The first thing that happened wasn’t even that strange. It started to rain.
In English class, Tyler Strauss was sitting at the back of the room, looking inscrutable. I’d only been at Westmont Prep for less than a month, but I was getting to know about people. Tyler was tall and colorless. He would have been attractive if he hadn’t always looked like he was coming down with something.
The unit was on As You Like It and Ms. Courlis was asking people what they thought about the whole all-the-world’s-a-stage monologue.
“It’s saying that people put on a face,” said Margaret Oxley, who had blunt bobbed hair and always knew the answer to everything. “A costume.”
When Ms. Courlis called on Tyler, everyone turned in their seats to watch. He shrugged and made a steeple with his fingers. “It just means that everyone has a secret.”
“That’s very interesting, Tyler,” Ms. Courlis said, in a way that meant, That’s very weird, Tyler.
But it kind of was. Interesting.
When the bell rang, people got up slowly, like the weather was exhausting.
“Oh, man.” Gary Weisser was standing at the window. “Look at the lawn.”
Everyone crowded up next to him. It was raining so hard that the street had flooded and water was washing up over the curb in little waves.
The PA system crackled on in a burst of rough static. Beside me, Gary flinched.
Over the loudspeaker, it sounded like someone was issuing a flood warning through gauze. The local weather service had evaluated the situation. We were to stay in the building until further instruction.
Around me, everyone groaned, but I just kept watching the street.
At my locker, everything was quiet and the halls were close to deserted. I didn’t see anyone I knew, but then, I didn’t really know anyone.
We’d moved to L.A. because my father quit his job at San Quentin. I didn’t mind. Being the daughter of a prison guard is not socially conducive. But then, being the new girl wasn’t socially conducive either.
I opened my locker, closed it. Thought about home. Someone came around the corner then, long-legged and tan, bloody gashes down her arms. Ashley Palmiter walked past me like I wasn’t there.
She’d been one of those irreproachable girls, the kind who were rare in San Rafael. Her locker had been in the same row as mine and I saw her a lot before she died, painting on lip-gloss, the mirrored compact held close to her face. Her picture in the paper had been an old school photo, before her braces came off. I thought that was too bad.
As she passed me, she left spatters of blood all over the floor.
In the movies, girls shriek, raking their fingers down their cheeks. The feeling I had was more like being squeezed. All the air was gone from my chest and Ashley’s hair was redder than it had ever been. Her face looked white and purple, blue around the mouth. I kept thinking I must be wrong, or at least insane—hallucinating, maybe. I wanted to reach out and touch her, just to see. And I wanted to back away as fast as I could.
I kept thinking, this is the part where I scream, where I start screaming. When I opened my mouth though, I just breathed out. I thought, this makes everything okay. Everything is okay, because this means Ashley’s not really here and I’m just crazy. I’ll go down to the guidance office or to the cafeteria. Someone will get me some help.
I didn’t go to the cafeteria, though. I wound my way through empty halls, wondering how a school of two thousand could suddenly be filled with no one at all. Then I heard clanking, a faint, rapid sound coming from the Voc/Tech wing.
In the shop room, Margaret Oxley was sitting under the table with her feet pulled up. She was picking at a hole in her sweater and the toe of one shoe kept bumping the metal leg of the table. She was the first live person I’d seen in almost twenty minutes.
“Margaret,” I said, crouching down. “What are you doing?”
“It’s Revelation.” She was hugging her knees to her chest. Her voice sounded high-pitched, like it was squeezing through a tiny hole in something. “It’s the Rapture, the Second Coming, when the righteous will be lifted up to Heaven.”
“Are you serious?”
She tucked her chin and wouldn’t look at me. “There was a man out on the median this morning, with a sign—he was waving this sign, and it said The End Is Near.”
I knew the guy. Long, horsey face, fried-looking hair. “Yeah, but he’s there like every week.”
“And what about that man up in San Rafael? The one who was strangling all those people, cutting them up?”
“That happens, though. It happens all the time, not just at the end of the world. Anyway, they caught him. Now come out from there.”
The cafeteria was empty, except for Tyler Strauss, who sat at the end of one of the long tables. He was holding a pack of cigarettes, tapping it on the tabletop.
He’d taken off his winter hat and his hair stood up in tufts. He had on a jersey pullover with a marbled orange-and-green pattern and sleeves that came down over his hands. He made me think of poisonous sherbet. He didn’t look shocked to see us.
He gave me a nod. “Hey, Cammie.”
Margaret watched him nervously, picking at her sweater. “What are we going to do now?”
He just pulled a cigarette out the pack with his teeth and flicked his lighter. “I don’t know about you. I’m going to smoke.”
“You can’t.” Margaret sounded breathless. “It’s not allowed.”
He raised his head and looked around the cafeteria. “There’s no one here to stop me. Do you get that? This is the part where L.A. finally falls into the ocean.”
The cafeteria seemed impossibly quiet and I sat down across from him. “What about everything else?”
He shrugged. “Maybe that falls into the ocean, too.” Then he leaned closer and his eyes were sharp and wary. “Hey, either of you see . . . anything strange?”
Margaret shook her head violently, but I just nodded. I was ninety percent sure he’d been about to say anyone. Anyone strange.
“You don’t look all freaked out though. Who did you see?”
“A girl I went to school with.”
“How was she?”
I made a strange half-laughing sound. “She was dead.”
“That’s funny.” His voice was low and cool, like he didn’t believe me. “How come you don’t look terrified?”
When you look at a serial killer, or even just a repeat-murderer, their eyes seem blank, like they’ve got their shades pulled down. They could be thinking anything, but they don’t let you see it. Terror is maybe like that, easy to hide as long as you don’t let it get too near to the surface. Once near the surface, it spreads.
Ashley’s blood was smeared on the floor in front of my locker and the water was almost as high as the windows.
“We should think about getting out of here,” Tyler said finally. He gave me a thin smile, like a sphinx with a cigarette, b
ut it wasn’t hopeful.
Margaret was the one who looked tense and excited. “I know a door to the roof. It’s in the auditorium, up above the stage. Where they store the sets.”
The auditorium was in the oldest part of the building. It still had its original curtains. Dark, musty swatches of velvet, wearing through in places.
Onstage, cables hung down everywhere, threaded though pulleys, attached to painted backdrops. They were fibrous, made of twisted metal. A defunct grand piano sat with the lid open, sprung wires bursting out in a snarl. Everything was coated with dust.
Margaret led us across the stage to a metal control panel. “There’s a lift by the stage-door. It goes up to the storage space.”
As she reached the panel though, her face changed. For a second, I thought she might cry.
“What is it?”
“I have nice handwriting,” she said, touching a piece of masking tape stuck on below a row of switches. It said floods: section B in black marker. “I have nice handwriting, but now it’s everywhere.”
She turned to me with a strange expression, running her fingers over the tape. “You want to know the worst thing I’ve ever done?”
I shook my head, but Margaret was looking at the tape again, looking at something I couldn’t see. The expression on her face was mean and sad. The black-marker handwriting looked like it belonged to some fifth-grade boy. No one would be able to see Ashley’s blood except me.
Margaret’s face was pale and slack. “When I was a teacher’s aide last year, I changed some of Tyson Brunswick’s test scores. I lowered them, because he made fun of me in PE all the time. No one noticed, but now it’s everywhere. It’s like I wrote it everywhere.”
I hadn’t even been around then.
“Are you sorry?” Tyler asked.
“Does it matter?” she said dully.
“I think so.”
“Well, I am. But it doesn’t make a difference.” She hit a button on the control panel and a red light came on.
Above us, I saw a thick cable, the kind that gets threaded through a pulley, but now it was unattached. It was swaying very gently, almost like a breeze had blown through the auditorium. The air was still.
Margaret watched the lift descend with her head tipped back, and as the platform reached the floor, she moved to step onto it.
The loose cable spun out like a whip then, finding her throat and twining up itself, lifting her. Her shoes were two white birds rocketing past me, toward the ceiling.
She made a breathless choking noise, but that was all. It went on a long time. Above us, Margaret was just her shoes, swinging gently in the dark.
“God,” I said in a clear, surprised voice that didn’t match how I felt at all.
I looked at her shoes, thought I saw her foot jerk. Then everything was still again.
I closed my eyes and watched the light move in patterns behind my eyelids. When I opened them again, I wondered if I’d gone blank, gotten opaque, the way people sometimes do when things get bad.
Serial killers live behind that window screen most of the time. But sometimes, if they start talking about the things they’ve done, sometimes their eyes get bright and awake, filled with the most terrible kind of joy. You can almost see the reflection of every bad thing, see it like watching in slow motion.
TV crews would come to San Quentin sometimes, to interview the lifers and the death row inmates, but my father never let me watch. He said it wasn’t the kind of thing you wanted to show a kid, like knowing what went on in the world was dirty. He looked at me so strangely. Carl Grady lived downstairs. He knew me better.
Outside, the water kept rising. It was getting dark.
Tyler looked sick. We were standing in the hall and his face was shiny and pale. His breath seemed very loud. He ground his cigarette out on the side of the trophy case, then lit another. The cherry left a small round burn, black against the warm finish of the wood. I looked at the burn so long that it started to seem like a hole to somewhere else. When I looked back at Tyler, he had his eyes closed like it hurt just to stand there.
“How did that happen?” He didn’t say her name, but he was talking about Margaret, snatched up to heaven.
“She confessed,” I said, and I said it so easy, like anyone should know. I knew I was right. There was no one else around.
Water was running down the hall in a steady trickle. When I dipped my hand in it, it was cold, but like I was feeling it from far away. The air smelled sharp and like seaweed.
I put my fingers in my mouth and tasted salt. “I guess you were right, we are falling into the sea. Maybe the ocean’s come up so far it’s washing everything away.”
“Or maybe we’re dead already and we just don’t know it.”
I shook my head. “It would be weird not to remember dying.”
“What’s wrong with you, Clemmie? Why aren’t you terrified right about now?”
“I am,” I said. “Kind of.”
He shook his head and looked away. The hallway stretched out behind him, fluorescent. Forever.
I watched him smoke, thinking about Carl Grady, who used to make lemonade and bring it out onto the stoop. Who always bought me a Christmas present. People get pleased with themselves or guilty about themselves and so they have to tell their secrets. I never had that problem.
Tyler must have been thinking something along those lines, because he said, “Look, are you still here because you’re clean, or because you’re really, really dirty?”
“What do you think?”
“I think I didn’t know before, but I do now. So, what’s the worst thing you’ve done lately?”
I shook my head.
“Well, you want to know what I did? Last year, I did something terrible. Something really messed-up.”
“I have to, Clem.”
“Don’t.” I wanted to cover my ears with my hands but not hearing wouldn’t mean he hadn’t said it.
“I got a bad batch. Cut with something. Drain-cleaner, maybe.”
“Did you know?” I whispered, marginally surprised. I’d never pictured him as a drug dealer, but everyone’s got their secrets.
“I had an idea.”
“But you didn’t know.”
“I didn’t know, but I’m not an idiot.”
“How many people died?”
“Three. Probably more, but they were junkies. Nobody keeps track of junkies.”
“Yeah, but not sorry like I am.” He was looking off down the hall again, looking at someone I couldn’t see. I wondered if they would be rail-thin, track-marks weeping on their arms.
I watched his mouth move, knowing that he’d picked an exit for himself. I never could.
After he was gone, I walked down to the cafeteria. It was empty except for Ashley Palmiter, who was wandering in a slow, dreamy way, blood feathering in the water around her. Her hair had a dark splotch at the back, and some of her fingers were gone. She didn’t turn or notice me.
When the precinct detectives came for Carl Grady, I stood on the steps and watched them take him. They didn
‘t rush in waving guns or any of those things you see on TV. There was no SWAT team, no helicopters. They had a warrant, because you have to, but everything else was anticlimactic. It was like California finally breathed out.
Later, my dad looked at me—not a suspicious look, but clean and sincere and horrified.
“All that time,” he said. “All that time, I was letting you go down there and hang around on the porch with him. All that time, he just seemed normal.”
I nodded. I’d told my dad that I liked Grady’s record collection, his sense of humor, his taste in movies. Grady, pouring lemonade into tall glasses. Saying, “I use a wire, because it cuts more.”
For days after they found a body, the newspapers would talk about how there were no leads. Police are baffled. Dead-ends everywhere. Citizens in terror.
Certain kinds of secrets get to feeling like a drug and that’s just fine. I have always been excellent at keeping my mouth shut.
There’s no one in the classrooms or the halls now. There isn’t anyone left to confess to.
Photo by Horia Varlan