Shanna Merceron- “Bipolar Beauty Queen”

The beauty queen walks the stage in her rhinestone encrusted heels, making sure to glide, not clunk. One foot in front of the other. Hips sway, but not too much. Pause here. One hand on hip, wave gently, like she’s slowly wiping at a window, big smile. Glide, glide, glide, pause. Both hands on hips, lift chin gently, smirk. Glide, glide, pause. One hand on hip, soft smile, soft wave.

She’s center stage. All eyes are on her, they can’t look away. Her hair is coiffed her teeth are whitened her lashes are darkened, her lips are red, so red, her skin, is it porcelain? Is it really that perfect? No, only under those lights.

“For my talent, I shall perform a magic trick.” Her words are precise, rehearsed but still natural. That smile, my god, is your heart fluttering like mine is? How is it that everyone wants her yet no one has ever had her? Intimidating, they say. That’s what they say. But back to the talent.

“For my first trick…”

The beauty queen reveals a knife. The audience gasps. She smiles wider, she expected this reaction. She is sharper than the blade, her mind is worth more than her beauty but today only beauty is being judged.

The beauty queen thrusts forward her forearm and digs the knife in, drags it up her skin. The audience is shocked. Some begin to cry.

“Fear not! There shall be no blood. Only ants, go on, take a peek, look at my colony, look at how they fester, how they pull my strings.” The beauty queen walks to the lip of the stage and paces, showing off her insides. Her evening gown, a shade of emerald to match her eyes, glistens in the stage lights, perfectly complements the red of her exposed muscle. The fur scarf that rests around her neck begins to twitch.

The beauty queen steps back to center stage. She licks her finger and traces the line of her slice, sealing up her ants and the skin once more. She tucks the knife back into her ample cleavage. The beauty queen snaps her fingers and the fur scarf comes to life. It is a fox! It wraps its tail around her throat, swallows her breath, her vision, and the audience fades to black.

The beauty queen wakes, sitting up harshly in bed, and the crown almost falls off her head. But the fox stirs and lifts a rough paw to push the jeweled tiara back in place. Her ants whisper a song of joy, it’s all worth it for the crown, and the beauty queen rests once more.


When it rained, the beauty queen thought the mountains looked like they were on fire. Mist curled from the trees like smoke, their autumn capped leaves disappearing into the foggy sky. The beauty queen’s gut churned with contempt, her appreciation for color soiled by her disdain for the Appalachian country. She imagined the Blue Ridge as a different type of blue horizon and feasted on pavement, her iron foot burning through the floor of her car, thinking that mountains were a place to get lost, never a place to come home.

Her phone rang, trilling through the speakers in the car. She pushed the button to answer blindly, waiting for the voice on the other end to reveal their identity.

It was her sister calling. She was in a fight with her boyfriend. “He’s such a fucking bastard,” the sister said, “I hate that mother-fucking prick. I’m driving away from his apartment right now. He has four more minutes to call me to apologize or that’s it, we’re over.”

“You’re broken up?” The beauty queen never had a boyfriend. She did not know how these things worked. But like most things, she was excellent at pretending.

“Not exactly. Not yet.” She could hear the sounds of her sister’s own highway. The sister had moved to live in mountains too. The Rockies. The beauty queen asked her if she missed their ocean. The sister said she only missed the sand.

“He’s calling back. Fucking clockwork. Call ya later, bitch!”

The beauty queen continued her trek through the mountains, their rounded and lined faces like long faded pageant queens.

On a Saturday, the beauty queen rose from her white cushioned bed after getting fitful beauty sleep, and fed her designer mutt his breakfast. She did her morning stretches then showered, making sure she used the purple shampoo to maintain the platinum shade of her hair. She shaved her legs, her bikini line, her armpits even though hair did not grow for her there. She shaved her toes. The beauty queen washed the deep conditioning treatment from her hair and turned the water off. She checked the drain for ants. She was naked, cold, dripping. She stood there for awhile until her eyes seemed able to focus again. She stepped out onto her plush bath mat, thinking that it had been a week since she’d last painted her toenails. She combed her hair, slowly, gently, coaxing the knots to untangle back into her golden tresses. She toned and moisturized, used her acid drops to firm her aging twenty-two-year-old flesh. The beauty queen wrapped herself in a silk dressing gown and sat at her vanity. She stared at her reflection until it looked familiar. Then she painted a new one over it.

The beauty queen wasn’t always moving through air layered in melancholia. But she couldn’t recall the days of sunlight and laughter when she got her first two crowns, the days before depression maneuvered through the medicated haze of her mind, sinking its claws into her delicate neck, digging in deep until the pills kicked in and yanked them out again.

The beauty queen carried depression on her shoulders, it sat around her collarbones, curled up like a fat fox, its tail tickling her nose and watering her glittered eyes. It was a cold-blooded fox. It offered no warmth, only an added weight that squelched the beauty queen’s feet through mud, sinking her high-heels deep. The fox’s purrs pervaded her mind, an endless white noise, the only station she was tuned to, telling her it was time. This was it. The beauty queen ignored her fox and lined her lips.

The beauty queen’s sister called her. She had spent the day in bed. Eight hours in conversation with the fox and the wall. She had stroked its fur, whispered a soft mantra in her sweet sing-song voice that everything would be okay. It’s all in my head it’s all in my head

She felt her phone ring. Lifted it, squinted at the screen, her sister’s name and face illuminated. She watched the phone pulsate in her hands, watched her sister’s name scroll over the screen. She pressed speaker. She could not bring the phone to her ear, the fox was snuggled against it.

“Hello?” The beauty queen’s voice did not croak although she could not remember the last time she spoke.

Her sister was engaged. It had been a week since the fight, and now she wore a big blue ring on her finger. Aquamarine. She felt so far from the beauty queen. The beauty queen wanted to drive from her old mountains to her sister’s massive ones just to touch the piece of ocean on her finger. Maybe then she wouldn’t feel so lost. The sister would bare her fangs at the fox and scare it away with her own flavor of venom.

 “It’s just as big as I wanted it to be,” the sister said. The beauty queen imagined her sister admiring the ring as she spoke to her.

“Don’t you think this is sudden? It’s only been four months.” The beauty queen’s voice was soft, the gentle hush she was taught to speak in. But sometimes her own personality leaked out of her façade. She tried hard not to be too alarming, too blinding. For her sister, she didn’t have to hide. But the fox’s tail constricted around her neck. She couldn’t muster the energy to fight.

“Five months,” the sister corrected. “I’m not afraid of divorce,” she added. The line went dead and the beauty queen hoped the sister didn’t think she was unsupportive. She ran a finger along the tail, stroking the soft fur. The beauty queen felt tempted to imagine what it would be like to have a ring of her own sitting on a lacquered finger. But she knew that her daydreams only spoiled her stomach, and came up her throat. Poisoned nothings and nevers that the fox lapped up with an eager tongue to feed her again in other moments of darkness. She pulled the covers over her head and whispered that everything would be okay, that everything will work out. It’ll happen it’ll happen it’ll happen.

The ants laughed.

 On a Sunday, the beauty queen plucked away stray eyebrow hairs. She left a tea tree mask on her face for thirty minutes to soothe her undisturbed skin, to ignore the ants that writhed beneath her flesh. She painted her toenails. The beauty queen curled her hair on low heat. Her mother taught her these things. Taught her what it meant to be beautiful, what she could do with it. Her mother resented all the things the beauty queen did not do. The mother could not live through her. The mother was once a pageant queen, once donning bikinis and winning enough money to put herself through cosmetology school. She turned heads when she entered a room. She didn’t bother to pick up the roses at her feet. But the beauty queen’s mother used the earnings of her beauty for different kinds of drugs than the ones taming the madness in her daughter’s brain.

The beauty queen sat at her vanity and coated her lashes until they were dark, until they were dark enough to pull tempted sailors into the green waters of her eyes. The beauty queen did not think of all these things that she did. Did not reflect on her routines. But she wondered what beauty had ever given her besides some crowns.

Ants moved into the beauty queen’s skin sometime after her sixteenth birthday, a year after her last pageant. At first, the ants lingered as nothing but a whisper to the flesh, hardly noticeable, causing an occasional scratch, a slight discomfort. They were manageable these ants, because she didn’t think they would stick around. They would go away and she could reach for a new crown. But the ants decided they liked their new home. They decided they were gonna stick around, stay awhile.

As this teenage beauty queen slept, the ants buried themselves under her skin, better to be underflesh, they thought, less susceptible to the whims of her environment. They made their new home beneath the skin, stretched out their legs, twitched their antennas, and bred, and bred. A new horde of ants was running her show, and when she woke, the beauty queen was at their mercy.

She would stretch her arms and the ants at her fingertips would slide down to her elbows, riding the rollercoasters beneath. The ants had to be smart about this. Before she could move to step out of bed, they were marching, headed toward the head. The ants gripped onto the folds of her brain, settled into the crevices.

The beauty queen began to speak words she never remembered. She had memories of events that never happened, hallucinations put forth by the ants enjoying some TV time. Her brain wasn’t her own anymore. Her body wasn’t her own. The red fire coursing through her blood had dulled to dry ice. Each step felt like she was walking on creaky bones. All the ants in her head dragged her down, her head hung low, the crown barely hanging on, the neck slouched. Her eyelids just wanted to be closed, but her mouth hung open just slightly, the only fight in her, hoping that maybe an ant or two would crawl out and make an escape.

Her body had given itself over to the ants. It wanted to lie in bed, stare at the wall for hours, contemplate ending the ant takeover, taking a gun and firing into their new nest. But the thoughts faded, and her hands didn’t have the strength to curl into a fist, never mind grip a gun.

But sometimes, the depression would change. The dry ice cracked, could melt in an instant, and she would wake with a flood crashing through her. The beauty queen’s mind and body entered a war with the ants. She was shouting, she was laughing, the mental circuit boards glitching, sparking, her arms flailing, her nails scratching at her skin, getting to the blood, trying to draw the ants out. The beauty queen had lost it! She was crazy! Did she deserve her crown? Was she even still beautiful?

The beauty queen was a cackling, crackling, manic fool. She would not be at these insects’ mercy. She tried to speak this to those who would listen. She was bursting at the seams, her intent interrupted by the ants, trying to take back the power, to calm her storm, bring her back to the ice, to the bed, to staring at the wall, while they partied in her veins.

When the beauty queen was still pulling strings, when mania was a magnifying glass on the ants, scaring them away, the beauty queen drove through traffic. Slammed her foot on the accelerator and tore through four lanes of incoming cars. She craved the collision, the crashing, and the demise of the ants, as they cracked and poured out of her, their host crunched.

 But horns blared, brakes were stomped, and traffic lights changed. Not a single car hit the beauty queen. The ants and the beauty queen escaped unscathed.

Mania brought her to the doctor’s door. She showed the doctor her trick. Peeled back her skin, showed the huts where the ants lived. Tried to remove her crown, screw off the top of her head and point to the waste they had laid.

The doctor gave the ants a name, told her she could take something to make them go away. But the pills couldn’t get rid of all the ants. And as the beauty queen slept, her darkness came back, a fox slinking in the window and winding itself around her neck.

The beauty queen drank wine with a friend on her porch. Her doctors always asked if she used substances, and she said no. She had spent most of her life abstaining. But she wondered how much life she had left in her. So she drank.

The beauty queen lived in a star city. From her friend’s porch, she could see the star. It sat on top of a mountain, lit up bright and white, a glowing beacon for the small people of the small city. The beauty queen did not like her city, the city so full of small people who were content and complacent. They didn’t need much. They had their star. The only beauty was in their mountains and in their star. The beauty queen wrapped her arms around herself feeling very temporary. She stared at the star until her eyes crossed. The sweat from her wine glass seeped into her jeans. The fox stretched across her shoulders, causing her lower back to spasm from its weight. Who’s to say you’re not as small as them? Maybe you’re smaller. You’re just nothing, the fox whispered to her, its tongue rough against the shell of her lovely ear.

Her friend was telling a story the beauty queen would not remember but maybe she will if the friend tells it again. The fox yawned. The star blinked out.

The beauty queen gasped and clutched at her chest, the loss so sudden.

“11pm,” the friend said, “It goes off at 11.”

The beauty queen didn’t finish her wine.

The sister called. She was married.

 “We had to do a court house wedding, real quick, to avoid his reassignment,” the sister said. The beauty queen was disappointed, she had hoped for a big wedding, for a fantastic white dress, gliding down the aisle. The beauty queen had her sister on speaker while she sat in the shower, the water turned off long ago, her skin almost dry, the cold puddle beneath her slowly slinking into the drain. Her fox sat in the corner, a blessed moment off her shoulders, licking its crotch in rhythm to her sister’s speech.

“Do you think you’ll have a wedding later?” The beauty queen wanted her father to see at least one of them walk down the aisle. Her sister was his best bet.

“I think so,” the sister said, “we’ll be getting a new place soon too.” The sister ended the call. The beauty queen mourned for a moment the idea of her sister as a blushing bride. She had jumped straight to wife. Her sister would have been a beautiful bride. The beauty queen thought her sister was much more beautiful than she was. But it was the beauty queen that wore the crown. That carried the weight. The fox looked up at her, its eyes deep black pools. They blinked in sync and then the fox crawled out of the tub and she was alone. But she was always alone.

When she woke in the morning she knew the fox was giving her a break. Medication chased it away at last, her chemicals settling down. She stretched, massaged her shoulders, and almost missed the toxic company. The beauty queen swallowed her pills like a good girl and pasted on another pretty face for pretending.

Another night and the star was out and the wine was poured and the friend was smoking. The beauty queen told her friend about the marriage. The sister was nineteen. She had probably lived more than the beauty queen had. The sister had spent a lot of nights in beds that weren’t her own. She had driven and tasted recklessly. She had been free falling and if this man had stepped up to catch her, if she had let this man catch her, maybe it was a good thing.

The friend grunted in discontent. The beauty queen unconsciously reached to adjust her crown.

“Have you decided on a costume?” The friend swirled her wine, changing the subject, lights dancing in the whirlpool of her glass.

The beauty queen loved Halloween. She loved dressing up, she was good at it. But Halloween unsettled her still. She saw her real face on others, not her painted face, not her pretend face. The face that fought foxes and swallowed ants. People saw her real face, they wore her face for Halloween, they just didn’t know it.

On a Tuesday, the beauty queen was barely holding herself together. She tried to write, she tried to make sense of her emotions and her future. She called her father four times. Ants rode the tears down her face. The beauty queen had cried every time she won a pageant and every time she lost. She once had the same dress as another contestant. The beauty queen still won, despite the twin dresses. Her mother said it was because she was better, because she was prettier. Her fox lounged on the sofa, laughing at her, as she fell to pieces on the floor. Just another Tuesday.

On a Thursday, the beauty queen went to the nail salon. Her nails were long but strong. She chose black paint for her claws. Three women in the salon complimented the beauty queen. I love your makeup, I love your outfit, I love your hair

The beauty queen realized she heard these affirmations almost every day. Why didn’t it make her feel better? Was she not trying hard enough? Was she trying too hard? Caring too much? The tongs of the crown dug into her scalp but she resisted the urge to scratch at her head. She didn’t want to ruin her manicure.

On a Monday, the sister called. The beauty queen was at her vanity, almost done with her face. She arched an eyebrow at her reflection. Opened her mouth just slightly, thought that the line of her jaw wasn’t as sharp as it used to be. She brushed color over it to create shadow. The beauty queen took her sister’s call.

“Bitch, guess what.” The sister’s voice was high and funny. She had news. She had a secret about to be spilled. The beauty queen held her breath, knowing she didn’t have to guess.

“I’m pregnant!” The sister was happy. Her voice sounded so happy. The beauty queen wondered when she last sounded like that naturally, without her pretending. What even was happiness? Was a baby happiness? The fox sat up on her shoulder, leaning its neck tall, staring the beauty queen down in the mirror. I know, I know. All I know is you, she said to the fox.

The sister was still talking. Giving all the details, though it was early, there weren’t many details to give. The beauty queen felt her gut drop. She was going to be an aunt. She managed a smile, but felt the tail wind around her neck. The beauty queen knew that when her father died, she would have nothing to live for.

But here it was. A baby to be. New life. The beauty queen would have to live.

“I’m going to be an aunt,” she said to her sister.

“I’m going to be a momma,” the sister said. They ended the call.

The beauty queen painted her lips red and went to bed.