Clem Salthouse chooses her own adventure
You sit in the dressing room of The Munificent Order of the Sons of the Frontier Lodge. You can hear a voice down the hall. Mama B is telling another contestant about her pageant days. You hear the word “baton,” the word “dreams.” Whoever that poor girl is, she is trapped in a bubble of Mama B’s nostalgia, you think.
The room is empty save one other contestant, Junie-Rae. She is prepping herself one last time for the Judge’s Decision, while Contestant Twelve, the pleasant, shy girl, Gray, performs her talent onstage. You could be Gray’s friend if you didn’t feel so strangely interested in her. You know you would somehow betray your fascination, and she would find you off-putting. It’s happened before. You’re too eager, too tall.
Junie-Rae’s glittery eye shadow pots and her silver curling iron project shards of light from the illuminated dressing mirror onto the wall of the drab little room. You briefly wonder if you should re-curl your frizzing hair. You decide it doesn’t matter.
You are ready for this day to be over.
You aren’t going to win this pageant. You know this. There’s no option to turn to page 75 and claim your victory, but we don’t need to tell you that because the truth is, you’re okay with losing. You’re okay with blending in, and you’re okay with missing out on that big, fat check from Georgette Von George because you’ve got your own things. Your own secrets, well, secret.
Mama B pops her head into the room.
“It’s nearly time!” she chirrups then vanishes. Junie-Rae makes a throaty sound and mumbles to herself. She reaches for her curling iron with one hand, her eye shadow with the other. A gold tube of aerosol hairspray rests in her lap like sleeping infant.
You smile as Junie-Rae stupidly dabs glitter into the corners of her eyelids. You smile because Junie-Rae doesn’t know. Nobody knows your secret. And that’s what makes it special—him special.
You found him in the backwoods of your family’s property early this morning with a broken leg, a small, speckled fawn whose mother was, no doubt, shot and killed by your field sporting father. When you found the fawn, he barely struggled. He lay there and fixed his pained onyx eyes onto you and your humanness. You backed away slowly, until you were just out of sight, then you sprinted back to the house to collect items for a splint. Your body made a choice before your mind did. Twenty minutes later you were back in the woods approaching the fawn slowly. You knew he wouldn’t try to struggle now because he was in too much pain. You set his leg up in the makeshift splint, and then you laid yourself down next to him and stroked his shivering little body. You hummed a song that your grandmother taught you, something about oranges and lemons, the bells of some old church far away.
You fell asleep.
The room smells strange. If we could tell you what has happening, we would. But now you can only look around the room, mildly confused, sniffing dumbly at the air like some preyed upon thing.
It all happens too fast.
Mama B appears in the door with Gray. Arabella, DeeDee, and a couple other girls are close behind. Gray’s nose twitches at the odor, and Mama B is about to speak when Junie-Rae’s crunchy, corkscrewed bouffant ignites.
The room is alive with reactions.
Junie-Rae is on her feet waving her hands around her head like two psychotic birds. Mama B is next to her fanning the flames with her clipboard. The flames grow and Junie-Rae shrieks. All the girls scream. You scream.
She careens toward the blaze and tackles Junie-Rae to the ground. She throws her body over the inferno and her gossamer dress blossoms around her like a delicate rose. You watch the flames, suddenly choked by the weight of a girl, quickly dissipate. Gray rolls to her side, a mess of ash beneath her, the front of her dress burned away. Junie-Rae is quaking on the floor, nearly bald and crying.
Then the moment fills to the brim again.
Parents and other audience members pour into the room crazed with confusion and alarm. You watch Junie-Rae’s mother suddenly appear at her daughter’s side seemingly out of thin air as mothers often do. You watch the faces shift as they realize Gray is not burned. Her half naked body is shining intact, save for a place where a metal rib-like object pokes through, revealing the glow of titanium beneath her plasticine skin.
You watch the confused horror multiply like some kind of pestilence.
Gray smiles too calmly, tries to explain, “The curling iron must have gotten too hot. But I knew I could put out the fire.” But Junie-Rae’s mother is a wild animal now, a vengeful doe demented for her injured child.
You watch and begin to understand that this woman no longer sees a girl before her. She only sees this smiling, undamaged thing. The inhuman fraud that hurt her baby. And so there’s someone to blame. There’s something to punish.
Now you have a choice.
You can step forward, intervene. You can explain what you saw. Explain that you’ve been in the room the whole time.
You can act.
You can watch them descend, an ageless mob. You can watch them consume the girl, devastate her, smash and splinter her intricate body. You can stand next to seven other fear-frozen girls and listen to the noise it makes, the sound of a girl being unbuilt, the sound of your unmoving.
You can watch them do it.
You can watch them destroy this girl, tear her apart till she is nothing but shrapnel on the floor. Watch her smile kicked from her face, her chest torn open, her legs pulled from their metal sockets and smashed against the wall. You can watch her die.
You can do nothing but watch.
You, all of you, can do nothing.
The lights nestled in the ceiling are buzzing bright and hot. Human sounds rumble in the distance like a summer storm approaching, and towering shapes draw near blocking out the light, darkening the room with the haste of a dense, black cumulonimbus.
I’ve located myself in pieces on the floor, and I can feel every part, every screw. It is an odd sensation to be apart, not unlike the dumb, dull ache of a loosed tooth. I’ve read about human children receiving visits from a small winged woman who slip quarters under pillows in exchange for baby teeth. I have pulled my own teeth, the final turn and pop of those synthetic roots so blissfully satisfying. My sacrifice earned me two glinting silver dollars, stashed cold and safe under my pillow.
I am a thousand scattered bones waiting to be claimed and rejoiced.
Mother will find me soon and be pleased.
I pretended to be asleep when she took my teeth and replaced them with silver. I let her kiss my forehead and tug my earlobe. I let my heart whir and purr like a kitten. I kept my eyes closed and pretended to believe in unreal things.
My eyes are apart now, but I can pretend to shut them again and wait for a kiss and a tug.
Mother. Yes, mother. She will shower me with silver coins.
Put me alone in a room with all my parts. See what happens.