At some point the senior consignment shops built a reputation for being high-end stores. The products varied in quality, but because they were hobbyists they were mostly handmade with a lot of time and care spent on them.
That meant prices were high, too. More than I’d normally pay for a hair stick.
I bit my lip and inspected them, trying to decide if I should go with one that was the same color or the same style. One was a puff of a flower, round and fluffy, but it was purple. Another had the same vibrant yellows and oranges but had longer, pointier petals.
I settled on getting yellow with tiny rubies in the middle of the flower. I questioned my choice as soon as I picked it up, but I had to pick something or I’d be there all day.
So I bought it and made my way to the theater.
A guard waved me in at the front and I strolled through the empty lobby. I heard chatter from the stage so I went through the door that led to the seats. Ellora and Seolian took center stage with a director on the floor in front of them. I only knew Seolian as a popular comedian. Other actors and dancers were hanging out in the curtains.
“You wouldn’t understand. Love is painful.” Ellora turned away from Seolian and wrapped her arms around herself, her expression pained.
“I wouldn’t have a clue.” Seolian held a hand to her chest and tilted her head towards the seats, giving the invisible audience a knowing look.
“Stop!” the director yelled. “Do it again but bigger, Seolian. Your heart hurts.”
“Bigger?” she repeated, cocking an eyebrow, hands on her hips. The director gestured widely with her hands, encouraging her.
Ellora stretched and repeated her actions.
“I wouldn’t have a clue.” Seolian grabbed her chest and fell over.
Ellora paused in shock before cracking up.
“Not that big,” the director said.
Seolian rolled her head to the side and opened one eye. “Too much?”
I spotted Valli in the curtains and jogged up to the stage, climbing up the side. I received some glances before being recognized.
“Leander, what are you doing here?” Valli asked. Today a pair of small blue flowers were clipped to either side of his head.
I hesitated. A lot of people were around and I wasn’t sure if I had picked well. Digging the hair stick out of my jacket, I held it out. “I got this for you.”
“Oh!” He threw his hands up over his mouth before gently plucking the stick from my hands. “Thank you! That’s so sweet.”
At least it had been worth the money. We waded through the curtains and sat down. I held the stick for him when he went to practice with the other dancers. After they were done the performers wandered backstage. I joined Valli on the side of the stage. Ellora stayed back with us, rubbing her shoulder.
“I don’t usually get to see the rehearsals,” I said.
“It gets old doing the same scenes over and over,” Ellora said, “but at least we don’t have to rehearse that much right now. This play is pretty straightforward. Not that many tricks.”
“The dance routines are more traditional, too,” Valli added.
“What’s the hardest thing you guys have to do?”
“I think it’s when we have to hold an unusual position for a long time. Like when we played ghosts and walked in a crouched position with our legs far apart,” Valli said.
“I’d say it’s when I have to run to the back while the conveyor belt is going. Having something move under you while you’re running can throw you off balance.”
From the middle of the stage there was a straight section that shot all the way to the back of the room, through the audience seating.
“You mean down that?”
“Yeah. And crawling through the tunnel back to the stage can be irritating, too. It doesn’t get cleaned down there too often.”
“I never need to go down there,” Valli said.
“Consider yourself lucky. It’s cramped.”
“How big is it?” I asked, starting down the walkway in the middle.
“There’s an opening to it right here.” Ellora stopped me. Like the conveyor belt, the trap door blended perfectly with the ground. I’d have never known if she didn’t tell me.
She knelt down by it while I started to walk back. She pried it open with her fingers, revealing an opening about two feet wide. Before I made it back to her she screamed and tumbled backwards. I froze. Valli jumped in place. I’d never heard her react like that before.
When Valli stepped forward she threw up an arm to keep him away. What did she see? Curiosity compelled me to go forward while unease held me back. Ellora was not one to scream lightly.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Call the police,” she stammered. “There’s a body in there!”
Chaos struck. Valli ran out the door. Ellora stayed near the opening, still on her butt. I hesitated to approach. There was a draw to see what she was talking about, but I didn’t want to see something that would haunt me. She had to be wrong. How could there be a body?
The next few hours blurred together. The theater was overrun with police interrogating people. I ended up in the back of the theater with everyone else. My interrogation was short since I didn’t even know the victim. People were separated and questioned alone, but it didn’t look like they found a suspect.
Listening to what was going on, I determined that the victim had been one of the guards.
They recorded the lobby and the back areas to make a virtual model of the scene. Everyone was asked to leave all items as they were until they finished. The only areas they didn’t bother with were the basement, tech room and living quarters.
It felt like a dream.
It was late afternoon by the time people were allowed to leave. Some of the guards went with the police for further questioning. The stage was roped off. They were going to be allowed to continue using the stage but they couldn’t use the trap door.
I rejoined Valli after the police left. The people who stayed formed little groups and spoke in hushed voices amongst themselves. Ellora wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
“Did you hear anything about what happened?” I asked him.
“Not much. I don’t think they want to let the details out yet.”
“It looks like they didn’t make a recording of every place in here.”
“Well, the guards never go in the tech room or the basement, and she didn’t live on location, so there wasn’t any reason for her to be in any of those places. It looked like they were spending a lot of time on the left side of the stage, too. Maybe they found something there.”
Stage left was close to the kitchen area.
“Did you know her?”
“I can’t say I knew her well… The guards are almost always in the front or in the lobby. They only patrol through the back once in awhile, so I don’t see most of them much besides Aliseam.”
“Aliseam? Wasn’t she…” I trailed off. The name sounded familiar.
“She lives on site, so you probably met her yesterday.”
That placed her. When I knocked on the doors I had a brief introduction to everyone who lived there.
I looked around the room. “Hey, where did Ellora go, anyway?”
“Maybe she went back to her room?”
“During all this?”
He glanced away, ears lowered. “Maybe we should check on her. To make sure she’s okay.”
I nodded. We headed to her room.
The pile of papers was messily stacked on the desk. It was about a foot high. No wonder it had fallen. She was sorting through them with a look of irritation etched on her face.
“Are you all right over here?” Valli asked when he walked inside.
Her expression softened for him. She nudged a metal rod leaning on the desk next to her. “If anyone tries to take me by surprise I’ll be ready for them.”
I knew well from experience that she wouldn’t hesitate to swing.
“Okay. I’m going to be in my room with Leander.”
The afternoon was surreal. We talked about the murder, and when we switched subjects it came with a sensation of guilt. How could we chat away when someone had just been killed? But I didn’t want to scare Valli or obsess over something we didn’t have any answers for.
I finished a piece of bread he’d given me and tossed the wrapper in his trash bin. When my eyes locked on it a shudder ran down my back. The filthy hair stick was in there. Yesterday I wasn’t sure what it was covered in but now I had a guess.
“Valli.” I nearly reached in the bin but stopped myself. “We should call the police. We found your hair stick on the stage yesterday.”
He seemed to shrink when I mentioned it. “You think it’s connected?”
“It was covered in something, remember?”
Silence fell on us. I didn’t want to say what I thought it was covered in.
We called the police and explained what happened. They came to Valli’s room and took pictures of the trash bin before collecting it. We took them over to where we found it on the stage and told them everything we could. After another strenuous hour they were leaving with the evidence.
On the way back to Valli’s room he stopped in front of his door. His face paled. I knitted my brows as he clenched his hand and brought it in front of his mouth.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I can’t believe a murderer was lurking in our hallway,” he answered. His eyes widened and he placed his hands on his cheeks. His pitch rose, “And they broke into my room.”
Swiveling to face him, I placed my hands on his shoulders. “It’s okay; I’m here. You’re safe. The police have… they have the murder weapon now. They can get fingerprints off of it.”
“What if they’re still around tonight?” He stared at me, his body stiff.
“Don’t worry.” I paused. Not wanting to sound pushy, I offered awkwardly, “I could stay here tonight.”
He turned his eyes up at me. Even though he was still a hair taller than I was, he was curling up, holding himself. “You don’t have to do that. I don’t want to put you out.”
“It’s not putting me out. I’d feel better if I knew you were okay.”
He smiled softly at me. I was glad I could give him some comfort.
“I’ll just have to get some stuff from home and let Dad know I’m staying the night here.”
He took in a deep breath and straightened up, calming.
“All right. When do you want to do that?”
“I can go right now.” I took his hand and led him to the back of the theater. “I’ll be back in awhile. Make sure you stay with everyone.” He nodded. As long as he was with a group of people I wasn’t worried about anything happening to him.
I went home and grabbed some clothes, then plopped down in front of the v-phone. I had a newer one that Dad got me for my birthday but I didn’t need to hold our home v-phone.
Dad popped up on the video.
“Leander,” he greeted me with a smile.
“Hi, Dad. I just wanted to let you know I was going to spend the night at the theater.”
“Oh?” he hummed curiously.
“Yeah.” My expression fell. “One of the guards was found dead today.”
“Oh?” His tone dropped. He placed an arm on the desk in front of him and leaned forward. “What happened?”
“We’re not sure yet, but I’m going to go stay with Valli so he’s not alone.”
He stayed serious, but there was a brief hint of a smile before it vanished. “Make sure you lock the door. And don’t walk around alone.”
I nodded. “I will.”
“If anything happens call the police.”
“And, if something is wrong, you know how to get a hold of Ryki. Keep your phone on you.”
I nodded again. I didn’t want to bother Rykiel if I didn’t have to. “I will.” I placed a hand on the table, ready to get up.
“And don’t forget to take your toothbrush.”
I let out an exasperated sigh. “I won’t.”
“I love you. Stay safe.”
“I love you, too.”
I shoved everything in my bag – adding a toothbrush and some toothpaste – and went back to the theater.
Valli was still in the back with a small group of people. The crowd had dwindled down to about two dozen. I walked over to him with my bag slung over my shoulder. He spotted me before I reached him and broke away from his group to join me.
“Do you want to head back to my room?” he asked.
“Sure, I could set my stuff down there.”
Valli and I ate with a couple of the other residents then took turns using the shower and getting ready for bed. He had a lengthy nightgown that was mostly white with hints of blue. I threw on a long shirt and pants.
When I came out of the shower his hair was loose and hanging over his shoulders without anything in it. I sat on the edge of the bed behind him.
“You don’t have any flowers in your hair. I’ve practically seen you naked,” I teased.
He giggled, dismissively waving at me with a hand.
We played cards until nature turned the lights off. I checked to make sure his door was locked before we curled up in bed. I’d only slept in the same bed as my dad before, and it had been a long time, so this was different. Valli slept on the left side, farther from the door, nestled under the covers. He was curled up facing me.
I lied on my side facing the door. I melted into the soft, warm sheets. Soon my consciousness faded.