Fraser Sherman has been published in New Myths, Abyss & Apex, Drabblecast and multiple anthologies. He’s the author of five published film reference books and a veteran of community theater.

 

Backstage with the Hypothetical Dead

by Fraser Sherman

 

The first time I saw the ghost was backstage during the Sunday matinee of Chapter Two. Assuming it really was a ghost. Even if it was, I’m not sure what happened made any sense. But I saw something or someone, and it changed me, so there you are, I guess.

It was March of my second year with Curtains Up, the community theater group I’d fallen into after my starter marriage went belly up. Chapter Two opened our season — Neil Simon always gets audience butts in seats — and I’d volunteered to chair props. Outside of finding a typewriter for George’s apartment — we were doing it as a period piece — it wasn’t a demanding gig. I had nothing to do second act, so when the ghost appeared I was just sitting by the props table, listening to the actors argue.

It’s the moment when all the shit in George and Jenny’s marriage comes to a head: she wants happiness, he doesn’t see the point in trying for it after losing his first wife. I can totally understand that: more than a year after JJ walked out, I didn’t see much point in looking for it either. Seriously, how many people find happiness and keep it? True, George finally decides he’s wrong, but I’m not so sure.

Al and Harriet totally rocked the scene but I’d heard it enough times that my mind started to wander. Otherwise I wouldn’t have noticed someone standing stage left, behind the wall of George’s stage kitchen, a dark figure visible in the slit of light knifing between two flats.

This was not good. Nobody should be backstage left but me and Joe, the assistant stage manager, and this guy was way too skinny for Joe. I headed over fast to see who it was and why the hell he was there.

In hindsight, his staying a dark figure as I drew closer, no details visible, should have clued me in, but I was too tense to think. When I reached him, I tapped him on the shoulder… and my hand passed through.

He turned around with my arm midway into his ribs. A shadow with a head and limbs and a torso, and a blank oval where his face should be.

I still think screaming “What the fuck!” was understandable but nobody else agreed at the time.

*

“Seriously, Tony, a ghost!”

Standing on the auditorium’s concrete loading dock, Janice Dahl, the stage manager, glared at me like I was a blackhead she wanted to pop. “I know you and Al don’t get along—”

“We don’t, but I wouldn’t play games during performance. Janice, you can’t think this was a joke.”

“I know it wasn’t a joke. Jokes are funny.” She began pacing, without taking her eyes off me. “Dropping the f-bomb before the old-fart matinee audience? Denise says we got three membership cancellations already.”

“They’ve heard the word before.” I’d heard it a lot myself the past 45 minutes.

“Not at our shows. They come to us because they know they’ll hear clean, wholesome, completely inoffensive entertainment, not even a god-damn.” She reached out one tattooed arm and caught me by the shoulder. “If it wasn’t a joke, cut the bullshit. Did you step on a nail or—”

“I swear to God I saw a ghost.” I knew it wasn’t the answer she wanted, but it was true, dammit. Well, sort of. “I saw something. Maybe it was… just a weird optical illusion. I mean I didn’t feel a thing when I put my hand inside, aren’t ghosts freezing cold when you touch them?”

“Al said I should kick your ass and leave you in the dumpster.” Janice had the physique to be a hell of an ass-kicker. “And he doesn’t want you back next weekend—”

“Come on, Janice! I love doing this!” Running props hadn’t been that exciting, but it beat sitting in my apartment staring at the TV.

“I told him it’s my call. Look I know you’re normally dependable but—”

“If I see the—optical illusion again, I won’t say a word. I am dependable you know that!”

“I do. That’s why I don’t get it.” She ran a hand through her mane of bronze hair. “I’ve been with Curtains Up since I was 15, that’s 16 years. There’s never been any ghost, no story about the place being haunted—”

“Well it has to start sometime, doesn’t it? No place has always been haunted.”

“Nobody’s died in this group since my dad and that was ten years back.” A split-second of sadness crossed her face. “And if he came back, why would he haunt you? So no excuse if you screw up again—especially as my ass is on the line for vouching for you.”

“You’re going to?” She nodded. “I won’t let you down, Janice, I promise.”

“You’re tentatively welcome. Well, wanna head over and join the others at Buffalo Belle’s?”

“I can’t face Harriet.” She was a sweetheart, and I’d ruined her big scene.

“See you at pick-up then.” Meaning the Wednesday rehearsal before the second weekend run.

The inquisition was over. We headed for our cars and I debated whether to find somewhere with decent vodka or head back to the bottle at my apartment and cogitate there.

Because that had been no trick of the light.

And whatever I’d encountered had made me look bad. The past year, this was the place I’d come the closest to happy, the place where I belonged, if I belonged anywhere. I did not appreciate some stupid spook almost fucking that up.

*

We closed Chapter Two without any more ghost sightings. I apologized to everyone and by the cast party they’d all forgiven me but Al. As he was directing The Mousetrap, our next show I decided not to volunteer for backstage and stick to set construction.

I didn’t see Janice again until move-in. I showed up pretty early—I was still trying to redeem my reputation—but she and Carol Wu, the set chair, were at the rehearsal hall already, moving flats into the truck for the first trip from the rehearsal hall to the auditorium. Even on a one-room set like Mousetrap, there’s lots of flats, support braces, doors and later stage lights and furniture to move.

At the auditorium, Janice and I were lowering a stage-center flat to the floor when I saw a doodle on the back. A very graphic representation of “Mouth Pacific,” signed by—“Shit, Janice, you must have been—”

“Sixteen. I made a joke, Helen double-dared me to draw it.” We let the flat drop the last half-inch to the floor. “Everyone has too much fun teasing me to paint it over.”

“Anything to liven up Rodgers and Hammerstein,” I said as we returned to the dock. “Oklahoma’s what, ninety years old now?”

“Not that old,” Carol—short, stacked and green-haired—said as she pointed us at a wooden door. “And like, everyone loves them. Put the door stage left of that last flat… the college can get away with, like, Rent, but not us.”

I’d seen Carol try to speak without using “like” as punctuation. She’d made it easily to 45 seconds.

“Used to be—” Janice grunted as we picked up the door. It was smaller than most of the flats, but a good deal heavier than canvas stretched over a frame. “—we’d do at least one show now and again with some ambition.”

“We’re so close to finally buying our own theater,” Carol said. “The board’s cautious about, like, reducing our cash flow.”

“Harriet says it’s probably Sound of Music for next year’s musical,” I said to Janice as we lugged the door across the stage. “I’ll bet you I know the cast already: Harriet as the Baroness, Sean as Colonel Von Trapp, Molly as—” My chin hit the door. Janice had stopped moving.

“Tony, do you see it? Over by the fusebox?”

“What?” I turned my head to peer into the wings, but I couldn’t see anything. I craned my neck more to the left—and I saw the ghost again, standing by the fuse box.

“A trick of the light, Tony.” She didn’t sound certain. “It has to be.”

“What light? It’s standing in a shadow.” Somehow, it was dark enough to stand out. It made an incomprehensible gesture with its shadowy arm, then started walking toward us.

I felt the sudden weight of the door as Janice let go and it almost landed on my left foot, then she caught it and as we tried to balance it, the ghost stepped into the light. Its face looked a little more human, like a manikin’s half-formed features, and then the door almost overbalanced again. By the time we had it securely on the stage floor, the ghost was gone.

“What are you guys doing?” Carol yelled, striding over. “Janice, you almost—”

“Sorry, sorry!” Then Janice hissed silently to me, “Tony, I take back everything I didn’t tell you I was thinking about you.”

*

“ …so by the time I’d finished ASM-ing Dracula, I had the bug.” Janice stuffed the last part of a Moe’s burrito into her mouth, paused just long enough to chew, then went on. “My dad was pleased, except he always wanted me to do more acting. Couldn’t get that I’m happier behind the scenes.”

“I think I was just looking for something to do after work when I volunteered for The Odd Couple,” I said. “JJ got all our friends in the divorce—of course, they were her friends first—but suddenly I was part of something again.” I used a napkin to remove a smear of hot sauce from my T-shirt. “I’ve thought about auditioning. Chorus, maybe, to start with.”

“Go for it if you think you’d like it. Look how many parts Nick gets just by showing up and you’re a lot more dependable.” Dependable. I was back on the dependable list. Cool. “Speaking of which, the ghost—”

“You seriously think we should tell people? Look how Carol reacted.” I’d sworn her to secrecy before anyone else showed up—I wasn’t sure it would take, though—then Janice and I had split as soon as lunch rolled around. “Nobody’s going to believe us, so why bother? It’s not like the ghost’s doing anything.”

“I was thinking about that. What if it’s like the chairs in Poltergeist?”

“Huh?”

“You know, it starts with chairs moving and everyone thinks it’s funny, then the shit gets nasty.”

“I never saw it.”

“Not even the remake?” She rolled her eyes. “You kids today, with your death-metal and your found-footage films.” She clapped me on the shoulder. “After we finish up with the set, you’re getting educated.”

That night, after move-in was done, we watched Poltergeist on DVD at her apartment, over pizza. I wondered if it might be some kind of foreplay, but then she put in Poltergeist II.

It was still a fun night. Unfortunately, the movies didn’t give us any idea what to do about the ghost.

*

Theater’s a gossip factory. By the time of the Mousetrap cast party, everyone knew Janice had seen the ghost too. Nobody thought she was bullshitting—was I wrong to be a little peeved?—which was not to say any of them believed we’d seen a real ghost.

“I’m saying I believe that you believe it.” Nick, a bony Curtains Up veteran who’d played one of the murder victims, splashed beer as he gestured. He was always gesturing;, he said it was an Italian thing. “But you didn’t see what you think you saw, Tony. Something moved, maybe, or a trick of the light.”

“I’m so sorry for some of the things I called you,” Harriet said apologetically, patting my arm. “Nick, how can you be sure it’s not real?”

“I’m telling you, I know psychology,” Nick said. “My point is, Tony didn’t see anything that strange, but now he’s convinced himself he did to explain the great big f-bomb.”

“And me?” Janice said. “I saw it this time, both of us did.”

“Mass hypnosis,” Nick said confidently. “Happens all the time.”

“Like, the real issue is what we do if the ghost is real,” Carol said. “I talked to Father Bingham after move-in, and when he didn’t know I asked the bishop. There’s like, ghosts who come here on a mission from God. And ghosts who are like, out on a day pass from purgatory or something, and bad ones who come up from Hell.”

“How do you tell them apart?” I asked. She just shrugged.

“Well I tell you one thing,” Janice said, “when we start work on Oklahoma, everyone’s got to be on the alert. Too many people backstage, too much movement, we can’t have anyone losing their shit. That ghost screwed up one show I stage-managed, he’s not doing it again.”

*

Janice encouraged me to try out for Oklahoma, and I wound up as a cowboy in the chorus. I’d way underestimated the work involved—the dancing and singing rehearsals are intense. But I’d have worked on the set most nights, so what difference did it make? And the occasional “Hey, I always knew you saw something” apologies were nice, even when I could tell they weren’t sincere. I was beginning to feel less like they were just people working on the show with me and more like… friends. Maybe they’d been friends for a while and I hadn’t noticed.

There was no sign of the ghost until opening night. I was sitting on the back dock with Carol, wigged to conceal her green hair, while “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” played on stage. And then we saw it standing between us. It didn’t walk or appear in a puff of smoke, it was just there, no preamble.

I gasped. Carol shrieked. For the first time it was in bright light, which made it look darker and more solid than ever. Maybe that’s why I could make out the shadowy outline of jeans and a sweatshirt over its body, and the face—it was close enough to distinctive features I could almost recognize it.

Then Carol thrust her parasol into it, jabbing me in the navel. “Carol, ow—”

The ghost slapped its forehead melodramatically and disappeared. Only then did I realize several people had squeezed into the backstage doorway, jaws dropping.

I was pretty sure everyone believed me now.

*

Despite the ghost, the show went smoothly. The opening number kept the audience from hearing Carol’s shriek, and I think the extra adrenalin, the nervous watching in case it showed up again, juiced us up. Afterwards, the ghost was the talk of the opening night reception at Orlando’s, though by unspoken agreement we kept it from the audience members who attended.

“ …no exorcism,” Carol said, tossing off her third screwdriver. A bunch of us had commandeered tables over in a corner and squeezed them together. “Not without like, demonic possession. The bishop was definite.”

“So why isn’t there something?” I said, nursing a Diet Coke (I was Carol’s designated driver). “Someone dying or a message like Hamlet’s father—” I watch Shakespeare DVDs sometimes on the weekends. It seems like the right thing to do when you’re in theater. “—or the power goes out or… I don’t know.”

“It is giving us a message,” Janice said, rapping one knuckle on her lips. “The message is, it’s haunting you, Tony. You’re there. Every time. Every fucking time.”

A small, uneasy silence settled on the discussion as they all looked at me.

“Everyone, keep an eye on him when you’re not onstage,” Janice went on. “We’re not letting him get sucked into a hellmouth—especially as I can count on him to show up for set strike.”

Everyone laughed at that, then assured me they had my back. I didn’t point out they couldn’t do much against a living shadow because that would have been rude. And I’m sure they already knew.

*

Having made its one-visit-per-play, the ghost didn’t show again. But once Oklahoma wrapped up, we began work on the year’s last show, No Sex Please, We’re British, so I figured we’d see it again. Not cool: it’s one thing to work in a haunted theater, it felt like a whole different thing to have a ghost haunting me personally.

Curtains Up had done No Sex about 12 years ago, Janice said, and it was a surefire money maker, just dirty enough that the old farts laugh without being so dirty they walk out. It’s another period piece—the jokes about porn don’t make much sense otherwise—and the seventies nostalgia goes over well too.

I volunteered for ASM—Al protested I’d bring down a curse on the show, but he was overruled—and I was pumped. This kind of farce has people coming and going in and out constantly, so it would be a lot livelier backstage than Chapter Two.

Janice started out doing the lighting design, but the girl we’d originally cast as one of the third-act hookers broke her leg rock-climbing—or technically, I suppose, rock-falling. After multiple calls to find a replacement, the director, Pete, begged Janice to step in, and as it was a non-speaking part, she reluctantly agreed.

We made it through the first weekend without the ghost showing up. Then the matinee, then most of the last weekend, so everyone knew it would be closing night.

From the moment I signed in backstage that evening, I was on guard, but I couldn’t keep that up once the show started. Like I said, No Sex is a fast-paced farce with lots of cues to give and problems to watch for, so when the ghost did show up, it took me by surprise. It was at the frantic climax of the show; Janice had just exited stage left and I was over to the right, hissing at Al to keep his voice down. Then over his shoulder, I saw the ghost, pointing right at me.

I froze. The shadow was completely detailed now, and honest to God, it had my face. Or something close to it, older, a little heavier—then I registered that the ghost was pointing past me, not at me, so I spun around and saw Janice in, the far side of the narrow space back of the center stage flats.

I had no idea what the deal was, so I ran as fast as I could, squeezed past someone, stumbled over a sandbag, reached Janice, pointed behind me, glanced back, saw the ghost hadn’t changed its stance and wondered what the hell it meant. If I hadn’t been so wired, I don’t think I’d have noticed the change in the light overhead. But I noticed, looked up, and saw a spotlight coming down right on top of us.

I shoved Janice hard and we hit the floor of the stage together. The light crashed in a shower of glass and everything on stage stopped. Then started up, because the show really must go on, and we take that seriously. Janice scrambled up, hugged me and ran onstage because she was late for her entrance.

I glanced back. The ghost was gone, of course.

*

Six months later, we still haven’t figured out the ghost.

Part of that’s because we can’t even agree on what happened. I remember Janice standing right where the light came down, which means the ghost saved her life. She says when I reached her I was the one standing right under it, which would mean the ghost tried to get me killed. We checked out the light, and maybe it hadn’t been fastened properly, but Carol believes the ghost ripped off Phantom of the Opera as a joke.

Whatever its mission was, I guess it succeeded because we haven’t seen it since. Unless that means it failed and gave up.

And then there’s that face. Why the hell would it have my face? Harriet says it’s the ghost of my future self, coming back to save Janice. Janice says it must have been a doppelganger—I think that’s the word—sent to take my life and collect my soul. Harriet thinks it was an out-of-body experience but after Googling them I’m pretty sure I’d have to pass out before I could have one. Nick has a theory involving ley lines and psychic projection but I’ve never been able to listen to it all the way through.

My take? Well the men in my family look a lot alike; maybe if I had photos further back than my great-grandfather, I’d find an ancestor who looked exactly like me. And maybe he made those earlier appearances because if he’d appeared for the first time during No, Sex, I wouldn’t have reacted so fast.

That still doesn’t explain what he wanted, whether he was from hell, heaven or purgatory, but I’m voting for heaven. After the adrenalin wore off, I realized how big a hole Janice’s death would have left in my life. Somewhere along the way, she’d become my first friend since the divorce. Whether the ghost intended to or not, he saved her life; if he ever returns, I’ll shake his hand for that.

And thinking about what happened made me realize I didn’t want to give up on happiness after all. I asked Carol out, my first date in almost two years; even if it doesn’t go anywhere, I’m gonna stay in the game.

Janice, Carol and I all got on the play-reading committee for next year, looking for scripts that were actually written in this century. I figure we can stretch a little because someone spilled the beans about the ghost after No Sex closed. Memberships surged, and some paranormal investigators show up for two or three performances of every show. Now and then we let them go backstage with an ectoplasm detector or whatever it is, but they haven’t found anything.

I worked the first two shows this year—Ten Little Indians and an oldie called Send Me No Flowers—and I’ll be ASMing Sound of Music next. Yeah, it’s Rodgers and Hammerstein and corny as hell, but even when the shows suck, this is my home now.

But after that, I’m taking The Haunting off. I know I’m being silly—I don’t believe the ghost will come back, ever—but I’ve been haunted. I’m entitled to be a little cautious.

 

Copyright 2017 by Fraser Sherman