Put On The Mask
Tickets for the performance can be found scattered all over town, though no-one dares pick them up for fear of becoming the supporting act. Not that there ever is one. Not in the way you or I would understand it, at least.
Lift the mask to your face, peering through the waiting eye holes. Put it on. Secure it in place. Wear it, uncertainly, uncomfortably, each day for the rest of your life. For fear that people see the truth in your face.
Motionless, he lies in the dream of days, unmoving and uncertain. But there is no rhythm of night and day for him, just endless grey. Since his accident, colour has been a thing only seen in memory and occasional dreams. Sounds increasingly hold less and less meaning.
He is aware of being the victim of something, if only of circumstance. Gathering his feeble energies, he concentrates on regaining the power of speech. But even that seems to be futile.
The doctor and two nurses who attend him, all masked, remain silent the whole time. One even refuses to answer questions, dismissing him with a slow shake of her head.
There is a clock on the wall opposite his bed. He makes careful note of the large black number in the date display. Whenever he is awake, he watches its slow progress as it crawls towards the top of its small window on the clock face. Only boredom and illness can provide the clarity needed to notice its tiny incremental movement.
Unaccountably, he awakes on the third day with his body healed. He feels healthy. There is no bruising and nothing is broken. His muscles don't ache in the least. His vision is clear and his hearing seems as sharp as it ever was. He knows he's been in some sort of accident but the details are missing.
At first he waits for the doctor or the nurses to appear. After an hour and a half he decides to rise from the bed. He dresses slowly in the clothes draped over the room's single chair, which he assumes are his, despite their unfamiliarity.
Poking his head out into the corridor, he sees no-one, so he walks down the corridor to the reception desk. Still there is no-one to be seen. After standing at the desk for five minutes watching another clock, expecting a nurse or receptionist to appear, he decides to discharge himself. To his surprise the front door of the hospital is a mere few steps away.
Once outside he looks back at the door, hoping for a clue as to his whereabouts. There is no sign on, above or to either side of the entrance and he finds himself standing on an ordinary street. It is as if the hospital is trying to deny that it is one, he decides. For a moment he thinks it must be a private medical facility - then concerns about the hospital bill float into his mind. He shakes them off. Whatever the cost, it feels worth it. He doesn't know exactly what medical care he's received, but he's never felt better.
The street is surprisingly empty for near mid-day, so he decides to try and find a sign that will tell him where the railway station is. He's sure he recognises one or two buildings and, gradually, more and more things become familiar. This isn't his home town, but he suddenly remembers his brother's house is just across town. Even if his brother isn't there, he can wait for him.
His mind made up, he heads in the right direction, deciding to stop for some food on the way. He digs in his pocket but comes up empty - no money and no wallet. His brother is his only hope, in that case, he decides. He'll just have to go hungry until then.
He stops at a junction, waiting for the lights to change. The cars and other vehicles that crawl past the lights are a mixture of old and obselete vehicles. Their drivers all seem in a state of torpor. Not bothering to wonder why, he looks down at his shoes, waiting for the lights to change.
There, at his feet, two brightly coloured pieces of paper seem too enticing to ignore. He bends and, at the instant he plucks one from the floor, he stops. His name. The piece of paper has his name on it. His old name. And a time. And a place. And the promise of some sort of performance. But that's impossible.
'For One Night Only'. He exhales suddenly, a half-snort of disbelief. This is impossible. He is no longer a performer and, even if he still had been, how could this have been arranged without his knowledge? He knows the address printed on the ticket but is certain there is no theatre there. At least, there hadn't been the last time he ...
This is a mistake. Or a joke. Some sort of hoax, maybe. He can't imagine who would want to do this - he is loved, respected - but he intends to find out.
The only people he sees on his way there all seem to be ill or old, their faces grey and lined, most of them stooping or turning their gaze away. Every shop is dark; either closed, and looking like it will never open again, or boarded up. It seems like the town and its inhabitants are slowly dying.
He tries to shake off the feeling, doing his best to convince himself that it is simply a type of 'hangover' from the treatment he's received. That maybe the residue of some drug still in his system is causing him to suffer from some sort of mild depression. But he can't ignore the evidence of his eyes. Or his nose.
The fallen leaves that clog up all the gutters are the colour of rotting meat. The suggestion is so strong that he sometimes imagines he can smell the awful throat-clutching stench.
Further down the street he notices a brightly-lit building. Convinced it was in darkness only minutes earlier, he makes his way towards it. The neon is bright but not gaudy, and he recognises the name from the tickets he picked up - Théâtre Du Monde De L'Ombre.
There in the display case beside the door is a poster with his name on it. The stage name he hasn't used in years. 'For One Night Only' is emblazoned across the poster. "They'll be lucky," he thinks. He'll confront the manager, demand an answer.
From the name and the design of the facade he thinks that perhaps it's a Burlesque theatre. Behind the polished wood and chrome door he imagines a delicious den of modern demimondaines, tattooed and tempting. While he has no intention of treading the boards himself, he smiles at the thought of seeing a pleasing performance or two. He'll demand free tickets as some small compensation for the impertinence of the poster, of course.
The doors swing shut behind him with a satisfying thud. The lobby has wine-coloured carpets and cream walls and, like the hospital reception area, it is deserted. Another clock stares down at him from above the ticket office window. He watches its hands for a few moments before tapping the window and shouting "Hello?" Nobody comes.
He paces back and forth, wondering what to do next. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches a glimpse of someone looking at him from around a corner. He turns in time to see a head bob back out of view.
A memory rises like a startled bird. He is sure he recognises the girl. That platinum hair. Surely it's her.
He runs to the corner where she's been. Double doors stare back at him. Above them is written the word 'Stalls'. Fearing a sudden shock, he reaches out and pushes the door open gently. Gloom stares back at him from a quiet corridor. Its floor has a gentle upward gradient.
He puts one foot through the door, despite his nervousness. An unexpected reserve of courage pulls the rest of his body through after it. "Hello?" he calls, softly. The door swings shut behind him, shutting out most of the light from the lobby.
The end of the corridor holds a velvet darkness that drinks in his gaze and gives him nothing in return. He puts out his hand to touch the comforting solidity of the wall, then makes his way slowly into the gloom.
He stops for a second. Was that someone moving in the darkness? He couldn't be sure if it was just his eyes playing tricks as they adjusted to the dark. Or was there really someone there? He feels something brush against him and he gasps, surprised. A hand grabs his lower arm.
"Is that you? Hehe ..." It must be the girl with the platinum hair. Then more hands grasp him, pulling at his arms, tugging his clothes. He tries to pull away.
"What ...? Who are you?" He begins to feel panic. It is answered by a volley of whispers, a dozen voices emerging out of the darkness, luring him on. "This way. This way. This way. This way."
Something about the way the air moves past him convinces him that the corridor has disappeared. He is somewhere else now.
As a tiny hand touches the top of his head, he jerks it sharply to one side. Trying harder to pull away now, he cannot move; the darkness already has him in its grip.
He'd met her first in a cafe. She was with friends; he was not. At first his broken-backed, limping words seemed to have no effect on her. Then she looked again and seemed to recognise something in him that she desired.
Her friends, all nearly identical with their dyed platinum hair and heavily painted eyes, seemed to melt away at some point during the evening until they were alone. Together.
Whenever she ordered food it was like eavesdropping on someone's prayers, murmured in pain. She toyed nervously with the thick gold bangles around her wrists. They talked about nothing, really.
Then. "Come back with me," she'd said in her child's voice. She seemed so young. But so ready for his love. She seemed to be just what he wanted. What he needed.
Frightened of his pleasures, he is too drunk with them to stop himself. "No names," she insisted, pulling him towards her.
The rain entered her room, soaking them through as they lay together and kissed. "Wear the mask for me," she said. "F-for you?" Placing it over his face, she replies "Yes. It's your body I want - I don't want to have to look at your filthy feelings." It was clear to him now that he was merely a toy of flesh to her. A reverse of fortunes indeed. "Put on the mask now, Phantom. Step onto the stage and prepare for a song you will never sing; lie on my bed and prepare for the ecstasy that will never arrive."