Once Upon a Star by Paul Wilson


Let me tell you about Star Bright.  She was a hometown girl.  All she ever wanted was to be was a singer.  A star.  Well, she did turn out to be famous, just not how she wanted.

First question she always got was about her name.  Yes, her real name was Star.  It wasn’t Bright, of course.  The newspapers started calling her Star Bright for . . . what-do-you-call-it . . . notoriety.  It is catchy, though, ain’t it?

She was a beautiful child.  She always dressed so cute.  Whether at school or out with her family, Star always added flourish to her outfit.  She was very concerned about how she looked.  Always in dresses, always in a bow.  “No bow, no go” I heard her say many a-time.  Yes, it is true she started wearing make-up at an earlier age, but she was such a sweet girl that no one paid any mind.  You couldn’t not be charmed if you get me.

She was famous for her neighborhood talent contests—which is how I came to know her—starting when she was nine.  She put one on every year and a special one at Christmas, with the ticket sales going to the Salvation Army Kettles.  And you better believe the newspapers ran a story on that every December.  Star was everyone’s darlin.

These talent shows revolved around her singing.  Usually several songs.  But no one minded.  She had a sweet voice.  She could carry a tune, and could she make it soar?  You better believe it.  She owned the stage I built for her every year and if I tell you at the end of her Christmas-time hymns a few of the old biddies were sniffling and wiping their eyes, I ain’t lying.

Middle school started and Star won every talent contest the school put on.  Did it make some other kids jealous?  What do you think?  By then she was growing and filling out some and her look got . . . well, more sophisticated.  Star was always the kind of girl who was going to get noticed.  Some girls just have that quality.  It wasn’t her fault; it was just how the Good Lord made her.  Some stars are just made to look at.

It’s legend now of course, what happened that balmy April day when Star lost her first contest.  The girl that won was a singer too, but she played piano.  Me and the school’s principal were good friends during that time (Jonas has since moved away—in no small part because of what happened that day) and he told me you could see Star break when the announcement was made.  She won second place, but Star never had to deal with being second.  She didn’t take the transition too well.

Jonas said Star screamed when they read the other girl’s name.  Can you imagine how horrible that must have been?  Parents, teachers, and all her classmates right there watching her break down in the auditorium.  Jonas said it wasn’t like a little girl scream but more like a woman, like an adult watching something precious die.  Jonas laughed it off when he told me, saying kids are full of hormones at that age, but I saw the fear in his face.  When I called him on it, he admitted it was frightening.  He said it was the sound of a mind breaking.  Jonas said Star screamed on and on, turning left and right, looking at everyone as if wanting help, as if asking how such a thing could happen.

“She looked crazy,” he said.

Kids talk of course.  Did they give Star a hard time?  What do you think?  I was in the school system myself then, in the halls sweeping and mopping, sure, but in the everyday flow.  I saw how they snickered and talked behind her back.  Star lost some of that charm that made you want to be around her.  Star grew cold.  The only time she came alive anymore is when she sang.  And she sang every day.  Because of living in her neighborhood, I got to see that as well.

She walked every afternoon and twice on the weekend, singing at the top of her lungs.  I usually sat on my porch in the evenings and saw her tour every time.  I always waved and called down how pretty she was.  She always smiled and waved back, but all this time later I wonder if she ever really saw me. 

One Monday afternoon I heard her coming.  Across the street, Mr. Mandeville was watering his lawn.  He muttered he wasn’t in the mood to be serenaded.  When Star came down the sidewalk, he called to her to save it for the shower.  Star stopped.  She turned to him and I saw her face change.  It tightened down.  Hard!  Her eyes widened; her smile looked serious enough to crack her teeth.  Mandeville saw it too because he offered nothing else, just dropped his hose and hurried inside his place without turning off the water.  It ran down his lawn, to the sidewalk, and started hustling downhill.  It colored the white-gray of the concrete to dark.

Star turned, saw me, and cocked her head to the side.  It was like being stared down by a wild animal.  I went cold all over and tasted the metallic zing of hose water on the back of my tongue.  I saw red bloodshot vessels in her eyes.  Drool leaked down her chin.  She just stared.  Finally, I called to her and said I like her singing.  I may have requested a song; I don’t remember.  I just remember fearing her and how her gaze made me shiver despite the sunshine coming down.

Star didn’t thank me or anything, but my words seemed to kinda jumpstart her.  She got moving.  She jerk-walked about a foot, then stopped again.  Mandeville’s water was slopping over her shoes.  She turned to me slow, like a marionette unwinding.  Her eyes . . .

“I’m a star,” she said.  “I’m a beautiful star and I will always be.  Do you believe that?”

I said I sure did.  She nodded and continued down the sidewalk.  Eventually I crossed the street and turned off Mandeville’s water.  It was making a mess.

I’m sure you heard about what happened at the high school talent show.  Star only got to do the one.  The same little girl that beat her in eighth grade went out again, playing a guitar this time, and when she beat Star a second go . . . well, I’m sure you know.  Star grabbed the girl’s guitar and smashed it into her face—right there on the stage, in front of everyone, just like her screaming fit.  I was there, helping run the sound system, and Star hit that poor girl so hard the back of the guitar shattered, like she was the goddamned Honky Tonk Man.  One of the wooden slivers . . . it punctured the girl’s eye and . . . she wears an eyepatch now.  Moved to Stockwell over in Georgia.

Star was taken away of course.  She didn’t go back to school and she didn’t do any more talent shows.  Her parents bailed her out, swearing she wasn’t a flight risk, and then Star disappeared.  No one saw her again.

Except me.  I saw her a few nights later.

I take walks, sometimes at night, and those few nights after Star disappeared, I was walking by the old cemetery downtown.  The closer I got the more distinct a voice became. 

Singing. Beautiful singing.  The cemetery wall has decorative sections with bars so you can look through.  The moon was high that night so I could see well.  I looked inside and saw Star.

She was standing in one of those fancy gazebos, bathed in moonlight, a cold silver spotlight.  Arranged in front of her were chairs.  In them were corpses.  She had dug them up and made them her audience.  As I watched, she swayed and sang.  Then she reached for a guitar and began to play.  She sang to the dead and it was sweet, she played her guitar and it was horrible.  She had no talent, no knowledge with the instrument.  The strings thudded and warbled.  She stopped, lost, and suddenly swung the thing, smashing it against the ground.  She screeched.  She told the dead she was a star, a fucking star and always would be.

I got the hell outta there.

I don’t know what became of her after that.  But I have no doubt Star is still out there.  Who might her audience be now?  Only God knows.  But I worry for anyone trapped by a girl so desperate to reclaim a dream she would do anything.  She had the talent, but . . .

How does determination become madness?  When does hope spoil to rancid insanity?  Star knows, but I don’t want to get close enough to ask her.


Paul Wilson lives in a suburban neighborhood much like the one he turned into a horror battleground in his novel Hostage.  He lives with his wife, daughter, son, and three cats, one of which actually likes him.  He has worked a spectacular list of jobs including retail district manager, a 911 operator, and the head of a college security department. 

Published 8/12/21

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