The day Li had ‘gone wild’ was the day right before spring
dance. C remembered it well. The last party she’d ever been to still played in her mind from day to day, even though it had been just over ten years ago.
C and Li had been planning to go, for once. They’d bought
dresses together, knee-length blues and greys that floated and unfurled at the slightest movement. The dances before that they’d attended in jeans and hoodies, doing their best to blend into the walls together with the other half of their class.
It wasn’t as though the parties had been intolerable. They were
poisoned with the same awkwardness that all Middle-school dances were, with each side of the hall occupied by separate genders. C recalled the atmosphere then had always been in a calming sort of way, the lighting in the room shut off with the lights from the hallway outside creeping in to illuminate the room. The AC had always been on, the room half-lit in shadow as gradually students began to intermingle, laughter whistling through the air, filling it, until it began to feel like venom in C’s lungs.
At a point about half an hour before parties ended, they usually
took a different turn, with students, suddenly intoxicated by sugar and renewed bravery beginning to jerkily flail their limbs about. In those times, there were both the brave and the mad, the jokesters and the flirtatious, and the parties often dissolved into a chaos of delirious sobs, laughter, dancing, and screaming – simply yells that echoed through the room – and then the spell would break.
Li had never enjoyed them any more than C had: in their spare
time, they’d spoken about the parties, the strange wild flush and hushed connectedness that existed in the classmates who had partook in that 10-minute chaos.
But it had been Li who suggested they enter into that wild fray,
just three days before the dance.
Should C have known, even then, what was going to happen? Should she have been able to read the strange daring quality in Li’s eyes that day as a sign of bad things to come?
It’ll be fun, Li had said. The last dance of our school year.
Don’t you want to try being like them, just once? C had, but she’d never thought Li would have wanted to.
Afterwards, everyone had believed she had been in on the whole
event. Afterwards, after the shock wore off and the one-week mourning period was over, people avoided her with a new wariness in her eyes. She had been Li’s closest friend after all, her accomplice.
Attention, attention, this is
not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill. Everyone, please lock your doors and stay beneath your desks while the proper authorities are contacted. Attention -
“C, you’re not listening to me. I can feel it.”
Listening? The hallway melted away, the scene lasting in her
mind’s eye no more than an instant, and C drew in a sharp breath. Not real.
None of it was real.
The voice crackled down the line again, impatient.
“Look, you don’t have to go. If you’re not ready.”
Silence. Her mother sighed. “C? Are you there?”
“At this point...” C said slowly, softly. “There’s never going
to be a time when I’m ‘ready’. You know that.” The lobby receptionist across from her in the school’s entrance hall was darting sideways glances at her, clearly agitated. Bobbing her head apologetically, C turned away from the receptionist to focus on the call.
“It’s a reunion party, for crying out loud. Don’t you want to
see some of your old classmates? Reminisce on old times?”
Her mother demanded, exhausted.
“Give me a minute,” said C, watching the lobby receptionist
spring up from her post and pace over to her seat. “Yes?” she asked, holding the phone away from her face. “Please take calls in private quarters.” The receptionist snapped before scurrying away, face set in a slightly disgusted scowl. C bit her lip.
Dropping her bag to her armchair, she slipped her phone into her
jacket-pocket before slipping into the bathrooms. Locking the stall on the very end of the blocks behind her, she pressed the phone to her ear. “Sorry, yes? Reminisce on old times?”
“My point is, C, you haven’t been talking to anyone at all
since you started working! Professional talk, medical reports, autopsies, book manuscripts! My God, child, I know you never liked St. Lena’s, but there were nice classmates of yours. Meet old friends!”
“You’ve never been to a reunion party.”
“That’s besides the point. Tragedies draw people closer! I wish
I’d had the opportunity to bond with my classmates like you did.”
“Just think about it, okay? I’ll call tomorrow.”
“I’ll go, but don’t call tomorrow. I can’t guarantee you’ll like
how it turns me out.”
C cut off the call with a click, moving to dump the phone in her
Ping! Something buzzed in her pocket, against her ribcage, and
C, automatically withdrew her phone from her pocket.
One new video resent by Karen Meers.
C’s finger hovered over the Play button before she sighed and
let the finger come down and press it, watching as a circle whirred over the video. It started with laughter in the background, genuine laughter, and bright colors flashed across the camera as C squinted down at the phone.
Motion of the camera blurred the screen at first, but with a
jolt, the blurred limbs in the video stilled and turned into Karen’s smiling face pasted across the video. “Hey, everyone!” she said to the camera, making a peace symbol to the phone with one hand over her face.
“This is our third Reunion party since we’ve graduated, and
forty people are here! It’s a blast, we’re having snacks in Cafeteria and Dancing in the Music Room. Just like Old Times.” Karen’s smile faltered for a second as she realized what she’d said, before flickering back on. “So let’s make it forty-eight of us next Reunion Party! Peace out!”
The video faded to black. C opened up the chat Karen had sent it
to and typed quickly, fingers tapping on her screen too lightly to catch.
C – I already saw this video last year?
Karen – Just reminding you about what you’re missing out on! :D
C - I’m in the school lobby right now. Be there in thirty minutes.
Karen – I knew it! I told you! See you!
C – Bye.
C stood stunned, unsure of what to do next. Had she really
committed to Karen’s invitation?
She’d been staring at her screen for too long.
The phone faded to black, leaving her standing in her bathroom stall.
What time was it? C stole a glance at her phone again, shaking
it roughly to wake it up.
Fifty-three minutes left.
C unlocked the stall and slid the door open. The thin row of
mirrors assembled in a line twinkled at her, and she stared at the stranger reflected back at her without recognition. The shirt and jeans hung shapelessly on her body, a long strip of greyish blue and black, as though she were going to a funeral and not a party. Her face was withdrawn, eyes tilted and wary like a bird’s, and her arms long and skinny. Too thin – her classmates had always
told her she was too thin, bony, skin sallow and sunken. She diverted her attention away from herself in the mirror, and the hushed tones of her classmates receded from her mind.
In the mirror, behind her, she focused on some glint from a
crack on the bathroom tile on the floor, painted blue and pink by
kindergarteners. There was the thin wooden wallpaper behind her, the peeling edges strewn over each other, the lightbulb swaying from the lighting overhead lighting the bathroom a thin tinted pink-red color.
In the corner of her eye, C caught a faint glimmer of silver and
froze. Click, turn... C felt the breath in her lungs scrape her throat, and unbidden the half-hysterical image of the air in lungs being faintly annoyed was almost enough to tear her eyes away from the mirror.
What was it in the mirror?
It would be simple to look, to check, to turn around instead of
staring at the glint of silver-grey in the mirror over her shoulder,
transfixed. Turn around, C. You’re being ridiculous. Turn around. Click, turn... C waited for what she knew came next.
Attention, Attention, there is a dangerous individual detected on campus. We advise you to stay calm....
The room was silent, and at last C tore herself from her silent
spell to whirl around, heart caught in limbo, before she saw it. The doorknob of the bathroom, shining softly, and C’s fingers curled.
She shouldn’t have come back here. What was she doing here?
She looked again in the mirror, more reluctantly this time.
C felt a combination of uneasiness and pain, as she always
did, when she thought of her Middle School. St. Lena’s Heart were the words embroidered across the entrance-hall doors, the words depicted in every classroom with the holy robed woman holding out her hands with a pulsing heart in her palms. C could close her eyes and see her classmates, hear the ringing of the bell in her ears and navigate the routines of the mornings, breaktimes, classes.
And, most prominently, she remembered Li.
C and Li had used to do everything together, not in the way that
best-friends-for-life came together, but in the way that time and circumstance had bound them to do so. Neither of them had any friends, or factions within the class – Karen had her own band of five, the ones who had been friends since Kindergarten eight, Erika her gaming group of five. Beyond that there were little groups of threes and twos, and after that the complete loners...
The clock on the wall struck to four, and silently C scolded
herself for letting the time slip by. Forty minutes left, and C wasn’t going to arrive late. Exiting the bathroom as inconspicuously as she could, she plucked up her bag from the armchair and hurried up the nearby staircase with her head ducked.
The sign: Reunion party in the Sophie-Adams Room
above the cafeteria! Was scrawled in a child’s hand, painted in
rainbow with a cheerful smile grinning at the end of the sentence. A small red arrow pointed helpfully to the right, indicating a gently lighted hallway.
C took a right.
C can hear their voices, raised in laughter, their footsteps
pattering lightly across the floor.
There’s something quietly hushed about their mannerisms, though
they don’t notice it yet. Their footsteps move from place to place a bit too quickly, their laughter a bit too loud. They see what C sees: the extra security guard at the gate of the hill, the posters on the wall promoting therapy, the carpeted floor over the hallway where their classroom used to be. They hear light, padded footsteps when they close their eyes, the click of
metal on metal.
Or is that just C?
Steeling herself, she pulled back the heavy-set doors of the
Sophie-Adams room and blinked as light flooded her eyes.
As eyes shifted to look at her from the corners of their vision,
a combination of alarm and pity bubbling up in their expressions, C felt a strange sense of déjà vu.
She was her friend, wasn’t she? They were always together.
Do you think they planned it
She looks awful... I heard she was stuck outside when it happened
Really? I can’t even imagine being out there on my own with everyone hiding, especially with the chance you could bump into her.
Li wasn’t all bad, you know.
Maybe she was suffering.
She shouldn’t have taken it
out on us like that, the little bitch. Therapy exists. She could’ve gotten us all killed!
That’s what she wanted,
though, wasn’t it? Li was a psychopath.
No one spoke. Eyes evaluated her, distrust and wariness apparent
until a blur of pink and blue swept into C’s sight of vision and the tenseness in the room disappeared.
C pasted on a smile and began to search her mind for school
topics to make small talk with as Karen took her by the arm and guided her over to the side of the room, subtly angling her away from the lighting of the room. “You really came!” she gushed. “Really, it’s been too long...”
“Oh, come on!” Teased Karen, cheeks flushed and hair
attractively sprawled around her shoulder. Tilting her head and smiling at C, she reached out to tap one finger to C’s shoulder. “You’re one of the most successful out of all of us, and it’s no surprise either. You were top of the grade in Math and English!” Karen peered over her rimmed glasses to look over C, her eyes filling with scrutiny as she took in the grey leggings and blue shirt. C knew Karen didn’t truly like her; but Karen spoke to everyone
with the same bubbly enthusiasm regardless of whether she liked them or not.
“That was a long time ago.” C spoke with as much good humor as she could,
meeting Karen’s eyes for one second before slipping away, back to her feet.
“Don’t play modest, C.” Laughing in that charming way of hers,
Karen tipped up her glass to take a light sip from her glass. “Fruit punch with a dash of alcohol,” she explained. Karen knew the perfect line between a completely sober spoilsport and the wasted embarrassment, keeping her eyes alive without her movements turning sloppy.
“Want some?” C shook her head. She’d never been fully accustomed
to alcohol, to the way it burned her throat on the way down and seemed to fold the sharp edges of her mind in on itself.
There was an expecting silence from Karen as she tipped the
drink at her. “It’s been a while since I’ve been to a party,” said C after a moment of hushed awkwardness. “I think I’ll pass for now.” Karen shrugged.
“Sure, whatever you say.”
C sensed Karen was growing tired of her, wanted to check her off
the list of guests to attend to and was waiting for an opening. “Well, congrats for becoming the principal,” C said as brightly as she could as Karen beamed. “Wait – Karen, have you seen Isa?” Karen’s smile grew wider, her eyes trailing along behind C as she took in new arrivals. “Yeah, she came around twenty minutes ago. Went to the Cafeteria.” Karen replied.
“Thanks. See you!” Karen flashed one last distracted, twinkling
grin before she downed the last of her fruit punch and set it down on a nearby table. “Dee-Dee, darling, it’s been so long!” she crowed, sweeping off as C cast her eyes down. Forgotten, she paced her way through the hall, turning her face up to smile distantly whenever a sharp whisper cut her way in the fray of mingling graduates.
Stepping back outside of the room, C stepped past new arrivals
at the party, nodding politely to them without showing her face. Descending the stairs, she came to the sign at the base of the stairs and took the opposite way. Left. Her pace was surer now, relieved. She knew this path; had walked it a hundred times.
Climbing up another set of stairs at the end of the hallway, C
caught sight of herself in one of the bright shiny windows newly installed on the second-floor window of the school. For one instance, one instance, she imagined Li’s cold grey eyes peering into her behind her, a thin revolver the same hue pressed into the base of her neck. The image faded, dissolved back into nothingness. One more glint of metal in the mirror...
C reached the top of the stairs. There was a door, latched, with
heavy red writing scrawled across the front of it: DO NOT OPEN WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE PRINCIPAL. She undid the latch and stepped through the door to the School building’s roof. Crossing the rooftop to the railing, she tilted her head up to the sky: in peace. Attention, Attention...
C frozen in front of the bathroom sink, the speaker’s announcements ringing in her ears.
C hearing thudding footsteps outside, hearing Li’s soft, hesitant voice ring out in the hallway: Hello? Is anyone there?
C preparing to answer, reaching out, before the bang of a noise akin to fireworks explodes in her ears.
C watching as Li paced the halls, watching through the reflected glass of the mirror in the bathroom as bullets rang, repeatedly, on classroom doors while the announcement repeated itself over and over.
C waiting for Li to turn, for her to catch sight of her in the mirror, for that long metal object to press against her forehead and sing once more through the air.
They’d talked about it once before, once, together up on this
rooftop. C loved the secret openness of rooftops, the aura of freedom they exuded. Li had confessed to her. “I’d like to take out everyone here, C.” She’d laughed it off. They both had. Li’s cold grey eyes, sharp and unreadable as ever, had looked unusually alive when they’d met C’s. That was one day before J had suggested they buy outfits together and go ‘all-out’ for the spring dance,
one week before the dance – and the lockdown – had actually come. One day before outfits, One week before the dance, and one decade from now.
C could still hear J’s laugh intermingled with hers as she sat
on the rooftop, laughter from another time, from ten years before, though it felt as though the pealing laughter of the two came from right next to her now.