The Catalan Theater
It was a full house, and Michael Steven Quinn was excited. He sat in the green room of the Catalan Theater, sipping an apricot-banana smoothie through a straw, as was his pre-show custom. As he did this, he stared at the flickering candle on the small coffee table in front of him. The edges of his vision drifted out of focus as his mind did the opposite. He fancied he could feel the nourishment of the fruits soaking into his cells, feel the clutter in his mind clearing.
There was clutter, too, much more than there used to be. Thoughts of the Jackson show plagued him, set his stomach churning with worry and fear. But there was no time for that now — it was almost Showtime, and he was just about ready to summon the spirits.
Michael Steven Quinn had come to Essex, Massachusetts, on this fine autumn evening to perform in the charming, 1930’s art deco Catalan Theater, to bring messages from beyond the grave to those poor, heartbroken souls left behind in this mortal coil. He was a Medium.
He heard a faint knock at the door, letting him know: the curtains were drawn, the lights were low, and the stage was ready. He arose from the couch, blew out the candle, and headed toward the door. As he did, he caught himself in the mirror, and paused, practicing his smile. At 47 years old, Michael Steven Quinn looked much the same as he had at half that age, and he still had the smile to melt the ladies’ hearts — and to make them believe, of course. His smile, his youthful good looks had only helped in this particular…career path. His boyish charm made him easily believable, which is the only way to be a successful liar.
He could barely remember a time that he wasn’t doing this, as he could barely remember how he began. It was a parlor trick, a simple cold read of the room, which he learned how to do while playing poker games in college. He had made a fortune off of the frat boys who thought they couldn’t be read, but Michael Steven Quinn could read them all.
He had eventually moved on to becoming a medium, helping people communicate with their lost loved ones. He felt that it was a much more admirable profession than card sharp. These people happily paid their fifty dollars a ticket to come see him, and he in turn offered them comfort, he gave them some peace. Sure, it wasn’t real, but they all left his shows feeling better, feeling like the dearly departed were really watching out for them, and that when their time came to go toward the light, everything would be alright. So how was this a bad thing?
As he stepped out into the hall, he thought to himself Jackson was bad, though. That wasn’t supposed to happen. How was I supposed to know, though? She was clearly unbalanced.
He had read her in the crowd that night, one of the dozen or so he would choose for each audience. The girl had been waiting for him after the show, young and beautiful. He had autographed a copy of his book for her, and gone on his merry way. Hell, he couldn’t even say for sure what he had told her — so often the stories were so sadly similar, the heartache in their eyes so familiar, that it became hard to remember which tragedy was which. He thought he gave her a message from a lost love, but maybe it was her mother. The next morning, the girl had been found dead in her apartment, wrists slashed, and a brief suicide note (“I’ll see you there”) left scrawled on the blood-spattered page of the book, right under the signature of Michael Steven Quinn.
He made his way down the hall, his Zen-like state only mildly disturbed by this digression of thought. Because tonight, he had planned, would be his last show. At least, it would be his last for a while. By this time next week, he would have his toes in the Tahitian sand, watching a full moon glint off the ocean. He would check in under a phony name and stay in the islands for a while, because any good snake-oil salesman had to know when to close shop and move to the next town. And since Jackson, he’d been seeing the shadow of a lawsuit looming overhead. So Michael Steven Quinn was going to go native, drop off the grid for a while.
The stage manager was walking away, toward his office, his back turned. This struck Michael as odd — usually they wait at the wing, with wishes of luck fraught with worry. Earlier, when they had briefly met, the man had seemed friendly, if a bit curt. Not even a wish of good luck? No matter, the green light had been given, and it was time for the show. He stepped out on stage as the curtain rose.
It dazzled him every time — the spotlights as bright as that light in which he claimed to see their loved ones. For this tour, he had designed a set that was comprised of a small pulpit on a raised, circular platform, with a backdrop of what looked like smoky glass that glowed in various colors — through this part of the set it was a heavenly blue, and he was backlit by it like an angel from beyond the pearly gates. His heart swelled with pride and slammed in his chest with exhilaration. He ascended the platform, his hand raised in greeting to the applauding, cheering darkness on the other side of the spotlights — an apostolic rock star.
He stepped to the pulpit, and the show began.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am Michael Steven Quinn,” another round of cheers, “and I am here,” a dramatic pause, and a drop in tone, “because they have brought me here to you.”
Quiet, as it did each time, settled like falling snow over the crowd in the dark.
“But before we get to the individual messages,” and at this point in the show, as always, he improvised a little, endeared himself to the audience, speaking first of their lovely town, and the kind people and their hospitality, maybe a charming anecdote or two. He would speak of the weight of his gift, and would beg the audience to be comforted by the news he would bring.
As he would bring his improvised speech to an end, he launched into the punchline — “Do not be sad,” he implored each audience, “but be glad. What I am here to do is let you know, these people are not lost, they are simply elsewhere, and they still love you, they still watch over you!” –emphatic, and usually met with subdued clapping and stifled tears. “And they want you to know that they still love you. So with that,” the backdrop became a deeper blue, serene like early evening, “let’s begin.”
This was the part of the show when the messages came. He would step down from the podium, close his eyes, and commune with the other side. Down from the podium he stepped, onto the raised circular platform, and to the center, his arms slightly outstretched as always, and he closed his eyes, and his act really began.
But this time, when he closed his eyes, he did see something. He saw fire.
His nose was filled with the scent of it, his sinuses clogged and his eyes burned. He opened his eyes quickly, and everything was as it had been. He looked around, saw the stage manager in shadow near the edge of the stage, the audience in shadow beyond the floor lights. Nothing was burning.
Michael Steven Quinn took a deep breath, well aware that the recent stress was certainly affecting his brain. He addressed the audience, as he always did, his voice amplified by his lapel mic.
“There are messages coming to me, yes there are,” a little of his Uncle Walter’s southern evangelical flare. He closed his eyes again, arms out further, almost cruciform.
There was no fire this time, but he saw a face. A woman’s face, her eyes lifeless, skin ashen, mouth open in a silent scream. Her blonde hair was darkened with blood and mud — he could smell wet ground and feel cold night air.
He gasped and took a step back, disrupted from his routine for the first time in his career.
The audience waited silently in the dark.
“I’m…I’m sorry folks, the spirits are very strong tonight, they are very anxious to speak to you through me.” Talking was making him feel a little better, helping him to regain his confidence, so he continued. “You know,” turning on that folksy charm that he wielded so easily, “sometimes, it’s like being at recess, and I’m the only teacher in the schoolyard. There are so many voices, and sometimes they whisper, and sometimes they shout, and sometimes they do not want to wait in line.” The audience laughed, and Michael Steven Quinn took a deep, relaxing breath.
He composed himself, cleared his throat, and took his stance again.
This time when his eyes closed there was ocean, and a craggy cliff. He could smell the salt air, feel the briny spray on his cheek. Two figures stood atop the cliff, at the edge.
Michael Steven Quinn returned to the stage with the opening of his eyes, his heart hammering in his chest so hard he thought he might collapse.
Visions, he thought, I’m actually having visions.
He looked to his trembling hands, and then raised his eyes to the audience. The sea of black in which the crowd was hidden loomed beyond the stage-lights, quietly waiting for him to pass along the messages.
Only this time, he thought he may actually have some messages.
He gathered his thoughts, then went off script. He stepped to the podium again with some actual excitement and said “Ladies and gentlemen, the spirits are strong tonight. Though I usually have a little ritual I go through to put myself in their realm, tonight they do not want to wait for me. So,” he removed the microphone from its small stand, “let’s get right to the messages.”
He wasn’t sure if these visions were real or his imagination, but they were surely inspiring, and he was going to ride this for as long as he could. This could be his finest performance yet.
He virtually hopped down from the podium, off the raised platform, and down the stairs toward the crowd. As he walked, almost jogging, he said into the microphone, “Can we bring up the house lights?”
He stood before the crowd, and said “The first message I got tonight, ladies and gentlemen, was a message about fire. Did someone lose a loved one in a fire? I have a strong draw to this left side of the audience, did someone over here…”
The houselights came up.
The theater was empty. Except for the girl from Jackson.
She sat there, three rows from where Michael Steven Quinn stood, staring at him with blank eyes — completely blank, no iris, no retina, just solid porcelain. Her skin was blue tinted, her lips black and curled at the edges into the hint of a grin. His blood-spattered book sat open in her lap.
Michael Steven Quinn let the microphone fall from his hand. He tried to speak, but could make no sound. His throat was dry, his tongue like sandpaper. His mind found words, grabbed them and held on — “It can’t be you, it can’t be you, it can’t be you…” repeated as a mantra against the apparition in front of him. He began to say the words, in an unintelligible mumble, more breath than speech. He closed his eyes, a childlike reflex against fear itself.
When he opened his eyes, she was gone, and the auditorium full. The houselights were up, and the audience was looking at him, bewildered. His mind, shocked into silence, began to function again, began to rationalize.
You’re having a nervous breakdown — just get through this show, and it will all be over.
He bent down to retrieve the microphone with a badly shaking hand, straightened himself up, and with a wavering voice, addressed the crowd.
“I’m sorry, folks, as I said, the spirits are strong tonight, stronger than I’ve ever experienced.” He chuckled a little as he spoke. “Now, I was addressing someone in this section regarding a fire.”
As he said that, from the center of the section a tall flame erupted, and a man stood from his seat, completely engulfed. Michael Steven Quinn again froze, seeing the burning man, his hair melting to his scalp and his features flaking away into ash. He closed his eyes again, this time sure that when he opened them everything would be fine. It was his overstressed mind causing this, nothing more. He breathed deep, eyes shut tight, and spoke into the mic, which he held in a white-knuckle grip.
“Someone in this section lost someone to a fire?”
He opened his eyes.
Seated before him, audience members were upright and alert, but could not possibly be alive. They were all in varied stated of mutilation — he could see heads shattered by gunshot wounds, broken glass protruding from flesh, limbs missing. Directly in front of him, a woman sat with a piece of steel pipe protruding from her mouth. Blood and saliva ran from the end of it, pooling on the floor at the feet of Michael Steven Quinn.
Again he dropped the microphone, and this time his panic took over. He turned, ran up onto the stage again, and sprinted into the wings. As he emerged into the hall behind the stage, he saw the stage manager’s office, and headed toward it. As he drew close, he saw the shape of the stage manager, swinging gently from a rope fastened around a heating pipe which ran along the ceiling. His long shadow was cast against the pale green wallpaper, swinging gently.
Michael Steven Quinn turned in the other direction, and headed toward the dressing room. He remembered a fire exit just beyond it. He ran down the hall, the sound of his footsteps flat and dead in the otherwise silent hall. He looked behind him, and saw no movement.
He reached the fire exit and burst through the door, into an alleyway. He turned to his right, in the direction he knew his car to be in, and sprinted to the end of the alley.
At the end of the alley, he found nothing. There was no street, there were no buildings; there was only crisp, deep blackness. He looked to his right, and could still see the front of Catalan Theater, its marquis still lit with his name. It was as if the rest of the world had been severed, and this little theater was now removed and floating in a sea of darkness.
The brick walls loomed overhead, prisonlike. He turned back toward the fire escape when he heard a noise. He could hear voices. He went back to the edge of the alley, and looked again toward the front of the theater. People were coming out, talking and laughing, emerging from the theater and simply disappearing into the void before them, oblivious to it.
That’s it, Michael Steven Quinn thought, then said out loud “This isn’t real. It’s a hallucination. I’m having a nervous breakdown, and none of this is real.” He laughed, a deep hearty laugh, until his ribs hurt, laughter being the easy way to fill the void left by terror.
He took a deep breath, still smiling, and stepped from the edge of the alley, out into the abyss.
As the crowd exited the Catalan Theater that night, they were all speaking of the same topic. The show had started out as they all knew it would, and then Michael Steven Quinn had begun acting erratically, and all the questions they asked were the same — was he on drugs, or was it nerves or who knows, but they better give me my money back because he didn’t even finish the show.
The next day there would be interviews with the police, and a missing persons report would be filed by his agent. Because, though his car was outside the Catalan Theater, Michael Steven Quinn was nowhere to be found.