We were all a bundle of nerves.
Mrs Wren bustled here and there to make sure everything was OK. She tinkered with the props, went through the lines with the actors and actresses one last time and made sure nothing was out of place.
The rest of us huddled in our own little groups, fidgeting nervously. There was an unspoken prayer on everyone’s lips.
Please, God, let there be no screw-ups.
But if there has to be one, let it be someone else.
I tried to catch Amanda’s eye, but she was staring into space, earnestly mouthing her lines. Then suddenly her head turned, a beautiful smile breaking across her face. I could hear her laughter tinkling across the auditorium as she giggled at another one of Bobby’s stupid jokes.
I turned away.
The parents were starting to file in. My stomach churned as the murmuring of the crowd grew louder and louder, till at last someone in the audience let out an impatient shush, and an expectant hush fell over the whole room.
“W–Welcome, ladies and g–gentlemen.”
We all heard Mike’s voice break as he reluctantly tore through the silence, his face as white as a sheet. Small beads of sweat crawled down his cheeks tortuously, glistening in the spotlight. My fingers hovered over the controls, ready to end his misery once it was time to do so.
“—and we hope you will enjoy the performance.”
My hand shook slightly as I moved the slider down, allowing the grateful emcee to fade into obscurity. I took a deep breath. It was just beginning.
But stage fright—or in my case, stagehand fright—usually dies down quickly after the initial jitters, and the rest of the play was a blur.
Soon enough, Cory, the defiant gunslinger of the Old West, stood resolute and serene on the gallows, noose around neck, as the corrupt Sheriff (Donald) looked on, smirking.
“Any last words, brave one?” he crowed.
“You’ll soon be standing in my place, Sheriff, when your sins catch up with you one day.”
I cut the lights.
The curtain fell.
And our parents applauded madly.
As the proud mothers and fathers trickled towards the stage to congratulate their offspring, I saw Cory’s parents quietly make their way backstage, their faces black as thunder.
“We won’t stand for this, Mrs Wren.”
“I assure you, Mr Hart, that Cory never was in any danger.” The poor woman looked completely flustered, almost hurt that anyone would think that she would endanger any one of her charges. “The trapdoor below him is only a painted one, sir.”
Cory’s father was unmoved. “All the same, it is most inappropriate.” His jaw tightened, and he shifted his feet uncomfortably. “Especially after—after what happened to the poor girl,” he continued, his voice dropping to a near-whisper.
Doris Johnson had died in a freak accident some years back during a rehearsal for a play. Some said a spotlight had fallen on her, crushing her skull like an eggshell. Others said she had fallen from the wings, landing awkwardly on her head. All our parents refused to talk about it, but we knew about it all the same—or at least the various versions of it.
“Please, Mr Hart, not in front of the children.” Our form teacher threw a worried glance at me as I pretended not to overhear the conversation.
The three adults huddled closer and whispered animatedly back and forth.
Finally, Mr Hart straightened up, cleared his throat and pronounced, “I take it that it is settled then, Mrs Wren.”
She nodded glumly.
Later on, she gathered all of us and announced that Bobby would be taking over Cory’s role for the next day’s performance.
“Cory’s—er—not feeling very well,” she said. It seemed believable, for Cory was nowhere to be seen.
Bobby was pleased. He stayed back alone with Mrs Wren to practise his lines. The rest of us went on home. As I headed out of the auditorium, I saw Amanda throwing an admiring glance at the class’s new hero.
I felt like throwing up.
I couldn’t fall asleep that night. There was a deep sense of unease growing within me, until finally I sat up and decided I had to do something about it.
Our town was a small one, and the school was only a ten-minute walk away. In the dark, the building took on a sinister face, glowering at me as I furtively climbed over the locked gate. I knew that the watchman, old Mr James, could be counted upon to be sleeping soundly inside the guard post, dead to all that was happening around him.
To my relief, the auditorium was not locked. It was pitch black inside, and the small torch I had brought along barely made a dint on the thick darkness. I fumbled along, half-blind, until I came to the stage. Under the feeble light I cast on it, I could see that the props were still there, ready for the next performance.
I wasted no time in scrambling atop the rickety gallows. It had been cobbled together with cheap wood by the school’s handyman under Mrs Wren’s instructions. The workmanship was commendable, considering the limited resources. I gave the “trapdoor” a few good thumps to be sure. Firm as a rock.
I set to work. Half way through I was startled by a sudden creak, and for one heart-stopping moment I thought I could make out the ghostly apparition of Doris Johnson near the back of the stage. Poor Doris, her head caved in, wandering about for eternity moaning about her untimely death.
But it was just a tree prop.
I quickly wrapped up my work and left. I didn’t want to remain in that creepy place any longer than I had to.
I barely slept a wink that night.
The next day was more or less a repeat of the previous—the only difference arose when Mrs Wren, on her rounds about the stage, wandered too close to the gallows.
“Mrs Wren!” came the shrill cry from a tearful Sally. “Erwin stepped on my foot!”
I tried to look suitably chastised as our teacher scurried over, reproach plastered all over her face.
“I’m sorry, Sally. It was an accident.”
“You did it on purpose!”
“Enough!” croaked the beleaguered Mrs Wren, almost in tears.
A few more shouts and sniffles, and the parents started filing in, leaving the gallows all but forgotten.
I took my place behind the lights console, a different kind of nervousness coursing through me.
The performance crawled forward interminably.
After what seemed like an eternity, the finale was at hand. A swaggering Bobby was brought up to the gallows.
I held my breath. Our new gunslinger was a good ten stone at least, but it was difficult to tell when weakened wood would give. Too early, or too late, and all would be for nought.
The hero suddenly stiffened. He must have felt the wood give slightly under this feet. I glared at him intently, willing him to keep silent. But perhaps I needn’t have worried. There is something oppressive about having half a dozen spotlights trained on you, as Bobby had on him. The audience may be invisible to you, but you are keenly afraid—the slightest stumble, whether in word or action, will not escape scrutiny.
And so he kept mum.
The hangman placed the noose around his neck.
And we all waited for Bobby to say his last words.
“You'll soon be—”
A piercing shriek made us all jump.
None of us could believe our eyes. A grey spectre was materialising at the back of the stage, slowly making its way towards the fore. There was no doubt as to who she was, for one side of her head was caved in like a smashed coconut, the agony of her death frozen forever on her screaming visage.
All hell broke loose on stage as the ghostly figure continued to wail. I saw Bobby throw the noose off his head, just seconds before the wood beneath him finally broke under his weight. He seemed completely oblivious to his close brush with death, barely pausing to recover from his fall before joining the others in scampering away for dear life.
The various experts interviewed by the newspapers later on put it down to a shared mass hallucination, though of course no one in the auditorium that day was persuaded in the slightest. We all knew what we saw.
I for one know that what I saw that day was no product of my imagination. For just before I leapt up from my seat backstage to scramble to safety, I saw her turn to look straight at me, her white, accusing finger, shaky but unerring, aimed at me like a poisoned arrow.
And it was a warning.
There are some forces in this world you just can’t mess with, I guess.
Bobby and Amanda got married last summer, and they just had a lovely baby girl.
I heard they’re naming her Doris.