“Tonight,” Charlotte agreed. “When the sun goes down. After the festival.”
“Brilliant,” James said to her. “Eels and mud and cold water and starlight.”
“Go with us,” Charlotte urged Hannah. “Meet us after the performance.”
Hannah looked at the clock. She had no place to go, but the sudden desire to leave was overwhelming. “Good Lord, I’m late,” she said. “See you!” she called as she went out the door. She was reeling, walking as fast as she could. She thought of how irresponsible she’d been today. She hadn’t even bothered to water the garden despite the heat wave.
Behind her, a door opened, then slammed shut.
“Hey,” Charlotte called. “Hannah. Wait.”
Charlotte came running across the parking lot, barefoot, her feet burning. “You forgot this.” Charlotte had Hannah’s hair clips in her hand. She stood in the one pocket of shadow cast by a tall sycamore tree, wearing only her slip with James’s shirt thrown over it. “Are you angry?” she wanted to know. “He’s my husband, after all.”
“I’m not angry,” Hannah insisted.
Charlotte walked up to her, over the melting tar. “It doesn’t mean I’m not crazy about you.”
“I doubt that.” Hannah sounded hurt, even to herself. It was ridiculous. Charlotte was a married woman. They’d only just met.
Charlotte gazed at her, amused. “A girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do.” She looped her arms around Hannah and drew her close. “James has no idea what a good actress I am. You know the real me.”
HANNAH HURRIED HOME. She decided to run. When she ran, she didn’t think; and when she didn’t think, she was better off. She didn’t go inside when she reached her house. Instead, she went directly to the garden and watered, then set to pulling weeds from the damp, ruddy ground. It was so hot she couldn’t breathe. She hosed off the dirt when she was done, then went inside to look at herself in the mirror. She looked exactly the same. No one could see that her world had been turned upside down.
When it was time to get ready, Hannah chose one of her sister’s dresses. She pinned up her hair with the tortoiseshell combs. Everyone in town was out for the evening. The paling sky was clear, but no cooler. Hannah splurged on some ice cream from the food stand. She realized she hadn’t had lunch or dinner. Instead, she ate vanilla and chocolate swirl from a paper cup while standing beneath one of the old apple trees. The light had begun to fade by the time the Founder’s Day play began. Everyone had seen it before, yet the audience was riveted. Jenny Linden’s little ghost drew the largest applause, especially when she cried I’m leaving this earth, but I’ll never leave you. Hannah felt oddly proud and moved.
After the curtain call, the children in the drama society trotted out to take a bow and their teacher, Grace Campbell, thanked the town for their continuing support even in these dark days of war. Then it was time for the players from New York. They were nearly unrecognizable in their costumes. James was a swashbuckler who recited bits of Shakespeare. Abbey was dressed in swirling, filmy white. She’d taken on the persona of Emily Dickinson, thanks to the information Hannah had provided. Stan and James presented a comic skit about Johnny Appleseed. People roared when Johnny didn’t know the difference between a seed and a stone. Then Charlotte came onstage. She played the part of the town founder with a Spanish accent, clearly undertaken so that the skit could end with a tango danced by Charlotte and James. The acting had been mediocre, but the dance was something much more. Slinky and erotic and wholly absorbing. Music from a record player drifted over the meadow, and as the couple danced, the darkness became blue and deep. It was easy to forget there was a stage, or that this was still Blackwell. People left their lives at that moment, imagining they were in Spain, under a starry sky. Beneath the tree, in the gathering dark, Hannah felt entranced.
When the performance was over, she waited for the crowd to clear, then found her way to the back of the stage. The only one there was Grace Campbell, packing up costumes and props. Hannah’s disappointment must have shown in her face when she realized Charlotte and the others were gone.
“If you’re looking for the actors, they’ve just left,” Grace told her. “I warned them the Eel River wasn’t a place for night swimming, but they wouldn’t listen. That’s where they’ve gone.”
Hannah made her way toward the river. She’d been invited, after all. She slipped off her sandals and carried them in her hand. It was easier to make her way barefoot. After a while she heard them on the riverbank. She peered through the dark and saw them as they began to strip off their clothes. They were still wearing their costumes, and they looked like strangers, clothed and then unclothed.