Jinxed by Thommy Hutson: Prologue
The small private island was a mystery.
This, even when so many knew, or thought they knew, what was going on twenty-two miles off the coast of Seattle, on the strip of land named after the very rich and very dead Cadogan Trask. Protected like so much of the Pacific Northwest by Douglas firs, red alders, and bigleaf maples, Trask Island, a blister in the water, seemed mythical. Very little was known about the reclusive man who bought the uninhabited plot in the 19th century, later developing it to suit his tastes. His personal life and his purpose, just like his eponymous island, were ensconced in a thick, white mist. One day there, the next not.
Over the years, worry about Trask the place and Trask the man ebbed and flowed. No one dared argue that business on the island brought money and a small amount of prestige to the area, but there was something about it.
The same people who sang its praises also gawked and wondered and preached about whether its gifts matched its detractions. All of those armchair whatchamacallits peeked out the windows of their glass houses into their neighbors’ glass houses and threw not stones, but boulders.
Always, always, they asked the same question: Why must a high school be so private?
The institution was nestled behind a wall of nature so beautiful that an equal number wondered how anything about it could be bad. A school for the gifted and talented. A place where children with an affinity for dance, voice, drama, art, and communications would be nurtured. A place where stars were born to shine.
But bad is a relative word.
And stars fall from the sky.
Still, the answer to the question on so many minds of what was really going on with those who were lucky enough, and rich enough, to find themselves hidden within its sacred I hope I get in please God let me get in walls?
Well, the answer was simple.
And not so simple.
Trask Academy of Performing Arts was, indeed, very private.
The campus lay upon acre after acre of rolling green hills. Tall, age-old trees swarmed the landscape. Sturdy, dark red-bricked buildings were scattered about. Cobblestone sidewalks—concrete wouldn’t do, and asphalt was far too unsightly—snaked their way through and around the campus. Surrounding all of this flora, not to mention brick-and-mortar money, was a thick-ledged stone fence complete with wrought iron. The ornamental finials topping each spire had three-edged spear points. The borders weren’t sharp enough to cut, but the tips were fine enough to puncture. And at only one point along the entire perimeter was there a gate.
One way in. One way out.
Down one of those lamp-lit walkways, in its own enclave, was Williams Hall, a beautiful sandstone and cerulean tiled theater fashioned in a Romanesque style. A bell tower, now long out of use, still kept watch over the surroundings. The only modern accoutrement, though some would say eyesore, was the building’s large, white marquee, added during the 1980s when, presumably, a faculty member, or perhaps a wealthy donor, convinced the school’s administration flashing lights were all the rage. Its large black letters read:
52nd Annual Trask Academy of Performing Arts Showcase
Inside, rehearsal ran late.
The long fluorescent-lit hallway was filled with leg-warmered young dancers packing their bags. Actors filed away their scripts. Singers stopped their warbling. All seniors. Almost all rich. Wrapping up a rehearsal in the school’s premier venue for the school’s premier event.
Begun in 1946, the Trask Academy of Performing Arts Annual Showcase saw the best and brightest of the graduating class perform for a lucky invited audience. The theater’s fifteen hundred seats filled with relatives, talent scouts, agents, bookers, managers. Hollywood and Broadway knew that those fortunate enough to study at Trask were groomed to be unsurpassed in their field, and what better way to find the stars of tomorrow than to watch the hopefuls of today. Rich daddies and mommies prayed the exorbitant tuition fees had paid off. Rumors swirled the cost to attend the school was as high as one hundred thousand dollars a year, which would make it one of the most expensive private schools in the world. For those prices, check writers expected nothing but the best.
And Hell hath no fury if they didn’t get it.
Amanda Kincaid was working to be the best. She sat on the stage alone, dressed casually in dark jeans and a top that showed just this side of too much. She was a pretty girl and, at nineteen, a year older than most of the other seniors. Her age made her more serious, and more guarded. Her dark hair, normally wavy, was pulled back tight. She wasn’t a dancer, not really, but she felt the hairstyle made her look the part of a performer. Whatever part that was.
When she heard the last door of the night slam, she knew she was finally alone. She could now work without the worry of being judged by everyone around her. She was a good actress, she knew that. But that wasn’t enough, and she also knew that.
Standing up, she grabbed her script. She promised herself that tonight was the night she would not peek at her lines. She knew them. She had to. It wasn’t going to be like Showcase 1995—
Karen Reasmith stopped in the middle of her piece, mouth agape, spotlight burning down on her as if she were caught trying to escape prison.
She had forgotten her lines.
The adults in the audience, who could cut deeper than any razor, sat in irritated silence, while the other students lovingly absorbed the crash and burn before their eyes. A train wreck of epic schadenfreude. Karen looked around, helpless, hoping she could be saved from herself. But all that came were tears as she tore off the stage.
Amanda thought of the joke around campus for those new kids who didn’t understand how serious Trask pupils took their performing arts studies. They’d ask, “Did you ever hear of Karen Reasmith?” When incoming students answered in the negative, the upperclassman would respond, “Exactly.” Testosterone high-fives and estrogen giggles followed as they walked away from newbies who rolled their eyes.
But Amanda understood what the newcomers didn’t. Couldn’t, at least not so quickly. Karen had blown it. She would never even get a chorus audition in a touring show. Casting agents loved to talk. And what they loved to do more than talk was gossip. By the time Karen had packed her bags and left the compound, her talent was already colder than the iceberg that had sunk the Titanic.
Except that the Titanic had survivors.
Amanda shook off the memory of Karen Reasmith and focused. Her tongue darted around her red-lipped mouth, preparing to utter chilling words as she channeled Euripides’ Medea.
“In vain, my children, have I brought you up, Borne all the cares and pangs of motherhood, And the sharp pains of childbirth undergone. In you, alas, was treasured—”
Suddenly every light went out, leaving Amanda alone in blackness.
Even the ghost light’s exposed incandescent bulb had gone out, which made her anxious. Amanda knew the ghost light was a big deal, if only a superstition. She was aware of the firmly held belief that every theater had a ghost. And not Phantom of the Opera ghosts who taught beautiful, young women to become chanteuses. No, these were simply the spirits, perhaps of performers long dead, who remained in the place they once loved. Perhaps the ghost light allowed them to perform their own works when no one was around. Or maybe they just liked to watch performances.
Nonsense, Amanda thought. The light is there so we don’t fall into the orchestra pit. Or something.
Still, she didn’t like it being out. Just in case. Of whatever frightening case might be out there.
And then the noise came. Softly at first, but building in volume. It seemed to emanate from the back right of the auditorium. It sounded like the moan of a dead person who most decidedly did not want to be dead. Like a zombie upon its victim, ready to sink yellow and black teeth into the soft flesh of a neck, tearing out tendons, arteries, a larynx.
Amanda’s breathing grew faster, shallower. She felt as if she were standing in the cold, black reaches of space. Tiny hairs on the back of her neck tingled. Her mouth opened, ready to scream.
Amanda knew she should have been alone. And she knew she was not. But she stopped herself short of screaming. Instead, she cocked her head as the ghastly voice grew louder, transforming into something else, like something off one of those cheap Halloween sound effects tapes. Her split-second shudder of fear gave way to the crack of an embarrassed smile, then annoyance.
“Seriously? Not funny!” Amanda yelled out, her voice coming back at her with the faintest echo. Her words stopped the not-so-sound-effect sound effect. “I’m trying to work here,” she added matter-of-factly. She smirked. She waited. I’m ready when you are, idiots. When nothing happened, she took a step to her left.
“Dare you try to cross without the guidance of the ghost light?” a voice boomed. Amanda let out a small yelp. “Who can know what evils from the past lurk within these hallowed walls?”
Wait a minute, she realized. I know that voice. Despite the darkness, she moved in circles, calling out.
“If anything evil does linger, it’s probably from your pathetic performance, Marcus.”
She carefully shifted closer to the stage’s left wing. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw she was inches away from one of the thick, black curtains that prevented audiences from seeing backstage. The material was moving, ever so slightly. Who is that? What dashed away behind the barrier? She had to know, needed to. She slowly reached for the fabric and started to tug on it—
A reverberating audio feedback filled the auditorium. Amanda reeled, falling on her tailbone. Then, silence.
The bulb inside the cage of the ghost light came to life.
Someone had been right there. Not anymore.
“Oh, come on. Did I bruise your fragile ego?” she asked cynically. She got no response and decided she was over this game. She really did need to practice.
“Fine, whatever. Can you please turn the stage lights—”
They came back on before she could finish.
Jerks, she thought.
She looked back down at her script. Mumbling the words to get back to her place, she heard a rustling deep backstage. Hushed voices talking fast. Getting more strident. Urgent.
Inconsiderate jerks. Looking up, she projected to the back of the auditorium.
“In you, alas, was treasured many a hope of loving sustentation in my age, of tender laying out when I was dead—”
“Do something!” a voice said harshly backstage.
A female voice that Amanda couldn’t make out responded, “Just go, just go!” It sounded like she might have been crying.
Amanda stopped worrying about her performance. She stopped wondering who was scuttling around. She was concerned that something was wrong. These people had laughed at first, but now they sounded worried. And very frightened.
So was Amanda. She stepped toward the left wing once again, this time with purpose. Something slammed backstage. Amanda screamed, threw her hands to her mouth, and let script pages flutter to the ground in a jumbled mess she would normally have cared about, but not now. Something was happening. Her expression turned to sour terror when she saw it.
Thick dark billows wafting up from backstage.
“Oh my God.” She instinctively reached forward for the curtain, calling out. “Are you guys all—”
As she drew the curtain back, Amanda watched ravenous flames grow with a fresh gust of delicious, necessary oxygen. She was thrown as the heat slapped her body.
Crawling backward, she stumbled to her feet, turned to run, and screamed again, this time louder. She barely missed falling into the orchestra pit ten feet below.
“Help me!” she cried, looking around frantically, noticing the pages of her script dancing in a small vortex of flame, smoke, and heat. Flames licked the ceiling and rained dripping bits of burning material down. An ember from a set piece dropped to her arm, searing her flesh. She whimpered, hot tears flowing down her face. Another ember, another burn.
Desperate, Amanda tried to use her hands to wave away the smoke, but it was too thick. Coughing, she pushed toward a set of exit doors off the left wing of the stage. She imagined the fresh evening air outside, but her arms almost snapped when she slammed into the door that would not open.
For a moment Amanda wasn’t sure what was going on, but another ember landed on her hair and began smoldering, bringing her back. She swatted at it, screaming. She got up and tried the door again. It wouldn’t budge. She pounded on it.
“Help me! Somebo—”
Amanda violently coughed. She looked around, water in her eyes from fear and fire. The conflagration had engulfed the auditorium and Amanda, rushing to the stage again, realized she was at the center of it all.
A twisted, groaning came from above and, realizing just in time what it was, she scurried as a lighting rig swung right past her.
She didn’t have much time. More and more fly ropes snapped in the heat. Scene flats crashed to the floor. The glass lamp of the ghost light exploded. Disoriented, Amanda stumbled across the stage as smoke stung her eyes and heat filled her lungs.
Colored lights above burst and shattered, sending glass shards raining upon her. She covered her head, not seeing the snapped cable heading toward her.
It belted her in the leg, drawing a deep, thick gash and sending her sailing over the front of the stage.
Into the orchestra pit.
Her head hit the wooden floor with a crack. Her leg twisted at an odd angle. She was not going anywhere.
It’s so much cooler down here, she thought sadly. The fire drew closer as debris rained down around her. She looked high above and saw fire crawl up the curtains, licking at the Trask Academy of Performing Arts crest. Its enamel sheen bubbled in the heat.
The fire upon her, Amanda felt her skin burn. She used her left hand to rub the fire from her right arm, but everything sloughed off the bone in large, bloody, sinewy chunks. The pain was excruciating. She had been sure, when talking with friends about terrible ways to die, that after a few seconds fire would have extinguished any sense of pain, or that her body would dull it enough to make it more manageable.
She thought how wrong she had been.
She felt every lick of flame as if a galaxy of the hottest stars were slowly stabbing through her. Her head lolled to one side. Her screams withered. She wanted to cry out, but instinct had its hold on her, and the heat she felt every time her lungs sucked in was too great.
The air itself had become a scorching hell.
She saw little blobs of dancing light as she held, held, held her breath. The world was just about black when another jolt of pain brought her back, as if a gleaming, hot needle had been shoved into her iris. While the blinding orange and yellow of one thousand degree flames ravaged her body, she saw nothing.
Her lack of vision was not due to the agonizing pain. Or the shock that racked her body. The heat was so great that her eyes exploded, like eggs bursting in a microwave.
The young girl with so much life ahead of her was as good as dead. A burning husk of a person. The unconscious fear of suffocating grew to be too much, and she sucked in a giant rush of heat that melted the delicate, paper-thin tissue of her lungs. It was a pain so much worse than breathing in water from the lake where she and her friends would go swimming. Long before she had come to this school.
As the little oxygen left in her bloodstream wended its way through her dying shell, strange fleeting thoughts crossed her mind. It wasn’t, as everyone said, a movie-like assemblage of her life playing at breakneck speed. It was, simply, random moments. The first time she saw The Wizard of Oz and wanted to be Dorothy. Riding her pink bicycle in the grassy front yard of her house, yelling for anyone to watch her ring the tiny bell on the handlebars. Hitting her babysitter’s older brother in the face with a snowball, upset and confused that she could make a big boy cry. Screaming on a roller-coaster with her former best friend, Shelly, sure she was going to pee her pants from laughing.
Then it was over. Her human light faded, faded, faded with one last thought.
Silver moonlight cast a pall over the remains of the burnt, condemned theater that kept watch over the school campus. Even with a new, more open brick façade already complete as part of the school’s very expensive renovation, the scaffolding snaking around and up its walls read like the twisted bones of a skeleton deep inside a closet. But that fabled darkness, coupled with its offer of shadowed cover from faculty, made the theater a prime location for itchy students to scratch their desires, test their mettle, and relish in stories that brought back the dead.
“Some say you can still hear her screams in the still of the night.”
The voice of the storyteller belonged to Max Reynolds. He was standing in front of the building, staring up at it as he spoke. A senior with well-toned arms that stretched his tight, white T-shirt, he looked pleased with himself as he waited for a response. His structured, boyish face wasn’t always smiling, but when it did, it charmed everyone. This was one of those times.
“Lame, lame, lame,” said Layna Curtis. A sarcastic smile grew from her full, naturally red lips. “Let’s be real, not only has that story been told before about a jillion times, it’s been told way, way better.” She sighed and pushed long dark hair away from her pale, pretty face and over her shoulders, feigning boredom. Inside—though she would never admit it—she wasn’t sure she liked being there. That building, she thought, is staring at us. At me.
“Oh, really?” Max asked, goading her, snapping her from distracted thoughts.
“Totally,” Layna replied. Clever and confident, she would play the game. She nonchalantly picked at the pills of her cream-colored sweater. Max stared at her, his eyebrows raised. Without looking up, Layna said, “Guys, am I right?”
Layna looked first to Nancy Groves, a fantastic dancer who was stretching her legs as if a loop of Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” played in her head. Holding her legs at seemingly impossible angles was par for the course for Nancy. She had a lithe body that shimmered when she performed. Layna knew it. Everybody knew it. And Nancy loved that. But Layna knew her friend’s Achilles’ heel was her short, bobbed hair, so naturally straight that even the strongest Ogilvy home perm would be hard-pressed to win the battle. Not that she hadn’t tried, often with a lot of help from Layna and shared fits of laughter. Layna appreciated Nancy knew what she had and how to use it.
When Nancy didn’t respond, Layna’s eyes went to Alice Reitman. Alice smacked her chewing gum. She was cute, but nowhere near Nancy-thin. Layna had always thought that Alice wasn’t fat. At least not fat, fat. And Layna knew that Alice despised in a gag me with a spoon way when people referred to her as “the bubbly one.” That usually meant fat.
Layna felt bad knowing most people openly said Alice was talkative and upbeat, but also worried Alice was thinking, Thanks, now hand over the ho-ho’s and you won’t get hurt. But what did it matter to Layna? Alice wasn’t an actor, singer, or dancer. She studied communications and was going to be “the next, not-quite-as-thin, but incredibly relatable television journalist.” Layna had told Alice that was a fine choice, but she preferred Savannah Guthrie, even though she looked much taller than her guests, and it often appeared she might just lurch over and devour them. They all have their flaws, Layna reminded herself.
At the end of the line was Trask’s “it” girl, Sydney Miller. Pretty, with blonde hair in perfectly placed waves, Sydney was popular and athletic. Layna admired her. At Trask, and in real life, Layna had to assume, guys wanted Sydney and girls wanted to be her. When she walked down the halls, the underclassmen all turned their heads to catch a glimpse of the Sydney Miller. If the singers were belting out a tune, they stopped as she strode by. Layna knew her friend Sydney was going to be famous. She had the talent to be a star, sure. But she also had a sheer force of will. Nothing was going to stop her from achieving her dreams. Nothing. And nobody. Layna admired that especially, even as she pushed down slight feelings of jealousy.
But like the others, Sydney just sat quiet.
Layna looked again at all of her girlfriends, incredulous. “Oh my God, backsies please. This is when my friends say they’re with me?”
But none did. They stood stoic, staring forward, or around, or down. Looking worried. It didn’t sit well with Layna.
“Layn, I mean, it is kind of a creepy story,” Alice offered.
Layna’s shoulders slumped. No backsies, apparently.
“Seriously, a girl died. Right in there,” added Nancy.
Sydney leaned her body in closer. Layna could practically feel the girl’s breath when she spoke. “It’s just not something we should, you know, make light of.”
Layna couldn’t believe it. Her unease was giving way to annoyance. “Because some chick supposedly died in this awful, mysterious, tragic way a million years ago—”
“It’s more like, only twenty years, but go on,” Max said.
Layna glared at him long enough to make a point, and then continued. “I’m just saying, we see this eyesore all the time, but tonight we’re supposed to all of a sudden be frightened because Max used his big boy voice to tell a campfire story we all knew? Sorry, it just isn’t work—”
Layna abruptly stopped. She had heard something. They had all heard something.
It was not the wind, Layna knew. Not the creaking of scaffolding. It was a low, hurting moan. A harsh, frightening whisper.
“Whooo—?” hissed the voice, from inside the building.
Layna’s brown eyes went wide. Max sidled next to her. “Okay, fine, it’s working now,” Layna said. Nancy, Alice, and Sydney huddled close, too.
Sydney, worried, looked directly at Layna. “Dude, what did you do?”
“Me?” Layna whispered, too loudly.
“Shhh!” Nancy harped.
The punitive voice came back. Angrier, more strident. “Who wantsss—?”
They waited, breaths held, to hear what came next, but the only sound was the flapping of a plastic tarp over a pile of bricks. Then someone jumped out from the shadowed entrance of the theater. Layna let out a high-pitched scream. Then the others screamed, too. Layna grabbed Max tightly, trying to shield herself from whatever was coming toward them.
The screams of the others went on and on. And on. Layna gathered that something wasn’t right when she peeked from Max’s chest and saw her friends staring at her, their formerly petrified faces now swathed in knowing smiles.
“Whooooo wantsssss … a drink?” the stranger in the entryway asked.
Layna opened her eyes fully and unscrunched her face. She knew that voice. She’d been had.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” Nancy joked, poking Layna.
Layna pursed her lips and nodded her head. “All right, fine, go ahead. Let’s hear it,” she said.
After a moment of silence, they burst out laughing. Layna put her hands over her face, embarrassed that she had fallen for such a cheap trick. Max pulled her close and kissed the top of her head.
“We totally had you,” he said, then grabbed her chin so he could look her in the eyes. “And I’ll always have you,” he added, leaning in for a kiss. Layna greedily accepted.
“Get a room already!” Nancy playfully snapped. “And, Crosby, get your ass out here.”
Crosby Williams’ broad, white smile, and a glint from his hazel eyes, emerged from the darkness. Layna stared at the writer and part-time less-than-stellar illusionist, also a member of the senior class. She should have known—he could never pass up the element of surprise. He may have been lacking in the prestidigitation department, but he made up for it with a bohemian style and perfectly unkempt hair.
“I’d love to, but the spirits are insistent,” Crosby offered. “You must come inside and face your fears, if you are to partake of the beers.” He pushed his arm forward so it was struck by moonlight, waving a bottle that glistened with condensation. Then just as fast, he pulled it back and his smile, his eyes, and the beer disappeared all within the ruins of the old theater.
“You heard the man,” Max said. “Duty calls.”
Nancy, Alice, and Sydney moved first, with Nancy leading the pack. The girls laughed as they, too, vanished into the shadows, one by one. Max lurched forward, but Layna caught his hand and stopped him.
“Babe, come on,” he said.
Layna looked up at the building, gazing at its two, large Venetian windows that watched over everything. Watching me, I bet.
“What’s wrong? Let’s go,” Max said. “Or are you scared? Ooooh!” He waved his fingers in front of her face in a silly manner.
It broke Layna free from her worry. The small lie, one he’d never figure out, came forth. “Of course not,” she said. “Let’s go.”
After one last look deep into the shadows before her, she gave Max a kiss on the lips. Ready or not, she let him lead her into the darkness of the auditorium.
The building was a far cry from the grandeur of its glory days. Gone were most of the plush, red velvet-covered seats that once filled the theater, leaving only an empty, sad expanse of dirty concrete. Those seats that remained, mostly near the stage and scattered up makeshift aisles, were blackened and charred, having melted under the heat of the fire. Layna felt a chill, even though the seating wreckage could barely be seen under the cover of dusty translucent plastic. Construction materials, tools, wood boards, and sandbags were strewn about, giving credence to the rumor the schools’ deep-pocketed donors weren’t jonesing to bring this part of the campus back to life.
It was an open secret on campus that the coffers of Trask Academy of Performing Arts might be drier than anyone in the administration wanted to admit. There was money, of course, because Dean McKenna knew that keeping up appearances was paramount, but there was an equally strong, although silent, opinion that the building was nothing more than a part of the school’s dark past and, just maybe, it should stay there. Layna certainly felt that way right now. Neither she, nor her friends and fellow students, had any idea that in at least one of the more heated board meetings—old-boys club affairs always held privately with little fanfare—more than one donor had agreed: why rebuild a nightmare when you can construct a brand-new dream?
Layna and her friends meandered through the maze of equipment toward the stage.
“All right, Crosby, come out, come out, wherever you are,” Alice said, loud enough to cause an echo, but there was no answer from Crosby.
Layna and Max made their way to the front of the group. As they walked, they stared up through scaffolding and more plastic tarps, the former creaking and the latter flapping in the stiff breeze whisking through the empty structure.
Moonlight shone down on Max, who climbed up onto the stage from a set of rotting steps. “Watch the third one, it’s a doozy,” he said as Layna grabbed his hand for help up. Then Max, always the gentlemen, reached for the other girls, grabbing Nancy’s arm a bit harder when she failed to heed his warning and her foot almost broke through the soft, pulpy wood of the stair.
Layna gasped, but Nancy just uttered an embarrassed “Whoopsie.”
From the stage, the friends paused to take in their surroundings, illuminated not only by the natural evening light, but also by the lone ghost light in the center of the stage.
“Spooky. Maybe this was, you know, the light,” Alice wondered aloud. The thought caused a hint of unease in Layna.
“Yes, most definitely,” Sydney said with a smile. “Now let’s steal the bulb and call GE so we can make a billion dollars on the light that lasts an eternity.” The response put Layna at ease, but Alice rolled her eyes, blew a large, pink bubble, and sucked it back into her mouth with a loud pop!
Layna found that the light did not offer her any warmth, or security, so she just stood quietly with her hands in her pockets. Max sidled next to her and wrapped his arm around her shoulder.
“Hey, look,” Layna said, moving a few feet past the light to where a picnic blanket was spread out on the stage.
Nancy went to it and stood with her back toward the darkness of the stage’s left wing. “Fancy,” she said. “Maybe next time we can have a picnic, I don’t know, at the scene of a car accid—”
A hand suddenly reached from the shadows and whisked its way over Nancy’s mouth. Unable to say anything, her eyes filled with fear and worry.
“Nan, how much longer do we wait?” Sydney asked. She turned and let out a scream when she saw Nancy.
Layna and Alice yelped as well. “Max!” Layna screamed, with the unspoken order of Do something! Max practically leapt across the stage. Then he stopped, and he and the others watched as the stranger’s hand wended its way from Nancy’s mouth, down over her shoulder, and to her jacket’s zipper.
It started to pull down.
Nancy’s wide eyes shrank to a disbelieving squint. She yanked hard on the offending arm and pulled a stumbling Crosby from the shadows onto the stage.
“Wow, way to be romantic, Cros,” Nancy said. “I’ve always dreamed of doing it here. Literally, right here.”
“Me too, babe. Me, too,” Crosby joked, raising his eyebrows in quick succession before planting a kiss on her lips.
The others made their way over.
“Crosby, such a lovable jerk,” Sydney offered, giving him a peck on the cheek.
“That’s funny, I thought he was just being a jerk,” Layna added with a little more annoyance than she had meant to.
Max crossed in front of her. “Me-ow.” Now it was Layna who rolled her eyes. It hadn’t been her idea to hang out in a burnt-out building, tell ghost stories, and do God only knows what. She would have been fine if they had never come here.
“Come on,” Crosby said. “I couldn’t let the ambiance go to waste. We’re all entitled to a good scare, right? So, welcome children. And now, watch.”
They all did as Crosby stood in front of them, arms outstretched. He tugged on each sleeve. Nothing there. Suddenly, with a few slick gestures and a turn, he produced beer bottle after beer bottle.
“Well kiss my ass and call me abracadabra,” Max laughed, happily grabbing two bottles and offering one to Layna. She shook her head. Max ambled off, saying something under his breath like, “More for me.”
Alice brushed past Layna, smacked her gum, and grabbed a beer. “The party has so officially started.”
Crosby saved the last drink for Nancy, sheepishly gesturing like it was a peace offering. “Forgive me, but in all honesty, I just had to set the mood.”
“Oh, it’s gonna take more than janky beer,” Nancy retorted with a smile.
Crosby shrugged his shoulders, opened his jacket, and showed her the flask he had been hiding. Nancy’s smile grew. Layna watched, enjoying their playful back-and-forth.
“You know me so well,” Nancy admitted. She put her arms inside Crosby’s jacket, moving her face close to his.
“And you me, my dear,” responded Crosby. Somehow, they seemed to smile even as they kissed deeply.
Layna cleared her throat and sat down on the blanket. “Tongue-wrestlers, your much-needed, very private room is now ready. Please check in, stat.”
Nancy pulled back from Crosby, laughing. “Duly noted.” She and the others joined Layna on the blanket.
Crosby remained standing by himself, still pretending to kiss Nancy. The others laughed, which he took as his cue to stop and take a seat. The teens kicked back, looking up at the star-studded sky through a gaping hole in the roof of the condemned theater.
“See, it’s not so scary in here,” Max said.
Layna thought, but would never dare say, that it was still just as creepy as she had imagined. Maybe more.
“Let’s discuss break. Please tell me you’re staying,” Sydney pleaded, breaking the silence. Secretly she had also hoped to head off talk about the building, the legend, or how frightening it was. And is.
“Oh, we’re staying the week,” Layna said, adding emphatically, “All of us, right?”
Nods all around. Sydney let out a Thank God sigh.
“Rumor has it only D’Arcangelo and McKenna are gonna be here,” Alice said. “And there’s gonna be a party tomorrow night to kick things off.”
“A freshman party, ugh.” Nancy groaned and took a swig from the flask.
“I’ll pass, thank you very much,” Sydney said.
Layna looked like she was holding in a secret she couldn’t keep in. “Max wants to go!” she revealed.
The group stared at him as if he were mad.
“What?” Max asked. “It could be fun.”
Layna threw a You’ve gotta be kidding me stare at him. “Oh, totes,” she said, “if the fifteen-year-olds can plot out how to sneak anything stronger than hard lemonade into the dorms.”
Sydney shook her head. “Barfing kids and tragic pop music outside my door, all night long. Sign. Me. Up!”
“Oh, let me call the wahmbulance,” Nancy laughed. “It’s your fault. You could have lived with us big kids in Campbell Hall.”
“Oh, no, no, no,” Sydney replied. “I am not giving up my primo view for snot-nosers.”
And it was true, she thought. Her view was fantastic, overlooking the conservatory filled with exotic plants, from rare orchids to ingeniously sculpted bonsai trees. Aside from the supposed eco-friendly gratification, the school’s motivation for the garden was a mystery to Sydney, her friends, and most other students, too. Most of the kids at school, Sydney among them if she stopped lying to herself, had the mindset that if you’ve seen one flower, you’ve seen them all.
The beauty of the building, Sydney had to admit, could not be overstated: a dome of striking brass-capped cames that held together shimmering glass plates of blue and gold, the colors of the school. Sydney often found herself staring at the top of the structure, mesmerized as it reflected the setting sun. Beyond the dome, the rolling green hills that the school had so meticulously taken care of led to the thick forest just beyond the gates of the campus.
It was that view that kept Sydney in the underclassmen’s dorm. She had lucked out with her room. The school used the stunning views and state-of-the-art facilities to lure new students, but after the main academic coursework was finished in year one, students started their majors and moved to one of two dorms on campus closer to the buildings where they would train. Still, Sydney accepted that the spectacular view, and the slightly longer daily walk to her classes, was worth putting up with the kids who were just finding their way. When she had asked to stay in her room, the housing committee decided she could. Sure, there were moments when she thought it might be more fun to be in a building with all of her friends, seniors who had paid their dues and were ready to graduate and make their mark with the talents that Trask had nurtured within them. But when the committee said yes if she agreed to stay at the school for her entire academic career, she had made her choice.
Sydney was shaken from her thoughts of pretty stained glass and obnoxious newbies when Crosby said, “They’ll be in dreamland before you know it. The last ferry leaves Saturday morning and they’ll wanna be bright-eyed for mommy and daddy at the docks.”
“Speaking of morning, like, what’s with the ratchet, military-style early rehearsal, Syd?” Alice asked. “It’s just us, and you’re the only one in the showcase.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Layna said, smiling. “The star here needs someone to shine the spotlight on her the minute day breaks, didn’t you know?” Sydney wondered, for just a second, whether something more wicked lurked behind the comment and smile.
“Oh, the shade!” Nancy said.
“Guys, I was joking. Seriously,” Layna offered. She took Sydney’s hand. “Hey, when have I not been the overachieving understudy to the world’s soon-to-be most famous talent?”
The words didn’t make Sydney feel much better. Sydney knew how badly Layna wanted to perform. “Layn, you’ll get your chance. Trust me, it’ll happen.”
“You’re right,” agreed Layna, “the minute you pull a Peg Entwistle and take a leap off the Hollywood sign.”
“Layna!” Nancy laughed, half-heartedly.
Sydney chuckled slightly, then looked away. She didn’t want to keep up the contest with Layna, didn’t want to see something in her friend’s eyes that might betray their friendship.
Max took a long swig from his beer and gestured at their surroundings with the bottle. “There’s always hope for a mysterious fire during one of Syd’s rehearsals.”
“Okay, seriously, starting to feel uncomfortable here,” Sydney admitted. She looked at Layna, waiting for the break. It finally came. They locked eyes, and Layna’s big grin forced one from Sydney.
“Babe, friends to the end,” Layna said, moving to wrap her arms around Sydney. “The very end,” she added, her tone both playful and menacing.
Everyone relaxed as Sydney lightheartedly pushed Layna away. “Girl, bye!”
The wind picked up, whistling through the theater. The scaffolding creaked and groaned. A light flurry of plaster dust sprinkled down, looking, Sydney thought, perhaps too much like ash from a fire.
“The universe likes the idea, Syd,” Crosby said. “Maybe your number is up.”
“And I like the idea of you shutting up,” Sydney replied sharply. She had reached her limit on the subject of past deaths as well as jokes about her own.
Layna grabbed Sydney’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
Alice yelped as floorboards creaked in the darkness of the stage wings. “That was so not the wind,” she muttered.
Max stood tall, taut, alert. “Who’s there?” he asked.
No response. Layna grabbed his arm. He motioned for her and everyone else to be quiet as he stepped toward the edge of the light thrown out from the ghost lamp.
“Ooh, tough guy,” Crosby mumbled, snickering. Nancy slapped his arm. Max glared at him and then disappeared into the shadows.
Sydney was worried. And that meant they all must be worried, she thought. Was that an animal? Was it a teacher? Or had something they mentioned too many times that night come back?
As soon as she heard the crash, Sydney stopped wondering and let out a scream.
“Max!” Layna screamed, darting to her feet out of instinct. The others rose up behind her. Nancy pushed Crosby forward. He cocked his head and opened his eyes wide. Sydney imagined him thinking exactly what she was thinking, Just what am I supposed to do?
“Do something, idiot,” Nancy ordered.
Crosby inched toward the darkness, stopping at another noise, a scuffling, this time closer.
“Not necessary,” Max’s voice came from the shadows. Sydney was relieved as she watched somebody being forced from the wing and onto the ground. The other girls screamed, as did Crosby. Sydney took note that his scream was more high-pitched and went on a hair longer than the girls’, which she knew he’d regret.
Max appeared again.
“What the hell are you doing here, you stalker douchebag?” Max asked whoever was skulking backstage.
Sydney focused on Layna. She knew what was going to happen next. Her eyes met Max’s judging gaze. She took a sharp breath in and forgot the drama and worry from before. Max was obviously not happy with the person lying on the floor in front of them all.
Layna knew she could not hide what Sydney, what Max, what everyone saw as she looked at the heap on the ground.
Dillon Reeves. A loner and, some have said, a rebel.
He was also a senior, though the rumor on campus was that the musical prodigy might have been older than everyone else after being held back in grade school. It wasn’t for lack of intelligence, apparently, on which everyone agreed. Depending on whom you asked, though, the true reason changed. Imaginations ran wild. And the stories got bigger.
I heard Dillon would just sit in the corner of his kindergarten classroom and hum after he got yelled at for eating cookies another kid brought, so they held him back.
I heard Dillon took a broken paintbrush and stabbed another student in eighth grade for making fun of his still-life art project, so they held him back.
I heard Dillon got blamed for pushing his high school shop teacher into a table saw blade and then ran through the halls screaming the teacher was jumping around like fleas on a hot brick, so they held him back.
There was also one about embezzlement, and some even whispered about a true murder. Layna hated that one and knew it was not, could not be, true. Still, on and on it went. The lightning speed of Trask’s gossip train left some wondering if, after putting the pieces together, Dillon wasn’t in fact responsible for the Lindbergh kidnapping. Stranger things have totally happened!
Layna believed none of it. Dillon was just special. Quiet, smart, very cute. Dillon’s looks and charm and bad boyishness did not go unnoticed. Almost every girl on campus noticed, and some boys, of course. But it was all of him—the things she knew, the things she learned, and yes, even the things she did not know but hoped to one day—that had attracted Layna during junior year when Dillon had transferred in. This was before Max, of course, a time her friends ridiculously referred to as Proto-Max.
“Are you all right?” Layna asked, looking Dillon over and brushing off his dark leather jacket.
“I’m fine,” he answered, standing up. He was tall. Taller than the others. Layna tried to hide the fact that she did not mind him looking into her dark eyes with his blues.
“I hope I didn’t hurt his man bun,” Max scoffed. Layna eyed him with a not now look. Max rolled his eyes. She knew he was sick of this. Sick of Dillon.
The others looked on with fascination at the love triangle. Layna was keenly aware that her friends knew she used to love Dillon, who was always slightly aloof in his love for her, who eventually fell out of love with him and into love with Max. Thankfully, Max loved her back more fully than Dillon ever did.
Max backed away, saying, “Fine, then the party’s over. At least for me.”
Layna stepped toward Max. “Max, stop.”
He did. But he didn’t turn around. She hated when he talked to her with his back. “If you want El Creepo to make it through senior year, you’re gonna have to make a choice.”
Layna just stared at him. The others stared at her. Alice whispered, “She must be answering him with her mind!”
Crosby laughed. Layna frowned, but she took some comfort when Nancy rolled her eyes and elbowed her boyfriend in the rib. No laughing. Check.
Everyone watched intently, not sure what was going to happen next.
No one expected it when Dillon grabbed Layna’s hand.
“Dude! Not. Cool,” Crosby offered.
Max turned around with enough time to see Dillon’s hand slink away from Layna’s. “What are you doing?” she snapped at Dillon. She ran to Max and put a hand on his shoulder. Slinking around to his front, she faced him.
“Him or me, Layna. I can’t play this game forever,” Max said.
“He’s just trying to get a rise out of you. And it’s working.” Layna knew it was a lie the moment it rolled off her tongue, so she wasn’t surprised when Max called her on it.
“No, Layn, you were helping him get a rise,” Max said.
Layna grimaced, wanting to scold Max for being so gauche in front of her—their—friends, especially Dillon. But she wasn’t fast enough.
Max sighed. “Him or me.” He kissed Layna on the forehead then stepped past her into the shadows, down the stairs, and toward the entrance doors. All she could do was watch him. She turned to the rest of the group. No one said a word.
“I didn’t ask him to do any of this,” Layna said. She looked at Dillon. “And you didn’t have to do that.”
“You didn’t have to let me,” Dillon answered quietly.
“It’s getting late,” Sydney offered, moving past Dillon without a glance. She grabbed Layna’s hand, and the two started toward the doors.
Crosby and Nancy followed. “Oops,” he said sarcastically, bumping into Dillon’s shoulder.
Alice rushed up behind Nancy. “Wait up!”
Alone on the stage, Dillon watched the group make its way toward the entrance. “See you tomorrow,” he yelled out. “And I’m sorry.”
Crosby, Nancy, and Alice exited as Sydney tried to coax Layna to leave. Layna didn’t budge. She wasn’t sure if Sydney understood, even as her friend walked away.
Layna knew Dillon could now see her only as a silhouette awash in moonlight. She watched him watch her. Her hair blew in a gust of wind that came through the open door. Fine dust particles rained down on Dillon. Were they anywhere else, Layna might have thought he looked angelic. Dillon shook his head, put it down, and then rubbed his eyes. Layna knew her time had come, that when he looked back to her, she would be gone.
She needed to be gone.
So she left. As the door closed behind her, she did not turn back. She wandered slowly toward Max, who waited for her. He always waited for her. That’s what he did. She grabbed his hand, and they followed the others back to the dorms.
But Layna knew Dillon was still on stage. She imagined him standing there, all alone, licking his wounds and staring with red, watery eyes at the ghost light.