Disclaimer: this is a weird one. It contains things that I am not fully comfortable with, but apparently ended up writing anyways. If at any point the story starts to put you on edge, feel free to duck out. I won't judge. Just leave a review, if possible. I am intensely curious about the sorta feedback this is going to get.
"The play's the thing."
He was writhing.
He was rising.
He was Lord Black, and around him the dancers spun. There was something heavy on his face. A mask, dark and smooth. He reached up and found that it covered his eyes, leaving them to peer out from behind a screen of supple silk.
A couple waltzed by and he became aware that there had been a pounding in his head. That it was now gone. A sense of certainty, warm and familiar, slipped over him—ran its hands over his shoulders, kneading away doubt.
He knew where he was. It was a gala night. The great hall spread out in waves of marble from where he stood, full to bursting with light and life. Orchestral music crashed over him in a breathless rush, stealing the sound of wonder from his lips. High overhead, a chandelier glittered aloof. He arched his neck to face it, and nearly laughed aloud when it winked back in fractal. Bliss hummed its way through his bones, and he knew completely, knew instinctively that it had been a good idea to come here. Why he might have wanted to be anywhere else, he couldn't imagine.
"My dear Lord Black," he jolted a little as one of the dancing pairs ruptured, split down the seams and flung a woman his way, "you appear to be dancing alone." She was draped in slinking, shimmering smoke; velvet passed through an industrial furnace. Silver-rimmed pearls glinted back daringly from her ears and her smile was two even lines of polished white. A chestnut bun gathered her hair together under the close supervision of several diamond pins and, in spite of the metamorphosis that the evening had wrought, he was sure that he knew her.
"Lady Madeline?" The words jumped out before he had time to think. She smiled back, inviting him to continue. "I can only hope that if what I am doing counts as dancing, the trend must never catch on."
"You were starstruck, then. Arrested by the sight of so many moneyed men." The dress shifted and she leaned back ever so slightly. He felt his breath catch and the empty space draw him in. "Or perhaps by me?"
"Do you...I mean, would you...I mean, shall we dance?" The words sounded husky in his throat. Abruptly self-conscious, he looked down to find an immaculate tuxedo had been pressed over his skin. It fit like the slimmest, most flexible armor.
"We shall, I think. But we don't dance your way. We dance mine." A slender hand struck out swan-swift and caught him by the palm. Moving with a regal grace, Madeline led him away from the center of the floor and into the thick of the throng, where bright-spinning gold and gilt left shimmering stains on the open air.
His head began to pound again. An iciness crept up his feet. He was about to ask her to stop, to give him a moment's rest, when the world cracked open and he fell sideways.
"I understand, but can't you give me another day? Just one?" The office air hung heavy with the sound of his plea. It felt pathetic, just laying there for the wrinkled clerk with her horn-rimmed glasses to study. To dissect in a few casual flicks of a pen.
"I'm sorry, sir, but we've just given you a week. Your last notice said 'as soon as possible' in bright red caps. I know. I drafted it myself. If you do not vacate by tomorrow, I will have no choice but to have the locks changed." She watched his expression carefully, one hand straying to the old telephone on her desk. It was only when his face fell, baring up the bedrock of his defeat, that she relaxed and let it drop. "I'm sure things will turn out fine. A young man like you must have plenty of other places to stay."
He raked a hand through his sopping hair, sloughing droplets off onto the rug. "Not me. I don't."
"Don't what?" The hall was back. He let out a deep, stale breath all at once, unaware that he'd been holding it in. Madeline was staring at him quizzically, eyes skimming sparrow-quick over the surface of his expression. "Surely, you're not having trouble keeping up?" Her nose wrinkled mischievously.
Lord Black focused on his breathing. Fought to keep it regular. His feet fumbled forward on automatic. Knots of other dancers skimmed by on either side, some of them casting frosty looks his way. "I...for a moment, I thought you were someone else."
Her fingers slipped out of his for a second, and he hastily sent her into a spin, feigning deliberateness. When she came back, a sequined mask hovered in front of her face, pinched between dainty fingers. She was grinning. "You never know. Maybe I am."
He tried to fight it, but the warmth in her eyes was contagious. Inside of a minute, his headache had melted. After that followed the horrible, dislocated sensation of being two people at once.
They moved in circuits around the hall, traveling in studied synchronicity. Other couples began to stumble, or to watch as they passed in stark jealousy. The stink of their envy was almost palpable. In fact...
Lord Black blinked, nearly recoiling from the faint reek of rot as it swept by. A marquise and his lady, both faces powdered pale, were weaving clumsy arcs against the flow of the flow of the music. He bit back a disparaging remark. His mouth tasted of champagne.
Champagne. Was that supposed to mean something?
Reality gave a juttering, stuttering start, then wrenched away from him with a violent snap.
There were bubbles in his blood. He could feel them, shivering through his veins, sipped direct from the glass that his fingers were idly twirling. They were more than seltzer. They were success, tracing him like a map. He and they were one glorious being, caught forever in this moment. Eternally triumphant.
Across the table, face painted tiger-striped in the candle light, Lawrence sat and folded his hands. It was simply his way to be quiet when everyone else was boisterous. To sit silently and bask in the radiant glow of glory. Even when it was just the two of them, he was content to smile in that quiet little way of his, saying absolutely nothing.
Well, tonight Tom had bubbles in his blood, and he wasn't going to stand for that. "Another glass." He waved at their waitress as she passed. She responded with something trivial, polite, and melted back into the ambiance. Leaving him alone with Lawrence again.
Alone and annoyed.
"Ow! What the hell was that for?" Brows knitting in consternation, Law reached down to rub at his shins. "I don't just haul off and kick you whenever I feel like it."
"That's 'cause you're stuck in there all the time." Lifting a silver fork, Tom pointed with the butt-end at the other man's head. "My cousin has a kid, or I finally get a job, or I climb up a tree and save a kitten before the fire department can get there, and you're tucked away behind your eyes thinking hard on what it means."
"I did say 'congratulations.'" Picking up a knife, Law batted the fork away sullenly.
"No, what you said was 'congratulations. I'm sure it'll be a wonderful place to work at.' That, 'gnocchis a la parisienne, please', and 'hey, Tom. How's it going?' are the three things you've said to me tonight."
"I was being succinct."
"Do that on your own time. It's not every day some ritzy rag hires me to write their arts column."
"I know. That's why I thought it deserved extra considera—hey! Stop throwing gnocchi at me!"
When Lord Black opened his eyes again, they had left the dance floor behind. He was staring down into his reflection, suspended in a bowl of punch. Lurid, flickering features gazed back from the drink. He found that he had a cup in one hand, a ladle in the other. Surgically, he broke the surface and transferred some of his floating face to the cup..
"I thought you needed a little air." Lady Madeline was standing at his side, pressed ever so gently against his arm.
He took a long, steadying draught from the punch. "So you brought me to liquid? How kind."
"You went all pale and breathless. That's not an effect I have on most gentlemen. Not right away, at least." Her presence didn't move. Lord Black slowly became aware that he was no longer breathing. He swallowed a gulp of air, then forced it out to maintain appearances.
"It usually takes a little longer than that?"
"I hope I wasn't disappointingly quick."
"No, not at all." Her fingernails spider-danced their way up his arm, sparking chilling prickles everywhere they lit. There was something familiar about the sensation. Something unplaceable.
Lord Black took another breath. Followed it with another gulp of punch. Nearly misted the air with fruit-scented booze when it tried to crawl down into his lungs. Seizing a tight grip on his thoughts, he steadied himself. "I hope you won't think me terribly rude, but where do I know you from?"
Madeline laughed—silver bells pealing in the air. "Nowhere untoward, I can promise you that."
He grinned, started raising a hand to dismiss the question outright, then hesitated. "I'm serious. Where did we meet before?"
A puzzled look stole onto her face. "I...you know, I'm not sure. You there!" She rounded on a pair of passing dancers, "Can you tell me how I know this fine gentleman?"
The dancers—a count and his countess, with masks shaped from gilded feathers—paused. The count shrugged, and the countess mumbled something quite incomprehensible over the music of the orchestra. Lord Black wrinkled his nose. The putrid smell was back, interlaced with overtones of must and grime. "Never mind. Thanks anyways." He waved diffidently, and they resumed their dance. "That was quite strange."
"I suppose it shall remain a mystery, then, where we met." Madeline lifted the cup from his hands and began to top it off with punch. "Probably at a party, but it's much too early in the evening for me to be forgetting things like that." She pouted at her floating twin in the punch. "You'll give me an excuse for that, right?"
"What about all these other people? Do you know any of them?" He swept an expansive arm out over the dance floor.
"Of course. That's lady Breena, with the black and white fan. Next to her is lady Catherine, chatting up the man in opera mask. Over there's lord Marcus, with the stuffed mammal on his head. I don't have amnesia, you know." She huffed playfully, eyelashes wavering.
The names were familiar. He could put a face to every one of them, from Catherine's pinched cheeks to Marcus' flamboyant golden mustache. He could not, however, drag up a single experience that he had ever shared with them. "How long have you known lady Breena?"
"I...I'm not sure. Must have been ages."
"Did you go to school together?
"Maybe. I don't know."
"Where did you go to school?"
"I...somewhere. It was somewhere." She was out of her depth, floundering. "I'm not sure I like this subject better than what we were talking about before."
He stared at her face. Emerald eyes, tense as the ocean before a storm. They went with a name. Not Madeline. Started with an A.
Andrea. Allison. Ashley. Abigail. Abigail?
Invisible hands gripped the great hall and tore it in half like a rotting melon.
"It's a pleasure to meet you." He stuck out a hand.
"You must be Tom." She was half a head shorter than he was, with thick black glasses and hair that was less of a single shape and more of a runaway torrent of brown strands. "I'm sorry. I'm a little busy right now. Developing. Could you come back in a few-"
"You do know the play starts in an hour, correct?"
She—Abigail—sighed and stepped back, holding the door open. "Come in. I'll just be a minute."
Passing from the hallway into her apartment was like passing from the modern world into some sort of Celtic barrow. The lights were low, and a faint patina of magazines, film prints, and take-out boxes covered most of the floor—funeral offerings for the modern ghost—but the walls were dizzyingly full of imagery. Pastels of sprites. Ink-scapes of mushrooms and capering brownies. Three-dimensional renderings of Oberon, Titania, and their respective courts. Fey beings hung in suspended motion, captured on a thousand canvases, forming a gallery of faeries that enclosed him on every side. Tom felt an irrational urge to snicker. "Hobby of yours?"
"Just one," answered her retreating back. She rounded a corner and ducked behind a door, which closed with a click. "Don't follow me, please. I'll be out in a moment."
"Huh. Okay." Scraping a couple sacred repositories of neglected pad thai off of a chair, he plopped down. "This is what you do when you're not taking pics for Broadway Vulture?"
"You know anything about the play they have us covering?"
"Nope. Brochure's on the chair, though."
He shifted in his seat. Something wrinkled noisily underneath him. "Thanks. Shall I read you the highlights?"
"Fine." He creased open the mangled pages. Blah blah blah. Fancy gothic font. The Queen and the Stranger. Blah blah blah. Adapted from the French. Being a fantasy in two acts. It looked like exactly the sort of brooding nonsense that Lawrence would have liked.
He flinched away from the word, but it didn't do much good. The ache was back. "Hurry up in there, will you?"
Lord Black returned to consciousness in a rush of warmth and sound. He was waltzing again, floating over the marble with Madeline, acutely aware of the smoldering looks that she was throwing at him. If they had been any more intense, his clothes would have undoubtedly caught fire. "How did I get here?" he whispered, voice hoarse.
"You asked me if I wanted to dance."
Doubt wound its way between his legs, tangling them. He nearly pitched over. Lady Madeline frowned, but set a steadying hand on his shoulder and walked him away from the other couples, twice having to change course so as not to be directly in their paths. One of them—man and women dressed as jeweled pheasants—left in its wake a faint scent of the septic. "I said that?"
"Are you feeling quite yourself, milord?"
"I'm not sure." They wandered past the refreshment tables, skirting platters of canape and the greatly depleted punch bowl. "When you're asleep, do you ever realize you're dreaming?"
"Sometimes. If I'm very lucky." Past the tables were a series of marble pillars, sweeping up in majestic swells from the floor. Still guided by the gentle push of Madeline's hand, Lord Black allowed himself to be led around the edge of one and was surprised to find a door recessed into the side of the wall behind it. "Lucid dreaming, you know, can be intensely satisfying." Deft hands reached out, unlatched the door, let it swing open. Beyond was a dingy, empty corridor. "Perhaps we could step outside for a bit?"
Lord Black felt his cheeks begin to color. "Isn't this a little sudden?"
"Nonsense. Who says anything's going to happen?"
He started to open his mouth to reply, but from deep inside his throat rose a roaring that drowned out the words.
They were sitting cross-legged on the carpet, separated by a guttering candle. The power was out. Had been out since six. Had been out since they'd sat down, fumbled an old VHS tape into the VCR, and waited for the opening titles of Monsters Inc. to roll by. Now the television sat dead, a hulking shadow in the gloom. Its mirrored face watched them through the darkness, a silent participant in their vigil.
"Do you think it'll come back on?"
"What, right now?"
Tom pulled a face. "Of course it'll come back on eventually. That's what the electricity does."
Law shrugged. "What if it doesn't? Can you imagine a world without the crackle and skitter of static through wires?Without..." he waved a hand, as if trying to draw a suitably poetic phrase out of the air, "without the bitter blue blood of our modern nation?"
"They'd have to light everything by hand. It'd be a nightmare."
"I think it'd be lovely."
"You would think that. Blackouts in moderation are fine, but I'm not up to facing a world without computers."
"Prove it." Between them, the light quivered. "Say 'I hope the power never comes back on.'"
"But I don't." If he'd had the leverage to, Tom would've stomped his foot.
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that."
"Cluck cluck cluck."
"Peck peck. Scratch. Cluck."
"Okay, fine. You win." He cleared his throat. The TV leaned in, listening hard. "I hope the power never comes back on. There. You happy?" Of course it would, but he felt a little thrill race the length of his spine all the same. What would a world without lightening and wires be like?
"You know, you wouldn't have that article to write."
Hmm. Maybe there was something to it, after all.
Around them the shadows flared and shifted, cupping the candle's glow in careful hands. Thomas rose up and leaned over, careful not to let the flame brush him. Lips on lips. Soft to soft.
Lord Black jerked back, hitting the cool stone wall with a thunderous slap. He could feel the imprint of her lips fading from his, could feel the desire washing away. They were in the corridor. The door was closed. He took a hurried step towards it.
"What's wrong? I didn't bite you, did I?"
"No. I... don't think so." The tip of his tongue touched his upper lip, finding only the faintest of dents there. He drew in a ragged breath, set a hand on his chest, and waited for everything to settle back into place around him. It didn't. "I think maybe I'm going insane."
"Is it still bothering you, that you can't remember how you know me?" Madeline leaned back against a wall, posture slackening. Her expression was open, unguarded—eyes questing.
Lord Black shook his head. "More than that. We've known each other for a while, right?"
"How long have you been interested in me? Romantically?"
She fluttered her lashes, suddenly bashful. "For as long as I can remember."
A little pulse of longing shot through his chest. He forced it away. "And have you never had other suitors?"
"None that I can recall." Madeline hesitated. "And you? Have you ever courted another woman?"
"No, but-" The room shook suddenly. Hard. As if it were a dog worrying a rat. Lord Black stumbled and fell. The floor swept up to meet him.
In the end, it was Lawrence who was reduced to throwing things. A table. A lamp. Some magnets. And finally, the piece de resistance, their refrigerator. It was, fortunately, a very small fridge, and it wasn't aimed at anyone in particular. That wasn't much of a comfort, though.
The embattled Thomas stood amidst the wreckage of the flat, half-raising his hands to protest every few seconds before something new and exciting and most importantly airborne went skimming past. There was nothing for him to do but sigh helplessly. And the evening had started so well.
First, there had been the dinner. Then had come the talk, where he admitted that the magazine really wasn't going to take him unless he moved up to New York. After that had followed a few minutes of soul-searching and verbal fencing where he tried to get through the idea that maybe a break would be a good thing. It would give them time to readjust. Reassess. Figure out why sometimes they just got on each other's nerves.
After that, it had been a swift downhill slope to fault-finding, and from there to name-calling. Name-calling had tumbled them both into a furious silent standoff, which Thomas had attempted to break by leaving. That was when the throwing began.
A glass ashtray made a soft whirring sound as it sped through the air, whanged off a wall, and fell behind the couch. It hadn't gone anywhere near Thomas. This was deliberate. Law didn't actually look like he wanted to hurt anyone. Just to be angry, and helpless, for a little while.
Tom groaned. He didn't have time for this. To sit down and wait for the throwing to stop. To sort things out. Besides, there wasn't much point in patching things up now. In getting stuck there again.
Maybe he didn't have a lot in his bank account. Maybe a lot of what he owned was physical. Was a cutlery set or a throw-rug in the apartment. But he could make a go of it. Just pack up and leave. After all, he'd have a job when he landed in New York, ready to furnish him with a salary.
"I'd tell you to call me when you calm down, but don't bother. I'm forgetting your number." And with that, he walked out.
He was dimly conscious of the wooden door opening, of returning to the great hall. Madeline's shoulders were shrugged underneath his right arm, holding him up. Her face was solemnly set beneath her mask, and she struck out away from the dancers towards the far end of the hall. Towards an enormous set of double-doors.
The were wrought with silver curls, barred by gold. Next to each stood a liveried footman, quivering with duty from the soles of his lacquered boots to the tip of his cap plume. "I'm afraid the Lord Black is unwell. He has been suffering from fainting spells and dizziness. I think it would be best if you called a carriage." Neither footman moved.
"I'm doing better, I think." Reality heaved. Lord Black felt his stomach clench, gritted his teeth and waited for the sickness, but it never came.
"See?" Madeline glared balefully. "Am I to believe that neither of you talk?"
"The ball is far from over," murmured the footman on the left. A faint whiff of decay floated through the air, causing Lord Black to torque and gag at the floor.
"This man is obviously not okay. Let us out. I demand it."
"It is not our decision to make." The footman on the right still hadn't spoken. As he stood there unmoving, his hat began to slip from atop his head.
"Maybe you could just point me towards a bathroom?" it wasn't terribly authoritative, and Madeline shot him a look. As their eyes met, her dress was momentarily replaced by jeans. A pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Lord Black blinked and they were gone.
"Fine. We'll find our own way out." Madeline grabbed his other arm, tried to wheel him around., but not before he got one last look at the footmen. The one on the right appeared to be deflating, sinking into himself. The carrion stench had grown a little stronger.
"What's your name again?"
"My name's Madeline."
"No, it's not. You're Abigail." Lord Black doubled over, and poured his guts onto the marble floor.
The taxi was quiet between them, except for the whir of passing road. Thomas flipped the playbill idly between his fingers, imagining that it was a knife, and that he was very daring. Abigail just sat beside him, camera in her lap, and waited. There were another couple of blocks to go between them and The Oaks—the run-down little theater that was hosting the play—and Thomas inwardly groaned at the thought of spending them in silence.
"So, you do this often?"
She looked up at him. Looked back down at her camera. "It pays the bills."
"Wish I could say the same."
"Oh. Too bad."
"Yeah. It is." Silence yawned open again, and Thomas scrambled to fill it. "Have you been to this place before?"
"Any ideas what it might be like? If it's a total dive?"
"Not really the sociable type, are you?"
He sighed. Shifted in his seat. Opened the playbill again, and began scanning its contents.
"Tonight's performance will be starring Lord Black as the hero. Lady Madeline will play his lover. An ensemble cast includes the Lord Marcus, and the Ladies Catherine and Breena. The Worm will be reprising its role. As itself."
The dancers rolled and reeled, their movements frantic now. Their steps and their twirls were fumbled. Their bows rushed.
An overpowering reek of rot hung on the air, so close it was almost blinding. It was like being forced head-first into a midden. Lord Black tried not to vomit again, but he kept dancing. He found he couldn't stop.
The Lady Madeline was spinning opposite him, her face pale and terrified. Somehow her hair had come undone and was hanging loosely to her shoulders. Unruly strands snaked and snapped at each other, becoming more ensnarled with every rotation. Her dress was gone, replaced with casual-wear, ink-stained and rumpled. The floor had shifted from marble to polished wooden boards.
"What's happening to us?" Madeline (Abigail?) Madeline let out a choking sob. She shuddered violently. Her eyes were wet.
"I don't know." He dug for a handkerchief to wipe at the tears, then noticed that they were a muddy brown. So, too, was the sweat openly weeping from her forehead. He jerked back.
The peel started at the edge of her eyebrow, just a crease in the skin. A hint that something was wrong beneath. As he watched, a whole half of her face sloughed forward. Melted off. It hit the ground wet and sick seconds before Abigail's convulsing body.
Starting in the tips of his toes, the feeling grew. Creeping up his legs, it passed his calves and left the skin below them hanging loose. He stumbled. His feet felt like slush.
All around Lord Black, the dancers were dropping. Finery fell from them, forming compost heaps. The vaulted ceiling, the marble walls, together they dissolved into decrepit drywall backed by curtains. A few feet away, unoccupied rows of seats gaped like broken teeth. There were bodies slumped over arm-rests. Spent shapes trailing down the aisles.
From the other side of the stage, a figure shuffled into view. It was dressed in a long brown robe—the sort of robe that a man who knew nothing about them might associate with monks. Its cowl was pulled back, and from inside it jutted a shivering, pulsating length of unbroken flesh. It was elongated to a point that stretched and quested, probing the air for unseen cues.
Suddenly he was aware that he had seen it before. That it had been there the entire time; stepping between bodies at the dance, waiting by the table with the punch, hovering outside the door to the hallway. His eyes had simply passed over it. Edited it out. Unsaw.
The Worm moved with a curious, shuffling sort of locomotion, making its way from one body to the next. Occasionally, its face would stretch until it was icicle-thin, then its nose would drag itself through the mess left by the departed. Lord Black realized that he was Thomas, who felt like screaming.
The Worm went still at the sound. Then it turned in his direction.
He had never run so fast before, tottering on liquid legs to the back of the stage where a fire extinguisher sat behind its case in perfect repose. One, two, three strikes with his hand spiderwebbed the glass, and the fourth pounded through it, setting off an alarm that would have droned sonic murder had it ever been inspected often enough to work. The Worm was seconds behind and he whirled, bringing down the metal casing on its head.
It was like hitting a fire hose full to bursting with water. The Worm went down in a ropy jumble and he struck it again, desperately hoping it would explode into pulp. It didn't. The extinguisher bounced off. Went rolling. Fell off the stage. Was gone.
A streak of icy pain awoke down the length of his arm. He was aware that he was bleeding. That it had scored on his flesh. He didn't care.
Digging in his pockets, past the half-packet of cigarettes that he left untouched, that he kept as a reminder and a warning, was a slender metal lighter. He dug it out, snapped it open, and hobbled over to the theater's curtains.
The Worm was slow to rise. By the time it had drawn itself back up to its original height, orange flames were licking hungrily, racing desperate to the ceiling. Thomas hauled himself to the side of the stage and forced his way past a jumble of props to the fire exit.
He was almost out when something inserted itself in his lower back. It was just there for a moment, as this awful, slimy sensation radiated from the needle-prick, and then he was through the door, out and gasping into the urban night. He ripped off a shoe, jammed it into the frame, slammed his body against it, keeping it closed. Something thumped weakly from the other side.
It took a few minutes, but finally it stopped, leaving him alone with the scent of smoke and the sound of sirens.
They released him, eventually. It was clear that he hadn't been culpable. That he had been a survivor. A victim. They released him to his no apartment and his empty life and to the job he had lost at the Broadway Vulture.
It took him a few weeks, but he found his way back onto his feet. That was what survivors did, after all. He lived out of the local YMCA. Took a job at a convenience store. Bought lots and lots of scrap paper.
A month undulated by. Then another. He felt something inside himself beginning to grow.
The pangs of hunger arose in his gut one cold March morning after his boss asked what he was planning on doing with his life. That's when he sat down and began to compose the play. It was a fantasy in two acts.