by Derek Andersen
Already, Joan is running late. But she still hasn’t found the right outfit—the ensemble bold enough to signal a triumphant return from her fifty-four-day leave of absence, but not so bold as to upstage the victims.
She, after all, was on the periphery of The Tragedy that struck Twin Lakes High. Though, perhaps “periphery” was too generous a term. She was on the margins, the outermost fringes. One could argue whether she’d been grazed by its farthest-reaching ripples.
This, of course, led her to—repeatedly, from a tangle of sweat-drenched bedsheets—question the validity of the ailments that cropped up in its wake: the dizzy spells, the adrenaline sickness, the vague sense of impending doom swelling beneath all the activities that once brought her even the most fleeting sense of joy or fulfillment. These ailments were, in turn, compounded by her belief that her trauma was unwarranted and illegitimate. That she was a narcissist for hoarding this pain. That there was a fixed quantity of human suffering to go around, and she was siphoning it away from those in the center of The Tragedy’s proverbial blast radius—her classmates who lost brothers, sisters, friends, teachers, coaches, lab partners—hell, even casual acquaintances. This feedback loop of trauma and shame for experiencing the trauma rendered her unable to leave the house to fetch the morning paper for her father—her poor, poor father whose hairline she’d pushed to the brink of oblivion.
What kind of self-important bitch would she be—she laments, rifling through her closet—if she were to miss tonight’s vigil, while Katie Dolan (who had lost her little brother and her second cousin), and Eric Price (girlfriend of two years, doubles partner) managed to pull themselves together and light a couple of goddamn candles?
Her search is complicated by the fact that, according to a recent “Yahoo Answers” post, there is no widely recognized dress code for a memorial vigil (though most users agree the clothing choice should be “smart” and “dark”). And, in a further complicating development, she discovered that she’s become too gaunt to fill out an approximate two-thirds of her wardrobe.
Jeans are a non-option—even with an aggressively-cinched belt, they flap like the sails of an East India Trading vessel. She begins to flip through her dresses, eliminating any pieces that sport animal print, reveal cleavage, or otherwise fail to convey her sorrow and respect for the deceased. By some miracle her favorite black dress still hugs the bony contours of her frame. But the sequins feel cheap and garish. Tossing it aside, she proceeds to test various skirt and blouse combinations. Soon she’s down to the last few hangers in her closet, the ill-fitting or inappropriate-for-the-occasion garments strewn haphazardly across her floor.
Her father’s footfalls echo just beyond her perpetually-bolted door. Ever since The Tragedy she’s been unable to so much as murmur “good morning” to him. It wasn’t that he took an antiquated rub-some-dirt-on-it approach to mental health, on the contrary—the man emanated scorching gamma rays of love and support. In fact he developed what he referred to as a “holistic healing regimen,” a six-week treatment plan with meticulously scheduled yoga routines, spa treatments, quiet contemplation periods, and Skype appointments with the tri-state area’s most highly recommended cognitive behavioral therapist.
Ironically, it was the presence of the timeline that slowed Joan’s progress—as she began to fall behind, the pressure mounted, exacerbating the very symptoms the holistic healing regimen sought to address. Coupled with this was her belief that she should not have needed the holistic healing regimen to begin with—after all, she hadn’t even been in the building during The Tragedy. As her classmates trembled before an unspeakable evil, she strolled through the parking lot, a hall pass clasped in her hand, a dumb grin plastered on her face. As their screams of unbridled terror reverberated through the halls, she broke out into a skip, rejoicing that in thirty short minutes, her braces—the shackles that had chained her to the “untouchable” class of the social hierarchy—would be gone forever. Cheeks burning with shame, Joan recalls the silver screen daydream that danced through her head: Joey Pilalis’s steel blue eyes, at last, acknowledging her as he pinned a corsage to her prom dress. As she whipped out of her parking spot, three pops pierced the crisp afternoon. In her own personal la-la land this staccato barely registered. She wrote it off as an engine backfiring; a chemistry lecture with a little flare. It didn’t even occur to her to worry.
The only feasible pairing with her black skirt, Joan decides, is the white blouse with black splotches that, for some reason, vaguely unsettles her. As she slips it on, she muses that the splotch on her right shoulder, which she’d always characterized as a duck’s head in profile, looks a hell of a lot like a sickle.
As she flips open her jewelry box her phone vibrates, sending a jolt through her body.
Vigil starts in 30 min. Malorie’s contact photo—an up-the-nostrils shot from peewee soccer camp—fills the screen.
The room tilts on its axis and whirls around Joan. Knees buckling, she grabs hold of her shoe rack. She inhales 1-2-3-4 and exhales 1-2-3-4, repeating the exercise until her surroundings, mercifully, return to equilibrium. Despite its disconcerting implications, this momentary dizzy spell does solve her heels vs. flats debate.
Joan flicks on the lights, cringing at the sight of her reflection. Sometimes she pretends the emaciated figure in the mirror exists in some alternate plane of reality. It isn’t such a leap given that, lately, she herself feels as if she’s trapped behind a pane of glass, a helpless passenger in her own skin.
With visible apprehension, the woman in the mirror undoes her messy bun. A tangle of greasy locks falls to her shoulders, glistening in the fluorescents. And there, like a mark of leprosy, looms the edge, straight as a blade, where her highlights and her natural hair color clash. The woman in the mirror grits her teeth. Given the severity of the line, straightening her hair would be folly. Therefore, two options remain: she can curl it or pin it up.
Curling it would increase its volume, an important consideration given its stringy, unshampooed texture. However, prior experience teaches her that even with the finest curling iron her curls last, at most, two hours before they begin to unfurl. This doesn’t bode well with her given the hazy nature of the vigil’s timeline, as well as the rumblings of various post-vigil hangouts. To amend this she could, of course, go hog fucking wild with hair spray. But would it be the wisest decision to douse herself in incendiary chemicals moments before marching shoulder-to-shoulder with two thousand candle-wielding teenagers?
As the flames consumed her locks and disfigured her face beyond recognition, there would be her classmates rolling their collective eyes. What do you know? The drama queen found a way to steal the spotlight. The woman in the mirror gags. Hand over her mouth, she whips around lunging for the toilet.
Joan dry heaves on the cold tile until her solar plexus throbs. But in the end she produces only a single stringy loogie. She lingers above her handiwork a moment, trembling, panting.
At last she flushes it and climbs to her feet.
The woman in the mirror is, to put it delicately, rusty when it comes to braiding. More accurately, it appears as if the very concept of a “braid” eludes her. Soon, the straits become so dire, she pulls up an instructional YouTube video.
The last thing she needs, she laments, waiting for the damn thing to buffer, is to make a big scene strolling into the vigil late. She can already feel the icy stares of the entire—
Are you coming? Malorie’s face, again, pops onto the screen.
Inevitably, Joan recalls the evenings Malorie sat at the foot of her bed, legs crossed, hands clasped, listening. Never through the course of Joan’s woe-is-me soliloquies did Malorie utter a word of judgment, despite having every right to do so. Because Malorie was there, she pushed through the mass of stampeding bodies as fear crackled through the air like hot electricity. She, somewhere in the chaos, twisted her ankle and was left to crawl like a wounded gazelle. And as the thunderous cracks rang out she stuffed herself inside a locker, putting her claustrophobia to the ultimate test.
Joan, on the other hand, returned home from the orthodontist, crawled into bed, and masturbated to an Instagram photo of Joey Pilalis in blissful ignorance. Only when she opened SnapChat did she witness the horrors that had transpired.
Rather than typing a simple I’ll be there, Joan racks her brain for some turn of phrase that could begin to convey her gratitude. But drafting a response is infinitely complicated by the fact that Malorie knows she’s drafting a response due to the three dots lingering in iMessage. With each failed attempt Joan’s stomach churns with more violence, more urgency.
Unable to find the words she dives, again, for the porcelain.
As she inspects the foul, yellow puddle before her, her first instinct is to reach for a rag. But she restrains herself. She would be doing her father a genuine courtesy, she realizes, by letting him clean this wall-to-wall quagmire of vomit. The guy leapt at any opportunity, no matter how undignified, to lend a hand in the “healing” process. Joan spritzes Febreze but rather than combating the stench it joins forces with it, coalescing into an intolerable bile-and-lemon rancor.
Wincing, she plugs in her makeup light. The LEDs expose a host of glaring issues—blackheads, ashy skin, stray eyebrow hairs, and clusters of inflamed acne—that make the woman in the mirror shudder.
Her father, perhaps sensing her distress, puts on his Waves of Relaxation ocean sounds CD.
To spare his feelings Joan neglected to tell him that the CD achieved the opposite of its intended effect. That, rather than conjuring images of an idyllic white sand beach, it made her think of drowning. That it had catalyzed a recurring nightmare in which she clawed through black water, reaching out for a surface that was always, maddeningly, just out of reach.
Shutting out the sound of the waves, Joan applies her face scrub, rinsing and following suit with a blackhead remover. Though it’s a bit of a Hail Mary, she spot-treats her acne because maybe, just maybe, the four-hour relief will kick in early.
She considers waxing her unibrow. However, it isn’t worth the risk of leaving a blatant red mark—effectively showing the world she had waxed her unibrow. And shaving it, of course, would leave too much room for error. The only other option, she realizes, heart sinking, is to pluck the hairs one by one and mask any resultant redness with concealer. With a grimace, she grabs her tweezers.
Just as she clamps the forceps around the first hair, the waves fall eerily still. For a moment she hears only the peaceful snores of her father just beyond the door.
Then a call emanates from the depths. A desolate cry doomed to reverberate through the annals of history, unacknowledged, unanswered. Déjà vu strikes Joan like a blade to the gut. As she plucks the inaugural hair suppressing a yelp of pain, she tries to recall where she’s heard it before. But the answer hangs just out of reach.
When she finally mercifully eradicates the last hair, the revelation washes over her. This is the very same sound that permeates the darkest, most feverish depths of her nightmares. As the black water fills her lungs, as she plunges into an unfathomable abyss, she hears only this whale call.
She clings to the sink as her legs, once more, turn to gelatin.
Focus on three things you can see, Dr. Blackburn’s voice echoes through Joan’s skull. In the violently twirling room she manages to pick out the clownfish shower curtain, the life preserver, and the faintly glimmering skylight. Focus on two things you can touch. Keeping one hand clamped on the sink, she reaches into a jar of seashells tracing her fingers across their ridges. Then, testing the limits of her arm span, she grabs hold of a decorative anchor, caressing its rich tapestry of barnacles.
But rather than grounding her in the present moment each exercise throws her deeper into the nautical hellscape whose trappings, most nights, feel more real than those of her waking life.
Still clinging to the sink, Joan uses her free hand to wield her eyeliner. Her intention is to draw a simple cat eye, the type she used to throw on every morning before school. But as the room whips around her at F5 speeds she draws the left side too short, the right side too thick, both sides too crooked. Only when she’s laid waste to half a jar of cotton swabs does she admit defeat.
As she applies her foundation another snafu presents itself; she’s become too pale for the shade. The woman in the mirror stares back at Joan in horror, face painted like a goddamn clown. Frantically, she brushes lower and lower down her neck, trying to soften the line where her foundation meets her skin. But it remains stubbornly—
Lining up for a pic in 5 min. Where you at?
Joan nearly drops her phone. If she doesn’t head over this instant there will be tangible documentation of her absence archived forever on the Cloud. Fighting another wave of nausea, she packs a few final implements to apply while her father drives.
She lingers at the edge of the sink surveying the path before her. There are approximately five feet between her and the door, five feet besieged by the massive upchucked puddle of Ben and Jerry’s Americone Dream. Breathing in 1-2-3-4 and exhaling 1-2-3-4, she tries to eradicate the black spots peppering her field of vision. But they only spread faster. Soon they threaten to swallow the woman in the mirror whole.
The ocean sounds CD begins to skip. The waves crash in a distorted cacophony; their undulations warped beyond recognition. The gull cries seem to emanate from the bowels of hell.
Joan allows herself one last fantasy of Joey Pilalis complimenting her vigil attire in his effortless monotone. Then, calling upon the last functioning components of her vestibular system, she lunges for the door.
All at once there is the sensation of falling; a slow dreamlike falling untethered from space and time. With an out-of-body omniscience, Joan feels her phone vibrating in her pocket. She hears her father’s fist pounding the door. She sees the yellowy bog rising to meet her.
Her hands, which feel like someone else’s entirely, snag the fishing net draped across the far wall. Without protest it rips free, ensnaring her in its grasp. As her vision fades a perverted three-octaves-too-low whale call rings out through the blackness. This, inevitably, sends visions of that day whirling back to her.
While Joan set up the lighting for that first post-braces photo, an assemblage of lamps encircling her, she noticed an abnormal number of SnapChat stories had recently been posted. Curious, she tapped the first one which happened to be Jason Crown’s. From beneath his desk he panned across Ms. Moore’s darkened room. His classmates were, likewise, crouched under their respective desks, index fingers pressed urgently to their lips. Joan, at first, surmised this was a surprise party—perhaps for Ms. Moore’s retirement, which, rumor had it, was not far off. However, a shadow of a doubt crept over her theory as Jason, in the last waning seconds of the video, whimpered. She replayed the story three times to verify that the sound had, in fact, originated from Jason, the second-year senior notorious for festooning Principal Garrity’s front lawn with tread marks.
Furrowing her brow, Joan opened Grace VanSomeren’s story. She was greeted by a close-up of Grace’s tear-streaked face. Calling the video “quiet” wasn’t quite accurate; it was as if she filmed it in a vacuum. For a moment Grace simply stared into the camera, mascara pooling in her eye sockets. At last, she coaxed her trembling upper lip into a single syllable: “help.”
The next few stories were a blur of violently tremoring camerawork. Quick flashes of barricaded doors, fetal-position classmates, and hallway stampedes. Each was scored by shrieks more frantic than the last. But worse than what was on the screen was what lurked just out of view. Joan could feel its presence radiating through the camera lens like a cold chill.
Defying her every screaming instinct, she opened the last story: Katie Dolan’s. It began in darkness. Then came footsteps. Sinister, calculated footsteps produced by an old pair of sneakers. Every few paces they squeaked. Suddenly, a ray of light cut through the screen. When the lens adjusted it revealed itself to be an opening; a crack through which Joan could make out a familiar 18×24. On it, a photo of a lone mountain climber and a headline that read: “Perseverance.” This was the very same 18×24 her eyes bored through every low-blood-sugar afternoon as she waited for the final bell to chime. The one she, on certain fitful nights, conjured in her mind’s eye, taking solace in its sheer inoffensiveness. Abruptly, the footsteps stopped. Then came a triplet of deafening pops. The same triplet she’d heard from the parking lot.
Joan feels the fishing net tighten around her as the scene, again, loops itself through her brain; as she, once more, bears witness to the unfathomable becoming fathomable. Somewhere twenty thousand leagues away she hears her head strike the tile.
As consciousness slips from her grasp, Joan apologizes—to her father, to Malorie, to the twelve names engraved in the memorial—for making The Tragedy all about herself.
Derek Andersen is an Illinois Wesleyan alum working as a copywriter in Chicago. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Columbia Journal, The Emerson Review, The MacGuffin, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @DerekJAnd.