Welcome once again, folks, to I Was Born for the Stage. This is the penultimate “episode”, and I can happily reassure you that the final one has been written and is almost ready for posting, so barring any major catastrophe or death, this one, too, will be finished. I’m still pondering the next story, though a six-parter would put us close to Halloween for the end…so maybe a horror story? I have an idea…
The audience went silent as Elsbeth staggered toward the back of the stage. She’d like to think they worried about her, but she had a feeling they had just been amazed by the show. It depressed her. No one would step in to save her if things went wrong.
If she’d had control over her body, she would have jumped when Cantu clapped his hands. The wooden box reacted to the sound, creaking as the panel at the end closest to her fell open, revealing a dark, dry interior just large enough for her to fit inside, provided she went down on her hands and knees.
I really don’t want to go in there, she thought, and paused just before the box. For a moment she wondered if her body had reasserted itself and tried to move, to run away in any direction, but her muscles had frozen.
Cantu seemed to just appear at her back, clearing his throat. “Now then. If you’d be so kind as to climb inside the box,” he said.
I don’t want to, she thought toward him.
He narrowed his eyes. His voice began to echo in her head: You will do as I say. I promise that I will not kill you.
Then what do you want with me? she thought back.
“Merely to entertain,” he whispered, but even she could see through that lie. Not that she could do anything about it. His will reasserted itself, forcing her to take a few hesitant steps toward the lip of the box.
“That’s a girl. That’s a girl indeed,” he said, and she could hear the smile in his voice.
Her panic almost got the best of him. As he forced her to lower her head into the box, the emotion itself broke through, forcing her to take one stumbling step backwards. She would have gone down had he not been right at her back, ready to catch her in his arms.
No help there, though. Where his mind wouldn’t suffice, he must have figured his body could do the rest of the job. He wrapped his arm around her, giving her a charming look that might have captured her heart had she not utterly despised him.
Then he pushed, giving her a stiff shove right into the box. She threw her hands out, trying to catch herself. She managed to avoid going face-first into the box, but she also received two nice handfuls of splinters for her efforts.
She cried out, but he had already closed the box behind her, so her plight went unheard. She turned around and laid on one side, lashing out with her right leg against the panel that he had just sealed. Maybe if she could just muster enough strength, the thing would fall away and she could get back out onto the stage.
She paused as she heard his muffled speech from outside the darkened space.
“You’ve seen the girl enter the box. Now be amazed by what comes out.” He tapped the box twice and before Elsbeth could react, a trap door in the bottom of the box opened up and she tumbled downwards into the dark beneath the stage.
She landed on her side in something large and soft. Above her she heard the whisper of the trap door shutting, moments before the audience roared with approval. She laid there for a moment staring at the dark ceiling above her, collecting her thoughts.
The box had been a trick after all. Perhaps he had told the truth after all. Perhaps he had just wanted to put a show on for some ghostly audience.
But Eustice, she thought, and sat up.
Her father had told her that she had hunters’ eyes – so sharp she could pick out a snow goose at dawn. She didn’t know what that meant, exactly, but she did know that her eyes had already adjusted to the gloom under the stage. Light did seep into the room, but she couldn’t quite identify its source. She studied what she could see of the room, hoping that her eyes might stumble across Eustice.
She spotted a small white sofa off to her right; next to it sat a small, wooden table that supported something rather large, something that glimmered in the low light beneath the stage.
She rose and dusted herself off. She glanced down and found that she stood in a pile of…clothes? She stumbled down off of the pile and faced it, a hand to her mouth. Dresses. Knee shorts. Vests. All childrens’ clothes, very familiar to her, as she’d worn some of similar design in her time.
How very odd. She supposed it would make sense as a cushion, but surely the man could use something cheaper or more practical? Maybe this had been cheap, though. Maybe it had been free.
“Those are ours,” said a soft voice from behind her.
Her head snapped in that direction, but she saw nothing, save for the glimmering jewel in the room, which seemed like it might have brightened. She supposed that could be her mind playing tricks on her. It had a way of doing that in the dark, but she didn’t think so. Something else was going on here, and it would fit in perfectly with what she knew of Cantu.
“Who said that?” she whispered.
No answer; not that she had expected one. She approached the jewel and as she drew close a previously-unseen lantern beneath the table came alive with a whoosh. She froze, looking around the room and wondering whether Cantu had caught up with her.
Still nothing, but that feeling that something strange was afoot here grew stronger. No, not strange. This felt sinister.
“Come closer,” the voice said, and this time Elsbeth recognized that it belonged to a little girl, possibly a few years younger than her.
She also recognized that it had come from the jewel. An unnatural light pulsed from within the gem, revealing it to be a sapphire the size of her own fist. It had to be the most beautiful jewel she had ever seen, its edges well-defined, catching the light from the lantern and reflecting it back to her in pure blue rays. It seemed almost to be alive. She cocked her head and stepped toward it.
She saw that it might be alive, after all. It might be…? As she recognized the shape of a little girl’s face in the jewel, the face moved, setting its ethereal eyes on her.
“Please,” the face said, with the voice of the little girl.
Elsbeth jumped back, covering her mouth to keep from shrieking.
“Please don’t be frightened, it’s me,” the voice said.
“Who are you?”
A male voice – an unseen little boy – spoke this time. “There are many of us. He keeps us in here. It’s where he gets his power.”
The little girl’s face vanished and clouds began to swirl inside the jewel. It took Elsbeth a moment to figure out what she saw, but when she put it together, she jumped. She saw the ground outside the theater, focused on the blue cord that she had dug up.
As soon as she grasped that, the scene melted into another, showing her the inside of a general store, probably the one across the street. A little girl in a gingham dress stood at the counter, a lollypop in her hand as she pushed three coins to the old man on the other side. He took the coins in hand, giving her a warm smile and asking her an unheard question.
Both froze as a loud buzz blared from a white box that hung just over the counter – a white box connected to a blue cord.
The old man behind the counter moved first, coming around the counter and grabbing the little girl by her upper arms, snatching her away just before she could make it through the front door.
Elsbeth found herself biting her lip and clenching her fists as the vision faded, showing her the face of a little boy.
“Do you understand?” he said.
“I…I think so.”
“You have to free us,” the little girl said.
Panic rose in Elsbeth. “But how?”
“You have to smash the jewel.”
Wouldn’t it be a crime to destroy such a beautiful thing? No. She couldn’t think like that. These children had to be free. They had seen enough – been tortured enough. She reached out and picked up the sapphire with both hands, marveling at how cool it felt.
Behind her, a familiar voice spoke. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
You can read the conclusion here.