Her voices flickers between the walls, somewhere out of reach, echoing off the wide, curved confines of the amphitheater. It comes in waves, the words themselves lost behind the static of the chattering, packed crowd like the apocalyptic hum of an approaching locust horde. Their conversations pirouette and meld together into one great noise, devoid of any particular purpose, but the volume ebbs and flows, bouncing off each other’s empty responses. They are excited. We are anticipating something fantastic to appear upon the bare and backlit stage.
I didn’t buy a ticket for this event, nor was I informed of the evening’s entertainment. I was floated to this place like a spirit haunting the room, unable to leave or enter, but always existing as an ethereal body, ignored by the congregation. They are far too enamored by what’s to come to pay attention to those around them, only letting their words hum and intertwine with no goal but to voice their quarantined mind, oblivious to their surroundings, but collectively all saying the same thing to nobody at all: I am here to celebrate.
The phone in my hand twists around my fingers like a skittish wild mouse. I see her name next to the number, but I’m unable to coax the phone into submission so I can press the call button. The digits interchange and morph before my eyes, toying with me, unwilling to allow me to commit them to memory. Somewhere in my mind is the correct order, but any recollection dissolves away into a blank chasm before the image becomes vivid enough to discern.
Sometimes the overwhelming din of the crowd falls away when the black curtains rustle onstage, and the people wait for something to happen, and in that brief moment of hushed silence, her voice screams out, crashing against the walls like a provoked bull in a pen. The amphitheater trembles as if struck by an earthquake, but no one pulls their eyes away from the curtains. This is what they have ached and wished for their entire lives. Nothing will remove them from the moment of revelation. Nothing else could possibly matter but what lies behind. I do not know what awaits us, but the only thing I do know, the only full thought that my mind allows itself to appear in detail, is that what lies behind the curtain is the thing I most do not want to witness. Anything else could appear on the stage, and the terror strangling me would release its grip, but at the very base of my being I know that any of these things are not what is to come. It is the terrifying, inevitable certainty of this event. It is unavoidable. It is exactly what these people have come to see.
When I try to lock eyes with my fellow audience members, their faces contort and twist like seawater at the whim of a hurricane. What remain constant are the black pockets where eyes would be, and though I can’t see life inside the abysses that seem to go for miles through the backs of their heads, I feel the intention and focus somewhere deep within that tells me their awareness is palpably upon me, if only for a moment, before turning their attention back to the stage.
There is nothing to do but wait for the main event to commence.
* * *
The warning is given when the massive, crystalline chandeliers dim overhead, and the amphitheater is bathed in darkness, and nothing remains but the red floodlights illuminating the center stage. The crowd falls silent, a kind of silence I’ve never experienced before. I can hear the blood moving through my veins, buzzing, my heart leaping inside my chest like a trapped creature trying violently to escape from a cardboard box. This will be the greatest show on Earth.
A man walks onto the center stage. He wears an extravagant red tuxedo, the color accentuated beneath the floodlights’ glow, its coattails draping far behind him upon the floor like a slug’s mucus trail. A black top hat sits on his head, adding a foot to his short and squat stature. His mustache is thick, and manicured to curl at the ends like a carnival barker from an era long passed. His face does not contort when I watch. Despite his appearance that feels alien, he is the only real and life-like entity I’ve yet seen here. But something about him unsettles me more than the melting faces of my peers. There is no humanity in his presentation, in his eyes. His face stabs me at the bottom of my stomach with the same, distant feeling one gets as a child when separated from a parent in a grocery store. He is the loneliest man I have ever seen, but that isolation doesn’t come from within himself, it emanates out towards the crowd in tangible waves. He feels none of it, but creates it for others to absorb. He is the acidic, tainted water filling the lungs of a man drowning in the ocean.
The anticipatory silence of the crowd is shattered when the phone in my hand erupts with a harsh ringing, intensified by the amphitheater’s acoustics. All at once, the fluid, jigsaw faces of every person in attendance turn and face me like a hive of predators that have caught the scent of blood. The man on stage, once grinning, zeroes in on the disturbance and his face becomes fierce and stone-like. His eyes directed upon me physically hurt, as if his gaze has released an undetectable poison that seeps beneath my skin like radioactive fallout, and sets every nerve ending in my body on fire. But the distraction is worth the agony, for when I look down upon the screen I see her name, illuminated and bold, unchanging and legible. The audience collapses upon me as I try to accept the call, and before I can make contact, the faceless man closest snatches the phone out of my hand and throws it onto the ground, shattering it with a violent stomp of his boot. He holds a finger up to his lips that swirl around his face like water circling a drain. Shhh, he says. Shhh.
Again, from somewhere beyond us, her voice screams in horror, filling up the empty space of the amphitheater. The chandeliers sway and crash against each other like massive wind chimes in a storm. As though this were the cue the man on stage was waiting for, the wide, toothy grin reappears across his face, and he holds out a rigid arm with his palm out, offering up the main event. Without a word, he then walks off stage, the coattails last to disappear, following behind like a loyal pet. The crowd’s attention falls away from me and my faux pas, and each empty, black hole is directed back upon the curtains.
Before I can see what’s been revealed as the curtains are pulled away, the spectators leap to their feet, screaming and cheering, their outstretched arms blocking my view of the stage. I wrestle my way between two men standing in front of me to catch a glimpse of what’s caused this explosive reaction. What I then see is something I cannot make sense of.
A young woman wearing nothing but tattered, brown rags and a pained grimace upon her face stands at the center stage. The red floodlights shift to aim directly over her, creating a glowing circle like a ring of fire that gives the appearance of an inescapable prison cell. The audience’s ovation is deafening, building in intensity until the claps and cheers cause my ears to ring. This moment they’ve waited for has lived up to their expectations and more. They’ve entered a place of ecstasy, as if any life remaining within this woman is being sapped and absorbed by her onlookers with each passing second of applause, and beneath its weight, her legs give out and she crumples onto her knees. She opens her mouth to scream, or to cry, but any noise that may have been released is silenced by the thunderous response of the crowd.
This goes on until the woman begins to hack and cough as if something is caught in her throat, and the applause stops flat. The focused, unwavering attention of ten thousand black holes falls upon her, and the air becomes thick with static energy. Their twisting bodies all lean in closer, anxious to bear full witness to every single detail of what is next to come.
The woman’s eyes bulge out, and her mouth gapes, and her tongue hangs over her scabbed bottom lip, and a torrent of black liquid ejects from her body, pooling upon the stage. The stench burns when inhaled, and the whole of the amphitheater fills with the miasma emitted from the substance. It is unavoidable. The crowd responds with a chorus of Ohhhhs, and scattered pockets of reserved claps echo from different corners of the room.
Something inside me twinges with the acute urge to leap onto the stage and help this woman, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I am trapped in place, watching it all unfold in horror, paralyzed by fear or disgust or awe. She struggles to stand, her body trembling, and again parts of the audience clap while some moan as if watching a matador narrowly escaping the bull’s horns. Like a matador’s audience, they’ve come to see what happens when it all goes wrong. They want destruction. They want the worst-case scenario. We are ancient Romans in the Coliseum, holding our breath until the lone gladiator fails in solitary combat.
The woman wipes the oil-like bile from her chin and stumbles backwards, and her eyes grow large and wide. Something new is happening. She holds her hands out in front of her face, staring at them as if learning for the first time that they’re attached to her body, and before the audience can gauge what’s now occurring, she opens her mouth again to release a silent scream. Deep wrinkles and spots appear upon her skin, and her fingers gnarl like the limbs of a diseased tree. Dark bags form beneath her eyes, and black veins protrude out, running down her legs and neck like polluted rivers. Her spine contorts, forcing her into a submissive, hunched posture. The long, brown hair draping down around her shoulders thins and falls out onto the stage in clumps, and the color in what’s left of the patches upon her head drains away and turns a sickly gray. Any strength left in her legs drains with it, and she falls back onto her side, and the audible crack of a bone breaking reverberates off the walls. Her body seems to shrivel and shrink, and she curls into the fetal position, the blood-red lights burning through her skin so as to make her appear almost translucent. Ghost-like. A shadow of what existed only seconds before.
The audience erupts with cheers and triumphant shouts. There is no reverence in their acclaim for the performance. It’s bloodlust. They want more. Keep going. Go further. Don’t stop. This is what we are owed.
She continues to wither like a fruit picked from the tree and left to rot beneath the sun, curling her knees into her chest, taking on the form of an aborted fetus tossed upon the hospital floor, until the only sign of life that remains are her eyes, still open, vibrantly aware of what’s happening to the vessel they reside within. As the rest of her body shrinks, her eyes seem to grow by contrast, and they are wet, and they glimmer in the light, and they speak in silence, louder than the boisterous approval of the crowd. They say Help me. Help me. Help me. I’m still here. Help me.
The man in the top hat returns onto the stage, and the audience’s elation multiplies tenfold. Every faceless creature leaps onto their feet, compelled to shout and holler and clap and clap and clap. Their applause is like warfare. The amphitheater shakes, and the chandeliers crash against one another, and the floodlights flash until I can see nothing but white splotches like fireworks.
Somewhere beyond the chaos, a faint noise floats just beneath. It is constant, and though its volume is nothing to that of the clamor of the audience, it pierces through and remains, unchanging. It stings. It burns. It hurts so much that it brings my vision back to focus, and I see the man standing over the dying woman, grinning, holding his arms out towards her, not to help, but to present the intended results of the show. The finale.
Look at what I’ve done for you.
As the man takes a bow, and the woman cowers and convulses, devolving into a limp pile of flesh, and the spectators’ applause becomes like the seven trumpets of Revelation, otherworldly and impossible to ignore, this other sound, this separate and familiar sound, grows louder and louder, until it centers inside my ears for only me to listen. And very suddenly, the horrible cacophony of the amphitheater disappears, and I understand the source of the noise that I am hearing.
They say when your ears ring, you’re hearing the sound of damaged cells dying. They say you will never hear that exact same frequency ever again. It is something to remember. That’s the only way that it will ever continue to exist.
* * *
Months have passed since the night my mother’s flatlining heart monitor awoke me from my sleep upon the chair beside her hospital bed. Months have passed since I deleted the voice messages left on my phone that tethered me however weakly to her ghost. But the dream never leaves. Every night the man returns, and the faceless audience, and the decaying woman, and the unanswerable calls, and her shrieking voice, and the long, painful, sobering, buzzing sound that first brought me back to my waking life, only for me to miss by mere seconds the conclusion of her own. The dream never leaves because the sound, the shrill ringing, was committed to memory, and that sound will never end until it, too, one day beckons me to the amphitheater as the star of the show.
Maybe then, when the man takes a bow over my dying body, and the audience’s applause drowns out my terror of the coming unknown, the sound will cease. But until that inevitable time, each night I visit her. In the only way my mind can ever allow it again.
I will take what I can.