ODT Summer Times Short story: Invisible Ink by Lara M. Hewn
By Lara M. Hewn - ODT | Posted: Monday January 20, 2020
The stage is set at the Regent Theatre for Merryn's performance - but will she go on? We find out in part one of Lara M. Hewn's short story Invisible Ink.
The doors to the Regent Theatre’s 24-Hour Book Sale remained open long after the crowds had gone home to their snuggly, safe beds. And in through the doors drifted Dunedin’s lone wolves, odd ducks and a stagger of drunk people old enough to know that nothing good ever happened after 2am.
In a dim corner at the back of the theatre, Merryn sat with her violin case bouncing on her restless knees. There were still 40 minutes to go before she took to the stage. She needed to calm the farm down.
With her eyes closed, she repeated: ‘‘I am a strong and confident woman. I will not throw up — not on myself nor the Regent Theatre. I will not fall on my face. I will not forget how to play. I . . .’’
‘‘I will not talk to myself in public or the men in white coats will come and take me away!’’ a jovial voice broke in.
Her eyes snapped open. One of the volunteers chuckled and winked at her as he passed. He looked like her dad. He even made jokes like her dad.
Merryn scowled at his back as he went on his whistling way. He was right, of course, but it was either mantras or meltdowns.
A hipster jazz trio played Metallica’s Enter Sandman on a makeshift stage, the real stage currently heaving under the weight of thousands of books. They were good, she thought, heading down for a closer look. Too good for this time slot. Thank God she wasn’t going on after them!
As the final notes sounded, the singer thanked the small crowd and gave a jaunty bow. There, Merryn told her brain, they survived, and without any unwelcome bodily functions (so far as she was aware).
Then, just when they were basking in the lukewarm appreciation of the crowd, the singer’s long necklace snagged on her microphone stand, snapping the string. Hundreds of beads bounced across the stage, down the steps, into books and the cracks in the floorboards. Volunteers sprang into action, their brooms loud and rhythmic in the cavernous space.
Merryn almost turned and ran right then.
‘‘I am a good person who deserves good things. I will not have a wardrobe malfunction on stage,’’ she repeated, quietly this time, in short, jagged breaths.
A braying laugh echoed through the theatre and she turned. A teenager in a Hallensteins hoodie and ripped jeans stood by the children’s books, clearly enjoying the show. He was less lone wolf, more jackal, Merryn thought, with his long thin face and two-toned faux hawk. He caught her looking at him and grinned, his eyes overly bright, like he was on something.
She quickly turned back to the stage, in time to see the next act swagger on. A cowboy with a guitar. He was quite attractive if you liked tall men with dark curly hair, which she did.
‘‘Howdy y’all, my name’s Beau Jackson junior.’’ He spoke confidently while his long fingers strummed his guitar.
‘‘I’m gonna play for the next small while. Hope you like what you hear.’’
Merryn hadn’t heard of him or Beau Jackson senior but he seemed to have brought his own fan club. A small mob cheered as he launched into his first song, his voice smooth and deep. It’s him and then it’s me. Her stomach roiled.
An elderly volunteer brushed past her carrying a tall stack of books, all of which seemed to be Fifty Shades ofGrey. So much grey, Merryn thought. Too much, it transpired, as the stack started to move, the books sliding out in all directions. The volunteer rushed to put them down on the nearest table before it collapsed but it was too late. Grey everywhere.
‘‘I don’t know what happened,’’ the volunteer said, as Merryn helped her pick up the books. ‘‘I had them and it was fine and then it was like someone was just . . . poking them out of place. It sounds crazy, I know.’’
Very crazy, Merryn thought, patting her arm. How dreadful to be old.
‘‘Play Wagon Wheeeeeeeeeel,’’ a drunk woman screamed at Junior. Her friends whistled and stomped in agreement.
Junior doffed an invisible cowboy hat and began playing the pub anthem of all sad-sack students circa 2013. It was enough to make ears bleed and dogs howl.
He was certainly a crowd pleaser — Sweet Caroline, Brown Eyed Girl, Old Town Road — and then his time slot was officially over but he mustn’t have had a watch because he kept playing. One more song was fine, Merryn told herself as she double-checked her violin, her music, her fly. But then that song ended and he began another.
He was stealing her time, she realised with indignation. What kind of cowboy steals from a lady?
And now she found that after all the angsting and nausea, she actually wanted this. This was her time.
As the song came to an end, Merryn stepped up on to the stage and looked at him pointedly. A few volunteers gave her a halfhearted clap of welcome while Junior’s crowd booed and called for an encore. Junior smiled at her and shrugged, as if to say, ‘‘What can I do?’’
Then, unbelievably, he started playing again, a mid-tempo version of U2’s All I want is you, and the crowd sang it back at him in adoration.
Merryn stood on the stage as uncomfortable as a three-handed handshake, ignored while a cowboy stole the show. Though not ignored by everyone, she noted. The Jackal was laughing at her now and for a horrible, soul-crushing moment she thought she was going to cry.
It was then she felt the first sting. Looking down at the back of her hand she saw a drop of bright blue. She looked up. Was the Regent’s roof leaking? If it was, it was going to take more than a book sale to pay for it. But then another sting and another blue drop and then more drops and soon they were swirling across the back of her hand, forming leaves and vines and thorns and spreading to her arm.
From the back of her hand a thin luminous blue line snaked out over the heads of the crowd, over tables lined with books, out towards the Jackal, the line disappearing into his outstretched palm. His face was lit by a jagged phosphorescent tattoo and when he smiled at her his face split into a wide Joker grin. He pointed to her then himself and back again. ‘‘We’re connected now, you and I,’’ he was saying.
‘‘. . .and all I want is you,’’ Junior and the crowd sang to each other. Merryn knew what she wanted and it wasn’t Junior. Or being the Jackal’s umbilical buddy.
She lifted her violin and started to play — not Chopin or Bach or nice book-buying music — she played The Spice Girls and she played fast and impossibly loud.
Don’t tell me what you want, what you really, really want . . .
It clashed with Junior’s ballad and he faltered, finally a dent to his cowboy swagger. The crowd swivelled, mouths open.
Junior turned up his small amp and switched to Highway to Hell.
The crowd looked back to Merryn as she switched to Staying Alive.
He played Livin’ on a Prayer
She played Another One Bites the Dust.
The Jackal was dancing in circles, his arms in the air. He was just a silly boy who liked to play pranks on people, Merryn thought. Breaking beads, gaslighting old people — it was a petty use of such power. The radiant ink embraced her in agreement.
As she played, the line of blue thickened and was joined by other lines, other colours. Red. Yellow. Green. They came in waves, stinging her skin and enveloping her body.
The Jackal stopped dancing, now fighting hard to stem the flow. But still it came.
And now Junior changed tack. Forget duelling, he tried a duet. He smiled at her engagingly as he harmonised, but that horse had bolted, partner. She flicked a finger in his direction and a jet of red ink fired out, blasting his amp before springing back into her hand. Like a ballistic boomerang, she laughed delightedly, as Junior rushed to figure out what had happened to his equipment.
‘‘. . .Another one bites the dust.’’
The Jackal pushed his sleeves up and held out his clenched fists as though he could pull the power back if only he was strong enough. The ink had disappeared from his face, leaving him oddly pale and exposed, and Merryn could see it draining down past his elbows, down his forearms, wrists, hands, fingers, the tips and . . . gone.
She was burning up, her eyes like glowing coals. Junior was vanquished and the audience hadn’t even noticed. They were only interested in her.
And as the Jackal came for Merryn, the ink turned to barbed wire on her skin and they faced him together.
The doors to the Regent Theatre’s 24-Hour Book Sale remained open long after the crowds had gone home to their snuggly, safe beds. And in through the doors drifted Dunedin’s lone wolves, odd ducks and a trickster teenager who was feeling most disgruntled at losing his superpowers to a girl with a violin.
Merryn faced the Jackal over the expanse of books, the phosphorescent ink covering her skin like a declaration of war — one moment it was barbed wire, the next moment jagged lightning bolts. It was clear to her who it wished to stay with, just as it was clear the Jackal had no intention of letting it go without a fight.
Not that it would be a fair one. She had all the ink, all the power. He had an ugly haircut and regrets. Merryn lifted her violin again. ‘‘Just one more,’’ she told the poor schmuck waiting in the wings for his time slot and he nodded helplessly. It felt appropriate to stick with Queen and she smiled sweetly as she began playing We Are The Champions, her eyes never leaving the Jackal’s.
He wove through the tables of second-hand books — romance, mystery, crime, aviation — until he stood before the stage. With deliberate movements he took a scruffy notebook from his back pocket and began reading, his lips forming silent words. The ink, which had been dancing across her skin in celebration, froze then tightened, and Merryn’s body convulsed suddenly, her bow screaming down the strings of the violin as the ink clawed at her, trying desperately to resist the command to return to its former owner.
The next musician saw his opportunity, sidling on stage and starting to play while she was bent double in pain. She was being torn apart and the last thing she’d ever hear would be Bridge Over Troubled Water on the recorder. It was too much
In desperation she threw out a wave of green ink, knocking the Jackal sideways into a drunk couple who were dancing like no-one should be watching.
The woman’s shriek filled the theatre.
‘‘That guy stood on my foot,’’ she wailed, clinging to her boyfriend like a broken marionette.
‘‘Which guy?’’ he asked, the protective veins in his neck popping.
She pointed at the Jackal. ‘‘Him.’’
The Jackal began reciting again and the pain hit Merryn anew. He was so focused on summoning the ink that he failed to sense the danger behind him, letting out a surprised yelp when the boyfriend gripped his shoulder and spun him around.
‘‘You stepped on my girlfriend’s foot,’’ the man said. ‘‘You need to say sorry.’’
‘‘Sorry,’’ the Jackal said, going straight back to the notebook.
Sorry not sorry, Merryn thought, and the boyfriend obviously agreed, snatching it out of the Jackal’s hands and holding it out of reach.
‘‘What’s that you’ve got? Looks like a good read.’’
Merryn slowly straightened up as the ink relaxed its death grip. She could see that the Jackal was struggling to keep his temper. He held out his hand impatiently. ‘‘It’s just an old book of mine. From home.’’
‘‘You brought a book to a book sale!’’ The man turned to his mates. ‘‘That’s like taking your girlfriend to a strip club.’’
His friends joined him in celebrating his excellent joke.
But the Jackal was all out of laughs. ‘‘Yeah, no need to take her when she’s already working there, hey. Now, can I have my book back, please.’’ He shoved his hand out again.
‘‘What did you say about my girlfriend?’’ the man demanded. ‘‘You want your book back? Go get it loser.’’ And he tossed it backwards over his head.
The Jackal tried to push past him in pursuit but the boyfriend stood his ground. The message was clear — if the young punk wanted his notebook back he’d have to go through him first. Merryn could see the Jackal coming to some kind of decision but didn’t wait around to find out what it was.
Gripping her violin, she bolted.
Up the aisle, up the stairs, through the foyer, and out into the deserted Octagon. Gone were the boozy crowds shrouded in clouds of vape smoke. At this time it was silent and eerie. She hesitated. Which way? Down — past the Otago Daily Times offices to the railway station — or up? She chose up, sprinting past the florist, the Athenaeum Library, the Irish bar. She heard a male voice shouting and pushed herself harder, crossing the main street and tearing up past the art gallery.
He caught up with her by the steps to St Paul’s Cathedral and they faced each other, both puffing in the frosty morning air. The ink shifted into bands of red, green, yellow and blue. Unnaturally, impossibly bright.
‘‘Stop!’’ Merryn held up her hand as he came closer and he flinched, waiting for a blow. When it didn’t come he slowly opened his eyes and assessed her.
‘‘I was stupid, wasn’t I?’’
She nodded. ‘‘You were.’’
‘‘But you look like a nice chick. You wouldn’t steal something that belongs to someone else, would you?’’
She thought about this for a moment. There was that one time with the nail polish at Farmers, but she’d only been 13 then. This was different.
‘‘Technically speaking, you gave it to me, whatever it is. Do you even know?’’
‘‘Not exactly. If I had the notebook I could tell you more.’’ He clenched his fists. ‘‘If I had that, I could take the power back and you wouldn’t be able to stop me.’’
‘‘But you don’t, so you can’t.’’
He deflated. ‘‘No.’’
They were at a stalemate then, unless she was willing to use the ink on him or he was ready to concede defeat.
‘‘So what’s your story?’’ Merryn asked. ‘‘How did it come to you?’’
‘‘Let’s just say I inherited it.’’ The Jackal smirked, rubbing his hands together and blowing on them for warmth.
The ink tightened on her skin and she felt echoes of dirty deeds and betrayal.
Now he squinted and started muttering at her. He appeared to be reciting again but this time the ink stayed calm. No threat there.
‘‘You can’t remember the words, can you,’’ she said, not mocking him, just observing.
He swore and kicked one of the steps leading up to the cathedral. ‘‘I knew I should have practised. I skimmed it. Pretty dull stuff.’’
He tried a new approach.
‘‘You know that pain you feel now? It’s only going to get worse.’’
The ink stroked her in denial.
‘‘What pain?’’ The ink felt warm at times, especially when it moved, but it wasn’t unpleasant. The only pain she’d felt had been caused by him trying to take it against its will and she couldn’t blame it for protecting itself.
‘‘The pain . . . like your skin’s being sliced?’’ He made some sawing motions on his arm then let them drop. ‘‘You mean you don’t feel it?’’
‘‘What does that mean?’’ He seemed bewildered.
‘‘I’d say it means it doesn’t want to come back to you.’’
He surprised her then with a sudden grab, his fingers digging into her upper arms as he spoke a few words, willing the ink out of her.
A line emerged from Merryn’s chest stretching up to the centre of his forehead and she saw his jubilation at that first touch.
He believed he was winning.
But he wasn’t controlling the ink and neither was she.
The neon colours merged and reformed and merged again across his face.
And then it returned to her.
He staggered, looking around. ‘‘Who the what?’’
Merryn took a step back, holding her violin protectively in front of her.
‘‘You’ve had too much to drink, mate,’’ she said firmly. ‘‘It’s time to go home.’’
He rubbed his face, looked at the back of his hands and frowned. ‘‘Yeah, I feel weird. I better . . .’’ he indicated a direction with his thumb. ‘‘Catch you later.’’
He shuffled off and Merryn breathed out in relief. Her arms were exhausted from playing but she couldn’t help raising them to admire the latest pattern — starbursts in multicoloured explosions.
‘‘When the time comes that you want to leave me, I won’t try and keep you,’’ she promised her branded skin and it glowed in response.
Though would the ink offer her the same freedom, she wondered, remembering how it had gripped to her with such determination. What was this thing she had invited on to her body?
She needed to know.
The ink protested gently as she started back to the theatre. ‘‘Now, now,’’ she reassured it. ‘‘All my stuff is there. And we can’t risk letting anyone else get hold of that notebook, can we?’’
She felt its opposition subside, replaced by a hum of anticipation.
Could the ink sense a lie? She hoped not.
Lara M. Hewn is a Dunedin freelance writer. Invisible Ink is included in Beyond the City Limits, an anthology featuring short stories with a Dunedin setting.