A Soft White Glow

October 1, 2015 at 12:00 AM

I didn’t want us to move, but my parents didn’t give me a say in the matter. My father’s new job paid much better than anything he could have landed within driving distance of our home in the city, and the new company agreed to hire my mother, too. Not only would she have the chance to go back to work for the first time since I’d been born, but the two incomes would afford us the money to buy a house — an actual house, my father stressed — that even came with some land attached. They promised me it would be a welcome change from our apartment in the city. To them, our home was merely a cramped little space where we lived on top of one another, and that we didn’t even own. It rankled them to shell out more and more money every year to an unseen landlord for permission to occupy space, simply because that person had wealth and we did not. It was if we would not be granted the right to exist if we were any poorer than we currently were.

My parents didn’t much care that I liked being in the city. There, I never had to confront my fear of the dark. A light always burned somewhere in the city — the sky by day, the streets by night.

More than anything, it was the lack of light in the countryside that I wasn’t prepared for. Things weren’t so bad in the daytime, when the sunlight shone in the grass and speared between the tree branches to dapple the ground below. Come nightfall, however, our new home and its vicinity became a different world entirely. The darkness in the countryside was absolute. No matter how long you stared into it, your eyes would never adjust. Unless there were a strong moon in the sky, you would be condemned to blindness once the lights went out, and forced to rely on your ears and touch and imagination until the sunrise restored your eyesight.

I fell into the habit of leaving the blinds in my bedroom open at all times, including at night, so that the sunlight could start streaming in as soon as it breached the horizon.

* * *

We had finished with the move in the spring. The dark and seemingly endless nights in the country had me on edge within a week. I looked forward to the summer and its progressively longer days.

I came to learn that it wasn’t the dark itself I was afraid of, not quite. I hated what it did to my senses. Imagined motions — particularly flurries of static like on the screen of a broken television — rushed over my eyes when they remained open in the darkness and found nothing to draw their focus. My ears would pick up sounds that drove me crazy if I couldn’t immediately put a source to them: the creaking of the house as it settled into its foundation, the yowling calls of animals out in the distance, the lonely and sorrowful moans of the wind through the pines. Then there was the problem of my own body, and discovering that no position in bed was comfortable once I started thinking about it.

Mostly it was the feeling of abandonment I couldn’t stomach. Nothing in my life had prepared me for how isolating rural living can be. In the city, you never want for human contact; the streets are never empty, and the public venues always crowded. In our new home, hidden away among large swaths of field and forest, there was nobody around but us. Once my school day ended, I was effectively done with seeing other people. In the evenings I felt like a castaway marooned in the middle of a sea of grass, and at night, that sea seemed to swell and broaden, pulling me even further from the world I knew and loved.

I never could deal with the overwhelming sense of space the surrounding fields gave me. Open air was not something I had ever experienced in the city. I soon discovered I didn’t like it. What did I care about a bunch of grass? Where other kids my age might want to roam the fields and explore, I found I would much rather stay inside, surrounded by the safety of walls and floors and ceilings and the finite. Plus, there were no mosquitoes indoors.

And there was no computer outside to connect me with the friends from back home that I hadn’t yet lost in my great uprooting. I spent fewer hours basking in the sun than in the glow of my monitor, trying to maintain friendships that slowly slipped away as life happened differently to each of us, and brought my friends new excitements that I had no part in to replace our shared memories.

* * *

“You should eat some more,” said my father at the dinner table. “You’ve lost weight these last weeks.”

I tried to put down seconds.

“Try going outside tomorrow, too,” he added. “You’re looking pale.”

“If I have time, sure.”

It was obvious they worried about me — but not enough to reconsider the move.

“Why don’t you call your friends tonight?” my mother suggested. “They’d be glad to hear from you.”

“Yeah. I’ll do that.”

It was easier to tell them what they wanted to hear. I could have mentioned that the silences when I called my friends were now longer than the sentences. Yet somehow it didn’t seem right to let my mother know that my friends and I didn’t have much to talk about anymore.

* * *

In wishing for the change of season, I hadn’t accounted for the heat. We’d always had an air conditioner in our apartment in the city. The new house, however, had no means of cooling down besides opening the windows. I had thought the nights in the springtime were miserable by virtue of their length. I knew nothing of the unpleasantness of summer nights, of simmering sleepless in one’s own sweat no matter how many sheets and layers one shed. Sometimes I caught myself exhaling a low, lonely moan, like I’d heard in the trees.

One summer night, when it was too hot to sleep, I found myself staring through my dark window, wishing the pinholes of starlight above were enough to brighten the earth. They sparkled, winking at me through passing cirrus clouds as if they were teasing me. Some even seemed to descend from the sky, lighting on the fields below. It occurred to me that stars don’t really “fall” like that — despite the fears and warnings of the world’s early civilizations — and I began to wonder whether my mind was playing tricks on me again.

When the fallen stars started to shimmer and flash, I realized what I was actually seeing: fireflies!

I had never glimpsed one before, having only the fakes from movies and television for reference, but I didn’t think there was anything else the lights outside could be. They certainly moved like fireflies, tracing lazy arcs between blades of grass before disappearing into the darkness, and surfacing from the blackness again some distance away. I watched them flit and flicker until I felt tired enough to sleep through the heat.

In the morning they were gone, but the fireflies returned the next night. The soft white glow they trailed through the field’s tall grass gave me a sense of deep comfort, like what children must feel around their night-lights. With each brief flash, I felt as if the fireflies were calling me to play. Few things seemed more fun to me in those moments than chasing the little white motes around. Yet I worried about being eaten alive by the mosquitoes that surely swarmed out there — and about finding my way back to the house in the dark — so I remained indoors.

Inwardly, I was already preparing myself for the season to come, when the fireflies would pass from the field, and into memory and regret. If our abrupt move from the city taught me anything, it was that nothing lasts. It was best to inure myself to it sooner than later.

* * *

The cold season struck early that year, snowing in mid-October before the trees had the chance to drop their leaves. They couldn’t bear the extra burden, and their limbs snapped beneath the loads they were never meant to carry. Oftentimes they took power lines with them, and we spent several days without electricity. The wreckage outdoors looked to me like the world had ended — in ice rather than fire, answering an old question. I wondered how the fireflies had fared in the unseasonable cold, figuring that few of them had survived.

Imagine my surprise when I peered out my window one night at the tracts of snow, faintly blue beneath the crescent moon, and saw clusters of fireflies glittering over their favorite haunt. At first, the sight left me bewildered — how could cold-blooded insects endure the premature winter’s chill? Then again, I knew nothing of firefly ecology. Perhaps they were hardier bugs than I thought. My confusion soon gave way to joy, for the fireflies’ soft glow filled me with the same warm feelings it always had. Their playful glint seemed to promise all the pleasures I had wished for through the years, and never attained.

A thought arrived, unbidden, as if it came from outside of me: that nothing would make me happier than to stand amidst the procession of fireflies in the field, to let their glow wash over me, to reach out and touch the light I’d craved.

I resolved to venture out into the field once the moon was full. With all the fallen snow to reflect the moonlight, it would be as good as daytime; I could find my way back to the house in it easily. And surely the cold snap would have killed off all the insects out there that wanted to drink my blood.

* * *

Before the end of the month, the night came when the moon shone full like a silver sun. I waited until my parents had gone to sleep. Then I headed downstairs, put on my snowboots and bundled myself in my winter coat, and went outside. The glassy scent of the cold shocked my airways and stung my lungs as I trudged toward the firefly field. The blanketed snow muted every sound, making my footsteps seem yards away, and my breath belong to somebody beside me though I saw it cloud and disperse before my eyes. In the distance, the fireflies rose from the ground like snowfall in reverse. Even through the frigidity of the air, the sight of them warmed me. I picked up my pace.

As I neared, the fireflies drifted away from me like dandelion tufts on a breeze. I thought I had startled them, so I slowed my approach. I crept toward them, planting my every step lightly enough that the thin layer of frost over the snow made no noise as it broke beneath my weight. The fireflies retreated, but less than before. A few cautious steps later, and they hardly moved at all, floating in space as if I were not there. They allowed me to tread into their midst.

Surrounded by the little glowing sparks, I felt a happiness unlike any I had known. I giggled, delirious with pleasure. I was pricked by an urge to hurl myself onto my back and make a snow angel while the fireflies settled on my face. I threw out my arms. Several fireflies drew closer. One landed on my outstretched finger. Delighted, I brought it toward me. How thrilling it would be to see a firefly in the flesh!

It took me a moment to see the thing at the center of the soft white glow. Squinting, I could discern a few of its features. Then, as its image came into focus, I gasped as if I had been struck.

Whatever I held, it was no firefly.

I could not have told you exactly what it was. It resembled a human skull in miniature, ringed in pulsating white flame. It seemed to stare at me — into me — as I regarded it. There was a certain predatory intelligence behind its empty gaze.

My glance averted by instinct, and darted among the other glowing things. Were they the same as the one on my finger? I shook my hand, and the spectral skull drifted away. The rest of them encroached, gradually but deliberately. The low moan I had formerly ascribed to the wind soughed across the snow through the still air.

I heard a crack like a breaking bone, and my heart sank.

For I realized what I had never discovered hiding indoors: it was not a field the glowing creatures had led me to, but a bog.

The ice gave way, and I plunged into the freezing water. My boots dragged me down, dunking my head below the surface. The terrible cold forced the air from my lungs as my muscles began to quake. Above, the white lights bobbed like jellyfish, their outlines undulating in the turbulence.

The blackness under me looked darker than sleep. Small white spheres rose from it like bubbles. They skirted my cheeks, revealing bone grins inside their glow. I started to flail, but I found I could not move one leg — something grasped me by the ankle!

The shining little skulls gathered in the shape of a hand where I felt clutched. It tugged on me, and something like a white human silhouette raised itself from the depths. I thought I could see bones beneath its luminous skin. It brought its face up to mine, restraining my head between its palms. A bottomless loneliness radiated from its empty eyes, devouring, insatiable.

Then, as I fought to break free, it pressed its mouth to mine in a cold, hungry kiss that tasted like everything I had ever lost.

* * *

My parents tell me they found me in the morning, pale and emaciated, lying on the bank of the bog. They said I was shivering and unconscious, and feared I had gone into shock. At the hospital, I was supposedly treated for hypothermia. I remember none of it. The doctors discharged me with a relatively clean bill of health, advising me to pack on a few pounds in the meantime. They claim there’s nothing wrong with me.

But I know better.

I tremble beneath blankets even when the air is warm. I feel no hunger, and steadily drop in weight even if I can manage to eat anything. My skin picks up no color after hours in the sunlight.

It doesn’t matter what I lost, or where, or to what. I have no answer; nobody does. All I know — and all I need to know — is that some precious thing of mine is gone.

And I doubt it will come back to me, even if I knew where to look for it.

Credit: Lex Joy

A Figure in Gray

July 15, 2015 at 12:00 PM

A Figure in Gray

If you have spent any length of time in the United States, you owe it to yourself to play the 1985 arcade classic, Paperboy. In it, you assume the role of a preteen boy tasked with completing his daily paper route. For whatever reason, your hero’s beat is a particularly rough neighborhood. Its streets teem with aggressive drivers who would rather hit a cyclist than their brakes. On the sidewalks, bratty children steer kamikaze RC cars into passers-by — modern-day drone pilots in their larval form. Elsewhere, skateboarding adrenaline junkies find their greatest thrill in demolishing live obstacles like your paperboy. In some cases, your character will be accosted by a knife-wielding madman who comes charging out of a house and pursues at tremendous speed, inevitably catching your hero and robbing him of a precious life.

Taken as a whole, the game makes for an effective satire of Reagan-era America. It captures the needless paranoia of the suburbs, where people fear the harm some stranger or foreign power will inflict on them, without realizing the vanity — in all senses of the word — behind such a phobia. It shows the violence and cruelty of the average American percolating behind the facade of white picket fences and well-maintained lawns. Most importantly, it reveals how far some people will go to make a buck — or be compelled to go, for socioeconomic reasons beyond their control.

It would be troubling to consider these situations if the game didn’t make it all so damn funny. Odds are you will laugh too much while playing to think about many of the concerns the game raises. Perhaps it succeeds too well at its own satirical objectives.

You would be forgiven for assuming that the same merry cynicism found in Paperboy would carry over to its ’90s console sequel, Paperboy 2. Indeed, the second entry in the series contains every bit as much unnecessary peril — and consequent weird humor — as the first. You guide your choice of paperboy or papergirl through a suburban gauntlet featuring a whole new cast of memorable hostiles. A hermit holed up in a moat-ringed castle bombards you with cannon fire as you pass. Overzealous guard dogs chase you down the street. Roasting pigs, knocked off the spit by a misfired newspaper, do the same — evidently being grilled alive before your intervention, and none too happy with your interference. Runaway baby carriages, in a nod to the overpopulation worries of the modern world, mow you down if you are not attentive enough. Scarecrows, once hit with a paper, break from their stakes and ambush you, one hand raised in a Fascist salute all the while. The absurdity in Paperboy 2 runs high thanks to the game’s colorful cast.

Although perhaps “colorful” is not the right word…

As you play through the opening stages of Paperboy 2, you will notice one character who does not seem to belong, for he is, literally and figuratively, anything but colorful. He will first catch your eye because his palette is without color — he is the only person in the game rendered entirely in monochrome. He wears a gray sweatsuit. His neat and unremarkable hair is black. His stark white skin, however, is especially arresting, given the more nuanced flesh tones seen everywhere else in-game. His actions, too, are comparably bland. If left undisturbed, the figure in gray simply walks down his driveway, deposits a garbage can at the curb, then turns around and walks back to his house. If struck with a paper, he only freezes in his tracks. No attacks, no surprises. He is shockingly mundane in this world of cannons and mobile scarecrows.

If you have some knowledge of ’90s news curiosities, you might be able to excavate the unusual case of one Dennis R— from your memory banks. Assuming the national news outlets had the story straight, and reported it accordingly, Mr. R— was an actuary — or some other specialist whose profession hinges on the unchallenged yet specious assumption that the future will be like the past — who woke up one night, dismembered his infant twin sons and his wife of eight years, and brought their remains to the curb in a metal garbage can alongside all the other refuse of suburban life. The mechanical arm of the waste collection truck had not detected the can’s abnormal weight, and the landfill, too, was none the wiser. It was entirely possible that nobody would have noticed the absence of Mrs. R— and her children, had the local library not begun to seek compensation for a long overdue book that Mrs. R— never had the chance to return. Alas, Mr. R— was never properly sentenced, as he was killed in prison by other inmates before his trial could be finished.

Recalling this story, you might begin to sense a resemblance between the late Mr. R— and the figure in gray; indeed, after a cursory image search for his photograph on the internet, you would be impressed by how uncanny a likeness a few pixels can produce. You might even begin to suspect that the satire of the Paperboy series is alive and well in the second installment. Here the game designers have given you a world of crime and violence and fright, and yet the most horrible thing in it is something as innocuous as a man taking out his trash. Here all the paranoid suburbanites target a kid on a bicycle, as if he or she posed any actual threat, while the real danger lurks next door. You might speculate that Paperboy 2 is a satire of complacency, where prosperity and habit inure the average American against diligence and introspection, where the idealized image of the suburb discourages its residents from looking beyond the glistening veneer of civilization, and scrutinizing themselves or others. Even you, the attentive player, were fooled — did you think to inspect the gray figure’s garbage can for pixelated limbs? Of course not. Why would you? The world you find yourself in does little to suggest you should have. Therefore, through the inclusion of this nonchalant figure in gray, the game makes you complicit in the poisonous mindsets that suburban America incubates — a mature critique indeed for such an early video game.

Yet if you were to praise the developers of Paperboy 2 for their clever stunt, not one of them would take credit for it. For none of them would admit to drawing or programming the figure in gray. In fact, none of them would remember putting him into the game.

Credit To – Lex Joy

Two Minutes in the ‘Mancing Field

July 11, 2015 at 12:00 PM

I’m trying to see myself through the officer’s eyes, but I can’t seem to manage. To be expected, I suppose. Not big on the whole empathy thing; it can be problematic in my line of work.

Standard city cop fare, he’s wearing. No flak jacket. Slight gut, a forty-years paunch; unremarkable bones. Terrible specimen. Shame.

Harassing kids at the local cemetery is likely way beyond his pay grade. Doubt he’s happy to stop here. I’m not too happy about it, either.

Not yet.

Give it a minute.

He’s turned on the giant flashlight. Holds it like a javelin. A security blanket, not a weapon. Bet he’s unarmed. Shame.

Here comes the beam. First on my boots, black, rather shiny. The pants, heavily zippered, black. Now my jacket. Leather. Black, of course. Camouflage for moonless nights, far from the city where there’s no light pollution, where I can move freely.

He swings the beam into my eyes. The prick. Wonder what he sees. My pale skin all aglow, my short obsidian hair invisible in the dark. Looks like my face is floating there, I imagine. Maybe he thinks I’m some Goth out for thrills. Or melancholy, whatever it is they like. Wouldn’t know. Terrible at that empathy business.

He hasn’t discovered the hole yet. Marvelous. In another minute, he certainly will. What fun.

Too busy hovering the light over my eyes. Checking whether or not they’re bloodshot. Figures I’m addled. One of those chemical types. Who else would be in this place, at this late hour? Who, indeed! Well, let him search. Should keep him busy.

I didn’t bring the dog. Cop’s lucky. In that regard.

My dog’s a hound. Exceptional snout. Trained to sniff out lime. Cheap enough mineral. You can sprinkle it over bodies to prevent animals from digging them up, or to foil most police dogs.

Not my dog.

Where there’s lime, there’s something to hide. Often murder. Where there’s murder, there’s a set of bones imbued with rage. Or fear. Or hatred. Strong stuff. Makes the bones easier to use. More pliable. More suggestible.

Of course, you only need a hound when you’re searching out unmarked sites. Forests. Marshes. Dumpsters. Here, everything’s clearly marked. Easy to find the good specimens. Check the headstones. Hunt down the years with comparatively small gaps in between. Say, seventeen to thirty. Usually murdered; usually choice. Lots of them in the city.

It’s quite simple.

Better not to bring the dog. I can do the searching myself. Dog would only attract suspicion, being here. Cop might stop me for littering, not picking up after my pet.

Wish he’d move that beam already.

What did he say? Better not to answer. Half a minute, if not less.

Most people would think my profession died off in the medieval era, if it ever lived at all. How little they know. I have colleagues the world over.

It’s the Japanese ones who make me stand in awe. I hear they have funeral towers there. For lack of land. Have to build upward, bury at sky. Visiting hours, locked doors, like a hospital. Tight security. Too many living stares.

There goes the flashlight beam, leaving my eyes, trailing down to the soiled shovel by my feet. Now he’s scanning the ground, the piles of dirt on either side of the hole. And now the hole, wide, deep, black like strong treacle. He mumbles something. Perhaps wishes he brought his two-way radio. Then he notices an open book I’d dropped.

Sometimes, when you’re first learning the ‘Mancy, you need one of those dusty leather-bound tomes to help you. Agrippa. Paracelsus. Compounds to mix, words to utter. Not me. Not anymore. Memorized what I need. The only books I use are my journals, for notes, results.

Gorgeous results. I’ve many. The one thing at which I’m any good.

The flashlight zooms back to the hole. Was that a movement you glimpsed, officer? Delightful. No, it wasn’t me. I’m here, stock-still like a nice obedient boy.

Did you see something? Well, right on schedule. What was it? Do tell, though I’ve a notion.

Silent? But, why? Is that fright, officer?

Oh, now he knows what I am. What I do. What I can do. Most people, I’ve found, recognize ‘Mancing by instinct. There’s no mistaking it when they do. Those eyes. That look. The quaking beam that can’t tear itself away from the open grave.

A skinless hand reaches out of the hole, sinking its white bone fingers into the grass.

Not my best work, but good enough. You won’t have time to run, officer. Let the fun begin.

Credit To – Lex Joy

Mescalune’s Mobile Cinema

July 8, 2015 at 12:00 PM

Whether a precocious elementary schooler or a senior waiting to leave for college, all of us kids in Plainfield found ourselves counting down the days until Mescalune’s Mobile Cinema rolled back into town. There were no advertisements for it posted anywhere — especially not the public notice boards at the library or the town hall. Nor were particular return dates announced after the last screening. Nor did the mobile cinema have a set schedule by which to calibrate our internal clocks. We would always learn of its return from a rumor. Somebody would mention hearing of a showing two towns over, meaning our turn would come tomorrow night; or else someone would have heard on good authority from a friend of a friend that Plainfield would be the next town on the circuit, making next weekend the one we’d all been waiting for. And sure enough, one of those rumors would be true. We’d gather in the fields at the edge of town, and there would be Mr. Mescalune himself, dressed in his tattered top hat and patchwork tuxedo, standing outside the modified trailer that contained the rarest movie house in the world.

We would enter through the back of the trailer — if we were one of the lucky few to be admitted. Inside, the trailer contained a few rows of metal folding chairs welded to the floor, with a narrow aisle stretching down the middle. The chairs faced a stark white wall, onto which a projector dangling from the ceiling would beam whatever film Mr. Mescalune had to show us.

They were always worth seeing. Every one. Because you could see nothing like them anywhere else. Maybe we were biased, since Plainfield didn’t have a movie theater of its own. Or a roller rink. Or an arcade. Or anywhere else for kids to go for entertainment. Our parents weren’t big on such things. All the same, long after some of us had left Plainfield for greener pastures and had seen the kinds of movies everybody else had enjoyed, we had to admit that nothing was ever as exciting as the films of Mr. Mescalune.

We never knew exactly what to expect going in for a screening. Sometimes his films were no more than ten minutes long; others ran for over three hours. We could never recognize the actors and actresses onscreen — partially because we never had the chance to learn about and grow enamored of movie stars through magazines and gossip rags, since anything not a textbook would be confiscated at school. Mostly, though, it was because Mr. Mescalune’s films used no professional actors. Maybe he picked them for their looks, or for the sounds of their voices; maybe his casting selections had no logic whatsoever. It didn’t matter. The actors always showed real emotion in his films, no matter how large or small the role. You could tell they were giving it everything they had. You’d be forgiven for thinking they weren’t faking.

You could be sure of only one thing when you sat down to watch one of Mr. Mescalune’s films: somebody was going to die.

Their death wouldn’t always be gory. Sure, there were the bloody ones: the machete to the skull; the thousand strategic cuts of the razor; the gunshot at close range. Sometimes they went cleanly — garroted by a masked figure, for instance, or left twitching in a chair after drinking a glass of something toxic. Whatever the method, no matter how creative, the filmed death would be more realistic than you could imagine. And so too would be the performance leading up to it — the tears, the pleas, the screams.

That, we thought, was the chief virtue of Mr. Mescalune’s films. How real they were. How true they were. Having endured the blandness and falsehood of the whitewashed novels and television shows our parents forced on us, it felt as if we were seeing the world as it was meant to be seen for the first time in our lives. It was like being born, or reborn. We were all grateful to Mr. Mescalune for it. We greeted the end of each film with a standing ovation, and Mr. Mescalune, ever modest, would doff his grungy hat and give us a low bow.

We never told our parents about Mr. Mescalune. Not only because it would entail revealing that we had sneaked out of our rooms at night, and violated our curfews. We predicted that they’d claim he was the Devil, like they had with our trading card games and fantasy anthologies, and prohibit us from ever visiting him again.

He never charged us money for admission to his screenings. All he asked is that we enter his lottery. To each kid he admitted into the trailer, he provided a paper raffle ticket with a handwritten number on it. Once the film ended and our applause subsided, he’d reach into his hat and fish around inside until his gloved hand emerged holding a slip of paper. He’d read the number in his quiet, soothing voice, and check whether any of our tickets matched it. If none did, he would simply smile, shake hands with anybody who stayed behind to thank him for the show, and let us out into the moonlit fields, where the lingering crowd of the curious unadmitted anxiously questioned us about what we had seen.

For several years, we did not know what would happen if one held a matching ticket.

Then there came the night when Chris P— won the drawing.

Mr. Mescalune reached into his hat like usual, and we scarcely paid attention, accustomed as we were to the slim odds of having the right number. When he announced the winner, half of us didn’t even bother to glance at our tickets. Calm as ever, Mr. Mescalune repeated the number. That was when Chris, sitting in the front row, raised his hand. It was as if lightning had struck us, and melded us to our seats. This was something even more unprecedented than the films we came to see! We started clapping, and Chris stood and nodded to us politely as Mr. Mescalune came over to congratulate him. All of us were eager to learn what Chris’s prize would be, but Mr. Mescalune sent us on our way, keeping only Chris behind. Some of us waited outside the trailer for a long time afterward, but nobody emerged. Given the late hour, we had to head home, lest our families awaken and discover we weren’t where we should have been.

Chris’s absence from school the following day surprised nobody. Who wouldn’t take the day off after staying out so late? When he didn’t appear the day after, we were perplexed. Once an entire week elapsed, we were downright curious. Even so, we didn’t dare tell an adult. What would become of the mobile cinema once they learned of it? For that matter, what would become of us?

We didn’t glimpse Chris again until the next time Mescalune’s Mobile Cinema parked in the outskirts of town. Those of us who gained entry waited eagerly for the projector to warm up and give us what we needed to see. And when it finally flickered to life, dust motes swirling and sparkling in its beam, we beheld none other than Chris P— on the screen before us, sitting shirtless against a concrete wall. We erupted into thunderous applause. Our friend looked more alive on film than he ever had on the streets of Plainfield.

He looked up at the camera and stared forward, as if he were looking into each of our eyes. He knew who we were, after all — he knew we’d be there, watching, enjoying. We could feel that he dedicated this performance to us. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, tentatively, as though he had a monologue to recite, but couldn’t remember any of his lines. After a few attempts, he clenched his jaw, and fixed his gaze someplace beyond the camera. It was like he looked through us at that point. Like we were transparent. Or like we were ghosts. Like something that didn’t exist anymore, because we weren’t real enough to be worth acknowledging.

A shadow fell over the frame from the foreground, climbing up Chris’s face. At first, he stayed expressionless — resigned or stoic or simply refusing to emote. Then a low rumbling burbled over the speakers. Soon it gave way to a loud, unmistakable whir — the sound of a readied chainsaw. The tears began to stream from Chris’s eyes, as if they had a life independent of him. In another minute, the rest of him had caught up, and his body began to shake as he broke into convulsive sobs.

A figure wearing all black, with face obscured beneath a black ski mask, entered the frame. A chainsaw rattled in the figure’s gloved hands. Chris regarded the newcomer, and murmured something inaudible beneath the chainsaw’s whine. The words weren’t important, anyway. He could have narrated a shopping list, and it would have seemed imbued with purpose and meaning and vitality. He had us riveted.

The figure raised the chainsaw over Chris’s head. Our friend closed his eyes, trembling. The blade lowered toward his neck. The figure feinted once, twice. Then, in one powerful downward swing, the chainsaw bit into Chris’s spine. He yelped, but the sound was cut short as the blade did its work. His head flopped forward, then fell to the ground. The figure nudged it out of view, then left the screen.

For a minute and a half, the camera lingered on the headless body. The pool of blood widening beneath it was the sole sign of movement. Then the camera cut to black.

We could feel the realization percolating through us. What we beheld was no ordinary film. A scene that realistic could not have been faked. And gradually it dawned on us that Chris’s screen debut was not the exception, but the rule. Every film we had viewed at Mescalune’s Mobile Cinema documented the final moments of someone’s life. And we understood the price we paid for coming to see it.

We spent a few seconds figuring out how to react. We’d be lying if we said we hadn’t been moved. Somebody began a hesitant clap, and shortly thereafter, everybody else joined. The applause fed on itself, and grew. Some whistled. Others cheered. We were all on our feet within a minute.

And Mr. Mescalune stood beside the movie screen, and bowed, and held out his hat for the lottery drawing.

None of us were picked that night. We all went out into the fields, into the crowd, and relayed what we had learned. We let the news settle over us like fog. We didn’t talk about it, because there was nothing to say. Each of us mulled it over in our own personal silence. When we dispersed, all the stars in the sky glowed more brightly as we walked home.

Not one of us has drawn the winning number since Chris P— all those years ago.

But the night may yet come.

Because, even though we know the great secret of Mescalune’s Mobile Cinema, we have never missed a screening.

And the crowd that gathers at the edge of town for a chance to see one of Mr. Mescalune’s films is larger every time he visits.

Credit To – Lex Joy

The Thief in the Yellow Robe

October 30, 2014 at 12:00 PM

My training in Comparative Literature — my miserable graduate school experience in particular — taught me that there is much productive work to be done outside of one’s own academic department. You learn new things by diving into other disciplines. In turn, you come away with fresh ideas; and in turn, those can be synthesized into worthwhile discourses that can open exciting, untraveled pathways for your field. There is good reason why some of the most influential thinkers in the study of literature — Freud, Marx, Foucault, Derrida, to name a few — all came from fields seemingly unrelated to it.

Therefore, when I found that half of my department’s faculty — the half that apparently had no hand in my hire — despised me for reasons of varying merit, I began to look to other departments; if not for friendship, then at least for a less hostile work environment. I settled upon the Theatre Department. Although I had never formally studied drama, I had been involved in my high school’s theatre troupe long ago, and felt that my cursory knowledge and the innumerable plays I had read over the years would serve me well in any conversation among the professors. And indeed they did. I became fast friends with much of the Theatre faculty. When I was not teaching, and not trapped in my building by my bi-weekly office hours, I whiled away the time in the Q— Fine Arts Center, chatting up my colleagues, watching rehearsals, or even guest lecturing on Spanish and Russian tragedians.

Among my closest companions was one Professor B—, a gifted teacher and a playwright of some small renown. She had been granted tenure several years before my arrival at the university on the strength of a trio of semi-historical plays she had written. After that, she had, by all appearances, run out of ideas. Although she numbered among the university’s finest educators, and despite her many successful stagings of classic dramatic works, her output of original plays had clearly stalled. A persistent rumor — albeit one of considerable gravity — claimed she would not earn promotion to full professor as a consequence of her years-long dry spell.

I could only think of what a tremendous shame it would be not to raise Professor B— ‘s rank. Certainly I was prejudiced in her favor, but my favor came less from the caprices of human attraction, and more from what I had seen of her as a teacher. In addition to her unparalleled skill in the classroom, she handled student crises with the greatest expertise, where a lesser mortal would have failed or been driven to wit’s end.

One such instance I remember in particular. A graduating student, bedraggled and in tears, sought her counsel while the two of us enjoyed our lunches beneath the Q— Center’s proscenium arch. I wished I had not been there to intrude on the conversation, but he began to spill out his story before I could make myself scarce. The student claimed that one of the other drama professors, after granting him top marks on a final project, had proceeded to steal the script he had submitted, turning it into a soon-to-open Broadway production whose writing credits were in the professor’s name. The poor student only found out from an actor friend of his in New York City, whose familiarity with the student’s project caused her to mention it during a phone conversation. What could be done? Who would believe him if he brought forth the accusation of plagiarism?

Professor B— thought long and hard about the question. Then, to my utter astonishment, she advised the student not to raise a ruckus. I prepared to interject, but before I could, Professor B— said something that I have kept with me ever since:

“It is less discouraging to be stolen from,” she said, “than to need to steal.”

Indeed, she went on, this student was clearly a talented writer; the professor’s theft constituted his proof. Let him write more. Meanwhile, the professor’s inevitable failure to produce quality plays in the future — coupled with knowing his accolades came from a work not his own — would be a vengeance more emotionally devastating than any the student could inflict.

Her recommendation succeeded. The professor, tormented by a string of flops and critical pans, quit the trade a broken man. The student, taking up his pen with renewed fervor, went on to write several extremely successful plays that continue to run in theatres across the country. In the meantime, Professor B— had spared the offending professor further ignominy, and protected the student from a protracted legal battle he may not have won. The more I thought about her sage advice, the more I wished that I, too, could be so far-sighted and effective. I would have modeled my own advisement after hers, if only I knew how to practice it.

Thus it was with great distress that I watched Professor B—‘s chances for promotion slip away as no new writings materialized with the passing months; and my concerns grew all the more acute when she disappeared a couple of days after the semester’s end. She would answer neither phone calls nor emails, and her house remained empty each time I tried to pay a visit. I told myself that, in all likelihood, she had retreated to some secluded haven, devoid of cellular reception and Internet connections, where she could work on a play without distraction. Even so, a dark inkling led me to wonder whether she might have suffered a mental breakdown from the mounting pressure to compose another worthy drama. Her absence and silence did little to dispel my fears.

Professor B— returned several weeks later, offering no explanations. She did not need any. For when I next saw her, during a chance encounter in the university library, she held in her hands a sheaf of papers bound with brass fasteners — a completed manuscript! Leaden pouches sagged beneath her eyes, and her hair looked disheveled as if by a sudden wind, but I imagined her frantic efforts at writing were to blame for her haggard appearance. After all, I, too, had endured many a binge-writing session in my time; I knew what kind of toll it exacted. Furthermore, when Professor B— gave me a comely, victorious smile, and thrust her manuscript into my hands, any worries I had for her well-being evaporated. She would be fine, I thought; any energy she spent on her play would be returned to her tenfold.

She said I could keep the manuscript to read at my leisure, for she already had several hard copies in her possession, in addition to myriad digital backups. At the same time, she swore me to secrecy regarding its contents. A production was already in the works, she said; with the aid of some of her most promising graduate students, she would stage it before the next semester’s end. Of course, I was welcome to watch their rehearsals — provided I remained equally as reticent as I did concerning the script. I gave her my word that I would keep the door of my lips, and looked forward to reading her latest masterpiece.

That night, instead of pursuing my own research, I sat at my desk with the manuscript, as I knew I could accomplish nothing else until I read Professor B—‘s latest work. What an opportunity I enjoyed! Was this what it felt like to read a play by Ibsen or Miller before it appeared on stage? My excitement darted through me like an electric current as I glimpsed the first page, where the play’s title, “THE THIEF IN THE YELLOW ROBE,” seemed as freighted with meaning as the epitaph on an ancient grave.

I must admit that I could make little sense of Professor B—‘s title. It alluded to no literary work or figure that I knew of, and as I read more, its referent became still more opaque — for no character approximating a thief, much less one clad in yellow, appeared in the play! The action, from what I could determine, consisted of the nonsensical banter of a group of courtiers at a lavish banquet. Their exchanges appeared coherent at first, but devolved long before the end of the first act. They barely seemed to converse with one another, each spoken line a virtual non sequitur to whatever dialogue preceded it. It was as if Professor B— had written a complete draft of the play that included an additional character — whom she removed upon its completion, leaving the rest of the script intact. The resultant text was not without humor, but I felt more bafflement than levity upon finishing it.

What was I to make of such a work? At first, I imagined that poor Professor B— truly had cracked under her creative stagnation, and that I beheld the product of a damaged mind. I soon scolded myself for the thought, however. It was perhaps more plausible that Professor B—‘s play tackled the theatre of the absurd with a nuance beyond my powers of analysis. After all, Beckett — rather notoriously — had brought forth plays that eroded language and meaning. In a similar vein, the promised antagonist in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano never materializes, except for a single mention in the largely incoherent exchanges between the play’s characters. The point behind such plays might initially seem inscrutable, but inscrutability and nonexistence are different things entirely. My responsibility as a reader was to find the point, not to pronounce it absent. Moreover, the work I read was merely the embryo of a finished play. The script furnishes a mere fraction of the actual performance; the lighting, sounds, set design, costumes, makeup, and acting all lend something to the play’s meaning. Having only the text to consult, then, left me at a disadvantage. Therefore, I placed my trust in Professor B—‘s abilities, telling myself that The Thief in the Yellow Robe would prove far more understandable — if not downright illuminating — once she brought it to the stage, and joined it to the other trappings of the theatre.

Although rehearsals began within the week, I chose not to drop in on Professor B— and her students until their early dress runs. By then, I reasoned, the play would carry some semblance of its true form, but nonetheless remain distinct from its final version. As such, without spoiling all I would behold on the play’s opening night, I could see something markedly different from the text I read, and perhaps come closer to fathoming Professor B—‘s peculiar genius.

I sat in on their second dress rehearsal, taking advantage of the auditorium’s unoccupied front row. Professor B— welcomed me, but sat a short distance away in order to take notes on the performance. The house lights went out, and the curtain rose, revealing a set designed like a grand medieval hall. The student actors, all in period clothing, managed to inject quite a bit of character into their bizarre lines.

“Such bounty,” said the queen, a young actress made old by some makeup wizardry.

“Let him feast!” replied a noble lady, portrayed by the knockout blonde that every theatre troupe seems to have.

“I’ll bring the wick,” a portly nobleman put in, as if it were a witticism.

As the play progressed, I noted that each ingredient in the production seemed of the highest quality, but added little to my understanding of the script. Everything onstage thrummed with life, yet remained incomprehensible. With some imagination, the play I watched could have passed for something by David Lynch, if ever he tried his hand at live theatre. Alas, unlike a work of Lynch, I could not determine what part of my brain I needed to deactivate in order to appreciate Professor B—‘s play. I began to worry that The Thief in the Yellow Robe would flop — an unprecedented occurrence in Professor B—‘s career — and wondered whether such a blemish would fatally stain her record.

Despite my misgivings, I made sure to attend the play’s opening night. If Professor B— were doomed to failure, the least I could do was to stand by her side, and offer my solidarity. I must confess that, before I reached this conclusion, I battled some serious indecision, and my delay cost me. In the time it had taken me not to act, the show had almost sold out, and the best ticket I could buy would grant me a seat on the upper mezzanine. When I arrived at the theatre and claimed my spot, I was so high above the action that I felt like a bird lost in the rafters. A sea of people murmured and shifted in the packed auditorium below, while the proscenium arch’s heavy curtain undulated with a rhythm like breathing.

Somebody tapped me on my shoulder, and when I turned to look, who did I find but Professor B—! Waving, she gave me an impish grin. I asked her what in the world she was doing up here, when surely she ought to be down in the front rows. She laughed.

“What good could I do down there?” she asked. “It’s out of my hands now. Besides, I prefer to watch all of my plays from the mezzanine. It’s a vantage I seldom have the chance to enjoy during rehearsals.”

We persuaded the man to my right to switch seats with her. The two of us sat shoulder-to-shoulder as the house music faded, and the light slowly retreated into the dimming lamps. A spotlight activated with a sound of pounded metal, beaming a harsh circle onto the rippling curtain. The audience applauded as the curtain lifted, exposing the detailed banquet hall. A noble strutted into view, delivering a familiar monologue. More actors joined him as the drama unfolded, but as each one spoke their lines, I counted down the moments left until the script fell apart. How would the audience respond? My nervousness was palpable, but Professor B— seemed unfazed. I could not imagine the source of her confidence.

The queen’s second monologue wound to its close. It marked the point of no return. Once the prince began to speak, Professor B—‘s career would be over…

Before the prince could make his nonsensical interjection, a figure wearing a yellow hooded robe that completely obscured the face and body beneath glided onto the stage from the left wing. A fine mist billowed from under the robe’s folds, coating the ground the figure trod. What a marvelous effect — and undoubtedly a challenge to mount. In a haunting voice that sounded at once female and male — as if a man and woman spoke the same words simultaneously — the figure serenely recited a monologue whose words were pure poetry. The beauty of it all threatened to overwhelm me. Was this the character from whom the play derived its name? It must have taken nothing short of brilliance to conceive of and create such a being. Here, at last, was the saving grace of Professor B—‘s drama.

I placed my hand on her arm, and congratulated her for such a masterstroke. When she faced me, however, she wore a stricken expression. She staggered to her feet, and began to wind her way through the occupied rows toward the exit. The players onstage continued their performance, seamlessly incorporating the figure in yellow.

Had the months of intense stress finally broken Professor B—, now that she was out of danger and loosened her guard? I followed in her wake, catching up with her in the hallway outside. She shook violently, and steadied herself against a wall. I helped her to stay upright, and asked her what was the matter. There was no cause for despair in this moment of triumph.

She turned to me, intense fear smoldering in her eyes. “That person,” she said, “wasn’t in my rehearsals.”

How clever of her! I remembered that the script seemed to allude to an unexpected guest. What better way to emphasize that feeling than by forcing a surprise on her cast? I had heard of directors using unorthodox means to coax memorable performances from their actors, albeit never in a theatrical context — only the antics of Tarkovsky or Kubrick sprang to mind. I congratulated her on joining their elite ranks, if not surpassing them.

“You don’t understand,” Professor B— said, her strained voice scarcely louder than a whisper. “I’ve never seen that figure before, either. I have no idea who might be under that robe.”

“Whoever it is,” I said, “he or she seems quite familiar with your play.”

Professor B—‘s jaw began to tremble. She bit her lip. Her body threatened to convulse.

“It’s… It’s not my play.”

My face must have betrayed my shock, although I fought to suppress it, lest I cause her any further distress.

“I translated it,” she stammered, “but… I didn’t write it. I… I found it. A typed Latin manuscript, buried in the periodicals section of the university library. No binding. No call number. Nor was it on file in our database. It was as if someone had left it there and forgotten…”

Or left it there deliberately, I didn’t add.

“And I was so desperate,” she continued. “You know I wouldn’t have done it, unless…”

I had no words to offer her.

“My students all know how to improvise,” said Professor B—, “so they’ll carry the show if I let them. But I have the worst feeling about this. I… I have to stop the performance.”

We descended to the ground floor, Professor B— several strides ahead of me. As she rounded a corner toward the dressing rooms, I approached one of the auditorium doors. Curiosity had overtaken me, and I had to know the state of the play. I gently tugged on the door so as not to distract the audience. It would not budge. I applied more force, and still it remained firmly shut. Muffled voices filtered through from the other side. What was going on?

I made my way to the dressing rooms, where Professor B— berated the stage manager.

“Who’s that out there?” she demanded. “Why did you let him onstage?”

“He — she? — didn’t come through this way,” the stage manager said. “I thought it was your idea, and it fit the play so well, I…”

Professor B— shoved the stage manager aside, taking his two-way radio. In her haste, she had knocked it off-frequency, and could not find the channel to communicate with her technicians. She threw the radio aside, and it broke into pieces on the floor.

“I’ll need to go out there,” she said. “I must give them some excuse for calling off the show…”

“The auditorium doors are locked,” I told her. “Be careful not to cause a panic.”

“They are?” she cried. “But, I didn’t… Who… Oh, god!”

As she darted off somewhere I could not see, I peered out from the wings. The figure in yellow stood in the center of the stage, while the cast had arranged themselves in various postures of submission nearby, the mist coiling around them. The dialogue proceeded as expected, except for the robed figure’s two-voiced contributions. The air around me felt chilled, but my lungs tingled and burned as I breathed it. The audience looked on, enraptured.

“I am no thief,” the yellow figure intoned, “for one can only steal what is not given.”

“I give you my eyes,” said the queen.

“These ears are yours,” said a nobleman.

“Take my heart,” said the princess.

The cast began to claw at themselves. I heard the slick sound of rending flesh, and urged myself to turn away, but I could not pull myself from the grim spectacle before me. Nobody in the audience made a sound. They seemed every bit as entranced as I was.

“Drop the curtain!”

I heard Professor B—‘s voice in the catwalk high overhead.

“Can’t you hear me? Drop the curtain!”

The cast lay in a viscid heap on the stage, the robed figure towering above their fallen bodies. Their mutilations looked so severe as to be fatal. A single cast member seemed to breathe, but her breaths were shallow and labored. The figure paid the bloodied students no heed. One yellow sleeve had risen in a peremptory gesture. It looked empty and hollow. Then it pointed toward the audience.

“Even my sovereignty hinges on the charity of my subjects,” said the figure. Though the melody remained in its voices, the poetry of its words seemed to have vanished. “Without their compliance, I am nothing.”

To my horror, the cast managed to speak.

“We will what you will,” they murmured.

Without my volition, I, too, had mouthed those words.

The eviscerated cast stood up in unison, their wounds dripping. The fat man who promised his heart held it in his hand, and a gaping hole bore through his thick chest. How could he stand? My fright was worse than any I had known, but I could not avert my eyes. The cast reached into the deep gashes they had torn into themselves, and each drew forth a pristine blade from the opening that glistened in the spotlights. They lined up beside the robed stranger in two jagged flanks, and turned toward the audience.

“Drop the curtain!” Professor B— shouted.

“I take only what my people offer me,” said the figure in yellow, “and only if they be blessed with abundance.”

“Such bounty,” said the blinded queen, her age makeup melting off her face in grotesque streams.

“If my people will me to eat,” said the yellow figure, “then I eat.”

“Let him feast!” said a noble lady, whose patchy scalp oozed where she ripped out her flowing blonde locks.

“And if my people build me a sacrificial pyre,” the figure proclaimed, as the cast advanced toward the edge of the stage with their weapons drawn, “then I light it at their command!”

“I’ll bring the wick,” said the heartless nobleman.

I heard the singing of sharp metal as the gored cast prepared to pounce on the audience. Then a crashing noise thundered in the catwalks. The heavy proscenium curtain fell unrestrained from the arch above, its anchor ropes trailing after its weighted base, and cracked against the stage floor with a noise like breaking bone. A rush of scorching air knocked me onto my back, slamming the stage door behind me. It rattled in its frame as fierce winds lashed the wood.

Roaring applause erupted on the other side.

Wincing with pain, I raised myself, and stumbled toward the door. Its knob felt warm in my palm. I pulled it open. Professor B— stood on the other side, staring at the stage.

The set remained intact. But none of the actors could be seen. Piles of ash lay inside their rumpled, bloodstained costumes.

Except for the flowing yellow robe.

It was nowhere to be found.

Credit To – Lex Joy

Creepypasta

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