The hourglass door, p.19
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       The Hourglass Door, p.19

           Lisa Mangum
 

  Dante raised an eyebrow. “Not until Act Two. I’ve got plenty of time.”

  “Not that much. Just go already!” I laughed as Dante sauntered away.

  Weeks of rehearsal kicked in and the play ran practically on autopilot. Scene flowed into scene and act flowed into act, seamlessly, effortlessly, beautifully. The lights flooding the stage felt dizzying, intoxicating. The energy rose with each scene that passed.

  And Dante . . .

  Dante commanded the stage whenever he stepped in front of the lights. I could feel the charge in the audience, the almost imperceptible snap of attention from the crowd as Dante delivered his lines. He had declined the use of a microphone, and after his opening performance I hadn’t argued his decision. His voice filled the stage, reaching to the edges of the auditorium. His Italian accent was audible but somehow never interfered with his lines. If anything, it was the last little detail that made us all believe that he was Benedick, courting the prickly Beatrice with his quick wit and pointed comments.

  And instead of overshadowing the other actors, his performance seemed to elevate everyone else. No one missed a cue, no one missed a mark, no one missed a line.

  Finally it was time for the masquerade scene at the end of the play. I could hear an audible gasp from the audience when the lights came up on Amanda’s meticulously sewn costumes. They glittered like jewels spun with gold, like butterflies’ wings fluttering on a summer’s breeze, like prisms split into rainbows. The actors danced and glided through the scene: Hero and Claudio, finally unmasked, proclaimed their love; Benedick and Beatrice were tamed at last by each other’s words.

  As with any good Shakespeare comedy, the script called for a kiss to end the play. As the scene marched toward the inevitable moment, I couldn’t help but smile at the memory of my first rehearsal when I’d been in charge. It had been the day of my disastrous first kiss, and the day I’d first met Dante.

  From my viewpoint in the wings, I could see Dante’s face clearly as the revelers were unmasked, as Benedick’s feelings were unfolded in a tattered note to Beatrice. Through the entire play, Dante had seemed so confident, so at ease, but now, at this moment of emotional vulnerability—at the crucial moment of the kiss—I saw the hesitation tighten his face, the fear frost the rims of his eyes. His fingers curled against his dark gloves.

  The tension in Dante’s voice was clear to me, though I hoped no one else heard the awkwardness of his delivery: “A miracle! Here’s our own hands against our hearts. Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take thee for pity.”

  As the audience laughed, Cassie swished her skirts flirtatiously. “I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption.” Cassie leaned in toward Dante, obviously anticipating the kiss written into the script.

  Dante’s gaze flicked past Cassie’s shoulder to meet my eyes directly. I felt a tingle speed down my spine, and time seemed suspended between us, a tenuous, trembling moment that bound the two of us with an unseen, unbreakable connection.

  I knew in that moment that I didn’t want to watch Dante kiss Cassie, even in a play. But I also knew Benedick had to kiss Beatrice—the play couldn’t end without their kiss—so I swallowed the “Don’t” that threatened to escape my lips, feeling it lodge in my throat, jagged and rough.

  Time skipped over my skin like a falling leaf. I saw every moment pass by with crystal clarity.

  Dante inhaled, uncurling his long fingers. He turned his head ever so slightly toward the audience, his lips curving upward in order to include the crowd in his plan. But it was a stage smile because I never saw it touch his frosted eyes. As his smile grew into a full-fledged grin, Dante reached up to grasp Beatrice’s feathered mask, which she had pushed up to her forehead.

  I couldn’t see Cassie’s face, but in the drawn-out moment of time, I saw her almost take a step back and knew she was trying to cover her confusion at Dante’s unscripted action.

  “Peace,” Dante said, lifting the mask and twisting it around Cassie’s head. “I will stop your mouth.” But he didn’t stop it with a kiss like he was supposed to. The scarf that had secured Cassie’s mask now covered her lips, effectively silencing her. She raised a hand, unsure whether to strip the scarf from her face or to slap Dante for his radical departure from the script. Dante caught her hand, bowed low, and pressed his lips to the cuff of her sleeve.

  The audience erupted with laughter, cheering and clapping.

  Don Pedro was the first to recover, stumbling over his last line, “How dost thou, Benedick, the married man?”

  As Dante finished his final speech, I felt time lose its strange elasticity and return to normal. My heart felt like I’d run a race.

  Dante held tight to Cassie’s hand and they danced along with the rest of the cast as the play came to a close. Even though I knew the steps were choreographed down to the inch, he managed to make them look natural, spontaneous. When Richard pulled the curtain closed, Sarah hit the final chords of the lively reel with her usual flair.

  Backstage, Cassie yanked her hand away from Dante’s grip and pulled the mask from her face. “Don’t you ever do that again!” she hissed, turning her back on him.

  The applause was deafening. Dave barely gave the cast time to assume their places for the curtain call before Richard pulled them open again. Impossibly, the applause seemed to increase in volume. One after another, the cast stepped forward to take their bows until only the two couples were left. Lily and Ethan smiled and waved to the crowd. Cassie curtseyed low, trailing her feathered mask from her hand. When Dante stepped forward to take his bow, the audience surged to its feet, cheering and whistling. The noise crashed over the stage like a wave.

  Dante didn’t seem to hear any of it. He bowed a second time and then, without a backward glance at the rest of the cast, walked offstage.

  Richard quickly yanked the curtains closed for the final time. The cast held their emotions in check for all of one second before they too erupted in clapping and cheering. It had been our best performance ever and everyone knew it. I pulled off my headset and joined in the celebration, laughing with relief.

  Dante closed his hand around my elbow.

  “You were incredible,” I said. “The audience loved you.”

  He never broke stride, and, ignoring the rest of the swarming cast, pulled me along with him through the stage doors.

  “Hey, Abby, great show!” Jason called from down the hallway where the audience was pouring out of the auditorium.

  “Thanks!” I waved.

  He and Natalie moved to intercept us, but Dante deftly sidestepped the crowd, maneuvering me toward the outside doors.

  Laughing, I called back over my shoulder, “Guess we’re going this way. We’ll talk at the party later, okay?” I stumbled a step or two in my dress as I tried to keep up with Dante’s long legs. “Slow down a little, would ya?”

  He did, but only until we had cleared the crowds in front of the school. Once we hit the parking lot, he quickened his step as though he couldn’t wait to leave the building and the crowds behind.

  “What’s your rush?” I panted, still breathless with adrenaline. “Don’t you want to bask in the adoration of your fans?”

  “No.”

  I noted the tightness of his mouth, the tension between his shoulders, and thought better of asking any more questions.

  When we reached my car, he flipped down my visor, catching my spare key in his fist. He held it out to me. “Drive.”

  I turned the key in the ignition. “A bunch of the cast is heading over to the Dungeon—”

  A shudder ran through Dante’s body. He wouldn’t look at me, turning instead to rest his forehead against the window. “Anywhere but there.”

  “Okay,” I murmured. My adrenaline high from the play drained away, replaced with a chill brittleness that filled the space between us.

  I drove aimlessly through the town, circling fami
liar streets, slowly making my way farther and farther away from the heart of the city. At one point I flipped on the CD player, eager for a little music to break the silence in the car, but Dante stopped it before the first notes sounded.

  Dante didn’t want to talk, either. He sat rigid in the passenger’s seat, his eyes locked straight ahead. In his hands he held his mask from the play. Amanda had gone all out for the leads, and Benedick’s mask was a shimmering silver-green marvel with gray goose feathers arching above the dark and empty eyes.

  I watched from the corner of my eye as he methodically stripped the feathers from the frame, then the gray fibers from the quills. When he started on the green metallic sequins rimming the bottom edge, I knew where I should take him.

  I flipped a U-turn at the next light and made a beeline for Phillips Park.

  We pulled into the deserted park and I turned off the car. We sat for a few minutes in the dark, listening to each other breathe.

  “I like to come here when I need to get away from it all,” I said, unbuckling my seat belt. “Sometimes I sit on the swings. Or go to the playground. Sometimes I just sit on the grass and look up at the stars.” My voice trailed off, and for the first time all night I didn’t mind the silence that filled the car.

  Dante looked down at the ruined mask in his hands, seemingly surprised at what he’d done without thinking. He closed his long fingers around the now-blank mask, crushing the edges in his hands. His own face was blank, drawn and pale in the shadows.

  I heard his breath catch as he murmured something in Italian. I thought it might have been “I’m sorry.” I leaned closer to hear his next words.

  “I’m not who you think I am, Abby,” he said in English.

  I almost smiled. It was the kind of melodramatic line people said in bad made-for-TV movies, but then I saw his eyes, bleak and distant, and I knew he was telling the truth.

  “I thought you were Dante Alexander, foreign-exchange student visiting from Italy.”

  He shook his head slowly, sadly. “Not exactly.”

  A touch of fear brushed through me. “Then who are you?”

  Chapter

  16

  Dante flung open the car door and stumbled outside into the night. Starlight bathed his body. Shadows layered his dark hair. His shoulders rounded under some unspeakable weight. His hands were bunched into tight fists at his side.

  I gathered up my heavy skirts and opened my door. Circling the car, I approached him slowly, cautiously, like he was some kind of wild animal.

  “Dante?”

  He leaned against the car, tipping his head back, his beautiful gray eyes closed against the brightly burning stars.

  “Tonight was a revelation, Abby,” he said, his voice ragged with strain. “Being onstage . . .” He shook his head and ran his hands through his hair. “Being onstage tonight was a revelation. It’s easy to be someone else. It’s easy to pretend. To say the lines someone has scripted for you. It’s harder to be yourself. It’s harder to speak from the heart. Harder to speak the truth.” He drew in a shuddering breath. “And the truth will be harder yet to hear. But I’m tired of pretending, Abby.”

  My heart broke at how jagged my name sounded in his mouth. “Dante—”

  He moved to me then, suddenly and without warning. His hands slid up my bare arms, curled around my shoulders, came to rest at the base of my neck. His body was close enough to mine that I could feel his heart beating swiftly in his chest. His eyes searched my face. “I’m tired of pretending to be someone else, Abby. I’m tired of no one knowing the truth.”

  The gentlest of pressure from his hands—and he tilted my face to his—

  “I’m tired of you not knowing the truth.”

  His lips came down on mine, soft as the starlight, hot as the sun.

  He tasted like cinnamon—both bitter and sweet. He trembled like a flickering candle flame in my arms, his skin hot and sweaty under my fingers. Warmth filled my blood, my heart, my mind. A wild rushing sounded in my ears, like wind in the trees, like water falling into foam, like a note quivering on the edge of sound. It was the kiss I had dreamed of. A kiss that opened inside me like a flower, blooming into sweet life. A kiss that carried inside it all the words and emotions that could never be voiced.

  Dante cradled my head in his hands and drifted kisses along my jaw, down my neck. “Abby,” he breathed into my skin, his hands unfastening the pins holding my hair in place. “I’ve been waiting to do this since the moment I first saw you.”

  “Why didn’t you?” I asked, my own voice unsteady. Valerie had been right; it was impossible to breathe in a corset. I felt his fingers combing through my curls as they tumbled free. I ran my hands along the smooth muscles of his back.

  “I didn’t want to hurt you,” he said.

  “Trust me,” I breathed out in a smile. “This doesn’t hurt.”

  Dante pulled back, his face serious, his gray eyes dark with some unnamed emotion. “That’s because I’m being very careful.” He slipped his hands from my hair and rested them on my shoulders. “I’m as dangerous as Zo in my own way. Maybe, to you, even more dangerous than to anyone else.”

  “What are you talking about? You’re nothing like Zo.”

  He brushed his thumb along the curve of my neck, across my collarbone, to the hollow of my throat. “Oh, no, Abby,” he murmured sadly. “I’m exactly like Zo.”

  Dante dropped his hands from my neck. He unbuttoned the cuffs of his sleeves and folded up the fabric with three sharp, precise motions. Then he stripped his gloves from his hands, letting them fall to the ground like empty husks.

  There on the backs of his wrists twined two heavy black chains branded on his skin. And on the inside of his wrists, two circles with arrows pointing at nothing and the letters: MDI. MMIX.

  Cold fear leached the heat from my body. I brushed a finger along one of the chains around his wrist. I narrowed my eyes. “What is this?” My voice sounded harsher than I intended it to. “When did you become such a big fan of Zo’s band? Was it before or after he stabbed you—?” The words stuck in my throat.

  “No, you don’t understand. I’ve had these a long time. . . . This was done to me long before . . .” Dante groaned and pulled his hands out of my grasp. “I’m not explaining this very well. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

  “Then explain it to me. Is this why you always wear those gloves? So people won’t see these marks?”

  He nodded.

  “So what do they mean?”

  Dante hesitated. “Do you remember what I told you that night at the dance? When you bandaged me up?”

  I nodded cautiously. How could I forget that night?

  Dante seemed to be waiting for me to say something.

  I didn’t want to say it. I didn’t want it to be true. It couldn’t be true. “You told me it was your birthday,” I hedged.

  “And?”

  Dante was right. Speaking the truth was hard. I found I couldn’t do it. I bit my lip and looked down.

  “And I said I was born in 1484. Five hundred and twenty-five years ago,” he said in a low voice. A ring of white-frost ice edged his gray eyes.

  “How . . . ?” I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”

  Dante unclasped his masquerade cloak from his throat and spread the gray-green cloth on a nearby patch of prickly winter grass. “Don’t tell Amanda,” he said with a crooked smile. “She’ll kill me.” He sank to his knees and gestured for me to join him.

  I didn’t know what to do. What was he talking about? Five hundred and twenty-five years old? It hadn’t been possible the first time he’d said it; it wasn’t any more possible now. Only this time I was sure I hadn’t misheard him.

  He looked up at me. “I promise I’m telling you the truth.”

  I bit my lip, then sat beside him, spreading my skirts over my knees. “I’m listening.”

  Dante chafed at the chains around his wrists. “I was born Dante di Alessandro Casella in the year 148
4 in a small village outside of Florence, Italy. I was the second, and youngest, child of Alessandro and Caterina. My older brother, Orlando, had gone to war. I had wanted to go with him. But I was too young. And I had different talents.”

  I remained quiet, uneasy but intrigued.

  “I was apprenticed to Leonardo da Vinci as one of his scribes and messengers.”

  My eyes opened wide. “The Leonardo da Vinci?”

  “Yes,” Dante said. “The famous da Vinci. He was famous even in my time. It was an incredible honor to work for him. Those were amazing days, living and working with the Master. Days I’ll never forget.”

  He fell silent, his eyes wistful and distant.

  “But . . . ?” I prompted. “In stories like this it seems like there’s always a ‘but.’”

  He smiled a little. “Indeed. But. But the job was incredibly difficult. Da Vinci always had a new invention, a new idea, a new way of looking at the world, and all of those new ideas had to be written down, copied out, documented, and annotated. It helped that I had a near-perfect memory and a near-perfect hand for writing and drawing. I think it was because of those two things that da Vinci shared with me the secret of his most terrible invention.”

  I leaned forward, twisting the hem of my dress in my hands.

  “A machine that could break through the barriers of time itself,” Dante said delicately, as though he feared the words would disappear before he had a chance to say them.

  I blinked. “You’re telling me Leonardo da Vinci invented . . . a time machine?”

  “He invented all sorts of things that you take for granted in this day—helicopters, tanks, calculators, musical instruments. Is a time machine so hard to believe?” Dante’s voice turned sharp in the darkness.

  “Well, yes. Because time travel isn’t possible.”

  His lips thinned into a hard-edged grimace. “Yes, Abby, I assure you that it is. It’s how I came here. It’s why I received these.” He held up his hands, revealing the chain brands around his wrists.

 

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