Professor Atkins forced a smile and said, “I think we can arrange something that will keep you interested, Marcus.” He stood up and walked toward the front of the class.
He knew he was ugly. Sometimes he tried to fool himself into believing his nose that he had inherited from his grandfather wasn’t that hideous looking. So many times he had thought about plastic surgery, anything to fix his face, but money didn’t grow on trees according to his mom and dad. Good old mom and dad. He loved them but at times he couldn’t understand their lack of sympathy. His friends accepted him and couldn’t help but laugh at his jokes, especially the ones about himself, never suspecting that their laughter rang hollow in his ears. And now, he had to read in front of a group of people he really didn’t know that well. He’d somehow get through it.
That night he decided to meet his friends at Cristo’s. The evening was fun at first joking around with his friends over a few beers and even a few of the girls danced with him, but one by one, they seemed to find someone else. Tonight would turn out like all of the other nights. For a while he watched his friends on the dance floor and wished he had a girl by his side, wished that he was going home with someone. His beer was warm and the fun evening felt like biting into a piece of sour candy.
Marcus left the dance club, unlocked his car and avoided looking at himself in the rear view mirror. Dark brown hair and thick eyebrows that bordered eyes the color of Bahamian waters paled in comparison to the rest of his face. If he could reshape his nose and lips, he might have a chance for a life where people didn’t stare at him or for a relationship with a girl of his dreams. Most of the time he refused to look into the mirror and invented creative ways of shaving or combing his hair without seeing his reflection.
As he drove home he listened to his favorite rhythm and blues mix and began singing out loud. Relaxed and tired of feeling sorry for himself, he realized that he had somehow turned off the main highway.
Without thinking he let up on the accelerator and wondered if he should stop at the side of the road to figure out where he was. The night seemed so black even though a full moon lit up the sky. Ready to dim the headlights, he saw a shadow pass across the moon, for just a second and then it was gone. A strong inner voice told him to keep driving while another voice in his head blurted out words that were foreign to him, “Where the hell is the devil when you need him?” He almost laughed out loud at what he had just said. Now that was an idea, to make some kind of bargain with the devil, a smaller nose and more attractive lips in exchange for who knows what. In all of the movies he had ever watched, there was some kind of cost for dealing with evil. He turned up the music and drove faster. The moon dulled in its brightness and the trees thinned as the highway became familiar again.
The outside lights of the house weren’t turned on as he pulled into the driveway and for a minute he thought how strange it was for his parents to forget him. Making himself a gin and tonic, he squeezed a lime into the drink, stirring it with his finger and turned on the television for a good late night movie being careful to keep the volume down when he suddenly remembered that his parents were gone for a long weekend.
The drink went down easily and the last thing he remembered was placing it on the end table before he leaned back in his dad’s easy chair and felt his muscles starting to relax.
It seemed that he had been asleep for just a few minutes when he heard the ringing of the phone. Before he could react, it abruptly stopped. He sat for a minute, wondering if it was one of his friends who called and noticed that the television wasn’t on. Strange that he had turned it off. He got up, trying to decide if he wanted to fix another drink but when he bent over to pick up the glass, it wasn’t in its usual place. He hadn’t moved the end table, yet it was next to the sofa, not the easy chair. Marcus fingered the glass and rubbed his thumb across a lavender lipstick stain on the rim, not at all close to the color of his mother’s lipstick.
That’s when he noticed a faint smell of white gardenias.
He turned off the lights and walked slowly up the stairs to his bedroom, his feet hardly touching the carpeting on the stairs. A heavier scent of white gardenias filled the air of the hallway to his room. He liked the smell. It reminded him of someone’s perfume, someone like …like Rusty Lynn, the girl in his British Literature class. Marcus stopped in the doorway and started to smile.
A bare shoulder was visible above his bed sheets. A blond haired girl who looked a lot like Rusty Lynn moved slightly in his bed. He felt no awkwardness as he walked toward her.
Marcus knocked the glass off of the end table in the living room as his hand had reached to touch Rusty Lynn’ shoulder. He shook his head and studied the rim of the glass that had no lipstick stain and he didn’t bother going up the stairs to his bedroom. This time he poured a double shot of gin, not bothering to add the lime. He stretched out on the sofa and convinced himself that it would be just as comfortable as his bed.
He awoke late Saturday afternoon with the edges of a headache. Even with a hearty breakfast of eggs and sausage, he couldn’t get rid of the pounding in his head. He forced himself to go upstairs and hardly glanced at his bed as he went straight for the medicine cabinet to find some aspirin. A warm shower and the aspirin soothed his body and mind. As he shampooed his long brown hair, he admitted to himself that he would do almost anything to get a girl like Rusty Lynn to fall in love with him. When he cupped his hands to wash his face, he thought it didn’t matter anyways, she would always see his ugliness. Ugly as sin, ugly as a newborn baby.
He thought about the day in British Literature when Professor Atkins had asked him to read the part of Macbeth, the same day Rusty Lynn played Lady Macbeth delivering the lines that spoke of killing her own child that she had nursed from her breast. He could hardly concentrate on his own speech. When the bell rang, Marcus saw Rusty Lynn slowly stand up, toss back her hair and wink at him. Speechless, he watched her leave the room. He had been shocked at any type of recognition from her, having grown accustomed to sitting behind her class after class.
“You know, Marcus, I think you have some acting talent.” He nearly jumped at the words of Professor Atkins. “Your voice and ease of transitioning into a character is quite impressive.” She looked directly at him. Not noticing his self-consciousness, she gracefully leaned on the table in the front of the room, crossing her long shapely legs.
“I want you to study Macbeth’s lines in the next scene for Thursday’s class. In case you haven’t figured it out, Macbeth kills King Duncan in cold… blood.” She paused to wet her lips. “You’ve got to practice ahead of time in order to give a strong performance.” He recalled feeling a little uneasy being with her, just the two of them, in an empty room. About ready to pick up his books to leave, he heard her say, “I can tell you that she’s not worth it, Marcus. You deserve so much more.”
“What? I don’t quite follow what you mean. Are you talking about Lady Macbeth?” He thought she wouldn’t stop laughing at his comment. It was an odd kind of laugh, almost a cackle.
“I’m sorry. It just struck me so funny. Your sense of humor took me off guard. No, that’s not at all what I meant. From the front of the class, I see many things and how you look at Rusty Lynn hasn’t escaped me.” She wet her lips and continued, “She’s not worth your trouble. She’s shallow and self centered, not at all your type.” He tried to swallow. It was as though he had eaten a handful of sand.
“I‘m not sure what to say without offending you. I don’t think that …” He could feel the perspiration running down the back of his shirt.
“You’re right. I had no business saying that. If you ever need my help, you know where to find me.”
From then on, she always called on him to read Macbeth’s lines even though no one else in class kept the same part, Rusty Lynn never again sitting at his side to play Lady Macbeth. He avoided looking in Rusty Lynn’s direction but he could not avoid smelling her perfume as he walked by her chair to take his seat in the front of the class. A scent of white gardenias… And he knew without even looking at her that she wore lavender lipstick.
Transformed into a driven Macbeth, who stopped at nothing to fulfill his evil desires, Marcus surprised himself at how serious he took the role with no attempt to make the class laugh. Professor Atkins was right. He did enjoy acting, becoming someone else if only for an hour, someone else whose world encompassed a different kind of pain.
Marcus wondered what part he would play in the next Shakespearean play in Professor Atkins’ class; he hoped it would be a comedy. As he toweled off his body, he wondered what Professor Atkins had meant by the comment that she would help him. Help him by doing what? He combed his hair and it finally dawned on him. To get into acting, or some type of acting class. Otherwise, why would she have talked about it. Still a little puzzled, he decided to go to the gym to shoot a few baskets.
It wasn’t long before he was in a pick up game, playing center, pushing and shoving and hitting baskets off of the backboard. After the game, he sat down and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He definitely liked the physical exertion, and the way his muscles responded in a game. But after a hard workout he was never one to say no to a few beers with his friends.
Marcus walked into Harry’s Bar and Grill, sat down at the bar and ordered the first pitcher for the night, signaling his friends to get a table. A low voice from the next bar stool made him turn his head in the direction of a woman who was talking to him, someone he didn’t recognize.
“I couldn’t help but notice you when you came in. You remind me so much of a guy I knew in high school. Your last name isn’t Wallins, is it?” She sipped a drink and played with the straw.
A little startled he choked out, “No, it isn’t. I…”
“Oh, you sure could be his brother with those eyes. I remember he had such vivid blue eyes. I thought it might run in the family. Sorry, I didn’t mean to hold you up.” She smiled as she turned to leave, “Well, I’m Maura. Maybe I’ll see you later.” He walked to the table carrying a pitcher of beer and several glasses, wishing his last name had been Wallins. Nobody said anything to him when he sat down. Either they hadn’t noticed the woman at the bar or they knew that he wasn’t in the mood for their teasing.
The bar, busy at this time of the night, started to get smoky and loud. After a few more beers, Marcus got up and stood at the bar, hoping to see her again. Her dark black hair and tight red shirt would be hard to miss, but she was gone. Maybe I’ll see you later. If only that were true.
He left early with no girl at his side, tired of fighting the crowd and watching his friends talk to girls, knowing when the band started he’d be left alone.
It was a quiet night and he breathed in the fresh air as he left the parking lot. He drove away with the top down in his car and headed home. After a few miles he realized the car behind him turned when he did, accelerated and slowed down with the same intent. As the trees grew thicker, he saw in his rear view mirror the car swerve off the highway, squealing to a stop at the side of the road. With no hesitation, he hit the brakes and felt his body jolt forward. In his rear view mirror, he saw a figure approaching him. It was the same woman from the bar. Marcus opened his car door, ready to ask if something was wrong.
“Maura? Is that you?” He called her name but only the wind heard his voice.
Something told him to get back into his car, yet a stronger force pushed him toward her car.
The car was empty. She had disappeared into the night. He ran calling out her name, feeling the warm spring breeze on his face, never tripping on overgrown roots or running into hidden bushes; it was as though he followed a well-worn path.
A chorus of low voices interrupted the warmth of the night. Thick smoke blinded his eyes, and a sweet sickly smell of herbs and fire engulfed his senses. As though a sudden force of wind and storm had moved his body against his will, he fell hard, bracing himself with his hands before he hit the ground. When the smoke cleared, he saw the ring of fire and three women. They stood naked, their bodies glistening with oil. He managed to get up and heard them chant, “Come and join us. We knew it would be hard to resist us this time.”
Their approach was slow, measured. He sensed the wind and the moon and could still smell the fire. One step backwards was all it would take to put his body into motion to find the way back to his car.
Their pace never quickened. When they were near him, when he could see the blackness in their eyes, he froze. Rusty Lynn grabbed his shoulder and ripped off the buttons from his shirt, her blond hair wild and tangled, her lips painted with a dark lavender and met his lips with a kiss, not soft and gentle but rough and speaking only of passion. Her strength was overwhelming and he didn’t know if he could have resisted her even if he had tried. Professor Atkins pushed her aside and wrapped her long legs under his calves and unzipped his pants, reaching in to touch his hardness. Abruptly she lurched backward as Marcus heard Maura’s low voice, “What are you doing? You’ll have your turn but wait till we get there. We have all night.”
He felt his muscles twitch and jerk to finally relax as they spread oil on his legs, his arms, his back. All over his body. He was lifted above the night by an unseen hand.
They landed gently high on a mountain top alive with the light of the moon to join in the dance that was in progress, a dance that was only interrupted when someone touched the back of his neck. He knew what it meant and he left the circle knowing he would return again and again to be ready for another dance.
Marcus turned over to sleep on his side and heard his own voice moaning with pain as if he had fallen into a garden of thorns. Probably bruises from his basketball game yesterday. A series of pictures raced through his mind, ending with the image of running in the woods to find Maura. He breathed deeply when he felt the sheets of his bed; it was his room, his bed, not the woods. He pushed aside the last image and tried to remember how he had gotten home, but he was too tired. Instead he rolled over on his back, thinking that next time he wouldn’t drink so much.
Late Sunday afternoon he opened his eyes and licked his dry lips. A shower and breakfast might give him some energy. This time the pain forced himself to look at himself in the mirror to see a long reddened scratch on his left cheek, purple bruises on his side, and a shiny glow on his skin. For some reason the blueness of his eyes was even more striking, making his nose look smaller and his lips less full. Another image started to take shape and this time he couldn’t stop it. It was Macbeth before he murdered the king in a moment of uncertainty wondering if the dagger that hovers before him is real or imagined. Marcus swiped at the air and fell to his knees. It was the first time he had cried in a long time. All he wanted was someone to love him, but not like this.
On Monday morning he walked into British Literature, book in hand and sat down in the back of the class. Professor Atkins introduced the last few scenes of Act Five, telling the class to pay special attention to Macbeth’s strength even though all is crumbling around him. He could hear the pleasure in her voice.
Marcus arose from his seat and walked slowly to the front of the class, book in hand, thinking about her last words. Macbeth’s strength even though all is crumbling around him… The silence in the room could not have been shattered with an ice pick. He finally spoke in a calm voice, “I can’t do this anymore….I’d rather be who I am than…than…the person you created.” There was a slight change in Professor Atkins’s expression as she stood there watching him, one that only Marcus could see.
“You’ll have to choose someone else, Professor Atkins, to be your Macbeth.” He saw the darkness explode in her eyes. Rusty Lynn remained motionless and stared straight ahead. Laying the book on the table, he shut the door behind him, surprised that he was still alive, his heart beating in a fierce rhythm against the walls of his chest and the calmness beginning to melt away, but he kept walking, not quite sure if his acting days were over or if they had just begun.
In a past life Ms. Musselman taught English, speech and creative writing at the high school level. She found that after a number of years she preferred writing rather than teaching. When her students wrote, Mary also followed the assignments and discovered that she was her best student.
Mary has been writing short stories and personal essays for several years. She says she loves writing horror short stories, probably due to years of watching The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and Thriller and being mesmerized by the movie The Night of the Living Dead. In her spare time she works as an account clerk at Purdue University, reads mystery novels, and takes care of her pet chinchilla.
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