I watch Ethan from the wing of the stage as he stands, silently surveying his flock; his army. Each time he addresses them he does this. Standing silent on the dais he looks out, occasionally locking eyes with one of the sheep. A test. If he doesn’t like what he sees or thinks their loyalty is in question he gives them a slight shake of his head. Without a word of protest, they exit the crowd to atone for their doubt.
The atonement varies from person to person and it is up to them to chose a punishment that is sufficient. At first people would shave their heads or fashion a small brand and burn their arm. It did not take long for the atonement to take on a competitive spirit. It became a proving ground of sorts, as if they were saying “look at how sorry I am”. People would spend their time thinking up new and creative and horrifying ways to punish themselves. It became so competitive that people looked forward to being selected so they could show the fucked up thing that they came up with. We did have to reign it in after three deaths due to infection and blood loss.
There are still some pretty good ones. Like the girl who sowed her mouth shut or the one who super glued his eye lids open. Then there was the guy that tied a fishing line to his big toe, the other end was attached to a fish hook which was through his nipple. The line was not long enough for him to stand all the way up so he spent a week in a constant bow. He said this kept him humble. He lost circulation in the toe and it had to be removed, his back still gives him trouble, and on the final day of his atonement he had a rather violent sneeze that caused him to throw his head back effectively ripping his nipple off. That one is probably my favorite.
In order to get this atonement practice started we had to use plants at first. The first time there were five of us scattered in the audience for Ethan to send off. I was the first to be selected. When he shook his head at me I went to my tent and grabbed my shears. When I came back to the crowd I started hacking away at my hair, which at the time was at my shoulder blades. I fell to my knees and gathered the hair in my hands, tears streaming down my face, screaming “Ethan has seen through my fears and doubts!”. Holding my hair in clenched fists I held it up for everyone to see. “This is to mark my shame and to recommit me to Ethan and The Light! Thank you Ethan, you have brought me back into the fold!”
I personally like our first draft. Instead of “You have brought me back into the fold” it was “You have shone your light on me”. That got voted down because it was too “heavy handed”.
I didn’t fight them on the speech because I was too concerned with coaching the other plants. The only one I had trouble with was Carla. She was horrid. I worked with her for two days and she was still just, unbelievable. I was going to tell Ethan that she couldn’t cut it, but she begged me to give her another shot. In the end she was passable. Although I did see one guy rolling his eyes. Naturally he was the first to be selected at the next meeting.
After the atonements Ethan closed his eyes pointing his face toward the sky, his arms raised, palms face up.
“Sydney Pratt!” Ethan says in his booming voice complete with reverb.
A shriek comes from the crowd as the girl makes her way.
This is one of Ethan’s better ideas. These people literally worship him and crave his touch and praise. What Ethan has created is an army of addicts, their drug is him. He is artful with how he wields it. Knowing when to withhold it to drive them crazy. Sometimes he won’t say a name and the disappointment is almost tangible coming from the crowd. This has been a great little tool that was discovered by accident. One time Ethan closed his eyes looked toward the sky and stayed that way…for way too long. He forgot the name he was supposed to call.
Sydney makes her way toward the dais, the crowd parts as she comes through then immediately closes when she passes. Ethan helps her up and takes both of her hands in his pulling her close. They talk for a moment in whispers that the crowd can’t hear.
He turns toward the crowd holding Sydney’s arm in the air. “Sydney has been faithful and steadfast in her service to The Light! Praise The Light!”
“Praise The Light!” The crowd bleats back.
Sydney makes her way off of the stage and Ethan goes behind his podium. “Light Bearers, today is a historic day for us and the world! The time has come for us to share the light with the world. The shadow must be driven back. The Light has given me a vision of our future and told me what we must do. In order for our cause to continue I can no longer lead you.”
Confused murmurs ripple through the crowd.
“The Light has determined that Ethan is not strong enough to lead you in the next phase of our journey. The Light has determined that I must die for our cause!” He raises his arms. “Praise The Light!”.
I have to admit this is one of my better ideas. I can’t wait to see the look on their stupid faces. The crowd can’t see Ethan pressing the button in his podium, they only see the orange flames that start climbing up his robes. Then he is engulfed in flames.
The screams coming from the crowd, the shock on their stupid fucking faces. I cover my mouth to show my shock and to hide my laughter. This is why I always loved theatre. Watching the audience from the stage as they laugh or cry because of your performance is so fulfilling. But that pales in comparison to the joy of your writing creating these emotions in people.
This though, this is next level shit. Not only did my writing cause this outrage but these ass hats believe every bit of it. No one watches Christmas Carol and thinks “Oh shit Tiny Tim is dead”. These people, they not only believe that a man is burning alive in front of their eyes, but that that man is their fucking savior. Next…level.
Luckily when I did theatre in Chicago I worked with Russ. He is a pyrotechnical genius. Even though Ethan is covered in fire he is completely safe. No pain, no danger, just some extra sweat. Russ said he could be completely engulfed for 2 minutes and be okay. We went with 30 seconds. I keep an eye on the second hand on my watch. Right at 30 seconds he disappears from sight. Under the stage there is a team extinguishing the robe and putting on a pre-burned one. He gets a bald cap with peeling skin and a few prosthetics on his face and is back through the trap door in 12 seconds. We had to run that for almost 3 hours last night to get that down.
I see smoke and a hand reaching up from the ground to grab the podium as Ethan slowly dramatically pulls himself up. There is another collective gasp from the crowd as they see the monster that was once their savior.
“Light Bearers! Ethan is no more. You needed a stronger man to lead you in the times to come. I am…ahh!!!” Ethan falls to the ground and I see fire on the hem of his robe and I hear his shrieking being pumped through the PA. The flames eat more of the fabric and I see more smoke…real smoke. Suddenly Ethan is up and running toward the crowd, a ball of flame. He sprints to the front of the stage, letting out the most sickening, bone chilling scream. He falls off of the front of the stage and the screaming stops. I watch the black smoke as it curls into the sky and dissipates and just like that he is gone.
“What the hell happened Russ?!!!” I am screaming so close to his face our noses nearly touch. “You said it was safe, what in the fuck happened?!!”
“Get out of my face Aaron! My effects worked fine. If you want to know what went wrong, you are asking the wrong person.” He nods to the other side of the room.
I turn to face Alice. She is sitting on the floor with blood shot eyes and dried snot smeared to one side of her face. “Alice?” I say overly kind in an attempt to get a handle on my rage. “Sweetie?”. Alice slowly looks up at me. “What happened?”
Her face contorts as she breaks in to a sob and drops her head in her hands. I close my eyes and take a deep breath to compose myself. “Russ, can I talk to you outside?”
Russ and I step out onto the porch. It’s warmer than usual and humid. We stand in silence for a moment. The longer he doesn’t speak the angrier I get. I swear I can almost hear my blood boiling.
“Like I said all of my stuff went perfect…the robe he changed into caught a spark and went up. Alice must not have put the fire out all of the way.”
“A spark? You are trying to tell me that a spark caught a robe on fire to the point that it burned Ethan alive? How is that possible?”
“You know how Alice pre-burned that robe so he could change into it? Well she was having trouble getting it to burn so she…keep in mind I told her it was a bad idea but she said she knew what she was doing.”
“Spit it out!”
“She soaked some of it in kerosene so it would burn.”
“For fuck’s sake!” I turn back toward the cabin door, ready to explode. Russ catches my arm and pulls me back.
“Dude, she already feels like shit.”
“SHE feels like shit?! No shit Russ! She just killed a man! No not a man, a fucking idol! Let me ask you Russ what do you think I am feeling? How do you think I am feeling right now? There are 1800 people here. 1800 people signed over their life savings to us. 1800 people followed Ethan here. They left their homes, jobs, families, everything. They did that for Ethan and now there is no Ethan. So if Alice feels like shit right now consider me jealous. Shit would be a vast improvement compared to what I am feeling now.” I sit on the front step and rest my forehead on my arms.
“They follow The Light.” Russ says sheepishly. I know he is trying to help but that was the wrong thing to say.
“The Light?! Russ there is no light! This is a scam.
“My point is they didn’t think Ethan was going to lead them anymore. That was the whole point of today.”
“No. Ethan was supposed to transform into Lux.”
“But nobody knows that except the crew.”
“What are you trying to get at Russ?” I know exactly what he is getting at and it makes me want to kill him.
“Aaron you were Ethan’s number two.”
“I was his writer and director. It’s not like I believe any of this shit.”
“Neither did Ethan.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
“Look, they aren’t going to accept just anyone as their leader, they will accept you. I know you don’t want to lead but we don’t have any other choice. Plus, you know you miss the stage.”
“I’m going for a walk.”
Without another word I walk away from the cabin and into the trees. I had so much on my mind that I was completely unaware of anything outside of my body. How am I going to pull this off? I have to write a script for tomorrow. How am I going to explain this? I am in the middle of 400 acres of forest and I have never felt more trapped in my whole life.
I walked for hours. The entire time my mind spinning a million miles and hour but with no capacity for retention. I look up and notice where I am for the first time since leaving Russ. In front of me stands a small cabin. This one was already on the property when we purchased the land, it was the only one. Now we have over 1000. Ethan fixed this up by himself and took it as his own. I still don’t know why, we had the money to build him whatever he wanted but he was adamant.
I step onto the porch and run my hand up the cedar post. Ethan cut the trees down himself and planed them to replace the rotting posts that were once here. It’s at this moment, as I feel the smooth wood and take in the scent of the cedar that I realize something. My friend is dead. I was so concerned with the implications of Ethan’s death for what we built that I forgot he was my friend.
Ethan and I have been, no, were friends for 12 years. I was his best man and he was mine. We used to do shows together. The first one was A Christmas Carol, my favorite play. After twelve years of friendship he is gone, and it’s my fault. Why did I have to write that stupid stunt? Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! I am now wailing and clutching the cedar post. Mourning my friend for the first time.
When I start to calm down I become aware of how tired I am. I let go of the post and head into the cabin as the night turns to grey morning. The cabin is a single large room except for the bathroom. Ethan’s bed it up against the wall to the left of the door. The bed is made and there is an envelope sitting on it. I walk to the bed and pick up the envelop. It looks like something is written on the front but it is too dark to tell, I feel a wax seal on the back. I sit on the foot of the bed and strain my eyes in an attempt to read the writing.
A moment later light spills in through window as the sun rises and lands on the envelope and I am able to read the writing. Across the front of the envelope I see my name. I flip it over and examine the wax seal. It’s a sun with a single eye in gold wax. I open the envelope eagerly and start reading.
My death was not an accident. In fact, it was carefully and meticulously planned. Try not to be too hard on Alice. I am sorry that I could not tell you but it was the only way. I regret that I was not able to say goodbye before I had to go. I hated that I had to do that to my friend but you will understand in time. I know you feel that you cannot lead them but you will. I know you do not believe in The Light but you will. I know you do not understand but you will.
“What the fuck?”
To be continued.