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by Jason Nemrow last modified 2018-03-29 15:42

"Wake up, sleepyhead!"

She was a little annoyed at Jennifer for waking her at the crack of dawn, but she always did, so there was little to complain about. If Rachel hadn't solved the problem by this time, there was no point in trying now. As she brought herself upright, she noticed another creak in her knee that she had not heard before, but she simply added it to the list of things that her body seemed to be complaining about. She took in a deep breath of the autumn air and let it out slowly, arching her back as she did so, and letting a variety of cracks and creaks noise themselves.

"How are you feeling?" The woman in the wheelchair beamed, almost giddy with some unexplained excitement.

"Oh, I don't know," Rachel replied. "How about a day older?"

Jennifer bit her lip excitedly and could barely hold still. "Actually, you should feel a whole year older!" From behind her back, the woman produced a tiny wrapped box, complete with a bow. "Happy Birthday!"

Rachel let out a sigh and slowly took the gift, She offered a little smile, but it didn't look very convincing. She was not looking forward to this. "Thank you," she said, a little sourly.

"Wow!" Jennifer exclaimed. "Sixty years! How does it feel?"

Rachel grimaced as she moved herself from the bed to her rocking chair. "It is kind of a pain," she replied, putting a supporting hand on her left lower back. "Right here, if you really want to know."

The younger woman just waved Rachel's lack of enthusiasm off, for she had enough joy for them both. "It is going to be a wonderful day!"

The old woman settled back into her chair and took another large breath. "I was actually hoping for a bit of a quiet day."

"Oh, you really don't mean that!" Jennifer was so jumpy with anticipation that she might have actually leapt out of her chair that morning. "I've got a special breakfast cooking, so you had better get cracking! You slept in a little late and the children will be coming in just a few hours."

Rachel sighed again and nodded slowly. "I'll have to give all of this up eventually, you know."

Jennifer cocked her head and thought about that for a moment. "Perhaps so," she observed, "but you aren't going to give it up today!" She winked at her old friend and wheeled herself out of the room.

After a hot shower and an excellent breakfast of all her favorites, Rachel was in far better spirits to face the day. She swept up the studio and began her stretching exercises, working out every stiff joint. It seemed to her that stretching was taken a lot longer these days, even somewhat longer than they had last month. Still, given some time, she was in excellent health and could still dance reasonably well.

Jennifer wheeled herself into the studio and watched the old woman move. Suddenly, a thought struck her. "Did you every open my gift?" Rachel allowed a sheepish look as she admitted that she hadn't and quickly went back to her bedroom to retrieve the tiny wrapped box.

Back in the studio, the old woman worked the wrapping open and then the box,. taking out what was inside. "Surprise!" the younger woman shouted.

"A key?" Rachel held it up carefully, holding it by only two fingers, as if it were dirty socks. An old skeleton key might have been nice, but this was a pretty common one, well used and a little rusty, too small for a door and probably only capable of opening a small padlock. She studied it a little, and then offered, "I don't know what to say."

Jennifer clapped her hands and wriggled in her seat. "Oh, you don't have to say anything!" Her eyes were sparkling as Rachel tried to decide what all the excitement was about. "This is going to be the best birthday ever!"

Rachel sighed loudly and nodded. "It will certainly be something..."

That day, the cooler of food on the doorstep was stuffed fuller than ever, with a small partially-thawed turkey, all the trimmings, and even a gallon of milk. Taped to the underside of the lid was the usual envelope, but it was thicker than normal. Written on the outside was a short note: 'I hope you have a very happy birthday!' As usual, it was unsigned and inside was the expected money, but this time far more than ever before. Jennifer took up counting the hundred-dollar bills when Rachel became tired and their eyes grew wider and wider. Finally, the sum was announced with excitement by the woman in the wheelchair. "Ten thousand dollars!" Rachel had always thought some generous person in the neighborhood had been giving her food and money all these years, but no one she knew could accomplish this feat! When Jennifer handed the envelope of money back to her, she held it rather nervously, feeling very undeserving.

The children arrived soon after and the day began. Rachel's schedule had never strayed over the years, and this group of children, of varying ages, probably could have gone through the entire day without Rachel's presence. The older children had been dancing under Rachel's care for five or six years, having a few bazaars under their belts, and spending a good amount of time working with the younger kids.

First off, Rachel, or one of the experienced children, would begin with a tale, hopefully one that the bulk of the children had not heard before. The older dancers would perform and the younger ones would watch with rapture, if the story were good. This day, Rachel lead the performance, which was a tale about three bears and a little girl named Goldilocks. Everyone laughed as a fourteen-year-old dancer played the role of the mischievous Goldy to perfection. Rachel stayed out of the limelight and played Momma Bear, enjoying giving the chance to shine to the younger folk. After all, she was really getting too old for the spotlight anyway.

Though it was still two months away, the children began practicing an intricate little dance that was to be performed at the next bazaar. Nine bodies whirled and floated across the floor of the studio, an older child gruffly correcting a younger one until Rachel gave him a look and he bowed his head and apologized. "When dancing the tales ceases to be a joy," the old woman said quietly, "then you know it is time to do something else for a while." The young man nodded obediently and sat down for a few minutes, properly chastened.

The old woman, who usually was in the thick of everything, stayed a little apart this day, perhaps because her birthday served to remind her that she was becoming old and wouldn't be able to dance forever. Other things came into her mind as well, bringing a tear or two, but she brushed them away and smiled as she watched her pupils press forward in their dance. There was no use, she thought to herself, in crying over things that were never meant to be.

Throughout the day, the children would take breaks and Rachel would tell them a story from the vast library of tales locked away in her mind. She moved a little slower in her advancing years, but she still captivated an audience with her vivid story-telling, punctuated by dance. The tales sometimes lasted a little longer than the attention of the youngest children, but they made the day go faster for all. Before anyone was ready, it was time to go home. The children stuffed down pieces of a birthday cake that Jennifer had prepared and began leaving, but not before the woman in the wheelchair whispered hurriedly in their ears and received hushed responses and nods in return.

After the studio was swept again, Jennifer appeared out of her room, dressed nicely. "You need to get out," she announced. "It's your birthday, after all."

Rachel reluctantly got herself ready, even though she was hoping for a quiet evening at home. She had learned long ago that it was futile to resist Jennifer's desires. The younger woman fired up her converted van, put Rachel securely in the passenger's seat, and sped away from home with purpose, seeming to operate according to some predetermined plan.

The first stop was at a very nice dress shop, where both women spent a happy hour browsing around. Rachel seemed taken with a colorful dress, not very suitable for dancing, but very fetching nevertheless. Of course, when the birthday girl saw the price tag, she reflexively put it back on the rack. Jennifer scolded her and reminded her of the massive amount of money that she had just gotten as a present, so the older woman nervously bought the dress and wore it right out of the store, feeling a little decadent.

Next, they pulled up at one of the nicest restaurants in town and had a wonderful dinner, complete with doting waiters that Rachel nearly paid off just to give the pair some peace. Jennifer seemed to be paying for this, though the older woman didn't quite know how, for she only worked for Rachel and got barely more than living expenses. "How are you affording all of this?"

Jennifer peered knowingly across her water glass, smiling slyly. "I have friends." This became terribly obvious as the pair were bid 'fare well' by the smiling owner of the restaurant, who looked awfully familiar, but Rachel could not place him in her mind.

The young woman moved the van toward home and Rachel sighed, "That was a very nice birthday evening! Thank you!"

Jennifer turned to her, as much as she could while driving, and smiled larger than Rachel had ever seen before. "It isn't over yet."

Back at home, Jennifer appeared from her room in her wheelchair again, dressed as if this were Bazaar Day. "You need to get into your theatre dress," she said flatly, struggling to remain as emotionless as possible.

"What?" The old woman squinted her eyes, trying to see a reason for this.

"Just do it," the younger woman insisted. "Oh, and don't forget your key."

Rachel stood before the mirror and looked dejectedly at herself. She was getting a little grizzled and hunched in her old age, which the fading but still beautiful pastel-colored dress made obvious. Actually, she pondered how much of a wonder it was that she still fit in it at all, seeing how her grandmother Jo had made and given it to her on her eighteenth birthday. She thought for a moment and realized that forty-two years had passed since that day, and she still desperately missed Jo and her color and life and her tales, only a small part of which Rachel was able to recall.

The dress, fitted for a young woman, was beginning to look like a flower sack on her, as Rachel's body was slowly withering away. Her daily dancing helped a great deal, but she wished she were still young and longed for a chance to live earlier days and to do it better. She cringed as she thought of Robert again, and wished she had defied her father and ran away to him, instead of accepting the life she had lived for so many years, losing so much. She could have started teaching dance so much earlier and could have provided for them both, but such 'coulds' were silly to think about, she reminded herself. She should be grateful for what she had and simply accept that you can't have everything you pray for.

Jennifer was getting impatient outside her bedroom door. "What are you doing? Getting ready for a date?"

The old woman didn't respond immediately. "Oh, it's starting to look that way." she said finally. "You aren't what I had in mind for a knight in shining armor, but I suppose you will do." Jennifer squeaked, and let a single tear fall, hoping that Rachel didn't suspect anything. She was terribly afraid one of the children had let on.

Rachel appeared at the doorway, twirled in her dress, and stopped, looking at herself and putting hands to lips. "This almost makes me feel like I am in college!"

"Good!" The younger woman brightened, but then remembered something. "Do you have your key?"

The old woman produced the rusty thing from her pocket. "I have no idea why you go on about it, but here it is."

Jennifer nodded, smiling. "Excellent. If we don't hurry, we will be late."

"Late?" Rachel repeated. "Late for what?"

The younger woman gave her trademark sly smile. "You will see."

Coats donned against the autumn night, they were back in Jennifer's van, motoring toward the middle of town. The shops, what few were still operating in the depressed downtown, were all closed and the streets were empty. This was a far cry from the city that Rachel had remembered from her childhood and it depressed her. Like herself, the crumbling inner city had only the past to look upon with fondness, and perhaps it too regretted some blunders of its own. The only lights came from ornate street-lamps and the occasional neon sign that either signaled a liquor bar, or a shopkeeper who had forgotten to turn off the lights.

The van ground to a halt before an abandoned building, windows boarded up and great carved wooden doors defaced by graffiti and bared with steel and padlocks. Rachel looked about with confusion and then looked at the woman in the driver's seat, who seemed to be having difficulty containing her emotions. "This is the place," Jennifer managed.

Rachel helped the younger woman get her wheelchair out of the van and put herself into it. Now what? the old woman wondered to herself as Jennifer wheeled up to one of the doors. "I think this is the one. Get your key."

Rachel fumbled in her pocket and produced the discolored thing, peering about her like some thief. "What are we doing?" she whispered, getting nervous.

"Just get this padlock off."

The door closed slowly and silently behind them of its own accord and the pair was momentarily in blackness. Rachel was wondering if some surprise party had been staged in this abandoned building, but when Jennifer found a light switch, the dim glow from one bare bulb illuminated only a dusty old lobby. Suddenly, Rachel knew the place, for she had visited it many times as a child. Many years ago, this had been the theatre where Beatrice and her penny-theatre troupe had performed. Jennifer looked at the old woman expectantly, hoping for a good response. The old woman looked about her, but instead of feeling happiness in the familiar place, she was depressed by how it had deteriorated over time, just like dreams and prayers, just like herself. She put on a fake smile and tried to look pleased for the woman in the wheelchair, who had obviously gone to much trouble so they could have this peek into the past. "We aren't getting into trouble being here, are we?"

Jennifer just ignored her, wheeling her chair to the doors that led to the theatre proper. "Let's get some seats."

The interior was much as she had remembered it and seemed to have aged only a little, but Rachel had little interest in it, for the theatre was filled with people, most young, and the racket of the children was getting louder as they squirmed in their seats waiting for the performance to begin. The old woman shook her head and pinched herself to see if she were dreaming.

The hall was already darkening for the show to begin, and it was all Rachel could do to keep up with Jennifer as her wheelchair coasted down the decline and they took seats on the front row. The old woman was nearly too busy looking around her with confusion to see or hear the youngish man step out into a pool of light on the stage and bow low. "Welcome to the penny theatre. Our first story is the tale of Rachel and her Knight in Shining Armor."

Rachel turned about sharply to face the stage. "What did he say?" The hall quieted as a group of eight people moved into the light, dressed in beautiful clothing, and took their places. Two woman sat on the stage and watched as the others played out a short tale, a few spinning and whirling expertly while the others moved about as best they could. "What is this?" she whispered, tugging at Jennifer's sleeve.

The woman brushed her off gently, tears in her eyes. "Just watch."

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Rachel, who had an evil father and a wonderful grandmother named Jo. On her sixth birthday, Jo and Rachel sneaked away from the father's house and went to a magical place where people danced and told old, wondrous stories. Rachel loved it so much that she prayed that night for a chance, someday, to dance on that magical stage. She also prayed that a knight would come and rescue her from her evil father. But, after that wonderful night, the evil father kept Rachel locked in his house.

Jo would come to see Rachel whenever she could and tell her stories, and even sneak her out of the father's house to go to the magical theatre. When her father learned of this, Rachel was forbidden to talk to or even see her grandmother and soon Jo died of a broken heart, leaving the girl alone. The father hoped that this would be the end of stories and magical places, which he didn't believe in, but Rachel told herself the stories now, and practiced the magic in secret, believing that one day, God would answer her prayer to dance on the magical stage. All the while, she waited patiently for her knight to come and rescue her.

The old woman began to tear as she saw her life unfold before her. She had thought the players looked familiar to her, and as the story progressed, she knew them all: these were those first children who had sat on her lawn and listened to her stories more than twenty years before. Two of the girls had gone on to dance in international ballet companies, but the rest took up other professions in life, and were obviously a bit rusty in their movements. All had come for this performance, which touched her heart.

On-stage, one of the women, obviously constrained in the role of young Rachel at home, danced and swirled as best she could in a tight spot of light, making a paper rose in her hands. With a sweep, the paper rose was gone and a living one had taken its place. The circle of light moved to the right and grew larger, the woman following and moving with larger sweeps and greater freedom. From the shadows, a man stepped, just watching the woman dance for a few minutes, and then joining her, their bodies moving together perfectly. With a spin, the girl's one rose became two and she stopped her dance just long enough to hand the new rose to the man, who portrayed Robert.

Suddenly, the stout man who played Rachel's father stepped into the light, tore the two dancers apart, and pulled the woman to the left side of the stage. The young Robert's dance began to slow and as the light on him faded, he came to a stop, head lowered, looking at the rose the woman had given him. The stout man circled the stolen woman like a vulture as she still tried to dance, but her pool of light was fading as well. The stout man tore the rose out of the woman's hand, threw onto the stage-floor and ground it to pieces with his foot. In despair, the woman gently touched the remains of the flower, as the man in the role of Rachel's father continued to circle her with menace. As he moved more quickly, the woman reached her hands toward heaven in appeal, but the light went out and the woman was frozen in the stance.

The old woman could not pull her eyes from the stage as she saw the stout man walked out of the dim light, leaving the frozen woman portraying Rachel alone. A moment later, the spot-light picked out the man playing Robert, who danced dejected across the stage, looking at his rose. With a start, he saw the woman, looking just like Betadin in the old tale, and took her hand. Falteringly, the woman began to move and, with the man, began again to dance. The man spun about and his rose became two and he gave the new rose to the woman. Three players marched onto the stage and took the man, groping to stay with the woman, out of the light.

Bombs burst and light flashed as Robert shared the magical tales with his fellow soldiers, inspiring them as Rachel had inspired him. With new courage, they all pressed forward and performed their mission deep within the hold of the enemy. A helicopter came into view and settled just away from the hold and waited for the soldiers to emerge. With another man, Robert pulled one injured soldier out of the burning fortress, then another and another. The men huddled together, under the wash of the helicopter blades, but only one more man stumbled out. When he reached the helicopter, the assembled men counted themselves, but Robert was no where to be found. Then, the rumbling of charges exploding deep within the keep drove the men into the helicopter and away. The fortress, with Robert still inside, struggling to save another friend, exploded in a fireball that lit up the night.

The man playing Robert ran twice from the pool of light into darkness, pulling men back into the light. Strangely, the men he brought back were old, and dressed seriously in suits. One last time, he jerked an oldish man into the light, and ran into blackness. For a moment, the suited men just stood in the light, clutching roses that the man had put into their hands. Suddenly, the audience gave a noise of surprise as all the lights in the hall snapped on with full intensity, blinding in comparison with the darkness they had become accustomed to.

Rachel was still blinking when Jennifer took her hand and began wheeling them forward. "Let's go!" she said with excitement.

The dazed old woman found herself on-stage with Jennifer, standing beside the three old men in suits that seemed to step out of the performance. The tallest smiled and stepped forward, extending his hand. "Hello. My name is William."

Rachel squinted as she looked into his eyes. "You are the owner of that restaurant we went to today!"

"Yes," the man said, eyes beaming, "though that wasn't the first time we have crossed paths."

The old woman's eyes grew wide as she remembered other times she had seen him. "Oh, my! You were the man at all of those bazaars! I never had a chance to talk to you..."

The man smiled even broader. "Actually, I made sure you never got an opportunity. You have done an incredible thing with those bazaars." Rachel finally took his hand, but instead of shaking it, the man just held it and put his other hand atop hers. "I am really very honored to meet you at last."

He introduced her to the two men standing with him. "We were the three men Robert managed to save before he died in the explosion," the tall man explained. Then he motioned to a small group of people and they crowded around Rachel and William. He explained that these were his children and their children and their children. The old man's voiced cracked as he said. "I just wanted them to see and meet the woman who saved me and made our family possible."

Rachel gave a confused look. "How did I save you?"

"It was you who told Robert all of those stories and taught him courage and love. He shared those stories with us and, in the end, he showed us how much those things meant to him when he pulled us out of that burning building." Tears were streaming down his face as he hugged his family close. "You gave Robert a wonderful gift and he passed that gift on to us. Thank you for letting me know my children and letting me see my grandchildren and great-grandchildren."

There was a tight group hug that made Rachel feel a little uncomfortable, but tears began springing up in her eyes as she accepted the love anyway. That done, the man's family moved back to their seats in the hall and William presented the old woman with a rose. "You might not know, but the roses represent the magical gift of your tales and your dance that inspire all who witness it. Long ago, your father took the gift from you, but in a smelly army tent, our friend Robert gave that gift of love back. As his agent, It is my honor to give this rose to you, since Robert cannot do it himself."

The assembled crowd cheered as Rachel held the rose tightly against her heart, tears streaming down her face.

The players on-stage each took a rose from the woman who played the role of Rachel, crossed the stage, and one by one, hugged and kissed their old tutor. Rachel looked into each one's eyes and saw in them the children who begged her to tell them a story so long ago. Last of all, Jennifer wheeled herself to her dear friend and the old woman crouched to accept a kiss and a hug from her. "This is such a wonderful birthday present!" Rachel whispered.

"Yes," Jennifer replied, her eyes glistening. "It will be."

Men, women, and children began rising from their seats in the audience and making their way forward, climbing stairs until they were on-stage. Each received a rose from the woman who played Rachel and walked across the stage to the emotional woman who waited to hug and kiss them. Some gave her grateful words in their own way, but most couldn't speak as they wept and clung to their mentor. Every face was familiar and brought back wonderful memories for Rachel, young students who had grown to be such wonderful people, all inspired by her life and by the tales she told. To the old woman, it seemed to go by quickly, but the procession of former students lasted nearly an hour.

When the last children, the ones she was still teaching and telling stories to that day, had retaken their seats, William came forward once again and addressed the audience. "Just before that last mission, Robert made me swear that I would care for you, Rachel, if anything happened to him. He dearly wanted to repay you for all you had done for him!" He turned to Rachel, who was trying to compose herself. "It has been our pleasure," he indicated himself and the two men with him, "to provide you with food and money these last few years and to watch you bless the lives of all these wonderful children. I can think of no one more deserving of our gifts." William then turned to face the audience again. "For you, Rachel, we give three gifts that, in some small way show you our gratitude for all you have given us. The restaurant that you ate at this evening, and a dozen more like them in cities across the globe, are yours: all of the profits from their operation are yours to spend as you see fit." A great cheer went up from the crowd and Rachel blinked with astonishment. "You will never want for food or money again!

"For the second gift, we have purchased for you this theatre in which we are met together. The bazaars have been getting terribly crowded lately, so we though it would be best to hold them here from now on. The workers will start tomorrow, restoring this historic hall to its original grandeur!"

Another burst of cheers came from the audience, and William and his companions made their way off stage. Rachel looked about, confused. Only Jennifer was left on the otherwise empty stage. The younger woman wheeled herself up to Rachel and took her hand. Crouching down, Rachel whispered, "I thought there were three gifts."

Jennifer looked up at her with shining eyes. "We can never repay you for all you have done. We thought long and hard for something else to give you, but we were stumped until last night." She paused to take a breath. "This is your third gift: we decided to help God answer your prayer." The woman propelled her chair back out of the spotlight.

Rachel stood alone in the pool of light, feeling a little small in her dress made of cloth dyed in every pastel color there was. The audience waited patiently as the old woman just stood there, awed by the moment. She looked down at the rose she still held in her hand and admitted to herself that this world was indeed a very magical place for those who believed it could be so. Curtsying low, Rachel announced the next tale, and with a broad smile and glistening cheeks, she began to dance.

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