The Ghost Light
“No, really,” Tilda says. “That’s what it’s called. All theaters are haunted. Didn’t you know that?”
Laurie frowns at the tall lamppost, its lightbulb glowing inside a little black cage. “So, what? It’s supposed to keep ghosts at bay? Suddenly ghosts are scared of electricity?” Laurie crosses her arms, hoping it doesn’t look like she’s hugging herself.
The stage really is kinda creepy in the dark like this. Cold, empty, the dusty smell of canvas and rope. Everyone gone for the night. The Ultimate Sleepover, Tilda keeps calling it; something Tilda’s talked about since her moms took over the theater’s tech crew a few years ago. From center stage, the lamp doesn’t illuminate much. Laurie can only just make out the stage’s edge, the darkness lapping at it like a seashore, waiting to sweep her out.
“It doesn’t just keep ghosts ‘at bay.’” Tilda Colwin, Queen of Air Quotes. “It also lights up any ghostly midnight performances.”
“That, and keeps idiots like you from falling off the stage.” Ursie’s here, thank god. She melts out of the darkness, cellphone as a flashlight, her backpack on one arm and rolled-up sleeping-bag under the other. She already knows what Laurie’s going to ask: “The door’s locked. Tilda’s mom let me in on her way out.”
“Yeah,” Laurie says, trying not to sound so relieved. “She’s picking up food.”
Laurie’s house was burgled last year while she was home alone and she still has trouble believing that the shape in the night-dark window isn’t the man looking in on her. That sound isn’t the doorknob twisting.
(He must’ve known she was there. Her bedroom door standing open, light spilling into the hall. She heard his footstep on the stair. But she couldn’t move, couldn’t think, couldn’t even turn out the light.)
Laurie snaps her fingers to cut off the thought.
The theater is an intimate space, an old building that leaks during storms and has all the classic trimmings: musty velvet curtains, balcony seating, orchestra pit, and a rounded ceiling painted with pink clouds, blue skies, and golden angels.
In the dark, the clouds and angels appear somewhat less than magnificent. More like leering creeps huddled behind so many dark bushes.
Ursie spreads out her stuff alongside Tilda’s on the floor. “I wonder when Fish’ll get here this time.”
Rebecca “Fish” Armstrong is the last of their troupe. Her chronic lateness spurred the running joke that she’s sure to be kidnapped and murdered someday because no one at The Party ever actually expects her to show up. Eventually this joke twisted around to the nickname “Fish,” perhaps because Rebecca’s murdered body is later fished out of a lake, or because she went “swimming with the fishes.” Who remembers. It’s all the same when you’re floating face-down.
“Can we turn this off?” Laurie asks. On its own, the lamp makes the dark of the audience even darker, impossible to tell if anyone might be out there. Might’ve slipped in and taken a seat.
“No can do,” Tilda says. “It’s bad luck.”
“Everything’s bad luck in the theater.” Ursie flops back on her sleeping-bag, thumbing her cell.
“Well, can we at least turn on some other lights?” Because now she can’t stop the thought: someone’s out there. Someone’s sitting in one of the back rows, watching them.
Laurie’s heard about how serial killers like to return to the scene of the crime, and maybe that’s true of other criminals, too. Maybe she’s the scene of a crime now.
“Why?” Tilda asks, slinking closer. “Are you scared?”
Laurie snaps her fingers as quietly as she can, glancing at Ursie, at the catwalk above, anything but the dark of the audience. Ursie doesn’t live in constant fear, even with all she’s been through. All her medical stuff. Or, if she is afraid, she doesn’t talk about it with them.
“I’m not scared,” Laurie says. “There’s just not much to do with it being this dark. It’s not like we’ll start any movies till Fish gets here.”
“Maybe she’s already here,” Tilda says. She sounds the way a cat looks, tail twitching, back arching. “Maybe she died on the way over and now her spirit’s cursed to haunt this place,” she wiggles her fingers, “the sleepover she couldn’t reach in life!”
Something in the audience claps, as if one of the seats were swinging back into place. As if someone just stood up from it.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” Ursie says, though she’s sitting up now, squinting into the dark with them.
Laurie snaps again and earns a vicious look from Tilda. “Will you quit that?”
“Fish?” Ursie’s voice echoes around the wide room. “C’mon. You’re scaring Laurie.”
“How would Fish get in?” Laurie whispers. “Your mom locked the door, didn’t she?” Her hands are too sweaty to snap. “We should turn out the light.”
“It’s bad luck,” Tilda says inanely, biting her lips.
Maybe Fish’ll arrive just in time to miss everything. Maybe she’ll be the one fishing their bodies out of a lake.
“I always kind of wanted to be murdered,” Ursie admits, so quietly Laurie almost missed it. “Show all the doctors how wrong they were about me. About how I’d die.”
“Shut up,” Tilda hisses. Neither of them wants to hear Ursie talk like that.
They stare into the dark as if they were suddenly the audience and the play out there. The three of them frozen around the lamppost, their bodies outlined in white light, like white tape at crime scenes. Murder shapes, Laurie’s brother calls them. (And if she peels that tape from herself? What then?)
She can almost hear the lamp’s soft voice, Closer to me, sweet, where it’s safe.
Safe like home with the faces in the window and the shadows under the door. Safe like the lure on an angler fish. What if nothing keeps the ghosts at bay? What if they have to make their own luck?
What if, reaching up, she turns off the light.
K.C. Mead-Brewer lives in Ithaca, NY. Her fiction appears in a variety of places. She is a graduate of Tin House's 2018 Winter Workshop for Short Fiction and of the 2018 Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers' Workshop. For more information, visit kcmeadbrewer.com and follow her @meadwriter.