They paced below me like a pack of wolves, never straying too far from one of the two ladders. Their only way up, my only way down. I heard muttering and arguing as they paced, but could not catch the words, nor discern what they meant. It was as if they belonged in a different world. A nightmare from which I had escaped and could now watch, curiously, like a TV show on a boring Sunday afternoon.
After the high caused by the adrenaline and pain, I was sinking into exhausted narcosis, two steps away from a coma. The pain was at the same time intense and detached, as if it was happening to someone else. My mind, my emotions, all were all numb from shock and horror. A mercy, all things considered.
One of the actors looked up, its plastic, inhuman face eyeing me hungrily. They were coming for me, there was no doubting that. I forced myself up, holding to the rail for support, and slowly made my way to the door on the opposite end of the walkway. It could be my escape. My only chance to leave this crazed, ridiculous nightmare.
The doorknob didn’t even budge. I tried to turn it again, but it felt stuck. Was it locked? Or perhaps the door was too old and had jammed shut, fallen into disrepair. Impossible to know. My way out was another dead end.
In my dissociative state I couldn’t even process that my hopes of survival had been dashed. It was still just like a TV show you half-watch while preparing dinner, some cliffhanger blaring in the kitchen. ‘How will our hero escape? Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion!’
I had no idea how I was going to escape this alive.
Another actor sneaked close to the other ladder, taking a few tentative steps, maybe hoping I wouldn’t notice. I started hobbling back to the cans of paint and the actor quickly went back down and moved away from the ladder. They were scared of me.
Perhaps I could stay here all night? Wait until someone noticed all the disappearances and the cavalry broke down the doors and charged to my rescue. All I had to do was hold the fort, keep them away and survive the night. Like the Alamo. Did anyone know I was in the theater? I wracked my brain, trying to piece together what had happened between my invitation and when I walked into the theater. Did I tell anyone? No, of course not. Nobody knew except my girlfriend.
Although that was wishful thinking, I patted my pockets absentmindedly, as if hoping I was misremembering. But no, the cell phone was not with me. Left at home in its charger. Of course.
All left for me to do was wait. I didn’t know what time it was or when someone would even notice I was gone, let alone try to rescue me. So I sat next to the cans, nervously looking down at the ladder now and then while trying to ignore the pain in my leg. Five minutes in those circumstances would have felt like five hours.
So I had no idea how much time had passed until I noticed the stranger sitting on the rafter in front of me.
It was the same stranger from the play, dressed in a yellow hoodie with a featureless, white mask covering their face. Their gender was impossible to tell under the hoodie; all I could see was that the stranger had skin as pale as a corpse and long, dishevelled blonde hair. The plastic mask was what disturbed me the most. It was the only part of the thing that seemed alive.
In my surprise, I stumbled and fell on the floor of the walkway, hands gripping tightly at the rail to avoid falling off. The stranger didn’t react, not even turning its head in my direction, yet I felt it staring at me, drinking every gasp of breath and every drop of cold sweat inching down my scalp.
“What the fu…? How…?” I stuttered in disbelief. “How the fuck did you get here? Wh… When?”
“I’ve always been here,” said the stranger.
I felt my heart pounding as my anger rose. I remembered what happened when the stranger entered the play, the others’ reactions. I remembered the one playing Gonzalo, weeping before they pushed him off the table and let him strangle to death on the noose. I remembered the veins in his neck bulging as his tongue popped from his mouth, swollen as a well-fed leech. It had all started with the appearance of this yellow figure.
“Why the fucking fuck are you doing this?” I whispered, not daring to take my eyes away from the stranger clad in yellow. “What in the hell… Why?!”
“Every play needs an audience,” was the reply I got. Not angry, nor guilty, the voice had a slightly bored drawl, as if commenting on the weather.
“Wha...?” I asked. But the stranger was no longer there. My brain was not ready for cryptic shit. So I ignored the King in Yellow and looked back down, checking the ladders to see if the other actors were sneaking up on me while I was engaged.
They weren’t. Instead they all huddled together and seemed to be having a spirited argument, punctuated by gestures and fierce nodding. There were only three of them. This surprised me more than anything, the sudden realization that I had cut their active numbers by half, all alone. Two corpses under each ladder and one still alive, but clutching his leg, next to the stage.
But I had no time to rejoice. The three seemed to reach an agreement, and then my heart lurched as I realized their plan. The actors split up and took position, one on each ladder, while the third stayed behind. They began slowly climbing the ladders on each side, carefully this time, with weapons tucked away and using both hands, always staring upwards.
I groaned as I forced myself up, dragging a can of paint with me to the end of the walkway, with the ladder. When I got there, I stopped to catch my breath as my heart pounded furiously. But I could not afford to rest. No time.
So I aimed and threw the can at the man climbing to kill me. It was a decent throw, but he had time to anticipate it. He jumped to the side and clung to only one side of the ladder, avoiding the can entirely as it fell and hit the floor below, bouncing with a clatter.
“Shit!” I hesitated, but there was nothing I could do. The two of them were still climbing, and there were only two cans of paint left. There was no way to hit someone, drag a heavy can to the opposite end of the walkway and hit the other one in time. It was already over. I was going to die.
My stomach knotted in dread, almost pushing back more bile before I took a deep breath. I would not survive the night. It was a good show, I managed longer than I thought possible. But with every enemy I took down, I received another wound, got a bit more tired, a bit weaker. And there was only so much I could give before I was too weak to fight back.
I was hurt, tired and they still outnumbered me three to one.
Even as my mind despaired, my body raised itself upright and hobbled to the other side, where the two remaining cans rested, right beside the other ladder. What made me struggle so much, despite feeling so hopeless, I could barely understand. Blind and primal will to live, no more and no less. It happened almost independent of thought, automatic, deep in the beating heart of the unconscious mind. Such was the strength of my survival instinct that I reached the cans before any semblance of a plan formed in my brain.
Grabbing hold of another can, I hefted it and looked down, trying to aim it better. The actress climbing slowed down, preparing to dodge just like the other one. We stood in that tableau for a long, interminable moment, before I hurled the can down with as much force as I could. I nearly fell from the momentum of the throw, holding onto the rail for dear life, but I still saw the killer jump to the side again, and the can hitting her on the left shoulder. She buckled, with a grunt of pain, but looked upwards and steeled herself, continuing to slowly climb the ladder.
I had one last paint can. She was hurt, but still climbing, and there was no way to stop them both. Yet still I waited patiently for her to climb higher, enough that dodging my throw would be impossible. The masked actress must have realized, as she was climbing, that she was getting closer and closer to her own death. With every rung of that ladder climbed, she was closer and easier to hit. Yet she continued to climb and I still held onto the last can, my hand trembling from emotional exhaustion and the weight of the can.
She was two steps away when I judged it right and raised the can above me, I was ready for her to jump aside. I was ready for her to try blocking the can with her arm or jumping to clear the last few steps. I was ready to fake a throw, or even hit her with the can.
I was not ready when she tore the mask away from her face, red and puffy from crying, and shouted “PLEASE! Please… Don’t kill me!”
I recognized her. Not her face, nor her name, but she used to be my friend. Our friend, me and my girlfriend’s. A wave of nausea hit me like a blow to the chest as I thought of my girlfriend. Had she been one of my victims? Had I unknowingly killed her while struggling to survive?
“Please,” she begged, her eyes wide with fear, not daring look away. “Please, don’t kill me...”
Without the mask, pleading like that, she was a human being. Another person, like you or me. And her life was in my hands. I hesitated for a terrible moment, until I saw out of the corner of my eye the other actor, still masked, climbing onto the walkway.
So I threw the can at her before my mind finished processing my choice. I saw her surprise, her fear, instants before the can hit her face. The bloody impact knocked her off the ladder and she landed on the broken stage with a sickening splat. She did not get up again.
I had killed someone. I had done it before, but this felt worst. Her expression before being hit was still engraved in my mind, every last detail. Worst of all, I did not feel angry or sad, all I felt was afraid. The fear of death cloyed over me, overcoming any other emotions under its stench. The man on the other side of the walkway turned to face me, all expression hidden behind a cheap mantis mask, and he took out the axe hooked on his belt. There was no way to escape now, I could not go down the ladder fast enough with my broken leg.
I had killed my former friend for nothing.