For a summer's night, it was far too cold in Maybelle's bedroom. The curtains billowed in a soft breeze from the open window, swaying like ghost bodies in the low lamplight. Corny shut the window so carefully it made no sound. Yet his footsteps padded on the carpet as he walked over to the bed, figure slumped and eyes unfocused. Maybelle wasn't surprised that he hadn't met her eyes since dinner. She couldn't help her stomach clenching up regardless.
The bed dipped under his weight. Springs creaked as he shimmied sitting up until the backs of his knees pressed against mattress. The warm amber light cast his figure into shadow. He sat there in an old marina with blankets bunched up by his waist and his hair out of place, a haloed silhouette painting the very picture of unsettled. It painted all sorts of things really, but that one stuck fast. She had never seen him so defeated, so low.
"I thought things would be different," Corny said.
His voice was quiet as the whistling wind in the trees outside and just as thoroughly spooked. Maybelle adjusted her nightgown as she sat up, plucking fabric from sweated skin as she turned to face the broken spirit in front of her. She shouldn't be sweating; the day had left her cold through and him with bruises, some bright in pain and colour and some invisible. The day had hurt far more than just him.
She'd imagined the once celebrated change would eventually give rise to conflict but not like this and not this soon. It seemed impossible to fix, a chasm wide between worlds. But it was out of Maybelle's hands. It wasn't hers to breach. It was far bigger than her. And she was shaken too. She was target too.
Maybelle shut her eyes tight, feeling her skin wrinkle with the pressure. Corny's breathing was even and calming to her ears. Pressing up against the line of his back, each of his inhales and exhales vibrated into her. She sighed at the feeling, turning her face into the softness of his shoulder as she tried to make her breaths echo his in perfect harmony.
"Corny," Maybelle said. She pulled slightly away, her voice a soft warning. "Look at me."
He turned his head, just half towards her but it was enough. Maybelle laid a hand onto his cheek and pressed her forehead against his, careful not to put pressure on the break in his brow, the beginnings of a scab in a curved line.
"You never give anything up without a fight," she said. "I love that about you."
Corny reached for her hands and held them gently in his for a moment before pulling her arms around his body. She held him like that, pressed soft and warm against the line of his back and around his arms. It reminded her of holding her teenage kids, of little Inez last year. Her spirits had been broken like this too, hopes shattered carelessly to the floor with the cancellation of Negro Day. But idealism was always destroyed by reality, especially for them. They would always get the wrong end of the stick. They were always the ones burned. But burns healed and luck changed. Or so she thought.
Corny had that same childhood innocence, awful close to simple naïvety. He'd been just like Inez, just like Tracy Turnblad, in his belief that the world would be better. It was changing out there, Maybelle saw that every day, but it was no linear process. It moved in waves like a flickering candle, flaming up worse and calming down cyclically. But starved, a flame would eventually stop producing light. It was the way of things, this dying out. It just took time and effort.
So she'd told Inez to hold out, to keep on working harder than anyone else to get to her dream. They both knew she might not ever get to that place no matter how good she was, no matter how much she put in. Corny, he knew this too. He just never had to live it, not before loving her. But Maybelle always would. So she shook off the thought like it was nothing, pretended to be okay in anticipation of when she really would be again. Her focus was entirely on Corny.
"But today, Corny? It changes things," Maybelle whispered roughly.
"I should have known something would happen. We all saw what Velma did. It wasn't as bad but it was-" he said.
"I know," Maybelle said. "I know, sweetheart, but we'd be nothing without hope."
Corny wasn't the only one who should have known it would come to this. She had expected bad would come with the good. Sure, the Corny Collins Show was newly integrated and her own daughter was lead dancer and Little Miss Hairspray. But despite the joy isolated in the WYZT studios that evening, there would be hatred sparking somewhere too. She was sure of it. Why had she never expected it to hurt this way?
Working every day on the Corny Collins show, now as an almost equal to Corny himself, had made this year the best in her working life. More work meant more security and freedom. More work meant more talking to Corny which turned to banter and soon enough their friendship had taken a romantic turn. The show only did better for it, despite keeping it quiet. Measly numbers after the original hype of integration slowly pulled higher. And like that original influx, it came with consequence. It came with letters.
It wasn't that Corny didn't know that the majority of what was in that box labelled 'Motormouth Maybelle - MAIL' was neither glowing praise nor thanks. But he had never been the target before. No, he'd never been degraded on principles like these… until now.
Maybelle'd found him in his dressing room, staring over a letter with a dismal look on his face. Ultra Clutch perfumed the room and clogged up her sinuses. Clearly, he had finished getting ready for the show. But he was just staring, wouldn't give it up. And she'd known, of course she had. She'd gone to sit by him and take one of his hands into hers.
"It's a death threat," Corny said. "Maybelle, it's a death threat. You get these?"
Maybelle said nothing. Of course she had, more than her fair share really. She was the name, the face, the so-called authority when it came to Negro Day. And blaming her was easy. She had pushed and protested and refused to give in.
"It gets easier," she finally said, letting go of his hand to rub comfort along his spine.
He shuffled closer, pressing their bodies together along the side. He looked down at the letter and, with a soft groan, crumpled it into a tight ball in the grip of his fist. His hands shook until he opened his fingers and the paper fell slowly, brushing the ground gently before fully landing. Maybelle stared at it, wondered exactly what it said, whether it mentioned her. But her attention was drawn to Corny's mumbling.
"Should've never gotten this bad."
But it had gotten even worse. In the dim light of Maybelle's bedroom, Corny pulled out of Maybelle's arms and laid back against the pillows.
"I should be comforting you," he said, voice quiet with shame.
Maybelle blinked, shook her head. "No, baby. No, I don't need it."
Corny folded his arms under his head, silent for a few beats. Maybelle watched the curtains expand and contract, like they were breathing.
"You pretend to be hard, May. But some nights, I hear you cry," he said.
Maybelle pursed her lips, letting her own body flop back on the mattress. She crossed her arms over her chest. She was okay. There was only so much you could bottle up, and even less that you could fix. It was the bandage on the wound, that alone-crying in the middle of the night. But with Corny sleeping beside her and the rhythm of her children's breathing coming through the walls, she could empty the dam just for a while, just enough. And when she'd wake, she'd feel like she could do it all again without overflowing, without explosion. She was okay.
"I don't need-"
"You do," Corny interrupted.
Corny grabbed her wrist, sliding his fingers down to twine with hers.
"Come on, Maybelle."
Maybelle sighed. She had always been one to nurse her own wounds, never trusted anyone to be careful with them. But Corny was different. Corny was gentle and caring and felt the same at the moment. He loved her. Wasn't that enough?
She turned on her side to face him.
"I take care of myself," Maybelle said quietly. "Always have. My kids and myself."
"You're allowed to want comfort."
Maybelle's throat felt tight, a lump deep and swollen within. She felt the tears warm on her cheeks before the first sob came, without warning and quickly followed by another. Then another. And the torrent rushed forward before Maybelle could stop it. Corny hushed her, pulling her into her chest. She buried her face deeper and grasped at his undershirt. He wrapped an arm around her, anchoring her as she shook against his small frame.
"It could've ended so much worse," she said in a breath's reprieve, pulling back so the words didn't get lost in cotton and flesh.
The studio had been hot, bright lights beating down on Maybelle and prickling sweat along her back and neck. She swayed to the music behind the podium, smiling like a fool next to Corny, who snapped his fingers with the beat. Kids danced away on the stage in front of them, skirts swishing and feet tapping, colourful clothing vibrant with their movement.
It was the group number before the last commercial break, each and every council member on the stage. She spotted her own children, her smile only widening as she watched them move. Looking up, she caught a camera man's cue. Maybelle stepped down and walked towards the centre stage to announce the commercial break. She smiled brightly, tipping her head.
"And there they go, swinging high and low. We'll be back with more of the Corny Collins-"
A thud rang out from somewhere behind her, and the words died on her tongue.
Her heart thundered in her chest as she whipped around to survey the source.
Smoke and flames. Screams and flames. Hot smoke. Running footsteps.
Where were her children? Maybelle's breaths came harsher as she looked around. All she could see beyond the dark smoke were flames. Yellow, orange, jumping and skipping, dancing in the place teenagers had not two minutes ago.
She pushed forward, towards the fire rather than away. It was smaller than she'd first thought. But the floor was black with soot, the air cloying with smoke. Maybelle's eyes watered more the closer she got. She kept pushing, shoved back roughly by fleeing bodies, so many of them. And then she was pulled, a set of hands digging desperate into her arms. Forced to turn around, Maybelle let out a groan. Hands left her arms and pressed against her cheeks. Corny, it had to be.
She barely looked at him. All she could think was that her kids could be hurt and she hadn't even checked on them.
"Are you okay?" Corny asked her. "You have to get out."
"I need to find my babies," she said, struggling against him.
He tugged her closer and kissed her forehead gently.
"They're okay," Corny said. "I made sure myself."
A rush of air came out of Maybelle's mouth along with a strangled sound.
"All those kids are someone's baby," she said.
And she ducked away, Corny hot on her heels. The smoke was starting to clear, the fire now smaller and contained. To Maybelle's relief, the stage had emptied of all dancers in the moment she had spent with Corny. They had all evacuated.
Corny touched Maybelle's arm, making her turn to him and led her out a side door with a hand on her elbow. Dancers and crew stood huddled in small groups, seeking comfort in each other. Little Inez's red dress was a beacon. Maybelle rushed in her direction. She pulled the girl into her arms and let out a sigh of relief.
"Oh, my baby," she said, stroking her back.
And soon another set of arms wrapped around them. The musk of cheap cologne told Maybelle it was her son. If she could move, she would squeeze him back.
"You're okay, Mama?" he asked.
"Now I am."
A gentle hand rested on her shoulder, drawing her back from her children. Corny was standing in front of her. He pointed out that people were leaving now. She hadn't noticed the fire trucks come up, and medical assistance. But a few kids were with them and the rest were going off one at a time.
"Straight home," she told her kids. "I'll be right up."
Turning to Corny again, she frowned. He had been hurt. She didn't even see that he'd been hurt. But there was blood leaking from above his eyebrow down the slope of his nose. Her heart was wrung tight along with her stomach.
"You're bleeding," Maybelle told him with a hint of apology in her voice.
She waved him towards help before changing her mind. He stood still, patient as she looked over him for any other signs of injury.
"Maybelle, I just want to get out of here."
"You'll come with me," Maybelle said, her tone no-nonsense and direct.
He didn't argue, not about decency or her children or what if the station finds out. He just held out a hand to her and started walking in the right direction when she took it.
He was patient with her as they walked and as she opened the door to the record shop, even though she fumbled with the lock. When she entered the open space, only neat rows of tables holding boxes of records filling the room, she found her children lounging about with Link and Tracy. She looked over each person, examining them for signs of hurt from afar.
Satisfied with their well-being, she said, "Half an hour more, then you all get home to your folks. And make sure you call, tell them you're okay."
The kids nodded so she took her leave, grasping Corny's hand and leading him up the stairwell to the loft.
"Will you let me fix you up?" Maybelle asked.
"Yes," Corny said, already following to the small bathroom and taking a seat on the edge of the bathtub.
Maybelle sat on the downturned toilet seat, her knees brushing Corny's as she gathered supplies from the small shelving unit opposite her. Pulling out cotton swabs, she swallowed strongly, feeling his pain keenly. She cleaned his wound, wincing with him at the application of rubbing alcohol and whispering a quick apology. She sealed it with some healing aloe gel but she had no bandages.
He pulled her hand into hers and they sat there a long time, staring at nothing. Maybelle was still so shocked that she hadn't really considered what it would mean. What it had impacted while she sat here. But as she let her mind wander, worry plagued her. She didn't even know if anybody had gotten hurt. Or how bad it might be. All she knew was that her loved ones were safe and the studio empty. But the others?
Corny urged her up and into movement. It was not yet late but if she let herself linger now, there was no way she'd be able to put on a show for her children. The sun hadn't even set yet and there was still dinner to be made. Maybelle just wanted to crawl into bed and sleep. But maybe the distraction of cooking up some comfort food could be enough to hold her off until she could shut her bedroom door and feel everything at full force.
But Maybelle was no good at distracting herself. While she made a huge dinner, ate around the table with everyone, and got herself ready for bed, all she could think about was what was coming next. And in bed beside Corny, Maybelle didn't feel better. She felt emptied of tears and hope as she wiped at puffy eyes. The world spun around her and it made her dizzy. She just wanted to close her eyes. But there was more to say.
"We got so lucky," Maybelle said. "How no one got more hurt? I don't even understand."
After dinner, the new station manager had given her a call. The people nearest the incendiary device were treated for burns and scrapes, but none too severe. No casualties. Corny had the scratches from flying debris by the podium. And Maybelle was one of the furthest away, touched only by smoke. Her children were in bed now, safe and well-fed. They were okay, if a little shaken. Baltimore was far from it.
There were people in the city who would commit acts of violence like this with no regard for collateral damage. If they had been better equipped, Maybelle might not still be here alive. None of them would be. They had worked so hard for progress, so peacefully. But the blowback was far more aggressive. Now what if it were to become deadly?
"What becomes of the Corny Collins Show, now that the station has all these concerns for safety and security?" Maybelle added.
Corny let out a shuddering breath. "I don't know."
"Thought this was the future," Maybelle said.
Corny shook his head. "How can it be that so many people believe what you and I do but nothing changes even when it does? How complacent are people that this can happen?"
Maybelle had no words. It was like their voices didn't matter. No matter how loud they got, no one listened. And when they did, it was for the wrong reasons. Why WYZT even allowed the integration of the dancing show? Revenue. Apparently, Negro Day had always done far better than Velma Von Tussle would ever admit. It was never about a genuine wish to give the kids an equal chance, not for anyone except Corny who believed in every last one of them.
"No matter what they do, we'll still do," Corny promised. "Even if we have to run a radio show or something right out of your record shop, we'll do that. Our voices will be heard. Maybelle, it's time to make them listen."
Maybelle nodded, gripping his hand. A rush of warmth filled her chest. He could take something so bleak and turn it into determination. Maybelle was full with pride. Hm, she could use that. She could channel it into her actions from here on out, let that lead her better than hope, stronger too.
"It's not safe, but it's necessary," Maybelle said. "I don't want to have to worry about all those children, though."
"You've got a big heart," Corny said. "But you know most of those kids have their feet in the same door, won't give it up?"
Maybelle thought of Tracy, how much she'd risked for a cause she had little stake in, just knew it was the right thing. Penny, Link, and all those other kids had prepared to lose some too, prepared to hurt for the greater good.
"Yeah," Maybelle said. "Yeah. It'll all be okay."
Corny smiled. "I hope that's a promise."
"Next best thing," Maybelle said. And that was a promise.