Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Dress Circle

The musty smell of old carpet filled the corridor, hot with the press of the crowd. In the half darkness, Laura fingered the pair of tickets in her bag. She felt defiant to be here alone. They had been a gift for Markus, for the two of them to use together. The line jostled forward.

Two ushers stood on either side of the corridor where it met and opened into the theatre. Through gaps in the crowd, Laura saw rows of plush seats cascading towards the darkened stage. She pulled a ticket from her bag and offered it to the usher.

The short, uniformed man bent his head, turning the ticket over in his thick fingers. Clumps of wiry hair stood out from under his peaked cap.

“The dress circle?” he asked without raising his head.

“I guess. Is that what it says?”

The usher looked up. “Why, yes, it is.” He tore the ticket in half and handed back the stub.

Movement at his feet caught Laura’s eye. A monkey the size of a cat, dressed in an identical uniform of brass buttoned jacket and cap, was stretching its paw up towards the usher’s hand. In response to her startled gasp, the man swept the animal behind him with one leg and fixed Laura with a reproving glare.

“The dress circle,” he said in a low voice, “is this way.”

He folded one arm behind his back and extended the other to indicate a narrow corridor that reached into darkness behind him. The crowd continued to spill slowly into the theatre. Laura hesitated.

“Madam, please. The show is about to begin.”

She stepped out of the stream of patrons and proceeded down the corridor. Glancing back over her shoulder as the gloom engulfed her, she saw the monkey scrabble up the fabric of the man’s trouser leg and pluck the ticket stub from his hand.

The same odour of carpets and drapery stifled the air. Black paint obscured the walls and sapped what little light there was. Laura strained to find a door to lead her into the theatre. No one else came looking for their seats, though once she heard a quiet scuffle approach and overtake her in the corridor. She had walked at least the distance from the entrance to the orchestra pit when she finally paused, peering, and moved to turn back.

A woman emerged from the shadows in a voluptuous white gown, silver hair piled on her head. Her lips were lost behind an ornate stamp of ruby lipstick that spread onto pale-powdered cheeks.

“Your ticket?” she asked. A beauty spot danced beside her mouth.

Laura opened her hand. For an instant, the stub lay glinting before it collapsed into a film of gray ash. She flinched and the ash puffed into the air, dissolving from view.

“My ticket!”

“Ah, the dress circle, then.”

The powdered matron closed a scarlet-clawed hand around Laura’s arm and lurched down the corridor. Linen gushed and rustled around the hidden forms of her legs as she dragged her deeper into the building. The walls slid past with gathering speed and Laura wrenched against the grip of the thin fingers.

“What are you doing!”

Her captor glanced back, eyes like dark stones set in her ivory skin. “Faster,” she hissed.

Laura struggled to match the woman’s pace. Gusts of linen tangled themselves between her feet, keeping her attention on the billows of white fabric and the severely laced bodice of the matron’s dress. The woman’s waist was the width of a doll’s. Suddenly, in a tumble of white and pain, Laura’s ankle gave way. She cried out, sliding to the carpet only to have her arm jerked up as she found herself staggering on, shouting to be released.

They turned a number of corners. Laura was hauled into a maze of corridors, each narrower and more bleak than the last. Finally, they slowed where the walls were so near to one another that the matron’s full skirts filled the way. Laura felt the grip on her arm loosen as a door in the wall opened and she was dragged through.

A yellow bulb hung, bare, from the ceiling. It was swinging lazily and the shadows thrown by the racks of white costumes along the walls swept the floor in pulsing arcs. A short man with carven features stood with his back to the dresses. His dark trousers hung below a protruding belly, held aloft by wide bands of suspenders that strained across his expansive gut.

“Is that her, then?” he asked the woman in white, scratching the stubble bristling from his neck.

“Yes, Director.”

“Shall we see what we have?”

Laura backed away as they advanced, fingers scrabbling blindly behind. She closed a hand around the doorknob.

“What do you want with me?” she demanded.

The pair ignored her. They murmured to one another, crowding her, trapping her against the door.

“She’s almost tall,” said the matron, red nails tracing the line of Laura’s jaw.

“Almost, almost. But her waist is so thick.” The Director’s stale breath was hot on Laura’s face.

“Hips too low.”

“Arms not slender enough.”

Without warning, they seized her shoulders and began to pull at her clothes. Laura yelled as her arms were pinned above her head and her shirt was dragged up. She kicked out, her foot sinking into a yielding mass of linen.

Her back hit the floor and breath tore from her lungs. The glare of the light-bulb dazzled her, silhouetting the painted face of the matron. Hands pinched and ripped at her skin and the fabric of her clothes. First shouting but finally whimpering, cowed, Laura lay on the dusty floorboards with grit and chalk like a rash over her sweaty nakedness.

The Director’s arm reached down. She beat at it ineffectually, curling onto her side. His fingers clutched her breast and lifted the flesh away from her body.

“No good. Needs a lot of work,” he called over his shoulder.

The matron brushed past him with linen brimming from her arms. “This one.”

Shivering and exposed, Laura let herself be thrust into the heavy costume. When they had pulled the dress over her head and twisted her arms through the capped sleeves, she was pushed onto all fours. A knee dug into the small of her back as the bodice of the dress jerked tight against her ribs.

“Much more, much more,” came the Director’s voice above her. “You’ll have to hold her down.”

He continued to haul the bodice tighter and Laura felt the matron lie bodily across her shoulders. Pain speared through her chest. Linen smothered her and the sharp smell of the matron’s sweat flooded her nostrils.

Her waist crushed in the vice of the dress. The Director pulled her upright by the cords of the bodice. He spun her around to face the closed door, where a long mirror hung. Her reflection gazed from the glass like a ghost, her heavily padded bust and hips flaring monstrously from a waist she could all but enclose with her hands. Her face and arms were powder-pale, coated with dust from the floor. She gagged.

“She’s almost beautiful!” cried the matron, clapping her hands like a child. “What a touch of make-up would do!”

The Director grunted. “No time,” he said. “I’ll have to take her immediately, like this.”

He took her arm and Laura stumbled back into the corridor. Her tortured lungs ached for air as passage after passage blurred across her eyes. Through one open door, the uniformed back of the usher bent over a figure in a white gown. He moved back and Laura saw blood running down the woman’s chin. Her lips had been scored with a razor; thin, vertical slits marched across her mouth, filling the outline of a gaudy lipstick.

The Director slowed to a halt and Laura felt plush drapes stroke her shoulders. A shove to her back sent her staggering forward, feet unsteady in a chaos of fabric. Brightness bathed her and the thunder that roared in her ears gradually resolved into applause.

She was on the stage.

The faces, hands, and pale shirts of the audience hovered in a darkness held back by a row of glaring footlights. Laura felt their expectant gaze on her like an unbearable, demanding weight. She stood frozen, the barren expanse of stage before her gleaming.

Some distance behind stood the cardboard facade of an ancient Greek temple. As music rose like a mist from the orchestra pit, she noticed movement in the wings on the far side. The usher, peaked cap still perched on his head, was buttoning a ruffled shirt. He straightened, brushed the cap to the ground, and strode onto the stage. Applause swelled. He positioned himself on the far side of the temple, turned to the audience and with a majestic sweep of his arm began to sing.

The usher’s bass voice throbbed with melodrama and yearning. His Latin rose trembling above the music and floated out into the darkened tiers of the audience. Laura began to back away, her head light with pain and confusion. Before she was completely hidden by the wings, a pair of hands clapped onto her shoulders and she twisted around in a flurry of skirts. The Director hissed, furious, and made to push her back out.

“What are you doing?” she whispered.

She wanted to yell, to claw at his craggy face, but as panic fought in her chest, the oppressive weight of the watching audience slowed something inside her. She was pushed back onto the stage, staggering into the hot lights. The pain in her ribs soared.

The usher sang on. He punched the air in defiance, sending shivers of emotion through the ruffled fabric of his shirt. Laura gazed, overwhelmed, at the audience.

As her eyes came into focus on the sea of vague faces, a familiar form emerged—Markus sat in the stalls, a dozen rows from the stage. Laura squinted against the footlights. She could just make out his proud, puzzled features. He had recognised her. Time crawled, then stopped. A woman younger than Laura leaned towards him and crooned into his ear. He turned and Laura lost him in the crowd as his raven hair obscured his face.

Laura peered, frowning. The light in the theatre was so poor, mere dregs spilling from the stage. Her heart leapt in its cage; she must have mistaken another man for her faithless lover because there he was, Markus, sitting two rows further forward. His eyes were fixed on the wildly gesturing usher but when they settled on Laura he brought a hand to his mouth in shocked recognition. The woman on his arm cocked her head inquiringly but Markus simply shook his head, agape.

As the woman leaned closer, the broad rim of her hat hid his face and Laura realised that Markus was, in fact, seated much further to the right. His elbows were propped on his knees and he was staring incredulously in her direction, ignoring the woman stroking his arm.

Laura blinked. Markus sat in every row. His high forehead and bold jaw encompassed myriad expressions of astonishment. All through the theatre, Markus pointed or gasped in surprise. The women accompanying him whispered and nuzzled, intent on his attention.

The usher drew a colossal breath and his voice mounted incredible intervals to glide into the climax of his aria. It was clear he had not noticed the Markuses. Laura threw a glance at the Director. The portly man was frowning, one hand raised to the wall near his head. As she met his gaze he wrenched a great lever downwards, stepping aside to slam it into place. Laura looked into the audience to see Markus bend forward and hair fall over his face. Frantically, she searched the theatre but he was gone. The women were gone. Beyond the footlights was nothing but a chasm of empty chairs.

Her ears rang as the usher’s singing continued to reverberate from the stage.

“Theatre is everything, pretty one,” said a quiet voice.

Laura spun. The usher stood beside her with his mouth twisted in a superior sneer. Blood had smeared from his hands onto the ruffles of his shirt. He reached out.

“Don’t touch me,” hissed Laura, backing towards the set. The final lines of the usher’s performance formed themselves in the air, his voice building in volume and passion above them as he stood, mute, regarding her. She stumbled to the rear of the stage.

“Run,” he called softly under the singing. “Run. You might get back to the beginning, but you won’t get further than that.”

“Don’t touch me!”

He stood without even reaching a hand towards her.

The deadening mass of the audience had lifted. Laura heaved herself up the stairs to the temple’s cardboard columns. She pounded her fists against the painted image of the temple interior. The paper tore, the thick smell of incense flooding through the rent in the backdrop. She collapsed to her knees and crawled through.

The ground felt like stone under her fingers as Laura dragged herself blindly forward. The disembodied song of the usher had been cut off, as if by the slam of a door, and nothing disturbed the new silence save her shallow panting. Sagging with exhaustion, she looked up.

The temple stretched on all sides as far as Laura could see—a vast array of stone pillars interspersed with statues clothed in similar gowns to her own. Behind her was an enormous painted landscape, torn where she had crawled from the stage. From the painting emanated a dazzling, midday light that flooded the temple floor. The ceiling was lost in a haze of fragrant smoke.

One of the statues detached itself from the collection and approached her. It was the matron. The monkey, which had shed its uniform elsewhere and now wore only its cap, clambered down from one of the pillars and leapt onto her shoulder. A finger of smoke reached down momentarily in its wake.

“What is this place?” asked Laura, her voice hoarse. She rolled over, wincing, to sit limply on the floor with the mass of skirts splayed before her.

The matron bent over, near enough for Laura to make out the fine wrinkles that clustered around her eyes and the lines of scab that made up her lipstick.

“This is where we belong,” she said.

“I need to get out.”

The matron straightened with a peal of laughter that sent the monkey pouncing from her shoulder, shrieking. It landed softly on the floor and bared its teeth at Laura before scampering away among the pillars with its tail stiff overhead.

“Get out? You’ve only just arrived,” said the matron.

“I can hardly breathe,” pleaded Laura. “Help me.”

The matron’s eyes frowned in her powdered face.

“Why do you want my help? I’m no better than you. Perhaps even a little worse.” A flourish of her hand indicated her painted face and she bent forward again.

“Escape is no secret,” she said, her cracked and scarred lips shaping the words in a low voice. “You need only take off your costume.”

Laura reached around her drawn waist and fumbled for the ties of the bodice. She could feel the lines of cord that crossed her punished torso but where the redundant length should have been tied there was nothing. The cords reached their final eyelets and seemed to dive into the fabric of the dress. Her breath quickened, straining her lungs against the crushing pressure on her ribs and belly.

“Not so easy?” The matron’s voice rang above her like a bell.

Still sitting, Laura leaned forward and pulled up the heavy linen of her skirt. A mound of silk petticoats rose from underneath. She dragged these back towards herself in desperate handfuls and uncovered the tulle ruffles of her underskirts. The stiffened gauze scratched at her arms as she gathered these up, reaching over a growing pile of fabric.

That was the tulle. And below that, more silk. A knot began to clench in Laura’s gut. Under the silk was spread the back of her linen skirt. She drew that into the pile, now barely contained in her arms, and felt her nails scrape the stone floor of the temple.

Laura retched. She let go of the fabric, which sprang out of her arms to cover the impossible view of bare stone, an empty mountain of linen and silk and gauze.

Her head was light and the statues were stirring around her. She heard the rustle of their skirts and, in the distance, an agonising shriek that could have been the monkey.

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Miranda Siemienowicz

Miranda SiemienowiczMiranda Siemienowicz is a writer living in Melbourne, Australia. She has published stories in literary journals such as Overland and Island and in speculative fiction magazines including Aurealis and Black: Australian Dark Culture. Her work has been reprinted in Best Horror of the Year (Vol. 1, ed. Ellen Datlow) and Australian Dark Fantasy and Horror (Vol. 3, ed. Angela Challis).