Her voice catches at the end of the song, and her muscles clench, pushing the end of her breath out of those raging lungs, eyes shut desperately to get that last note to ring as loud as possible. The crowd erupts into applause, screams, flailing hands, as she gestures to the instrumentalists before bowing herself, shoulders strained against the uproar. She stalks off the stage but they keep clapping, thinking they can urge her to sing more, urge her into an encore. But she keeps moving, past stage hands and manager’s assistants, who pat her on the back and smear deafening smiles onto their faces. She goes faster, hurrying away from stranger’s chants of Kel-ly! Kel-ly!
She closes her eyes and rounds the corner to her dressing room, refusing the same name plastered in gold on the surface. She slams the door behind her, barely making it to the toilet before she vomits. Nothing comes up but clear bile, coating her throat and mouth with poison. She wipes her lips violently, draped over the bowl for a moment, breathing in an acidic mix of bleach and stomach.
She suppresses an audible scream, but feels it rise like heat through her chest and head. She rubs her eyes, ignoring the black that clings to her fingers like charcoal. She pushes herself up, almost ripping the lid from its hinges. Breathing deeply, counting in even paces of six, in through the nose, out through the mouth.
She stares at her face in the mirror, monstrous, eyes ringed in black and purple, skin three shades paler, sickly, under the foundation that’s been rubbed off around her mouth. “I am Gwen Green,” she begins, raking her hair back from her scalp. “I am Gwen Green, and when I was seven-years-old I was sure that name meant I was a superhero. It’s all in the alliteration,” she chuckles. But she is a superhero. She is Kelly Krystal, sparking, sharp, and valuable only after being cleaned and cut. “But I am not a superhero. I am not Kelly Krystal. I am human, she does not really exist. I am unique, she has never experienced anything.” She is a superhero. Alliteration, double life and all.
Her heart jolts when the door swings wide open, manager, mother, assistants and six VIP fans entering. Five girls and a boy brimming with giddy silence. Her breath is rancid and her face is a mess, but she grins at them, tongue behind teeth, a Rockette worthy, show-stopping smile, pushing pain down. She’s on again, on display, on stage, in the limelight. “I’m so sorry, all the sweat really ruins my makeup. Give me just a moment,” that smile is stuck like duct tape over her mouth.
She re-enters the bathroom, shutting the door behind her. She presses the nails of her right hand, hard, into her palm, leaving fleshy half moons of anxiety. She cups water in her hands, splashing warmth onto her face before slathering it in soap, rubbing until her face melts into a mix of tan, black, purple and red. Not a superhero, a monster. She washes the paint off, again and again rinsing with increasingly cool water. She stops when she remembers people are waiting for her. She pats her raw face clean, reapplies mascara and lipgloss and opens the door again.
“Sorry about that,” the blinding binding smile is back, white teeth cracking into a piece of gum. “How old are all of you?”
“I’m Mariel, I’m fourteen, and I drove all the way from Baltimore to meet you!” The one farthest to her left begins, bouncing slightly on the balls of her feet and in the auburn curls of her hair.
“Sarah,” this one’s shy, glossy black hair falling straight down her back.
“And I’m Rebecca,” same glossy black hair and large nose smiles next to her, twins only in appearance. “We’re both thirteen.”
“Jonathan!”The lone boy cries, not letting her say hello. “I’ve been listening to your music since I was twelve and I’ll be fourteen on Tuesday!”
“Well, happy almost birthday Jonathan!” Her cheeks hurt slightly, the facade holding fast. “And hello, Mariel, Sarah and Rebecca.”
She pivots slightly, placing her hands on her knees and bending slightly to come closer to their small faces. A mousy girl is quivering with excitement, thin brown hair moving with each miniscule convulsion of her shoulders. “I’m Molly, and I’m ten.”
Gwen’s heart leaps in her chest, these children too young and too kind. Too excited and too nervous. Too good for her. “Hi Molly, thank you for coming.”
The last girl has black hair pulled back in chubby braids, her dark skin glowing. “I’m Carmen,” she says, not only brimming with excitement but confidence. “I’m fifteen,” she stretches her hand out, but Gwen opens her arms for a hug instead. She moves back down the line, pulling each of their small bodies into a protective embrace. Sarah looks like she might cry, Gwen does too. Selfies and sticky-sweet smiles ensue, and after being given signed posters, photos and CDs, they file out. “I love you, Kelly!”s and “Thank you Miss Krystal!”s shouted, too formal and too sincerely insincere.
The facade cracks, then fades with the click of the lock. She sits on the suede couch and wraps herself in a blanket adorned with her own face. Her mother sits on the opposite side of the couch, pin-straight and uncomfortable, glancing every so often at Gwen with apprehension. Suddenly Maria reaches her hands out towards her daughter, shocking Gwen and herself, maternal affection alien to them both. She plucks a stray eyelash from Gwen’s face, holding it on her index finger in front of her mouth.
“Make a wish, sweetheart,” Maria says with an unsure smile.
The smile is met with eyes full of contempt. Gwen purses her lips, and blows a thin stream of air towards her mother’s hand. The stray lash rockets through the air before floating down, disappearing into the couch.