A Shadow in the Wings

Happy Halloween, All!

In the spirit of the holiday, I’ve posted a draft of a story that I’ve been working on. You can read it below.

As it is very much a work in progress, please let me know what you think in the comments!

 

A Shadow in the Wings

by Meg Masterson

The alleyway was abandoned except for Kyle’s beat-up Jeep and moonlight spilling onto the pitted asphalt and piles of trash. Years of debris had blown into the corners of the narrow dead-end, and no one had cared enough to do much about it. Kyle leaned against the building at the mouth of the alley, watching the dim and mostly-empty street, while Scott knelt before the door handle. Jessie held a flashlight for him as he worked his father’s lock picks.

There was a click, and Scott smiled up at Jessie.

“You’re the best!” Jessie grinned. “I knew having you around was a good idea,” she gave Scott’s shoulder a squeeze.

Scott blushed when he looked at Jessie, but – luckily for him – it didn’t show in the moonlight. He stashed the picks back in his wallet, and tucked it into his pocket. Kyle backed away from his post by the street and punched his best friend in the arm. “Good work, Scottie.”

Kyle pushed on the door. It didn’t budge. “Damn,” he swore, pushing harder. He put his shoulder to the door, and it barely moved.

“Move,” Scott said, bravado oozing off of him. He gave Jessie a wink that tried way too hard, and shoved the door with his shoulder. Its hinges screamed in protest. He made maybe a half inch’s progress.

“God, it’s like it doesn’t want to let us in!” Jessie mocked, and added her weight to the boys’.

“One, two, three!” Kyle counted off.

All three of them shoved, and the door finally gave way, orange rust flaking off the hinges in a cloud tasting of metal.

The building was pitch black. The full moon’s glow crept up to the threshold, but did nothing to penetrate the darkness inside. Kyle clicked on the flashlight he’d stowed in his back pocket.

The bright beam stabbed through the blackness, casting long shadows over row upon sloping row of velvet seats. Once-rich red carpet was rotting away to show dusty floorboards, and an enormous chandelier hung from the ceiling. A wide stage dominated the room, partially obscured by a heavy golden curtain that had torn itself half-way down over the decades.

“Woah,” Kyle breathed.

Jessie and Scott turned on their flashlights, sweeping them around like tiny spotlights.

“It’s incredible!” Jessie’s tone was a murmur usually saved for church.

“Come on,” Scott moved up the side aisle. “There’s a light switch.”

Kyle and Jessie followed him, floorboards creaking under their weight. Their flashlights made small pools of brightness on the ragged carpet as they ascended the sweeping stairs. At the back of the auditorium, Scott proclaimed, “Let there be light!” and flipped the switch.

The nearest wall sconce exploded into a shower of sparks.

Jessie squeaked in surprise, and Kyle scrambled over to the wall. He stamped out the embers that cascaded to the carpet, Jessie right behind him.

The sparks were out, but the smell of burnt wool clung to the air. Jessie slumped against the wall and let out a relieved laugh which echoed through the theater.

A few of the other sconces flickered to life, none with the dramatics of the first, and dimly lit the massive auditorium.

Kyle looked around. The wallpaper was peeling off in wide sheets, and half the seats had fallen apart. Even so, reminders of grandeur filled the place.

Gilt flourishes were still visible on some of the columns and sconces, and a gigantic proscenium arch framed the stage. It was carved with huge magnolias that had once been white, with intricate details and careful artistry. Now, most of the paint had flaked off, and the dust of unattended decades filled the crevices.

Jessie set down her camera case and started digging through it. She twisted the lens cap off and pulled a yellowed paper out of her jacket pocket.

“Jessie! You took the original?” Scott chided.

“I didn’t mean to,” she defended, only half paying attention to Scott. She held up the old newspaper clipping and crossed the auditorium’s aisle. “I tucked it into my pocket when I was making copies.”

“That was a dumb project,” Scott sighed.

“No, it wasn’t!” Jessie defended. “You just didn’t like it because you don’t like our teacher.”

Kyle made it down the stairs and peered down into the mess of an orchestra pit while Scott and Jessie continued to bicker.

Last month, they had been assigned a project on local history by Mr. Howard.

“I want you to go all the way back to the source documents,” he’d said in that tone teachers use when they want students to be as enthusiastic about the subject matter as they are. “The library has extensive archives, and the county clerk’s office can help with any official records you may need.” This elicited an exasperated groan from Scott — and most of the other students, too.

Kyle, Scott and Jessie had sifted through the yellowed stacks of newspapers in the dusty library for hours.

“Is it so hard to keep this crap in date order?” Scott complained, pulling out the fifth newspaper that was out of place. He tossed to the middle of the table and returned to his pile. Jessie and Kyle looked at each other, then something on the front page of the paper caught Jessie’s attention. She pulled it closer and a little smile crept over her lips.

“Look,” she said, awe in her voice, “It’s the Imperial.” She turned the paper to show Kyle. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

The black and white photo showed well-dressed men and women strolling down a velvet carpet laid out in front of the grand theater. Singers and dancers preened in rich costumes for the camera or posed in front of the brightly lit marquee. Captions proclaimed it to be the opening night of a production of La Traviata.

The Imperial Theater was now in utter disrepair — and had been for decades — but it seemed so magical in those images.

It wasn’t long after the article was published that the Imperial had closed. No one had been inside for at least two generations.

Jessie had kept digging through older papers, turning up image after image of the auditorium in its heyday. It entranced her.

She grabbed her father’s old camera and started in on a project, juxtaposing the newspaper images with photos of her own. They showed the grandeur and eventual decay of the building. But she hadn’t been able to make it inside.

Then, Kyle had read in the newspaper that the county’s historical society lost its battle against downtown redevelopment. The Imperial was getting torn down in favor of a new restaurant.

Jessie insisted they act fast. She needed to get inside to get those pictures, and she knew that they could make it with Scott and his father’s lock picks.

Standing about halfway back in the auditorium, Jessie held up the old photo and moved down one of the rows, looking for just the right angle. Kyle wandered down the wide, sloping steps toward the stage with Scott following close behind.

Jessie’s camera clicked loudly in the dim theater. Kyle turned to her and saw a huge smile break her face. “Got it,” she breathed. She held up the photo, then raised her camera again. Click. “Just in case.”

Jessie started brushing dust off of the nameplates on the seat backs and Kyle turned back to the rail of the wide orchestra pit, peering over the edge. It was a mess. A handful of chairs appeared to have been knocked over long ago. A box of reeds had spilled out all over the floor. The lone and crooked music stand that remained held a thick score, its pages curled by use and age. A long conductor’s baton stuck out from between its pages like a spire in the ruins of an ancient city.

Scott leaned on the rail next to Kyle, peering down at the disarray below.

“Scottie!” Jessica exclaimed from halfway back in the orchestra, “There’s a name plate here with your last name on it!” She focused her camera and snapped a photo.

“No way!” Kyle rushed over to look. Scott stayed where he was, trying to look both casual and smug.

“Right here,” Jessie said, polishing the plate with the edge of her shirt and refocusing the camera.

“Mildred Revannan,” Kyle read.

“Yep,” Scott grinned. “My grandma Millie.” He turned and walked up the steep steps at the edge of the stage. “She used to perform here in the twenties and thirties. She was an opera singer before my granddad made her quit. She, ah, had taken up with one of the other actors, according to the gossip papers at the time.”

He strutted around the old stage, the boards squeaking under him. “She played Manon, Annina, Susanna and Juliette, all right here.” He smiled to himself as he looked out at the auditorium.

Jessie’s camera clicked, capturing Scott on the cavernous stage. “I didn’t know you had such a bent toward opera.” The shutter clicked again.

Scott shrugged, “It’s just what she always talked about when I was a kid. You hear the stories enough times, and something’s bound to stick. I thought her old scores were fucking awesome.”

“That’s—

A metallic clang from backstage brought them all up short.

Scott jumped, and whirled around. Kyle and Jessie froze.

There was absolute silence for a heavy minute. Scott quietly made his way off the stage and into the aisle nearest Jessie.

“What was that?” Kyle breathed.

“Fuck if I know,” Scott whispered back.

“Just a set piece falling over. Or something,” Jessie hissed, holding her camera in front of her like a shield. “Right?”

“Yeah,” Scott nodded. He let out a forced laugh, “It just surprised me, is all.”

The rotted curtain on the stage suddenly gave way with a tearing sound that shredded the silence.

They ducked below the seats for cover, Scott letting out a surprised yell as he dove. A thick cloud of dust erupted from the old velvet, blanketing the rows of chairs like an overabundance of stage fog.

Kyle took a breath, and peered over the top of the seats in front of him.

A wiry man with a curled mustache stood on the stage, holding the edge of the curtain.

Their eyes met and the man laughed, “I’m sorry, friend! I didn’t know we already had audience members!” He dropped the curtain and straightened his striped vest.

Jessie and Scott, still behind their cover looked at Kyle with shock plain on their faces.

“I… Uhh…” Kyle stammered.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” the mustachioed man flourished with the ease of a seasoned performer. “I’m Xavier Didier,” he announced his name with a thick French accent. “And you are?”

“What are you doing here?” Kyle stuttered out.

A stunningly beautiful young woman sauntered out from the wings. “We’re a troupe of traveling performers,” she said in a voice that sounded like music as she found a place beside Xavier. Her crimson dress swirled around her and hugged in all the right places. “We perform… Guerrilla theater, for lack of a better term. Secret shows in old abandoned places.”

“Yes,” Xavier’s irritation at the interruption was plain in his voice. “I was just telling my friend, ah…” He gestured at the boy.

“Kyle,” he provided.

“Kyle,” the man grinned the name with too many teeth for comfort, “all about our little endeavor. And I was going to invite his friends to stop playing coy and come join the fun.”

Scott and Jessie looked up at him with surprise. There was no way Xavier could have seen them.

The pair got to their feet. Scott brushed dust from the knees of his jeans, but Jessie stood almost as if fixed to the spot, staring at Xavier. Her cheeks started to color, and she quickly ran a hand through her auburn hair. A little grin tugged at her lips.

Scott straightened and looked at the players, then Jessie. His expression curdled, and he glared back at Xavier.

“Kyle, darling,” said the woman, moving downstage with a sinuous grace. “Who are your charming friends?”

Kyle reluctantly gestured to each of them in turn. “Scott. And Jessica.”

Xavier bounded off of the stage, and approached the trio. “Nice to meet you, nice to meet you,” he shook Kyle and Scott’s hands, then approached Jessie with his best charming smile.

“Miss Jessica,” he smiled and offered his hand. Jessie fumbled with her camera before setting it on a seat to free her hands. He took hers and kissed it. She blushed deeper. “An absolute delight to make your acquaintance.”

“Come!” said the blonde, “you really must meet the rest of the gang.”

“Indeed!” exclaimed Xavier with a smart clap that reverberated through the hall. “We have quite the act planned for tonight!” He held out his arm to Jessica, and she took it immediately. They turned down the aisle, Xavier whispering something that made Jessie giggle. Scott scowled, and Kyle shook his head as they followed up the stairs to the stage.

“This is Adrienne,” Xavier nodded to the blonde onstage as she sidled over toward them.

“A pleasure to meet you all,” she gave them a perfectly white smile with far too many teeth and situated herself between the boys. She put her arms through theirs and Scott shot Kyle a panicked look. He almost moved to shake off Adrienne’s grasp when Kyle shook his head. Humor them, he thought, then we can get out of here.

Jessica was paying her friends no mind whatsoever. She leaned her head close to Xavier’s and listening intently as he spoke. “I’m so glad you’ve joined us for the evening,” Adrienne smiled at them both. She led them into the maze that was the backstage. “We’re so happy to know the word is getting out about the show!”

A moment later, and they were in a brightly lit hallway with doors running down either side. Most of the doors stood open, and the two closest dressing rooms were bustling with activity.

“Hello, boys!” Adrienne poked her head into the nearest room, “how are things looking?”

A trio of handsome young men, older than Kyle and Scott but younger than Adrienne, looked up from well-worn copies of a script.

“Almost got that wretched monologue done,” replied one with dark hair, which was heavily pomaded. He was drawing on darker eyebrows, furrowed, giving him a sinister look. An open bottle sat beside his array of stage makeup.

“That’s Victor,” Adrienne said. “He’s our resident villain and drunkard.”

“I get stage fright,” he shrugged. “A little nip takes the edge off.”

“Oh, were it only a nip!” came a woman’s voice from the next dressing room down. “And if you take much more of the edge off, Vic, and you’ll be completely edge-less.”

“Would that make him spherical?” said a young man in the corner of the first dressing room. He was dressed completely in black, and looked so nondescript that Kyle hadn’t noticed him until he spoke.

“Our stage manager,” she indicated the man in black, “Robert Smith. Best man here in the troupe.”

“I’ll say,” came the same woman’s voice from the hallway.

Kyle and Scott turned to see a pretty, somewhat round young woman with a smile on her face and a torn pair of pants draped over her shoulder.

“And this is Jane Cauley-Smith, Robert’s wife and our dresser.”

“Dresser, costume designer, last-minute stitcher, props mistress… You know, all that kind of thing.” Jane stuck her hand out and the boys who were finally able to disentangle themselves from Adrienne to shake her hand. “Nice to see you! You are?”

“Kyle Carroway,” he introduced himself.

“Scott Revannan,” he said, distracted. Jessica and Xavier had gone into the other dressing room. Their murmured discussion was punctuated by Jessie’s giggles.

Adrienne paused for a moment, looking at Scott as though seeing him for the first time. “Scott Revannan,” she repeated. Jane gave her a pointed look. Adrienne recovered an instant later. “Rolls off the tongue in such a nice way! We’ll have to remember that name for our next play.”

Jane shook her head at Adrienne. “Silly girl. Best hurry up and get your costume on quick. We should be starting soon.”

“Excuse me, boys,” she smiled at Scott and Kyle. “I won’t be but a moment.”

She ducked into the dressing room, leaving them alone in the hallway. Scott looked like he was being tortured. He shot Kyle a determined look, then turned toward the room where Xavier and Jessica were whispering.

The lights went out.

One of the women squeaked, and it sounded like Scott crashed into the wall. There was a clatter, and the sound of breaking glass. Victor swore colorfully at the loss of his bottle.

The blackness was absolute until Kyle remembered the flashlight in his back pocket. He grabbed it and switched it on, shining it straight into Scott’s face.

“Fucking hell!” He snarled at Kyle. “A little warning next time?”

“Sorry,” he said, pointing the beam down the hall. Company members were peering out of the doors, stumbling in the darkness.

“Piss,” Robert sighed, “bet we blew a fuse. I’ll go—” there was the sound of someone shifting in the dressing room, then a crunch and a yell from Rob.

Kyle whipped the flashlight around to shine into the dressing room. Rob fell back into his chair, a huge shard of bottle glass sticking out from the bottom of his soft-soled shoe. Blood was already seeping out, staining the leather sole deep red.

“Fucking Victor!” he yelled through clenched teeth. Jane materialized in the doorway a moment later and hurried to her husband. “You and your fucking bottle of rum! Gods damn you!”

Jane knelt in front of Rob and gingerly situated his foot on her knee. His face went pale when she moved him.

“I’m sorry!” Victor looked horrified at the blood. “I’m so so sorry,” he stammered.

“Shut up,” Jane snapped. “Everyone out of here until we get the lights back on and we can clean up the glass and get a better look at your foot.”

“Scott, where’s your flashlight?” Kyle asked, trying to keep a level head. “You stay here with them and I’ll go find the fuse box.”

Scott felt around his pockets, and let out a frustrated curse. “I set it down somewhere in the theater. I’m sorry.”

“Jessie,” Kyle called out, “Are you ok?”

“I’m fine,” she said from the other room. “Just fine.”

Adrienne muffled a chuckle. “Probably more than fine.”

Scott made an irritated growl in his throat.

“Come on,” Kyle put a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s go get the lights back on, then we’ll go. Robert,” he tried not to look at the puddle of blood that was forming under the stage manager’s foot. “Where is the fuse box? I’ll go get everything switched back on.”

“In the manager’s office.” Rob snarled between gritted teeth. “Lobby. Stairs on the right. Door probably locked.”

Kyle sighed, “Scott, you’re coming with me. I’ll need your help.”

A second flashlight clicked on in the darkness. Xavier peered into the hall, holding Jessie’s flashlight.

“Fucking— Fine. Let’s go get this done, and we’ll get Rob to a hospital,” Scott muttered. “Hey, Jessie! You’re going to be a nurse someday, aren’t you? Why don’t you get yourself in here and help out until we get back?”

Xavier whispered something, then Jessie appeared in the dim hallway looking mildly disheveled.

“Yeah, fine,” she said, blushing. “I’ve got this. You guys get the lights on.”

Kyle turned his flashlight back down the hallway and walked off. Scott followed close behind, and the murmur of voices behind them faded away.

As soon as they were out of earshot, Scott burst out with a hiss of frustration. “Who the fuck does that Xavier guy think he is?” Scott made sure to mispronounce the name in a terrible French accent. “God, what an ass.”

“I know, man. I know,” Kyle sympathized, only half paying attention to his friend “Let’s just find our way out of here, then we can go home. Good news is those guys won’t be staying. Jessie’s going to be embarrassed as hell about this once we’re back to normal.”

Kyle turned down the hallway that opened out onto the stage. The theater seemed even more massive than before.

They crossed to the stairs at the edge of the stage, and made their way up the aisle. The old stairs creaked in protest.

Kyle’s toe caught the edge of a step, and he stumbled. The flashlight skittered away from his hand and flickered out.

“Fucking hell!” Scott almost fell on top of Kyle, but grabbed on to the banister. “I can’t fucking see!”

“Shut up!” Kyle felt for the flashlight and found it on the stair in front of him. He clicked it on and got to his feet.

“Thank fucking God,” Scott breathed. Kyle could see Scott’s knuckles were white from clinging on to the banister.

“Come on. Let’s get out of here,” Kyle said, trying to exude more confidence than he felt. “I don’t like this place.”

They made it into the lobby, which was in even worse repair than the auditorium, and found the narrow stairs Robert had mentioned. There was a window at the top of the staircase, letting in a hint of the moonlight outside. Even that tiny glow was a relief.

Scott fished around in his wallet for his lock picks while Kyle led the way up the stairs. He tried the door and it swung open at his touch.

“Really?” Scott glared at the door. “God damn it.”

“Fucking hell,” Kyle muttered. “Let’s just find the fuse box and get the hell out.”

Kyle swept the flashlight’s beam around the cluttered office, finally fixing it on the fuse box behind the manager’s desk. He hurried over, flung open the box’s cover, and looked down the row of switches.

There. And there. And there. God, that one, too.

Kyle flipped each of the switches. With the last one, the lights in the office flared to life.

The boys both breathed a sigh of relief.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Kyle said, leading the way back to the door. Scott didn’t follow. “Scott. Come on.”

He turned back to his friend, and saw him transfixed by a large photograph in a gilt frame on the wall. It was the only thing in the entire office not completely covered in a layer of dust and grit.

“Scott, let’s—

Kyle trailed off as he looked at the photo.

“That’s my Grandma Millie,” Scott pointed to a beautiful woman standing at one side of the group. She was wearing a well-tailored dress and a dainty porcelain magnolia in her perfectly coiffed hair.

Kyle’s eyes fell on her, then scanned the rest of the faces.

“Holy fuck.”

Familiar faces filled the photo. Xavier, Adrienne, Vic. The rest of the crew. All looking exactly as they had backstage, and staring back at them from the photograph.

Scott tore the picture from the wall and charged back down the stairs, Kyle right on his heels.

They bolted through the lobby and down the wide steps of the auditorium, Scott pulling ahead with his lanky legs. “Jessie!” he shouted. “Jessie!”

They burst into the backstage, and found it black as night. Kyle yanked out his flashlight again and they peered into the darkness.

The dust on the floor was untouched and all the dressing room doors were closed.

“Jessie!” Scott yelled again.

“Xavier?” Kyle said into the darkness. “Adrienne? Robert! Jane!”

Kyle pushed the door of the nearest dressing room open.

Empty.

He and Scott crept down the hall, nudging each door open, finding each room abandoned and still.

The last door creaked when Kyle pushed on it.

Jessie was sitting on one of the rickety dressing room chairs, staring dazedly into the mirror before her, clutching something tightly in her hand.

“Jessie!” Scott ran over to her and knelt. “Jessie, you ok?”

She turned to him slowly, her eyes unfocused.

“Jessie?” he repeated.

She snapped out of her reverie.

“Scott! What happ—

He engulfed her in a hug.

She pulled away from him a moment later. “Scott—

“What’s that?” Kyle interrupted, gesturing at Jessie’s hand.

She held it up in the flashlight’s beam. The light fell shone on white porcelain of a sculpted magnolia.

“That—” Kyle trailed off.

Scott held up the photo that was still clutched in his hand, moving it into the light.

The beam fell on Scott’s grandmother like a spotlight, illuminating her smile and the porcelain magnolia pinned in her hair.

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