Jules forged ahead. “I want to own and operate my own movie theater—specifically the Golden Ratio Triplex.”
For a few seconds, she was facing a table full of blinking eyes, raised brows, and mouths on the verge of supportive smiles. But that all collapsed when the moment of comprehension arrived. Jules had braced herself for their reactions to her after-graduation plans. She had promised herself some kind of treat or reward no matter what response she got. A midnight showing of “The Planet from Another Space.” With a bucket of buttered popcorn first, chased by chocolate toffee crunch popcorn for dessert.
She felt a stab of sorrow in her gut.
Her older cousins’ voices grated as they shamed her for wasting the opportunity her parents had given her. It was bad enough that she got a film studies degree (they always left out her degree in international diplomacy), but at least she was going to be a professor. That would have been respectable. But now, she was going to throw it all away to work at the same theater she worked at in high school? Why couldn’t she have “higher” aspirations like her younger siblings? Her sister had just announced her intentions to be pre-law when she started school in the fall. Her brother was already a paid laboratory assistant at a major biotechnology company, with hopes to transition into a full-time position after graduation.
“Maybe I can help you with the legal paperwork,” her sister said. “It would be good practice.”
“What kind of snacks will you have?” her brother asked. “Do I get to make requests?”
Jules smiled at them and made a mental note to be a better bigger sister. She couldn’t remember the last time she had defended either of them.
But then she turned her gaze to her parents.
“Julissa, could you pass the rice?” her mom said.
Jules passed the rice, as her mom shifted the conversation away from goals and dreams.
At the end of dinner, her dad quietly asked her if she needed money.
And Jules regretted that she couldn’t reveal to her family, maybe just her siblings and parents, how important the theater really was, not just to her—which should have been enough—but to Earth.
The Golden Ratio Triplex started off as a single screen theater when it was first built in the early 1930s. It was called the Golden Ratio Picture House then. It had been kept in good condition by the owners, including the current owner, Newton W. Herra, whose father had owned the Golden Ratio before him.
Mr. Herra himself had interviewed and hired Jules, after she convinced her parents to let her have a summer job instead of going to summer school. She wanted to diversify her experience for her college applications, but she also had a fun motive. The theater played movies she’d never heard of before, a good number of them in her favorite genre, science fiction. After her junior year of high school, she moved up from cleaning the floors, to operating the concessions stand, to greeting and taking tickets. Mr. Herra even started teaching her and a few others how to work the projector.
After Jules started college, she came back to the theater to work for the summers. A few summers past, Mr. Herra sat her down, and revealed to her that he was looking for young people who might be interested in keeping the theater going after he retired, especially since he didn’t have any heirs of his own. He believed Jules had the qualities he was looking for in the next custodian of the theater, but before she made a final decision, she would have to know the theater’s true purpose and nature. And she would have to keep it secret.
“And it’s a doozy of a secret,” Mr. Herra had said. “Two secrets actually. By the time I tell you the first one, the one about the theater will seem like small potatoes.”
Mr. Herra had waited until Jules was old enough to sign a few contracts that she’d need to sign if she agreed, which she did. For a split second, she was afraid Mr. Herra would reveal he was part of a nefarious cult. Then when he started talking, she was afraid Mr. Herra might need some help. But he had more than words to offer.
“The theater is a nexus,” he had said, “a fixed point in space-time. Aliens—that is extraterrestrial beings—can use it to communicate with each other across the galaxy, and even beyond for an extra charge. I don’t know the full details of all that. We theater employees are not permitted to place galactic or intergalactic calls.”
He walked her to a door that had always remained locked. Jules had asked once what was beyond, and Mr. Herra had only placed his finger to his lips. Another employee had told her that was where he kept all the cash in a safe. It seemed reasonable enough, so she never asked again. She figured Mr. Herra would tell her when she took over the theater from him.
And so he did.
He showed her a whole sub-basement level, as lushly decorated as the top levels. Mirrors and paintings in frames brushed in gold. Vintage wallpaper in art deco patterns of overlapping scales. Private calling booths with chairs upholstered in wine-purple velvet. The extraterrestrial patrons entered through a hidden hallway and door that no one else who worked at the theater knew about, and that would be difficult to stumble upon by accident. (For safety reasons, there had to be at least two possible exits.) The patrons paid for the movies to keep the theater in business. Their tickets were a tad more expensive, to account for the price of the call.
“But over the years,” Mr. Herra said with a sigh, “new technology has made it so people can place those calls from their residences.” He patted the door of one of the booths. “Just like public phone booths. We’re quickly becoming obsolete.”
Jules hadn’t realized that she’d been gaping the whole time. She finally snapped out of it and gulped. “So…aliens are real?”
She had noticed a few quirky things about the theater from the moment she started working there, things that others had noticed too if they worked there long enough. Like the projector fixing itself, trash vanishing sometimes if they took too long to go clean it up.
Jules, and others, figured the theater was being haunted by at least one ghost, who seemed to be benevolent.
But those quirks all made sense if alien technology was involved, along with whatever properties that nexus had. Mr. Herra assured her that it was safe for humans to be around the nexus.
That was the year that Jules shifted her major to include film studies and international diplomacy (since there was no major in intergalactic diplomacy). She came back every summer to work at and learn more about the theater. She proposed a film festival that failed the first summer she tried it, but had some success in the following summers. She marveled at the alien theater-goers, even though they always had their human disguises on. Since Earth was a planet where the existence of extraterrestrial life was still contested—much less sentient extraterrestrial life—there were rules in place for aliens living on Earth. Hiding any non-human features and forms was one such rule.
Jules made friends with one of the regular alien patrons, who simply called himself “Max.”
The summer before her senior year, Mr. Herra entrusted Jules with the theater’s finances—being as how the safe really was in the sub-basement past all the calling booths. So Jules came to see for herself that the theater wasn’t doing well, just barely making enough profit to sustain itself. She saw that Mr. Herra kept getting calls and letters from one particular company that wanted to buy the theater from him. They were called E.G., Inc. Jules couldn’t find much information about them, except that they were a “global company dealing with acquisitions of valuable properties, real and invented.” She found pictures of smiling executives, and news briefs on some new acquisition, when she looked them up. But no one ever got back to her when she reached out to their public contacts for more information.
She mentioned it to Mr. Herra once, and he only teased her by asking if she had second thoughts about being a theater owner.
The day after telling her family about her dream of being a theater owner, Jules went to work her shift at the theater. She expected Mr. Herra would ask her how it went. So she’d been preparing her answer, something about still shaking off her own guilt and their disappointment.
But as soon as she walked in, Mr. Herra took her aside and asked her to meet him downstairs.
Jules glanced at the one person behind the concessions stand. “Audrey is still new,” she said. “Are you sure you want her to cover tickets and concessions? In case someone actually comes in.”
Mr. Herra waved her forward. He kept walking and didn’t respond. She wasn’t sure he’d heard what she said.
She knew better than to ask if he was alright. He obviously wasn’t.
“What’s going on?” she asked, as they descended to the calling booth level.
“I wanted to tell you in person,” Mr. Herra said, pacing and rubbing his hands together. “I’m really sorry, Julissa. I know you wanted to take over the theater from me. But I’ve decided to sell to the company.”
Jules tipped her head forward and raised her brows. “The company that you’ve been calling ‘Eternal Greed Incorporated’? That company?”
“I know. I know. I’m selling out. I’m terrible.”
“I didn’t say—”
“Just hear me out. I don’t want to. Okay? I don’t want. But I don’t have any other good choice. They’re offering more than enough for me to live on for the rest of my life. Without that, I’ll have nothing in a year, probably sooner.”
“We’ve known that day is coming,” Jules said, taking a seat and taking a breath. “That’s why I wrote up all those proposals on ways we could try saving the theater. Did you have a chance to take a look? I’ve already started calling some lawyers.”
Her proposals included a few additional film festivals during seasons when a lot of people were off school or work, an awareness campaign about the theater’s historical importance, and an attempt to get some legal advice about having the theater protected as a local landmark.
Jules noted that Mr. Herra’s hands were trembling. She immediately thought of the worst.
“How’s your health these days, Mister Herra?”
He stopped pacing and frowned. “What?” He waved a hand. “Fine.”
“It’s just that you look really worried, scared.”
“I am. I don’t know what else I could do at my age if I lost the theater. I really am sorry. I did look at your proposals. They’re really good ideas. But…I’m afraid it’s just too late.” He stopped pacing, placed one hand on his hip and rubbed his brow with the other. “I have to give them my answer by the end of the week.”
“Then give me until then.”
“To do what?”
Jules shrugged. “Maybe I have a rich uncle I don’t know about.”
“Oh, that’ll make your parents think better of the theater, I’m sure.”
“It couldn’t hurt to ask.”
Jules already knew that she didn’t have any rich uncles. But she’d had an idea that she didn’t want Mr. Herra to know about. She wanted him to be able to honestly deny knowing anything about her crimes.
She contacted Max, and asked if he would let her use his calling card to make some intergalactic calls.
“Is this a good idea?” Max asked her as they descended to the calling booth level. The level was empty, as it was most weekday afternoons.
Theater employees were not allowed to make galactic or intergalactic calls. Mr. Herra had never told Jules what the penalty would be if she did. She had already decided to lie if she got caught, and say that she stole Max’s calling card. At least she could save him from getting into trouble.
“There’s no way an ordinary little theater like the Ratio would be classified a local landmark in less than a week,” she said. “If people on Earth knew about aliens, maybe. But they don’t. So maybe I can find someone out there who understand the theater’s importance, and would be willing to help us save it.”
Max showed her how to search the vast directory.
Jules had spent months coming up with her other proposals. She spent about an hour, searching for and making calls to several agencies, societies, and even philanthropic individuals. She’d written herself a script. She had to leave a message for most calls. But she did manage to reach two people, and with Max’s help adjusting the translation settings, she had two brief but promising conversations.
“You are happy?” Max asked, when she was done.
“I’m hopeful.” She gripped his arms. Max was in his true form in the calling booth, but his true form was practically identical to the human form, including two arms. “Thanks for helping.”
She let go, and then he gripped her arms. “I don’t want to lose the Ratio either,” he said. “We have friend memories here. ”
Jules was wide awake. So when she realized that the two shadows lurking by the side of the house were not human, she knew it was not a nightmare. She had her phone in her hand. She’d been ready to call for help. But the eyes looking up at her were glowing and glinting yellow. They were tall, seven maybe eight feet, with ghoulish gray complexions, and long spindly hands. Their hazy draping clothes were gray too. One of them pointed up at her. She started trembling. She couldn’t move. She could only watch them. But then, one of them slipped away, around the corner.
Her limbs seemed to snap awake. Jules clambered down the stairs. She checked all the locks and all the windows. She saw the shadowy men passing across one window, then the next. She had never seen anything like them before, among all the aliens she’d met.
Maybe these weren’t aliens. Maybe these were from Earth. Phantoms. But definitely not benevolent.
She called Mr. Herra, but he didn’t answer, and when she tried to speak, even to whisper, she was too afraid. So she didn’t leave a message.
Jules went to the kitchen, and pulled a knife from the wooden block by the sink. It was supposed to be a kitchen tool. Any cuts it made in a living being should have been accidental. Holding the handle for the purpose of stabbing someone made her stomach churn.
She went back to the living room. She watched the shadows move across the windows. She hoped they couldn’t get past the locked doors.
And she hoped they couldn’t climb…
Jules snapped awake. The last thought she’d thought as she woke, should have been her first. If the phantoms could climb, they could get in through the windows. Her parents left their window cracked sometimes. So did her brother.
She found herself on the living room couch. She heard movement on the second floor. She rushed up the stairs.
Jules rushed to the theater. After finding her family safe and sound, and making an awkward explanation about why she was holding a knife, she had checked all around the house, inside and out. She admitted to her family that she thought she saw someone creeping around. That way they would be alert.
She barged into Mr. Herra’s office. He was having his coffee and going through his mail.
She dropped into the chair across from his, and told him all about the shadow figures. Mr. Herra checked his phone as she spoke, apologizing for missing her call.
“They weren’t human,” she said. “I’m sure of it. But what were they? Have you ever met aliens like that?”
Mr. Herra rubbed his chin. “Jules, you’re fired,” he said.
He held up his hand. “It’s for your own good. Those…men, for lack of a better word, are not aliens really. They’re, they’re called ‘intimidators.’ Look, they won’t hurt you, okay? Or your family. As long as you forget about the theater.”
“How do you know—wait…they came to you too, didn’t they? That day you were so scared. They threatened you?” She slid forward in her chair. “The company sent them, didn’t they?”
Mr. Herra forced a smile. “You must have been sloppy. It took them my whole life to find out about me. But you…not even a day?”
Jules huffed. “Why do they want the Ratio so badly? They’re sending goons after us now?”
“The good news is they are not allowed to hurt humans.”
“That doesn’t mean they won’t. I wasn’t allowed to use the calling booths, but I did. I just thought I would get fined or something.”
“Intimidation is not the penalty for using the call booth, Jules. I don’t think anyone would actually enforce any penalties for our public booths anymore. It was because of who you were calling and why. So you’ve got to stop trying to save the theater. It’s not worth ruining the rest of your life. The company can’t harm humans. They would be finished on Earth if they did. But they can use their influence to make your life miserable.”
Jules peered at Mr. Herra. “What did they find out about you?”
Mr. Herra sighed. “I would have told you. Once the Ratio was in your hands.”
Aliens residing on Earth were not allowed to own property or hold jobs unless it was in knowing partnership with a human-led organization or company. That included the theater, which had always been owned by a human.
Except that Mr. Herra was not human.
“Not fully,” he said. “I’m half human. My father. My mother was one of the patrons of the theater in its heyday. I was engaged to a human once.” He opened a drawer and pulled out a small frame with the picture of a grinning woman holding a pen and notepad. “Once we were married, I would have put the theater under her name as the majority owner. That was the plan, but then she disappeared. I suspected it was the company. We were both scared of them, but unlike her, I never dreamed of challenging them. She was a reporter. But after she disappeared, I made a fuss and tried to found out what happened to her. None of the investigations went anywhere. Then my parents passed. And the theater came into my hands. I’ve been living as a human since then. I had to if I wanted to hold on to the theater.”
Jules put her hand over Mr. Herra’s hand. “I’m…thank you for trusting me with the truth.”
He smiled. “I’m glad someone knows it. And I’m glad that someone is you.”
“Mister Herra. Is there any way you can sell me the theater before the end of the week? If I own it, if I’m the majority owner, then we would be operating legally, and the company would have to leave us alone. Without them breathing down our necks, we could revive the theater. We haven’t done bad with our recent promotions.”
Mr. Herra opened his mouth, but quickly shut it. He shook his head. “What have I done? I should have just let you enjoy all the intergalactic sci-fi movies you loved. And never revealed that they weren’t made on Earth.” He looked at her with sad smile.
“Why do they want the theater so badly?” Jules asked. “We don’t know. But it must be a very precious commodity.”
“Well, it seems as if they were patiently waiting for it to fail,” Mr. Herra said. “Then you came along. With all your successful ideas.”
Jules sat back and crossed her arms. “On the bright side, it’s nice that they believe in me.”
In a bittersweet turn of events, they had a busy day at the theater. And a profitable one. Jules had been so worried for so long, that she had not let herself give up any slack, even after she saw profits get better over the past month. After all, it was only a month. And it was summer. Other times of the year would be more of a struggle.
Before locking up for the night, Jules was doing a sweep of Theater 1, their largest screen, when she caught movement at the corner of her vision.
“We’re closing soon,” she called out. “Please make your way out.”
Maybe someone had lost a wallet and come back to search for it. She prepared herself to stay another ten or so minutes.
She was about to send a message to one of her coworkers, when she saw a gray shadow rising from a middle row. Glowing yellow eyes blinked at her.
Another one emerged from the back and started walking down one of the aisles toward her. The first lurched sideways along the row.
Jules backed away, trying to call Mr. Herra.
She held out her hand. “You’re not allowed to hurt me!”
To her surprise, the intimidators stopped.
The one that was still standing in a row lifted his hand and gripped the back of a seat. His hand formed a claw and he tore the fabric across the top. The other one ran back up the aisle, away from Jules, reaching up to tear down the “Exit” sign before leaving. The first intimidator continued down the row and also ran out.
Jules made herself run after them. By the time she reached the lobby, they were already outside. She saw them through the glass walls. She rushed to the doors to lock them. One of the late night showings was just about to finish. The intimidators left. She called Mr. Herra and told him what just happened. It was his night off. He offered to come, but she said that she would make sure she and her coworkers left with the crowd. And that she would lock the theater up tight before she left.
She went to go take pictures of the damage the intimidators had done. It was minor. But she hoped it would help her case when she got in touch with someone who could help her challenge the company.
But the “Exit” sign was mounted back up. She looked around to see if one of her coworkers was in the theater. But she was alone. She checked the chair that had been torn.
She gasped. The fabric was stitching itself back up before her eyes. But it was using needle and thread that were just floating in the air. She didn’t even know where they came from.
She hadn’t thought the theater was haunted ever since Mr. Herra told her the truth.
She thought she heard a groan coming from above.
I’m not alone, she thought. And she felt her heartbeat slowing.
Mr. Herra was there the next evening, when the intimidators returned.
So were two of their coworkers—one of them newly hired.
And so were a handful of people leaving after Monday’s midnight show.
The plan had been to stop the intimidators from entering the theater. Either Jules or Mr. Herra had been stationed close to the door all night.
But someone had asked Mr. Herra to show them to the restrooms.
By the time he got back to the lobby, the intimidators had come in through the front doors.
A few people gasped. Someone whispered, “Intimidator!”
That was surely one of their alien patrons.
“Get out!” Mr. Herra said, advancing on the intimidators. “You’re not welcome here.”
Jules pulled out her phone. She might be able to call the police. With so many human witnesses, her claim would be considered legitimate.
She didn’t understand why the intimidators would expose themselves in that way. She worried about what their boldness meant.
Then she saw the rope separators that organized the concession lines come loose from the poles they were hooked to. They whipped through the air and struck the intimidators, knocking one of them down. A curtain from one of their lobby displays, stretched toward the intimidators.
Jules dashed toward it. She unclasped the curtain, glancing at the intimidators, who had thrown off the ropes. Jules undid the last clasp. The curtain bolted away from her. It fluttered toward one of the intimidators, reared up like a wave, and crashed down. It wrapped itself around the intimidator as if to smother him.
More rope separators were coming unhooked. One of them, as if in a hurry, dragged a pole along with it. All the people in the lobby backed away.
The intimidator who was free of the ropes dashed toward the lobby doors and fled.
Jules and Mr. Herra shared a glance. They ran to the intimidator who was still struggling against the curtain.
They grabbed hold of the curtain-wrapped intimidator, and dragged him out of the lobby doors. The curtain went slack when they were some distance away.
Jules and Mr. Herra jumped back as the intimidator clawed his way out of the curtain.
“You’re not welcome here,” Jules said.
The intimidator said nothing, but followed his faithless friend into the night.
“Maybe you’re right about there being a ghost,” Mr. Herra said, staring down at the shredded remains of the poor curtain that had come to their rescue.
“It didn’t let them get as far this time,” Jules said, peering over at the theater. “It attacked them this time. It’s like…the theater recognized the intimidators as enemies.”
“I sure as heck am grateful for the help,” Mr Herra said. “Whoever gave it.”
Jules nodded absently. Her mind was on the verge of a thought, a realization maybe, but it wasn’t quite there yet.
“Is that for us?” Mr. Herra asked.
She followed his gaze, and then she realized that the lobby was full of several people looking out at them, cheering, and applauding.
“I asked my brother about it this morning,” Jules said the next day, after she greeted Mr. Herra in his office.
“About the intimidator attack?”
“I made it sound like a video game I found. Anyway, I described it to him, how the intimidators came in and wrecked a few things. And the theater fixed itself. And then the next time the intimidators came inside, it actively went after them.” She snapped her fingers and pointed at him. “It’s like an immune response.”
“You don’t say.”
Jules sighed. “I thought you’d told me all your secrets.”
“When were you going to tell me that the theater is alive? That it’s an alien?”
Mr. Herra fumbled with his coffee mug. “What!”
Jules frowned. “Wait, so am I wrong?”
Mr. Herra’s eyes went wide. He pressed his fingers to his forehead. “Or maybe you’ve just remembered something that I’ve forgotten.”
“So, I’m not wrong.”
“I don’t know. Just…” He tapped his temple with two fingers. “I can feel something stuck in there.”
“Okay, well, everyone’s reactions last night gave me an idea about another promotion. We should just let the aliens come as they are. Humans will think they’re in costume. I’ll bet there’s already a precedent in a past decade. And every now and then, we can put on a skit.” She waved her hands. “Anyway, I’ll draw up another proposal. First, we have to get the paperwork done to get the theater in my name. We’ll all be safer that way. I will take whatever reasonable vows you want me to take, so you know I’ll do my best to care for your legacy.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Mr. Herra said. “What would your parents say if they knew how much danger I was putting you in?”
“Oh, they would try to have you arrested. But I’m not the only one in danger.” She looked at him, and she pointed behind herself at the theater. “This company knows something about your theater that even you don’t know.”
Mr. Herra sighed. “I know of an expedited service—Earth-based alien notary of sorts. We can get it done at lunch.”
Jules thought he meant getting the paperwork filed for approval. But expedited service meant that by the time they walked out of the office, Jules was officially and legally the majority owner of the Golden Ratio Triplex Theater.
When they got back to the theater, they were greeted at the lobby door by a human man in a gray suit, who didn’t give his name, but certainly knew theirs.
“Congratulations,” he said to Jules, “on your new ownership of this old theater.” He offered a smile that barely involved his lips, and expressed his fake hopes that she would be able to revive the “rundown old place.”
“News travels fast in your circles,” Jules said.
“Of course,” said the gray-suited man, “if you’d like to do more with your life than be anchored to the past, I have an attractive offer to make, on behalf of my employers.”
He gave her a card with a local phone number printed on it and nothing more.
As majority owner, Jules could now decide to sell her share of the theater to the company without Mr. Herra’s permission.
“My company is not foolish enough to think that a person of average means doesn’t know what a lot of money looks like,” the man said. He handed Jules a folded slip of paper.
The number on the slip of paper was 99 million dollars.
“We even have advisors who can help you and your family keep most of that amount, legally, of course. We do everything legally.” He turned and winked at Mr. Herra, bowed his head to Jules, and left.
Jules and Mr. Herra went into his office.
“I wouldn’t blame you if you did it,” Mr. Herra said, with a sad smile.
Jules held up the slip of paper. “This isn’t free.”
“Even if you got this place going at full capacity, you’ll never make that much money in your whole life.”
“They were so worried about offering too little that they offered too much,” Jules said. “This amount is ludicrous. If I wasn’t already suspicious…”
“Come now, Julissa. For me, it’s ludicrous. But you would know exactly what to do with that amount. You could give it away, if you don’t want it all. Do some good in a lot of other people’s lives.”
“There’s a catch, and you know it. A company that sent intimidators to our homes and our theater isn’t going to just give me ninety-nine million. They’ll find some loophole to leave me with nothing. But they have given me one thing. If that’s how much they’re offering, then the theater is worth much, much more.” She glanced around at the walls of the office. “Maybe the Ratio is priceless.”
“Jules, everything you’re saying makes sense. But it all comes down to this: fighting a giant intergalactic corporation. We’re too small. We can’t do that.”
“No, we can’t.” She pointed between the two of them. Then she look out of the window in his door, at the lobby that was filling with theater-goers. She turned back around. “But what if we had some help?”
“We’d need a lot of help.”
“We sure would,” Jules said. She grinned. “From all over the galaxy.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Well, first…I would like to place a call.”
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel