The first time I stepped into the theater I knew something was amiss. The old stadium style seats were covered with moth-eaten velvet upholstery and the distinct musty smell of mold permeated the area. I tightened my toolbelt subconsciously. Something about this theater made the hair on my arms stand on end, highlighting my unfortunately thick smear of freckles.
“Come on Ainelle. You know better than to give in to the superstitions. It’s abandoned, not cursed.” My carpenter and best friend, Shelly, spoke as my voice of reason.
“I know, I know. Let’s get started in the back of the room.” We both headed up the stairs to the highest row of seats and took opposite sides, each wielding a sledgehammer. We had been contracted to renovate this historic theater for modern movie viewing. It was the first commercial job our small refurbishment business had managed to land, and I was eager to finish with a satisfied customer and a new market at my fingertips.
I had managed to decimate three rows of seating on my half of the room before the temperature dropped. My goosebumps were back with a vengeance and my breath fogged before my eyes. I shivered violently as the sound of a crowd laughing surrounded me. I scanned the room anxiously looking for the source of the noise.
“Ainelle, are you doing okay?”
Shelly’s voice broke the spell and the room warmed back up. I looked over to her, and realized she was several rows ahead of me. I blinked in confusion. “How did you get so far ahead of me? We were on the same row just a couple seconds ago?”
She raised an eyebrow at me, “Seriously Ainelle? You’ve been standing there for the better part of an hour. Hun are you sure you’re okay?”
I shook my head, that wasn’t possible. But how could I argue with what was right in front of me? “I don’t know Shell, I must be a bit out of it today.”
“Well get it together. This demo has to get done tonight, including clear-out, in order for us to make our deadline.”
I nodded and brushed some stray hairs out of my face. “I got it.”
A couple deep breaths later and I was back to swinging my hammer like I was born to it. The feel of the hammer smashing into wood and fabric, the splintering cracks that filled the air, the smell of mold and dust, that was my therapy. No need for an armchair and a dent in the checkbook. Hell, I got paid to do this. I felt the adrenaline soak my system as I picked up my pace, soon surpassing Shelly despite the short stint of lost time.
We stopped for lunch half way through the room. The back half was in shambles. Debris from demolished seats and fittings covered the floor so thoroughly you couldn’t see the color the wood floors were painted. Yes, painted. I’d winced when I saw that. A refinishing was definitely in order, if the floors were in any state to be repaired instead of replaced.
“You are a machine out there Ain. How do you keep going without stopping every now and then?”
I shrugged and wiped the sweat off my forehead with my sleeve. Shelly asked me that every time we handled a demolition together. “I just get in the zone Shell. You know how it is when you paint.” I couldn’t explain it any other way, and she waved away my explanation.
“It’s not the same thing, but whatever floats your boat I guess.” We finished our meal in silence and got back to work, barely letting our food settle.
As I got closer to the stage the more my nerves took hold of me. The hair on the back of my neck was standing at attention and I shivered with inexplicable shivers. I paused for a breath, trying to get myself together.
“Is it cold in here?”
Shelly shook her head, “Not over here, but you could have a draft on your side. You know how these old buildings are.”
I nodded, trying to tell myself that was all it was. But there’d been no breeze, my subconscious offered its unasked for opinion. Must be ghosts. I snorted a laugh to myself. Ghosts. Never in my twenty year career had I seen evidence of ghosts. I shook of my misgivings and continued to work.
When I got to the final row just before the orchestra pit, I doubled over as shivers wracked through me. The room chilled even quicker than it had before. I could hear the sounds of an orchestral production resonating off the vaulted ceilings and the smattering of polite applause. I felt a hot hand on my arm and blinked a couple of times. Shelly stood above me, a concerned look on her face.
“You are colder than ice, are you sure you’re up to finishing the demo tonight? I can call my brother’s crew and subcontract it out to them.”
I did my best not to sneer at her suggestion. There was no way I would let Darrin take over any part of this job, he was our biggest competition. “I’ll be fine Shelly. Just give me a second to get myself together.”
She nodded once and went back to her last row of chairs, swinging her hammer like there was no tomorrow. Finally I got back to my feet and proceeded to obliterate the remaining chairs. When we finished we looked back over the seating area, observing the destruction.
Shelly had a grin on her face that made her dark eyes sparkle. “You can’t really see it in all its majesty from here. Let’s get a better vantage point.”
I nodded my agreement and we ascended the stairs at center stage together. My stomach twisted in anticipation and dread. I nearly hurled as we stepped onto the black stage floor.
Only it wasn’t floor.
As soon as I stepped off the staircase I fell forward through an ice cold barrier. When I hit the stage with a thud, I was shivering. My fingertips were blue, I could only imagine my lips and nose were too.
It took me a moment to register the lack of grime on the stage floor, and the burn of stage lighting, but once I did, I shot to my feet. A gasping crowd sat in a not at all dingy theater. The seating and walls were maroon with gold gilding and the orchestra pit held a full host, including strings, winds, and brass. I was still wearing my work clothes, and I looked sorely out of place.
I jumped when one of the actors touched my arm. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place his face. “Are you alright Madame?” He used a formal tone and I laughed.
“Madame? Really? I’m not that old.” A look of puzzlement flashed over his face before he smiled at me.
“No, not old. Miss then. Where did you come from?”
I shook my head as I looked around, taking in the period décor. “This can’t be happening.” I spoke to myself, “This isn’t real.”
“I can assure you we are real, Miss. How did you get up here?”
I blinked, “I fell off the steps, didn’t you see me?” My sense of displacement swirled in me, making me dizzy.
The man chuckled, “I saw you come out of thin air, people will start to think this theater haunted.”
I looked at him with my eyebrows raised, “Haunted? I’m not a ghost.”
“Aren’t you?” He mimicked my expression.
“No, you touched my arm earlier. You can’t touch ghosts.”
“Did I? I don’t recall.”
I held out my arm, “Here, try again.” The man hesitantly swiped at my arm, and his hand passed straight through. My stomach dropped. “No, that can’t be. I’m not a ghost.” I squeezed my eyes shut. “I’m not a ghost, I’m not a ghost, I’m not a ghost.” I repeated the mantra and hugged myself tight. This had to be a nightmare.
When I opened my eyes I was curled on my side in the middle of the stage. The debris from the demolition was gone, and in its place stood brand new recliner chairs and about half the amount of seating. My hands shook as I pushed myself to my feet, brushing the grime from the floor off my knees. I looked around disoriented, and dug into my tool belt for my cell phone.
Quickly dialing Shelly I waited for her to pick up. “Hello?” She sounded groggy and upset.
“Shell, can you come get me?”
“Who is this?” She sounded angry.
“Shelly, it’s me, Ainelle. Please I don’t know what’s going on.” I tried not to let my fear make my voice shake too much.
“Ainelle. Where have you been? You’ve been missing for three months. Where are you? I’m coming to get you.”
I nearly sighed in relief. “I’m at the theater. I’ll wait out front.”
The brisk air proved the season had progressed from summer to fall. I scuffed my boots on the concrete as I waited for Shelly to pull up. After a while I started to inspect the front of the theater. Old posters were plastered along the exterior walls. One in particular caught my attention. A poster for a 1922 production of Romeo and Juliet. Staring back at me was the drawing of the actor that I had spoken to not moments before.