Unravelling Future Ghosts

Flash Fiction July, 25

There’s potential here.

It’s your favourite saying, whether you’re staring at a blank canvas or a plain white bedroom, a page in a novel just waiting for fresh new marginalia or sculpting a person into shape. The last is so easy because half the time all it takes is the power of suggestion before they’re following the subliminal little messages you’re putting in place and they don’t even notice it.

And you watch from the wings as a singer totters on stage, her heels are too tall for standing comfortably and her lipstick is too red. It won’t show up well on camera, she stands there graceless and stiff as a board. Her voice though – that’s the best of the lot. Despite the tiny stage she’s on, her voice owns it. Provincial girl in a provincial little town where the best she’ll get is weddings and birthdays; such a waste.

You swoop in, quick. There’s no other shark around right now to poach her, to spy the talent and sweep her off to a better world than you can offer. Within a fortnight she’s standing in front of you, dazed and still awkward in her darkly-red lipstick and low heels. Heels take training, you tell her, take her hand and adjust her hair while she relaxes her spine.

If she doesn’t do well, it’s not difficult to find a new one.

She does well.

The crowds love her and you bask in it, know where to hit weak spots so she wants to do this again. Two-inch heels give way for three and then four, stages growing wider and taking longer for her to cross them to the lines where she’s supposed to stand. She learns all her lines by rote and learns to give them enough inflection that it sounds like she gives a damn.

(It takes you longer than it should to realize: she doesn’t)

(Here is the secret that she never tells you: she hates this. Hates that she trails around the world in a pile of glossy silken dresses and talks to others of her own ilk, hates interviews and how it took her away from comfort)

There’s still potential. So far she’s meeting your every goal for the cities and sometimes has to hop planes to cross an ocean but she’s not made all the goals.

You give her compliments for every performance and gifts for the big ones; lavish her with enough glitter that she can easily forget the tarnishing. She says she doesn’t take compliments well, but you see the way she flutters her eyelashes, lets her voice go soft and shy as she stammers – an artful affectation on her part, because now people think she’s just charmingly modest.

There begins a race against the clock: she’s counting down the time before her contract with you runs out and you’re counting down the time before you can renew the contract. Every performance she gives now is laced with a sort of eagerness, the kind of eagerness that (backstage) reads like this: one more down, another day done.You see it in the way she carries a calendar everywhere and crosses it off day by day.Tears off each month as it’s done, carries a day planner and rips page by page.

(The latter, you know, is the really effective one. The book thins out week by week, you only need to look at it to see the dwindling pages)

In the third year she dedicates a performance, cryptically, to you. She whispers a short lyric of red lipstick and then opens her mouth, tears into the song as if it personally has offended her. It’s spellbinding; the next day, everyone is all over the dedication and tearing it apart to find out what it means. Neither of you break the silence on it. Let them wonder.

The arguments started long ago, with you pushing bundles of dresses into her hands for her to wear, resculpting her hair and supplying her with a rubber-banded stack of notecards for her stories and interviews; she always has to be evolving, always has to appear to be changing daily. This unpredictability is something that they all love, wondering who she will be or what she will do next.

(So you pile up the compliments, day after day, and ensure she never hears a bad word. Criticism is all good, as long as it’s the good variety)

Anyway. You and she argue over the littlest things, and silk dresses come back to you with frayed hems; vital makeup goes missing and she forgets her lines, makes up something on the spot even as you hiss lines from your backup cards through the little Bluetooth in her ear. There’s a sly grin on ruby lips and you think vaguely that expression shouldn’t be there. That shouldn’t be an expression she knows how to make, and when her interviewers ask she changes the subject.

The public still takes it all hungrily though and she learns what you never told her: she can do anything now, because she’s out of her tiny little hometown and there’s enough money for her to coast the next thirty years. A song goes wrong; the musicians behind her hit a wrong note when she sings too slowly and throws off the rhythm of the song.

She stomps off stage and cuts a path, furious, through the private exit provided. What good is it, being given the world, if you’re still going to mess up?

(She ignores, rather petulantly, the fact that it was her who caused it in the first place)

And finally, her end scene: she’s fed up, impulsive, reckless. She pitches the microphone at the ground and thousands cringe at the feedback. The press loves it, but the rest of them don’t. They don’t buy the explanations, and so she walks away, resigned.

It’s not difficult to find another, after all.

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