Ishan stepped into a closet sized bedroom stuffed with a bunk bed, a dresser, and a crate of worn toys. The sun cast orange rays on the brown shag carpet. Greasy wood paneling held onto the nauseating scent of tobacco. Laughter alerted him to the door behind him. He eased the warm brass handle to peak out on a crowded birthday party filled with adults and children. A little red-headed boy sat at the head of the table with the biggest smile on his face.
The apartment was tiny and squashed. The kitchen had not been renovated since it’s installation in the ‘70s. Linoleum cracked and splintered. The windows were coated with a yellowish brown film. The laughter died.
Ishan glanced back at the table to see it empty. He swiveled. The apartment dimmed. A girl lay on the sofa asleep. The boy sat on the floor, his finger tracing bizarre lines in a notebook as he tapped pointed toes to a silent beat. A woman in a soft daydress walked passed Ishan to look over the page. The boy pointed to a line and asked a silent question. The woman thought about the line for a moment before moving the coffee table up against the wall. She had the boy stand next to her as she demonstrated a combination of movements in the cramped space. The boy mimicked her. She clapped, happy with his effort. Her smile fell when she mentioned something to the child. The boy’s shoulders fell.
The room changed to a caravan. The boy was growing like a weed. He was tall and lean, with a shag of hair running amuck. He had settled over the built in table with the girl to look over a tattered book. A different woman sat across from them, carefully pointing out words on the page.
School yards and classrooms flitted around Ishan. A ratty backpack and second hand books fell to a concrete pad, pencils scattering. Kind and harsh faces of children and adults circled around him. One adult in particular, a man with a dark splash of brown hair slicked back caused a shiver to run down his spine.
Practice studios and gyms caught releveis and back handsprings. His world was filled with movement, performance, and struggle. Frustration was growing though at the base of his spine. His heart beat hard enough to make his skin prickle. The frenetic pace was nauseating. He wanted it to slow down.
“I wanted it to slow down too, but I didn’t expect the car wreck to change my path so drastically.” Fane stood before him as a ten year old with a bruised cheek and a set of stitches in his eyebrow. A baggy blue cardigan, red tie, and worn white button up shirt hung about his frame. A shout drew their attention. Fane turned to the brown haired man and slouched. His footsteps crunched on red gravel as he walked to the black car where the man waited.
Ishan sat down on the expensive leather of the car’s back seat next to young Fane. Nervous dread swamped the space. The boy leaned his head against the window and watched the sleazy part of the city slip by. “I was numb to everything for years after that crash. The only thing that brought me out was being up in the air. Maybe it helped to put up so many walls. Some memories aren’t meant to be shared, or remembered,” the boy muttered when the car came to a stop in an alley. Ishan followed the boy and the man into the back entrance of a building. A low thump of a bass permeated the building. Ishan’s hands started to sweat at the sickly sweet odor that oozed from the coarkboards lining the hallway walls.
Muttering and the sound of plastic chips clacking together echoed behind a door they walked past. The sound bounced around the hallway and followed Fane to the dressing room. Inside were several teens in varying states of costume dress. Some were stretching out on the barre, others were helping apply makeup. “When mum and da died, Melody and I became his legal ward. Boss had made them sign us over to him if something were to ever happen to them. We were collateral against their debts, even if it wasn’t directly in the paper.” The boy got dressed in a pair of black form fitting leggings, a long blousy white button down and a lightweight loose blazer. One of the faceless teens helped him apply a heavy eyeliner and slick his hair into ringlets with mousse.
Finished preparing, Fane stood and the room shifted underneath to a dimly lit stage with a series of poles across it. Ishan sat back into a cheap padded theater seat. A body moved up next to him to sit down. He shifted over to let the person pass. “Cops came here, you know that?”
Ishan looked up to the older Fane he knew sitting down in the seat next to him. “Fane?” Ishan asked, confused. He turned to see the younger version on the stage. His fiance settled into the chair with a grimace.
Fane folded his hands to rest his chin on his fists. Regarding the stage with a sneer, he pointed to a robust brawler in a relaxed suit. “The one over there, left of stage, was the Chief Superintendent. Three inspectors are off behind my right. New guy and two veterans. My homeroom teacher is up at the bar with the principal. The Commissioner is in the backroom playing poker with the Secretary of State for Transport and Lord President of the Council.”
“Is this a sting?” Ishan asked hopefully. Fane shook his head, his eyelids lowered to half to watch the stage in cold indifference. “What happens next?” Stones settled in Ishan’s stomach.
“Melody could draw in consistent regular customers every day. I could command a packed house with standing room only and a line out the door in a heartbeat. It got so bad that Boss started making my nights by reservation only and cover-charge was doubled. I never understood it. I hated it. Who’d show up like that to watch a boy dance? Now I know. It was that blasted call. Watching my memories…it all fits.
“As long as I could lose myself in my dancing, I could ignore the creeps, pretend to be in a different world. I could imagine getting away from there and what I knew would happen when my stage time ended for the night. That was my downfall, though.” A self deprecating laugh escaped his grim lips as he continued to watch his younger self. The youth practically floated across the floor, his steps feather light and his technique on par with professionals in a national company. The space radiated a pure warm joy that could melt hearts.
“Heard of a kiddy ring?” Fane asked morosely, breaking the awed silence of the enraptured theater. Ishan’s hands trembled at the question. “I learned early not to trust cops, politicians, teachers, authority figures. They’d take what they wanted regardless of me begging and crying. Learned to quit crying. Learned to quit begging. Learned to stay quiet. To get it over with faster. To please those around me to make them go away. My sister and I, after our parents, our guardians died, were nothing more than dolls, toys, something to use up and toss to the side. I served a purpose and that was other people’s pleasure,” he muttered, his eyes going silver on black as the theater began to chill. The stage shifted around the dancing youth as dank backrooms, dressing rooms, back seats in cars, and box seats at the top of the theater rotated through the stage. Each one filled with men and women, groups and cameras. Money changed hands again and again. He continued dancing through the scenes, growing older, growing taller, ever a commodity for the brown haired man. He watched his life of horror scroll across the raised floor like a sick flip book. Ishan shifted, fought to drag his mind away from the sight.
They came up in Fane’s dressing room in the void. Bern and Dietrik were working the soft spot over the kidneys. Bern glanced up to Ishan when the man dragged in a wretched breath. “I need a moment,” Ishan admitted to the men. Bern and Dietrik laid down their sticks and helped Fane sit up. “Do you want all the way out?” Fane couldn’t look up from the floor.
“Give me a sec,” Ishan pleaded.
Fane cowered against the words. He had been opened up under the pain. The sharp heat had flayed his skin and gutted him. He had no control over the memories that seeped out of him with every puncture mark. They tumbled out of him in torrents. He could do nothing to stop their procession.
“I’m sorry,” Ishan sniffled. Fane finally looked over to his fiance. Tears dripped around fingers that hid Ishan’s face against the head of the table. “What am I supposed to do with this information, Bern?” He wiped at tears that refused to stop. “How am I supposed to help him?”
“You are helping him. Is it coming to you in chronological order?” Bern asked as he started preparing another batch of ink.
“Yes,” Ishan leaned back in the chair and stared up at the ceiling.
“I’m sorry you had to see that, Ishan,” Fane apologized. He made a move to leave the table.
“I’m sorry I made you show me. That can’t – that can’t be easy.” Ishan reached over and laid a hand on Fane’s thigh.
Fane startled at the contact and looked down on the hand. He eased back to the table and reached for the heat, engulfing the digits in his own. He brushed his thumb along Ishan’s long fingers in quiet thought. “I’m not directing it. I would keep these things from you. We can stop,” Fane offered.
Ishan shook his head, wiping tears on his arm. “I just need a bit of time. Zephyr told me you butchered the men in Sanguis and I have to settle everything else I just saw before I see that,” he admitted quietly.
“Do you need to switch out?” Deck offered.
Ishan sighed in thought before shaking his head. “No. It’s okay. Thanks, though. How are you holding up, Fane?”
“Been better,” he turned back to lay down on the table.
“Ready?” Bern asked.
“If Ishan is,” Fane dragged in another breath and resigned himself to opening his life up to his boyfriend. Bern and Dietrik glanced up to Ishan to wait for an answer.
“I have one question before I dive back in, Fane.” Ishan placed his hands on the back of Fane’s neck gently.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“The void is supposed to be the place you find comfort. Why does yours look like this, if so many awful things happened to you here?” Ishan leaned his head on the back of Fane’s.
“The stage out there is different. Even this room is different from my memory, if you look closely. These were my dreams, when I’d be free from the boss. I wanted my own stage, my own dressing room, my privacy. I loved being an aerialist. I could escape when I was up above the stage. It was only ever when my feet was on the ground that the world turned itself inside out. My parents made bad decisions financially. My home life could have been better, but they passed onto me their pure love for dance. I’ve never been able to throw that away.” Fane shifted uncomfortably as Bern retraced a line of paint.
“Is this – is this why you were so drastic when you retrieved my niece?” Ishan was barely able to whisper the question.
“I didn’t remember my childhood before seeing her. Maybe there is something ingrained in me from that time. No child should be subjected to such a cruel fate.” Fane settled both his hands over Ishan’s reassuringly.
“Shall we continue?” Dietrik took up his tapping stick.
“Ishan?” Fane asked.
“I’m ready,” Ishan bowed over Fane’s head protectively.
Needles punctured. Pain shattered Fane’s precarious hold on the void. He fell into the pitch depths of his own memories. They crashed around him in cascades of black and red. Ice and shadow ripped through him, breaking open every scar and brand. Razors ran across his brain in malicious stripes. The stinging burn drove the flow mercilessly. He was left to float forward, ever forward through eddies and currents of jumbled thoughts and experiences that slowly stitched themselves together in a coherent torrent of terror and anguish. Time trudged along the murky shallows. It staggered , plunging him further into the recesses of nightmares he had not visited in years. All along the way, Ishan held him tightly, keeping him from drowning.
Numb and frozen, Fane washed up on the shore, Ishan wrapped around him protectively. Opening his eyes, he came to in the dressing room of his void. His skin was on fire and tears were streaming down his face. He dragged in a broken breath and shifted.
“Shaman?” Dietrik asked at the movement.
“Am I alive?” Fane gasped against the shrieking electricity snapping across the full length of his back.
“Your heart still beats and your void still exists,” Bern replied.
“I feel like death,” he muttered as he shifted to sit up. Ishan eased him up until he was sitting fully upright. “Are you…are you okay, Ishan?” Fane finally looked up. Ishan was pale and shaken. He nodded mutely. “You’re not okay,” Fane stated.
“I’d hug you, but you look like you’re in pain,” Ishan placed his hands carefully on Fane’s pants, wary of the red lines that ran along his sides. Fane pulled him into his embrace and held him until Ishan softened. “Let’s get out of here. Bern, are we done?”
“I’ve never tattooed a person’s very soul before. We’ll find out if it worked when we get out of here. Otherwise, we’ll need to find a way on the outside.” Bern set the tattooing sticks on the table. He and Dietrik were haggard and worn. Deck had fallen asleep on the couch. Fane could sympathize. He wanted to curl up in bed and sleep for a month, preferably a dull, dreamless, sleep.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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