Authors: Alexandra Sokoloff
Copyright 2011 by Alexandra Sokoloff
Original Copyright 2006 by Alexandra Sokoloff
All rights reserved.
Cover design by Elaine Sokoloff
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The memorial was buried deep in an oak grove in the heart of campus. A graceful arc of trees, and the curved marble bench.
On this late November day, the grove was dark and hushed, just a whisper of rain that dripped from the thick canopy of branches, leaked down onto the aged marble, streaking the stone with black, like tears.
Vines and brambles had crept over the path, cutting off access to the quiet circle, leaving the bench all but forgotten now, like the students whose names it bore. Above the layer of rotting leaves covering the seat, they were cut into the marble like names on a tombstone. Five names, a date, and a simple epitaph:
Five students dead, so long ago. What could it matter now?
It had been raining since possibly the beginning of time.
In the top tier of the cavernous psychology hall, Robin Stone had long since given up on the lecture. She sat hunched in her seat, staring out arched windows at the downpour, feeling dreamily disconnected from the elemental violence outside, despite the fact that every few minutes the wind shook the building hard enough to rattle the glass of the windowpanes.
In milder weather, Baird College was the very definition of pastoral. Wooded paths meandered between ivy-swathed stone buildings. Grassy hills rolled into the distance, dotted by trees, all unmarred by the slightest sight of civilization.
But now the old oaks lashed in the wind under roiling dark clouds that spilled icy rain on the deserted quad. In the bleak light of the storm, the isolation seemed ominous, the campus hunkered down under the pelting rain like a medieval town waiting for the siege.
The cold of the day had sunk into Robin’s bones. The wind outside was a droning in her ears, like the hollow rush of the sea. Inside, Professor Lister’s soft German accent was soporific, strangely hypnotic, as he quoted Freud from the wood-planked dais far below.
The state of sleep involves a turning away from the real, external world, and there we have the necessary condition for the development of a psychosis. The harmless dream psychosis is the result of that withdrawal from the external world which is consciously willed and only temporary
Robin’s moody reflection stared back at her from the window: dark-eyed, somewhat untidy, elfin features framed by a tumble of nearly black hair. All in all, a chance of prettiness if she weren’t so withdrawn, guarded.
She pulled away from the glassy ghost of herself, blinked around her at a sea of students moored behind tiers of wooden desks.
People were shifting restlessly, looking up at the clock above the blackboard. A little before three, Wednesday. Tomorrow was Thanksgiving, and everyone was impatient, eager to escape for the holiday. Everyone except Robin. The four-day weekend loomed before her like an abyss.
Thanksgiving. Right. Thanks for what?
At least there would be no roommate.
She sat with the thought of no Waverly for four days, and felt a spark of something—not pleasure, nothing so life-affirming as that, but a slight relief, a loosening of the concrete band that lately seemed to permanently encircle her chest.
No mindless, venal chatter. No judging cornflower blue eyes.
And no one else, either
, Robin reminded herself.
No one at all
The anxiety settled in again, a chill of unnamed worry.
Four days in creepy old Mendenhall…completely alone
The professor’s soft voice whispered in the back of her head. “‘
In psychosis, the turning away from reality is brought about either by the unconscious repressed becoming excessively strong, so that it overwhelms the conscious, or because reality has become so intolerably distressing that the threatened ego throws itself into the arms of the unconscious instinctual forces in a desperate revolt
Robin glanced down at the professor, startled at the confluence of thought. She wrote slowly,
Reality has become so intolerably distressing
She stopped and quickly scribbled over the words, blackening them out.
Somewhere close, another pen scratched furiously across paper. Robin glanced toward the sound.
Across the aisle from her, a slight, intense, bespectacled young man was hunched in his seat, scribbling notes as if his life depended on it. A mini-tape recorder on the desk in front of him recorded the lecture as well, in the unlikely event that he missed something.
Robin had seen him a few times around the dorm: pale skin and hollow circles under his eyes behind his glasses, shoulders hunched under the weight of an overstuffed backpack, always scurrying to or from class, as scattered and distracted as the White Rabbit.
He looked younger than the other students, and older, too. Probably skipped a grade or two and rushed into college early, full throttle, driven by parents or some inner demon of his own. Robin knew something about that.
She studied him, feeling relief in concentrating her attention on something outside herself.
There was a coldness about him, an ancient guardedness that she recognized as unhappiness. His face always set and unsmiling, if possible, more tense and miserable than Robin herself. Yet there was something luminous about him, as well, almost holy, something like a monk in his ascetic intensity.
She thought these things with detachment, as if from a great distance, merely observing. It did not occur to her to speak to him, or smile, or communicate in any way. It did not seem to her that they were on the same dimensional plane; she watched him through glass, as she watched the storm.
So she was caught completely off guard when he turned and looked her straight in her eyes.
She stared back, startled.
He immediately blushed behind his glasses and dropped his gaze to his yellow pad.
Robin sat, flustered. The bells in the clock tower above the main plaza outside struck once, sounding the three-quarter hour. A hollow sound, reverberating over the campus.
On the podium below, the white-haired professor paused, listening to the bell. The chime died, and he turned back to the class.
“But while Freud contended that the forces that drive us come from within us, our own unconscious, his disciple and colleague Jung believed there was a
unconscious around us, populated by ancient forces that exist apart from us, yet interact with and act upon us.” He paused, looked around at the class.
“So who was right? Do our demons come from without, or within us?”
He half-smiled, then closed his binder. “And on that cheery note, we’ll end early, since I know you’re all eager to get away.”
The class collectively surged to its feet, reaching for coats and notebooks and backpacks in an orgy of release. The professor raised his voice over the tide. “I’ll need all of you to discuss your term paper topics with me next week, so please make appointments by E-mail. Have a good Thanksgiving.”
Robin closed her notebook and stood, feeling as if she were rising through water, but only partway.
The surface seemed far above her.
She came through the double wooden doors of the psych building on a moving sea of students. The cold slapped her out of her sleepy daze and she halted on the wide marble steps of the building, blinking out over the quad. Raindrops splashed on her face, ran down into the collar of her shapeless wool coat.
In the distance, the clock tower chimed the hour, three reverberating bongs. A sound of release—and doom.
So now it begins
, Robin thought…and had no idea what she meant.
Students jostled her from behind, pushing her along down the steps. She fumbled in her backpack for her umbrella, forced it up above her head, and joined the streams of students surging through the uneven stone plaza. She looked at no one, spoke to no one. No one looked at her. She could have been a ghost.
In the two months she’d been at Baird, she’d made exactly zero friends. It wasn’t that she was a monster. With her fine pale features and thick dark hair, she had a darkling, changeling quality, intriguing, almost elemental.
No, she wasn’t hideous; it was just that she was invisible. She’d been in a fog of darkness for so long it seemed to have dissolved her corporeal being.
She walked on, blankly. Rain wept down the Gothic arches and neoclassic columns of the buildings around her, whispered through the canopies of oak. Someone else, someone normal, would have felt a moody pleasure in the agelessness of it. Any kind of adventure could be waiting over a stone bridge, under an ancient archway….
By all rights, she should have been wild with joy just to be there. With a—
let’s face it
—lunatic mother who in her best, properly medicated periods was barely able to hold on to temp work, Robin would never have been able to afford a school like Baird. Even with her grades, the AP classes she’d loaded up on, hoping against hope that the extra credits would get her a scholarship and out…
The scholarship hadn’t come, but the miracle had. Her father, known to her only as a signature on a monthly child-support check, had come through with a college fund: full tuition at his alma mater. A few strings pulled, a favor called in from a college pal on the board, and Robin was in, free, saved.
It had nothing to do with love, of course. Robin knew the money was guilty penance for abandoning his defective daughter to her defective mother.
have fled long ago... only I couldn’t, Daddy, could I?
He had a new family now, perfect golden wife, two perfect golden children.
A voice in her head rose up, taunting her.
He threw you away. Cast off. Cast out. You’re nothing. Nothing
She gasped in, for a moment almost choking on her own volcanic anger. Then she pushed it back down into the dark.
When his letter came, her mother had raged and cried for days. Robin ignored the hysterics, coldly cashed the check, and packed her bags.
Take his guilt money and get the hell out, fuck you very much.
But get out to where? The school was fine—she was the one who was all wrong. There was some fatal heaviness about her, a yawning black hole in the center of her that repelled people. They could see her darkness, her bitter, bitter envy of the light.
She’d escaped Mom but was still surrounded by herself.
herself for the next four days.
And if she started hearing voices, alone in the dark, gloomy Hall?
There was always the full bottle of Valium in Waverly’s bottom drawer.
More than enough to end it.
The thought was cold comfort as she walked through the wind.
The exodus had already begun. Students with bulging luggage poured out the front door of Mendenhall and down the steps in a steady stream.
Robin came up the rain-drenched walk, blankly sidestepping residents climbing into cars and airport-shuttle vans idling in the circular drive that set Mendenhall apart from the other Victorians lining the west edge of campus.
Mendenhall Residence Hall, known to all as “the Hall” (sometimes “M-Hall,” sometimes even “home”), was a converted mansion, a sprawling hodgepodge of turrets, balconies, fire escapes, and gabled roofs, all under a spreading canopy of oaks. Once a fraternity house, until the campus had started admitting women in 1932, it looked like some mad designer had added a wing in every direction from every architectural style and period ever since. Under the dark skies, it was as gloomily gothic as anything Hawthorne or Poe had ever conjured from the fevered depths of their imaginations.
Robin moved up the steps, past students hoisting duffels and carry-on bags, hugging and shouting goodbyes. Their raucous put-downs and farewells seemed to come from a great distance, barely audible. It was so easy for Them, the Normals. Vacation, friends, love…they bubbled over with life and enthusiasm, fairly scorching her with their light.
She pushed down the black surge of envy and stepped through the triple-arched front door into a murky entry hall lined with rows of locked mailboxes. She hesitated by the boxes. Her hand slid automatically into her coat pocket for keys, even as a voice in her head mocked her.
Why bother? You know it’s empty. Spare yourself and go upstairs.
She pulled the keys out of her pocket, quickly jabbed the smallest into the keyhole of her box, and pulled open the door.
See? Nothing. Nothing. You’re nothing
Robin shoved the mailbox door closed to shut out the voice. She twisted the key, turned away blindly.
The entry opened into a decrepitly grand but effectively useless hall. Benches with high backs like church pews hugged the paneled walls. Across the hardwood floor, veneer long worn away, a sweeping staircase led up to three floors of big old rooms with diamond-cut bay windows and recessed window seats.
On this dark day, the two-story hall felt more cavernous than usual, ominous, even. Robin paused in the doorway, looking up. She’d never noticed how the high windows near the top of the balcony looked like watching eyes.
Just stop it
, Robin ordered herself.
You’re staying, and the last thing you need to do is to start freaking yourself out about this.
She crossed the bare floor to the staircase and made her way up, her legs still stiff with cold. The wide steps, of shiny old wood with carpet runners for safety, felt slightly spongy under her feet, beginning to give under the constant tramping traffic of sixty-some residents per year. Robin’s nostrils flared with the familiar smell of Mendenhall—an old smell, sickly sweet, a little musty: accumulated layers of dusty carpet and wet wood, vying with laundry detergent, pot, stale beer, sweat, lingering perfume. And sex, of course, always sex.
On the second floor, she turned to the right and walked the length of the landing into an enclosed staircase leading up to the third floor. In the dark, she pulled up short at a sudden movement right above her….
A guy with straggly hair and Lennon glasses brushed past her on his way out, duffel slung over his shoulder. He mumbled, “Sorry,” not looking at her.
Robin started up the last flight of stairs without bothering to respond.
Her own floor was the third on the girls’ wing. Not that anyone enforced the segregation; students went back and forth between all the wings at all hours of the night. And everyone but the Housing Office knew the Hall supervisor was living with his girlfriend in a flat three blocks away.
She stepped through the open door to the third floor and was assaulted by prevacation music blasting from various rooms in a mind-boggling cacophony: Green Day, the Sex Pistols,
The Marriage of Figaro
from some high-toned rebel.
Robin walked down the carpeted hall, the open doors on both sides of the corridor revealing girls throwing clothes and books into duffels and backpacks, rushing in and out of one another’s rooms with college-age disregard for personal space, shouting cheerful good-byes.
As she passed a doorway, the group inside burst into laughter. Robin stiffened. Were they laughing at her? The shapeless Goodwill coat with holes in its pockets, her worn shoes?
No, no one was looking. They didn’t see.
Her steps slowed as she neared her room. The door was closed, but she could tell Waverly was there from the twist in her gut.
Should I go somewhere... wait till she’s gone?
She hesitated, deliberating.
Oh well—she’ll be out soon enough
She reached reluctantly for the doorknob and went in.
Robin’s roommate was packing half her closet into a Luis Vuitton bag on her perfectly made bed, and, thankfully, was too busy dictating her travel plans and retrieval instructions into a cell phone to do more than glance huffily at Robin.
Robin crossed to the far corner of her side of the room, stripped off her wet clothes, found a long sweater on the floor to pull on over her leggings. She kept her back to her roommate, who traveled peevishly from her closet to the suitcase on the bed as if she were alone in the room.
Waverly Todd was beautiful. Apart from that, she had no redeeming qualities. Certainly, she must have been punishment for some terrible transgression in one of Robin’s past lives. A preening, prissy, size-two Southern belle, she could take up the whole room and all the oxygen in it no matter what she was doing.
She had followed her football-scholarship boyfriend out of Charleston to the hinterlands. A fish out of water in the cold East, she hated everyone around her with a black passion.
The girl clearly belonged in a sorority and had, in fact, been firmly interred in the Tri-Delt house, most prestigious on campus, until this year. Robin gathered that during rush week there had been some incident with the boyfriend that got Waverly kicked out of the house, and the boyfriend ousted from his frat as well. Waverly was fighting mad about her expulsion from the Greek golden circle into the outer darkness of general housing. She raged against her banishment and took her fall from grace out on Robin, the lowly civilian, by being generally insufferable in every way she could invent.
Robin’s only consolation was that her very existence was as annoying to Waverly as Waverly’s was to her.
Robin hung her detested coat to dry above the radiator, dug her Ancient Worlds textbook out of her backpack, and curled in the window seat with her back to the other girl.
The room itself was fantastic, really: diamond-beveled windows, a cozy, creaking recessed window seat, delicious dark mahogany paneling up half of the wall. But the decor was a battlefield, lines strictly drawn. Waverly’s half of the room was fussily, oppressively feminine: Laura Ashley linens and cut-crystal knickknacks perkily punctuated with various plush stuffed animals, a framed photo of the boyfriend on the dresser.
Robin’s half was dark and cryptic and arty: black sheets and worn Surrealist prints on the wall, the melted Dali watches a defiant blot in Waverly’s Martha Stewart universe.
Waverly finally hung up on whatever relative she was torturing and turned her full attention back to her suitcase. Robin bent over her book. She had no intention of actually studying, but she kept up the pretense of reading to annoy Waverly. It was working. Waverly watched Robin suspiciously, irritated to paranoia by Robin’s stoic refusal to acknowledge her presence. The silence fairly crackled between them. Finally, Waverly had to speak.
“You’re not going home?”
Robin turned a page, not looking up. “No.”
“You’re just going to stay here? By yourself?”
Robin’s eyes never moved from the book. “Looks like it.”
Waverly’s gaze narrowed; her drawl lengthened. “You never go anywhere, you know.”
Robin’s voice was flat. “I must be weird or something.”
“Or something,” Waverly sniffed.
The door crashed open and a tall, broad jock filled the door frame.
In the window seat, Robin stiffened, every molecule of her being instantly aware of him. If Waverly was a black hole, Patrick O’Connor was the sun, big and blond and full of life. Robin could feel her heart lifting, hope returning.
He swaggered into the room, duffel hanging from his shoulder. “Taxi’s here,” he complained in Waverly’s direction, Southern accent rich as butter. “Ready to roll?”
Waverly continued rearranging her suitcase, adding outfits she had no chance in hell of wearing over the four-day break. “He’ll wait,” she knifed back.
Robin kept her eyes glued to her book, raging inwardly.
It was always the golden, stupid ones who were chosen.
It was pathetic, really, a typical Southern disaster in the making. High school quarterback fucking what brains there were out of the prom queen. Prom queen bent on marriage, quarterback overflowing with hormones, scamming on every other girl in sight.
As if to illustrate the point, Patrick ran his hand along the curve of Waverly’s ass as she bent over her suitcase. She pushed him away. Unfazed, Patrick twisted his hand in her hair and pulled her head back to kiss her, full mouth grazing on her lips, dropping lower to nuzzle on her throat.
Robin’s jaw tightened; she pretended not to watch.
Even more pathetic was that against all logic and better judgment, Robin was hopelessly in lust with him. It was a stupid cliché, doomed, she knew—but Patrick was the only person at the school who’d paid any attention to her at all, who smiled when he saw her, as if she weren’t broken or damaged beyond repair. Granted, he lighted up for everyone, especially when he wanted something. But at least Robin felt
when he was around. At least he saw her. He
She’d listened to them make love in the dark, not knowing or caring that she was awake, and imagined herself under him, his mouth on her throat, his hands holding her down, his heat filling her—
She started back to the present as Patrick turned Waverly loose and flashed his grin at Robin, warm and brilliant. “Hey, Rob. Could not motivate myself out of bed this morning. I miss anything in Ancient Civ?” A direct blue gaze, irresistible.
Robin closed her book on her finger, kept her voice casual. “Besides that next Friday’s the midterm?”
Patrick’s look was comically dismayed. “Fuck a duck. I’ll choke.” His voice dropped, low and caressing.” ‘Less I can get your notes.” The Carolina drawl that was like fingernails on a blackboard from Waverly was a lingering tease in Patrick’s voice, full of warmth and promise.
Robin felt her knees go weak, but she put her book aside and stood, moving past him to her desk. She could feel Patrick’s eyes on her. He stepped to her side (
) as she flipped through a spiral notebook. The heat of his body beside hers made her stomach twist with longing.
She ripped four classes’ worth of notes on creation myths from the notebook and turned quickly, pages in hand, so he couldn’t see she was trembling. “That’s the last two weeks. You haven’t been for a while.”
He looked down into her eyes and she felt her breath catch. “Saved my ass. I owe ya—”
Waverly’s voice came from behind, a shrill note of warning. “Are you finished coming all over my roommate?”
Patrick winked at Robin, turned and hoisted Waverly’s suitcase, then his duffel bag, and then hooked an arm around Waverly’s waist and slung her up over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Waverly pounded on his back, her voice rising to a banshee shriek. “Put me down, you assholel”
Patrick ignored her and carried her out, calling cheerfully back over his shoulder. “See ya, Rob. Happy Turkey Day.”
Robin could hear Waverly starting to swear a blue streak, her voice fading down the hall.
She kicked the door closed behind them and stood still in the fading light.