Before the Lights Go Out

Kasandra heaved herself up the ramp and plodded into the back room where various set pieces leaned against the wall, waiting, like the unused furniture they were, for their next big scene.

Allan followed close behind, his dark head bent in thought. The smell of old wood, sweat, and a miracle on the brink of bright lights always sent chills down his arms. He chewed his lip, then peered up at the older, buxom woman. “But you’re great at what you do. They’ll always need women to play your parts—” Kasandra’s abrupt laugh short-circuited his thoughts.

“My parts, you say?” She shook her head and marched with determined steps toward the last dressing room on the right. “Look around, child, and get it through your head that what seems to be is all that matters in this world. Whatever body fits the seeming will get the job done.”

He trotted along and entered the room close behind. “But you’re skilled, and that’s a fact. I wish I were half as good as you.”

Kasandra flopped down on a hard chair and beckoned to the young man. “Get me my shift there on the back of the door.” She pointed to the left. As Allan handed the thin gown to her, she eyed him with a soft smile. “You’re a dear, and that’s a fact. With those blue eyes, firm chin, chiseled jawline, you’re a man made for the stage—or film. Whichever suits your fancy.”

Allan leaned against the dressing counter, his back to the huge mirror. “I’m not special. There’re a hundred guys who look as good as me and can make better use of their arms and legs.” He chuckled. “I’m learning, but it’s a steep curve, and one slip will land me in the mud.”

Kasandra peered into the mirror, dabbed her fingers in cold cream, and smeared it over her face. She tilted her head to get every angle. “You’re a wise kid if you see that all ready.” Her gaze reached through the mirror and smacked into his eyes. “Gain a few too many pounds, get sick, pick up a bad habit…and you’re done for.”

With a shrug, Allan pushed off the counter and sauntered across the room. “Could be true for any profession. Most guys—”

“Naw, it’s not.” She peered back into the mirror. “Well, maybe some. But there’s nothing like show business to teach a person their place.” She thumbed the counter with the flat of her hand. “No place.”

Allan pulled down an oversized feathered hat and slid his fingers along the edge. “How’s that?”

“Can’t hardly be your self. Always got to be somebody else to survive. And you got to look the part and act the part all the time, or your audience will think you’ve gone traitor.”

Plucking the feather, Allan grinned. “You make it sound like we’re prisoners of our profession.”

Kasandra frowned as his fingers played with the feather. “Damage that stupid thing, and  I’ll get hell for it.” She scoured her face and wiped it clean with a fresh cloth. “Prisoners of our bodies, our profession, and our success—if we’re lucky enough to have any.” She nodded to the door. “You better hurry, kiddo. Time and opportunity are passing faster than you think.”

~~~

Late that night, Allan ambled up the steps to his house, strode through the entryway, and frowned at a light glinting from a back room. Stepping carefully, he inched his way forward.

Not a sound.

He poked his head through the open doorway and peered at his father sitting up in bed with a book in his hand.

Allan sauntered forward, a grin warring with a frown. “What’re you doing up so late, da?”

The old man glanced up, startled. He laid the book on his lap with a tired smile hovering on his face. “Couldn’t sleep. Thought I’d catch up on my reading.”

Allan titled his head back, considered the cover, and glanced at his father. He turned the book around. “The Egoist?” He pursed his lips. “Thought you liked the classics—”

Da slapped his hand over the cover. “It is a classic. At least in some circles.” He flipped the book over. “It was the title that caught my eye. Thought it might have a few answers.”

One of Allan’s eyebrows rose. “How to be one—or get rid of one?”

Da’s smile reached his eyes. “You’re too damn smart for your own good, laddie.” He shoved the book aside. “How’d it go today?”

“Same as usual. I made mistakes, and I learned from them.” He sat on the edge of the bed. “You remember Kasandra? You know the big—”

Yeah? What about her?”

“She seems to think that as an actor, I’m in for a life sentence—a prisoner of sorts.”

“You think that?”

“I don’t know. It could be true. But then doesn’t every profession make demands, have expectations…I could get fired from anything.”

“True, but not everyone would notice or care. There’s something about becoming a public person that comes with its own set of rules. It’s a matter of trust.”

“Lots of public figures mess up. Sometimes it actually helps their careers—”

“Careers aren’t the person on the inside, son. Don’t forget that. It’s true, you could be a school teacher and get run through the mill, but the public light burns awful bright. It doesn’t care about the person inside.” He tapped his chest and leaned back. “You know, I was in the limelight for a good many years. Cost me more than I care to admit. I got paid well, and I got a lot of attention. But…”

“But?”

“Well, in the end, we’re all going to die and when you get to my age, that makes a person think. If you live long enough, you get old…and hints come along to remind you that we’re not here forever. The lights will dim, the stage door will close, and we’ll have to face what every human being through history has had to face. The great equalizer.”

“Maybe they’ll invent a bio-engineered body when my time comes.”

The joke fell flat. Allan flushed.

“Just remember, Allan, a career, no matter how good, no matter how well you’re paid, no matter how many people tell you they love you— You’re on your own at the end. You better get to know that person…” He tapped his chest again, “before the lights go out.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Good Deed

Richard Tyler knew his own mind. After dashing from his job at the gym to his mom’s house, he breezed through the kitchen door with all the confidence of an Academy Award winner.

His mom’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “I thought you were having lunch with Kimberly.”

Despite the August heat, Richard shivered. “She decided she needs to ‘reevaluate her priorities.’” He shrugged off his discomfort. “Guess that includes lunch.”

His mom’s gaze swiveled from her baloney and cheese sandwich set neatly on a plate with a modest mound of chips on the side—to Richard. She slid the plate across the table. “Here. Sit and eat before your class.” She crossed to the stove and stirred a pot of tomato soup.

Richard plunked down in the chair, grabbed the sandwich, and chewed with a faraway look in his eyes.

After pouring the soup into a ceramic mug, his mom slid into a chair across from Richard. “You know, she’s only nineteen, in journalism, and you’re a bit older, wanting to be an actor—”

Richard stiffened; a frown burrowed across his forehead. “What? Like I’m not really an actor, and she’s looking for honest work?”

Mom stirred her soup as she stared into its swirling, red depths. “You might try to see things from her point of view. I mean, she’s—”

Richard shot to his feet scattering breadcrumb across the table. “Totally selfish and doesn’t know what she’s doing. Journalism? Ha! Not an ounce of life experience, and she thinks she’ll wake up the world’s conscience. Yeah, right.”

Mom stared at the cup, searching for wisdom. She responded with a shrug.

With a fretful glance at his watch, Richard started for the door. “I gotta go. We ‘re having a guest director today—said to be brilliant. Might make a good connection.”

The screen door slammed as it closed behind him. Mom wiped up the crumbs.

~~~

As Richard leaned back in his theater chair, he had to stifle a yawn. The room was stuffy, and the new director had been introducing himself for almost an hour. Suddenly, he felt a jolt charge through his body.

“Hey, you, kid with the big chin and blue eyes.”

Richard sprang to his feet.

The director waved him onto the stage. “Come here. I want to demonstrate a point.”

Without hesitation, Richard sprang forward and landed lightly before the rotund, thin-lipped director. “Okay. Listen carefully. You’ve just climbed out of a car wreck, people milling about—horror everywhere. You got a broken rib or something.” He pointed to the stage. “Show me.”

Dropping to his knees, Richard writhed in pain, moaning. He scrambled forward on one arm, the other clutching his middle. His eyes squeezed shut, he rocked and—”

“Stop! Enough. You’ve made my point.”

Panting from his exertion, Richard climbed to his feet, his eyes darting over the other students who studied him with uncertain expectation, waiting to be told whether he deserved approval or scorn.

The director flung a disenchanted arm in Richard’s direction. “I see the same thing all the time—day after bloody day. Actors who forget they aren’t alone. People! It’s not all about you. Remember your audience! They pay for the tickets.”

As Richard stepped into the strong afternoon light, he blinked in near blindness after the hours in the theater’s semi-darkness. He felt lightheaded and needed a drink. Starting across the street toward a fast-food stand, he heard a familiar voice.

“Hey, Richard, wait up.”

With a groan, Richard turned and faced his girlfriend. “Hey, Kimberly.”

Kimberly shifted a stack of books onto her left arm. “Sorry about this morning. I was…I needed some air. Got some bad news.” She glanced up and intercepted Richard’s glazed stare. “My dad’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, stage four. Not much time left.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I’m going to focus on him awhile.” She nodded to her shoes to see if they agreed.

Richard’s gaze fell on the top of her bowed head. “Dang waste.” He clenched his jaw as his mind went completely blank.

Kimberly shook her head. “At least, we have a chance to say goodbye.” She leaned forward and kissed Richard’s cheek. “Good luck—in everything.” Her books stacked in her arms, she turned and trotted across the street.

~~~

Later that evening, Richard jogged around the campus track listening to music through his earbuds. Nausea and malaise seeped throughout his body and soul, burying him deep in gloom. Running as fast as he could, he scowled at the realization that the sensation grew in proportion to his desperation.

Skidding to a halt, he sucked in deep lung-fulls of air. Words, images, impressions kept intruding even as he stared across the dimming horizon. He imagined himself driving along the coast, the windows down and the music loud, accompanied by a gorgeous sunset dispelling the evils of the day. He trotted across the street from his parked car and halted.

A teen, plump with rumpled hair and sagging shoulders, was standing between his beautiful, red car and a battered, old truck. A ragged scratch scarred his car’s shiny exterior. Richard closed his eyes, lifted his head back, and smothered a scream. Finally, he squared his shoulders and marched forward.

The kid glanced over and caught sight of Richard. He wavered between evasion and a complete meltdown.

Taking long strides, Richard’s gaze flashed from the truck to his damaged car.

The kid, now nearly in tears, lifted his hands. “Sorry, mister. It’s all my fault. I’m new at parallel parking—always been a nightmare in driver’s ed.” He scanned Richard’s car wistfully and shoved his glasses further up his nose. “My mom’s got insurance, and I’ll pay with my own money too. So stupid. I should’ve gone to the lot up the street.”

Though the light was failing, Richard’s vision cleared. He swallowed back a rising ache and blinked in hesitation. “Listen, it’s no big deal. I got a friend who works in a body shop, and he owes me. He’ll fix this up in a couple minutes, and it’ll be as good as new. Don’t worry about it.”

The eye-popping relief on the kid’s face tightened Richard’s throat to a searing ache. He sniffed, regaining a semblance of cool composure—the best acting he’d done all year.

~~~

It was nearly midnight when Richard slipped into his mom’s dark kitchen. He plunked down on a chair and laid his head on his arms. A warm hand clasped his shoulder. He didn’t need to look up.

“You okay?”

Richard shook his head and groaned. He sat back and stared through the darkness at his mom’s rumpled figure in her long, shapeless bathrobe. “The director made me look like a fool, Kimberly showed me I was a fool, and some kid I don’t even know gave me a shot at redemption.”

His mom chuckled and sat down, her hand sliding over his. “You know, one good deed deserves another.”

Richard pressed his other hand on top of hers and grinned with the first joy he had felt all day. “It does.”

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00