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Carly had been going to the Dead Girls Show since she was twelve. The little theater was wedged between Live Girls and Girls Girls Girls a block down from the city’s least expensive dentist. She went at least twice a year to both, sometimes entering the show with a nice painkiller buzz that was gradually replaced by a feeling like gnawing a candy bar made of cement.

The place had been a movie theater; it smelled of popcorn and feet and still ran a sparsely stocked concession stand. There was only one other person in the seats, a man in puffy coat. She settled in a few rows ahead of him with a paper cup of ice cream, peeled the lid and went at it with a little wooden paddle.

Arabella was first: the anorexic. In the greeny spotlight, she looked like a starved mermaid. She stared upwards as if pleading with the spotlight man for a respite that never came. As her pedestal began to rotate, her eyes stayed fixed on the booth even as her body turned away. The spot ignited the downy arm hair her fatless body had sprouted as a last defense against the cold. When the pedestal had completed its rotation, Arabella rose to her feet and continued staring out as an elfin figure in a top hat and tails came onto the stage with a bucket of colored water. The little man (though Carly knew it was a girl, one of the trio who cleared the stage between acts)poured the water and dye over Arabella’s shoulders so the audience could see how it pooled in her clavicle and traced the contours of her bulging knees. Her droopy bikini was so soaked, the bottoms fell heavily to her ankles with a small splash. Her pubic hair was sparse and red.

Somewhere behind the seats a machine whirred, and then, projected on scrim, were poems the girl had written about despair. The recorded voice that accompanied them was a smoker, a man. For an extra fee, you could go with Arabella into a back room where she served you tea and described how her step-father groped her.

For her finale, Arabella arched her back and spread her arms. Her eyes were exquisite with the knowledge of suffering. The midget in the top hat yanked out the halter knot and the bikini top tumbled down to the floor with the bottom. Her breasts lay against her ribs like baby mice in a pair of socks.

Not all of them used names. Next is The Ballerina, wearing only the skirt of a tutu. One of her ankles is crumbled and loose, but she shows it no mercy as she pirouettes and lunges about to a Chopin Mazurka that becomes increasingly frantic and demented. She reaches out her lovely arms as if for a rescuer.

Carly has nothing in common with these girls, but her heart leaps with them. Her limbs, on the other hand, are more generously padded. Her elbow is more like a dimple than a spear. Her feet in sensible shoes like loaves of bread.

Regina, the drowned girl, is wheeled out in her tank. Her eyes are open, but without pupils they look like giant pearls set in the prongs of her eyelashes. Her lips move so that she seems to say please, please, please, but the only sound is the delicate bloop of three bubbles that escape from her mouth. Three silver bubbles, then no more.

When she is gone the three stagehands scurry to mop up the mossy smelling water that has sloshed onto the floor. They are not elves or even midgets; they are girls who died very young of cancer, bald and delicate and- perhaps as a side effect of some experimental drug- pointy about the ears.

A strobe light begins to pulse, but without music. The Hanged Girl comes out wearing a Catholic school uniform complete with red tie. The pale purple of her face is streaked with black: eyeliner liberally applied and liberally tear-streaked. Anyone who has been to the show before knows that her arms are ribboned with cuts, but that day she wears a bulky starter jacket in a Carolina blue. “Panthers.” It ruins the effect, Carly thinks. What girl would kill herself after receiving a team captain’s jacket?

The man two rows behind agrees: “Take it off!”

The Hanged Girl, who usually keeps her head bobbing loose around her chest and shoulders, suddenly straightens. “No, thank you.”

Carly hears a nylon swizz that must be the guy in the puffy jacket standing. “Fuck you!” he yells. He has to be a regular: in regular shows, The Hanged Girl comes out to a Metallica song and screams fuck you at the audience, her middle fingers a staccato jab in the strobe light. It’s very dramatic.

This time she only shrugs. “I’m not doing that anymore.”

A jumbo slurpee hurtles over Carly’s head and splatters on the stage. Hanged Girl spreads the slush around with the toe of her black Converse, lights a cigarette, walks off.

Carly hears the heckler’s sticky steps, then muffled shouting from the lobby.

There is a pause in the action. Carly digs for a piece of gum, but in the flashing light the contents of her large purse are garish and elusive. Finally, the strobe goes off and a pink glow suffuses the room. They are skipping the prom-night car crash victim and going straight to the grand finale.

The pink is bright enough to illuminate Carly’s flattened pack of Juicy Fruit and a few unseemly stains on the seats around her.

The stage hands push Meghan, the serial rapist/killer’s victim, onto the stage. Meghan is really just a pile of limbs in a wheelbarrow with a head propped on top, but her voice is deep and commanding. She doesn’t have her own act, but always introduces the last one.

“Ladies and gentleman,” Meghan’s mouth projects especially well, having been widened several inches by her assailant’s knife, “It is said that unicorns walk the earth. Most of us will never see them. For so the legend has it that only the purest virgin can capture a unicorn…”

The sprite pushing Meghan’s wheelbarrow quickly rearranges one of the dismembered arms so that it gestures stage left.

Electronic birdsong fills the theater and Carly begins to tear up. In the hazy moments after her own lost virginity, Carly had thought not of the bare mattress beneath her or the bikini model affixed to the ceiling above her, but the fact that unicorns were now officially beyond her.

The birdsong increases in volume and is joined by the chirp of rusty wheels as the unicorn slowly begins to emerge. It is, of course, a stuffed horse altered by some whimsical taxidermist of a prior decade. For several long seconds, the audience sees only the head with its purple glass eye, then, in a crescendo of computerized mockingbird, the unicorn’s rider appears: astride the moth-eaten flanks is little Adrianna, still in her satin sash and sequined tiara. The froth of yellow dress is ripped in a few places and, like a tiny Cinderella, she is missing her left shoe. As the wheeled unicorn rotates, the audience sees that on her right side, her frilly sock is brown with old blood; a runnel of crusty brick runs from the sock up her leg, which is still faintly chubby.

The little queen smiles bravely, her glossy lips trembling. An obedient child, eager to please. She holds on to the saddle with one hand; the other reaches out to pet the unicorn’s mane. A hank of hair tangles in her fingers and falls out, but she continues to stroke as if the horse, which for years has remained successfully dead, is in need of soothing.

Carly is crying fiercely now, nothing like the sparkling hints of water in Adrianna’s jewel-blue eyes. Carly’s face puffs out when she cries. Uneven splotches the pink of digestive aids cover her forehead and cheeks. There is nowhere for the tears to pool, so they run along her jaw and drop from her chin like a beard.

When she has recovered herself a bit, Carly stands to leave. In the lobby, the heckler argues with the tickets girl, who is not dead, just an ordinary sophomore with an after-school job.

“Look,” says the girl, whose nose and eyes crowd the middle of her face as if shrinking from her acne, “You want to speak to him, fine. I give up. I’ll get fired for this, but follow me.”

Outside, Carly blinks in the sunlight. Her eyes are salted with tears and she tries to adjust them by focusing on the kicking neon leg of Girls Girls Girls. She does not see or hear the theater manager’s car as he speeds out of the alley to avoid confrontation with the angry customer.

When he hits her, there is a sound like a water balloon finding its target.

Carly’s last word is “Unk.”

*******

When Carly woke up, she was on the floor of the room behind the stage, her dislodged organs resting against the inside of her back. Her injuries, though fatal, were largely internal. Above her: rafters, pipes, and clotheslines hung with wet leotards, one of them dripping on her face. She realized she should flinch.

“What are we supposed to do with her, Milo?” The voice belonged to Karen, stage name The Hanged Girl.

Milo was a short, goateed man in glasses with purple lenses. He seemed too fidgety to answer.

“Maybe we can say she died in childbirth,” said Arabella, “She’s fat enough.”

“She’s not that fat. She’s just normal.” Karen turned the word sour, not a compliment.

“It was a split second decision,” said Milo, “I thought if the police showed up it would help for her to be speaking. You can, speak, can’t you? I haven’t resurrected another mute?”

“I can speak,” said Carly, surprised that she could, actually. Her voice sounded a little rusty, but then it often did. Her days had never been terribly interactive.

“Who knows,” said Milo, standing up a bit straighter, “I may need to start bringing in new performers.”

“Empty threats, Milo. That could never replace me.” Karen opened her button-down to reveal breasts that were perfectly formed and uniformly defaced with small black razorblade slashes.

“Those don’t do me a lot of good off-stage,” Milo sniffed. “Now, Miss, excuse me, but will anyone be missing you?”

Carly had to admit that no one would. Her manager would be mildly annoyed that no one on the late shift had been through the yogurts to check expiration dates, but people quit Stop n Shop without notice all the time. It was no cause for alarm.

“In that case, I shall take my nap.” As Milo left, he clapped his hands twice. The three cancer girls sprang to his side and followed him out of the room. Up close, Carly could see that their ears were not pointed; they had been pinched and stitched at the top.

She looked around to see if anyone had noticed: there was little Adrianna, smoking a cigarette longer than her hand.

“Don’t worry,” scoffed the beauty queen, flicking ash. “Nothing hurts. Nothing causes cancer.”

******

Nights backstage were long. Sleep was distasteful and unnecessary, so there was nothing to do but talk all night. The girls showed no interest in Carly’s potential as an act, but when they found out she was a fan they were eager to hear about their own performances. What had Arabella’s poetry meant to her? Did The Drowned Girl bloop enough bubbles? Was it really, really, unbelievably sad when Adrianna pet the unicorn?

“I hate that part,” said Adrianna. “It’s so cheesy.”

“It always makes me cry,” Carly confessed.

“Ew. Then why do you come?”

Karen answered for her: “She’s a sap.”

Carly tried to describe what the show had meant to her in middle school when she had the figure of a teddy bear, when she would go entire days without attracting the notice of anyone, not even her teachers, and the sight of Arabella in the spotlight made her nearly swoon with anticipation of all that might lay ahead: willowy arms, sad poems, pubic hair.

She tried to tell them about the times she and her high school boyfriend, who later turned out to be gay, would cut class and catch a matinee. They held hands through the whole thing, communicating in damp squeezes how moved they were by The Drowned Girl, the princess. He did sometimes snicker at Willa, the girl who died in a drunk-driving accident on the way home from the prom and that, Carly thought, was a sign of why they would one day have to break up, eventually, when they went to college and were a little less lonely. She took in stride his justification for not kissing her with an open mouth: after all, the Milk Duds did stick in her braces.

The dead girls weren’t interested in her life story. “Why did he laugh?” demanded Willa. She didn’t have enough contiguous bones to stand, and when she wasn’t being marionetted about the stage in her bloody strapless, she hung from a collapsible wooden rack for drying laundry.

Carly apologized: “He thought you must have been well-liked. He thought anyone who was well liked must be a bad person.”

When Carly finally got up the nerve to ask them what went on in their private shows, they laughed at her prurience. They couldn’t have sex if they wanted to. Their insides were stuffed with sawdust. Hadn’t Carly noticed?

She hadn’t. Carly, always a slave to a hyperactive bladder, had rather enjoyed the respite from her old life, in which she always had to know where the next toilet might be hiding. Now, when she pulled down her underwear, she did see that a few loose shavings had settled there. And there was a vague piney taste at the back of her throat; it was not just that she had spent too much time around cleaners.

For she was cleaning now. As a car crash victim, she could not compare to Willa and she felt a need to be useful in some way. So she’d retrieved a cart of cleaning supplies from Milo’s closet and was gradually trying to restore some sheen to the theater’s dusty cataracts. In time, the girls trusted her to check their bodies’ blind pouches for termites and in this way she came to know who they really were. They hid things. Change, mostly. They were mad for coins, though with nowhere to spend their money they carried it between their legs until it jingled out and was snatched up by another. Karen kept an airplane bottle of rum in her throat. The Ballet Dancer had a small silver shoe from a Monopoly game in one ear, a pearl-tipped corsage pin in the other.

*****

In her previous life, Carly’s few moments of boldness (a karaoke song about her determination to survive, an afternoon in a bikini on a Cancun beach) were inflected with rum, and for this reason she sometimes hesitated before fitting the little bottle back into Karen’s throat.

“Don’t think about it,” said Karen, “I mean, even if I didn’t beat you up first, it would just get down in you and smell bad and Milo would have to replace your stuffing. He hates that.”

“I wasn’t thinking of anything,” said Carly. “Not really.” She held up the letterman jacket for Karen to climb back into. Karen had reached some kind of agreement with Milo whereby she no longer wore it on stage, but otherwise it left her shoulders only when Carly Windexed her armpits.

“Hey,” said Karen, “Buck up. I’ll let you in on something.”

“Okay,” said Carly, a Christmas-Eve eagerness breaking out on her face.

“Shh. Listen: don’t take out the garbage until later. Like, after midnight. I’ll meet you at the back door.”

The hours after midnight were unpoliced: Milo slept on the futon in his office, guarded by his homemade pixies. The occasional howl or bottle-breaking in the streets was adequate security: though they would never have admitted it, the girls were afraid of the world outside the theater. There was a rumor, which for some had converted into fixed belief, that fresher air would lead to swifter decay.

Still, Carly and her bag of theater trash followed Karen through the back door, propping it with a broken chair reserved for that purpose. Usually, Carly scrambled the five or six steps to the dumpster, heaved and lobbed the trash, then ran back to the door without waiting to hear it land, but that night Karen motioned for her to set it down as quietly as possible.

“There,” she whispered, pointing deeper into the alley, “The tall one is Gary.”

Three middle-aged men in Patriots caps stood with their shoulders back, urinating on the rear wall of the alley. Steam rose in the cold. Karen suppressed a giggle; Carly thought that since the night air did not hurt them that perhaps tomorrow she would give the area a good hosing-off.

The urination took some time: clearly, the men had taken in prodigious amounts of fluid. At last, the sound of liquid hitting brick became intermittent and died out. The men shook themselves off and exchanged congratulatory murmurs.

“You guys must’ve drunk down an ocean,” laughed Karen. They jumped, and she laughed again, “So, wha-dja bring me?”

The fear in the men’s faces was only temporary: they exchanged smiles and came a little closer, searching their pockets. One had half a piece of gum in a shiny wrapper. The other held out a string bracelet of colored knots. The one called Gary presented Karen with the prize: a Canadian nickel, on one side an industrious beaver, on the other a queen in profile. Carly and Karen took turns holding the items, marveling at the leftover warmth that pulsed from each.

“You wanna dance?” said Gary. His grin floated unsteadily between chin and reddish nose. Men like this had often come into the grocery store in the wee hours. Usually, they staggered to the chips aisle and stood there for a long time, taking in the enormity.

Karen looked at him like he was a piping hot bowl of food. “Let’s go!”

And just like that, she was dragging Carly to a curled-back place in the chain-link fence that separated them from the concrete yard where Live Girls stored their trash. “When Gary was in high school, he was a quarterback for a team that won their region,” Karen whispered as they ducked beneath.

“Panthers?”

“Yes!” Karen wrapped herself more tightly in the jacket, “He just gave me this!”

The club next door leaked a fuzzy red beer-sign light and thumping music. Karen immediately raised her arms and began to twist and untwist her hips. The men hooted appreciatively. Gary arranged himself behind her and bounced arhythmically at the knees. Karen flattened her back against him and slid toward the ground, then suddenly bounced up and pushed him playfully away.

“Carrr-leeee, come dance with me,” she purred.

She did not want to say she didn’t know how. After all, this type of music was fairly insistent: the only dance move it really suggested was a repetitious thrusting of the pelvis. Carly smiled weakly and began, just barely, to move her hips. Her lifted hands formed loose fists in front of her and she jiggled them, sarcastically at first. This was the only way she had ever danced, the way one danced at the periphery, rolling one’s eyes with the other people who’d been shunted aside by the energy of the dance floor.

But Karen had transformed into the sort of figure you saw at the molten center of the dancers, her mouth tensed in a silent shout, her neck loose, her muscles electric. She straddled Carly’s leg and began to bat it from one thigh to the other. She leaned in very close, her face angled so that their foreheads almost touched and her eyes were looking up into Carly’s like a bull about to charge. Carly’s fingers uncurled; her hands were suddenly on Karen’s shoulders. The men were cheering, and yet the men were not really a part of it. The music, a song about women with booties who really needed it, needed it on the flo’, was a part of them. When it shouted repeatedly for them to get on the flo, get on the flo, their thighs contracted like hydraulics, lower and lower. Carly didn’t have long hair, but what she had she tossed back and forth like a shaken doll. They had lowered their rears within inches of the broken glass and concrete beneath them, but their legs held them and they would not be cut.

And then someone opened a window: the music poured out louder than before, along with a horsey smell of real sweat, live girl sweat, so warm it brought Carly and Karen to their feet.

“Hey! What’s going on back there?”

“We’re busted!” Karen shrieked with delight, “Go!”

She grabbed Carly’s hand and they ran back toward the theater, blowing kisses and shouting good-byes to Gary and his friends. They ran through the backstage area and up the aisles, all the way to the lobby, where they fell down laughing and grabbing at each other’s arms.

Then Karen paused and frowned. She looked in danger of falling out of the moment: “Now what do we do?”

“I know a game,” said Carly, “The boys in the stockroom used to play it…watch.” She dug frantically through the concession stand cabinets until she found what she wanted: square envelopes of instant hot chocolate. “What you do is, you pile as much as you can on a spoon, and see if you can swallow it. Whoever gets the most down wins.” Carly bit her lip, worried that the idea would not appeal.

“I’ll go first!” said Karen.

Soon they were coughing great clouds of powdered chocolate from their mouths and noses, every laugh causing a new eruption. The dusty air of the lobby took on a decidedly cocoa scent. Particles hung in a haze that dimmed the glow of the Pepsi logo on the soda fountain.

Then Karen said the thing that ruined it all: “Someday I’m just going to burn this whole place down.”

“Why would you do that?”

“I don’t know. Don’t you hate it? Don’t you just hate the whole thing?”

Actually, Carly had been thinking that she had never had a night as fun as this. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s wait though. I don’t feel like burning it down tonight.”

*****

The next show was scheduled for 3:30 the following afternoon.

There was a small crowd outside the door before the first popped kernel had made its way over the rim of the popper. When the sophomore (that was the only way any of them ever referred to her) at last turned the locks (having already dirtied several rags trying to mop up the cocoa) they all piled in. One was a regular named Smoky. The rest were leggy women in short skirts and an assortment of cheap jackets. Some of them were smoking, and they did not stop when they entered the lobby. They formed a loose phalanx with a blond at the front.

“There’s no popcorn yet,” said the sophomore, helpless and skinny in her greasy uniform, which was really only a sort of polyester bib that tied at the sides.

“Where are the gur-rills?” demanded the leader. Her nose was hooked in such a way that she seemed able to regard her adversary only by turning it one way or the other, then peering out from behind it with a single beady eye. She wore a coat made from the pelts of small creatures as helpless as the sophomore, but she wore it with a great personal dignity.

“We haf beez-niss with your gur-rills,” she snarled.

Some of the other tall women looked like they might not have accents, but none of them spoke. They all glared impassively; some had their heads tilted practically horizontal with attitude.

“The show doesn’t start for another half hour.”

“We do not weesh to see this show,” the leader tossed the nose leftward in order to regard the sophomore with her other eye. She blew cigarette smoke out the side of her lips opposite the eye she was currently employing.

“I wish to see this show,” said Smoky. Whatever show was earliest, Smoky could be counted on to be in the second to last row with a small bottle of Popov vodka. He thought it more civilized to drink indoors before some sort of spectacle. The crowd had ruffled his usual geniality.

What else could the sophomore do? Her friends spent their free time circling the track in expensive sneakers, or hiding under the bleachers smoking oregano they thought was pot. She opened the doors to the theater. Smoky paid in nickels and dimes. The women glided in without tickets.

Once inside, the women began to shout questions at the projectionist’s booth. Their stacked heels and long bare legs seemed almost enough to propel them into the little square hole. In a panic, Milo dimmed the lights and cued Arabella’s music.

There was grumbling backstage at the early start, but they were professionals in their way, and Arabella was on her pedestal before the curtain opened, her expression as tragic as ever.

Scattered applause came from the audience, not all of them sarcastic.

But it didn’t take long for the noise to get rowdier: “She constipated or something?” “Cheer up, Miss Thang!” They made gagging noises at the bloody wheelbarrow that held Meghan and horse noises at Adrianna’s unicorn.

Carly had not had time to treat Drowned Girl’s throat with Fix-a-Flat, so no bubbles blooped out.

The dead girls began to peek out from the wings to see who was hooting at their acts, and this provoked outright taunting: “Yeah, you hear me! Get out here and shake it a little!” “I”ll teach you some moves, honey, so you won’t have to be so sad!”

Smoky had vamoosed when someone threw a tampon (wrapped, but still) at Willa in her blood-stained gown. The rest of them stayed in their seats beyond the finale. The lights came up automatically. None of them moved.

Sticking to the day’s established clockwork, Carly arrived with her broom and dustpan. The long-legged women had dropped all sorts of detritus: wadded receipts, hardening marbles of chewed gum, a bright lipstick worn down to its concave nub. When a snaky lock of auburn hair blew into the dustpan like tumbleweed, one of the women finally acknowledged Carly: “Hey, bitch, I know you’re not throwing that away? That’s real hair?”

Carly handed the lock back to its owner, taking care to remove a coffee stir that had stuck to it.

“How come you’re not on stage, mama?”

Carly froze. She had not expected them to notice her.

“Yeah,” said the one pinning her hair back together, “You dead, right?”

She hadn’t known it was obvious. The men in the alley had responded to her…but perhaps it had not been awe, after all, but disgust. Now she thought of the smell that had come from the club, a smell that was stronger (if staler) in the air above the folding seats now: these were live girls. She was not one of them, and not just because her legs weren’t like theirs.

“I’m not dead like they are, I guess.”

This provoked laughter. “Pleess,” said the leader, “We would like to talk to these gur-rills. You can make this possible, yes?”

“I’ll have to ask the manager…” A glimpse at the booth: one of the chemo girls stuck her head out of the square hole and shook it. “Well, I’m sure I can take any questions you might have.”

Several years before, a businesswoman on a hurried lunch break had found a baby mouse in the Stop n Shop salad bar, dead and bluish pink, curled up in a cradle of romaine. Upon hearing this, the manager on duty had promptly had a panic attack, locking herself in the employee bathroom and making noises that sounded like a distressed pigeon. Carly was elected to speak to the customer.

The businesswoman hung for a long time between hyperventilation and assault, spitting out accusations for which Carly had no real response. When she paused to gasp for breath, Carly said merely that in a way the woman was lucky; it was certainly better to find a whole dead baby mouse in one’s salad than to find part of one…that is, she restated, to find it with your fork and not your soft palate.

The store was sued.

Carly moved to the night shift: no salad bar, few customers, and all the mice were cheerfully alive beyond the loading dock, awaiting the declaration that another batch of whole wheat hot dog buns had reached their sell-by date untouched.

Carly tried to sound sweet for her frightening visitors: “So, um, your questions?”

Their questions turned out to be mostly reasonable if not strictly answerable, things Carly had wondered herself but had been afraid to ask: how were they stuffed and where were the signs of incision? If the girls were stuffed with something as affordable as sawdust, why didn’t they put a little extra in their breasts? How were they to have a successful “beez-niss” without less ordinary breasts? Was there no lip gloss in their dressing rooms? Because everyone’s lips looked a little cracked, no good for kissing. If men could not think of soft places those lips could caress, men would not pay.

And suddenly the questions stopped. The live girls were all looking beyond Carly: the dead girls had come back on stage. In the harsh trash-sweeping light, they looked a little gray, but still proud.

“So,” said the leader, standing. “You girrulls are not so beautiful. How is it that you steal our client?”

This question confused everyone but Karen, who sank down into a cross-legged pose on the floor and began to examine the bottom of her shoe.

“We don’t advertize,” hissed Arabella. “Men…people just come here because they are called to come here.”

“Who calls them? How do you get the numbers?”

A superior hmmph rippled among the dead girls at the very notion of using a phone.

As a child, Carly had foreseen her parents’ divorce, but at this moment she had her first actual vision. She saw clumps of hair, some real, some artificial, some clinging to bits of grayish skin strewn about the stage. She saw spilled sawdust soaking up blood and silicon. She saw the Drowned Girl’s tank broken, the greenish water rushing out to form a shimmering skein over all of it, dripping lavishly over the lip of the stage and ruining the carpet. She saw Milo: when he finally found the courage to come down, there would be nothing left but living girls, eating his protégés like so many turkey legs.

Because these girls would not lose. They had fought for their lives against pervy uncles and small-minded boyfriends and a nightly procession of hollering would-be gropers and if they had to fight again they would win. They could smile serving beer to a pack of wolves.

Carly piped up: “Karen! Karen, they’re talking about Gary.”

Karen removed a tiny black jewel of asphalt from her sneaker’s heel and inspected it for a moment before stashing it under her tongue. “They wouldn’t get it.”

“Gary?” guffawed a heretofore silent stripper, “Oh hell yeah, I know Gary. That guy who tried to tip with the little business cards, remember? Folded in half, they looked like twenties, but when you opened it, it was an ad for a diner. Supposed to trick people into picking that shit up. Bouncer scared him pretty good.”

Karen stood and approached the rim of the stage with the glitter of her angry music in her eyes: “I told you they couldn’t understand. Guys go to them for silicone. They come to us for the real thing.”

“Your pathetic cleavage!” The leader turned to her cohorts, who laughed on cue.

“No,” said Karen. The strippers went silent. “I mean the real human stuff. The love.”

And that was when the first shoe was thrown. The gold plastic heel lodged in Adrianna’s shoulder.

Karen leapt from the stage with a roar that was so impressive the other dead girls forgot their picturesque passivity and followed her. Fingernails raked skin. Hair flew. The groups were pretty evenly matched.

No one took on Carly.

At the back of the auditorium, the chemo girls were peeking through the door, trying to gather intelligence for Milo.

“I’m leaving,” Carly told them. “Any of you want to come?”

The sophomore peeked out from behind the candy counter, where she had been nervously stuffing herself with Junior Mints. She nodded, her mouth grim with dark, minty drool. Two of the chemo girls nodded. The third, the tallest of the three, shook her head sadly. She seized a nearby mop, unscrewed the handle from the head and ran to join the combat.

“Get them some hats from the lost and found,” Carly told the sophomore.

When they had gone, Carly tipped the popcorn oil out along the countertop. She’d stolen Adrianna’s little ornamental lighter during the morning cleaning to stop Karen getting a hold of it, laboring under the mistaken notion that of all the dead girls, she herself could best be trusted not to cause trouble.

The sophomore and the two chemo girls returned from the closet, garbed in bulky men’s windbreakers and bright orange stocking caps.

“Wait just outside the door,” said Carly. “I’m right behind you.”

The flame jumped eagerly from the lighter to the golden oil spill. It spread across the glass and dripped down to the carpet, just like the water of Carly’s vision, only this was fire and more beautiful.

But Carly had no time for beauty just then. She was going to ride the bus back to her apartment, throw out the half chicken wrap moldering in her fridge, determine if any of her spider plants could be revived, and set up some kind of sleeping space for her new roommates.

She looked forward to the quiet of the night shift at the grocery store. The subterranean creatures who fed themselves at these unlikely times. She had no plan to speak to them, but she relished the thought of their alarm- followed by their relief- when she loomed up behind the rows of milk in the dairy cooler. The sheepish smile they gave her before they grabbed their slender cartons and moved back into the fluorescent night.

Editor’s note: To support writers like Sarah, please click the green heart below and follow the Great Jones Street publication. Thanks.

Sarah Harris Wallman is a 2013 winner of Prada’s international fiction award. She grew up in Nashville, then studied writing at the University of Virginia and the University of Pittsburgh. Wallman currently teaches at Albertus Magnus College (aka “the Bert”) in New Haven. She has several promising novel manuscripts and two children.

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Fictioneer from Nashville and other places, faculty at Albertus Magnus College.

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