From the safety of a sleek black car, Winter stared at her Living Theater, disturbed by a sudden onset of negative vibes. “I’m not feeling it today”, she grumbled. Inside, actors were busy rehearsing, while crew members fiddled with sets, props, hair and makeup to prepare for the next shoot. Winter strolled in with customary well wishes of a wonderful afternoon. It didn’t matter how late it was when she arrived. By strategically delegating tasks, Winter could sit back and relax, knowing the job would get done. Whatever she asked of her cast and crew, they’d make it into a glorious performance under her tutelage. However, she wasn’t a success yet, and waiting to make it big was the hardest part.
“If I could pay my way through life, I’d be Queen of Existence. But money only goes so far, I must do the rest, I suppose.”
Just six months prior, Winter’s father gifted her one million dollars when she graduated from the academy. He instructed her to use the money sensibly and follow her dreams. She did so with the purchase of a theater. It was an affordable impulse buy, one in which Winter would make her moving pictures for the Menopause Movie Network. It was a start.
What captivated Winter the most about this theater was not only its massive size, but the generous square footage below it. During the initial changes to the theater, she set plans to renovate the underground portion as well and serve as Winter’s personal laboratory when the time came. For now, her movies for Menopause kept her busy. The thought of the network made her ill, certain she would vomit up the scrambled eggs she ate at breakfast and match the canary yellow part of her color-block blouse. Or maybe it was the strange scent she smelled. Winter paused, holding her nose. She spun around on the hunt for the foul scent. “Smells like a creature of the sea…”
She walked and walked, until she stumbled into a camera guy, whose sandwich slid down her blouse when they peeled themselves away from one another. Her canary yellow blouse is stained with a streaky mix of the daily catch, mayo, onion, sweet relish, and chunks of hard-boiled eggs. The flop the bread made as it smacked the floor broke through her shocked stare. It took everything in Winter, not to scream; when their eyes meet, Winter’s face soured further.
“Oh my, I’m so sorry—I’m so, so sorry. Let me clean this up for you. I’ll get your assistant—”
The nervous camera guy runs away. Winter snaps her fingers, stopping him in his tracks. She held up a long finger, motioning him over.
“No need, she’s not here.” Her lip quivered. “We broke up this morning.”
“Miss Velia, my apologies—”
“Don’t talk about her, old news. Let’s talk about your camera angles instead. I’m not a fan of the technique you’ve been using, it’s dated and boring. We need to be more innovative for the next project. Give me that napkin.” She wiped her blouse off, then pulled it up to her face and licked the fabric clean, even the bright bits of yolk. “We should show their trauma by bringing them back to the places that caused them pain, see? So, when you shoot, make sure their arms stay crossed, and they keep a constant look of discontent; reliving tragic memories should not be a joyous experience.” The cameraman tossed the rest of his sandwich. He kept a firm pace alongside Winter’s brisk walk around the theater. “Film them from multiple angles. We need to be close enough to count nose hairs. Go to a home goods store. Get some stock photos of happy families and shatter the frames they came in, I want to line them along the mantle, to evoke that broken family feeling.”
Winter motioned for a refreshment. The crew presented a glass of bubbly blue liquid to her on a black platter. She drank it all in one gulp, watching actress Honey Sun read lines with the Boy Next Door, and elite Actor Ethan Dust, Winter’s favorite.
“Honey, please come here, we need to have a word.” Winter said.
Ethan grinned, “Uh oh,” he whispered. Honey rolled two unconcerned, wide brown eyes.
“Honey Sun, you’re very pleased today. Was there a funny joke I missed?”
“We were talking about the Abigail Sweet news, about the King’s advisor, it’s juicy.”
“Allegations… against Arthur Mandegar?”
Winter gasps, bracing the chair arms in shock. “I didn’t read this news in my gossip report this morning. Why wasn’t I informed?” She wished Honey had told her a funny joke instead.
“It just came out. There’s some crazy stuff she blames him for, there’s talk of strange photos and a cult. He always looked like a dirty snake, now he matches the one in his pants. A full interview with Abigail will be on Emprise tonight.”
Winter sat back in her chair, the same feeling of not feeling whatever ‘it’ was, reemerged.
“Go see the hair unit and tell them to give you bangs.”
“… But Miss Velia, I just grew my hair back out. Last time I had bangs everyone joked I looked like a mop with a mouth.”
“Good. You can clean up your act and your foul thoughts about my dear friend Arthur Mandegar, youngest advisor to our King.”
“You will. Do I need to escort you?”
Last time Winter escorted someone somewhere, they never returned. Honey must have remembered. She didn’t say another word beyond a shake of head and forced a smile.
“Before you go, a little advice; your dialogue in the last act is very wordy and some of our audience may think you’re too smart so you’ll have to upspeak. Oh — and don’t forget, wear the glasses with the clear circle frames. I’m getting mysterious-sexy-nerd vibes from you. Go see hair so my vision can come to fruition.”
Honey ran to the hair unit where a team stood in wait, each armed with scissors.
“Hey you, come here. Nah, not you. Him.” Winter motioned to a young man in love with his phone. He looked up, surprised.
“You’ll be the Anti This and That guy. Imagine sitting in your room all day, arms crossed, divorced parents; you wear all black, you never smile, you shit on others for the same things you do behind closed doors. Hmm, makeup please!” She waved her hand in the air. A crew member approached from behind. Without her assistant, Winter put everyone to work. “This is Anti This and That guy. I’m feeling Mission to Mars vibes so get some acne along his chin and right cheek. His hair needs to be darker, dye it black. Not the flat, boring black, I want that space mystery black hole kind of black. He needs to drip like a bad boy. And have someone bring me news about the Arthur Mandegar situation.” The hair unit met him with an encouraging pat on the back. “Say goodbye to that wispy blond hair.” Winter called. A flash of worry swept across his face. He shuffled off. “Okay, now where’s the hero, where’s my hero…” she clicked her hot pink tongue.
“I can be your hero, Miss Winter.” Ethan Dust remarked with intriguing confidence. He was the only one allowed to call his boss by her first name. He stood in the distance; a smile planted for miles across his handsome face. Winter huffed playfully; her olive-green cheeks turned a rosy hue like a pulsating red light.
“Ethan Dust, you’re too kind. You’re a Jorge Award-winning Actor. I couldn’t ask you to partake in such a lower than life role.” Winter said.
“We all know Ethan’s team paid someone off to win the Jorge.” The Boy Next Door interrupted. “Why is he even here? Ethan Dust is a—OW!”
The Boy crumbled to the floor, afflicted by an invisible assailant. He clutched his ankle, broken like a snapped toothpick. He howled in pain over Ethan’s stifled laughter.
“Winter? I heard a ruckus, are you rehearsing?” Mr. Velia’s voice boomed. The proprietor’s arrival took Winter by surprise when she caught his towering gaze. She left the stage to meet him. Mr. Velia reviewed the cast with intense interest, as if displayed for purchase.
“Hi Daddy.” She reemerged beside him and kissed his cheek. He wrinkled his nose at the larger, tuna-stain on her blouse and murmured greetings back. His eyes are locked on the cast. “We were rehearsing, I have a film for the Menopause Movie Network, it’s your average tale of mental anguish and youthful melodrama. It’s easy money, but it’s so boring. Plus, my cast is acting up, or maybe I’ve grown tired of them. Can you get me replacements, please?”
Mr. Velia’s black-gloved hands fell to his hips. One of his cap-toe walnut-colored oxfords tapped the floor. He’s dressed in a sharp suit and tie, a standard uniform she’d known him to wear all her life, never seen in anything else.
“Winter, you are nineteen now and should—” Mr. Velia eyed the Boy Next Door, who cried into a tissue as soft as he could while a doctor and nurse tended to his broken leg. Mr. Velia shushed them away and picked him up with his gloved hand; he’s held at his waist by Mr. Velia’s index finger and thumb. “Good grief! What happened to this one? He’s mangled!”
The Boy Next Door dangled in Mr. Velia’s delicate grasp. His body swayed in front of Winter’s large spectacles. She looked down at Ethan. He looked up at her. He shrugged, mouthing an apology.
“Mistakes were made, Ethan got offended.” Winter said.
Mr. Velia grumbled. “You cannot allow Mr. Dust to get away with his mind tricks in your Living Theater, he’s too dangerous if left unchecked.” With care, he set the Boy Next Door down onto the bed. “… And I will not give you any other Humans if you can’t care for these. His injuries are serious. You treat your cat much better than this lot.”
She sighed, exasperated. “With Ethan, if we made him—”
“I know your feelings for him, but we’ve spoken about this at length before. Mr. Dust’s kind differs from the average human, and one mustn’t play favorites, not when you’re the boss. Treat them with respect but don’t get too close, or they’ll take advantage of you, these are intelligent beings.”
“Daddy…” Winter whispered. She turned her back to the cast so they couldn’t hear. She looked at her father with pleading hands. “I like him a lot. Perhaps if we made him like us…?”
Mr. Velia stared hard at Ethan. “Assuming our gain of function efforts continue to progress maybe, maybe we could take another look at Mr. Dust. I’ll think about it, but I’m not making any guarantees, none!”
“Thank you, Daddy! If I were in your employ, I’d help your team reach those efforts at warp speed. You know how powerful my abilities are. Let me in Velia Inc.”
“I cannot have you on staff, not right now, at least. Enjoy the freedoms you have here to use your abilities for experimentation. Speaking of which, have you decided on a name yet for your new lab? I got word renovations will be finished in one more week. Good news, huh?”
“I was thinking of Winter’s Secret.” She felt confident about that name.
“Winter’s Secret…” Mr. Velia’s hand swept the air; Winter imagined all the things she could do in the laboratory, unrestrained and unseen. “I love it. Why don’t you join me for lunch? I gained a chef from our Earth discoveries; he’s known for some remarkable dishes I’ve been eager to try for days I think you’d enjoy.”
“Wonderful. I’d love a good meal. How did you meet this prestigious chef?”
“You know me, I just took him. He’s from… wait, what was the name?” He searched the vaulted ceiling for answers with puzzled eyes. “The place with the gentleman and chainsaw, like in that one ancient Earth movie you loved when you were three…”
“Ah, yes. He’s from there.” Mr. Velia leaned forward. “We sprinkled a little chaos around and gained the state. I snagged the chef for myself; he can make anything in existence.” He laughed, holding his stomach, pleased with his catch. “I almost felt bad when I claimed him. Lone Star was too easy. Their inhabitants thought the Golden and Empire States were the problem for so long. They all followed one another into a trap. It won’t take long until Velia Inc. catches them all.”
“Oh yeah, that reminds me, how’s the app going? Human Go?”
“Operation Quick Catch Them All is underway in another week. This should clear the remaining stragglers now that the war—uh, engagement with the Lone Star is nearing an end. It’s for the best that they’re here.”
Mr. Velia winked. A crew member handed Winter a fresh gossip report. Mr. Velia peeked over her shoulder; together they reviewed a summary of the advisor’s alleged offenses.
“Mm. Mm. Mm.” Mr. Velia raised one of his dark, caterpillar-like brows in Winter’s direction. “Advisor Mandegar is in quite a predicament. Miss Sweet will look to sue for damages, I’m sure. This won’t fare well for the King’s health either. It may be an interesting time to dip our claws into the Crown.”
“Yeah… Maybe. What did you have in mind?”
“Remember how old the King is? I heard he’s on his way out, if you know what I mean, with a very young, handsome, mysterious heir waiting to take the throne. I can’t think of a better Twister to serve our future King. Put these Living Theater toys aside, not forever, just for now, and fuck the Menopause Movie Network, everything you need to twist is already here. Once the Crown is in our debt, I’ll let you into Velia, you have my word.”
Winter paused. Working for her father’s company was the last item on her bucket list she desired to reach before the age of twenty-one, at the latest. She looked over at her crew. “You’re right. It’s time to put my toys away.”
She retrieved an orb of shifting blue, pink, and purple colors from her pants pocket and threw it onto the set. The cast was thrust into a pulsing light until dissolved, like a candle gently wafted to rest. Cast, crew, doctor, nurse, and Boy Next Door equipped with a blue cast around his leg, reappear as porcelain figurines, fragile, silent and still.
“The day the curtain closed on the Living Theater.” Mr. Velia whispered.
Certain she cleared most of the weight from her chest, Winter exhaled. “I’ll phone Arthur after lunch.”
“Good. I’ll meet you in five minutes. I have to make a quick call.” Mr. Velia smiled. “You know, the advisor would be a fool to turn your help down.” He hugged his daughter tight, careful not to mess up her wavy black purple-blue hair before walking off.
“A dead fool.” A familiar voice called from the distance.
Winter kneeled for a closer look at the set. Ethan stepped from behind the red curtains.
“Ready to infiltrate the Crown?” Winter asked.
She lowered her palm onto the stage, Ethan climbed into her hand. He stared at her with a smirk. He smirks a lot. Maybe too much, Winter thought.
“Of course, I’d do anything to be with you.”
“Hmm.” Winter remarked as she set Ethan back down. His emphasis on ‘you‘ made her squirm. “This is cheesy. I’m not feeling it anymore.” She said.
Winter threw her orb onto the set and turned away, unable to watch the light take Ethan Dust whole. When finished, Winter placed the porcelain people away on a display shelf, one by one. It wouldn’t be forever, but her chest lightened completely when she let them go.
She was feeling it.