by Michael Griffo
Opening night in the theatre is an exhilarating event.
It doesn’t matter if it’s your first or your fiftieth, if you’re on the precipice of a flop or a smash, or if you’re an actor about to strut your stuff for an audience or a member of the crew getting ready to create magic backstage, it is always a night to remember. And the opening night of the Meadowlands Community Theatre’s production of Macbethwas no exception. In fact, it would be a night that would become infamous and get woven into the tapestry of theatrical folklore. Sadly, its legendary status had nothing to do with what transpired on the stage.
From the start, the production was a risk. Shakespeare and community theatre are strange bedfellows and not a connection typically condoned by the public or critics. Traditional musical comedies, Neil Simon laugh-out-loud classics, a Broadway revue free of boring book scenes, those are the chestnuts that the theatre gods want to see grace the community theatre stage. Claudine and Violet Vincent, the twin spinster siblings and co-founders of MCT, begged to differ.
“As long as I’m alive, the Bard will have a home in New Jersey,” Claudine declared.
“And as long as I’m alive, that home will only be available for one production, every third season,” Violet rebutted.
That season was now and that production was Macbeth.
Prior to their final decision, the sixty-year-old sisters fought bitterly over which Shakespearean play they should produce. Violet, the softer-voiced, more genteel of the two, thought a suitable compromise would be to present one of the playwright’s more accessible comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream or, even better, The Comedy of Errors. Violet believed that since the latter already had the word ‘comedy’ in its title it would be audience-friendly despite it’s tongue-twisting and somewhat indecipherable dialogue. Her sister adamantly disagreed.
Claudine, the eldest by three minutes and fourteen seconds, and made of a spine that their father described as iron wrapped tightly with barbed wire, was an Anglophile and convinced that if they produced anything less than one of Shakespeare’s classic tragedies they would be committing theatrical treason. The result being that in the end there was no compromise and Claudine, as always, got her way. Which is how Macbeth found its unlikely way onto MCT’s season line-up sandwiched in between productions of Meredith Willson’s Here’s Love and the female version of The Odd Couple.
The scuttlebutt throughout the town of Secaucus, the bustling suburb within the shadow of New York City that was the home to MCT, was mixed. Some applauded the theatre’s attempt to tackle such a difficult and beloved play, while others were hoping instead for a revival of one of their biggest successes, Hello, Dolly! Harmonia Gardens was much more hospitable than the Scottish highlands.
Despite the divisive response the title created, ticket sales were brisk and the rehearsal period went smoothly. But before the first bewitching scene was over, MCT’s production of Macbeth came to a tragic end. Not because of any hurly-burly backstage or foul acting, but because of what happened in the audience.
When Gordon Pomeroy entered the theatre the house lights had already started to dim signaling to all those who had not yet taken their seats that they had less than a minute to do so. He took the program from the elderly usher, but was rather distracted so when she told him to enjoy the show he merely nodded and smiled in response. What Gordon truly wanted to do was scream at the usher and tell her there was no way he was going to enjoy the evening’s performance because he had far too much riding on this particular production. But it wasn’t the usher’s fault he was in a horrible mood; she was just doing her job.
He walked down the house left aisle until he came to row D and apologized to the man sitting in the end seat for his late arrival. Like a good theatregoer the man stood up, as did the next three people to his right, so Gordon could shimmy his way to D105. At 5’11” and 175 pounds, Gordon had a lean, muscular body and was able to navigate the journey from the aisle to his seat gracefully. When he sat down, however, he felt as if he had run a marathon.
Beads of sweat slid from his temples to his chin as his temperature began to rise. Although he knew it was impossible he could have sworn two hands had grabbed the sides of his neck and thumbs were pushing down on his voice box. He crumbled the program he was holding in his left hand as he made a fist against the pain, while with his right hand he yanked at his tie and played with the top button of his dress shirt frantically until he opened it.
By this time the witches had made their entrance onto the bare stage. They were backlit and smothered in fog so the space surrounding the actresses was difficult to see, however the lighting technique illuminated the first few rows of the audience. Gordon looked down and blinked several times hoping the welts on his hand would go away, but with each blink they seemed to grow in size. He brought his fist to his face to examine the red blisters closer, but the sweat dripping into his eyes blurred his vision so his hand resembled close-up images of runaway lava flowing out of a volcano. The sight made him panic.
He clawed at his throat in a futile attempt to bring more air into his lungs, but only succeeded in feeling bumps on his neck that were slick with sweat. He touched his cheek and could feel that it was covered with the same kind of bulbous lumps. Something was happening to him and it was very, very wrong.
Whatever was taking over his body was doing it quickly as it had only been thirty seconds since he sat down. In that miniscule amount of time, Gordon Pomeroy went from being a healthy fifty-four-year-old man to someone on the brink of death. But how? That was the question he asked himself as he stood on quivering legs to try and get someone’s attention and the medical intervention he so desperately needed. Looking down at his feet he watched the crumbled program fall to the floor. It was the last thing he would ever see because just as the Third Witch shouted “Anon,” Gordon followed the crone’s order and collapsed back into his seat, his lifeless body covered in welts that, in an eerie coincidence, resembled the ones decorating the witches’ faces.
It took another few seconds for the woman seated on Gordon’s right to understand that she was sitting next to a dead man, but when she did she screamed so loudly it literally stopped the show.
“Oh my God he’s dead!”
As chaos erupted among the audience members, Violet allegedly was heard from the wings berating her sister calmly, yet harshly, “I told you Shakespeare was killing the American theatre.”
The famed playwright had been accused of being many things since his demise over four centuries ago, plagiarist, philanderer, and Protestant, among them, but never murderer. But when the police arrived, everyone in the theatre – onstage and off – immediately became a suspect.
“Nobody leave!” the detective bellowed. “That’s an order.”
Emerging from the wings, her thick, sensible heels commanding attention with every step, Claudine found her light and stood center stage. At almost six-feet-tall and with a fondness for wearing maxi-vests, Claudine was often stared at and rather enjoyed being on display. So she remained silent until she knew her audience had found her. “Excuse me Detective Hermann, are you putting us all under house arrest?”
The detective looked up at Claudine and although she towered above him, he didn’t find her intimidating because he knew her too well. Plus, he was just as tall, but with broad shoulders that tapered to a thirty-inch waist, and his ice blue eyes were as intense as Claudine’s glare. They were evenly matched. “Since the theatre seems to be your home, I guess you can call it that.”
“Ignore my sister, Jerry,” Violet said. She glided across the stage, her footsteps barely heard, until she stood next to Claudine in the soft light of her sister’s shadow. The women were the same height, but Violet always appeared smaller thanks to her penchant for chiffon. “You have our complete cooperation.”
The detective smiled and nodded to the sister he knew even better. “Thank you Violet. We’re going to need to interview everyone so I’d kindly appreciate it if you could round them all up.”
Violet blushed and let her fingers graze her skirt so the material seemed to float. “It would kindly be my pleasure.”
Leaning on the cauldron, Kip Flanagan, the actor playing Malcolm, was in shock. Not by Violet’s bold attempt to flirt while in the presence of a dead body, but because the detective was part of theatre history.
“I cannot believe the detective’s name is Jerry Herman,” Kip said.
“Don’t get too excited,” the woman playing the Second Witch replied. “He spells his last name with two ‘n’s.”
For the next three hours the police questioned everyone in the theatre from patrons and ushers to actors and stage crew. During that time the paramedics examined Gordon’s corpse and their immediate assumption was that he died from a severe allergic reaction.
“My money’s on shellfish,” the older paramedic said. “I saw this lady once at a restaurant who’s head was swollen three times its normal size and her eyes were bigger than her hands all because she couldn’t resist ordering the lobster.”
“I don’t think you can rule out foul play just yet,” Kip said.
“Who are you?” Detective Hermann asked.
Kip introduced himself and explained that by night he was part of the merry band of MCT players, but by day he was a lawyer. The detective groaned – to him a lawyer was a nuisance – but since Jerry hadn’t personally interviewed Kip, he thought it best to take advantage of the interruption and ask him some questions. Though he wasn’t sure he could trust a lawyer who allowed himself to be seen in public wearing magenta tights and a teal and white harlequin shirtdress with padded shoulders.
“Did you know the deceased?” the detective asked.
“Not very well. I moved here from Maine for a new job four months ago so the only people I know other than my co-workers are my cast mates,” Kip explained. “But I do know Gordon was Claudine and Violet’s silent partner.”
“How do you know that if it’s supposed to be silent?”
“Claudine projects when she whispers,” Kip replied.
“And why would you think someone would want to kill him?”
“Maybe I’ve been rehearsing too long, but this play is one long series of murders,” Kip said. “After a while that’s all you can think about.”
Jerry looked down at Kip and adopted what he called his stern policeman glare. He figured Kip was about twenty-six, though he looked younger thanks to the thick layer of stage make-up he was wearing, and was fresh out of law school. The detective was not one to abuse his power, but he needed to curtail Kip’s curiosity.
“Perhaps you’re so obsessed with murder that you started acting like your character and you killed Gordon?”
“Oh no, I’m one of the few characters who doesn’t have blood on his hands,” Kip said proudly. “I’m what the theatre world calls a male ingénue and those characters are always far too innocent to kill anyone.”
“Really? Have you ever heard of Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors?”
The detective executed a perfect pivot turn leaving the lawyer to wonder if it was time for him to hire a lawyer of his own.
A few days later Detective Hermann was sitting in his office reading the toxicology report from the medical examiner. The detective was admittedly impressed to read that Kip was right. The welts on Gordon’s body were most likely an allergic reaction to poison ivy, but that wasn’t what killed him. Aconite, a deadly poison, was also found in his system, which caused sudden respiratory failure. Whoever murdered Gordon Pomeroy wanted it to look like he died of natural causes when that was the furthest thing from the truth.
He scrolled through the contacts on his cell phone and stopped when he got to the V’s. He hit the call button and heard Violet’s sultry voice after the second ring.
“Jerry, please tell me you’ve figured out what happened to poor Gordon.”
“Not entirely,” he replied, “but with your help I can crack this case.”
Violet clutched her throat in that way she had adopted whenever she wanted to appear younger. She knew Jerry couldn’t see her, but she never wasted an opportunity to practice. “Are you saying that you need my help?”
“Boy, do I ever.”
Jerry explained that he needed a list of all the ushers who volunteered the night of the opening as well as any security camera footage of the lobby. The list she could provide, the video would prove trickier. There was only one security camera positioned in the lobby and it had spotty reliability and was so old it qualified as vintage.
Jerry adopted a voice that sounded like the bandleader Harold Hill as played by Ricardo Montalban. “Like wine and some woman, present phone company included, vintage means it only gets better with age.”
Violet held her throat so tightly she almost choked herself. When she spoke, her words were nothing more than a rough whisper. “Meet me at the theatre in fifteen minutes.”
Across town another phone conversation, similar in subject matter, if not tone, was being held. Kip was hunched over his desk in his office at the Rodgers & Lowe real estate law firm talking as quietly as possible so he couldn’t be overheard. As the lowest man on the company totem pole he didn’t want to be caught talking theatre during business hours.
“Don’t blame me, Claudine, I had to tell the detective that I knew of Gordon’s financial ties to the theatre,” Kip said. “If you didn’t want anyone to find out about it you shouldn’t speak to the rafters when having a private conversation.”
“That’s how I was trained, Kip!” Claudine bellowed. “It’s hard to cleanse myself of all that Uta taught me.”
“You studied with Uta Hagen?” Kip asked.
“No, Uta Kirchoff,” Claudine clarified. “Half as good, but a fraction of the cost. I don’t care that you blabbed, Jerry was bound to find out Gordon loaned us money, what I want to know is how you found out Gordon was murdered.”
“One of the lawyers here has a friend in the medical examiner’s office, I overheard him telling his assistant that Gordon was poisoned,” Kip said. “I knew he was the victim of foul play.”
Claudine clutched her maxi vest and swung it from side to side the way she always did when she wanted to indicate she was nervous without bothering to change her expression. “I knew he should never have gotten involved with that woman.”
“What woman?” Kip asked.
“What? N-nothing, forget I s-said anything,” Claudine stammered.
“Not a chance Claudine!” Kip cried. “When I auditioned you told me I’d star in your next production and what happened? I wound up speaking iambic pentameter! I studied tap for six years at Miss Irene’s in East Millinocket, I should be headlining Me and My Girl not playing the fourth lead in one of Shakespeare’s bloodbaths. You owe me!”
Claudine created such movement with her vest she stirred a breeze strong enough to sweep down an Oklahoma plain. “Meet me at the theatre in fifteen minutes.”
Jerry entered the lobby precisely thirty-five seconds before Kip entered the stage door, each being greeted by a different Vincent sister. Violet whisked Jerry into the box office that was so small there was only room for one chair, while on the other side of the theatre, Claudine directed Kip to an office that would have been large had it not been divided into two separate spaces so it could be shared by the twins.
“Here’s the list of ushers who worked opening night,” Violet said. “All of them are regulars, students mainly, except this one, Cathee Grooch.”
“Who’s she?” Jerry asked.
“A sweet, elderly woman who used to be an actress,” Violet said. “Starred in the first national tour of Redhead in the ‘60s.”
“Did she fill out an application?”
“Of course not, she volunteered, we take who we can get,” Violet replied.
“What about the security camera?” Jerry asked. “Did it pick up anything that might prove helpful?”
Violet smiled like the coquette she believed she still was and said, “I think you’re going to be very pleased with what I have to show you Jerry.”
Smiling just as impishly, Jerry replied, “Aren’t I always?”
In the corner of the desk was a small television with a built-in VCR. It functioned like a regular TV, but it was connected to the security camera so it acted as a live feed, while the VCR taped the footage. Usually the tapes were recycled every other day, but as there hadn’t been a performance since the opening night debacle, the tape was still current.
Violet had already watched the tape and keyed it up to Gordon’s entrance so when she pressed the play button Gordon was already on screen. The black and white video was grainy, but not too murky to prevent Jerry from identifying the action. He saw Gordon enter the lobby just as the lights began to flicker and pause to look at his ticket before proceeding to the door on the left where an elderly usher greeted him.
“Rewind that,” Jerry barked.
Violet did as she was told and the scene replayed until Jerry reached over, his shoulder grazing Violet’s chin, and pressed a button to stop the video.
“Is that Cathee?” he asked.
“Yes,” Violet replied.
The image captured a white-haired woman wearing a dark colored dress and lighter colored gloves and T-strap shoes. From her posture and the wrinkles on her face, Cathee Grooch appeared to be about 80 years old and yet quite agile.
“When Gordon enters, Cathee’s on the other side of the lobby, but she hustled all the way to the left to give Gordon his program,” Jerry said.
“He was a patron of our theatre, as an artist herself it was probably Cathee’s way of paying her respects,” Violet surmised.
“Did Gordon have a regular seat for each performance?”
“Yes, but we had a ticketing snafu that night and his ticket got reversed,” Violet explained. “He typically sits in seat D115 which is off the right aisle, but that night he sat in D105 which is off the left.”
Violet didn’t understand the importance of what she just said to Jerry, but she knew by his rakish smile that she had pleased him enormously.
On the other side of the building Kip was not nearly as pleased.
“’Fess up Claudine!” Kip exclaimed. “Which woman was Gordon involved with?”
Sitting behind her desk, Claudine looked like she was playing Miss Jones in a stripped down version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Her back was straight, her resolve unwavering, her desk bare. Unfortunately, just like Miss Jones she was weak in the presence of a young man.
“Jocelyn Lorenzo, the female lead!” she cried. “Are you satisfied?”
“Gordon was having an affair with Lady Macbeth?” Kip asked.
“Why do you think she was playing Lady Macbeth?”
“She got the part because of a little quid pro quo?”
“You watch your mouth young man,” Claudine seethed. “I may be a lady of the theatre and on occasion strut my hour upon the wicked stage, but I am still a lady and I will not allow vulgarities in my presence.”
“I wasn’t speaking in vulgar parlance, I was speaking in Latin,” Kip explained. “At least it makes sense now. I mean Jocelyn is a terrible Lady Macbeth.”
“She does appear to be sleepwalking through her performance,” Claudine agreed.
“Since Gordon was investing money into MCT, he told Jocelyn she’d get the lead if she slept with him,” Kip deduced.
“You should’ve seen the tantrum Elliot threw, but he had no choice, none of us did,” Claudine said. “If we wanted to stay afloat for the rest of the season, we needed to accept Gordon’s money and his terms.”
“Now I know why Elliot directed Jocelyn to scrub the entire stage to prepare for her big scene,” Kip said.
“He was adamant Lena should be Lady Macbeth, her name was even on the official cast list,” Claudine shared.
“Did anyone see that list?” Kip inquired.
“Do you mistake me for an amateur?” Claudine hissed. “I had Elliot type up a new list and I threw the original one in the garbage can in the storage unit.”
“The one where you keep reusable lumber and old props that no one is supposed to go into?” Kip asked.
“One and the same,” Claudine replied.
“Claudine, I think I may know who killed Gordon,” Kip declared.
In the box office of the theatre a similar statement was spoken.
“Violet, I think I may know who killed Gordon,” Jerry asserted.
And then both Kip and Jerry uttered the same words at the same time: “We need to call a company meeting. Tonight!”
Claudine called places at precisely one minute to eight o’clock. Violet had arranged folding chairs in a circle on the stage and each MCT company member took a seat. Claudine, Violet, Elliot, and Jocelyn took their seats and were joined by the rest of the acting troupe along with some of the staff and volunteer ushers including Cathee Grooch. What resembled a read-through on the first day of rehearsal was actually a gathering to announce that it was someone’s final curtain.
Kip and Jerry entered from opposite sides of the stage and stood in the center of the circle.
“Thank you all for coming,” they both said simultaneously.
“Why doesn’t the more experienced individual take the lead,” Violet suggested.
“Then I’ll go first,” Kip said. “Macbeth would have marked my twenty-third production.”
“I think Violet was referring to experience in the criminal arts, not the theatrical arena,” Jerry replied.
“Well in that case take the first line,” Kip said, bowing deeply.
But Jerry couldn’t remember the dialogue he rehearsed. He had never worked “in the round” before so he found the setting unsettling. One by one he looked at each MCT member and, as a result, found himself turning in a complete circle. Before he got dizzy, he decided to begin his speech by focusing on the one person he knew would be hanging onto his every word: Violet.
“We called you all here tonight to discuss the death of Gordon Pomeroy,” Jerry announced. “Our findings have proven that Gordon’s death was not only untimely, but also, unnatural.”
“Somebody really killed Gordon?” Jocelyn asked.
“Who beat me to it?”
Elliot’s joke fell flat. Although some people chuckled, he mainly garnered disapproving looks from the group.
“It was a joke people,” Elliot said.
“A member of our fold has been murdered, Elliot,” Claudine reprimanded. “This is no joke.”
“Sorry, you know how I love a black comedy,” he replied. “And we all know how I felt about Gordon.”
“How exactly did you feel about him?” Kip asked.
As the company’s resident director, Elliot Parks was used to asking the questions. What’s your motivation? What’s the subtext of your dialogue? Why have you chosen to play Stanley Kowalski with a lisp? He was not used to being in the spotlight.
“I’m an artist, he was the money man, our objectives never meshed,” Elliot explained.
“Is that why you wanted him dead?” Jerry asked.
“I didn’t want to see the guy dead,” Elliot protested.
“But you just said someone beat you to it,” Kip interjected.
“It was a figure of speech!” Elliot shouted. “Look, if you’ve come here to reveal who the killer is you’re wasting your time on me. I’m not broken up that Gordon’s dead, but that doesn’t mean I did it.”
“I can vouch for Elliot’s innocence,” Claudine said. “He was backstage with me from the half-hour call until the production was so rudely interrupted.”
Professionally, Jerry didn’t suspect Elliot, but personally he wanted to know more about why Claudine was his alibi. “What were the two of you doing all by yourselves for such a long period of time?”
“Toasting what we hoped would be another MCT success,” Claudine said.
“For thirty minutes?” Jerry asked.
Claudine cast a menacing scowl in the detective’s direction, “It was a large bottle of champagne.”
“Elliot may have orchestrated the action on the stage that night,” Kip said. “But someone else was in control of the offstage drama.”
Hands clasped behind his back, Kip began to walk the circumference of the group circle counterclockwise, every so often pausing to emphasize a particular word or directly address a particular person.
“By now everyone knows that Gordon Pomeroy invested money to help keep the theatre’s doors open,” Kip started. “Whether that gesture was good will or good business is irrelevant, what matters is how Gordon manipulated his power. He didn’t want to be a producer, he wanted to be Jocelyn’s . . . paramour. And the best way to seduce an actress is to offer her a leading role. Isn’t that right, Jocelyn?”
“I deserved to play Lady Macbeth!” Jocelyn screeched. “No matter what that no-talent Lena Carmichael said.”
Heads snapped in every direction and the group suddenly realized one of its long-standing members was missing.
“Where is Lena?” Claudine asked.
“She isn’t here,” Elliot replied.
“She most certainly is,” Kip said. “Isn’t that right, Cathee?”
“The old lady usher?” Violet scoffed.
“One and the same,” Kip pronounced.
As all eyes turned to peer at Cathee, the elderly woman looked confused. Slowly she stood up, not going left, not going right, but maintaining her footing and, like the old trouper she claimed to be, commanded everyone’s attention. When she spoke, her voice was as frail and shaky as she looked, but slowly an inner strength emerged.
“How lovely to be back in the theatre,” Cathee said. “This is my home, it’s where I feel alive, where I can breathe. Without it I am nothing. But thanks to Gordon Pomeroy that was all taken from me and all of you let him get away with it.”
Slowly, Cathee’s posture improved and her voice took on a deep resonance.
“You cast me aside and let Gordon’s floozy hack ruin Shakespeare’s masterpiece,” Cathee said. “When everyone here knows the only actress worthy of essaying the complicated, nuanced role of Lady Macbeth was me . . . Lena Carmichael.”
Cathee pulled off the gray wig and her real jet-black hair fell in waves around her face. She grabbed the skin at her hairline and slowly peeled off the prosthetic mask she had been wearing. Gone were the wrinkles, hooknose, and drooping jowls and in their place was a smooth complexion and chiseled features.
“Lena? Brava!” Violet shouted. “What a transformation! You fooled us all.”
“Not all of us,” Kip corrected. “I knew Lena was masquerading as Cathee.”
“So did I!” Jerry exclaimed.
“You did not,” Kip said.
“Did too,” Jerry countered.
“Prove it,” Kip challenged.
“In the security video, Cathee moved much too quickly for an elderly woman and she was positioned on the wrong side of the theatre because that’s where she thought Gordon was going to sit,” Jerry said. “An outsider wouldn’t have known that so she had to be a part of MCT. Plus, very few women outside the theatre wear character shoes like Cathee wore.”
“Clever, Jerry,” Claudine said. “Yet a bit of a stretch if you’re accusing Lena of murder.”
“How’s this? The poison used to kill Gordon was Aconite, also known as Queen of the Poisons,” Jerry revealed. “Lady Macbeth is theatre royalty so it’s an obvious connection. Jocelyn doesn’t enter until scene five so I will admit I thought she might be the killer since she would have more than enough time to change costume in time to make her entrance.”
“Like she could ever pull of a dual role,” Lena spat. “She doesn’t have the acting chops to play a mime!”
“But you do have the skills Lena and you played your role quite well,” Kip said. “Unfortunately you gave away your motive when I stumbled upon you crying in the supply room backstage. I got lost, saw the lights on, and heard someone crying inside. That was you because you found the original cast list that had you playing Lady Macbeth, but your name was crossed out in place of Jocelyn’s.”
“That role should’ve been mine!” Lena roared. “Gordon and the rest of you didn’t think I could pull it off, well I showed you who the real actress is. Cathee Grooch has been my finest role!”
“And a well-chosen character name too,” Kip said. “Cathee is an anagram of Hecate and Grooch is the phonetic spelling of the real Lady Macbeth’s first name, Gruoch. You might be a murderess, Lena, but you’re one heck of an actress.”
“And for a lawyer, Kip Flanagan, you’re a pretty good amateur sleuth,” Jerry said.
“Wait until you see me perform on stage,” Kip said. “Claudine’s promised me the lead in the next show. Isn’t that right madam producer?”
“Actors!” Claudine huffed. “They will be the death of me.”
by Michael Griffo
For a moment he almost didn’t see the lake. J was so focused on the uneven footpath that curved the edge of the densely wooded hill that if he hadn’t slipped on a loose rock and twisted his body as he fell, he would never have seen the beautiful sight a few yards to his left. But when Lake Montgomery finally came into view, he couldn’t look away.
At such an early hour of the morning, the inhabitants of the area – both human and not – were still asleep or at rest, so in between the occasional conversation among some birds, indecipherable, yet melodic, an eerie silence embraced the lake. The sun, still on its ascent, blurred sky, horizon, and water so all three appeared to be one entity. J was mesmerized and felt that the lake resembled a massive impressionistic painting, hazy, ethereal, and unnatural. But how could anything that wasn’t unfurled by imagination be so majestic? How could such beauty exist and J not have known about it? Was he that disconnected from the world around him?
He grabbed hold of a wayward vine for support and walk-slid down the steep incline until he reached the bank of the lake. Not particularly good at math and calculations, J didn’t know how wide the lake’s reach stretched, but he estimated its width to be, roughly, two miles. For several minutes he watched in silence, turning left, then right to take the entire waterscape in and smiled when the sun, having risen higher in the sky, altered his view. Sunlight replaced haze making the lake look even more angelic.
The surface was undisturbed, a smooth, flat platter of cornflower blue. The horizon line straight and strong, and the sky a deeper, darker shade than the water. It was tranquil and dreamlike until J saw a ripple and was startled by the sudden, desperate activity. He thought it looked as if the lake was trying to breathe, that its lungs, trapped deep below the surface in darkness, were gasping for breath. He was compelled to make contact.
Walking to the edge where water met land, J knelt on one knee and placed a hand into the cold, refreshing liquid. He cupped lake water into his hand and poured it over his face and sighed as the life of the lake melded into his flesh. If anyone was watching they would have suspected he was performing a ceremony, a ritual with roots in some form of religion. Religion, unfortunately, has always required sacrifice.
Whipping out from within the sky as if breaking through a canvas, an eagle swooped down on a diagonal aiming directly for the lake. Its curled talons opened menacingly and then disappeared just beneath the water’s surface for only a moment before it careened up, up into the sky with a fish, wriggling frantically in its clutches.
Even here, J thought, despondent.
“Yes,” the lake whispered back. “Even here.”
She stood before the chamber as she’d done every morning since her transition began. And like every morning since that spectacular day seven months ago, she was devoured by an unholy mixture of emotions. Both fear and pride battled within her and she was never certain which would win.
Her fingers strangled the metal handle and she repeated the process she was taught in order to combat the inevitable claustrophobia and sensory deprivation that would soon control her. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply through her nose, holding the air in her lungs and feeling it rise up the slender column of her throat, then exhaling. She repeated the process twice, each time envisioning a vast sky, expansive, blue, and interrupted, only slightly, by pure white clouds. A ridiculously simple procedure that infuriated her because it never failed to work. Marguax had been raised to distrust anything that came easily.
With eyes still closed and the view of a blue sky before her, she stepped inside the circular chamber and pulled the door closed behind her not letting go of the handle until she heard the familiar click. She stood still, the only movement was the rise and fall of her chest as a result of her constant, even breathing that would continue until the ninety-second treatment was completed.
Tufts of moist air pulsed out of tiny holes that were built into the curved interior of the chamber and sprayed onto Margaux’s naked body. For the next minute and a half she would be covered in multiple layers of antiseptic, biological disinfectant, vita-protein enhancers, and molecular restructuring agents. When she smelled the scent of lavender she knew the treatment would soon be over.
The door automatically opened and Marguax opened her eyes, but did not move. She waited, as she always did, to hear his voice.
“You look exquisite.”
Heat shimmied up Margaux’s spine and clasped her cheeks until they glowed deep red. Stepping out of the chamber, she turned to face her husband, and was not disappointed, his expression matched his words. She maintained her stare, reveling in his smile, so crooked yet natural reminding her of the ancient oak tree that stood watch in front of her childhood home. That and a swastika.
Turning to her left to view her reflection in the full-length mirror, she was momentarily repulsed, until she felt his eyes upon her. The impact of his gaze felt more powerful than if he was embracing her, pinning her face down against the hard-wooden floor, and keeping her there until she submitted to his hold. Heat returned to her cheeks because she knew she had made him happy.
“Wasn’t I right?” her husband asked.
Margaux didn’t turn to face him, only nodded.
“I told you the process had been significantly improved since Phase 1,” her husband declared. “Pain level is at maximum, what? A three?”
Again, she nodded.
“And recovery time is virtually NEI – a Non-Existent Issue,” he added. “Just as The Panel proclaimed.”
Her body tightened. She hated The Panel. Those oncologists, ethicists, lawmakers, all cowards who had never undergone The Procedure and could never understand the joy of LFK.
Margaux looked down at her legs with pride and rapture. Devoid of their restrictive encasement their beauty could be witnessed, the raw truth just underneath the foul layer of skin was finally on display, where it should be, in all its glory. Thick skeletal muscles, thinner ligaments, smooth bones exposed and intertwined in a colorful mass of red, pink, and white as vibrant as a sunset. In contrast, the rest of her body, from the base of her buttocks on up that was still smothered by skin, looked unnatural, grotesque.
Sensing her inner turmoil, her husband took hold of her hands and drew her toward him. “Soon,” he said.
When the first reports surfaced that cancer could be cured, the world was giddy. Disease, illness, and suffering would be things of the past, concepts as outdated as democracy or cursive writing, and life would once again be Lordworthy. But there was a caveat: Human flesh must be offered to annihilate human disease. At first Margaux was terrified of becoming a “Live Flesh Kills” donor, she was cancer free, why should she care? Why help? Why sacrifice? But her husband came to her rescue as he always did and made her realize this was her chance to be reborn.
“Soon you’ll transform into one of the De-Skinned, be celebrated as a Lifegiver while valiantly removing the shackles that bind you,” her husband assured. “And then . . . and only then . . . will you be perfect.”
Oh, that word. That beautiful, almost ungraspable, word. It made Margaux beam, it made her courageous, but mostly it made her remember that she was nothing without her husband.
And without her skin she would be everything.
IN THE BACKYARD
Standing on the back deck, wooden and muscular, as sturdy as it was the day Daddy built it decades ago, I listen. The sound could be the bees buzzing in the honeysuckle bush next to the shed or the creaky swing set getting wind-pushed, but I sense that it’s Adrien. Holding the coffee cup to my chest, enjoying its warmth even on this hot August morning, I follow the stone pathway until I reach the small mound in the right hand corner of the yard, the only mutation in the otherwise perfect landscape, and stand on it feeling myself grow stronger. Maybe I’m siphoning some of Adrien’s strength.
Although many followed him, Adrien, who was twelve at the time, was the first and so he wields quite a lot of power and holds a special place in our hearts, Daddy’s and mine. He has thick black hair and blue eyes, like I do, which is why Daddy was attracted to him all those years ago. He came upon Adrien in the fields, somewhere near the Kansas/Missouri border, while he was on one of his frequent sales trips. Daddy went to help fix Adrien’s bike chain that came off its cog, but stayed when he was overcome with a hunger he never knew existed until that very moment. Anyways, that’s what Daddy told me right before he disappeared.
The sound comes again and this time I know it’s his voice. What a relief! I heard Adrien speak to me so clearly back in the city, but since we returned he’s been silent and Adrien’s words are so important because he’s the spokesperson for all the others. Now don’t assume he’s being a bully or pompous speaking for the group, he’s only being efficient. Think about it, if all seventeen spoke at the same time none of their voices would be heard and it would only be chaos. I say a quick, silent prayer that Adrien is speaking to me again.
His soft, commanding little boy voice floats up from underneath the ground where his body is buried and rushes through me like a welcomed touch. I push away the sounds of the bees and the crickets chirping from some unknown place, I push everything away, thoughts included, and concentrate on the sound so I can hear what Adrien is saying.
I told you he speaks for the entire group, all the boys and girls living under the grass.
Yes, Adrien, I think. Tell me what you want. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I moved back.
Tears escape my eyes like blood dripping from a wound and I instinctively understand. It’s what we all want, another to join, another to bring new life to the group, to help it grow. I understand and, better, I can make their wish a reality.
“Yes Adrien,” I whisper in reply, making sure Malcolm can’t hear me from inside the house. “And tomorrow morning I’ll go on a drive to find the perfect little girl – yes, I think it should be a girl – and bring her back here to join all of you.”
I take a long sip of coffee and listen to the sounds of the country. It is so good to be home.
A Literary Past
So it seems that I might come from good literary stock! Click below and check out how another Griffo made his name in the publishing world!
The Name Game
One of my favorite things about writing is coming up with fun and interesting names for my characters. But it isn’t as easy as you might think. The trick is to make the name memorable without being ridiculous so it doesn’t overshadow the character. I actually keep a running list of new names that I’m constantly adding to and refer to it if I’m struggling with a name. Ultimately, I pick names that either immediately tell you something about a character’s character or – to be honest – a name that I just happen to really, really like! My hope is that you’ll like it too.
When I was starting to think about The Archangel Academy Series I knew that I wanted to name the lead character after an archangel. Well, if you know anything about archangel names, you know the choices are limited. Believe it or not, I briefly thought about using Uriel, but quickly realized that it was a bit too ‘out there’ for such a major character’s name so I settled upon Michael. Even though it’s my name and I’m a little biased, I think it works perfectly.
In contrast, I had the name of my leading character before I wrote a word of MOONGLOW, book one in The Darkborn Legacy. I love watching old TV shows from the 1960s and ‘70s and I stumbled upon a British anthology series called Thriller. Each episode is a self-contained murder mystery but the storytelling varies from gothic to supernatural to science fiction – all the things I love. One episode featured a character named Dominy. I had never heard that name before, but immediately fell in love with it because it sounded mysterious and playful at the same time. All I remember about watching that episode is scribbling down the name Dominy, giving her the surname of Robineau, and starting to think of a story that she could star in. About a month later The Darkborn Legacy was born!