Imagine a dinner party. The table is set for eight, and the husband and wife hosting the dinner are bustling around. The wife wears a designer apron though she has cooked none of the food. The food was ordered from a catering service two weeks ago in advance, and has just arrived. The husband wears a tuxedo, and is used to these bimonthly dinners. The table is mahogany, and a chandelier is hanging over the table, swinging precariously due to a breeze coming through the open window. There is heavy concealer on her right cheek that doesn’t hide the bruise. She wears a dark blue dress that reaches her ankles, accentuating her silver high heeled shoes. She is adjusting his tie as they laugh over an inside joke that has lasted through their decade-long marriage. The dinner is set by candlelight, and the people coming are family friends who the couple has known for years.
The wife calls up the stairs for “Helen, Helen!” before entering the kitchen again to maintain an air of having actually prepared a meal. There is no response, and the husband purses his lips slightly before hearing the doorbell. He walks to the door. A lone umbrella swings in its stand. When he opens the door, his face breaks into a charming grin. He knows them, and how could he not? They are the elite of the neighborhood, just like him. He welcomes the group of five into the foyer. They remove their coats and put them in the closet specifically set aside for this occasion. They enter the dining room and make the appropriate admiring noises required for such a function. The wife bustles in with a laugh and a silver platter, upon which a spiral ham cooked to the perfect temperature rests. Wineglasses clink and toasts are uttered. The dinner commences, and soon the room is filled with persiflage, a fancy word for small talk for the fancy people downstairs.
Upstairs, there’s a girl. Her forehead is creased; her hands are balled into fists. She’s close to red now. Furious. She’s been ready for a long time.
It’s funny how she blacks out before it actually happens. She feels the walls shaking, plaster raining down, but she misses the actual fall as the floor splits open.
When she regains consciousness, she is spread-eagled on a mountain of broken glass and wood. There is no sound save her heavy panting. No one else is alive.
My ankle hurts. The first thing that my brain registers is a throbbing pain in my left ankle. Then comes the smell. Something I should know but don’t immediately recognize.
I open my eyes. At first I think I’m still asleep. The space I am in is dark with only vague shapes to indicate it is anything other than empty.
There are slivers of glass all around and apparently under me. I see them because they glint, but not much else. The edges of them digging into the underside of my thigh are the first sign that this is not a dream. The glass is not quite penetrating my skin, which folds under the sharp edges, but it is close. I blink a few times, trying to see. I wave my hand in front of my face, or at least I think I am waving it in front of my face. I only get confirmation when my thumb brushes by my nose. The idea of echolocation comes to mind, and I click my tongue. The click does not echo.
Okay, Helen, you’re not a damn bat.
I must be in my bedroom. Maybe I fell off my bed during the night, something I haven’t done since I was four. I hope whatever I broke wasn’t too valuable. It might be the lamp. I like that lamp. I scoot forward to get off the glass, managing to hit bare floor that feels nothing like my bedroom’s fluffy carpet.
I could be in the hallway?
When I put one hand out to feel the wall, my arm drops down almost immediately due to the lack of anything to press against. So I’m not in the narrow second-floor hallway. Good to know. By now my eyes are starting to adjust to the darkness. Some powdery substance has settled onto parts of my face. I sneeze and a cloud of the stuff peels off my skin, which feels really dry.
I struggle to get up. One of my mother’s jade elephant earrings falls off my bare leg onto the floor. I just register the noise when I step on the end of it and am brought crashing down onto a table. The long dining table has a jagged split down the middle of it, with the sides of this split touching the floor. The legs are diagonally balanced, erring on the side of danger.
The only light is coming through the narrow space under the door in front of me. Everything is cast in shadows, but I can pick out some details. That is when I see the outline of an arm. I gasp.
Am I sleepwalking?
I manage to stand and I brace myself against the wall. One of my legs is longer than the other. What the-oh. The heel on my left shoe is broken.
Why was I wearing heels in bed?
I flick the switch on the wall up and down a couple times. Nothing. The walls are dark, but the roses carved into them still pop out, thanks to silver flecks carefully distributed throughout the stems and petals. Four hundred individual flowers on all four walls of the dining room make up Mother’s “rose garden”. A real garden apparently required too much effort. She even got the ceiling painted a sky blue, something I peer up at just to check that I really am in the dining room. I certainly don’t remember walking down the stairs in this dress.
Wait, did I-
Then it all comes crashing back into memory.
There is a gaping hole in the ceiling, through which I spot nothing but my mother’s overturned jewelry box. It has long since emptied itself out through the hole and lies on its side precariously. The arm trapped under the glass is next to a lit-up cell phone. The entire screen is filled with a random string of numbers and symbols, like someone sat on it. The phone is dimming slowly, refusing to submit to the low charge, causing the little image of a battery to flash time and time again on the screen. The arm is familiar, a jade bracelet encircling a slender white wrist.
As I stand up, I grab onto an overturned armoire, leaning all my weight on it. I immediately notice bodies but only skate my gaze over them long enough to count, trying to keep the shock to a minimum. There are…seven corpses in total, including the arm because I am really hoping that my mother is attached to her arm. Everyone who was here is now dead.
My mother must be under-is that the chandelier? Well, sort of. It’s a bunch of shattered crystal now. Some blood is smeared on a few of the pieces, reddish pink.
Over on my right is a man both familiar and strange, the way people are when they no longer speak or breathe. Father is lying on what used to be a dining chair. One leg is twisted up towards his ear, as if he was doing extreme yoga. His leg must be broken. I shudder to think of the agony that must have been. I hope it was instantaneous, even though I hated him. No. I can’t speak ill of the dead. He is dead. I’ve spent the past four years despising this man, and the last thing I’ve said to him was…when was the last time I spoke to him? I’ve been giving him the silent treatment for so long that I believe the last thing I told him was that I would never speak to him again, four years ago.
He didn’t even look up from his paperwork.
There is furniture all over the room that must have come from my parent’s bedroom. There is the armoire, the king-size bed standing on end, and the fish-embossed lampshade, which is torn. Maybe a tornado was passing through Brooklyn and decided to tunnel through my home, a knife to wet paper. A hand has reached down from the heavens and punched my life in the face.
All of the…bodies are in blatantly fatal positions. I can’t pretend they’re alive, no matter how badly I want to. Why are there so many people here? I remember Mother calling me down, but-I didn’t know they were having guests.
It wasn’t supposed to-they weren’t all supposed to be here-
He wasn’t supposed to be here!
I stop breathing when I actually look down at Ryan and see his eyes closed. I have never seen his eyelids. I know that sounds weird, but he always falls asleep last, waiting until my breathing slows before he even considers counting sheep. He has this paranoia about people drawing on his face or something.
Not this time. My best friend in the universe is lying on the ground, spread-eagled like road kill. He has a gash in the side of his face and the blood is dry, black and hard on the sharp angle his cheekbone makes while he is in this position. I sink to my knees, biting my lip so hard it almost draws- I tug on his hand. I glance down at his wrist- the bracelet’s still there- but it’s soaked through with blood- you can’t even make out the colors now- just a band of red. This can’t be real. This can’t be him.
Ryan…I didn’t mean it, Ryan. I didn’t mean to do this. We were studying like crazy for the SATs just yesterday. You had so much ahead of you and it’s all gone because of me. I stare down at him and my vision is too blurry (but not with tears) to distinguish any features on his face. I don’t need to. I know them better than I know my own. I have counted the constellation of freckles spread across his nose; I could describe in perfect detail the way his mouth crinkles into dimples whenever someone asks him a question about American history. My heart is beating faster and faster as if going just fast enough will start his up again.
I should be crying, bawling my eyes out.
I should be at least feeling something, something besides this pounding in my chest. The grief is only words inside my head.
Eventually, I stop watching him because the logical part of my brain assures me that I can’t do anything. I have already done way more than enough. His face is the cool temperature of the air-conditioned room, with no hint of his own body heat, just my own as I run my index finger over his cheek. Touching his face like this without him reacting at all is creepy. I could say anything to him now, but that’s how it’s always been. The only difference now is now I know he isn’t silently judging me. He’s not thinking about anything.
With clinical detachment, I assess the wounds of the others.
One of the two guests that I don’t know has suffered a particularly gruesome fate. The side of her head has been crushed by a dresser. Seeing the white bone of her skull protrude through her scalp, I can’t stifle a skeptical noise in the back of my throat. Her bone is so perfectly washed-out, a cheap Halloween decoration she decided to don for the occasion; after all, the big day’s tomorrow. I was going to dress up as rain, and Ryan was going to be a cloud. Sage was originally going to be the sun, but then she said screw it, she wasn’t going to third-wheel again. Bikes have only two wheels, and she didn’t take kindly to Ryan’s advocacy of the tricycle (which I heartily supported). Her new costume idea included real whipped cream according to the groceries she bought on Monday-the kind you whipped yourself-and Ryan had been making hilariously impractical guesses as to what it could be.
This is a Halloween-themed party and they’re scaring the hell out of me to get back at me for missing dinner.
How long have I been out? Long enough that some of the bodies have- it’s not the prettiest thing, and so I won’t describe it, but suffice to say blood is not the only smell in the air.
My stomach rumbles. I hate myself that something so mundane could occur in the midst of this chaos. I exhale deeply. I’ve been holding my breath in sheer horror. The worst part is the silence. I cannot hear a thing. There should be cars or something outside, but I am in rural Brooklyn. No one is out at…what time is it? I have no idea.
Take a deep breath, Helen. No one is hurt. You can win the game if you don’t scream. I clasp my hands together. This is the weirdest thing I have ever done, but I start whispering prayers under my breath. Maybe an angel is passing by. Aren’t they always passing by? Don’t I have a guardian angel? He should be fired. He is exhibiting poor work ethic.
Maybe I don’t deserve one. I did this, after all.
The words slur together until I am whispering the same few scraps of phrase over and over like a mantra.
“Holy Mary mother of God glory be to the Father give us our daily bread protect us from evil we look forward to the resurrection of the dead…” I repeat those last five words over and over because they seem currently applicable.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead.
I look forward to the resurrection of the dead.
Resurrection of the dead…
The stubs of my nails are digging in the backs of my hands because I am clenching my hands so tightly. They bite into the soft flesh between my thumb and index finger. I start trying to envision my mother and Ryan as they were alive, and Ryan’s parents as much as I can. I wish hard, my teeth clamped together so tightly my head begins to hurt. I think about how they smell: Mother’s lavender perfume, Ryan’s pine soap, Father’s lime cologne. Going over every superstition I’ve ever heard, I half-walk, half-crawl to the window, pulling the curtain back. Maybe I should throw some salt over my left shoulder…cross my fingers…
I know what I have to do. Wait for the police, wait for the man to show up who’s going to show me the way…but I didn’t plan for this. It was only supposed to be my parents. Five others are gone and it’s my fault, my own idiocy that I didn’t think to check who was in the house after months of planning-
I crane my head up. Just one glittering light and my mouth pulls downward in both directions. Maybe wishing on a star? I dissolve when the light starts moving. It’s an airplane, of course.
I slide dejectedly down from the window frame. My dress is no protection against the sharp edges of the window, which jab me in the spine repeatedly. The curtain slides back into place along its rung, tugged by my body, and I turn back to the gristly scene before me. Everyone is still motionless. It is so silent that I could hear a bug crawl through the wall (in the event an insect ever dared to come within a mile of my mother’s spotlessly kept home). Nothing moves in the room except for my chest, rising and falling with each breath that I do not deserve, each sign that I kept my life when I shouldn’t have. I grab at the phone on the wall, yanking it out of its handset. No dial tone. So the phones still don’t work.
Sirens sound in the distance.
I have to get out of here.
Everyone will blame me. And it is my fault. I planned this, but- it wasn’t supposed to be all of them. Just my parents, yet…because of me, seven people have met their maker tonight. What time is it? Where can I go? Where do I feel safe? My ankle is killing me.
I limp to the front door and trip over my dress. I fall again, gashing my knee against the umbrella stand. This time, it takes me a few minutes to get up. During those few minutes, I can’t help checking if I imagined the entire thing.
Bad idea. One glimpse of the color red is all it takes. I retch for a few minutes with heaving breaths that come out way too loud in the dead silence.
I eventually straighten up because nothing has left my body save some bile. I haven’t eaten anything for a while now. We were sitting down to dinner before this. I refused to come downstairs, yet here I am on the ground floor.
My senses have gone numb and I can’t even smell the blood anymore. I’ve grown used to the odor, and if not for the utter loneliness of being in a house full of corpses, that knowledge would be the most terrible part of this experience. I grab hold of the doorknob, and my hand slides right off, too slick with sweat to get a good grip. I wipe it frantically against the torn fabric of my dress and try again.