Naomi and Ashton stepped onto the platform while a hidden cello player created a somber melody throughout the theatre. Ashton offered his hand and Naomi drew herself into his arms. They began a dance, and at the same time, two ribbons cascaded from above. Both performers took the ribbons and climbed to the top before swinging back to each other’s embrace. As the dance continued and the cello sustained its solemn melody, I glanced around at the audience; they were all engrossed and mesmerized by the performance.
While I was in awe myself, I couldn’t pay too much attention as I was stuck on the plot we formed together. I was constantly fiddling with my hands and had trouble trying not to scratch my arms. The cloth around my left arm helped me from injuring it, but my nerves were getting to me. I wanted to keep watching the performance and enjoy it for my friends on stage. However, my eyes couldn’t help but wander to her.
The imposter hadn’t moved much since the performance began. The only action she had made so far was her hand as she brought the goblet to her lips and back down to the hand-rest of the cushioned chair. The imposter then broke the routine and this time, offered out her hand as if she too was awaiting a dance, but instead, snapped her fingers. Her command brought the cello’s tune to a hasty halt.
Everyone looked at each other, confusion washed over their faces as they whispered amongst themselves. Children asked their parents what was going on, but the adults were equally confused. Then, there was a stretching sound, like something was going to rip. I wasn’t sure where the sound was coming from until gasps stirred and my focus swerved to Naomi whose ribbon was stretching and stretching and—
For a second I forgot how to breathe, and I think everyone else did too. We watched in horror as the ribbon broke off and Naomi fell. I was about to yell and call out, but it was too late. Naomi landed on her back and her body shook from the impact. She was still conscious but could barely get up.
“Naomi!” Ashton dropped from his ribbon and rushed to Naomi’s side, bringing her to his arms. I managed to break myself from my stiffness and dash down the stairs of the amphitheater to reach the two.
“Sophie, get back to your seat,” Ashton urged me.
“He’s right, Sophie,” a silvery voice intervened and my heart skipped a beat. The imposter stood over us with an intimidating air that even made Ashton look uneasy. Her unusual cat-like eyes stared down at me. The moon hung behind her and cast her face in shadows, but the imposter’s eyes shinned eerily.
“Come now, it’s best that you sit with me.” She took my arm, but before she dragged me away, Ashton slipped something in my dress pocket. The pocket was weighed down by what felt like a small bag, was it the poison? No, I couldn’t—
“Ashton, please get Naomi to the medical tent immediately,” she said.
“Y—yes.” Ashton looked at me one last time before carrying Naomi off. The look he gave me. . .it was that of regret. He clearly didn’t want me to do the deed but this was our last chance.
“I am so sorry, ladies and gentlemen,” the imposter suddenly announced to the crowd, her voice loud and clear to the stunned audience. “Accidents happen, but rest assured, our beloved Naomi will get well soon enough. Now, let’s get on to our next performance.”
The audience didn’t know how to react. Some nervously watched Naomi being carried away, while others awaited the next performance with stiff postures. I wondered if they wanted to leave, but the train wouldn’t come back for another hour. We were all stuck here, but fortunately for them, they weren’t being dragged into a den.
The imposter brought me up to her platform and made me sit on the spare chair next to her. Her bottle of wine and glass were seated on the table like honored guests. The bottle was a transparent green and lined with black markings that vaguely resembled a cat. I observed it quietly as I fiddled with the bag in my pocket, but then I retracted my hand when the imposter caught my gaze and smiled.
“Isn’t this a much better spot?” she asked. “You get a perfect view of the whole amphitheater.”
“What did you do to Naomi?” I asked.
“Accidents happen dear,” the imposter answered bluntly, “the ribbon wasn’t secured right.”
“You cut the ribbon.”
“Hush now, the next performance is about to begin.”
A hidden door within the theatre’s floor opened and Molly appeared, followed by a disgruntled Jerome whose back was hunched and convulsing.
“Molly told me that Jerome wasn’t well. . .” I said, holding my hands together.
“That’s unfortunate,” the imposter simply said with indifference.
I squeezed my hands and turned back to Molly. She was carrying a whip, a prop used to guide Jerome around the area, but Jerome was barely cooperating. Instead, he was coughing until a black substance spilled from his mouth. The black substance was very similar to the orb that the imposter had shown me before.
“You. . .you did something to Jerome, didn’t you?” I asked the imposter, but she didn’t answer. “What did you do?” She still didn’t answer.
“Jerome!?” Molly ran to Jerome, but suddenly halted. A thin black mist meandered from his mouth, revealing rows of rotten black teeth.
“Jerome?” Molly asked shakily, reaching a hand out, but Jerome thrashed her hand away with his paw.
“Molly!” I screamed. I stood up but the imposter directed me back to the chair.
“Now, now,” she said, “it’s rude to interrupt a performance.”
“But—” I was cut off by Jerome’s roar that bellowed throughout the amphitheater like a raging storm. The audience was either in awe or startled by Jerome’s behavior. The children were at the edge of their seats while the adults kept a secure grip on them. They couldn’t leave the area and I feared what was going to come next.
Molly had dropped the whip and retreated backwards, cradling her injured hand. Jerome crushed his paw onto the whip, effortlessly breaking the handle and knocking it away.
“Jerome, wh—what’s wrong with you?” Molly asked. Jerome couldn’t listen as he advanced. His paws stomped into the dirt and his head bowed, ready to leap. Molly kept inching back and watched her steps. Jerome lurched into the air with a deafening roar.
“RUN, MOLLY!” I screamed, standing up again but the imposter pushed me back down. I cringed when my back slammed against the chair. I stared tearfully at Molly who had barely missed Jerome’s attack and was now running around the amphitheater for dear life.
“She’s like a little mouse,” the imposter commented. I couldn’t look at her, but I could sense a mocking smile in her voice.
“You’re a monster. . .” I accused.
“What was that?” The smile in her voice vanished instantly and was replaced with a sound much more dangerous.
“You’re a monster,” I voiced clearly, but choked up in the end. Tears filled my vision but I didn’t miss seeing the imposter raise her hand, ready to strike me. I shut my eyes, awaiting the hit but it didn’t come. I timidly opened my eyes and saw the imposter pick up her goblet instead, sipping it and placing it back on the hand rest.
“A monster. . .” she echoed, sounding strangely prideful. “If I am a monster. . .wouldn’t your grandmother be the same? Bearing in mind that she created I, it would only be fitting.”
“No!” I denied. “Stop. Please stop accusing my grandmother.”
“You’re such a naïve child. Why are you so against knowing the truth?”
“Stop,” I repeated.
“Why can’t you accept it? Your grandmother is a dangerous woman.”
The audience collectively gasped and some of the children proceeded to cry. Jerome had pinned Molly to the ground and she was struggling to get off, but Jerome’s weight was too much. Jerome leaned in and unhinged his jaw. A burst of black smoke spewed from his mouth and covered the ground in a rolling black sea.
“Is the lion going to hurt her, mommy?” one child asked.
“I’m scared,” another child said.
“I wanna go home,” another pleaded.
The voices rung in my head as if they were my own words. I was just like the rest of them: worried, wanting to go home, but most of all—scared. I was scared to death and I could only watch alongside hundreds and hundreds of people as my friend fought for her life. My arm was burning and I was desperate to scratch it, but instead, I seized the bracelet that Molly had given me.
My fingers fiddled with the beads as I remembered her kind words to me. I didn’t want it to end like this. Not like this. Not like this. I shut my eyes and was ready to cry out again, but when I was about to open my mouth, there was silence. Dead silence.
The children’s voices had stopped echoing in my head. The adults had stopped comforting their families. Jerome had stopped roaring. Molly had stopped screaming. There was nothing but my heavy breathing that I had trouble controlling. Tension kept me from opening my eyes, but I had to know why it was so quiet.
My eyelids cracked open and the first thing I focused on was the audience. Their jaws unhinged in surprise, their eyes were unblinking. They didn’t move, however, neither did Jerome and Molly. Molly was still pinned to the ground with a frightened expression spread over her pale face. She was only inches away from Jerome’s gaping mouth.
“I just remembered,” a silvery voice said beside me, “you told me that I wouldn’t hurt Molly, correct?”
“Wh—what did you do?”
“I can manipulate whatever I desire. These worlds are made from paintings that depict scenes frozen in time, but. . .time doesn’t exist in paintings, does it? It’s simply a suspension,” the imposter said, curling her hand that was now cloaked in black like a glove.
“I shall give you the chance to save your friend, the poison in your pocket should serve you well if you feed it to the lion.”
“How did you—”
“Go on,” the imposter prompted, nudging my shoulder. I rose to my feet. I couldn’t look at her nor the horrified, frozen faces of the crowd. Silence only followed me while descending the stone steps. All I wanted to do was to get Molly out of there and run, but if I made the attempt, the imposter would only get me. . .and take my eyes. I didn’t want to think of it, but I could feel her stare burning in the back of my head. Always watching. Always smiling a mocking smile. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t. . .
When I came to Molly, the first feature I noticed were her enlarged eyes that stared helplessly into the black abyss that was Jerome’s famished mouth. Molly’s own mouth was locked in a soundless scream. Her arms were stretched out, pinned down by Jerome’s gigantic claws. They pierced through Molly’s skin, allowing beads of blood to seep and stain her powdered skin. I bent down and touched Molly’s injured hand. The skin that was usually warm was now cold and dry, the powder was chipping off and her fingernails had been chewed.
As for Jerome, his pupils had vanished from his eyes and were replaced by two, blood red voids. I was merely inches from Jerome’s sullied teeth. They were like long knives that could rip through anything in seconds. Thinking about it caused me to shiver and my hand found itself in my pocket. I reached for the bag, but paused. No, I couldn’t poison Jerome. . .he was being manipulated. He was only being manipulated.
“What’s taking you so long?” the imposter asked, descending the steps herself.
“I can’t do it,” I said. “I can’t hurt Jerome. . .I can’t.”
“Do you want your friend to die?”
“Then do it,” the imposter ordered. “Feed him the poison.”
“Very well,” Hertha raised her hand, “you’ve made your choice.”
“No!” I cried out, I threw my arms over Jerome’s head, pressing my palms against his mane. Tears freely fell from my eyes and got lost in the fur. “You’re not going to hurt him. . .or Molly. . .or anyone. You’re not.”
The imposter scoffed. “Look at you—crying so pathetically. Why don’t I simply take your eyes so you can stop sulking?”
My hands coiled around Jerome’s mane as I watched the imposter draw closer and closer. Before I knew it, she ripped me away, seizing me by the throat.
“Ah!” I gasped and my hand reached out to grab her arm, while my free one returned to my pocket. I fiddled with the string and managed to stretch the bag open.
“I offered you a chance to save your little friend,” the imposter said, “but you dismiss it.”
I gasped more for air but the imposter squeezed the breath out of me. My eyes were getting watery and numbness was crawling all over my skin.
“I was even considering giving you a more peaceful end,” the imposter continued, “oh well.”
With her other hand, she reached for my eye. But before she had the chance to take it, I grabbed a handful of the poisonous powder and flung it into her own eyes.
The imposter screeched and released me. I stumbled back, clutching my aching throat and coughed.
“YOU LITTLE BRAT!” she howled, thrusting a claw in my direction but missing me by a hair. The imposter bent forward, covering her eyes as she howled and howled until black mist spewed from her skin, transitioning to an ugly gray. She attempted to grab me again, but failed as I hurried to Jerome who had suddenly fallen on his side. All the black mist escaped from his mouth and his teeth gradually turned back to white. He was thankfully still breathing.
I came to Molly and tried to shake her awake. “Molly, Molly, please get up!” I begged, but I didn’t get a response, only the constant cries from the imposter who had now dropped to her knees, still covering her eyes.
“DAMN YOU! WHERE ARE YOU!?” The imposter demanded. Beyond her shrills, I began to hear gasps and exclamations roused from the crowd who had broken from their spell.
“What’s going on?” they asked.
“I want to go home,” children continued to say.
A sudden gasp left Molly’s mouth and she blinked quickly before turning to me.
“Soph? Wha—” She saw the imposter who was thrashing her head from side to side. I caught a quick glimpse of her sweltering, watery eyes and immediately regretted it.
“Run! Run!” I urged, taking Molly’s arm before we dashed out of the amphitheater.
“What happened!?” Molly asked.
“I’ll explain later, we need to hide somewhere!” I cried out. My throat burned and my legs ached, but I forced myself forward until we made it into a shed and locked the door.
“Sophie,” Molly paused, catching her breath, “please tell me what happened.”
I slumped to the floor, exhaustion was taking effect quickly but I had to stay awake. “Ashton had given me the poison and I threw it at the imposter’s eyes,” I said, rubbing my neck. It felt like her fingers were still squeezing me.
“And . . . Jerome?” Molly asked.
“He was being controlled. . .but I think he’s alright now.”
“I have to go back to Jerome,” Molly stated. She reached for the door, but froze when staggering footsteps approached our way, followed by loud banging at the door.
“I know you two are in here,” the imposter hissed in a voice dripping with agony and fury.
“Come out little birdies. Come out.” The door rattled some more and Molly and I joined hands, retreating to the end of the shed. The only window was too small for us to climb out.
“I’ll only be plucking out your eyes, it won’t hurt that much. The process will only take a second, but if you squirm too much, it’ll be much, much longer.”
Molly and I looked desperately for another way out, but there wasn’t anything useful but old costumes and props. Molly snatched up a cane and slid in front of me.
“Molly, what are you—”
“Now, now, it’s best to get it over with, give me your eyes,” the imposter urged, growing more and more impatient. She released a sharp groan. “Argh, it hurts so much! So. Much. Get the hell out here right now. RIGHT NOW!” The door rattled violently as if an earthquake had struck the ground. The wood from the door was chipping off until a small hole was made. The imposter’s swollen red eye--burning as if flames were scorching the pupil—stared unblinking through the hole.
“Come out, come out, come out, come out,” she said abruptly in an endless loop while she shook the door. “It burns, it burns, it burns so much. Come out. Come out. Come out.”
Molly inched a foot closer to the door, shielding both of us with the cane. She leaned forward and swerved the cane back. Molly was still trembling but she didn’t back down. I wanted to tell her that she couldn’t fight the imposter, but I knew my words would do nothing. I bit my lip and once again looked around for something, anything useful. I wondered if we could try to squeeze through the window—
“Jerome!” Molly exclaimed, nearly dropping the cane. The door rattling ceased but was replaced by the sound of Jerome’s paws dashing in the near distance.
“Beast!” The imposter exclaimed, her eye vanishing from the hole. “I command you to stop—No, wait, what are you doing!? I order you—Ah! AGH!”
Silence. . .
Blood trickled from the hole, but it was black. It stopped shortly before the dirt, leaving a dark streak that tainted the wood.
After we were sure it was over, Molly dropped the cane and it clanked to the floor. I came to her side, resting a hand on her shoulder.
With a choked sob, Molly threw her arms around me and we both slumped to our knees, embracing each other. While we embraced, we heard running footsteps, followed by Isaiah’s voice.
“We need to get them out of there!” Isaac’s voice followed.
“Wait, we can’t let them see that.”
“Damn, Jerome really did a number on her.”
“Ya think she’s really gone?”
“Uh, seeing that he got a good chunk off her, yeah.”
“Okay, Molly, Sophie, when we get you two out, we want you to keep your eyes closed until we tell you to open them, alright?”
“Ah, alright,” I said.
“Okay, okay, ugh, we need to get rid of the body before the guests see,” I heard Isaac mutter.
There were some shuffling sounds for a few moments and then the door opened. I closed my eyes and hoped that Molly did too. We were led out by the twins until we were told to open our eyes after a few minutes later.
“Are you two okay?” Isaac asked.
Isaiah frowned at him, “I doubt they’re okay after going through that.”
“Hey, I was just asking.”
“We’ll be fine, I suppose,” I said, “thank you for asking. How’s the audience?”
“Really confused,” Isaac said. “Oscar’s trying to calm everything down. I have the feeling we’re not gonna have a show for a while.”
“We could all use a break anyways,” Molly said.
“Yeah,” Isaia agreed, “especially you two. Come on, let’s get back inside.”
“Wait,” Isaac said, stopping short, “are you still leaving, Soph? She’s gone now, y’know. So you can stay here as long as you want.”
“I. . .” I paused, exchanging a worried look with Molly and dropped my head. “I only want to rest now, it’s been a long night.”
I looked out the window to see the train rolling in. People were rushing to get on the train and I could hear children crying from where I was. My body was still shaking from what happened and I felt the need to escape on the train as well, but I was conflicted. Even though she was gone, I still felt some strange presence as if she was still here taunting me. I still remembered the tightness of her grip around my neck, and felt like that was going to happen again at any moment.
“Hey, shouldn’t you be resting, Sophie?”
I gasped and turned to see that it was only Ashton.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” he said. He had a cup of tea in his hands and handed it to me. I gratefully took it and slowly sipped it.
“I haven’t been able to rest, not after what happened,” I mumbled. “How’s Naomi?”
“Her arm’s broken,” Ashton answered solemnly, “she’s recovering in the medical tent.”
“I see. . .and Molly?”
“Sleeping. I know it’s hard, but you should be sleeping too.”
I turned back to the train which was miraculously still there. I thought it would’ve gone already but it didn’t. It was there as if it was beckoning for one more passenger—me. “I can’t. . .I. . .think I want to go. This is the last train for a while, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” Ashton said. “but it’s safe now, I think it’s best if you stay here.”
“But I don’t feel safe,” I admitted. “It feels like. . .she’s still here.”
“She’s not, Sophie,” Ashton tried to assure me, but I shook my head and set the tea down, unable to drink it.
“I’m sorry.” I whimpered and brushed past Ashton. “I can’t wait any longer for Aleck and I need to find my sister.”
“Sophie!” Ashton called but I didn’t stop, I couldn’t stop. I ignored every voice telling me to stay, and instead fled for my life, leaving my new friends far behind me.