The kids worked hard leading up to the November performance. They also goofed off quite a bit — much to the chagrin of the four stern chorale mistresses who supervised and conducted the children’s choir. Their irritation was palpable. So much so, that many parents wondered why the women ran the choir at all.
They were the type of ladies who pronounced mature, “ma-Tooor,” like out-of-work summer stock bards. Children’s laughter irritated them, and they didn’t allow frivolous luxuries such as snacks or restroom breaks during the weekly four-hour rehearsal. Parents who picked up their soiled child were simply met with the explanation, “The show must go on!” — said with a dramatic flourish.
And the show always did go on; because, in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, these four mistresses ran the most prestigious children’s choir in Western Arizona (or, as prestigious as a bunch of singing pre-teens can get whilst keeping their genitals intact). Any incoming freshman with High School Musical dreams believed acceptance into The Havasu Arts Senior High (or HASH, as it had come to be known for its dual focus on the arts and blunt rolling) was the best steppingstone to the Tony Awards.
No graduate had actually made it to the Tony’s. But, Ethel Chinkost, class of 1997, had performed improv on a cruise ship. The cruise ship went bankrupt, but it was surely unrelated. Frank Suiter, class of 2000, danced ballroom at Brigham Young University, in Salt Lake City. It didn’t last long after the coach walked in on him massaging the team captain in an “un family” way. The Mormon Church elders told Suiter he was “experimenting with the Devil” and pas de bourree’d him to the curb. The furthest the rest of HASH alumni got to stardom was waiting tables in disgrace at Ole’s Pizza & Spaghetti House and Dinner Theater on Route 233. Eventually, they’d settle into mindless desk jobs in varying suburbs. But this mere reality never deterred a Type A child with stars in their eyes. Each child believed they’d be discovered and claim their rightful spot next to Brad or Leo. And so, the Lake Havasu Children’s Chorale was an invaluable and necessary prerequisite for HASH. If you weren’t in the Chorale between the ages of nine and fourteen, you could kiss those Zac Efron-studded dreams goodbye. The spirit of HASH and its delusions infected many chorale parents. In turn, it was decided that a handful of wet accidents was a small price to pay for the promise to exploit their child actor and pay future emancipation court case fees. The show must go on— as they say.
The Chorale performed regularly around town at elementary schools, senior homes, and, even once, for the county jail. Everyone knew the children on sight, waddling their way across parking lots and soccer greens in their red shiny vests and bowties. From a distance, they looked like oversized penguins after a bloody kill. The mistresses always dressed in black velvet performance dresses that left everything to the imagination. Even on the hottest of Arizona days, the mistresses never dared to show any skin on the premise that even an elbow was unsuitable for a world that is merely a stage.
But the November performance wasn’t an ordinary town event like First Havasua’s Savings Bank ribbon cutting or the Annual Summer Reading Program Blast-Off at the Mohave County Children’s Library. It was special. Even more special to the mistresses than the annual Christmas Concert (and Jesus was invited to that one). Every year, the Chorale performs for the Annual London Bridge Parade and Ceremony. It is a huge cultural event for the community. It put the small city on roadside maps in every gas station across the Southwest for something other than a cheap roadside attraction, such as Dicky’s Hand-Carved Extra Real-Life Petrified Wood Dinosaurs or another “Old West” experience. Because the small oasis wasn’t home to any shady roadside pit stops, Lake Havasu City residents felt entitled to a small taste of society. After all, they had the London Bridge. The actual London Bridge.
The original London Bridge was built in the heart of Britannica on the River Thames when the Romans conquered the British Isles, back in whatever, whatever. It burnt down a few hundred times and the Romans rebuilt it again and again. Next, the Vikings sailed through Britain, destroying it once again. They cobbled it back together in their sturdy and husky tradition. However, in the early 13th century, a freak tornado wreaked havoc on the burgeoning City of London and the bridge was rebuilt yet again. The London Bridge remained in-tact for the next few centuries, carrying people back and forth over the Thames. Its ornate decor included pounds of horse shit and the disembodied heads of treasonous citizens. Unfortunately, it was decided that showcasing bloody heads to the public was no longer considered en vogue; plus, Parliament worried the old medieval bridge couldn’t hold up much longer. Members did not want to find themselves traversing the bridge when it eventually succumbed to the Thames, so they commissioned yet another new London Bridge to take its place. Following another bout of France’s extravagant ineptitudes and short, overcompensating men, London melted down Napoleon’s old cannons and assorted weapons to create the bridge’s new iron reinforcements, guardrails, and aesthetic flourishes. It was a surprising show of 19th century frugality. And there the bridge remained, on the deep, dark Thames until 1967.
The London Bridge has been a key witness to the rise and fall of western civilization. The banks of the Thames, where the Bridge has always lain, are rich in oxidized ochre, tinting the famous shore mud red on London’s rare sunny days. Until red paint could be mass-produced, craftsmen used the mud from the Thames for all practical and artistic needs. The Celts and Picts of the Iron Age, however, avoided the mud in favor of blue elements from Woad plants. Many tribes believed that the rust color of the watery banks prophesied the shade of their own sure deaths. Given England’s bloody legacy – genocide, colonialism, and systematic racism, to name a few – the early tribes’ superstitions have more than played themselves out since Jesus’ pin-up days.
And then, of course, there are the seemingly minor crimes of humanity the bridge fathered. The water that flowed under the bridge was the life force of diseases like cholera and the Bubonic Plague. When ships came into port, the London Bridge served as the landmark where cabin boys dropped barrels of the ships’ rats into the water to drown before the vermin could scurry to shore and spread disease. It never occurred to the boys, or the captains, that rats are remarkable swimmers.
Men who needed food to feed their families by any means possible, transformed into ghouls at night to rob graves. They used the bridge as the main thoroughfare to sell bodies to the medical schools across the river. When graves were scarce, pushy doctors encouraged the more ambitious ghouls to use the bridge’s dark corners as their own private fishing pond to catch and kill fresh prey for the schools to experiment on. Some of these ghouls never transformed back into their Adam-forms when the sun rose. The creatures realized they could cut the middleman out of the process and began freshly sourcing food to their families directly in a bridge-to-table movement.
Women and young girls also found the bridge as a source of some half-life, selling their own bodies for morsels. Sometimes they ran into men who were only looking to stay warm for the night. Others met the ghouls looking for a fresh meal. Nine months later, the girls who survived would return to the bridge to say goodbye to secret or unwanted infants. Most of the infants drowned immediately. Their small, bloated bodies floated to the surface, feeding the starving rats paddling to shore. The few children who lived, grew up in the shadow of the bridge, taking their place in this hellish food chain.
But that was long ago. And the infamous bridge now sits 5,000 miles away, on the banks of Lake Havasu City, Arizona, creating a new legacy.
In the 1960s, London city planners worried their famous London Bridge could no longer handle the physical weight of so many people and their increasingly fast motorized vehicles (and perhaps the added weight of the Empire’s conscience, as well). Each year, the bridge sank lower and lower into the bloody Thames, threatening its arches to collapse in on themselves altogether. And so, Parliament, city engineers, and applauded historians did what Londoners have done across the centuries— pass their burden off to another nation for monetary gain.
They were able to sell the bridge to one American sucker: Mr. G.T. Brothers. Brothers was a member of the American West’s nouveau riche. To the Queen and Her government, his kind were no more than wilderness squatters and cowpokes who didn’t understand that a good day’s hunting required twill and champagne. At least the colonists on the East Coast, while grossly proud of ruining perfectly good tea, paid more homage to their motherland via town names, privilege, and the tradition of slavery. But these western pagans, who wore leather cowboy boots and chewed tobacco while speaking, were insufferable!
G.T. may have been abrasive, loud, and an Englishman’s worst nightmare, but in Lake Havasu City, he was beloved for both his wealth and his generosity. Over time, G.T. became a great philanthropist, using his wealth to contribute to theatre and the arts. In fact, his daughter, Ginny, founded the Lake Havasu Children’s Chorale in 1967, at his encouragement. She remains the head Chorale mistress to this day. Brothers also contributed to building public parks, buying books for the local library, and even creating a college scholarship for students in his name. After striking oil back in Lubbock, in 1935, Mr. G.T. Brothers was not just an oil baron but a true King of the American Wasteland.
The bridge was shipped to Arizona, block by block, by G.T.’s own new shipping company, Philadelphia Co. & Sons, created just for this purpose. The company itself was short-lived for several reasons. For one, potential merchants assumed that the company was out of Philadelphia and not a play on the name “Brothers,” leading to bad campaign ads and shipping industry confusion. Second, G.T. only bore daughters, so there were no sons to leave the business to upon his death. Nevertheless, the company accomplished its first and only job, getting the bridge to its new home in landlocked Arizona. The bridge crossed the Atlantic, navigated the Panama Canal up to the Gulf of California, where it met Mexico at the Isla Montague. The Isle splits the bay in half, giving birth to the Colorado River that creeps its way from the sea to the arid wilderness. The bridge snaked its way up the river, until it reached its new home on the border of California and Arizona. Lake Havasu, for which the city is named after, really isn’t a lake at all. Instead, it is a large ventricle of the Colorado River, separating the two states. Brothers placed each of the Bridge’s 10,276 granite blocks in their original arrangement, with one leg standing in Lake Havasu City, and the other standing on The Island. Like how Lake Havasu isn’t really a lake, The Island isn’t really an island, either. It is a piece of jutted land that Brothers’ thoughtfully flooded with the Colorado River, separating the peninsula from the rest of the city, in order to substantiate his large purchase and give the bridge some purpose in its new and unusual home. The Island itself is now a retirement tourist destination full of imitation English pubs and rundown hourly beach motels in Brothers’ name.
Not to be confused with its more famous sister, the Tower Bridge, the London Bridge is flat. The bridge has five arches that keep it erect over the Colorado. Between the arches and the cobbled hewn top, the bridge itself is hollow. The bridge’s bowels are accessible on both its East and West sides and used for everyday maintenance, such as making sure the bridge’s lights turn on every night or checking for cracks in the foundation.
Lake Havasu City owes its little pocket of economic wealth to Brothers and his bridge. Over 500,000 pairs of feet from around the globe cross the bridge each year, each spending thousands of dollars on overpriced English memorabilia made in China, and shipped to Arizona, for basement-bargain amusement. The hot, dry climate was new for the bridge, as was the lack of bodiless heads on display; but some things were just the same as ever in its new empire.
The day was a perfect 73 degrees. Supplanted northerners were still wearing flip flops, while true Arizonans pulled sheep skinned Uggs and Arizona State sweatshirts out of storage. November 22, 2007 was not only the Annual Lake Havasu London Bridge Day & Ceremony, but it was also the Lake Havasu Children’s Chorale’s 50th anniversary. No performance was more important to Ms. Ginny Brothers, beloved daughter of the late G.T., and her fellow Chorale mistresses.
The children were stuffed into their uniforms. The younger children concentrated hard to not spill orange drink all over their starched, white shirts. Tweens attempted to hide their sweaty, pimpled foreheads under curly bangs, and the girls covered their lips in too much Smackers lip gloss.
One frizzy-haired girl, with purple braces, spent her time waiting for the performance by chasing the corgis. The dogs had been borrowed from the local shelter to accompany the actress playing Queen. In doing so, the frizzy-haired girl popped a button from her tight dress shirt. The cheap shirt was no match for her growing breasts. She did her best to hold the fabric together with a piece of choir contraband: Lebron’s Lightning Lemonade bubble gum.
To enhance the day’s ceremony, Beefeaters (haughty community theater hacks, who had been granted PTO from the DMV) would be escorting the children, in their crimson vests, onto a stage of risers for their performance. They fastened the hot wool of their Beefeater costumes together over their bloated skinsuits. The militant ones spit-polished their bayonets to a bright shine. Without context, far away passerby may have thought they were seeing a reenactment of Shakelton harpooning penguins for dinner.
The four chorale mistresses were flustered with keeping the children in formation before the escort began. But, as flustered was their most pure and familiar form, they also felt their happiest. Each of the four women were between the ages of 60 and 80, with Ms. Ginny Brothers being the eldest and matriarch of the little coven. As always, the women were bedecked in their standard black velvets. For this year’s very special ceremony, the mistresses were excited to debut ruby brooches to match the children’s vests. Each mistress had her hair freshly chopped and styled reminiscent of a mushroom. Three of the four had never been married. Mrs. Macklin, the pianist, was the exception. Her husband died of mysterious circumstances in the late 80s. Whenever the subject of Mr. Macklin was mentioned, Mrs. Macklin simply replied, “Oh, I know nothing about that.”
“Ms. Chilton, Ms. Bernard, and Mrs. Macklin, come hither,” Ms. Brothers called. Her voice had a lilted, Hepburn-esque British accent that didn’t make much sense for a woman born and raised in Arizona. The three other women left their posts tightening children’s bow ties and rubbing at pizza-sauce-filled mouth corners. They bustled over in their dark, sweeping frocks. Their red ruby brooches glistened in the sun like drops of newborn blood after severing a baby’s umbilical cord from its mother.
“Alright, is everything and everyone in place?” Ms. Brothers asked.
“Yes, Ma’am,” the women agreed together. They showcased their black binders. The binders were full of music — neat and ready for conducting and accompaniment.
“And the children?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” the three women chanted in unison.
“All…” Ms. Brothers paused, “of the children?”
Ms. Chilton, Ms. Bernard, and Mrs. Macklin gave a stoic nod.
“Goody!” Ms. Brothers clapped her hands together like a Mary-Kay rep who had just sold a starter pack to a broke housewife. Unfortunately for the Chorale, the children would never see Ms. Brothers’ approving side.
“Ladies, I think this will be the best London Bridge Ceremony since my dear father anointed the Bridge himself in 1967. Let us bow our heads.”
The four women grasped hands, placed their heads temple to temple, and muttered best wishes to each other. When they finished, the women audibly cleared their throats, signaling to the children it was time to stand to attention and spit out any gum they had lied about chewing during the first company inspection. The Beefeaters could have learned a lesson or two in military etiquette from the Chorale.
Ms. Chilton and Mrs. Macklin made their way back to the children. They signaled to the Beefeaters that the time had come to escort the kids to the stage and risers atop the bridge’s East entrance. Ms. Brothers grabbed Ms. Bernard’s hand, keeping her a moment longer. Ms. Bernard was the youngest of the group, only 62, with no specks of grey peeking through her fungal-shaped, dark hair. Ms. Brothers raised Ms. Bernard’s wrinkled hand to her own weathered lips and planted a light kiss.
“Make us proud, Ms. Bernard. All eyes will be on you.” Ms. Brothers looked into her eyes with kindness and pride.
Ms. Bernard blushed, “Ma’am, I know I have told you this before, but I am so very honored by this opportunity.”
Ms. Brothers released her hands and pointed to the escort, communicating to Ms. Bernard that she was done with this small moment of intimacy. Ms. Bernard turned away and tucked herself in line behind the children.
Ms. Brothers watched the Beefeaters escort the children up the stairs. She heard the clop-clop clopping of the children’s bulky J.C. Penny dress shoes up the risers. Ms. Chilton and Mrs. Macklin came out after the children. They bowed to the clapping parents, city officials, and bucket-hatted retirees passing through the city to gas up their RVs. Mrs. Macklin sat herself at the piano and played a flourished arpeggio. Ms. Bernard entered the plaza. The children applauded vigorously, exhibiting to the audience that Ms. Bernard was the main event, not themselves. The audience picked up on the cue and sheepishly continued clapping while Ms. Bernard took three bows, first to the right, to the left, and then to the center. Each bow was so low she was perpendicular to the makeshift stage. She thanked the audience, adorned in cargo shorts, as if they were wearing tuxes in Carnegie Hall and had come to watch her step in for Julie Andrews.
During the hubbub of clapping for Ms. Bernard, Shelby, a tall 6th grader and Alto in the back row, looked at the children standing in front of her.
Crap. Where’s Annabelle?
Annabelle was Shelby’s chatty best friend. And lately, she’d been on the mistress’ last nerve. She had a reputation for whispering too loud, running late, and causing innocuous and accidental commotions. Plus, she had a plucky and independent streak, which the mistresses didn’t find nearly as charming as Annabelle did. Annabelle always found ways to cause mayhem across the other choir sections, even when sitting with her assigned Altos. Her latest endeavor included passing around rubber-cement strength caramels to the other children between a conductor change at rehearsal. When Ms. Brothers cued the children to begin singing, their mouths were tightly glued shut, and instead of angelic singing, she was confronted by a mix of giggles and uncomfortable squeals. Annabelle was given one final chance. One more strike, and Ms. Brothers would kick Annabelle out of the Chorale and she would lose her audition spot for HASH.
Shelby tapped a small boy in front of her. Phil was the 4th grader who stood beside Annabelle.
“Phil!” Phil turned around, surprised that Shelby was speaking to him, especially during the claps for Maestro. “Phil!” Shelby whispered again, this time more harshly. “Where’s Annabelle?”
Phil’s pupils stretched to look back towards Shelby as much as he dared without being noticed by Mrs. Macklin, the mistress with the best eyesight of the Altos from her spot at the piano. Phil squeezed the words, “I don’t know,” out of the corner of his thin mouth.
“What do you mean you don’t know?” Shelby whispered, louder than she intended. A few of the smaller children in the first row flinched while clapping. Quieter, “She was right next to you in the lineup, wasn’t she?”
Phil shrugged, still clapping for Ms. Bernard. “She was.” He paused. “And then she wasn’t. Something with her shirt…”
There was nothing for Shelby to do. She would sing her part and do her best not to laugh too hard when Annabelle inevitably rushed in like Moses fleeing the Pharaoh. Shelby imagined her friend parting the Sopranos like the Red Sea to get to her assigned spot on stage and then take up her harmony like nothing had occurred. Later she would wait for Annabelle behind the risers and listen as she explained to the mistresses how she had locked herself in a port-o-potty, or that one of the corgis had run off with her bowtie. Annabelle always had a knack for accidents just “happening to her.” Regardless of the excuse, her friend knew Annabelle had just lost her audition spot for HASH.
Ms. Bernard turned her back to the audience and faced the children. She placed her binder on the music stand. The children stood up straight and cinched their sphincters together. Ms. Bernard opened her binder to the first song of the program, “London Bridge is Falling Down.” The conductress raised her right hand holding a gold baton between her overzealous fingers. Her left hand clasped the air like a lobster’s claw. She made eye contact with Mrs. Macklin, primed at the piano keys. In a sailboat motion, Ms. Bernard counted Mrs. Macklin and the choir in. Macklin played her first chord, and the children opened their mouths to sing.
Shelby used her peripheral to glance to the right and then to the left. No Annabelle.
In the belly of the bridge, a short girl with frizzy blonde hair and purple braces screamed relentlessly. She pounded her hands against an ancient metal door. The room was dark, damp, and smelled of decay. Ancient rats scratched and itched her legs as they scurried between corners. She hammered and clawed at the door with all her might over and over and over. The door burned like dry ice. A trickle of blood began to flow from where the nail on her pointer finger had been.
Outside the vaulted door, Ms. Brothers patiently walked the length of the hidden tomb, deep in the bridge’s bowels. “London Bridge is falling down….” she quietly sang under her breath along with the cherubic voices above her. She reached the second door that separated the hidden tomb from the bridge’s maintenance corridor. Stealthily constructed and reconstructed since the Romans, the inconspicuous tomb had played a key part in keeping the legendary bridge upright. And since the bridge came brick by brick, block by block, to Arizona, the Brothers clan had done their part to keep the bridge’s five arches erect.
“Please! Please! Ms. Brothers! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Please, get my mom! Mommmmm! Mommmmmmm! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Annabelle screamed, cried, and gasped herself hoarse. Annabelle slid down the icy door, in exhausted disbelief. The door left a large burn down the middle of her spine. She looked into the full darkness surrounding her. She imagined people running in the dark. Some were tall but most were short, like her. “Mommy, Mom, oh no, oh no, oh no, I’m going to be in such trouble, Moooom,” Annabelle moaned to herself hoping in vain that the sobbing could conjure her mother out of thin air. There was no reality to her situation that she could understand other than she had wound up yet again somewhere where she shouldn’t be. Annabelle imagined her mother not only angry with her but this time truly disappointed. She would be kicked out of the Chorale for missing the ceremony and lose her chance to audition for HASH. She wanted to be held in her mother’s citrus scented arms, cuddled by her breasts. Annabelle wheezed for air and attempted to rock herself back and forth. Her diaphragm felt bruised against her ribs with every labored breath she took. She peed in her tux trousers. Her hairless legs goose bumped against her wet pants. The figures who weren’t there slunk closer.
Annabelle tried to stand up. Her bony legs immediately collapsed. She tumbled back to the stone floor, landing on her face, and skidding her nose hard on the hewn ground. She tried one more time to get up, but she only crashed harder to the floor. This time, a purple bracket broke, and the brace wire plunged directly into her gum. Annabelle’s mouth began to fill with blood.
The dark was suffocating. Too scared to stand and too scared to even sit, Annabelle remained lying on the cold floor. Her face was flat on the stone. She was able to cough out some of the blood getting caught in her throat, but she swallowed a majority of it. It made her nauseous —unable to push herself back up and feel for the chamber’s frigid door. She could hear the mumble of the Colorado rushing underneath her and a delicate trickle, trackle dripping near the rats scratching on the granite. Movement in the dark became clearer to her. The rats continued to slither on top of each other, breeding nightmares. Images of the rats eating one another, tail first in an ouroboros fashion, flashed across her mind’s eye.
It’s just in my head. It’s just in my head. This is a movie. I fell asleep watching Buffy re-runs. “This is a movie. This is a movie. This is a movie,” she whispered maniacally to the stone floor. “This is a movie? This is a movie?” she asked the floor. The stone didn’t answer her back. Annabelle hacked out the remaining blood in her mouth between strangled breaths. “On the count of five, stand up.”
“One.” Slither, slather went the rats.
“Two.” Choking, gagging hissed the rats.
“Three” Spickle, spackle dropped the drip.
“Four” Annabelle, Annabelle whistled the drip.
“Five” Annabelle, Annabelle whispered The Bridge.
Annabelle used her right hand to push herself up. She was immediately pushed back down by what felt like dozens of small hands.
Ms. Brothers turned the key to the icy tomb’s door, humming her way quaintly to the bridge’s East exit. She needed to be sure everything worked as planned before joining the living on top. After about two minutes, a muted, guttural scream made contact with her perfect-pitched inner ear. A deep smile fell over her thin, cracked lips. Ms. Brothers pulled open the heavy exit door and hummed louder along with the children above, all the way to the bright, desert surface:
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, Falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
Take a key and lock her up,
Lock her up, Lock her up.
Take a key and lock her up,
My fair lady.
About the Author
Emma Laurent is a former Democratic political operative. Past campaigns include Hillary for America and Obama for America. After leaving politics, Emma spent one year studying comedy and writing at The Second City in Chicago. She is now focused on writing timely pieces on culture, punk music, and spooky run-ins. She is a current contributor for New Noise Magazine, interviewing punk bands across the world. Other works include short stories, poetry, and incisive and satirical essays. After writing hours, Emma can be found mouthing off, watching baseball, and reading Stephen King. Emma is currently located in an antelope laden field in Wyoming.