“Mom, you know how you love me?”
Abby smirked, not even bothering to look up from the stove when Clarke entered the kitchen. “I had a great day too, sweetie, thanks for asking.”
Clarke pecked her mother on the cheek. “Oh, nice. Stew. But you didn’t answer my question.”
“I remember something to the general effect of loving you, yes. Why do you ask?”
“Well, I had an idea for something fun that we could do together, but I want you to promise to actually think about it.”
Abby glanced up at Clarke, raising her eyebrows. “Will I regret it?” Her daughter said nothing, and Abby sighed. “I promise.”
“Remember how Bell’s been working for Wells’s dad at the theater?”
Clarke hopped onto the patch of counter nearest to her mother. “He’s going to be stage manager for the theater’s next play, and Mr. Jaha’s probably going to let him try his hand at directing too. Auditions are next Saturday.”
Abby huffed. “Please tell me you’re kidding.”
“I haven’t even told you what the play is.”
Several moments of silence passed between them as Abby stirred the stew once more. Then she cut off the gas and looked up at Clarke. “What’s the play.” Her tone was dry, and it was a statement, not a question.
“Much Ado About Nothing.” Clarke’s lips quirked up. “And a little birdy told me that if you’re up for it, you’re a shoe-in to play Beatrice.”
Abby opened her mouth and closed it again, numerous times, before: “Oh, fine. I’ll think about it.”
Clarke’s smile grew wider.
Over the course of the next week, Clarke and Abby spent their evenings immersing themselves in the world of Much Ado About Nothing. When Clarke was younger, Abby had introduced her to the play through the Kenneth Branagh film, and Clarke had seen numerous other productions and read the play in the years since. For her part, Abby had read the play more times than she could count.
Neither of them, however, had approached the work from such a practical lens. Clarke was planning to audition to play Hero, and although she had plenty of thoughts about the character as a contrast to Beatrice, she now had to devote energy into figuring out how that would manifest in a performance. She and Abby had countless discussions about Hero’s agency and about how they could glean further information about her character through her relationships with Claudio and Beatrice.
“Bellamy’s told me that he’s determined to find a Claudio who doesn’t make the role wimpy,” Clarke told her mother one evening as they discussed the wedding scene at the beginning of Act 4.
“Good boy,” Abby murmured. She squinted at a line in the text and processed it before pulling a pen out of her ponytail, underlining some words, and scrawling a thought in the margins. “I wouldn’t have done it if Claudio weren’t played as an absolute asshole.”
Clarke chuckled to herself, quietly enjoying the fact that her mother had gone from resisting the play to making assertions about each minuscule detail of its production. “Careful, Mom, you can’t exactly walk into your audition wielding a list of demands.”
“Right, my audition. Speaking of, have you asked Bellamy about the direction they’re thinking of taking Benedick? I want to know what to expect on Saturday. Of course I understand them wanting us to read together but… what’s the point of being well-connected if I can’t have a few helpful hints about what to expect?”
If Abby were looking up, she would have gotten a glimpse at the hesitation on Clarke’s face, and she might have asked about Clarke’s frown. But Abby was not looking up.
“They’re still undecided.”
The audition was a class reunion of sorts. Like Clarke, many of the younger folks auditioning were Bellamy’s age, students who’d come home from college for the summer and been bribed in various ways to try out for his directorial debut. Clarke left Abby’s side almost immediately to catch up with Raven Reyes when she caught sight of her.
So much for using the play as an opportunity to spend more time together. Abby chuckled and shook her head, taking in the theater for a few moments before spotting Thelonious Jaha chatting with Jacapo Sinclair. She wove her way through seats to reach them. “Hey Sinclair. I didn’t know you’d been roped into this.”
He grinned. “Abby, hey. Yeah, Bellamy stopped by the school earlier this week claiming that he just wanted to visit his favorite teacher… and then he happened to slip in that I would make a stellar Don Pedro.”
“I love you for Don Pedro!” Abby exclaimed, beaming at him. “Although you’re making me wonder whether there are any parts that anyone is even actually auditioning for. It sounds like Bellamy already has the whole cast in his mind.”
Thelonious laughed good-naturedly and glanced back at the stage, where Bellamy was discussing something about the lights with John Murphy. “He practically does. I was initially thinking of doing Much Ado as the winter play, but Bellamy insisted that I hold off until summer, and I’m beginning to understand why. It seems that he’s been daydreaming about this production for some time.”
“Yet he still hasn’t decided who he wants for Benedick?”
“What?” Thelonious frowned almost imperceptibly. “Did Clarke not tell you? Beatrice and Benedick were the first characters Bellamy made up his mind about. He just wanted to make sure that you two had a good energy.”
Abby scoffed and raised her eyebrows. That would explain a lot—it had felt as though Clarke was keeping something from her. But why shouldn’t she know that there was a potential Benedick in place? “It must have slipped her mind. Why? Who’s going to be my Benedick?”
Thelonious was about to speak when he caught sight of someone behind Abby. He grinned, waving them over. “Speak of the devil. Hi Marcus. I thought you said you were going to be late.”
Sinclair also shifted to look at the new arrival, but Abby found herself frozen on the spot.
“I thought I would be, but my mom and I ended up getting an early brunch, so I was able to leave earlier. Hey Jac.” Marcus arrived at Abby’s side and looked between them all, his eyes landing on Abby last and lingering for just a millisecond before he looked down at his shoes. “Abby, good to see you. It’s been a while.”
“Yeah, it has,” she agreed, looking in the space between Sinclair and Marcus’s arms, toward a spot on the wall.
Abby said nothing for about thirty seconds while the three men discussed the plan for the evening. She hardly heard a word; she was too busy counting in her head.
Thirty-six. Thirty-seven. Thirty-eight. Thirty-nine. Forty. Forty-one.
“I’m sorry, I just remembered that I had a question for Clarke. I’m going to go find her. We’ll… talk later,” she trailed off, not looking at Marcus as she nodded goodbye to them all.
Clarke was still chatting with Raven in front of the stage. Abby had to work very hard not to storm over to her daughter, and when she said, “I’m sorry, Raven, would you might if I pulled my daughter away for a second?” any onlooker would have thought that nothing was amiss.
But Clarke only had to glance behind her mother’s shoulder to know what they would be discussing.
Abby and Clarke moved over to the nearest corner. Clarke dropped onto the floor, and after a moment’s consideration, Abby joined her. This was for the best, perhaps. Maybe this conversation would feel less confrontational if they were both criss-cross applesauce on the floor of Thelonious’s theater.
“You would have said no,” Clarke said before Abby could say anything.
“We don’t know that.” Not true. Abby knew that Clarke was probably right. But she still didn’t like being misled by her daughter.
“Chances were high,” Clarke amended, and this was accurate enough that Abby didn’t bother to dispute it. “I hated keeping it from you, Mom, but I just… I knew you’d love playing Beatrice. And I figured that if you had a chance to get excited over the role, you wouldn’t be as likely to refuse once you found out.”
Abby let out a long breath. She leaned her head against the wall and surveyed the theater, trying to pretend that she didn’t catch the way Marcus abruptly looked away from her and Clarke’s corner as she skimmed her eyes past him.
“He’ll probably be a great Benedick,” Abby muttered.
Clarke smiled tentatively. “Bell knew that you’d think so. Also, just so you know, I wasn’t… quite sure what to tell him when I said that you might need some time to warm up to the idea. Last time he saw Marcus was at my graduation party, so he didn’t…” She trailed off, but Abby could fill in the blank.
He didn’t know that Abby and Marcus were no longer friends.
And Clarke had never asked for a full explanation about why, so Abby could imagine that to everyone else in town, it was probably quite confusing.
Some moments of silence passed between them. Clarke wasn’t trying to provoke an answer out of her mother, but Abby didn’t know quite how to clear the air, either. Thank Clarke for performing damage control yet again? Apologize for being difficult?
The best approach, she concluded, was to brush past it. “You’re cooking dinner tonight.”
“I was expecting something like that.”
Abby chuckled and pulled Clarke closer, kissing the crown of her head.
Bellamy and Thelonious began the audition process soon after. It was rather informal—it became increasingly clear to Abby, as various actors were called to the stage, that Bellamy truly had little question in his mind about any of the roles. Very few characters had more than one person vying for the part. This was partially the product of a small-town community theater acting pool, but there was no question in Abby’s mind that more people would have come out for the big roles if Bellamy truly wanted to open it up to auditions.
She looked on proudly as Clarke got up on stage and read across Nathan Miller, whom Bellamy had selected to play Claudio. It had been years since Abby last saw Nathan—he and Clarke had always been friendly, but not close, so Abby only really saw him when she and Jake attended dinner parties at the Millers’. But after Jake…
Well. She hadn’t been by the Millers’ in quite some time.
Nathan had grown up well, though. He looked handsome and sweet enough to give off an appropriately gentle energy for Claudio’s initial scenes, but as he shouted and Clarke feigned sobs through the first scene of Act 4, Abby smiled and nodded to herself.
“Bellamy sure knows what he’s doing.”
The low whisper made Abby jump slightly in her seat, and even though she recognized the voice immediately, she glanced back at Marcus in feigned surprise. He was sitting in the row behind her, leaning forward and resting his arms on the back of a nearby chair.
“Yes. He clearly knows the play well,” she murmured.
“I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts on Beatrice,” Marcus said carefully. “I remember you liking Much Ado, but I don’t think we ever really discussed it. We always spent more time on—”
“The tragedies. Yes, I know,” Abby finished the sentence for him, and her tone was sharper than she intended, but she was reluctant to apologize. Still, she tried to sound gentler as she said, “I definitely have some strong opinions about it.”
Marcus hummed. “Color me shocked.”
She twisted to look at him. His eyes were on the stage, not on Abby, but she saw a little upturn to his lips that confirmed that he was teasing her.
A twinge in her gut reminded her that it had been some time since she saw that little hidden smile. She tried to picture the last time, and her brain immediately summoned an image of Marcus and Jake chuckling together as Abby griped that it was too late to be driving through a residential neighborhood blasting the punk radio station.
“Abby, Marcus, can we have you next?”
She cleared her throat and rose to her feet abruptly. “Yes.”
Bellamy had not told Abby which scene he’d want them to read together; according to Clarke, he’d still been undecided as recently as the day before. So she’d looked over both Beatrice and Benedick’s reunion at the beginning of the play and their declaration of love in the wake of Hero’s shaming.
Now, she found herself emphatically praying that they would not have to read the latter scene. She could play Beatrice across from Marcus’s Benedick, but she’d like a bit more time to process this before she would feel comfortable showing any outward signs of affection for him.
“Let’s start at the beginning, I think,” Bellamy said lightly. “The exchange in the first scene. Marcus, go ahead and start with, ‘If Signor Leonato.’ Whenever you’re ready.”
Marcus nodded. He blinked down at his copy of the play for a few moments, rolling his neck and shoulders. Then, as though he was calling after someone, he mused, “If Signor Leonato be her father, she would not have his head on her shoulders for all Messina, as like him as she is.”
Abby was going to try to suppress the smirk threatening to spread across her features, but she realized that it would be perfectly appropriate for the moment, so she played it up more by rolling her eyes. “I wonder that you will still be talking, Signor Benedick. Nobody marks you.”
“What, my dear Lady Disdain!” Marcus leaned back, looking her up and down and crossing his arms. He was smiling in much the same way he had before, but it didn’t feel playful anymore—it seemed just slightly derisive. “Are you yet living?”
“Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signor Benedick?” Abby gestured to Marcus as she spoke to emphasize her point. “Courtesy itself must convert to disdain if you come in her presence.”
Marcus scoffed loudly. Or at least, it would probably sound like he was scoffing to anyone in the audience, but Abby could see in his eyes that he was much closer to laughing. “Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies… only you excepted,” he mumbled this as an amendment of sorts, delivered with a hint of a frown. “And I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart, for truly, I love none.”
Abby jolted at the sound of Bellamy’s voice echoing through the theater. As simultaneously cliché and frustrating as she found it, she had quite literally forgotten that anyone else was there. She longed to finish the scene, at least, to see how his Benedick would react to her Beatrice’s assertion of, “I know you of old…”
“That’s… that’s all you want?” Marcus asked, a bit incredulous, and Abby couldn’t blame him; everyone else had read through at least a couple dozen lines.
Bellamy chuckled and gave them both a shrug. “It was exactly what I expected. We can talk about some of the nuances of your delivery once we get into rehearsals, but for now, I’m happy.”
Abby felt very self-conscious as she left the stage and returned to her seat. Clarke was waiting there, scrutinizing Abby with her arms crossed. To Marcus, though, she cast a smile. “Bell knows what he’s talking about,” she said. “You’re perfect for Benedick.”
“Thank you, Clarke. You’ll be a lovely Hero.”
Clarke nodded, but her eyes had returned to Abby. “Both of us are done. Can we go home?”
Abby bit the inside of her cheek; she found herself feeling nervous for seemingly no reason. “Mhm.”
Clarke held her tongue until she was preparing dinner back at home. Abby mused that it was likely so Clarke could hold their food hostage if she felt like her mother was being evasive.
“Did you date him while I was at school?”
Abby considered playing dumb. Then her stomach growled and she decided against it. “No, I didn’t date him.”
Clarke stopped chopping vegetables so that she could lean against the counter and look at Abby. “So why was there a vibe?”
There were a million things Abby could say. Most notable among them was that she could point out that both she and Marcus probably knew that scene like the back of their hands. Which was true. They both knew the tension that needed to linger beneath that interaction, and to some degree, they were putting on a show.
And she was about to say it, but when she opened her mouth, she blurted: “Today was the first time I’ve spoken with Marcus in over a year.”
Clarke’s jaw dropped just slightly. She had always assumed that her mother and Marcus’s newfound distance meant no longer calling each other on the phone, going for coffee, grabbing dinner… She couldn’t imagine her mother and one of her father’s best friends going total radio silence. It made her more curious about what had happened between the two adults, although she did not express this curiosity.
“Was it really?”
Abby nodded. “So I suppose that tense reunion… I suppose it felt pretty real.”
Clarke hummed low and returned to her vegetables. She seemed genuinely sympathetic, for which Abby was appreciative.
They remained in a comfortable silence for some time, Abby skimming the newspaper while Clarke cooked. Clarke had a CD playing in the other room, and both she and Abby hummed along absent-mindedly when a song came on that they both knew.