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The Substitute

     "The Pacific Broadcasting Corporation presents a quarter-hour of song with the lady whose technique of record pantomiming has made her a glittering new star in the television world. Here she is---Marla Towers."
     She heard a thunder of applause; the curtains swept apart, and she saw the huge, faceless audience before her. She stood alone on the stage, her head framed in a halo of copper hair. Her clinging sheath threw off tiny droplets of glitter as she breathed. A current of violins carried her into her theme song. She mimicked the record quite well, and she knew it.
     "Marla Towers," she thought, "you're on your way up; there's no stopping you now." As the song grew sad, she raised her hands in front of her in a supplicating manner, and threw her head back so that the audience could see the synchronized movements of her throat.
     When the song ended, she bowed slightly to accept the plaudits of the audience, and then the curtains closed with a rush. Starting to pull off her long gloves, she hurried toward her dressing room.
     "I believe you dropped this." The low voice came from behind her. She glanced down at the compact that was offered to her, and then her eyes were drawn to a face that possessed an unearthly handsomeness. "It's yours, isn't it?" She knew that she had never seen the compact before, but she was unable to reply. His eyes locked her will in a vise. "Isn't it!" She knew that she had never seen the compact before, but she nodded her head dumbly and closed her hand around the compact. He showed his teeth in a humorless smile, and he was gone. She felt dazed from the brief contact. She could remember only his eyes, which in the dim light had appeared almost violet. She was still staring at the compact when her director, a pudgy, balding man, rushed up to her.
     "Oh, Miss Towers, there's been a little accident backstage." His hands fanned the air. "Ted Jones---your partner in your duets?---he fell down a flight of stairs. He's not hurt badly, but we had to get a substitute for him tonight. New fellow's pretty handsome, too," he stopped, looking at her closely. "You're not ill, are you? You're white as a sheet."
     "I---I'm fine, just a bit dizzy." She bit at one of her fingernails as she walked into her dressing room. While she changed, an indistinct vision of the stranger?s face floated before her like a beautiful drawing on a sheet of milk. Absently she picked up the compact and pressed the catch. The two halves separated slightly, and a biting odor came from it. She flipped the lid back and dropped it to the floor. She recoiled from a huge, brown spider that had fallen out of the compact. It paused in the middle of the room, then scurried under the door. Her heart pounding, a sweat gathering on her body, she stepped to the door and flung it open. He stood there---his violet eyes fixed on hers.
     "I'm the replacement for Ted Jones. I guess you heard he had an---uhm---accident today." He paused and removed a piece of dirt from beneath his fingernail. "I'll be around when you sing your last song."
     She wanted to question him about the compact and its contents, but she could only ask, "Do you know what you are supposed to do?"
     He chuckled quietly. She thought he was going to throw back his head and howl with laughter. "I know exactly what I'm going to do." He snapped into seriousness. "I'll help you sing your last song."
     Something about his eyes made her breathless and trembling; she felt paralyzed. "You had better go onstage, don't you think?" he asked.
     Her body walked onstage, and her lips formed the words of the song, but her mind ran from a spider that had enlarged, that had changed into a man with violet eyes and thin red lips. When the record ended, she walked off the stage like a person in a trance. He was waiting for her in the wings. As she passed him, he bent toward her and whispered, "Remember, you next song is your last one, and you sing it to me." He grabbed her hand; his eyes glittered like jewels before her, and she saw that there were absolutely no images of herself in them: she felt as if she were staring at a horrible mannequin.
     She tore herself from his grasp and rushed into her dressing room, locking the door securely behind her. Her open mouth amplified her heart until the room pulsed with its sound. After an eternity of waiting, she heard him rattle the doorknob.
     A flurry of motion beneath the door caused her eyes to dart to the floor. A small, brown object appeared for only an instant, and then he stood inside the door, looking at her. She shrank back against the wall.
     He glided across the room and reached out for her. Gritting her teeth, she stiffened her hands and dug her fingernails into his cheeks. His flesh crumpled and fell like paper into her clutching hands. His velvet lips tore apart, revealing only a black pit. As he bent still closer, his violet eyes dissolved into strands of mist that reached out for her.
     "Sing," he hissed. "Sing your last song---for me." She struggled futilely against a silken net that was enveloping her. As she tore his beautiful mask into shreds, she uttered one last, agonized shriek.