By Mai Listokin & Emily Neuberger
An unassuming actress arrives at her audition, but nothing seems to be what it appears. From the peculiar office, to the even stranger auditioner, there lies something haunting lurking being the scene of one final audition.
Mai: I ran up the stairs, out of breath, praying I wouldn’t be too late. My wristwatch warned of the slipping minutes. I stumbled sweaty through the door, only to discover a man in a dark blue suit calmly poised in his armchair. Oddly, it reminded me of the leather armchair I used to read in at my childhood home.
Emily: “What makes you think that time does not apply here?”, he questioned with no visible frustration.
Mai: “I’m so sorry for being a bit late,” I said defensively. “The subway stalled underground, can I please still audition?”
Emily: “Yes, the M train these days can be quite unpredictable,” he responded, his even expression blankly unreadable.
Mai: I paused, slightly baffled at his specificity. “Is that the train you take?”
“Sometimes”, he vaguely declined to expand.
I looked around the office for the first time—the barren walls and empty desk betrayed nothing about the man before me, did I have the correct address?
Emily: “Please take a seat sir, some coffee before your audition?” The tall man excused himself and disappeared down a hall, and I realized he had not yet introduced himself.
Mai: I scanned the room for a name placard, business card, anything. However, adorning the far wall was a single painting, strikingly resembling my grandmother’s home by Lake Michigan. A solitary piano stood by the corner where I sat down on the small bench in front of it. I had not even removed my jacket when a startling piano note sliced through the silence. My skin tingled in slight panic as the high-pitched notes continued to fill the room. Surely this was some tasteless joke. “Hello?”
Emily: Suddenly the man reappeared from around the narrow white corridor. “Oh, did the piano startle you?” he gestured to the now-silent instrument. I nodded slightly and he simply stated, “It’s a collector’s item, a self-playing piano, last of its kind,” he boasted.
Mai: He offered me a coffee, but even the hot beverage didn’t assuage me. My hands were trembling, which wouldn’t help my audition. Had the temperature of the room dropped? Never mind, I reassured myself, the man had a knack for an eerie presentation.
Emily: “Now let’s hear your performance,” he motioned grandly to the small carpet in the center of the office.
Mai: My throat was dry in the cold room; praying my voice wouldn’t crack, and began the monologue that I’d memorized. “To be, or not to be, that is the question…” I swiftly used the appropriate intonations for each part while gesturing gracefully, but could not pick up any glimmer of praise or criticism in his statuesque face. Then, as I progressed into the climax of the monologue, the piano behind me began to play again. Only this time, I heard an enthusiastic round of applause. I cautiously regained my confidence momentarily, only to realize that my auditioner was watching me passively, arms crossed against his chest. The applause abruptly faded when I met his cold, electric blue eyes.
Emily: “Please continue Ms. Barnes, I should so love to hear the rest of your brilliant performance,” he encouraged. I resumed mid-line, but a terrifying thought immediately crept into my mind.
Mai: How in the world does he know my real name? Everyone knows me as Serena Holmes, my stage name. Clearly this man possessed a troubling amount of my personal information. Unnerved, I peered into the auditioner’s inanimate eyes, and it was as if I was staring into a mirror, reflecting my perplexed expression. I further realized that the man had not taken a single note, his notebook untouched, unlike any audition I have ever experienced. Did he not approve of my presentation? Did I confuse some lines? Either way, his bizarre silence did not provide a slice of explanation.
Upon barely finishing my monologue, I glanced at the man expectantly. He stood from his armchair and tossed the empty notebook on the desk.
Emily: “Well, I am greatly honored to have witnessed your last performance of Shakespeare, you are now successfully assigned to the Divine Literary Department.”
Mai: I stared back at him, my mind desperately trying to decode his strange statement, “my last performance”??? And what department was he talking about?
“Well, I certainly intend to continue with my Shakespearean pursuits, Sir, as I am too young to retire.”
Mai: But before I could elaborate, the man spoke,
Emily: “You will arrive at the department in a few days, but we are confident you will find it engaging.”
Mai: The situation was disturbing, to say the least. I started to question how I had even ended up in this unworldly audition, in this bare room at an address I could no longer recall. Furthermore, I had no distinctive memory of anything but my present moment. And what follows now? Was I planning to see friends? Shockingly, not a single name resurfaced. In fact—I could not even remember the production for which I had just auditioned. And just like that, I was ushered out into another nameless room, with a blue banner hanging overhead, reading…
Together: “Welcome to the afterlife. Please take a seat in the waiting room.”
We started writing a story by alternating lines back and forth—Emily would write one, Mai wrote the next. It was a fun exercise to find out where the story would go! Then, inspired by the two voices, the auditory notes in the story, we decided a podcast would be the best way of putting it together. “Stairway to Heaven” is just a fun Easter Egg!
Mai Listokin is a senior in high school, and always finds inspirational NYC minutes. She regularly writes poetry and short stories, and enjoys reading other writers’ works. An active person and environmentally conscientious individual, Mai documents her experiences through scuba diving, Riverside Park volunteering, and urban wildlife photography. Quarantine didn’t stop her creative process, as she paints, writes, and publishes her work in several online editorials, while industriously working on her college applications. She now eagerly awaits to begin her next chapter, where she plans to perfect her literary skills, and find her unique voice as a rising author.
Emily Neuberger is an MFA graduate of Brooklyn College’s fiction program, and previously worked as an editorial assistant at Viking Books. She has a music degree from NYU, where she studied musical theater and writing. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. A Tender Thing is her debut novel.