Mariposa woke with a start, catapulting up into a sitting position as uncontrollable shivers ran down her spine. Her nightgown was soaked through with sweat, her breathing coming in rapid pants and the shivering had only started to fade despite the heat of the room. Her mind was in the muddled half-consciousness of immediate waking and the fear was still fresh and strong in her memory. Slowly, she wrapped her arms around her knees and curled herself up, burying her face between her knees as she tried to calm down. It was just a dream, she told herself, nothing but a bad dream.
Truth be told it was not so easy to convince herself of that these days. The nightmare was a recurring one and it had been following her for months, hounding her sleep. But the dream that had just ended, sending her with a shock back into the waking world, had been far more real than any before it.
The setting was always the same. She was trapped in a cage suspended above a stage before an empty audience, unable to leave as a great terrible presence grew before her, a thing of darkness, skulls, and the hissing of a thousand serpents. Last night’s dream, however, had been remarkably vivid and decidedly strange. Usually no one ever showed up to rescue her, but last night two strangers had appeared in her dreams, a woman and a man from what she could see and they had actually battled the monster. Mari wasn’t sure what it meant, but it did make the fear ebb somewhat, enough to make her consider getting out of bed.
Slowly, Mariposa (Mari to her friends) pulled herself out of bed and struggled into the bathroom. She looked frightening enough in the mirror; her shoulder-length dark hair was a complete mess, radiating in all directions, the shadows under her eyes were deep, and she was worried that she was going to be developing a number of stress lines on her youthful tan face in no time if these nightmares persisted.
She didn’t understand where they were coming from or what had caused them. They had started almost as soon as she had entered Rome, apropos of nothing. She was Spanish by birth and had never had such strange nightmares in her homeland, or even when she had travelled through monster-ridden countries to make it as far as Rome.
It was more than just nightmares in the last few months. There were blanks in her memories now, long stretches where she couldn’t account for the time missing or where she’d been. She could be relaxing around the park around midday and, as if in the blink of an eye, she’d find herself in a strange part of the city with dusk fast approaching. The first few times it had happened she had written it off as stress and if Mari was one thing, it was definitely stressed.
Work could be hard to find these days in Rome. The population was exploding and there were times when people could struggle to find work they could do. Farmers, craftsmen, and tradesmen were in incredibly short supply, but few born in the modern era had the training to fill the need, and it left a great deal of overqualified but underskilled people out of work. There had been a surge in what people often called “brown collar” workers, who were once middle management salesmen, bureaucrats, or other duties that simply no longer existed and were now finding a much harder living tilling fields and sowing crops.
Mariposa was young and certainly not weak, but she didn’t have the back or the stomach for farm work. She had the twin blessings of a pretty face and a charming voice, but those could only get one so far in the new order. She worked part-time as a waitress and a store clerk, but both jobs ran her ragged and barely gave her enough money to make a decent living on. She had no family and few friends to support her and life was stressful enough.
She had tried seeing a doctor about her issues, but with the flood of people suffering severe mental and physical trauma from their travels to Rome, even Mari knew her issues seemed to pale in comparison to some. The waiting list for troubles like Mari’s was longer than her arm, and she doubted any help on that end would be coming soon.
Still, life was not without hope. Today was a big day for Mariposa, so she buried the remaining fear and stress as she went about pulling herself together. A long shower helped and a good half hour in front of the mirror helped her cover the ugly shadows and metamorphose into a girl at her finest. It was, after all, her first audition.
Mariposa was quite proud of her voice, so proud in fact that she had managed to schedule an audition with the local (and only) public broadcast network, Radio Roma.
“You can do this!” She said, staring into the mirror to psyche herself up. “You’re the best in Rome! The best in Italy! The best in the whole world! …ell…okay not the world, but definitely like…top five! Best in Italy though!” Taking a deep breath and one last check in the mirror, she hurried out of her apartment, her bag slung over her shoulder, and made her way out into the street.
The day was a sunny one, the summer warmth starting to flow in earnest into the city and Mariposa had worn a sleeveless light green dress and a broad-brimmed hat for just such a day, enjoying the feeling of the sun on her arms as she walked quickly through the bustling city streets. It was still relatively early in the morning, the sun only barely above the buildings, but Rome was already abuzz with activity, everyone working hard to begin their day.
Up ahead, the radio tower, one of the tallest objects in Rome, stood across the street from the main building of radio Roma. For months since her arrival, Mari had idolized the station and the people who worked there, particularly the hostess, Thalia, and now she had a chance to join them. She wasn’t about to fail!
Still, it was with a little trepidation that she stood before the glass double doors. Taking a deep breath, she stepped inside with all the confidence she could muster, pulling her hat off as she stepped inside and walking to the front desk, trying not to let her jitters show.
“Hello.” She said, more quietly than she would have liked, to the receptionist. “My name is Mariposa Huerta, I have an appointment for an audition.”
“Right.” The receptionist said, checking her schedule. “You’re early.”
Mariposa nodded. She’d been raised to always come early if she could.
“Well, your audition should be in fifteen minutes, feel free to take a seat in the meantime.”
“Thank you.” Mariposa nodded as she moved to one of the seats provided for her. The radio was playing in the corner and could be heard throughout the room. Taking a seat close to it, Mariposa listened in to what was playing.
She recognized the voice instantly; it was one of the newer talents on the show. No one knew her actual name, but she sang under the stage name “Siren” and it was well-suited. Mariposa was proud of her voice but she had never heard singing as phenomenal as Siren’s. The sound of her voice alone could conjure up emotions from deep within her and more times than she was proud to admit Mari had found herself in tears as she listened to Siren’s song. As a singer, most of Siren’s selection involved lost love and recalling good times. There was an air of melancholy in almost everything she sang, but her voice had a timbre well-suited for sadness. On the air, Siren’s persona tended to be something of a flirt, a dangerous sort of woman that used her clever tongue and raw sex appeal to lure men in. Mariposa didn’t think her own voice was suited for either kind of role; certainly no one could beat Siren at her own game. Still, it was something for which she was grateful. The station wouldn’t be looking for redundancies in their casting after all.
Siren finished her set before settling back into her persona and speaking to the audience in the familiar sultry voice that had brought her fame in Rome.
“Mmm, now that’s a song that always brings back memories of the sea. I hope you enjoyed it half as much as I did, listeners. Never forget the people closest to you, ladies and gentlemen, go out and do something nice for your spouse tonight. And for all of you single listeners, well, I’ll always be here with a song for you.”
Mariposa could feel her stomach flutter. She could almost hear Siren’s tongue running over her lips. She had no idea what Siren even looked like, no one did, but everyone agreed that she was no doubt intensely attractive. It was a common joke that there were two kinds of people in Rome: those who wanted to get in bed with Siren, and liars. Mariposa had little doubt in her own heterosexuality but…well…making exception for Siren was a given.
The next fifteen minutes listening to Siren’s flirtatious voice passed in what seemed like a heartbeat before her name was called and she was ushered out of the lobby and into a small recording studio off to the side.
She walked in hesitantly, trying to ignore the butterflies in her stomach as she clasped her hands in front of her, trying not to play with her fingers too much as she made her way into the center of the booth.
“Morning!” A cheery voice over the speaker nearly made her jump as the lights came on in the operating booth on the other side of a thin layer of Plexiglas. A woman, looking not much older than Mari herself, sat in a wheeled chair, feet propped up on the desk with headphones hanging around her neck. “You’re our next audition?” She asked, a broad and comforting smile on her face.
“Umm…yes.” Mari nodded. “I’m Mariposa Huerta”
“Lovely name.” The woman smiled. “I’m Thalia, and I’ll be listening to your audition today.”
Mari felt her face burn red. THE Thalia would be listening to her audition? Not only the head of the station but its premiere voice personality? The pressure was now so great that the weight on her shoulders felt like a pile of bricks had been suddenly dropped on her.
Thalia, however, caught on to her nervousness and spoke with a reassuring voice.
“Don’t worry, I do most of the auditions. Just try not to stress too much. I heard the test recording you sent in. Good stuff, I just want to hear you at your best.”
“Right, of course.” Mari said, trying to control the gnawing terror inside her. Nightmares had nothing on this.
“Take a few deep breaths and start when you’re ready.” Thalia said. “After that I just have a few questions.”
The audition seemed to go by in the blink of an eye. Mariposa sang as best she could and to her surprise, she seemed to sound better than she ever had before. Thalia certainly seemed to take notice, sitting upright in her chair and listening closely to the headphones. Mari couldn’t read her expression and decided instead to focus on her singing. Whether it was her nerves or simply some confluence of circumstances, however, her singing was top notch by her own standards. When she finished her set, she was surprised that it was even her voice by the end of it.
After her song, Thalia went through a round of questions about her background and skills, clearly gauging not only if she would fit well on the station but her ability to speak with clarity and charm under pressure. Once more Mari outdid herself, never faltering or stuttering on an answer, as if there was a clear line from her intent to her actions as she spoke with poise.
“I think that’ll be it.” Thalia smiled, and Mariposa returned the expression as she lifted the headphones off of her ear. “You did a great job, Mariposa.”
“Just Mari is fine.” She said.
“Well, we’ll be in touch.” Thalia said promisingly. “Remember your way to the lobby?”
“Yes.” Mariposa nodded as she made her way to the door.
“That’s a nice tattoo by the way.” Thalia said offhandedly as she left.
“Hmm? Tattoo?” Mariposa turned back to look at her.
“Yes on your shoulder.”
“Oh that’s just a birthmark.” Mari smiled. On her shoulder was a large dark birthmark almost the precise shape of a butterfly. “It’s where I got my name actually.”
“I see, well, like I said we’ll be in touch.”
“Thank you again for the audition.” Mariposa smiled.
Even before she got to the lobby something seemed to shift. Her expression became vacant and she walked with renewed purpose through the building and out the door. She had planned to spend the afternoon at the park to wind down after the shock of nerves, but her feet took her away from the park and towards a part of the city she didn’t know. Her conscious mind was silenced, subsumed by some part of her she didn’t even realize existed and wouldn’t recognize as it led her on its way, and in the darkest shadows of her mind something laughed with the hissing voices of a thousand serpents.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=29&sl=825