The play starts at 9 p.m.
“What time is it?” everyone asks.
“8:54,” someone says.
Backstage, the actors swarm around like frantic bees. Sparks fly as they brush against each other.
Costumes are picked up and dropped. Props thrown around. Lights flicker. Walls are painted dirty green. Evaporated tears and sweat hit the ceiling and taint the wood darker.
“There’s no more time. THERE’S NO MORE TIME! Hurry! Everyone! Everything!”
This is said by Neil, the stage director. He meditates every morning, but fails to stay calm. His ponytail flogs his back and he accelerates with every hit.
Paul drowns his stare in sweat-stained sheets of paper. He has to perform. No other option. The costume designer would be displeased to see the vomit on his clothes. A spotlight above melts his face. Soon, that spotlight will fall and crush someone.
“Has anyone seen my hat? I need my hat. What time is it? Anyone seen my hat?”
In the lobby of hell, no one's eager. The actors are agitated molecules boiling in a closed recipient, bouncing on each other as the heat rises. They have regressed to their simplest form—no brain function, no control over the body. Helpless victims of the environment they're stuck in, the temperature still rising.
“Come on, pretend you're five, in front of Aunt Tammy and the dolls in the living room,” Annie tells herself. “No worries. In a theater made of cushions and sheets. No worries.”
The performers' heavy breathing forms an exhaustion fog, irritates the eyes and blurs the vision. No way to know if the red in their eyes is caused by that fog, their sleepless night or their crying.
“Where’s tony? He starts the whole thing and this asshole’s not there.”
Tony's praying with his rosary. When it drops out of his shaky hands, he interprets it as God running away from a greater force.
Tony—fat, sweaty, deep voice, garnished eyebrows, big ego, veteran of the stage. He plays the king.
“I don’t believe in fear,” he says to himself. He steps on the stage.
Silence. Even Tony’s powerful voice can’t reach backstage. They're in a vacuum, their little canned hell. On the other side of the curtain, a black hole is hungry. It gobbles everything: sound, confidence, hope, energy, sanity. It beats the hell out of positive thinking, destroys all order. A baby panda's laugh couldn’t lighten up the place. It would be sucked into the black hole too.
James to Deborah:
“Let's practice our scene.”
“No. I can’t anymore.”
James's a physical guy. Recurrent thoughts: sports are good, yoga is good, courage comes guts. Can’t trust the head—too many distractions.
“I came a long way for this. Can’t back out now. Gotta show the world what I can do.”
He stretches, practices his posture. With a respectable presentation, half the job is done. An imp, to dissolve that belief, shouts into his ear, spits into his right hemisphere.
No matter how straight you stand, you can still fall.
A little fairy sews honey whispers into the left side to comfort him. He can’t hear her.
Two more actors will soon be sent to the battlefield. Deborah and James. Deborah’s boyfriend, Finn, kisses her good luck. Finn: short hair, short patience, short life expectancy. Trembling eyes and hands. Nervous as a paranoid sheep in a wolves’ orgy. Possessed by nervous tics, chattering teeth, shaking his head to fend intrusive thoughts.
“It’s just another theme park ride,” Deborah tells him, with supernatural calm. “Very intense, but it’s always over sooner than you think.”
“I guess you’re right,” he says with a cracking voice. “We’ll all be done soon.”
“See you on the other side.”
Finn swallows dread. Can’t be saliva, his mouth is as dry as the hopes of a corpse buried in the desert.
“I mean on stage, for the garden scene,” Deborah adds. “That’s what I meant of course.”
Deborah winks at Finn as a sign of encouragement and affection. He winks back as a sudden, involuntary motor movement stimulated by high levels of fatigue, stress and anxiety.
Back to James. He looks at Janette. It’s her first play. Breakthrough time. Or not. As a more experienced and older performer, James has to say something to fill her head with peace, but mostly because others’ admiration is the best source of self-confidence.
“Are you ready?”
She drags her stare from the ground to James, scrapping and hauling all the worries in the world in the process. That question has no meaning now. The most useless and absurd assemblage of words he could come up with. She knows it. He knows it. The rug in front of the backdoor knows it. The question is negligently thrown around, only luring up sleeping doubts, fuzzing the water.
Theoretically, she’s ready. For the past weeks, she woke up at 7 a.m. to have a good breakfast with proteins, carbs, and Omega-3 supplements. She read her part forty-seven times. To allow herself to brush her teeth at night, she had to read a page. Before going to bed, she had to read all of it once or twice. Every time she had to leave the house, lines or pages had to be compressed and force-fed to her neurons. Her blood vessels formed words on the inside of her eyelids when she closed them. She learned, practiced, and understood the text. But still...
Ready is an alien word tonight.
“It’s like a tennis game,” James tries. “You hit the ball and hit it again when it bounces back. It’s just an exchange between the audience and the performer. You impress the audience, you get a point. You miss, they get the point. But it doesn't mean you lost the game.”
Jeanette's mouth is shut. Words slip out of her nose.
“What time is it?”
James rubs his feet on the whiny wooden planks. He doesn’t feel supported or stable. His feet are hanging over the void. Must jump soon.
“It’s time,” he says.
Deborah and James exchange a look. The curtain swallows them.
Words are thrown around.
“I can’t do this.”
“You have to! That’s what you always wanted to do.”
“Just perform. You know you can.”
“I just want to be loved.”
“I just don’t want to be hated.”
“I can’t feel my brain.”
“I can feel mine. It’s convulsing.”
It’s true. A brain is kicking on the sides of a head like a dead fetus’s last angry spasms.
Everything is turning. They are all stuck in anticipation wheel, strapped on the carrousel of fear.
Jeanette has been staring at nothing when words crawl out of her mouth again.
“I feel like… like I have nothing. No free will, no experience, no skills. No skin, no bones, no past, no future. Just an essence floating nowhere.”
“Is that in the play? I don’t remember that part!”
That’s Finn, skimming through a text trying to escape his hands.
“Oh, the pressure.”
“Oh! The pressure!”
“We’ll get eaten, chewed, and spat back.”
“It's like I gotta run a marathon with broken legs and a heart condition.”
“With an attitude like that, you’ll cripple yourself.”
“Kyle, it’s not the time for your smartassness. Is that a word?”
“Don't talk about words. Enough with words.”
“What time is it?”
“Yeah, what time is it?”
They don’t really talk to each other. They just use others to talk to themselves.
Finn squeezes his lucky horseshoe before putting it back into his pocket. It doesn’t help. Do animals feel the same thing as they walk to the slaughterhouse? Do they think about where they’re going or do they remember the scent of fresh grass for the last time?
Stop daydreaming. Did he say that out loud? Grandma said: “when you dream, it’s only steam. Makes you feel warm and well, but it won’t get you anywhere. When you work, you climb out of the murk.” As a kid, he didn’t know what that last word meant, but it sounded bad. Not a place to be. Just like now.
The curtain aborts Tony. The big man crawls backstage, covered in blood, screaming:
Pain squeezes out of his throat like stale air from a deflating balloon.
The janitor walks up to Tony, picks up the corpse, places it on a cart and rolls it away.
Written on the janitor’s shirt: Keep smiling.
“What time is it?” Finn asks. “Where’s Deb? She was supposed to change costume during James’s monologue. Where is she?”
“She’s gone, man,” Kyle says. “She’s gone.”
Jeanette is now on a beach in the southern part of her head. Meditating. Trying to. A wave takes her away. Can’t breathe. A voice. Neil.
“What are you doing? You’re in the next scene!”
She drags herself to the curtain. The planks of the giant coffin they're in growls with every step. The blood-red curtain, swaying like a vicious sea luring its preys to drown in, mocks her as she approaches. So small and fragile, she passes right through it.
Silent cacophony. Storms in heads. Waterfalls of sweat. Epileptic hearts. Tremulous legs. Feeling sick.
Finn walks back and forth from one random point to another. Sits down to relax. Can’t. Stands up. Makes counter-clockwise circles. Tries to squeeze some courage out of his uncooperative spleen.
Neil plays with his hair. No, he slowly tries to strangle and break them.
“I only have a handful of soldiers to fight an invincible enemy. It’s hopeless.”
The wall he’s muttering to doesn’t answer.
“Just stay calm, everyone, it’s going to be fine.”
He despises himself for saying that. He shivers.
James comes back. More or less.
When the others ask questions, they get no answer. James keeps gazing at his text, revising his next scene. Ignoring life. They are ghosts to him.
James isn't anymore.
Oh, but Janette comes back.
“How did it go?” asks everyone.
New Jeanette: Empty. Catatonic. Soulless.
She sits on the floor and does that for the rest of her life.
Annie breaks into a mind-tearing laughter. Paul bursts into tears. A light bulb bursts out of nowhere. It’s snowing glass on the floor near Jeanette’s head who doesn’t move an inch.
“Where’s Finn?” Neil asks.
“His first scene's in two minutes!”
They all conclude that they should look for Finn, but nobody moves.
“Can you replace him for the next scene?” Neil asks Kyle.
“I don’t know his part.”
“Improvise. He doesn’t know his part either.”
“Can’t do that.”
“Listen, there are no more choices. No more time. Everything you know is gone! There’s just the wave coming at you. Now get your ass on stage and swim!”
“I found him,” Paul yells.
Finn's hiding behind boxes of accessories and costumes. Neil tries to convince him to… stay sane? It fails.
Finn is grabbed and dragged and thrown on stage. James follows.
Under enough heat, molecules become so agitated that the bounds between them break. Pressure increases. Meltdown for everyone. In this case, the fusion point is 9 p.m. After that, it only gets worse.
“Why are you standing so close to me?” Kyle barks at Paul. “Give me some space!”
“Just passing by,” Paul replies. “I have no intention of staying next to your atrocious face.”
Kyle pushes Paul. Paul hits Kyle. Annie screams insults at them. Neil freaks out. Jeanette's brain-dead. Finn returns.
Chaos takes a pause and the actors look at Finn.
“So?” everyone asks.
“Oh, it went well,” Finn says.
He steps away from the curtain and drops dead. Something cracks when he hits the ground, either the floor or his nose.
Finn's in a garbage bag dragged outside by the janitor. Paul revises his part. The words are melting from the heat in his brain. up All mixed.
“I forgot my text,” he lets out. “Every word of it.”
“Cut it out,” Neil says. “You know it. Your mind's just blurry.”
The reason why Paul’s text is unavailable to him is because of the little nervous clots that slip between his synapses, impeding all cognitive functions. This is why Paul is kicking cardboard boxes right now.
“It’s ok to be afraid,” Neil says. “Just don’t let it affect your performance. Don’t think about it. Don’t let it take over.”
He listens as his words bounce around the room, wonders if he really said them.
The walls shake. Lights dissolve. The floor gets darker. The entire backstage area is a stomach digesting them.
Kyle hits his head on the wall, hoping to set his brain straight like a defibrillator stops the heart so it restarts correctly. Paul complains to a plastic plant. Neil is high on cortisol. Annie slits herself with a box cutter, lets the drops of blood form a flower on the pages of her script. She recites this poem:
It’s all alright
We die under the spotlight
Go left, Go right
You won’t make it through the night
She applauds herself and starts to cry. Neil vomits a translucent bile.
“What time is it?” Paul asks.
“9:26,” Neil says.
“Never mind the time, you’ll never catch it. Just know when to step in for your parts.”
“We can’t see or hear anything.”
Paul approaches the curtain, rips it, and slips his head in the opening. He yanks it off, hides his face in his hands. When he looks up, his eyes are completely white. His pupils have melted into some kind of crystalline eggshell.
“I can’t see,” Paul whispers, trying to reach for something, anything, with frantic hands. “I can’t see.”
At this exact moment, a howl comes from the stage. Who? Why? What now?
“That’s it,” Kyle says. “I’m out of here.”
He rushes away, but something falls from the ceiling and crushes his head and therefore his motor skills get sorely impeded. That’s right, it’s the spotlight. It kills you one way or another.
The truth finally gets to Neil: This play is doomed and nothing good will happen tonight.
“Very well…” he says.
He strides toward the stepladder on the side of the stage. Climbs it. Grabs the curtain cord. Ties it around his neck. Jumps.
His weight pulls the cord, opening the curtain and revealing the gigantic mirror.