The first thing Zacharias noticed when he walked out to the stage was the brilliant spotlight that followed him all the way to the piano. Then he noticed the thundering in his ears. After a few seconds, he realized that it was an actual, real, genuine applause.
He stopped next to the piano. The stage lights were so bright that he couldn’t discern the faces of the people in the audience, but he could tell that the velvet-red seats were all occupied, from the front row to the very last row in the back. All arms and all hands were busy clapping. A bizarre sight, people so eagerly working in unison. Such a thing didn’t happen very often.
From time to time, when people leaned left and right to whisper at their neighbors over the applause, Zach could see the lipsticked lips moving, mustaches twisting, and golden earrings glittering. But the detailed facial expressions were all buried in light. Women’s perfume, men’s cologne, and the smell of melting snow or ice, watery and wet, filled the Luminary tonight.
Zach bowed. The applause swelled, then subsided until it completely stopped. People expected him to sit down by the piano.
So he did. How unreal. The effect of the applause had been positively numbing. He rubbed his palms. They felt cold. Pinky to pinky, his fingers cramped and spasmed. They weren’t ready to labor, yet wanted to so badly.
Zach thought about the first piece he was about to play: Chopin Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, one of the darkest sonatas of the Romantic period. It’d been criticized for being too un-sonata-like. Zach thought that was nonsense. In his opinion, this sonata was the most ingenious, the most subtle in terms of how the movements were linked. It was about twenty-five minutes long, its four movements sweeping like a storm. Zach liked that, the idea of sweeping storms.
Like Angeline, his darling love.
Thunder rumbled outside, loud enough to penetrate the thick walls. The people in the audience barely noticed. They were all adults here, and not scared. Although the Luminary was no luxury theater, it was sturdy enough to withstand a typical, fleeting storm.
Zach, too, didn’t worry. He gazed down at his deep purple suit—his arms, enveloped in fine cashmere. Back in the dressing room, Zach had been so very cold, but now it was only his hands that resisted against this glorious moment. All other body parts were enveloped in the warmth they’d clamored for and seemed to absorb it eagerly. Even his feet in the brand-new dress shoes felt warmer than ever. The shoes were made of exquisite leather, deep brown to the point of being black.
But Zach’s skin felt uncomfortable, just a little. It itched under the black shirt and under the suit pants. A defense mechanism against nervousness, perhaps? Something that his body did to make him forget that he was tense? A side effect of blood vessels expanding to allow for better circulation?
Zach had no idea. Playing in front of a full house and the resulting nervousness—both were firsts for him, and he had no reference point to compare the current situation against.
He placed his hands on the keys. His elbows felt stiff. The suit fit too well—or rather, fit poorly for a piano player who needed to freely move the arms to precisely produce the desired musical effect.
But the audience held its breath and wasn’t going to wait for Zach to say, Excuse me, this suit was a bad idea after all; let me get changed quickly. Zach could hear the expectation from their silence. Quiet smiles. All the ends of lips going up in unison. Maybe in admiration, because Zach had decided to go through with the concert despite his injury. Maybe out of curiosity; wonder at how he thought he was going to play the pieces tonight when the bruises shone so clearly under the bright lights.
Zach wondered if Angeline had stayed. Since she had come all the way from the City to Carningsby, she might as well. But the tickets had sold out, so she might not have found a seat. But if Angeline had introduced herself as his lover to Mr. Todd and used her charm, he might have allowed her to stand in the back.
Could Zach catch just a little glimpse of her? Even though the light shone directly into Zach’s eyes, her fluffy white mink coat was hard to miss. Besides, he could spot her in a crowd of a million, no matter what, so if he turned slightly, to quickly see—
His neck felt stiff. Mild panic ran through his veins. Just seconds ago, he’d thought that the usual pre-playing jitters were sweeping over him. Such jitters reliably faded as soon as he began playing. Tonight, they only seemed worse because they were magnified by however many times the audience size had increased—or so he’d thought. But now it was clear that he was nervous to the point of paralysis.
Zach clenched his hands into fists, then unclenched them. His fingers moved perfectly fine, considering the bruises.
But his neck. His elbows. The itching. The pressure against his chest.
He couldn’t delay.
Zach inhaled. With the exhale, he slammed the keys to play the opening cords, then the next…
The dramatic exposition of the first movement began: Grave—Doppio movimento.
Zach’s fingers moved as if they were beyond his control. This was the best part about being on stage—forgetting that there was a stage at all. Before getting on the stage (while practicing, while pacing in the dressing room, while changing clothes) one thought about the performance to come. After getting off the stage (while undressing, on the way home, then at home), one thought about the performance that had just happened.
But on the stage, Zach didn’t think about the stage. Here, it was as if he faded. Even the piano, that shiny black creature with white teeth punctuated by black crowns, lost its significance in Zach’s consciousness.
All that was left was the music in its purest form.
His hands moved…
Then they ceased to move because the first movement had come to an end. This was his brief chance to catch a breath.
Then once again, his fingers moved. The discomfort in his elbows had multiplied threefold by now. The itching all over his body had exacerbated. Very strange. Clearly, the physical pain had nothing to do with mental stress. Because mentally, Zach wasn’t stressed at all. Not anymore.
Hell, he was in heaven.
Oddly, the strangling sensation around his neck amplified that sense. He’d heard about people who liked to be strangled for pleasure. Kinky. But maybe he’d learned to empathize. That thought briefly took him out of concentration before the second movement ended.
Another little pause for breathing—an act that had become considerably more difficult over the past few minutes. Zach cleared his throat.
The third movement was Marche funèbre: Lento. A slow funeral march. But there were documents in which Chopin simply called this movement “a march,” without the additional descriptor. The movement began in the minor and switched to major, then back to minor, back to major…
…as any funeral, birth, or life in general tended to switch from happiness to sadness, then back to happiness. Maybe that was why the word “funeral” wasn’t necessary.
Zach could feel the sweat creeping down his forehead. Playing for twenty-five minutes straight was no walk in the park and he’d just entered the eighteenth minute—
—for another brief pause before the last movement.
Zach pushed his index and middle fingers between the front of his neck and the shirt collar. He couldn’t breathe. His hands were shaking. He wiped the sweat from his face with the sleeves of his suit. A shame to have to use cashmere for such a purpose, but it couldn’t be helped. He heaved in and out.
What on earth was going on?
He glanced at the audience. As before, it existed more like a concept rather than with any concrete reality because the stage lights prevented Zach from discerning the individual faces.
But Zach did notice a few sets of lips once more. Some were bright red, orange, or almost violet according to the latest lipstick-color fads; others moved together with thick or thin mustaches, brown or black or gray, well-groomed or messy. But the lips had one thing in common: they formed smiles.
Good. No one had noticed how odd Zach was acting. Everyone had been happy about the march.
Now, if only Zach managed to finish playing the fourth movement, he could take a longer break, albeit only for two or three minutes, backstage. Drink some water. Take off this stupid jacket that was way too tight, making him all dizzy.
The final movement began. Once again, his fingers danced without his brain needing to process anything consciously. The music carried him. It had to. He had barely any energy left inside him for presto, presto, presto, which the Finale required.
What a weakling, to break down under the pressure of a hundred-person audience. At thirty-two years old, he’d finally faced the biggest audience of his life and this was how he failed to make the most of it.
Maybe Angeline had just tried to save him from embarrassment. She’d never told to his face but she’d known that he was too weak for tonight’s performance.
The Finale had barely any discernible melody. And it definitely lacked any pause. Zach’s heart hammered—
—until he slammed the final chord—
—his torso tipped forward—
—he slammed on the keys—
—he slipped from the seat and fell on the floor.
The audience gasped. Zach blinked. All he could see were the bass and treble legs of the piano. His face was going to explode. He could feel the veins standing because something had clogged and blood couldn’t flow.
Maybe this problematic state was what caused him to think that he heard laughter amidst the gasps of the audience. A sort of auditory hallucination. Because, it’s impossible, isn’t it? For people to laugh at someone in so much pain?
Footsteps approached or dispersed. Zach couldn’t turn his head, but he guessed that some people were coming for help and others were retreating in fear. Who knew, his condition might be signs of an infectious disease. He couldn’t blame them.
The door at the far end of the seats flung open. The howling of the storm entered the theater. Someone screamed. A woman with a familiar voice.
“Let me go!” she shrieked.
It was Angeline. Now Zach really wanted to turn his head to face the audience.
“Angeline…” he muttered.
“Get off me!” she said.
The low hisses and threats of men followed. She was in danger.
Zach began to say “Angel…” once more, but came to a coughing stop.
More gasping around him told him that he wasn’t hallucinating what he saw: he’d vomited blood on the treble leg.
“Someone,” he said, “help, take off, this jacket, I…”
But no one helped. Zach had to crawl on his stiff elbows and support his torso in an upright position. Only then could he turn around and face the audience. There…
Her name had come out of his mouth in a whisper. He wanted to yell that someone please turn off the damned stage lights. He couldn’t see her face clearly. The only reason he knew it was her was that the green jewels on her necklace glittered, and that he knew her silhouette.
He knew that body. Its ups and downs; its firm and soft spots; its curves and edges. That body that he so loved was at the door. Angeline kicked and screamed at two men who each held her by one arm. Oh, how Zach hated that kind of assholery!
“Why is this god damn prick not dying?” someone closer to Zach said. He had a strangely familiar, low voice that boomed like a baritone’s.
Zach attempted to catch a glimpse of the man but couldn’t, because his vision blurred further by the second. But Zach did recognize the person who answered the man: Mr. Todd.
“I don’t know, sir. He was supposed to have died ten minutes ago.”
“Fucking prick. Sure doesn’t know when to call it quits.”
“Gus Shevlin!” screamed Angeline.
That name sounded strangely familiar too. Gus Shevlin and Mr. Todd turned to face Angeline.
“I will kill you!” she said.
“Women and their hysteria,” said Gus Shevlin in an amused tone. “Don’t know what’s best for them.”
He took a drag from his cigar. It smelled like Angeline, of tree bark and leather.
Zach would have cried if he could. But he couldn’t. His facial muscles contracted instead of releasing tears. Something had happened between this Gus Shevlin guy and Angeline. That much, Zach could tell. But he couldn’t ask what exactly. His tongue didn’t move. He couldn’t grab Gus Shevlin by his arm. Zach’s own arms refused to move. The only body parts of Zach’s that still moved somewhat according to his will were his bruised fingers that hadn’t been wrapped in the suit.
By now, it was clear to Zach. The suit was pressing the air out of his lungs. It was contracting just like his muscles and spreading something toxic into his system. And where—on earth—he’d heard the name—Gus Shevlin—wasn’t important…
“Take him to a doctor now,” screamed Angeline. “Please, I’m begging you. Please let him live.”
“It’s too late,” said Gus Shevlin. “Take her to the house and don’t let her out. Make her take a warm bath. Give her morphine. Something. Anything to make her shut up.”
“No!” said Angeline, but Zach heard her shrieks fade as the men dragged her out of the theater.
Gus Shevlin exhaled the cigar smoke through his nose. He let out a satisfied sigh, savoring its aroma. “Ah, the quiet,” he said. “Nice to hear screams in bed but anywhere else, I think she’s trying to tear my eardrums.” He groaned and stretched. “It is too late, isn’t it?” he said.
“Yes, sir,” said Mr. Todd. “Any second now.”
Zach couldn’t believe his ears. He couldn’t believe anything that was happening to his body. Thirty minutes ago, the biggest problem he’d faced was that he was cold in the dressing room.
How did a person go from that to this? Because of the suit? Really? Because he hadn’t listened to Angeline, his lover of ten years, who Gus Shevlin didn’t mind if she screamed in bed but did mind if she did the same elsewhere?
Jealousy and a sense of betrayal burned inside Zach. But the predominant sentiment was: I will kill Gus Shevlin if he does anything to Angeline.
That sentiment was followed by this thought: Since Angeline threatened to kill Gus Shevlin, obviously she doesn’t love him.
Angeline loved Zach and only Zach.
The burning jealousy and the sense of betrayal faded just enough for the physical pain to overwhelm Zach once more.
“Oh, to hell with this,” Gus Shevlin said after a while. “I’m not going to wait around here. You take care of the body, will you?”
“Yes, sir,” said Mr. Todd.
Then Gus Shevlin raised his voice so that anyone who was watching could hear: “Make sure people understand I’ll kill them and their children and their children’s children if they don’t do as discussed.”
“And you,” Gus Shevlin said, leaning in to whisper into Zach’s ear, “you had it coming. Everyone has the right to fight for what is theirs. And what isn’t theirs, isn’t theirs to take. I only took back what’s mine.”
After that, Gus Shevlin left, and with him, most of the people who’d still been sitting or standing in the audience. Apparently, leaving in a timely manner and pretending to have witnessed not much was part of “as discussed.”
Only Mr. Todd remained standing right under the stage, close to Zach. But by now, Zach couldn’t see anything at all, unless you could call distinguishing light from darkness “seeing.” Anything more detailed than that escaped Zach’s senses. He breathed shallowly. The itching had dulled. Even pain wasn’t Zach’s to keep anymore.
“Oh, Zach,” said Mr. Todd in the saddest version of his drunken, hoarse voice. “Why didn’t you just quit when the lid fell on your fingers?”
That had been a warning?
“We really didn’t want to do this. We really didn’t.”
Who is “we”?
“But this is for the best, isn’t it? Before Mr. Shevlin destroys you completely and all that.”
Because death doesn’t count as complete destruction?
“He would have cut off your hands and made you live if not this. You understand?”
No, Zach didn’t understand. Absolutely not—
The next moment, Zach felt feather-light. The agony had completely stopped. It was only an unpleasant memory. Once he accepted that pain was a past trauma instead of something real in the present moment, he felt as if he could stand if he wanted to…
No, he couldn’t. Renewed panic overtook him. He felt no pain but he was trapped in his body.
“He’s dead,” an old lady spoke next to Zach.
“Let’s do this,” an old man said, sounding nauseated.
Then, without any warning, two hands reached into Zach. Hastily, he grabbed those hands and they pulled him up as if he weighed absolutely nothing.
“Good,” the old man said. “Let’s call the women in black and let’s go. Let’s just go.”
Confused, Zach shook his head. But no matter how fiercely he shook it, a thick black fog pressed in from all sides. First the near-blindness, now this. Had someone released toxic gas in the theater? Where was the exit?
He could distinguish two figures close to him. Because they were as black as the fog, it was difficult to tell what exactly they were doing or what they looked like. Frankly, Zach didn’t much care. They had to be the old lady and the old man who’d helped him up, and if they’d helped him up they weren’t one of the people who’d wanted him dead.
So Zach kept looking around. Soon, he found Mr. Todd, who stood there without any hint of alarm at finding Zach up and awake. Mr. Todd simply gazed at the stage floor.
“What the hell, Mr. Todd,” said Zach angrily. “You helped that man kill me? Who is he, that Gus Shevlin? What is going on? How could you do this? Weren’t you afraid my ghost was gonna haunt you forever? Do you know Angeline? Where are they taking her? What is this gas? Or fog?”
But Mr. Todd didn’t react. Instead, he reached out toward Zach on the stage.
Wait. No. That couldn’t be.
But Zach clearly saw this: Mr. Todd closing the eyes of a different Zach—the one who lay on the floor.
“Goodbye, Zach,” Mr. Todd told that other Zach.
Just when Zach was about to punch Mr. Todd in the face to make him stop this nonsense, a light, brighter than any stage light that he’d ever seen, attacked his eyes. Yelping, Zach backed away.
Oh, how he hated light that blinded instead of illuminating! How he hated not being aware of what was on the other side of the light. Anything and everything could lurk there while he was exposed as the center of attention. Blinding light pretended to mean well, yet it was infinitely more cunning than the deepest dark.
Never before had Zach been fearful of being the center of attention, therefore the target of lighting. It was part of being a performing artist. But now he was afraid. He was deathly afraid of the idea of being on stage, ever again.
In fact, the desire to get off the stage drove him. Beyond the stage, surely, the black fog must still be thick. Not even the brightest lamp that consumed a ridiculous amount of electricity could possibly clear all of the fog that had been so thick only seconds ago.
Okay then. He’d punch Mr. Todd another time. For now, he had to flee for safety.
Zach jumped from the stage to run past the rows of seats, through the open door that led to the howling storm and Angeline. But as soon as Zach was in the air, the blinding light vanished. Simultaneously, everything else around him changed.
No more smell of perfumes, colognes, and melting ice. No more murmurs from the crowd lingering in the lobby.
When Zach landed, it wasn’t on the carpet. Instead, the damp, cool earth cushioned the impact.
© 2022 Ithaka O.
All rights reserved.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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