Night of Cake & Puppets
Page 3

 Laini Taylor

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In this case, Mephistopheles has a loose string, making him list drunkenly to one side. It’s an easy fix. ‘Sure,’ I say, and put my stuff in my locker, more mindful than usual of the contents of my bag. Once the lounges clear out – puppeteers to the stage and musicians to the orchestra pit – I have some sneaking to do. The thought of it kicks my heartbeat sideways.
I have to break into Mik’s violin case.
I grab my tool kit. First I have a devil to sober up.
It’s Act II. I can hear Mephistopheles singing. I text Karou: Kindly confirm: If someone’s evil, then killing them isn’t murder. It’s SLAYING, and not only legal but encouraged. Correct?
No reply.
After a minute, I text again: Taking your silence as a YES. Sharpening knife. Text now to stop me. 3–2–1…Okay then. Here I go.
Still no reply.
One last text: It’s done. Am currently dragging an opera singer to the taxidermist by her hair. Plan to have her stuffed and mounted above Aunt Nedda’s TV.
For a moment, my frustration over the soprano is undercut by anxiety as I ponder what Karou might be doing in South Africa that she can’t answer her phone. Poacher, or witch doctor? I have no success imagining either, and resume frustration.
ARGH! Prochazka kept me scurrying during Act I, then there were sets to change, and just when I was going to slip away, Hugo had to pee and handed off Siebel to me, even though I am not cleared to operate a marionette in a show! I didn’t have to do anything but make it stand around, at least, and when Hugo came back, I made my escape – back to the puppeteers’ lounge to grab my drawing, and then…just as I was about to creep into the musicians’ lounge…
‘Excuse me. Girl!’
Cinzia Polombo appeared in the doorway. Girl? She actually snapped her fingers to get my attention. Oh yes. But it gets better. She handed me her empty coffee cup and, because she doesn’t speak Czech, said in English, with a luxuriant and imperious R roll, ‘Hurrry.’
Oh. I hurried.
If anyone has ever filled a coffee cup with cigarette butts faster than I did tonight, I would be very much surprised.
‘Is that not what you wanted?’ I asked her in purest innocence when she gasped and looked aghast.
‘Coffee! I want coffee!’
‘Ohhh. Of course,’ I said. ‘That makes so much more sense. I’ll be right back.’ And I was right back. I handed her the cup, now full of cigarette butts and coffee, and kept walking.
‘Disgraziata!’ she shrieked at me, dashing the contents to the floor, but I just kept going, back into the puppeteers’ lounge, where I sit now on the sadder of two sad sofas, thwarted. Cinzia is still in the musicians’ lounge, where she should not be. Her cue is any minute. What’s she doing in there, aside from cursing in Italian? I’m going to lose my chance!
My phone vibrates. It’s Karou. Finally. She texts: Go to the taxidermist on Jená. They’re the best with humans.
—Perfect. Thanks for the tip. Find that poacher?
—Much to his dismay.
—A slot-machine jackpot of shings. Nothing stronger, though.
That sucks. She’s looking for more powerful wishes, and shings, I know, are only a little better than scuppies. I text: Well, better than nothing?
—Yeah. So tired. Going to sleep now. GO FORTH AND CONQUER!
Again, whatever went down in South Africa, I can’t begin to imagine it. As for the taxidermist, for a second I consider checking to see if there really is one on Jená, but I dismiss the thought. If Karou was in the habit of having humans stuffed, that jackass Kaz would not still be walking around.
At the thought of Kaz, and to the continued sound track of a high-strung soprano cursing in Italian, I can’t help but imagine what I might do in this moment with a limitless supply of scuppies. Really, Karou was incredibly restrained. I could not be trusted. I would be afflicting people with itches every second, at the slightest provocation. Think about it. With the power of itch – even better, the power of cranny itch – you’d be master of any situation.
Maybe not any situation. It wouldn’t really help me with Mik.
Anyway. I’m not going to waste a single scuppy on Cinzia Polombo. I will preserve them for Mik-enchantment.
Finally: a door slam, and stomping, and Cinzia is out of the way. I take my drawing – it’s rolled up like a scroll, edges burned, and tied with a black satin ribbon – and creep to the door of the musicians’ lounge. It’s ajar, and I can see that there’s no one inside. No sense waiting. A flash and I am in, opening locker doors, mindful that if anyone were to walk in, I would absolutely look like a thief. I don’t know which locker is Mik’s, and it’s impossible to open and close metal doors quietly, and some of them have locks on them, so I can only hope for the best.…
And then I find it. Everything is a miracle. It is a miracle that one does not melt in one’s bath.
Everything is a miracle, is it? Ask me again at the end of the night.
I open the violin case and put the scroll inside. I close it, shut the locker, and back away. Time to escape. I flash back out the door, skirt Cinzia’s coffee-and-cigarette splash, and slide back into the puppeteers’ lounge, where I take a deep breath. Another. Another. Then I put on my coat, gather my things.
This is the moment when I walk away from the Marionette Theater, possibly forever. I feel like a brave Resistance worker who has just planted a bomb, and will now walk away, cinematically, without a backward glance. Because here’s what I’ve decided: If things do not go well tonight, I am never coming back here. It’s the only way I can do this, by removing the inevitability of embarrassment. I never have to see Mik again. There will be no awkwardness, no blushing.
No blushing.
I’m struck suddenly by the very real possibility of never seeing Mik blush again, and…my heart hurts. My heart has never hurt before. It’s real pain, like a bad bruise, and catches me off guard. I always thought people were making that up. It makes me wonder about kissing and fireworks and all the other stuff I always assumed was made up. And the pain comes again, because this is it, things are set in motion, and soon I’ll know, one way or the other. He’ll come or he won’t.
What if he doesn’t come?
Oh god. Is this too drastic? Maybe I should have just had faith in the normal way: ferocious blushing, time passing, hoping and pining, always alert for some sign of interest until an exchange of small talk can occur. (‘Have you tried this treatment for female baldness? I hear it’s life-changing.’) And maybe over more time small talk turns into shuffling toward shared coffee…or maybe the blushing just goes on and on and nothing ever happens, drastic or otherwise, and then it’s like in a TV show when they string the sexual tension between two characters out for too long and you stop caring and it all just turns to dust?
No. I can’t take dust, or small talk, or shuffling. It’s got to be drastic. One way or another, tonight I’ll know.
I want to go backstage and peer into the orchestra pit one last time, but if I do, one of the puppeteers is sure to snag me for some job, and I won’t be able to escape. Still, I pause at the stage door and listen. I hear Cinzia singing Marguerite, this tragic character debauched in a devil’s bargain. She seems to have mastered her diva rage and actually sounds pretty good…for a third-rate soprano singing in a marionette theater, anyway…but that’s not what I want to hear. I listen for the violin.
There it is, this sound that rises out of the music like a beam of light cutting through darkness. It’s as sweet as love, so goddamn beautiful I could cry, and it’s like my whole being forms the word please.
I don’t believe in prayer, but I do believe in magic, and I want to believe in miracles.
Please come, I think through the wall, sending the words toward the sweet, pure sound, and the sweet, pure boy who’s making it.
And then I leave.
It’s snowing. I wrap my scarf around my face and feel a kind of peace. I’ve played my gambit.
It’s up to him now.
Voodoo Eyes
The curtain drops. The music dies away and applause overcomes it, and when I lower my violin, another Saturday night sits like a cat on a fence.
I’m not a fan of cats. With one shining exception. Wolfgang established an impossible standard, then died when I was ten, and every cat since has been a source of disappointment. You hold out your hand to them, and they just look at it, and since they’re not stupid, this act can only be interpreted as mockery.
Yeah, buddy, that’s a hand. You’ve got two of those bad boys. Good for you.
Not: Oh, you’d like to pet me? Let me come closer, because I like you, too.
That’s me and Saturday night lately. It just looks at my hand until, ashamed, I lower it and try to pretend I didn’t really want to pet it anyway. The thing that I want to happen consistently does not happen. Mocked by fate? Maybe.
Maybe tonight will be different. It didn’t begin well, but there’s always hope.
‘Party at Stooge’s,’ says Radan as we file out of the orchestra pit, and that’s the opposite of hope. It’s the cat glaring at me, because it’s where I’ll probably end up tonight, and if I do, it will mean that for yet another Saturday, she will have slipped through my fingers. She will not be at Stooge’s, would never be at Stooge’s. I don’t know where she goes after work, but I imagine stars and mist and halls of mirrors, and I want to be there, too.
I want to do mysterious and improbable things alongside a fierce and beautiful girl who looks like a doll brought to life by a sorcerer.
Is that really so much to ask?
I look for her in the hallway, but don’t see her. And the door to the puppeteers’ lounge is open, so I see as I pass that she’s not in there, either. Did I already miss her? Probably.
Can’t blame fate, I know that. It’s my own suffocating idiocy. Why can’t I just speak to her? I was going to earlier, when we were walking into the theater. It’s embarrassing, but I’d waited under the awning across the street until I saw her coming. Only for a couple of minutes. Nothing weird. I don’t know what I would have said, anyway. Probably something inane, like, ‘Looks like snow.’ Or possibly ‘I like cake.’ (She likes cake. This is one of four things I know about her. The others are: 2. Her name is Zuzana, 3. she’s in her last year at the Lyceum, so is probably eighteen, which is young but not heinously young, and 4. she can freeze a person’s blood with a look. I’ve seen it happen, though I have not been on the receiving end. She has voodoo eyes, and is more than slightly terrifying. Hence the not-yet-talking-to-her.) But I said nothing, inane or otherwise, because she halted abruptly to consider a flyer on the wall, and I didn’t know what to do but keep walking.
Damn it.
I wonder what the flyer was. I’ll have to check on my way out. Not sure I want to, though. I’m afraid it will confirm my suspicion that she was just trying to avoid me.
The moment I walk into the musicians’ lounge, a voice cries my name, and I cringe. ‘Mik!’
Cinzia. ‘Meeek,’ she pronounces it, and it sounds like a condemnation: meek! And then she’s right in front of me and I shrink a little. I can’t help it. Being looked at by Cinzia is what I imagine having a red dot painted on your forehead by a sniper rifle feels like. Tuck, duck, and roll.
‘Did I sound not good tonight?’ she asks in English, with an exaggerated expression of woe. Everything about Cinzia is exaggerated, from her eyeliner to the way she walks, every step hip-slamming an invisible bystander out of her way.
‘What? Uh. You were fine.’ Just what every soprano longs to hear at the end of a show. You were fine.
‘I was give a shock, is difficult to be calm, for singing.’
I have no plans to ask the source of this shock, but she’s already telling me. I’m at my locker, opening it, not really paying attention, when I hear the words puppet girl and tune abruptly in. ‘She did what?’ I ask.
‘I send her for coffee, she bring me cup full of cigarette butts. Can you believe?’
Actually, I can’t. ‘You sent her for coffee?’ This is the part I can’t believe. Had Cinzia failed to notice the voodoo eyes? ‘She’s not a coffee-girl. She’s a puppet-maker.’
Cinzia blinks. ‘No. The girl, the small one.’
I nod. ‘Right. The small girl.’ Absurdly, I feel possessive talking about her. I think that this is the first time I ever have talked about her, and I have no wish to do so with Cinzia. ‘Anyway,’ I tell her, ‘we get our own coffee here.’
She frowns at me. ‘She put cigarettes in my coffee,’ she says, like I’ve missed the point, and all I can do is try not to smile, because yeah, that’s what you’d do to Cinzia if you were the kind of person who just did what you wanted. So I guess Zuzana is the kind of person who does what she wants? That doesn’t exactly bode well for me, because wouldn’t she have talked to me by now if she had any interest in me?
How pathetically passive, waiting for her to do the talking. That’s not who I want to be. I want to be the guy in a movie who’s, I don’t know, out walking his rabbit on a leash (I don’t have a rabbit) and knows exactly how to strike up a quirky, compelling conversation. Though maybe if you’re walking a rabbit on a leash, you don’t even have to speak; the rabbit does the work for you. Not that Zuzana seems like the rabbity type. Maybe if I were walking a fox on a leash. Or a hyena. Yeah, if I had a hyena, I’d probably never have to start a conversation again.