their fallen comrade.
Indefatigable, Mustardseed emerged from the pile, rubbing his bum. “If it’s not for Nate, is it because of your abandonment issues?”
There was a very long silence before Bertie told her reflection, “The only reason I’m friends with any of you is because I outgrew the von Trapps, one annoying Austrian at a time.”
“You could have joined the Lost Boys,” Moth said.
“They did nothing but whiz on trees, and I’m not properly equipped for that.”
“So you’re stuck with us because of your innate inability to pee standing up?” Peaseblossom put her hands on her hips as she hovered nearby.
“That’s right.” Bertie used her brush to stir the dye.
“We can do lots of stuff besides pee standing up,” Moth said.
“Like sword fighting!” Cobweb slashed and parried with great enthusiasm.
“Call the pirates and the shipwreck scene!” Mustardseed flailed his tiny yellow boots in an improvised hornpipe.
“I’m not supposed to make scene changes and thus I’m appalled by the very suggestion,” Bertie said. “You’re a bad influence, Mustardseed.”
“The rules have never stopped you before.” Peaseblossom looked knowing. “You just don’t want Nate seeing you with your head all slimy.”
Bertie put on her best Lady of the Manor air. “He needn’t wait for an engraved invitation to pay a social call.”
“But he prefers you pin a note to the Call Board,” Peaseblossom reminded her.
The majority of the Players drifted in and out of existence according to the summonses pinned to the Call Board, but the more flamboyant, dashing, or mad the character, the more freedom they had to move about the Théâtre. The fairies dogged Bertie’s every step, whereas Nate was one for protocol.
Probably all that rot about following the captain’s orders.
Bertie’s entire head tingled as the ammonia burned her scalp. She tried not to scratch at it, because that way lay madness . . . madness and funky-colored fingertips. “It has nothing to do with Nate. I need to finish my hair before the Stage Manager gets back.”
“He should be thankful it’s only dye on your head and not paint all over the stage,” Peaseblossom said.
Bertie glanced at the walls of her room. The three connected scenic flats were part of the Théâtre Illuminata’s enormous collection of backdrops, stored in the flies overhead and in the backstage scenic dock when not in use. “I haven’t painted my set in years.”
Lights up on BERTIE, AGE 7. She is painting over a dingy cream wall with something labeled “Violet Essence” as the STAGE MANAGER glowers at her.
It’s my bedroom, and I’ll do what I want with it.
(To prove her point, she splashes magenta and silver over the violet and smears it around with her hands.)
(grabbing for BERTIE’S ear and missing)
You can answer to the Theater Manager for this mess!
(The THEATER MANAGER arrives with MR. TIBBS, the Scenic Manager.)
(turning to the THEATER MANAGER)
Why you ever decided she needed to sleep here, on the stage, is beyond my powers of reckoning!
She needed a bedroom, and this is the best we could do.
(His face turns three shades of crimson and steam hisses out of his ears like a teakettle.)
But this isn’t a bedroom! We can’t stop the performances for bedtime, which means she’s under-foot until the stage is cleaned! And look at this mess!
(chomping his cigar)
We do not change the colors of the flats. We touch them up, or faithfully reproduce them down to the last paint stroke and bit of gilt. But we do NOT change them!
Just because you don’t change them doesn’t mean I can’t.
Bertie, this place isn’t about change. It’s about eons of tradition.
(crossing her arms)
It’s my bedroom. I should be allowed to do what I like with my bedroom.
(studying BERTIE until she squirms a bit)
That’s true enough. But I wonder what will come next. One day, it’s your bedroom and the next—
Utter chaos and pandemonium!
What color is pandemonium? It sounds yellow.
Beatrice, this is a matter of utmost importance, so I want you to listen to me and answer very carefully.
You like living here, don’t you?
Do you want to remain at the Théâtre?
Of course I do! (stammering) I mean, it’s my home….
Then you need to understand that while we will tolerate a certain amount of….
(He pauses to search for the appropriate word.)
No, I think perhaps the word I was searching for was “creativity.” While we will tolerate, even encourage, your creativity, you must limit it to your personal space.
(frowning hard and trying to understand)
So I can paint my room?
Yes, you may. But you’re forbidden to change anything else. In that regard, you will have to learn to exercisesomething called “self-restraint.” Do you understand?
I think so. I mean, yes. Yes, sir. Now can I have paint the color of pandemonium, Mr. Tibbs?
(scattering cigar ash about the stage)
No, you may not.
(another long moment of contheatre-illuminatalation passes before he nods)
Gentlemen, let the young lady get on with her painting. Bertie, clean up after yourself.
(He begins to make his exit, pausing at the edge of the stage.)
Please do remember what I said about exercising self-restraint.
Bertie contheatre-illuminatalated her reflection. “Perhaps I could have shown more self-restraint.”
The girl in the mirror didn’t blink, so Bertie averted her gaze and looked instead around her room. Viewed from any of the seats in the house, it would create the proper illusion of a teenager’s abode. Mr. Hastings, the Properties Manager, permitted her to sign out bits and pieces to make it feel cozier, but most of her knickknacks and trinkets were glued or nailed down so they wouldn’t scatter about the stage when the scenery was changed. The audience would never know it, but there wasn’t anything in the dresser; all Bertie’s clothing was kept backstage in Wardrobe, laundered and pressed by Mrs. Edith. The bed, an elaborate four-poster, resided on a circular lift that disappeared below-stage.
And then there was The Book.
The Complete Works of the Stage.
Sitting atop a pedestal in the far corner of Stage Left and just in front of the proscenium arch, it was the only thing that remained constantly onstage. Resting there, it emitted a soft, golden radiance usually lost under the thousands of watts of power that poured from the floodlights.
No one dared touch it. Even Bertie, who dared a lot of things that the others never dreamed, did not touch The Book.
“You have dye on the end of your nose,” Peaseblossom said.
Bertie set down her brush and wiped her face with a handkerchief that came away smeared with Cobalt Flame. She peeked at herself in the mirror, confirming that quite a lot of her skin was now blue. Cobweb and Moth, who’d paused in the middle of attheatre-illuminatating to draw-and-quarter each other to look at Bertie, fell to the dusty stage floor, laughing themselves silly. Mustardseed landed on her shoulder and smeared his hands around in the dye.
“Stop that!” Bertie swept him off with a practiced flick of her finger.
He somersaulted backward, then rushed to swing his tiny fist at her nose. Cobweb and Moth tackled him, leaving miniature explosions of glitter twinkling in the air. Flying fists and booted feet kicked over the bowl of hair dye, and Cobalt Flame flowed across the stage floor to surround Bertie’s Mary Janes.
She made a mad grab for the fairies. “Come back here! You’re making a huge mess—”
“I’ll cut off his ears!” said Moth.
“I’ll slice off his nose!” added Cobweb.
“And we’ll cast the bits into the sea!” they howled together.
“Forsooth!” said Mustardseed. “You’ll never take me alive!”
Bertie tried to get in between them, but it was tricky not to step on someone. “Stop it!”
Mustardseed grabbed the wet, sloppy brush and hurled it at his attackers, missing them only to hit the side of Bertie’s head. Several wads of aluminum foil fell off, and dye-sticky strands of hair snaked over her shoulders. Bertie used a pithy curse common amongst the pirates, but Peaseblossom was the only one who noticed the air turning blue to match the spreading mess.
“Good thing you’re wearing so much black,” she said.
The boys rolled past them. Tufts of fairy hair, ripped out by the roots, drifted into the orchestra pit. Tiny scraps of clothing exited the brawling tumbleweed at sporadic intervals: a sleeve, a sock, a pointy-toed shoe.
“I’ll beat you for a living!”
“You and what army?”
All at once the fairies froze, like butterflies pinned to a piece of felt-covered cork. They were only ever utterly still for one reason: Someone had placed a notice on the Call Board.
“What’s it say?” Bertie asked.
The fairies shook free of the trance.
“All Players to the stage,” Peaseblossom said. “Ten o’clock.”
Bertie swore under her breath again. “Everyone to the stage, you say?” She waved her arm at the floor, which was covered in smear marks and miniature shoe prints. “The stage that’s currently decorated with a crazed ballroom dancing pattern? ‘Tarantella for Three Miscreants in Pandemonium Minor’ perhaps?”
“Maybe we should clean up?” Moth suggested, sounding sheepish.
“You think?” Bertie ducked into the wings. Backstage, it was all black paint and dim lights covered in sheets of red gel. “We need to get rid of this mess before the Stage Manager sees it.” She located his headset, lifted the mouthpiece to her lips, and whispered, “Cue scene change. The Little Mermaid, Act One, Scene One.”
The fairies cheered the blackout. In the pale echo of light, vague outlines moved through Bertie’s field of vision, but their details were lost to the dark. Her bedroom walls took flight in a soaring arc before disappearing into the rafters. The bed dropped below the stage while the armchair and dresser chased each other into the wings. Huge wooden waves slid in from Stage Left with the clank and wallop of mechanical water. Seaweed hit the stage with wet thumps, sand gathered in drifts, and saltwater misted the floor. Ground row lights painted the cyclorama in undulating shades of blue and green.
“Fabulous!” Moth shouted, and the words were bubbles. “Come on, losers!”
The others joined him, trailing froth and brine. Mustardseed climbed the pearl garland while Peaseblossom and Cobweb darted in and out of the coral reef in an elaborate game of tag. A chorus of starfish entered Stage Right and began to tap-dance, very softly, in the sand. Scrubbing the dye off herself and the floor with handfuls of kelp, Bertie watched the Sea Witch also make her entrance.
“Sad, isn’t it?” said someone just behind Bertie.
She turned to find Ophelia trailing flowers and chiffon through the saltwater-and-dye puddles. Like the fairies, she came and went as she pleased, walking the ragged edge of her sanity and drawn to the ocean by some unwritten instinct.
“What’s sad about it?” Little puffs of sand lifted and settled again as Bertie slogged from one dye splotch to the next.
“She loved once and lost.” Hair drifting over her shoulders in unseen eddies, Ophelia looked at the Sea Witch’s wavering image projected on the back wall. “You’d think she’d show more mercy.”
“What ever you say.” Done with the stage, Bertie still had to deal with the dye on her head. “What are you doing here?”
“I heard the water running.” Ophelia lifted her arms up and smiled into the ghostly, aquamarine lighting. “I thought I’d come and drown myself. I won’t be in the way, will I?”
“Just watch out for the starfish.” Psycho, Bertie mouthed to the fairies, who made looping finger gestures at their theatre-illuminatales behind Ophelia’s back.
“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing back there,” Ophelia said before she drifted off to do what she did best.
The fairies, taken aback by the cheerful admonishment, were caught unawares by the smoke machine. Lights tinted the artificial fog the same dark blue as Bertie’s hair, and the scene transitioned into Coming Storm, complete with rattling of the thunder sheet and flashes of brilliant lightning white. The massive prow of the Persephone soared out of the mist, safeguarded against evil by the gold coin. Nate had placed in the hull and the one of silver under the mast.
Jus’ in case, he’d said when Bertie teased.
Despite the protective charms on the boat, the Sea Witch attacked with curses and errant waves, just as she did in every performance.
“Man overboard!” Nate’s only line; he bellowed it with his usual gusto, the words underscored by the creak of the Persephone’s wooden planks and straining ropes. Bertie peered into the flies and caught sight of him leaning over the ship’s railing, tendrils of hair torn free from his braid. Her heart gave a queer little flutter, which she instantly dismissed as both ridiculous and embarrassing.
Nate pointed at her and mouthed, I’ll be right down. Don’t go anywhere.
Bertie remembered what a mess she must look and tried to figure out how much time she had to remedy it: One minute until the ship reached Stage Left, another two minutes to see to the rigging, and thirty seconds to disembark added up to hardly enough. With a muffled oath, she shoved her head into the bucket behind the wooden wave. Splash!
“That’s going to be a lovely shade of blue,” Peaseblossom said, pulling out the bits of foil.
“Shut up and help me get this stuff off!” Bertie scrubbed at her head with her eyes squeezed shut, wondering how much time she had left.
None, apparently. She came up streaming water; through the dripping cobalt, she caught a glimpse of clenched muscle under soiled linen and the glint of his earring before Nate wrapped her head in an enormous towel.
“Yer makin’ a terrible mess,” he observed.
Bertie flapped her arms, hardly able to hear him through the terry cloth cocoon. “Give me just a second to finish—”
“Best we get ye off th’ stage as soon as possible, lass.”
Bertie pulled the towel back so he would be sure to see her dismissive eye roll. “Don’t give me that ‘lass’ stuff. You’re not written that much older than I am.”
“Years scripted an’ years lived are two diff’rent things,” Nate said. Greasepaint, false sunshine, and fan-machine winds had weathered his face, and though his hair and eyes were dark, lighter threads of copper wove through the plait that snaked down the back of his neck.
Bertie caught herself gazing up at him like a mooncalf and turned away, twisting the towel into a lopsided turban.
“I’ll be fine.”
“All th’ same, th’ Stage Manager’s in a rare, odd mood.” Nate spat into the corner as a ward against evil. “Ye need t’ mind yer step.”
“If the spitting thing ever works, let me know. I’ll be sure to spit on the Stage Manager every chance I get.” Bertie thought about how Nate always stepped aboard his ship right foot first and would no sooner utter the word “drowned” than he would “Macbeth”; it was “The Scottish Play” or nothing at all. “You’re such a practical and mercenary soul, but that superstitious streak of yours runs bone deep.”
“I know ye don’ take it seriously, but ye’ve no need t’ tease,” Nate said.
“Don’t I?” Bertie pursed her lips.
“Bertie . . .” he warned.
“I feel like a little whistle,” she said, retreating with her mouth still puckered up. “Just a small one.”
Nate came after her. “No whistlin’ onstage, or are ye forgettin’ yesterday?”
He backed her against the heavy, velvet curtains and clapped a rope-scarred hand across her mouth just as she sucked in a loud breath. For a long moment, they looked at each other, and Bertie was acutely aware of the taste of his fingers: salt and sardines (as befitted a pirate) and chocolate icing (which didn’t seem as appropriate).
A sudden, trumpeted fanfare sent them leaping apart, the blast of noise preceding the messenger from Act Four of Richard the Third. He entered Stage Right, unrolled a parchment scroll, and cleared his throat. In a strong, sonorous voice, honed to cut through the bedlam at court or merely backstage, he proclaimed, “And now, the bane of your existence, the killer of all joys, the Stage Manager—”
He was interrupted when the murderers from the same production leapt from the flies and stabbed him repeatedly with big rubber knives. The messenger pulled crimson scarves from holes in his tunic and did a lot of unnecessary groaning before his assassins dragged him offstage by the ankles.
“What was that all about?” Nate demanded.
“Early detection system,” Bertie said. “I get advance warning that the Stage Manager is coming, and the messenger gets extra stage time.”
“Clever,” said Nate as the scene shifted around them.
“I thought so.” Bertie bit her lip, watching the waves recede backstage, the watery lighting special click off, and the cyclorama fade from blue to white. The Sea Witch gathered her gauzy wraps and disappeared into the dim. Ophelia, drowned to her satisfaction, drifted out with the tide. The seaweed and pearls skittered offstage, and the Stage Manager arrived with a broom and a glare.
“YOU!” he exclaimed, striding onstage like a bantam rooster.
Bertie put on her most innocent expression. “Yes?”
“YOU!” he bellowed, as though that was the only word not sticking in his throat.
Bertie struggled not to laugh at the image of him squawking at the sunrise with his imaginary feathered crest ruffled up. “What did I do?”
“Who authorized that scene change? Who gave you permission to touch my headset? Why is it blue?”
He wagged it at her until dye dripped off the earpiece. When Bertie started to answer, the Stage Manager yelled, “Never mind! Just go! The stage is for Players only! We’re making an announcement!”
“I think you’ve used up all your exclamation points for today,” Bertie said. “What’s the announcement about?”
The Stage Manager smiled, a fearsome thing indeed. He looked mightily pleased about something, which didn’t bode well. “Ah, yes, the announcement.”
“You might as well tell me what’s going on.” Bertie glared at him. “I’ll know soon enough.”
“Ah, but you have an important appointment with the Theater Manager, and you shouldn’t be late.” He nodded to Nate. “See her to the stage door, please.”
Nate took her by the arm. “You’ve been summoned to the Office again?”
“Yes, but I want to know what’s going on!” Bertie dragged her feet. However, Nate could heave a wooden chest of pirate treasure without thinking twice, and she weighed significantly less than gold.
“I’ll find ye afterward an’ tell ye everythin’, I promise,” he said.
The fairies ducked into the hall with her just before Nate slammed the door shut.