Carter was sitting stage left, one hand flat on the prop table beside him, the other pressing his headphones against his head. Techs were rushing behind him as they moved the sets at the fasted speed humanly possible; meanwhile, the actors were clearing the stage for the protagonist’s solo number.
“Okay…the transition is done, bring up the lights,” Carter murmured into his headset.
“Lights going up,” Rick responded, wearing a headset of his own up in the sound booth. The lights lit the stage again, and what had once been a heavily populated battle scene was now a vacant stage with a single backdrop, and one lone man standing in its center. Carter appreciated the dramatics of it, but he couldn’t really focus on it now that he was basically in charge of the whole show.
When the actual stage director called in this morning saying he was violently ill (and they believed him, because he was still vomiting while on the phone), Carter had been “volunteered” to take his place for the night. And sure, Carter had experience in positions of tech leadership, given that he was in charge of the light and sound booth upstairs, but he didn’t feel like that exactly qualified him to be in charge of almost the entire musical, even for just a night.
“But who else is gonna do it?” Rick had asked him when he protested against it, and Carter had to admit that he didn’t really trust anyone else to take over, even for just one night. So there he was, sitting in the wings where he felt like he didn’t belong at all, frantically trying to call out cues and keep up with the happenings of the show.
At least it would be quiet for a few minutes. This song didn’t require any varying technical elements; the director had wanted it to all be focused on the actor. Carter had never really listened the song; he usually took the opportunity to relax during this moment of the show, since the rest of the time he was running around turning on spotlights.
The actor was standing in the middle of the stage, his hair a little mussed and messy from the fight scene that had just happened. He was staring intensely at the crowd, almost as though he was accusing them of something, and there was a pregnant pause of total silence. Carter leaned forward, unable to stop himself from feeling intrigued. He rested his chin on his hands.
Then the actor opened his mouth, and without waiting for the orchestra he began to sing.
The notes were soft at first, almost like a whisper—a mere suggestion of noise. He stood stock still, looking up at the heavens almost like he was praying. The lyrics were sad, and Carter leaned forward even more. He was able to hear the words and the notes and the emotions, but it wasn’t wholly satisfying. He wanted more. If the actor was trying to tease the audience, it was working.
Then the song began to swell, and the actor took steps back violently, as if backpedaling away from something that disgusted him. His face twisted in rage, and he belted out notes and words filled with hatred. Carter was startled; his heart began to pound. The actor’s voice filled the entire auditorium, echoing from the highest walls and the deepest caverns onstage, and even though he was completely alone he took up the whole space like a trapped comet.
Carter was completely engrossed, and the song had barely begun. He was standing before he realized it, leaning so close to the stage that the audience could almost see him.
The song was changing, developing; the anger in the actor’s song was tugging at the orchestra, bringing the noise louder and louder. It amazed Carter that one man’s voice could be heard over dozens of stringed instruments and drums, but the singing was absolutely domineering. The actor paced back and forth almost like he wished he could punch something, and his electrifying energy crackled in the audience and made everybody’s hair stand on end.
His notes were absolutely solid. Carter couldn’t remember ever hearing a voice that was so pure and smooth; his long notes were like liquid gold, and his staccato words like gunshots. It was push and pull, because sometimes he’d pause, completely still, and he’d reach almost like he was yearning for something, and then the notes would be languid and beautiful. But then he’d stop, and his entire body would lock up as though he’d been bound by rope, and the song would be an attack once again.
It was a beautiful display of character, if Carter said so himself, and he’d never even acted a day in his life. The song called for a torrent of emotions from the main character, who was torn over all of the crimes he’d had to commit, but never had the lyrics resonated so much with Carter until he saw this actor perform them live. He was charged up with so much emotion that it took an unexpected amount of willpower not to run onstage and scream with the actor himself.
The song was drawing to a close, and the actor had worked his way up to the lip of the stage, his toes practically dipping into the orchestra pit. Carter probably should’ve been concerned about him falling in, but he was too entranced to think of anything like that right now. The actor held his arms out, almost begging for benediction, and his words were desperate. There was a catch in his throat as he sang the last few lines, pleading for God to forgive him for what he’d done, and as his notes grew higher and sadder they got softer. Carter’s heart broke, and he sat back down, thinking it was the end.
Then the final note was hit, and it was the most powerful sound of all. Carter was blown away, because it sounded so full and rich, and it seemed to go on for hours. The actor filled the stage, all by himself, needing no outside help to make himself look good. He held the audience in a trance for almost sixteen measures, and then he cut off violently, as though the music had choked him to death, and he collapsed to the side on his knees. The orchestra played him out, but Carter didn’t hear any of it over the deafening cheer, and even he had to clap. He felt something drip onto his collar and realized he was crying.
“Holy shit,” he murmured aloud, and he heard Rick laugh. He’d forgotten he was still on headset.
“You finally watched that part, huh? That guy’s got talent.”
“Yeah, no kiddin’.” Carter wiped his eyes, getting back to business. “Kill the lights; time for a scene change.”
The stage blackened, and the wings came back to life as the deck crew prepared for the next scene, set in a castle. Techs rushed onstage to place complicated sets and furniture, and actors and actresses all ran on in their new ballroom attire. Carter stood with his back to the table, watching it all and still absorbing all of the emotions that had been thrust into his lap, when suddenly somebody collided with him.
“Oops, sorry,” a deep, disembodied voice said to him in the dark. “Get my pants off.”
Carter was immediately confused. “I…what?”
“Get my pants off, duh. And hurry!”
“What—why would I do that?!”
Carter flicked on the blue lamp next to him (he was only supposed to use lights in emergencies, but this seemed like it qualified), and came face-to-face with the dark-haired protagonist from the previous scene, now completely stripped of character…and also of his jacket. He was now unbuttoning his undershirt and staring at Carter like he was completely crazy.
“Wait…where’s Paul?” the actor asked. Paul was the stage manager.
“He’s sick. I’m fillin’ in for him. Why are you gettin’ naked?!”
“I’m quick-changing! Paul usually helps me. Look, if you don’t get my pants off in the next thirty seconds, I’m gonna miss my cue.”
Carter looked around helplessly. “Can’t somebody else do it…?” Every other tech that was usually in this wing had mysteriously disappeared.
The actor harrumphed impatiently. “Fine, I’ll just be late then,” he grumbled, undoing the last shirt buttons.
“No, I…I’ll help you,” Carter sighed. He felt vastly uncomfortable, but it clearly had to be done.
“Thanks…uh, whatever-your-name-is. Cute-not-Paul, there we go. Hand me the gold shirt behind you and undo my pants.”
Well that was forward. Carter did as he was told, unable to keep himself from blushing. (Cute? Him?) He handed the actor his shirt and kneeled to do the dirty business of undressing his other half.
“My real name’s Carter, by the way,” he said as he unzipped the fly. He didn’t know why he was introducing himself, other than the fact that they were getting to third base rather quickly and they probably needed to make up for lost time.
“Nice to meet you, man. I’m Bryan.”
“Hi, Bryan.” Carter let go of the pants, and they suddenly fell around Bryan’s ankles, exposing the red briefs he was wearing. Suddenly feeling incredibly awkward, Carter addressed his crotch and stammered out, “I, uh, I really liked your performance.”
“Did you? Thanks. It wasn’t one of my best.”
“Are you kidding?” Carter helped him step out of his brown pants and handed him a pair of black ones off of the table. “That was the best show I’ve ever seen.”
He looked up at Bryan (from the ground, just as awkwardly as it sounds) and was surprised to see that he looked kind of embarrassed.
“Really? Thank you,” Bryan said humbly, doing the buttons. “Can you pull the pants up?”
“Uh, yeah.” Carter stood up, and he was mortifyingly eye-level with Bryan while he yanked the pants up to his hips and grabbed the fly. He tried to look anywhere but his face while his hands danced so close to his junk.
“Jesus, dude, it’s a zipper,” Bryan chuckled, his face breaking out in an amused smile. “It’s not rocket science. Just pull it up.”
“I know, I just don’t wanna touch your junk!” Carter hissed, and Bryan’s face turned scarlet with either embarrassment or stifled laughter.
“You know you’re still on headset, right?” Rick said candidly in Carter’s ear, and Bryan must’ve heard it because he covered his mouth and began to giggle uncontrollably. “Tell that actor to be quiet or the audience’ll hear him.”
“I know, I know, I’m trying,” Bryan chortled, and Carter rolled his eyes as he finished with the pants. At this point he didn’t care if he accidentally molested Bryan as long as he freed himself from this nightmare. “Okay, they’re on? Thanks. Hand me that black vest.”
Carter did, and Bryan tried to flatten his hair with his fingers while he buttoned it for him. Carter was probably still bright red, but Bryan seemed completely blasé about the previous encounter.
“Say, have you always been on the tech crew?” Bryan asked while he made himself more presentable. (Not that that was hard. Jesus, the man was gorgeous; even Carter couldn’t deny it.) “Why haven’t I seen you around before?”
“I’m normally up in the sound booth,” Carter explained.
“Really? Damn, it’s a shame I’ve never met you before.” Bryan was smiling languidly, and it was making Carter’s pulse pick up speed. Christ, first the incredible performance, and then the guy had to be suave as hell on top of that? It was all too much.
“Well, I, uh…I guess it is, huh?” he stammered rigidly, feeling embarrassed. Bryan laughed a little.
“Well you—” He stopped suddenly, and his smile vanished. “Wait, where are we?”
Carter looked up, his eyes widening. He glanced over at the complete silence onstage and saw the actors standing around awkwardly.
Bryan suddenly hissed, “Shit!” and he darted onstage. He improvised something halfheartedly at the actors, who were all staring at him like he was nuts, and Carter had to put a fist in his mouth to keep from laughing.
* * *
After the show closed, Carter directed the process of putting away the sets and equipment for next weekend’s performance. It was surprisingly exhausting work, and it seemed like everybody ran into some kind of problem along the way and needed him to help them out of it. By the time he was finished most of the actors and techs had already gone.
As he was leaving the stage, coated in a thin layer of sweat and sawdust, a tech girl that couldn’t have been older than eighteen walked up to him with a rose in her hand. It was one of the roses that patrons could buy and have sent to their favorite actors at the box office. Carter thought it was a little silly, especially for a professional theatre, but apparently the business made a killing.
“Are you Carter?” she asked him as he approached. His brow furrowed.
“Yeah, who’s asking?”
“Not me. I have a delivery for you.” She handed him the rose and walked past before he could get another question out.
More confused than ever, Carter turned the flower over and saw that there was a notecard attached, written in loopy, over-exaggerated handwriting.
Dear Cute-Not-Paul, aka Carter,
Thanks for complimenting my performance and getting me changed, but there’s more to me than just a pretty face. I’m waiting outside the staff entrance if you want to get late-night coffee from a place that I always bring cute boys. I’ll wait until nine, but if you’re not there by then then I can take a hint.
Carter looked at his clock. It was 8:45 now. Without thinking, he sprinted out of the wings and down the spiral staircase, past the mostly-empty dressing rooms and the staff bathrooms and up to the staff exit, where he threw his weight against the door and stumbled ungracefully into the alley next to the theatre.
Carter looked around, trying in vain to wipe off the sawdust covering him when he heard somebody clear their throat.
“Good, you came. I was about to give up and leave.”
Carter straightened up and whirled around to see Bryan, now dressed in street clothes. He’d thrown on a black V-neck shirt and faded jeans, and he was wearing glasses. Carter smiled at him, breathing hard from the run.
“Yeah, sorry. I just got your flower.” He showed it to him, and Bryan laughed a little.
“I was hoping you’d get it. I had no idea who to give it to.” He smiled at Carter and began walking forward. “Ready to go?”
Carter nodded, swallowing. He looked at Bryan’s outline in the streetlights, at the way his body curved and moved like a dancer’s. When he turned around and smiled at him wryly, Carter couldn’t help himself from smiling back.
“You coming or what?” Bryan chuckled.
“Yeah, I just can’t believe I’m doing this,” Carter admitted with a small laugh, walking fast to keep up.
“Why? Is it a good or a bad emotion?” Bryan asked, his baritone voice rumbling. He almost sounded vulnerable, which was strange because he seemed to ooze confidence.
“Good, good, don’t get me wrong. I’m just not used to…I dunno, getting hit on by attractive men.”
“I find that pretty hard to believe.” He snaked his hand into Carter’s and squeezed it, and Carter’s heart fluttered so suddenly that he was afraid he’d pop an artery. “C’mon, follow me. You’re gonna love this place. You like coffee, right?”
“Yeah, of course I do,” Carter said quickly, but he couldn’t have cared less about coffee at the moment. Bryan smiled at him encouragingly, and he couldn’t help smiling back, feeling his stomach do little somersaults as they walked under the streetlamps hand-in-hand.