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POST MORTEM PRESS
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Copyright © 2017 by Mary SanGiovanni
Published by Post Mortem Press
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STRANGE HOW THE NIGHT MOVES An Introduction
NO SONGS FOR THE STARS
THE LAST THINGS TO GO
THE FLOODGATES OF WILLOWHILL
THE HUNDRED-YEARS’ SLEEP
THE ANATHEMA CELL
A COLLECTION OF SHORT STORES
© 2017 Mary SanGiovanni
Post Mortem Press
TABLE OF CONTENTS
STRANGE HOW THE NIGHT MOVES An Introduction
NO SONGS FOR THE STARS
THE LAST THINGS TO GO
THE FLOODGATES OF WILLOWHILL
THE HUNDRED-YEARS’ SLEEP
THE ANATHEMA CELL
MAYBE PEOPLE CAN SEIZE THE day, but no one can own the night. No one can hold onto it for long. You see, the night moves.
There’s a belief held by some that darkness is as much an element as earth, air, fire, water or spirit. Some think the night is alive, or at least teeming with its own kind of life, just as other elements are. For reasons that would take more than a mere intro to articulate, I could absolutely get behind that belief. There are morning people, who believe the night is for sleeping, and there are night people, who believe the night is for dreaming – and creating. We know the night breathes. It’s vibrant with life. We know the night moves.
I’m writing this in the middle of the night, in fact. I can see the moon and stars from my back window, the mother and brothers and sisters that ancient religions believed these celestial bodies to be, and I can see shadows wavering on the street below, darting between houses or floating down the street. It’s a powerful feeling to look out on the night world; in those silvery seconds one can believe she is queen of a silent, almost-empty world.
It’s a dangerous illusion, though, to think that, because for one thing, no one can own the night, as I mentioned. That silence? It’s only a held breath. And the night is most definitely not empty.
The song on which this collection’s title is based mentions how strange the night moves, particularly with autumn closing in. I always thought that was a rather profound thought in a song which, on the surface, is about a relationship built on the most superficial elements. Maybe that line strikes you differently when you reach a point where the summer segment of your life, the carefree time when you could make mistakes and still have time for do-overs, is slipping away. Or maybe there is something buried way down in the genetics of horror folks that fears autumn closing in; perhaps it’s human nature to be afraid of the way the darkness comes on more quickly and the wind turns a colder shoulder to people looking to embrace their own night moves. Ray Bradbury knew the sinister power of the Autumn People and the frightful landscape of the October Country. Many other writers from Dan Simmons to David Moody knew it. The night does indeed move differently in the sunset of things, where our control and our confidence and our strength become variables instead of constants. Now sure, there are some times when people move with the night, a part of it, without fear or inhibition. But the night can turn quickly, and there are moments when the way it moves seems strange, like the gliding of a silhouetted beast just under the surface of our lives. We’re keenly aware in those moments of just how alien we are to a world that could take us or leave us, and that will eventually pass us by.
This collection is, in my mind, a sampling of my work which embraces that very notion, that just as the night can sweep us up in its moonlit, star-sprinkled embrace, it can just as easily slip away from us, leaving us alone in the dark with the unimaginable. I think there’s something fundamentally terrifying about finding oneself in the wake of the night’s moves, after its shift to the bizarre, the tragic, the horrifying, or the terrible. It happens in little pirouettes and big leaps. We get lost on the way home or find the last place we ought to be. We hear knocks and creaks in an old house, or see something through the window which will haunt our dreams. The night moves in dark alleys and brightly-lit clubs, in the familiar confines of our own cars and the seemingly limitless no-man’s-land of vast forests and empty buildings. There are many varied steps in the night’s repertoire, and as it moves, so too does the life within it. Passionately hostile or cruelly indifferent, that life has moves of its own which leave us baffled, scared, and lost, and sometimes, to our detriment, we can’t help stepping on its toes.
So here we are, the night people, working on our night moves. There is thunder far off and memories closer than we may like and outside, the summer is turning to autumn all around us. But for a little while, the night is ours and (Ain’t it funny?) we can become one with the life within it, the heartbeat and hot breath of the dark.
But only for a little while, because no one can own the night. No one can hold onto it forever.
Strange, how the night moves....
The Nightlands of New Jersey
To faithful readers of my worlds in darkness:
move with the night, not against it.
THE FIRST TIME SETH HEARD about his friend Carl’s problem with the mime was over beers at the Olde Mill Tavern. Seth hadn’t wanted to go; it was early February, when New Jersey hacked up the worst of its icy weather from the raw depths of its throat. In fact, it was the kind of weather that inspired guys like Seth to nothing more active than sweat pants and propped up feet in over-sized socks, X-box games and a six-pack of Coors. Carl had sounded desperate on the phone, though, rasping his insistence in terse whispers that they go somewhere, anywhere, as long as it wasn’t nearby, because Carl needed to talk to him. So Seth had acquiesced, putting aside free beers for $5 ones and sweat pants for a shower and jeans.
Seth was just grabbing his keys and his wallet when Carl texted from the car to come down and meet him.
“R U going 2 tell me what’s going on?” Seth texted back. It wasn’t like Carl to be so secretive, or to sound so...off. It had been nagging at Seth the entire time he’d been getting ready. Carl had a tendency to talk a lot when he was agitated, especially when it had to do with a girl or money, things which most often excited such a state in him. His phone call hadn’t been like that, though. He’d barely said more than a few words, and those he’d delivered in a quiet half-mumble. The more Seth thought about it, the more he believed Carl had sounded scared, like someone had been in the room with him and he had been carefully trying not to let his words be heard. And Seth couldn’t think of a single time Carl had ever sounded like that. He never seemed scared of anything.
Carl’s response was curt: “Just come down. Hurry.”
Seth met him down in the street, slipping into the car as his friend shifted quick, suspicious stares across the span of the dark street. He found himself peering into shadowed alleys and in-spaces as well, unsure what he was looking for. When he realized the futility of what he was doing, he frowned, brushing off the shivers that stippled his skin beneath his jacket. “So dude, you gonna tell me what’s going on or what?”
“Not here,” Carl said, licking dry lips as he pulled away from the curb. He spoke little and answered even less. Carl drove them out of town, down miles of charcoal highway and miles more of wooded road. The tension in Carl’s hands as he gripped the wheel, in the muscles of his jaw and neck and shoulders, made Seth feel nettled. The darkness around them seemed to stretch ominously out and around the car, isolating them in its center, watching for a chance to swoop in and suffocate. Seth felt uneasy and threatened and couldn’t help the shiver of annoyance that this was somehow Carl’s fault.
Eventually, the car pulled off what supposedly passed for a main road and into a parking lot. Before them, a long wooden building supported a glowing neon sign which read OLDE MILL TAVERN. Seth shrugged; beer was beer, he supposed, and if Carl felt safer at some dive bar in the middle of nowhere that Seth had never heard of, that was fine with him. They got out and Carl strode ahead of him, his gaze darting like a hunted animal to various ink-black points in the surrounding woods. It wasn’t until they had settled onto worn wooden stools inside and each ordered a beer that Carl finally said, “I’m being followed.”
“What? By who?”
“I don’t know who it is.” Carl glanced over his shoulder toward the door.
“Well, how do you know this is person is following you?”
Their beers came, and Carl waited to answer until the bartender moved away.
“Because...it knows where to find me, always. It knows where I live, where I work. It’s done things – to me, specifically to me. It...” Carl’s voice dropped to a whisper. “It wants to hurt me. I think it wants to kill me.”
Seth hovered between outright laughter and concern. “You...oh come on, man. You’re kidding me, right? Is this like when Lucy was still following you around, leaving her thong in your mailbox and shit?” He tried to laugh, but it fell flat when it got no reaction from his friend. Worse, the way Carl looked at him, if Seth hadn’t known better, he would have thought his friend’s eyes were shining with tears. Seth couldn’t dispute the abject terror in them.
So, not like Lucy, then.
“Okay,” Seth said, absently picking at the label on his beer bottle, “what does this person look like?”
Carl sighed. “It’s...hard to explain. Uh, white face,” he gestured at his own.
“A white guy?”
“No, like face paint. Black eyes and lips. Black and white striped clothes. White gloves.”
“Like, what, a clown? A goth clown?”
“Like a mime,” Carl said, exasperated, and took a sip of his beer.
Seth considered this for a minute, that crazy conflicting urge to both laugh and shudder keeping any response he could think of in check. Stalked by a mime? Did Carl realize how that sounded? If he had dragged them out into the middle of nowhere on a night colder than a witch’s tit just to set up some dumb-ass joke....
Except that it wasn’t, and Seth knew that. Carl could be funny, sure, but he lacked the creativity and the patience to execute a practical joke like that. And Carl wasn’t really smooth enough that he could fake that look in his eye, or that waver in his voice....
Still unsure where this was going, Seth continued. “So, you think you’re being stalked.”
Carl’s tongue darted out to lick his dry lips as he cast furtive glances around the bar. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s it.”
“By some guy dressed up as a mime?”
“No.” Carl looked pensive. “No, I don’t think so.”
Seth shook his head. “You’re losing me, bro.”
Carl grabbed his arm with surprising ferocity. “Look, it’s not just some guy. Regular people can’t – they can’t just show up and disappear like it does. They can’t make things happen out of thin air. They can’t...they don’t –”
“Okay, dude, calm down. Slow down, okay? I’m trying to understand here.”
Carl nodded, took a deep breath and gulped his beer. “Okay. Yeah, okay.” He took another gulp of beer. “It started about a month ago. At least, that’s when I first began to notice it. You know that old theater on Coughlin Boulevard? The one that’s all boarded up?”
Seth nodded. “The Dionysus. Yeah.”
The place had become something of local legend around where they lived. Seth had even done a high school history report on it. It had been built in the early 1800′s at the edge of town as a forum for the most eccentric of the wealthy elite, a revenue generator for a population financially excluded from its use. History told of minstrels, pantomimes and burlesques as well as the wildest avant guarde shows of the day being performed there in limited, semi-secret runs – plays like Athalie, Le Barbier de Seville, The Cry of the Star Children, A Doll’s House, The King in Yellow, and Spring Awakening.
It was not a particularly well-loved place outside of its small, feverishly devoted circle of attendees. Townsfolk’s reactions to the theater ranged from quiet distaste to bone-deep abhorrence to superstitious fear, so no one was much surprised or concerned when, under mysterious circumstances, the place caught fire in 1916. It had sustained serious damage but strangely, only to its exterior. Still, it took about five years for fringe supporter groups to get the town to completely rebuild the theater. Afterward, it sat mostly unused, its novelty having faded with its years of inaccessibility and the short attention spans of the rich and easily bored, who had moved on to other scandalous entertainments. It enjoyed a second heyday in the 1940′s and ‘50s, when it became open to the general public; it inspired new plays, poetry slams, local author readings, and other experimental performances that were in keeping with the theater’s original purpose. Even a movie screen was added, the films, of course, being of the same rare and almost taboo quality of the plays that had preceded it. Ultimately, there was a scandal involving a teenage cult who had been using the theater as a church of sorts – there had been a murder/suicide pact amid a miasma of ugly rumors about the cult’s practices. The place closed down for good in 1982, and it had been abandoned ever since. However, since it was a historical landmark, it was kept up by the historical society; they had prevented it from being torn down and didn’t mind feeding the local legend about it being haunted if that generated public interest in future paid tours of the old place.
Seth sipped at his beer and added, “I think the police found some dead vagrant in there a few weeks back. I saw something about it online.”
“Yeah, well, that’s not surprising. That place....” Carl’s voice trailed off as he flagged down the bartender and ordered another beer. He seemed to be searching for words to fit the thoughts in his head. Finally, he said, “About a month ago, Lucy and I broke in.”
“What? Wait, what? There are so many things wrong with that sentence right there – “
Carl held up a hand. “I know, I know. It was a night of sheer stupidity from the moment I answered my phone, first for agreeing to see Lucy again, because she’s just as batshit crazy as she ever was, and also...you know, the breaking in thing. It was her idea. I just thought....”
His voice trailed off, but he didn’t have to finish. Seth knew exactly what Carl had just been thinking. He knew Lucy, and her sex-hate-sex relationship with his friend. If she had suggested something crazy that would have gotten her hot, Carl wouldn’t have put up too much resistance.
“Whatever. What does it have to do with the mime?”
“Shhh!” Carl looked nervously around the bar. Satisfied that no one had heard, he took the beer the bartender brought him and leaned in confidentially toward Seth.
“She was all excited by the old posters in the lobby, you know? The ladies that did the burlesque shows, the old vaudeville stuff. Me, I thought it was creepy. Something about those leering faces and wild costumes. All made up like...like dolls. And mimes. They suggest...things...in your head. And the old photos on the walls, all the celebrities and the owners of the place, all those serious dead people’s faces...I mean, they’d all be dead by now. But they didn’t look right even then, in the photos.” He shook his head and took another swig of beer before continuing. “Anyway, we fucked around in the lobby for awhile, checking out the posters and shit, and then we went through these big double doors into the theater itself. That was the mistake, I think – going into the gut of the place. It wasn’t just that stale smell, like dust. It was like there was something old and rotting under the dust. Maybe the fabric of the seats rotting, or the wood...I don’t know. And the place was a wreck. Only half the seats were left standing, and the rest of the area had all this debris – old program books, broken wood and plastic, metal bars. Lucy described it as the rotting corpse of indie art. I know she’s crazy, but sometimes she has this sort of philosophical side. It comes and goes. Anyway, the stage was nothing like the rest of the place, and I dunno, it weirded me out. It was all polished and new-looking, like it was just built. The curtains around it were shot to hell – these big heavy maroon curtains with ragged, gaping holes and dark stains – but the stage was in perfect condition. And when you stand on it, you feel like, naked, sort of. On display. Like eyes are watching you from out there in the dark, where the audience would have been. Eyes without faces and clapping without hands.”
Carl shivered then, as if trying to shake off some detail of the memory he had chosen not to disclose. “Anyway,” he continued, “we started making out on the stage, just like, light petting, you know? And I was into it enough that I’d just started to forget how wrong everything else felt when we heard a thud. We both jumped. Damn near pissed myself. Like I said, the place is creepy – and it’s not just in your head. It’s in the air, the dust – it’s, I don’t know, worn into the walls of the place. It’s hard to explain. I guess when you’re inside the theater, it feels like there’s some kind of poisonous gas, something you can’t quite smell or taste but is somehow in your nose and throat all the same. Like you’re being exposed to germs or radiation or something that’s crawling all over your skin and you don’t exactly know what it is but it makes you just a little itchy and worried anyway. I think...I think that’s why we started making out on the stage. The feeling was strongest there and well, you know Lucy – weird shit turns her on. And I went with it because truthfully, I was willing to do anything to get my mind off that feeling, anything that I could focus on so I wouldn’t have to think about it.”
“Why didn’t you just leave?”
Carl shrugged. “What was I supposed to say to Lucy, that I wanted to go because I was afraid of invisible dust particles? Or a slow drowning in the wrongness of the place?”
Seth found that to be the most disturbing thing Carl had said yet, the notion of a slow drowning in the theater. Maybe it was because Carl was not superstitious, nor was he prone to belief or influence in the supernatural. In fact, he was a little hard-headed and not particularly imaginative or generally very eloquent. The notion that the place had affected him so deeply – so much so as to believe some theatrical character was stalking him – made Seth anxious.
“So anyway, Lucy and I heard this thud, and I half expected the lights to come on, and for there to be some shadowy silhouette sitting out there in one of those moldy seats, like in the horror movies. But it wasn’t the lights. It was the trap door.” Seth gestured at the bartender to bring him a third beer. “I looked over her shoulder and I saw a gaping black hole in the center of the stage. She didn’t want to turn around, didn’t want to look – I guess even the Queen of Kink has limits – but I had to see. I mean, I had to, Seth. Something inside made me go over to the hole and look down, and I saw steps. So...I went down. There wasn’t much down there – just old moth-eaten costumes and dried-up stage make-up, some bizarre props like books, weird sculptures, daggers, candles, that sort of thing. And there was a door. It was locked and now... now I’m glad it was. God, I can only imagine what might be behind it.
“Anyway, the door had a symbol painted on it in red. Some circle with a bunch of squiggly lines. And...I guess I traced the lines, the whole shape of the thing, with my finger. I don’t know why I did it. It was just one of those things you find yourself doing without really thinking about it...or that you realize you’re doing while you were thinking of a bunch of nothing-things you can’t remember.” He shook his head, but Seth didn’t think Carl really heard how strange he sounded.
“When I came back up, Lucy was gone. Her purse was gone, too. I guess she got freaked out and bolted. So, I took off, too. Truth be told, standing on that stage, alone, with that wrongness gathering all around me and those dark, empty seats out there...I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. And that night, as I was unlocking my front door, I happened to glance up and that’s when I first saw it – the mime. It was standing across the street, leaning at this impossible angle with its elbow propped up like it was waiting to order a drink at a bar. And it was just watching me. Smiling at me.”
“A mime.” Seth gulped his beer and suppressed a shudder. He had to admit, as weird as the story was, he could tell Carl meant every word of it. The genuine fear was interlaced through every word.
“Yeah. A mime. It started following me after that. At night, mostly – in the beginning, I think it was always at night. I’d go to get a quart of milk and some bread and it would be in the alley next to the Quick Check, watching me from the shadows, pretending to lean against an invisible wall. I’d pull into a gas station to fill up my tank, and it would be in the back seat of the car at the other pump, just waving silently, making faces at me. I’d be coming home from work or heading back to my car from Lucy’s, and it would be on the street. Hell, I’d get up in the middle of the night to take a leak, and I’d swear, behind the shower curtain or in a closet, I could feel it. It...It’s always there. Watching. Gesturing.”
“Yeah, like...hand gestures, mostly.”
“So this guy is flipping you the bird. What else?”
“No, not like that. Just shut up and listen, will you?”
Seth shrugged and gulped his beer, waiting for his friend to continue, although the whole conversation was making him uncomfortable.
Carl took another deep breath, then said, “The gestures are threats. Threatening. It’s made a slicing motion like it was telling me it was going to cut my throat, or like it was cocking and pointing a gun at me. Sometimes it makes more complex hand gestures...like it’s tracing the same symbol over and over, the symbol from that theater. And it makes like it’s opening an invisible door, just a crack. Seth, I think...uh, I think it’s found a way into the house.”
He read Seth’s confusion and sighed. “Look, I don’t know how to explain it any better than I have. It’s a feeling, as strong as the feeling in the theater. In fact, now that I think about it, it’s like I’m standing at the edge of a cliff and something’s all around me, waiting for a chance to shove me and I can’t stop it. I’m just going to keep standing there until my legs can’t hold me and I fall or I blink for a second and something gives me a push.... I don’t know if it’s the mime’s facial expressions or gestures or the dreams I’ve been having, but it’s going to kill me. I know it. And I don’t know how to stop it. I just....” Carl’s expression changed suddenly; his face paled and he seemed to be struggling with a lump in his throat. “I just wanted someone to know, you know, what really happened. That I think the door beneath the stage opened, just a little, and whatever came out – that’s what did me in. I don’t get the feeling I have much time left.”
Seth sat for a few seconds in silence, taking in everything that Carl had told him. It sounded absurd, of course, all the talk about mimes and haunted theaters and doors. It had to be the disquieted ramblings of stress or alcohol or maybe even drugs – Carl could be adventurous. He seemed so coherent, though, however wild the components of the story were. And he seemed so serious, so earnestly scared. Seth had no idea what to say, and he told Carl so.
Carl searched his expression for something; Seth wasn’t sure if he found what he was looking for, but a moment later, he pulled several bills from his wallet and slapped them down next to his empty beer bottle. Then he grabbed his keys.
“There’s nothing to say,” Carl told him. “Not now, anyway.” And Carl headed for the door.
* * * * *
Two days later, Carl was dead. Seth found out from Lucy on his way home from work. Her voice was too loud, garbled by tears, and what little Seth could make out made him feel cold all over beneath his skin. An accident – he’d fallen down his stairs, she’d said, or at least he thought she’d said that. He got off the phone with her quickly, a numbness spreading like cotton in his ears, inside his head, wrapping around his hands, his chest.
Like standing on the edge of a cliff, he thought, and something’s waiting for a chance to shove him.
When Seth called the police later that evening, he asked for Rob Kiers. He knew Kiers through mutual friends and had partied with him on a few occasions. Kiers told him more than he probably should have, given the open nature of the death investigation, but Carl had been their friend, and Seth wanted to know.
The police were pretty sure it was a straight-up accidental death case. Although they were still waiting on a toxicology report, the EMTs picked up a strong remnant smell of beer when they arrived. The lights in the house were off and the police had found a sneaker at the top of the stairway. It was the damned strangest twist of a body they’d ever seen, though – a one-in-a-million kind of fall that suggested more the quirky unpredictability of nature than a planned or even impassioned act. There were no signs of struggle nor could the police find any indication of anyone else having been in the house but Carl. The expression on his face, though....
His carpool buddy, Rick, had found him the following morning when Carl wouldn’t answer the phone or the door. Grabbing the spare key under the mat, Rick had let himself in to find a tangled mess of blood and protruding bone at the bottom of the staircase.
Seth thought about mentioning the mime. He could imagine some floating white face, eyes black as pits, white gloves half-hidden in shadow until just a second before the pantomimed push that sent Carl tumbling to his death. Instead, he hung up the phone.
It had been an accident. A terrible, freakish accident, but only that. He kept telling himself that in hopes that it would keep the nausea at bay. It was a losing battle, though.
Kiers had told him there was one other thing that had struck the police odd. Near the body, spattered in Carl’s blood as if the impact had thrown it from his face, was a white masquerade mask.
* * * * *
It took at least a week of stomach-turning indecision before Seth finally committed to breaking into the Dionysus Theater. It wasn’t fear of legal consequences that he worried about. If anyone bothered to phone in a trespassing and if police even went to the effort of showing up, they’d probably only shoo him out of the place and send him on his way. In fact, it wouldn’t have surprised Seth much if the police turned a blind eye to vandalism or even arson of the old place. Good riddance to years of bad taste in the townsfolk’s mouths.
What really bothered Seth deep down, just about at the edge of admitted thought, was the superstitious idea that Carl’s death was connected to his visit to the theater. It sounded crazy, at least as crazy as Carl’s story about the mime, but sometimes the mind can not be dissuaded from the kinds of connections, the kind of sure belief, that extend back through childhood and into primal notions about the unexplained. It didn’t matter that there was no logical proof to verify the superstition about the Dionysus; there wasn’t any logical proof to refute it, either.
If Carl’s intrusion on the theater and whatever had been content to settle with the dust of the place had been the cause of his death, then what would Seth discover there – or worse, what would discover him?
On a whim, Seth tried the big gilded front doors and was surprised to find they opened easily. Dust motes twirled in the rays of the late afternoon sun that he had let in, and as he stepped inside, he got the impression of a giant blinking sleep from its eyes, awakening in those dying shafts of light. What he didn’t feel was the sensation Carl had described, that slow drowning, that accidental stumbling into a room of poisoned air. Instead, he felt the utter emptiness of the lobby and the cool quiet shadows as a kind of vacuum, a void which sucked at his own heat and breath. It was not particularly threatening, but it made him shiver, and he decided a cursory search was probably all he could tolerate of the place.
He wasn’t sure exactly what he was looking for – something, he supposed, to confirm to himself that the things Carl told him weren’t and couldn’t be true. He thought Carl believed what he’d told Seth, but that didn’t mean Carl was in possession of some absurdly terrible truth. It didn’t mean that a mime really had stalked Carl and pushed him to his death down a flight of stairs.
Seth needed to discount it all, if not to process the loss of his friend, then to even out the anxious ripples in his own life this past week. His apartment building had become less of a sanctuary and somehow less familiar to him. Instead he felt nettled, even somewhat threatened, by the indifferent and unprotective walls. Shadow-shapes and muted colors had begun to take on sinister import. Surely the white roundness that he’d caught from the corner of his eye as the hallway elevator doors closed it from view was a hood, a balloon, a baseball cap tilted down over a face. And the reflection of something he’d caught behind him in the blank TV screen once or twice, black smears in a pallid face just above his shoulder, were definitely tricks of light. They were gone when he shifted in his seat or turned sharply to look behind him. Nothing ever stood up under direct scrutiny. But it had been wreaking havoc on his peace of mind all the same.
He’d begun to have bad dreams, too – dreams of Carl in corpse-white face paint, his head lolling from the unnatural angle of his neck. He would gesture to Seth, and the broken bones of his arms would grind and jut out of his skin in grotesque trailing of his movements. Carl never spoke in the dreams but he didn’t have to. The gestures he made suggested terrible, inexorable things.
Seth couldn’t shake the idea that the mime had seen him with Carl, and now that one plaything was done, it had moved onto a new one.
As he stood in the lobby of the Dionysus Theater, he glanced around. He imagined the ticket booth once had a man behind the counter as old and dusty as it was. The crumbling velvet ropes, a means of shepherding crowds through the lobby to the theater doors, now dangled like braided snakes with lesions of torn fabric from their scuffed metal poles. He made his way across the lobby to the posters on the walls, aware of how the faded, threadbare carpet still shushed the sound of his footsteps.
Seth could see what Carl had meant about the posters. The pale white curves of flesh of the women in the burlesque posters was somehow both sexual and cadaverous, their made-up faces beautiful and terrible, their smiles ghastly. Their costumes seemed ill-fitted and somehow torturous. They held odd poses, brandished odd props. No one in the posters smiled. The eyes, though – there was a range of expression in the eyes, and all of them put Seth ill at ease: anger, licentiousness, predatory hunger, madness....
They were not as unsettling, though, as the poster advertising the commedia dell’arte-style production of The Cry of the Star Children. A cast of nearly naked pre-teen children wearing white and gold masks stood in front of a door. Seth couldn’t see much about the door except that it was open a little. Whatever lay beyond it was shrouded in darkness. The posters for the othercontroversial productions also featured masked performers in period costumes and promised a theater experience that would alter the very fabric of the viewer’s existence.
A slow drowning in the wrongness of the place, Carl had said. There was certainly something almost overwhelming about getting lost in those posters, the way the faces wouldn’t break eye contact, the way the posed limbs bent in all the wrong ways, making mazes of lines that shouldn’t be....
Seth shook his head and turned away from the lobby posters and toward the wide set of double doors in the center of the back wall. He assumed the doors led to the theater itself, and braced himself to open them. They swung open at the slightest pressure of his touch on silent hinges.
He found the inside of the theater pretty much as Carl had described it – half of the plush seats had been removed, the rest left to decay. The heavy folds of drapery that once formed the stage curtains hung in tatters. The place had lost its gilded shine, maybe, but little of its presence. From its cavernous size and clearly once-impressive, expensive construction and decoration, Seth could see why Carl had perhaps felt awed by the room. And the stage, too, was as described – polished to a high shine even in the dim and filtered light from...Seth looked around. He could see no windows, but could imagine there were holes in the roof.
He made his way down to the stage and hoisted himself up onto it, standing for a long time with his back to the mostly empty gloom behind him. His attention was fixed on the floor of center stage.
There was no hole or even a trap door. Seth let go of a relieved breath; if there was no hole, no trap door, then there was no occult bullshit, and no mime. Whatever craziness had gotten into Carl’s head had ricocheted around for a while, even bounced off Seth, but in the end, it was all just –
A sound from the wings off-stage made him look up and for just a second, he thought he saw a painted black smile in a white face before whatever it was receded behind the folds of the curtain. He took a few steps in that direction when a voice spoke to him from the sea of black beyond the stage.
“Quite impressive, isn’t it?”
Seth felt a hot-cold flash of worry spread through all his limbs at once. He turned to the sound of the voice. A small, elderly man with a neat comb-over of white hair, metal-rimmed glasses, and a polishing cloth in his hands stepped into one of the sourceless shafts of light at the edge of the stage. He smiled, then resumed polishing a small bronze figurine.
“I’m Jerry. Jerry Carterhouse. I work for the historical society.”
“I – I’m sorry, I didn’t mean – “
Jerry held up a hand and offered a forgiving grin. “Don’t worry about it. Truth be told, I think it’s kind of neat that people are still interested in the old place.” He gazed up and around the old theater with obvious admiration. “This was such a beautiful place once. Regal. Oh, you should have seen it. We had celebrities here, heads of state, sports stars, artists, playwrights – you name it. We even had a president once.” He winked at Seth.
“I can imagine,” Seth said hesitantly, unsure whether to leave.
“So, are you interested in something in particular? A show, perhaps? A famous Dionysian actress?”
“A, uh...a trap door,” Seth blurted. He pointed to center stage. “Was there ever a trap door there, something that led downstairs, underneath the theater?”
Jerry gave a mild shrug of the shoulders. “Can’t say as I ever remember seeing one. The stage was rebuilt in ‘49, but I don’t think the old one had any kind of trap door, either. I don’t recall any of the plays performed here ever needing one. Why?”
Confused, Seth looked from the old man to the stage and back. “No reason.”
“Did you know,” Jerry asked with that same amused smile, “that this was the only theater in America to perform all six plays in the La Folie de la Lune series? That was before my time, though. I heard they packed the house!”
“I didn’t know that,” Seth answered politely.
“Oh yes. This theater had all the greats. The King in Yellow – the whole play, performed right here. The Cry of the Star Children was doing its first run in American when I came on. Then there was Athalie, Le Barbier de Seville, even Spring Awakening.