DEAD CHILDREN STOP PLAYING FOR UNGRATEFUL AUDIENCES
By Aigner Loren Wilson
A summer ferry on its way home to the coastal town of Mer Pointe sank beneath the waves of the Atlantic on the night of July 20th, taking with it the community’s entire pep squad. No one noticed that their children did not return from their concert performance until the morning. It was then, in the dawn that felt so much like midday, that people started seeing the bodies washing up on the shore.
The sea had been decent enough not to strip them of their ornamental garb.
Out of respect, the press did not capture photos of the collapsed loved ones in the sand mourning their loss. There does exist one single everlasting Snapchat of a duck-faced shoobie on, and just behind her a man raising his daughter out of the waves—her trumpet spilling water down his body. When asked aggressively to delete it, she surrendered that it had already gone live.
The small coastal town held a community funeral to lay their children to rest. Head plates, chiseled gold with the name of the dead, their instrument, and a quote by a close relative, set as a constant gleaming reminder of what Mer Pointe, as a whole, had lost. The cemetery is on the highest point in Ohio Bay, facing away from the sea toward the town, Crest Inlet, with its mounds fertile and sprawling. Eighty-five* graves occupy the fenced off area of The Children of Music Memorial Park. Survivors ask that you not enter or disturb the area.
Footnote: *Records show that there were twenty crew members also aboard the ferry when it took to the bottom of the sea. When asked where their bodies were buried, townspeople shrugged. From what I gathered, Mer Pointe did not see the point in looking for them amid everything else that was going on.
But in late September, storm clouds danced in and ghosts drifted up from the waves to frighten the devastated shore folk. To the town’s astonished horror the children had returned.
Their beautifully decorated outfits had taken a sour turn beneath the coastal waters and what was once red and gold, was now green and black like the growths covering their skin.
How would you describe the music of the dead? Would you use words such as soulful, everlasting, macabre? If so, you would be wrong. Their music was terrible. It made everyone laugh with relief—it made corpses roll in their graves. The phantasmagoria lent rhythm to the dancers working through a new out of step jig.
With the music came regrets and apologies. Steps endured the interruption of a loved one grasping at them in the waves. No one heard what the cheer squad had to say about the great dark beyond because a mom was wailing so loud that blood squirted from her mouth as though she were some malformed fish.
At 10 o’clock the ghostly performance ended, and the children returned to where spirits live away from the living. Lifeguards worked tirelessly until dawn to pull wayward people back from their attempts to reclaim the disappearing forms of their loved ones.
The children did not show trumpet or pompom until the night of December 23rd. That night the sky hung endlessly above the cold waves, and the families crowded the beach as they had done all through the fall, expecting or hoping that the dead would return to play again for them. The town clock chimed at seven and again at eight. At a quarter to ten, people stood to and began to head back to the shining homes nestled in the hills lining the bay. But all movement stopped when the inland wind brought back with it a horn’s slow and subtle departure.
Strings caught everyone’s ears.
Over the night lands of the coast, came the missing orchestra, band, step team, pep, and cheer squad performing with learned spirits. Their song came from a place the parents swore was not inside them when they were alive.
As the ghosts started to descend into the sea, a sister ran to her brother and asked, “Why didn’t you come to play for us?”
Without losing the tune, he vibrated his middle finger and answered, “Because we wanted to play for people who would listen.”
by Nicole Givens Kurtz
“Although the sun shines, there are always shadows.” Kimra sidestepped yet another face-glued-to-their-phone person doing their zombie walk down the corridor inside Pointe Vista Mall.
The late Saturday afternoon witnessed a surge in younger folks and a decline in authentic adults. The big mall anchor store announced its new sale in large, screaming yellow and red signage. They shot out of the mall’s floor in metallic stands and plastered posters.
“Do you ever get tired of being gloomy? You’re so damn depressing.” Vega frowned, making her elegantly drawn brows wrinkle. Well, not the eyebrows so much as the skin around them. Best friends since elementary school Vega sailed through the crowd like a golden swan, graceful and swift.
“Nope. I’m happy when I’m sad,” Kimra replied, fingering her afro puffs. She smirked at Vega who snatched her face away.
“Damn, that’s weird.” Vega sucked her teeth and tossed her waist-long rainbow braids over her shoulders. Everything about her glowed: from the gold bangles on her wrists, to the gold earring hoops that brushed her shoulders, and on to the layered gold necklaces around her neck.
“That’s okay. I’m gonna get you whipped into shape.” Vega pursed her lips with the promise.
“I like my shape just the way it is.” Kimra pinched her love-handles and shook them at Vega.
She smirked, shaking her head. “But you got such a pretty face.”
Kimra’s been hearing that her whole life. It played like a well-worn laugh track. She’d been a chubby baby, a thick teenager, and now a “curvy” woman. Real woman curves the television bellowed, but then in a whisper, “but not too much.”
“I have an amazing personality.” Kimra shoved her hands into her joggers’ pockets. When her hands started to ache, she realized they’d been clenched into tight fists.
“Shush. I got you.” Vega swept her hands toward the store ahead of them.
They arrived at the mouth of the large, carnivorous department store. Here, the ugly and unsophisticated entered, their identities devoured by the make-up counters, personal shoppers, and salons.
What remained was cookie cutter culture. Kimra paused at the mouth of the department store. A sliver of worry wiggled down her spine. Vega kept walking a few feet before she realized that Kimra wasn’t with her.
“Kimmie? Girl, come on!”
Her voice sounded muffled, but Kimra could make it out. The lights flickered behind Vega. The store seemed to be cackling at her hesitation, daring her to enter.
“I dunno, Vega. I love my face like it is.” Kimra hated the sharp whine wrapped around her words. They bore holes in her resolve. The pleading made her sick to her stomach.
“Nuh huh. You’d be happy if you did.“ Vega snorted. “I know you, Kimmie. You just thirstin’ for knowledge.”
“I don’t want strange knowing like what’s in there. The secrets of beauty, making yourself skinny and creating man-made glamor.” Kimra nodded in the department store’s direction.
“Everyone wants glamour. I’m not judging you, but we did talk about this already. You said you’d try.” Vega’s tone was light, but her nostrils flared signaling her annoyance.
“Yeah.” Kimra whispered. She’d confronted Vega with the facts, but that hardly mattered. Vega was always the life of the party. This visit to the mall was no different.
“Oh, I know. Let’s split the difference. A new lipstick would do wonders to brighten you up.” Vega sparkled despite the shadows lingering and looming in and out of the department store’s gaping entrance.
Kimra wondered if the shadows would return to human forms once they exited the mall. Shopping bags seemed too heavy for ghostly arms and rotting hands.
“Just lipstick?” Kimra quirked an eyebrow at Vega. They’d backed off the full facial makeover. So she was making headway.
“It’s like a fancy lip gloss or your favorite lip balm.” Vega reassured her. A warm glow, an aura, softly pulsated around Vega. “It’s fun. Come on, scaredy cat.”
Another chill raced up her spine, reversing course. Kimra straightened, threw back her shoulder, and faced the store. She could do this. Lipstick was just glorified lip balm. That she could do, a tiny sacrifice to the gods of beauty.
“Let’s get some color in your face.” Vega guided her toward the entrance.
I’m black. I already have color, courtesy of Mother Melanin. Kimra thought, but didn’t say. She hurried along, propelled by Vega’s pace and guiding hand. They entered into the stunning fluorescent illumination. Kimra winced, but peered through slits as Vega led her to the equally bright beauty counter.
“Hello. Welcome to Marv’s,” the slender hollow-cheeked woman draped in a blood red dress and platform heels said. “How can I help?”
Vega met the store clerk’s wolfish grin. “Hey, Linda. We’re looking at lipsticks.”
Linda rubbed her pale, slender hands together. The grin remained. Kimra wondered if it was detachable, like the store nametag. She rebuked herself. You can’t always trust first impressions.
“We have sale on facials. You like one?” Linda asked.
Too many teeth. Kimra shuffled behind Vega and swiftly turned her face away. She couldn’t look at the beauty clerk. For starters, Linda’s sheet of perfect blonde hair captured the light, trapping it like a spider with a web. Secondly, Linda’s smooth crafted face was beautiful and terrifying. Looming blue eyes stuck out from beneath the fall of hair. Too many teeth crowded into a too small mouth. Too perfect. She looked capable of something cruel.
“No! Thank you!” Kimra said, before Vega answered for her.
Linda’s mouth widened, if that was possible. Kimra shuddered, cursing herself for taking a peek. The heavy cloak of perfume made her stomach hurt, even more. Something coppery and acidic flavored the air, looming beneath the manufactured aromas.
Kimra closed her eyes and opened them after summoning the remnants of her courage and the protection of her ancestors. Ready.
“Just. Lipstick,” Kimra said, on the edge of bolting.
Vega laughed. “She’s new to this.”
“I see. Fresh meat.” Linda purred, rolling the R in fresh like her tongue wanted to make love to it. Her long fingers glided across the luminous rainbow colors. The golden capped lipsticks were lined in a row, round for sampling. They were corralled for plucking. The retail ones hid under the counter in individual boxes, mass produced for consumption.
The way she said it made Kimra’s skin break out in gooseflesh.
“Such beautiful lips, full and plump. No enhancements.” Linda eyed Kimra’s mouth.
Kimra blanched, if her dark skin could do such a thing. The hairs on the back of her neck stood at rigid attention. Those words scared the daylights out of her. She turned, but Vega caught her by the elbow and pulled her forward. Linda’s mouth watered. The clerk patted the sides of her mouth with a napkin, and her grin returned.
“Try these.” Linda splayed the lipsticks across the glass counter. “Your skin is so luscious. Do you know? Clear. Vibrant.” She licked her lips a moment before the teeth came back into view.
Vega elbowed her. “See. Told you.”
Kimra met Vega’s smile and tried to relax. “Okay. Let’s do the purple one, first.”
Vega grunted and shot Kimra an encouraging nod.
Kimra picked it up and leaned in to the large circular mirror. With a quick push of her thumb, she uncapped the sampler.
“Oh, yes! The Deadly Nightshade.” Linda cooed, pleasure making her eyebrows rise higher above her artfully decorated and glistening dark eyes.
Kimra froze, the cap in one hand, the sampler in the other. “Isn’t that poisonous?”
Vega interjected. “Only in large doses. I’m kidding! They’re just names. There ain’t no real night shade in there.”
But Kimra watched Linda, who remained silent, wearing the too many teeth grin. Her gaze trained on Kimra’s every move.
“Lovely shade. Put. On,” Linda encouraged after several tense minutes.
“I’m going to try this one,” Kimra said and recapped the purple one. Maybe it was her imagination, but Linda’s smile had sharp edges that drooped in disappointment when she declined the purple lipstick.
Kimra opened the red matte color. With her heart pounding, she ran the sampler across her lips, turning them from their natural, healthy roseate to a deep crimson.
“Venom looks brilliant on you,” Linda exclaimed, a small vein snaked down her forehead stood out in excitement.
“Ooo, Venom,” Vega chided. She spun her around to face her. “Beautiful.”
“Show me,” Linda hissed.
Did this woman know any other words?
Linda’s outstretched hand twitched in anticipation, but paused just shy of touching Kimra. Kimra didn’t think she wanted Linda touching her. In fact, she was certain, but she turned to face Linda anyway. The rail-thin clerk greedily clasped her hands together once Kimra came into her full focus.
Kimra spied her own reflection, out the corner of her eye, in the mirror. It was her. Then again, at the same time, it wasn’t. What she saw made her blood run cold. Her eyes, her sin, her nose all looked the same, original Kimra. But her lips had peeled back, revealing a mouth crammed with teeth overlapping each other. The front top teeth elongated,dripping with saliva against the backdrop of crimson. Bleak. Gruesome.
Kimra reached up to touch her lip. Panic flooded her chest. She struggled to breathe. “What the hell?”
“Don’t!” Linda slapped her hand, no longer the bubbly make-up counter clerk.
“Ow!” Kimra scowled and rubbed the back of her hand.
“Leave your beauty. Don’t remove it.” Linda’s eyes widened as she further declared, “This color had flair.”
Vega cocked her head to the side. “Kimmie, dial it back!”
“That what I said!” Linda laughed, hollow and empty like her eyes, like a casket after a thousand years of buried decay.
Kimra caught chills again, backed away from the counter, and looked around for Vega. “V, do you see this right here?”
But suddenly Vega wasn’t there.
Her best friend had melted into the throng of shoppers, leaving her alone. Had Vega left to go fill up her gas tank? She always ran her gas down to the fumes. Had she really even been here? Kimra didn’t know any more.
“Ah, do not be afraid. You look gorgeous!” Linda gestured her to come back to the counter. She blinked, unrealistic eyelashes brushed her upper cheeks. “There’s no solace in beauty, only pain.”
The words called up such terror, it enveloped Kimra in its tight embrace. Every fiber roared with alarm, but Kimra drifted forward as if Linda held her mouth by a tether. Was she facing something sinister? Surely not at a makeup counter. Kimra spied her face again and noted the hideous smile etched into her face. The fear gripped her.
“No! Get this off me! I’m not interested in pain!” Kimra rushed the last few steps to the counter, snatched up the tissues from the box, and wiped her lips until they were raw.
“Try another? Facial?” Linda asked, gesturing to the ever expanding circle of cosmetics appearing on the counter.
Kimra shook her head, too scared to vocalize an answer. She realized that Linda’s struggle to speak came from the overabundance of teeth in her mouth. Scared, Kimra tried not to allow it to root her there. She started backing away. Her heart pounded against her chest like it worked at a disco.
“Wait! Sale! Special!” Linda’s long, pale arms shot out like vines, but with nails like claws, swatting the air in attempts to snare her.
Kimra thought again about the spider, spinning more web to stop the fidgeting prey from moving, escaping.
“No! No!” Kimra backpedaled faster. Too afraid to put her back to the store clerk, Kimra kept moving, bypassing shadows and face-planted-in-screen zombies. Her throat was too dry for her say more, so her hands waved Linda off until she plowed into something solid.
“Watch it, there!” Vega’s husky voice shouted in irritation. “You could lose a body around these parts.”
“Where have you been?” Kimra screamed, fury rolled forward, making her face hot. She grabbed Vega’s shoulders and shook her gently.
“Um, clearly we’re still fine tuning our boundaries, Kimmie,” Vega shrugged her off. “What happened to your lips? They’re bleeding.”
“That lipstick! It’s horrid!” Kimra touched her sore lips and cringed. “Where were you?”
Vega shrugged. “Damn. I spent a lot of emotional equity on this trip to Linda.”
Perhaps finding the anger burning in Kimra’s face. Vega dropped her gaze and mocking tone.
“Okay, sorry! Something grabbed my attention and drew me off your path. I got carried away looking at jewelry. Calm down. I left you in good hands.” Vega spoke with all the care of one who just lost a sock.
“Linda?” Kimra shook her head.
Vega shrugged again. “Yeah. She’s no pressure sales and a free spirit.”
“Demonic spirit, is what you mean,” Kimra said.
As they exited the department store, Kimra released a breath she didn’t even know she was holding. Still a touch of foreboding made her pause. Vega waved her on. They took the side door exit to the parking lot. Finally, the numbness started to fade from her lips.
Vega gave her a side-eye glance, and shrugged although her plans hit a snag. “Still free.”
“About that Vega, we got a little more to discuss,” Kimra said, a bit unsure if she should convey what she’d seen. They fell silent as they walked through the parking path to Vega’s car.
Kimra locked her seatbelt and waited for Vega to start the car. Vega lowered the driver’s side visor and flicked up the mirror. Outside a soft rain fell. In the glistening surface of the water drenched pavement, the vehicles shimmered. The mirror’s light flashed on. Vega pulled out her gold-capped lipstick from her purse.
“Vega, is that…”
“Yeah. This one is Blood Moon.” Vega puckered and applied the lipstick with a practiced hand.
Kimra froze. Now what?
Her heart started to inch into her throat, even as her blood slowed in her veins. Next to her, Vega had this weird smile on her face. But Kimra only saw the profile view.
“V? Linda is a monster.”
“Hmmm?” Vega slapped the visor back into place. Whack!
“A monster…” Kimra whispered, throat going dry.
“I’m not that kind of person. Yes, I became that person. This is not me,” Vega said, before turning to Kimra, her rainbow braids spilling across her shoulders with a smile.
Filled with teeth.
“Ain’t I’m pretty?” Vega leaned closer to Kimra, eye glazed over, wide with wonder. “Ain’t I?”
Kimra screamed and tried to melt into the passenger side door. Her hands couldn’t seem to get a grip on the latch.
With eyes as large as saucers and nostrils flared, Vega leaned over the gear shift, saliva dripping down the corners of her too broad smile. “This. Is. Love-ly. Yeah?”
Kimra shut her eyes tight. “No beauty is worth this much pain!”
A soft humming took up residence in her ears and she tried to ball herself into a tight knot. Maybe, just maybe if she prayed enough she’d wake up in her bed.
Minutes elongated, stretching out like the long, canines in Linda’s mouth. Shuddering against the still hot car, Kimra emitted a “please, Lordt,” against the thick air.
“Kimmie?” Vega’s voice sounded normal, not laced with gravel as it had a few minutes earlier. “You okay?”
Kimra peaked through her hands, and then lowered them to find Vega scowling at her. “Girl, it ain’t that hot. Give the air a minute.”
Kimra sat up straight in her seat and looked around. Everything seemed normal, even Vega. She shook her head to clear the lingering cobwebs and chill of the encounter.
Had she imagined it? Been dreaming?
“I’m okay,” and then with more confidence, “I’m okay!”
Vega smirked at her as she shifted the car into reverse and began backing out of the parking lot.
That’s when Kimra spied the sprinkle of saliva dotting the area around the gear shift. Vega didn’t appear to notice it, and she put the car in drive, they headed off into Charlotte’s clogged and congested streets.
Kimra swallowed the hard lump of fear down her dry throat.
As Vega drove, she said, “You know, we should check out the cosmetic counter over at the mall in Rock Hill…”
“No! No, I’m good,” Kimra screamed.
Vega flinched. “Wow! Well, okay. You know, you have such a pretty face…”