Fiction 2016 / Spring 2016 / Uncategorized / Volume 46

After Alice—Mike Gray

 

I

The screams came from the girls’ bathroom—the one beside the stairs on the second floor. They echoed through the empty halls at around nine-thirty, just after Bethany McDaniel went in to wash her hands.

Dawn knew Bethany, but only by name.

She was the one who found Alice. She was the one who saw.

 

By the time the medics arrived, two of them clanking up the stairs with a gurney, countless students had gathered in a crescent around the open bathroom door. Dawn was pinched shoulder to shoulder near the front, standing on her toes to see. The teachers were running in and out of sight shouting things like we need more towels and get back to your classes. Mr. Norman even went so far as to shove a few people, raising his voice to keep from being drowned out. And over all of this—the voices, the shifting bodies—somewhere deep in that narrow lavatory, Dawn could hear someone crying.

The medics forced their way through the crowd. It was as if they brought a measure of control with them, not so much calm but rather an authority that made everyone settle down. It took them a minute to wrestle the stretcher past the doorframe, but then they disappeared inside.

The silence that followed was a void of more than a hundred people not breathing. There was a sound of movement, low voices that seemed to hum rather than speak. And the crying—Dawn had the sensation of leaning over a great height as she listened, wondering who it belonged to.

Then without warning a scream broke the silence, passing through the crowd like a current. One of the medics appeared in the doorway, took an underhanded grip on the gurney’s red frame, and pulled it into the hall. The girl strapped to the mattress was shrieking and writhing as though she were on fire.

Dawn pressed her palms against her ears, but couldn’t look away. She saw damp, sandy-blonde hair wreathing a contorted face—one she recognized but didn’t quite know.

The girl was whimpering as they wheeled her out of sight. “Oh God,” she said, “I’m sorry.”

 

Only mid-October but already cold enough for jackets and hats. The students filed out of the building with their heads and voices down. So much to talk about, but not yet. Not here. They climbed onto buses, ducked into cars. As the vehicles emptied from the lots, even the engines seemed to whisper.

Beyond lot C was a gravel utility road that cut a line between the practice field and the canal. It was a long way around and Dawn wanted to be alone.

Everyone had seemed so charged after the girl was taken. Navigating through the crowd made Dawn feel like a glass figure being bumped and jarred between shoulders and elbows. There’d been a lot of chatter, most of it too hushed to understand. Then came a scoured voice over the PA announcing that school was dismissed for the day.

Dawn had made a point to try and pass by the second-floor bathroom on the way to her locker, but that part of the hall was blocked off with yellow tape. Principal Phillips stood there talking with a police officer. The bathroom door was still open, she could see shadows playing against the wall inside, but the two men glared sharply enough to send her on her way.

 

She barely had the front door latched before her mom hurried in from the kitchen and hugged her. It was the same motion she was used to, the same two arms draped around her neck, only this time they squeezed tighter, and for a fraction of a second longer. When they separated, her mom asked, “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Why?”

“You took so long.” Her mom turned and started back into the other room. “The school secretary called.”

“Really? What’d she say?”

Dawn dropped her backpack and leaned against the kitchen doorframe. Her mom was at the island now smearing mayonnaise on bread. “Just that I should expect you home early. Got homework tonight?”

“A little.” She looked down at the sandwich-in-progress. “I’m not really hungry, Mom.”

“It’s almost lunchtime.”

“I know,” she said, then after pausing a moment, “Did the secretary tell you about Alice Preston?”

Her mom’s condiment hand hovered for an instant, barely long enough to notice. “Let’s not worry about that.”

Dawn moved to the other side of the island. “What did she say about it?”

Her mom sighed. “Oh, apparently there was an accident. That’s all.”

“They didn’t say what?”

“No, just some sort of accident. Do you know her?”

There was something severe in the way she asked this, something suggesting—danger? consequence? “Think I’ve seen her around. I don’t know her.”

“You know her name.”

“Everybody was talking about it.”

“On the bus?”

“In the hall on the way out. I walked home.”

Her mom’s expression softened a bit, but she still managed to frown. “Is that why you ran late? You know I don’t like when you do that.”

“I walk all the time, Mom. Calm down.”

Her mom screwed the lid back on the jar, smiling again but without looking directly at her.

 

There were voices in the foyer a few hours later.

Her mom must’ve ambushed her dad as soon as he walked through the front door. The two of them spoke with muted urgency in the family room until they spotted Dawn coming down the stairs. Then they brightened.

At the dinner table her mom folded her hands together and prayed, “Bless us O Lord for these thy gifts for which we are about to receive…” running through the words with automated familiarity. Dawn watched them pass the food back and forth, their expressions tense and patient. She knew it wouldn’t be discussed until she left. They were quiet the way they were whenever they wanted to talk about “grownup things,” so after a few minutes she said her stomach hurt and excused herself.

She stayed in her room watching the news with the volume turned way down. There were stock updates and reports of car accidents. That afternoon there had been a shooting north of town with two fatalities, and she wondered, had she been shot? The starched-looking anchors said nothing about St. Augustine High. Nothing about Alice Preston.

Dawn flipped through the pages of last year’s yearbook, stopping briefly to cringe at her freshman photo before finding Alice. The girl was a junior then, so Dawn knew she’d never had a class with her. But she did recognize her.

A color photo near the back, in a section titled “Student Life,” showed Alice huddled with seven other girls, all of them smiling as if caught in mid-laughter. Dawn studied her face for the longest time, trying to recall any instance when they might’ve spoken or passed each other in the hall. It was as though the chance of having done so had suddenly gained new significance.

By eleven ‘o clock she realized she’d forgotten to call Brian. After chiding herself for it she tried to fall asleep, but alone in the dark she couldn’t stop thinking, What happened to Alice Preston?

The National Honors Society happened to her. Varsity soccer and assistant editorship of the school paper. Beauty happened to her—a sort of inner radiance that made her look warm and approachable. Dawn could easily imagine friends happening to her too, the kind of genuine popularity that’d never seem cliquish or vain.

A lot happened to Alice, but what didn’t happen was a stretcher during second period. Blood from hidden wounds, dark and thick, streaked over the tan linoleum in the hallway. These were things that didn’t—things that couldn’t—happen to a girl like Alice.

Except they had.

 

II

It amazed her how quickly gossip could take on the life of a fire. A rumor is lit and tossed carelessly into the air, catches, rages out of control.

The following morning she kept hearing fragments of the same conversation. It probably wasn’t true that Alice was dead, yet people discussed it with such conviction. Voices clouded the air like ash, everyone wanting to sound like they had an insider’s perspective, only no two versions agreed. They talked about how she’d committed suicide at her home—or maybe the hospital. It was an overdose of pills one moment and a razor down the wrists the next. By second period it had gotten so bad that Mrs. Hatfield addressed it before her lecture. She assured everyone that Alice was alive and suggested, timidly, that they not be so quick to believe everything they hear.

Dawn had skipped breakfast that morning, so at lunch she bought three rectangles of pizza and a bottle of Coke. By the time she reached their table, Laurie and Amanda were already talking. “It smelled really strange in there,” Laurie was saying.

Amanda’s expression looked pinched. “Hell with that. I went down to the first floor just to get to history. I didn’t even want to pass by it.”

Dawn asked, “Pass what?”

“That bathroom. Laurie went in there today.”

“Did you really?”

Laurie tilted her head back, sort of nodding as she downed chocolate milk. Amanda said, “I talked to Paige last night on the phone. She said they had to drag Bethany McDaniel into the nurse’s office after she saw Alice.”

“Are you friends with Bethany?” Dawn asked.

“Yeah right. Paige hangs out with her. Said she tried to call her after school but the girl’s mom hung up on her.”

Laurie said, “She’s probably messed up for life. I know I would be.”

“Well Paige doesn’t think Bethany will be back.” Amanda turned to Dawn. “I’m surprised you didn’t call yesterday. Or were you on the phone with someone else?”

“I know,” Laurie added, “I texted you like six times.”

“Oh, I stopped by Hallmark after school let out,” Dawn replied.

This got the girls’ attention. Why was written all over their expressions, but Dawn didn’t have an answer ready. She’d gone to the store on impulse, searching through the too-cheerful sympathy cards, several with “Thinking Of You” printed on the front in fluorescent colors. The one she’d settled on, almost absently, was still in her school bag—it had a quiet hand-painted pink dandelion on the front and was blank on the inside so you could write your own message, but of course Dawn hadn’t written anything yet. She’d only remembered the card a moment before.

Instead of mentioning any of this, she sipped her Coke and decided to lie. “I heard Alice got stabbed.”

It stopped both her friends from eating. Amanda stifled a laugh, but not very well, then the two spoke at the same time: “Who told you that?” and “Don’t you know?”

Dawn shook her head as an answer to both.

The girls exchanged a well-informed look. “Alice was pregnant,” Laurie said.

These words ricocheted inside Dawn’s skull, and as soon as she made sense of them the rattling moved through her chest and down into her stomach. She felt sick. The girls were quiet a moment, but then Amanda said dismissively, “How could anyone put a hanger inside themselves?”

The question reached Dawn as she lifted a slice of pizza. The cheese left streaks of red sauce and grease across the paper plate. She set it back down and closed her eyes. It was all she could do to keep from fainting.

 

Mr. Norman lacked his usual living room demeanor—that habit of lecturing from his chair with his feet propped up, like any minute he might light a cigarette. He offered some words of comfort, but it grew awkward quickly and he cut himself off.

English was the last class of the day. His lecture gradually tapered into a kind of second study hall, but Dawn couldn’t focus on school work. Her thoughts kept drifting to Brian, and when they did a prickly chill ran down her spine.

Pregnant. Such a harmless, hopeful word of pinks and blues and adoring smiles. The tall wooden storks propped up on front lawns. How dangerous it now seemed to her though, like a mark of betrayal or disease. And the inescapable finality of it. Once done it can’t be undone, not in any natural way—because pregnancy is natural.

But then why was her heart invaded so suddenly by guilt?

With only fifteen minutes till the bell, Dawn stood up and walked out of the room. If Mr. Norman noticed, he didn’t say anything.

 

After running the two blocks from the bus stop, Dawn opened the front door so violently that it made her mom start. She was perched over a magazine at the dining room table. When she waved, smiling, Dawn noticed the cordless in her left hand. She motioned that she needed to make a call. Her mom held up five fingers.

It was just after three o’clock. Brian usually went to work at four. Dawn grabbed a bag of potato chips and stomped up to her room. Once there she dropped her things on the bed and threw open the closet door. Halfway out of her coat, her breath vanished.

There was an orderly line of them, just like always. Touched, moved, sorted through every day without being given a thought. Dawn sucked air deep into her lungs as she removed an empty one. The thin wire hook at the end looked like an unfinished question mark. She let her fingers explore the smooth coolness of the shape, then with her thumbs she pried at the hook, forcing the bend out of it. The metal left warm purple indents in her skin. She held it at eye level, remembering Amanda’s words, how could anyone—inside themselves?

Examining the hook, now straight as a needle more than three inches long, she realized it was impossible. Wasn’t long enough.

Unraveling the twist at the neck was much harder, like tiny metal arms locked in combat. Dawn pried at them until the coiled ends separated. Once straightened the length of it terrified her. She wondered how Alice snuck hers into school. Had she stashed it in her locker and unwound it in the bathroom stall? Had her thumbs ached with small purple indents before—

There was a delicate tap at the door. “Are you decent?”

“Uh, no. Just a second.” Dawn shoved the warped hanger under the bed and threw her coat off the rest of the way. A second later her mom opened the door enough to peek in.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“I’m fine. What?”

“I’m done on the phone.” She reached in and touched Dawn’s forehead with chilly knuckles. “You look really pale, honey. Are you hungry?”

“I said I’m fine.”

Her mom withdrew her hand and leveled her eyes. “Why so agitated?”

“I’m not,” she said, turning dramatically to face the clock above her desk. “I just—I promised Laurie I’d call before four, okay?”

Her mom hesitated before handing the cordless over. “Don’t stay on too long.”

 

It irritated her, his being so calm. His answering the phone with that husky voice, sounding cheerful through the static. Dawn said, “Brian, stop moving around. I can’t hear you.”

“Sorry, babe. I’ve got like—five minutes to get ready.”

“What time do you get off tonight?”

More static. “Depends how busy we are.”

“Can you guess?”

“I don’t know, maybe nine. Hold on a sec.” She heard a thump as he put his phone down. It brought on a feeling like something tight in her chest, something winding itself to the point of snapping.

When he picked back up he was panting a bit. “Sorry. Had to put my shirt on.”

“Will you listen a minute?”

The connection still sounded like wind through dry grass. “Are you mad or something?”

“Working on it.” She sat down hard at her desk. “Brian, about last Saturday. After the movie.”

She waited for a reaction, but the line was suddenly quiet. “Are you there?”

“I’m here, baby.”

The softness in his voice brought a tremble to hers. “We can’t do that again. Okay?”

A pause. “Why not?”

“Just say okay. Please?”

“Okay. Can I ask why you’re bringing this up right now?”

She wiped her eyes. “No.”

“Did something happen?”

“Look, I’ve gotta go,” she said.

“Hold on—your parents didn’t find out did they?”

“I’ll have to call you later.”

“Wait, Dawn—”

She jerked the phone away and held it against her lap, hoping maybe he’d hang up first. The words were inaudible, but his voice went on for a long time, unanswered.

 

The scene at dinner was livelier than the previous night. Problem was it felt like a scene.

Her mom and dad were setting the table, laughing about some anecdote Dawn hadn’t fully paid attention to. They made staring at her a tag-team effort, with eyes more sober than their voices led on. It was as though they were waiting for her to remember her lines, so she offered a tight, wax-like smile and sat down.

Her mom folded her hands in her customary manner—elbows on the table, fingers laced—then she bowed her head and began, “Bless us O Lord for these thy gifts—”

“Can we say a prayer for Alice Preston?”

The words were out before they’d fully formed in Dawn’s mind. Her mom’s eyes found her from over the ridge of her knuckles like a pair of crosshairs. Dawn asked, “Is that okay?”

“Not tonight,” her mom said, lowering her gaze again. “For these thy gifts for which we are about to receive—”

“Why not?”

Her dad turned in his seat. “We’re not discussing this at the table, Dawn.”

“But why? It’s only a pr—”

“Because we’re not. Understand?”

She didn’t answer him. She just sat there, arms crossed, frowning down at her plate. Understood or not, the debate was over, so for the second night in a row she cited an upset stomach before retreating to her room.

Once there she couldn’t do anything other than lay on her bed in the dark, thinking. A dew rose up on her cheeks and forehead as she tried to convince herself that fear wasn’t to blame. She was mad, not scared.

Did something happen? Brian putting it simply like that, dismissing it like she hadn’t been in his backseat moving and sweating with him. He’d startled her, yes, taking his pants down so casually. But she’d been excited too, hadn’t she? Seeing him for the first time. Feeling him through her jeans, grinding against her, his breath steamy in her ear, so hot she thought she might suffocate. And the drive home with the windows cracked, holding hands while the cold night air eased the mist from the glass.

The memory of it ached. Dawn gripped her hands together and squeezed, as if prayer was a matter of pressure needed to wring the sin from her pores.

 

What little sleep she got was fitful, but at some point she was asleep. And something stirred her—a distant, high-pitched sound that her mind barely registered, even though it was familiar. She didn’t actively think about it until her parents swept into the room, flooding her awake at two in the morning with lights and raised voices.

Someone named Brian had been calling for her, three times in the last half hour!

Dawn felt her own expression sink with recognition. After seeing this, her parents demanded everything: who he was, how she knew him, where she’d really been on every recent occasion they could remember.

Dawn had never felt so cornered. Her dad struggled to keep his temper dignified, planted there in front of the doorway in his sweatpants and OSU t-shirt. Dawn paused and stammered, her explanations stumbling out of her like a child’s clumsy half-truths.

For no reason at all, her mom started darting around the room straightening things, as if a tidier dresser or floor might suddenly make all the difference. She was echoing a point about honesty, her arm fishing for clothes under the bed, when she brought out the uncoiled hanger Dawn had stashed there. And forgotten about.

After that there were no more explanations. No more questions. Within minutes, her bedroom door had been unceremoniously hoisted off its hinges. Dawn could now see clear to the end of the hallway while sitting at her desk. Her dad looked anything but dignified as he tried to force the door into a towel closet that was obviously too narrow for it. Her mom stood watching next to him, the hanger still in hand. From some distant spot in the house, the phone started ringing again.

 

III

In the two days since Alice, the second floor bathroom had become something of a tourist attraction, like the site of a famous execution.

It was Wednesday afternoon. After a hurried lunch, Laurie and Dawn were walking on the second floor together. The halls were still relatively empty. When Laurie saw her looking sidelong at the bathroom door, she asked if she wanted to go in.

Dawn stopped moving, but didn’t respond.

“Are you okay?” Laurie asked.

“Yeah,” she said. Let’s go in.” There was hesitation in her friend’s eyes, so Dawn stepped forward and swung the heavy wooden door inward.

She’d been in there before, countless times. Three sinks and four clay-colored stalls, all of them mounted along the left wall. There were mirrors above the sinks, each one desilvering with age. It was the same room, down to the pinkish tiles and rusty-brown grout, yet it was different somehow. Dawn walked toward the stalls, looking around to be sure they were alone. “Smells just like a bathroom,” she said.

“It was different the day after. Real sharp, like rubber cement.” Laurie paused to gaze at herself in the mirrors. “At least they didn’t come right out and insult you. My dad said he was going to staple me shut one time.”

Dawn gently pushed the stall doors open one at a time with her fingertips. “I remember.”

“They still think we went to Danbury Theater together that Saturday?”

On the wall of the last stall, someone had written R.I.P. with a red marker in fat capital letters. “Laurie. Look here.”

Laurie backed into the middle of the room, hitching a bit before moving toward her. When she saw the letters, she grimaced. “That’s so tasteless.”

“You think this is really the one?”

Dawn saw Laurie’s head shake slightly, but it seemed more like a meditative reflex than an answer. They were still standing there when the first bell rang. It startled them both.

Back in the hallway, the girls merged with an excited crowd funneling toward the nearest stairwell. Once on the first floor, Dawn sensed immediately that something was happening. Something that wasn’t supposed to be acknowledged.

It was the surrounding commotion that gave it away. Students shuffled around, dug through lockers, chattered, whispered, but without any real intention. None of the movement seemed to produce anything, no one was hurrying to class. It was all meant to look too casual.

Dawn and Laurie fell into step, eventually settling against a row of green lockers. Dawn tried to glimpse what was going on through the shifting rivers of space between the students. She saw Principal Phillips standing at an open locker a little ways down the hall. And a woman with straight blonde hair, beside him, not facing him. He was speaking close to her ear, but she was preoccupied with whatever was in front of her. Dawn could see that she was holding something.

A lank, sweaty upperclassman who didn’t seem to cherish personal space turned and hissed the news in their direction. “That’s her mom.”

Laurie stared ahead, her eyes suddenly alight. “You serious?”

“Yeah, just look,” he said. “They’re cleaning her locker out.”

His unabashed staring was awkward to stand close to. Laurie was already mimicking the majority of the crowd, rifling through her purse just to seem busy, so Dawn let her book bag slide off her shoulders so that she could join in the act, reaching in and pushing her books around, fingers brushing the edges of pages and folders while her eyes stayed fixed on the figures down the hall.

Then she felt a thin plastic bag wedged tight between her notebooks.

The upperclassman turned again unexpectedly, leaning in so close that she could smell the breath seeping around the corners of his smile. “Man, she looks pissed.”

Dawn had no idea who he was, but the smile irritated her. “How the hell would you feel?”

The upperclassman and Laurie glanced at her, taken off guard, but both seemed to forget her a second later.

Dawn slid her hand into the skin of the plastic bag, trying not to make any noise with it. She already knew what was inside—the blank card with the single pink dandelion hand-painted on the front. She hadn’t even looked at the thing since she bought it two days before. She pulled it out just enough to notice the wear—the lower corner creased and upturned, a pressure groove along the back in the shape of a notebook’s spiral.

The second bell sounded.

It might as well have been a gunshot starting a race—people scattered in all directions at once. Dawn jammed the card back too fast, folding the bottom corner again. Laurie said something about her next class, but her eyes were still busy down the hall, even as she sidestepped away.

Dawn wouldn’t be able to say what compelled her to stay there in the first-floor corridor, but she did remain, against the wall, backing up until she was safely hidden in the stairwell again.

As the crowd of students thinned, Alice Preston’s mother became more and more visible. She was in an olive-toned pantsuit, but with green and white gym shoes instead of pumps or flats. Her hair looked very smooth, divided down the center like two blonde scarves, and they brushed over each shoulder as her arms kept reaching in and out of the open locker with rapid, impatient jerks. Everything she grabbed went into a red and white cardboard box she had balanced between her pelvis and the locker’s frame.

As Dawn watched, Principal Phillips just stood beside the woman without speaking. He looked checked and uncomfortable.

Dawn waited until the last of the stragglers were past before sitting on the stairs. She hurried the card out of her bag, tried to press the dog-eared corner into place with her thumb. A moment later she had the tip of her blue pen hovering over the blank message area on the inside, but she couldn’t think of anything to write. There was such a warm rush of adrenaline in her hands that she couldn’t keep the pen completely steady, or her breath completely calm.

Buying the card in the first place suddenly seemed so asinine. What could she possibly have to say to this girl? She didn’t even know where to send it, but still Dawn followed the same impulse she’d felt on that first day—to do something, to make some gesture, even if only for the sense of contrition it promised.

She’d only managed to write “Alice” when she heard a man’s voice, little more than an unsteady mumble at that distance, which stopped abruptly with the slamming of a locker door. Then something else…a quick-moving step.

Dawn put the pen down. She was afraid that standing out of sight until the last minute might look like an ambush, so she forced herself to ease around the corner of the stairwell, facing the woman as she approached with the box at waist level.

If she was aware of Dawn peeking around the corner, she gave no indication. Her eyes were darkened pinpoints of concentration that seemed set only on leaving the building.

Principal Phillips, however, did notice her. He was leaning against the lockers in the background, making no effort to pursue Alice’s mother. But he straightened when Dawn stepped out into full view, hands drawn out of his pockets.

She stayed close to the wall, leaving a respectable space in case the woman wanted nothing to do with her. “Mrs. Preston?”

Alice’s mother slowed to a milder pace, her eyes on Dawn, who nearly flinched at the ire in the woman’s expression. All she could think to do was hold the card out feebly at arm’s length.

Principal Phillips was coming toward them from the right. “Hey. You there!”

He snapped his fingers several times.

Dawn ignored him and took a cautious step toward Alice’s mother, who by now had nearly stopped walking. “I got this for her. I mean—I—”

“That was second bell,” Phillips barked. He almost trotted to get between them, his arms out to either side as if to block Dawn’s view. “Did you hear me?”

“I just wanted to give this—”

“Do you want to be suspended?” When she didn’t answer right away, Phillips lost his composure. He braced her right shoulder with his hand and repeated the question in a louder, more abrasive voice. “What did I say, huh? What’s your name?”

Beyond him, Dawn could see Alice’s mother. She was facing them, stepping closer. Then she spoke. “The girl was talking to me.”

This seemed to call Phillips back to himself. His eyes and grip softened in tandem, then he backed away, ran his palms over the front of his blazer. After a moment he moved back down the hall, leaving the two women alone.

Dawn’s eyes were scalding. She moved forward and again held the card out to Alice’s mother. “I didn’t really get to write anything yet.” Dawn tried to smile, but any extra effort threatened to upset the balance that was keeping her from crying.

Alice’s mother looked equally on edge. “I don’t recognize you.”

“My name’s Dawn.”

The woman steadied the box beneath one arm so she could take the card. She stared briefly at the dandelion on the front before adjusting the box back into both hands. “Dawn,” she said.

It wasn’t a question, but Dawn nodded anyway. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Preston. I am.”

“I appreciate that. I’ll tell her who it’s from.”

“No, Alice…she doesn’t even know who I am. It’s just…”

Dawn couldn’t finish.

She was uncertain how to phrase what she was feeling, but when she glanced up, the gratitude in the woman’s expression made it clear that she was understood.

After another moment, Alice’s mother nodded and continued down the hall.

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