Many years ago, bored at Sephora, my grandfather started to paint his face with makeup products. He was a painter, and fine with any brush, so the entire family should have expected great results when he gripped the eyeshadow brush and slashed strange scripts across his cheeks. A skincare assistant walked by as he moved on to working with neon lipsticks. She jerked away as he howled. My cousin, his grandchild — then only nine — laughed at my grandfather and began to join his tribe, mascara in hand.
I never knew why strangers began to join him. Yet they came: to tie cleansing towelettes on their heads like bandanas, to rip the arms off their shirts and paint zodiacs on the exposed skin, to massage eye cream into their necks and face serum into their buttocks. Many danced. When the howling got too loud my grandfather would punch one of the mirrors to get the tribe’s attention. If the mirror broke, his followers would snap their fingers, a sign of their respect for his great power. More often than not, children would then crawl towards the once-mirror and collect the shards. Mirrors were powerful.
Early on I have no doubt security was called, but whenever I saw those charcoal uniforms they’d be on bodies too small and too alien: whatever happened to the actual guards remains a mystery no one wants to solve.
All conflict is a struggle for resources, and no one knew that better than those at the checkout line. It was there that customers and cashiers had banded together to defend against the roving tribesmen, armed with mirrorshanks and cologne molotovs. The checkouters (my grandfather called them “outers”) not only had the advantage of the employee-only store orifices, but they had food. The perimeter of the checkout line was stocked with impulse buys: freeze-dried fruit chips, charging cables, sock collections, and the fabled Luna bars. This was what the outers hoarded in their boutique Masada. This was what my grandfather and his underlings so craved. The tribe had survived on artisanal soap and a crude bread that was part face sponge, part hair oil, and part cucumber water, but the reserves were wearing thin.
The darkest corner of the store became known as the flesh corner. Tribe members wrestled there. They played the knife game with mirrorshanks. They inserted massage beads into each other’s anuses. There was always dancing, and the drum of hand against thigh. My grandfather picked the strongest from the flesh corner, sharpened their fingernails into points, and sent them into outer territory to find the lemon zest bars and diet colas. After they drew their first outer blood until death, they would be nail boys.
According to the nail boys and tribe lookouts, there were no outers to be found. So they became lazy: they got drunk on perfume shots and played break-a-lightbulb with tube caps. They were never observant enough. I was. I saw how the outers would journey into no man’s land, abduct a sleeping tribesman, and slip away. The kidnapped would later be found dead, wrists branded with curling irons. I don’t know what the outers were doing with those they captured before they killed them, but I do know this: there have been few times when slave labor has built anything good.
In retrospect, we might have called these times the calm before the storm. New forms of dance and song spawned from the flesh corner. A tribewide sigil was adopted and sewn into denim flags to hang across taken territory. My grandfather appointed me, one of the few remaining royalty, the tribe’s historian. I was given boxes of eyeliner pencils and reams of receipt paper. I asked him where the receipt paper came from. I knew the answer: it had been traded with the outers. He didn’t admit to it, instead scoffing and reaffirming that he wanted at least a trilogy of history books.
Later on, a security guard’s gun went off — deafening the store — and felling my grandfather’s personal shaman. They caught the attempted outer assassin and he was roasted alive in a tanning bed. His corpse was glazed in moisturizer and served to my grandfather’s friends on a bed of flavored lipsticks. Soon after, the tribe thrust into no man’s land in rebellion. Violence escalated in stupid ways, cults split and multiplied, the flesh corner ravaged harder. My grandfather was running out of mirrors to punch.
I recently watched a trio of nail boys walk into a trap near the hair section. Outers didn’t usually take nail boys alive. They always harvested their triangular nails, though, since such objects were the basis of their currency. As the outers began to clip the boys, one caught me staring. It smiled. In its mouth was a wedge of lemon. I could smell its freshness from where I stood.
Pearse Anderson is a Food Studies and Creative Writing major at Oberlin College, where he is studying under Dan Chaon. He hopes to write more about cannibalism, liminal spaces, and tribes. His work has appeared in The Oberlin Review and We Are Neon, and is upcoming in Weird Fiction Review. Pearse is a graduate of Iowa Young Writer’s Workshop and the Vandermeer’s Shared Worlds program, which he encourages fellow youths to attend. He can be found at @pearseanderson where he regularly posts his photographs and microessays.
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Art by Francisco de Goya, photo by Soerfm