by Noel Osualdini
The theater closed long ago, and in its front window there is now only dust, wires, and an old music box shaped as a tiny Gothic church. A faded poster on the wall inside promises wonders never dreamt of, in matinee and evening showings six days a week. All old, all dusty and decaying. At least it looks warmer in there to April, who is standing outside where the wind threatens to pick up her emaciated body and hurl her down the street with the blowing garbage.
The sight of the music box has brought back her childhood, happier times when her father was still alive to take her to Sunday School, but the distant rumble of thunder reminds her she cannot stand here for much longer.
“I could get that for you,” says a male voice behind her.
She turns away from the window, expecting to find a prospective pimp, a rapist or maybe a murderer, not to be unexpected in this part of town. But no, it’s just a guy: a guy well over six feet tall, a man in his late thirties who is muscled and tanned despite the deep winter. There is a wisp of grey at the temples and the experience of a life lived to the fullest, etched into his chiseled features.
April is immediately taken: the creamy chocolate voice, the casual and yet authoritative air of—what is it that has so affected her? Experience? Unquestionable masculine confidence? Almost an I know something you don’t know come-on. Rock hard male beauty.
“Oh yeah?” she says, pouting innocently. “I have very expensive taste.”
Is that even her own voice? Normally, she would have just said: “I’ll do anything, Mister,” and be pleased with a few moments of attention and a few—well, admittedly more than a few—dollars. With perhaps months left in her before the drugs take her health and her looks, and the track marks on her arms become too obvious and meld with the unhealed scabby scars of self-inflicted knife wounds, she can still make a sort of a living from selling herself. Wasn’t that what her mother did, anyhow, selling herself every day she worked in the factory back home? How could the mother who’d thrown her to the wolves, hurried her out the door, and onto the streets with nothing, how could that woman ever look down on the only trade April had managed to find?
“If I ever have a daughter of my own…” she’d once told herself, but even then, the thought had simply tapered off into nothingness: there could never be a daughter for her, nor a son, nor a husband even.
The stranger with the liquid chocolate voice places a palm against the door. There is some graffiti amongst the peeling paint on its panels, and a cross with the horizontal bar drawn too low on the vertical; for a moment she is perplexed by some fluidity in the symbol, as though the ink is still wet. She puts it down to his steaming breath in the chill air. The door clicks open—she could have sworn it was locked a moment ago, when she’d tried it herself—as though it recognizes him.
She follows him into the building. There are things she must do if she wants to survive.
Inside, it’s only slightly warmer, and the boards creak beneath their feet. There is a rhythmic sound, a drumbeat, that she thinks may be coming from the highway farther down the hill. They pass through the once ornate, now dilapidated entrance foyer. A dusty velvet curtain hangs across the doorway that separates the foyer from the auditorium, and he holds it aside for her as though he is a gentleman ushering a lady through to his private viewing box.
He does not follow, and she is already unbuttoning her blouse as he disappears, promising to bring the music box.
There is a table in the middle of the vast, cold room to which he has brought her: only a table without chairs, as though it has been abandoned in the hall where the audience once must have sat in rows to watch actors and magicians on the now-dark stage. In the dust-flecked sunlight that streams in through a few broken windows, she can see the outlines of office furniture and theater props along the walls, a row of demonic faces along the edge of the stage.
By the time he returns, she is lying naked atop her discarded clothes with arms outstretched and hands hanging over the edge of the table. The ceiling above is high and domed, but she feels as though she is looking down on it and imagines herself dropping like a rock into the shadows that pool in its inverted depths. Though she has heard his footsteps on the splintered boards, long minutes seem to pass, and she realizes she hasn’t yet felt the expected hands on her skin or the impetuous, impatient thrust of his nakedness.
What if she has been merely lured here, and there are others hiding in the wings? Gang rape is the least of her concerns: she’s heard of torture and murder of women in these parts. But she must do what she must to survive.
She raises herself on one elbow, confirms he is alone, but he is staring off into the space at the front of the theater.
She coos a sexualised “Hey.”
“Not now,” he replies, apparently no longer interested in her proffered body. She remembers that they haven’t yet discussed terms. She doesn’t even know his name.
Of course, the name isn’t really important. Just another John.
She watches him. He is unconcerned, unmoved by her nudity. Some guys just want to look, she reminds herself, but he doesn’t even seem to want to do that. In the vast hall, the grace of his walk, the air of other-worldliness, is more obvious. She sees now that he has placed the music box beside her leg, where her skin touches the bare, unvarnished tabletop. When she reaches and prods it with a fingertip, the box emits a single note and seems to skid away from her across the wooden surface. From the corner of her eye, she glances at him a few feet away, and sees that he, too, is now naked, has let his clothes fall to the floor in the moment that she was distracted by the box. His face, turned aside, is shadowed, but she can see that his back and arms and legs are corded with muscle. She moves a leg, and the music box, as though on wheels, skitters across the table surface again. It overbalances at the edge and crashes to the floor.
It plays two more notes.
In an instant, he is beside her, his limp member flying to the side with the motion, and then he is suddenly hard and erect.
“I promised myself this,” he says, “and then you can go. Maybe you can get out before he arrives.”
“Before who—” She is confused. Perhaps he’d planned a gang rape after all but had second thoughts.
He pounces at her like a wild thing escaped from the jungle, and she feels the sudden thrust of him into her.
“—save you,” he adds. “I promise you, if you knew, you’d be glad to be out of here when—”
She might have asked him if he was paranoid or schizoid, if the words had been in her vocabulary, but the change has been so rapid, so unexpected, so… wonderful… that April is left momentarily breathless as the thrust of his loins builds to a crescendo to match the rhythmic pounding from the highway. Not many men can get this sort of reaction from her: for once, there is no need for her to fake.
Any second now, though, any second, she expects it will end with a sudden release from him, a grunt and a fart and a “Thank you, Miss,” but her thoughts are muddled. Getting them off is always easy. Getting her off isn’t so, and she knows from experience there are few men who can measure up.
Especially when they are just customers.
Yet she can feel the reaction of her body, the tension building within her.
Any second now, it would end. Not yet, not yet, just a minute more…
“What’s your name?”
“What?” she asks—she’d been lolling on the edge of another place, a paradise where the grime and dirt held no sway. But she remembers to say, “April.” And thank you for doing business with me.
“Maybe he won’t come,” he says, pushing deeper into her.
“Come,” she repeats, dreamily.
“Perhaps he’s got other things to worry about.”
That rhythm. She cannot think how to answer.
“Don’t talk,” she pleads, “just… do it.”
Any second now. She can tell. He is only moments from ending it, and she is expecting that deflated, unsatisfied feeling, that feeling of… not yet, not yet… any second, as it always does… But with the matching rhythms—the beating of whatever she can hear from the highway, the thrusting of the client, the pounding muscle that threatens to break out of her bare chest—but it keeps going, until… until…
Release comes for both at the same time, but at that moment the music box plays one more note, and there is a sound from across the room.
And she realizes that the rhythmic thrum isn’t from the highway, that it’s been here with them all along, the angry sound of hornets rising to a pitch and then falling away again.
And suddenly she is aware of her nakedness. The snake has tempted her, and she has eaten of the forbidden fruit. The scales fall from her eyes and for the first time she sees…
Sees the existence of evil, understands there is a war that has been going on since Creation, is abhorred by the putrid state of the disheveled and abandoned theater about her: the torn curtains, the garbage and dust, the cold. There is movement on the stage, and she tries to focus. Shadowy images, like long forgotten memories, solidify into a menacing shape, and she realises that what she’d thought was the statue of a giant bird at the back of the stage is not a bird at all.
And not a statue.
The creature rises from its squatting position and is now a gargoyle of living stone. The face that regards them is carved with blemishes and scars, it bubbles with pus and streams of filth that flow across its temples and down its cheeks and into the curls of the beard. The monster stretches, opening giant wings. It raises its head heavenwards and releases a roar of anguish and pain and, above all, anger: an unholy, God-defying anger that would fill the universe if only it didn’t have to compete with the anger of others of its kind. The ground shakes as it steps from the edge of the stage and drops heavily to the rotting wooden timber of the floor.
“Bryant!” roars the beast. The darkness is momentarily tinged with reddish light, as though its guts are filled with fire, and there is the smell of sulfur. The man, his spent penis now dangling before him, whirls about and suddenly prostrates himself in the middle of the room, his arms in the shape of a man dangling from a crossbeam.
Christ on the cross, April thinks, but the image fades. She notices that some of the cuts she’d once slashed into her arms have reopened and started bleeding again.
The creature advances on them, thunder rumbling in its wake, as though each step leaves a vacuum and the air is rushing in to fill the space. The floor beneath it groans and cracks beneath its weight and threatens to give way, threatens to bring down the whole theater. She imagines herself falling through to the basement, the foundations, and falling further, to a place that she doesn’t want to think about.
The music box, as though recognising the statue/beast/demon, plays a few notes of Auld Lang Syne.
“Master,” says Bryant.
April is shocked: she would have expected him to push her out of the room to safety, not to cower there and talk to it. She rolls off the table just in time: the creature’s fist shatters the wood and she is showered in splinters. She looks up momentarily to take in the beast towering above her.
“You called me,” it accuses.
A single note comes from the floor.
“A mistake,” says Bryant, waving at the shattered music box.
“You have destroyed it,” roars the monster, pointing at the broken Gothic church. A pall of smoke escapes its throat, and the smell of brimstone swirls in the air. The beast fixes Bryant in its glare. “But I am the destroyer.” And the box springs back together, the cracks in its surface heal, and it skitters across the floor towards its master. “Even if it has to be one man at a time,” says the beast, “I will destroy what He has created.”
It lowers its great, ulcerous face to Bryant, who is now whimpering on the floor.
“Time,” says Bryant. “I need time, Master, to bring others for the sacrifice.”
“All of time is mine,” it laughs, “and your time is ended.”
“But I’ve brought you something,” ventures the cowering man, now pathetic despite his muscles. He raises his gaze, and April is stunned to see him nod in her direction.
“Fool!” The beast throws back its head and laughs mockingly. The open maw of its mouth reveals a red hellfire glow. “The woman was mine already,” the monster roars.
It is a moment of revelation. April remembers now. She’s been here before.
Bryant’s face falls. “And now, so are you.”
The stone beast raises one foot and brings it crashing down upon the man’s bare back. She hears the crack of his spine and in a whumpf of flame and noise, man and beast are gone.
The force of the explosion should have blown the theater apart. The blast of heat from the fireball should have set the drapes on fire, but she hadn’t felt it. She isn’t injured, even though Bryant had been almost beside her. Confused about what has just happened, she looks down and sees that the table on which she’d been lying is whole, even though the demon had punched it into matchwood. On it is the little Gothic church that she’d admired earlier.
The wounds that had reopened along her arms have closed again. She wipes off the blood on a discarded playbill from the floor.
April pulls on her clothes and picks up the music box. She pushes the dusty drapes out of her way and steps into the foyer, so she can set the music box down again in the ticket booth.
It looks cold outside, but she feels compelled to leave. The door clicks behind her and will not open again. She hardly notices the inverted cross amongst the squiggles and crude drawings left by vandals.
April is once again standing outside the theater in her ragged clothes, looking in through the grimy glass. There is a coating of dust inside, and a small music box in the shape of a Gothic church; a smear in the dust shows that it has recently been moved, and she wonders if there could be someone inside. She pounds on the door, but there is no answer.
She is confused for a moment, cannot seem to recall the last few minutes or perhaps half-hour.
Something happened, but there seems to be a wall in her brain that stops her from remembering. She turns to face the road.
April is standing in a wind-blown street wearing tattered clothes that aren’t enough against the cold, and she is thinking about how she was betrayed by her mother and everyone else who ever set foot in her life. She wonders if it’s warmer inside the theater, but the door won’t open for her. Amid the graffiti across its weathered surface is an upside-down cross.
A group of youths, dressed in black, is coming down the street. They grin and nudge each other at the sight of her.
“Look at the whore,” says one, pointing at her.
“I’ll do anything,” says April, smiling in invitation.
About the Author
Australian author Noel Osualdini (pronounced Oswald-deeny) has been a television newsroom technician, public servant, graphic designer, call center operator and garage attendant. His stories have appeared in anthologies and other formats in the USA, UK, Australia and Canada. He lives with his partner Joanne in a menagerie of cats and kids southeast of Melbourne.