Mallory turned the key in the lock and stepped inside. She sighed, exhaling the stress of the past few hours, and glanced up at a handwritten sign on the elevator. Out of Service.
She whined. She groaned. But she had to take the stairs, so she slipped off her heels and did so.
Six awful, stupid, poorly designed, dumb, exhausting flights of stairs later, she unlocked the door to her apartment and, not bothering to change out of her dress, flopped onto the bed.
What an awful first date …
She woke to three taps on her bedroom window. She turned — yawning — and gasped.
“Egh!” Then “Oh.” She scowled. “It’s you.”
It scraped the window in an upward motion and stared at her with big moon-yellow eyes.
“No,” Mallory said.
The creature half-slithered, half-crawled onto the window ledge. “Please,” it said in a voice that sounded as if it came from an old radio. “It’s a wonderful play, and you’re one of the main characters!”
“I don’t care,” Mallory said. Her fingernails dug into a pillow.
The creature scraped the window again.
Mallory thought maybe she would lift the window, if only to give him a solid punch in the face, but decided against it. He was tricky. He would get in. And then she’d be awake for hours searching for him in the apartment, trying to get him out.
He tapped the window again. She smirked. Relaxing her fingers, Mallory put a hand up to her face and bit one of her fingernails off. The creature’s long claw (what he’d tap-tap-tapped on the window with) broke off. He howled and descended down the brick, down and away from her apartment.
Mallory wagged her finger around in pain. Blood was all over the bed sheets.
Half of her nail had been ripped off.
“Damn it,” she said.
Mallory tossed another piece of popcorn into her mouth and sipped her wine. On TV, an evening-television self-help program (one of those hosted by a Dr. Something who wasn’t, actually, a doctor) featured a middle-aged woman who had been recently widowed. “You have to confront it,” the doctor said. “Meet it in the flesh and acknowledge it, let it be your friend rather than your enemy. Fear can consume you, will consume you, if you let it.”
“But it’s just — that — voice, it’s so logical, I know the next morning I’m going to wake up and he’ll be there. But then he’s not,” the middle-aged woman said.
“Yes,” the doctor said, nodding. “Fear’s language is rational and logical, isn’t it? And worse yet, the voice always sounds suspiciously like your own. It’s a parasite. It feeds on pain.”
The middle-aged woman began to sob. “What can I do?”
Mallory blinked and shut one eye. She blinked again. Her contact lens was dry. She glanced up, dragged the lens down to the white of her eye and pinched it. She put the lens in her mouth, swished it around as if it were mouthwash, and put it back in her eye.
“… if you don’t, it’ll still be there, biding its time until it can combust. Because it will one way or another.”
The studio audience clapped, and the program went to a commercial. She muted it.
At her window, a little earlier than usual, she spotted Mr. Gravespeare. He had the Laughing Face on. She turned away from him. “Hmph.” His Laughing Face twisted into a Weeping Face, and both of his moon-yellow eyes darkened a shade.
“You won’t get any sympathy from me,” Mallory said. “Those are just masks.”
“I wrote an entirely new scene to the play,” Mr. Gravespeare said with a flourish of his claws. “Would you like to hear it?”
“It’s an epilogue. And everyone loves epilogues!” Features warping, twisting simultaneously, the Weeping Face became the Laughing Face again. “It’s a Saturday, and the girl, Mallory, woe-stricken, heartbroken, and oh-so-sad, cancels the date she had scheduled that night. Oh, the misery!” he cried. “Oh, the pain!” he wailed. “Guess what she does instead?”
“She gorges herself with wine, butters her popcorn with tears, turns on the programs that remind her most of the noble Benjamin, our beloved hero in this story, and lets the people in the television feel the loneliness so she doesn’t have to —”
Mallory got up and stormed out of the bedroom. It was time to get curtains for that window.
“Wait!” Mr. Gravespeare shouted after her. “You’re going to miss the best part!”
Under the store’s fluorescents, in wine-stained pajamas, and her hair in a bun, Mallory picked up and flung down every plastic-wrapped package of curtains on the shelf. She hated the selection. Everything was terrible and stupid. And her contact lens was getting dry again. She made herself take a breath, inhaling long and slow, exhaling slower and longer. She glanced up, dragged the contact lens to the white of her eye, pinched it, pulled it out, and put it in her mouth. She swished it around for a few seconds.
“Still doing that, huh?”
Mallory turned with her tongue out and her fingers poised to take the contact. Her vision was half-blurred, but she recognized Benjamin’s voice.
She chuckled, no humor in it, and put the contact back in her eye. He’d gotten a haircut. And his shirt was ironed. And that was a new watch — wasn’t it?
She became hyper-aware of the wine stain on her pajamas (as well as the pajamas themselves) and grabbed the first package of curtains she touched.
You have a motorcycle jacket on, steel-toed boots, and you look hot as hell, she told herself. “Hey. What’re you doing here?”
“Getting curtains, actually,” he said.
“Yeah? How come?”
“Sun’s waking us up in the morning.”
Us? “It’ll do that.”
“Sun waking you up in the morning too?”
“Oh. No. There’s this creepy, undead monster-thing that crawls up the side of my apartment at night and taps on my window. He’s always begging me to let him in so he can show me this play he wrote? … So, anyway, my battle-plan is curtains.”
Benjamin’s mouth dropped. Neither of them said anything for a moment. And then he cracked up.
“Wow,” he said, wiping his eyes. “All right. Well, um, good luck with that.” There was another silence. “It’s great to see you. You look — um —” Mallory raised an eyebrow. “Like you’re having a relaxing evening.”
Mallory nodded. She glared. She didn’t blink.
“They messed up the sides again,” she said, referring to his haircut. Curtains in hand, she power-walked to the nearest checkout lane. She still didn’t bother to read the packaging on the curtains as the cashier scanned them. They were ruby red, quite long, and very wide.
Mr. Gravespeare skittered spiderlike up the brick exterior of Mallory’s apartment and peered around the building at the entrance. One big moon-yellow eye studied her as she stumbled up the stoop. His face shifted from Laughing to Weeping and then to Laughing again. She didn’t remember to lock the door.
Gravespeare skittered farther up the building to Mallory’s window. Like a mechanic, he unscrewed one of his moon-yellow eyeballs from its socket and set the eye on the window ledge, facing the bedroom.
Mallory stepped into her apartment, shut the door, and then slid down to the floor with her face in her hands. Gravespeare nearly giggled with joy; what juicy, theatrical images she was giving him! Furthermore, in her despair (it could’ve only been a result of bumping into Benjamin — how much more perfect could this get?), she forgot to lock that door too.
Gravespeare snatched his eye from the window ledge and spun it back into its socket. He skittered down the building, claws clicking against the brick.
He paused for a minute to let passersby clear the area. Then he scuttled, slithered, and stretched his way to the front of the apartment and up the stoop, and in one fluid movement, Gravespeare turned the doorknob. He squeezed through the crack in the door, and continued into the foyer.
Gravespeare came to the elevator and read the sign (Laughing — Weeping — Laughing again). Out of Service. He hopped three feet up in the air, yanked the elevator door open, held it there, and dropped feet-first into the elevator shaft.
With one claw he grabbed hold of a steel column, hung from it for a second, swinging, and then scuttled up the elevator shaft — up-up-up.
At the sixth floor he pried open the elevator doors and vaulted himself into the carpeted hallway. He was so jittery with excitement (he would be performing soon!) he didn’t notice the young boy come out of an apartment just ahead, dragging a trash bag. The boy stared at him.
“What’re you doing here?”
Gravespeare put on the Weeping Face. “I’m about to debut a new play,” he said, his voice in several octaves at once.
“I hope it’s better than the last one,” the boy said.
Gravespeare might’ve scowled, if he could — that comment was certainly unjustified, if not also rude.
Mallory washed her face and changed into different clothes. She wasn’t going out again — and changing hadn’t exactly made her feel better. Actually, changing had made her feel worse. It was too late, now, to pretend she was having anything more than “a relaxing evening.”
From the bathroom, Mallory heard the rip of plastic being torn. “You didn’t get a curtain rod?” a voice said — a familiar, haunting voice. “Oh, well. The show must go on!”
Mallory pulled and twisted at the bathroom-door doorknob. It was stuck — no, it wasn’t stuck. It was being held.
She gripped the doorknob and turned it with all her strength. It wouldn’t budge.
“Hold on, now,” Gravespeare said. “I have to get everything set up.”
Gravespeare made his stage by dividing the sitting room from the kitchen. One arm stretched far and long to hold the bathroom door shut as the other fastened the curtains to the wall with claws he’d unscrewed from his toes. The sitting room would be where Mallory could sit during the play if she didn’t make a fuss. The kitchen, with the curtains drawn, would be his performance space.
“Let me out!” Mallory screamed.
“So you can destroy my stage?” Gravespeare said. “I don’t think so.”
“This is my apartment!”
“And you lending it to me is kind, given the circumstances.”
“Please, this is the worst time to do this.” Her heart thumped in her chest.
“What happened, dear? Tell me while I make the finishing touches.” Mallory began to cry. “No, no, no! Wait for the show, wait for the play! Don’t shed all your tears just yet. They’ll come soon enough!”
“I don’t want — I don’t want — ”
“You don’t want what, dear?”
He finished fastening the curtains and then drew them aside one at a time, pinning the midsections to the wall with two kitchen knives. He was out of toenail-claws.
“I don’t want to think about him!”
“Who? Benjamin?” The curtains set, he let that arm contract. “But dear, this play is all about Benjamin. And you, of course! You’ll just have to think about him!”
“No,” Mallory cried. “Please.”
Gravespeare stretched his neck until it was as thin as a rubber band, reaching his head toward the bathroom door. “After the play, I’ll go,” he whispered, head beside the door. “If I let you out, will you promise to be as sweet as I know you are and let me do the play for you, no fuss?”
“I’ll kill you if you let me out!” she said, and pulled and twisted and tugged at the doorknob.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” he said. “Fine.” The rest of Gravespeare’s body inched, like a centipede, toward his head.
Gravespeare put a claw in front of the bathroom door and scratched an X in the air. The door disappeared.
Mallory’s first instinct was freedom. She hurled herself forward, struck something, and stumbled backwards. She stared at the space where the door had been — when she set her hand there, she could feel the wood. He’d made the door transparent.
Crouched, with skin like volcanic rock and dull, jagged spikes at the shoulders, elbows, and knees — a face at Laughing, and two big moon-yellow eyes — Gravespeare cocked his head to one side, staring at her.
Mallory lifted her hand to her face and barred her teeth. His face changed to Weeping. Heart thumping wilder and wilder, she bit down on a fingernail and ripped half of the nail off. Gravespeare howled in pain and cradled his hand against his ribs. Blood dripped onto the tiles in the bathroom, and Mallory lifted her other hand to her face.
“No, no, no!” Gravespeare said. “Is emotional pain so much worse than physical pain? Come, now, don’t do this!”
She bit the fingernail, and this time, since she was already in pain, tore the whole fingernail off. Blood leaked steadily onto the tiles like a low faucet drip, and Gravespeare howled and howled and howled. His hold on the doorknob loosened. Suddenly his head began to spin. Mallory readied the next nail, grinning in the ecstasy at the pain, when the spinning ceased, and instead of Gravespeare’s head, it was Benjamin’s.
“Like you’re having a relaxing evening,” it said in Benjamin’s voice.
Mallory’s hand fell to her side.
“Still doing that, huh?”
Her breathing came slower and slower, her heart thumping at wider and wider intervals.
“Sun’s waking us up in the morning.”
They’d only dated for five months. Why had she fallen in love with him, why had she let him in? With steel-plated lies he’d built a bridge to her heart, and even though the bridge had been burned, she was still treasuring the ruin.
“Well, good luck with that.”
Her lips parted. She remembered the night — it was so many years ago, the memory had been buried for a while — after her dad had left. She’d met Gravespeare that night. She remembered thinking then that he was rather an amusing, if not also awful, actor.
Gravespeare’s head started spinning again. It paused on the Weeping Face.
“I’m not an awful actor,” he said.
Her eyes puffy and pink, her upper lip dotted with dark blood, and eyeliner smeared across her cheeks, Mallory smiled.
He changed to the Laughing Face.
“Will you listen to my play?”
Mallory inhaled. She exhaled.
Mr. Gravespeare, a top hat on his head tilted over one eye, struck a grandiose pose.
“The Tragedy of Mallory and Benjamin,” he started. “The players — myself. The characters — the heroic, handsome, slightly hard-of-hearing Benjamin.” (Mallory giggled.) “And the self-deprecating, somewhat bow-legged, pooper-of-parties, Mallory Winters. The play begins outside a noisy Manhattan bar, where Benjamin is outside smoking a cigarette, his hair coiffed and trimmed neat on the sides …”
He truly was an awful actor. But there was a charming quality to that. After the play, he bowed, and she gave him a standing ovation. As he left (once he’d unfastened the curtains, folded them up the way they’d been in the packaging, and put the kitchen knives back in the drawer), Mallory thanked him.
“I hope there won’t be any — well, um, any future performances anytime soon.”
The Laughing Face became the Weeping Face and then changed back to the Laughing Face again. Upside-down, hanging from the ceiling in the hallway, he said, “I am but a humble actor, not a fortune teller. But I am sure there will be future performances. Not of this play, of course. This play, my dear Mallory, is finished.”
Gravespeare scuttled across the ceiling to the elevator, popped it half-open, dropped into the shaft, and paused midair at the first floor. He wrenched the elevator ajar and flew like dark-gray smoke out the front door into the night. He fled like this because he had somewhere to be — and soon. There was a new play, he was sure, just a few blocks down.