The Dead Can’t Dance
The death’s head is panther-stalking her through the party. Bodies washed in neon pink ebb and flow, sinking and rising from the shadows as light thrums. The speakers shoot out a wild saxophone salvo that takes no prisoners. Sonic casualties twitch on the dancefloor, clutching their eardrums, laughter inaudible, flouncing like grounded fish to the rhythm. A thousand shoes tap-tap-tappa-tap on the wooden floor of the club. A mass of peacock-feathers rise out of sweaty headbands swaying like a windswept treeline.
It’s the new year, darling, and everyone’s invited to the party.
Gotta get away, Natalin’s exhausted brain screams at her through a haze of cocktails and second-hand nansang smoke. Fear and the after effects of intoxication urge her to vomit. She might have been scared sober.
The elf runs, shoving revellers aside, her senses overloaded with the stench of sweat, smoke, hard liquor, and traces of ammonia. The music had long ago obliterated her ability to hear, effectively making her rabbit-long ears immune to further harm. She’s torn her headband and feather off, hoping to make herself less conspicuous to the apparition trailing her. Warm slick from all the shiny, perspiring bodies covers her hairy, dark hands. Her fingers twitch and curl into claws, and she wipes her palms distractedly on the front of her expensive suit.
The peacock blue velvet, dark with moisture, transforms into black as the music and mood switch.
The lights go dim, the crowd gasps in anticipation as an air raid siren banshee wails, and the bandleader makes a redundant request for more noise to be made. There couldn’t possibly be more noise in the echoing cavernous airship hangar. She glances behind and sees two pinpricks of cyan light flicker in and out as the bodies block her view. Nata could just as easily be circling with each step. The exits could be anywhere. Animal fear shuts this knowledge out—all that matters is that she must move.
She had no idea why the creature was after her, or why no one was doing anything to stop it. Probably, in the middle of this wild, pulsing mass of fun and drugs and noise no one had even noticed the horror in their midst.
Two missiles—supposedly disarmed from the last war—hang from the roof, their forbidding metal bodies dully reflecting their garnish of holiday lights. As the siren crescendos, the warheads spark in a spiral, the crowd gasps, and two hot explosions of pink and orange rain glitter and confetti down as the band kicks up Bad Moon Nights by Half-caste Harrison. It’s Nata’s favourite song.
My momma she always be askin’
How come I ain’t ever be taskin’
Just I be keepin’ on jivin’
Never no be good for nothin’, I!
Aye! Aye! Aye!
The heat-flash of the explosion shows her pursuer. A head like a stained-tooth, grinning amiably, blue-green fire dancing inside empty sockets. The skeleton wears a green party hat decorated with drunken, passed-out peacocks. A streamer is between its teeth. The apparition disappears briefly as a glitter covered pair of women, one riding the other’s shoulders, amble past them, dancing under the renewed lights. Then it’s back, pointing a bony finger gun at her, and winking one of its flaming eyes out and back.
I says her it ain’t no fault of I,
Momma, you born’d me under a witchy moon-a
Bad moon witchy momma
You know what you do!
Aye! Aye! Aye!
Nata curses, blocked by a circling posse of rat-faced retchitt, their powerful, furry bodies dripping moisture, arms on each other’s shoulders as their splayed feet hammer the floor in heavy, black boots. Sensing her pursuer gaining ground, she angles to dive into the midst.
Right into a brick wall.
She spins around, heart hammering in her chest, readying herself to find her way back towards the exit, and comes face to face with her skeletal pursuer. Then a bony hand grasps her shoulder, and it shifts its body just enough to reveal what it had hidden under its jacket.
Nata cringes against the wall, expecting a gun, or a knife. What’s under the jacket is worse than that. A long-stemmed rose. The music ends with a triumphant wail of the sax, and the bandleader screams his thanks and instructs you and all the people out there in party land to keep it real, to keep it moving, because the show’s not done and the drummer starts hitting the bass pedal and everyone starts to clap and chant.
“Nata, you know you can’t just show up at my party and not say hi.” Its jaws move, and a tongue can be seen inside the mouth. The skeleton presses the rose under the elf’s bold nose. “I always have one of these for you, you know that.” The fire winks again.
She recognises the gesture, and the voice. As always, the aroma is perfect.
She pushes the rose away and glares up into the flaming eyes. “Jule? Jule?” She splutters, and reaches up towards the skull, her angry fingers exploring its contours and feeling cool plastic instead of bone. “What the actual-?”
Jule’s body rocks as he sniggers. Her fingers dig into the joints. The deaths-head face hinges off of the undead costume’s helmet. A dark-skinned man’s emerges, little green lights attached above his grey eyes, black paint around them. He is grinning with white teeth below a moustache drooping with sweat. “It’s good, isn’t it? You know, you’re the only one at this party who really gave me the reaction I was looking for.”
“You… you maniac! You started chasing me! I thought I was going to die! Why are you even dressed like one of those monsters?” Everyone knows that they hunger for the souls of the living. “Actually, you know what, I don’t care, Jule, don’t tell me. Get your hands off me, I’m going home.” She shakes the hand off her shoulder, realising once again that it was plaster paint on a skinny glove. Jules always had long, strangely thin fingers.
“Oh come on, you can’t take a joke? It’s hardly my fault you were silly enough to think an actual, real live undead blister would be walking around here without anyone batting an eye.” He gestures at the wild, raving crowd, as though such a sight were inconceivable within it. He is probably right: there was only so much that drunken debauchery could excuse. “You should learn to live a little, darling.” He pulls out a cigarette from his dappled waistcoat. “I can help you with that. You’d make a damn fine project.”
“I’m not your project, Jule. I didn’t even know this was your party, I wouldn’t have come in a million years if I did. One no should have been enough, after the tenth I’m practically allergic to your presence. I’m leaving!” she shoves past him, feeling how bony he really is as her shoulder knocks against his thin chest.
“Now, wait, Nata! Here, wait a minute, it was just a joke, damn it!”
His voice is drowned out as the music kicks back up with A Mile in Your Daddy’s Shoes. He leans back against the wall, says, “Elf girls, they’re all the same, eh?” and looks around to see if anyone is listening. There’s just a janitor, mopping up some sick, who shrugs noncommittally. He huffs and smokes, eyeing the crowd for more familiar faces.
He grins, shiny teeth and shadows like a skeleton’s smile, seeing Jestina dancing with two women he doesn’t know, and swings his helmet shut again. Perhaps they have a sense of humour. Or run slower.
Zoheb Mashiur is a writer, artist, and researcher based in Prague. He co-edited the anthology Disconnect: Collected Short Fiction.