A Queen’s Robes

Kristen could do things with a thread that professional designers and dressmakers could only see in their minds. She could make a movie star of a peasant or a pauper of a king. In fact, she had done so on several occasions. This semester it was The Wizard of Oz. Making Lindsay look like Judy Garland was a breeze. Turning Matt into the Tin Man was a small challenge. Convincing the audience that Liam was the scarecrow without a brain she couldn’t really take credit for. He was born for the role. She just dolled him up a bit to make it seem like he was acting.

A prodigy, they said. Unparalleled for her age. They being her friends and a handful of teachers she never would have guessed actually resented her talent because it surpassed every dream they had given up on long ago. There were a few who said it with genuine sincerity.

Her parents were proud, but they could only see her art as a hobby and encouraged her to graduate and go to college to study a “real” profession. A job that would pull in a steady income while dulling her vivid imagination she could bring into reality. They always suggested accounting. She hated numbers, but she still worked hard for each A she received in her math courses.

After school, she would go to the theater, walk past the rows of empty seats, and into the dressing rooms. These rooms were the final stage for her. She cherished helping her garments onto the actors who would flaunt them across the stage. She felt comfortable among her costumes and those made by previous students. She felt at home in the small room beside the dressing rooms where two sewing machines occupied a coffee table and fabrics were haphazardly organized in a trash bin in the corner. Spools of thread where tucked in the tiny drawers of an old card catalog. Everything in the room was repurposed or donated or picked up off the street through the years. The few friends she considered close called the stage a second home. This cramped room behind it was her first.

There would only be one more production before she graduated next semester. It hadn’t been officially announced but rumors hinted it would be A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Kristen was thrilled and broke her one, self-imposed rule by sketching costumes before the rumors were confirmed. She placated herself with Titania and the excuse that this may be her last chance to prove what she could do before heading to college.

She hoped to make Puck and Oberon the most realistic fairies to grace the stage. Her sketches were nearly finished when it was finally announced. The rumors were true. A giddiness filled her blood and danced through her chest. She was always excited at the start of a new project, but this time was different. She knew her best work was before her. She had already started Titania’s robes knowing how long it would take to make them perfect. Over the winter break, she shut herself in her room and only allowed herself out to get more material or when her mom forced her to put the needle down.

School started back up and she worked on each costume in turn the few hours after school. She kept Titania’s robes at home. They would be her greatest achievement. They would be what convinced her parents she was talented enough to pursue a career she loved. She was convinced that this would be the start of that career. Whatever doubts she once had disappeared with each seam. The robes became her armor.

The other students already approached her with held breath. They knew she could make them whatever they wished they could be, and they all were amazed as each costume was revealed. All of her friends believed her work on Puck or Hippolyta were the best ever seen in the history of the school. They even liked them better than those in the recent movie adaptation.

“And that was with a million-dollar budget,” Sarah said.

Kristen wanted to show them Titania’s robes in that moment but knew she was a long way away from finishing them. The first few months of the year sped by and she finished every costume except Titania’s. When she didn’t have them done by the start of March, everyone in the play became interested. They all believed she had forgotten at first. Her unintentional mystery began rumors when she started rushing home after school. Casting had been completed and she would sometimes stay long enough to make minor alterations or fix any tears her classmates somehow already made to the finished costumes.

She had just repaired Puck’s costume for the third time and slipped out the side door when she heard her name.

“Kristen.”

She turned to see Jessica leaning against the brick building. A cigarette burning in her hand.

“Hey Jessica.”

“How are you? I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages,” Jessica said.

“I’m good. I’ve been around.” She knew what Jessica really wanted and tried to cut the conversation short. “If you’re wondering about the costume, I’ll have it ready before the show next Thursday.”

“Oh yeah. I was wondering if you’d finished it. I bet it looks incredible after seeing what Matt was wearing. Isn’t he the fairy king?” She took a drag from the cigarette and blew the smoke into the sky where it sat like a heavy cloud. “So it won’t be ready by Tuesday?”

“No. I’m sorry. I still have a lot of work to do on it.”

“We do have the full-dress rehearsal Tuesday.”

“I know. I just need a little more time, but I’ll have it done. Just wear Glinda’s dress from last semester. It will have similar dimensions. A little thinner, but similar enough for you to get the feel of it.”

“I’m not sure Mr. Williamson will like that I’m the only one not in costume. It’d be nice to wear the dress before the ball, you know what I mean? To know that it fits?”

“Glinda’s dress will work for rehearsal. Trust me. I can explain it to Mr. Williamson if you want.”

Jessica gave her an exaggerated sad face.

Kristen smiled as best she could. “I’ll try to finish it this weekend.”

“Really? That would be amazing. Thank you so much.”

Jessica put out the cigarette against the brick wall and flicked the stub into the bushes. She gave Kristen a wink before disappearing through the door back into the theater. Kristen bolted home. She hadn’t promised anything. She only said she’d try.

The weekend passed without a single stitch. Her parents surprised her with a trip out of state to visit college campuses. She dutifully toured each one. They were beautiful and she liked them each as much as she could, but every time she mentioned the theater department, her parents would divert the conversation to job placement programs.

“Ninety-three percent, that’s incredible,” her dad said.

Her thoughts kept returning to Titania as her parents spoke with the tour guides.

Kristen successfully avoided Jessica all day Monday. She was almost as successful on Tuesday until she went to the restroom during fourth period. Jessica was standing by the open window finishing a cigarette. Raindrops pattered against the glass and dripped onto the ceramic floor.

“Kristen! I was just thinking about you. Did you have a good weekend? A productive one I hope.”

“Not as much I would’ve liked,” she admitted, “My parents took me to tour a few colleges.”

“Oh really? Have you figured out where you’re going? I bet it’s somewhere with a really cool theater program.”

“Not exactly.”

Jessica frowned. “You don’t want to make costumes? You’re so good at it. I thought for sure you’d work in movies or move to Paris and be the next big thing.”

“I do. At least the movies thing. It’s just…”

“Speaking of which, is my costume finished…sorry, I mean Titania’s dress? Everyone’s dying to see it. Me most of all.”

Kristen glanced away from her fake smile. Jessica wasn’t gifted with much talent for the stage.

“Not quite,” she said.

“Will it be ready tomorrow?”

“I’ll try my best.” Kristen offered her own fake smile.

“I know you will. Thanks.” Jessica tossed the cigarette out the window and closed it. She was almost to the door when she turned back to Kristen. “Hey, Kris?”

“Yeah?” She bit her tongue, hating herself for answering to a nickname.

“Would you mind, you know, not saying anything about my little habit?” She imitated holding a cigarette. “I don’t think they’d let me on stage if they found out I broke some dumb rule.”

Kristen pulled the fake smile back on and nodded. “Sure.”

“You’re the best.” The words were deadened as the door closed behind her.

Kristen went home right after class and worked on the robes. She skipped dinner and worked late into the night using a flashlight in her closet so her parents wouldn’t catch her. She was nearly eighteen but rules were rules as far as her father was concerned. The sun was rising when she finished the last adornment. Her tired eyes weren’t able to appreciate them fully, but she knew this was the best work she’d ever done.

She freshened up and changed her clothes. She hoped her mom didn’t notice how tired she looked. She made it to school on time and through her first few classes. The classes dragged by. Her sense of time slowed by the lack of sleep. She accidentally nodded off during fifth period. She thanked the stars Mrs. Barnhardt was nice and pretended not to notice.

Rehearsal was right after classes. Before the evening rehearsal, she made a few last-minute alterations after Jessica tried them on. She followed Jessica out onto the stage to see her work in motion. Everyone was captivated. Jessica devoured all the attention given to the dress, but became irritated when everyone praised Kristen for her work. Kristen had poured herself into the robes despite Titania’s minimal part in the play. She believed Titania was the most important character.

Opening night came and Kristen sat in the back with strangers to watch all of her creations dance on the stage. She tried convincing her parents to come. They said they would try to make it after her younger brother’s soccer game. When Titania made her appearance, Kristen forgot about everything else. The fairies dancing on stage, each made by her hand as well, were merely shades. Even Jessica couldn’t blemish her fairy queen. She was lost in the moment. She almost didn’t notice the crowd was similarly captivated. The only tell was the quiet. Jessica absorbed the admiration she believed was for herself and butchered two lines before taking the dress offstage with her. Kristen couldn’t stop smiling. She almost couldn’t believe what she saw was the product of her own hands with their bandaged fingers.

The next day she overheard a few rumors floating about the school regarding the play. The students who attended the first show had been telling all their friends. She couldn’t help but smile when a group of girls were discussing the costumes in an envious tone. Several girls from her class asked if she would make their prom dresses. She disappointed them explaining how much time she spent making Titania’s robes.

Evening came and she mended any damaged costumes. Liam, now playing Mustardseed, had somehow torn a hole through his right leg while prancing off the stage. Puck needed minor adjustments. The ivy was hard to keep attached and even. Sarah had spilled something and stained Hermia’s dress. Kristen tried getting the spots out but ultimately cut the section away and hemmed the area to align with a natural crease.

Kristen sat backstage during the second production. The theater was filled with more students than the night before. Several parents were there for a second time. Her parents promised to see the play on Saturday on account that her mom had to work late.

Saturday came and Kristen again repaired several costumes that were obviously worn more than just onstage. She could sense the hesitation from several friends.

“And what happened here?” she said with mock reproach.

“Well, I wore it home, and…”

“I’m joking. This will only take a second.”

She walked through the dressing room as everyone was getting ready. She wanted to make sure every one of her creations were perfect. She made small talk as she turned each actor around. No one dared interrupt her and each stood rigid under her scrutiny. She tried putting them each at ease with a joke about how the costume will probably be thrown away by this time next year, but they all reassured her it would be crazy to do so and these costumes will remain in the school for a hundred years. She thanked them for the kind words but she knew better.

Jessica arrived only fifteen minutes before the curtain. She walked in already dressed for the show. Kristen examined her robes and found a small hole in the right sleeve. The material was burned through. Kristen’s stomach twisted and she thought she could be sick. She opened her repair kit and held Jessica’s arm.

“What are you doing?” Jessica asked, recoiling to escape the needle as if it were laced with poison.

“I’m going to fix this hole.”

Jessica looked down her arm at the hole. “Well, would you look at that.”

Kristen grabbed her arm again but Jessica pulled away.

“Kristen, it’s fine. No one is going to see it.” She walked off before Kristen could respond. Everyone made their way toward the stage and Kristen, with nothing left she could do, made her way to her seat.

She sat down before the lights dimmed. She was fighting back tears imagining what else may have happened to Titania’s robes. She could see Jessica, cigarette in hand, leaning against the brick wall. The back of the robes catching on the rough surface. Fraying the top layer of fabric as she moved and eventually pulled away. Ash falling onto the sleeve still hot enough to burn, and Jessica brushing the ember away without a care in the world.

All she could look at when Jessica took the stage was the right sleeve. She couldn’t see the hole from her seat and knew no one else would see it, but she knew it was there and had to put a hand over her mouth to hold back a sob. She was glad the seats next to her were empty.

The show ended with a standing ovation. Everyone came out and talked with the audience, accepting praise, mingling and having a good time as was custom after the final show. Kristen tried keeping to herself but every so often someone would come up with their parents and tell them how Kristen had made their costume. They were all proud of her. She accepted their compliments but would turn the attention back to whoever was in costume except for Liam who had ripped a hole through his left leg this time. She knew the parents who attended were proud of their children because they were there, supporting them.

The theater gradually emptied. Kristen made her way into the dressing room as Dana was heading out the door calling after everyone to wait for her. She caught sight of Kristen and paused.

“Hey Kristen, you coming? We can give you a ride.”

“Thanks. I’m going to clean up a bit. I’ll catch up later,” she lied.

The cast always went out after the final show. It was another tradition that eventually turned from dinner into a party. She never went despite almost always getting that last-minute invite. She had her own ritual. The room was littered with her costumes strung about on chairs or left on the floor. Cast off like the second skin they were. Discarded on the way out the door. Some had been hastily hung up. A few were actually given a few seconds of consideration.

By the door, heaped in a pile, were Titania’s robes. She picked them up and laid them across a chair. It seemed Jessica started the party after her last line. A dark stain was settling into the fabric near the waist. It was still wet and Kristen could smell faint hints of vodka in the air. Ash was smeared across the right thigh. The grey contrasting the brilliant colors of the robes. She looked upon the desecration of her greatest achievement and found she could no longer fight back the tears. They poured forth in sobs. She sank to the floor and let the shaking take over.

Twenty minutes passed before she was able to calm herself. She caught her breath and stood looking over all of her hard work as it was casually forgotten. She picked up each costume and hung them on the rack. Placing them among all the others from the past several years. She avoided Titania’s robes until the others were all put away.

She picked them up and held them. She couldn’t bring herself to put them away. To leave them behind. She laid them across a chair and began undressing. She slipped herself into the robes with minimal effort. She had made the alterations to fit Jessica, but she had used her own dimensions when she first began working on them. She always intended them to fit even when knowing she would never be seen wearing them.

She looked at herself in the mirror. Her eyes still swollen and red. She sniffed and wiped her nose on the ruined sleeve, then stood straight and tall in the full glory of herself as Titania. This was her center stage. This was the realm she ruled over. She felt like a queen and a fool all in one. Pride swelled in her chest and a smile emerged as new tears fell down her flushed cheeks.

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