Supernatural Timing

from the world of the Expatriate Sidhe stories
© 2011 by John C. Bunnell

Author’s Note: This brief episode revisits the setting of Phantom of the Operetta some months after that story takes place.  Don’t worry if you haven’t (yet) read Phantom — while the present narrative features some of the same characters, it shouldn’t spoil any key plot points.  Also note that unlike Phantom and its companion tale, Charmed, I’m Sure, this story isn’t narrated by Sidhe-in-exile Juliet McKenna.

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The first of the Halloween afternoon’s ghosts clearly believed in the principle of inciting fear through gratuitous display of gore. A tendril of pale pink steam rose from the jagged remnant of its headless neck, its right arm hung scarcely half-attached from its owner’s shoulder, and the head cradled in its left arm lacked one eye, the opposite ear, and half its nose. Trails of sticky red crisscrossed a badly slashed white tunic and the loose gray breeches below it. The thing moved slowly, though with odd grace considering its assorted handicaps. Silently, it shuffled forward, slightly lifting both its head and its free arm so that its one good eye and three twisted fingers were aimed accusingly at the lone figure seated only a few feet away.

“Impressive,” said Dr. Patrick Sauvé from his second-row seat, “but more than a bit overdone. Unless, perhaps, you’re auditioning for the John Carpenter version of Macbeth. Nor do I recall anywhere in the script that Banquo actually loses his head.”

The ghost shuddered. “You said the name!” it said accusingly, in a slightly nervous tenor voice that came from between two of the slashes in Banquo’s shirt. “Anyway, call it dramatic license. And I should at least get points for effort. Do you have any idea how long it took to rig the tank for that steam effect?”

Dr. Sauvé laughed. “We are not producing the play, Mr. Marshall, merely engaging in scene work. As for the effort – point taken, though the time and resources might not be available in a full-scale production. Neither collegiate nor community theaters have Hollywood budgets.”

The student actor shrugged, and Banquo’s dangling arm swung wildly back and forth. “Oops,” he said, slipping a perfectly sound hand out from the side of the tunic to steady it. “Oh, well. Who’s on deck?”

The drama professor glanced down at a clipboard lying on the seat to his left. “Cue Ms. da Silva, if you would.”

The stage went dark for a few moments as “Banquo” departed into one wing, then was bathed in pale light as a tall figure – well over six feet – swept into view. It was garbed in swirling, pearlescent gray, with a narrowly tapered hood and wide-flaring robes that brushed the floor, and though its pace was quick, there was no sound of footsteps to mark its passing.

The specter crossed nearly the full width of the stage before swooping back and approaching Dr. Sauvé’s seat. “Come,” it said, lifting a shrouded arm and pointing at his chest. “Come with me.”

Dr. Sauvé raised an eyebrow, but smiled thinly and rose to his feet. “Very well,” he said mildly as he climbed the short flight of steps leading to the stage. “Lead on, spirit.”

The ghost proceeded to lead him first to one side of the stage, then the other, pausing briefly as silhouettes flashed against the plain white backdrop: first a horse-drawn carriage, then a casket. Finally it turned its attention to center stage, toward the rear, where a wide black prop gravestone awaited. “What is it you would show me?” Dr. Sauvé inquired obligingly as he approached, careful not to tread on the ghost’s fluttering robes. It did not speak, but raised its arm again, this time pointing a thick, dark staff at the grave marker – whereupon letters of flickering light flashed across it, spelling out “Ebenezer Sauvé”.

“Wha–?” The professor caught himself and chuckled again, taking a step backward. “Very good, Ms. da Silva. And Ms. Bergen on the lights, I believe?” he added over his shoulder.

“Right,” the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come said, a trifle breathlessly, as she reached up and pushed back her hood.

Dr. Sauvé turned back toward the reformed apparition. “My, but you’ve grown,” he said, looking up at the young woman’s face, then running a critical eye over her costume. He frowned thoughtfully for almost a minute, then snapped his fingers. “Ingenious. Do I correctly deduce a unicycle?”

Kirsten da Silva grinned down at him. Then her expression turned rueful and her face abruptly dropped some eighteen inches straight down, an audible thunk sounding as soft shoes landed on the wooden stage. “Rats!” she said. “I thought I might actually get that past you.”

“You might have,” the professor replied, “if you’d gotten offstage quickly enough. The trick to that kind of effect is not giving your audience long enough to analyze it. My compliments; that’s a clever bit of stagecraft.”

“The real trick,” said Kirsten, pushing the unicycle out from under robes that now layered themselves in enormous billows around her legs, “was engineering the hoopskirt so I wouldn’t trip over my own costume. But thanks. Next?”

Dr. Sauvé pursed his lips thoughtfully. “That would be Mr. Markov,” he said, striding back toward his seat.

The parade of ghosts continued for well over an hour, with students impersonating specters ranging from Hamlet’s father to the Headless Horseman to Dorian Gray to Blackbeard the pirate. As the presentations progressed, seats in the house began to fill, mostly with those who had completed their scenes and now watched as their classmates performed. “Isn’t it a little – well, risky – to do all this on Halloween? I mean, isn’t this place supposed to be haunted?” Kirsten da Silva asked Dr. Sauvé after a particularly bloody teen-horror apparition had stalked into the wings.

The professor turned in his seat and eyed her sternly. “All theaters are haunted,” he said. “Or at least so people will tell you. But I have yet to meet a genuine twenty-four karat disembodied spirit on stage in any of the theaters I’ve worked. Next, please!” He swiveled back to face the stage as the lights dimmed again.

And stayed dark.

The glow that arose a moment later came neither from spotlight nor footlight, but from the gilt frames of more than a dozen life-sized portraits hanging in a wide semicircle across the rear of the stage. The paintings themselves appeared at least half intangible, and the wide eyes in each pale face shifted eerily like so many marbles rolling back and forth. Incomprehensible murmuring passed between the numerous pairs of spectral lips, until the figure in the centermost canvas abruptly clapped its hands, snapped to attention, and stepped forward out of the frame.

“Beware! Beware! Beware!” it said, or rather sang, then paused as if awaiting a cue.

Instead, there was silence. After a few moments, however, Dr. Sauvé swallowed audibly and half-whispered, half-sang a verse:

“Gaunt vision, who art thou,
That thus with icy glare
And stern relentless brow,
Appearest, who knows how?”

The ghost – a tall, broad-shouldered figure with thick ebony hair and a silver-trimmed British military uniform, complete with rapier thrust through a belt-sheath – grinned merrily and replied in a bold baritone:

“I am the spectre of the late
Sir Roderic Murgatroyd,
Who comes to warn thee that thy fate,
Thou canst not now avoid.”

Without waiting for the dazed professor’s murmur of “Alas, poor ghost!”, the phantasm proceeded to execute a rousing rendition of a lively patter song, accompanied by a piano whose notes came from nowhere in particular and backed by occasional counterpoint from the rest of the paintings’ inhabitants, though none of these actually emerged from their frames. And as the intangible canvas chorus uttered a final “Ha! Ha! The dead of the night’s high noon!”, there was a blinding golden flash, and in the next instant, ghost and paintings and music had utterly, totally vanished.

Dr. Sauvé was still rubbing his eyes as the house lights gradually came up. Around him, the students were whispering furiously. “Well?” demanded Kirsten da Silva. “And who was that?”

“Roderick Riley, class of ’25,” an amused voice called from the back of the house, “performing Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore.”

The professor stood and turned. “Ah, Mr. Morgenthaler. Your rehearsal doesn’t begin for another half hour. And how would you know that?”

“We’ve met,” said the newcomer. “Didn’t Ms. McKenna tell you about the excitement last spring when we opened The Sorcerer?”

Dr. Sauvé blinked. “She did mention a few unusual incidents in her notes, and indicated some that were blamed on the erstwhile Mr. Riley’s apparition – I do know the stories, thank you – but stopped short of claiming the gentleman had actually manifested himself.”

“Diplomatic of her,” Peter Morgenthaler said wryly. “Trust me; he’s genuine. Not that you need me to tell you that now. Ghost scenes on Halloween – no wonder he put in an appearance!”

The professor turned his eyes toward the rafters. “Indeed. Besides which he’s wreaked havoc on my grading curve.”

“What?” This was Kirsten da Silva again, sounding outraged. “How so?”

Dr. Sauvé glanced down at the petite second-year student. “Not only does he qualify as the most frightening performer of the afternoon, he isn’t a half-bad actor.” He picked up his clipboard and extracted a pen from his pocket. “There must be something we could cast him in….”