The Lights Out Theater

Sia’s heart fluttered, and her feet pounded the grey stone pavement as she slowed her pace. She craned her neck and searched through the twilight of parked cars, the newly built forty-foot condominium, and into post-World War II brown stacked office buildings.

The Lights Out Theater doors flew open, and Sia leaped back. Patrons poured out onto the streets. She sighed as men dressed in suits with vests and neckties and bow ties and women in sequined floor-length gowns and empire dresses smiled as they passed her.

Why Sia had run, she couldn’t say. There was, of course, the story in the L.O.T. Standard about a philanthropist found dead at an abandoned distillery with only two holes in his neck. Today, Sia saw a second story about an award-winning fifty-year-old female photojournalist who documented the refugee crisis at a camp near a border town and had washed ashore off Guinevere’s Lake. The article said that drowning was most likely the cause of the woman’s death—except puncture wounds were also found on the woman’s neck.

Sia, come with me . . .  

Sia blinked at the long-haired man. Her hand trembled as she fought to pull it away from the ice-cold fingers wrapped around her fingers. His dark hair shone as he took a step forward and the light from streetlights faded, and the voices from theater-goers dissipated. And then they were somewhere else—

She wanted to say something. But all she could do was gulp and open and close her mouth. Then, as the man ran a finger along her neck, she croaked, “Why me?”

“Why not you?” he said.  

Sia’s muscles in her throat loosened, and she whispered, “I’m no one.”

He smiled and pulled his hand away from her neck. “You are someone,” he said as he stepped away from her.

“Did you kill the man they found at the distillery and the photojournalist by the lake?” Sia asked as she trembled.    

“Why would you care? You did not know them.” His eyes fluttered like ravens in the night sky as he slid a claw-like nail along his red lips. “They were no ones,” he said.  

Sia’s cheeks flushed with rage. “She was an award-winning photojournalist who documented over-crowded living conditions at a refugee camp—and he gave scholarships to a handful of troubled kids every year that gave them a chance to go to college or university!”

The man with dark eyes, dark hair, and long fingernails lifted his chin. “And you?”

Sia shrank back. “I’m no one.” 

His manicured eyebrows lifted. “What about your volunteer work at the SPCA?” 

“I get to play with puppies and kittens. That’s hardly volunteer work.”

His smile widened, and white fangs flashed. He stared at Sia. “And what of your volunteer work at the Women’s Shelter?” 

Sia stood there, not knowing what to say. “How do you know about that?” 

There was a flash of something—an arm, a hand, or maybe eyes. They were her eyes. Closed and gone. Sia had a sense there was nothing in front of her, behind her, with her, around her—

Sia shoved him away. Or she tried to but couldn’t because her arms were weak as if she’d lifted a fridge and carried it up a hundred steps.

Then there was warmth and light. Sia lurched forward and threw the blanket off her that covered her arms. Awake, she tapped her neck as she stared at the red drapes with gold edging that hid whatever was on stage. 

Seated in a black leather chair, a woman with salt and pepper hair leaned into a younger man with brown hair and blue eyes. He tugged at his sleeves and glanced at Sia over his shoulder. They looked familiar.

Sia saw the man again with the long dark hair and cape. He stood close by with arms crossed behind his back. She straightened herself in her seat, stood up, and marched toward the man.   

With only a few steps between them, she said, “Did you kill them?”

“No, I did not.” His voice dripped with calm.“I wrote stories about them and gave them to you to read.”

“Why?” Sia said, confused. She hesitated and added, “How?”

“Because they felt like you do—that they were no one,” he said while he circled her.

“You’re lying.”

“Why would I kill them?” he asked as he lifted his chin and tilted his head.

“You’re . . . ,” Sia hesitated, “. . . a part of the dark world.”  

He raised his nose and laughed. “You’re right.” His canine pointed teeth gleamed from the crystal chandelier lights that hung from the ceiling. “Tell me, did you read about their murders anywhere else besides in the L.O.T. Standard?” He said this as he stretched out his hands and looked up to the balcony seats, the lights, and the shuttered red and gold curtain on stage . . .

Sia shifted. Stunned, she pulled out her phone from her back pocket and punched at the keys: Award-Winning Photo Journalist Murdered in Creeping Town. Only one article came up: The one that announced the woman’s award. Sia held her phone, and then she remembered the title of the other article she’d read: Creeping Town Philanthropist Found Dead at Distillery. But, again, she found nothing—except for articles about the philanthropist and the kids he’d helped. 

Sia frowned at the couple as they turned around. The woman smiled and said, “Yaroslav!” Even though Sia and the vampire had been there for at least ten minutes, it was the first time the woman greeted them—or had said anything to them.

“Hello! Did you enjoy tonight’s show?” Yaroslav asked.

“It was terrifying!” she said as she threw her head back and laughed. The man seated beside her smiled and fiddled with his tie.

“This is Sia,” Yaroslav said as he gently placed a hand on her back. “Would you mind explaining some things to her? I have more work to do tonight . . .”

“Sure thing, Yaroslav!” the photojournalist said.  

Yaroslav leaned next to Sia and whispered, “Do not believe all the fairy tales told to you as a child. They weren’t all true,” he said. Then, he turned away, strode to the exit sign, spun around, his cape swung around him with his turn, and he said, “Welcome to the Lights Out Theater! No membership fee. And it’s open to you for your lifetime!” His eyes widened, he twirled again, and then . . . he was gone.

The woman slapped her knee and laughed. “Does he ever like to play up the vampire thing!” Sia stood in front of the woman and chewed her thumbnail. The photojournalist’s smile disappeared, and with a shrug, she said, “He finds people who think they don’t matter. And he tells us we do. So the membership to Lights Out Theater is our reward—and reminder—that we’re important.”

The Quicksand of Dona

In the quicksand of Dona, he waits. Saer sees nothing, though, as he tiptoes close by. Still, Saer searches the sand. He’s heard about the monster.  Today, the creature made things personal.

Saer stares up to the grey marsh tree where rope-like strings hang from it. The ropes would entice anyone to climb up its limbs, and temptation for a child is difficult to ignore.  Hands clasped into fists at Saer’s side, the marsh tree is the only one he’s ever seen. Gods, laugh, it’s almost as if the Creator placed it beside Quickie on purpose. 

Saer’s fear is trampled by rage.

He knows what his grandson wanted: Just a look at Quickie. One evening, when they’d stared up to the golden starred lights, his grandson had told him his plan to climb the marsh tree to see the monster. The child said he’d be safe from the beast. The grandfather did what any grandfather would have done—he told Ron not to do it. But as little boys are prone to do, he discarded his grandfather’s advice and did what he wanted. Or, that’s what Ron’s stricken, shaking friend Astrid said when she returned and told the people in Gerstar what happened to Ron. Still, Ron’s only six-years-old and should be allowed to make some mistakes—

No! Shaking his head, Saer won’t believe itnot yet.

“Where are you, Quicky?” Saer shouts. The old man stomps his feet on the river bank as he unpacks his forty-five-pound salamander shark from his bag. It was Saer’s prized catch, the one that would feed him and his son’s family for the next month. His son was always a quitter when he faced obstacles. So, of course, he’d begged him not to come.

Saer shakes his head. Is that fair? Jacob wept when he asked him not to risk his life because he was convinced Ron, his only child, was dead. After all, no one had ever survived a taking.  

Saer huffs, swears, and hisses between breaths. Saer is an old man, with more life behind him than in front of him. He came anyway. Old men and little boys are both the same. Stubborn. And yes, right now, fish are in short supply. Still, his grandson meant more to him than a full belly. They would find other ways to feed themselves. 

“Quicky!” the man barks.  

Red dots move in the sand. If Saer blinked, he wouldn’t have seen them. But Saer’s determined, and that makes his mind sharp. And there’s something else—something, no one else knows. He heard a word said today that he’s never heard before. The phlegm-filled gargled voice croaked one word, trade, and it was said when no one else was around. And before Saer knew his grandson had been taken.

Is it a trap? Does Quickie want to turn him into his dessert? Or does the monster really want a trade? More importantly, if the beast can talk to people, why has Saer never heard of this before? Was it even Quickie? Or is he an old man who now hears voices? “There are no guarantees,” Saer whispers to the mud. 

The hairs on Saer’s arms stand up from the northern wind. His feet sink into the mud, and sniffing once, he catches the increasing stench of rotting food.

Saer squints at the spot and watches the red dots circle. Moving in closer, Saer swings the shark across his shoulder. One black dot flutters back and forth, up and down. Then the white-bearded, white-haired man runs with the fish across his shoulder and jumps into the sand with the heels of his boots slamming down on a gel-like round form.

The serpent screeches! His thirteen tentacles rise up, and then the rippled, suction-cupped arms shake as if they’ve been jarred by a hard object. Something from ol’ Quickie is flung high into the air and lands on to the muddy, moss-laden embankment. 

“Here!” Saer says. “Take this! You wanted it!” Then Saer heaves and swings the shark at Quicky. A tentacle rises up and snaps the fish up in one sweeping motion. Saer jumps from one of Quickie’s arms to another, riding the limbs as if they were marbles on the floor. The grandfather shifts, lurches, and then finds the steadiness of his feet, only to lose them again when he leans to the right. Swaying, Saer moves closer to the quicksand’s edge, and then he jumps and dives next to whatever Quickie had thrown.

Ron lies on the embankment. Black webbed saliva drenches the child’s still body.  The six-year old’s chest rises and falls.

Saer hears a hissing from behind him. The red dotted with black pupil eye stares at the grandfather and the boy. One of the thirteen tentacles holds the shark. Then, Quicky recoils his limbs and slinks backward before he sinks beneath the sand. 

The grandfather doesn’t see this, though. His skin pricking with excitement, he runs towards Gerstar with his grandson in his arms.

Elephant Lake

Gabriel said it was like this: it was cold and dark and you would feel as if you had nowhere left to go.  Then something would happen – you would be pushed by a sudden burst of warm air and you would find yourself tumbling backwards.  Then without warning, when you least expected it, you would stop.

Air bubbles would pop and burst around you. This would be followed by a quietness that descended on you as if you had gazed up to a calm black sky in the early morning and were transfixed by a thousand stars that pulsed at you. In that space, you wouldn’t hear buses that squealed to a sudden stop; or notice early-morning-risers that slammed their doors and clicked the locks behind them as they trudged off to commuter stops that would carry them to their jobs.

Charity told Gab he was a liar.

Charity had thought about Gabriel more than once and what had happened to her, and more importantly, to him. But she hadn’t gone there for some time and preferred the version of “truth” her brother told others as if he were handing out licorice or smarties to friends at a party.

You were pulled from Elephant Lake, Dexter said over and over again. How could you forget that? he asked Charity as he shook his head. But it wasn’t only his head that wobbled to the right and left; his hands and legs shook with something between pity and rage. Charity couldn’t tell which emotion was more dominant as his eyebrows drooped, and long lines crisscrossed his face that occasionally caused his forehead to twitch. Sometimes his eye would also involuntarily bounce as if it were a wayward basketball after a player lost control of it on the court.

You drank too much that night, Dexter told the party-goers.

Gabriel is missing.

When you see Elephant Lake from a plane in the sky, it resembles the African and Asian mammal that has always been known for their physical attributes of flapping ears, long trunks, and to their detriment – tusks, that will sometimes result in their slaughter by poachers.  Charity considers the more recent characteristics that science has proven exist in these massive creatures: they are social in nature, self-aware, and have long memories.

A few years ago sandbags were littered around the homes that border Elephant Lake. The area had never flooded before in the close to 175 years since their town was settled. But that year it changed. Forty-five homes were gobbled up by the Elephant and in the aftermath a birth happened: a baby elephant was born.

In an ironic twist of fate, where the baby elephant was born, there were no homes. When the water finally receded, the calf remained. And now when you fly above, you see not only the outline of the mother, but also of her baby.

Charity was pulled from the part of the lake where the calf exists.

Dexter’s right. She drank too much that night. That’s why she never argues with him. But he also said that Gabriel did too, and she doesn’t remember that part of it. Then again, she was in the habit of mixing beer and vodka. Sometimes to shake things up, she would throw in a cosmopolitan. But in the five years she’d known Gabriel he’d have one Stella. After last call, he would pack her into his car, drive her home, help her in, and if he was worried by the amount of booze she had consumed – Gabriel would sleep on her couch in case she needed him.

Charity is there again.

This night it’s just her and the calf. Charity stares down at her right hand and then flips it over to reveal her wrist. In daylight you can’t see them. It’s only in darkness that they are revealed. It’s something she received when she lost Gabriel that night: the outline of two sparkling doves drift across the veins of her wrist as if they are in flight.

The winged birds etched on top of Charity’s skin that hide her veins look as if they are a diamond tattoo: a message from the new born elephant of life and peace.