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Her Final Curtain
January 5th, 1908:
The cool light of the January sun streamed through the stained glass windows of the MacDove’s small living room, patches of red and yellow throwing themselves into an intricate stain across the hardwood flooring as well as the Persian throw rugs meticulously placed about the room. One particularly persistent splotch attached itself quite firmly to the white dress being fastened to the squirming form of eight-year-old Genevieve, the MacDove's only child. The satin of the girl’s new dress bloomed out from her waist like a budding lotus flower, reminding the girl who longed for the soft baby’s breath of spring of her desire to escape the biting frost of another Pennsylvania winter.
“Ow!” the young brunette twitched sharply against the needle which had accidently been stuck into her side, her jerking tearing her long hair from her mother’s grasp as she worked to fasten it into the hold of a ribbon.
“Jenny, hold still. I swear you’re nearly impossible this morning.” The girl looked up at her mother with a slight tinge of annoyance before allowing her mother to take control of her head once again. “And don’t give me that look Genevieve. It’s a Sunday, you know you have to go to church.”
“But Mommy, Vincent and I wanted to go to the opera house today for play rehearsal. And that’s sponsored by the church, so isn’t that the same thing?” Anne answered with a tight tug on the lace ribbon she had managed to loop through her daughter’s loose curls, stepping in front of her to smooth out the wrinkles in the front of her dress.
“Jenny, your father and I understand that you’re excited about being picked to perform in that show, but darling, you have a responsibility to your lord and savior as much as you do the curtain. Understand?” The sound of the doorbell interrupted the intensity of her mother’s soft blue gaze as Jenny leapt from the stool and ran to the front hall, her dress furling out behind her like an intricate parachute as the hard soles of her shoes clicked against the hardwood floorboards.
Flinging the door open, the tall and slender frame of Vincent Parry, seventeen-year-old cousin to the bouncing girl who grabbed his hand in joy was revealed, his grey gaze staring down at her warmly despite her persistent tugging at his arm.
“Come on Vincent! Come on!” Jenny continued her pleading as she tugged on his winter coat, the corduroy making it easier for her small fingers to keep a tight hold on his sleeve as she tried to scoot past him. Brushing his windswept hair back into place, he lifted his squealing cousin off the ground with ease, feeling her squirm in his grasp as he laughed, placing her gently on the ground back in the shelter of the house.
“Calm down Gem. Since when are you excited to go to mass?” She stared at him curiously for a moment, her rosy lips puckering into a slight pout of confusion.
“But Vincent, you promised that we—“she watched as he placed a gloved finger to his mouth, his lips pressing into a gentle smile beneath its barrier. Her confusion deepened when suddenly she heard the click of heels on the floorboards behind her. Spinning around, Jenny beamed up at her mother innocently.
“Thank you for not letting her go out without her coat Vincent,” Anne sighed with a gentle huff, a thick coil of her blonde hair coming down over her shoulder as she pulled Jenny’s coat and scarf down from the hook beside the door, helping her daughter into the garments and tied the red scarf around her neck. “Jenny, I mean it, don’t be late this morning.”
“Yes Mommy,” she sighed and rolled her eyes, causing her mother to reach out and tickle her sides gently before pressing a kiss to her forehead.
“That means you as well Vincent. You are the one who is supposed to be watching her. Little girls dawdle, you should know better than to fall for her tricks.” Licking her handkerchief, Anne rubbed it briskly against a spot on his coat before turning her attention to pushing his hair back into a presentable fashion. Pulling away from his aunt and the deathly harm she seemed determined to inflict upon him through good grooming, Vincent smiled slightly and grabbed his cousin by the hand, leading her down the steps and out into the cobblestone streets.
“I’ll remember Aunt Anne, we’ll see you at church,” Vincent called out over his shoulder, slowing his stride so Jenny wasn’t trotting at his heels to keep up. They walked in silence for several blocks, Vincent watching in amusement as Jenny skipped along nervously, twitching with excitement as they wound down a small alley to avoid the throngs of religious followers seeping into the crack of the heavy cathedral doors. Clinging to Vincent’s sleeve, Jenny brought her small body closer to his as the alleyway narrowed, the tips of her shoulders brushing against the rough brick as she purposely remained glued to his side. It wasn’t safe to travel Boyertown as a general rule of thumb, especially not for a little girl, regardless of the fact that the sunlight shone with a mounting intensity through the alley’s mouth.
Emerging once again onto the busy streets, Vincent smiled down at his cousin before grabbing her hand, urging her gently forward across the street as they wove their way precariously through the traffic of mingled carriages and automobiles for those fortunate enough to be able to afford them, regardless of the fact that the black clouds of exhaust pipes possessed a certain quality of unpleasant suffocation. Laughing at the cacophony of honking car horns and angered shouts from drivers and passengers alike, Jenny scurried along the road in a swish of skirts, looking up at Vincent with a broad smile for the briefest of moments. The heel of her boot caught between a wedge in the cobblestoned streets, sending her reeling forward into the curb which bit a red gash through her stockings in punishment.
Tears welled against the soft russet of her eyes in pain and panic, her scrapped hands working furiously to rub the small welling stains of blood from the crisp white of her dress.
“Mommy will be so mad,” Jenny whined to herself, her whispers trembling as a tear ran gently down one of her cheeks, her bottom lip trembling as much as her hands. The firm hold of a masculine hand wrapped around her arm, pulling her to her feet despite her slight jump at the sensation of being so suddenly touched. The hand’s partner presented the offending shoe to her, it having abandoned her foot in the hold of the crevices of the street. Taking the shining black leather of her shoe, Jenny looked up with an expectant and slight smile, expecting to find Vincent as opposed to the strange man whose milky eyes were slightly obscured by a thick frame of unkempt blonde hair.
“I believe you dropped that. You looked like you needed some help. Are you lost, honey?” his puffy lips parted into a catlike smile, his teeth beginning to take on a slight tinge of yellow with use and age as his hand tightened subtly against the bones of her arm.
“No, I’m not lost.”
“Simon,” Vincent’s strong voice came from behind her with a bark, “let my cousin go. And I suggest you vacate yourself from the area as soon as possible. Go to church, God knows you need the absolution.”
“Vincent, so good to see you,” Simon’s smile fell slightly, his hand falling from Jenny’s arm as he took a step toward the young man. “How is your father these days? Dr. Parry still in good business?”
“You’ll be needing him soon enough if you don’t leave. Now,” the seventeen-year-old growled and Jenny looked at her cousin in surprise, her tears and holes in her stockings and knees suddenly forgotten. It was unlike Vincent to behave this way.
“Now now Vincent, what has become of that absolution you speak of? My only crime is in saving your charming young cousin here. I’ll be on my way then. Enjoy your day young lady.” He smiled his strange smile and brushed his hair from his eyes to toss Jenny a wink. She returned the smile hesitantly, feeling Vincent’s displeasure with the small action as Simon turned away in satisfaction.
“Come on Gem,” he commanded with a sigh, bending down to help her back into her shoe before pulling her to the entrance of the looming frame of the opera house. “Is your knee alright?”
She nodded despite the slight twinge of pain that shocked her body with each step. “Vincent, who was that?”
“Someone you should never talk to again, Gem. He’s a bad man. I want you to stay away from him, alright?”
“But Vincent, why?” her cousin sighed in frustration and looked down at her with indecision in his eyes, entirely uncertain and unwilling to explain to an eight-year-old girl the harsh reality of a world filled with criminals and rapists and just about anything vile she could possibly imagine. All existing in a microcosm within her very own home town. He couldn’t bring himself to break her innocence that way. Not looking into those soft and inquisitive brown eyes.
“Just promise me you’ll do as I say, Gem. And never leave the house without me, Aunt Anne, or Uncle Peter. OK?” she nodded once in confused acquiescence with a slight bob of her curls and Vincent breathed a sigh of relief. At least that could be avoided for another day. Hopefully for several more years to come so she would be able to preserve her precious innocence for as long as humanly possible.
Creeping into the back of the large theater, the cousins sat down and watched actors file on stage, taking their positions to convey Harriet E. Monroe’s “The Scottish Reformation”, the single most exciting event to rock the foundation of the small town’s social life in what seemed to be years. She twitched in admiration and smiled widely at their beautiful voices which had been born on the frost of the January air circulating around them through the draft of an open window. All forms of an exit would of course be sealed on opening night to prevent such distractions, but for now the breeze was lovely. It spoke of hope and freedom to the wide eyed girl in the stained white dress, though most importantly, it spoke to her of her future. She longed to one day have a leading part in this very theater. She had been cast by her church as a member of the chorus of course, and thrilling as that was, it simply did not live up to the aspirations of a young girl whose future was so bright and expansive. After all, why should she settle? One day, she was going to be a great star of this theater, and travel the world to bring theater and art to the masses. Of that she was entirely determined.
January 13th, 1908:
Jenny sat outside in the garden, kicking small piles of snow where they lay melting beneath the soft sun. The slush fell into her boots and glued her feet to the leather of her shoes, leaving her skin itchy and uncomfortable within their tight constriction. Today was her big day and she could feel the wings of hundreds of baby butterflies press against her stomach, apparently finding the light through her mouth as small clouds of fog rolled from between her lips as her heart would occasionally leap. It was only a matter of hours now, and soon she would have her moment to show the entirety of Boyertown that she was as eternal as a burning star.
A shuffle in the bushes near the gate startled her, pulling her from her daydreams of stardom and admiration as the unmistakably shaggy hair of Simon appeared from over the hedge. He smiled at her widely before walking around the tall shrub, leaning against the wooden gait with his chin perched in his folded arms, watching her in silence.
“Um…hello,” Jenny said hesitantly, forcing a small smile onto her lips in an effort to be polite. She had seen Simon around often since that fateful day she had been punished for her sin of idleness in missing Sunday morning mass, his strange blue-white eyes always watching her with a strange hunger. She knew that Vincent had warned her about this man, but it wasn’t her fault he had so many errands near the theater and the school. There was no harm in simply being polite to the man, no matter how strange he appeared to be.
“Hello Jenny. I heard you’re going to be in the show at the opera house this afternoon. That must be exciting.”
“It is sir.”
“Please, call me Simon. Jenny, I consider us friends after all, and what are friends with the constant use of formalities. That doesn’t sound very friendly to you now does it?”
“No…Simon…it doesn’t.” her skin began to twitch in uneasiness, crawling toward the safety of her mother’s arms inside. He smiled and leaned in further over the gate, causing her heart to flutter nervously like a small bird fighting to take flight. But she couldn’t leave an adult while he was addressing her. She couldn’t possibly be so unforgivably rude.
“What do you say we go for a walk, Jenny? As friends. I’ll take you for a drive in my new automobile, and we can have some tea and cookies before the show. I’ll even drive you to the theater. Doesn’t that sound relaxing?”
“Simon, I don’t think I should be going anywhere without my parents or Vincent.” She began to back toward her stoop, feeling as if he was attempting to corner her with his eyes, his presence looming upon her though he never moved from his place against the gate.
“But Jenny, I’m a responsible adult. You would be entirely safe with me, there’s nothing for your family to object to.”
“My cousin told me to stay away from you! He said you’re a bad, bad man and now I believe him!” she panicked and turned abruptly in a rush of skirts, scrambling up the steps of her stoop and into the shelter of her home, slamming the door behind her as she felt her small heart hammer into her ribcage in fear. She stood there alone for several minutes in a trance, waiting for her parents to find her still clinging to the knob, fighting to convince herself that she hadn’t heard him open the gate latch behind her.
Peeking out from behind the darkness of the curtain, she could see her family lined in a neat row across the front of the theater, catching the approving smiles of her parents as well as the subtle wink from her cousin. She bounced on her heels in the darkness nervously, filled with excitement as she prepared to make her debut on the stage as a young and gifted actress. Jenny turned toward the wing in anticipation of her cue, watching the curtains furl and unfurl slightly with the movement of the actors on the stage. As if they too were living and breathing performers.
A hushed whisper called her forward into the spotlights and she proudly stepped forward into the kerosene lit theater, gazing out into the audience with a smile she simply could not push from her young face. It was then that she saw him. He waved at her from across the room, his smile widening as he leered at her, milky eyes a darker blue in the dimness of the theater. It was Simon. Her heartstrings clenched in fear, forcing her to stumble slightly in the now blinding light, the deafening sound of a loud pop temporarily disconnecting her senses.
The people around her began to panic, swarms of them knocking into one another, as they sprang from their seats, fearing an invisible fire. Jenny ran forward in an attempt to find her parents through the hoards of the panicked, her foot connecting with a lamp which set the stage aflame.
The world dissolved into chaos in that instant, people screaming as men shoved their way into the aisles, leaving women and children to the mercy of the inferno as they began to crowd against the exit doors, pulling against them in a futile effort to open them against the weight of hundreds. They only opened inward. Jenny looked frantically around her, tears induced by panic falling from her eyes as she fought to find a way off the stage, looking for her parents frantically.
“Mommy! Daddy!” she was screaming against the roar of screams as the first wave of innocents met their demise, others coughing furiously as they fought to climb to the windows . The pounding of flesh against doors and shrieking voices for help as men beat women back into the aisles, their children too afraid to do anything but cling to their mother’s skirts sent a lightning strike of hopeless fear into her soul. Was this to be her punishment for sinning? Would things have been different if she had only gone to mass that Sunday morning? “Mommy!”
A tall looming figure sprinted through the inferno on stage, knocking headlong into her and sending them both stumbling to the hard pine with its force. Her head throbbed , the inside of her throat and lungs being coated with a film of ash and smoke as she fought to remain conscious. To her surprise, the heavy weight which sagged against her was none other than Simon, the man she had feared more than anything up until this moment. Now her only fears were that of death and fire.
“Simon! Please, help me!” he pushed up off of her and shook his head quickly, shoving her back down to the floorboards of the stage as she began to scramble to her feet.
“Sorry honey," He took off once again, leaving her stunned as he disappeared in search of the next possible exit.
“Help me! Help me!” she screamed after him. He did not falter in his step. The sounds of screaming had begun to die out, the majority of her friends and neighbors having been lost to the engulfment of flame. She had killed them all.
Her vision began to blur, feeling the heat of flame creep closer to her at an unfathomable speed as her head hit the stage with a thud. She curled in around herself and felt the last drops of tears slip from her eyes, her final thoughts a prayer, her final words a muttered plea for the comfort of her mother’s embrace.