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The stage is set at the Regent Theatre for Merryn's performance - but will she go on? We find out in part one of Lara M. Hewn's short story Invisible Ink.
The doors to the Regent Theatre’s 24-Hour Book Sale remained open long after the crowds had gone home to their snuggly, safe beds. And in through the doors drifted Dunedin’s lone wolves, odd ducks and a stagger of drunk people old enough to know that nothing good ever happened after 2am.
In a dim corner at the back of the theatre, Merryn sat with her violin case bouncing on her restless knees. There were still 40 minutes to go before she took to the stage. She needed to calm the farm down.
With her eyes closed, she repeated: ‘‘I am a strong and confident woman. I will not throw up — not on myself nor the Regent Theatre. I will not fall on my face. I will not forget how to play. I . . .’’
‘‘I will not talk to myself in public or the men in white coats will come and take me away!’’ a jovial voice broke in.
Her eyes snapped open. One of the volunteers chuckled and winked at her as he passed. He looked like her dad. He even made jokes like her dad.
Merryn scowled at his back as he went on his whistling way. He was right, of course, but it was either mantras or meltdowns.
A hipster jazz trio played Metallica’s Enter Sandman on a makeshift stage, the real stage currently heaving under the weight of thousands of books. They were good, she thought, heading down for a closer look. Too good for this time slot. Thank God she wasn’t going on after them!
As the final notes sounded, the singer thanked the small crowd and gave a jaunty bow. There, Merryn told her brain, they survived, and without any unwelcome bodily functions (so far as she was aware).
Then, just when they were basking in the lukewarm appreciation of the crowd, the singer’s long necklace snagged on her microphone stand, snapping the string. Hundreds of beads bounced across the stage, down the steps, into books and the cracks in the floorboards. Volunteers sprang into action, their brooms loud and rhythmic in the cavernous space.
Merryn almost turned and ran right then.
‘‘I am a good person who deserves good things. I will not have a wardrobe malfunction on stage,’’ she repeated, quietly this time, in short, jagged breaths.
A braying laugh echoed through the theatre and she turned. A teenager in a Hallensteins hoodie and ripped jeans stood by the children’s books, clearly enjoying the show. He was less lone wolf, more jackal, Merryn thought, with his long thin face and two-toned faux hawk. He caught her looking at him and grinned, his eyes overly bright, like he was on something.
She quickly turned back to the stage, in time to see the next act swagger on. A cowboy with a guitar. He was quite attractive if you liked tall men with dark curly hair, which she did.
‘‘Howdy y’all, my name’s Beau Jackson junior.’’ He spoke confidently while his long fingers strummed his guitar.
‘‘I’m gonna play for the next small while. Hope you like what you hear.’’
Merryn hadn’t heard of him or Beau Jackson senior but he seemed to have brought his own fan club. A small mob cheered as he launched into his first song, his voice smooth and deep. It’s him and then it’s me. Her stomach roiled.
An elderly volunteer brushed past her carrying a tall stack of books, all of which seemed to be Fifty Shades ofGrey. So much grey, Merryn thought. Too much, it transpired, as the stack started to move, the books sliding out in all directions. The volunteer rushed to put them down on the nearest table before it collapsed but it was too late. Grey everywhere.
‘‘I don’t know what happened,’’ the volunteer said, as Merryn helped her pick up the books. ‘‘I had them and it was fine and then it was like someone was just . . . poking them out of place. It sounds crazy, I know.’’
Very crazy, Merryn thought, patting her arm. How dreadful to be old.
‘‘Play Wagon Wheeeeeeeeeel,’’ a drunk woman screamed at Junior. Her friends whistled and stomped in agreement.
Junior doffed an invisible cowboy hat and began playing the pub anthem of all sad-sack students circa 2013. It was enough to make ears bleed and dogs howl.
He was certainly a crowd pleaser — Sweet Caroline, Brown Eyed Girl, Old Town Road — and then his time slot was officially over but he mustn’t have had a watch because he kept playing. One more song was fine, Merryn told herself as she double-checked her violin, her music, her fly. But then that song ended and he began another.
He was stealing her time, she realised with indignation. What kind of cowboy steals from a lady?
And now she found that after all the angsting and nausea, she actually wanted this. This was her time.
As the song came to an end, Merryn stepped up on to the stage and looked at him pointedly. A few volunteers gave her a halfhearted clap of welcome while Junior’s crowd booed and called for an encore. Junior smiled at her and shrugged, as if to say, ‘‘What can I do?’’
Then, unbelievably, he started playing again, a mid-tempo version of U2’s All I want is you, and the crowd sang it back at him in adoration.
Merryn stood on the stage as uncomfortable as a three-handed handshake, ignored while a cowboy stole the show. Though not ignored by everyone, she noted. The Jackal was laughing at her now and for a horrible, soul-crushing moment she thought she was going to cry.
It was then she felt the first sting. Looking down at the back of her hand she saw a drop of bright blue. She looked up. Was the Regent’s roof leaking? If it was, it was going to take more than a book sale to pay for it. But then another sting and another blue drop and then more drops and soon they were swirling across the back of her hand, forming leaves and vines and thorns and spreading to her arm.
From the back of her hand a thin luminous blue line snaked out over the heads of the crowd, over tables lined with books, out towards the Jackal, the line disappearing into his outstretched palm. His face was lit by a jagged phosphorescent tattoo and when he smiled at her his face split into a wide Joker grin. He pointed to her then himself and back again. ‘‘We’re connected now, you and I,’’ he was saying.
‘‘. . .and all I want is you,’’ Junior and the crowd sang to each other. Merryn knew what she wanted and it wasn’t Junior. Or being the Jackal’s umbilical buddy.
She lifted her violin and started to play — not Chopin or Bach or nice book-buying music — she played The Spice Girls and she played fast and impossibly loud.
Don’t tell me what you want, what you really, really want . . .
It clashed with Junior’s ballad and he faltered, finally a dent to his cowboy swagger. The crowd swivelled, mouths open.
Junior turned up his small amp and switched to Highway to Hell.
The crowd looked back to Merryn as she switched to Staying Alive.
He played Livin’ on a Prayer
She played Another One Bites the Dust.
The Jackal was dancing in circles, his arms in the air. He was just a silly boy who liked to play pranks on people, Merryn thought. Breaking beads, gaslighting old people — it was a petty use of such power. The radiant ink embraced her in agreement.
As she played, the line of blue thickened and was joined by other lines, other colours. Red. Yellow. Green. They came in waves, stinging her skin and enveloping her body.
The Jackal stopped dancing, now fighting hard to stem the flow. But still it came.
And now Junior changed tack. Forget duelling, he tried a duet. He smiled at her engagingly as he harmonised, but that horse had bolted, partner. She flicked a finger in his direction and a jet of red ink fired out, blasting his amp before springing back into her hand. Like a ballistic boomerang, she laughed delightedly, as Junior rushed to figure out what had happened to his equipment.
‘‘. . .Another one bites the dust.’’
The Jackal pushed his sleeves up and held out his clenched fists as though he could pull the power back if only he was strong enough. The ink had disappeared from his face, leaving him oddly pale and exposed, and Merryn could see it draining down past his elbows, down his forearms, wrists, hands, fingers, the tips and . . . gone.
She was burning up, her eyes like glowing coals. Junior was vanquished and the audience hadn’t even noticed. They were only interested in her.
And as the Jackal came for Merryn, the ink turned to barbed wire on her skin and they faced him together.
- Lara M. Hewn is a Dunedin freelance writer. Invisible Ink is included in Beyond the City Limits, an anthology featuring short stories with a Dunedin setting.