"Yeah, Jay was late," Holly told me, smile wavering slightly.
"Oh, hon, what's wrong?" I asked, reaching over and rubbing her arm. Claudia, the stage manager, turned around from the front row, shooting us a pointed look. When she turned back around, I stuck my tongue out at her - I knew it was silly, but that place brought that out in me, and that's part of what I like about it. "Come on," I said, getting back up. "They have like five more pages to get through."
I pulled Holly out to the lobby, pushing the theater door shut on my way out before standing the girl in front of me, staring at her. She was my twin in the show, and that was something I chose to take as a compliment, though it had taken a little getting used to. I know most women in their mid-twenties would love to be told they could pass as the twin of an 18 year old, but after struggling all my life to get people to believe my real age, I was proud of it. It was just a show, though, I'd told myself, and we did look somewhat similar, with our short, light brown hair and blue eyes, and a petite build, me even more than her.
"Okay, now, what is it?" I inquired again. "And don't tell me, 'nothing,'." We'd only been working together a couple weeks, but already I felt like I knew the girl pretty well, although our difference in age certainly helped. I can't say that she reminded me of myself at her age, since at her age I was putting myself through college, not flunking out of it, but I had known plenty of women like her back then, and been a shoulder for them to cry on many times.
"They say they're going to make me quit the show," she said after a sigh. She didn't have to tell me who 'they' were. "And I think they want me to switch schools... I keep telling them if I can just stick with it, I'll get the hang of things."
"Of course you will," I told her, willfully ignoring the fact that, in the past, she'd told me she was sure the teachers all hated her for some reason, and that was the reason her grades were so bad, so a change in schools would probably be a good thing. "You're very smart. It just takes time to adjust..."
"I know," she interrupted, though I wasn't sure which she was agreeing with. "They just won't listen! And, I mean, it's not like the show is taking up that much time, either. We're not in it that much! How much extra studying could I really get done if I wasn't here?!"
I shrugged, letting her rant, knowing, from experience, what subject she was about to hit on next.
"If they'd just help me buy a car, they wouldn't have to drive me here, or to class! It's not like I wouldn't pay them back..."
"If I could pick you up, I would," I offered, not for the first time. "It's just, with the project, I can barely get here on time myself."
"I know," she smiled sadly at me.
"But I don't mind taking you back home."
"And I appreciate it," she nodded. "I don't know... I just wish I could get away from them. You know?"
"Oh, I get it. Believe me." I considered telling her that everyone did, or at least everyone over the age of 16, or even younger. That wouldn't help her, however, and I was sure it would make me sound like a geezer, which was the same reason I'd always refrained from telling her how I hadn't had a promise from my parents to pay for four years of school to rely on when I'd been in college. In general, I didn't want people to think I was her age, yet I didn't want her to think of me as my own age, I suppose just because I can remember how old someone my age seemed to me when I was 18.
"I wish I had somewhere else to go," she sighed. "I mean, yeah, to live, but even just to hang out, so I didn't just have to go straight back all the time."
My heart melted a little as she said that, sure I'd just had an insight into her. She seemed outgoing and chatty, but I only knew her at the theater... And if she was anything like me, who she was at the theater didn't directly correspond to who she was in the outside world. I'd always assumed someone like her had tons of friends, and I'm sure she had, back in high school. This is a fairly small town, and I bet most of the friends she had in high school were people she'd known since kindergarten. Then most of them had gone away to college, while she'd stayed behind, stuck, by her parents' decree, in community college until she could settle on a degree, which didn't seem to be happening anytime soon. Sure, she must know some of the other students, but maybe they were the kids she'd always ignored, the ones she'd never paid any attention to, and the idea of trying to start doing so now was just too much for her, because, at her core, she was just a shy little dork, just like I'd been.
Sure, I didn't know how much of that was true, and how much was my own projections, but either way it touched me enough to make me say, "Hey, how about we hang out for a little bit before I take you home tonight?" I hesitated for a moment, almost adding an, 'if it's all right with your parents,' to it. I reminded myself she was 18, though, from what I'd heard of her parents, that didn't seem to matter much. Still, I decided at the very least that it meant she would take care of talking to them about it if she needed to.
She grinned at me, making me forget all about my reservations. "Sure, that would be great... twin."
"You know," I mused as I waited at a stoplight, watching Holly fiddle with my radio, "from what I've heard about your parents, I'm a little surprised your parents let you be in the show at all. I mean, you are playing a prostitute."
"So are you," she teased before leaning back in her seat, having apparently found something satisfactory, or given up. "But I don't think they really know what the show's about. They just know it's some kind of classic, so they assume it's innocent enough."
"Well, it is," I shrugged. "Mostly."
"Besides," she continued, starting to fall into a typical teenage sulk, "they can't tell me what to do anymore. I'm 18."
"That's true," I agreed. "But..."
"Not that you'd know it to listen to them. I mean, if I wanted to, I could tell them I'm going to keep doing the show anyway, whether my grades improve or not... I don't think they'd kick me out, but what if they did?" She sighed, staring out the window. "I just don't know what to do, Laura."
"If you do have to drop out, it isn't the end of the world, is it? I hope you don't, but there will always be other shows." She shrugged, clearly unconvinced. "Cheer up," I told her with a smile as I pulled into the parking lot, "we're here."
"Umm, why?" she asked, turning to stare out the windshield rather than the side window. "It isn't open yet."
"I just thought you might want to look around a little early."
"Are you going to break in?" she asked, eyes gleaming in a way that almost made me wish the answer was yes so I could score a few more cool points.
Still, I was pretty sure the real answer would help in that department, too. "I don't have to," I told her, pulling into a parking spot and turning off the car. "Haven't I told you? I'm the one in charge of the restoration. Well, most of that is done by now, of course, but I'm still supervising, getting everything ready for the grand reopening."
"That is so cool!" she gushed as we got out of the car, walking towards the mall.
It wasn't overly large, for a mall, though in a way that was why I'd liked it. It had closed ten years ago, when a larger one had opened a town over, though, as usual, the signs of decay had shown up before that, as more stores were forced to close due to lack of customers, and no new ones had replaced them. Gradually, it had just faded away, an empty shrine to consumerism... Until I showed up. I've always had a soft spot for abandoned malls, and resurrecting them. Compared to some I'd helped with, this one was pretty newly dead, which was, I think, why I'd been allowed to head up the project myself for the first time. The hope was that the town had grown enough since the closing that it would be able to support it, and, while I knew my job was basically over once the ribbon was officially cut, I still found myself hoping that was true.
"I remember this place!" Holly exclaimed as she waited by the door for me to turn on the lights. "I mean, I was little when it closed, but I remember seeing this pattern on the floor..."
"I was the one who decided to stick with that," I bragged, soaking up her excitement. "I figured it would be one of those little things people associated with this place." It was hard to believe, as I led Holly through the building, how run down and decrepit the place had looked when I'd first visited it, not that long ago. Now it was practically back in working order, with only a few more finishing touches needed, at least on my end. I could see through the security gates that the stores weren't quite ready yet, but even they were coming along quite well.
"Oh, this used to be a jewelry store!" Holly said, racing forward to a boutique clothing store. "I got my ears pierced here." She looked around, then picked a seemingly random direction to head in, leaving me trailing behind. I was sure I knew the place better than her now, but she was being led by the shadows of the past, something I didn't have the benefit of. "To tell you the truth, I was a little upset when I first heard they were re-opening this place," she said, peering in through the windows. "All the cool high school kids used to break in here to hang out, and I always wanted to do that, too. But now, seeing it like this..." She giggled, shaking her head. "It's almost like going back in time."
"People always try to change so much when they re-open a place like this," I explained. "But I think that's a mistake. Changing everything around isn't going to make it something new - why not embrace the history?"
Holly was doing just that, chatting on about little memories she had in the older version of different stores, until she stopped at one right across from the food court, separated by a fountain surrounded by benches. It was the dead center of the mall, what I liked to call its heart, though at the time it wasn't beating, since I hadn't turned it on. Her carefree demeanor darkened as she stared at the store.
"Hey, what's wrong?" I asked, putting a hand on her arm.
"This is where I had the most humiliating experience of my life," she said quietly. For a moment, I thought she was going to leave it at that, and I pondered whether it would be wise to press for further explanation. "This used to be a toy store," she continued eventually. "I think one of my cousins was having a birthday or something, because I know we weren't shopping for me, because mom kept reminding me. But there was some toy in there that I just had to have - I think I'd seen it on TV, or maybe it was based on some show I really liked, I don't know - and I just kept asking her and asking her for it. Finally, she snapped and yelled at me that I wasn't going to get it, so I got mad and stormed off when her back was turned. I'm not sure where I thought I was going, but I figured she was so busy shopping for toys for my stupid cousin that she'd never notice I was gone, at least not until I got away and... Well, did whatever." She shrugged, chuckling. "I was like six or seven, who knows what I was thinking?"
"Didn't work out that way, did it?"
She shook her head, backing away from the store, past the fountain. "I made it about... here, I think, and then I felt her grab my arm. Oh, she was pissed... She dragged me over to this bench and started spanking me... I'm sure it wasn't actually all that hard, but it felt like it, then, you know? And she was yelling at me never to run off without her again, blah, blah... And all the time, I was staring out at the food court, seeing the popular girls from my class sitting there, staring."
"That was a long time ago," I reminded her, putting an arm around her shoulder and giving it a squeeze.
"I know," she nodded. "And, I mean, she apologized for it later, and the next time we came here she bought me that toy. It was just... I think that was the first time it really sunk in how helpless I was. How easily my parents could ruin my life, if just for a couple weeks, until the other girls had something else to giggle about, and not even mean to."
Something dawned on me as I stood there, listening to her, watching her stare at her feet, still reliving that painful memory. "Hey," I said gently, "how about I help you talk to your parents about you staying in the show? I know it can be hard standing up to them sometimes, but maybe if you had some moral support..."
She perked up, a smile blossoming across her face. "You'd do that for me?"
"Of course," I nodded, grinning as she gave me a hug that made me feel like the coolest big sister ever.
As she pulled away, she glanced up at the wall, expression turning anxious. "Hey, is that clock right?" I nodded. "We should probably get going..."
"All right," I said, leading her back towards the entrance I'd left the car at, shutting everything off and locking up. She was quiet on the ride to her house, making me regret that I'd decided to leave it to her to tell her parents about our outing. Clearly, she had a curfew she was breaking, and clearly I was going to be blamed for that, for obvious reasons, like the fact that it was my fault. That wasn't exactly going to get me off on the best foot with them.
"Is that your dad's car?" I asked as we approached her house, seeing an unfamiliar vehicle in the driveway. I'd caught a glimpse of her mother's car a few times when she'd dropped Holly off at rehearsal, and that definitely wasn't it. I didn't see it at all, but there was a garage attached to the house, so I didn't think about that too much, even though her mom had never parked in there any of the other times I'd brought her home.
"Umm, yeah," she nodded, biting her bottom lip. "Hey, why don't you park here?" she suggested.
"On the street?" There was plenty of space in the driveway, so it seemed like an odd request, but I decided there wasn't any harm in it. Once I'd stopped, though, she gave no sign of getting out. "Come on," I urged, unbuckling my seatbelt. "Let's just get this done."
She turned to me with a pout, looking about five years younger. "Can't you do it?" she asked.
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, remembering how scary my parents could seem. "I think it would really be better if you were there, too," I told her.
"They're going to be really mad," she whimpered. "I was supposed to be home like fifteen minutes ago..."
"I'll let them know it was my fault," I reassured her. "Come on, what's the worst they can do?" But she was clearly not convinced. "All right," I gave in. "I'll go soften them up, but in five minutes, you're coming in, too, you got that? Or I'll come out and get you."
"Okay," she agreed quickly, though she stopped me as I started to get out of the car. "Hey, could you leave the keys?" she asked. "So I can listen to the radio?"
A bolt of suspicion ran through me. I immediately felt bad for it, but still couldn't fully shake it. "No," I shook my head, frantically trying to come up with an explanation that didn't make it sound like I didn't trust her. "If you get bored, you'll just have to come in sooner, then won't you?" I chuckled as she stuck her tongue out at me, proud of myself for coming up with that.
I strolled up to the door, starting to feel a little nervous myself, having to remind myself it wasn't my parents I was facing. I rang the doorbell, putting on my best smile as I heard footsteps approaching the door.
But when the door swung open, the woman standing there wasn't the same as the one I'd seen dropping Holly off at rehearsal. She was a little younger, maybe somewhere in her thirties, and much sterner looking. "There you are, little missy!" she shook her head disapprovingly, grabbing my arm. "You are in big trouble!"