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Charlene Pepiot

There was nothing noteworthy about the rusted skeleton of a billboard that overlooked the town of Vigor. Several of its plywood planks had fallen into the weeds below and left gaping spaces in the frame. Through the gaps, passing drivers glimpsed the peeling paint on the houses behind it.

            The glops of yellowed glue and graffiti on the remaining boards advertised Vigor as the rustiest the rustbelt had to offer. Rickety and forgotten but somehow still standing year after year. That’s why it made local headlines one fall morning when two workers noticed someone had installed new boards where the gaps had been. A white poster had been pasted over the wood and featured a female in a frilly red dress with a stretched smile beneath the logo “Welcome to the Town of Vigor: The Land of Opportunity.”

            The locals assumed it was a poor attempt to repopulate the dying town. After all, one new sign wouldn’t mask the boarded-up businesses behind it. Especially a sign with a model clenching her lacy handbag so hard her knuckles looked white on the glossy paper. Real fear seemed to radiate from her printed eyes, and many turned away when they passed the advertisement.

            Discussions were had in half-empty bars about who would bother restoring the billboard, but concerns over the latest business relocation demanded greater attention. When the sign of the smiling woman was swapped for a grinning man in a uniform with bulging eyes, they merely scoffed at whoever had orchestrated the switch and continued down the sidewalk. A different face with a tortured grin would do little to revive the town.

            Soon the billboard was displaying a new face every day, all with similar wide eyes and stretching smiles. Ladies adorned with pearl earrings and men in black suits surveyed the highway with wide eyes that seemingly willed people to turn left and give the town a chance, but no one ever did.

            Soon the billboard’s strange display melded into routine. Employees cleaning dusty tables at restaurants began placing bets on what gender or race would appear on the billboard the following day. Schoolchildren camped along the highway to discover the mastermind behind the billboard’s advertisements, though no one was ever spotted. Whoever it was seemed to make the switch in the brief moments the onlookers were distracted by car horns and screeching tires on the dark highway.

            When Rudolph Tull Smitherson Junior—a young man with a name he insisted be said in its entirety—climbed the billboard for a better look, no one stopped him. Hours spent lifting steel machinery had given Rudolph the upper body strength needed to scale the rusted beam with ease until he was facing the image of the day. A young man in a vest with smooth hands from a life of office work stared back. Up close, Rudolph could see each individual eyebrow contorted in fear and the faint imprint of teeth on the bottom lip, as though he had bitten himself before the shoot. Like the other models, his mouth stretched back in a wide grin that showed a little too many teeth.

            Rudolph’s friends below watched the passing cars and kicked about old cans—anything except looking at the billboard. That was why they couldn’t tell the police why Rudolph—master rock wall climber—lost his balance and dropped a good 14 feet into the dead bushes below. As his friends drug him into the open and hopelessly waved down speeding cars for help, Rudolph whined the same jumbled phrases over and over. Something about the model’s face feeling like real skin. That ripping the poster had exposed the image of the woman from the day prior whose printed flesh had yellowed and grown splotchy with decay.

            “Her lips,” Rudolph babbled. “Her lips were still stretched in that awful smile!”

            Local investigators inspected the billboard and the surrounding area, though they made no mention of Rudolph’s odd descriptions in the final report. No one questioned it. Perhaps they realized that the billboard was not meant to be disturbed, and further action would lead to consequences none had the time nor energy to provoke. After all, that was the day the investigators stumbled upon the deep gulley left by long-gone frackers piled with smashed cars. From the skid marks, they could trace where the tires had swerved off the highway and past the billboard into the ravine below. The license plates enabled local officials to identify the automobiles' owners. Their pictures matched the faces on the billboard.

            To this day, the billboard displays a new face daily. The town ignores the now recognizable screeching tires and crash that occurs each night. Occasionally, someone will walk by the billboard on a dare and stare at the wide eyes and stretched smile of the figure on display. Usually, they fan themselves with their greasy hat and march on toward a job they hoped still had its doors open. They could almost feel the model’s gaze follow them. How tragic it was, to be trapped on all sides.

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