A reader requested a ghost story for Halloween. At The Lunatic Assylum we aim to please. Here is "Clara's Being in the Box," first published October 2012 at Fiction and Verse, a now defunct online magazine. (The Lunatic Assylum was not the cause.) The short story survives. I hope you enjoy it.
Clara’s Being in the Box
Would she see him? Clara wondered aloud to Abigail as the two walked onto the stage. It was all red velvet Victorian elegance, Clara's acting dream come true.
“He appears only if your performance is exceptional or dreadful,” Abigail said, soothing Clara’s shoulder. But that gesture didn’t stop the tremble in Clara's fingers or the twitch of her eyelid. “Edgar Wallingford saw him eight times before he became so unnerved he committed suicide. I saw him twice. Both times I heard applause. I was so relieved.”
“Will I recognize him? My first performance here. I’m petrified.”
“If he appears, it occurs in act one, in the box, stage left. It’s locked. No one has been in there since the murder. He’s tall, craggy, with tangled beard, and he wears a long black coat and top hat. When he looked in my eyes, his sadness was like an iceberg. Sometime in the third act, you—only you—hear applause or a pistol shot rings out. You mustn’t let on you hear it. Eleanor Wolcott saw him during her debut and walked off terrified in the first act.”
“Oh, Abigail help me in the final scene. I’m so frightened I might just faint.”
“I’ll be with you, dear. Just watch my eyes.”
In act one Clara quaked, although the script did not call for it. She walked stage right and turned to Abigail. As she did this, she glanced at the box and thought she saw a black flash of movement. Her eyes found Abigail’s at center stage and inquired if Abigail had seen it. But Abigail continued her lines, her eyes unrevealing. During intermission Clara rushed to her.
“Did you see him?” Clara said. She was out of breath.
“No, did you?”
“I couldn’t be certain. It was just a flicker. I thought I saw a hand, a coat.
“Only one actor sees him during a performance,” Abigail said.
“I’m not sure, just a flash,” Clara said. As the curtain went up on the last act, her breath came in tiny gasps and her heart pounded as if ready to leave her chest.
Clara could not force herself to look up. A cough in the orchestra sounded like a canon in Clara’s ears. The smell of her make-up became an irritating distraction. She quieted her fidgeting hands and took Abigail’s in hers. They stared at each other for the full minute of silence that the script called for. She could tolerate the stillness in the audience and the ringing in her head no longer. She closed her eyes and stepped center stage to deliver her final line.
At first Clara just supposed she heard. Then she was certain. From stage left the definite, mounting reverberation of strong hands slapping together. She turned from Abigail to steal a glance at the box and observed the back of a tall man in a black coat and top hat leaving the box through the open door. The stage went dark and applause thundered in the theater. Clara heard only the echoing sound of hands colliding together in the locked box, stage left.
Thanks for reading. Until then.