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February 14, 2051
In the crowded dressing room, Darren straightened the heavy velvet cape that hung over his shoulders. Overhead, the intercom crackled, “Five minutes to curtain, everybody. Five minutes to curtain.” Darren stood up and surveyed himself in the mirror. The poofy shirt and tight pants looked ridiculous. Ryan had said that Romeo and Juliet was a huge classic before the plague. Darren had a hard time imagining how theatergoers were able to take any play with such ridiculous outfits seriously. Even the cast had had a hard enough time being serious during rehearsal. But it was Valentine’s Day, and the theater company wanted to do something special for the romantic night, even if few people had the inclination or time to celebrate.
That was one thing Darren liked about this theater company. Since the plague a few years ago had wiped out so much of the population, people didn’t have much cause to be happy. This group of actors tried to take people’s minds off of their troubles for a few hours. Darren loved to be a part of making people’s day a little bit better.
Looking in the mirror, Darren lifted his hand absentmindedly to touch the thin scar on the side of his face. That was another thing he liked about this theater company; they didn’t ask too many questions. They assumed everyone had secrets in their past, and as long as no one’s secrets interfered with their acting, they could stay in the past. Darren slipped back into a memory of running and running, the menacing clanking of machinery constantly behind him.
Ryan knocked his shoulder, shaking him out of his daydream. “Ready, Mercutio?”
Darren grinned back, “Of course! But watch your rapier when you stab me! That thing’s sharp!” Grabbing his feathered hat and his sword, he followed Ryan up the stairs to the wings of the theater to begin the show.
“O calm, dishonourable, vile submission! A la stoccata carries it away. Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?” Onstage, Darren drew his sword, staring Ryan down as if he was his worst enemy. On the side, Jeremy, who was playing Romeo, flitted back and forth, ineffectually trying to stop them from fighting.
“What wouldst thou have of me?” Ryan inquired, grinning menacingly. Darren raised his sword, and turned toward the audience to deliver his next line. As he did so, he caught sight of a pair of dark blue eyes staring sharply at him from the third row. Darren stumbled. He knew those eyes. He looked wildly around for assistance, and saw Ryan’s face looking inquiringly back at him, wondering why he wasn’t saying his line. Darren racked his brain for what his line might be, but all he could think of was the cruel face attached to those eyes, and the earsplitting sound of a siren piercing the air. Jeremy, noticing something was wrong, decided to end this scene as quickly as possible. He jumped in front of Darren, arms outstretched.
“Draw, Benvolio; beat down their weapons. Gentlemen, for shame, forbear this outrage! Tybalt, -Mercutio,- the prince expressly hath forbidden bandying in Verona streets. Hold, Tybalt! good Mercutio.-” On cue, Ryan drew his rapier, and lunged under Jeremy’s arm. He stabbed Darren a little harder than necessary, making him wince. The sharp pain in his side brought Darren back to the present. Shaking his head to clear it, he fell back dramatically to deliver his final curse on the houses of Montague and Capulet before slumping to the floor and dying. He breathed a sigh of relief as he was hauled offstage.
At the end of the scene, Ryan ran off to find Darren sitting with his head between his knees, taking deep breaths and trying not to hyperventilate. He sat down next to him, worried and slightly annoyed that Darren had messed up the scene so badly. “Dude, what’s wrong?” He asked, “You just froze out there!”
Darren looked up, his face as white as a sheet, “It’s over. I’m done for.”
Ryan looked concerned, “What are you talking about? What aren’t you telling me?”
Darren shook his head, “There’s too much to tell. I need to go.” He started to stand.
Ryan grabbed his shoulder, “Woah, hey. You can’t go anywhere, we’re in the middle of the show!” Darren showed no sign of caring. Ryan sighed, “Look, after this scene, it’s intermission. Let’s make it to there, then you tell me everything. I’ll help you out.” Darren nodded glumly. Once he was certain his friend wasn’t going to disappear on him, Ryan turned back to the show.
As soon as the house lights came up for intermission, Darren grabbed Ryan, and pulled him into the quickchange room just offstage where no one would overhear. He sat down on an empty chair, and tried to gather his thoughts as Ryan waited for him to start talking. Finally, he looked up, and started.
“Three years ago, when the plague was still super serious, my parents caught it. This was before the cure was given to everybody, and only the rich could afford it. I tried everything to get the doctors to help my parents, but they wouldn’t because we didn’t have enough money. I was desperate, so I snuck into Emory University Hospital, where the cure was developed, and I stole some for my parents. I got it to them just in time, and they recovered.” Darren paused, “I’m not a thief, so I had no idea how to carry something off like this. I left fingerprints everywhere. It only took two days for the police to find me. Stealing such a valuable resource is considered an unpardonable crime. I wasn’t even given a trial. I was sent straight to the Atlanta State Prison.”
At this, Ryan blanched visibly. The Atlanta State Prison was known for its cruelty and inhumane practices. When the plague started, crime had skyrocketed. All of the prisons were full to overflowing. The economy was sinking with so many people sick and unable to work, and funding for prisons was not a high priority. Thousands of criminals were crammed into cramped living conditions with little food. Disease ran rampant through the prisons. Atlanta State Prison was even worse off than most. The Chief of Security himself died from a disease he caught while visiting the prison. Then a new man, Cornelius Greene was appointed Chief of Security. He started a newer, stricter regime. Under his direction, prisoners were forced to do hard labor, and were given less food. The medical staff was reduced to two beleaguered nurses. Only the roughest guards were hired. Hundreds of prisoners died in Atlanta State. When Greene had started his reform, everyone who could have done something to stop him was too preoccupied with the plague. By the time anyone noticed what he was doing, the prison had been running that way for so long that it was simply considered the norm.
“And they sent you there?” Ryan asked in a hushed voice.
Darren nodded, “I was there for two years. For some reason, Cornelius Greene hated me even more than he hated most of the other inmates. I almost died several times because of his cruelty. I had to get out. After months of planning, two other inmates and I attempted to escape. We slipped out through a hole in the fence.” He pointed to the scar on his face, “I cut my face on the jagged edge of the hole, that’s how I got this. Once out, we split up. I swapped my prison jumpsuit for some clothes I found on a clothesline, and I had just enough money to hire a taxi to take me to the next state. I’ve been on the run ever since. Cornelius Greene has been trying to find me for the last year. I thought that he’d finally given up, but I just saw him out in the audience. He’s found me. It’s over.”
As soon as Darren had finished his story, they heard the tapping of shoes approaching the quickchange room. Darren stiffened, looking petrified. The door swung open, and they breathed a sigh of relief. It was Jeremy.
“Darren! There you are!” he exclaimed, “There’s a man outside looking for you! He has the police with him.”
Darren shot upright, “Where is he?”
“Just downstairs, waiting in the greenroom.”
Ryan turned to him, “You run up to the catwalks, and I’ll try to convince him that you’re not here.” Darren nodded, and hurried to the spiral staircase that led up into the catwalks.
High above the stage, Darren crouched in the shadows, listening desperately for any clue that Ryan had convinced Greene that Darren had gone. Raised voices wafted up through the curtains and backdrops hanging below the catwalks. Darren tensed as the voices reached an apex, then abruptly stopped. Then, faintly but unmistakably, there came the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs. Darren stood, getting ready to bolt. He glanced toward the stairway, and saw the tall thin silhouette of a man reach the top step. That was all he needed. He turned and raced down the nearest catwalk, looking for another staircase or way down. There was nothing. After several twists and turns, he reached a door. Praying that it would lead back down, he pulled it open and sighed. Behind the door, a staircase led up onto the roof. He looked behind him. He couldn’t see anything, but he felt the catwalk swaying slightly as Greene got closer. There was nothing for it. With one last backward glance, he turned and ran up the stairs, bursting through the door at the top and out into the night air, swinging the door shut behind him. The rooftop was flat and open. Only a few stars were visible in the cloudy sky. Darren picked one and made a desperate wish that he would make it off this roof.
Hurriedly, he ran to the edge of the building, looking for a way down. Then, from the other side of the roof, he heard the door swing open. Turning around, he saw Cornelius Greene climb up onto the roof with a look of triumph.
“That was quite a chase. You put up a good fight,” Greene grinned, never taking his eyes off of Darren, “But no one can run forever. Now you’ll get what’s coming to you.”
Darren looked around, desperately stalling, “Why do you care so much that you had to track me down yourself?”
Greene looked stern, “Because you are a danger to the public!”
“All I did was steal some medicine so my parents could be cured! Why do you hate me so much?”
Greene’s grin disappeared completely. An almost manic look filled his eyes, “Because you broke the rules, your parents lived. That’s not how it’s supposed to work! Lots of people obeyed the law, and died because of it, and your parents lived because you broke the law. My sister- “ He broke off, then restarted, “My sister was admitted to the hospital the same day as your parents. The doctors said that there wasn’t enough medicine, that it was too expensive. There was nothing they could do. They said there was nothing I could do either.”
Darren nodded, “They told me the same thing.”
“But it didn’t stop you! There was nothing you could do, but you went and did something anyway! And your parents lived, while I watched my sister die. So when you got caught, I knew that this was your punishment. And I was determined to make it every bit as horrible as you deserved.”
Darren shook his head, “I’m sorry your sister died, but that had nothing to do with my parents. Just let me go!”
Greene started walking forward, “No, you broke the law, so you get your reward.” He reached out to grab Darren, then stiffened and crumpled. Darren looked up, confused. Behind Greene was Ryan. He had hit Greene over the head with the hilt of his fake sword. Now he looked worried.
“Hurry, you have to leave now!”
Darren nodded. He ran back down to the dressing room, stripped of his ridiculous costume, and threw on his street clothes. Ryan was waiting at the stage door. As Darren reached him, he pressed some money into his hand. “Get a taxi, and pay the driver to take you as far as possible. Good luck!”
Darren grasped his hand in thanks, and ran out into the lights of the city.