For Patricia: Thank you for this great story starter. I hope you enjoy.
If the want to survive crossed my mind, I’d definitely be dead.
That was the trickiest part about being an escape artist. The want to survive made you panic, made you sloppy. I’ve spent years honing my skills. First escaping handcuffs, then shackles. That was kid stuff. It wasn’t long before I moved on to more death defying escapes such as submerging myself in water, my hands and feet locked together. Submersion tricks were always the most dangerous. The loss of concentration could mean too much exhalation, shortening my window for success. Through practice, I’ve schooled my mind to go blank concentrating on my heartbeat, creating an ebb and flow, a rhythm for my mind to focus on so that nothing existed, but the locks.
Tonight, however, was a different type of test. Tonight there was more at stake than my own life if I failed. This evening I walked into my dressing room filled with my costumes and gear. As my usual routine, I sat down at my dressing table, the mirror rimmed with lights and looked at the picture of my little sister. Blonde haired and big green eyes. It was difficult to see the resemblance except in our smile. We both had the same dimple that accentuated our crooked grin that leaned to the right. She was my biggest fan and I wanted to be amazing to make her proud. As I started to gather my hair in a bun, I noticed a letter left on the silver tray on the corner of the table. It was addressed to me in an elegant hand, and when I turned the letter over, it was sealed with red wax. Its surface marked with a crow encircled by a crown. It had a familiar smell that I couldn’t place. Curious, I opened it.
My Dear Eliza,
I’ve watched you from the crowd for many months. Each time more enthralled than the last. In you I see a kindred spirit, but held back by the bonds of those you hold dear. Tonight I endeavor to set you free so you may reach your fullest potential. Unfettered, your skills will surpass all others. Do not worry, all will become clear when you take the stage tonight.
I had received strange fan letters before, but there was something about this one that I found deeply unnerving. I read the letter over and over again in the hopes of discerning who this man might be, but no clue beyond the seal revealed itself and even that held no meaning for me. How did this note end up in my room? No one was allowed to come backstage and leave anything. Quickly, I walked over to my dressing room door, opened it, and called out to the first person I saw. “Susie,” I said loudly so she could hear me over the din. She was dressed in a sequined tutu stretching to prepare for her act. “Yes,” she said, annoyed at my interruption.
“Did you see someone go into my dressing room?” I asked.
“No, what’s happened?” she replied sounding rather disinterested.
“I don’t know, I…” I stopped short as I saw Leroy walk by. He was always backstage making sure the props were handled correctly. If anyone would’ve have seen something, it would be him. I scurried to catch up with him. “Leroy, did you see anyone go into my dressing room?”
“No miss,” he replied. “No one’s been back here.” My face fell, and he continued, “If you don’t mind my asking, are you okay?” I shrugged, feeling a knot form in the pit of my stomach that I couldn’t explain, so I went back into my room and shut the door, leaving Leroy with a dumbfounded look on his face.
I moved back over to the mirror and stared at my reflection, finding it difficult to center myself. “Get a hold of yourself, Eliza. This is nothing. Just a crazy fan.” Breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth, I forced my breathing to slow and my mind to calm. I heard a knock on my door then, “Five minutes, Eliza,” called Leroy. I gave myself one last steadying look in the mirror and made my way to the stage. I could hear the crowd murmuring, their excitement imbuing me with a kind of euphoria. Then I was announced and I took to the stage. I loved the feel of the stage lights shining down on me. They kept me warm like an embrace. I bowed as the audience clapped. Like normal, I approached the glass tank. It was a little taller than me, the glass walls sealed together with metal edges. It was water tight. I know because it was already filled with water. As I finished my circle, I stood still beside the tank, so that the audience could see that I’d be completely submerged once I jumped in. Maximillian, my stage assistant, led me up the wrought iron spiral staircase and when we emerged on the platform just above the open tank, he cuffed my wrists in front of my stomach and then chained them to my feet that were cuffed together as well. The metal of the shackles against my skin always felt like a familiar friend, but tonight the coldness of the metal felt constricting.
After pulling on my bindings to prove to the audience they were real, a large round faced clock was moved onto the stage. The timer would start as soon as I jumped in, and as the seconds ticked by, the audience would become more anxious. It always made the reveal more rewarding. A small curtain was drawn across the front of the tank to obscure the crowd from view. Being able to see them would be too distracting and I couldn’t afford that. I closed my eyes, breathed in, then exhaled until there was nothing left in my lungs, took a deep breath, then jumped. The cool water wrapped around helping me to block out thoughts of all else and I got to work. Just as I was about to release the cuffs around my wrists, I heard something. A banging that was unfamiliar. Against my better judgement, I opened my eyes and saw my sister shackled, trapped in a tank next to mine completely submerged in water. Her green eyes were large and pleading for help. I felt the panic rise, which forced a scream to escape my lips, but instead of noise, I lost precious air. I struggled against by bonds without success and the lack of oxygen began to sting, my body screaming out for me to take a breath. I made a conscious effort to ignore it knowing panic would kill us both. Giving my sister one last look that I hoped conveyed that I was coming for her, I closed my eyes and listened to the beat of my heart. Everything else faded away and finally the shackles sank to the bottom.
Realizing I was free, immediately I opened my eyes and kicked to the top of the tank and gasped for breath, the crowd cheering and clapping as I emerged, but taking a bow was the farthest thing from my mind. I jumped down from my tank and dashed over to the other in full view of the crowd. The top of it was sealed shut, blocking my access. It seemed to appear out of nowhere. My sister’s form was now floating, so I did the only thing I could think of. I ran and grabbed the ax that was close at hand, just in case my act ever took a dangerous turn, and swung it with all my might against my sister’s prison. The glass cracked and spidered, so I struck it again and again, when at last, it gave way releasing my sister in a rush of water that poured out across the stage. Quickly, I turned her over on her side banging on her back harder and harder, willing her to live with every slap until water spurted out of her mouth and she began to cough. I clutched her to my chest, tears streaming down my face in relief. The audience applauded thinking it was all part of the act. A little drama to spice things up. I ignored them and looked down at my sister who was now catching her breath. As I moved her hair out of her face, her perfume reached my nose and I paled, that was the scent on the letter. I started to feel dizzy at the knowledge and thought I might faint, when I saw an object next to her glinting in the stage lights amongst the broken glass and water. Somehow it had sobered me. It was a ring. I picked it up and examined it. It was gold and felt heavy in my hand. On it was a crow encircled by a crown. An involuntary chill crawled up my spine as the inscription came into focus, “Your Admirer.”