“Too much ichor,” said red-faced Jack Magnusson, scowling into a playbook. “The whole tragedy is sopping in it. Blood, blood, blood. No, it won’t do for a student production. We’re not educating little vampires here.”
“That remains to be seen,” said Nora Sherman, the English office head. She stared into Magnusson’s round obsidian paperweight, which he had pushed to the center of the table. Little Mr. Dean’s hand kept darting toward it and receding.
Magnusson, the chairman of Blackstone Intermediate School’s Ethics Advisory Committee, threw the playbook at Steve Dean, who was sometimes mistaken for a student. Dean flinched but caught it.
“Well, Jack . . .”
“Speak up, Dean.”
“Er, it is Macbeth, Jack, and it’s on the reading list this year.”
Magnusson drew himself up, spreading his halfback shoulders, running a hand through his thinning steel-wool hair. “That curriculum’s always been trouble,” he said, “but there’s no use asking for more. What with the swear-word in Catcher in the Rye and the dead horse in Red Sky at Morning and the A.V. Department showing Corpse Grinders on Back-to-School Night, we’re going to start losing constituents to other districts that don’t have these problems.”
Dean looked ready to cry into the pages of Macbeth. Nora Sherman grabbed the book from him and held it dangling by the spine.
She said, “Tirades aside, Jack, you’d better let the kids do Shakespeare this year or there’ll be a rebellion. Birnham Wood will move at recess, with Neal Bay heading the insurrection. There’s a lot of talent going to waste around here and the kids damn well know it.”
Dean stared at her, dazed. “Well said, Nora.”
“You stay out of this,” she said.
“What do you want from me?” Magnusson asked her. “I can’t approve this.”
“Perhaps not as it is, but what if it were toned down?”
Magnusson reared back. “Cut out the blood? There’d be nothing left.”
“No editing,” she said. “We won’t use the Shakespeare. We’ll write our own version. Improvise. I’ve seen grade school kids do it with The Wind in the Willows. Once we get rid of the poetry, we’re not stuck to the plot, and that gives the students considerable freedom. We can change the setting and period.”
Magnusson got the book back. “Take it out of Scotland, you mean?”
“I’ve seen it done. Romeo and Juliet transplanted into the Stone Age, or onto Monster Beach. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the usual organ donor. Can you imagine it set in German-occupied France? Or in Boston during the Revolutionary War? One was set in Transylvania, but it wasn’t exactly bloodless …” She trailed off, one metallic blue fingernail tracing the green line of an artery on the back of her hand.
“You could set it in Siberia or the outback,” said Mr. Dean. He sat up and reached for the book, but Magnusson ignored him and held the captive copy spread masklike before his face. Dean dropped back into his seat and gazed into the paperweight.
“Or the Old West,” he said, crossing his arms.
“Too messy, Dean,” said Mrs. Sherman. “What I suggest is we give our actor-warriors weapons that won’t be as sloppy as bullets and swords. Give them, say, ray-guns and send them off to . . . I don’t know, Mars. Sure. Tie it in with the study groups reading The Martian Chronicles.”
“Mars,” said Magnusson, as if the planet were a jawbreaker that refused to dissolve on his tongue.
“With real Martian music,” said Mr. Dean.
Mrs. Sherman caught and held his eyes. “I didn’t say anything about that.”
“No, I did,” said Mr. Dean.
“We have to use the band this year,” said Magnusson.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because he promised,” said Mr. Dean. “We haven’t had a musical in the last three years. The Crucible, Man in the Moon Marigolds, Snake House . . . The things these kids choose, I swear. They have the sense of humor of morticians. This year we’re doing something lighter, a musical ‘revue.’ I think our own Sheri DuBose could come up with something appropriate in the way of music and songs for Macbeth.”
“Oh my God,” said Nora, sinking.
Magnusson hardly looked at her, though he was smiling with one side of his mouth. “That should keep the kids tame, yes.”
“For that you’d need wild-animal tamers,” said Mr. Dean. “At least it will keep them happy.”
Mrs. Sherman seemed to come out of a coma. “Forget I ever mentioned Macbeth. Don’t do it to that play. Not that silly girl’s music . . .”
“Nora,” said Mr. Magnusson, shaking his head at her and smiling as if he knew something she didn’t. “So pale. Are you well?”
“Seen Banquo’s ghost?” said Dean, with a chuckle.
“You’re not being a very good sport,” said Magnusson. “We’ve all got what we wanted.”
She tightened her metallic-blue mouth, looked at both of them, then put out a hand and touched the copy of Macbeth as if to swear upon it. When she was perfectly still, she whispered, “If you get Sheri DuBose, I get Ricardo Rivera.” Mr. Dean jumped as if he had been grabbed; but before he could form a word or stop her, her hand shot out and touched the black paperweight in the center of the table.
“Ha!” she said. “Motion passed.”
Dean slumped back in his chair.
“All right,” said Magnusson. “Let’s move on to athletics.”
Lunch bag in hand, Ricardo Rivera hurried across the quadrangle toward the crowd of twelve- and thirteen-year-old students that had gathered at the back of the auditorium by the stage door.
He was a small boy, green-eyed, with dark curly hair, fine-cut features, and a grin that some might call elfin. The grin was partly imaginary because at that moment he thought he was to be the next Macbeth.
At the edge of the group he asked Sheri DuBose if the cast list for Macbeth’s Martian Revue had been posted, though it obviously hadn’t.
“Not yet, Ricardo,” she said. “Mr. Dean wants me to write the songs, though.” She smiled. “I have it on good authority.”
“Good authority,’” mimicked Bruce Vicks, pigging his nose at her with a finger. “Sheri DuPug,” he said.
Sheri snorted and turned away, forgetting about Ricardo. “‘If it were done when ’tis done,’” Ricardo said, “then ’tis best it were done when it’s best it were . . . now wait a minute.” His audition piece was already sliding from memory.
“Here come de prez,” somebody said.
Ricardo jumped to look over the heads of the others and saw a tall boy with longish sun-bleached hair, a sure and smiling freckled face, and the lopsided walk of a skateboarder.
Ricardo waved at him. “Hey, Neal, over here!”
Neal Bay joined the crowd, smiling at everyone.
“Good job, Neal,” said Randy Keane, shaking Neal’s hand. “You better remember your campaign promise for lots of movies.”
“Won’t forget,” said Neal. “I’ve already got The Red Balloon on order.”
Keane groaned and laughed. “That stinker?”
Ricardo pushed his way to Neal’s side. “The list’s not up yet.”
“Duh,” said Neal. “My brilliant campaign manager. I can see the list isn’t up yet, dipstick. I don’t know how I won with you on my side.”
Ricardo ignored the insult and lowered his voice to a whisper. “I hear Cory gave you trouble yesterday.”
“Trouble? Who told you that?”
“At student council.”
“No trouble, except maybe for you. I just asked Cory about a few of the things you told me.”
Ricardo stepped back. “I told you? Like what?”
“Oh, like how you said that Lisa Freuhoff told you Cory was fixing the elections.”
“That’s what Lisa said,” said Ricardo, backing away but pointing at Neal. “I didn’t say it was true.”
“Yeah? And how she swore I’d be sorry if I won. She’d get even, you said. I never asked where you heard that one.”
“Lisa said it,” Ricardo said.
Neal crossed his arms, rolled his eyes, and smirked. “Yeah? Well, Cory and I are a team now.”
“But she was your-your enemy!”
“We were never enemies. We always knew one of us would win, and the other would be vice-president. You just wanted us to be enemies.”
Ricardo fell silent, trying to imagine what Neal meant. “We’ve been good friends, Neal,” he said. “You shouldn’t just treat me like this now that you’ve won. You’ll still see me around. Maybe you’ll even get the part of Banquo. You did a great audition.”
“Banquo?” Neal laughed. “I’m going to be Mister Macbeth, Junior.”
“No way,” said Ricardo. The idea was laughable, and he laughed. Then he turned his tongue back to the more important issue. “Cory was always nasty to you. Remember that time in the cafeteria?”
“You shut up,” Neal said, taking a step to hook his forefinger into the soft flesh and glands under Ricardo’s jaw. The bigger boy grinned, and it was not the kind of smile that makes one comfortable.
Ricardo moaned until Neal let him slip free. There were tears in his eyes, and his voice didn’t carry.
“Bet you don’t even get Malcolm’s part,” he said. “Bet you don’t even get to be a Murderer.”
Neal started forward.
“It’s a fight!”
A cry from the direction of the door interrupted them. Mr. Dean stepped outside, wincing at the sunlight and the students. He waved a sheet of ditto paper as if it were a pennant. Everyone cheered. He tacked it to the door and slipped back in before he could be trapped by the kids.
As Ricardo struggled forward, he dropped his lunch bag. He bent down, but before he could grab it a Hush Puppy squashed the sack, spilling the guts of a peanut butter and banana sandwich onto the asphalt. Rising, suddenly hungry, he heard someone say, “Awright! Macbeth for President!”
“No,” Ricardo said in disbelief. “Oh, no.”
President Bay appeared above him, looking down his long, straight nose. “Sorry, buddy, you’re Banquo. Sorry for both of us, I mean. I’d just as soon not see you on that stage.”
Ricardo felt his face scrunch up with anger. “Banquo,” he said. “Banquo gets killed halfway through, then he’s just a- a-a ghost. I wanted—”
“Don’t be a wussy,” Neal said.
“A wussy?” Ricardo said. His anger passed and he felt weak. “Neal, see if I was second choice.”
“You dummy, you’re not even my understudy. Be glad you got anything.”
“But you can’t do it, Neal, you don’t have the time. You’re already president, isn’t that enough?”
“President no thanks to you, when all you did was tell me lies about Cory Fordyce, which is pretty screwed considering how you’ve got the hots for her.”
Around them, kids were staring and starting to laugh. Some even looked frightened in a tentative, eager way. “The hots,” someone repeated.
Ricardo tripped on an ankle out of nowhere, and falling backward grabbed the nearest object: Neal’s chest. He heard a rip as he continued to fall, and when he landed he had a handful of torn, threadbare cotton with Primo Beer written across it.
He looked slowly up at a bare-chested, raging Neal, and something happened to freeze them in time. Something kept his words in his mouth and Neal’s fists in the air. Everything stopped and Ricardo sat suspended outside of the world.
Until Cory Fordyce looked in.
Long blond hair, Miss Clairol curls, rosy cheeks and lips, pale blue eyes. All he could see of her was her face; the crowd hid the rest. She was peering around Neal, while Neal turned slowly to look at her.
“Hello, Cory,” Neal said, smiling as his fingers uncurled.
She scowled past him and looked down at Ricardo. “What did you tell him about me, Ricardo?”
“I didn’t say a thing!” Ricardo shouted. “Lisa said! Ask Lisa!”
Neal stepped forward with a shout, swinging his arm as if he were bowling. Ricardo’s face went numb with pain; he wasn’t sure why. He lay back on the asphalt, smelling a cloud of tarry, rusty, bloody smoke rising around him. Neal’s fist floated above in slow motion, a white planet spattered in blood. Ricardo’s awareness roamed into the dark.
“Ricardo?” A woman’s voice. “This is Mrs. Ensign, the nurse. We’ve called your mother. I’m afraid she’ll have to take you to the hospital. Your nose is quite broken. Breathe through your mouth and you won’t have so much trouble.”
His face felt like a pane of safety glass, shattered but clinging together. She wiped his eyes with a wet cloth as the sounds of typewriters and telephones filled his ears.
Jars rattled and a fluorescent light appeared. Mrs. Ensign stood above, shaking a thermometer. Then she shook her head.
“If I did that you wouldn’t be able to breathe,” she said. “Poor boy.”
“Bisses Edsid, could I see a cast list for Bacbeth’s Bartiad Revue?”
“A catalyst for who?”
“Cast list, cast list. I cad’t talk right.”
“Can you read right? Stay put, I’ll get you the list.”
When she returned, she had a ditto so fresh it fumed. She held it before his face so that he could read:
MACBETH’S MARTIAN REVUE
Macbeth . . . . . . Neal Bay
Banquo . . . . . . Ricardo Rivera
Lady Macbeth . . . . . Cory Fordyce
“That’s all,” he said.
She left him alone with his pain.
Why me? he thought. Why me?
That was an old thought, worn thin over the years of his childhood. It hardly captured his present frustration, which felt like the undertow at high tide.
Why Neal? he thought. Better.
Why Neal, the sun-tanned surfer, instead of me, the brainy twerp? I’m not such a bad bodysurfer.
And why Neal, with the perfect dumb joke that makes all the girls laugh (except Cory usually, but probably now she’ll laugh), instead of me, s-s-stuttering R-R-Ricardo?
Yeah? Why does Neal get to be President Bloody Macbeth of the Blackstone Intermediate Bloody Spaceways and the Planet of Bloody Blood; when I get to be Good Ol’ Banquo the Friendly Ghost?
Why does Neal get Cory while I get . . . I get . . .
Cory. Thinking of her was like swallowing a Superball. He had never gotten over the bruises she’d given him the previous year, when he had let himself have a crush on her even while knowing that she hated him, even while knowing for certain that his affection would make her crueler.
In moments of pain, her image always brightened to torment him. He had never known as much pain as he felt now, and her face had never been so bright.
That night he cried out in his sleep. His mother found him sitting half-awake in his bed, describing in a senseless rush the events of some nightmare on another world: a planet of blood where starships of rusted metal crashed into the ruins of red cities; where a bloody sun and moon chased each other round and round while the stars howled in a hungry chorus, and seas of blood drenched everything in red. He fell back asleep without truly waking, leaving her clinging to his seemingly empty body, leaving her afraid.
On the table by his bedside, she saw his English assignment: Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.
“I’ll call the office in the morning,” she promised her son. “That place is giving you nightmares.”
Mrs. Sherman sighed when she saw Ricardo in homeroom 408 the next morning. His bandaged nose was the subject of several disputes between first and second bells. As the students punched their new day’s schedules into computer cards and copied each other’s math homework, she watched him gazing into space. Near the end of the period, she checked his schedule and saw that he had no class after home room.
“Would you please come see me at fourth bell?” she asked.
“Yes, Mrs. Sherman,” said Ricardo, and he shuffled away without having met her eyes.
He wandered into the department office at third bell and was waiting for her when she got free of Mr. Ezra and Miss Bachary, who each claimed to have the room for the next period. The scheduling computer was down again.
“Everyone defended Neal,” he said, when she was sitting at her desk. He looked about eighty years old when he said it. She wanted to tell him to look up, to smile.
“They said you started it?” she asked.
He nodded. “I let them give my part away. Newt got it. David Deacon, I mean. He’s even shorter than me. I don’t know why Mr. Dean thinks Banquo’s a shrimp.”
“Have you taken your story to Mr. Magnusson?” she asked.
“He and Mr. Bay go golfing together,” he said. “I don’t want to be in the stupid play anyway.”
“Maybe it’s for the better, Ricardo,” she said. “I thought of you when we chose Macbeth. Mr. Dean will need a student playwright, someone who can write, to polish what the actors come up with and read it back to them better than before.”
Ricardo looked up, astonished. “You mean me?”
She smiled. “That could be, but it depends on you.”
“I’d do it! I have an idea about-about Macbeth’s mother!”
“Fine, Ricardo. I’ve talked to David Deacon since he was chosen, by the way. He’s in my science fiction class and he loves Mars. He said he’d be glad to help you learn what you need to know to write a story on Mars.”
“Write a story on Mars,” Ricardo said to himself. “Wow.”
“—gladly share his fine ideas about the angry red planet, that grisly world of war and blood.”
She looked past him, through the filing cabinets, up at the clock.
“And Macbeth,” she intoned, “all black and red, dark night and dark blood. A haunted planet, a cursed play. Did you know there was a curse put on the play? It’s bad luck for an actor to hear the Scotsman’s name, unless they’re in the play. If you listen long enough, you’ll hear stories about the strange things that happen when people perform Macbeth. ”
Ricardo’s gaze followed the path her eyes traced upward, ever upward.
“Use your gift, Ricardo.”
“Okay, Mrs. Sherman, I’ll give it a try.”
“A-plus, Ricardo,” she said. “You’re A-plus material.”
The new Banquo, David “Newt” Deacon, was a nerd. He even had a bowl-head haircut. When Ricardo found him in the audiovisual room, he had toilet plungers strapped to both legs and was filming himself with an upside-down video camera while extolling the virtues of “Human Housefly Sucker-Cups.” He looked a bit like a housefly himself, wearing bug-eyed glasses with quarter-inch-thick lenses.
Newt shed his plungers and turned off the video recorder.
“Ricky River?” he asked.
Newt shook his head, as if clearing it. “Thought that couldn’t be right.”
“Mrs. Sherman sent me.”
“Oh, I know. Excuse me a second.” He went poking through shelves cluttered with tape reels and charred copper wire, speaking over his shoulder. “She’s neat, huh? She said I’d tell you everything you ever wanted to know about Mars, right?”
“I guess I know as much as anybody. I read The Martian Chronicles. ”
“Oh,” Newt said. “That’s just the beginning.”
When he came out of the cupboard, holding a burned-out electromagnet, his cheeks were sucked in between his molars. He stared at Ricardo’s bandages.
“Neal was my best friend once,” he said. “Back in fifth grade, we did everything together. He got ideas for all these neat things—squirt-gun burglar traps and stuff—and I built ’em. But he kept taking and breaking them. Now it figures he’s president. And going with Cary Fordyce, too.”
“Cory,” said Ricardo.
Newt unwound some of the scorched copper wire from the motor and began winding it around the fingers of his left hand as he talked.
“Here’s what I thought would work for Mars on the stage: all red lights; we’d make big castles out of red foam rubber—sandstone-looking stuff. I wanted to do a sandstorm—they’re really bad on Mars—but Mr. Dean said no, too messy. We get an avalanche at least. The space suits are gonna be kind of a cross between space suits and kilts.”
“How about canals?” Ricardo asked.
“There aren’t any canals,” Newt said emphatically. “Didn’t you ever see Robinson Crusoe on Mars?”
“No, but-but I think I know how Mars looks.” He looked up and saw a clock with its hands skipping backward. The office reset speeding clocks several times a day. “It has two moons, a red sky, towers, and Martians who nobody ever sees . . . I bet I could write it so everyone acted like they would if they were really up there.”
“Make it good and bloody,” said Newt, fidgeting with the prongs of an electric plug. The other end of the wire was hooked to the motor, now strapped to his left hand.
“Yeah,” Ricardo sighed, “except they won’t let us have any blood in it.”
“Aw, there’s this great word from horror stories that no one would ever mind.”
Ricardo leaned closer. “Tell me.”
Newt’s hand exploded. He yanked the plug out of the wall socket while Ricardo, in shock, peered at the smoldering hand.
“You did that to yourself?”
Grinning, Newt unwrapped his hand and held it out. The fingers and palm were powdered with carbon but unharmed.
“Mr. Dean’s letting me do the special effects,” he said. “Now, you were asking about a good word for blood?”
A small flame licked up and seared Ricardo’s heart each time Cory and Neal shared the stage. Two weeks after the primaries, their political sessions were notorious; according to Lisa Freuhoff, they would as soon ogle each other as filibuster. Sunk deep into a folding chair, Ricardo daily watched them declare their sappy Martian version of love while a piano student rapped out accompaniment. When the ruddy stage lighting lingered in their eyes even off the stage, he saw it as the glow of lust and hated it. Cory tried none of the tricks she had played on Ricardo last year. She and Neal were at each other’s mercy.
One afternoon, between scenes, Neal jumped from the stage and sauntered over to Ricardo.
“What a quay-zar,” Neal said.
Ricardo drew up his knees and sank down into the safety of his own lap. “What are you trying to prove, Bay?”
“Nothing you haven’t proved already. That you’re a lying little wimp. If your mouth and fingers are both really connected to your brain, then everything you’re writing is probably a lie, too.”
Ricardo sat up and set the script book down. He was getting hot now.
“Neal, would you just fuck off?”
Of course, of course his voice had to break when he said the worst word he knew.
“Ooooh! What nasty words! They’re just what I’d expect from a nasty little boy like you. Nasty little fag.”
Neal spun away and leapt back onto the stage without using his hands. Ricardo lapsed into a fever of pent rage; he almost smote his breast in public.
“Just because I don’t have a bitch for a girlfriend!”
Sheri DuBose, who was passing behind him, gasped.
He blushed, felt his ears burning. When she was gone, he looked at Cory Fordyce, alone at the center of the stage. He covered her with a hand, imagining the bitch-queen of them all in her place. Lady Macbeth, with long black hair and vampire teeth and bloody lips and hungry eyes. In his mind, the Lady consumed Cory, another bitch, and he began to smile.
“I don’t care if I’m not Macbeth or Banquo or any of you,” he whispered, giggling.
He held his pen up before his eyes, concentrating on it until he went slightly cross-eyed. His thinking also did something like doubling; he suddenly thought of himself as every one of them. He could be Duncan, murdered in his sand castle, and any or all of the three witches who danced across the viewscreen of the starship Silex; he could be the comical porter of the air-lock. The whole time the players thought they were creating the play, he had actually been writing new lines and getting the actors to learn them.
Over Christmas break, he was left to polish the script and prepare a final version. He lost interest in the mundane holiday and often had to be coerced to take part in family affairs such as ornamenting the tree and visiting relatives.
For two solid weeks he breathed the sands of Mars and haunted the winding stairs of a crumbling Martian castle. Instead of carols, he heard phantom birds cawing from the high thin air as murder sneaked through the two-mooned night. His dreams were premonitions of laser-fire, in which no blood was allowed. The holes in Duncan’s chest smoldered, cauterized. And always, just before he woke, the sand dunes of the Birnham Waste came humping forward, crawling, alive . . . .
He wrote and rewrote. Sometimes he stared at the wall and the soccer trophies and the Certificates of Merit and the pencils in the papier-mâché holder he’d made in third grade. He stared at these objects but all the while saw blood, only blood, blood swirling into sand, spraying in the wind, blood that the school would never allow, everywhere the substance that the Committee had forbidden.
The days passed in a red dream.
(“Merry Christmas, darl— Ricardo, did you even sleep?”)
On New Year’s Day, inspired by the changing year, he took a silver pin and pricked his fingertips; squeezed out bright beads and droplets that splashed the fresh-typed manuscript; chanted, “By the pricking of my thumbs, Neal Bay is overcome!”
He smeared a little blood on each page. For a while he watched it dry, then he licked his fingers clean of blood and ink.
“Excellent job, Mr. Rivera,” said Mr. Dean the next day. “Sheri turned in the final draft of her songs; I hope you two got together over the holidays? Then I guess that should do it. Listen, if you’re not too busy this trimester, why don’t you lend a hand building sets?”
Ricardo could have cackled and rubbed his hands together, but he had more control than that. He nodded and went looking for a hammer.
That afternoon he worked on the stage, doing quiet tasks with glue and thumbtacks in the dark wings while the actors looked over their new script.
Cory Fordyce said, “But I don’t remember . . . Morris, this isn’t our play.”
“What else would it be?” said Mr. Dean. His word outweighed that of Morris Fluornoy, the student director. “I’ll expect you to have it memorized by Friday. Don’t forget, opening night’s only two months away.”
“But this is scary,” said Lady Macbeth.
“It’s supposed to be,” said Newt, who had already complimented Ricardo on his script. “It’s Mars. Didn’t you ever see Queen of Blood?”
Ricardo resumed hammering. In his hands, the first of the Martian towers began to rise. The flunkies in set construction were used to taking orders; it was easy to shape their understanding of Martian architecture. He explained how low gravity and rarefied air required all structures to be warped until they could withstand ion storms and colloidal temperature gradients.
So, under his direction, they built something like a huge Cubist monster with a low, foam-rubber belly, giraffe-long legs, and a vast fanged mouth missing the lower jaw. They painted it red-orange, stapled a slit sheet of clear plastic between the front legs, and finally gave it wheels. Ricardo discovered a talent for painting, and covered it with writhing figures, deliberately crude glyphs of torment.
Portcullis-cum-air-lock. Hell-gate. Beast. It stood like a watchdog, always somewhere on the stage, its upper regions hidden from the audience by hanging backdrops and the proscenium arch.
Another of Ricardo’s talents also came in handy. He proved an excellent mimic, and so created a variety of unusual sound effects once he’d made friends with the sound technician. The obscure bird of night called, when it called, in a high voice familiar to Neal; and each time it called, the sandy-haired athlete grew slightly pale inside his skier’s tan. The bird’s cry, Neal once said to Cory within Ricardo’s hearing, sounded almost like a voice. He didn’t know that the words, Ricardo’s taunts, had been accelerated and run together until no sense could be made of them.
Neal became an ever more haggard Macbeth, in his plastic kilt and rakish cellophane visor. He started crossing the stage to avoid the young playwright and set-builder.
But Lady Macbeth—that is, Cory Fordyce—seemed to grow ever bolder.
Ricardo noticed her watching him as he went about his business in the shadows. One day he climbed a ladder all the way up to the catwalk, where spotlights and unused backdrops hung. He stood directly over her as she read a hologram from her husband who was fighting rebels in space. Ricardo concentrated on the top of her head, and within seconds she looked straight up at him, though he had climbed aloft in perfect silence, unobserved until now. He pretended to adjust a red gel on a spotlight while she continued her speech.
When he descended she walked proudly toward him, seeming to drink up the red light as she came, seeming to swell and tower as it filled her. Her hair caught scarlet highlights, her mouth wettened with blood, her eyes swam in red tears.
“Ricardo,” she said, “what are you up to?”
He backed away and she moved closer, forcing him into a corner.
“What are you doing to us?” she repeated.
Ricardo could summon no strength to meet the red glare in her eyes. Her intonation was that of Lady Macbeth in speeches he had written. She had such power over him. He felt his own power ebbing, leaking swiftly onto the ground, unstoppable.
She followed him along the row of ropes that dangled up into darkness.
“Don’t you run,” she said, “I want to talk to you. Sometimes you make me so mad—”
He saw a door and rushed through it, and turned with a cry as he realized his mistake. He had fled into the light cage. He turned to see her, triumphant and angry as she grabbed the wirework door and slammed it shut upon him.
The last of his strength left him. He slumped backward, catching his elbows on light levers, and so drew the theater into darkness with him as he fell.
When they found the source of trouble, they sent him out to sit in the auditorium until he felt better.
Cory came onstage. For a moment the lights were all wrong, pale white instead of red. She looked like a porcelain doll, eyes wide but blank. When she saw Ricardo, she looked over his head. Though he was the only one in the empty auditorium, she looked everywhere but at him.
“We’ll try Lady Macbeth’s song now,” said Morris.
“It’s Neal I want,” Ricardo whispered. “Stay out of my way.”
He felt murderous and guilty, but the alternative was worse. If he didn’t hate, then there would be nothing left for him at all. He did not want to be numb. If no one loved him, then he would see that they hated him; for though love was but a dream one forgot upon waking, hate worked in full daylight. Hate brought bright red visions of double lunacy, of a crimson planet spinning through a velvet-black void.
The piano played a few notes and Cory sang:
“Should l? Could I?
Would I do this deed?
How will—I kill
Duncan and mislead
The Martian warriors who’ll
Find him in his bed
The noble fighters
Who’ll see he’s really dead?
With Duncan’s last breath,
He’ll see a Macbeth,
But will it be my Lord or me?
Should it be my Lord or me?”
Ricardo groaned at Sheri’s song. It was so bad it might ruin the rest of the show.
Neal entered and they began a duet.
“Will we? Shall we?
How can we protect our fate?
Still we . . . will be . . .
Taking risks so very great.”
The monster of hell-gate loomed suddenly flimsy and ridiculous above the awkward singers.
“Dare we? Care we?”
Ricardo answered, “No!”
He rushed down the row of folding chairs, kicking a few out of his way. The piano stopped and the singers fell quiet. The actors and crew came out on the stage to see him.
“That stuff stinks!” he said.
“Mr. Rivera,” said Mr. Dean, aiming a quivering finger at the door, “you are out of bounds. Now leave and don’t bother returning.”
“I won’t have to come back,” he said. “I’ll hear everybody booing on opening night, even way out where I live.”
Cory’s eyes flashed red and he stayed a moment to look at her. Hate mauled his heart. He slammed his way outside to face a cloudy sky of blue with no trace of red in it.
Even then, he did not abandon the play. Whenever possible, he entered the auditorium before crew and cast arrived, and stayed hidden up in the dark catwalks until all had gone. Cory never saw him, for her eyes were always on Neal. Ricardo’s eyes, in the meantime, opened to the full scheme of performance, the total effect of actors and words, lighting and music—such as it was—working in dramatic fusion.
With silver pins he pricked his thumbs and dribbled his blood over everything, investing the play with his own power. He bled on the net full of foam boulders intended for the avalanche scene. He daubed the witches’ robes down in the costume rooms; these were worn by three members of Neal and Cory’s cabinet. Let them wear his blood, and though they were enemies their gestures might carry some of his power.
There were rumors, whispers, stories that he overheard from his high place. A girl in the costume room had seen the witches’ robes moving all by themselves. A boy working late on the set had seen a woman in red-black tatters standing in the light cage. Shreds of music drifted over the stage when the tape player was disconnected. Others saw severed heads that vanished. Then the hell-beast rolled swiftly across the stage with no hands pushing it.
Only Ricardo saw Newt at his tricks.
He thought of nothing but Macbeth’s Martian Revue. He never again wondered, “Why him instead of me?” His power carried him beyond all that. In daydreams he communed with Shakespeare and saw at first hand the awful history that had provoked the play: Macbeth’s veiled mother (where could she have come from, except his dreams?) pointing the finger of guilt at Duncan. He dipped a hand into eternity and sipped from the splashing spring of the witches’ queen Hecate: a fount of blood in a dark forest. Not even the Ethics Advisory Committee could spoil that sanguine vision or censor its red power, no more than they could stop his Mars from coming into being as he imagined it.
Vampire dreams. Huddled like a bat in the loft, he watched the actors. He hid by the speaker where the night-bird cried, and sometimes joined its voice with his own. Even Newt looked worried then, and he had wished aloud for ghostly visitations.
Cory also came into her own, and nothing strange or out of place could touch her. She led Neal around by the hand; leaned against him during critique sessions; and one afternoon, while Ricardo watched, she kissed him backstage. The kiss lasted too long and Ricardo gasped for air. Neal’s hands on her hips, clutching and tense, pulled her forward; while her hands rested smooth and relaxed upon his shoulders, and drew gentle curves, and never needed to tug because he fell toward her of his own will. Ricardo, too, almost fell. Later he lay on his back, panting, dreaming of the plunge he had nearly taken.
Opening night came as if without warning, but Ricardo had been ready for a long time.
“Banquo!” he called through the stage door. “Banquo, psst!”
Newt spied him and came over, looking wary at first, then startled. He wore pointed ears, Mr. Spock style.
“You!” he said. “You’re not supposed to—”
“Come outside a minute,” Ricardo said.
They stood in the lunch quadrangle. It was dark except for a moth-battered floodlight above the stage door.
“Are you going to see the show?” Newt asked. “It shaped up pretty well, except for those dumb songs.”
“I want a favor,” Ricardo said. “No one but you will know, all right?”
“What kind of favor?”
Ricardo held up a paper sack. “I’ve got a space suit in here, kilt and visor with Banquo’s emblem on ’em. I want to play your ghost tonight.”
“What? You can’t—”
Ricardo lunged and caught Newt by the throat. He held him against the wall.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Deacon, but I will. Just let me play Banquo’s ghost. We’ll switch places, it’s a short scene. No one’ll know it’s me except for you.”
“Why?” Newt asked. “It’s crazy.”
“That’s right. And if Neal asks, it was you playing the ghost, not me.”
Newt took a deep breath. “Let go.”
“Not till you agree.”
Newt shrugged. “I don’t care if you’re the ghost. Be my guest. It’s still pretty weird.”
“Yeah. Go on, get ready. I’ll be hiding backstage.” Newt went back inside. Ricardo went to a restroom and changed into the space suit. He fit a cap over his curls and pulled down the visor, thus resembling a dozen others in the cast. A tube of Vampire Blood, left over from Halloween, went into a tunic pocket.
When he returned to the auditorium, the play began with an orchestral flourish that seemed to catch up and echo the coughs of the audience. The Blackstone Intermediate School Band forged on to the end of the overture, then continued a few bars past that and sputtered into silence.
He peered through the backstage curtains and saw the set of Macbeth’s spaceship, the Silex, much resembling the deck of the Enterprise from Star Trek. On the viewscreen—a framework with blue gauze stretched across it—three hags from Cory’s campaign appeared cackling prophecies.
Neal Macbeth set his jaw and told the hags to get out of the way, he needed to see to make a landing. He was taking his shipful of space pirates to fight for the planet Mars.
“Aye, the red planet,” said one witch. “That swollen, infected orb of death and decay. Beware you do not stab the crawling sands, for your own ichor may flow below the surface.”
“Ichor in crawling sands?” said Macbeth. “What is this?”
Newt Banquo, Macbeth’s second in command, leapt at the screen brandishing his ray-gun. The witches vanished amid shrieks and groans from the sound system.
The irrepressible space pirates broke into song:
“Oh we’re on our way to Mars,
We’ve come from far-off stars,
Though the place we’re really
Fondest of is Earth.
Oh it’s been an endless trip
But the captain of our ship
Knows pretty much just what
A light-year’s worth.
So Hip-Hip Hooray, Macbeth!
Hip-Hip Hooray, Macbeth!”
The audience started laughing, tentatively at first. Ricardo shivered, feeling their hilarity grow.
As if on cue, the spaceship’s flimsy viewscreen trembled and would have toppled except for Newt, who caught and held it till the stagehands had anchored it from behind.
Coolly, Newt turned to his pale captain and said, “They don’t make these screens like they used to.”
The audience never had a chance to breathe.
Ricardo backed into the sets, unable to watch. The laughter went on, but he only half heard it. How could something with so much of himself in it appear so absurd? What had become of his life’s blood, his offering of labor?
“Please,” he prayed to the catwalks. “Please don’t let them laugh.”
Not all of the original spirit was lost. The laughter died out gradually, though never completely, and the lengthening silences seemed full of increasing horror. Much of the action, unseen to him, must have struck the crowd as gruesome. Murder and betrayal, the beast of hell-gate, the cry of the obscene bird: all cast a spell of red darkness that was nearly but never quite broken each time a DuBose song came up. Relief and dismay were blended in the laughter.
Ricardo smiled. There was still hope. He affixed Vulcan points to his ears and painted his nose with gooey Vampire Blood. When Newt came looking for him, he stepped out from behind a set-piece.
“You enter over there,” Newt whispered, taking his hiding place. “You look really gross.”
“Break a leg.”
Ricardo pulled down his visor and peeked through a curtain at the scene. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were entertaining officers around an octagonal table. As he waited for his cue, he looked into the audience and immediately spied Mrs. Sherman in the front row, beyond the band, her jewelry glittering in the footlights. He hoped she wouldn’t recognize him.
“Let’s drink this toast in Venusian slug-ichor!” said Macbeth.
The officers raised their goblets.
Someone strode down the front row, a huge man with silvery hair and a dark red furious face. It was Mr. Magnusson, come to summon Mrs. Sherman from her seat. All around them, parents watched, while politely pretending to see nothing.
Ricardo heard his cue. He took a deep breath and strode onstage, aware of the two adults leaving together. Mr. Dean looked after them in horror, his conductor’s wand drooping. The music swooned.
Neal spotted Ricardo in his costume, and his eyes widened with melodrama. “By the cosmos!” he cried.
“What is it, my Lord?” said Lady Macbeth, her eyes passing through Ricardo as he shambled forward. He heard the expectant breathing of the audience at his side, now invisible in the red glare of footlights. The whole set, everything around him, appeared to be drenched in blood. His insane hieroglyphs crawled over the walls, red-on-red, luminous.
“But-but-but,” said Neal. “You-you-you . . .”
Ricardo walked offstage, turned on his heel, and waited to re-enter. His visor was steamed with the sweat of stage fright. He tried to find his breath
“My lord?” said Cory Fordyce. “What is it? Have you seen some nightmare with your eyes wide open?”
“Didn’t you see him?” Neal asked.
“Nothing, it must be nothing. I am tired, my dear. However, I’ll let nothing stop our celebrations. I propose a toast to—”
Backstage, Ricardo heard a growing commotion. Mr. Magnusson, pulling Mrs. Sherman after him, came through a stage door.
“No, Jack,” Mrs. Sherman whispered. “You can’t just stop the show. If you were going to come late, you shouldn’t have come at all. You’re drunk, Jack.”
“Ichor,” said Mr. Magnusson, almost spitting. “Ichor! That’s practically blood! It was the first word I heard. I’ll pull down the curtain myself if I have to.”
Morris Fluornoy bumped into Ricardo. He was running from the adults.
“What’s going on?” Ricardo asked.
“We’re in trouble!” Morris said, and blinked in puzzlement. He stooped to look under the visor. “Hey . . . Ricardo?”
“My cue,” Ricardo said.
He slipped back onto the stage and stood at Neal’s side. His pointed ears and Banquo’s emblems were enough to tell the audience who he was, but now it was time to show Neal alone. He stepped before his former friend and slipped the visor up an inch or so, until Neal could see his grin while the audience saw only the back of his head. Another inch of raised visor exposed the tip of his bloodied nose. Finally Ricardo stared full into Neal’s face. He rolled up his eyes until the whites were showing, and with his hand smeared Vampire Blood all over his face.
Neal turned ghastly green.
“Hello, my friend,” Ricardo whispered.
Cory looked over and yelled, “You!”
The visor dropped. Ricardo turned and ran till he was tangled in the wings. Where was the backstage door? He saw Lady Macbeth scowling after him and Neal still gaping. He ripped off the ears and wiped the red goo on his sleeve.
“Newt?” he whispered. “Trade off.”
“All right,” said a deep voice that echoed through the backstage. Mr. Magnusson came storming around the backdrop, intent on the light cage.
“Jack,” said Mrs. Sherman, just behind him, still trying to whisper. “Jack, they’ll murder you.”
“If not them, their parents,” he said.
Actors rushed from the stage and the next scene began in chaos.
Neal and Cory charged Ricardo.
Mr. Magnusson opened the door to the light cage.
Ricardo turned toward the backstage door but Neal veered to cut him off. The next thing he saw was the ladder.
He was climbing.
Cory cried, “I’ll get him!”
The ladder shuddered as if it were trying to throw him. Looking down past his feet, he saw Lady Macbeth climbing up. Below her, Mr. Magnusson swore at the array of light switches, asked “Which is which?” of the terrified operator, then snarled and stalked out of the cage.
Ricardo reached the top and looked out over the stage. The catwalk was the narrowest of tracks across the deepest of pits. At the bottom, three witches chanted around their cauldron while their red and black queen Hecate—played by Sheri DuBose—rose with her arms outspread to take in all the stage. She met his eyes and screamed.
The band faltered, stopped. Mr. Dean climbed onto the stage and met Mr. Magnusson and Mrs. Sherman at the witches’ cauldron; there they stood looking out at the audience. The proper witches backed away. Sheri still stood looking up at Ricardo. He realized he had better move. A door opened onto the roof at the other side of the catwalk.
Mr. Magnusson began, “We apologize—”
Cory’s feet banged on the ladder. Ricardo scuttled over the abyss. Below, Hecate screamed again, pointing now.
“Don’t do it!” she cried.
Murmurs from the audience, yells from the darkened regions of the stage. The Committee looked up at him.
Halfway out, he heard Cory speak after him:
“Ricardo, don’t be stupid. You can’t get out that way. Come on back and face the music.”
Her voice was soft.
He took a tentative step.
“Please,” she said. The word was like nothing he had ever heard.
He turned to face her, and crouched with both hands holding the plank. She stood at the end of the catwalk, her red robes flowing into space. She was barefoot tonight, raven-haired, seeming much older and crueler than ever, despite her gentle word.
“Don’t come out,” he said.
She took a step.
Glancing down, he saw all of them, Neal and Newt and the faculty, all of them looking up at him with rubies for eyes.
“What is it you want, Ricardo?” she asked. He looked up. “Attention?”
Her face seemed to crack into pieces, everything he recognized in it crumbling away. She was smiling, reaching out to him, yet she was sad. He knew that look: pity. It drove him back.
She took a step. The catwalk shuddered like a diving board.
“Don’t,” he said, and turned to run.
One foot missed the plank.
He fell, bleating.
Cory screamed. Newt was already running through the darkness below, pushing the hell-beast like a cradle to catch him. Ricardo’s clawing hands triggered the net full of foam boulders and he plunged amid a shower of soft Martian rocks.
As he fell, he dreamed with regret of all the scenes that would not be seen tonight because the show was spoiled. There would be no Lady Macbeth sleepwalking, sniffing the ozone left on her fingers by the firing of ray-guns. There would be no attack by Birnham Waste, where soldiers disguised as sand dunes advanced on Macbeth. Macbeth’s disconcerted cry of “Ichor!” would not be heard, for he would never casually thrust a spear-point in that same sand. Ricardo saw all the things that should have been and would have been, if not for his fall.
Falling took longer than it should have.
Above him he saw no catwalk receding, no backdrops rushing past, no dwindling floodlights. There was instead a sky of crimson so dark, so deep that it was almost black; wherein, high up, like the smiling white eyes of a slick red beast, were two tiny horned moons. It was his dream, Mars as he had come to see it, and now it had him.
With much ripping of foam and splintering of wood and creaking of chicken wire, he landed. The belly of the hell-beast split wide, dropping him on the floor. A few boulders tumbled through after him.
A little figure scurried to him, a small boy swathed in red, with wide shiny eyes beneath a strange cowl.
“I’m here,” said Newt. “Ricardo, can you answer?”
The mound of foam on which he lay collapsed, spilling him out from under the hell-beast. Ricardo’s eyes blurred over for a moment, then his vision began to brighten.
“Newt!” he said.
“I can see Mars. I really see it. I—I’m going . . .”
“Wow, Ricardo! Great! How is it?”
“Just like I im—”
He shrieked, his eyes fixed on the Martian firmament that no one else could see. He wailed as the moontips burst the membrane of sky and the red heavens poured down around him. Up he rose through the dark flood, like a bubble in a bottle of burgundy, and it seemed he would never reach the surface, never breathe again. For the air of Mars was thin, thin and cold, cold as death.
* * *
“Mars Will Have Blood” copyright 1989 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Scare Care, edited by Graham Masterton (1989).