The Exquisite Corpse – Melody Sage
The zeitgeist was yesterday and now Tallulah was bored. There was nothing good on her pocket amphitheater—a slaughter and a fur babe pageant. Bunnies and squirrels with breast implants used to seem so cute. Now they were everywhere. She had even started to see them in the recycling kiosks, cooing and begging to be picked up. Platypus butlers were the latest thing. Tallulah had just put the most adorable blue and gold chevron one in her wish list. She was going to name him Mr. Chachi and teach him to dance.
She stroked her new updates absentmindedly. They still felt strange on her skin, like teeth after going to the dentist. She flicked her inspiration wall to narcotic shuffle. Blown up pictures of puppies licking each other, candy fights, and couples orgasming in hot air balloons streamed across the room in a slow cascade.
She sighed and leaned back in her chaise lounge. Her kumquat-flavored manicured toes grazed the opposite wall of her apartment. It sucked to be poor. The only place she could afford in a metro address was a six foot cube that used to be a closet. None of her ten thousand friends had ever been inside.
Tallulah knew she should shop, or post a picture of herself, or like or dislike something to stay relevant. Her hits had gone down lately. Maybe she was getting old. She was twenty four, six years past her statistical peak. The truth was not as many people were interested in seeing her eat a banana in one bite, or take bubble baths with a litter of piglets. She shuddered to think what she would have to do to get attention a year from now and tried to put it out of her mind.
She pulled at her cheeks and eyelids in her hand mirror to watch the skin snap back into place. Soon she would need a transplant that was all.
Tallulah remembered her mom smiling lopsidedly over a cup of coffee, while getting her ready for school. Even though her mom’s face du jour was a super-hot, Tallulah secretly missed the old sleep-creased one from when she was a kid. She was the sentimental type.
Her ears rang. She squealed. It was Frank Stein, the B + list designer behind Metamorphic Toupees. They hooked up on the weekends, but she hoped for more someday—a zero gravity wedding, an obscenely poofy dress, test tube quintuplets—the works. She paused a few seconds before answering to set her face into a slightly dumb wide-eyed pout. Frank was into baby dolls. Sometimes when they got together, he had her drink White Russians out of an old fashioned plastic bottle with a rubber nipple.
“Hey baby, free tonight?” he asked.
“You know I never charge you Frank,” she said and giggled.
“Does that mean you don’t want the present I got you?”
“Yes, yes! Oh, yes!”
“Say please, then.”
“Pretty, pretty please with sugar on top and a cherry.”
“Yum. See you at ten?”
“I’ll bring the cherry.”
Her listless mood from earlier in the day was forgotten. Frank gave the best presents. Once, he got her a genuine alligator purse that ate pennies and bit off the hands of pickpockets. She wondered whatever happened to it.
More importantly, what should she wear? Out of habit, she clicked on her feed for her disciples to watch her perform a burlesque while getting ready. After an agonizing hour of uncertainty, Tallulah opted to wear the Cling to Me Leotard. She programmed the fit and airbrushed on her makeup, as the black-veined lime green vines twined sinuously around her legs. Glossy hot pink cherries drooped to dangle in the leaves. They were even nominally edible. A nice touch, she thought.
She stepped back and mirrored the entire room to critique herself infinitely from every angle. Her evaluation was cold, specific and impersonal. Her hair floated around her shoulders in a perfectly disarranged platinum cloud. There was a slight sheen on her skin like a wet stone. Her eye color shifted like a kaleidoscope. The effect was undeniably hypnotic. Her shiny black lips smiled experimentally, practicing. She traced the barely perceptible seam along her side from where she had been pressed in a mold. Tallulah longed with her whole being to be special and interesting, but not overly so, not a freak. She did not recognize that she hardly recognized herself.
Her body was her art. She buffed, installed, petted, extracted, and updated it in an effort to attain a sublime state, an apotheosis of the flesh. Except the standards of perfection changed constantly, evading her even as she placed them in her sights, like trying to shoot a bow and arrow at a swan in flight.
Tallulah collapsed her wardrobe to the size of a pill. Everything she owned could fit in a sequined makeup bag at the touch of a button. She turned off her feed and checked her hits on the way out—30,683. Not enough for a cup of coffee. Feed, such an ironic turn of phrase, she thought. She hoped Frank would feed her. Sometimes he forgot. Tallulah brightened, when she realized that worst case scenario, she could just eat the cherries off her outfit.
On the walk to the monorail, her 10,000 friends murmured comments in her ear, a soft reassuring sea. She caught single overlapping words —car wash, apocalypse, ice cream. She averted her eyes from the sidewalk shanties and tried to seem taller. A man that had turned gray from the smog plucked off one of her leaves and smelled it. She kept going, breathing heavily through her ventilator. She did not make eye contact. She did not look back.
It was only three more blocks. Tallulah willed herself to feel safe and surrounded by her whispering circle of friends. People needed connection. It was a scientific fact. How did anyone survive in the days before telepathy buds?
The monorail glided to a stop right at the loading dock of Frank’s warehouse/ loft palazzo—a fact that never failed to impress her. Frank lived upstairs to keep a close eye on the operation. En route to the elevator, Tallulah passed the assembly line. The factory workers were all fresh-faced unaffected girls under the age of fifteen. Their hands were buried to the wrist in a rainbow of writhing synthetic hair. They wore white lab coats and no pants. The girls fell quiet as Tallulah walked by. She suppressed a pang of jealousy. That was not the arrangement. It was stupid, anyway. She was a tastemaker, a trendsetter, a lower ranked queen of the culture class. Every last one of those girls wished on their birthday cakes to be her.
She stepped out into the cavernous loft and was taken aback. Frank had not told her tonight was a party. Out of a dozen people, there was no one she knew she knew for sure. People changed their appearance so often. All parties were by default masquerades. She had once crashed to a surprise party where all the guests had the same face. Without their usernames it was impossible to tell who was who. She searched the room for Frank. For the occasion, he had renovated the space to look like a forest. Lit from within, the trees radiated red and amber, indigo and acid green. Tangled shadows stretched across the polished concrete floor. The air was as humid and close as breath. Tallulah caught a convincing whiff of rotting leaves. Despite the thundering house music and grinding strangers, the loft felt strangely wild and desolate.
Tallulah found Frank talking with an elegant woman dressed entirely in fluttering silk moths. The woman at least was unmistakable. Tallulah recognized her at once— Blanca, the heiress and fashion icon. She had won a famous copyright dispute to protect her image. Three years ago, a lookalike of her hustled on every street corner. The gossip vloggers claimed that she had invented her trademark accent. Now millions of her fans spoke like they were denizens of a country that did not exist.
“Blanca,” Frank announced. He swept out his arms with flourish to gesture at her thin body, as if she were a rare and breathtaking natural phenomenon like an iceberg. “Blanca I cannot tell you how excited I am to meet you. I follow you. I mean of course I follow you. Everyone does. You must know that.” Tallulah gushed helplessly, unable to stop herself.
“Charmed,” Blanca said without looking at her. “Frank get me more champagne.” He kissed her limp hand.
“Of course. Tallulah come.”
Tallulah followed him to a sparkling alcoholic waterfall. Frank tipped the flute into the bubbling gold stream. He took a sip that left him with a foam moustache. Her stilettos sank into the wine spangled moss. The fizz tickled her nostrils, and she tried not to sneeze. He tweaked one of her cherries with a forefinger.
“Your costume is impeccable by the way. A slutty dryad,” he said.
Tallulah laughed the way she always did when she was not sure what Frank was talking about. She wondered if getting to meet Blanca was the present that he had promised her. He pressed his thumb on her lower lip. His pupils narrowed to slits. An emerald beauty mark glinted on his chin. She closed her eyes. Some of the style choices he made were a little too avant garde for her comfort. He was in a reptilian phase. It was supposed to be sardonic, but still. His tail wrapped around her hips, calloused and cold to the touch. He caressed her throat, and her skin lighted up under his hand like a firefly.
“That’s new,” he said.
“I just had it done yesterday. Do you like it?”
He poked and prodded her, slapping her lightly on the ass. The harder he slapped her the brighter she flashed. He laughed.
“It has definite possibilities.”
A deafening hum rose to drown out the music.
“We will have to continue our little tete a tete later Tinkerbelle. That sound connotes the call to the festivities,” he shouted. He led her to the center of the room where everyone was gathered around a machine. Almost everyone. Blanca stood on a balcony high above and looked down at them. We must look like ants from up there, Tallulah thought. Glittery little ants. The machine dwarfed the party. Cables protruded from it like a nest made of black licorice. A tank of milky fluid sat in its belly. The partygoers struggled to seem suitably jaded and cool in the midst of the din and confusion. Her skull vibrated from the noise. If she screamed no one would hear. Frank grabbed a megaphone.
“I have gathered you all together to partake in a bold new project of mine. An experiment. I know each of you individually to be up for anything. Let’s see if you are up for this—my latest, greatest, venture.”
The group cheered. Tallulah glanced around her at the other guests and saw the repressed foreboding she felt on their stylish faces.
“Please then, lay down on the cots provided,” Frank said.
Tallulah lay down and pulled the sheets around her neck. She gazed up at the branches. Through the glass ceiling the helicopters and billboards looked like stars.
After what felt like a long time, Frank came to her bedside. He handed her a paper cup filled with a viscous green liquid and winked. She felt a warm flush of love for him He was so handsome—in spite of the tail. She drank the liquid in one draught. It tasted sickly metallic like blood and mildew. She fainted before her head hit the pillow.
“Wake up sleeping beauties,” Frank said.
“What no kiss?” Tallulah rasped, her eyelids pasted to her eyes. Everything hurt, her bones, her teeth, even her hair. She forced herself upright. Frank looked down from the balcony with Blanca, his arm draped casually around her waist, like it belonged there.
“We have an announcement to make,” he said. “We wanted you, my oldest and dearest friends, to find out first. Blanca and I are engaged to be married. This party is actually our engagement party.”
He waited for a scattered applause. Tallulah felt as if she had been punched in the stomach and told to say thank you. She understood then, that most of the people there probably hooked up with him like she did. Most of them wanted and schemed for more. The now humiliating wedding fantasy popped like a mutilated balloon. There had been no basis for hope. There never had been.
“But wait! I have another surprise for you, a prize for you. Girls bring it out.”
On cue, a drumroll started. From behind the machine, a quartet of factory girls appeared, yanking on thick chains. As docile as a drugged kitten, a monster shambled to follow them. The group went silent. Tallulah did not know where to look. The monster had one huge eye and constellation of smaller eyes that blinked in syncopated time. It was mashed together from mismatched parts like a poorly made parfait. Bits of it dragged on the floor, leaving a trail of ectoplasm and blood.
Tallulah mentally listed the things in it she recognized: a snake, half a baby, a pair of false teeth, a pair of fake breasts, a dollhouse with a light on upstairs, a bouquet of faces, a wodge of human flesh, a rat tail, a tentacle, a unicorn head, a braid of hair, a handful of penises, a tiny bride in an obscenely poofy dress. Tallulah paused. The bride had her face. The face was beaming, pained and happy.
“Behold my creation, The Exquisite Corpse. Or rather, I should say, our creation. It was made from your dreams, your dreams brought to life.”
The crowd applauded in earnest now.
“A year from now this will be the biggest party game to go rogue. As the first human subjects, and my dearest friends, I wanted to offer you a reward for being such good sports. A fabulous prize—this 104 carat diamond mined from the planet 55 Cancri e.”
A colossal gemstone descended from the ceiling suspended on a titanium wire. It spun lazily in the air, facets casting polychromatic laser beams on the party. The people around her whooped and clapped, clutching one another like lottery winners. Despite herself Tallulah gasped. With a diamond like that she would never have to take a bath with a litter of piglets again. She would be utterly totally free.
“How do we win?” a man with a pink goatee called out over the commotion.
“You have to kill the monster of course. Who has not wanted to rid themselves of their nightmares? The dreams that haunt them, that make them sweat and ache? Who has not wanted to be a hero? You will be able to literally slay your demons. Now, come, select your weapons.”
Another quartet of factory girls wheeled out a table with an assortment of knives, crossbows, and spears set out buffet style. The partygoers pushed and scrambled to pick first. Tallulah hung back, still woozy from the medication. Everything was happening so fast. She picked up a spear bedecked with neon dyed feathers and strings of beads.
The group looked to Frank for further instructions.
“The only rule is that there are no rules. To keep things interesting, we are going to give the monster a head start,” he said.
The factory girls unlocked the chains. The monster cowered from their touch,
quivering like blanc mange in a bomb blast. Frank nodded, and one of girls put a blow dart to her lips and shot it. The monster squealed. Unexpectedly quick on its miscellaneous limbs, it galumphed into the trees. The partygoers formed a ragged line at the edge of the forest.
“Blanca if you would do the countdown, darling.”
“Fine. On the count of three. One. Two. Three.”
And they were off in all directions. Tallulah stripped off her eight inch heels and went barefoot. Frank dimmed the lights. The hair on her forearms rose. The forest was like a labyrinth without an end. She started at the sound of faint shrieks, rustling, and laughter. Twigs whipped her face as she ran. She tried to think like a monster. What did a monster like? Besides scaring people.
She stumbled into a clearing and watched in astonishment as the man with the pink goatee accidentally stabbed a lady with bunny ears in the thigh. Then he pulled out the knife and just left her. Her bunny ears twitched, and her red albino eyes rolled back in her head. The factory girls showed up with a stretcher to carry her off, patting her pale fur gently. From the balcony, Frank and Blanca observed the tableau through bionic opera glasses. It occurred to Tallulah that the easiest way to win might be to pick off the competition. If that thought had occurred to her, it could occur to someone else. She decided to hide just in case.
Her costume of vines made this task relatively simple. She tiptoed and stayed close to the trees. Her head throbbed, and her mouth tasted like a chicken carcass used as an ashtray. Tallulah realized that she was thirsty, and thought that she would really like some champagne. She woozily followed the sound of trickling.
When she arrived at the waterfall, she lapped at the champagne pool on her hands and knees and splashed her face. Delicious, she thought, and sighed. She lifted her head to look directly into the huge lucid blue eye of the monster. Neither of them moved. This was her chance. She was pathetic. Face to faces, and she could not even bring herself to raise her gaudy spear. She would never be free.
The monster sniffed the champagne and sneezed. They were alike, Tallulah realized, her and the monster. A pastiche of entertaining dreams. An amusement for others. Ridiculous. Sad. Also true. She held out her hand, trembling, and fingered the lacey hem of her dream wedding dress. The monster flinched, but submitted to her touch. She passed her hand lightly across the rat tail and unicorn snout. Poor ugly creature, it should not have to die for a silly game.
Incandescent leaves fell on the two of them like tired confetti. The monster leaned close to her, and she pressed her forehead against one of its foreheads. It released a long snuffling sigh. It smelled like night sweat and baby powder, like childhood. She could not let this happen. This was wrong. She had to get it out of here. Somehow.
The elevator was not an option, but there must be a fire escape, she reasoned. If they stuck to the perimeter, they could find it. If only they could get there in time. Tallulah staggered to her feet and shook her head. The champagne had done nothing to improve the clarity of her thinking. She took the monster by the stump of a hand and pulled. It wheezed after her, gazing at her through a hundred resigned eyes. In her haste, she forgot the spear. Footsteps pounded in the distance. They crept along the wall of windows, as best as they could, until she spotted a glowing red exit sign. Her heart leapt.
“Come on, run,” she whispered. She pulled on the monster hard. It was going as fast as it could. The footsteps were coming closer. Tallulah dashed away tears with the back of her wrist. She felt like she was going to throw up.
“Come on, you stupid thing,” she said again, but it was too late. The other players had arrived.
Tallulah stretched her arms around the monster. It blubbered and leaked fluid, soaking her to the skin. There were three of them, two women chained together at the neck and the man with the pink goatee. The man had stripped down to a pair of bloody underwear. The women wore the same body, face, and hair in reversed colors, like photo negatives with machetes.
“Let the corpse go,” the man said. “We’re all in this together. Let it go, and we’ll cut you in. There is enough for all of us.”
“Leave us alone,” Tallulah gulped.
“Don’t be stupid,” the woman said.
“I think she’s drunk,” the other woman said.
“What an idiot.”
“What do you expect from a budget porn star?”
“Leave us alone. Please.”
“Enough of this king kong shit,” the man said.
“Give it to us.”
“Be nice. Share.”
“You don’t want us to hurt that expensive little face of yours.”
“I’ll go through you if I have to sweet cheeks.” The man grimaced and raised his crossbow. Tallulah squeezed her eyes shut. The arrow pierced her leg. The breath knocked out of her. She collapsed to her knees. A second arrow grazed her cheekbone. She started to slip in and out of consciousness but did not let go of the monster. The women approached her, swinging their knives like flower baskets.
“We’ll cut her off piece by piece, then.”
The monster bellowed through its many mouths. Next to her, the wailing baby head was lopped off, and Tallulah blacked out.
She woke up to someone jiggling her shoulder.
“Good, you’re awake. That was quite a stunt you pulled. Not that I am complaining, it made for riveting entertainment. The party was a success, thanks to you.”
Tallulah cracked open her eyelids.
“Of course you have sustained some damage, nothing that can’t be fixed in a snap. By the time my team is done with you will be top of the line, better than before. When you pass gas, it will smell like Chanel no 5.” Frank cleaned his cuticle as he spoke.
“What happened?” Tallulah asked.
“Your pretty light trick broke. You are only flickering at the moment, ma petite
Tinkerbelle. And you’ll have a few scars, temporarily.” He handed her a mirror. She studied herself for a moment. Her makeup had worn off, and a swollen cut circumnavigated the length of her cheek.
“Who won I mean?”
“Oh, Jonny Boy and Flotsam, I can’t remember the name of the other chick now. Not that it matters.”
A reptilian smiled spread across his face.
“It was all a practical joke. A week from now diamonds will be worth as much as toilet paper, now that we are receiving regular shipments from Cancri 55 e.
It was Blanca’s idea. Her family owns that planet. She is incredible.” “Incredible.”
“Here, I saved you a piece,” Frank said, blandishing the severed unicorn horn as if it were a piece of cake. “I honestly never expected you to go crazy. Sorry about that.”
He almost did seem sorry, Tallulah thought. He set the horn gingerly in her lap. The ivory was stained and archaic looking. She grasped it with her hand. The bony ridges bit into her palm.
“And I thought maybe next weekend, you could come over and I could make it up to you more in private. Baby, you are going to be smoking hot, by the time I get done with you. You won’t be able to recognize yourself.” Frank ran his finger down the bridge of her nose and made a boop sound.
“Thanks, but no thanks.” she said.
Tallulah swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood up.
“Whoa, where are you off to in such a hurry? Don’t you want to get that scar fixed?” Tallulah smiled and winced at the pain.
“No, I think I am going keep it. I have always been the sentimental type.”
Melody Sage is a professional artist. Her poetry and fiction appeared in The Best of Vine Leaves Literary Journal 2013, Menacing Hedge, The Dirty Napkin, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2014 Scot Imes Award, and currently resides in Duluth, MN. To view more of her work visit: melodysage.com.