[The harsh steel on steel creaking grates on our nerves. We look from our seats. Down below us a cage hangs at center stage. The young man entrapped in it sits on his haunches. Eyes distant, hair disheveled.]
[Quelchers surround the cage. Drool slipping from their mouths, spattering the floor. Hungry eyes gawk at him. Groping fingers outstretched, touching the steel bars, trying to get to him.]
[But he sits on the floor in the center of the cage, keeping them from reaching him from the bottom.]
[Someone gags behind us when they see what he is doing. A moment passes and there is vomiting. The smell pierces our senses and our collective eyes water. If not because of the odor, then because of the sight before us.]
[The man babbles words we can't understand. We think that is because every couple of minutes he raises his arm to his mouth and pulls off a piece of flesh. He chews it, swallows it, babbles and tears off more, repeating the process.]
[Several of the Quelchers lap at the blood splattered onto the floor and each other.]
The mind is a terrible thing to lose.
[Steps from the shadows. Patch over the dying eye. Other eye ablaze in intensity.]
Once lost, it can be so hard to find.
[Waves hand. Quelchers disperse, growling as they go.]
[Snaps fingers. Cage lowers.]
You haven't figured it out, have you?
[The man looks up. Blood drips from his chin; a piece of flesh dangles from his half open mouth. He cocks his head to one side.]
[Corn reaches in, a yellowed finger stretching toward him.]
[The man snaps out, his remaining teeth clattering together. One of them cracks, crumbles. He spits it out and across the cage.]
I think we'll leave you there a little longer.
[Turns. Snaps fingers. Cage ascends.]
[We are reminded of a roulette wheel without the tick-ticking of the pegs as it spends, as the spot light searches across the audience. It glances by sallow faces, distant eyes, before settling on a young woman. At one time, she may have been beautiful, but her features betray any attractiveness she may have had.]
[Her eyes do not blink with the glare of the light; her head does not move. There is little to suggest she is still among the living; her breathing is shallow and other than that we might think she was dead.]
[Corn stands at center stage. He says nothing. Only looks on, as do we. His wicked smile falters slightly, but not enough for those in the audience to tell. But, we saw it.]
[The lights die, the film rolls, the woman's head jerks up to the screen . . .]
She is a child, her hair golden, her cheeks pink. She is still innocent of the world's evils and charms. She lies in her bed, pink blanket pulled to her chest and tucked underneath her arms. Her eyes flutter, then open, exposing their brilliant blue.
Except for the night light in the corner, the room is dark. She sits up and lifts her pillow. There are two quarters lying there. A broad smile stretches her face as she stares at the shiny coins.
Her attention is drawn from the coins and toward her closet, slightly ajar. It had been closed a moment earlier. She stands, her heart crashing in her chest. She opens the closet and sees the small creature running through a hole. Reaching out she grabs hold of one of its legs and is pulled through the hole.
In the bright light of the new world she sees the creature running, its feet kicking up dust behind it. She follows.
It runs into a building, the door left open. As she enters she sees them—thousands, millions of heads on pedestals. She almost screams but cups her hands over her mouth. For a moment, she thinks to run away, to try to get back home. Looking closer at the heads, she sees they are fake, their mouths open and many of them missing teeth. Few of them have full sets and most of them are missing at least a tooth or two.
Sounds of giggling feel her ears and she follows it down the hall and into another room. There stands the creature, its body hairless, its skin light blue; small useless wings protrude from between its shoulder blades; long white hair flows down its back; a tail juts out just above the tailbone.
There are more heads in this room, each of these belonging to children. None of them have full sets of teeth, but their mouths are open just like the ones in the main room.
The creature turns, showing her . . . her own face sitting on a pedestal. The tooth she had placed on the pillow sits in the lower gum line just above two other teeth and beside another one.
He smiles and reaches for her . . .
You are strong
[For the first time since coming here, since being drawn to this spectacle of pain and death, we can smile.]
[The woman's features have changed, her hair blonde, cheeks rosy, eyes blue. Her clothes are no longer dark, her figure no longer wilting away like everyone else's]
[The chains around her wrists and ankles have been broken and lie upon the floor.]
[Scowls. Lone eye glaring.]
[Moments pass. His face softens. Sharp teeth protrude from smiling lips.]
You knew, didn't you?
[She nods at Corn's question.]
What does it mean?
[Her lips part and she speaks, her voice golden and loud in the silent theater.]
I am strong and confident. I meet things head on and don't shy away from them. I am careful with my choices and wise beyond my years.
I am everything you are not.
[Laughter. It echoes through the auditorium.]
Everything I am not? Very witty of you. You have passed. You have done what others could not. You may go.
[She stands. Every head in the theater cranes toward her. Corn does not move.]
[The double doors at the end of the center aisle opens, emitting light from an outside world we have not seen in a long while. Dust motes hang in the air, caught in the beams of light. We long to run toward it, to escape.]
[She leaves her seat and pushes by the zombie-like people around her. The Quelchers peek from their holes in the walls and wail as she walks through the exit.]
[The doors close with a loud clang and we are casts in the dark again.]
One is the loneliest number. Will anyone else find their way?
[He laughs. It echoes. We cringe.]