Chapter 4: Josh

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Josh

He couldn’t let it happen again.

When Anthony cut his hand at the theater two years before, Josh had tried to do what any decent human being would do and help him dress the wound. Then, as now, the sight of blood sent him swooning despite his best intentions, his mind grasping a solution while his body stayed behind. At least with Anthony, the injury hadn’t been life threatening.

The man behind him was almost weeping, incoherent with panic. With Sophia on duty, though, and the spell finished, Josh picked himself up and ran through the gallery of hanging mannequins. The restroom would have paper towels, at least.

The quiet behind the closed ladies room door was a relief he didn’t expect to need, and one he couldn’t enjoy.

The paper towel dispenser swung open with the push of a latch and he grabbed the bulk of them, then yanked down the first aid case hanging on the other side of the sinks.

In the dark distance, Sophia murmured reassuringly. Before passing into the unlit area, Josh stopped at the wall where he’d found the flashlight and took another from the recharging dock. With a deep breath, he soldiered on.

“He’s in shock,” Sophia whispered when he approached.

Josh put down the supplies and shrugged his jacket off.

Sophia bunched the paper towels onto a bloody spot. “Hold this tight, okay?”

Josh covered the bare, bloody torso with his coat. The man kept his eyes closed, shivering as his hair clung to his sweaty forehead. He couldn’t have been more than thirty, but his delicate features made the guesstimate rough.

After a moment, Sophia peeled the jacket from the man’s shoulder, where he was holding pressure. The paper was pristine.

“Let me see?” She coaxed his hand away.

None of the blood budged. She touched the skin, which caused Josh to quickly look away. 

“It’s dry,” she said. “The bleeding stopped, but it looks fresh. I don’t understand.”

While Josh kept his focus on the darkness ahead, he heard paper rubbing against skin.

Sophia’s voice was low, calculated. “I don’t — Does this hurt?”

The man took a few ragged breaths and said, “No. I don’t think it’s really registered.”

“It’s coming off like it’s —” Sophia peeled the blood off in a stretchy blob.

“Fake?” the man breathed. “But I don’t— I remember getting hit!”

Josh shot to his feet. Shock flipped to anger and he threw the flashlight. It hit the wall and continued shining, throwing shadows around the room.

“Erica!” he shouted. After a few blind steps, he collided with a pedestal, with a mannequin in something swishy and he shoved it to the floor. Instead of paying attention to the startled cries of the other two in the room, Josh stormed through the exhibit of hanging costumes, through the sleek, black and white area where he’d woken on the floor. “Erica! What have you done?” he called. “Where have you taken me?”

The acoustics in the room ate his words, leaving nothing but disjointed music to wash back over him. No one answered. Nothing stirred. After taking a few more steps only to be met with more darkness on the other side of the gallery, he sank onto a bench by the wall and let his heart hammer.

A bottle of vodka lay at his feet. He took it and regarded a film of dust on the surface. It was empty, as Sophia reported.

“She’s pulling your pigtails,” Anthony had said, describing Erica’s brand of crazy back at the theater. No matter how little Josh understood Erica’s reasons behind writing phony ransom notes or spreading rumors, this was something else. Something sinister.

The exhibits were designed to unnerve. The music, the lighting, the disturbing art pieces. On dress forms and cubby holes and platforms stood articles of clothing too dangerous to wear: a crown of straight pins, corsets pulled to meet in the middle, a glittering chainmail of razor blades. However talented Erica was in her music, she didn’t have this in her heart.

Josh rubbed his face.

This wasn’t the time to berate himself for falling for an unhinged woman. He didn’t know if Sophia and the other man had anything to do with his imprisonment, but they were his only means of getting answers, if they weren’t already laughing. 

A beam of light crossed his lap. Sophia stood beside him holding a flashlight.

“You dropped this,” she said.

Josh forced a smile and took it from her, switched it off. “Thanks,” he said.

“Maybe you want to be alone,” she said. “But I feel safer around you than …” She didn’t finish the thought.

Josh made room for her on the bench. “Did he do something to you?”

She shook her head and sat.

“Just tell me one thing,” he said. “Did you have something to do with this? I remember you from the theater, and based on some other things —”

“Erica?”

“So you are.”

“No, you ran out screaming about her, so I figure she’s on your mind. Who is she?”

“You really don’t know?”

“No.”

“What about that guy out there? Did you find out —”

“Josh, I’m scared,” she said. “Look, I get it: you’re confused and upset, but I am too. And so is he. None of us knows what’s going on.”

“He’s not really hurt, though?”

“He believes he was. Like he really, really believes it.” She paused. “His name is Ajay, by the way. We got all the paint off him and there were scars — big ones — underneath. He says he didn’t have them before and was freaking out about them. Says they’re career-ending. The last thing he remembers was being hit by a car.”

“The one in the room?”

“He doesn’t know.” She paused and held her palms out. “It’s weird, though. Right after you and I met in the theater, I cut my hands on a broken glass. But it’s healed now like it never happened.”

He rubbed his thumb across her fingers. Not a mark.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Yeah, well. Nothing makes sense.”

The music snapped off, startling Josh and Sophia to attention.

Josh whispered, “Was that the speakers finally going out, or —?”

Ajay peered into the exhibit. “Thank God you turned that off,” he said. He was still topless, but clean, his black hair slicked back with water.

“That wasn’t us,” Sophia said.

He approached them as they stood.

“Is it off everywhere?” Josh asked.

The man backtracked a few steps to the gallery he came from. “It’s off here.”

“We know we’re not alone,” Josh said. “Someone’s coming for us.”

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