Autumn: that was when the masses came to Greene Island. Each year, like clockwork, they washed across this small barrier island off Georgia's coast in one grand and raucous wave: college students, oodles and oodles of college students, all looking for a place to party on the eve of the annual face-off between the University of Georgia Bulldogs and the University of Florida Gators; after the game, win or lose, it would be time to party some more, that is until Sunday rolled around, whereupon those same students would head back to school, vanishing as swiftly as they had appeared. The hoteliers, landlords-for-a-weekend-only, restaurateurs, merchants, and barkeeps celebrated their arrival, while the locals tended to do their grocery shopping and banking well in advance, for the traffic on this quiet, good-natured island could become rather difficult once the kids invaded. In this milieu our story begins—
"You're not serious." When Bryson Elliot, a twenty-one-year-old senior, spoke these words he did so as a plea, not as an observation. He knew quite well his girlfriend, Phoebe, was serious. He was just astounded she would actually make such a ridiculous proposal.
"You don't want to?" Phoebe's brow furrowed in dismay.
"No, Phoebe, I don't."
Since arriving on Greene Island earlier today, Bryson and Phoebe had spent most of their time on the beach as part of a larger group. The parents of one of Bryson's fraternity brothers owned a condominium two blocks from the shore, and a big chunk of that group would be lodging there tonight and tomorrow night. Bryson was content to stay on the beach and drink—ahem, hang out—all day, but for some reason Phoebe had wanted to come off the sand and take a walk around the seaside village of restaurants, bars, gift shops, and clothing stores at Greene Island's southern tip. Bryson had resisted her entreaties at first, but she quickly reminded him how he'd promised her they would find time to exactly this on the way down from Athens. Bryson soon realized he was caught up in a tree by a lion of his own making, and so he agreed. Then, at the last minute, Phoebe had invited a sorority sister, Jessica, and her boyfriend, Caleb, to accompany them. Again Bryson said fine.
They had made for a handsome quartet as they strolled down the sidewalk that afternoon, all of them tanned, young, fit: Phoebe, blond and delicate, almost elfin, in appearance; Jessica, a dark-eyed brunette; Caleb, tall and thin, square-jawed, also a brunette; and Bryson, about the same height as Caleb but possessing the size and powerful musculature of the rugby prop he was, crowned with a mop of thick sandy brown hair that was almost shaggy but not quite. But their stroll had come to an end rather abruptly when Phoebe suggested they stop to rest at a small café.
"We've only been walking for ten minutes," Bryson had argued.
"Well, I was just hoping we could stop for a little bit," was Phoebe's reply. "Would that be all right?"
Then, shortly after they were seated at one of the café's outside tables, Phoebe had blindsided the group with what had to be the dumbest idea Bryson had ever heard—an idea from which he was still reeling.
"Come on, Bryson," Phoebe pleaded. "It'd be something to do."
"Yeah, I know, but—I mean, do we really have to do anything?" He leaned back in his seat. "And do we have to do that?"
Rather than addressing his question, Phoebe looked at Caleb and Jessica. "What do you guys think?"
Though Bryson kept it to himself, he was not happy to see her turn to their companions for reinforcement. He had made abundantly clear, he thought, that he was not keen on her suggestion; in fact, was very much opposed to it. He suspected Caleb and Jessica did not like Phoebe's idea much better, but would go along with her to avoid confrontation.
Caleb and Jessica exchanged glances. Each seemed to want the other to speak first. Then Jessica said to Phoebe, "It doesn't matter to me."
"Me, neither," Caleb added.
Even though Bryson expected Caleb and Jessica—or "Jeleb," as he thought of them—to acquiesce eventually, that they'd done so with such little resistance appalled him. He felt as if the entire world had gone crazy, and he was the only sane person left. Okay, so maybe they had a little time to kill before sun went down and the island's nightlife got underway, but of all the ways they could have killed that time, did it have to be this one? Wasn't there any alternative?
"Looks like you're outnumbered," Phoebe chirped at Bryson, who was glowering at her. "Come on—it'll be fun." She gave his wrist an affectionate squeeze.
But her boyfriend of the last six months was in no mood to be conciliatory. "What are you, like, six years old?" he grumbled.
Phoebe cheerful expression became a frown. "What's your problem?" she said, her voice hurt. "It's just something I thought would be fun, okay? You can stay out here if you don't want to go."
Bryson shook his head. He knew he did not want to stay here, miffed though he was at his companions this afternoon. With affected wonderment, he addressed them all now: "You guys really, honestly, seriously want to go to a puppet show?"
"It's not just a puppet show, Bryson," Phoebe insisted. "It's better than any puppet show you've ever seen."
"I've never been to a puppet show," he replied sourly, "so how would I know?"
"Well, there you go," Jessica said. "This'll be a good place to start."
"See, Bryson? Everybody else is all for it," gloated Phoebe. "You're the only weird one here."
At first Bryson did not respond. His brain was too busy replaying snippets of the way Phoebe had introduced her notion moments before. Something told him he ought to have been suspicious.
"Hey, y'all," she had said, "look over there—across the street. See that building? Have any of you ever been there before? None of y'all have? Oh, we've just got to go. We've got to. That place is famous. Okay, it's not world-famous or anything like that, but everybody knows about it here on the coast. My parents brought me here for the first time when we came to the island on vacation a long time ago. It's amazing. You guys will love it. I promise."
"You planned this, didn't you?" Bryson said to Phoebe, his tone accusatory. "You wanted to do this from the very start. That's why you made us come off the beach early. That's why you wanted us to come to this place here: so that five minutes later, you could point across the street and say, 'Oh, look, there's a puppet show—let's go to that.'"
Phoebe's face turned red. "Well, I…"
"Don't even try to deny it," he warned her.
"Bryson," Caleb said gently, "what's the big deal? I mean, how long does this thing last, Phoebe—an hour, maybe?"
"If even that," she answered him.
"Okay, so it's an hour," Caleb said, turning his attention back to Bryson. "We've got all night, man. What's wrong with just—?"
"Here's what's wrong with it," snapped Bryson. "We're going to look stupid, Caleb. We'll probably be three times the age of the average person in there."
"Adults come too," submitted Phoebe.
"Yeah—the kids' parents, maybe," said Bryson.
"You've never been there, so I don't know how you can say that—but never mind. Forget it. Forget I said anything. I'm sorry I even brought it up."
"No, don't be," Jessica urged her. "Let's go. I vote we do it. Bryson, we'll get you a Halloween mask or something to wear so no one recognizes you. The stores probably have some left over."
Bryson felt the solidarity of the group against him. He was furious with them, and yet he also knew that, much as he did not want to go along, he had an even greater desire not to be abandoned. So he was left with no choice.
"Fine," the young man said, defeated. "We can go."
As the others congratulated Bryson on being a good sport, he could only reflect on his words—"We can go," as if he had any say in the matter to begin with.
In short order the foursome paid their bill and stepped onto the sidewalk again, made ready to cross the narrow boulevard. As they waited for a chance to slip through traffic, Bryson studied the building that housed The Phantasma Puppet Theatre. It was constructed of dark red brick rather than tabby, the mixture of cement and seashell that had been used for the row of businesses to which it was attached. This uniqueness led Bryson—the son of a construction company owner—to guess the building's existence predated the commercial development surrounding it. Two yellow-roofed turrets rose at opposite ends of the Theatre's front façade, while large frosted-glass double doors—set between a pair of circular windows—served as its main entrance, or so he gathered from the stream of people, mainly families with young children, now filing inside. But human beings, Bryson learned when he and his friends finally were allowed to cross, did not represent the only movement within The Phantasma Puppet Theatre. Other creatures were on the premises too—controlled by humans, he assumed, but not human themselves. In the turret on the right, or eastern side, he saw a figure he assumed was Humpty Dumpty—a giant egg with a person's face and wearing plaid trousers, who else could it be?—along with a hook-nosed Witch in a black gown and an equally black peaked cap. In the one on the left, or west side, stood a scowling pirate who sported an eye patch and a Crow Nest Pirate hat with the Jolly Roger emblazoned across the front. Bryson then looked down at ground-level, and saw that, behind the windows flanking the main entrance, there was activity as well. Seated on the sill of the right-side window was a brightly outfitted Court Jester—his colors were yellow and black—with bulging eyes and a slightly sinister grin, the jangling of the bells adorning his cap audible even from the indoors; the left window held a tuxedo-clad gorilla. They were large, beautiful puppets, ranging from four to five feet in height by Bryson's estimate, but what he really found interesting, almost extraordinary, was the fluidity of their movements. He had no doubt that, up in the turrets and down below the windows, a team of puppeteers was working hard to give the illusion of life to these creations; but clearly this was a much more sophisticated operation, at least in a technological sense, than he'd first thought.
All the puppets were waving: from the turrets and the windows of the Theatre, they were all greeting passersby, many of whom were stopping to admire their craftsmanship. Not surprisingly children seemed most fascinated by the puppets, regarding them at first with half-delight, half-trepidation, and then with delight alone.
Maybe I would have liked this, Bryson mused, if I was still in elementary school.
He was actually pleased to see the line into the Theatre was getting longer: the more people inside, the easier it would be for him to blend into the crowd. As they came under the building's shadow—vast already, and lengthening as the sun sank in the west above the shop roofs and the tree tops—he eyed the gorilla in the tuxedo for a moment. It looked right back at Bryson, and gave him a special wave all his own.