You haven’t heard this one? says Cousin Fie. It happened years back at the college. True story. This girl, a freshman, was rooming with another girl over at Old Dorm Hall. Well the girls in those days were from all over, rich girls from Rhode Island in their Calvin Klein cutoffs and their yoga bodies.
Yoga bodies, one of my Dutch uncles says, licking his lips. I like a bit of that.
How come only girls? someone says.
In those days the college wasn’t co-ed, says Fie. Just chicks. And these girls, four or six of them all used to gather together in their various rooms in ODH, the building that overlooked the Quad, to talk about hair and term papers and clothes and shit, and there was one of them, blond chick, not exactly pretty but confident as hell because she was old money—not like the other girls with their CEOs and TV exec parents. This one, she was some shipbuilders’ child. Blond and big but not fat because she was a swimmer, a state champion—
What stroke? cousin Piet says jerking his hand back and forth in front of his groin. Piet and Fie are brothers, there are six boys in all, always competing for attention.
Stroke? Backstroke I think. Maybe butterfly. No joke. So she came from this old-school family and was a state swimming champion and broad and blond and tough as nails. And there was this scholarship chick in the dorm building, too, lived on her own in a single room on the second floor, a hillbilly chick from West Virginia or some such. She had stories of her own , but none she wanted to share if you know what I’m saying. She wasn’t no swimming champion, her clothes weren’t from Saks or Bloomingdales, she’d had boyfriends like anyone but all that rich bitch sex talk shamed her. Only thing she had to bring to these dorm room get togethers was ghost stories. Hillbilly stories. Hauntings and witches and such, so she told one of those one night in the blond chick’s room. It was up in the corner of the building, on the third floor—those two giant maples in the quad tapping their branches on the windows. The girls passing around beer and weed and doing each others hair and whatnot. Well it was a solid story this mountain chick told and damn scary to boot—
Which one? Fie says.
Something about rattlers and coon turds? Piet says. Those mountain stories always got rattlers in them. Or coons.
Or hitchhikers, someone says.
Okay, says Fie. The one about rattlers and coon turds and hitchers. That one. And so from then on they included her in everything and made sure she was always there whenever they got together in the dorm for their panty parties what have you. And soon others joined in. Rich girls from all over the country—Wisconsin, and New Hampshire and North Carolina—put in with their own ghost stories and to be truthful some of them were okay. Not as good as the mountain chick’s, but just the telling of them kind of drew everyone together, and their eyes gleamed and they smiled and chugged beer together in that room and squealed when the chestnut branches scratched at the window and gave each other horse bites. Like the whole world come to them in that moonlit room, in those stories. But the big blond chick. She never scared.
What was her name? says Piet.
What? Her name. Shit man I don’t know. Give her a name.
You give her a name.
Alva, says Fie. Call her Alva.
Everyone roars and and Uncle Pim says if the story has a girl called Alva in it, which is his sister’s name in Vasservelde, they aren’t interested.
Maya, says Piet. Call her Maya. That’s a good rich girl name. Or Alex.
Okay. Maya. So Maya never scared. No matter how scary the stories were, she just sat there and smoked or sipped on her wine—she drank white wine is how sophisticated she was—and didn’t shiver or scream or yell like the rest of them that’s how scary some of those stories were. Especially the mountain girl. She told them about ghosts in the woods, witches in the attic, babies who suckled your soul, dogs with no anuses and cats with tumors, quicksand, slime, flickering candles, leeches, broken birds, girls with no mouths, dismemberments, deboweling, abortions, two-headed owls, eyes that bled… nothing fazed her. Some of the girls got so scared they threw up or fainted. Some didn’t come back. The parents found out and the parents told the Dean and little group was disbanded. But it always reformed. Vows of secrecy were sworn and the stories would continue. Every Sunday night in the corner room of ODH, the maple leaves bouncing moonlight into the open windows, the air thick with weed and fear, the girl’s Sunday-washed hair stiff with static. And there she’d sit—Maya—calm as Buddha. Not a blond hair out of place. Or maybe she’d roll her eyes or laugh at the scariest part, drop her roach in someone’s Coke. And after the party was over and the girls’d lie there in their dorm rooms looking into the darkness and seeing their own deaths, Maya’d be snoring, her roommate said. That gentle peaceful rich-girl snore.
Well the mountain girl. Candy. Candy okay with you? She tried to break through Maya’s defenses. Rich girl knows no fear, thought Candy, who’d known nothing but. She told stories so scary that they gave some of the girls rashes, migraines, ammenorrhia—that’s when you lose your period. Grades dropped all around and one of the girls had to be pulled down off the bell tower. When Candy ran out of stories of her own, she’d get on the phone to her gran for some more and when her gran ran out Candy hired all these Japanese videos—this was before You Tube and DVDs—and watched them, put her own spin on them. Nuns with gills, moths with hoofs, infants whose bones were broken at birth and who grew to hop like frogs, a priest who shat feathers, a fog of blood, a tree of limbs, a demon-dwarf with an exploding scrotum—
It exploded. Pus everywhere.
Oh shit. Where the hell you get this guy? Are we related?
She had the girls screaming, scratching welts down their faces. Candy would tell stories at those pajama parties that plumbed the very depths of hell and brought up the devil’s own toilet water, and floaters to boot. Nothing seemed to make an impression on Maya. She’d sit there like a stone. Finish a term paper. Make her shopping list. The more outlandish Candy’s stories, the more chance her eyes would roll. Or else she’d just yawn and go to sleep. Once she piped up and asked if anyone had anything better than a ghost story. A real story. And before Candy could say, well if a flayed civil war veteran who haunts a Carls Jr. isn’t a real story then what is, someone asked Maya why she came if she was so bored, and she just shrugged.
It’s somewhere to go, she said.
Another time, someone asked her if nothing scared her, but she just smiled that almost but not quite pitying smile she had, Reality, facts and figures. Murder statistics and mid terms. she said. What more do you need?
Candy was getting so pissed her own grades began to fall, and her grandparents who raised her were called before the scholarship board. The Board would pull Candy out of school if she didn’t improve and her gran pressed her lips together but Candy didn’t care any more. She’d become obsessed with Maya. She blamed Maya for stealing her thunder. Instead of listening to Candy, it had become a game between some of the other girls to watch Maya’s face for any sign of terror, a flicker of fear. Or discomfort. Discomfort would do and they began making book on Maya’s facial expressions instead of hanging on Candy’s every word. It became a thing to ‘do a Maya’ as they called it—they practiced their expressions of perfect calm verging on bitchy boredom. Or they’d just follow her example and catch up on their email, or their toenails, or whisper together about school work or boys. Candy’s freaky climaxes fell on deaf ears—the headphones were haunted, the hatbox was empty, the cave walls were bleeding, the devil wore Prada. No one cared anymore. She just looked around at all the shiny heads bent together, textbooks rustling and hairdryers starting up, and felt alone. Just like she used to. Many stopped coming, not out of fear, but just because it was less interesting watching Maya than it was listening to Candy— and the regular crowd shrunk. Candy felt lost. She didn’t care about the stories themselves. They didn’t belong to her, so she had nothing invested in them. Mountain people—they tell stories in their sleep, stories are in the air, they circulate and change depending on the teller. They make shit up easy as breathing.
Cousin Fie looks around the room at the men, uncles and cousins, gathered as usual at our place, the oilcloth covered table a crazy skyline of gin and beer bottles and wooden bowls of chips, white flecks of grease on a plate of uneaten meatballs, each with their own toothpick in it because Pim has a tendency to double-dip.
Says Fie, So it wasn’t what the stories were. It was what they did. They gave her a family. The girls were what she really cared about. Because for the first time in her life she had kin besides her gran and a few inbred cousins—
My Dutch uncles laugh louder than they need to.
For Candy it was more than just somewhere to go. It was where she belonged. Well those girls, that room with its stories had become home for Candy, more real than the mountains and more necessary. As the group got smaller and the girls lost interest she could feel something in her dying, like a part of her was being slowly ripped away and she didn’t know how she’d survive without it. But—
There’s always a but, says Piet.
—mountain folk are all about survival and Candy figured out a plan. She got some of the girls together, some of them who had been getting more mad at Maya than the others, either because they were somewhat outliers themselves, or because they’d been made to feel foolish for their screaming and soiling their nightgowns by her smiling moon-face and eyes as indifferent as the lake on a summers day, serene behind its cloud of menthol smoke. They were the weaker girls, and Candy wasn’t weak but when you’re desperate, you work with what you’ve got. So one day when they were bitching about Maya and how she thought she was better than everybody else and someone should teach her a lesson, and they were wondering what to do, Candy said, I think we should play a trick on her. I heard about it from my Gran (which was a lie, she read about it on the internet). It’ll scare the crap out of her if anything will and if it doesn’t—
Someone said. What if it doesn’t?
Candy said, sticking out her jaw in that way she did, Then, Maya’s won fair and square. And I think we should call it a day. No more stories.
Well the girls, the ones who’d been looking for an excuse to do just that, agreed. Candy told them her plan and they giggled, shivered, but said it didn’t seem too bad to them and they agreed to do what Candy said. Maya’s room mate, Sasha, who worked in the bookstore, agreed to steal an arm off one of the female mannikins used to model college merchandise. The three girls met in the dorm room late one afternoon while Maya was in class. Sasha pulled out the arm, a long smooth white girl’s arm. They planted the arm under the bedspread with just the tips of the fingers sticking out.
That’s messed up, says Piet.
The light was running thin by now, Fie says, the last of the golden rays filtering through the maples and falling on the tips of the dummy’s fingers, giving them a warm and lifelike glow.
Candy said, You think she’ll buy it?
A kiss of the fading light made one of the fake fingers seem to twitch. Just a little.
I’d shit my pants, said Sasha.
Candy had her doubts. Maya was tough. If the arm didn’t work, then Maya would win and Candy was okay with that. So they left it there. Went their separate ways to class, which for Candy was History, her best subject and for the first time in weeks she found herself able to concentrate fully on the lecture and even to raise her hand a few times and the professor smiled across the sea of heads and said he was glad to have her back.
That evening at supper, Maya’s seat was empty. Her roommate Sasha exchanged glances with Candy, and the other girls ate quietly. A few other people noticed and said where was Maya, but most attributed it to mid-terms or the fact that Maya had her period, which Sasha confirmed because she had hers too and pretty much all the roommates’ cycles were synchronized like that.
Happens in women’s prisons too, says Pim. They call it the Red Tide.
Maybe she’s calling her family, Candy wondered. Wednesday was a big day for calling families, the middle of the week, when all the girls felt loneliest, and someone said that, what family? Maya didn’t have a family to speak of, they said. Her old man, the shipping guy, well he was on his boats mostly, his yachts and such, trying to find Maya a new mommy. She’d already had three. And Candy thought how little she really knew about Maya and vice versa. But no one thought much of it, not even Candy, because after dinner Gene Harding, some celebrity academic—
In my time, says one of the Uncles. You didn’t have celebrity academics.
No kidding, sneers Piet. At the University of Vassername?
How old is Harding, anyway? says Uncle Pim. Thirty? What do you know from philosophy at thirty?
—was reading down at the amphitheater so a few of them went to that.
Strange that Maya’s not here, said one of the girls.
Why? said Candy.
She’s writing a paper on Harding, said the girl. For her philosophy major.
I forgot to mention that Sasha and Maya were juniors, so Maya was a couple years older than the others. It was the first week in October and the evenings were getting cool. After the reading they all went to a reception at Brig, and the bar opened and still there was no sign of Maya. This was before mobile phones and one of the girls told Sasha maybe she should call from the free phone or go over, but Sasha said did you ever try and talk to Maya when she had her period, and they all groaned and laughed and continued to flirt with the young professors and some PhD students from Cornell who’d come to the Harding reading. And then they all bought his book, and Sasha said how pissed Maya was going to be so Candy had a thought. She bought another book from out of her savings account and got the professor to sign it:
To Maya, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth…’ G. Harding.
And they all laughed and then the professor left and some of the girls went off with the PhD students.
Candy said that she would take the book over to Maya, and the girls said they’d go along.
But no ghost stories tonight, they said. Which was alright with Candy. She thought maybe the whole thing was past its Use-By date anyway. She didn’t think she had another bad story in her, that maybe over the last few months she’d gone into a dark place, and she, they, were all lucky to get out together. It was a beautiful night. The stars clung onto the sky like icicles from a vast tree, close enough to taste on your tongue, to touch with your heart. They crossed the river along the bridge, blue-lit like something from Tron, giggling. They stopped to look at the swollen river and someone made the usual beaver joke, and someone said it was too cold for beavers and they all laughed freely, like kids. Some even burped and they had their arms around each other, swinging six packs. Candy thought of her own creek back home in the mountains, emptying its icy waters into the sluggish, churning Ohio, and she hadn’t felt this light in years, this free. If she never got or gave another scare as long as she lived that was all right with her. Life was frightening enough without having to make it up.
They got to the dorm and clomped still chatty up the three flights to Sasha and Maya’s room but by the time they got to the door most of them were quiet. Sasha knocked but there was no answer.
She’s probably asleep, she said. Girl sleeps like the dead.
She fumbled with the card and slid it down the lock until they all heard the click because everyone—there were five or six of them—had gone silent. Sasha pushed the door open and darkness washed out into the glare of the hallway. Candy stepped in and groped along the wall for the light switch. But the dimmer must have been turned down because the light didn’t make any difference to what they were seeing in the moonlight-dappled room, or hearing. Candy’s senses seemed to have gotten muddled up, tangled together and continuous so that she could not tell where one left off and the other began. She couldn’t understand. Couldn’t feel her feet. Someone started sobbing and that could have been Sasha but beneath that there was something else. The sound of chewing. Or was it a feeling? To Candy it was more a sense of teeth and saliva on something that squeaked rather than squelched. And something else. But what she was looking at was Maya in a tube of moonlight at her desk chair—it was one of those old wooden ones—turned around so that she was angled toward the door and Maya held the mannikin’s arm and she was chewing on the plastic fingers, drool running down her chin and onto her lap. Because all she’d had was what she thought she knew, and when that failed her she had nothing. So she clung to that arm, lost in the dark. Candy took a step into the room and stopped. Maya’s blond shiny hair all damp with sweat and all stuck to her head and she was rocking back and forth against the back of the chair. That was the other sound. The sound of Maya’s broad swimmer’s shoulders cracking against the back of the chair. Crack, crack, crack.
JS Breukelaar’s first novel, American Monster was published in February by Lazy Fascist Books. Her work has been nominated for the David O Campbell Award, the Storysouth Million Writers Award and others, and has appeared in Juked, Prick of the Spindle, Fantasy, Go(b)bet Magazine New Dead Families, Opium and others, including anthologies like Women Writing the Weird (Dog Horn Press). She writes for the Nervous Breakdown and blogs irregularly at www.thelivingsuitcase.com.