She goes out of her way to go to the high-end cinema, the one expensive enough to be slick and dark and quiet. Early on a weekday, it also almost empty. The digital board displaying movie titles and screening times hangs unexamined. Skeleton staff members flit around corners like shadows. There is no one behind the concessions counter or at the entrance to the theaters, but, properly, she purchases a ticket at one of the self-service kiosks. Her fingers skip over the touchscreen to tap a movie title and time. When the screen offers her a choice of reserved seats, only one is already claimed, so she presses her finger to her favorite seat in the center of the upper tier. She swipes her credit card and the kiosk slides out her ticket. She slips into the hallway that leads to the theaters without encountering anyone else, paid back for the extra distance and cost with the relieving absence of human friction.
She thinks her designated theater today is one of the smaller ones to the left, but it’s difficult for her to retain a sense of size or direction once inside the cinema. Everything here exists in perpetual twilight, soft and indistinct. Fuzzy walls absorb sound. Corridors curve and branch at whim. The theaters themselves hide in discreet pockets and from the outside, they show no hint of their scale. How they manage to all fit within the same building is such a puzzle that she imagines they might not exist at all until someone arrives to give them form and purpose, assembling themselves from potential energy as needed, building a gateway from their own liminal space when requested.
She relies on signs to guide her to the door marked with the same number as her ticket. The digital strip above the door that typically displays the movie title today gives her no title and no assurance about what’s inside. The door swings heavy under her hand. Beyond the door, the hallway into the theater is missing its leading lights. She pads her way forward in the darkness. Where the end of the hallway collapses into complete blackness, she stumbles through and pops out in the theater.
The theater is also curiously dark. Even though the movie doesn’t begin for another fifteen minutes, the lights are set for film projection, not audience seating. She fumbles her cell phone out of her pocket and shines it at the letters that label the tiered rows and then at the numbers on each seat in her row. As the only one in the theater, she could sit anywhere, but she wants to sit in the seat she chose. She settles into it without removing her coat.
This cinema doesn’t run commercials before films, so the screen stares blankly, an unopened portal. She stays tethered to her phone’s illumination, feeling just beyond her immediate sphere the pressure of the unusual darkness, punctuated at her periphery by the red running lights along the stairs. The silence is as thick as the dark, both palpable enough to conceal. She thumbs thoughtlessly through social media until she remembers the single claimed seat on the ticket kiosk screen and realizes there might be someone else in the theater with her.
The thought of being alone in the dark with one other stranger and one other stranger only is uneasily intimate, but not being able to see them at all transforms the sensation into more of a perilous vulnerability. She shoots a glance to her right, where the orange square on the display screen had indicated a taken seat. In the gloom, she can’t see much. She sees a shadow that could be someone slouched low in a seat. It doesn’t move. She leans back, letting the hood of her coat ride up around her ears.
Set into motion by an unseen hand, the curtains that mask the edges of the screen click and whir and the trailers begin. Preoccupied with the mystery of the taken seat, she uses the broken light from the trailers to get a better look at the far right. When the sort-of-a-shadow doesn’t move for several flashes, she eases into her seat and focuses on the beginning of the movie.
As the movie progresses, it blurs the boundaries of her consciousness. Her discomfort ebbs and her body fades. She is almost lost in another world when, from the corner of her eye, in a sudden slice of light from the screen, she sees the sort-of-a-shadow move.
Kicked back to reality, she turns her head fully towards the suspicious aisle seat. The movie takes place in darkness and provides her with little direct light to see by, but she stares hard. Nothing else moves. She slowly directs her eyes back to the screen and sinks deeper in her seat, hunching her shoulders so she can’t see anything above the rim of her coat on either side of her.
She hears a rustle, a murmur of movement against the rough cloth of the seats. She freezes.
On the screen, the heroine warily walks hushed hallways, everyone on edge for a revelation. In the theater, she hears a sound like a scrape against a plastic armrest. When another character in the movie bursts into the scene with a shout, she starts and gasps. A hissed breath slithers over the top of her head. The movie characters laugh at the false alarm. She doesn’t laugh. Then a hand takes hold of her wrist.
A little over an hour later, the movie’s credits finish scrolling. The projector closes its eye and the screen erases. Light comes up softly, stretching luxuriously after a rest, and settles itself among the seats in a mellow radiance. When a cinema employee pokes his head in to check for trash, the theater is empty, clean and silent, as if no one has been there at all.
Jen Myers is a writer and technologist in Chicago. She has a website at jenmyers.net and is on Twitter as @antiheroine. This is her first publication.