Virginia and Dorothy had never been more beautiful than that first night. The two twirled in the street, arms outstretched, their souls lifted by illegal spirits. Prohibition ruled the land with a loose grip that they found easy to escape. Liquor flowed past their lips because they could afford it now. Their new jobs came with more money which bought them luxuries they never had before. For Virginia, this had become normal. Dorothy was awestruck by it all, unaware of the razor’s edge that she was walking on.
They glittered through the grime of the city, untouched by the urban decay that surrounded them. The cold granite buildings could not chill them. They were warmed by the heat of the speakeasy. Jazz settled inside them, coaxing its easy rhythm through their bodies, loosening them up with each note. Their laughter was uncorked champagne bubbling, bursting forth and brilliant. They were ethereal.
Dorothy never felt more charming, whispering her secret into the ear of the boy who sat beside her at the bar. “I can glow. Do you want to see?”
In the night her lips were luminescent. It was the newest shade of lip paint, they had joked. Curie’s Curse, known as radium, lovely and wondrous, and it only showed up in the dark. It made anything it touched glow eerily. With it, they became magical.
Virginia’s teeth rivaled the stars. With a wink, she had run her brush over them when they were at the factory, a little layer of light over the white bones in her mouth. Dorothy thought it would look ghoulish, but now that she saw it – it was a curious thing out of a fairytale. It gave her words a power when she spoke them, and men would lean in closer to look at her mouth. To think, just a little bit of liquid could do so much. The ads in magazines claimed that it held healing properties and would help you remain youthful. It was a hint at the truth because radium would never let you grow old.
The girls who worked in the watch factory didn’t know, only hearing of the restorative qualities in their endless fight against wrinkles. They would daub some on themselves while they worked with their fine brushes, hovering over the little clocks as they painted the numbers. This would keep them legible in the dark. The watches weren’t the only faces that could use a little extra glow from the radium paint on the brushes, however, and the girls would daub their own skin when the men weren’t looking. Their supervisors kept their distance from the radium, watching from afar as the women bent over the watch faces, painting the delicate numbers with their quick fingers.
What at first had been magical became frightening. Dorothy was her own night light when she tried to drift asleep, her body ghostly beneath the sheets. She was haunting herself before she had even reached the grave. The beds of her fingernails had turned into ten luminescent crescent moons, matching the one in the sky.
As the days continued, she realized that the men in the watch factory didn’t do any of the painting themselves. They didn’t put the brushes in their mouth before they touched them to the watches like the girls were instructed. The men just coached them how to do it, demonstrating it with their gloved hands, aiming the imaginary points to where their lips were hidden by masks.
“Make sure you make it a perfect point each time,” they encouraged. They wore heavy layered suits that made them look like they came from an outer space pulp novel. They feared the liquid Dorothy kissed each time she brought the brush to her lips. Of course, she realized that this should have been a warning, but she had been intoxicated by the promise of glamour.
Virginia hadn’t shared her fears as they talked at night, the two of them in their small beds. Everything seemed so safe in that one-bedroom apartment they shared.
“This is what it does Dorothy,” Virginia had said from her bed beside her, propped up on her elbow, “It has healing properties. It’s all the rage. It works on you from the inside out.”
“Then why aren’t the supervisors doing it too? I would think they’d want to be healed just as much as we would,” Dorothy replied. She was only greeted by silence. Virginia didn’t have the worries she did. Everything was whimsical. In Virginia’s head, she was turning into the fairytale princess she’d always wanted to be. Dorothy was only awaiting the looming scythed specter that would be coming for her soon.
Dorothy had been too afraid to tell Virginia that she could see her skull glowing beneath her skin, grinning at her, foretelling a future with grim certainty.
Now Virginia’s bed was empty. The glow stayed, lingering on after its occupant left. It kept the bed alight when Dorothy blew out the candles and closed the drapes over the windows. It was as if a star had come for a visit, burning away brightly. She had washed the quilt and thrown out the sheet, but the glow remained, deep in the mattress. It was a reminder of what had been taken away. Dorothy shuddered, remembering the final days, of Virginia’s teeth humbly falling out of her mouth, giving up one by one. The golden curls that had been left in huge clumps about the apartment, forcing Virginia to take a new interest in hats – a folly that wouldn’t last. She had been buried, the casket kept closed so that no one could see what little had been left of her.
Work had gone on as usual for Dorothy. She had no other comfort except for the routine. Each day the same, except she was no longer beautiful. She could feel the lumps developing beneath her skin, the growth that was forming on her throat. At night, her bones had begun to glow, and she saw her future in the dark.
Sarah Lajeunesse lives in Ballston Spa, NY. She enjoys learning about the odd parts of history and spends her time exploring the world both physically and through words.