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Fiction

Descent

We gathered for the last time in October, under the pretense of discussing a novel that was currently bobbing along in the zeitgeist like a rubber duck at sea. It was unusually cold for October — the summer season had lasted long and hard and then dropped precipitously in a matter of days. Now we came bundled to Luna’s house, sweaters beneath jackets and dishes in chapped hands and the novel tucked into our armpits.

Luna’s house was oddly tall and narrow, set back from the street in a way that seemed appropriate for Luna herself. Reserved. As the sun had already dropped away, the entire house was swallowed in shadow, and could only be identified by a pre-arranged marker — a red balloon tied to a wrought-iron railing, whipping around in the breeze like an angry dog tied to a tree, straining and strangling in its collar. The street, though I knew it to be residential, and full of families, seemed deserted, except for a car door that opened halfway down the block.

Diane and I both came to the base of the stone steps at the same time. Approaching, she had appeared to be a tall, slender man, but now I recognized her. She gestured with her casserole dish, which steamed in the gloaming.

“After you,” she said, and we mounted the steps into the darkness.

• • • •

Luna’s girlfriend, whose name I did not know, answered the door. She was rosy-cheeked with good cheer, and the house glowed with contentment behind her. She invited us in. We were the last to arrive; the others were already in their cups, in their chairs, and arguing about the novel’s finale.

“It dangles,” Janet was saying. “I can’t abide endings that dangle.”

Luna laughed stiffly. Irritation snaked through her low, musical voice like a virus. “You can pick the next book,” she said. She opened the novel, shuffled through the pages as though searching for something, and then shut the back cover. She reached her hand out and her girlfriend placed a glass of red wine into it before heading to the kitchen.

The living room was gorgeous, an eclectic blend of dark wood and strange artifacts: religious iconography, taxidermied animals, art deco prints, needlepoint. The whole place looked like a tastefully decorated curio shop. Piano notes drifted hazily from a small set of speakers. A preserved crocodile head, no larger than my hand, rested on a bookshelf. I pressed my finger into the teeth of its open mouth.

“Welcome!” Luna said, and I jerked away.

Diane and I set our contributions on the table and poured ourselves drinks. The tumbler of bourbon was weighty in my hand, and I sat and scratched their cocker spaniel behind his soft ears as the day’s events blurred. In the kitchen, Diane spoke to Luna’s girlfriend, and I heard snatches of words — “sleep,” “nothing,” and “cold” — through the softness.

After a while they joined us, and there we were, in our circle, white ceramic plates balanced on our knees and the novel unopened at our feet. There was Luna, hostess and teacher at a local private girl’s high school; her girlfriend, whose name I had not yet caught but it was now too late to inquire without embarrassment; Diane, whose gamine features contrasted oddly with the wine cooler in her hand; Janet, the youngest of the group at thirty-five, and apparently a neighbor from around the corner; and myself. The cocker spaniel walked into the middle of our circle, worried his paw over an invisible spot on the floor, and then curled up in a ball.

Janet picked up her copy of the novel and gestured toward its cover, with its red and black and white, its serif text. “Shall we begin?” she asked.

No one answered. We squeaked forks across their plates. Throats rippled with long sips. The wind had that late-autumn quality that, if you closed your eyes, suggested a great, stripped tundra in the furthest reaches of the world, and not a Philadelphia suburb at all. The branches of the trees that surrounded the house rustled and tapped on the windows.

“I’m so glad that you all made it tonight. I had a very strange week,” Luna said. She drank deeply of her glass, and her girlfriend refilled it. “An awful week, actually.”

I finished my bourbon — I don’t remember how many glasses I’d consumed by then — and gestured toward her with the tumbler. “Tell,” I said. “Tell.”

“Very well,” she said, setting down her fork.

• • • •

And here is what Luna told us:

“As you all know, after the shooting at Brandywine, they temporarily shut down the school and transferred the students to other high schools, including ours. I was against it from the start. I told the principal and anyone else who would listen that you can’t just unload traumatized kids into a new school like that. I told him he was inviting trouble. His reasoning was that a private girl’s school might be the kind of calm environment the survivors needed in the middle of the media blitz. I’m sure the fact that he’s about to throw a large fundraiser probably helped his charity along, but in any case: there we were, a month-and-a-half into the semester, and suddenly there was an influx of new students. I had two in my AP English class — a small, slender girl named Salma and a tall, quiet one named Nicki.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but I figured they’d want to be near one another, so I arranged the desks so there were two empty ones together. But when they came in on Monday — I don’t know if you saw the news, but it was the same day they found the shooter’s manifesto in that weird hovel in the woods, do you remember? — they went to opposite sides of the room. I told the rest of the class that we had two new students. The girls didn’t speak. Salma opened a notebook in front of her and placed a pencil in the concave of the binding but didn’t move once to make a note. Nicki just stared out the window, drawing a figure eight with her finger on the fabric of her skirt.

“After class was over, I walked down to the principal’s office to talk to him about the girls. Did they have a file? Doctor’s notes? Anything I should know? But his admin told me he was out, and to come back later.

“It was free period, so I walked outside and hiked down to the amphitheater. There’s something about its geometry — those concentric circles, down and down into the center — that I’ve always found soothing. It looks like one of those collapsible camping cups pushed into the ground, you know? I used to have one of those in Girl Scouts. It leaked something terrible, but it was really — anyway.

“When I got down to the bottom, I found Salma sitting in the grass.

“‘Hello,’ I said to her. ‘Salma?’

“She did not move for a long while, but then turned her head slowly toward me, as if my voice was coming to her from underwater.

“‘Are you all right?’ I asked.

“She looked down at her palms as if she saw something on them, and then wiped them against her skirt. ‘I’m supposed to be in a class,’ she said. Her voice was high and soft.

“‘Which class?’

“‘I don’t know.’

“‘I can write you a pass,’ I said. ‘It’s okay, really.’ I sat down next to her. ‘Did you come out here for some air?’

“She shook her head. Then she twisted around and looked out of the amphitheater, toward the school.

“‘These rings,’ she said, gesturing around. ‘Arcs of stone. Like steps for giants.’

“‘Yeah,’ I said, smiling. ‘I guess they are.’

“‘Like we’re at the bottom of a bowl,’ she said. ‘Like we’re food.’ Then her face closed off, an invisible door slammed on her private whimsy.

“I wanted to say something to her, but what could I say? I’m sorry a crazy person shot up your school? I’m sorry he killed dozens of your classmates for no discernable reason? The randomness of it, the entropy, came over me suddenly and I felt like I was going to drown. I suggested to her that we walk back and we could find out which class she’s in. I wanted to take her by the hand; I wanted to just hold her.

“I’ve never wanted kids — we’ve never wanted kids — but I wanted to protect her. I’d never felt more maternal than at that moment. I reached out to touch her on the shoulder, but she pulled away and began to run up the levels of stone and grass until she was out of sight.

• • • •

“So of course, then I had to know. I had to know if these girls were just other students from a now shut-down high school, or if they’d seen something, you know? I figured there was no way to be an effective teacher without having a sense of your students. Like, I know that Bea’s parents are getting divorced and that was why every paper she turns in chews over themes of betrayal whether the text contains it or not. I know that Lily is a hypochondriac and constantly presses her index and middle finger to her throat to check her own pulse. I know that Tia is having romantic troubles, and so on. It helps to know these things.

“When I got to the office, the admin eyed me uneasily.

“‘He’s still out,’ she said, before I said anything.

“‘Well, I need to see the files of my new students,’ I said.

“‘I can’t show those to you without his permission,’ she said, primly. She was wearing glasses that were only stylish because she’d had them so long. I tapped my fingers on the counter.

“‘I can’t teach these kids if I don’t know what’s going on with them,’ I said.

“‘Come back later,’ she said, and went back to her typing.

“So I went back to my classroom and dug through some articles about the shooting. A long time ago, when they were less common, the coverage would have already been extravagant. But it’s not the first school shooting this year. It’s not even the first in the state this year. There were the expected articles, the timeline of events as pieced together by journalists, op-eds about gun control. Like every shooting, this one had its own gruesome signature: that the shooter had spent a significant portion of the day killing off individual students quietly and stashing their bodies around the school. When he finally opened fire, the number of students who’d come running out of the building was abnormally small. It was only after he killed himself and they combed the building that they found the two dozen dead propped up in broom closets and on toilets in the bathrooms.

“It was awful to read. I felt sick. I swigged the antacid I kept in the desk. When my next set of students came in, I put in a movie and sat there in the darkness, tipping my head back so the tears that kept welling up wouldn’t fall.

• • • •

“On Wednesday, I put my students into discussion pairs. ‘Go to it,’ I said, once they’d all turned their desks toward one another.

“For the first time all week, Nicki spoke.

“‘What about Jessica?’ she said. She gestured toward an empty desk in the corner.

“‘What?’ I said.

“‘Who is Jessica paired with? You don’t have an even number.’

“I pretended to look down at the attendance list in front of me, like I was looking for a Jessica, but no such student existed in this class. I didn’t know what to say.

“‘I — ’ I began. ‘I don’t — ’

“Salma stood up and backed away from the empty desk. She began to scream, and then tripped. When she landed, I could hear her wrist breaking even through her howling. A student ran and got the nurse, who came and hustled her away as fast as possible. The whole class was shaken, except for Nicki, who remained in the corner, seemingly unperturbed by the entire event. She crossed her arms over her chest and chewed on her lip, like nothing had happened.

“I went to the nurse’s office when class was over. Salma was lying down on those uncomfortable plastic beds with a cold pack over her eyes and her wrist in a splint. The nurse said that she’d been sleeping for the whole period. She told me that she’d called Salma’s parents, but neither of them had answered their phones.

“I sat down on the chair next to the bed and took the cold pack off her eyes. They were wide open. She blinked. ‘Salma,’ I said, ‘You need to tell me what’s going on. I can’t help you if I don’t know.’

“She didn’t move, but a tear slid down her temple and into her hairline.

“‘Is it the shooting?’ I asked her. ‘Did you see something?’

“She shook her head, and then began to weep. She wept raw, like she hadn’t cried since birth. I’d never heard anything like it. The nurse stuck her head in, but I just reached out and rubbed Salma’s arm. She cried like that for a few minutes, like something had to come out of her. Eventually, it receded into a gentle sob. When she started breathing normally again, she began to speak.”

• • • •

And here is what Salma said:

“We just moved here this year. We used to live in the city, but then Dad got a new job.

“My grandmother lives with us. She’s been sick for a long time, and she doesn’t walk very well. One morning after we got here, I had to take her to the bathroom. When she sat on the toilet, she started to mumble and look past me, and shake her head like something was on it. I thought she was having a stroke, and I kept saying to her ‘Abuela, what’s wrong?’ Then she grabbed my arm and squeezed it hard and began talking to me in this horrible, loud voice, like it was the last thing she’d ever say to me.”

• • • •

And here is what Salma’s grandmother told her:

“Arrogance. Arrogance is what makes you think you can’t see Death. You think Death wears dark clothes and walks around with a stick in its hand? It doesn’t. It can look like anyone. It can be anyone. One day you find out you got one fewer children than you think you got. Or that you’re the only one who can see the new neighbor. Or that the woman next to you on the train doesn’t have any breath in her. And then once you think it, you look at them and they’ve changed. You can see what’s underneath. You can see the emptiness that’s below all of our feet. It’s a face but there’s nothing behind it. It’s the worst thing you can see.

“And once you see it, it knows. And it comes for you, at its leisure. You think you see Death because it’s your time? If you see Death, it becomes your time.”

• • • •

Outside, the wind knocked over the grill and sent its lid crashing into the patio door. We all jumped. Luna’s girlfriend laughed uneasily and stood, opening the patio door with a muted whoosh. We heard the crash and bang as she righted it. The room chilled with the influx of cold air. Janet put on her cardigan.

“Keep going, Luna,” Diane said.

• • • •

Here is what Salma said next:

“That day — the shooting. I was one of the students who hid instead of running. I was at lunch. I grabbed the hand of the girl sitting next to me and dragged her into a broom closet in the hallway. I heard more shots but he didn’t see us go in.

“We sat there in the dark. The closet smelled like metal and chlorine. We heard his footsteps approach, and he even opened the door slightly. I saw him, but he didn’t see me. He looked like he’d once been scared, and angry, but then something had lanced him open, and all that came out was calm. There was a sound at the other end of the hall. He closed the door as casually as he opened it and walked away. There was more gunfire. One of them was the shot that killed him, but I didn’t know that. I stepped backwards and my foot slipped in something. I began to cry softly.

“‘It’s going to be all right,’ the girl said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’

“That’s when I realized I couldn’t hear her breathing.

• • • •

“When the police opened the door, light cut across the closet. I was there. There were bodies rolled underneath the shelves, cooling. And the girl next to me — she was —

“She wasn’t. She wasn’t her. I’d been sitting next to Death the whole time. Her face — her face was just —

“I screamed. I screamed ‘Get the fuck away from me,’ and they pulled me out. I kicked and clawed. They had to stick me with a needle, to drug me. They told me I was in shock, because of the bodies in the closet. But it wasn’t that. I’d sleep forever in a room full of bodies to have never seen that face.

“And now I’m just — I’m just waiting. Just waiting for it to end.”

• • • •

When Luna stopped speaking, we realized we’d all been leaning forward in our chairs. She took a long sip of wine and tapped the drained glass on the side table. Her shaking hand knocked it over and it shattered on the floor. We all instinctively drew our socked feet up from the hardwood. Diane went into the kitchen for a broom, and swept up the pieces.

“Jesus,” said Janet.

“I’m so sorry, Luna,” I said.

She shrugged. Her chin dimpled and trembled, but then steadied. “It’s not even my suffering,” she said. “That’s the worst part. It’s not even my suffering. Why am I so upset? That girl went through something I can’t even imagine.”

“But still,” said Diane.

“Her parents came for her, eventually. She hasn’t been to school in a few days. I’m just — what did she think she saw?”

She closed her eyes and pressed her fingers into them. “And now I feel like — I don’t know. I have the heebie-jeebies. Like something’s going to happen. Another shooting, or — I don’t know. We have to do all of this emergency training. All I can think is, what would I do if someone tried to kill my students? Would I be the hero who threw herself in front of the bullet? Would I have just run? I just don’t know. I don’t even know what kind of person I am. I’ve always thought of myself as basically good, but —” Her voice drifted away.

Diane touched Luna’s hand. “Why don’t we change the subject?” she said. We all looked down at the novel at our feet, but talking about it seemed impossible, irritating.

“Your place is gorgeous, Luna,” I said. “The interior design in here — I’m jealous.” The cocker spaniel pressed its cold nose into my leg, and I scratched its head. “And the floors. You must spend a fortune buffing out the scratches.”

Luna looked up from her lap, where she’d been linking her fingers together. “Scratches? From all of the glasses I break?” She lifted her sleeve to her eye and decorously wiped it.

“From the dog’s claws.”

Luna frowned. “We don’t have a dog.”

My fingers froze deep in the lush fur of the cocker spaniel, tips resting against the smooth bowl of its skull. The wind skittered the tree branches against the house. I breathed deeply and pulled my spine straighter. I closed my eyes and then opened them again. The other women were staring at me strangely, drinks cocked in their hands.

I looked down.

Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen MachadoCarmen Maria Machado is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in The New YorkerThe Paris ReviewGrantaAGNI, NPR, Los Angeles Review of BooksVICE, and elsewhere. She was a recipient of the Richard Yates Short Story Prize in 2011 and a Millay Colony for the Arts residency in 2014, and is the 2014 – 2015 CINTAS Foundation Fellow. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Dean’s Graduate Fellow, and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. She lives in Philadelphia with her partner.