A/N: Final chapter! See you at the bottom (TWHS).
Disclaimer: Even Tyra Banks owns the following more than I do.
Chapter 28: A Pure Flash of Lightning
You're a girl
Rising from a shell
Running through spring
With summer's hand in reach now
It is your time
- Tori Amos 
I looked out at the crowd from the low stage. So many familiar faces, the "regulars" I'd served drinks to so many times, but I realized now that I knew almost none of their names. How strange, that my life here had been such a charade, as if it had been a bland cover story to disguise some dangerous career as a CIA agent. I should have had a secret room in the pub filled with wigs and costumes for all my classified spying missions. We were always acting, one way or another, Mary Alice reminded me.
An almost forgotten, comforting noise surrounded me, and I closed my eyes, letting the flutter and pattering of applause wrap around me like a warm breeze. I wiggled my toes inside my shoes and focused on my breathing, imagining I was inhaling the crowd's energy. I felt a tap on my shoulder. "We should start the next song," he whispered in my ear, and I remembered where I was and nodded, gripping the mic as I opened my eyes.
He started plucking away on his guitar, and we sang a mellow yet menacing, quietly seething version of Hole's "Violet," until we got to the final chorus, and I just screamed at the top of my lungs, calling up all the times from deep in my belly that I'd pushed Mary Alice away, when I'd been forced to hide her from hurtful hands or prying eyes. Everything else disappeared except for me and my rage, but I had a vague sense of something behind me holding me up, the sound of plastic pick on metal strings, the solidity of one man's love.
Tomorrow I'd be leaving this city, this life, and I had no idea when or if I'd ever return.
Once we'd said goodbye to my mother's earthly body in the little town of Elk, it took me a while to realize that I, like my mom, was finally free. Now nothing tied me to this place, or to my mindless job. I no longer had to live frugally in order to pay for her care. My whole life was ahead of me. What would I do with it?
I'd never made plans other than to make sure my mom was safe and as happy as she could be, given the circumstances. I hadn't expected to lose her so early. I missed her, but the truth was I'd been missing her since I was still a child. The idea of having complete freedom—both financially and emotionally—to do whatever I wanted overwhelmed me. I realized how little my life had ever been my own. When was the last time I'd felt free, a bird soaring on the breeze?
Being with Jasper had made me realize my life here was only a husk, but even as present as he'd made me feel, I knew I still was living only half a life, as if my legs were bound together, allowing me to take only the tiniest of steps. Now that all my bonds were cut, I felt as helpless as a newborn baby, my limbs free but unsure in the infinite space around me. There had been something comforting about the confinement, something safe. I understood now why infants responded so well to being swaddled.
I let Mary Alice guide me a lot of those days. I'd lose track of my thoughts and find myself at a local coffee shop, in front of the bulletin board plastered with audition notices, advertisements for voice and dance lessons. I'd rip a few of the tabs off the flyers as if I were absentmindedly picking flowers, shove them deep into my pockets, and would forget about them until it came time to do laundry and these little crinkly scraps of paper would fall out of my hands as I turned my pants pockets inside out.
It seemed Mary Alice wanted me to go back to the theater.
I tried to consider it one day in the laundry room of my building, tried to imagine myself waiting in some community center hallway with a bunch of people dressed "ready to move," preparing my two sixteen-bar excerpts of ballad and up-tempo, my monologue. I was a wreck, my hands shaking, my heartbeat speeding, and I'd have to pull at my hair to stop the panic attack. "I can't," I said to my reflection in the glass window of the dryer. My clothes were tumbling inside, and the round window reminded me of a porthole on a ship.
I touched my hand to the warm glass, and Mary Alice stared back at me. Remember what Mr. Crandall said. Fight for it. We can do it, you and I.
The dryer buzzed angrily then, and I jumped away, shaking the cobwebs loose in my head. I tried to let my mind stay blank as I folded my clothes before putting them back into my laundry basket. The freshly washed clothes radiated heat as I balanced the basket on my hip, and I wished it was Jasper's hands instead. He hadn't been around as often, trying to keep up with grading for his classes and studying for the MCATs. I was just fine on my own. It was strange; ever since we'd come back from scattering Mom's ashes ("Rest in Elk," we'd say whenever we mentioned her name, instead of "Rest in Peace," and it would always make me think of "Dogs in Elk", which I think my mother would have found amusing), I just felt secure, grounded. He didn't need to be here all the time to reassure me that he loved me. I felt his love like a mantle on my shoulders, heavy and protective and present.
As I put my clothes away, I saw images of myself filling out forms, flying to schools, standing with the footlights blinding me, waiting for instructions from the audition panel. Mary Alice wanted me to do something, and I could already see this future. My whole body hummed as I considered all the steps it might take to reenter the world from which I'd fled. I had the time and the money now. I could be anyone I wanted, and not for fear that someone would find out who I really was. I had free rein, finally, to become fully me.
I spent the rest of the afternoon online, researching programs, requesting catalogs and applications. And then I forgot about it until I'd find my mailbox jammed so tightly that it was like a tug of war to get my mail out some days.
"What's all this?" Jasper asked one afternoon, surprising me as I sat on the floor, surrounded by glossy catalogs. It hadn't taken long for me to get him a set of keys to my place. It made me feel safer.
I almost hid the brochures away, feeling a familiar shame, but I stopped myself. This was Jasper. I had no reason to lie. "I'm, um, thinking of going back to school," I said.
His face brightened, and he flopped on his stomach next to me, flipping through the catalogs and giving me unsolicited opinions about the cities some of the schools were in. "Evanston's nice," he said, tapping the Northwestern brochure, "but you'd better be ready for some cold-ass weather. You'll have to bundle up so much that you'll be like that kid in A Christmas Story who can't put his arms down."
"I have to get in first," I said quietly, gazing at my hands in my lap.
"Of course you'll get in," he said, sitting up so abruptly that glossy booklets went flying. "You're one in a million."
I snorted. "Jasper, you've never seen me do anything. How can you know?"
"I know how well you can hide. I've seen you slip inside other people's perceptions of you to make things easier. It's only because I see all of you that I can tell."
A quick call to Mr. Crandall was all it took to find an acting coach and a voice teacher in Seattle. I didn't know if I'd be let into graduate programs without a bachelor's in the field, but Mr. Crandall assured me that the performing arts was one of those areas where it didn't matter as much. "There will always be those assholes who think you need some bullshit on paper to prove you're worthy of their institution, but then those people don't have the ability to truly cultivate an artist."
Jasper helped me study for my GREs. Some of the schools required them; some did not. I supposed "studying" wasn't quite the right term, because we usually ended up in a tangle on the floor, our discarded clothing leaving a breadcrumb trail back to my abandoned book of practice tests. The truth was, I didn't need his help. Despite spending the last few years mixing drinks and breathing in alcohol fumes, my mind was still sharp.
I knew I had only a few short months before I'd be auditioning, and I knew I needed to brush up my skills. In any case, if I got auditions, I would have to be on the road so much that I couldn't possibly keep working for Rosalie. I had to quit. I didn't need the money now that I wasn't paying Meadowview's monthly bills.
When I finally gave notice, Rosalie was strangely upset about it.
"Is it something I did?"
"No," I said, nervously drumming my fingers on the armrest as I sat across from her intimidating desk.
"Are you unhappy? Is there a customer bothering you? I'll ban him—them—whoever. Just tell me who."
"Thanks, but no. I … just … I don't know. I need to live my life. I need to go out there, into the world. God, I've never been farther east than Oregon."
"Do you need another vacation? Just take a few weeks off?"
I hadn't planned on going into it, but in that moment, telling her felt right. I mumbled into my lap, "I'm trying to go to grad school, to pursue acting. And it's going to take a lot of work and a lot of trips and research, and I need to focus."
I looked up, surprised to see Rosalie's eyes misted over. "Well, as much as I wish I could change your mind, I know this is just a job. This place can't possibly compete with your dream. I'll miss you. We'll all miss you."
"Really?" I blurted out before I could stop myself. I'd always thought we'd each merely tolerated the other.
"God, Alice, you're like the heart of the pub. It won't be the same without you. And I … kind of think of you like my little sister." She shrugged and looked at me staring at her, my jaw open. "What?" she demanded.
I shook my head. "I … kind of thought you hated me."
"Oh, believe me, Alice, if I hated you, you would know." She chuckled to herself. "Oh, I could have made your life so miserable." She was lost in thought, no doubt imagining scenarios of torture and humiliation.
"Eep," I said.
She stood up suddenly, and I crouched, ready to spring and make a run for it. "Well," she said, "as sad as it makes me to see you go, I accept your resignation. And you're always welcome here. You know that, right?" She came over and gave me an awkward hug. "You'll keep in touch?"
"Sure," I said, but I thought I was only being polite until Rose surprised me with a farewell party on my last day, with another of Bella's beautiful cakes and free drinks for Jasper and his roommates.
"I don't drink on the job," I said, as Rose pushed another Bellini toward me.
"Shut it," she said. "You're not on the job. This is for you. This is me thanking you for your dedication and hard work."
Closing out that night, I had a lump in my throat. This place, and Rosalie, and everyone else here—they had somehow become family without my even realizing it. Family could find you in strange places sometimes. I hugged Rosalie as I left the last time as her employee. "Thanks for tonight," I said, slightly tipsy.
"The least I could do, my petite munchkin."
"The least you could have done was shove me out the door without getting your heels embedded in my ass," I pointed out. "And … don't call me 'munchkin.'"
"I suppose," she said, flipping off the lights as she held the door open for me. "You'll stop in though, won't you? Let us know how you're doing?"
And that was all it took for me to start opening up to Rosalie too, calling her once a week to tell her about my progress, about my lessons that week, about writing application essays and preparing audition tapes, and about the sidesplitting afternoon Jasper and I had spent getting my headshots done.
I'd asked him to come with me to the photographer's studio, and he spent so much time cutting up that the photographer nearly threw him out. "I'm not running a daycare," she snapped, "nor a zoo."
"Jasper, you're my little monkey, aren't you?" I said as the photographer adjusted the lighting.
He coughed. "Gigantic monkey," he corrected, adjusting his pants deliberately.
I rolled my eyes.
"Can we focus, Ms. Brandon?" said the photographer peevishly. I'd dropped my father's surname and taken on my mom's again. I didn't need to hide who I was. I was proud to be a Brandon. I was proud to be my mother's daughter.
She changed my body position slightly, tilted my head to the side, and then stood on a small stepladder. "You love that monkey back there, don't you?" she asked with a sudden kindness.
"I do," I said, as the shutter clicked again and again.
"So look at the camera like you're looking into his face. Like you can't wait to maul him with kisses."
Jasper was right there behind her, and I looked at him. "Don't look at him; look at the camera, Alice. See his face up here."
"Give me a second," I said. I looked at Jasper standing behind the lighting umbrella until the light and his shape burned into my eyes, creating an afterimage. I let my gaze float upward until I met the camera's large, reflective eye. Jasper's shape still lingered. I love you with my whole body and my whole soul, I thought at the ghost image, and the photographer said, "That's the one."
As the fall went on, we were busy with our respective applications, interviews, auditions. I wanted Jasper to come with me to my auditions, but I knew it was an impossibility. "Where do you think you might get into med school?" I asked.
"Well," I said, tracing a shape on my knee, "I want to be near you."
Jasper got serious for a moment. "Do not plan your life around me."
I was hurt by this sudden rejection, but then he spoke again before I could open my mouth to reply. "Alice, we'll always be together, no matter where we are. But you need to find the place you'll fit in."
"Isn't that place with you?" I asked.
"Only you know what school will give you what you need. And I'm not letting you give up this dream. You wouldn't want me to go to some lesser med school just to stay near you, would you?"
"Of course not," I answered automatically. It made sense when I thought about him—I'd just figured I'd follow him to the school that was best for him. I'd make do with whatever program I found as near to him as I could. "But you're going to be a doctor. You're going to help people."
"Alice, what you do is just as important to the world. And, if I may be selfish for a moment, your personal happiness is more important to me than the temporary satisfaction I'd have of living in the same city. We will make it work, no matter where we are. Follow your path, Alice, as you believe in mine."
There was so much to do, so much to catch up on. I took a few community college courses in music theory and history, and prepared the equivalent of a senior recital, which I performed in my voice teacher's studio to a small audience of Jasper, Rosalie, and Fitzsie, whose extravagant hat barely fit through my voice teacher's door. I got my audition package together, my monologues. And when winter came, I began traveling to schools where I'd been granted auditions, living out of my suitcase, sleeping in a different hotel every night. I loved it. I loved standing on those stages—all stages had an energy about them—and disappearing into Alma from Summer and Smoke and Ariel from The Tempest, not afraid of anything the auditors would ask me to speak, read, or sing. I was ready. My whole life had brought me here, and in my purse I carried the sad, square dishcloth that Jasper had knit for me way back when. It was my talisman, and I would press it against my heart and touch it to my cheek lightly enough not to mess my makeup as the monitor would inevitably say, "Please follow me to the stage, Ms. Brandon."
I'd come back from each trip, looking for Jasper by the baggage claim at SeaTac, and as happy as I was to come home to him, I knew, clutching my makeup case to me, that I was finally back on my true path.
So when I got accepted to the master's program in musical theater at the Steinhardt School of NYU, I knew that's where I needed to be, even though Jasper was going to Penn's medical school. "Manhattan and Philadelphia aren't too far apart," I said, and Jasper nodded.
"We're going to be just fine, butterbean."
Tomorrow we were leaving in Fitzsie's car—she'd given me the title when she found I was going away. "I'll come back soon," I said, kissing her dry cheek. I didn't know when I'd come back, but I couldn't bear to say goodbye to Fitzsie forever. She'd been my only friend for so long.
"I don't know," Fitzsie said. "I've got half a mind to follow you two out to the East Coast. It's too damp here all the time. Edgar doesn't like it one bit, do you, Edgar?" She stooped down to pet the purring ball of fur.
"You're coming to the pub tonight, right, Fitzsie?" I asked.
"Wouldn't miss it!" she said, squeezing Edgar a bit too tightly in her enthusiasm. He squeaked and bolted from the room.
So here we all were: me, Jasper, his roommates, Rosalie, Bella, and this room of familiar strangers who had been nameless but still had been woven into the tapestry of my life here. I'd wanted to give a little goodbye concert to these people, to show them what I was, who I truly was. It wasn't their right to know, nor was it my duty to share, but now I found I wanted people to know the real Mary Alice Brandon. It honored my mother's memory. It honored the scared girl who had been trapped inside for so many years.
It wasn't unusual to have live music at the Unicorn, but the patrons were surprised to see me up there. We invited Fitzsie up to sing "Anything You Can Do" from Annie Get Your Gun as Jasper plunked out block chords from a fake-book on the old, out-of-tune upright piano. The old lady still had quite a set of lungs on her. But most of the evening was just me and Jasper, singing, harmonizing, sometimes getting lost in the light of the other.
Tomorrow we were going to begin our drive across the country, and then I was going to leave him in Philadelphia as I continued on into Manhattan, into the West Village to the tiny but tidy apartment I'd found near West 4th.
We would be apart, but we would be closer to each other as ever, knowing we each were pursuing our life's dream. I could close my eyes and be with him wherever he was. I felt him. And we would see each other nearly every weekend.
Jasper launched into the final song, picking away on the guitar. The audience didn't seem to recognize the melody, but they quickly began to bob their heads to the beat as we got into it. "It's not the changes but the spaces in between / It's not the story but the cuts between the scenes / It's the part where your eyes can't focus / The minute just before you notice /The images align naturally," we sang, our voices winding above and below each other's, twisting in harmonies like Tibetan prayer flags in the wind. Through the final chorus, I could feel Jasper by my side, his energy crackling by me like the air before a thunderstorm, and I thought of how far we'd come just to end up in the same place, this bar, right here.
We were not the same people we had been that far-away New Year's Eve, timidly holding hands, me scared to death, him full of hope. "It just takes some getting used to, is all, is all," we sang together. "Is all, is all, is all, is all, is all, is all," we repeated, not wanting the song or the evening or this chapter in our lives to end just yet, standing on the edge of this precipice, where we could see the past behind and the future ahead, and I didn't regret anything, not one moment of pain or fear, if it had helped bring me to this moment, to this place I was always meant to be.
 Tori Amos, "Ribbons Undone," The Beekeeper (2005).
 "Dogs in Elk" is a strange little Internet story that may or may not be true, but it's a fascinating and hilarious read. You can Google "Dogs in Elk" or follow this link: www(dot)jerrypournelle(dot)com/reports/jerryp/dogsinelk(dot)html#dogs
 The Paper Raincoat, "Motion Sickness," The Paper Raincoat (2009). Seriously, check these guys out.
A/N: So hey, this is the end. Thank you to everyone who has been here from the beginning, everyone who found my story yesterday, and everyone who found it somewhere along the way. I know Jalice stories aren't the most popular, and I know this little story will never be as popular as some of my others, but it's very dear to me, and I'm grateful to every one of you for reading.
I'd like to give special thanks to my old Saturday night chat posse: JayneRulis (who was the spark of this entire endeavor), KnittingVamp7, Grendelsmother, ceci9293, PortiaKhalo, and especially Killerlashes for being so encouraging when this story was just a ten-page Word document that I never thought was worth posting.
Extra love and squishes to Algie, philadelphic, MsKathy, and adorablecullens for making every day hilarious.
Big hugs to adoraklutz for writing me the most encouraging reviews and being a cheerleader even when I felt like a big, lumpy turd.
And all my love to my ficwife, NelsonSmandela. You. Complete. Me. MFEO!
Reviews get one final excerpt from my eighth grade creative writing journal.
- Feisty Y. Beden, May 14, 2010