A loud knock sounded on Violet’s dressing-room door. “Places for Act One!”
Violet leapt up from her dressing-table stool, her breath quickening. A little shiver of nervous excitement ran down her spine as she peered into the mirror one last time, checking anxiously to see that her microphone was in place. She didn’t look quite like herself; the reflection staring back at her from inside the frame of lights was not the image of a thirteen-year-old girl but that of a young Civil-War-era woman. What with the stage makeup, full hoop skirt, and her normally loose hair gathered into a stately bun, she scarcely recognized herself.
Violet slipped her hand into the hidden pocket in her costume and groped about, closing her fingers around a pebble- like object. It was a small piece of wood, its surface was smooth and soft; the bark had been whittled away. She drew it out of her pocket and gazed at it wistfully, slipping into a reverie.
She could remember vividly the day she had received it from her best friend, Thomas. It was an October afternoon; they were sitting on a hill beneath a maple tree, and the ground was carpeted with crimson leaves. It was a favorite spot of theirs, and that day they had both rushed to meet each other there, almost bursting with bottled-up excitement.
“I have a secret to tell you!” Violet had gasped, grasping his hand.
“I have one, too. An important one. But you tell first,” he insisted.
As they settled down on the ground, Thomas pulled his Swiss Army knife out of his pocket, picked up a stick that lay nearby, and began to whittle. Violet smiled as she watched him absentmindedly work away; it was a hobby of his. He was always carving at something during their conversations. The end result was never more than a naked, pointed twig, but Violet found the habit endearing. “Tell away,” he said, looking at her expectantly.
Violet leaned forward on her elbows and said in hushed excitement, “You know how I auditioned for the musical Little Women? The cast list came out today. I got my first lead role ever! I’m playing Marmee!”
Thomas snickered. “Who on earth is Marmalade?”
Violet slapped his knee reproachfully. “Not Marmalade! Marmee! How can you not know who she is? She is the most inspiring character in the history of literature!”
Thomas raised his eyebrows, smiling his signature lopsided grin.
“She’s the matriarch of the March family in Little Women,” Violet continued to gush enthusiastically, her eyes locked on Thomas’s hands as they continued to shave off slender ribbons of bark, revealing the smooth, creamy wood inside. “When her husband goes away to fight in the Civil War, she’s left to take care of the family herself. She’s so encouraging to me; she’s so strong and good and wise. She is always doing little things for others and guiding those around her. I want to be like her. And I get to play her!” Violet clasped her hands and lapsed into blissful silence.
Thomas chuckled at her enthrallment, shaping the twig into a point, like a pencil. “Well then, good for you! I always knew you could do it!”
Violet smiled, feeling warm and content inside. “What about you?” she asked Thomas. “You said you had news for me, too.”
Thomas cleared his throat a trifle nervously. “Uh, I’m moving.”
Violet stopped. “What?”
Thomas fixated his gaze on his whittling, somewhat flustered, as he continued to carve away at the stick, which was rapidly decreasing in size. “It’s just been finalized. We’re moving to Oakbridge, two hours away. We leave in about a month.”
Violet’s excitement faded away immediately. She didn’t say anything right away, but stared off into the distance, her chin cupped in her hands. She couldn’t imagine life without him. They had been best friends since kindergarten, and he had become like a brother to her. She had so many joyful memories of them together; she remembered him teaching her how to pretend to be shot by Billy the Kid and fall backward off of her tricycle when she was eight. She remembered giving him a lesson on baking snickerdoodles that included Thomas swiping cookies, just out of the oven, off the sheet when she wasn’t looking, and then complaining about his burnt fingers. She remembered how he had been in the audience for every musical she had been in, despite all of her small, unimportant roles, and how she would rush eagerly to the lobby afterwards, where she knew he would be waiting with endless praise and a somewhat painful slap on the shoulder. Violet breathed a shallow, shaky sigh. She had finally landed a lead role, something she had been working for and dreaming about for years, and he wouldn’t be there to see her.
Thomas was quiet, too, as he used slow, deliberate strokes towards his thumb to round the edges of the piece of maple. It was hardly more than a pebble by now; the shavings lay in a heap on the grass. Thomas finished, slipping his knife away into his pocket, and examined his work keenly. It was like a wooden jelly bean, with a little dent in the middle. The surface was smooth and somewhat shiny. Thomas rubbed his thumb over it, smiled slightly as if satisfied, and turned it over in his hand, contemplating what to do with it. At a loss for words, he turned to Violet and held it out in his palm. “Want it?”
Violet turned it over in her hand, smiling at it in a melancholy way. It was just a small token of their friendship, but it meant a lot to her. She slid it into her pocket, resolving to carry it with her wherever she went when Thomas had gone, like a talisman.
* * *
Now, as Violet hurried from her dressing room on opening night to take her place in the wings, a burning feeling started to develop in her chest, and her throat began to ache. She missed Thomas terribly; he left a hole in her life that only he could fill. He had only been gone for about two months, but it seemed like an eternity. He had called her only the day before to send encouragement for the show, yet hearing his familiar voice through the telephone only made the fact that he really wouldn’t be there seem more real.
The jumbled chatter from the audience died away from the other side of the curtain, and Violet could hear the school Thespians’ president giving the opening speech. She was only minutes away from her entrance. Violet’s stomach flipped, yet she almost enjoyed the feeling. There was nothing more exciting to her than the last moments before the curtain opened. The overture started, and Violet shivered with anticipation; the drums rumbled and the cellos droned beneath the melody, capturing perfectly her nervous enthusiasm.
With a whirring noise, the curtains opened, rippling elegantly. Violet’s heart leapt. For a moment, the magic caught hold of her and she stood, enraptured, as her cast members opened the show. Watching from the wings, she smiled somewhat in spite of herself, feeling anxious excitement build up in her as she waited to enter. She loved being backstage; the feel of the curtains, the darkness in the wings, the very smell of the theater. Yet, there was a sort of dim veil over Violet’s excitement.
Desperately, Violet tried to shut Thomas out of her mind and focus on the performance ahead of her. Her entrance was mere moments away. Violet shivered. She rubbed her hands together; they were cold as ice. Breathing in and out slowly, Violet squeezed her eyes shut as she stood against the curtain. Focus, she thought to herself. You’re not Violet anymore; you’re Marmee now. Your husband’s away in the war. You have four daughters to take care of. They look up to you. You are uncertain, but you are hopeful. You are brave and strong. You can do this.
Violet squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and stepped onstage.
The lights shone in her face from all directions. She snuck a glance at the audience, and her heart swelled. It was a full house; the auditorium was packed. She felt a thrill as she realized they were all looking at her, but sobered when she thought of the missing person she so longed to see.
She made her way to center stage and was immediately swept up into the scene. It ran smoothly, flying by so quickly Violet was almost surprised when her cast members exited the stage and she found herself sitting on the couch, alone. The lights dimmed and the spotlight focused on her. The pit orchestra began the intro to her solo song, “Here Alone.” Violet’s mouth went dry. Swallowing determinedly, she shut her mind and focused on Marmee’s feelings. You’re singing to your husband, who’s off fighting away from you. You are lonely and afraid. She opened her mouth and began to sing.
Violet paused during the interlude, standing slowly and making her way downstage. Her nerves started to control her, and she felt herself slipping out of concentration as she gazed out at the huge crowd, all staring at her. Discreetly, she slipped her hand into the pocket of her costume and clasped her hand around the smooth bit of maple. Its silky texture was comforting to her as she remembered sitting with Thomas on their hill. The day he told you he was leaving… Suddenly, it clicked. Violet realized with a start how very much she had in common with Marmee. They were both longing to see someone they loved, someone who wasn’t there. Violet realized she had the key to her performance in her hand. She let her mind flood with memories of Thomas, realizing that she didn’t need to pretend to be Marmee to make her performance realistic. Violet continued to sing, her voice gaining strength and feeling. Her eyes filled with tears as she thought longingly of her best friend so many miles away.
Her song was drawing to an end, and she wanted to finish strong. She looked up into the lights, her big green eyes pools of longing and heartache.
The music paused. There wasn’t a single sound in the auditorium; a sacred silence that brought so much meaning to the moment. Seeing Thomas waving out the car window in her mind, Violet drew in a deep breath and sang her last line.
A slight quaver in Violet’s voice on the last two words made the moment more precious. The orchestra died away and the audience burst into tumultuous applause. Violet looked out into the auditorium and saw with disbelief countless tear-stained faces and approving smiles. The lights dimmed into a blackout onstage, and Violet exited in the dark, feeling a strange mixture of pride and sadness.
The most glorious moment of the night came to Violet during bows. The rest of the show had flown by, and Violet had kept Thomas in the back of her mind at all times. It ran smoothly, and Violet felt that her dreams had been fulfilled as fully as they could be without Thomas there to share her happiness with her. Curtain call had begun, and Violet walked out onstage with the rest of the leads to bow. She stepped forward to curtsy by herself, and the applause heightened. The air was filled with hoots and whistles. Violet looked out at the audience and saw with utter amazement that the cast had gotten a standing ovation. Violet’s eyes brimmed with proud tears as the curtains closed and the show ended.
Hurrying as quickly as she could, Violet flew back to her dressing room and put her costume away. She donned a simple, sophisticated, rose-colored dress that her mother had bought her to celebrate opening night. She always enjoyed taking a few moments right after the show to be by herself and dress up before she went out to the lobby. She liked feeling stylish and grown up. As she peered into the mirror, hurriedly taking her hairpins out and shaking down an abundance of dark hair, she smiled at herself. She put on her jade earrings and matching bracelet, slid on her heels, and walked out into lobby, feeling confident and accomplished.
Her parents came rushing to her, showering her with flowers and kisses. Violet blushed, her heart glowing. Nothing could alter the happiness she found in her parents’ greeting.
“We’re so happy for you, honey! It was breathtaking!” Her mother embraced her tightly, shedding a few proud tears. Her father blinked back a few of his own and rubbed her back, pretending that he was composed. Violet joined them both in a family hug, feeling that her evening had gone as well as she could have ever expected.
“Now go, greet your friends!” her father told her, glancing slyly at her mother, who nodded knowingly. “I think someone’s waiting for you near the dressing rooms.”
Confused, Violet made her way slowly through the lobby back to the stage doors. All of her friends had come in a group, and she had met them already…
She whirled around, hardly daring to breathe. She swore she recognized the voice, yet it was impossible. Violet listened again.
She peered into the crowd of people, her heart rising into her throat, when she froze. A tall, teenage boy with a lopsided grin stepped into her line of vision.
The rest of the world seemed to disappear in that magical moment as she rushed across the room to him. Thomas laughed delightedly, slapping her heartily on the back as always. “Hey there, Marmalade!” he greeted her.
Violet couldn’t stop laughing, her cheeks turning scarlet with joy. “What? How?” she asked in amazement.
Thomas grinned and winked. “Read your email, that’s all! You told me the dates of the show, and I convinced my parents to drive down for the weekend. We don’t live that far, really, and I thought it would be the perfect surprise. I’m glad I did! You were stupendous, Violet! You stole the show completely!”
Violet beamed. “You don’t know how much it means to me,” she said happily. “I’ve missed you so much.”
They walked together back to her dressing room. “Honestly, Violet,” Thomas said, shouldering her bag for her, “I couldn’t believe your performance. I’ve always had faith in you, but this was beyond anything I’d ever expected!” He peered at her curiously. “Tell me, what were you thinking about?” he inquired.
Violet said nothing, but pulled her maple talisman out of her pocket. Thomas winked at her knowingly. “Shall we, Mrs. March, ma’am?” he said, offering his arm.
“Please, sir, call me Marmalade,” she said, playing along.
A warm feeling settled in Violet’s heart.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “This has been the best night of my life.”