Curtain Call


rating: +31+x

1: Be Cautious, Be Bold

It isn't so much waking up as it is becoming suddenly aware. The first things I notice are the throbbing pain in my head, the dryness of my mouth, and the empty ache in my stomach. The second things I notice are my naked body, my restraints, the concrete floor, and the single bright light above me. Even as my eyes adjust, I can tell the walls are going to remain elusive as long as the light stays this oppressive. I am on a wooden chair, and there is an impressive amount of rope tied around me. Around my chest, my upper arms, my forearms, my wrists, my neck, my thighs, my calves, my ankles. Am I really so dangerous? For the briefest moment, I feel a twinge of pride.

The first step is how to cut the ropes. My eyes dart around what few surroundings I have that are visible. Is that a metal table at the edge of the beam from the lightbulb? I imagine such a table is likely to have a good assortment of sharp objects. Less appealing options include a loose rock or two on the floor, but I am too tied to lean to reach them.

The extent of my stay is uncertain. I do not know motives, but you generally don't set someone up like this if you expect to ax them off immediately. I at least have a couple days. Would it be best to wait, see if they had any exploitable patterns, or should I jump to action? Survival instincts scream immediacy. I can hardly argue.

I shift my weight to throw the chair to one side or the other, but it doesn't budge. I try to get a view of the chair legs, but I can barely move my head. It's no use. I try again, and feel a distinct resistance. The chair was bolted to the floor. Of course.

Are the knots on the ropes reachable? I twist, pull, and grope, but where I can see them, they are nowhere near the reach of my fingers. I have no venue of escape. Not visible, not touchable. Not physical. It would take an incredible strength to break through the fibers of the silk rope, a strength that I do not have. They had done their homework, which made me even less certain of why they had chosen silk rope. There are materials that are sturdier, and even easier to obtain. Are they mocking me? It is possible. Once upon a time, I might have been able to pull hard enough at these to break them outright.

I am not the man I was forty years ago.

There is nothing to do. There is nowhere to run. I am at the center of a room; my captor could already be watching me from the shadows. In that case, my composure was everything. If they cannot break me, they have no leverage. I feel my face, contorted with worry. Natural for my position. I could erase the expression, but that would look fake. Instead, I will myself to slowly dissipate the tension stored in my arms, legs, chest, and head. Like I have fully considered the situation, and discovered I had nothing to be worried about. I once had friends in high places after all. Who was to say that all my connections had thinned? They cannot know the full extent of it. That is knowledge only I have.

They want something from me. I can deny them that. They can not kill me if they do not get what they want, and the longer they don't kill me, the more information I can gather, the higher my chance of escaping. It is math. I can manipulate the numbers in my favor. Now, I wait.

It turns out I do not have to wait long.

I did not hear them approach, but a hand forces my mouth open and a gag comes over my head. In goes the gag, pulling uncomfortably against the corners of my mouth, which is then tied on the back of my head. To my detriment, the sudden force makes me startle. That does not help the image I am trying to paint. "Curses," I would have muttered to myself if I could. Instead, I have to think it.

The captor slinks into view. She is shadowed strangely by the single, intense light above, but some things are unable to be obscured. First among them is that she is wearing a coarse red suit. The texture reminds me of sandpaper. Its purpose eludes me, but it gives her a turtleneck and extends as a single unit all the way down to her ankles. Her shoes are forest green and pointed. A belt of the same color rides high on her waist, and when she brings her hands out from behind her back, I see she has gloves in the same shade.

She looks ridiculous.

Like a Christmas elf.

That, in and of itself, is another form of mockery. This time, there is no possibility one way or the other. The captor, without doing anything but showing herself, is saying, "you think I look silly now, but you will come to fear me, and how pathetic you will seem then".

It is a game. I have to be impenetrable. Such a display will not register to me. Already, I have forgotten the gesture, and she looks like anyone would. The only inherently frightening thing about her is that I am constricted and she is not. To be fair, though, such a situation is petrifying.

"So," she addresses me. "Boss says he's gotta get all cut up, first thing."

Pretending I'm not here. The tactic is employed without grace; seeing through it so easily gives me the smallest bit of confidence. If she is to dehumanize me, she would have to do better than that. I've had lovers that referred to me in much the same way.

"How we gonna start?"

Now she is going to go through all the methods. Prime me. First she will make me question, "will she do all those things?", and then she'll begin to do them. Not all today. She'll save the worst ones for last. The purpose of scaring me with all these methods won't be just to terrorize me. It will be so that then she can offer to cut it short, kill me nice and quick, if I give her what she wants right now. She won't expect a yes.

There is the possibility, however slight, that she's done her research, and knows that I can deduce this. She may throw me a curveball. Stab me before asking me anything. Somewhere non-vital. Just an awful, gut tearing pain.

"He's hard to kill, we can go a bit harder than we might otherwise. What're we thinking? Wrists, calves? Somewhere real visible."

There is a lot of "we" in there. Mannerism? Psychosis? Or perhaps she is not alone.

"Oh, what about kneecaps? I've always wanted to do kneecaps."

I should have seen that one coming, but my expression is unchanged.

"No, not the kneecaps. It'll happen, but if we do it now, he might recover."

I startled again. Another voice, behind me. Directly behind me. She wasn't alone.

"Blast," she said, but her expression was unreadable due to the pitch black shadows that slid straight down her face. "Fun for another day."

Recover? For what? Actually, what doesn't matter. There is a deadline. Perhaps quite literally. That bore down on my delaying tactics. No. Mind games. They want me to be rushed, think I have no time, so I might slip, make mistakes. They almost had me. But I'm cleverer than that. Everything they say here, it is for me. It is an act. They will only feed me information they think they can manipulate me with. Otherwise, they would have talked before. Efficiency. The other option is that they are inept, and I find that highly unlikely.

"How about his stomach?" The girl says.

"Are we talking literally or more like the belly area?" The other voice asks.

"I honestly don't know anatomy well enough to tell you. Let's say belly area."

"Intestines, then."

"Yeah, about where they'd be, if he wasn't such a freak."

Banter, banter. They want me to hear this. It doesn't mean anything yet.

"Next question," said the girl. "Slow and surgical, or fast and nasty."

"I'll leave that up to you."

Even without seeing the majority of her face, I make out a smile oozing onto her cheeks. I'm taking that to mean she's rearing to go fast and nasty. "Do your worst," I try to mouth around the gag. If I actually make noise to speak, I'll only sound miserable. Worsen my image. It's all posturing right now. Keep it together. Well, your mind. You won't have much choice about the rest of it.

I was right. There is a metal table just outside the range of the light. That means knives, scalpels, and tools. Drills, nail guns, saws. Hooks. Damage doers.

I underestimated them. It looks like they really were going to go ahead before even talking to me. Something within me admires their gusto. I hear the fondling of tools, and then she returns from the darkness. Carrying…

An ax.

That wasn't an instrument of torture. Too lethal, too large. A bluff? It was likely that —

Doubts are eradicated as the blade embeds itself into my gut. The scream does not come at first; it is stopped by an increasingly tense throat. When it does worm its way out, it is terrible, and not in the loud, visceral fashion. It is almost a whisper, raspy, practically nonexistent. I am reminded why I don't talk much anymore — I've lost much of the necessary parts to do so. I don't even have enough slack on the ropes to lurch forward in pain. All I am left with was the ax's deep impression in my abdomen, pushing its way inbetween the old and dry grooves of my intestines.

Oh well. I wasn't using those much anyways.

Such levity isn't working. I try to pry my eyes open, focus on something else. I am finally able to when the ax is wretched back, hooking on the underside of my skin on its way out of me. My vision swirls. I can feel an itch where my brain wishes sweat would work its way onto me, but my body doesn't work like that anymore. It is doubly infuriating because I have no means by which to scratch myself. Still, focusing on that is better than the second mouth on my stomach.

In my daze, I see that the girl has taken her gloves off for the job. Her left hand, there is a ring on the ring finger. Very ornate — a green gem. Jade, likely. The golden band was twisted and scaled. A serpent, styled like an ouroboros. Not cheap.

A keepsake to cut off of her when I escape and reverse this position.

"In all fairness," a new tenor voice joins, originating from somewhere in front of me but beyond the light, "I think that's a bit more than 'cut up'. Don't you think we should start with something lighter?"

That would be "good cop". You can't fool me. I've been bad cop.

If only I didn't have this gag, I could toy with them. Poke holes in their whole operation. It has been a long time, but I must still have some of that juice. The power with which to weave speeches on a dime. Their reactions would guide my path, allow me to exploit their weaknesses, ask leading questions, degrade them. I have done it before, so long ago. There must be some of that juice left; somewhere inside me, there must be an untapped reservoir.

That would be what the gag is for, then. To disarm me. I cannot escape the bonds, and they knew the next most likely venue is through syntax. They researched me. They made this trap, for me. Her ring might even be planned, something I can't obtain. The carrot at the end of the stick. I will not fall for it. She doesn't have a ring. Her outfit is normal, and I have seen no such ring.

"Then we'll cut him up," comes the voice from behind me. Then I hear footsteps on the concrete, stepping towards the table to my right. More fondling of tools.

Not more ax, not more ax.

Worst is gone.

I can weather anything.

I'm strong, fuckers.

I'm stronger than you think I am.

Out of the darkness by the table come two more figures. Men, wearing the same outfit as the girl. Elves. I'm going to call them the elves.

The elves are brandishing knives.

"Where should we start?" The tenor questions.

"Doesn't matter," directs the leader. "Anywhere and everywhere."

"You really mean it?" The girl is excitable.

"One caveat."

"I thought you were going to say that."

"He has to be recognizable. Only a couple gouges on the face."

She looks defeated. "Fine. Spoilsport."

She sets the ax down, and moseys towards me. The others follow suit.

When they are done, I doubt that even my face retains shape.

2: A Sucker Born Every Minute

I do not need to sleep, so I do not rest.

I do not need to eat, so they do not feed me.

I do not need to drink, but they gave me water once.

The tenor brought me a glass, but he was with the carver. I was not fooled by his act, but I saw no reason to not drink the water, at first. It spilled out of the holes in my intestines, and the carver laughed. Mockery. It was another form of mockery.

The tenor apologized, but his wince was a poor cover of a smile. They left, and I was still thirsty.

I am still thirsty.

I've named them. The girl is the carver. She takes the most delight in my pain, and she does the most damage to me. She is quick to volunteer for any act. Bloodthirsty. Ironic, considering I do not bleed.

The tenor is named as such. He plays at vulnerability. A tease. If I were ungagged, he would be the one I could break fastest. If it is not an act, then he is here by the will of the others, and the others are sharing a joke at his expense. I am embarrassed that I did not try when the gag came off for the water — I was too thirsty, the water too tantalizing, to think of anything else. I am just as thirsty now, but there is thirst, hunger, and pain. I cannot feel all of them in equal measure, so they constantly battle for my attention.

Lastly, there is the leader, "boss", the deeper voiced male. He is the levelheaded one. He reigns the carver in, he stares at me, he studies me. From the others, I have only gotten the most minimal of recognition. With the leader, however, we have made eye contact. Several times.

I hope he can read me. I hope he knows the horror that awaits him. The slow tearing of flesh he will endure when I escape and keep him in my basement, alive but hopeless, meaningless, a toy for my enjoyment, years and years of swift mercy denied. I want to see the fear in his eyes when he finally realizes I will not kill him. That as long as I live, so shall he. I will show him to guests, rearrange his limbs, an attraction to bewilder and bewitch with. The leader will know a worse fate than I do. That, I have promised him. I've said it all with just my stare.

There are cycles. They leave me for hours, days, I do not know how long, leaving me to stew, to rot. I do not heal, and so the pains do not leave me. This, then, is the psychological torment. They want me to know that they will come back, but I do not know when, and it is almost better to be torn, beaten, spit upon, than to be left alone, only thinking, only fading. The word "boredom" makes it sound so trivial. It is despairing. It would be unbearable, if only I were not forced to bear it. Sometimes, during the longer stretches, my higher cognition disappears. I cannot hold a single train of thought, I dream without sleep.

When the elves return, I gain a focus, a point from which to think again. When they are gone, a time limit is set, a time limit before I am once again mad. I had to stop myself from howling, once. That would have alerted them. That they had won.

That would have ended me.

But I do not waver. I give them the smallest reactions possible, only making noise when I am physically unable to stop it. I startle less, now. I glare more. I did not scream as they removed my ears, carved a section out of my scalp. I thought I was immune, then, but I was proven wrong when they sawed off my arm. In pieces, no less. They did not start at the shoulder, but instead sawed at my wrist, then at my elbow, and then at my shoulder. The tenor found this overly cruel, but the leader assured him that they were merely seeing how each one looked.

The carver had no such questions. Every once in a while, she would bring up the kneecaps again.

"There are yet worse things to come," she is really saying. "Give in now."

They still have yet to ask me questions, but I have seen through their facade. They are placing all the power on me. In one of the stretches where I am simply left alone, they are waiting for me to break, to screech, to say, "I'll tell you anything, I'll give you anything you want, just come back, come back in the room, come back and kill me!"

Or, as best an approximation of that as I can make through the gag.

But I will not.

They will come to learn that I will not.

They appear again, just now. By a small mercy, they did not leave me long enough to crumble again. I have been lucid since last they slashed at me. The elves come from a door I can only hear behind me, and they filter in from the sides of my vision. Sometimes, the carver surprises me by being silent, as only she can. This is not one of those times.

They come, and tenor brings with him two heavy-looking trash bags that resound with a splat as they hit the ground. Something wet. And something smelling of blood.

The carver wheels the metal table closer and I see all sorts of tools that have yet to be used on me. Things I might have expected, and things I definitely hadn't. The drills, the pliers — these are normal. However, more worrying were the implements I saw no use for. Paintbrushes, several empty jars, an ice cream scoop — I would think for my eyes, but the leader had been very stern about not touching those, perhaps to exacerbate the effects of the days where everything becomes a blur under the bright, harsh light.

"I'll take the legs," says the tenor, unusually participatory.

"I'll take the arm and head, you take the chest and belly." The leader says to the carver. "Then we'll empty him together."

That turn of phrase worries me.

"Do you really think anyone will buy it?" asks the carver.

"If they don't, I don't think they'll bring it up," replies the leader.

"We don't want it to look like an act," the tenor says.

"Won't this make it look more like an act?" The carver seems annoyed.

"Boss says," the tenor says.

"Boss says," mutters the carver, defeated. "I was never an artist."

"Funny," the leader smirks, picking up a jar off the table, "I think you'd make a great sculptor."

The tenor picks up a paintbrush and a jar while the carver laughs. "I wouldn't make anything worth looking at."

"It'd be 'modern art'," says the tenor.

The carver continues to laugh, and the leader lets out a small puff of air in amusement. He opens one of the trash bags, and both of his hands enter one with the jar. After some shuffling, he stands back up, and the jar is full of viscera.

He makes his way back to the table, grabs a paintbrush, and then kneels by my one remaining arm. He dips the brush into the jar of innards, and then reaches towards me. The dialogue of the elves continues, but once the brush enters one of my thousands of shallow cuts, I find myself unable to focus on anything else.

It is a pain unlike any I have ever experienced. Not in scale, but in texture, in feeling. Each hair of the brush is an individual point from which it itches at the most sensitive of gouges in my skin, layering loose tissues and blood into my pores. In the same way one can not help but convulse when tickled, I can not help but writhe as I try to move my body as far away from the brush as possible. But there is no escape.

My eyes are wide, a noise squeals out from under my gag, all conscious thought gives way to a cascade of base impulses. The only voice that is truly mine is small, and it says stop, stop, stop, please, stop.

Their voices blend together once a second brush enters my leg and the third brush enters my chest. In a fit of instinct, I try to pull myself away from the brushes, in three directions at once — back, up, and to my left. But I am too tied. Too restrained. I do nothing but jolt and groan. The worst of it comes when they paint the stump where my arm used to be, and the holes where my ears once were.

How long this lasts I can not say. But by the end of it I have come no closer to inuring myself against the onslaught.

Once they finish, they step back, and I begin to regain control of myself. The blood they have layered into my wounds is cold and stings, but I can bear it. It is not worse than the constant aches and throbs that I have experienced since they first laid into me. Did they know the painting would be the worst torture yet? Or was it a pleasant surprise?

It does not matter. They had seen me at my lowest. I tried to read their expressions. Is there pleasure? Is there anticipation?

Both of these reside in the carver's stance, but that is not unusual.

Once again I can hear their voices clearly. The leader is talking.

"… pull everything out, from the gouge in his belly. You," he points at the tenor, "will be searching for the correct replacements from the bags."

"What about you?" asks the tenor.

"Me? I'm going to go talk to boss. Said she wanted to see me."

The leader isn't "boss"?

"Alright."

Leader is already walking out of the room when he raises his voice: "Make sure she behaves!"

"I will!" replies the tenor.

"I won't!" shouts the carver.

The tenor elbows her in the chest, and she sticks her tongue out. Both giggle. The tenor says: "Don't do more damage than you need to."

"I won't, I was just teasing," she said, picking up the ice cream scoop.

This, then, is when they will "empty" me. I can guess at the meaning. I do not like what was to come.

The tenor carefully loosens the restraints on my legs, bidding the carver to hold them so I can not take advantage of the situation, and forces my legs open before restricting me again. He is impressive with rope, I can afford him only that much respect.

The carver then gets on two knees in front of me, and leans in. It was a suggestive position, to say the least. In some twisted measure of good manners, my crotch was one of very few untouched body parts.

The carver reaches a hand into the wound in my belly, and pulls out my entrails.

Pure agony rips through my nerves, and for the first time since I have been imprisoned, the merciful shroud of unconsciousness comes over me.

3: Comfort is the Enemy of Progress

I am caught in the slime of being half awake. My vision swims, I hear noises that aren't there, my eyelids are heavy but I am not falling asleep. When I am first able to put together a thought, it is that my breath is wet. Wet? Normal. That was what breath felt like, when you weren't a corpse like me. Half a decade ago, this is what it felt like to breathe. Moisture.

In quick flashes, I remember. I remember the stupidest things.

The memories cycle. Having sex. Tasting food. Peeing. Sneezing. Shitting. Spitting. Salivating. Farting. Licking. Sweating. Getting acne, popping a zit, having the pus trail down my cheek.

Bleeding.

I miss it all, all the trappings of being human, of being wet, of having a body. A real body. Not this one. Not this fake. I want it all back. I want to be able to embarrass myself on such a base level — just to have the possibility, the opportunity, to do it all again.

I remember more specific activities. Getting on stage, addressing a captivated crowd, putting on a show. My empire. My legacy. Gone, taken away from me.

I am not afraid to die.

I have never been afraid to die.

What worries me is that I will be meaningless.

That the spectacles made no impression, that all of my work, my dedication, had gone to waste. That I will be forgotten to time, my name naught but a footnote in the midst of some other story. I will not have my odyssey. I will not have my story. I will be erased from history.

I'd lost everything in an instant, and I'd had forty years to regain my stature.

Forty years which I wasted away. In hiding. Planning, but never putting forth. Waiting for my time, for an opportunity, but none came. All my friends, gone. My own son, turned against me. I had no one. And let's be honest with ourselves, the age of the one-man show is behind us.

Another feeling. I feel full. I can only barely move my head, but when I try to look down, the corner of my eye catches something. The gash on my belly is now spilling blood and guts. They had not just emptied me, they had filled me back up. With organs. Real organs. From the time that I was a real man, and had a real chance.

There are not many graces of having a fake body. There are fewer still of having a waxen one. But this is one of them. Another one of those wet activities I can never do again.

Cry.

They have won. They have seen me at my lowest. I have given in to pain, and now, they have dehumanized me. I am an object once more. Bent to their wants. I doubt if I have any willpower left. There is no such thing as escape anymore. There is no hope. This is where I die. This is my final resting place. In a concrete room, forgotten. The emperor is killed without his robes and crown.

My face contorts in ways I wish it wouldn't. My eyes squeeze shut, and my mouth pulls back. I begin to shake, and twist, and my breath begins to shudder. I cry out, I don't care if they hear me anymore. I yell, and scream, as loud as I can without a proper throat. They will hear me. They will hear me, they will come to ask if I have had enough, I'll say yes, I'll tell them what they want, whatever it is that they want to hear, and they'll kill me. If I am lucky, if I am a lucky man, they will kill me here and now.

I lost.

That is all I can think, as my eyes try and fail to bring tears up from wells long dry.

I have lost.

My agony is interrupted when I hear the door behind me open. But it is not just the door I hear. There is joy. There is laughter. From the three voices I have come to despise.

More lights come on, and I can finally see the full extent of the room. It is an unremarkable room, a slab of concrete and nothing else, but I can finally see the edges, the walls, only several feet outside of the beam of light. Its dimensions are no longer mysterious.

The elves come into view, but they are not in costume. The tenor wears a blue polo and a black pair of dress pants, with black socks and shoes. The leader wears a tee with a dragon design on it, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. With his gloves finally off, I see that he wears a ring that matches the carver's ring, on his left hand.

The carver, now, wears a crop top, a short skirt, and sandals. Is it really so warm in this room? The cold guts on and within me must be coloring my perceptions of the temperature.

Each of them was carrying a bottle. Beer. They were drinking, and cavorting, and celebrating. Once they come into view, I get properly looked at. Not all my wounds, not where they wish to do more damage, but directly into my eyes, by each of them. I see it all too clearly, now. They are ecstatic, because they have won. They are going to play with me, let me know that they know, that they don't need to keep up the act anymore, they are that confident in their victory. And they will be right. The worst part is, they will be right.

My dry crying had paused in confusion, but once their eyes are upon me, it starts again. Agony, they are delighting in my agony.

"What's wrong, buddy?" The leader is blushing and buzzed. "It's time to celebrate!"

"I even brought you a, uh, a beer, so you can join in." The tenor shows me he is not lying. "Of course, we can't really undo the ropes, but, I can help you drink it."

The carver tosses him a bottle opener, and then sits against the wall and takes a large sip from her bottle. My cries only increase with intensity. I try to find rage, turn my weakness into at least a threatening fervor, but I can not work up the emotion. All I want is to die.

"Heyy, lighten up, man!" The carver says. "We ain't here to deal any damage."

"She's being serious. We're not," the tenor says.

But I do not stop, wail. I wish they would take the gag off me, cut the act, let me ask, just let me ask what they want so I can give it to them.

"Well, looks like we'll need to give him time to calm down." The leader sits against the wall, next to the carver, and holds her hand. "Come on, Aggy, sit with us."

The tenor looks worried, but joins them against the wall.

"Cheers," says the leader. They all clink their drinks together, and then swig. The tenor — Aggy — makes eye contact, and then pushes the beer in my direction. Not that I can pick it up, but as an open invitation.

The act has been dropped, why is he still playing with me? Why must he feign sympathy?

"To a job well done, and to more jobs in the future," says the carver.

"Well, hopefully not," says Aggy.

"Oh?"

"Yeah. Me an' Chris talked about it, I just don't think I'm cut out for this. I-I'm dedicated, I wanna help, and I get it, this is the best way to do it, but I —"

"Don't," the carver pauses, "don't even start, I get you, I get you, man. Heavy stuff."

Aggy and Chris nod. "Heavy stuff indeed. So, we're supposed to get a whole bunch of new people soon, maybe I can take some other job. Besides, I take jobs like this and end up with people like you."

"Oh piss off, you," the carver laughs.

Aggy giggles. "Always a charmer, Gina."

Chris takes a quick breath in and out.

"What is it, honey?"

"Tomorrow."

"Getting cold feet?" Aggy asks.

"Not at all. Too excited. Can't wait."

Gina mimics shock. "Chris? Being anything but a wall? Someone pinch me, I must be dreaming."

Chris laughs. "Damnable booze!"

The trio begins to rock with laughter. It wasn't even funny. Is this genuine? What's going on?

Aggy makes eye contact again, and then refers to me.

"Ready to have a drink with us?"

My brow is furrowed with bewilderment. What purpose does this serve? When will they start pillaging for answers? I look at Gina and Chris sharing a kiss, and then back at Aggy, who holds the beer out to me. Then, slowly, I nod.

He gets up, takes a second to balance himself, and then walks over to me. He leans on my chair, and then contemplates for a second. "Chris," he asks, interrupting their romance, "I can take off the gag, right?"

"Yeah, yeah sure."

He carefully removes the gag, and waits for a second. I stop looking at him, and play with my jaw, moving it up and down, back and forth. The cuts on my face scream in pain, but I ignore them. It feels good to have mobility, but I don't know what to do with it yet. Breathing without the gag feels better. It is small, in comparison to the scarred battlefield that was my body, but it is better, and nothing has felt better in days, weeks… it might have been a month.

I look to Aggy, and then to the beer, and back to Aggy. It was the best communication I could manage without speaking, and my first words are important. I need to be commanding, intimidating. I will wait for them to come to me.

Aggy responds by loosening the rope and gently tilting my head back. I open my mouth, and he begins to pour beer in. He gives me a gulp, but not the whole bottle, and then sits next to the chair.

I cannot think of anything to inspire fear. To go down with a fight. But a part of me, some part of me just wants to talk. I have to think, to search, for my usual role in conversation. It has been so long since I've partaken in one, all natural forms of speech feel wrong and unusual. Humor.

That's right, I had always had a penchant for humor.

So I start with something both humorous, and something I genuinely desire an answer for. I clear my throat, which makes Chris and Gina turn to me.

"Do I know you?"

There is a pause.

Then, uproarious laughter. First from Chris and Gina, then an increasing number of giggles from Aggy. I can’t parse it. Is it that I don’t recognize them? Do they think they are so important as to have this question be ludicrous?

“No, we’ve never talked,” Gina gets out. “Not once in our lives. Do we really look that old to you?”

“Man, I’m twenty-three,” Aggy adds.

“There are many ways to counteract age,” I say, perhaps a tad defensively. I choose to erase that tone from my speech. “Why, look at me, I’m not a day over thirty!”

This illicits more laughs from the elves, and this time I join in. It is forced, at first, so I motion for Aggy to give me another swig.

Before I’ve swallowed it all, Gina points and laughs.

“Have I sprung a leak?”

She can’t stop laughing long enough to respond, and so she nods.

I shake my head. “Embarrassing. How’d that hole get there? I’m really quite sorry. You see, I didn’t have much time to prepare for this meeting.”

I chuckle at my own joke, and I’m joined by Aggy and Chris.

Something about the talking and the alcohol has saved me. I am no longer pathetic. I feel freer than I have in years.

“So,” Chris says, “buddy.”

“Hmm?”

“What do you think?”

“Think of what?”

Chris rolls his eyes. “The whole thing. The maiming, the sawing, yaddah yaddah, must I go on?”

“Oh that! Sorry, I’d almost entirely forgotten.” I manage to look contemplative for a moment. “Child’s play. Really rather amateur. I didn’t even break. I’d say that’s a failure. Now, if only you could remove these ropes, maybe I could seat you in the chair and show you the full extents of the human body. Ever wondered how far a tongue can be pulled out of the mouth before it begins to tear? How about how many nails can be shot through your arm before there isn’t room for more? I could show you. The answers are fascinating.”

Chris snickers. “I’ll pass. And are you sure?”

“Sure of what?”

Chris takes long drink of his beer. “You broke.”

“That’s — tell me honestly that a lesser man could last as long,” I say too quickly.

“He’s got a point,” Gina says. “Bitch took forever.”

“Strong soul,” adds Aggy.

“You break precisely when I need you to,” says Chris. “Look at the time. It’s the day before.”

“I was getting nervous,” admits Aggy.

“Baby’s got a schedule,” Gina retorts. “No need to get nervous.”

“Precisely,” Chris returns. “Sorry. I shouldn’t be spilling so much. I must be drunk.”

“Cheers to that,” Gina says and tries to take a sip, but nothing comes out. “Fuck. I’m empty. Who wants another?”

Chris shakes his head and holds up his hand, but Aggy nods, and tilts my head back to dump in the rest of my bottle.

“One for me, one for Ags, you got it. I’ll be right back.”

She leaves, and I am left with the two men. We are at once silent.

“So,” I start. “What’s so big about tomorrow?”

Chris smirks, and takes a sip. That is all that is said on the subject.

“Who… who wants me here? Who did I wrong? Forgive me for wondering, there have been so many across the years.”

“No one,” replies Aggy, right by where my ear used to be. “It’s nothing personal, honest.”

“Honest?” I laugh. “I don’t believe a word that comes out of your mouth.”

“Unfortunate,” says Chris. “Friendship is built on trust you know.”

“I trust you well enough. I trust that you have your reasons. I trust that someone along the way got mad enough, vengeful enough, to hunt me down. You’re young. It doesn’t have to be one of you. Who’s your boss, hmm? Tell me, is she my age? My type? An ex lover? Or did I hurt someone so near, so dear to her? A mother? A father? Brother, sister, loved one? Or don’t tell me. There have been so few families I’ve eradicated incompletely. All of the above? The last remaining member of a broken household? It must be something vile, something wretched that happened to her. Something she’s been stewing on, sitting on, thinking on for forty-some-odd years, waiting to take her revenge.”

Chris had begun to laugh by the end of my speech. I glare until he is finished.

“You?” Chris laughs again. “Boss didn’t even know you existed until four months ago. You have delusions, buddy. You think you’re big stuff, you think you’re hot, but no one remembers you. You’re a name that crops up sometimes, because your associates went places and you didn’t. You, my good sir, lost the moment you set foot on the scene. You’re a pebble dropped into the ocean. Your ripples are small, and disappear in seconds. No waves stop to consider you. Perhaps a fish has to swim around you, but then you settle at the bottom, in the sand, and become worn down by the ages, until you are nothing more than a grain, and you mean nothing to anyone. That’s where you are right now, friend. You’re at the bottom of the ocean, and you haven’t the arms to swim back up. We’re the water that wears you down.”

I feel my composure dwindle, and I fight briefly to regain my balance. It takes some seconds, but the smile returns to my face.

“Chris, you have me wrong. Don’t think I haven’t checked. My name is still on billboards, my empire lives, it is attributed to me.”

“It lives on despite you. No one remembers you exist. Your name is that of a mascot, a face some might put on lunchboxes. You have no more legacy than Barney, or whoever the original McDonald was. Do you remember his name? What he did? Who he was?”

It is a constant battle to keep my cheeks from falling.

Chris continues. “You’re a brand. But soon, you’ll be our product. And that’s when your whole act will end. That’s when you’ll be lost in the deepest trench in the sea.”

He takes a sip of beer. When I look to Aggy, he averts his eyes. I look back to Chris.

Gina returns, and I do not miss that she has been gone longer than I would expect.

She notices the silent air of the room. “Am I interrupting something.”

“No, no, your presence is very welcome.”

She passes by Aggy to hand him another beer, and then stands in front of me, and holds eye contact.

“Any last requests?”

I glare at her for a full fifteen seconds. She does not flinch, and no one else speaks. So I slip on my brightest grin, and hold my head high.

“A cigarette. I’ve been dying to have one.”

She picks a pack out of her pocket, and extends a hand to Aggy. He gives her a lighter, and then she leans over me, her hand on the top of the chair behind me. I feel her breath against my face as she lifts a cig to my mouth. I grab it with my lips and she lights it.

A puff calms my nerves, even as I know that my body likely doesn’t process the drug. Habit. It comforts.

“Done?” She asks, unmoved from her position.

“One last request.” She raises her eyebrows. “One last gaze at a beautiful woman.”

She looks thoroughly unimpressed, and then she takes a few steps back. “Aggy, avert your eyes. And freak, don’t expect any bells and whistles.”

With no grace or showmanship, she pulls her shirt and bra up, and pushes her skirt and underwear down.

It isn’t even arousing. It is nostalgic, more than anything. Of the days when this would be a normal sight, when I didn’t have to pay. When I was a king, it was "ask and ye shall receive".

“Not even a smile? Doesn’t feel good to do this for nothing.”

I take a deep breath. “I got something out of it. Thank you.”

She puts her clothes back on, and shrugs. “I’ll take your word for it. Now, Chris?”

“Now.”

She pulls a gun out of her back pocket, moves to my left, and presses it up against the side of my knee. Before I have time to even tense, the trigger has been pulled, and a bullet careens through my joints, taking bone and old decrepit tissue with it. The will to withhold screams is gone, and so I startle and shout.

In the corner of my blurry vision I see Gina’s smile return, and she begins to laugh as she makes her way out of the room.

“I’m so sorry,” Aggy says, and follows her, but I only barely hear it. For a second, for a brief period of time, I had regained myself. I could talk, jest, think. One bullet puts me back into the state of instinct and self destruction, erasing my wit and taking coherency with it.

Chris lags behind the other two, and holds his bottle of beer up to my face. He swishes it back and forth, and some spills out. The message is clear.

He didn't drain a drop.

He lets the beer fall into my gut, pushing against the organs overflowing from my midriff and then breaking on the floor. Its contents soon meet my feet, and freeze them. I am still whimpering, a cornered dog, purely animal. Then, the lights go out. All of them. The room is completely black for the first time since my arrival, one eternity ago.

"Sweet dreams, and see you tomorrow!" Gina coos, and then the door closes.

I do not spend the night contemplating, processing, connecting the dots. I spend it afraid, shivering, startled by noises that never happen. I am heavy. I am tired. I am lost, and I am alone. I am a coward. I am a mouse. I am a plaything. I am a chess piece. I am the shedded skin of a spirit that has left me. It has come through my stomach, up my esophagus, and exited my body through the throat, wails upon wails of essence that leaves my body.

I am dead, but I have not died yet.

4: I Don't Care What the Newspapers Say, as Long as They Spell My Name Right

The door opens behind me. I barely hear it. I recognize it, but it is far away. Then there are steps. I forget who I expect it to be. I give it no further thought. The light comes on, and I squint to avoid being blinded. There is speech, but I find no words. I do not listen. I feel a touch, and flinch. I await a pain that does not come. Instead, my restraints loosen. Waxy flesh that was once taut becomes mobile. I can not enjoy the sensation. Someone grabs me from my armpits and lifts me to my feet.

I groan and wince as every pain, from scratch to gash, becomes fresh, becomes new with movement. I am unable to walk. I am too weak, my knees are too gone. So instead, I am carried. Like a corpse.

I am only technically aware as a black bag comes over my head, and I am brought outside the doorway of my cell. The air changes. It becomes warmer, moister, fresher. My one remaining arm hits on something wooden as it dangles at my side. Then, we are outside. I can tell because of the acoustics — they are suddenly more open, less reverberating. I vaguely recall having to get used to the differences between setting up sound systems outdoors versus indoors, once such things were invented. It was most often outdoors, though. Venues were expensive. It was better to make my own.

I am thrown into the back of what I believe to be a van, and I lie limp. There is no reason to move. I do not eat, I do not drink. I need nothing, and my fate is not my own. Moving is wasted effort. So I lie. Someone climbs into the back of the van with me, and then the doors shut, and we are in motion.

"Hey."

It is the man.

"Hey, you. You can take the bag off, if you want. No windows, nothing to see back here."

The elf. The tenor. Aggy.

"Suit yourself."

Time has lost meaning. Seconds, minutes, and hours feel the same. But in each of them, I feel the bumps of the road. The starts and stops at lights and signs. I remember, again, the travelling. I remember packing my act into the back of my first wagon, leaving my family. I started as a street magician, but I have since forgotten my tricks. I did not need to use them, once I obtained a troupe and a managerial position. All my underlings, minions, lovers. Friends, sometimes.

Son. Once.

I remember. I remember when we were so small, and we had our own caravan. Could hardly fill an hour with our acts combined. I sat in the front, and they all sat in the back, and sang. I do not remember the song. But I remember the camaraderie. I remember the willpower, the motivation. The open road, both literal and metaphorical. All of my life ahead, all of my doubts behind. Free to begin the real challenge. My empire. To become the king of my own empire.

I succeeded, for a time.

It was brief, it was glorious. Is not it said that a candle that shines twice as bright dies twice as quick? A flawless operation. If only I had kept those under me in check, it might have lived forever.

"I'm so sorry."

I don't know why Aggy apologizes, but I then realize I am shaking, convulsing. Crying tears of air and dust. I take a moment to calm myself. I must remember there is someone else in this room with me. I can not die crying. I am better than that. I am stronger than that.

"Why," I start, once I am finished, "do you lie to me?"

"I don't lie."

There is a pause of indeterminate length. My naked body is cold against the metal, my sores are whirlwinds of pain and discomfort that I have learned to ignore.

"Then why."

"Why what?"

"Why must you pity me."

Another pause before Aggy responds.

"It's polite," he says. "Everyone deserves respect."

I chuckle, but my grainy voice interprets it as a cough. "Bullshit. There are takers, and there are losers. I am a taker, Aggy. I don't need your pity."

The road's bumps and potholes jab the uneven floor into my ribs, but I no longer react. My body is not my own.

Aggy is a shrimp. He is small, he will not be remembered. He will fade and disappear. He is a pebble like me. He lacks the drive, the drive I see even in the leader and the carver. He is small, and he is unbearable.

But he might be the last person I ever talk to.

"Tell me, Aggy," I begin, my voice just above a whisper. "Tell me what you're doing here. You're a rat among beasts. Extra ink splat onto the side of a page."

There is no response.

"Twenty-six, eh?"

"Twenty-three."

"Young. Too young to be given a crowbar and told to pry a man open."

"On the contrary, I asked for one."

"You could not bring yourself to partake in the majority of the exercises. You are squeamish. It is not a job for you."

"It is a job that has to be done."

"But by you? You apologize for your actions, you offer me solace. You're a child in a scary situation. Tell me honestly it is all by your own consent."

"You're talking like I have options, and I-I don't have any. There is no reality in which I would have said 'no'. So it is not a choice. It is an inevitability. But it's an inevitability I am okay with."

"Cryptic."

"When combing hair, you can't start at the top, right? You won't get anywhere doing that. You start by getting the tangles out of the bottom, you know. You," he emphasizes, "you are at the bottom. And it's as much a choice to deal with you as it is to comb my hair. It's something I ought to do."

"But this?" I reach my only arm, my right arm, to take off the bag, and stare him in the eyes. His expression is calm, only slight concern. Weak. He is weaker than the other two. "The cutting, the prying, the, the…" I lose my train of thought. "Do you sleep at night, smile into your pillow and drift into the dreamworld? Or do you toss and turn, haunted by the man you have been picking apart in the basement. The blood on your hands, the bite of those you associate with. You're not a killer. You don't have the spirit within you. Tell me, truthfully, that there is no hesitation, no gnawing trepidation, whenever you pick up the blade. Whenever you walk into his room, and see that he hasn't moved an inch. He has been bleeding, bleeding sanity since you last saw him. What allows you to keep him there? What allows you to strike him?"

"You disgust me."

His tone is neutral. It is delivered in the same cadence that one might say "alright". The same register. Like an explanation rather than an insult. Like anyone could be pushed to the extremities of violence. They just have to hate someone enough.

I did not notice that we had stopped. The doors swing open, and Gina grabs me by the legs. I am pulled out, and she stands me up, though allows me to lean on her shoulder. With less roughhousing than I expected, she begins to lead me somewhere. She did not bother to put the bag back on my head, so I am able to see Aggy leave the van and head in a different direction. Now I see that he has a pistol, and I wonder if he has been trained to use it.

Apathy cuts my curiosity short, so I realize we are in a city but nothing else. My thoughts stray, and my perception alters my surroundings to only the barest details. A wall here, a step there, so that I do not trip or walk into something. My head hangs as if from a string. My neck can not carry the weight of my weariness.

We approach a door, and Gina starts to talk to someone. A guard.

"We're with Lady Red," she says.

"Proof?"

"Do you see the costume? You think I look like this any old day?"

An exchange happens that I do not see, and then the door opens. "God," Gina complains, "set up a password system or something, stupidest question I've ever been asked."

The door closes behind us, and it is now quite dark. Gina brings me to a bench that I feel rather than see in the darkness, and sits us both down. She pats her chest three times, and takes a deep breath.

"Alright creep. Big night. Don't fuck it up."

I choose not to respond. She sighs.

"So, this should be Chris's job. He's the people person. And I know that once upon a time, you were quite the talker yourself. So don't fucking judge me when I stumble over my words. But I have some talking points."

Only now do I realize that, somewhere nearby, there is the murmur of a crowd.

"See, I'm not the talker. I'm the researcher. I was the one who figured out where you were, pieces of your history we could poke you with. I found out what we should worry about. You know, power wise. Some people, they get fuckin' lucky. Me? I'm just your average Gina. But damn I'm smart."

The crowd quiets down, and I swear upon my mother's grave, I hear someone yell "guys, gals, and nonbinary pals!!"

"But Chris, he's the guy who's supposed to take all that knowledge, and condense it into a crafted package. Get under your skin. Make you do what he wants. And he, he, has a gift. What he has isn't something you learn. He's just real, real subtle about it. And Aggy, he's the artist. All about optics, that one. He knows what's gonna sell and what won't, and he's got some insane eye for aesthetics. But Aggy's doing all the backstage work right now, manning the lights and the sound and all that, and Chris is in the crowd doing weedwacking. Actually, that was something I wanted to ask you about."

I can hear a speech, but I can not hear its contents. Sometimes there are reactions from the crowd, sometimes there aren't. The speaker is enthusiastic. Commanding. Theatric. Even without words, I can hear it in their voice.

"See, is the Weedwacker an intimidating name? I figure you've probably got a good ear for this, likely the only thing left that you're good for. I keep telling him it's stupid, but he keeps insisting. Something about weeding people out. Makes sense, doesn't make it not stupid. So what do you think, huh? Would that inspire fear? Respect? Come on, look at me and give me a straight answer."

I try and make out the subject matter, but the walls here don't allow even a single interpretable syllable through. It must not help that my ears are cut off, but the magic that keeps me alive is the same that lets me see with glass eyes, and the loss of my ears is not as detrimental as one might think.

"Captivating, huh?"

I turn to Gina.

"What you're hearing right now, that's boss. Chris is great one-on-one, but boss, she knows how to command a crowd. She's Uncle Sam, so to speak. Recruiter. Strategist. Mastermind. It's kinda funny, me and Aggy and Chris were already a unit before she came along, but right as she stepped in the room, it was clear who was who. Boss was boss on day one. She was exactly what we were looking for. The glue to make the whole operation start moving, y'know? I bet you know. I bet you know 'cause once upon a time, you thought you were made of the same clay, didn't you?"

I say nothing.

"If you're smart, you'll have realized you're not. But if we're lucky, you're just as arrogant and full of yourself, deep down, as you had been when we got you."

The audience gave a loud "boo".

"Oh, that's my cue. Ah, fuck. Alright, listen here, hotshot. Do you wanna be that pebble that Chris says you are? Or do you wanna be a rock? 'Cause the thing is, you have one last chance."

My brow furrows, and the cuts in my head crease and slick with a hot stinging sensation.

"Don't have any illusions. You're gonna die. Not some day, far off in the future, but right now. You have a half hour at most. But you can make the most of each of those thirty minutes. Any moment now, Lady Red's gonna give me my cue, and I'm gonna push you onto the stage. She's gonna blab for a second about justice and all that, and you're gonna sit nice and quiet through the whole thing or she ends you early. But if you sit nice and peachy, she's gonna ask if you've got any last words. Following me so far?"

I nod my head at a snail's pace.

"This is your last chance to be a rock. Not a pebble, but a big, fat, heavy rock. You can make waves, here and now. And if I figured you out correctly, and I'm almost certain I did, then I'm gonna assume you don't care what type of waves those are. You just wanna make 'em. If you make tonight bombastic, dramatic, exciting, spectacular, then all those people, every single one of those almost a thousand people out there, they'll remember you. They'll remember you for the rest of fucking time. So, do you want to make waves?"

I only stare at her.

"I said, do you want to make waves?"

I stare again. It's hard to make her out in the almost blackness of what I have come to realize is the backstage, but there is an intensity to her eyes that pierces the darkness and goes straight through my soul.

I swallow.

I nod.

"Then you're gonna give the most important speech you've ever given, to the biggest crowd you've ever been in front of, and you're gonna play along. Capeesh?"

"Capeesh," I get out.

"Alright. By the way," she catches what little light there is on the blade of a knife, "last chance to be decent before going on stage. Not sure if you care whether or not the world sees your dick."

"No, no thank you."

"Alright, then try not to get embarrassed. Or aroused, if you're all exhibitionist or whatever. Not that I'm entirely sure your body supports popping a boner anyways."

My chest, hollowed and replaced by other, fleshier organs, still feels tight with the same slight anxiety I felt before going in front of a crowd. Funny that I should have ever felt that at all. Then, I hear it. The first words I can make out since the beginning of the show.

"May I present to you… the one… the only!"

Gina pulls me off of the bench and moves me to the source of the dim filtering light, which I soon discover is the wing of a stage. From it, I see the boss. I see Lady Red. She is nothing like I imagined her. Firstly, she is young. Quite young. If she weren't commanding an audience's attention with such grace, and gaining the obedience of three older than her, I'd place her as a teenager.

Her skin is an inbetween brown that could belong to any race across the globe, and her face is similarly placeless.

Her outfit is red, like the elves, but it is not rough. It is silky, it is smooth. It is the same crimson red that the elves wear, but in the form of a right-thigh-slit dress, underneath which she wears slightly darker red dress pants. Her shoes are also the same forest green that the elves wear, but they are polished shoes, fancy shoes. From the one place on her body that you can see her hip underneath the dress, one can make out that she also has a forest green belt. But there are more commanding features to her costume.

Originating from her left hip, there is a large spiraling green design that covers a third of her dress and appears to have a third dimension to it, riding slightly above the dress's silk. And when she turns to me, I notice the final, most worrying pieces.

First is the sword she carries in her left hand. It is long, and it is flat at the end, making a rectangle of a blade. At its end, there are three small triangles that, if viewed as points, form a larger triangle. A design from long ago. An executioner's blade. This is the weapon with which I will be slain.

The second is that her left shoulder is exposed, and on it is tattooed a tree design, in which the branches form the shape of a hand and the trunk extends into a snake. Of all my enemies, these were the ones I least expected to take such care to see my destruction.

"I present to you…"

Lady Red extends an arm in my direction, and smiles with a vigor and stardom that I have rarely, if ever, seen so clearly in the face of another. As I am pushed onto the stage by Gina, I fall without the help of leaning on her, my broken knees collapsing under me and causing me to stumble. I catch myself with one arm, but that puts me off balance, and I simply curl onto one side, suddenly in a very similar position to that which I took in the van.

"Herman Fuller!!"

The crowd gasps, and falls silent. My visage must be horrible. My ears are gone, my left arm is missing, my knees are shattered, and my belly has burst open. On top of that, every inch of my body is covered in shallow cuts. I breathe heavily, and attempt to get to at least a kneeling position. Lady Red continues.

"This is as much a message to our friends as it is to our enemies. Lo! Here is that which encompasses the very nature of what we mean to destroy, running free. Left unhunted, unbeaten, unpunished for his sins against humanity. When we found him, he was among new friends, new acquaintances, ready to rebuild what had been taken from him, greed once again incentivizing his need to recreate, manipulate, and annihilate. There has been no justice for our dear Mr. Fuller, not for forty years. He was last trapped in a fate worse than death — a snare of his own creation, where he was forced into a waxen figure and traipsed about a stage, forced to sing and dance at the behest of any who might wish to see it. An attraction, mind you, that he has subjected dozens of rivals and enemies to. A hell from which only one man has returned, and in the world's cruelest and deepest of ironies, it chose to release the beast himself."

She aims the sword at me like a teacher might use a pointer, but turns her head to the side as if she can not bear to look at me. I am too disgusting, a lump of filth that has been heaved onto the stage.

"You gasp now, but I see within you that there is little guilt in the audience. The trappings of society have told us to feel for our fellow man, but I know there are those among you who can see he is no fellow man! He is a monster, a creature, and his purest essence is made of wealth, power, and status. But I will admit, his villainy is old, his name not so known as it once was. There are young faces in the audience, ones that may not know of the tragedies such a man can coerce into existence! Do you doubt that he deserves such a fate, to be maimed in such a fashion, slaughtered like an animal on stage? Perchance those in the audience who know of his wrongdoings would like me to enlighten the innocent and naive to his exploits in his many years of treachery?"

A murmur runs through the crowd as I find the strength and balance required to at least be on my knees, but as Lady Red begins the next part of her speech, she "accidentally" slaps my face with the broad side of the blade, resetting my progress.

"Then let us begin!"

The stage lights fade, and old metal joints creak as a projector screen lowers. Strange, that in this day and age, projectors still find use. The projector clicks on, though I do not see the image. I am still struggling to regain my progress when Lady Red begins to speak again.

"What you see before you is the earliest known picture of our dear Herman, circa 1864, four years before he would found his empire, Herman Fuller's Circus of the Disquieting, in 1868, three years before Barnum and Bailey outshone him, 1871. From then on, Herman became ruthless. A miasma of illusions, delusions, and collusions. I'd suggest that some avert their eyes from the pictures I will show next, but if you are squeamish I assume you left around the time our friend here came in. I will now list the atrocities committed, for which we find our punishment of Herman just. Ahem."

Projectors now are hooked up to computers, there is no need for a click when slides change. But there is one anyways. The crowd gasps at a scene I do not see. And then again, and again, as the slides continue to change. Black and white pictures, what I can only imagine are all the worst parts of my exploits, caught on camera and displayed for all to see. Lady Red begins her list as the slides continue.

"Animal abuse, blackmail, conspiracy…"

I finally have myself on my knees, one hand on the ground. The next step is to lean back so my rear is on my feet. The pain of these actions no longer registers. I am immune, I am numb.

"…theft, extortion, arson, assault, sexual assault, child abuse…"

I achieve the position, and the ache across my body becomes great enough to give me pause. I squeeze my eyes shut, and try to will myself into a more stable state of mind.

"…kidnapping, rape, murder, torture, human trafficking. But enough with the legalities. Why should you care? These things happened fifty years ago or more. Some of you — most of you — weren't even born. So what, you ask yourself. So this, I say." She aims the sword at me, but does not take her eyes off the crowd. The only light on us is from the projector, as slides continue to shuffle through. "We live in a world where men like this run free, without justice, without punishment, to continue to rape and kill innocents. To sell people into slavery, to amass wealth unchecked and unbalanced. Is a world safe, that lets Herman Fuller get away with it? That lets him live out his days, paying no mind to devastation he leaves in his wake? The families he tears apart? He leaves scars wherever he goes. In the minds of those he meets, in the hearts of those that know them. Arguably, the lucky ones die. Those that escape are tormented forever."

She is overplaying my impact on this world. The "ripples" I have wrought, that were so small when Chris touched upon them, are so large when she says them aloud.

"Can you truly behold the full magnitude of this scum, and agree with yourself that he does not deserve what becomes of him? I summon a deeper desire. Not the desire to live comfortably. The desire, instead, to do what must be done. So that the world may be better, so that our lives may be freer, our spirits higher. This is a man who wishes to take all of that from us, who sees the system as a series of exploits, a ladder that can be climbed with the right footholds, and he doesn't care who he kicks off if it means getting him higher. So I ask again. If there is anyone in this audience that wishes to speak against the death of Herman Fuller, rise now, and show him just how many friends he still has left."

No one rises.

"Who here is tired of the systems that allow men like Herman to persist, to exist, without repercussion? Who here has seen the darkest pits and said to themselves, I have to do something? Who here has been hard at work their whole lives and only maintained their position while men like Herman gain wealth and power through murder and exploitation?"

I turn to the slideshow, and see the horrors I have brought to this world. Fingerless hands, bloated bodies, decapitated heads, shackled naked children. The crowd ripples with affirmation.

"This is a vow. A vow that the vile will not remain in power. That they will not keep their control. This is the beginning of a long chain, a revolution. The Hermans of the world will not get away. They will not escape. Who wishes to see a world free of tyranny?"

The crowd erupts in agreement.

"Then let me take a poll now." Lady Red raises her sword straight up with one hand, and keeps her hips wide. "I raise my blade in the name of those that never got the chance to. I do what the law will not, I do what must be done. I execute. Not just people, but plans. Those who have died at this misanthropist's hands, give me the strength required to strike him dead. Now, everyone," she levels the sword at me. "Who here stands in favor of letting a psychopath run free?"

The crowd boos loudly.

"Who here stands in favor of a better world?"

The crowd whoops and hollers, rises and shouts.

"I feel an aura of righteousness in this room tonight! With this energy, the fire of humanity is rekindled, the power to act woken from its slumber! With this power," she levels the blade at me, "I condemn thee to death. You had your chance in this life, may you see your wrongs for what they are in the next one. Any last words, Fuller?"

Only now do I raise my head, and meet her eyes. They are a lustrous green, full of all the spastics of youth. The crowd waits with baited breath as the slideshow continues. A spotlight shines on her and I, a dramatic framing of my final moments. I can not make out the numbers of the audience, but I somehow doubt Gina's estimate. Almost a thousand? Such a number would not fit in an underground stage. I find myself wordless.

Past Lady Red and through the wing, Gina turns on a flashlight backstage and shines it on her face. She mouths: "Now! The time is now!"

I am dead soon either way. No threat of further torture awaits. I have no incentive to do anything but die. Gina gave me a brief moment of confidence but it has left me. Like I started this journey, I end it with apathy.

"No," I say.

Lady Red raises her eyebrows. She waits longer than she has to, and then shrugs. "Your silence says all it needs to." I see Gina glare at me with a fire I did not see a single time during my days in the cell. The flashlight goes off, and she is lost to the darkness of backstage. "This is the end of the story of Herman Fuller." I see a red dot where Gina was. No, bigger than just a speck, it is a circle, and it is moving. A red circle with a white outline. "May your memories be spat upon and may your grave be unmarked." A finger taps the circle, and it becomes a square. Then, I realize the symbol was on a screen. A screen that becomes no longer visible as the device — the smartphone — is turned around to face me. Lady Red stands to my side and raises her blade. "So long."

"Wait," I command.

My stage has suddenly grown far larger, my venue far grander, my audience far more numerous.

"I said no, because I have more than final words."

I begin to rise, and now notice the pool of blood that I have left. The spotlight follows my ascent, follows even my stumbles and struggles to stand on broken knees. Other men could not do it, but my fucked up body, held together by glue and magic, lets me. The pain of my weight on my shattered bones would be too much to handle, if it weren't for one simple fact.

I am being recorded.

"You should know, Red. I've never had someone dissect me so thoroughly." I grab onto my cut belly while I say it. "If I weren't in such dire straits, I might insinuate a fascination beyond just research, hmm? Ha, ha, ha. But after all that studying, you really expect me to go out without a bang? No grace, no grande gestures? It lacks drama. It lacks finality. So no, I do not have final words. I have a closing act."

I begin to grin, and I am now fully upright.

"I call it… A Man Laid Bare. Care to hear it?"

She looks at me inquisitively, and then places her blade at her side.

"Good. Viewers, listeners!" My raspy voice can hardly boom like I want it to, but I make the most of what I have. "What you see before you are the remains of a king, a pharaoh in the flesh! I was born to poverty, only three steps from a gutter, and look what I became. Rags to riches. Do you expect a man with nothing to lose to waste his chance to gain everything? I commanded respect!"

I pace the stage even as my knees and belly give me every reason to curl up and fall. I gesture as wildly and bombastically as I can with only one arm.

"I started as a one man show, and I gained compatriots, business partners. Sooner than I had realized, I was awash in the world of magic. The unobtainable, obtained. Every basic need satisfied, I could begin to tend to my desires. I had the will and the means to reach the top. Is that not natural? A wise man once told me that the optimal life is a series of acquisitions. He had many such sayings. If only his hands could have written them down, but alas…" The smile was overtaking me, pushing up my cheeks and reaching my eyes. "His ability to juggle swords was that much more impressive without them."

I chuckle, and the audience murmurs.

"So you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelette! What is a broken bone to a good show? It is a bait by which to gain a captive audience. Humans have a morbid curiosity with the disfigured and the maimed. Behold! The man with no arms and no legs is able to fetch, light, and smoke a cigarette. And when there weren't acts for hire, we made them. Kids can grow into such strange shapes if you treat them right, can't they?"

I laugh, and this time someone in the crowd boos.

"Yes! Boo! But did I not win? Did I not achieve what I set out to do? Whose name is it, that still rides on the circus even after they deposed me, hmm? So call the world cruel, call the world mad, or perhaps you can simply call me clever, and leave it at that." The booing begins to overpower my speech.

“Stop, before you embarrass yourself.”

Red steps forward. Her stare, her smirk, reeks of condescension.

“Embarrass myself? There is no such thing, on stage. If you begin to feel embarrassed, you play into it. The most important thing is to make a splash.”

“Do you really think that a world in which everyone acts like you would work? Would function?”

She gestures to the audience as she says “everyone”. Her posture, her cadence… I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she was born in a theater.

Everyone?“ My voice does not come across as expressive as I would like, and my waxen face does not let me open my eyes as wide as I wish it did. “Oh heavens no. Do you wish to hear how the world works?" Her smirk drops and she begins only to glare.

I continue. "The world works perfectly well once you realize that there are two castes of people. There are mountains, and there are hills. There are those that take, and those that are taken from." I bring my hand to my chest. "Victors…" I wave my hand towards the audience. "…and victims." I arouse boos once more, but I raise my voice over the crowd. "Life is a battle between the victors. When they meet, they become enemies or uneasy allies. The victims are those that are not strong enough to become victors. They are resources to be used, pawns. Do you stop to consider the merit of a die before you roll it? The spirit of a ball before you throw it? Such things do not occur to you, for they are so below you. That, that is what you are to me. So mourn your fallen man. Mourn them because if you don't fucking get up and start kicking, you won't ever make it into the next tier. You will forever be on the bottom, complaining about the very existence of the top."

Objects are now being thrown at me. Not rotten tomatoes, but pencils, cough drops, crumpled pieces of paper — anything they might have on them. Garbage. I open my mouth to yell over the crowd as best I can, but a blade presses against my throat.

"The people have spoken. I am afraid I have to take the ground out from under you."

I make eye contact with Red. There is anger in her expression, but there is something deeper in her eyes. I have spent my entire life looking through facades. Hers is good, but it will require more work, because deep in her eyes, I see… it is not sympathy. It is close.

It is respect. She knows, then. She, she is a taker.

I raise my hand in submission, and the crowd quiets. "How unfortunate, I was working up to a song. It would have been really amazing, too." The crowd grumbles as I pause. I extend my hand towards Lady Red, as if asking for a dance. "May I?" Thankfully, she sees my gesture for what it is.

Without moving the sword from my neck, she reaches beneath her dress and retrieves a pistol. She then moves closer, to hold the hilt out to me. I take the sword in my hand, and its weight brings me to my knees. This will do.

I press the flat end of the blade, still devilishly sharp, up to my neck and begin to draw blood. Not my own blood, but the blood they stuck within me. I see it for what it is, now. It is an effect. I am a spectacle. Simulated gore for a real murder. My cheeks reach their peek as my respect swells to full size. We are victors, then. Just as I have foreseen, we met, and we were enemies, but that does not mean we are different.

My legacy will continue. I hoped it would go to my son, but no. The hat of the showman has been passed to her, now. In our last eye contact, the communication was silent but sure. She is my heir. And my memory will live on.

"Just know," I say as the blade cuts where my Adam's apple should be, "that long after you're gone, you will be forgotten, but people will still remember the name of Herman Fuller."

I give one last glance at the wing where Gina was, and wink. I raise my head. With the remainder of my strength, the blade goes cleanly through my neck.

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