Hello, all! I'm revising this story a bit, hence the new prologue. Not a complete overall, but I do want to iron out as many problems and errors as I can before continuing with the fic. So enjoy this new intro and the improved chapters to come!
"I am not crazy!" Cecilia James insisted, her round, pale eyes wider than ever. She flung open the door to the theatre's auditorium, hands still shaking but firmly gripping the torch. "You'll see for yourself!"
"Calm down," cooed Antonio Sorelli, Cecilia's fellow cleaner, in his lilting Italian accent. "Let's be very logical about this. An anonymous person sends you a text after your first encounter with the ghost. And the text says, word for word: 'That was a warning.'"
"I know what you're going to say." Cecilia's gaze kept flitting to the darkest corners of the auditorium instead of locking directly on Antonio. Yet in spite her quivering voice, she spoke clearly enough to convey conviction in her words. "'How can a ghost send a text?' I tried to text a reply, but the message bounced back, saying the phone didn't have the service to receive texts. So I try calling the number that came with the text. All I get is a message saying the service is no longer in use, even though that text was sent out but a minute before. From a dead phone!"
Antonio shook his head. He didn't think Cecilia had the imagination to make up such a ludicrous story; he thought it likely someone was pulling a prank. That kind of thing wasn't unheard of in the Palace Theatre. People seemed to enjoy making little booby traps in the dressing rooms and storage areas. Harmless fun, he'd thought at first, until an overturned bin let loose a giant scorpion, which ended up being a wind-up toy. Mama mia, that'd been one realistic toy, and it nearly cost him his trousers!
"Someone is pulling your leg," he assured her as they walked further into the auditorium. They used their torches to follow the curve of the red velvet aisle even though a ghost light stood burning onstage. It was so weak, though, and the shadows of the rest of the space were deep. Antonio was convinced he wasn't superstitious, but his nerves tingled with anxiety in that darkness. Seeing Cecilia shake so much reminded him of why she'd asked him to come, apart from her desire for a witness. He needed to provide moral support and protection. As things stood, though, the greatest danger to Cecilia's health was her own hysteria.
She flashed an angry glare at him for his remark. "I would know when I am being toyed with! I'm usually the skeptic! I always had doubts about ghosts when my mother would start talking about them. But this – something is going on. It isn't pranks anymore! And I'll be the one to prove it!"
As much as he worried for her, Antonio had to give Cecilia credit for her mettle. She was clearly terrified, but she sported a tenacity to not let this ghost – whoever it may really be – scare her away. In a way, he was the one who felt safe in her presence. He stayed close and shined the torch in as many places as he could while Cecilia trained hers on the floor.
The auditorium felt so much bigger in the dark. He didn't like it, mostly because it was just an illusion, albeit a powerful one. Antonio forced his senses to return the space to its proper proportions, but he still felt as though he were walking inside the mouth of a giant whale, and that somehow he would suddenly be swallowed up and taken down into an even deeper darkness filled with the hot, foul smell of gastric acid and decaying bodies. The ghost light alone disrupted the analogy.
The pair reached the stairs on the right side of the stage. The wooden planks groaned beneath their feet like the imagined monsters that lived under beds and inside closets. Antonio's heartbeat slowed a trifle when they reached the stage. It comforted him being on the same platform as the ghost light. "Well," he said loudly to fight the theatre's crushing silence, "that is enough exploring for one night. The ghost light is very likely keeping your friend away."
Cecilia looked around some more before answering. Her head still quaked involuntarily. It did that even when she appeared for the most part calm, which made discerning when she was afraid or not afraid difficult. Her round eyes, light blue like early-morning sky, moved with the frantic energy of a squirrel. "No," she whispered. She turned her thin body, dressed in a long pink sweater, a white turtleneck and a high-waist lavender skirt, upstage and away from the ghost light. "This way."
"Please, Cecilia," begged Antonio, "no more tonight. Your ghost is not going to appear."
Cecilia apparently blocked out his comment, for she walked slowly toward the left-hand wing of the backstage without giving him a fleeting glance. Antonio, quite tired of this expedition and shivering without good reason, caught up to her and took her gently by the elbow. She whirled around and shined the torch in his face.
"Gah!" Antonio swatted the torch away. "What is wrong with you? This ghost nonsense is making you matto. The ghost does not exist, capisce? It is all just nonsense and—"
The ghost light went out. The auditorium succumbed to a sheet of blackness that only their still operating torches broke through. That didn't stop Antonio's heart from pounding like a timpani.
"What did I tell you?" Cecilia's whispers, though tremulous with fright, had an edge of ecstatic excitement that scared Antonio more than the prospect of seeing a ghost. She escaped from his grip and walked briskly toward the wing. "We must be onto him!"
"Cecilia!" Antonio pursued his fanatical co-worker into the throat of the stage. Not a single light was on now. One would think there would be other ghost lights on in case the main one burned out. Antonio fastened his mind so firmly on this idea that he didn't notice for many seconds Cecilia standing still, mouth open and eyes so wide that the whites could be seen from ten meters away. When Antonio did finally see her, the natural question of "What is it?" flew out of his mouth before he could stop himself. He knew in his gut what it was she saw. Not specifically, but in a broad sense. He didn't want to look where she was looking, which was up. When someone is looking up at something with a gaping expression, like a terrified goldfish, the cause is usually very unpleasant.
But the agony of not knowing what she saw soon overrode his fear of the thing itself, whatever it was. Antonio turned and gazed up, telling himself that it was nothing. As soon as he laid eyes on it, his heart froze and the rational side of his mind went silent.
A body hung by the neck from a rope tied to the flies. Not a dummy, as Antonio's eyes were familiar with the dummies the crew used in productions. Or if it was, it looked painfully realistic for a dummy. It wore in a man's evening suit. A nice suit, probably Italian, stitched together from a fine black fabric that rivalled the darkness in shade. As if to purposely contrast this lovely clothing item, the body itself looked well decomposed. Strands of thin, dark hair rested limply against the large skull. The skin of the head had a yellow tone, like it was rotting, and it sported patches of discolouration all over. The lips were drawn back to expose large, grey teeth, and the eyes were so sunken in he couldn't see the orbs from that distance. The nose was entirely gone. The hands sported a similar coluor, but unlike the shrivelled head, the fingers were bloated from blood and other fluids draining into the hanging appendages. Their bulbous ends had turned purple and blue.
Antonio would have vomited had that been all there was to the corpse. When its head suddenly jerked to life, the cleaner's body stayed paralysed. The decomposing head moved slowly, surveying its surroundings, even the curious rope that held it hostage. Then it looked down at the two cleaners. Their torches lit it up against the shadowed curtains. The corners of the half-disintegrated mouth curled up into a smile. Bluish-black gums came into sight.
Cecilia began to back up toward Antonio. She shook like a dying leaf in a vicious winter gust. Antonio's head began to swim, and his vision started to grow fuzzy. He reached for Cecilia's shoulders, yet his eyes couldn't leave the corpse. Only when the body turned translucent, and then faded away altogether, did he emerge from his spellbound state, and as a result fall to the ground. The hollow thunk of his collapse reverberated in the auditorium. Cecilia's hunched-over figure and frantic pleas faded away with everything else.