They were quite alone in their car. Peter took a seat near the door, while Aidan sat one row behind. He settled back against the dark fabric of his chair and looked out the window as they passed the station by. “Which is Lyle’s way?” he asked. “The town, the train, or the station?”
“The railroad,” said Peter.
“Why is it called that?”
The fool turned impatiently and leaned over the back of his seat to face Aidan. “Because it’s a way to go and it belongs to Lyle. He drives the train,” he added before Aidan could ask.
“Now, there are a few rules to follow when you take Lyle’s way. Most importantly, don’t speak to me again until we get where we’re going.”
He turned around again, and Aidan was left to endure the rest of the journey in uncomfortable silence. Outside, fields and forests were rushing past. All were grey and dead—locked in a permanent winter without snow. Every so often a graveyard would pop up amid the trees, cut from the greater portrait of the living world. There were sometimes houses, too. Most of them were older, Victorian or Colonial, but occasionally more modern structures jutted up grotesquely. Glimpses of the neighborhoods or lots they belonged in would creep through empty air, and once or twice Aidan thought he saw people. But there was never enough time and they were always too far away to tell.
A great many of the scenes they passed would have made stunning paintings. Aidan danced his fingers on the arm of his chair as the visions lodged themselves in his head, burning with creative potential. Hours and hours passed in a hazy blur of thought, divided between vague artistic contemplation and the questions multiplying in his head. In front of him, Peter seemed to have gone to sleep. Did the dead sleep? Another question.
Several times, the train screeched to a halt to load passengers. Whenever this happened, Aidan worried that this was their stop and they were missing it because Peter refused to wake. Their car slowly accumulated a motley smattering of travelers—people of all sorts, about a dozen in all. There was a doctor with frazzled hair and a stained lab coat who, upon catching sight of Aidan, immediately sat next to him and began a string of demanding questions about where his skin, muscles, and other necessary accoutrements had gone. While trying to assure him that he didn’t need such things and was doing fine without them, Aidan fancied he saw Peter smiling. It was a small comfort to think that the fool had only been feigning sleep; he would much rather be rudely ignored than miss their stop and spend an eternity traveling Lyle’s way.
“Really, I think you should consider borrowing someone’s tendons,” the doctor was saying as the train lurched into another station. “Your mobility would increase tenfold if we could just outfit you with tendons and muscles. You wouldn’t even have to have skin, if you prefer.”
“I’m fine, thanks,” Aidan said, edging away from him as best he could.
“And what about eyes? Wouldn’t you like some of those? It must be awful without-”
“He can see,” Peter spoke up, lifting his head at last. “He can talk and hear your idiotic voice, too, unfortunately. Just like the rest of us.”
The doctor drew back from Aidan as if he had been shocked. He stared at Peter, fumbling for words. “Oh, of course. Of course. My apologies, Mr. Grey.”
Peter jerked his head towards the car door. “This is your stop.”
“But it isn’t.”
Reluctantly, the doctor rose from his seat and shuffled out into the aisle. His back was to them and more than half of it was missing—a nice clean slice had been scooped out from between his shoulder-blades, leaving a gaping, bloody trench. Aidan felt sick and looked away.
“Hypocrite,” Peter hissed under his breath.
The train left the doctor behind on the platform, and Aidan snuck one last glance at him from the window. Their eyes met, and the doctor shook his head, frowning and grim, before heading off into the mist that waited beyond the platform. They traveled past two more stops before Peter at last stood and beckoned to Aidan.
Outside they found themselves in the middle of a city square at night. Buildings stretched up around them like grasping shadows, towering over uneven stones and concrete. It was an awkward fusing of new and old, like the construction of some giant child’s bizarre imagination. But the strangest of all was what loomed in front of them, cutting through the night like a thorn. Gothic towers, balconies, and outer staircases unfolded to the black heavens. The fool began walking towards it at once, and Aidan fell haltingly into step behind him, unable to tear his eye sockets away from the horrible, magnificent thing.
“What is it?” he asked.
Peter stopped and stood gazing up at the massive doors. “It used to be a cathedral. Now it’s a theatre.”
He nodded. “We call it The Masque. Anything you want to see. Plays, operas, ballets, musicals, symphonies…we have company members for all of it.”
“This is where you live?”
“Yes, and you, too,” the fool said with a nudge. “Our company director, Sir Hugo Averick, keeps tabs on all of the newly deceased. He sent me to collect you after you died.”
The smile returned with more force, gleaming out of his pale-painted face like a knife. “Give it time. You’ll see.”
They skirted around the front doors—which Peter explained were never opened unless a performance was on—to the east side of the theatre. A crowd was gathered by the stage door, stamping their feet and rubbing their hands to fight the cold. Aidan felt panic sinking in, but Peter whispered to him, “be very still!” and picked him up. He went rigid, letting the fool carry him into the crowd like a prop.
Curious men, women, and children pressed in on them from all sides, all smiles and loud voices, calling to Peter and demanding things: autographs; photos; entrance to the theatre; could he please take a message to one of the dancers; could he please arrange for someone to contact the local news and deliver an interview…and so on and so on. None of them seemed to care about the life size—and very life like—human skeleton he carried, though Peter did comment that they would be taking him apart and using him in Hamlet. He fought his way to the stage door, all charm and avoidance, and before Aidan knew it they were safely inside the theatre, with the thoroughly disappointed crowd locked out and pounding on the door.
“Is that normal?” Aidan asked once he had been set down. “I mean, I don’t remember anything, but it doesn’t seem like they should be that…excited. Over a theatre, I mean.”
The fool smirked. “You mustn’t have ever seen proper theatre. It’s perfectly normal. They leave in a haze of amazement and once they realize they’ve been ushered out they do anything to get back in. It’s like when you have a really good dream, but then you wake up,” he added.
“So your company’s that good?”
The way he spoke held such finality that Aidan didn’t press the matter, but it still seemed unnatural. The desperation in the eyes of the audience members weighed on his mind as they moved further into the belly of the theatre.
Company members began to appear. Aidan stuck close to Peter, preparing to see things just as horrific as the doctor’s back, but for the most part the men and women who strode up and down the maze of winding halls and rooms backstage could have passed just as easily through life as they did through the theatre.
Peter was obviously glad to be back “home.” There was a jaunty bounce to his step and a sly twitch to his grin which Aidan couldn’t decide if he liked. He greeted everyone they passed with a “Hullo!” and a pat on the back or a brief, albeit cheerful, nod. In this way they traveled from the dim lights and quiet bustle of behind-the-scenes to a solitary room at the end of a long white hallway: Peter’s dressing room.
The fool ushered him in and waved a hand proudly at the scope of the room. The walls were nothing but mirrors, plastered here and there with yellowing pictures of scandalous women. Many of these were signed to Peter, while others seemed to have been cut from magazines.
“You like those?” Peter said with that grin again, and before Aidan could stammer his disagreement he sighed, “sadly, I’m sure none of them look like that now.”
“How long have you been dead?” Aidan ventured, looking for a place to sit. There was only one chair, which it would seem rude to occupy, and a ratty cot of old blankets and pillows tucked in a corner.
“Oh, a long time. Let’s see…you died this year. That would make me almost eighty-two years older than you, at this moment. Not counting my actual, pre-death age, of course. I must have been in my thirties or so. I can’t recall.”
Aidan nodded sympathetically, but he couldn’t help thinking that you were supposed to rot a bit before you came out as a skeleton. If he had died this year, he ought to have clambered out of his grave-bed looking much more like a zombie. Not to mention, where was his coffin? Had he no family to treat him to a nice burial? Or even a poor one?
Peter fell silent and sat in his chair in front of a counter cluttered with makeup, boxes, and dead flowers. He began to fix a few faint smudges on his face, and Aidan watched in thoughtful fascination. The lips became blacker once again, thin and stretched. The dark crosses over his eyes gleamed like an oil slick. He unbuttoned his coat of brightest blue and draped it across the counter in an effort not to spoil it, and Aidan suddenly understood why it had been closed all the way to the top in the first place.
The fool’s neck was marked by a thick, angry scar that ran in a red circle. The surrounding skin was blue-tinged and swollen. Aidan winced and wondered if it was still painful.
“Terrible tragedy, that thing,” Peter said. He was only wearing a thin white shirt with long sleeves now, and there was a dark red stain around the collar that Aidan pretended wasn’t blood.
“At least, I assume,” he smiled. “Can’t remember a thing of it. Does it bother you?”
“No,” Aidan lied. “Um, is that normal? Not remembering things?”
“For a walking skeleton, you’re awfully concerned with ‘normal,’ Bare Bones.”
“It’s Aidan,” Aidan reminded him.
“Right. Yes.” Peter removed his gloves and dipped his fingertips into a thick gel. He spread it through his hair until the unruly locks stuck up at even odder angles and its orange tones outshone the others. Then he opened a drawer and withdrew a fresh pair of gloves. Once these were in place and his face had been thoroughly examined in the mirrors once more, he slung his coat over his shoulder and stood.
“Let’s get you settled, Mr. Lawrence.”
(TCOS continues next Thursday evening….in the meantime, follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @companyofsouls !)