ENTER THE PLAYERS.
There were seven of them, each less than whole in semi-justifiable ways—and magnanimous, cunning, extraordinary all the same. They weren’t a unit, no, rather superimposed subsections of units laid out flat on a table; pictures of people, where only specific corners of the frame touched, but you could, more often than not, take them all in at the same time. Such was the case with the graduating class of Lockland Conservatory, an intimately unintimate constellation of seven remaining theater students with varying levels of vitriol and passion. This was their fourth year, their last year. Shakespeare was the focus of their department. They were coming into adulthood by borrowing the words of a man who had long been food for the worms and maggots; they were coming into adulthood by borrowing the words of a man who had never died. They were coming into adulthood and they were immortal. This was partially to blame for what happened.
It was autumn.
The setting: their refurbished library, a common ground for the seven to alternate between practicing and drinking, sometimes alone, often with their respective partners in crime, and rarely all together. But, tonight, there was a storm brewing, and the cracked window let in a draft that chilled the room. Their last first day back would begin in the morning. All together they were, indeed.
The scene: Marcella, stifling a yawn on the back of her palm. She had an elegance about her, and lacked the fragility that tended to accompany poise. No, Marcella was the fire Prometheus stole—a lawless, brilliant reflection of a woman who could be king. And king she was, king she’d played. Lockland cut students every year; surviving to their fourth had been a feat. Yet, Victor wouldn’t be surprised to find that Marcella had taken matters into her own hands, had plucked the competition out one-by-one and ruined them—fair is foul and foul is fair—had sabotaged until she was left with enough of the class to have an ensemble: an arrangement of spare parts in an automated weapon, and Marcella the bullet. Marcella the king.
Marcella the despot, Eli had called her once, acidic in a way that was natural for him but that he hardly let slip—which had piqued Victor’s interest, that was how it went, the itch to rip off Eli’s skin and see what lay under the curation, but that, of course, was besides the point—and Victor had rolled his eyes. I’m serious. If we ever do Richard III, she wouldn’t have to work to convince Lyne to give her the role.
You’re hardly a Richard III type, Eli.
I didn’t say I was. Although I think I have some key similarities with him that Marcella happens to be missing.
Yet Marcella wouldn’t have to work for it. And you would.
His eyes had flashed at that, not quite expecting the comment; Victor had a tendency to keep those to himself. He took a mental image of Eli then, mouth agape, the picture of startled anger, defensive, almost like a cornered dog bristling—it lasted only a second and the costume was back on, ire quieting down to a disdain that could be labeled jocose if anything about Eli Cardale ever was. Fair is foul and foul is fair.
If Marcella was the bullet, Eli was the trigger.
“I’m off to bed.” She announced to the mostly non-receptive room. “Auditions tomorrow, and everything. We all know what we’re doing, yes?”
“Goodnight, Marcella.” Mitch said, from across the table. Victor smirked, heard the irritation in his tone, but didn’t bother looking up from the book he was slashing black lines through. Mitch was different than the rest of them, something inside him a degree warmer—although he kept that under wraps with his appearance, burly frame functioning as a coat of armor of sorts. Fitting. If Marcella was a despot, Mitch was a knight through and through, smarter, sharper than anybody realized—Victor was only just starting to learn as much, and he was the only one.
“Does it matter what monologues we choose? We already know how it’s going to go.” June huffed, tucking flyaway strands of thin hair behind her ear. It’s not that June was forgettable, more that Victor could never quite conjure an image of her in his mind. He didn’t try very often, and he was bad with faces to begin with, but something about June made it feel like she lived inside a slip of perception. It probably would’ve bothered him if he talked to her more. He very decidedly didn’t.
“How’s it going to go?” Serena asked, tightly. Victor felt Eli’s eyes zero in on him and he glanced up to share the pointed look; they’d been talking about this last night, how Serena would for sure be gunning for Lady Macbeth in their production-to-be. How everybody else knew that was Marcella’s role. Eli had said something or other about him preferring Serena, but it felt as though he were trying to make an implication and Victor had promptly tuned it out.
“Cardale as Macbeth, Marcella as the Lady, Mitch’ll get Duncan and Dom will be Malcom. Vale’s got Banquo. I’ll probably have to crossdress again, since they never know where to put me—Macduff, if I’m lucky, Lady Macduff if I’m not. You’ll be Hecate.”
“Hecate’s hardly in the show.” Serena said, voice even. June shrugged, stretched, and rose from her spot on the floor, following Marcella up to their room. Serena watched them go. A frown marred her forehead. Victor, from his peripheral, watched her. Serena seemed to be in a constant leap from naive to calculating, shocked at the world for not bending down to her will and then resolving to make it so that it did, anyway.
“For what it’s worth,” Eli said, sitting next to her on the couch, using that voice of his, amiable and charming, the one he put on sometimes that made Victor grit his teeth, “I think you’d be a particularly electrifying Lady Macbeth.”
“Thanks, Eli.” Serena replied, smiling winningly. What a picture they made—characters posing, actors in every sense of the word. Victor pressed the marker down on the page hard enough for it to bleed through. “I should probably head up to bed, too.”
“Off to get your beauty sleep?” Victor interjected, and Serena focused her attention on him, icier this time. Mitch’s turn to smirk; they were a unified front tonight.
“We can’t all be as naturally effervescent as you, Vale.”
“Oh, I don’t know, I think Marcella’s pulling it off rather well.”
Serena’s smile thinned.
“Goodnight, Serena.” Mitch echoed, and she cast one last look at Eli before disappearing through the staircase. “On that note, we should probably wake Dominic.”
Victor hummed, taking a pencil and flinging it at Dom’s slumped frame. It bounced off his head. The man did not rouse.
“I’ve done all I can.” He claimed, flatly, and Mitch snorted.
“I feel like I should go to bed too, but I’ve never been more awake.” Eli mused, walking over to join them at the table. “Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep.”
“I don’t think that’s what that line means.” Mitch said, witheringly, and Eli let out a forced bark of laughter.
“Mitchell, you’re a riot. Let’s leave the analysis to our specific roles.”
“And that’s my cue.” Mitch proclaimed, shutting the book of poetry he’d been looking through. He grabbed Dom and put one arm over his shoulder; the man stirred slightly, groaning. He threw one last look at Victor, said “night” with a small smile, and then they, too, were gone. Eli sniffed, leaning against the table.
“Just one big, happy family.” He said to the empty room, stalling until he could no longer help but ask. “What monologue are you doing?”
“Brutus. Act four.”
“Hm. Interesting.” Eli nodded, and Victor raised an eyebrow at him. His body was tense, like he was trying not to vibrate. Eli loved Lockland, loved auditioning, loved the praise of it. Loved being the hero—always, always the hero. And he tried to play it off, like he was doing now, tried to pretend the characters he embodied didn’t become a second skin he could slip into whenever he so pleased, tried to pretend he wasn’t as obsessive and cyclical in his nature as Victor knew him to be. It was almost offensive, that Eli thought he would buy that for a second. “I considered doing a Caesar one too. Ended up on Hamlet, though. It’s not as tailored to Macbeth as I would normally go for, but it feels right.”
“‘Feels right.’” Victor repeated, and Eli’s eyes cut over to him. Good. Full attention. “Nothing to do with the fact that we’re doing Hamlet later on in the year?”
“Just want to show I can do it.”
“They know you can do it.”
“Well. Hamlet is a very complicated character.”
“What, as opposed to you? Eliot ‘what you see is what you get’ Cardale?”
“I could be an open book.”
“Oh, sure. Maybe one of these.” Victor held up the book he was currently marking, the page in question row upon row of deep black. Eli huffed, but he seemed looser than before. Like he remembered that they were alone, that performance was futile and the curtains could come down, if only fleetingly.
“I’m hardly a banner reading, God, I don’t know—BE LOST. GIVE UP. GIVE IN.”
He’d quoted one of Victor’s poems directly. Again: good. Full attention.
“I’ll be the content. You be the concept.”
“Scratched out words on a page?”
“Selective showcasing of words on a page.”
“I’m not slashing over my words—personality, thoughts, whatever.” Eli insisted, nails digging into his lap. It was so easy to get to him, Victor thought. The power of it could get him drunk. “I’m not a box. That doesn’t mean any part of me isn’t real.”
“Oh, no, not at all. Eli Cardale, golden boy. All-American charmer.” Victor said, disdainfully.
“Why do you want me to be worse than I am?”
“I don’t. I just know where your show ends and you begin.”
A beat of silence. It was the fact that they hadn’t seen each other all break that had led to this conversation. Months cooped up at home with nothing but his thoughts, no effort to contact Eli whatsoever—because he never did over the breaks. No place to contact, Eli had never given any of them anywhere to call, or write. Victor had been alone with his thoughts, and he needed to reacquaint himself with his tactics—calling Eli out directly hardly ever did anything productive, no, his real self had to be teased out of him, like a single thread unspooling a ball of yarn. Gentle. Not that either of them were.
“I missed this place.” Eli said, finally. Meaning of course, by extension, Victor. Maybe Eli hadn’t quite recalibrated his own tactics yet either. But he would, they both would. Victor considered his options for a moment.
“It missed you.”
Auditions came and went unceremoniously. Victor didn’t have a strong feeling on the nature of auditioning; he preferred actual performance,as did all of them, and he disliked the idea of a minute deciding his slot in a show, as did all of them, but it was as June had said: Lyne had known them for four years, and he had always cast them the exact same way. It didn’t matter. There would be variation when hell froze over.
Then the cast list came out. And hell froze over.
“Uh, guys,” Dom said, papers in hand. It was his turn to make the trek up to where the cast list was posted and then report back. “You’re gonna wanna see this.”
It was just him, Victor, Mitch, and Eli, gathered outside at the courtyard. They leaned in together, eyes sweeping over the page.
“Oh fuck.” Mitch said, a disbelieving laugh bubbling out of him. “She did it. Serena actually did it.”
“Marcella got Hecate?” Eli said. “Good. She needed to get knocked down a peg or two.”
“She got knocked down a whole ladder. Maybe they’re actually trying to cast us out of our types this year.”
“Hardly. Everything else on this list is extremely predictable.” Victor’s eyes flicked up to Eli. “Congrats.”
“Congrats yourself, Banquo.”
“You get to kill me.”
“You get haunt me for the rest of my days. We’re both satisfied.”
“You kill me, too.” Mitch interjected and Eli shot him a mirthless smile.
“There’s so few of us that a large chunk of the cast is mostly juniors.” Dom noted.
“Juniors getting bigger parts than Marcella…” Eli trailed off.
“And it’s not like she’s scoring some meaty role later on in the year—we’re doing Romeo and Juliet for Christmas and then Hamlet. Like, this was supposed to be hers.” Dom seemed remarkably pleased with the developments. They all did, which Victor thought was...interesting. Obviously he found Marcella obnoxious, indiscreet, but it’s not as though Serena were any better on that front. If anything—he thought Eli was more fit for Lady Macbeth to begin with. Or maybe that was Victor’s role, pushing and prodding and finding fissures in Eli’s proclaimed nobility, murmuring in his ear, the air between them forever electric with the possibility of getting more out of life. Victor knew Eli could rise to new heights. Victor could see it in him clearly. Much like Lady Macbeth could see it in her husband.
Neither Serena or Marcella would ever be able to capture that dynamic; it was words on a page to them, words on a page to all of them, but Victor knew better. Victor knew Eli.
“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.” Mitch recited, an absoluteness in the air that Victor had to admit was almost thrilling. “Rehearsal’s going to be its own play.”
The words were appositely prophetic.
Perhaps sensing the tension, Lyne started them off with a new warmup game of sorts. He was always remarking how dissatisfying it was to see a group of talented young actors fractured into such definitive groups, how it was antithetical to theatre, the need to stay in a safe zone. Victor considered that a wild oversimplification. The seven of them were their own separate animals, sure, with pseudo-packs—there was JuneAndMarcella, MitchAndDom, VictorAndEli, but those weren’t set in stone, hell, Mitch and Dom functioned on a basis of knowing very little about the other, while June and Marcella could get into spats that lasted weeks. JuneAndSerena wasn’t a duo to be underestimated either, and Victor thought that him and Mitch were becoming their own coalition of sorts. They wandered. Even Victor, self-proclaimed lone wolf technically wandered now. And Eli was Eli, he could charm most people, which led to him interacting with students outside the theatre department more than anything else. Serena appreciated him, as did June and even Marcella. Dom and him were also friendly. And, well, Victor and Eli were another undefinable entity entirely. It was only Mitch who seemed particularly averse to Eli and his wiles, an antagonism between the two with a tendency to be mischaracterized by the public eye—Charismatic Cardale and Terrible Turner, it wasn’t difficult to see who others would always consider at fault. And yet Victor could never quite forget the irony of Shakespeare’s most effective con-man being the one to declare that “men should be what they seem; or those that be not, would they might seem none.”
The exercise went as follows: they would each stand in the middle of the room and declare what they believed to be their most important strength and their most perturbing weakness. It was formatted to inspire intimacy. Victor, who did not laugh very often, had to hold one back at this.
Lyne called for volunteers. The room was silent, cold. Defiant.
Then this: Mitch, sighing. Mitch, standing. Mitch, looking forward, jaw squared—he cared, that was the thing. It read so clearly in the lines of his body, the resolution with which he made that first move. He cared and this didn’t scare him. He cared. That shouldn’t have made him so different from the others; it very pointedly did.
“Greatest strength? I give my all to my scene partner.”
It was unexpected, none of them had spared much thought to that. Yet, looking back, it was true. Whatever energy you gave Mitch in a scene he bounced back with twice as much vigor.
“Good. And weakness?”
“People think they know what to expect when they look at me—”
“Keep the discussion theatre-related only.” Lyne interrupted, and Victor scoffed. Eli frowned at that. Victor shrugged him off.
“Yeah, I was getting there. I get cast in roles that stifle rather than accentuate me. Like I can’t handle the complexity of significant roles just because, what? I’m someone who got stopped by the police enough as a high schooler to get, say, blackballed from their small-town farmers markets?” He laughed here, the light in the auditorium illuminating his mirth just as much as his anger. Looking at him then, Victor thought Mitch would make a more compelling hero than both Eli and Marcella combined. “It’s fine. Well—it’s not, but you get used to it. Buy your tomatoes from the grocery store and all that. It just feels like I’m cursed. I know I could be giving more, I want to give more, but there’s this wall between who I am and who people perceive me to be.”
“Okay. How has that become a weakness?”
“You’re being very general. It’s about you not what has happened to you. How has it affected you? How do you think about yourself because of it? People either avert their eyes or look down at you in the hallways—surely that must’ve had some effect on your psyche. That’s the weakness, Mr. Turner.”
“I’m scared I’m nothing but this.” He spread his arms out. “Like nobody cares about anything but this. I’m scared it doesn’t matter that I’m talented or intelligent because no one’s ever gonna see that.”
“And so you won’t ever be loved, despite giving your all.” Lyne guessed.
“Oh, come on—” Dom began, from his place on the floor, and made a move to stand but Mitch held out a hand to stop him. His eyes were steeled, looking directly at Lyne.
“Exactly.” He admitted. God. Nothing like any of them at all. “And that hinders me because I commodify myself on stage to make up for it.”
“Bingo.” Lyne whispered, grinning from ear to ear. “Thank you for being my lab rat, Mr. Turner. That was more experimental than anything else, the rest of you should fly through this. Next.”
And on it went. Dom, in an act of solidarity, followed Mitch and said that his greatest strength was his diligence and commitment to the work, but that he was prone to missing the big picture of a piece outside of his own role. June said that her ability to camouflage made her indispensable to any acting troupe, but that she blended in so well sometimes she had a tendency to render herself unremarkable. Serena said she knew what she wanted from a show and was unafraid to go for it but that she feared her own ambition and the lengths it could take her to. Lyne declared that insufficient. She rectified by stating that she was so used to getting what she wanted she could be self-destructive in her performances, hungry to see how far she could go before somebody thought to stop her. Marcella unabashedly said she was the fiercest actor of them all, with an addictive raw magnetism, but that she was difficult to work with and loathed sharing the spotlight. Victor, walking to the center with as much scorn as he could muster, had announced that he didn’t feel a pressure to conform to the typical interpretations of the roles he played, but that this often meant he couldn’t help from coming across as himself a lot of the time. “Which,” he added, sardonic, “I suppose makes me the worst actor here.”
Then Eli had stepped up, boyish smile on display. He said, relaxed, that he was skilled at portraying the range of human emotion, but that he often got too lost in his own performances.
“Why do you get lost? Do you feel too much?” Lyne asked, and Victor almost snorted.
“Be sure, Eli.”
“I am sure.”
“Well your weakness isn’t good enough.” Marcella piped up, and Eli’s neck snapped towards her. “You’re just ‘too into it.’ Bullshit.”
“I forget I’m not the characters I’m playing.” He said, tightly. Victor leaned forward.
“Why? What do you gain from them?”
“Insight.” Eli said, biting off the second syllable. “They teach me about what people are like. That’s why I’m so good, I study the characters, why they do what they do, it’s a masterclass in the human condition, in how to be—”
Normal. He had stopped himself, but Victor had heard him loud and clear, and it was exhilarating, he wanted to grab a book and mark it, only let three words shine through, I and SEE and YOU.
“I’m good. That’s my strength, clear and simple. I’m the most talented actor in the room. It’s also my weakness. I’m nothing but an actor.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cardale.” Lyne said, finally, and Eli flashed another smile—he didn’t mean for it to come across as threatening but it did. A warning. Eli the trigger. Eli—the whole damn gun. He settled down next to Victor, rolling his eyes in an attempt to play it all off, but Victor hardly noticed. Gooseflesh had risen on the back of his own neck, and he could see them on Eli’s knuckles as well. I and SEE and YOU.
“Decent work. Read-through time. Welcome to Macbeth!”
Over the following weeks it was rapid fire work, memorizing lines and blocking and stumbling through the fight scenes. There was little room for much else, with their classes on top of that and performances beginning mid-October so as to run through Halloween.
“Why, how now, Hecate!” June exclaimed—she’d landed the first witch, a step up from Lady Macduff for sure—“You look angerly.”
“Have I not reason, beldams as you are?” Marcella replied, front and center, lips pursed in a cruel sneer. She looked less Hecate and more Julius Caesar. It was late at night, they’d been drilling particularly hard on this last week of November, and June was tired, hence why she made the mistake of letting a pointed sigh slip. Marcella narrowed her eyes, dropping her stance. “Oh, what?”
“Is there an issue?” Lyne asked, from the audience.
“Yes,” Marcella said. “I think June has a problem with my acting.”
“Marcella, Jesus Christ.” June groaned. The juniors playing the other witches looked at each other, alarmed.
“No, by all means, give me critiques. Anything to build my page and a half of performance.”
“Get over yourself.”
“I want to know!” Marcella yelled, charging up to June—who, to her credit, didn’t flinch—until they were practically nose to nose. “I want to know.”
“Fine. You need to fucking relax. Hecate is pissed at the witches for undermining her—”
“Oh, I understand that completely—”
“—No, you don’t, you’re playing it like you’re planning to claw my eyes out. It’s uncomfortable.”
“We’re all professionals here.”
“You’re not being professional, Marcella, you’re throwing a tantrum on stage because you weren’t good enough to get the lead for once in your life—”
Marcella lunged, grabbing June’s neck. The juniors took several steps back, stammering and looking into the wings for help. Victor glanced over at Lyne, who was watching the pair with intrigue. Eli and Serena had stopped running through their lines, instead coming up behind him to peek onstage.
“Don’t you ever talk to me like that. You’re literally fucking nothing, June.”
“And yet,” June said, sharp, despite the fact that Marcella’s grip on her throat was tight enough to give her trouble with the words, “I’ve got a hell of a lot more lines than you.”
It was an incredibly weak comeback, but Victor found her panache admirable.
“What the fuck, guys.” Dom yelled. He’d been outside taking a call. “Marcella—I—Lyne, do something.”
Lyne didn’t move.
“What’s going on?” Mitch asked, stepping out from the green room.
“Well.” Serena said, gesturing onstage. Mitch looked, and promptly balked.
“Relax.” Eli said, and both Victor and Mitch turned to him at that. “They’re just being stupid.”
“They’re just being—” Mitch laughed, disbelieving. “She’s choking her.”
“Oh, I doubt she’s doing any harm.”
“Lyne, come on!” Dom called again.
“That’s useless.” Victor cut in. “Lyne’s not going to do anything. He’d never interrupt something like this, it’s all he ever wants out of us.”
If he was being completely honest, Victor could understand the appeal of that. He was currently considering the lack of initiative being taken by any of them. Bystander syndrome? Or something else entirely?
“Fuck that.” Mitch muttered, almost like he’d read his mind, and ran on stage, grabbing Marcella forcefully by the waist. Eli straightened, shot looks at Serena and Victor, then sprinted after him. Together they managed to separate the two, but it seemed as though Marcella had taken June’s comment about clawing her eyes out to heart—she was flailing blindly, scratching angry red lines onto Mitch’s arms and any other surface she could find. To make matters worse, June herself was attempting to get a blow in, wounded pride and all. Victor sighed, then made himself walk over to the group, grabbing June’s wrist and twisting them as mildly as he possibly could while still inflicting enough pain to debilitate her. She yelped, shoving him off of her and taking a step back. Serena had now also joined—while Dom was still down in the audience screaming at Lyne—and was calming the panicked junior girls down. June nursed her wrists, glaring up at Victor savagely. She was saying something to him, but Victor wasn’t listening—his attention was focused on the violent marks on her neck, physical proof that Marcella hadn’t been playing around. She’d wanted to hurt June, really hurt June. Over a role. Victor, baffled, turned around to where Marcella had finally stopped fighting, but was still practically shaking with rage.
“Why, how now, Hecate. You look angerly.” Serena said, and Marcella’s face split in two—it was an ugly, vicious smile.
Lyne began to clap, slow, rhythmic. They turned to him.
“Bravo. Looking forward to seeing what you lot cook up for tech week.”
“I can’t believe that happened” Serena said, distastefully. Like Marcella's burgeoning homicidal tendencies were a particularly bothersome fly at a picnic table.
“I can.” Mitch insisted. “This isn’t the first time she’s acted out this year, it’s just the first time she’s done it in plain sight.”
“What do you mean?” Eli asked, as he tugged his coat closer to his body.
“She’s been nasty all month. You hadn’t noticed?” Victor said, arching an eyebrow.
“I don’t see much of her.”
“Isn’t she your stage combat partner this semester?” Mitch pushed. Eli shrugged. “Nothing funny at all there?”
Victor’s eyebrow climbed higher.
“Well. It needs to stop.” Serena said, folding her arms and leaning back into her chair. “June’s still in the infirmary. And the worst part is she’s getting away with it! Lyne’s not vouching for us.”
“I told you, this is what Lyne wants.” Victor repeated, annoyed at her for missing the point. What did any of them think theatre was about? There was an alchemic quality to it they couldn’t see; Lyne was pushing them, had probably cast Serena over Marcella for that very purpose. It was a science experiment. Each show was a new trial.
“If anything else happens, we should take matters into our own hands.” Serena continued, ignoring him. “One last chance—”
“And then what, Serena? We kill her?” Victor scoffed. “You’re already the female lead. Do us all a favor and leave the ego on stage.”
“Just a taste of her own medicine.” Serena pressed. She was looking at Eli now, pleading. Victor scowled.
“Let’s just see how these next two weeks go.” Dom said, placatingly. “Focus on the show, and if Marcella steps out of line, then. I don’t know. We’ll see.”
“We’ll figure it out.” Mitch nodded. “But we’re putting a pin on this for the moment. I’m exhausted.”
“Here, here.” Dom said, and just like that first night back, they each trickled out of the room, leaving only Eli, Victor, and the candle on the table.
“You were quiet tonight.”
Eli hummed in response, rubbing the back of his nape. He was lost in thought, it seemed. Victor scooted his chair closer.
“And you were lying earlier.” He finished, and Eli blinked, frowning at him.
“About Marcella. Which part exactly, I’m not sure yet. But you were lying about something.”
“Watching me closely?” Eli said, voice pitched low, and Victor leaned back, didn’t dignify that with a response. “I’m not required to share everything with those people.” And then, almost as an afterthought; “Or with you.”
“She has been hurting you, then?” Victor theorized, and was surprised by the dull flare of anger he felt at that. He stifled it. It wasn’t unreasonable to be concerned for a friend, Victor supposed, but it sat wrong with him regardless.
“Marcella? Hurt me?” Eli laughed, and Victor pursed his lips.
“You know, for such a good actor—”
“Shut up.” Eli cut him off, standing jerkily. He grabbed a fistful of Victor’s coat and pulled him up as well, before taking a step back. He began to undo the buttons on his shirt. Victor tensed.
“What are you—”
“You said you wanted to see!” Eli hissed, and there was something so entrancing about this side of him, this pulsing, frenetic energy Victor had never quite gotten a glimpse of, that he didn’t even bother to correct Eli and say no, I didn’t, actually. He tugged off the shirt roughly, letting it fall onto the floor. His ribcage was littered with bruises, most yellowing but some still fresh, practically brand new. Physical proof that Eli was something that could be ruined.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” He asked, almost in awe.
“It’s stage combat. People get hurt.” Eli said, but he looked so deeply rattled that Victor was unsure what to make of it. Obviously it was… unnerving of Marcella to be taking all of this out on anybody to such an extreme, but Eli was the one who had decided to keep quiet. Clearly, this had been going on for a while.
It was the first time he’d ever considered that there were things about Eli he had no way of knowing. And that disturbed him far greater than anything Marcella had done.
“Vic, it’s fine.” Eli pushed, shaking his head.
“I didn’t say it wasn’t.”
Eli bent down to grab his shirt off the floor, and the light danced on his pale back—thin, faded scars etched on the skin irreversibly. Old, from years ago. From before they’d ever met, probably. Victor had never seen them before. The world continued to tilt to the left.
“Eli.” Victor began. Then stopped. He had nothing else to say. Eli himself didn’t breathe a word; he just buttoned up his shirt, grabbed his coat, and left.
For a moment, Victor didn’t move. And ere a man hath power to say ‘Behold!’, he thought. The jaws of darkness do devour it up; So quick bright things come to confusion.
Then he snuffed the candle out.
Despite Dom’s advice that they let things play out, Marcella continued on her rampage. She had been tasked with taking on a couple of the smaller roles that didn’t conflict with her scenes as Hecate, as some of the juniors had dropped out of the show. This meant she was now present at more rehearsals—and it was getting to be unbearable. She didn’t go as far as she had with June that day, but she was biting, cruel, criticizing their every move, wielding humiliation as her weapon. And behind the scenes she lurked like a wildcat hunting for prey. He’d overheard her veiled threats to Serena, something or other about karma, and the spat that had sprung from that solidified how utterly bored he was with the entire situation. And, on top of it all, he knew she was still Eli’s stage combat partner. Marcella was a spider that had creeped in and now needed to be locked out, if not squashed.
He’d come up with a plan and gone to Mitch about it: Lyne’s main driving force here was curiosity, anything they could do to pique it would be successful. If they got him to ban Marcella from auditioning from the remaining shows, it would be a killer blow. Mitch, much to Victor’s surprise, was immediately on board, and had insisted on being the one to talk to Lyne about it himself. Something or other about how Marcella would not only be better off training the younger classes but that it would offer a chance at harmony between the seniors, a bullshit story that everybody involved could see right through, but Lyne’s eyes glimmered with interest and he’d said that that was “a lovely idea, Mr. Turner. I’ll tell her all about it after opening.”
That is to say, tonight.
The performance had been good, Victor thought. The rising tensions did little else but focus their talents into a singular goal—perfection. To be better than the other. Dom had once called Lyne sociopathic and unethical. But his methods worked. Eli and Serena had dominated, both of them wicked and glorious. They were in the lake now, had jumped in at June’s beckoning, fully clothed, ignoring the festivities going on back inside. Victor sat near the edge, watching. He would’ve thought Eli would want to socialize, at least for a bit, soak in the praise and all. But no.
“Hey.” Mitch said, quiet, settling down next to him. “You were great tonight.”
“Thanks.” Victor replied, dry to the bone.
“Liked the part where you drove Cardale crazy.”
“Specialty of mine.”
“Yeah,” Mitch laughed, taking a swig of his drink. “I know.”
They sat in silence for a moment; the sound of the others splashing around seeming far-away and unreal.
“You too.” Victor said, finally. Mitch just smiled.
“Mitch!” June shrieked, waving her arms. Besides her, Serena had clambered onto Eli’s shoulders and was motioning towards them as well with her right hand. Her left was tangled in Eli’s hair, comfortable. Familiar. “Get in here, I need your ridiculous body.”
“It’s October.” Mitch groaned, amicable nonetheless. “I have a very sensitive immune system.”
“We win by concession.” Serena proclaimed, and June splashed water at her.
“Mitch, I need you!”
“Use Victor.” Mitch offered.
“No.” Victor said.
“Don’t use Victor.” Eli agreed, laughing, glancing up at Serena. He looked almost fond of her. Everything about the scene was so utterly—normal—Victor hated it. Victor hated him. “He’s so cold all the time, he’d freeze to death.”
“Fuck off.” Victor said, with a bit more heat than he had intended. It didn’t matter. The others were too far off to hear him anyway.
“Oh, are you anemic?” Mitch asked.
“Like, you know. Cold all the time, pale. Anemia.”
“I’m not anemic, Mitch.” Victor said, flatly.
“My aunt’s anemic.”
“Good for her.”
“It’s probably warmer inside.”
“I’m fine.” Victor dug his nails into the dirt. There was absolutely nothing to get worked up over.
“I wouldn’t want him to do this, anyway, Victor’s too—what’s the word? Like cacti? Pointy?”
“Prickly.” Serena provided. “Hard agree with that first syllable.”
“‘Prickly.’” Victor echoed. “June should invest in a Thesaurus.”
Mitch laughed, booming and warm. It almost grounded him. Serena tumbled off of Eli’s shoulders and into the dark water, and their thrashing around faded to background noise again. Not peace, or even calm—but he felt almost quiet.
And then Marcella walked in.
“Sorry for crashing. I was told the party was inside.” She deadpanned. “This is really sweet, though, seriously. Real polaroid opportunity.”
“Hey, Marcella, we didn’t—” Eli started.
“No hard feelings.” She said, and Eli’s face tightened almost imperceptibly. Victor highly doubted he had been planning on apologizing for anything. “Can I join?”
“What, are you gonna drown us next?” June scoffed. “‘No hard feelings.’ Fuck you!”
Marcella rolled her eyes, motioning to Mitch and the lake.
“Help me out here, Turner, I don’t want to slip.” He made a move to get up but Victor, inexplicably, grabbed his arm. Mitch froze. “ God, really? And I’m the dramatic one?”
Eli had swum over to the shore and was in the process of clambering back up onto the dock, to do what Victor wasn’t sure and he didn’t get a chance to find out—Marcella scoffed and pushed him back in, the sound of the water splashing not unlike a crack of thunder. The sight was, admittedly, very satisfying.
“Marcella, relax.” Serena said, grabbing Eli—spluttering, he’d inhaled water in his shock—by the arm and holding him up steadily. The moon rippled on the lake; it looked wrong. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you—”
“You’re so full of shit.” Marcella sniped through gritted teeth. There was something in the air tonight that was turning their blood to fire, Victor figured. Even he’d caught a case of it earlier. And Marcella, despite her marble layer of calm she’d maintained most of their four years at Lockland, was turning out to be the most hotheaded of them all. By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.
She stumbled backwards, clumsy in a way she usually wasn’t.
“Have you been drinking?” Serena demanded, taking the opportunity to climb onto the dock herself.
“It’s a party, isn’t it?” Marcella replied, and now that she’d mentioned it, the slight slur to her voice was more obvious. “Don’t come fucking near me, Clarke.”
“Or what?” Serena challenged. “What are you gonna do? It’s over, Marcella. Auditions were two months ago, it’s been over for a while now.”
“What you guys did was out of line.” She said, voice low and dangerous. Hidden from view, Mitch grabbed Victor’s arm and squeezed, but remained otherwise impassive. “Fine. I’ve been acting unlike myself lately, perhaps I haven’t been fair but I wasn’t about to fight travesty with fairness—don’t start bitching, Serena, Lyne gave you that role to see what would happen and we all know it. That’s not the point.”
Victor and Mitch started to slowly rise, the both of them sensing a more potent confrontation building. Marcella was on the other side of the dock, opposite them. Serena was turned to face her, as Eli helped June up and out of the water. Above them, actual thunder clapped this time. It felt like overkill.
“This is my life.” Marcella said, severely. “I am here to train for the rest of my life—you act like all I do is get carried away, but everything brings me one step closer to my future and it’s done me well. I don’t regret anything.”
“That’s a really shitty apology.” June barked.
“Your neck is fine.” Marcella snapped. “Okay. That was out of line, maybe, whatever. People get away with much worse. Your neck is fine. But you all put my future in jeopardy.”
“Because you didn’t get one role?”
Marcella stopped. Narrowed her eyes.
“Don’t play dumb. Not with me, June.”
“I genuinely have no idea what you’re talking about. I don’t think any of us do.”
“But…” Marcella huffed, looking from June, Serena, Eli, one confused face after another. Then, she turned to Victor and Mitch, and her lips parted slightly, letting out a disbelieving breath of laughter. “Since when are you two partners in crime?”
For a moment, all you could hear was a somber, dying chorus of crickets, fading to silence as the storm above brewed. Then:
“Tell him revenge has come to join with him—” Victor began.
“And work confusion on his enemies.” Marcella finished, her tone dangerously light. “You, Vale? You’re telling me you cared enough to intervene? Because Juney here had to wear a turtleneck for a week?”
“Victor, what did you do?” Eli spoke up, and the sound of his voice was like a shock of electricity. Both him and Marcella turned to Eli then, and both him and Marcella were thinking the exact same thing. Victor knew they were. Because the scene was this—Eli, clutching his ribs, the exertion of the day accentuating the pain from the bruises his soaked clothes hid.
“Oh.” Marcella said, turning back to Victor with a roguish grin. “I see. I get it. Guess you know how to play the hero, after all.”
“I was the one who talked to Lyne.” Mitch declared. “About banning you. Victor had nothing to do with it.”
“No, I did.” Victor corrected, bored. “For all your talk of future, Marcella, I think I’m the only one actually taking any of these lessons to heart. It was all my idea. No motive, really. I just wanted to see what would happen.”
A beat of silence, just like in a play. All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. And then:
“Let’s fucking see.” Marcella growled, careening towards Victor and Mitch with a single-minded intensity characteristic of the clinically righteous. She pushed Serena out of her way and aimed a fist at Victor’s eye. She missed—she was well beyond sober—and hit his nose instead, blood gushing down his chin almost immediately. He was close enough to the edge of the lake that another well-timed punch was enough for him to lose his balance and fall in. This time, there was no bystanding; Mitch had already pulled her off away from the dock as the other three lurched into action. Marcella, who seemed to have finally and completely lost it at last, was a wrecking ball, elbowing Eli in the jaw, cutting the skin on Mitch’s cheek with her rings. Serena was pulling at her hair and getting nails on her collarbone in response—it was a mob of savagery. For fuck’s sake. They were acting majors. June, in a parallel to Victor being the one to focus on her that fated November rehearsal, helped get him out of the water, and like that, the two crouched together, she used the long skirt of the dress she’d stolen from costumes to mop up the blood still spilling from his nose, although most of it ended up puddled on the ground with the lake water dripping off of them.
“Let—go—of—me!” Marcella shrieked, sounding more hysterical by the second. She didn’t do well under entrapment via brute force it seemed. She managed to pull free of all of them, panting, a manic look in her eye that rendered her virtually unrecognizable to any of them; Marcella Morgan was ruthless, but it had never been this kind of animalistic instinctual ferocity.
Lightning. Another clap of thunder. The first few drops of rain began to fall. Victor’s nose continued to bleed and bleed and bleed.
“You’ll regret this.” Marcella promised, shakily extending a finger to the six of them.
Then, she stalked off into the woods, away from them and away from the building. Not a single one of them could bring themselves to voice a concern over her safety. They looked around at each other: Mitch headed over to Victor, properly pulling him up to his feet and inspecting the arch of his nose—the sincerity of it was unbearable, considering Mitch himself was bleeding from several different wounds on his face alone. Serena was attempting to examine Eli’s jaw, but he flinched away from her.
“She can’t just do that.” He said, quietly. Angrily. “That isn’t how people are supposed to act.”
“Yeah, well.” June replied, mirthless.
“We can tell Lyne tomorrow. He’ll have to hold her accountable.” Serena decided.
“Hey.” Mitch said, softly, regaining Victor’s attention. “I’ve got stuff for this up in my room. You need to put pressure on it or it’ll take a while for the bleeding to stop.”
“I’m sure one of the nurses—”
“No, not good enough. First aid here sucks.” Mitch pushed. His hand had found Victor’s arm again. He lowered his voice even more. “I—wanna get away from all of this anyway. They’ll be at the nurse.”
It was a good point, Victor had to admit.
“Fine.” He relented, as the other three began to make their way back to the courtyard. “Let’s go, then. I’ve had enough of everybody tonight.”
He hadn’t meant to exclude Mitch from that sentiment. It had slipped out and he was too bone-tired to correct himself.
Mitch just smiled.
“Keep your head tilted up.” Mitch ordered, fingers light as feathers lifting Victor’s chin. He grabbed a pack of ice with his free hand and handed it to him. The room was dark, the storm had messed with the electricity. “I thought there was a break, but no, just a lot of blood. You should probably get something to eat soon.”
“It’s after midnight.” Victor rolled his eyes.
“Feels later.” Mitch said. Then, remembering himself, he pulled away and turned back to the first aid kit, taking out more mercurochrome and looking from it to his mirror, hesitant. “I can’t see very well.”
“Come here.” Victor said, automatic, surprising himself. Mitch didn’t question it, walking back over to stand in front of where Victor sat on the bed. He tentatively placed the cold compress off to the side and looked up. They were both relatively tall, and positioned like this, with Victor’s posture rigid and Mitch hunching down a bit, they could easily reach each other. Mitch passed him a wet cloth and the mercurochrome, which was in a cream. Victor leaned forward a bit and began cleaning the gashes Marcella’s accentuated knuckles had left behind—there were only two big ones, the rest just scrapes from her resisting them. Mitch closed his eyes as Victor placed the cream on the cuts.
“Cold.” He commented.
“What, are you anemic.” Victor deadpanned and Mitch snorted, dropping his head and bumping it with Victor’s in the process. He leaned back enough so that they were no longer colliding, but not much more. Victor had finished with the mercurochrome, but his hands were still on Mitch’s upper cheek.
“You really were good tonight, you know?”
It took Victor a second to realize what he meant—Banquo in Macbeth, somehow that had been no more than four hours ago. He had no desire to say thank you again, so he didn’t.
“You were right.” Victor opted for, instead. “It feels much later than it actually is.”
“Night isn’t over yet.” He replied, not nervous, but almost unsure. The incongruencies of him weren’t a surprise anymore, but Victor still relished them. That a person could so openly be themselves while seeming like somebody completely different felt like a puzzle he was unfit to solve. That uncertainty in the way Mitch looked at him was hard to miss—a man who could probably break his bones with little work and yet refused to take without asking. A man with the theoretical capacity to inflict pain yet carried in him a natural disposition to tenderness. A man who didn’t work for his outer shell, no, it worked against him, but Mitch didn’t let that change him, didn’t lie to fit perception. He was Eli’s opposite in every way.
He was suddenly hyper aware of both their proximity and the subsequent feeling of someone else’s breath on his skin. It was only then, after truly coming back to his body, that Victor realized Mitch wanted to kiss him.
“No.” He agreed, hand falling down to Mitch’s collar. He wasn’t sure whether he wanted to come across as suggestive or not—Mitch was there and he was solid, and Victor felt like he’d been fighting against becoming unmoored the entire semester, so it only made sense that he would want to feel stable. He was stable. But it was a different thing to be something and to feel that way.
“Victor.” Mitch said, the two syllables almost swallowed by the immense silence. Victor looked at him and looked at him, didn’t come closer or move away, didn’t shift or change at all—he stayed the exact same as he’d been all night, guard up, looking. And then, a slight nod.
Mitch spared a moment for his fingers to gravitate towards Victor’s neck. And then Mitch kissed him.
It was half past three in the morning by the time Victor roused, a throbbing pain in his nose and the room a little brighter than before. He blinked once, twice, three times until his eyes focused enough for him to see some vague light flooding in from under the doorway. Which meant the power was back.
He shifted to look over to his right; Mitch was fast asleep, body rising and falling rhythmically, hands tucked under his ears as though he were purposefully trying to keep from reaching out. He probably was. Or maybe he slept like that always and it had nothing to do with Victor at all. Did it matter?
His mouth tasted like copper; he reached up to touch his upper lip and realized his nose had started bleeding again some time during the night. And his throat was extremely dry. He suppressed a sigh and carefully slipped out of the bed, scouring the floor for his clothes and dressing in the dark. He shot Mitch one last look and disappeared out the door, padding to the bathroom at the end of the hallway. Assuming an absentminded party-goer had unwittingly flicked the switch while the electricity was out, he spared no thought to the light being on and walked right in—inhaling sharply when a figure crouched on the floor suddenly jumped up, wide-eyed.
“Eli.” Victor said, and Eli sprang forward to shut the door behind them, sprinkling droplets of water on Victor’s clothes in the process. He was naked, dripping wet. Despite their being roommates, he hadn’t seen Eli’s bare body since the night of that specific rehearsal. The bruises were still littered across his ribs. A couple were fresh. “What are you doing?”
“Got a little nauseous. Drank too much, I think.” Eli explained, wrinkling his nose as he flushed the toilet. Water trickled from his hair to his shoulder, down his chest. Victor looked away. Last time, Eli had chosen to show himself. This felt intrusive. They were a game and this was cheating. “I was showering, but I thought throwing up in there might be uncouth. Do you mind if I get back in?”
“Don’t let me stop you.” Victor replied, stepping over to the mirror and inspecting his face; the lower half of it was coated with dried blood, bringing to mind a specter of sorts. It was, ironically, very Shakespearean. If him and Mitch really did ruin Marcella’s future, at the very least she could make a career out of brutalizing stage makeup.
“Did you just come from Turner’s room?” Eli asked. From the corner of his eye, Victor could see him leaning against the shower wall, scrubbing at his arms and hands with vigor.
“Is it now.”
“I guess I didn’t think he was your type.” He said, scoffing out a laugh. Victor rolled his eyes and said nothing. He didn’t really give a shit what Bible-peddler Eli Cardale thought about this particular topic. He turned the faucet on, rinsing off his face, the blood falling away and swirling down the drain, an ugly brownish-red. Not unlike the colors of the trees in the surrounding forests during the fall. What a name for a season. The fall. He felt a sudden urge to find the nearest book and marker. You could justify anything if you did it poetically enough.
“Did any of them find Marcella?” Victor asked, as he grabbed a towel from the hanger.
“Uh, I’m not sure, actually. I don’t know.” Eli answered after a moment. He was just standing under the shower now, letting the water pour over him. Like a baptism, Victor thought, and then waved it away. He knew nothing about organized religion and preferred not to make reference to it. “None of us have seen her since she stalked off into the forest. Almost feels like she came from there, too, you know? Like an omen.”
Victor paused. Eli’s voice sounded off to his ears, reverence mixed with a strangled sort of clinicism, like he was trying to sound casual about a morbid obsession but was too out of his own body to do anything but miss the mark on charm. The colloquialisms—uh, you know—obviously weren’t rare and everybody used them, but Victor had always gotten the impression that Eli had a goal in mind when he adopted one or the other, like he was too in tune to what other people would want to hear. Eli himself had become a masterclass in the human condition, same as he’d said about his characters that day in class. Victor, unfathomably, wondered what an Eli who adopted Shakespeare vernacular as slang in an effort to assimilate would look like. What an Eli who simply couldn’t parse through the so-called ‘rules’ would look like. He would try anyway; like most things about Eli, the fact was disappointing and intoxicating all at once.
To add to his incoherent train of thought, he suddenly missed the ghost of Mitch’s hands on him.
Victor placed the towel back on its holder, and moved towards the door, until Eli stopped him with “Are you going back to his room?”
“Yes. It wouldn’t be fair to leave him stranded like some sort of one-night stand.”
“Isn’t that what it is?” Eli said. It almost sounded like a sneer.
“No.” Victor answered. He hadn’t known that until he said it. Spite was an excellent motivator.
“Oh,” was all Eli said. Victor had the distinct feeling he had wanted it to sound like a question but had failed.
“You’re not his biggest fan,” Victor started, which was actually part of the appeal, “But if not him, then who.” He also did not phrase it like a question. On purpose.
“I suppose.” Eli replied, shutting off the shower and wrapping himself in a towel. Water clung to his eyelashes, rolling down his cheeks like tears, an image that would naturally evoke innocence turned eerie and perverse when contrasted with his blank expression. As if he were one of those Virgin Mary figurines crying blood.
Victor blinked. His thoughts did not feel his own tonight.
They stood there staring at each other, unmoving, for only a second longer before an abrupt banging on the bathroom door startled the two of them out of whatever they’d been possessed by.
“Eli, I know you’re in there, Serena told me.”
June. Victor glanced at Eli, who seemed wary as he pulled on his clothes, but nodded. He opened the door.
“Oh. You’re both here. Good.” June said, and her voice sounded distant, like her body was here physically but the rest of her was somewhere else entirely. Behind her was Mitch, confused and yawning. He looked between Victor and Eli. “Come on.”
“Where?” Victor demanded. June’s face was grim.
“You all need to see something.” She said, turning on her heel. The three of them shared inscrutable looks before following. Mitch handed Victor his coat. He nodded at him.
June led them down the long, winding staircase, her swift pace only adding to how empty the school felt at this hour. Abandoned, almost. A ghost-town. They walked out onto the dock, where he could see both Serena and Dom standing, looking out into the water. Much like everything else at this hour, the image of the two was decidedly creepy.
“What is it? It’s not even light out yet.” Eli said, arms wrapped tight around himself. His hair was still damp and he didn’t have a coat to shield himself against the cool air. Only Dom bothered to react, shaking his head at them once, him and Serena still standing frozen. Victor narrowed his eyes as they approached, positioning themselves accordingly. Immediately, Mitch and Eli recoiled. Victor could do little but stare, a detached and objective sense of deep horror buzzing in his mind. The water was dark and smooth, save for the ripples dancing around a nauseating shape at a distance. In the starless night, they couldn’t see the blood spilling onto the lake like oil, but it was grotesquely clear on Marcella’s head, looking practically disembodied as it bobbed on the water. Crushed tissue and bone rendered half her face virtually unrecognizable; the other half was glassy and still, her body motionless. None of them uttered a word.
And then she moved—a groan of agony and a pronounced undulation in the water as she reached toward them. Serena screamed, Mitch lurched forward to grab Victor’s arm. Dom was hyperventilating and June was unmoving, practically dissociated.
“Oh, God.” Eli said, choking on the word. “She’s still alive.”