Ethan Wiley pondered the two massive antique Victorian parlor chairs. The chairs were covered with royal green velvet and trimmed with gold studs along every seam. They struck quite the contrast with the dilapidated Prairie Barn Theater.
The chairs had been Paige’s favorite props and she often managed to work them into the plays she wrote.
With a heavy sigh, he bent down, found a comfortable grip and tugged. The chair slid a few inches and then a few more, the scraping of wood echoing through the barn. He kept pulling, always moving just a few more inches. The sweet and acrid smell of mildew from the unwashed fabric was nauseating.
He stopped short when he caught sight of the Prairie Barn Crew photo. It was a large picture of the whole stage company, taken while still dressed after a play. Paige had insisted despite the smattering of complaints.
He took the frame down to examine it. He thought that it was odd there was no dust on it even a year after the sealing the barn.
The entire crew was visible there, but Ethan could only see Paige’s face. Her eyes and smile filled his blurring vision. He blinked a few times and gingerly placed it back on the shelf, face down. He wasn’t here to cry.
He wrestled the chair to the center of the stage and returned for the next one, now covered with a thin sheen of sweat. The air in the barn was warm and stale without the fans. The electricity had been cut off months ago.
As he walked, his eyes drifted back to the picture. It was upright again as though he had never touched it. His eyebrows drew together and he tilted his head. He knew that had laid it face down.
The crunch of gravel drew his attention toward the front of barn where a car approached. Once parked, neither Kendra nor Clay got out right away. Instead, they continued their conversation for a few seconds. Kendra was Paige’s childhood friend but she still lingered around Ethan.
Clay, Paige’s brother, got out of the car at last and raised a hand in farewell. Kendra slowly turned the car around and crept away.
Clay headed toward the barn and smiled wide when he spotted Ethan.
“Not done yet, are you?”, he said.
“Oh, I saved some work for you. Where is Kendra going?”
“She said she was going to get our lunch.”
“It’s 9 o’clock in the morning,” Ethan scoffed.
“Yeah, that’s what I said. She said it takes that long,” Clay replied with a shrug. “I think she’s just trying to avoid getting her hands dirty.”
“Taking down the barn was her idea,” he grumbled. “She was always envious of what Paige was able to do with this old place.”
Clay shrugged again and assessed the contents of the former farm building.
They were to clear out the barn and then tear it down. They would reclaim most of the wood and construct a new outdoor amphitheater in Camber’s Field. The amphitheater was something that he and Paige had dreamed of doing for a long time.
After an extended silence, Clay stuffed his hands in his pockets.
“I forgot to bring that manuscript, of course. I really wanted you to see it, even if you wouldn’t direct it.”
“So just tell me about it. I can always read it myself later.”
The two of them ambled deeper into the shadows of the barn as they spoke.
“Well, it’s pretty strange. It’s like it was three quarters done but it ended kind of abruptly, like she was just fed up and done with it.”
“Probably just some placeholder material until she really figured it out. She did that sometimes.”
“Maybe. Anyway, at the end, everyone leaves the building and then the main character sets herself on fire. Then she dances around while she burns to death.”
“What the hell? Really?”
“Yeah, and then the whole damned building burns down around her. In purple flames.”
“How were we supposed to pull that off? Dancing in purple flames? Where was she going with that?”
“See? That’s why I wanted you to read it yourself.”
There was a soft feminine snicker behind Ethan. He looked searchingly back over his shoulder. Nothing there.
“Did you hear that?” he asked.
“Nothing, I guess.”
Clay cleared his throat. It was something he did a lot when he was nervous.
“I also found tons of letters that you wrote her. I didn’t read them, though. Must have been a hundred of them or more.”
“Yeah, I guess so. We wrote them most every day for a long while. I still have hers.”
“Do you want yours back?” Clay looked wistful.
Ethan inhaled deep and then blew out a breath as he thought. He needed to move on. Everyone else had, except Clingy Kendra.
“Nah,” he said at last. “Let’s get started, shall we?”
They resolved to collect everything on pallets in the center of the main audience area. The many cheap wooden chairs had been folded and stacked there already, so they would just build on that. Loosely organized by category, there was furniture, sound equipment, lighting, props and costumes. Extreme care was taken with the multitude of costumes. They were all hand-made and difficult to replace.
An hour later, because the water was still in Kendra’s car, they resorted to slurping from the bathroom sink.
Ethan brushed his damp hair back from his forehead and took stock of their progress. The pale doeskin dress for Empty Nights was hanging in the dress closet again.
“Clay,” he said, trying to suppress the quaver in his voice. “Why did you put Paige’s costume back on the rack?”
“I didn’t. What are you-” Clay stopped and gawked just as Ethan did.
“You handed it to me right? You remember that? You put it in my hands?”
“Yeah, that rack was completely empty a few minutes ago.”
Someone else was there with them, Ethan thought. He called out.
“Hello, anyone here? Hello? Kendra, is that you?”
Silence was the response. They both stood and glared at the dress for several moments.
“It didn’t put itself back,” Ethan mused aloud.
Clay cleared his throat again and scratched at his head.
“Maybe Paige is working on the wardrobe for the next play?”
“What? That’s not funny, man. It’s stupid,” he said with a sneer.
“My grandmother would say different.”
“Your grandmother is a superstitious biddy,” Ethan declared.
Clay laughed from his belly.
“You’re not wrong about that,” he said. “Look, maybe we just missed the dress, okay? We’re both in our own heads a lot today and not really paying attention.”
“Maybe,” was all the Ethan could manage as he contemplated the garment.
The sun climbed higher as they worked and it turned the barn into an oven on low heat. The pile of props, flats and miscellany grew haphazardly. They were sweating and huffing when Kendra’s car finally crunched back up the long driveway.
“I hope she has something cold to drink,” Clay said. The water from tiny bathroom was warm and metallic.
The two men stood in front of the heap, stretched their backs and wiped at their faces. Kendra meandered toward the barn.
Kendra hesitated at the entrance and rubbed her palms on her jeans before marching forward and forcing a smile.
“Hey. You doing okay?”
“Yeah, it’s just strange being back here,” she said and waved a hand dismissively. “Anyway, I got lunch in the car and iced tea if you guys are interested.”
“Absolutely,” Clay chimed in with a grin.
Ethan held up a hand to forestall them.
“Let’s go ahead and get this rug out. I’m tired of stepping over it,” he suggested. He gestured at the long log of rolled-up carpet a dozen feet away.
It was a thick and aged rug, nearly five hundred square feet. It was rarely rolled out onto the stage because it needed several people to carry it.
“Alright,” Kendra said as she glanced back toward the car.
The three of them strained to get the bundle off the ground and maintain their grip. They grunted in unison as they lifted and started shuffling forward.
Clay dropped his end almost immediately. The weight was too much for the others and the roll thudded back down.
“Man, what-“, Ethan said and then saw that Clay was staring at the barn doors.
They were closed. But that was impossible. They had not noticed the room darken. There had been no sound. Those doors never moved without grinding and creaking.
“No, no no. I’m dreaming again,” Kendra squeezed her eyes shut and clutched at her hair with both hands. “This isn’t happening.”
She began pacing back and forth as she whimpered to herself.
Ethan ignored her and ran to the doors. He gripped one of the wrought iron handles with both hands and heaved to the side. There was no hint of movement, as though the handle was on a wall rather than a door.
“Ethan,” Clay hissed from behind him.
Ethan turned and was paralyzed. He watched, enthralled, as his heart pounded.
The long-sleeved doeskin dress from Empty Nights was “walking” up the stairs of the stage. No one was wearing it, but it moved like a person was inside. From the opposite side, a pair of tattered red leggings and a white lace shirt strutted toward the hovering dress. It was the very costume that Kendra wore in Empty Nights.
He licked his lips and tried to get his breathing under control.
“What the hell is happening,” Clay croaked.
“It’s Paige. She’s putting on a play,” Ethan whispered. He now believed Paige really was here, directing her own premiere.
The three of them stood motionless, transfixed by the scene before them. The costumes moved of their own will. They gesticulated for a brief time before the fray began in earnest.
Spectral lights shone on center stage, but the bluish beams were projected from nowhere and cast no shadows.
The two outfits struggled with disembodied grunts and desperate rustling. The violence was palpable despite the quietness of the conflict. Kendra’s outfit made a final striking motion where Paige’s head would be and her costume crumpled.
Kendra’s clothing then moved to the back right side of the stage. It was where the anchor line was tied for the overhead light fixture. The apparition waited until Paige’s costume began to recover and stand upright. The knot was yanked free and the ponderous light fixture crashed to the stage on top of Paige.
They jumped at the cacophony. All of them were pale, blood drained from their faces, but Kendra was sweating and on the verge of collapse.
She tore her eyes from the spectacle and met Ethan’s accusing and questioning gaze.
“Ethan, I-“, she started to explain, but a choked sob overcame her. “I-“
“You killed her, didn’t you? Always jealous,” he growled through clenched teeth.
Her face contorted and her mouth worked silently.
“It wasn’t an accident? You killed her?” he demanded. He was almost panting. It seemed so hard to breath in the moment.
She shambled toward him, then fell to her knees and peered up at him with her hands clutching at his clothes.
“She never loved you the way I do,” she blurted. “Just give me a chance, please. She wasn’t right for you. Ethan, please, you have to understand.”
Tears streamed down her upturned face but Ethan dismissed them. He barely registered that she was human.The horrific truth made the ground tilt and whirl.
From the refuse around them, cables and ropes came to life and snaked through the air with terrifying speed. They dove straight at Kendra and wrapped tightly around her wrists, waist and ankles. The timbers trembled and the ground heaved, sending props and furniture crashing down.
Kendra screamed as she was yanked upright. Her scream was strangled by another rope cinching around her throat.
Ethan fell back a step, surprised by the sudden attack and unable to think or react.
The cords snatched Kendra high into the air, carried her back to the stage and positioned her front and center. Her feet rested on the wooden planks but she was not standing on her own. The ropes were in complete control. She looked like a puppet. A marionette controlled by an unseen and vengeful master.
Clay started to approach the stage but only managed a single step before he became unable to move his feet. He strained with effort but was stuck in invisible quicksand.
“Kendra,” Clay called as both hands tugged futilely at his back leg. Ethan watched with numb detachment.
A dull boom echoed through the space and wood splintered under Kendra’s feet. Fire erupted from beneath the stage, blossomed, and lunged upward like a shark to consume her legs. The rope around her throat loosened and Kendra’s ensuing screams ricocheted of the walls.
Despite burning alive, Kendra appeared to be cluckishly dancing the mercy of the ropes. It was halting and inelegant, but she danced and screamed as her skin blackened.
Clay yelled and labored against ethereal bonds while Ethan made no effort to move or help.
Seconds stretched out and then a super-heated phantasmal force slammed into Ethan and Clay. The force hurled them back. The barn doors burst outward and their bodies flew through a hail of sparks and debris into the summer air outside.
The impact knocked the breath from Ethan and he succumbed to oblivion for a few merciful seconds.
First, Ethan felt the sharp sting of gravel pressed against his face. Then he noticed his head was heavy and hammered incessantly.
He struggled to his knees. His head lolled in the direction of the Clay’s moans. Clay loomed over him and reached down to take Ethan’s hand to haul him up. They stood there and supported each other as they squinted into the the barn, but made no attempt to reenter.
The sky overhead had become black with storm clouds and the temperature had dropped. A cool breeze carried the smell of peanut fields and cooking flesh in equal parts.
The shrill screaming within the barn persisted. Kendra’s silhouette continued to gyrate amid a torrent of fire that poured upward. It became a pillar that stretched from the floor to the roof.
The fire grew to consume the entire structure and shifted in color, no longer orange and red, but blue and purple.
The screams faded and the roar of the lavender inferno was the only sound left.
“Purple fire,” Clay mumbled.
“She always wanted elaborate scenes,” Ethan said.
They both leaned against the car and waited. What they waited for was unclear, but Ethan did not believe the show was over.