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A Miracle of Degree
part 3
by J.(Channing)Wells


* * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * * *

Night. Near-darkness. My face feels damp, but clean. Tonight's makeup is off, and praistetagod, it'll never have to go on again. Of course that means I'm out of a job, but hey. The way things are looking now, that doesn't have to be a permanent condition. The Theatre will take me back whenever I'm ready to return. Meanwhile, I'm back in my home city, here in beautiful Pennsylvania. I've just finished a high-profile show to rave reviews. I've got my name in with the bigs. I've got offers. I can afford to be choosy about my roles from here on in. I can finally buy that motorcycle I've always wanted. I've got cash in my pocket, a new suit of clothes on my back, a starring role on my resume...

And a terrible empty feeling way, way deep down... I sit here in a dark, red, theatre lobby long after everyone else has gone otherwheres, bathed in the picture-window light of a snowywhite heartless moon frozen high above to the dome of the sky.


"C'mon, Dreah. Be there this time..."


I wait. Three-and-a-half rings, always. I _need_ her, tonight...




I sigh.

"Hello, You've reached Andrea's Place. I was going to quote something Shakespearean just to be cutesy here, but you wouldn't believe how hard it is to find something appropriate. Anyway. I'm off touring with the ASC and probably will be for... well... I don't know _how_ long, so if you're into uncertainty, please leave a message at the beep and I may or may not get back to you in a reasonable amount of time."


My world poises, once again, on an edge, as the silent hiss of the running recorder on the ancient tape-only answering machine that I have come to know so well over the past year and a half dutifully takes notes on the nothingness on my end of the line.

I can see it now. "Hey, Dreah! It's been a _hell_ of a long time since I've seen or spoken to you or gotten, indeed, any clues as to your continuing existence whatsoever. I mean, it's obvious that you're not checking your machine while you're away, which, I mean, is okay, I understand and all, it's just that... well..."

"It's just that there's quite a bit I want to say here, and..."

It's really not the kind of message that I want to leave. Not tonight.

"There's quite a bit I want to say here..."

Like what, Bix? That you can't stand the thought of never seeing her again? That you'd trade all these dreams about your stupid hypothetical motorcycle and everything else you own in the whole fucking world to be with her tonight? That she means more to you than any other single being in the known universe?

Like, "Andrea, I... you..."

I shake my head. Not a good day for such thoughts. Not at all.

The phone machine hisses silently, seconds upon seconds of silence busily writing themselves in magnetic particle-script within the machine that is my only connection to a woman whose presence was the only thing that had ever, ever, soothed the long, aching hurt of that last moment in the bathroom with... Jenny... and had ever allowed me to get even this far.

Seconds upon seconds of silence.


...hang up.

And then, slowly, I place one arm across the bulk of the pay telephone, let the other one hang listlessly at my side, and gently and solemnly bang my head three or four times against the unyielding metal.

This for a moment.

And then...

"Michael?" Says a small voice from very nearby.

I sigh again, slightly, forehead pressed against the cold steel of the pay telephone.

"Eppie." I say. "How long have you been watching?"

Eppie shrugs and swings her foot idly back and forth across the deep, scarlet carpeting. "While, now." She pauses for the briefest of moments. "You gonna be coming to the cast party?"

I do not respond.

"Roger promised me he'd do the thing with the beer cans again." She says, as if enticing me. "An' we're gonna have a replay of the Great American 'Sunday in the Park with George' Hearts-and-Other-Assorted-Brainless-Card-Games Tournament. Mister Barlow wanted a re-match with me, at least, he said."

I still do not respond. Eppie inclines her long, equine head at me in her best I'm-a-cute-little-teenage-girl-so-you-best-do-whatever-I-say look. "An' so, we'd all kinda be worried if you, like, weren't there or something..."

I shake my head. That's Eppie.


Hepzibah Friedmann. The world's biggest flirt and the darling of the entire cast. We all spoil her _rotten_. But it's not our fault. You see, Eppie holds this strange sort of power over adult human creatures, sort of like a cross between mental domination and pathological slave-mentality-devotion. She has _presence_ in a big, bad way, and what's more, she's got the kind of talent-driven skill at age twelve-or-so that I'm _still_ trying to perfect in my own craft.

Eppie signed on with the show a few months back. She was the daughter of a relative of a friend, or something. Yes. No. No, what it _was_ is that one of Mister Barlow's cousins back in the City apparently had this thing about providing a temporary home for hard-to-place children from local orphanages, and when Molly Kindersly (our "Louise" for the entire run of the show thus far) had to bow out of the tour for _a priori_ concerns, it was made known that there was a certain girl within Barlow's _own family_ with a mind for the stage and the talent to match. And since the cast for SitPwG _already_ contained more than the usual number of SCABS...

Let it never be said that the Theatre isn't a political beast, in its own way. Sometimes, it's all a question of who you know. Phil proved that to me, at least, beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Anyway. Point being is that Eppie never really had a real home. And upon coming down with SCABS right smack out of an early bout of puberty, her chances of beneficent adoption by anyone other than people like the Friedmanns dropped to nearly nil. The Friedmanns are still looking for a good, stable home for her, last time I talked to them. Nice family, by the way.

And meanwhile, she is a child of the Stage. Tutored daily in the wings. Homework at night on the makeup table. Days and nights of childhood, breathing in the potent atmosphere of the Theatre. God. How lucky can one kid _get_. I would have given my right eye and half the duration of my childhood to do what Eppie is now doing. Sure, it's not for everyone... but over the course of the many months that we've been on the road with her, it has become patently clear to all of us that it's _certainly_ for Eppie.

In fact, were it not for the simple reality that a year or two ago a mutant virus from outer space twisted her young form into the semblance of a half-human half-American Buckeye Mule, I would say she's the one of the luckiest kids in the whole wide world.

"So...?" Says Eppie, impatiently.

"Eppie..." I say, with the kind of good-natured fed-up-ish-ness that she's come to expect from the lot of us. "I... can't. Not tonight. We've already had the official final-full-house-closing party. And the back-in-the-city-where-we-started-after-all-this-time party. And the here-we-are-almost-done-with-this-sucker party. Exactly how many of these are you going to bug me to attend?"

"But this is the laaaaaaaaaaaast one! The last chance you'll have to see any of them!"

"Not likely, Ep." I counter. "We're still a minority in the business, us SCAB's. I've got a feeling I'll be working with some of these same people again. We're gonna gravitate to the same shows with the same sympathetic directors. Hell, Barlow's actually thinking of _officially_ advertising WCR as a pro-SCAB non-discriminational theatre company. He invited me back to audition for Jacob in 'Tenebra Suite.'"

"Good part." Says Eppie, sagely.

"Kind of." I say. "A little too typecast-y for my tastes."

"Hum." Says Eppie. And then, brightly, "So. Speaking of you coming to the cast party, are you going to?"

"We weren't speaking of that." I say, wryly.

"I was." Says Eppie, grinning broadly. And, of course, that's the important thing, right, kiddo? Right...

"Eppie." I say, massaging my forehead with one hand. "No."

Eppie's lower lip creeps ever so-slightly forward. "Well then." She says. "Guess I'm not going either."

"Why not." I say, flatly.

"No-one else is _here_! I was counting on you to take me!"

"Well," I say blandly, studying the decor, "That's sort of your problem, isn't it."

"Hmpth." She says. And then there is a moment's silence.

"Look. I'll take _you_ there. Then _I'm_ going home. Right? _You_ shouldn't be out this late anyway."

"S'okay." She says. "I got permission from Temporary Mom and Temporary Dad. Just so long as I stay with either you or Mister Barlow, I'm fine _aaaaaaaaalllll_ night. Mom and Dad Friedmann know how these sorts of parties can go." She winks suggestively at me. "And, since _I'll_ be having so much _fun_, they wouldn't _dream_ of keeping me home."

"Wonderful." I say, ignoring the obvious implication again. "You know, the one thing that I _will_ fault your parents for is their entirely misplaced trust in Theatre People. If you were even the tiniest bit the innocent that you make yourself out to be, I'd be worried that we're ruining you. As it is, I don't know exactly who to worry about."

"Silly monkey." She says.

"Be that as it may." I say. "I take you _to_ the party. And then you're _Barlow's_. Capice?"

She blinks at me innocently. "Of course."

I frown. "You're not going to try and snooker me into going to the party again, are you?"

"Bix." She says, sounding hurt. "The thought hadn't _even crossed my mind._"

* * *

"Wow!" Says Eppie. "Great party, huh, Bix?"

"Mmrph." I say.

Ep spontaneously laughs. "Hey, remember that one thing Mister Wanderer did?"

"All too well." I say, groggily.

"That was _cool_." She says.

"Cool is one way to describe it." I say, lightly, as we walk quietly through the night streets, cresting and riding pools of sodium light from the high-above streetlamps. Must keep to the light, in the evening city. Always keep to the light. The moths and mosquitos and us.

"Remember when I beat your pants off in Polish Three-Crib Shabbatch?" She says.

"Yup." I say, my voice dabbing concernedly at the face of my wounded pride with a washcloth.

"That was cool too." She says.

"Uh huh." I say.

"You want any of this back?" She asks, holding my former money out to me. I hiss at her.

"Eppie, put that away. It's bad enough we're walking outside at night without you flashing twenty-spots around."

"Sorry." She says, chastely. She puts it away. We walk for a while in silence.

"_You_ could have stayed, you know. The night is still young." I say, with a dramatic gesture

She shrugs. "I wannidta stick with you. You were gonna be alone all night otherwise. It woulda ruined my evening."

"But not your appetite, I reckon."

"I'm an herbivore." She says, simply. "I graze."

"No." I say. "Grazing implies that you eat a moderate amount of food over the course of an extended period of time. You, on the other hand, eat an unbelievable amount of food right off the bat, and then you _continue_ to do so _over the course of_ an extended period of time."

She punches me lightly on the arm. My point.

Step after step, another block of the distance passes beneath our feet. Eppie's subtly irregular gait still proceeds tirelessly; I passingly note once again the faintest of limps in her left leg. A product of asymmetry in her bout with SCABS, I'm presuming.

The winds swirl, and Eppie pulls her leather jacket a little closer around her. Strange weather for the time of year. It almost feels like March out. Signs and portents. The gathering of the winds. I idly find myself wondering if I'm approaching some form of turning point here.

"So." Says Eppie. "What are we gonna _Do_ for the rest of the night?"

I yawn. "Eppie, you're free stay up and read or watch vid-feed for 's long as you like. You can just shack out in my room, and we'll walk you back to the Friedmann's tomorrow. I'm afraid that there's not much that I've got that you probably haven't seen, but if you're bored, you know who to blame for that." I swallow, and bat away a low-flying moth. "As for _me_, _I_ am going to sleep. It's been a _long_ day for us reasonably sane people."

"Okay." She says, pleasantly.

* * *

"AND THEN!!!" Bellows my dearest Eppie, the Earl of Northumberland. "'The Prince _KILLETH_ Percy!'"

I just stand there.

"Come on." She says, invitingly.

I poke her with my yardstick.

Instantly, she collapses. "O Harry!" she cries. "Thou hast robbed me of my youth! / I better bear the loss of brittle life / than those proud titles thou hast won of me." Eppie consults my Signet Classic Shakespeare from mid-death-throe. "They wound my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh!"

"Well." I say, the yardstick hanging in my limp grasp like some variety of fish. "They'd almost _have_ to have, wouldn't they."

"Shaddup." Sayeth Hotspur. "But thoughts, the slaves of life, and life, time's fool, / And time, that takes survey of all the world, / Must have a stop. O, I could prophesy / But that the earthy and cold hand of death / Lies on my tongue. No, Percy, thou art dust, / And food for..." She coughs, mimicking the spitting out of blood, or something else similarly unpleasant. "And food for..."

Hotspur collapseth.

"For worms, Brave Percy." I say, picking up the next line. "Fare thee well, great heart, yadda yadda, yadda yadda, but not rememb'red in thy epitaph. Great. So. Can we be about done with the Battle of Shrewsbury now?"

Eppie glares at me for skipping over Prince Hal's soliloquy, but chooses not to call me on it. "Not yet. We have to do the Falstaff scene. Where's that bottle?"

"You broke it." I comment. "When you were trying to do that two-sword-waving-around thing that you were convinced that Lord Douglas should do before killing Blunt. 'Member?"

"Oh, yeah." Says Eppie.

"You're just damn lucky that Carl downstairs is a reasonably tolerant sorta guy." I say.

"Ain't I, though?" Says Eppie, beaming. "Otherwise, it would be next to _impossible_ to stage the entire Fifth Act of Henry IV, Part One in this dinky little apartment without him calling the cops on us."

"Mm hm." I say.

"So. No bottle." Says Eppie.

"Nope." I say.

"It's not the same without the prop." She says.

"Fine!" I say. "Let's just skip it and cut to the chase. Okay. Falstaff does his thing, then we have Henry Bolingbroke and Hal talking about the aftermath and... then...

Eppie flips some pages. "Then we're done."

"_Finally_." I say.

"Onwards to Part Two!" Says Eppie.

"_No_." I say.

"Poot." Says Eppie. "So what now?"

"Sleep?" I suggest, with a sort of pitiful and helpless tone to my voice.

"Naw." Says Ep, paging wildly through my Shakespeare text. "Something... cool."

I close my eyes. "Eppie, you _do_ realize, of course, that we've already exhausted a good chunk of "Bill's Greatest Hits," what with the _Hamlet_ thing and the _The Taming of the Shrew_ and the... you know, the Scottish one, and the thing from _King Lear_... and if that weren't enough, we've been treated to a lovely halftime show of Eppie giving broad interpretation to two of the Sonnets..."

"It's fun." She says, as though this were an empirical fact.

"Mm hm." I say. "Why don't you go do something cheerful. Like _Titus Andronicus._"

Eppie looks up at me. "Is that a cool one?"

I shrug, and wander over, blinking the sleep from my eyes for what must be the fourteenth time this evening. "Not really. It's Early Bill, and he doesn't yet have the maturity that he gains for the later works."

"Here we are." Says Eppie. "Page 306. What's this underlined part here?"

I frown, curiously. _Writing_? In one of Murph's books? Impossible... The man had too much respect for his children to go around scribbling in them...

_I_ sure as hell didn't make those marks, though. And looking more closely at them, they do look as though they might have come from one of Murph's damned difficult-to-read Very Hard #4 pencils.

With Eppie looking on, I scrutinize the words...

MARCUS: Now is a time to storm; why art thou still?

TITUS: Ha, ha, ha!

MARCUS: Why dost thou laugh? It fits not with this hour.

TITUS: _Why, I have not another tear to shed..._

This from a guy who's just realized that he's been tricked into killing most of his sons, and has just found his loving daughter violated, horribly maimed, and left for dead. Like I said, cheerful play. Good for children. Builds character.

Still staring at the words and trying to make sense of the incalculably strange presence of their penciled emphasis, I nearly do not hear Eppie as she asks, "So. Who's 'Murphy Donham'?"

"The guy I got this book from. He owns a little shop back in Ithaca, Kansas. I used to work for him." I turn to look at her. "Why?"

Eppie holds up a small, extremely thinly folded packet of paper. "This thing here had his name on the outside."

I frown. "Where'd you get that?"

"Stuck in the binding."

I take it from her and begin working out how the fold works. Good old Murph. Always a bad one for cramming little notes to himself in his books and then not remembering where he put them. He was always such an absent-minded old bastard. I figure out the logic behind the fold and idly work the kinks out of the thin papers. You know, I think to myself, it's really been too long since I've seen hi--

I notice the first few words. I do a double-take.

"What?" Says Eppie. She scoots over, intent upon seeing the pages. "What?" She repeats.

I shush her and wave her off, my attention utterly focused.

I read the first few paragraphs in their entirety, heedless of Eppie's protesting, pausing only occasionally to breathe. And then, in wonderment, I flip through to the last page and peruse _that_.

And then, settling my wildly fluttering heart in my breast, I carefully fold the papers back into their original shape.

Then, I turn to Eppie.

I can't help but look at her. For quite some time.

"...what...?" Says Eppie, cautiously, after a time.

"Nothing." I say. "Or everything. I'm not sure."

"Tell me!" She says, growing impatient.

"I will, Eppie. I will." I breathe deeply of the stuffy, cloistered air. "But right _now,_ I am walking _you_ back to the party. And _you_ are going to stay with Mister Barlow tonight."

"Why?" She asks, seeming more genuinely confused than put out.

"I'll... tell you tomorrow." I say. "Tonight, I've got a _lot_ of thinking to do."

"Oo...kay..." Says Eppie.

"Don't worry." I say. "It's nothing dangerous or anything. But what I need you to do right now is to go back down to the foyer. Wait for me there. 'Kay?"

She nods.

"Good kid." I say.

Eppie goes, looking strangely back at me as she exits. Maybe I deserve the strange look, maybe I don't. But...


One last time, I unfold the papers and glance at the last few lines...

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