by Charlie Brooks
What do I feel?
“Where the bee sucks, there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.”
It’s not a game of pretend. He makes sure of that. I turn to the audience and smile. They’re all silhouettes, their features drowned out by the glare of the stage lights. Even so, somewhere in the back I can see tiny points of red light playing in one man’s eyes.
My smile widens as I feel the emotion swell inside me, filling me up like air in a balloon. I giggle softly for a moment like a little girl with a piece of candy. The more cynical adult in me wants to retch, but she’s tiny now, overshadowed by the sudden glee burning its way through my soul. With a ballerina’s twirl, I turn back to Prospero.
“On the bat’s back do I fly
After summer merrily:
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.”
Another giggle. Another gag from the real me, locked away in a tiny cell somewhere in my mind. Prospero begins his speech, but all eyes are still on me. They watch my every movement, noting the nuances of my body language as though Shakespeare somehow makes more sense when I point my toes. This is what I do, and what I love: I steal scenes. Avery has talent as Prospero, but I’m what everyone is here to see. He just doesn’t feel the play the same way I do. He can’t; no one can, and that’s what makes me so unique.
I smile again as I begin the next line. I couldn’t be happier.
And yet when I take my bow and the crowd stands up to applaud me, I can’t help but tremble a little.
He brought me flowers. Unfortunately, they’re the wrong color. I’ve grown to despise red.
I wipe off the stage makeup and let my hair loose when a knock at the door makes me jump out of my skin. Straightening out the long tangled mess that I call hair, I give a shout to let my caller know that I’m decent. The door swings open and the color drains out of my face.
Oh. You stupid ass.
Phil pokes his head into the doorway of the dressing room, his blue eyes twinkling as he gives me a smile. “They loved you tonight, babe.”
I try to keep my pace calm, but I end up almost running to him. He closes his eyes and puckers up for a kiss, but I dodge his lips and hook my arm underneath his. By the time he opens his eyes and tries to ask what I’m doing, I’ve dragged him halfway down the hallway toward the rear exit. He may be bigger and heavier than me, but I’ve got momentum and an uncanny urge to see him alive later tonight.
“Krys, what are you doing?” His voice is still half-joking, as though it’s okay that he ignored what I told him before the show. I drag him the rest of the way down the hall, flinging open the door and dragging him out into the rain. I pull him into an alleyway just off the streets of Usher, still dressed in Ariel’s black jumpsuit and feathery slippers.
“I told you not to come to see me after the play.” My voice is hoarse and tired, like dying leaves on an open coffin.
The smile flickers on Phil’s face for a moment. His mustache droops, but ultimately the grin returns as he concludes that I’m playing some sort of game. “Come on…tonight’s your big night. I can’t just stay away at a time like this, can I?”
I go up on tiptoes and kiss Phil’s cheek, brushing a hand through his sandy brown hair and shivering a little bit in the cold. “I appreciate the gesture. Really, I do. We’ll get our moment tonight. It just can’t be here, okay?”
He looks at me skeptically, trying to read my makeup-smudged face and blank brown eyes. “Why wait? Go on in and change while I bring the car around.”
I shake my head, feeling loose strands of hair drift away from my shoulders. “That’s never been how it works. Tonight’s my last night. Everything else is for you, okay?”
He frowns, but grudgingly agrees. “Okay. I’ll be waiting for you in the warehouse that we call our apartment.”
I nod. “I’ll be along quickly.” I go up on my tiptoes again and kiss him longer this time. “You can trust me.”
He nods and heads down the alleyway, pulling the collar of his brown trench coat higher to keep out the drizzling rain.
“I love you,” I call after him. He turns and blows me a kiss. Then I steal inside again, slipping quietly back to my dressing room as I repeat myself in a whisper. “I love you.”
What do I feel?
Finally out of Ariel’s costume and into my own clothes again, a small shiver runs up my spine and I take a sharp breath. The theater is empty by now; the rest of the actors have gone home, trapped in the decaying urban life of Usher. I entertain the notion that I might be alone, but I know better. Looking into the growing shadows of the dressing room, I can see a pair of tiny red lights, like little glowing skulls.
When I first started staying late after the plays, Phil started worrying that I was having an affair. I told him that nothing could be further from the truth. That was half a lie. My meetings with Erik certainly aren’t anything sexual, but there is definitely an illicit element to them. He satisfies one of my needs, and I feed one of his. Tonight is the last night of our relationship, I hope.
The skulls grow larger until he finally steps into the pale moonlight that filters through the window. His clothing is nothing short of exquisite; he wears a fine Italian suit and carries himself like a man of importance. A red handkerchief lies tucked away in his breast pocket, folded neatly with only the corner poking out among the black ensemble. His hair is gray, although his face shows no sign of old age. Of course, anyone who looks into his face likely ignores the features, focusing immediately on the red points of his eyes. A dull fire burns behind them, providing a light that might have come from hell itself. They mark him as one of Usher’s inhumans. Everything that the news has told me about these creatures tells me that I should be afraid of him. But his eyes flash as I look into his face, and I find the traces of fear in my mind replaced unwillingly by mild happiness, even gratitude at his arrival.
“As always, it was quite a performance, my dear.” His voice is like a cold breeze, quiet and weak but not without a bite to it.
“I know,” I reply. “Thank you.” I open the top drawer of my dresser and remove a pair of scissors. Lifting up the stem of one of Phil’s roses, I give it a snip and then tuck the red head of the flower into Erik’s jacket. Hesitating for just a moment, I give him a kiss on the cheek. His skin is cold and clammy, as though he has lived underground for most of his life.
“Who gave you the flowers?” He already knows the answers. As much as I’ve hoped to keep the truth from him, his gaze has already penetrated my thoughts.
“Nobody of importance.” I try to make it true. I push all of the emotion out of my body and try to see Phil as just another lover, someone who is there to satisfy my physical needs rather than my emotional ones.
“Well,” he says, touching a thin finger to the rose’s crimson petals, “he certainly seems smitten with you.”
“Does he now?” I smile and put my hand on his arm. “I wouldn’t know. There have been so many men. They all mean one thing, you know.”
Something dangerous flashes behind his eyes. I withdraw my hand and take a pair of steps backwards in retreat. “And what about me,” he asks, a spark of anger entering his voice, “What do I mean to you?”
Those eyes bore their way into me, growing larger and brighter as they cut their way into my mind.
What do I feel?
Shame. I’ve betrayed him. After everything that he has done for me, I should want no one else. I feel tears begin to well up in my eyes. Even when I break his gaze and look at the floor, blinking back the stinging droplets in my eyes, I can’t escape the feeling of disgrace. He forces the emotions upon me, pressing them against my soul until I almost cry out.
Then, as quickly and quietly as the last whisper of applause, his eyes return to normal. The bitter feeling of my betrayal goes away, and I’m in my right mind again.
“I forgive you,” he says, his voice hoarse. “How could I not?”
I look at my hands. They’re shaking. Calm down, I tell myself. This isn’t who you are.
I cast a sidelong glance at the mirror. My skin is paler than usual. After a few deep breaths, the color starts to return. Be it a trick of light or something more supernatural, I can’t see his reflection clearly. I look ahead again, right into those crimson orbs of his and step forward, close enough that I can feel the coldness of his breath. “Take your prize.”
He smiles and licks his lips, then raises his claw-like hands up to my face, clutching at my temples. I feel the start of a headache as his eyes ignite, burning their way through my mind with the casual ease of surveying a menu.
The city of Usher has grown paranoid these days. Its citizens have slowly become aware that the rumors of ghosts and monsters in the streets are something more than just gossip. There are strange things out there, frightening things that no one can explain yet. Some people seem to think that the others are superheroes of a sort, come to make the world right and punish the wicked. Most of us suspect that these new beings are something worse. To most of Usher’s two million citizens, these things are not fallen stars or anything remotely as pleasant. They are inhuman; they are the monsters that gothic writers used to imagine, and they have come to life. We look for them in the shadows and in the alleyways. The paranoia doesn’t end there. We look for them amongst ourselves, too. A man with red eyes might only have a birth defect or a disease, but in Usher he is only one step down from the Devil himself. Erik lives in isolation, hiding in abandoned buildings and in the labyrinths of Usher’s oldest structures. It has been that way since he was born with those death-eyes of his. He doesn’t have any pleasant memories. So he takes mine, feeding off of them one by one. In exchange, he uses his talent for invoking emotion to inspire me on stage. Anyone can play a game of pretend. Erik helps me take it one step further. Thanks to him, I’m recognized as one of the best actresses in Usher.
Now he takes my payment. To his credit, he is careful with what he chooses for a prize. He doesn’t steal anything that I won’t part with. Instead he chooses snippets; pieces of my mind that are already half-forgotten and cloaked in the fog of my memory. Tonight he chooses my eleventh birthday party. Streamers hang from the ceiling of my old home, and the cake is already half-eaten. Some wrapping from the presents has fallen onto the floor, and everybody laughs as my kitten Nyla bats around the shining balls of paper. My dad gives a loud whistle from the other room, and my friends Beth and Sarah pull me by the arms to meet him. There’s Dad, standing in the living room with a smile the size of Nevada on his face and a red bicycle in front of him. He pushes it toward me and leans in to kiss my forehead.
Then the scene freezes and we all find ourselves trapped in a snapshot of memory. The color drains away, leaving us in a world of gray shades. The edges of my memory begin to fade. Soon after, the bicycle disappears, followed by the rest of the room. Eventually Beth and Sarah vanish into entropy, leaving me and my father alone in nothingness. I try to shout out, but the stillness of the vanishing memory keeps my mouth frozen shut. Soon Dad disappears as well, and I have no choice but to follow. When I visit my parents in Seattle for Christmas, maybe I’ll see a rusted red bicycle out in the storage shed and wonder where it came from.
The real world returns with an aching weakness in my limbs that causes me to stagger away from Erik. He lets me go, moving his hands away from my face and dropping them absentmindedly to his sides, a placid smile creeping onto his face as he savors his new prize. I drop to my knees and gag. Even when I’m prepared for these sessions, they still hit me like a bus on fire.
We’re both silent for a few long moments. The only sound in the room is the hiss of the radiator and the distant din of the boiler downstairs. Like most buildings in Usher, the Ligeia Theater has been in a state of decay since the 1940s. The boiler tends to creep up, and maintenance needs to check on it once or twice a day to make sure that the whole building doesn’t go up in flames.
“Thank you,” he says when we’ve both recovered. “You’re always good to me.”
I shake my head, feeling genuinely sorry for him. “No, I’m not.”
He purses his thin lips and his eyes flash. “What do you mean?”
I swallow, my mouth going dry as I contemplate what those eyes can do to me. “You’re the one who can read minds, Erik. You tell me.”
He frowns, his pale sunken face falling as his eyes brighten. “Do you really want me to do that?”
“No, of course I don’t want you to.” I walk over to the flowers and inhale deeply, taking in their scent. “These are from a man named Philip. We’ve been lovers for months now.” He glowers at the mention of my personal life, but I continue. “I think maybe he wants to marry me; I don’t know for sure. I do know that he has a friend in New York who has offered me a job. He came to see me perform the other night. Thanks to you, he was very impressed.”
He shakes his head. “I won’t be able to follow you to New York.”
“I know.” I smile sadly as his face suddenly becomes wild at what I’m suggesting. “I’ve already accepted the job. Philip and I are leaving for Manhattan in the morning.”
“You can’t!” His voice starts at a shout, but after a deep breath he regains his composure. “I gave you everything on the stage. You’ve just been a vessel for me up there. You’ll never make it as an actress on your own.”
I nod but don’t change my demeanor. “You’re probably right.” I look out the window as I speak, into the filthy alley outside the theater and across the way at a crumbling gargoyle perched atop yet another ruined building in this decaying city. “I might not be good enough to last, but I’d rather fail in New York than succeed here.” I turn back to Erik. His limbs are shaking, although I don’t know if it’s in depression or rage. “I’ve made up my mind. We were wonderful together for a while, but I need more than you or this city has to offer me.”
He strides towards me, and I retreat backwards, feeling the first twinges of fear. Am I really afraid or is he doing this to me? What do I feel?
“I made you,” barks Erik, his voice growing louder as he speaks. “You were nothing when you found me. I made you great. I gave you talent. I gave you love. All I asked for return was a few pleasant thoughts and some loyalty. Do you really want to betray me like this?”
I back up to the door and reach for the knob. I’m starting to shake again, but I still manage to put some strength into my voice before I turn to run. “I appreciate everything that you’ve done for me. But you asked for a price after each performance, and I paid it with pieces of my own mind. I’m leaving now, Erik. Don’t try to follow me.” With that I run out the door, hoping to make it to the exit before he responds.
“Stupid girl.” No matter how fast I run, the hallway seems to stretch out longer and longer, and his voice keeps getting closer behind me. “I’ve seen your past. I’ve read your thoughts. Do you really think that I couldn’t hurt you as easily as I’ve helped you?”
Suddenly I’m a little girl again. My mom is pregnant, and I’m looking forward to what I’m sure will be a new brother. Then Peter is born with cerebral palsy, and I watch his death stretch out for years. When he finally goes, I sneak out of the house at night and almost throw myself off a bridge.
I’m back to the present again, but the despair lingers. It envelops me in blackness, threatening to suffocate me the way it did before a police officer found me about to jump. I open my eyes and I’m on the floor with his footsteps almost upon me.
“Just move,” I whisper to myself. “Don’t think, don’t feel. Just move.”
I manage to scramble to my feet, but I’m already past the exit. I can’t turn around and face him head on, so I rush toward the stairwell.
“You can’t hide from me like this,” the boom of his voice cries. “I know every shadow of this building and every nook and cranny in Usher. I can find you anywhere.”
I stumble down the last few steps and fall onto the basement floor. I’m out of his sight for a moment. I’m myself again for that instant, but he can still hear my thoughts if he listens.
So don’t think. Just act.
I only manage to make it a few more steps before he has me in his sight again. This time he brings me pain. I’m making some pasta for myself in college and spill a boiling pot of water across my arm. I scream out as my flesh hisses and twists beneath the heat. Only instead of running for some ice this time I run deeper into the labyrinth of the theater’s cellar. I applied the ice and the pain passed relatively quickly. This time, Erik makes sure that it lingers.
Half blind now with pain, I stumble through a door and slam it shut behind me. The clattering of the old boiler greets me.
Don’t think about what you’re doing.
I have a few moments alone before he starts turning the knob. I clutch my side of the handle, trying to keep him out, but he is stronger than I expected. Against my best efforts, he forced the door open and steps inside with me.
“You win,” I sighed, my voice barely audible against the angry din of the boiler. “I’ll stay.”
His eyes remained sharp and unforgiving. “I don’t believe you. How do I know I can trust you?”
“You can’t,” I reply. “But you can love me.” I throw my arms around his back and kiss him full on the mouth. My tongue pushes past his lips, feeling tiny points on his teeth. Almost immediately, he closes his eyes and tightens the embrace. He’s lived a shunned life, all because of two red eyes and the powers they have. Now he’s got everything that he’s ever wanted, and he doesn’t dare doubt it. I had a dream once that Peter was alive and well. Even though I knew it was a dream, I let myself be happy and believe in the vision anyway. Now I’m giving him his dream.
The moment lasts only until a loud hiss of steam escapes the boiler. His eyes open widely as he notices that someone has tampered with it.
“I didn’t think about it,” I explain. “I just did it.” I use his moment of shock to break loose of his arms and run out the door, slamming it and continuing up the stairs to the exit. “I’m sorry,” I whisper to no one who can hear me.
I manage to make it to the door when I hear a sound like a bomb going off in the basement. A burst of fire spews outward from some of the windows, and in another moment the theater is burning with Erik inside.
“I’m sorry,” I repeat before fleeing home.
Phil meets my knock and opens the door to see tears streaming down my face. He doesn’t ask questions; he just takes me in his arms and leads me through our maze of boxes to the couch.
“Tough saying goodbye to the theater?” he asks in his charmingly clueless manner.
“Yeah,” I say, sniffing. Like saying goodbye to someone that I loved.”
The plane takes us away from Usher before the sun begins to rise. I look down at the rows of blinking lights and try to spot the outline of the now burned-out theater. Even as the ground shrinks away, I swear that I see a tiny pair of glowing red eyes looking sorrowfully back at me.
What do I feel?
Charlie Brooks has published two novels, Shadowslayers and Reality Check, with his third book, Greystone Valley, due out this year. He has also won multiple fiction awards, including the Chaffin Award for Fiction for his story “Fantasy as You Like It,” the New Millennium Writings Fiction Award for his tale “Eight-Bit Heaven,” and the Glimmer Train Best Start Contest for his piece “Gods and Roses.” Charlie's story, With Feeling, appears in the April 2013 issue of HelloHorror.
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