a Ghost Story
“Brisk. Nice fall day in Rose Valley. Not cold enough to keep an audience away, and with a sold out show, the evening would be another success for the current production … sales were doing well.” James turned these thoughts over in his head as he prepped for the day ahead.
Passing by the notice board in the front hall of the Hedgerow Farmhouse, he read:
“I’ve got the guts to die. What I want to know is, have you got the guts to live?” – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
“Actors,” he thought with a grunt. “Always quoting show. Especially current shows. Don’t they get enough of it on stage?” As James erased the message and wrote the next day’s call times he thought how great it would be when the show closed.
One of the new actors was giving him trouble. Thomas. Ever since he joined the company last August he was nothing but a pain. Insubordinate. Disruptive. A joker with dark humor. James was done with him, but the show was going well. He’d dismiss him but after closing. “One more week.”
That afternoon as James quietly ate his lunch in the basement of the theatre, Thomas entered. Solitude was disrupted as Thomas lazily flopped on the sofa. “Full house tonight?” James nodded and continued to eat his now rotten tasting egg salad.
“Good,” said Thomas in a long, drawn voice that made James uneasy. James was a tall man, built with a commanding face, hidden by a grizzly bear beard. The wiry Thomas, dark-haired and hunched over at the shoulders, doesn’t serve much of a threat to James’ authority. He could take Thomas–if he had to. There was something in the kid’s eyes. Rebellion. Laughing and joyful rebellion. “One more week.”
Thomas took out a small matchbook from his pocket and threw a new deck of playing cards down on the coffee table.
His mouth formed a gritty half-smile as he moved the matchbook playful between his slender fingers with the dexterity that a stranger would recognize was developed from habit.
James watched him from his chair as Thomas built a small house of cards. No sooner was it standing than Thomas, with a small inward chuckle, tore off a match and set his king and queen alight with the tiny flame.
“Put it out,” James sternly commanded. Thomas laughed with carefree resistance. “Now,” ordered James,”It’s a hazard.”
“Life’s a hazard,” as Thomas hunched over to light a cigarette from the burning paper. James rose angrily and stomped on the burning cards as Thomas, laughing, sauntered outside to take a drag. A gust of November wind rushed in from the open door ushering dead leaves into the basement lounge.
“Actors,” grumbled James. He rubbed at the burn mark in the wooden table. “One more week.”
Alarm bells sounded. Red lights raced past the Hedgerow Farmhouse, down toward the Theatre. Rose Valley was ablaze when James got the phone call to come down.
“Just come now. Quickly.”
James quickly banged on all the residents’ doors.
“Fire!” He yelled.
Noises. Scrambling. Obscenities filled the recently quiet, dark house as doors opened and actors emerged. James grabbed a handful of men and raced down to the theatre.
The thirty-second ride seemed like an eternity until they pulled into the gravel lot cluttered with giant red engines and firefighters struggling to quell the blaze that engulfed the once mill turned playing space. Jets of water shot into the flames. The beautiful dome was gone. Perished. Roof caved in completely.
The fireman fought for what seemed like years until the flames gave up, leaving a burnt out shell of over 100 years of history. Now all blackened stone and bits of wood.
James sent the company back to the Farmhouse as he began to survey the rubble.
Running around he identified the wooden chairs, once warmed by full houses, now burnt. The stage boards, completely eaten up exposing the basement lounge underneath. As he squinted, James recognized the frames of furniture and Thomas’ trampled, burnt-up pack of cards. Kings and queens. Gone.
There was no time for anger or questions. But that never stopped the police.
“Excuse us, James,” said the officer.
“I’m afraid so. Can’t wait”
“What is there to say?”
“Where were you earlier this evening?”
“Here. Then I went to the house after the show started.”
“Why was your car still here then?”
“I left it. It was parked in. Full house.”
“Full house? So the theatre was doing well, eh?”
“Was,” James gritted his teeth at the officer’s lack of sensitivity.
“Can this wait? I’ve got to get to a company without jobs. I need to-”
“We need to speak with them as well. Individually,” insisted the officer.
The interrogation continued until the police were temporarily satisfied. They dropped James off at the Farmhouse. One of the residents shyly walked up to James as he entered the front hall.
“Police question you, Allen?”
“Questioned us all for hours”
“Where is the kid”
“Which one?” Allen apologetically grinned.
“Skipped out. Left.”
“I dunno. Late last night. He didn’t come down when you woke us”
“Good riddance, eh?”
With a sigh, James turned catching sight of the notice board. His earlier message erased with a new one in its place:
The Phoenix hope, can wing her way through the desert skies, and still defying fortune’s spite; revive from ashes and rise. – Miguel de Cervantes
James flew down to the theatre. Smoke still steamed from the pile of rubble against the blues and oranges of the dusky night’s sky.
The smoldering ashes created clouds of dust as James searched through the fallen beams, stones, and miscellaneous debris. Wading through the soggy mess and coughing through the dust, he turned over bits of half melted furniture with fiery rage.
As he looked down he noticed a something. A playing card. New. He picked it up, looking around for an explanation of its existence.
Turning the card over he saw a picture of a lanky joker staring at him with a gritty grin.
A familiar laugh echoed through the smoky rubble as James looked out into the empty darkness.