Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Price of Admittance

The door slams behind you, and when you turn sharply at the noise, you see that there is no door and never was.  

You find yourself in a tiny room with a few other nondescript people, all looking as quizzically as you are at two monitors on the walls.  On one monitor you see your former friends and allies, those who did not dare venture through with you into the Magic Theater.*  On the other is a play you've never seen before but have heard great things about.  An older balding man in a great suit pontificates alongside an elfin Condi Rice type.  There is no sound coming from the monitors, and you can't hear what anyone is saying, but you're pretty sure you can read the words "Trick or Treat" on the lips of those you left behind.  

A man in a not-as-good suit sorts tarot cards on a table in front of you, a table that barely fits in the diminutive back room.  Surrounding him are exactly enough chairs for the lot of you.  He beckons you to sit.  You do.  He plays.  He sorts.  Eventually, he speaks.

"You're wondering what you're doing here.  Good.  That was the intention."

He flips a card.  Judgement.

"Your friends have been led astray . . ."

Friends?  You don't remember ever having referred to any of them as "friends."

He flips a card.  The Fool.  

". . . by candy."

Candy.  Is that what this was all about?  You can't seem to remember what goes on outside this room, or how you got in here.^

The man eyes you skeptically as if reading your mind, then turns his attention to the monitor, observing your friends as they move about, ignorant of their role in this heightening drama.  From somewhere in the room, a potentially-Jeff-Award-winning sound slithers into the atmosphere.  

The dealer flips another card.  Death.  

"It's all right," he coos in response to your poorly-muffled expression of terror.  "They don't die.  They'll just never know what it is to be . . ."

He trails off, but the final word of the sentence is clear.  Here.  They will never know THIS.  They will never experience this . . . 

He flips a card, completing your thought.  The World. 

'Is this game rigged?' you wonder.

"Listen to me," says the card player with sudden seriousness.  "All of you."

You lean in.  He flips a card.  Temperance.  

"Tonight . . ."

The word hangs in the air as he flips The Hanged Man.

" . . . you have an opportunity.  You can waste it . . ."

He flips The Fool.  Again.

" . . . or you can seize it."

He flips Strength.  

'What does he mean?' you wonder.  Again, he reads your mind.

"What is the price of admittance?" he asks, selecting you from among the group, scrying the reflection in your retina.

There is a long pause.  Finally, you answer.  "I don't know."

The dealer waits.  You look side to side, but realize that your companions are gone.  You look to the monitors.  On one, the scene between the older man and the powerful woman is playing in slow motion.  On the other, the masses have multiplied.  There must be thousands of them, millions maybe, clammering about in a cacophonous silence.

"I don't know," you repeat.

The man flips another card, the last in his deck.  The Hermit.

"Then you will never know," he sighs.  "You will miss it.  For candy."

For candy?

He flips another card, the last in his deck.  The Moon.

"You have a rare opportunity," the dealer says, no longer paying you heed, but rather staring at a face-down card, the last in his deck.  "One that will happen but twice more, for there is no show on November 7."

November 7?  What does that have to do with it?

"And then there's Thanksgiving, and it will be all done."

He flips another card, the last in his deck.  The Turkey.

The Turkey?  You don't remember there being a Turkey in a --

"Don't be . . ." he says.

You look back at the card.  The Turkey is gone.  The card is The Fool.  

"For if you are . . . then we won't . . ."

The price of admittance.  You still can't figure it out.  The phrase means something, something extraordinary.  You can't shake the feeling that you are being presented with an incredible opportunity.  

Was it written on the sign above the door?  You close your eyes and picture it. 

"Tonight at the Magic Theater*: For Madmen Only!"

No.  The memory doesn't say anything about the price of admittance.  

You open your eyes.  The room is gone.  You're somewhere else.  But where?  You know this place, but you just can't . . .

Overwhelmed with existential horror, you open your mouth to scream; nothing comes out.  You cough.  You choke.  You reach your fist into your mouth, clawing with your pinkie at the back of your throat.  It catches something, something fragile and artificial.

You remove your fist.  Wrapped around your pinkie is a soggy slip of paper.  You look down to read it and can barely make out the text.  

Something bumps you.  You look up to meet the eyes of dozens of your former friends.  They're flowing into the room--the room!  You are in a room!  You know this room.  

. . .

You know this room.  

Your friends' mouths begin to open and close.  The "Tr" sounds are evident on their lips, but their voices have been stolen.  They hold out bags to you.  They're wearing costumes.  Emperors, Heirophants, Lovers.  

'No,' you want to say to them.  'No, that is not the only way to spend this evening.  This is not the only way to live!'  Your voice is lost in the enduring weight of their collective silence.  

You look back down at the paper in your hand.  The text, it's becoming clearer.  It's written in yellow.  Where have you seen yellow writing before?  

The bodies of your former friends thump intermittently against you as they amble aimlessly, following one another, following the crowd.  

The price of admittance.  What is the price of admittance?  

A sickening thought occurs to you.  What if this moment, this pinprick in time, is your final opportunity to act in accordance with your own true self, to break free from a tide of cultural zombies?  What if, should you fail in solving this riddle, you will never recognize a true individual impulse again, one that comes from your own inner self, one guided by your full being and not the opinions and habits of others?  Furthermore, what if there are others relying on you, poor, talented actors who need you in the audience tonight?

Desperate, you take one final look at the text.  

Yellow writing.  Code.  

Of course.

What is the price of admittance?  

4D#(3C  4B%5B3**

* Theatre?
^ If you want to remember how you got in here, scroll up, or click "Back" on your web browser.
** Scroll to the bottom of the article to learn the price of admittance, or crack the code.

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