THE MOST UNKINDEST CUT
Cilla Markham bowed as the applause rang about her. The broad smile on her face was the first genuine one she’d had since coming to this horrible theater in this horrible little town of Sassafras Springs. Rehearsals had gone so badly, with so many things going wrong, she’d been sure they’d fail even before they opened; but they’d stuck it out, somehow, and tonight proved that they could manage.
And the roses in her arms proved it even more; despite the smallness and apparent poverty of much of the town, she’d managed to find a mark-as had her leading man. Most of the company hadn’t been so lucky; this group of touring actors was more a group of touring con men and women, and when they left Sassafras Springs it would be with bills left unpaid behind them and expensive gifts and ... other things ... in their possession. It was easy enough to do, as long as they didn’t get greedy. News didn’t travel so fast in these hard times since the Depression, and they’d be across the state line into Missouri within the week, no longer, with their prizes safely hidden away in the deceptively ramshackle-looking cars they drove. Once they were into Kansas and a safe distance away, they’d start looking for another town....
But that was next week, and this was tonight. For tonight she was star of the show, even if the show hadn’t been very good. And it hadn’t, she’d be the first to admit.
Nonetheless, she bowed again and left the stage, the bouquet of roses clasped in her arms. She was anxious to see if Doug Joe Reynolds had taken her hint and sent a little something around to her dressing room. But once backstage, she paused and bent her head to sniff the fragrance of the flowers she carried. She did love roses; they were her weakness.
But suddenly she recoiled in horror when she smelled the odor of death and corruption, not the soft sweet scent of the flowers. The smell was so strong it gagged her; the color drained from her face beneath the makeup and she could feel beads of cold sweat starting out on her forehead, could feel her whole body suddenly turn clammy. For one horrible moment she thought she was going to be sick, right there backstage, throw up the lovely dinner Doug Joe had bought her at the Mittentree Inn and be agonizingly, terribly sick. But she held her breath, choked back her gorge, and resisted; the moment passed, and she dared to breathe again.
But the death-smell was stronger, and suddenly she realized it had come from the flowers; those beautiful long-stemmed roses that must have cost Doug Joe a small fortune in these post-Depression days were oozing an odor of charnel stink that was strong enough to choke a horse. Abruptly she threw them from her, as far and fast as she could, and fled to her dressing room before she could humiliate herself by being sick in front of everyone. They’d always teased her about taking too full advantage of free meals-she’d nearly starved when she was a kid, and hadn’t stopped eating since-and they’d swear she’d raided the garbage cans out back of the restaurant, and she’d never make them believe it was the roses, the roses-
She stopped in horror at the door of her dressing room. The smell was stronger here, far stronger, and suddenly she had a vivid image of-herself?-struggling under a man’s choking hands. Then the smell was gone, because she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t breathe, was choking, suffocating-
She could feel her face turning blue (could a person feel herself changing color? Suddenly Cilla was sure she could), could feel the life ebbing from her body. Her eyes blinked furiously as she struggled with the unseen, all-too-strongly-felt hands around her throat; she could feel impossibly strong fingers digging, digging, cutting off her air-and images flashed past her vision that frightened her, if possible, even more than the actual choking.
Images of a young woman, a beautiful young woman, being choked to death by a man of such charismatic, handsome appearance that Cilla could feel herself warm to him even as she recoiled from what he did, feel herself bewildered and betrayed by his assault on her when all she’d ever done was love him-( Love him? Love who? I never saw him before-)
Images of the young woman’s cold, dead body hidden away in the depths of the theater, slowly rotting away with the passing of time-the smell! That’ s what the smell was from! she thought wildly-as the man fled, as he rode trains, boarded ships, finally felt himself safe an ocean away from the deed. Images of a distraught man, an older man, turning away in grief and sickness from a little cache of well-rotted bones ... something about a child on the way... .
And then suddenly that was all Cilla knew, and she was no longer there in that horrid theater in Sassafras Springs, she was floating in disembodied darkness and a voice was telling her quite clearly that if she wanted to live she’d leave at once, before she too was swept up in the horrors that awaited the leading lady in this theater. The voice trailed off into laughter, horrid, deranged laughter, laughter that got louder, louder, LOUDER, till she thought she’d die from the sheer sound of it-
And then it was gone, just like that. In its wake she heard voices, lots of them, and someone was slapping her face, and the acrid, sharp scent of smelling salts demanded that she rouse herself enough to get away from it. She pushed at the vial held under her nose, and heard someone say, "She’s all right; she’s coming around."
When she opened her eyes, half the company stood in her dressing room; their faces were a range of emotions from fear to worry to abject terror.
"What-what happened?" she asked Rollo Davis hesitantly. He was their leading man/director, and more or less led the company’s enterprises, finding them likely towns, likely theaters, even likely marks. He’d really been the one to find Doug Joe for her.
"We were hoping you could tell us," he told her quietly. "We heard you let out this bloodcurdling scream, and then you were standing outside the dressing room and struggling as if somebody was choking you, but there wasn’t anybody else there, and then suddenly you turned blue and collapsed."
"We thought you were dying," provided Danny Devitt, their youngest member, who was long on looks but short on brains and needed a lot of looking after. He received a sharp elbow in the ribs for his comment, and turned away rubbing his side. "Hey, who cut up all your things?" he asked then, before he could be shushed again, and Cilla let out a cry when she saw what he was talking about.
Her dressing room had been filled with flowers of every description-garden flowers, hothouse flowers, exotic flowers. She’d been elated when she’d come in at intermission and found the dressing room that way, overflowing like a florist’s delivery wagon; she’d gone from vase to vase and breathed in all the different perfumes, and thought how Doug Joe must have it really bad for her.
But now the tears came at the condition of the flowers. They were shredded. Tiny pieces of flower petals and leaves lay everywhere; it was as if a storm had come through and torn them all apart, scattering them in its wake.
And her clothes-the beautiful clothes Doug Joe had bought her this week, while she was going out with him (she’d had nothing suitable to wear and when he’d been gently apprised of that fact he’d remedied the lack with commendable speed)-they were all in the same condition. Bright shreds of fabric covered the chairs, heaped themselves on the dressing table, formed piles of colorful litter on the floor. The pieces were tiny; it looked as if the job had been done with manicure scissors. If he had shown any additional signs of affection, sending something nice to her dressing room for her to find after the show, she reflected in shock, she’d never know; not from these shreds.
"Nobody-nothing- nobody could have done this," she protested, unbelieving. "I was in here just ten minutes ago-that last costume change before curtain-everything was fine! Everything was ... f-fine-" Abruptly she began to sob, and Rollo bent down and patted her on the shoulder.
"Hey, kid, it’s okay, don’t let it get you down," he said. "The religious types in town have been getting a little restless since we’ve been here, you know? Maybe one of them-hell, maybe a bunch of them got in and did it. Whatever it was, we’re not going to stick around for an encore. Laurie’s room was done the same way, and so was Ned’s, and-and mine. We’re getting out of here, now, tonight. Before they take those scissors to us. Now calm down, honey, Susie will help you pack up whatever you want to take-" he looked around the room despairingly-"whatever you can take-and we’ll be on the road in an hour or so. Bobbie is out right now trying to find something to get us through till the next town; I’m sure he’ll manage, he’s never yet let us down. And as soon as he’s back we’ll get the hell out of here."
And they were, with a few expensive pieces of jewelry from the richest house in town to sell down the road, to tide them over and buy new clothes till they found a new theater to act in and a new town to pick clean.
And Cilla never had the nerve to tell Rollo the rest of what had happened to her-that she was sure no human agency had done the damage, cut up their belongings.
It was the ghost in the theater. Doug Joe had told her about it, and she hadn’t believed him. He’d told her about the awful things that had happened to other acting companies; had worried about her. Worried about her, for chrissakes! Maybe she could have really been something to him... .
But she’d never get her chance. Not now.
Because something in that theater had warned her off, as clear as day.
And even though Doug Joe mourned his loss, the church groups cheered at the sudden decamping of the acting troupe, the boarding house proprietor complained to the police that the actors hadn’t paid their bills, and Mrs. White reported the theft of several rare pieces of jewelry left to her by her grandmother, the town never realized how close it had come to being cleaned out thoroughly by the now-departed troupe of actor-thieves... .
And the theater closed in on itself once again.