PUPPET MASTER

"Check. Check one. Check one two," Trace Robinson tested the sound system in the local theatre.

"Keep talking," Paul said through a wireless mic from the technical booth in the back of the house.

"One two four five six seven eight nine," Trace counted, intentionally skipping the number three. He then switched to a Scottish brogue. "Sons of Scotland! Will you fight? Two thousand against ten? No! We will run—and live! Aye! Fight and you may die. Run and you will live—at least for a while..." William Wallace's famous speech rang through the theatre, ending with a reverberating cry of "Freedom!"

Paul chuckled at the unconventional, yet effective sound check. "Thanks Tommy, it's set," he added, using the nickname he'd given the kid when he started working for him, what, ten years ago? God, had it really been that long? Paul couldn't believe it.

"Can you jump down to the pit real quick and check that piano mic again?"

He watched with horrified amusement as Trace took him seriously and jumped directly into the pit. Ten years may have passed, but they didn't seem to have aged him a minute.

"Tommy!" Paul shouted.

"Pauly!" Trace cried back in a perfect imitation of his employer's shocked exclamation.

"You're going to give me grey hair, you know that?" Paul muttered into his mic, relieved that Trace wasn't hurt—and neither was the expensive equipment he could have landed on.

"You're getting old, Paul," the young man spoke directly into the piano mic so his raillery reached every corner of the empty theatre.

"Thirty-seven is not old!"

The conversation ended with an echoing C sharp and it was back to work. Trace coaxed the first few bars of "Für Elise" out of the piano. Paul adjusted the balance from the booth and had it nearly perfect, when suddenly the peaceful melody exploded into the opening measures of Phantom of the Opera, finishing with a reverberating D minor chord.

"How now, Piano?" Trace's voice was barely picked up by the instrument mics. Perfect.

"Okay, we're good. Take ten minutes; I have to make some calls," Paul said, watching as the young man hauled himself out of the pit and ambled out of the theatre.

After fifteen minutes, Trace still hadn't come back. Paul called his cell and had to wait through four and a half rings before he got through.

"Hello?" Trace's voice came through the phone. Despite the nearly overpowering sound of traffic in the background, Paul could hear something dark in his voice; a stark contrast to its usual levity.

"Tommy?" he asked. "Where are you?"

"Oh, hey," Trace said, his voice lightening as he recognized Paul. "I'll be right in." He hung up without waiting for a reply, presumably making his way back into the theatre.

Paul was waiting for him in the booth. Without looking up from his computer, he asked, "What's wrong?"

"What?" Trace answered somewhat defensively, "Nothing's wrong."

Paul spun around in his chair and looked directly into Trace's brown eyes. "Your father's back, isn't he?"

"I don't have a father," the young man said out of bitter habit. Trace sat on the hand railing in the booth, studying the red carpet. Despite the fact that he was now twenty-five years old, he still seemed like a kid in Paul's eyes, especially at times like this, when he wasn't occupied with a show. Trace belonged in a theatrical world, and when he had to leave it to deal with a less controllable reality he always came back looking a little lost.

"It's really not important…" Trace was mumbling some excuse before coming to an abrupt stop. He unconsciously traced the scar on his left temple before catching his boss's eyes and running a hand through his curly hair to disguise the anxious habit. Paul wondered why he was trying to hide; it wasn't like he didn't know the rest of the story.

As a fifteen year old, Trace had been chosen by some well-meaning teacher to apprentice Paul during a show the school was putting on. The prolonged job shadow was supposed to be good for his grades, but the sound technician wasn't entirely sure how. The job involved sitting through long rehearsals and staying late during shows. But Trace—or, Tommy, as he'd started calling him—seemed more than willing to stay at school the extra hours. Paul hadn't minded having him around, either. He was a quick learner and had an uncanny ability for mimicking, well, anything really.

"You should have been born an actor," Paul had once told his young apprentice after finding him doing an impression of the director from the back of the booth. He smirked, remembering the kid's reaction.

Trace had grinned, shaking his head. "Actors are puppets to the story. I'd rather be the puppet master."

But after that conversation, his sound checks had changed from simple counting to much more elaborate recitations—sometimes more entertaining than the shows themselves.

But now Trace's hesitation reminded Paul of the closed, quiet boy he sometimes became in between the entertaining mic checks and endless questions about how the sound board worked. He seemed more like the boy who showed up late one Saturday with a black eye and a poorly bandaged cut on his temple

"You been fighting, Tommy?" Paul asked, not entirely concerned. Boys fought; it was a normal part of life that passed more quickly if it wasn't glorified.

Trace mumbled a non-committal response. His reticence pulled Paul's attention away from his work and looked over the damage. "Didn't do so well, huh?"

Trace shrugged and touched the Band-Aid near his eye, as if checking to make sure it was still there. "He used to be a Marine," was his only explanation.

"What the hell are you doing fighting a Marine, Tommy?" Paul asked, perhaps more sharply than he should have.

"I didn't want to." The boy's brown eyes were huge as he stared back at Paul, as if begging him to believe him, to take his side.

That's when Paul realized that this was more than some teenage fight behind the gym. Something was seriously wrong. "Who was it?"

Trace didn't answer right away. He sat down on the floor of the booth, busying his hands with a tangled cable. Sufficiently preoccupied, he finally responded. "My dad came home today. He's been gone for a few years—in jail, maybe…or maybe just gone, I don't know—but he came back." The boy chuckled grimly. "I guess he didn't realize I wasn't a little kid anymore..." His story trailed off as he coiled up the line.

"Where is he now, Tommy?"

"Mom called the cops and got a restraining order, so he won't be back for a while." Trace stood up and started shuffling through the scripts on the table. "Where's my cue sheet?"

The conversation had ended there, but over the following weeks, Paul pieced together more details of Tommy's childhood. It seemed that the return of his father, however brief, had brought a lot of old memories to the surface, none of which were pleasant.

Paul shook his head. Who could do that to a kid? And now, here was Tommy—ten years older and still haunted by the past.

"Yeah," Trace said finally, his voice a little hoarse. Paul knew he'd been remembering the same thing. "Yeah, Mom just called me. She says he's back—says he's changed—and he wants to see me."

"Do you want to see him?" Paul asked, unable to read his expression.

Trace reached for the bag of Swedish Fish he'd left next to the sound board, right under the no-food-in-the-booth sign. After eating a few of the candies, he shrugged. "Yes and no." He paused to bite the tail off of a fish and then added, "I told her I was working."

They both knew Paul would give him time off if he really wanted it, so Paul took that to mean that "Yes and no" had really been a "no-but-I-don't-want-to-hurt-her."

"The show must go on," Trace said at last with a shrug, as if his favorite theatre cliché closed the matter.

Paul wasn't entirely sure it did, but he let the matter slide. Rather, he glanced at the near-empty bag of Swedish Fish skeptically and asked, "Have you eaten yet?"

Trace displayed the handful of red candies as evidence.

"Real food, Tommy," Paul admonished, shaking his head.

Swallowing the last two fish, the young man defended himself. "I've been busy. I guess I forgot."

Paul couldn't believe him; this wasn't the first time either. Trace often got so wrapped up in his work he didn't even think of eating until after curtain call.

"You have got to find a girl to take care of you," Paul said, only half joking. "You can't live in the booth forever."

Trace responded with a how-much-you-wanna-bet glare, but his boss just laughed.

"You know, I met this great scenic painter last weekend. She's about your age, I think… real pretty…"

Trace was about to retort when the work lights on the stage switched on; the cast had arrived. He grinned and pulled the headset on over his blonde curls. "Don't you have actors to be wiring?" he asked, spinning back to the board and pretending to ignore his boss. Paul took the hint and left the booth.

The house opened at six o'clock, but Paul was still backstage, taping mics onto the necks of actors. He was just mounting the stairs to the back of the theatre when he saw someone leaving the booth: an older man he'd never seen before, with a remarkably familiar profile. That tightly curled blonde hair looked exactly like Tommy's…

The sound technician bit his lip to keep from swearing. He started running, taking the oddly staggered steps two at a time, reaching the back for the house just as the man left through one of the side exits. He stood for a moment, undecided, then turned to the booth, doing his best to look unconcerned as he entered.

"Hey Tommy," he said, looking around for the young man. The booth appeared to be empty.

"What? Paul?" Trace asked, emerging from the back closet in the booth with a mess of cables in his arms that closely resembled a chocolate-dipped tumbleweed. "What's up?"

"Are you okay?" Paul asked.

"Kinda regretting that entire bag of Swedish Fish, but otherwise intact, why?" He honestly seemed confused.

"Someone was just..." Paul stopped as something caught his eye. There on the soundboard was a white envelope with Trace's name scrawled in the center. Picking it up, he asked, "This yours, Tommy?"

He shook his head. "No, why..."

Paul showed him the letter, handing it over after Trace had put the tangled cables on the counter. "Someone left it for you."

Trace's brown eyes moved uncertainly from the envelope to Paul's face, searching it for answers. "Was it him?"

Paul shrugged, "I saw someone leaving the booth, so I figured I'd come and check things out..."

Before Trace could respond, the call button suddenly glowed red on his headset. He quickly shoved it on over his curly head, dropping the letter in the process. "Sound on headset," he said automatically. He listened for a moment, then, "Thank you five."

"Dim the house," he told Paul as his fingers hovered over the sixty-four channel sound board. "We've got five till go."

Paul flashed the lights once. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Trace pick up the letter. He had it halfway open before he stopped and looked over at Paul. He didn't seem to realize that his boss was watching him, though, because he said something to himself and dropped the letter into the wastebasket in the corner. Then the orchestra in the pit came alive, filling the house with the entre'act.

Paul, having done his job of distributing equipment, was free to watch the show, but he turned instead to watch the show within the booth. As soon as the lights fell, Trace was transformed from a confused kid into an artist. Too restless to sit, he stood in front of his board, falling into the constant motion that would carry him until intermission.

Well, perhaps not constant, Paul thought to himself. Constant implied something consistent and smooth. Trace was anything but consistent. His movements were as erratic as the green LED's that flared to life with each word that was spoken on stage.

Trace's hands flew over the soundboard, giving actors a voice and taking it away, balancing the sound. It was the same power trip it had been when he was just a kid; he was in charge. He was the puppet master.