The daylight field was done. Its night-time counterpart was more than half finished, and the cemetery was looming over Aidan as he worked, hanging on the studio’s back wall to dry. Its elaborate headstones stared accusingly down at him as he dipped a brush into midnight blue and touched up the sky above the field. There was no Giselle to sing for him tonight; hollow silence hung in the air, broken only by the soft scrape of his brush across the canvas.
Work had been consuming him once again. But now, instead of an all-encompassing state of nirvana, his time spent in the studio was a coping mechanism. It had become the only way to stifle the seeds of doubt Eve had planted. Only by working feverishly could he turn a blind eye to the growing uncertainty of his situation…and the fact that she hadn’t called for him yet.
One o’clock in the morning slipped past without incident. An acoustic guitar played somewhere nearby, fluid and faint beyond the studio walls. Aidan switched from blue to black paint, resting the soiled brush in the sink and selecting one with thicker bristles. He had just returned to his stool and situated himself in front of the canvas again when somebody screamed.
‘Screamed’ wasn’t even an accurate description of the sound; somebody’s brain had burst with terror. Aidan reacted with an involuntary jump which was just enough to send him teetering forward on his stool. In an attempt to prevent himself from planting his skull in the canvas’ wet paint, he jerked backwards. With an undignified flail and wobble, skeleton and stool toppled to the ground.
Raised voices echoed from the house. Aidan lay where he was, with one leg trapped between the stool’s rungs. There was scuffling and crashing and suddenly Peter’s voice broke into sharp clarity.
“Hold her still!”
His frustrated snarl propelled Aidan to his feet. They had caught Eve. Without stopping to think what he was going to do about that, he rushed for the door separating studio from backstage. He had just about closed his hand on the knob when someone tapped his shoulder.
“Eve! You’re all right! I thought-”
“Come with me.” She turned and started off, so Aidan swallowed his questions and did likewise. She was out of her performance clothes, dressed instead in jeans and a grey sweater that was threatening to eat her alive. Her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, which made her look younger than he knew she was. But she still definitely looked alive. It was almost disturbing, which was ironic.
“Who was that?” he whispered once they had left the studio. “I thought Peter had got you.”
Eve shook her head. “It’s the poet,” she explained. “I let her out.”
“The one with the quill through her eye?”
“Yeah. They keep her locked up. She’s completely mad. A perfect distraction.”
Aidan nodded vaguely, wondering what Peter would do to the poet. How did you contain a mad ghost? Eve seemed to understand his silence. “She’ll be fine,” she added. “She always is.”
They made it through the backstage shops and practice studios without incident. Aidan’s empty bones could have used some nerves; he flinched at every little sound. They crept past the dressing rooms, averting their eyes from every company member they met and taking care to avoid the scene-changers who traveled in packs up and down the halls. Aidan began to get the sense that they were moving steadily uphill—ascending from the depths of the theatre towards the surface. He wondered how much of The Masque was beneath ground. It must be a vast, complicated building; he had been here what felt like forever, but every day he heard of new areas, new rooms and spaces…whole departments he had never known existed.
A boy chased a mangy little dog around their ankles as they reached a row of darkened offices with faded gold lettering on their smudged glass doors. Eve cleared her throat and pressed on, but Aidan stopped, alarmed by the harmless terrier. It was leaking sawdust.
“Please!” the boy called, “Catch him!”
Aidan knelt and scooped the dog up. He cradled it fast in his arms and examined it with something between horror and fascination, looking for the leak. There it was—a sizeable rip in the poor thing’s mottled fur along its side. The sawdust ran steadily over his finger bones as the dog twisted and turned in his grip, trying to lick his face with a poor little blackened tongue that hung by one thin tendon.
“Colonel,” sighed the boy, standing on tip-toe and peering to peer over Aidan’s sleeve. “I told you not to run….”
The boy couldn’t have been more than six years old. He was small and scrawny with big brown eyes and curly hair the color of burnt leaves. His collar and the hems of all of his clothes were turned up at odd angles—obviously no one to help him get dressed. Aidan was reminded of the particular boy Eve had mentioned during their first conversation.
“William?” he guessed.
It was amazing how large those innocent eyes could grow. “How’d you know?”
The boy grinned. “You saw my tattoos, didn’t you?”
“Sure!” William wrestled his collar down, revealing the two distinctly adult handprints that remained bruised around his pale neck. Aidan struggled with the dog a bit. It was growing floppy and hard to hold on to as the sawdust drained. “Er, yes. Who told you those were tattoos?”
“Sir Hugo,” William replied. “I think they’re brilliant!”
“Yes, um, awesome,” Aidan nodded, glad he had no expression to betray himself. “Here’s your dog. I hope someone can sew him back up again.”
William took the terrier under one arm and patted its head. “Oh yeah. The seam-makers’ll fix him. Thanks! Bye!”
The Colonel gave a snappish bark and with that, William was off. He ran back down the hall, leaving a trail of sawdust in his wake.
Aidan turned to Eve again, but she was gone. A small part of him began to panic, but he reminded himself that the only way she could possibly have gone was forward. He set off up the hallway, which by now was smooth red carpet instead of bare concrete. Soon, the foyer loomed ahead. Though it was dimly lit, he could see at once how grand its architectural beauty was. A cursory glance revealed Eve’s slender silhouette—slightly bulkier in the sweater—waiting for him at the broad entrance doors. He joined her, passing gold-framed portraits of jubilant theatre-goers in impressionistic scenes. They smiled their vacant smiles with sinister emptiness reserved only for him.
“You let yourself be distracted,” she muttered when he finally caught up. “First mistake. This place will always find a way to make you forget.”
Her eyes glinted close to his face, and she laid a hand on one of the front door’s narrow handles. “We’re not always under our own power here. Now, watch.” She gave the handle a firm twist, but it resisted. Aidan waited tensely; he couldn’t believe that something as simple as a locked door would make the headstrong violinist swear they were prisoners. And he was right.
The walls began to creak. Eve let go of the door, but all around them the foyer was erupting into low groans and scattering dust. The dim lights in their milky bulbs rose, burning in brilliant warning. Tiny scratching sounds, as of a million mice, erupted in their ears, and Aidan turned on the spot to look for the dreaded rodent army. It was clawing through the walls; it was coming closer, closer…the sound of claws on wood, the desperate sound of vermin fingers, scratching, clawing…..
Eve yanked him away. They fled back down the hall and ducked into one of the vacant offices. He opened his mouth to ask what they were doing, but she shushed him and pointed to the glass in the door. A few seconds passed, and then a shadow rose up on the other side. It was the fool. Aidan would recognize the shape of that spiky orange hair anywhere. He passed back and forth a few times, and then hurried away.
“See?” Eve whispered. “Every time you try to leave, at any door, he comes to stop you.”
“Why not just wait until he’s gone?”
She shook her head. “I tried that once. I…got to see what’s in the walls.”
“What is it?” Aidan asked, not sure he really wanted to know. Apparently she didn’t want to tell him, either.
“Do you believe me now?” she said instead.
“I think I already did,” Aidan replied. “But what are we going to do?”
(TCOS continues Thursday evening! In the meantime, like and follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @companyofsouls!)