“So, this is what I’m working with.” Hans stated as he watched Cortez perform his act for the 40th time.
“He’s really good. His act makes the audience drop dead every time. I’ve worked with him for some months now.” Hannah commented as she took a smoke from her brother’s cigar and gave it back to him.
Hans took an intrusive sigh with an eye roll as Cortez’s act concluded. Scattered and unenthusiastic applause erupted in the cafe as Cortez stomped off the stage like a child.
“So? You think I found my niche in show business, boss man?” Cortez smiled, sweating with hope. Hans looked at his sister and then back at Cortez.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you were the next Robin Williams.” The janitor sweeping the back of the cafe chimed in. “The ad-libs you came up with it are hilarious.”
Cortez and Hannah smiled and chuckled as Hans stood there emotionless. After they finished giggling like children, they waited for his response.
“You’ve got business in something, I’ll tell you that. But let me remind you and my sister something…” Hans stepped forward so that he was inches away from Cortez’s face. “Do not make a mockery of my business or I’ll put you out of it. Capiche?” He waited for a sign of Cortez’s understanding. Vigorously, Cortez nodded. Hans then dug the burning part of his cigar into Cortez’s hand before walking off.
Cortez released a wince of pain as he examined his hand. The cigar created a circled burn mark right in the middle of his left palm although his right hand, resting at his side, could not stop twitching. Just before he could let out a sigh of defeat, Hannah grabbed his left hand, causing him to look at her, and gave him a comforting look.
“Hey. It’ll all be over soon. Gotta end with a big bang, right?” Hannah reassured Cortez with a smile. He answered back with a half-smile that was not sincere. She accepted that response and proceeded to walk away. Cortez continued to stare at his burnt left palm that Hannah was grasping only moments before. He could not shake the feeling that was brewing inside of him, but he knew he could only use that feeling for his act.
“Cortez is a corpse with no core.” He whispered. The sweat still remaining on his face fell right in the middle of his burn mark when there was a sudden boom. An explosion.
Hans had closed Berkeley Cafe early in order to get ready and prepare for his show tonight. The sun was shining, the sidewalk sparkled with cement, and his keys jingled on his key ring at his side in a rhythmic melody. Although he showed obvious doubt in Cortez’s act, Hans was pretty confident about the show tonight because of the other acts. And pretty confident in how much he is getting paid. It seemed as if nothing could break his stride. Until-
“Hey.” A woman’s voice projected behind Hans. He turned around in a confused yet charming way. “You do those shows at Berkeley Cafe right?”
“Who’s asking?” Hans questioned.
“I’m just here to warn you.”
“Warn me? What about?”
“The Cortez Act.”
Hans glared at her to see if she was joking.
“Cortez Mitchell’s act?” He said with a chuckle.
Her expression was deadpan.
“Okay, how much money do you want?”
“My husband and I went to a show where he was the final act and now my husband’s dead.”
“Ever heard of sheer coincidence?”
“My husband was healthy and perfectly fine before the show. Then Cortez did his act and then his finale. Next thing you know, my husband’s coughing up blood and dying in front of me.”
Hans stood there in silence.
“I’m telling you: Cortez is a demon. He whispered a phrase right before my husband died. He said…”
“He said what?”
“He said Co-”
The woman suddenly lost her voice. She made a quiet gurgling sound that Hans did not hear as she dashed off into anonymity. Hans was unsure whether or not to take the mysterious woman’s warning lightly. However, he did believe one thing the woman said: Cortez was something. Not a demon. But something.
The night had arrived and it was time for Hans’ show at the Berkeley Cafe. More and more people were trailing in and paying admission while those who paid already were socializing and congregating about. Backstage, the various acts that were lined up for the show were hustling and bustling trying to get their things together. Hans walked in and out of multiple dressing rooms checking in on his acts. He had a good feeling about this show mainly because of how much he was getting paid and how much he was “paying” his acts. Just as he passed one of the acts rushing to their dressing room, he spotted Hannah fiddling with Cortez’s equipment and props. Hannah was adding white powder onto his props, somehow blending it in with the black leathery base of his main one.
“Oh relax,” Hannah walked over to her brother and pats his shoulder, “it’s all for the show, bro bro.”
Hans peered over at his sister before she was completely out of sight and, despite his nauseous gut feeling, out of mind.
The audience was loving the show so far. Each unique act was a mix of parlor tricks and actual talent, yet the audience enjoyed it all. Hans was taking in the moment. The moment that, for once, his exploits would actually be beneficial on his part. He knew this would work. He knew that this would be the big break.
As the presenting act closed out and applause erupted, Hans made his way back on stage to present the final act: Cortez.
“And now, ladies and gents, to close us out for the night: Mr. Cortez!” Applause erupted again and obvious excitement was shown on everyone’s faces. Except Hans, who was a bit skeptical. Cortez’s smile infected the crowd, which made them cheer louder, as he hopped up the side stairs to the stage.
“Hey everyone! How y’all feeling tonight? We got a great show for you tonight! Hope you have some good laughs and don’t forget to pay me your tab!” Laughter echoed and bounced off the walls of the coffee shop.
Cortez started to perform his rehearsed act and the audience ate it up by responding with hearty laughter. He juggled while telling jokes, he did stand-up comedy, he did it all. The energy he brought during his act was nothing but positivity and he was able to lift anyone’s burdens. Making them feel light. Even Hans, still skeptical, cracked a smile after one of his bits.
Cortez was about to start his baton bit, but when he picked it up, it was the one Hans saw Hannah adding white powder to. Instantly, Cortez’s mood changed. His face mimicked the expression from the rehearsal after Hans burned him with his cigar. Unaware of the look on his face, the audience shimmied with excitement. Until they heard the clank of the baton hitting the floor. Everyone fell silent. Cortez stared at his released hand. Cold. Empty. Terrified. Almost as if he’s seen a ghost. Hans gave a murderous look. If he screws up my show, he’s done for, he thought. Suddenly, Cortez stood straight up and looked at the audience.
“I think now it’s time for the finale. Something I’d like to call...The Cortez Act.” Cortez presented himself again as the audience roared with applause. Hans’ eyes widened as the mysterious woman’s warning fluttered in his mind. He was surprised at how his heart and mind were contradicting each other: his heart was racing while his mind was quiet, yet both were trying to rationalize the situation. He hurriedly glanced over at his sister who seemed unfazed. She gives the people at the tech booth, which is really where the coffee is made, a head nod, queuing them to place a single spotlight on Cortez.
“I was young once. I once believed in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Boogieman, and many, if not all, the mythical legends. Bigfoot too, before he was Sasquatch. Or maybe that was what he always was. You know, I believe I found Bigfoot the most intriguing simply because of the fact he had enormous feet. I used to always wonder how he was able to walk or what if he tripped and caused literal world destruction,” Scattered laughter erupted. “And then I always wondered...what if Bigfoot wore shoes? He couldn’t. Because there is no shoe in existence for him. So he walks around barefoot.
I’ve been walking barefoot my whole life. My father leaving caused my big brother’s death. Or maybe my big brother dying caused my father to leave. Either way, I had shoes to fill. Big shoes. I take care of my mom and her frequent boyfriends. Even the ones that got a little curious and...tried to find themselves.” A shadow fell upon Cortez’s face. The audience murmured once again in confusion. Cortez took a closer step downstage and stared into the abyss behind the spotlight.
“I’ve been walking barefoot my whole life. Constantly trying to stay balanced on this tightrope when everything has and is still falling apart. I had big shoes to fill, but there was no shoe in existence that could fit me. Because it seemed as if every time I would walk, I would fall. Every time I tried to speak, I would squeak. And I tried to take a peek at the mountain peak but all that was there was frozen crystals of air. This is what you get for putting me into this affair.” Finishing that sentence, Cortez wiped out a pocket knife and began to slash his face. The audience objected and screamed in fear.
“Hannah? What the hell is he doing?!” Hans panicked, waiting for an answer. But all she answered back with was nothing. She stood there with her arms crossed and unnoticeably nodded her head. The audience’s fear was evident and their objections only grew louder.
“This is for all of you who didn't care. This is all you care for, right? AM I RIGHT?? YOU MADE ME THIS WAY! YOU DEALT ME CARDS I DIDN’T WANT TO PLAY WITH! HOW DO YOU FEEL NOW???” Cortez yelled and yelled until tears landed on the corners of his eyes. And yet another shadow fell across his face. “Maybe this will make you understand.”
Just then, the red curtain fell and what stood behind was the gallows. The audience gasped and grew even more restless with fear. Cortez looked at the audience with a look of vengeance as he ascended his way atop the gallows.
“Get him off the stage. Cortez! Cortez!!” Hans hollered to get his attention from afar. No luck. Cortez kept on rambling and slicing his face and body. Soon enough, he made it to where he is standing on the crossbeam. In front of the noose.
“DO YOU UNDERSTAND NOW? YOU MADE ME DO IT. YOU MADE ME DO IT!!” The walls that once bounced off laughter were now bouncing off screams of terror. Cortez placed the noose around his neck and waited for the crossbeam to drop. The audience’s screams got louder. Hans, who was frozen with oblivion and trying to figure out the situation, managed to move and started running towards the stage.
“YOU MADE ME DO IT. YOU MADE ME DO IT!!” Cortez got out his shout even with the tight noose around his neck.
“Cortez, no! CORTEZ!!” Hans barged through the horrified crowd.
“CORTEZ IS A CORPSE WITH NO CORE!!” Cortez hollered so loud his neck vein popped out and the sound of the crossbeam dropping erupted.
Thundering silence overwhelmed the coffee shop. Hans had made it on stage, reaching his arm to stop Cortez. Only to be stopped himself. Hans started making a loud, gurgling sound as blood escaped his lips. Caught by surprise, Hans stumbled backwards and tried to find something to hold on to. And yet, he was unsuccessful. He lost his focus and balance and fell on the stage. In the midst of this, he saw Cortez. Alive. Walking down from the gallows with that pungent shadow on his face. A death glare. Cortez watched as Hans gurgled and struggled for air.
“See, this? This is what truly creates monsters, Hans. You create monsters. Monsters that were once humans uncorrupted and innocent. Children. And what is the first thing you do when a child that has fallen astray lands in your hands? Exploit them. Manipulate them. Condescend them. Infantilize them. Place ideologies and beliefs in their heads and cage them into segregated boxes. And then get surprised when they want to kill themselves. Well, why shouldn’t you be the ones that are killed?” Cortez stated in a calm tone. His eyes then started to wander as he breathed in the silent coffee shop. Hans held onto the wooden floor as if it could be latched on to as he continued choking on his own blood.
“Oh, Hans, you’ve made quite a mess. ” Cortez’s eyes wandered back to Hans, “I got just the thing.”
As Cortez walked away, Hans tried to make sense of the silence around him. Trying to pinpoint on something solidary to ground him. However, how can one be grounded when on the ground? Just then, Cortez came back on stage, dragging a lifeless body behind him.
“Here, have him clean up your mess. Exploit him. Manipulate him. Condescend him. Infantilize him. Place ideologies and beliefs into his head and cage him into segregated boxes. And then get surprised when he wants to kill himself.” Cortez threw the body in front of Hans and the identity was revealed: it was the janitor. Even though he was limited to movement and expression, Hans’ eyes bulged out. Seeing the corpse caused him to cough and choke erratically, but when he used his strength to look up, Cortez was gone. Hans’ eyes searched everywhere for him, but it was useless. However, the spotlight abruptly cut off and Hans was able to look at the audience. The lifeless, bloody audience.
“I told you he makes the audience drop dead.” Hannah’s haunting voice echoed from the shadows. Hans was now even more determined to get up, but he had lost so much blood already to the point where that was nearly impossible.
“Like I said bro bro, it’s all for the show. This big show we all call life. We do what we can to survive, and sometimes the things we do kill a part of ourselves. Luckily, not much of me is left to kill. Thanks for that bro bro.
But unfortunate for you, the things you did to survive killed you entirely, so you turned around and decided to kill parts of other people. Ultimately, killing them entirely as well. Does that make you feel better about yourself, bro bro? Does that make you feel less lonely in this world. News flash, bro bro: we live alone and we die alone. But whether or not this is what you wanted, you got it.” Hannah’s tone sent chills all over Hans’ weak body, adding more fuel to his pointless goal of getting up. After a while, he was able to slightly move his head and when he did, he saw the shadows of Hannah and Cortez leaving the cafe. And he could not do anything about it. So he laid there in the pool of blood escaping his mouth. Until his body stopped moving. And the thundering silence boomed once again.
Hannah leaned against the brick wall outside in glee, counting the stack of money. She sniggered as Cortez walked next to her. He looked like a different person; he had a softer look on his face with a hint of solemn shyness. And exhaustion.
“Hey! You did great tonight! I knew you’d end it with a bang,” Hannah smiled and playfully poked him. Cortez released a half-laugh as Hannah went back to counting the money, “Just goes to show, at the end of the day, people get what they deserve.”
“Hey Hannah? Did any of this mean anything?” Cortez questioned.
“What? What do you mean?” Hannah was able to look away from the money.
“Did this mean anything to you? D-Did I mean anything to you?” Cortez’s voice quaked while invisible tears were shown at the corners of his eyes. The two stood in silence, and before long, Hannah’s laughter broke it.
“Listen, kid. You were never cut out for this. I only let you tag along because I felt sorry for you. We all have emotional baggage and we all got trauma, so it shouldn’t be that hard to find my next act. But you definitely got spunk and an energy a lot of people can get behind. But let me tell you this: don’t ever become weak. Don’t believe in feelings and caring about someone. It’ll bite you in the butt in the end. So cut out the middle man, ‘kay kid?” Hannah chuckled, patting Cortez on the shoulder before walking away.
“But,” His outburst caused Hannah to pause and look at him, “did you...care about me? ...Do I mean anything?”
Hannah gave him a look of concern before turning around and laughing once again. She kept laughing as she walked away, leaving Cortez all alone. Cortez hugged himself in the imaginary chill of the night, crying silently.
“Cortez is a corpse with no core.” He murmured to himself as he shuffled down the alley. Into obscurity.