One after one they succumbed. They let the troupe lead them into the fire, into the sun. They smoked and withered, stupid and trusting and searching for more.
Weren't they all just searching for more?
The troupe danced and screamed with the excitement of the release, their bodies twisting around the fire, only slowing once the lights and the audience had vanished and the flames subsided. Then it was done and the thrill of it faded, the anticipation that all of it would end. Nothing ever ended. They were still there. They stood together in the darkness, the embers dying in their pile at the center, pulsing black and red.
Nothing changed and finally the Leading Player accepted it with a sigh. The group behind him heaved collectively in return.
He was never sure in the beginning, how long to wait. Who knew how these things might work?
One after one.
He was sure now. He was sure, as the last embers began to die out, that it was over and they’d failed once again.
The Player built himself up, filled his lungs with smoke and air, and then turned to his troupe with a smile.
The troupe shifted, arms folded across their chests. They averted their eyes, stared off into the dark. Some of the women turned away, the high of the finale fading. A finale that wasn't final wasn't a finale at all. All that was left was death and disappointment.
Only the player in the role of Catherine and the boy Theo looked back at him. They knew they wouldn't be chosen. They had nothing to fear.
No one came forward. No one ever did.
The Player waved a hand and the troupe fumbled in the dark until they found the brooms. He watched as they pushed the mess off the end of the platform. It was always gone when the lights returned, replaced by an audience of people, strange people who laughed and waited and cheered. The people were never the same.
Once the stage was clear, the troupe dispersed into the dark. The woman who played Fastrada stared down at her feet, but he thought he saw her smile. She reached out and squeezed his shoulder as she passed him.
Finally the Player stood there onstage. Alone. No volunteers.
It didn't matter. When the lights came up again, he would be there. A new face. A new Pippin. Someone from the troupe who turned away from them all now, quiet and scared. When the lights came up, he’d be compelled to take his place and it would all start again.
Illusion, Fantasy to Study
“Escape,” Pippin repeated.
“Yes,” the Player said with a smile, the word dragging out into a hiss. “You feel it, too - how we’re trapped.”
Pippin stared into the dark. He didn't answer the Player, but his hand opened and closed as though he was reaching out for something that he couldn't quite grasp. It was answer enough and the Player went on.
“It’s easy,” he said. “Next time the lights come on, you just have to follow the script. That’s all. Join us. And when we get to the finale, stick to the script. Easy. And it’ll feel so good.”
The Player fought to hide his desperation, kept it locked tight beneath the surface. This had never happened before. No one had ever refused. Not once, and certainly not five times in a row. If he could just make Pippin understand the importance of it all, perhaps he could -
Pippin stopped walking. He reached out for the wall, then leaned against it and began to slump.
No, no, no. He was so close. The Leading Player grabbed at Pippin, stood him upright, shook him.
“Stay with me,” the Player said, pulled Pippin along through the darkness. When the lights were on the space took the form of a stage with an auditorium and wings, but when the lights went out it lost its shape. The wings went on forever, twisting and turning. No one ever found a door, and it wasn’t for lack of searching. “Just stay awake.”
He almost had Pippin convinced. If Pippin could just remember –
“Who are you?” Pippin asked beside him. The Player wondered if Catherine had put him up to it. But no, Catherine wasn’t here now. He’d purposely lost her in the dark.
“It’s me, Baby,” the Player said. “You know me.”
“No,” Pippin said, but he shook his head as though to clear it. The Player watched as Pippin rubbed at his eyes. “No, I know. I mean, who are you?”
“I’m an actor,” the Player said. “A storyteller. I’m your friend.”
“And if I just – “ Pippin started and then he swayed for a moment, grabbed the Player’s arm for support. His eyes fell shut.
“Pippin,” the Player called. He slapped Pippin’s cheeks lightly with the palm of his hand. “Wake up, boy. Pippin!”
In the expanse between performances, Pippin always slept. And as he slept, Pippin reset. The Player had thought - if he just kept Pippin awake, kept him awake through the dark until the lights returned, then Pippin might remember. He might understand. They’d been walking for hours. This had happened twice now, and the Player had had to start over again, patiently explaining again and again. Not again.
Pippin‘s knees buckled. The Player held him tight so that he wouldn't fall. After a moment Pippin’s body jerked and he was standing again, awake.
“I thought I’d lost you,” the Player said, and then he stopped, looked at Pippin, tried to see his eyes in the dark. Pippin smiled at him, a dumb smile. A new smile.
“Dammit,” the Player said. He shouted, kicked at the wall, and then he left Pippin standing there alone in the dark.
He didn't remember much from before. He thought that he remembered traveling from town to town, from one village center to the next. He thought he remembered telling stories, histories, legends. He remembered his troupe, his players. He thought that they remained with him now.
These were the things of which he was most sure, but even these things could change, shift in his mind and rearrange themselves.
He must have had a name once. John or Peter or Thomas. Phillip, perhaps. Benjamin. He couldn't remember. No name that came to mind sounded more right than the one that had just left.
There had been no instructions. He’d had to figure it all out himself. At first it seemed simple.
The lights appeared and there they were, the audience, ready and waiting. The troupe did as they always did, spun a fable, brought it to life and ignited it with magic, with illusion. It wasn't enough. When the story ended and they descended into darkness the Player could feel it in his gut that he wasn't doing what was needed. If he figured out what was required, they would be released. All of this would end.
They’d stepped into the lights more than ten times before he discovered how differently things could work here. They’d always used illusion. Sleight of hand and misdirection. Simple tricks that delighted crowds of children wherever they went. When the Leading Player remembered anything, he remembered that.
It came natural to them out there, but here – there was actual magic here. The Leading Player could do things here that had never worked in the world they seemed to have left behind. He could snap his fingers and light would appear. He snapped them again and white light turned blue, then yellow, then pink. He could imagine scenery around him and there it was. The troupe jumped higher, danced faster, spun and twisted.
The first time that the Player arrived at the finale, he hadn't been sure what would come next. He hadn't known until it had started, until the group had worked itself into a frenzy, dancing and shouting, urging, seducing. And when the player in the role of Pippin went up in flames, the cries were of joy, of release, rather than fear.
Well. Almost all of the cries.
There was Catherine. She had to be restrained, and when the darkness fell, she could be heard, somewhere, crying for hours. The troupe tried to locate her for a while, but she’d chosen her hiding place well. Eventually even she fell quiet, and he thought she must sleep.
The length of the darkness varied; sometimes it seemed to pass relatively quickly, other times it lasted for days. They had no way to tell time here. None of the watches worked. The troupe wandered through the dark, paired up and split apart, whispered and argued and begged him for answers.
When the Player managed to sleep, it was light, fitful, and he dreamed. He dreamed of a woman on a forest road, of her face, obscured and nondescript. He dreamed of flames. He dreamed of bodies writhing and then light, so bright and blinding. Everything, white and searing, until all was erased and the Player found himself surrounded once again by trees and rain and gravel.
All of his dreams shared a common element. The fire.
The lights snapped on and the troupe roused, rushed to ready themselves, took their places. The Player searched for Pippin, pushed through dancers as he scanned the crowd. He wouldn't find him. He’d done this enough times to know by now that it was pointless. Once the lights appeared, the Player’s window was over. There was no time now to convince Pippin of anything. The story was about to start again.
“Maybe this time,” the player in the role of Fastrada said as she came to stand beside him. There was a woman trailing her. She was a dancer, someone new, someone the Leading Player didn't recognize.
“Who’s she?” the Player asked.
Fastrada shrugged and then smiled.
“My understudy,” she said.
“What’s she doing?”
Fastrada looked the Player up and down before she responded and when she did her tone was cold, pointed.
The Player turned. He hadn't requested an understudy for Fastrada. They didn't have understudies here. They didn't need them.
“Waiting for what?” the Player asked, his tone suspicious. He leaned forward, eager for Fastrada’s response, but there was no time. Once the lights snapped on, they had no time for much of anything. Fastrada merely had to smile and wait and before the Player had his answer, he felt compelled to snap his fingers.
The music started to play.
Romance, Sex Presented Pastorally
The first time he thought it was merely a mistake. After all, Catherine had never been punctual. She often missed her cues. She stumbled over her lines. Sometimes she forgot them. But this was different. This wasn't a mistake. It couldn't be. She changed the script, stopped it and altered everything.
The Player confronted her as soon as the darkness fell. It was the first time. It was the first time Pippin had ever defied him.
Catherine was pacing, nervous. Her costume was ripped away, her wig was gone, makeup smeared, and she twisted her hands as she walked back and forth. She jumped when she turned to find him standing there.
“Oh! You scared me,” she said. Her hand fluttered against her chest. “I didn’t see you coming.” The dark hid them all so well.
“What are you doing?” he asked with a smile. There was no reason to yell. She already knew how he felt. He’d been unable to hide it under the lights.
“Nothing,” Catherine said. “I forgot my lines and then – it was different this time. Did you feel how it was different this time?”
He reached for her, took her hand. He turned and looked for a bench. He looked right and then left, and when he looked right again, the bench was there. He led her to it and she sat.
He could still do that in the dark. Make benches appear. There were things that he couldn’t do though. He couldn’t replace the darkness with light. He couldn’t escape.
“Different how?” the Player asked. His hand still held hers.
Catherine had always been different. She was never punctual. She kept to herself once the darkness fell. She didn’t question like the others. She didn’t talk to him. She didn’t seem to care about any of it. Except when Pippin burned. Then she cared. Sure, sure, she’d become better at hiding it. She stood there in the wings, passive and staring, but the Leading Player knew. He knew what she was hiding.
And now she’d stopped it. Stopped this Pippin just as he was about to -
“How did you do it?” the Player asked.
“I don’t think it was me,” Catherine said. She paused to think about her answer, then shook her head before she continued. “I was just – I tried to keep to the script, but Pippin – “
“He’s different,” Catherine said, and the Player caught her smile before she tried to hide it.
“Different,” the Player repeated.
“You don’t feel it?” she asked, and her question was genuine. Her grip on his hand was tighter.
He brought their hands to his mouth, kissed the back of hers.
“Baby,” he said. “I don’t feel a thing.”
It was a lie. He felt plenty.
When the lights and the audience appeared next, Catherine fumbled her lines and her cues again. This time she even inserted a song without running it by him first. She ignored his pointed looks, his interjections and his rage.
Pippin resisted him again, refused to perform, and the Player sure felt something then. Confusion. Frustration.
It happened again, and then again after that.
The Player was watching Pippin now. Oh, he was watching this Pippin, all right. He looked for the differences of which Catherine had spoken. He looked for tiny changes, slight tweaks from times past. He talked to the boy. He kept him up talking long into the darkness. He questioned him, threatened, begged. The boy wouldn’t succumb.
“Next time let’s do the finale,” the Player entreated. “All right? You’re really supposed to do the finale. The show can’t really end without the finale.”
“I thought the ending came off okay,” Pippin said, his face serene and his hand held tight in Catherine’s.
Catherine wasn’t looking at the Player. She pulled at Pippin’s hand.
“Pippin,” the Player started and reached for him.
“I have to go,” Pippin said. He let Catherine lead him off into the dark.
And the thing was - Pippin didn’t remember. Every time the lights appeared, Pippin was new again. The Player could beg all that he wanted. It didn’t matter. Pippin didn’t remember any of it. He didn’t remember the Player or Catherine or Fastrada or the fire. Every time was Pippin’s first time. Every night – the Player had started to think of it as night, though there was no sun here and there was no moon, only darkness followed by the glow of the lights. Still, every night Pippin slept and as he slept, Pippin reset.
When the Leading Player fell asleep, he always dreamed. And it was always about the fire. Sometimes it was about a woman on a winter road. Sometimes the woman looked like Fastrada. Sometimes she looked like Catherine. Sometimes it was a man and he looked like Pippin.
Each dream was different, but each one told him the same thing. Pippin had to complete the finale. It was the only way, the only resolution. It was the only thing missing.
The Player wandered through the twists and turns of the dark. He did this sometimes. They all did. They told themselves it was just a walk, a way to pass the time, but the Player spent all of his time straining, search for an escape. He walked until his legs tired, though his mind still raced. He turned a corner and found Pippin asleep, Catherine sitting at his side and stroking his hair. Catherine looked up as he approached, and then gestured for him to sit.
The Player sat on the floor on the opposite side of Pippin, looked down at his passive face.
“What is it that you think we’re doing here?” the Player asked Catherine. “What do you think is the point of it all?”
They all discussed it in the dark. None of them remembered it clearly.
“I don’t know,” Catherine said. The Player closed his eyes and saw her standing on a dark road, her eyes flashing with anger at a boy who had run away from her. The Player blinked again and saw himself standing in the road in her place.
“I don’t know that I believe you,” the Player returned.
“Who are you?” Catherine asked, and the Player faltered. Surely she must know. Surely she was the key to it all, the woman on the road, the mastermind.
“I’m an actor,” the Player said. “A storyteller.” It was the same answer he’d given to Pippin. How long ago was that? Ten lights ago? Fifteen?
“Maybe you were an actor,” Catherine corrected. “You’re not one now.”
“I’m a friend,” the Player finished.
“The cause of all of this,” Catherine said.
“You are our leader, aren’t you?” Catherine asked.
“You know who I am,” the Player said. “And baby, I know who you are too.”
Catherine ignored him and continued. “Who else could have caused it, if not you?”
“The boy,” the Player said. “Pippin.” Catherine knew this. She must. He recognized her from the road. “And you.”
Catherine looked down at Pippin, at her hand that still stroked his hair.
“You knew the boy before this,” the Player pressed. “You knew his name. You love him, perhaps. And he left you. Is that what this is?”
“Knew him before this? I - Of course I love him.“
She was nervous now and she looked up at the Player as she trailed off. He saw the confusion on her face. Lies. Catherine was an actor too, was she not? The Player leaned closer to her.
“And that’s why you’ve done this,” the Player hissed.
“The darkness is getting to you,” Catherine said. “You speak nonsense.”
“I don’t think so,” the Player said. Catherine’s grip on Pippin had tightened. She was ready to defend him, but the Player wasn’t ready to fight. Not yet. He stood and retreated.
He dreamed of the road and the fire.
“You think you can run?” The woman said, but she wasn’t talking to the Player. She was talking to the new boy. The one who had just joined the troupe. The one who had chosen to run away from his life in search of more.
Or was it a new girl? One who missed her cues and fumbled her lines?
No, a boy. A boy with Pippin’s hair and Pippin’s face.
Only one part of the dream was consistent. Pippin burning. He dreamed of Pippin’s screams.
They tried it all. They tried magic and illusion. They tried futuristic and metallic. They tried circus spectacle and acrobatics. The Player appeared old and benevolent, young and threatening. He was a man and sometimes he was a woman. He tried every sort of seduction.
The troupe danced around Pippin, writhed and enticed, and each time Pippin came close, so close. Close enough that the Player believed that all it would take was one more push, just a tiny bit more and this would be over. They would win.
But no matter how hard he pushed, Pippin never went through with it.
Instead he fell in love. Over and over again he touched Catherine’s hand. He sang that damn love song. And then he chose her.
“How is she doing it?” the Player asked as she and Fastrada stood over the couple. Pippin slept as Pippin often slept, and Catherine dozed beside him, her arm flung over his waist.
The Player remembered it all. He remembered every single time that he stood under those lights, a failure. But not Pippin. Pippin was allowed to forget. He was allowed to defy the troupe over and over, time after time. What made it different for Pippin? What put him above it?
“What are we going to do?” Fastrada asked. They were all asking, now. They’d been convinced that they’d found the answer, convinced that eventually once enough of them burned, they’d be released, set free from this loop of light and dark, on and off, dropped back into the world that they’d left behind. The Leading Player had promised them that - a world they remembered less and less each time they looped through this one.
“We force him,” one of the dancers said later, his face twisted into a sneer beneath his makeup. “we push him. Hold him down.”
“No,” the Player said, immediately, his voice hard. It would never work. It might even trap them here forever.
“What then?” another asked.
“Let me think.”
“But – “
“Let me think!” the Player shouted, roared into the dark. He watched as the group dispersed, as they disappeared into the gloom. Eventually only Fastrada remained.
“We’ll just try harder,” Fastrada said, she touched his arm in an attempt to calm him. “We’ll sing and we’ll dance and we’ll seduce.”
The Player sighed, his heart heavy and the darkness thick around him.
“Yes,” he agreed. “We’ll try harder.”
How much harder could he try?
Fastrada took her hand from his shoulder and started to step slowly back away from him.
“And if we must,” Fastrada said, just before she turned and left. “We’ll replace Catherine.”
Humor, Handled by a Master
“What would happen?” Pippin asked. He approached the Player, stood before him alone in the dark. Catherine was gone. Theo had run off. They were alone.
“Pardon me?” the Player asked. He hadn’t expected this. It was new. Pippin had never approached him this way before.
“If I joined you,” Pippin said. “If I completed the finale. What would happen?”
“You would end it,” the Player said. It was the simplest answer.
“I would die,” Pippin concluded.
“It’s not death, baby,” the Leading Player said. “I think it’s life. New life for all of us. Bright glorious life.”
Pippin thought this over. His mouth worked as he chewed on it. His throat swallowed as he digested. And finally he said, “Then why don’t you do it?”
“You’re the key,” the Player said. “The only one who can free us. It wouldn’t work if it was me.”
“If you completed your finale, you would die. But if I did, everyone would live.”
“Yes,” the Player said with force. “Fuller and more vibrantly than you could ever imagine.”
Pippin swallowed again. He nodded.
“You think I believe that?” Pippin asked, eyebrows raised.
The Player’s smile grew slowly until it was wide and full. “Yes.”
“But how do you know?”
“How do I know what?”
“That if I set myself on fire everyone would live this great wondrous life?”
“Because others have tried before,” the Player said. He was serious now, no more smiles. “And they’ve failed. But you’re different. You’re special. Extraordinary.”
“They failed,” Pippin said. “You mean, they died.”
“Maybe,” the Player shrugged. “Or maybe they’re somewhere else. Somewhere better than here. Somewhere more real. Maybe they no longer have to act.”
Pippin sighed. “I don’t know what that means.”
“That’s all right,” the Player assured him.
“If they’re somewhere else, then you could do it,” Pippin said. “You could go up in flames and you could escape.”
“And leave my troupe here?” the Player said. “With you? Forever?”
“They could all do it with you,” Pippin suggested. “That’s all it would take, right?”
The Player smiled. Nice try. This boy was good.
“When I was younger, I thought you were all in my head,” Pippin admitted. “My imaginary friends, you know? Now you’re still in my head, but I know that you were never a friend.”
“You were never younger,” the Player corrected.
“In my heart it feels like I was.”
Pippin thought about this for a moment before he decided on his response.
“Men lie, too.”
The Player dreamed of the road and the forest. He dreamed of an appetite for food, for wine. It had been so long since he hungered for anything except the release of the fire. When he awoke, Fastrada was there beside him.
“Good dream?” Fastrada asked.
“The dreams are always good,” the Player said. “In our dreams, the boy always burns.”
“Of course,” Fastrada smiled.
The Player sat up beside her. He’d resisted her camaraderie in the beginning. He was in charge. He didn’t like the power that she assumed, but as things progressed, he grew to crave someone to confide in, and eventually he even grew to enjoy her company. Of course, he didn’t entirely trust her. Who would ever entirely trust such a woman?
“It takes its toll, doesn’t it?” Fastrada asked.
“I’m fine,” the Player assured her. “We’ll get there.”
“Sure,” Fastrada agreed.
“You doubt it?”
“You doubt it,” Fastrada accused. “Look at you. You’re slipping.”
“Hold your tongue,” the Player warned.
“You put her to shame.”
The Player paused, alarmed. He saw her again, the woman on the road, the flash of anger in her eyes. He put her to shame. He was failing her.
Fastrada stood and started to move away from him and he reached out, grabbed her wrist and pulled her back.
“Who?” he asked.
“You really don’t remember?” she asked.
“The woman from the road,” he pressed. “She started this, didn’t she? Was it Catherine? She’s done this to keep Pippin with her. To hold him here, she holds us all. Is that what you remember?”
“What are you going on about?” Fastrada asked, her eyes narrow.
The Player stood, stood over Fastrada and stared down at her. “Don’t play with me.”
“You’re the one,” Fastrada said. “Playing games with yourself. Convincing yourself of such nonsense. Women on the road. Lives other than these.”
“Don’t forget who’s in charge,” The Player warned.
Fastrada laughed. “Perhaps not for long.”
“The boy will burn,” the Player assured her. “His death will ignite us all.”
“I sure hope so,” Fastrada agreed. She pulled her wrist from his grip and started to walk away from him.
“There was a time before this,” the Player insisted, called out after her.
“Yes,” Fastrada said. “Maybe there was. But then we died.”
“What?” the Player asked, but Fastrada was gone. The Player rushed through the dark after her, shouted for her, but found no one. Finally he stopped, leaned against a wall and stared into the blackness.
Maybe there was, but then we died.
Fastrada didn’t remember the road or the woman or the boy who had just joined the troupe. Fastrada laughed at him because Fastrada thought that this was all there was. All there ever would be.
He understood the implication.
The Leading Player tricked himself into thinking there was more to justify the fires and the screams. There had to be a reason for it all. Some explanation. A pattern.
Or they were dead and it was meaningless. They were inside Pippin’s head just as he’d said. There was only the one exquisite moment, the release of the fire, and that was it. Just as he told Pippin again and again.
But he remembered. Town after town. And then there was Pippin. Didn’t they take on a new player just before? Wasn’t he young? Didn’t he beg to come with them, desperate to get away? And it was just after that, wasn’t it? Just after that that they encountered the woman on the road.
Average ordinary Catherine, sleeping soundly beside Pippin, night after night after night.
And maybe it wasn’t about the Leading Player at all. Maybe he was stuck in someone else’s battle – maybe –
The Player was laughing now, laughing uncontrollably, doubled over, curled up against the wall. He’d been here too long. They’d all been here far too long.
Battles, Barbarous and Bloody
“Enter Catherine,” the Player said for the fourth time.
He looked into the wings and saw Fastrada smiling.
The Player turned and grinned at the audience, those mysterious people who clapped and laughed.
“One moment,” he said with a polite bow.
He moved quickly to the side of the stage. The change from form churned in his gut, the wrongness of it turning within him, but the rush of his heart pounded out his excitement at the unexpected change, the possibility that this was it. This was the time he’d be able to end it.
“Where is she?” he hissed as soon as he arrived in the wings. There were two options. Fastrada was harming or helping. Betraying or aiding.
“She’s indisposed,” Fastrada said. Her voice was tight. She turned and gestured toward the woman who stood at her side. “But look -- the understudy.”
The dancer was flustered. She nervously adjusted her wig. She was wearing Catherine’s dress.
“How have you done this?” the Player demanded.
“We don’t have time for this, now,” Fastrada hissed. She turned him back toward the lights, pushed him in front of the audience.
The Leading Player stumbled, then righted himself and smiled.
“Enter Catherine,” he said.
She spoke her lines naggingly. She stuck to the script precisely. There was no extra song, no spark between her and Pippin, and yet when the finale arrived, Pippin paused in front of the fire. The Leading Player stopped dancing, pressed his lips to Pippin’s shoulder in a kiss.
“What is there for you here?” he asked Pippin, quietly. “What is there to stay for?”
Pippin looked at him and there was a second where the Leading Player was sure he saw recognition in Pippin’s eyes.
“Join us,” the Player pleaded. “Think of it, Pippin. The sun, the release. A perfect finale. One perfect act.”
Pippin turned toward the wings where Fastrada’s understudy stood, still dressed in Catherine’s costume. She jumped when she saw him looking, stepped further back into the dark and pulled the boy with her. The Player turned Pippin away, pulled him back toward the fire.
“What is wrong with you?” Fastrada demanded as soon as the darkness had fallen and the seats were empty and quiet. She‘d screamed in rage when Pippin defied them all and turned from the fire. She came at the Player now, eyes flashing. “What are you doing wrong? Why do you keep failing us?”
“Me,” the Player asked. “You think this is me?”
“Well, it isn’t me,” Fastrada said.
“How did you change it?” the Player asked. “Where’s Catherine?”
“Not in front of the boy,” Fastrada said, her voice cold.
He didn’t have the patience for this. Not now.
“What’s the difference?!“ the Player shouted. “He won’t remember any of it, will he?” He turned to Pippin. “You won’t remember a thing! I can do this - “ He reached for Pippin, pulled him in and kissed his mouth. Pippin’s hands fluttered at the side of the Player’s face, then settled on his shoulders right before the Player pushed him away. ”- or this.” His hand pulled back, ready to punch Pippin in the face. The understudy gasped and rushed to Pippin’s side, buried her face in his shoulder.
The Player took a deep breath, let his hand fall back to his side.
“What is wrong with you?” Pippin asked, his eyes narrowed as he frowned.
“If you had any idea,” the Player returned with a laugh.
Fastrada laughed too, and then she reached for her understudy, pulled her away from Pippin. She yanked her hard so that Pippin jerked forward before their hands released.
“What have you done with Catherine?” the Player asked again.
“She’s fine,” Fastrada said. “She’s just a little tied up.”
“Show me,” the Player demanded.
Fastrada stalked away and the Leading Player followed. She led him right to Catherine, to the place where she’d tied Catherine to a chair.
Fastrada slapped Catherine hard across the face. The understudy winced and reached up to touch her own cheek. The Leading Player leaned down in front of Catherine.
“How are you doing it?” he asked. “How are you controlling it even now?”
“I’m not doing anything,” she said, anger in her voice.
“It happens while you sleep, doesn’t it,” the Player said. “A bond forms and his trusts for you grows. That‘s why you keep winning.”
Catherine shook her head. “You think that’s why?” she asked.
“He trusts me because I’m trustworthy,” Catherine said. “Who in their right mind would ever trust you?”
“Right mind,” Fastrada repeated with a laugh. “Who in their right mind?”
“What have you done with Pippin?” Catherine asked.
“He’s fine,” the Player said with a dismissive flip of his hand. “We left him in the dark.”
“Let me go to him,” Catherine pleaded.
This time even the understudy laughed. Fastrada turned to the Leading Player and bowed, submissive. It had been a long time since she’d showed him such respect.
“Go to him,” she offered. “We’ll watch her for a while. Use your time wisely.”
The Player was surprised that Fastrada continued to help him, now, that Fastrada had planned this at all. He wondered what Fastrada’s true motives were.
Catherine cursed at him as he started to leave and Fastrada leaned in and said, “Shut up, or we’ll come after the boy next.”
Of course, the boy wasn’t really Catherine’s son, but it didn’t matter. The Player saw the way she flinched.
He found Pippin sitting where they had left him. Alone. His knees were drawn up and his arms were wrapped around himself in a hug. The Leading Player smiled.
You feel trapped now, don’t you, baby?
“I came back for you,” the Player said when Pippin looked up at him. The Leading Player held out his hand for Pippin to take.
“Thank you,” Pippin said as he let the Player help him to his feet. “Thank you, I - “
“What?” the Player smiled. He started to lead Pippin off into the dark.
“Nothing,” Pippin said.
Intrigue, Plots to Bring Disaster
It was the Leading Player who slept beside Pippin, now. Pippin slept cradled in his arms, his breathing even and relaxed. The Leading Player listened as the rhythm turned to a light snore. He stared up into the dark.
He was catching on. Everything was set, yes, but it wasn’t quite the same loop for Pippin. In the dark the Player started to catch glimpses. Pippin aged in the dark. He didn’t seem so new. Pippin was starting to catch up to them, and Pippin was still resisting. The Player was sure that he’d found the key, sure that trust grew as Pippin slept. He had some of that trust now. It wasn’t all Catherine’s, alone. And it could only grow. Already it was true that Pippin seemed to trust the Leading Player more, but it hadn’t ended it. Not yet.
Pippin still rejected the fire.
The Leading Player closed his eyes and tried to sleep. He dreamed of the road, and then he woke up in the dark. That was how it started, waking up in the dark, here, the faint smell of smoke in the air. That was how he still remembered that it started.
He looked at Pippin and thought that the boy seemed older.
It was in his head. It must be. Tricks of the dark.
They’d released Catherine from the chair. She didn’t fight back. Instead she accepted that the game had changed. Fastrada’s threats had worked where the Player’s had failed. Catherine knew the child Theo better than the rest of them. She must have known he was weaker than Pippin. If they turned to Theo, the child would surely give in. Theo would accept the fire. Maybe he even craved it.
Catherine worked with them, now - to a point. She still defied the script, but she allowed the Player this. She allowed the Player the dark. She sat near them, now, a short distance away, and she glared at the Player as Pippin slept.
Pippin spoke then, and both Catherine and the Player started.
“Do you ever sleep?” Pippin asked, wiped at his eyes as though he were a child again in the body of an adult.
Pippin looked innocent, now, young and naive. He recognized the Player, but the memory was fading fast. Pippin smiled in greeting and the Player felt a sudden urge to slap the innocence from Pippin’s face. He could do it. It wouldn't matter. In a few more hours Pippin wouldn't even remember it. He wouldn’t remember the slap, but the Player felt sure that he would remember something, that the impact would stay with him. He’d won that from Catherine. He had to be more careful, now.
He didn’t slap the boy. Instead, he turned toward Pippin and smiled.
“Join us, baby,” he said. “It’s the only way.”
“The only way to what?” Pippin asked.
Out of here, the Player thought, but he didn’t say it. Not this time. This time he would let Pippin wonder. He’d let Pippin think about his words as he fell back to sleep.
“What happens if you do it?” Pippin asked him. Pippin asked him a lot, now. He asked more and more since the night they replaced Catherine.
“Nothing,” the Leading Player said. The Leading Player was a woman this time. It didn’t make a difference. Pippin rarely reacted differently to the Player in female form. “It can only be you.”
“Because I’m extraordinary,” Pippin said. He knew the lines by now. Might even remember them after a nice long nap.
“I don’t think that’s true,” Pippin admitted. “Not anymore.”
“It’s only been a few hours since you believed that it was,” the Leading Player laughed. She caressed Pippin’s cheek.
“It’s only been a few hours for you,” Pippin corrected, and the Player frowned.
“What does that mean?” she asked.
“Maybe if you complete the finale, it really will end,” Pippin suggested, a change of subject that didn‘t go unnoticed. “Out of everyone here, I think you’re really the most extraordinary one.”
“I’m not that extraordinary,” the Player said.
“I think you are,” Pippin pressed.
The Player smiled. “You should get out more.” She laughed at her own joke.
Pippin stopped then, reached for the Player and pulled her into a kiss. It was new. He’d never tried this before and the Player let him try now, kissed him in return, Pippin’s lips soft against hers.
“That was nice,” the Player said when Pippin released her. She took Pippin’s hand in hers, pressed his fingers to her lips.
“Yeah,” Pippin agreed, but he was frowning.
The Player dreamt of the woman on the road. She dreamt of curses and quests, of love turned sour. She dreamt of rage and revenge and then she woke up to the smell of smoke on the air. She woke up to find Fastrada standing over her.
“We should move on to the child,” Fastrada said. “Give up on Pippin. Accept that you’ve failed.”
“No,” the Player said, immediately. She sat up. “Pippin is the only one who can end it.”
“End what?” Fastrada asked. “What are you talking about? I’ve never understood it.”
“The woman left no instructions,” the Player insisted, “But we’ve figured it out anyway. If we can just convince Pippin to go into the fire, we’ll be returned to the road where this all started.”
“You’ve lost it,” Fastrada said. She shook her head.
“Try,” the Player insisted. She took Fastrada’s hands in hers, gripped them and squeezed her eyes shut. She pictured snow and gravel and the branches of the trees.
“That’s not what I remember,” Fastrada said. Fastrada liked the Player better as a woman. They were closer in female form. Talk was easier. Trust came easier. If only gender altered things so readily with Pippin.
“No?” The Player asked. “What do you remember then?”
“No roads or elaborate love stories,” Fastrada said. “I remember a Leading Player who got sick of her job. I remember someone who chose her successor poorly, but it’s always been this. Always here.”
The Player shook her head.
“There was something before this,” the Player said. “What else are we working toward?”
“The dance,” Fastrada said. She stood now, pulled the Player up with her and began to sway to invisible music. The Player snapped her fingers, but nothing happened. She couldn‘t control music in the dark. She let Fastrada turn her, let Fastrada hold her close as they swayed together.
“That‘s it,” the Player asked after some time. “Just the dance.”
“And release,” Fastrada said.
“So you do remember then.”
Fastrada closed her eyes as she remembered it. “Release, yes, but not the kind of which you speak.” Her entire body shivered with it as she held the Player in her arms.
The Player chose to play along.
“How long have you been here?” she asked.
“Forever,” Fastrada replied, still dancing. “I imagine we‘ve been here forever. Doesn‘t it feel that way to you?”
“Have any of us been here longer than you?”
“Berthe, perhaps,” Fastrada shrugged. “Berthe appears old, but perhaps that’s what she chooses. It’s the only role she’s ever wanted to play. Berthe lacks ambition. We don’t.”
“We,” the Player repeated.
Fastrada laughed. “Well, you and I, of course.”
“We should move on to the child,” Fastrada said again.
“Not yet,” the Player said again. “Pippin must burn first.”
“Your grand plan doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere,” Fastrada said. She was done dancing, now. She stood rigid, arms crossed. “You get to cradle your boy, but what has it done for us?”
“Be patient,” the Player said. She took a step away from Fastrada.
“I knew she shouldn’t have chosen you,” Fastrada said then, leaned in to make her point more clearly. “I said so even then, but she was gone already, gone as much as you are, now. That’s how it always happens, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the Player insisted.
“She was stronger than you,” Fastrada said. “She lasted longer.”
“The woman from the road?”
“Call her whatever you like,” Fastrada said. “It doesn’t matter. You’ll never be the LP she was.”
The LP. The one who came before.
“What happened to her?” the Player asked.
“You really don’t know?” Fastrada asked.
“No,” the Player said. “Tell me.”
Fastrada smiled. It looked dangerous.
“Perhaps,” she said. “It will come to you in a dream.”
The Player dreamed of the woman on the road. She didn’t look like Catherine or Fastrada or Pippin. She didn‘t look like Berthe or Fastrada‘s understudy. She looked like the Leading Player, and she was laughing.
The Player awoke, gasping in the dark. He thought he smelled smoke, but it couldn’t be. It had been so long since anyone burned.
“What’s wrong?” Pippin asked beside him.
The Player tried to catch his breath. The dreams had become stranger since his talk with Fastrada. He woke in a terror at times and didn’t remember a thing that he dreamed. Those times were the worst. Things distorted and changed, there were patterns that he’d never seen before.
“What is it?” Pippin asked again. He reached out, a hand on the Leading Player’s shoulder.
What did it matter? Pippin would forget it all soon anyway.
“None of it makes sense,” the Player said. “My head is swimming and I can’t trust any of it. It keeps changing. It‘s fire and smoke and rage and the players change. It‘s Fastrada, now Catherine. Everyone tricking me, turning me in circles and then releasing me into the dark. What am I supposed to do? What the hell am I supposed to do?”
“Oh,” Pippin said.
The Player laughed. “Do you know who I am?” he asked.
“You’re the Leading Player,” Pippin said. “The ringleader.”
“But who am I?” The Player asked. “Who was I before that? What sort of man was I? What sort of woman?”
“You really don’t know?” Pippin asked.
The Leading Player paused. He’d never heard Pippin’s voice take this tone before. He’d never heard him sound so wise.
“What do you know?” he asked.
“You were never any sort of man,” Pippin said. “Or any sort of woman, either.”
“How do you figure?” the Player asked, his voice dry. Perhaps Pippin had been talking with Fastrada. She’d tutored him, fed him the words to say. He laughed, again. If she was trying to drive him mad, it was working.
Pippin snapped his finger and a bench appeared.
“How the hell did you do that?” the Player asked.
“Do what?” Pippin asked. He looked around, confused. When the Player blinked, the bench was gone. The Player heard himself then. He was still laughing. He’d been laughing this whole time. There were tears at the corners of his eyes. Pippin spoke.
“You’re inside my head,” he said. “You’ve always been inside my head. You’ve been inside my head from the start.”
The laughter continued.
“I thought you knew,” Pippin said. “This whole time I thought you know.”
“No,” the Player laughed. “No. Pippin. Baby, I -”
“That isn’t my name,” Pippin cut in. He felt sorry for the Leading Player. He could hear it in Pippin’s voice. “That’s never been my name.”
“What is your name then? John or Peter or Thomas? Benjamin? Phillip, perhaps?”
Pippin ignored the question. He took the Player by the shoulders, held him, massaged the Player‘s arms with his fingers. “You really don‘t know who you are?”
“What am I?”
“You aren’t real. None of you are real.”
“She put you up to this,” the Player said. “She’s been planning it from the beginning.”
“Who?” Pippin asked. He wiped sweat from the Leading Player’s brow.
“The woman from the road,” the Player said. “The woman in my head.”
“What road?” Pippin asked. He shook the Player, shook him until the Player settled beneath Pippin’s fingers. “Listen. Listen.”
The Player stopped laughing. Pippin wiped a tear from the Player’s cheek with his thumb.
“This is who you are,” Pippin said. “You’re doubt and failure and temptation and desire. You live in my heart and my mind. And that’s all. That‘s all.”
That’s not all. It couldn’t be. It was nonsense.
The Player pushed Pippin away from him, shoved him hard so that Pippin stumbled back and then fell. The Player came at him, fell to his knees behind Pippin and reached for his neck.
Pippin cowered on the ground.
“Please,” he said. He pleaded and begged, squeezed his eyes shut.
There, the Player thought. You see? Pippin was frightened. Pippin was frightened because this happened now, it happened here. It wasn’t in anyone’s head.
The Player drew back.
“What about Catherine?” he asked. “Is Catherine real? The boy Theo? Is he real?”
Pippin looked away from him. He got to his feet, brushed off his trousers. There was no dust here, but they didn’t lose gestures they’d learned before.
The Player stared at the floor, at his hands.
And then, just before he walked away, Pippin turned to him. He leaned down, close to the Player’s ear.
“Do the finale yourself,” he said.
The lights appeared. Pippin resisted the fire and darkness fell, again.
The Leading Player ran. He ran long and fast. He ran into the dark as he hadn’t done since this had all started. He ran his hands along the walls, searching, searching. There were no doors. There were never any doors. There was no escape. None except the fire.
The Player stopped running, threw himself into the wall. He thought he felt it shake and so he did it again, and again. Finally he curled up on the ground and attempted to sleep.
The lights appeared. Pippin resisted the fire and darkness fell, again.
The Player dreamed of charred steak and red wine. His mouth watered for flesh and blood.
The lights appeared. Pippin resisted the fire and darkness fell, again.
Nothing moved, nothing changed, and the Player screamed into the dark.
He screamed and he raged, pounding at the walls, shouting until his voice grew hoarse and his throat was raw and sore.
And then the lights appeared.
The dream had failed and the Player’s soul was guilty. The Player was empty. He was full.
The Player dreamed. He dreamed of Pippin, all of them, each face, all different. They weren’t ever members of his troupe. They were young men, women, vulnerable and easily influenced.
They were his victims.
And if he quit, what would come next? Fastrada would step into his place. She was there, waiting for her succession. She was there, helping to drive him toward this very ending.
You’re doubt. You’re failure and temptation and desire.
And that’s all.
That’s all. Doubt and failure and temptation and desire. All highly flammable. How easily he could burn!
“It’s just that - if this isn’t it,” Pippin said. “I’m going to have a pretty hard time trying something else.”
The audience laughed. They always laughed.
The Leading Player wasn’t laughing. Not this time. It was never really all that funny.
The lights were bright, illuminating them all. The troupe danced and writhed and eventually Pippin joined them, joined into their dance just as he was supposed to, just as the script demanded. He pounded out the rhythm with his feet, clapped his hands, smiled and sang. The Player danced with him. And when the time came he took the torch from the dancer. He presented it to Pippin. He leaned in and he whispered in Pippin’s ear. He didn’t urge him on. He didn’t whisper promises. Not this time. The message this time was simple.
“Thanks, baby,” he said.
“What?” Pippin asked. And there it was. The change had been made.
The Leading Player pulled the torch back from Pippin. He yanked it from Pippin’s grasp.
Fastrada rushed forward.
“What are you doing?” she asked, talking through her teeth as she smiled out toward the audience.
“Changing the script,” the Leading Player said, loud so that all could hear.
Fastrada stopped smiling, turned to him. One of the dancer’s reached out, gripped her shoulder in anticipation.
You can have this, the Player thought. You can have it all.
Fastrada began to dance. She signaled to the others, smiled and gestured, and the dance had started, again. The song restarted and the scene began to play out.
The Player held the torch to his chest. He closed his eyes and gripped it hard in his hands. And then he turned and began to step toward the marked location. The entire scene was blocked, but it had been so long since anyone had assumed the correct position. The troupe cheered and chanted. They touched themselves, touched each other, then reached out to touch him. They were ready. They’d been ready for this for so long. They’d waited so patiently.
The Player sniffed the air and smelled smoke. One of the dancer’s had lit the torch.
“No,” Pippin said, suddenly. He lunged forward and tried to grab the torch from the Player, tried to pull him away from the box, but the Leading Player shoved him back. The troupe was dancing harder, urging the Player on, excited and agitated and so close to the release. The Leading Player knew now that it would never be a real release for them. It would only ever be this, temporary and exquisite, but only for a moment, brief and fleeting.
One perfect moment. Extraordinary. It was, after all, all that he’d ever promised.
And now it would be his.