Neon Signs

📅 Published on October 16, 2020

“Neon Signs”

Written by E.K. Kelly
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 9.00/10. From 6 votes.
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“Neon signs are bug zappers for barflies, used to lure in the weak-minded and kill them on the drink.”

This was the lecture my mother gave often throughout my childhood.

Her distrust of bars and drinking was understandable, she’d lost a husband to them. Eventually, she’d lose her son to them as well, though she wouldn’t live to see it. She makes the decision late one night to cut her time in this world short with a blade in the bathwater.

When I find her I’m only eleven. The note she leaves only makes it harder.

It reads: “I can no longer ignore the decaying corpse I’m forced to face in the mirror each day.”

They are last words that are a mystery.

The week that follows is lost time. There is a funeral I don’t remember, attended by family id never met before. When it’s over my grandparents take me home with them. I’m given my mother’s old room. For the next few years, I sleep surrounded by shadows of her memory.

My grandparents are not bad people, not actively abusive, but they don’t hide the inconvenience my presence causes. They’ve raised kids, that stage is supposed to be over, this time is meant for them. At 18 I run off and they don’t bother searching for me.

I drive to the city. That first night I attempt to sleep in my car. It’s summer and the heat lingers sticky and heavy long after the sun sets. I toss and turn, drops of sweat run over my skin causing my cloths to cling and bunch. My position in the back seat grows unbearable even with the windows down. I step out for air and for the first time those neon lights beckon me. They cut through the night so vividly that I can feel the anticipation buzz from two blocks over.

My mother’s lessons on the danger of those neon signs have unfortunately been taught too young for them to take root.

The bar is half full when I enter, I grab a seat at the end. The bartender approaches, eyes me, I prepare myself for what’s coming. He is going to tell me I’m too young, that I shouldn’t be there, kick me out. But he doesn’t do any of that.  Instead, he waits for me to break our silence.

I don’t know how to order. I say the first dumb thing that pops into my head, I’ll have what he’s having, then nod towards the old man nearest me. The bartender laughs with his nose, but turns to retrieve a glass and a bottle. He leaves me a heavy pour of brown liquid and a tab.

That night I get drunk for the first time. Later as I’m returning from the bathroom I see the illusionary figures in the mirror for the first time. They are monstrous decaying rotting human things. Eyes glassy white, infected yellow puss leaking from the edges. Skin like paper that peels away in long tears, hair and scalp that slough off in chunks. Their long fingers, flayed to expose bone, grasp stems of cocktail glasses. They are living death. Behind them I see my own reflection looking back, normal.

These grotesque figures are the reflections of the couple that sits before me. They chat away in slurred rambling nonsense, oblivious. In reality, they look nothing like their reflections. It’s true that they both have seen too many years that have worn their bodies beyond what they’ve lived. Yet there is still life in them.

In the mirror they are death.

The woman laughs, a high warble, and kicks her head backwards. In the mirror, the corpse mimics her movements. Then she notices me watching her, uncomfortably close. She gives me an angry look for invading their conversation, I retreat to my seat at the bar where I finish my night.

The next night I return to the same bar, I don’t have anywhere else to go. Unprompted the bartender plops a whisky in front of me. This time I’ve picked a seat directly in front of the mirror. I can see the whole bar laid out around me in the reflection.

As the night progresses reflections of all types cross before me. In some cases, corpse reflections talk with reflections of people who look normal. Some corpses who have decayed beyond recognition as humans converse with those who have only just begun to rot.

I study them all in the mirror as I drink. I see myself there, I still look normal, I grin at that and raise my glass to myself. Cheers. Then I notice a red mark on my forehead. I tell myself it’s nothing, a scratch picked from sleeping in my car. I reach up to feel it but my fingers caress smooth skin. There is no blemish.

With each drink, I finish the red mark seems to get worse. I obsess over it, try not to pick at it. Eventually, the thought of it overwhelms me and I’m forced to move off to the side where I am unable to see my own reflection. I make that a habit in the future, never sitting in a place where I can see myself in the mirror.

Over the succeeding years, I fall into a routine. During the days I take odd jobs to earn a little pocket money, nothing too strenuous. I can’t hold anything steady. I’m unreliable.

At night I follow the lure of the neon signs. I find a dependable stable of establishments that don’t care about my age. I’m careful to stay in the corners and off to the sides, away from the mirrors. Every so often I catch glimpses of other reflected figures, decaying corpses among the living, but do my best to avoid them. Eventually, I get good at ignoring them.

This is the path I stumble down for the next five years. Until one day, like every other before it, I find myself belly to the bar at one of my go-to spots. I sit with some of the other regulars, people I’ve spent years with but never let myself become familiar with. They are merely better company than drinking alone.

I put a coaster over my whiskey, nod to the bartender, let him know I’m going out for a smoke. He tells me those things will kill you. I smile at the irony as he moves his shaker like maracas, mixing his poison. In my focus on the motion of the shaker, I forget about the mirror until I catch my reflection there.

My smile abandons me. I see what I have become. I am like the others now. A corpse of missing pieces. My hair is gone. Eyes that were once blue have turned a milky white. Where the red mark had been on my forehead my entire face has peeled away down over my cheek and now hangs below my chin

I turn away in disgust at myself. Reeling from what I’ve seen in the mirror, what I have become, I wobble backwards and stumble outside.

On the sidewalk beyond the door, I find a girl, cigarette held gently in her fingers creating wisps of smoke that curl about her hair like cinnamon sticks. The horror from only moments prior vanishes from my mind.

I run my finger over the unopened pack hidden in my pocket, then opt instead to ask her to bum a smoke. She eyes me, tosses me a crumpled pack containing her lone remaining soldier.

She asks if I’d like a light as well, and I accept. We stand together in a long silence which she eventually breaks.

She tells me I did her a favor. I give her a quizzical look. She says that was her last cigarette, not just in the pack, forever. She’s quitting, this time for good.

I tell her me too, then take a deep drag.

She laughs, says her name is Lorena. I decide to make my cigarette last long beyond when it should have been discarded, to give me more time in her company, but eventually I can’t keep up the act. Yet even after we have both finish our cigarettes we keep the conversation going.

The words come easy with her. I ask her if she has anywhere she needs to be. She replies, nowhere important.

For the rest of that day, we don’t do anything but walk the city and talk. I don’t bother going back into the bar for my drink or to close my tab. In fact, I don’t go into any bar again until four months later, when I meet Lorena’s parents.

I’m nervous about meeting them and take too long getting ready. By the time we arrive her parents are already seated. They have picked a table directly in from of the mirror, forcing me into a seat that will put me face to face with my reflection. I don’t want to be awkward, I need to make a good impression. I decide to address the problem head-on, to rip off the band-aid quickly to reduce the pain. I take a breath, brace, and look directly in the mirror.

I’m surprised by what I find there. I am no longer a living corpse. I’m not my normal self either, not completely, I’m something in between. There are still signs of rot. Yet they are minimal. I look more like a person who picked a fight, lost badly, and is healing. Not an extra for the Walking Dead. It’s not ideal but a clear improvement. I perk up, the rest of that meeting goes smoothly.

The next two years are a blur. Lorena and I fall in love, get a place together, start talking about rings and dates far off in the future.  Every day my reflection improves until it becomes fully restored. In time I even stop seeing the decaying corpses of others. The figures vanish. All I see is myself and Lorena and our future together.

Life is perfect, until it isn’t.

One morning I wake up and Lorena doesn’t. Her heart just stopped beating in the night. The Doctors say that it’s something that just happens sometimes, healthy people die without warning. His tone is clinical when he says this and it takes every ounce of me not to pummel his smug mousey face.

I leave the hospital alone, get in my car, drive home. When I reach our apartment something holds me back, prevents me from going inside. I decide to keep driving with no idea where I am heading until I see that familiar inviting glow of neon.

There is a seat in the middle of the bar and I take it without a thought. I order a whiskey and when the bartender brings it I tell him to leave the bottle. He hesitates, looks me in the eyes, measures me, then places the bottle on the bar top.

I raise the glass to my lips and turn my attention to my reflection. Staring back at me is the corpse I thought I’d left behind. I drink until the night blurs over into oblivion.

The next morning I wake up feeling like death, I’m in the throes of a hangover I’m not equipped to deal with. I grab a full bottle of cooking sherry from the kitchen, the only booze in the house, and take a long pull from the bottle. Hair of the dog I say to nobody.

Bottle in hand, I shuffle my way back towards bed. As I make my way by the bathroom I notice movement and pause. I have caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror and it is not the reflection I expect to see. For the first time, the corpse version of myself has accosted me beyond the walls of the bar.

From that day forward my corpse is with me everywhere I go, no longer confined to just mirrors. I see it in the black surface when I turn off the TV. I see it in the glossy surface of pictures when I try to grab hold of a memory and remember what happy times felt like.

I see the corpse when I look into puddles after it rains. I see the corpse when I gaze out the window at night. That rotting figure is longer relegated to the dark corners of the bars. It is with me every minute every step.

I can no longer pretend it isn’t the true reflection of who I am.

I can no longer ignore the decaying corpse I’m forced to face in the mirror each day.

Rating: 9.00/10. From 6 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by E.K. Kelly
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: E.K. Kelly

Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

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