Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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Shakespearean Justice

by Dan Eveloff




Despite the cold of the bomb shelter-like room, Robert’s pores told their own tale, perspiring like millions of little blowholes. The script fluttered within his trembling grip, causing a repetitive crinkling sound amidst the otherwise stark silence. But as he surveyed the room of his fellow cast members, none seemed to notice or care.

Robert put on his costume--a sleek coat of armor with polished iron plates connected by woven chainmail--which only made his looming performance all the more real.

It was just one scene, he told himself. Even a bonehead like him could get through a single scene without forgetting his lines. Not to mention what he stood to gain if all went well! So when the opportunity presented itself, of course he said yes. It sounded like a good idea at the time.

It sounded like a good idea at the time. That’d make a good title for his autobiography, Robert thought. Or an epitaph on his tombstone.

Theatre was never his bag. After all, he was the jackass who used to give thespians wedgies in high school. Goodness, that was over thirty years ago. Only now, with frenzied shocks of angst coursing through his nerves, did Robert respect the stones it took to perform in front of a live audience.

CLANK!

Robert jerked upright at the sound of the opening steel door. The cast’s eyes shifted from the front door back towards Robert in an eerie synchronized gaze, each with foreboding smirks. The butterflies in his stomach birthed offspring.

The Director strode in--all six-and-a-half feet of him--his bald head nearly scraping the metal-encased ceiling bulbs. A black knight stick swung from his sausage-like fingers as he trudged through the room.

Robert did his best to avoid eye contact, but when the black boots appeared on the floor before him, he lifted his head to see the Director staring down at him with an unnerving grin. Behind him, the others observed with menacing delight.

My God, Robert thought. The man’s brawny build seemed to test the pliability of his fitted black turtleneck.

“Got your lines down?” the Director demanded, his voice more apt for a military boot camp than a theatre dressing room. Though given the room was a glorified prison cell, Robert figured it wasn’t too far off.

“Yes sir,” Robert replied.

“Good. Show starts in ten.”

With that, the Director about-faced and left the room, the loud CLANK sounding as he locked the steel door behind him.

Robert reached into the black duffle bag under the bench and pulled out a burnished gold crown. He awed at the design, its luxurious gilded sides curving around a maroon felt interior. He turned it over, noticing a small brown stain on the inside of the gold band. He scratched it off with his fingernail, then tried it on. Snug yet comfortable. He couldn’t help but smile as he strummed the bottom of his goatee.

CLANK!

The Director entered again.

“You ready, dirt bag? I mean, Macbeth?”

Robert’s heart shivered as the rest of the room erupted into wicked cackles.
“All right then, let’s go!” the Director decreed.

At once, the five cast members let out a collective hoot, then lined up and faced the door.

Robert dropped back into the duffel bag and pulled out a long sword and shield. They were heavy, seemingly authentic, saves for the sword’s dull edges. He slid the shield over his forearm and jumped to the back of the line.

The crew filed out of the room and down a hallway until they arrived at an unlit area, save for a wedge of light shining in from afar. The stage.

The sound of amplified voices seemed to act as butterfly mating call. Robert was just yards away from where his performance was to take place. He stood frozen, waiting, until the voices gave way to a loud applause.

A group of actors walked offstage and towards the group. As they neared, Robert made out a crown on the head of the man in front--the very same crown that sat upon his own head. In fact, the man’s entire outfit was the same as his. He even had a goatee!

Before he could contemplate the enigma, a firm hand planted on his shoulder. Robert peered around (and up) to see the Director glowering down at him. The Director held out his hand, presenting a dark red tablet, which he then slipped under Robert’s sleeve.

“Blood capsule,” he said.

Robert nodded.

“Look where his sword is going and hit it with yours,” the Director instructed.

“Should I--"

Without warning, the Director shoved Robert towards the stage. He stumbled, but managed to regain his balance.

Snickering, his five castmates led him towards the stage. As he walked, he found himself enamored with the wooden flooring, as if he’d forgotten such natural material existed in the world.

Finally, Robert took his place and waited. His heart pounding against his chest plate.

The curtain rose.

Intense lights beamed into his eyes. As his vision adjusted, rows of spectators came into view, extending farther and father until they meshed into blackness. Robert’s stomach sank into his shoes.

One of the five from the dressing room--the other one donning armor--entered stage-left and bellowed, “Turn, hell-hound, turn!”

Robert turned to the man he now knew was Macduff, and to his God-saving delight, his line flowed to his tongue without hesitation: “Of all men else I have avoided thee. But get thee back; my soul is too much charged with blood of thine already.”

He was overcome with a surge of adrenaline once the last word escaped his mouth. He’d cleared his first hurdle.

With sword in hand, Macduff crept closer and spewed back, “I have no words. My voice is in my sword: thou bloodier villain than terms can give thee out!”

The swordfight commenced.

For an entirely unrehearsed swordfight, it went remarkably well. Robert recalled the Director’s sole piece of advice: Look where his sword is going and hit it with yours. That’s precisely what he did.

The audience OOH’ed and AAH’ed as the two danced around the stage, swiping and dodging with fanciful grace. As the swords clashed, the blade-on-blade impact gave him a fantastic rush. They’d back away when it was time to deliver a line, and Robert never faltered. His confidence rose with each word.

He stole a glance at the Director offstage. He seemed captivated by the scene, if not impressed. The audience, too, watched in anticipatory awe. Robert was unable to stifle a smile. Dare he say he was even enjoying himself?

Their crashing weapons rang sharply as the two jousted about until finally, after a plunge of Robert’s sword, Macduff fell to the ground with an agonizing yelp.

Robert stood over him in triumph, then lifted his sword above his head, ready to lay the finishing blow. But at the height of his windup, Macduff lurched forward and jabbed his blade towards Robert’s exposed abdomen, sliding it upwards between his ribs and arm.

Robert howled in pain, then slipped the blood capsule into his mouth. He bit down, letting the red liquid gush between his teeth and ooze down his chin while the sword protruded behind him. When Macduff yanked the sword back from under his armpit, Robert let out a wheezing cough that sent the faux blood spewing into the air. He knew he’d done well from the audience’s collective gasp.

He fell to his knees. The crowd grew silent. Macduff labored to his feet, then stood over him. The two dramatically locked eyes--the champion and the defeated--as Macduff slowly placed his sword against Robert’s neck.

Tension filled the theater like a balloon, all waiting for the climactic pop. With one last solemn exhale, Robert took on the face of one who was, before the audience’s eyes, accepting his imminent death, then shut his eyes. At any moment the curtain would drop, the crowd left to fill in the blanks. He’d know by the applause when it was safe to move.

But at that moment, Robert felt a sharp pang under his armpit, the intensity of which grew tenfold in seconds. His adrenaline must’ve dulled the pain when his partner yanked the sword back minutes ago, but the searing throb was now undeniable.

Robert instinctively opened his eyes, which immediately split wide with terror. The man’s face before him was no longer that of an actor, but a man consumed with authentic rage, transcending any contrived performance.

Macduff wound his sword behind his head, then swung, letting out a mighty roar that echoed through the auditorium. The sword ripped through the air and sliced clean through Robert’s neck. Blood spurted from the open flesh, painting Macduff’s armor as the headless body crumpled to the floor. Robert’s head rolled across the stage, leaving a trail of blood in its wake. When it finally came to a halt, the crown was still fixed atop the detached head.

Macduff stared down at the headless corpse before him, holding his pose as the crimson sprays settled to an oozing pool. The lights dimmed. The curtain dropped. From beyond it, a thunderous applause.


*****



The stage crew cleaned the mess and shifted the backdrop with the speed of a NASCAR pit crew. The actors took their places, and the curtain rose to commence the final scene.

When Macduff entered the stage--though as only those in the first few rows could tell, it wasn’t the same actor that slayed Macbeth in the prior scene--commotion stirred in the audience, it becoming clear what he held in his outstretched hand.

“Hail king!” Macduff said, “for so thou art: behold, where stands the usurper’s cursed head.”

He raised the head of his defeated adversary for all to see. Flesh dangled in bloody ribbons. He threw it to the ground, causing a woman in the front row to faint.

After a short monologue from Macduff, the play concluded with the surrounding extras taking a collective knee and praising, “Hail, King of Scotland!”

The curtain dropped again, and an even louder applause reverberated through the building. When the curtain rose a final time, the entire cast held hands in a line, welcoming the crowd’s praise with a united bow.

One member was not present for the curtain call, however: the other Macduff. Instead, he stood offstage beside the Director.

“You sure you don’t wanna be out there?” the Director asked.

“C’mon now, boss. You know I have no interest in that. I’m an executioner, not an actor. You think the guy who pulls the lever on the electric chair ever got a standing ovation?”

“I suppose not."

A voice blared over the speakers: “Ladies and gentlemen, please give a round of applause for the director of tonight’s production, former United States Attorney General, Oscar Guignol.”

Macduff patted the Director’s shoulder, then left through the hallway door from which their small group came.

The Director took the stage to a boisterous ovation, cast included, and took a bow. Roses soared to his feet as he basked in unrelenting cheers until finally, he motioned to quiet the crowd.

“There are no two ways about it,” Guignol started, “we as human beings enjoy drama, violence, death. It’s part of our DNA. We like to think we’re different from those who cheered the slaughter of men and women at the Roman Coliseum--that we’re better, more evolved. But the truth is, as human beings, we’re not different. We possess the same innate intrigue in gore and death that we always have. But as a society, we are better. We have evolved. Thanks to the values instilled by our justice system over the years, our societal norms and expectations have advanced. We may still have that same fascination with the macabre--and such is the beauty of the Méténier Theatre--but we know better than to act on such impulses. And for those who don’t, we make an example of them. Such is what keeps our society in check, evolving in a positive moral direction.

“As you all know, what we do here at Méténier Theatre is different any other venue in the world. We aspire to not only entertain, but to do so with a higher purpose.

“The man playing Macbeth today--not the brilliant Thomas Abernathy you saw for the first two hours of the show, but the one in the fatal scene--is a man by the name of Robert Fraser. Or should I say, was a man by the name of Robert Fraser. For the past 23 years, Robert has been wasting away in a federal penitentiary for the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl. For those 23 years, Robert has been eating three meals a day, sleeping in his own bed, socializing with other inmates, taking classes, and living a life of secluded leisure. And guess who’s paying for all that? That’s right, you: the American taxpayer. And if not for our program, you’d be doing so for the entirety of his life sentence. In fact, you’ll be shocked to know that Robert’s lifetime incarceration would have cost well over one million dollars. There are currently over 160,000 prisoners in the U.S. similarly serving a life sentence. You do the math.

“Our country wastes more money on our prisoners than anywhere else in the world, and it’s not even close. You’re out there living honest lives and contributing to society while these prisoners feed off your hard-earned dollars. Free room and board is hardly a deterrence against cruelty. But thanks to the shared vision of our federal lawmakers, we at the Méténier offer certain prisoners an opportunity: to earn their release by participating in our theatre productions. Unbeknownst to them, however, their release isn’t just from their prison cells, but from their putrid existence altogether.

“The prisoners featured in our productions are beyond any appeals process and will never see the outside of their prison walls ever again. The sick nature of their crimes renders them incapable of rehabilitation. Even their own lawyers have left them for dead. They’re no longer part of our society, that is, but for the enormous cost these walking corpses levy on our law-abiding citizens. They unjustly breathe our air while their victims rot away in their graves.

“The Méténier saves millions by ridding our prisons of these horrid individuals, and together, we convert that cost into societal gain: entertainment, revenue, jobs. Art. Together, we deter crime by making an example of these monsters. And there’s nowhere else in the world you can see live authentic drama like this; where you can feed your inherent lust for gore as a harmless spectator, all the while contributing to a vital cause. And most importantly, victims’ families can get the closure our justice system failed to deliver in the first place.

“You are all part of this wondrous endeavor, and I can’t thank you enough for your support. Thank you, and God bless America.” The Director left the stage to a roaring applause. He made his way back through the hallway to the area outside the dressing room. A woman--one of the extras--stood outside the steel door, having just changed outfits.

“Hell of a matinee, Director,” she said.

“Just glad the blade went through cleanly this time,” Guignol replied. “What do we got for the evening show?”

“Hamlet.”

The Director thought for a second. “That’s poison, right?”

“Well, a poisonous blade,” she said with a smirk.

“Fantastic. Who’s our stunt double?”

“Guy named Scott McCarthy.”

“Oh yeah, I remember him. Double murder, right?”

“Mmhm. Wife and child. Tied ‘em up and shot ‘em both. Been blessing our prison halls for 19 years now.”

“He in there now?” Guignol asked, nodding towards the dressing room.

“Reviewing his lines as we speak.”

The Director pulled the knight stick from his holster and slapped it into his palm. “Well then, let’s get this party started.”

He unlocked the hatch, pulled open the steel door and stepped inside. Across the room, the prisoner sat alone studying his script. A black duffle bag lied on the ground beneath him.

The eyes of the other five looked at the Director, then turned back towards the man, each with knowing grins.



THE END


© 2019 Dan Eveloff

Bio: Dan Eveloff is a lawyer and sports agent living in downtown Chicago. A former CPA, Dan earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Kansas and studied law at Northwestern University. This is Dan's second publication, his first, "The Price of Recompense," appearing in AHF Magazine.

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