Authors: Nate Gubin
Tags: #Fiction & Literature
In the wings, Hugh came to. He looked at the exit door and then back to the ghost on stage. He unfolded his notes and looked at a tiny little doodle on the back of a page, a heart with a name written inside, "Lily."
On stage, the clown's routine suddenly changed, plunging from mere wacky to crazy-town nutty. With hands clasped and fingers used as gnashing teeth he became a monster. He pantomimed his head popping off and then chasing it as it rolled across the floor. Blood fountained from his neck stump, making the scramble slippery.
"Enough!" Crain stopped him.
"Typically we don't accept this silly sort of
cirque du carnivale
." Crain pronounced it with a heavy emphasis on the last syllable, car-nee-val-AYE. "But you, my haunted soul, have taken it to another level where it turns back on itself and becomes something completely different."
The rest of the council wasn't sure if they should be nodding in agreement or shaking their frowning faces. They played it safe and tilted their heads slightly like they were considering the profoundness of Crain's insight.
"And that completely different something is something completely delightful." Crain applauded and the council quickly joined in.
"Pack your bags, you're—"
The applause ended with a sudden gasp as Hugh marched back onto the stage.
"You have to approve me, I have to ..."
"No, no, no," Crain scolded him. "You had your chance."
"I'm not leaving until you approve me, I ..."
"Guards, remove him," Crain ordered.
The fierce little man led a pack of heavies onto the stage. Jerry tented his fingers together, the tips applauding with delight. "Finally some violence."
Hugh fought the brutes while calling out to the council, "Please, I have to go, I have to find the girl—"
The fierce little man climbed the pile-on and clasped his hand over Hugh's mouth. "That's enough out of you. Let's shackle him to the rooftop."
They dragged him halfway offstage. The fierce little man surfed the shoulders and heads of the tangled gang.
Hugh spit the fierce little man's hand out and shouted, "I have to see the girl I love!"
Crain was startled by that last word. "What? What was that he said? Did he just say what I think he said?" He looked to Jerry, who shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. The rest of the council sheepishly pretended they didn't hear it.
Crain gasped in amazement. "I think he used the L word." He raised his hand to the wrestling match. "Hold on a minute. Bring him here." They dragged Hugh face to face with Crain, who burrowed his ebonized stare into Hugh's eyes. "What did you say?"
"I need to go up top, I need to find the girl I love and tell her—"
Crain stopped him. "You did say it. Now this is something spectacular." He turned to the council. "Did you hear what he said? He said la..." Crain couldn't get his mouth around the word. "Lo... Lahh... Hlaa... Looow... I can't say it." He threw his hands up. "Release him. I want to hear this."
The heavies let go and the fierce little man climbed down and straightened his clothes. The gang stayed cocked within a step of Hugh, ready to recapture him at the slightest twitch.
Crain brushed them back. "Give him some room. This is going to be interesting." He backed up and sat with one leg propped up on the table, head in hand, attentive. "Please, tell us your sad, sorrowful tale of lost lhaa... lo... You know, start from the beginning and don't leave out any of the heartbreaking details."
Hugh pulled his ruffled clothes into place. He stared into the darkness and nodded himself back in time to where it all went wrong.
"It was our wedding day ..."
Almost a Wedding
It was a perfect late spring morning in an old and wealthy suburb of a big Midwest city. It was the kind of town that kept one well-heeled foot back in its agricultural heritage. A dairy barn was turned into an antiques gallery, the old pump house now sold fine wine and cheese, the town granary was now filled with the smell of potpourri and gift items made by artisans.
The rolling hills were alive with supple greens and white blossoms burst forth from every tree and bush. Up a winding narrow road, past classy château-inspired estates, past an old graveyard, sat a small chapel built from flagstone and topped off with a gray slate roof.
The chapel was surrounded by parked cars, a few of which overflowed out onto the shoulders of the road. In one of those parked cars sat a living Hugh, replete with rented tux, coiffed hair and a belly full of butterflies. His tux rental had come with a complimentary pair of black wool socks that were his to keep after the wedding. They were more than adequate but his feet were still cold.
He stared out the windshield at the chapel full of family and friends, half of which he knew, the other half he would be stuck finding out about. He didn't see this day as a beginning to the rest of his life. Wringing the steering wheel with sweaty palms, he was convinced that this was the prison cell door clanking shut on eternity. He wasn't excited about what he was getting, the beautiful bride waiting for him inside. Instead he was mourning the loss of what he was giving up. Easy days, rudderless slacking, tipsy debauchery ... In a word, freedom.
He pictured walking down the chapel aisle smack into a dead end, a narrow, dark corner crammed with a wife and kids and all the crap that goes with that. Mostly plastic crap; totes full of Christmas decorations, Big Wheels, a moldy inflatable pool and cheap exercise equipment with clothes draped from its handles. More clothes heaped into garbage bags, deemed "uncomfortable," code for too small. When they lost weight they'd fit back into them. Like that was going to happen.
With each step down that aisle Hugh could imagine himself getting older, fatter, stiffer and lamer. The thought of climbing the three shallow steps to the altar made him weak.
The blood drained from him as he limply turned to look at the golden sun in the rearview mirror. He thought he had so much in common with that rising globe of brilliant bright. Now he saw it as a dimming sunset against an overcast sky. A little dusk, which is always nice, but then forever night.
He felt the sun was slowly abandoning him to go west and maybe live in California.
California! Dreams deferred, surfing never tried, rock band never started, acting career never ventured, fame and fortune forever left out of his grasp. He had so many dreams, so many plans. Riding a donkey over the Andes after kayaking to Cuba. Dating a girl from Madagascar, sleeping with a stripper. The years he'd spend as a bartender nicknamed "Chewy" at a Caribbean beach resort before heading north to be a ski bum nicknamed "Hot Dog."
What's happenin', Hot Dog?
Yo money, the pow in the chutes is sick. Gotta run, there's Asian twins waiting for me in the hot tub ...
There would be none of that. He was marching into a narrow box canyon and there was no turning back. His inevitable future played out in the windshield of his Toyota Corolla.
A starter home and a dog. Then a baby; the dog would have to go. Another baby and a bigger home. A job he desperately needed and hated. A life spent in servitude to the relentless reality he was about to create in that church.
Every so often the sun would appear at the crest of the deep chasm he had thrown himself into. Maybe he could still make it, scramble out and follow it to that endless stretch of beach. Forget it. Soon enough a minivan with two years left of payments would crap its transmission and wedge itself between him and liberty. Even if he could escape, the bankers would ride after him to collect their pound of flesh for the little piece of vinyl-sided house that was supposed to be a home, a heavy chain shackling him to an anchor deep inside the concrete crust of suburbia.
The house would smell funny, too. Sort of a mix of Glade Wild Berry Mountain Aire, Fritos and dirty diapers.
As he looked back at that soaring sun, a glimmer of possibility sparked inside him. An easygoing tanned spirit whispered to him from two thousand one hundred and thirty-eight miles west.
Roll, dude, roll.
The open road gave him a coy wink with its seductive eyes.
"So I started the car, pulled out of the parking lot and drove west."
The council was rapt, hanging on Hugh's every word. Crain's eyes swelled, filling with gleeful anticipation of the story’s tragic end. The auditioning ghosts had moved off the wall and gathered in the wings, slowly moving closer to soak up every word and witness every subtle gesture of Hugh's tragic tale.
"I got onto the interstate, I-80 west, and I felt like I could breathe again. I stuck my head out the window and sucked in that fresh air." He stopped, his head sank, he lowered his voice. "But then, after a few hundred miles, somewhere in Iowa, I started thinking about Lily. About how much I wanted her sitting next to me, about how much I wanted her along for the ride, about ... about how much I loved her."
He stopped. The room was perfectly silent for a very long time. It was so quiet, Rusty was positive he could hear that cricket pissing on cotton.
"All the freedom in the world was worth nothing if I didn't have her to share it with. So I turned the car around and raced back toward the church as fast as I could."
Crain whispered under his breath, "But?"
"But on the way back to the church I died in a freak accident. I never got to tell her that I'd made a big mistake. I never got to say I was sorry. I never got to tell her that I really, truly, deeply ... loved her."
Jerry tried to hide his face from Crain. Tears were rolling down his cheeks. The minister with the hacking cough now had the sniffles. The fierce little man retracted his claws and patted the place in his chest where his heart used to be. Crain leaned into the light with a sated grin. "That is one of the saddest stories I have ever heard. But tell me, and please don't spare any details, what was the freak accident?"
"I lost control of my car, crossed the median and crashed headfirst into a bus going the opposite direction."
Crain argued, "That's not a freak accident. Lots of people die in car accidents."
Jerry piped up, "Three thousand two hundred traffic-related deaths a day in the Land of the Living, a hundred thirty-seven in the USA alone."
Crain nodded. "It's true." He looked from side to side at the council members. "We should be thankful for the invention of the automobile. It has been a huge boon to us, right up there with cigarettes and fast food." They nodded and mumbled in agreement.
Hugh somewhat bashfully twiddled his fingers and stared at the ground. "Actually, the bus that I hit was full of freaks, you know, circus freaks."
Crain tilted his head with a twinkle in his eyes. "Oh, I get it."
"The impact was so powerful, and the resulting explosion and fire so severe that they found it impossible to separate my body parts from that of the ... freaks."
Crain rubbed his hands together, trying to contain the swelling glee inside him. "Yeah, okay, I can see it now. That
"The coroner ended up combining all the tissue remains and burying them in one plot."
"I see, sort of a grave of the unknown circus freak slash star-crossed lover." Crain popped to his feet with titillation. "And the bride, she didn't know you were coming back. As far as she knew, you abandoned her, on her most special day." His sinister grin grew as he created the image in his mind. "I can see her now, standing there alone at the altar, mascara running down her cheeks, family and friends staring at her, judging her like she's a horrible butt to your joke ... Tell me, was it a big wedding?"
"Yeah, we had a hard time saying no to the second cousins and friends of friends, and all the coworkers and well-wishers."
Crain nodded. "So many well-wishers, I'm sure. How many?"
Hugh peeped under his breath, “Five hundred.”
"Five hundred?!? Five hundred! Did you hear that?" He looked to his side and the rest of the council nodded in astonishment. "There was a lot blossoming in that room, all of it wilted into pain and despair." Crain smiled. "That's a good story, I like that story."
Crain paced, tenting his fingers to prop up his chin. "Now I understand why you want, nay, need to cross over. You need to race through that thin veil of fog and find her and—"
He suddenly stopped and stared at Hugh. He imagined the failure and heartbreak Hugh would suffer when he came face to face with a love he could have had, now forever beyond his grasp. With a springing leap, he snatched Hugh's application out of Jerry's hand and stamped over the rejections with a crisp green approval.
"Approved!" He smiled at Hugh.
"Approved, approved, approved."
Hugh reached for it but Crain didn't let go. He leaned into him and cemented him in a tense stare.
"But heed my warning. If you see the morning sun of the day after Samhain ..." He dramatically pointed to the floor. "Down the vent."
The room crescendoed with a rabble of frightened whispers.
"The vent ... Down the vent ..."