Stars shine the first time Sarina sings onstage. She’s five, and it’s a school production so the stage decoration is clumsy at best, but stardust fills her chest as the words soar out of her. It’s the first time she truly feels like herself. She thinks she didn’t even know what herself felt like before.
There’s something waiting in the wings for her. When she finishes her performance, takes a bow and walks off, tiny heels clicking against wood, it hugs her, beaming. As if she should know it, and she almost feels like she does.
“I don’t think anyone who’s not performing is supposed to be back here,” she says quietly.
“Don’t worry,” it replies, sliding something cool that resembles an arm around her shoulders. “Nobody sees what happens offstage.”
“That was excellent! You’ve got a future ahead of you, little girl,” it tells her.
Her mother tells her the same thing later that evening, but the words rang truer in its rasping voice.
After that, it’s there every time she sings to an audience. Every time she mounts a stage and feels herself settle into her body, she can tell that it is waiting for her offstage. When she comes off, it’s as joyful as she is, and they hold hands and whirl around. It’s just the two of them back there.
She bundles backstage. She is the first one off from the end-of-year production at her singing school, where they make everyone do the last number together. She’s never liked her voice in a group, and how she can never tell how much of the applause afterwards is directed at her. And worse, this year she is only two spots down from Hannah, who’s hated her since the first class, and even more so after she was given the big number for tonight. So she rushes off, and she spins around searching for the creature. First and second looks show her nothing, but on the third look it appears, blinking slowly. She rushes over to it, and the curtains start to open behind her.
“Shhh!” she tells it urgently. It raises a finger to its mouth, smiling, and pulls them against the wall, behind a fold of the curtain.
“She’ll hear us!”
It shakes its head. It lifts its clawed foot into the air, and stomps it down onto the wood before Sarina can do anything but gasp. But there’s no noise. She frowns at it, and it knocks on the wall behind it, repeating the effect.
“What about me?” she whispers.
Someone outside their hiding place calls out, “Sarina?” and she freezes.
Its eyelids slide closed for a brief moment, then it says, “You’re safe now.”
“They can’t hear you.”
Her eyes widen in delight. “Really? Hannah!” she calls out.
There’s no response from the other side of the curtain. She jumps up and down, grin so wide it splits her face in half. The creature watches her with fond amusement, and jumps with her when she grabs its hands.
“Hannah!” she screams joyously, at the top of her lungs. “You’re a bully! I hate you too! I hope I never have to sing with you again!”
She turns to the creature and continues, slightly quieter, “I love this! I love you!”
“Pretty cool, isn’t it?”
“I love you too.”
When Sarina turns sixteen, the local bar lets her onto their stage once a week. Technically it’s their improv night and anyone old enough can get up behind the microphone, but more and more people come in every week just to listen to her. It doesn’t take long before it’s the Sarina show, officially or no, and the stage belongs to her. There are no wings here for it to wait in, no technical backstage—just a raised wooden platform and a room full of barstools. She can feel it anyway. Sometimes she leaves out the back as soon as she finishes, and it appears by the door just long enough to grin at her with a flash of sharp teeth. On these occasions its movements are always utterly silent. Other times, she lingers inside, basking in adoring fans until the glow fades, and it never gets a chance to appear.
She’s eighteen when a boy approaches her as she steps down from the stage, and tells her that his name is Francis, and he’s been coming for months, and he loves her voice. That’s all she needs to know to let him buy her a drink.
It doesn’t appear that night.
“Hey, look at this,” Francis says, and Sarina glances up at him long enough to notice that his teeth do not shine and his face rests in its grin. “There’s a karaoke competition down the street next week. We should go.”
He’s been unhappy, saying he never feels as though he gets the real her, as though she ignores him in favor of her singing, so she is aware of the compromise in his offer. Even though the thought of someone else standing in her place on a stage sends her stomach roiling, she agrees.
He brings friends, three of them. She places her own slot after all of them. She doesn’t tell them it’s because she is going to upstage them. That her voice will have more impact if the room has had to listen to theirs first. They get up, one by one, sing Madonna and Prince and Backstreet Boys with notes that are just a little off and pitches that are just a little shaky. When the room claps anyway, frustration and betrayal rise in Sarina’s throat. Francis looks at her as he sings some ’80s love song, and she grits her teeth and smiles despite the audience’s applause. He jumps off the stage without bothering to exit properly, through the curtains at the back, and steals her drink.
Then it’s her turn. As she mounts the steps, she can feel its presence behind the curtain, and she draws on it, lifting herself higher and higher. It doesn’t matter what she sings, because it’s her that sings it. She takes the force of all the applause that had been directed at other people, and she throws it back at them in her words. When she finishes, and the room bursts into cheers, they’re just a little louder than they had been for anyone else. She smiles thinly as she sweeps backstage. It is standing there, as always. It looms over her. The way it bares its teeth is more grimace than smile, but she smiles back anyway.
“You beat them,” it hisses, and her smile grows.
The spotlights shine like stars, sweeping across the dark wood until they find her. She stands at the front of the stage, alone. She looks down at her parents, sitting in the front row with Francis, and the three of them smile at her. The seats stretch as far back as the lights will allow her to see and every one of those seats is filled, but up here the only partners she has are the microphone and the thing that waits in the wings. She opens her mouth. The audience falls silent. First lyrics float upwards for hours until they hit the tall ceiling and explode into fireworks, and everything is perfect. This is her space. She’s on top of the world here, and no one can beat her. Here, on this stage, she is a god, and the entire audience knows it. They are held in thrall until she finishes, and she knows she could have held them for as long as she desired.
It locks eyes with her as she sweeps backstage, feeling as though she is floating three feet off the ground, fireflies swarming around her head. It’s just them back here, and no one else will ever be allowed in for fear that they might bring her back to earth.
“Why would you do this?”
Her mother’s voice is barely raised, but Sarina sees the shouts coming, and she shrieks back anyway. “Because it’s my opportunity!”
Sure enough, her mother’s voice raises in pitch, and by the end of her next sentence it matches Sarina’s. “No, it’s not, it’s some man taking you overseas and promising you things you’re never going to get!”
“It’s not ‘some man,’ oh my god, it’s an entire agency- wait.” It hits her, and she falls silent. When she opens her mouth again, frost falls out. “I’m ‘never going to get?’ I knew you never thought I could do this.”
“Of course I know you can sing. I just don’t think you should be betting your whole life on ‘making it,’ Sarina!”
“Don’t you get it?” Sarina’s voice is still ice. “I’m only me when I’m up there. You’ve never understood that.”
“I’ve supported you your entire life!”
“I’ve got more support from the creature backstage.”
She had told her parents about it the first time it appeared. They’ve never believed it, but she’s never lied to them.
Her mother sighs, all the fight falling out of her. “Don’t you think you’re a little old to still have an imaginary friend, Sarina?”
Sarina stares back at her. “I think I’m a little old to still need a mother.”
She walks out of the room. No one follows her.
Sometimes she asks it what it is. When she was younger, it did call itself her imaginary friend. When she stopped believing in those, it told her that it was her mentor. When she stops thinking that she needs mentoring, it calls itself her protector.
It barely appears this time. She walks backstage, her last performance in the city she was born in, and it slides past her vision in utter silence, flashing what would seem to be a thumbs up if it didn’t have talons where its fingers should be, then disappears. She blinks, and shrugs.
Francis is waiting outside, a line of fans behind him. She smiles and starts signing autographs. She doesn’t shrug off the arm he places around her shoulders, because that would present a bad image. A girl the same age as she is, but nervous and stuttering in a way she never would be, takes her signed program and leaves. A man—not much older, but towering and well-muscled—comes up behind her. His pupils are just a little too wide, veins just a little too obvious, and he stands just a little too close. Before she can do anything—and she would have found something to do—Francis steps in front of her. He glares at the man, flexing his own muscles. The man squints at him, exhales on a grunt, and walks off in the other direction.
There’s three people left in line, so when Francis steps back, she inhales. She smiles. She signs. They leave. She whirls on Francis, who looks mystified.
“What was that?” she asks.
“With the guy. What sort of big man macho bullshit was happening there?”
He frowns at her. “I don’t… he looked dangerous.”
“Yeah, well, maybe he was. I could have dealt with it. I don’t need you stepping in.”
“I was just trying to protect you.”
She grits her teeth. “I don’t need a protector.”
“I don’t need you.” She grabs her bag and leaves him standing at the stage door, and for the first time offstage, she feels free. As she walks away, she thinks she sees it sliding through the shadows, and she understands why it didn’t hang around earlier. She needed to come outside. She needed to do this. She’s better than all of them, and now she’s been freed of the dead weight.
She goes overseas. She is alone, and she is triumphant, and she is doing what she is born to do. No one follows her. She follows no one. The creature always appears, but it stays silent more often than not.
The theater is dark apart from a single spotlight. As Sarina sings, she looks out on the sea of unfamiliar faces. They are here to watch her sing, and that is all that matters. The spotlight is on her.
It’s waiting in the wings, though. It’s always waiting in the wings, and this is never truly her space. Not solely. It always steals that from her. She doesn’t need a protector.
It follows her to her dressing room tonight, even though she doesn’t acknowledge it. Maybe because she doesn’t acknowledge it. A thud, as the door closes, and then she can hear its breaths for the first time. They’re loud and hissing, these days. She’s sure they never used to be. She continues to ignore it, pulling pins out of her hair one by one. The black metal is warm against her fingers, still retaining heat from the spotlight. It paces behind her. Dark hair falls to her shoulders. Her hands go to the clasp of her necklace. It stops behind her.
She drops her hands.
It opens its mouth, but no sound comes out. She copies the movement, and realizes that the room has fallen entirely silent. Footsteps from people passing outside the door, the whirring of the fan, the rustle of her skirt in the breeze; all gone. She bangs a hand against the dressing table and screams, and no sound comes out. It has ripped away not only its own sound but hers as well, and her chest shakes with the knife-like sharpness of her breaths. Everything she is wearing feels suddenly as if it is squeezing the breath out of her, and her hands fly to the strings of pearls around her throat.
It stands perfectly still behind her. Light glints off its skin as it tilts its head slightly to the left. Waiting.
She tugs. Pearls scatter across the floor, creamy spheres on dark wood. The clatter rings in her ears. She knows, somehow, that this was what it had wanted her to do, but the relief is too great for her to care. She stands up, and the scrape of her chair against the floor is heavenly.
“Get out,” she whispers.
It smiles softly at her, mouth closed firmly over sharp teeth.
“Now,” she repeats.
It hums, deep in its throat, and walks out. When she turns back to the mirror, makeup is streaked across her face, and she barely looks human.
Still, it waits for her in the wings. She sings onstage with the force of a god, and it meets her offstage with lightning flashing in its eyes. They are both perfectly self-assured. It is the only thing left for her to drive away, but it stays anyway.
It’s waiting in the wings as she performs.
The curtains rustle behind her. Her breaths are shallower than they should be, but she grits her teeth and sings out piercing notes anyway. This is her space. She belongs here. Far more than anyone or anything else does. Nothing will usurp her on this stage.
It is not on this stage. It is waiting in the wings.
The curtains close behind her, the muted sound of velvet against velvet — and it is there. It’s taller than it’s ever been. Its height soars lengths above her. She raises her gaze, until she is staring into its eyes; dark, colorless. Fixed on her.
It crooks its hands and tilts its head.
“It’s time,” it says. Its voice sounds like glass shattering and feels like nails dragging down a chalkboard.
“What are you?” she asks it one final time.
It bares sharp teeth at her in a curved grin. “You,” it replies. Its talons click against the wood as it advances.
“Time for what?”
It doesn’t reply, only steps closer.
“You can’t do this,” she says. She’s not certain what it is she’s referring to.
“Don’t you remember?” it asks. It reaches her, and its eyes flash in the dark. “Nobody sees what happens offstage.”
This story previously appeared in Bowery Gothic, 2020.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Ivy Waters is actually three writers stacked on top of each other wearing a trench coat. Together, they have stories in publications including CommuterLit and Raconteur Magazine; one or the other of them can usually be found ignoring the advice of the other two and buying more books and/or mugs and/or sweaters.