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Roy’s hand dripped over the chalice. Crimson drops made black in the dimness, echoing as they mingled with the blood of everyone else who had preceded us.
“What the—” I began, grabbing for Roy’s arm to pull him back, but he shoved me away.
“I don’t even feel it anymore. Besides, it’s a small price to pay for what you’re about to experience.”
The black glove that squeezed Roy’s wrist finally let go and withdrew behind the ebony curtain of the ticket booth. Roy produced a cloth bandage from his pocket and expertly tied it around his hand.
“Dude,” I said, “if that’s the price for admission, I don’t want anything to do with these guys.”
Roy threw his arm around me and ushered me through the doors of the auditorium. “Don’t say that until you’ve at least heard them once. Trust me, it’ll change your mind about everything.”
I’d already seen enough. That lightless ticket booth, those velvet-gloved hands reaching from behind the curtain, the knife. When Roy had first told me about Oblivion’s Call, I was barely interested. I only gave in when Roy assured me that the first three concerts were free, that I had nothing to lose.
But after the ticket booth, I was done. Free or not, this was too messed up. I tried to break away from Roy, but he caught me and steered me to our seats.
“This is the only one,” I said. “I don’t care how good their music is.”
Roy smiled as he settled into his seat. “We’ll see about that.”
The stage was hidden behind a heavy black curtain. I couldn’t look at it without imagining those hands reaching out. I closed my eyes and shook my head.
Roy nudged me. “It’s starting.”
Reluctantly, I looked up. The curtain swayed, parted—
All the lights went out.
The darkness was absolute. My heart thudded. I held my breath. Waiting. The silence grew and grew. I looked around, but couldn’t even find an exit sign. It was like someone had tied a black sack around my head.
I waited longer. The growing silence felt like a balloon, inflated to the point of bursting. I tensed in my seat, expecting something loud, something painful. I almost imagined I could see the darkness swelling out from the invisible stage toward me.
I nudged Roy. “Is something supposed to be happening?”
He didn’t answer me. I couldn’t tell if he was ignoring me or just oblivious.
I threw myself back in my seat, crossed my arms, and waited for the lights to come back on. A blood toll for two hours of silence? Was this some kind of joke? A black-market blood drive? I thought about just getting up and leaving, but I’d never be able to escape the theater in this darkness.
And then a shape twisted through the darkness in front of me.
I sat forward. The lights came back on.
The empty stage answered none of my questions. I turned to Roy, but he seemed too enraptured to do anything but grin as he led me out of the auditorium, past that repulsive ticket booth (the chalice was gone), and out into the night.
The cool air seemed to snap Roy out of his reverie. “So?”
“That was the biggest two-hour waste of my life.”
“You didn’t hear anything?”
“You didn’t see anything?”
Nothing worth mentioning. I shook my head.
Roy shrugged. “Their next concert’s in a week.”
“Are you kidding me? I don’t care if it’s free. I have better things to do with my Friday nights.”
“You think so now,” said Roy. “They all do. I’ll see you then, same place same time.”
The absence of a questioning tone infuriated me. “I won’t be there.”
But Roy simply waved goodbye and vanished into the night.
“Where were you Friday night?” asked Malory. “I tried calling.”
“You remember Roy?” I said.
She nodded slowly, as if trying to pull together hints of a memory into something cohesive.
“He came back out of the blue and invited me to a concert. Have you ever heard of Oblivion’s Call?”
“No. What kind of band are they?”
I snorted. “Band? No, you actually have to play something to be called a band.” I told her about the concert, about the darkness and the silence.
“Free admission though. That’s generous of them, at least.”
“Yeah, but you get what you pay for.”
Malory pondered for a moment, then asked, “If Roy paid in blood, what did he get?”
I remember when Roy first encountered Oblivion’s Call. We were just hanging out when he got this worried look on his face. I asked him what was wrong.
“I got a call the other day. Some guy I used to know. Wanted me to go to a concert with him. This band I’d never heard of.”
He stopped there, but his worried expression didn’t.
“Were they any good?”
He jumped, like he’d forgotten I was there. “I’ll give them another shot. First three concerts are free, so I’m told.”
I didn’t see much of Roy after that. Ran into him a few times throughout the year, but we never got together. Just said “hey” now and then, an occasional “we should do something sometime” that never bore fruit. He seemed thinner.
Then he called me one night and asked if I wanted to go to a concert by this group he’d been following, Oblivion’s Call.
Should have said no, I thought as I lay in bed Tuesday night. Four days later and I still couldn’t get over the absurdity of it. Who in their right mind would let some veiled stranger slice their hand open just so they could sit in the quiet dark for two hours?
I fell asleep Tuesday night thinking that perhaps Roy needed to see someone in a lab coat. I woke up Thursday morning thinking that maybe I needed to see someone as well.
I remembered lying awake in my bed. It was dark. I couldn’t see anything except my curtains. They hung still around a window I could only guess was there, a window thrown open to an expanse of silence. A whole world where nothing stirred in a night that never ended, where whatever denizens survived did so without eyes. And although my curtains never swayed, I was constantly trying to blink the impression of movement from my vision. Something swimming, either in the fluids of my eyeballs or in the air of my bedroom or in the outer darkness beyond. A shape neither pale nor dark, a shape that I couldn’t confirm or deny seeing without feeling like I was lying.
And I thought of Oblivion’s Call and their absurd concert of sightless silence. Of that moment at the end, when it felt like my eyes seemed to open a second time and the lights came on.
What had I seen?
By Thursday night I’d waved it off as a dream. Roy was cracked. So was everyone else in the auditorium that night. It made me wonder if there was something on that knife. Maybe Roy and the others were drugged. Maybe they thought they heard music. Maybe they saw bright lights and wild colors where a sober mind saw nothing.
Nothing. I’d seen nothing.
I woke Friday morning from a dream of a memory. A memory of lying awake in my bed staring out the window into nothingness. A dream-corrupted memory of a voice. A voice, not as I lay in bed trying to sleep, but as I sat in a dark theater trying to see and hear and understand.
Yes. I’d sat in that auditorium next to Roy, and I had heard something. A song that looked like a ghostly shape floating in the darkness.
No. I’d sat next to a crazy, drugged fan boy and seen only what my light-starved eyes invented. Heard only the ambient breath of an expectant crowd.
There was one way to know for sure. And what did I have to lose? The first three concerts were free.
Roy held out his hand and let the knife slice him open.
“How do they know?” I asked. “Couldn’t anyone just walk in and claim it was their first? Or second? They can’t keep track of everyone who comes.”
Roy bandaged his hand and shrugged. “They know.”
“Has anyone ever tried?”
He wrinkled his nose like he’d just sniffed something bad. “I think anyone who comes back for a fourth time is more than happy to pay their share.”
We found our seats and waited. Everything was as I remembered. The heavy black curtain shrouded the stage. Just as it started to pull back, the lights faded away.
A sigh rippled through the audience. Next to me, Roy added his own voice, like a man settling into a warm bath after a long day. I kept my eyes fixed on the darkness of the stage. My ears were alert for the slightest sound. I noticed more than I had a week ago. Throats clearing. Bodies shifting in their seats. Sniffles, sighs, and creaks. But these came from around me, not in front of me, not from the invisible stage. From there came only silence. If I heard anything from that direction, it was only the whistle of air through empty space, through channels unseen, funneled through constricted openings to produce the impression of a voice, but nothing I could call with any certainty a song.
And my eyes, unblinking, saw only the static one sees behind closed eyelids. Through the pain in my forehead, I tried to picture that amorphous shape. But it was gone from my memory. I could only conjure facsimiles that moved about the stage, bubbling like black tar beneath a moonless night sky, pacing like jungle panthers behind a screen of black vegetation.
I squinted against the sudden light. The theater roared with shuffling feet and laughing voices. I followed Roy outside.
“Was it better this time around?” he asked.
I couldn’t formulate a response. Did I hear more? Did I see more? No answer seemed adequate. Real or imagined, I couldn’t tell. And did it matter? If I experienced it, did that make it real? Had I experienced anything?
I looked back at the theater entrance. Could I still hear the last notes echoing? No. There had been no notes. That was in my dream. In my sleep. I was awake now. In the real world, there was no song. No beautiful voices.
“The third concert’s—”
“Next week,” I said. “I won’t come. This is ridiculous.”
“It’ll change your life, man.”
“I like my life the way it is, thanks.” I waved goodbye and walked away. I only got a few steps when I heard a thump and turned back to look.
Roy was picking himself up off the sidewalk. He staggered for a moment, then wandered off in the opposite direction.
They really are drugged, I thought.
I watched Roy a while longer, just to make sure he didn’t veer into the street and get run over. He looked like a stick figure draped in clothes. Once he was out of sight, I walked home.
“You went again?” asked Malory. “I thought you said the first one was a waste of time.”
“It was,” I said. “This one, too. I guess I just got curious. Wondered if I missed something. The way Roy talks about them, you’d think they were the greatest act to ever grace the stage.”
“It could be Roy’s just…” She tapped her skull and whistled like a cuckoo.
“You got that right. Anyway, I’m free next Friday if you want to do anything.”
“I don’t know. Crazy or not, you’ve got me curious.”
“No way,” I said. “I’m not going back again. It was a mistake to go the second time, I won’t be suckered into a third.”
I was never one for singing, not even to myself in the shower. On Wednesday I found myself rubbing my throat, trying to massage away a soreness that came on with no explanation. I hadn’t been sleeping well, but I wasn’t sick. Then, as I heated a cup of tea, I realized I was humming. Not a song. Just a single, continuous note, low and quiet. If there was a melody, it was only because of my wavering vocal chords. I stopped myself, and the soreness abated.
I called Roy on Thursday. The night before, as I tried to fall asleep, I stared out the window and saw him staggering down the sidewalk, weaving left and right, slipping close to the curb before careening the other direction. He was a shade of himself, withered and twig-like. I called out to him, but in the dream he couldn’t hear me.
His voice on the phone was a welcome relief. If he’d gotten into an accident on his way home that night—
“I’ll see you tomorrow night, yeah?”
I hesitated. “No. I told you, I’m not wasting another evening.”
“Come on, man, just one more? Just one more concert. If you aren’t a Oblivion’s Call fan after that, I promise I’ll never speak to you again.”
“I said come with me tomorrow night, and if you aren’t convinced, I’ll stop bugging you about it.”
“I thought you said—”
“Deal? Deal.” He hung up.
It was my new ritual, lying in bed, alone, staring through those motionless curtains out into the eternal dark. The line between wakefulness and sleep was a liquid thing, bleeding out on either side.
Thursday night, as I watched and waited for something to move between me and the stars, I heard someone whisper next to me.
My mattress was suddenly made of needles. All my muscles felt like lead beneath skin that had gone as hard and cold as porcelain. I could only lie on my back, staring ahead at the window, no longer waiting but dreading the moment when some dark thing would blot out the stars.
Someone whispered from my other side. I could tell neither age nor gender, and the words were lost to me. Just babble, a dark language from some cold and empty country.
I couldn’t help but turn toward that one English phrase. To my left, I saw Roy sitting next to me in the auditorium, erect in his seat, gaze directed forward at the stage. He wore a hooded sweatshirt so I couldn’t see his face.
The whispered babbling grew as the theater filled. Dim figures appeared in the seats around us, all hooded, all transfixed by the darkness I refused to look at. Their voices were a dull buzz in my ear. Painful. Like ice at the base of my skull. My throat was dry, so dry that when I asked Roy if we could leave, no sound came out. Thirst. Desperate thirst. The pain in my ears grew, nearly unbearable now. Tears swelled in my eyes.
Roy turned toward me.
He had no face beneath the hood. Just an empty void, utterly black.
My ears rang as I climbed out of bed, squinting against the sunlight. It was like someone had struck a tuning fork, and its pure note lingered in the air like a sublime fragrance.
It was the voice from the concert, the one I’d heard last night. No, there hadn’t been a concert last night. That was last week. And no again, I hadn’t heard anything. It was all in my head, the result of my subconscious trying to make sense of all that darkness and silence.
Too bad, because it was a beautiful voice. The fabricated memory of it made me thirsty for more, thirsty like I was lost in the desert, thirsty like I’d never been before or even imagined was possible.
So I’d meet Roy tonight. It was just one more concert. And it was free.
“What do they look like?” I asked as those gloved hands with their bloody knife withdrew behind the curtains of the ticket booth. The metal stink of the chalice stung my nose.
“Look like?” echoed Roy. “You mean their outfits? Their faces?”
I nodded and waited for him to answer. But he just walked into the auditorium and sat down. I joined him, still waiting, but he seemed to have forgotten all about the question. He stared straight ahead, and I shivered as I remembered my dream from last night.
The theater filled in around us. No one wore cloaks or hoods. No one whispered. I could see their faces plainly as they waited in rapt attention for the curtains to part and the lights to dim. I wondered how many were first-time, second-time, third-time attendees. Was anyone in this audience as uncertain as I was? Was I alone in my confusion, the only one here who hadn’t given themselves over completely to the mystery?
The smell of the chalice still clouded my sinuses, and for the umpteenth time I questioned my sanity. Roy was a framework of a human being, a scarecrow. I’d once thought of him as chubby, but now his pale skin stretched transparently over his skull. I noticed that he took deep, shuddering breaths. Excitement? Or illness? I reminded myself that the knife that collected admission fees might be drugged, and also wondered for the first time if it was thoroughly sanitized between attendees. If not, Roy could be full of all kinds of diseases.
The more I paid attention, the more I realized that nearly everyone in the theater was panting like Roy. Beneath the metallic scent of blood from the chalice, I picked up the sour breath of a hundred strangers all gasping in the air.
The lights went out.
As it had the first time two weeks ago, my heart pounded, but harder this time. The gasps of the audience seemed to gather close around me, rasping louder in my ears. I gripped my armrest and recoiled at the feel of someone’s cold hand—no, it was just the polished wood. Decorative grooves carved into it so it only felt like fingers—
Then the singing started.
It was that same note that had filled my head these past few weeks, drawn out of my nightmares and into what I could only assume was my waking life. This was real, wasn’t it?
It made me dizzy. My seat seemed a hundred feet below me as I drifted up toward the invisible source of that voice, but Roy’s rattling breath reminded me very suddenly that I was still anchored by gravity to the floor. And it wasn’t just Roy. Everyone was whimpering, wheezing, sighing. The sound brought to mind a room full of children having the life choked out of them.
And above it all, constant, droned that angelic note, but its sweetness was noxious, less like music and more like a cry of despair. A cry borne on a wind of blood and decay.
I peered ahead into the darkness, crushed back in my seat, loving and dreading the sound, begging for it to be over. I couldn’t bear to look at the darkness any longer, couldn’t bear to close my eyes. I came here tonight to see something, but I didn’t want to see the mouth that uttered that abhorrent note.
But when I did see, there was no mouth. No face. Hardly a form at all that I could recognize. It stood where the stage might have been, tall and still. Something that might have been a human shrouded in a floor-length black sheet. No, it couldn’t be human. How long had it been uttering that single tone, uninterrupted for breath? And what breath could escape that shroud without stirring it? Although my mind interpreted the vision as cloth, it may have been stone for all it moved. Yes, that had to be what it was: a statue.
And then the statue raised its arms, and the groans of the audience were agony to me. For a moment I could see them; there was no light, but as with the veiled figure on the stage I could see them in sketches of charcoal, hands clamped over their ears, fingers clawing at their own throats, mouths agape in desperate bids for air.
Then the lights were on. They sat around me, peaceful. No sign of discomfort. Many even smiled as they rose and filed out of the auditorium.
The stage was hidden behind the curtains. I hadn’t seen them close. There was no sign of the shrouded figure.
When we were outside, Roy asked, “Well, has it changed your life?”
I stared dumbly at him for a full minute, hating his expectant grin. “I am going to try very hard,” I said, “to forget these past three weeks.”
His smile shrank, but only a little. “Not everyone gets it. But a promise is a promise. I won’t speak to you again.”
“You mean you won’t bother me about these stupid concerts.”
He renewed his smile, turned his back on me, and walked away.
That night, I didn’t dream.
I awoke Monday morning feeling hollow. I’d heard nothing from Roy since Friday night, and had slept soundly every night after. My mind was quiet.
But something didn’t feel right.
After pondering over breakfast, I decided it was repressed curiosity. Since the third concert, I’d made good on my promise to forget Oblivion’s Call. But as I cracked that door open, I realized I still knew nothing about them or their music or their uncanny sway over Roy and his fellow fans. And once the door was cracked, I couldn’t shut it again.
I stopped by the theater that afternoon. It was closed, but I could see a janitor mopping the floors just inside the lobby. I knocked on the glass door. The janitor glanced at me, pointed at the “closed” sign, and went on mopping. I knocked again.
He scowled at me, but left his mop in its bucket to unlock the door. “Can I help you?”
“I wondered if you could tell me anything about Oblivion’s Call.”
“Oblivion’s Call. They’re performing on Friday night.”
He wrinkled his face in annoyed confusion. “There’s no concert Friday night. Nothing’s scheduled until next month.”
“What about last Friday? They were here then. And the week before.”
The janitor peered at me through squinted eyes. “Nobody’s performed here. No one will until next month.”
“But I was at the concert on Friday.”
“Were you now?”
I looked around the lobby. There was the ticket booth, no curtains, empty. I shook my head and left. The janitor locked the door behind me.
My phone rang. I answered without checking the number, and my stomach tightened when I heard Malory’s voice.
“I tried calling you Friday night.”
“You did?” I swallowed and tried to come up with an explanation. “That’s…weird.”
“I’m not an idiot. You went to that concert with Roy.”
“You said it was a waste of time, but I guess that’s only if you went with me.”
“Do you know how long it’s been since we went on a date?”
“Almost a month. That’s right. Ever since Roy and his stupid Oblivion’s Call. Well guess what? Since you like them so much, you can go see them every Friday. I don’t care. I hope it’s worth it, because you won’t be seeing any more of me.”
Before I could reply, she hung up.
I stood across the street from the theater, watching people disappear inside. I had no intention of joining them, of offering my hand to the blade and sitting through two hours of silence and darkness. I only wanted to confirm my memories.
The theater wasn’t closed. The janitor was either mistaken or lying. That meant I wasn’t crazy.
I’d gotten what I came for, but now I couldn’t make myself leave. That repressed curiosity. No, I wouldn’t go through those doors. I wouldn’t join that insanity for a fourth time.
But I had to know. Who was Oblivion’s Call? How did they cultivate a following so loyal they’d offer their blood just for a concert?
I crossed the street. Avoiding eye contact with everyone else on the sidewalk, I made my way around to the back of the building. Found a door. Found it was unlocked. Slipped inside.
The back corridors of the theater were dimly lit. The air buzzed with flickering, sickly light. Aside from that, the only sound was my own footsteps echoing off concrete floors and cinderblock walls.
I tried several doors on my way toward the stage. Most were locked. Most that weren’t were maintenance or storage closets. One opened onto a room so dark I couldn’t see more than a couple feet. I immediately regretted opening it. The sight of such solid blackness sent my heart pounding toward the back of my ribcage, like my very soul was trying to run from the darkness.
“There you are.”
I jumped at Malory’s voice and spun to find her marching down the corridor.
“Waste of time, is it? Yet here you are, back for a fourth.”
“What are you doing here?”
Malory rolled her eyes. “After everything I’ve heard, did you really think I could stay away? If nothing else, I had to see what was so interesting that you’d blow me off and lie to me and—”
This one hasn’t paid the toll.
I thought it was in my head, but Malory had gone silent and was staring at the air above and behind me. The hairs on my neck went rigid.
A free offering? hissed a second voice. Or maybe it was the same one, whispering and androgynous. I couldn’t make myself turn to look. Malory’s face, twisted and gaping, was all I needed to see.
A dry, frigid breath brushed me from behind as a third voice said, We don’t get those very often.
All the lights in the corridor went out. I became thoughtless, save for the one overpowering thought that I needed to get out.
What of the other? It owes us nothing yet.
It saw our faces.
Then we must.
Malory screamed. Her shrill voice was overpowered and cut off by a deep growl and a heavy crunch. In the silence that followed, I heard a steady dripping.
I needed to run. Make my iron legs move and run.
Before I could take a single step, my arms were seized in a grip that felt like winter branches. I thought that maybe I could break the twigs if I tried, but at their sharp touch I could not move. Another hand brushed my forehead, ran its knotty fingers through my hair, then pulled. My head was jerked back.
We’ll sing well tonight.
Always better this way.
Fresh and undiluted.
A line of fire burst across my exposed neck. I heard splashing around my feet. Something like three sheets of tattered, wrinkled paper began caressing my throat.
I went limp, but those impossibly strong hands held me upright. Pain gave way to dizziness, dizziness to a deeper blackness. As I faded from existence, my mind was filled with the most beautiful singing.