Eric Han was not, as a rule, terrified by people dressed in full tuxedos and top hats. Even if the stove pipe hat did have a pressure gauge attached to one side and the lid was half detached and leaking steam out of the top in a steady, ominous cloud. But when he was strapped down to a table and the guy in the tux had no face? Then his hindbrain decided it was time to start getting nervous.
Paradoxically it was when Eric realized he couldn’t scream, speak or even whisper that he started calming down. Weird things like this could only show up in dreams, right?
The faceless man stopped fiddling with the weird brass circlet it was holding and shifted its attention to Eric. “No, you’re not having a nightmare. And yes, I’m reading your mind. Please try to hold still.”
And the panic was back. Eric jerked hard at his restraints but he was in the typical cackling mad scientist rig – straps at the wrists, ankles, chest, waist, knees, ankles and head. And he still couldn’t scream, although there wasn’t a gag of any kind in play.
Holding still proved to be all Eric could do as the faceless man lowered the circlet it was holding over his head. There was a soft clicking noise, followed by a sound something like dragging a shovel over wet concrete that seemed to echo in Eric’s ears. The faceless man’s hat let off an extra large puff of steam and there was a louder snick. Then it turned away from Eric holding a strange bundle of black fur that was sticking up in every direction. Not until a drop of bright red blood fell from the hair did he realize he was looking at the top of his head.
“This is going to be a little uncomfortable,” faceless said, oblivious to Eric’s discomfort. “But rest assured, it’s all in your head.”
Whether it was the horrible pun or the sight of faceless picking up a weird, spiderlike contraption made of gears and wires, Eric finally hit his limit and woke up screaming.
Nightmares before auditions were something Eric was used to, although torture tables and faceless Abraham Lincoln wannabes were both new images in his dreams. As a rule he didn’t think of it as performance anxiety so much as an overactive subconscious trying to process possible outcomes. Which usually meant variations on being told “You didn’t get the part” in some weird and embarrassing way rather than cranium removal.
As an actor digging into how a person’s thoughts might express themselves was usually something Eric put a lot of thought into. But since his fever dreams often caused him to wake up late, like his encounter with the magnificent steampowered hat and it’s faceless wearer had, such things usually waited until later. There really wasn’t time for anything beyond a quick shower and breakfast before he had to bolt out the door and head for the L.
A theater keeps its own schedule and auditions were generally in the late morning or early afternoon, at least for professional roles, and that meant Eric didn’t have to fight the crowds of people heading into the office that morning. Instead he half jogged down mostly empty sidewalks, his breath barely visible in the brisk fall air, the sun shining brightly in the pale blue sky. The world was peaceful and idyllic and Eric was happy for the quiet after his stressful awakening. It wasn’t until he started ascending the steps to the train station that he noticed the change.
Not that Eric recognized it as such at first. Public transportation is a noisy business anywhere and the Chicago Transit Authority was no exception. There was nothing unusual at all about hearing people talking before you started up the steps to board the L. Eric was from a relatively small town, sure, but after two years in the Windy City he had learned to ignore noise on or around the train and, like most native Chi Town residents, he brought something to keep him busy while he rode the rails.
For this particular trip that meant the AEA’s latest round of casting call notices. It was true that he was on his way to audition for a show already – but The Cherry Orchard was a period piece set in Russia at the beginning of the century. For all that forward thinking directors and union reps insisted the theater was becoming more open and accepting of actors regardless of ethnicity it was hard for a man of Asian descent to find rolls in period pieces. Eric didn’t hold it against anyone, he understood the desire to produce a show that matched the author’s original vision, but breaking into professional theater was hard for anyone. The added layer of difficulty made the task all the more daunting.
Eric’s instinctive response was to do double, sometimes triple the legwork and put in five times the effort, instincts that came equally from the Chinese and Jewish sides of his family, but so far that hadn’t brought him much in the way of results. So he spent most of the time waiting for the train to arrive looking through audition listings and trying to ignore the constant murmur of other waiting people. The train would be quieter, or at least have more white noise to drown out specific conversations.
A few minutes later Eric climbed onto his train and grabbed a seat near the back of the car. The place was about half full, typical for that time of day, and Eric had been riding with CTA enough not to pay much attention to who was in the car with him anymore so he didn’t take note of any of them. At least, not until they started talking.
CTA was not really a friendly place. Some people traveled with friends, sure, but that wasn’t very common. Most people carried books, magazines or the newspaper with them. If reading wasn’t their thing then some would have a Walkman or Discman and maybe even sing quietly along. Every once in a blue moon Eric spotted a well dressed businessman talking on a bulky black cell phone but they tended to wrap up their calls quickly, since extensive parts of the rail line ran underground where they wouldn’t get a signal.
But as he glanced up from his listings Eric couldn’t see any of those things. Instead, for just a moment he thought he saw a gaggle of washed out, oddly dressed, faceless people standing in the aisle, sitting on the seats and, in one particularly unsettling case, standing with a grab bar running right through its chest. Eric blinked once and shook his head. The weird images vanished but he was sure he could still hear people murmuring in the background.
More than a little unsettled, Eric slowly looked slowly around the train car in hope of spotting the source of the murmuring but all he managed to get was a bunch of weird or hostile looks from people in the car who were probably wondering if he was going to start something. None of them looked like they had just been talking to anyone else, or even themselves. Eric gave himself another hard shake and got up, walked all the way to the back of the car and let himself out.
The vaguely heard whispers faded into the distance as he moved from one car to the next and the palpable feeling of people staring at him vanished entirely. The next car wasn’t any emptier than the last one but people deliberately ignored him as he stepped through. Half the time when someone moved from one car to the next it was because they were panhandling and had finished working the last car.
People weren’t paying Eric any attention but he couldn’t bring himself to ignore them. As he passed an older woman he caught slightly louder whispers and a strong feeling of loneliness.
Then he went past a man and woman, sitting as far from each other as their short bench would allow, looking in opposite directions. The air around them was filled with a whispering argument about rent, food choices and a dozen other past grievances. Eric hurried past.
Everyone he passed in the car seemed to be carrying on a whispered monologue of some sort and he was terrified of looking at them since he had no desire to be find more faceless figures slinking about. He kept his head low and hurried down to the end of the car were things were mercifully quite. There he grabbed an empty seat and hoped that they would get to his stop quick.
Eric had just started thinking about going back to his audition listings when a feminine voice to his left asked, “Rough morning?”