Everywhere she looked there were cameras.
Their red lights blinked incessantly.
They never tired or missed anything.
She stood there in the near dark and looked from one to the other.
‘What do you want?’ she whispered under her breath. ‘Tell me what you want?’
Her voice was soon lost in the vastness of the empty college building.
‘Please, I need to know,’ she implored to the nothingness that was engulfing her.
She felt her anger rise but she knew the only thing she could do to hurt it was to walk away. They both knew she couldn’t do that.
‘What the hell do you want?’ she spun round. Facing first one camera then the other. ‘What do you want? Tell me, tell me, TELL ME!’
Her voice rose to a crescendo. Broken and cracked it echoed eerily in the emptiness.
The only answer was silence.
She collapsed against the wall and slid down it, tears of frustration welling up in her eyes. From the moment she had first walked into the building she had felt an affinity with it, a feeling they belonged together. She knew it wanted her. But she didn’t know why.
Other students had come and gone over the years, decades even and it had remained silent until she came. It was sentient, watchful, waiting for the right time to come.
It had come now.
It wanted her, needed her, she knew that for sure.
She knew the answers were here, hiding in the shadows, waiting for her……
Belvedere Mansion was over a century old. It was set on a small slightly swelling verdant rise miles from anywhere and was built to celebrate victory and the end of the American Civil War.
After that bloody betrothal America was confident and whole and the mansion was meant to signify that. It was a new beginning, a new life, and a statement that the future was coming and people should not be frightened of the shadows they cast. The past was left to fester, made bitter by its abrupt abandonment.
The mansion was built of stone mined locally but the labor was from another place. It was built, brick by brick, by freed slaves transported here to work on it, and here they died. Over fifty were buried in the grounds in an unmarked spot, now long abandoned to nature, its ideals gone too.
The mansion was originally the home of a carpet-bagging colonel, and then the fabled Mistress of Belvedere took up residence. They say her ghost walks the grounds after she drowned in the lake one Thanksgiving night. Whether her death was an accident or suicide no one knew. A ghostly bell was also said to toll to foretell a death.
The building had seen better days; once it was a beacon for miles around, a wasteful extravagance in times of hardship. A legacy to human folly while all about its walls poverty slaughtered indiscriminately. It was a place to see and be seen, to live and love far away from prying eyes. It had many guests over the years and some it welcomed and some it resented.
It was the home of beautiful boys and girls, the elite of society and creatures of the night. It had been other things too, a place of dread and pity, of fear and anger, of loneliness and bullying, of iron bars on its windows and chains that held people secure and well away from society
Since those far off days of glory the place had been given other names. An asylum for the criminally insane, a code breaking center in the Second World War, and its splendid isolation was put to good use when it was commandeered to confine people with contagious diseases. All had passed through its Greek style portico with its columns and ornamentation.
In the nineteen forties it had fallen into disrepair. The growing wealth and the baby boom brought it new life and now it housed about two hundred students, all mid to late teens. It was a place that had taken all it could in the past and now it was time to give something back.
Belvedere Mansion had changed into Belvedere College.
He liked to sit in the silence.
Once the West Wing echoed with the voices of youth and hope, exhilaration and excitement but mixed in with them was one of despair.
The wing was cursed, neglected, dirty and bedecked with cobwebs but once it was so different. He believed buildings lived and died as people did and the West Wing was killing Belvedere College. It was a darkness that was growing, encroaching, taking the light.
He was the only one who ever came here, he had the key, the only key and it never left him. There was work to be done. The pipes leaked, the old electric wiring was a fire hazard. The floor was rotted in areas and mirroring it part of the ceiling sagged. Every time he came more timber and plaster had fallen. He was meant to fix all these things but he can’t bring himself to.
He wanted it to stay the way it was. He couldn’t let himself change anything. The rotting wood and rusting iron furniture, the failing fittings, the floor scarred and scuffed, he left it all as it was.
After all, she might come back.
She fought to steady herself, remembering how nervous, frightened and thrilled she was the first time she had come here. It was a powerful mixture of emotions. She was seventeen and it was the first time she had been away from her parents, and this place would be her new home for the next two years.
Belvedere College rose above her. It drew her to it, its disheveled opulence gleaming like a tarnished jewel. The facade was fading to gray and being reclaimed by nature but its glory could still be seen in its lines and its setting in it magnificent grounds. It’s day was done, and she got the feeling it wished it was not so. It wanted to come alive again, just one more time.
There was a tear in the center of the building. The roofline was jagged and uneven, roughly filled in with fresh stone, stone measured in decades rather than centuries. The repair was needed when the bell tower had been hit by a lightning bolt sometime in the late nineteen sixties. The tower had been positioned dead center between the two wings and gave the building a majestic symmetry. When the bell and its tower had been beaten down by the elements Belvedere College lost that symmetry. Now it seemed unbalanced. The bell tower was gone, its bell too but it is said it rings to foretell of a death in the house, a ghostly peel in the dead of night.
Marnee had never heard it nor did she think she would she thought as she walked towards the college. She could see it brooding through the bare autumnal trees. It sat on a small rise with two wings each side of it. The West Wing and the East Wing. The West Wing was the one with most of its windows boarded up and bricked up doors too. That was out of bounds to the students.
The first time she saw it she knew she was meant to be here and those feelings persisted still. In front of her the mansion loomed, decaying but timeless. Inviting but forbidding. The large windows were black eye orbs, deep and mysterious. The columns at the front stood like straight sinuous veins.
They rose erect, thick and hard.
She looked up at them and slowly mounted the steps and stood in front of the heavy old doors.
Then she opened them and stepped through the portal into Belvedere College.
Mr. Oberforce stayed on the college campus over the holiday break. There was nowhere else for him to go; besides, he needed to be here. There wasn’t much work to do; everything was all automatic now. His main job was just checking the perimeter fences and making sure the buildings were secure. As he got older though he realized his main job was keeping warm.
He was the caretaker. It was easy work, work he was too qualified to do, work that was beneath him even but it wasn’t the work, it was the place.
Belvedere College was one of the best educational establishments money could buy. Select and discrete and taking mostly the brightest in the area but he knew from painful experience intelligence wasn’t wisdom, even the brightest people could do really stupid things.
Most of the college was locked up now for the Thanksgiving break. The lecture rooms, IT rooms, those were locked with just a handful of places left often for the few students who sometimes remained, this year there was only one. He’d seen her around every so often, thin and tall and stooped and angular, her face half hidden by her mousy brown hair and a heavy fringe. He’d called out to her once or twice but she seemed shy, that wasn’t the word he thought, she seemed unsure of herself socially, as if she feared too much social interaction, and to her it seemed hello on a blustery late November day was a step too far. He didn’t even know what she really looked like either, hidden under her hair and muffled up in her nondescript windproof clothes but she reminded him of someone. Someone special.
How did she feel being the only student here? He was on his own but he had his memories to keep him company, she wasn’t old enough to have any yet. She hadn’t done anything with her life; it was all in front of her, he hoped she’d make a better job of it than some others he’d known. She needed to survive, when you’re young you swing from one extreme to another, he saw it all around him and he saw what it led to.
Belvedere College was spread over a wide area. Almost in the middle of it was the large boating lake and the old wooden boathouse. He saw the teenagers go down there in summer. Boys and girls, hand in hand, laughing and giggling. And randy. It was the only place the cameras didn’t pry. They knew it too, in the olden days they didn’t do what they did now, and if they did, well, it had consequences. They grew up slower in those days and Mr. Oberforce thought that was the best way to grow, too much too soon and some people couldn’t handle it.
He’d been here since 1963, he needed to be here, it was close and he needed to feel that link to the past and the thread, however tenuous, that bound him to the place. He was the only one here too, everyone had gone away for Thanksgiving, all except the strange hunched girl, tall and thin, friendless and withdrawn and the counselor, Aiden something or other, Lord, how his memory was fading as he headed further into his eighties he thought. Part of him needed to remember and part of him needed to forget.
The days and nights came and went without change. It was lulling her she thought. The other two hundred pupils would be back when the Thanksgiving holiday ended. There were three more days to go, three more days of peace and silence.
Marnee Carter had a family. They didn’t want her. No one wanted her. That was her life in three sentences. Her parents’ were working things out and felt it best if their only child wasn’t around. No other pupils had invited her to spend the break with them, no one had taken pity on her and she was glad, she didn’t want their pity. She was an outsider, she knew that. She had been all her life.
She lay on her bed in the deserted dormitory and listened to the wind gathering strength outside. It was an autumn of storms, then there would be a lull then winter would set in. She didn’t mind being on her own, but she didn’t think about it too much. She knew she didn’t have the popularity gene, she was neither liked nor likable. A part of her wanted to be different but she knew whatever she was she would always want to be something else, that was the way she was wired.
At times like this she was exhausted by her mind, ever gnawing, ever questing. It never slept, even when her body did her mind didn’t. It worked in the night to think of more things to perplex her with. For a few glorious seconds when she awoke in the morning she could be anyone, be anywhere, the world was hers then reality intruded. She was seventeen year old Marnee Carter, the most unpopular girl at school.
And the only virgin.
For a nearly a week now she had lived in the huge rambling college virtually alone. The solitude didn’t bother her. It was strange seeing the old place empty. She had the run of it. Many of the rooms were locked of course but some weren’t. The music room was still open, a small staff kitchen. The restaurant too. The only place in the house she couldn’t get to was the West Wing, which was out of bounds to students anyway, sealed off. At night the other girls talked about it in hushed tones but not so hushed she couldn’t tell she was excluded from whatever secrets they were sharing.
The gym was open but she didn’t use it. She had a body but she didn’t know what it was capable of, she didn’t want to know. It was almost alien to her. Something her mind needed to get about. She had no use for her body and she was damn sure no one else had either.
She liked the silence most of all. She could hear things, music and movement, laughter and raised voices as if the old place had absorbed all the dreams of the young people it had housed and was slowly releasing them to those who cared to listen.
And she did listen.
Every waking moment.
And she was beginning to work out what it was saying to her.
Mr. and Mrs. Carter were indisposed. They were sorting things out and didn’t need her. Mr. and Mrs. Carter. The Carters’ and their only daughter Marnee. They cared about her, damn, they said it often enough but for Marnee it was all wrong. They neither cared nor nurtured; most of all they just didn’t understand her.
Their daughter was a mystery to them.
They cared about appearances, manners, and presentation; in other words it was a facade, a front to the world. No one would know anything was wrong until the blood seeped through the cracks in that facade.
“Show don’t tell” was Marnee’s mantra. Her parents’ were forever telling her and the world how much they cared and loved and cherished and supported.
They didn’t show it though.
The words that came and went so easily with no actions to back them up made up another facade so while Mr. and Mrs. Carter were sorting out their differences they had dumped her here for a couple of years. It perplexed her, could a lifetime of anger and rejection really be solved in so short a time?
Marnee wasn’t alone though. She had brought the girls with her from her previous school. Different names and different faces but the sneers were the same and so was the disdain. Would they follow her round all her life she wondered in her darker moments?
A brother or sister would be nice. She was alone. She always had been. She spoke to herself but to reply she had to become two people, then three, then four and more. All of them were hidden in a secret place deep inside her.
‘Hello,’ Aiden said as he stood by the empty chair at the side of the table where Marnee was seated. She had heard him approach in the huge empty restaurant but didn’t look round or acknowledge him in any way. She just sat slurping her bowl of soup. Ignoring him wasn’t a slight, she didn’t know what else to do. She expected to be ignored, she gave as she was given.
‘Is this seat taken?’ he asked.
‘No,’ she muttered, ‘neither are the other hundred or so other seats.’
‘Do you mind if I join you?’
Marnee kept her head down, her fringe covering her face. Aiden took her silence as her acceptance of his company, but even if she’d objected he didn’t think she’d show it.
‘Soup?’ he said when he was seated.
She nodded almost imperceptibly.
‘Easy to cook, easy to eat,’ he added cheerfully.
As he sat opposite her he sensed her closing in on herself, drawing away from him. She was suffering his company, not enjoying it. She wouldn’t let herself enjoy it. To suffer was much more preferable.
‘So your parents can’t have you this holiday?’
Again that slight movement of her head, eyes downcast, her body tight and tense.
‘And you’re coping? Here all alone?’
‘Huh huh,’ she said quietly.
‘You don’t mind being on your own?’
She shrugged, she either minded or didn’t mind. She wasn’t giving anything away. Perhaps she didn’t want to be weak, be seen to be lonely or acknowledge she was on the receiving end of a slight.
‘Not got cabin fever?’
A shake of the head.
‘A little stir crazy?’
Not even a shake of the head this time.
‘Only a few more days and the others will be back,’ he continued, she was listening but not engaging. ‘It must seen strange being in that huge dormitory on your own?’
This time another shrug. Another blast of wind rattled the windows.
‘Wet and wild,’ he said looking through the rain streaked restaurant windows. ‘Where I come from at this time of the year we’re usually under ten feet of snow by Thanksgiving.’
No comment, no movement, nothing Aiden thought as Marnee sat like a statue in her shapeless dark coat. Her hands were still at the side of her bowl, clean and graceful but the nails bitten to the red raw quick.
‘Your soup will get cold,’ he said. ‘On a day like this you need something warm inside.’
She ignored him and she ignored the soup.
‘If you need anything, need to chat…or anything like that…..’ he continued, deliberately leaving his offer open.
Marnee’s silence closed it.
He quickly finished his meal and rose, Marnee flinched as his chair scraped the floor. He muttered his goodbyes as pleasantly as he could then left her alone.
Aiden was the counselor at the college. He had been there for seven years. Even if he’d been there seventy years he still didn’t think he’d understand the teenage mind. It was still changing, evolving, creating, most of all creating. They were a work in progress, young minds, closed but impressionable, welcoming to some but to others a wall.
There were two hundred pupils here, half male and half female. Most of them he could connect with, others didn’t even acknowledge their own existence, let alone him. Some went further.
One of them was Marnee Carter.
She was the only girl left here over the Thanksgiving break. He usually stayed, at least for a few days, updating the records for the new term; some staff stayed too on occasion, the divorced, the ones without family ties or those who just didn’t care. There were usually two or three of the students who had to stay here because of various family issues. This year it was different and the only year he could remember when just one pupil had been left.
He saw her around college during term time. She was alone even in a crowd, friendless even in groups but in a way she had company, a notebook, music, taking walks outside huddled up in a dark shapeless quilted coat, the hood hiding her features. She was one of the teenagers he didn’t connect with. He’d tried but it was one way traffic, he got nothing from her in return. Either the past had damaged her so badly she had given up on life and people or she had her own rules to follow. It perplexed him.
She wasn’t broken spirited, not beaten and not weak but she seemed to be haunted. Many teens were, some showed it more than others did. They were haunted not just by the past but by the future too, haunted by the growing teenage realization that not all their dreams were going to come true. Like most seventeen-year-olds Marnee was in that strange borderland between childhood and adulthood. It could be a daunting place to be.
Some got trapped there all their lives like unquiet spirits, ghosts caught between real life and their life to be, a strange mixture of fantasy and fears. With a weary sigh he put it out of his mind, he had a date in town. Do the job and don’t let it do you. Marnee Carter and her problems would be waiting for him when he got back.
Midnight and Marnee lay in bed in the dormitory. Even after being here virtually on her own it was still strange being in the dormitory alone. She usually lay tense and rigid, hearing the other girls whispering and giggling. About her? Probably. Or about sex. Whatever was the order of the night she was always excluded from it.
At last she had fallen into a deep and dreamless sleep and then suddenly woken up with a start. She lay there for a few moments trying to work out what exactly had disturbed her sleep. She strained to hear anything in the dark silence of the college then it slowly came to her.
Bump bump bump.
A sound, faint but definitely there. Rhythmic, speeding up, becoming more intense, frenetic even. Then slowing down. Almost like someone having sex she thought guiltily. And if they were she shouldn’t be listening to them, perving them the other girls would call it. It was a private moment between lovers. She shied away from the thought and tried to shut her ears to it and when that didn’t work she tried to stop her mind processing what she was hearing but that didn’t work either.
But who could be having sex? Mr. Oberforce the caretaker? At his age? Aiden the counselor? She thought Aiden was away tonight at a dinner in town and wouldn’t return till morning.
Apart from that you need two people for sex and she was the only other person here. But maybe someone had sneaked in? It was possible she supposed. There was a fence around the grounds, lights, cameras but the guards were away.
She couldn’t hear voices; did people scream when they had sex? Shout out? Gasp? Orgasm even? Whatever an orgasm was. It wasn’t the sort of thing she discussed at home with her parents but she heard the other girls talking about sex in the dormitory at night, about what they’d done and what they wanted to do. About the guys they thought were hot, who had the best body and which ones had spent the most time and especially money on them. They would huddle round the beds of their leaders, a huddle Marnee was never invited to attend.
Bump bump bump.
There it was again.
It was almost inaudible but she could certainly hear it, sense it too. It was a rhythmic muted sound. She focused on it; maybe it wasn’t sex after all. It was a knocking noise, distant and muffled but definitely getting louder. Getting faster.
It was difficult to orientate the sound. The old building both magnified and distorted. It was full of overtones too. Strange resonances and reverberations hiding its true course. It could be a door banging somewhere, a window rattling, or even the garbage cans but as she lay there alone in bed a slow chill came over her as she realized where the sound was coming from.
It was right over her.
The next floor. Directly above her bed. It perplexed her. No one lived in the rooms above. That was the top floor.
It was deserted, empty.
Marnee lay there and concentrated, trying to get a mental picture of the layout of the college. Directly above her were the old lecture halls and wash rooms, along with some admin offices and common rooms. They were deserted. No one used them any more.
So why was the noise coming from there?
‘Do you do music class?’ Aiden asked but he knew the answer. She didn’t do music. Or sport. Or games. Or drama. Or debate.
Immediately he spoke Marnee stopped playing and stared at her hands with their bitten down nails resting on the keyboard. They were nice hands but for nails, her fingers long and elegant. He couldn’t see her face, her heavy mousy fringe hung down as it usually did. She was perched on the piano stool round shouldered, hunched, white knuckled, her long legs kinked. He had a strong feeling he had interrupted her and she strongly resented it, but she wouldn’t say so directly.
‘What were you playing?’ he asked, trying to gauge her tenseness. Nine out of ten he gave it. He knew she didn’t enjoy social interaction much and she was on the edge, flight or fight although Marnee didn’t fight, she just went deep into herself and toughed it out. She played the waiting game, waited until you got tired of trying to draw her out. He had all the time he needed though. They were the only two in the school and would be for a few more days yet.
‘So what was it?’ he asked again, crouching down beside the piano stool so he wouldn’t loom over her. She flinched slightly as he came closer, frightened by the proximity of another human and as he spoke her eyes closed tight shut momentarily as if she was fighting to control something inside.
‘Did you write it?’
Marnee didn’t answer. He knew she wouldn’t. To answer would be to acknowledge her existence. And in her mind if she existed she would be a target.
Aiden looked around the piano, he couldn’t see anything to help her, no music, no notes.
‘Were you playing it from memory?’
Almost imperceptibly she shook her head.
‘It was something you made up?’
Again she shook her head.
‘Almost,’ she whispered, head down, hands wringing in her lap.
‘Something you can hear in your head?’
‘Something I can hear in the house.’
‘The house?’ Aiden asked with a smile.
There was no reply.
‘You can hear music?’ he continued but he didn’t see how she could, Mr. Oberforce didn’t play the radio or TV and he didn’t, besides, his room was at the far end of the house, and there were no other people here. ‘What can you hear Marnee?’ he asked gently.
‘The house…. I can hear the house…’ she said falteringly. ‘Sounds…..’
‘And what sort of noise does the………………………
Before Aiden could finish his question Marnee jumped up and slammed the piano lid shut and rushed out of the room. He sat there in silence listening to the echo fade. It was just about the longest conversation he had ever had with her.
She usually spent her time trying to avoid the tall slim fleet footed Aiden. The silent assassin she thought of him, creeping up on her, ambushing her with his questions. She feared his intelligence, his oblique style of interrogation, asking her something and knowing her answer would tell him something else. She didn’t think she was stupid but she knew she wasn’t articulate or assertive enough to make her point. People like her weren’t. The words usually came out in a mad jumble, lies and truths all mixed together.
She had a feeling when she went into the music room there was a chance he’d come looking for her. His car was outside, sometimes he drive into town, he’d even offered her a lift a few times in the past, telling her she’d go stir crazy or get cabin fever stuck in this place on her own, college fever he added with a smile but the thought of being in a car with another person for the couple of hours it took to get to the nearest town and back terrified her. What would she talk about? What would they say? What would he ask? How much would she give away? Besides, she didn’t want to be away from the college for too long. She had it to herself, she wanted to enjoy it.
She had put a heavy book on the soft pedal as she played but she knew the music room wasn’t as soundproofed as it was meant to be. It needed money spent on it, as did the entire college. They charged enough but it was an old place. People didn’t care, the bell tower had gone, and the West Wing was a shell, the top floor unused. Maybe they thought it better if the entire place just fell down? It was unwanted and unloved, she knew the feeling.
She thought it was a waste the top floor wasn’t occupied. It was bright and airy, the windows let in more light, at least they would if most of them weren’t boarded up. It was the attic area set under the eaves of the old mansion. Too hot in summer and too cold in winter were the reasons usually given for its non use. It was reached through a door marked STAFF ONLY. The only person who had the key to that door was Mr. Oberforce. There was nothing there anyway. The bell tower was hit by a bolt of lightening in the late sixties too, another reason to avoid it, the top floor was unsafe structurally.
Sometimes, when she walked in the college grounds and looked towards the building she was sure she could see shadows flitting across the few remaining windows on the top floor, shapes in the emptiness, even pale faces looking out but if she’d mentioned it to the other people in the college they’d just dismiss it as a trick of the light, or even worse. Seeing things would make her even more of an outsider than she already was. It was a risk she daren’t take. To virginal, sexless, stupid and ignorant they would then be able to mad.
Mr. Oberforce made a fire. There was a rare high-pressure zone sitting above this area of the State. It wouldn’t last long and he wanted to make the best of it. The sky was cloudless, the weak low sun surprisingly warm. The November Furies as they called them round here had abated, no more than a respite, they’d be back lashing the college and saturating the ground afresh. The lake was already swollen, almost bursting its banks but the college, being on a slight rise was safe. It enemy came from above, not below.
He had some old chairs and benches to burn and old papers too. He piled up the chairs, breaking them easily and using them to hold the tatty papers in place. They were old yearbooks from the nineteen forties and fifties, the people in them were either dead or dying, no one had any use for them anymore. People and paper. In the past he would have taken them to the old boiler room to burn in the furnaces but those days had long since gone, now the power was piped in to them.
He made a neat and tidy pile and put on a little lighter fuel. Not too much in case it flared up. He stood back and tossed a match. Soon the fire was ablaze, the wood crackling and the smoke rising skyward like a column. Fire hypnotized, from the old Zoroastrians to modern man. Watching the flames devour the past he was lost in thought till he heard a car horn behind.
Aiden the counselor, the man fancying counselor he thought with a smile as he returned his cheery wave. It didn’t bother Mr. Oberforce which way he swung. The caretaker had served his country in the past and so had plenty of others whatever their persuasion. Moral judgments were dangerous anyway. You take as you find and Aiden had always treated him well, running a few shopping errands and checking up on him every so often.
He was a pleasant guy, a little fey, brown hair, a wispy beard and rimless spectacles, maybe his early thirties. He deceived. Mr. Oberforce had underestimated him at first, he was brighter than he looked and knew more about life than many his age.
But he didn’t know as much as Mr. Oberforce.
The rays of the low sun hit the dormitory window and Marnee shielded her eyes against the dazzling glare and looked out across the grounds. It was a place of long deep shadows and islands of brilliance.
In the far distance she saw two people, a woman and a man. They were running hand in hand, their laughter carrying to her. Young and carefree with their whole lives ahead of them and unconcerned about anything except their own needs. They were heading for the boathouse. She watched them enter, pausing only to kiss at the door. A passionate kiss. Deep. Their hands pawing each other in their urgency. Then they went inside.
She looked down at her notebook. Then out of the window. She hadn’t seen it, she’d written it. The page was covered in a jagged scrawl.
“The lovers go to the boathouse.”
With a snap she shut her notebook. Outside was different to what was inside.
All she saw were barren bare trees and the bruised sky threatening more storms.
He drove past the old gray haired caretaker engrossed in his fire and pulled up at the rear of the East Wing of the college. He went into his rooms and Marnee Carter replaced Mr. Oberforce in his thoughts. He seen her stood at the dormitory window, caught in the dazzling rays of the sun. He had been into the town, he’d asked if either wanted to come with him, both said no, nor did they want anything. When he’d asked Marnee a look of pure dread flashed across her features. She would be a different person if she opened up a little and started to trust people more. Sure, she’d get hurt, but from that pain would come experience. He made himself a coffee and took it over to his window seat and watched the smoke rising in the distance.
She was a strange girl. He’d spoken with her a few times so far. She was sullen and withdrawn, uncommunicative. He felt she had something to say but she just didn’t have to confidence to say it. She was a seventeen-year-old girl, sugar and spice and opinions on everything made them as well as all things nice. She was different though.
She was a loner, an outsider, by choice or was she driven to the edge of the pack? The clothes she wore didn’t signify any membership of any particular tribe as did most teenagers’ attire, rather the opposite. They told of someone who didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to be part of what ever was going off. Someone who didn’t belong, not because she had been rejected but she just didn’t want to take part, the rejection he sensed was on her part, others had fed it at first then she took it up and ran with it herself. She didn’t join in, didn’t have any friends, didn’t excel at anything but she wasn’t stupid. Her test results showed she was above average intelligence. But she held back, as if she didn’t want to stand out, didn’t want to be the center of attention, bizarrely, she was just that by her very demeanor.
She was a sensitive girl too although she did her best to hide it. She gave the impression she couldn’t be hurt, she was indifferent to pain. He thought it was an act. It usually was with teenagers but they hurt deeply and this was a girl who had been very badly hurt in the past and what he saw were her defense mechanisms to cope with it.
She was maybe over sensitive. She could do with relaxing a bit, chilling out. Getting some friends, maybe a special friend. She wasn’t unattractive, far from it. She was tall and slim but almost bent double; her posture was poor, nothing sport couldn’t fix or a little more movement but every time he saw her she was hunched up and scribbling things in a little notebook, lost to the world. He himself hated sport, he walked instead or he cycled when the weather was good. He’d also had a hard time of it at school twenty years ago when things were different and people far less tolerant. In some ways he saw a little of himself in Marnee, maybe that was why he cared so much. He was an outsider once.
She wasn’t an unattractive girl. She had a good strong face and blazing blue eyes but you rarely saw them, her fringe hung down, a curtain for her to hide behind. What you saw was the whole and the signals she gave out but those signals were all the wrong ones. Leave me alone, I’m a loser, no one loves me, no one wants me. They were all the signals he gave out in the past. It took him half his life to learn they were the wrong signals, he didn’t want Marnee to waste herself like that too. The change would come when she learned to love herself, and if she couldn’t do that, at least live with herself.
She was introverted though; it was what the psychology books called a “C type” personality summed up by three specific traits. Unemotional. Unassertive. Repressed. All the things they called him in his teens but he was none of those things, she was very locked into herself though.
He’d asked her at one of their meetings what was in the little book she scribbled in almost obsessively, she shrugged and muttered something, poems he thought she said. He’d asked to have a look at them; she hadn’t answered him so he left it.
She was a stable girl, her stability was her inertia, and it seemed she had found a rut and got into it. She was solitary. She was the only girl still here over the weeklong Thanksgiving break and she didn’t seem to mind.
He sometimes saw her in the restaurant eating a meal, he’d joined her once, and she’d hurriedly finished and left. Another time he had seen her sat in one of the common rooms writing, writing, always writing. As if she had a deadline to meet. He’d tried to approach her quietly and look over her shoulder. She’d sensed him and shut the book immediately. He didn’t see what she was writing. She didn’t turn around, her blue eyes blazing and ask why he was creeping up on her as most seventeen-year old girls would do; she just sunk more into herself, a strange mixture of guilt and acceptance.
It could all change, the next few weeks or the next few months, a few friends, a real interest, a few love bites even. There could be a different Marnee by the time the prom came round but he didn’t think she would change. She had too much pride for that. When people are bullied and ostracized, treated the way she’d been treated all they had left was their pride. He had found that out for himself too.
Her parents hadn’t wanted her this holiday period, why, he didn’t know. The principal had hinted their marriage was going through a rough patch. As a counselor it put him in an ambiguous position. He would prefer his students spent time with their family and loved ones but if her parents really were struggling to work their problems out it was perhaps best that their daughter, their only daughter, was well away from any collateral damage that may come her way.
Marnee was an only child. Mr. Oberforce the caretaker said she had it written all over her and she had. She stood on the edge, side on to groups, half turned away from the front, never in the center. She was stable though, not a threat to the school’s well being, nor was she on suicide watch. She didn’t volunteer to see him but all students met him in the course of a year at least once. That was the norm.
Many of them came from broken homes and broken families, it made for broken children too. He didn’t think Marnee was completely broken though, there was a core of inner strength to her, a willpower and a self-determination he thought, it was a pity she couldn’t involve herself more. He felt she had plenty to offer. She needed to get those social skills now or she would never get them. The window of opportunity was closing on her.
That would be a waste of a life.
Marnee was ugly and unwanted and she knew it, so did the other girls. The bullies had followed her here. Why they picked on her she didn’t know, did she have victim stamped on her like a price tag? She didn’t care anymore, but she needed to survive.
The boys didn’t bother, but they noticed her. Snide comments or sneers drifted in her wake as she moved past them, sideways, head down, fringe hiding her face, shapeless clothes her body. She tried to shrink herself as much as she could, slinking lower and lower till she was almost bent double. Less than them, lower than them. Below everyone. That was her place and she knew it.
She got flustered easily, then blushed and mumbled, said the first thing that came into her head or more usually what she thought they wanted her to say. She knew she hadn’t developed the social skills that others had, people like her didn’t have those opportunities. She knew others knew more said more and understood more than she did.
She aimed to the bottom too, the lowest level, she wanted to be on the bottom rung so she acted stupid or gullible, or unsure or halting. She never answered any question a tutor asked, never made a mark, and never wanted to stand out. Never got a star against her name. Never wanted to be someone when being a no one was preferable.
She hated having to deal with people, to talk to them, to look in to their eyes and see the rejection there. She avoided talking to anyone. If she did she would then spend the rest of the day and sometimes most of the night replaying the conversation over and over in her head. Each word, each nuance, each gesture. She couldn’t move on, she held on to everything that had been for fear of what was coming next.
Usually though people left her alone.
The only way she could survive was to go deep within herself.
And the deeper she went the more she discovered.
The ax whistled threw the air and with a crack slit the log. He’d seen her again. He looked out for her but it was important she didn’t know that, he didn’t want to spook her. If she thought she was being watched she would hide herself even more.
Was she the one? The one who would finally lay the past to rest? It was hard to say, her fringe covered her face, her clothes were shapeless and baggy but he saw something there. She was always pensive, seemingly preoccupied and deep in thought but it was more than that, she was lost in concentration as if she was hearing or seeing something no one else could. Sometimes she looked around startled, surprised even, and then her features fell back into repose.
She belonged here though; it was where she was meant to be. She embodied the spirit of the place, she was almost a ghost, and if she were a ghost she wouldn’t be alone. Other ghosts would keep her company.
When he’d first seen her he had a feeling she wasn’t real but she was flesh and blood, her breath misting and her steps heavy. It just goes to show you don’t have to be dead to be a ghost. She needed to come alive, to live, to do more than just exist.
He’d seen her walk past his house. Her step had faltered as if she was thinking about knocking on his door and coming in. He didn’t think she would though. She didn’t seem to want company, she gave the impression of being very self contained, as if she’d got all she wanted.
Impressions. At that age, how old was she? Seventeen or so? At that age impressions were everything. Aiden, the counselor, had mentioned she was something of a strange girl, bright and perceptive but unfocused, uninterested in things around her. He also said she wasn’t a popular girl, was that a bad thing? Perhaps being popular was just as bad as being unpopular. The popular ones had loyalties; they were likely to get pulled in all directions.
He lifted his ax one more time; there was another storm on the way. The November Furies weren’t done yet. He needed to be prepared for them.
The day was bitter, bright and biting. The wind seemed to swirl around her as she walked, sometimes stinging her face, sometimes in her back and almost propelling in its direction. She walked aimlessly; she had some thinking to do. Not about anything in particular, just thinking. She needed to keep her mind working, needed to keep it occupied. She always thought if she didn’t it would turn on her and start eating her from the inside out. She walked for the boringness of it, the repetitive nothingness that allowed her mind to wander.
She walked on automatic, not seeking any goal. One would find her, and in her mind it already had in the lull between the storms. As it spoke she listened. Sometimes when she lay in bed she could hear the earth scream, today it was more subdued. A mewling perhaps she thought and made a mental note to try to work that sentiment into her latest poem. She buried her life and her feelings in her poems and stories in her notebook. The counselor had tried to sneak a look, no chance.
Suddenly she stopped.
She had walked away from the college building down the two mile long drive that led to the entrance. The gates there announced the reason for its existence with “Belvedere College” arching from one gatepost to the other like a wrought iron rainbow.
In front of her was a small stone house, no more than a single storey lodge. In the few months she had been at the college she’d passed it plenty of times. This time though she saw it, really saw it instead of just regarding it.
The small house was the home of the college caretaker called Mr. Oberforce. In the past she had sometimes seen him looking at her. Again, really looking, not just regarding. He usually had something in his hand, lethal, hard edged. An ax, a saw, a claw hammer or something equally dangerous. He looked at her in a strange way, as if he knew her but didn’t know her. As if he was trying to place her someplace, as if she reminded him of someone.
He was at least in his eighties now according to Aiden and he looked it. His face had the weathered and lined contours of a man who had spent most of his working life outdoors. His eyes were gray she thought. Gray. Don’t they say most Wild West killers had gray eyes? He wasn’t tall but he was broad and fighting his age and stoop. He still had a full head of hair though, unkempt and unclean, a mass of steel gray, ragged and self cut at home in front of the bathroom mirror. She knew that because that was how she cut her own hair, trimming out the frizz and split ends and tidying up her fringe. Not out of vanity because she would not allow herself to be vain, she had precious little to be vain about in her eyes. A trip to the hairdressers would entail a level of intimacy that she would find hard to deal with, it would intrude into her space too much. Why paint a wreck, dress a ruin or pretty up a disaster?
She cut her own hair because she had to and because they expected it, society expected it. She saw it as another way to silence the other girls’ comments too but they commented on other things, girls being girls they always had the last word and found something else to mutter about her, always just in earshot, always just enough to hurt. She ignored them but they knew she wasn’t really indifferent, every barb left its mark on the plain stooped friendless girl who hid behind her fringe.
She knew she was hiding, her social skills were poor and seemed to be different to other peoples. When someone told her a joke she laughed in the wrong place or didn’t laugh at all. She just didn’t get them. Nor did she think people got her.
She had ample proof of that.
She had got far closer to the home of Mr. Oberforce than she realized. The place seemed warm and welcoming but would it welcome her, a permanent outsider? She walked up to the front door. The place seemed deserted. Mr. Oberforce wasn’t deaf; he would have heard her approach surely? In the distance she had heard the thump of an ax against wood, that must be where he was. She was filled with a need to know more, an impulsive feeling. He had tried to connect with her now it was her turn. Who was Mr. Oberforce? Why was he here? What did he do? What did he think? Where has he been? Why the hell did he keep looking at her?
The front door was asking too much of her so she moved to the rear of the small property. It was in shadowy semi darkness and edged with bare trees. She risked a peep through the windows. It was empty of people but full of ideas. One wall was lined with books, there was an old fashioned desktop computer too, a silver surfer? Mr. Oberforce didn’t give the impression of being a geek but she still needed to know more. There were photos too, on every inch of space and hanging on the walls, level and balanced, symmetrical even. A record of a life lived or unlived?
She put her hand on the catch of the rear door and it opened.
She walked in and what she saw took her breath away.
The day is done.
Mr. Oberforce headed back to his small house just visible in the fading light. Up above the sky was a bruised purple as the November Furies gathered their forces for another onslaught. He had piled up the wood and he’d leave it to mature and dry under some tarpaulin. Every so often he’d make a trip in his aging pick up to replenish his store. The college didn’t need it anymore; its power came from the cable strung over the valley. It didn’t even have its own generator as back up. An old one serviced the unused West Wing and that was it. If that cable over the valley ever came down the college could be left without power for who knows how long?
He was chilled and pleased he was nearing his home. Once there he would stoke up his stove and have his supper. After that a tumbler or two of good rye whiskey and then bed. He shouldered his ax and walked through the woods hoping to beat the approaching storm.
He knew there was someone in his house as soon as he got closer to it. He could see a shape through the window, transfixed and unmoving. More ghosts or was this one flesh and blood? It couldn’t be Aiden, he’d headed into the nearest town nor could it be anyone else. He’d hadn’t heard or seen any traffic on the road so it could only be one person in his house. It certainly wasn’t a ghost; they did exist but only in people’s minds. To be a ghost you needed to die first, not living wasn’t the same as not dying.
He stepped slow-footed on the sodden ground, careful not to announce his arrival. Marnee Carter was here and she was here for a reason. He wanted to know why. Had she heard what he’d heard, seen what he’d seen, and if she had did she think it was nature playing tricks on her or was there more to it? She hid herself well, behind her clothes, her fringe, her manner. But who was the real Marnee Carter? He rested his ax against the rear wall and stood in the open doorway for a few moments watching her as her eyes darted round the small book filled lounge.
Marnee spun round at the sound of Mr. Oberforce’s voice. He stood there, empty handed and bare headed. He wasn’t smiling and he wasn’t angry and he wasn’t surprised either, as if he half expected to meet her. The two words he spoke in a deep rasping voice made a statement, not a challenge.
‘I wasn’t doing anything…bad…or….anything. I was just looking at all your photos and the books…..You’ve got so many books,’ she listened to herself speak, her voice babbling and breathy, high pitched from a taut nervous throat.
‘I don’t mind, better if you knock first though,’ he said with a smile.
‘You …weren’t…here…’ she muttered.
‘In the wood,’ he said with a nod over his shoulder, ‘you should have come when I was in.’
She stood statue like. On the outside frozen but inside burning.
‘You like books?’ he asked her.
She nodded in reply, head down, fringe shaking.
‘You like to read?’
She nodded again.
‘You write too?’
The girl who didn’t do social interaction was floundering he thought. He looked at her for a few moments before he spoke again, ‘would you like to borrow some of them?’ he asked.
He regretted it immediately. She didn’t strike him as the sort of girl who responded to interrogation or was happy making a decision and he was right, the momentary eye contact she had made with him disappeared and her fringe fell over her face as she hunched up even more.
He stood facing her in the fading light, fighting against himself and the past.
It was a battle he lost.
He had to do it. He knew he shouldn’t. It was the first time he had touched another human in many years, a teenage girl in decades. He took a step towards her and gently put his hand under her fringe. She flinched as he lifted it away from her face. Momentarily she lifted her head; her gaze met his and her blue eyes flashed. There was a majesty of sorts in her features.
Then she was gone, brushing past him and out into the fallen gloom.
He couldn’t stop himself; he had to do it.
Would she forgive him where others hadn’t?
Just three more days to go Aiden thought as he looked at Marnee Carter heading up to her dormitory. Scurry would be the better word. She had her head down and was oblivious to the big spots of rain falling. He’d spoken as she passed; she’d both heard him and seen him but ignored him. It wasn’t malice or nastiness but a lack of sureness on her part that made her that way. People had called her in the past and she’d answered only to have them use that opening to belittle her. He knew those situations. They’d done it to him in the past and plenty of others too. It was part of growing up, but some only grew up when they learned to let go of what was holding them back.
There were two hundred pupils in the school, split evenly between male and female. It was the old five ninety and five principle. Five per cent succeed, five percent failed, and the other ninety? They got by.
Marnee was in the failure group, the unwanted, put upon, bullied and ostracized. They had failed to blend in, make connections, get on with people. Maybe they saw things through a different reference frame or something.
Certainly Marnee Carter was seeing something no one else was.
Every time he saw her she was pensive. Lost in her thoughts. The word that best described her was precipitous. She seemed to be on the edge of something. What that was he didn’t know but he knew teenage angst took some on strange journeys. Was Marnee on one too?
Mr. Oberforce had touched her. No man had ever done that before. No human had. His touch was gentle, considerate, as a father to a child. It meant nothing but it meant everything. As she flinched he gasped. What had he seen?
She sat on her bed in the deserted dormitory, notebook in hand but no words came. All the things she’d thought to write when she was out walking in the college grounds, all the things that seemed important had left her mind. In their place was a fuzziness, lines of thought that ended abruptly, ideas that simply refused to form. It was a jigsaw, jagged pieces, broken and misshapen, most of all, some of the pieces were still missing.
She got up and looked out of the window. In the distance she could see a weak light. The caretaker was still awake. Was he reading? He had so many books, on metaphysics and art, poetry and science. On space flight and advanced engineering. How come a mere caretaker had developed such a mind? How had he got such an education as to understand those books? They weren’t for show, he read them.
As she strained to see the weak light perhaps he wasn’t reading. He could just be sat in his chair looking at the pictures he had everywhere. Looking at them and imagining. Was he thinking about her as much as she was thinking about him or had he fallen into a restless sleep, fueled by memories and whiskey?
She turned to her bed, undressed quickly and slipped between the covers, another night’s undisturbed sleep but that would end in a couple of days. She would have to check her bed and her clothes, even all she owned. The other girls would be back then. She lay there, her thoughts drifting over the events of the day but still refusing to form up into any order and then suddenly it was dawn.
The sleep she thought would not come had taken her easily.
She had the shower to herself.
It was a luxury she had enjoyed these last few days. No girls were waiting to ambush her with wet towels or spitting mouths. She’d endured worse at their hands. Once her body caught her out and they mocked her dribbling blood and sneered at her virginity.
She made the best of her solitude and stood there soaping herself lost in her thoughts. They went nowhere, not least any place she directed them but instead they seemed to wander around her mind without any stimulus or prompting from her. Something was happening to her. She was changing, not on the outside, she was still bent hunched Marnee hiding behind her fringe, the change was on the inside.
For the first time she was becoming conscious of deep feelings stirring both in her body and in her mind. She wanted to sing and laugh, to dance and sparkle but she’d never done any of those things. She wasn’t sure she could. Her body too was alive. For the first time in her seventeen years she was conscious of longings, of desires, of things she’d never thought about before. She was also conscious of her deep deep loneliness. She was beginning to wake up, beginning to realize she was wasting her life, her mind and her body.
She forgot her nakedness, and got out of the shower cubicle and stood before the mirror. She turned first left then right. She took a deep breath and straightened her back. God! She had breasts. They stuck out! She had hips too, legs, long and thin and white but now they had an almost there shape. Slowly she lifted her head and brushed the fringe out of her eyes.
‘Hello Marnee Carter,’ she said, ‘pleased to meet you,’ she added softly.
It was a day that went nowhere. She had waited until she saw Aiden leave then went into the music room. She sat at the piano, closed her eyes and began to hum softly. The notes when they came jarred, the chords she played to accompany herself didn’t work, and they were the wrong chords. In the past harmonizing with herself was easy, now those same harmonies sounded wrong, out of place, out of tune. Music for another Marnee she thought in annoyance as she left the music room.
She went and sat in the deserted restaurant and took out her notebook. Today the music wouldn’t come and neither would the words, but words had come from somewhere.
“The bell tolls when there is going to be a death in the mansion….”
She had written that. But when? And why?
She had heard the girls in the dormitory talking at night about the bell tower, now long gone. It was hit by a bolt of lightning in the late nineteen sixties. A victim of the November Furies. It was said that it tolled when someone was about to die. She couldn’t remember writing it though. There it was in stark black and white on the page of her notebook. It was her writing too.
But why had she written it?
Especially as she didn’t believe it.
She stood there as the cracks in the ice came closer and closer.
‘DIE BITCH DIE BITCH DIE BITCH!’
The sound rose up, sharp and jagged, angry and mocking.
She could hear them all chanting from the shore of the lake as she moved towards the middle of it. As she did so she could feel the ice under her feet pulsing and flexing like an ice cold dance floor. It cracked and snapped, bullet shots that cut through the shouting from the people on the banks taunting her. She knew what they were trying to do. They were trying to kill her. Or make her kill herself. She looked at the baying mob, their faces pale and ghostly and beyond them rose Belvedere Mansion, its bell tower silhouetted against the full moon and the bell tolling solemnly.
She tried to get off the lake, each time she did they threw things at her. Cudgels, stones, knives, axes, anything they could find. Some hit her; others skittered over the ice. Escape was impossible she realized. She had no choice but to stay in the middle of the lake. She was right in the center where the ice was the thinnest. She looked again at the shoreline. The other students from the college were all there. She could see the hatred written all over them, contorting their sweet teenage faces into mocking gargoyles. She could see their disdain, she knew she repulsed them. She wasn’t one of them. She told herself she didn’t want to be but she did. Secretly. She wanted to whisper with them in the darkness of the dormitory when the lights were out, go to their parties and share their secrets but it could never be. She had no secrets to share with anyone.
The cracks in the ice widened and water began to seep through them like blood through a facade. She knew she was going to die in a few moments, a cold icy death, entombed in a frigid hell forever. This close to death her nakedness didn’t count anymore but she was perplexed. They were naked.
Embracing, cuddling, kissing.
Suddenly there was another crack and she started to fall………………
In an instant she was awake and immediately flung back the covers and jumped out of bed. She rushed to the window and looked out. There was no snow, no ice, no baying mob and no tolling bell. Nor was she naked.
She had dreamed it all.
Aiden had tried, really tried.
He had spent over an hour trying to talk to Marnee in the canteen. Usually she went immediately, this time she didn’t. She looked different, not as disconnected. She was tired and drawn, distracted even, as if something was on her mind. She kept sneaking quick glances at her notebook, reading and rereading something in it, trying to make sense of something she had buried inside her.
Conversations with her were usually stilted; she tended to say what she thought you wanted to hear. It was an escape route for her. She didn’t need to bother with you any more if she said what she thought you wanted to hear you would leave her alone. In other words she would reject you before you could reject her. It was a standard teenage ploy but for her it was more than a ploy, more a reason for being.
He knew she lied, not big lies, not lies to hurt or destroy but she seemed to have some problem separating lies from reality. The truth was what she made it out to be. In a sense she was a child in a young woman’s body, and that child would remain trapped unless she did something in the next few months, as he’d said to her before, that window of opportunity to get those social skills, that window was closing. He would give her till the spring and if she didn’t come out of her shell more, engage more, and make more of an effort then he would refer her to the college psychologist.
All things are fear, so what was Marnee frightened of? Rejection? Certainly, most teens are. But did it go deeper? Perhaps the answer was in the notebook she scribbled incessantly in, the same notebook she was desperate to make sure no one ever saw. The notebook she stared at as if willing the very words she had written to come to life and tell her their secrets, her secrets. That was another worry for him, her mind was beginning to feed on itself. She was a bright girl and if she couldn’t get the stimulus she needed, then she would invent it. Lies and reality could easily become fantasy.
She kept her notebook with her all the time so he couldn’t get it and read it. Would he? And as a counselor could he? It was an awkward moral question but the answer had to be yes, if it was beneficial to the student’s health and well being he would steal it and read it he reasoned as, with a sigh, he walked away from the table. Marnee had beaten him, she’d psyched him out by not interacting, an unnerving lack of eye contact and telling him just what he thought he wanted to hear then lapsing into a brooding resentful silence.
Thank God he’s gone Marnee thought as she opened her notebook and began to write again, three lines, that was all she’d written. She needed more, and she knew how to get more. She needed triggers, she needed experiences. She needed to tune in more, be aware of what was around her, she needed to get connected.
Marnee stood by the side of the lake. In the bright but low late autumn sun it seemed almost a magical place. Shadows moved on the light breeze and the sun rippled across it. She had dreamed it so differently, then it was entombed in ice, a bleak barren place held fast in the grip of winter, but what exactly had she dreamed?
‘Some said they drove her into the middle of the lake where the ice was thinnest.’
Marnee spun round. Mr. Oberforce was on the banking behind her, bareheaded, his long gray hair blowing around his face. His deep-set eyes watched her intently.
She took a deep breath to steady herself. ‘Some said that?’
Mr. Oberforce nodded.
‘And what did the others say?’ Marnee asked.
‘That she did it all herself.’
Marnee turned back to look at the lake, its waters deep and reflecting the sky, beautifully dangerous, or dangerously beautiful, she couldn’t decide.
‘The bell tolled,’ she said.
‘It’s long gone,’ Mr. Oberforce said with a nod back to the building, ‘came down in the late nineteen sixties. A lightning bolt.’
‘It tolled,’ she insisted quietly.
Mr. Oberforce nodded, ‘it tolled to signal a death.’
The old caretaker looked at the lake. ‘It happened over a century ago. They say she still lies at the bottom.’
‘There was ice?’
‘Winters were harder in those days, it was about this time of year.’
‘A bad month,’ he said quietly, eyes downcast.
‘Murder. Or suicide. Take your pick.’ Marnee said staring into the depths of the lake like a scryer trying to divine its secrets.
‘None can say, it happened so long ago.’
‘And her ghost walks the grounds,’ Marnee muttered.
Behind her Mr. Oberforce gave a small laugh. Marnee knew the story, the older girls terrified the younger ones with it, and they made them stand sentinel at the window in case she came for them. Then they stopped looking.
‘I don’t believe in ghosts,’ Marnee said.
‘Then what do you believe in? Spirits, the soul? A stolen memory?’
She stood there silently. At last she spoke.
‘Who was she?’
‘The Mistress of Belvedere Mansion as it was in those days.’
‘Of fame and fortune.’
‘And her life ended here?’
‘She died rich but lonely, childless and unloved.’
Marnee nodded, maybe there was a moral there.
‘There are other ghosts here too,’ he replied. ‘Have you seen them?’
Marnee shook her head, ‘I’ve heard them,’ she said quietly.
‘Do they speak to you?’
She nodded again.
‘What do they say?’
‘Sorry….’ Marnee said quietly and walked away. She didn’t like this place anymore.
Marnee threshed and turned in her bed, sweating and hot. She felt funny, sticky, drained even. She was more tired than when she had gone to bed. It was as if the bed had come alive, rubbing against her, fondling her, caressing her almost. The sheets felt like waves washing over her and every so often she surfaced for great gulps of air. Each breath seemed to get her higher and higher as well as a little dizzier.
She felt hands, fingers, touching her, going inside her. She was conscious of her breathing, ragged and panting. She moaned softly. Her thighs were glistening, grinding, gyrating. She was going somewhere she had never been before.
Then in a flash she was awake.
She sat up. The room was dark and the night air was sharp. The bed covers were in disarray, they were damp and there was a strange perfume in the air, almost animal in its intensity but very definitely human. She looked down; she could see the outline of her breasts through her t-shirt. Her nipples too. Her chest rose and fell rapidly. Her heartbeat seemed strange, too fast, and too unsteady. She had never felt this way before. There was a sheen on her skin, glowing in the weak light.
She tried to go back to sleep and started to arrange the bed covers around her, the covers were wet in some areas. She couldn’t understand what had happened tonight. She was tired but she also felt odd. She was on edge but strangely satisfied. She slowly corrected that illusion. Not satisfied. Almost satisfied. She lay there and was aware of her quivering body, it shook gently as if it was trying to tell her something but she didn’t know what.
Deep in her loins something had awoken and was begging her to take it on a magical journey to the other side. A place where passion rules, far away from life.
Once she dreamed of ice and loneliness, the cold and rejection, now she dreamed of hands, of people, of becoming something she wasn’t.
Yesterday he had seen her by the lake, pensive, lost in her thoughts. He’d even had a conversation with her till she’d run out of words or willpower and taken flight.
There was something about her; he’d noticed it when he caught her in his house. She sensed something too; the house was talking to her, calling out to her. And she could hear it. She was trying to control it, channel it.
She wrote about it, she played the piano too some days, as if she was trying to tune into it. She was the one, the one who would change everything, after all these years; at last someone had come who understood pain, who could connect with the past. Who could get justice.
He was as guilty as she was he thought with a rare flash of anger. She was transferring her feelings to the house and he was transferring his to her. They were almost mirrors, the old mansion mirroring Marnee and Marnee mirroring his anguish.
There was only one thing he wanted to say.
And that was sorry.
He wanted Marnee to be the voice that said it.
It was a late Sunday night and Marnee was lying in her bed listening to the wind, the portend of another gale. Then she heard something else. Other noises coming from the rooms above her, the empty rooms. The top floor. She was sure she wasn’t imagining them. It was getting into her mind, obsessing her and she knew she would have to find out the truth however hard it was. It could be something or it could be nothing. Her mind ran over all the likely things, it might be a trapped animal, or a broken windowpane or a slate off the roof.
She slowly got out of bed, and pulled her wrap around her. After carefully hiding her notebook under the mattress she stood trying to think what to do next and whether she was being silly. She went to the door of the dormitory and opened it. The noise was a little louder in the passage. A slow rhythmic bump bump bump. In the weak ambient light filtering in through the deserted college windows she stood and tried to work out what to do next. Shouldn’t she just go back to bed and forget about it?
She could but she knew it would not let her forget about it.
She went back into the dormitory and took a pair of small scissors from her bedside cabinet and went back into the corridor. The door to the top floor was at the end of it. She stood in front of it. STAFF ONLY it said in stark black block letters on a yellow background.
It was half-open. She had never known that before, usually it was tightly locked.
She stepped through it then stood there holding her breath. She looked up the stairs into the gloom. That was where the noises were coming from. Gripping the small scissors tightly she began to climb the narrow stairs. She flinched at the creaks and stopped more than once to steady herself and reign in her nerves. And her imagination. What was she expecting to find at the top of the house on that deserted floor? She didn’t know but she was prepared for anything.
She had never been up here before and was surprised at how dark and shadowy it was, it seemed to be blacker than the night. Every so often weak headlights from the distant highway glanced off the windows of the old house; a house built in the days when a horse and cart was the norm. The lights coned over the walls and ceiling then went as silently as they had come.
At the top of the stairs she paused. She was in a long corridor. There was dust lying thick on the floor, bits of stone, even timber. All of it from the repairs to the roof where the bell tower had come down. The air was fresh, as it if circulated freely.
Then she heard it!
A whispering sound. Slight at first then getting louder and louder. She spun right and left but it seemed to be all around her and getting closer!
Suddenly she was in the middle of a storm. She felt shapes flitting by her, touching her. Rustlings and whisperings. She heard the beat of hundreds of tiny wings.
She flailed and stepped back, her breath coming in pained pants. She felt things against her face and hands, tiny bodies, soft and warm. She stamped her feet and waved her arms more wildly. It seemed to drive them into a frenzy. They got caught in her hair and clothes. Semi silent squeaks and squeals. Soon the room was alive with the beat of their tiny wings as more of them came from the shadows. Every way she turned they followed her. She tried to find the stairs again but couldn’t. Her face was covered in a soft velvet mask. She inhaled a dirty musty smell as she fell to the floor fighting for every breath, rasping and retching, her lungs burning. Behind her tightly shut eyes she saw strange colors and shapes then felt herself losing her grip. She fought against it, fought to keep level.
Then suddenly it was silent.
They had all gone.
She stood up unsteadily, groping for the dropped scissors and found them. This was all going wrong she told herself, she needed to calm down and keep her focus. She stood there for a few moments, the bats had gone back to their roosts under the eaves, hanging upside down, huddled, like a growth on the house, their droppings rank and vile smelling.
She moved away from them and along the wide corridor. There were four doors, two each side. Lecture halls she thought. She took a first step, then a second. Then she stiffened. There it was again. Bump bump bump. The sound seemed to be all around her. Muted and not exactly threatening but perplexing. She stood stock still, straining to focus in on the sound. It echoed in the emptiness of the top floor, reverberating from the hard stone and exposed beams with nothing to damp it.
She would have to try all the doors, one by one. But then she was struck cold by a thought that had been lurking in her mind. Suppose someone was in one of the rooms?
And suppose they were having sex?
She shivered as much in fear as anticipation.
Bump bump bump.
Slowly she went up to the first door and gently put her ear to it. She was sure the noise was coming from there but as she listened it seemed to fade and then came from the door opposite. She tiptoed over to it and put her ear against that. This time the noise stopped immediately. She did the same to the next door with the same result. She stood in the corridor holding her breath.
One more door to go.
The noise was getting faster, more energetic. It sounded like sex. It sounded like what she thought sex would sound like. As she listened at the last door the noise didn’t stop, in fact it seemed to intensify. Gently she put her hand on the handle of the door and slowly turned it. The door held firm.
Bump bump bump.
It seemed to get wilder now, more passionate even. As Marnee stood there her skin prickled and her breath caught in her throat. Suddenly there was a gasp. A small scream, barely audible.
Bump bump bump.
She leaned against the door and pushed. Still it held. Was it stuck fast by years of neglect or barred from the other side?
Bump bump bump.
She could hear proper noises now, breathing, muted cries. Rasping breath, a gurgling sound, and urgent moans.
Bump bump bump.
The sound was certainly coming from in there. She pushed against the door harder, harder. Still it held.
Taking a step back from the door she readied herself. It was now or never.
Bump bump bump.
She threw herself at the door and it burst open. The scissors flew from her hand. She stumbled into the room.
Stood in the middle of the room was Mr. Oberforce. He was as still as a statue. His face was aged and lined, pale in the weak light filtering in through the dirty rain streaked windows. His eyes were unblinking, staring. The expression was frozen on his features. It was one of anger and pity.
Slowly Marnee got over her shock and approached him.
‘Mr. Oberforce? Mr. Oberforce? Are you OK?’ she said, her voice sounding odd in the empty room.
He said nothing but continued to stare. Marnee followed his gaze. He looked nowhere though, except into the distance and to something only he could see.
Bump bump bump.
There was nothing in the room, once it was a washroom. Now it was empty. There was nothing to see but the old man had seen something.
Marnee turned right then left, then around her the room began to tilt. She took a deep breath, then another, then another. Lungful after lungful of chilled night air hit her senses hard and started to get her high on the oxygen overload.
She struggled to steady herself and looked through the dirty windows. The moon and stars began to dance; all around the shapes began to sway. The ceiling seemed to rush up at her. Then recede, then rush at her again. The floor too came towards her then blurred and faded.
She closed her eyes and fought to keep control, teetering on the edge. Fighting not to fall. She was conscious of pain and anger.
She was conscious of something else too.
When she at last opened her eyes the spell was broken and she looked around the room. It was now empty. Mr. Oberforce had gone! She stood there, shivering in her clothes and the cold air all around her. She was wiser now though, wiser than when she had first come in the room.
She knew what that sound was now. Bump bump bump. The way the walls rushed up to her then receded. The way the world seemed to sway in and out of focus. It was a pendulum. A human pendulum.
Bump bump bump.
It was the sound of someone swinging on the end of a rope.
Then she was conscious of something else.
She rushed up to the door. It was locked. She began to bang frantically on it.
Behind her the storm rattled the weathered windows as it grew in power and intensity. The building seemed to shake, dislodging small flurries of plaster. In the distance the thunder rumbled as the November Furies approached Belvedere.
She was conscious of a voice, a cool hand on her forehead, a bright light. Heaviness and warmth. Safety. Surrender.
That voice again.
It echoed in her mind, she was Marnee, someone was calling her. Someone from far away, but why were they calling her? No one wanted her, why did they?
The thought unraveled.
There was a room. On the top floor. Mr. Oberforce was in there. Someone was swinging on the end of a rope, their clothes rustling and the drip of body fluids. A broken window. She knew who it was. She knew who had killed themselves.
Bump bump bump.
Suddenly she sat bolt upright.
‘Marnee, it’s alright,’ Aiden said reassuringly.
‘Where am I?’ she said, struggling to focus on the room. She wasn’t in her own bed in the dormitory. This place was cozy, bright, warm, friendly even, while outside the storm raged.
‘In my apartment.’
Your apartment?’ she said, fighting the confusion. ‘How did I get here?’
‘I brought you.’
‘I was upstairs. The top floor,’ she said slowly.
‘You shouldn’t have been there, it’s out of bounds to students.’
‘I was there though,’ she said screwing up her eyes in concentration and trying desperately to catch the fleeting images rushing through her mind. ‘But why am I here?’
‘You blacked out.’
‘I did?’ she said, trying to remember.
‘I heard noises up there, I went up to investigate and found you.’
‘You brought me down?’
‘You fainted…or something.’
‘I can’t remember,’ she said haltingly. ‘The top floor?’
‘What made you go up there?’
‘I heard something, noises, coming from there.’
‘You couldn’t have, that floor is deserted. It’s not safe either.’
‘I heard them,’ she insisted. ‘Noises, slow, rhythmic.’
‘Just the storm. That’s all you heard.’
She shook her head. ‘I saw Mr. Oberforce up there.’
Aiden stared at her. ‘Are you sure?’
‘I saw him.’
‘It was a trick of the light.’
She shook her head wearily, ‘no it wasn’t. I saw him.’
‘No, Marnee, you didn’t.’
‘But I saw him!’ she insisted.
‘You must have been mistaken.’
‘Why won’t you believe me?’
‘Try to rest Marnee.’
‘Why won’t anyone ever believe me?’ she said weakly as she slowly lay back down. She closed her eyes and tried to remember. It came back to her in fragments.
‘The top floor, the floor that isn’t used…..Someone killed themselves. They swung. To and fro. Like a pendulum.’
‘Please Marnee, try not to think about it,’ Aiden said soothingly, ‘I’m going to get a doctor.’
‘You don’t believe me?’
‘Try to rest Marnee, you’re upset.’
‘You think I’m mistaken don’t you? You think I’m making it all up?’
‘I’m going to get a doctor.’
‘I don’t need one,’ she said angrily as she tried to rise again. She gave up the battle and collapsed back down with a heavy sigh. ‘What happened?’
‘You blacked out.’
‘I blacked out?’
‘I found you on the top floor, in one of the old washrooms.’
‘I don’t remember going up there, but I must have done,’ she said, still confused by the night’s events.
‘You were trapped in one of the rooms.’
‘You couldn’t get out, you banged on the door. It had jammed shut. When I got to you you’d passed out.’
‘No….I couldn’t have done….’
‘Passed out, fainted or something.’
‘I hurt my head,’ she said as she tenderly touched a small lump on her scalp.
‘You maybe did it when you fell?’
‘You must have, I found you on the floor.’
Marnee shook her head, ‘are you sure?’
‘I carried you down to here.’
‘Thank you,’ she said weakly.
‘A doctor?’ Aiden suggested kindly.
‘No,’ Marnee muttered with a shake of her head that made the room spin.
‘Are you sure?’
‘I don’t need one.’
‘You blacked out, lost consciousness.’
‘I don’t want a doctor,’ she repeated then her tone softened, ‘thank you Aiden, but please… I don’t want one.’
‘You took a bump on the head….’
‘It’s nothing,’ she said as she settled back down and Aiden rearranged the cover over her.
‘I don’t want you to get cold,’ he said.
Marnee smiled her thanks.
Outside the storm was in full force now, the wind howling, the lighting flashing and the crashes of thunder making them both jump.
‘Why did you go up to the top floor Marnee?’ Aiden asked in a lull. ‘You said you heard something?’
‘I heard noises,’ Marnee said after a long pause.
‘What sort of noises?’ he asked.
‘Rhythmic, swinging, like a pendulum,’ she replied.
‘Bump, bump, bump,’ she closed her eyes in concentration, ‘and I heard screams, then someone struggling for breath.’
‘It was nothing, just the wind or something like that.’
‘The wind doesn’t scream Aiden.’ Marnee said quietly but pointedly. ‘And I know what it was.’
‘Go to sleep Marnee, if you won’t let me get a doctor, try to get some rest,’ he said reassuringly.
Marnee ignored him and continued speaking. ‘I know what that sound was, it was the sound of someone swinging on the end of a rope. The person who killed themselves did it in that room, on the top floor. That’s why we don’t use it anymore.’
‘The floor is unsafe, the bell tower came down, it damaged it, that’s why we don’t use it anymore.’
She shook her head and screwed up her eyes, why did no one ever believe her?
‘No one killed themselves Marnee,’ Aiden added quietly.
‘They did. And I know who it was.’
‘No you don’t because nothing ever happened.’
They fell silent in the face of the ever growing storm; Aiden had a feeling Marnee was suffering from the bump on her head, perhaps concussion or something similar. He’d again suggested a check up at the local hospital but she had said no. He suspected it was because trips to doctors and hospitals would requite a level of social interaction she wasn’t comfortable with. It wasn’t life threatening but she could sleep here the night, besides, he didn’t want her wandering round the old college anymore.
It wasn’t safe, not for her, not for anyone.
The storm had passed when Marnee woke. It was dawn. All was quiet. Aiden was sat in a chair across from her, fast asleep, gently snoring, gently drooling and with his rimless glasses awry. She eased herself from under the cover and hunted round for her boots. Aiden had tucked them under the small camp bed she was lying on and after putting them on she slipped quietly out of the door and back to the dormitory.
Two nights left then the Thanksgiving break would be over and the other pupils would be back. She knew by then it didn’t matter. She had begun to realize what the building was trying to tell her.
As she lay on her bed in the dormitory she heard a door slam and a car start, and then its engine receded. That was Aiden, but where was he going? Town she guessed. She didn’t want to face him today, not while the events of last night were still fresh in her mind.
She guessed he felt the same way.
She spent most the day wandering round the deserted college, writing, thinking and waiting for the next of the November Furies to hit. She was trying to work on a poem but she had written nothing of any importance, the words were as silent as a shroud, the ideas too deep to surface from her subconscious. All she had written made no sense.
She knew it would do soon though, very soon.
Outside the world was glistening, the rain had cleansed as it passed on its journey. Marnee left by the rear entrance and walked in a wide loop though the grounds. All was quiet, the wind too had abated but she knew it was just an interlude. The ground underfoot was sodden, her steps squelching as she walked. She knew today would be different for two reasons.
The first was Mr. Oberforce. She had seen him in the room on the top floor no matter what Aiden said. The door was open and only he had the key. But why was he there? She stood and looked up at the college from a distance, the crooked roof, the missing bell tower, and the dirty windows of the unused top floor. She had been there, and so too had the caretaker.
Sher carried on walking, lost in her thoughts till she stopped suddenly.
It took her a few moments to work out why.
She could hear music. It was coming from the college. A rhythmic pulse, young, energetic. Life giving. A celebration of youth and vitality. She retraced her steps. Through the trees she could see the building wreathed in early evening mist. Her eyes were drawn to the old West Wing. It was abandoned and semi derelict but that was where the music was coming from!
As she got closer she could see lights on inside it. Through the windows streamers and balloons hung up outside. She walked towards it, drawn to it, oblivious to anything else. How could there be lights on in there she thought?
She stared at them, they began to dazzle her then suddenly they were coming towards her. She stood there rooted to the spot as they came closer, blinding, hypnotic, transfixing her, filling her mind. The light was all around her.
Just at the last moment Aiden swerved.
He had just come round the bend in the drive and Marnee was stood in the middle of the road, hidden by the trees till he was almost on her. He skidded round her, but still she remained immobile. Staring but her eyes unseeing.
He slewed to a halt and made to get out of the car then suddenly she snapped out of it, whatever spell was holding her was broken as she suddenly shook her head, looked around her in surprise, saw Aiden, then she walked quickly back to the college.
Aiden drove on, perplexed by another strange interlude.
Marnee went back into the school and straight up to the dormitory and lay on her bed and pulled the covers over her. Aiden. His car. He had nearly hit her, but why was she standing in the middle of the drive? She didn’t know, something, some reason, but whatever it was hung on the edges of her mind and she was unable to entice it forward.
She was too tired to even kick off her sodden boots. She just lay there, her mind racing but an icy hand suddenly gripped her. She thought about what she had just done and her blood ran cold. She had come into the dormitory and lay down on her bed.
Come into the dormitory and lay down on her bed.
She replayed that action over and over again in her mind.
Come into the dormitory and lay down on her bed.
Come into the dormitory.
The dormitory door was open.
The door to the dormitory was open.
The door was open.
It wasn’t when she left; she knew that for a fact. She always shut it to keep what heat there was in. It used to have a spring on the top of the door that closed it automatically but one of the girls had broken it and it had never been repaired, so now it had to be closed by hand. She always closed it when she left, always. She had done it every single night she spent alone here. Had familiarity made her careless and this time she had forgotten to close it?
No. She was sure she’d shut it.
So why was it open she thought?
She was sure she’d shut it when she left.
She lay there too tense to move. Had she walked right into a trap?
Slowly she sat up and looked around her. Then she saw it. On the cabinet at the side of her bed.
It was a key.
Slowly she picked it up.
Was it the key to her heart? The key to a magic box? The key to a secret place? Who left it? Aiden? He’d been in town most of the day. Mr. Oberforce? He was away as well.
As she held the still warm key in her palm she knew what it was for.
She knew the door it would open.
That night Marnee lay on her bed trying to work out what was happening. Not just to her but to the building too. It seemed alive but locked in time, as if it was trying to escape its bounds. The day was short, it had never really got light and now the wind was howling around the building as the November Furies made another visit.
With a heavy sigh she read what she’d written earlier on. It was her new poem, a dramatic epic set in a desolate ice bound kingdom where the sea met the sky and merged. She had the first few lines and no more. As she lay there concentrating and chewing the top of her pen she hissed in annoyance. The strip light above her flickered. The last thing she wanted was a power outage.
She huddled deeper under the bed covers as the thunder and lightning began to rage outside. The Furies of November had returned with a vengeance, the late fall storms were the worst they said in these parts. She lay there thinking of her poem, the place it was set in and the people who moved through her imagination to populate this new world.
In time the storm abated, its fury now no more than a whimper but it had left her wired and edgy. Feeling restless, she got up and went to look out of the dormitory window. Night mist rose from the dark slicked stonework and paving making ethereal patterns, almost spectral, as they weaved around the old building. The air was still electric and in the distance the dark forbidding sky lit up with lightning flashes. The storm had found some other people to terrify she thought. It terrified her, the noise, the sudden light then dark, the silence then the thunderclaps. The way the sound and visions disoriented her.
She peered into the gloom and the mist parted momentarily. In the distance she could see the lake. And the boathouse. Suddenly she was aware of how cold she was, frigid she thought but didn’t want to think. She had been to that same lake in her dreams, and then it was a snow bound wilderness, ice on the lake and a baying mob on the shoreline to see that justice was done.
The lake was shimmering eerily in the moonlight. It looked odd, the shadows and reflections giving it a strange shape, making it swell, so it looked almost, she searched for the word but knew what it was all along, the lake seemed pregnant.
She had dreamed about it. The mistress and her murder, or suicide. It was a bitter barren hoarish night when the mistress walked in to the middle of the lake, testing her and providence. Both failed her in that icy cold world of a century ago.
She looked again at the lake; she both feared it but was also drawn to it. She knew water was sacred, a place where life was ever moving and ever changing. Beside it was the boathouse, a dark shape in the gray gloom. It was a place of shadows and spirits of lovers long gone, at least until summer returned and with the hot sun their rising passions would again come to the fore but tonight it was a very different world.
The boathouse was a long wooden building set on the side of the lake. It had a jetty that led into it. The rain swollen lake itself seemed alive, sentient, watchful even, she thought with a shudder. Lights from rising stars flickered, reflected on the surface of the lake then they passed as if they had never been, tiny bursts of energy that existed for a mere millisecond. Shapes suddenly appeared out of its fathomless depths. They seemed to beckon her and then they too were gone in an instant.
The boathouse seemed odd, out of balance, as if it had been tilted away from reality. Familiar places looked strange in the misty conditions, reflecting and distorting. It was like being in a place of a thousand frames, but none of which showed her the true story.
Suddenly with a jump she saw herself but didn’t see herself. She couldn’t recognize her reflection in the rain streaked windows of the dormitory. She was pale faced and ghostly, as if her flesh and bones had been left in her warm bed and just her spirit had moved to regard this semi sacred semi profane place of sex and death. It was like been in two places at once, two times zones, two people almost and both having the same experiences but processing it differently.
It was a strange place, a place of shadows and spirits with faces and shapes suddenly appearing out of nowhere in the after storm mist that lingered in the hollows and attached itself to the trees and structures. They loomed in front of her momentarily then disappeared back into the gloom. Above her the sky seemed endless and like the lake, watchful.
The deep lying mist deadened sound but there would be nothing to hear she told herself, no writhing bodies tonight, no lovers entwined, no fast teenage heartbeats. Except hers she wished, and wished again on a star that peeped through the deep sky that seemed to mirror the land beneath.
The boathouse was the only place on the entire campus that the security cameras didn’t cover. The other kids at the school knew that too. They went there. Two by two.
They had sex.
She knew that because when she had first arrived a few months earlier she had sneaked down there one sultry evening and listened at the old wooden walls of the boathouse. She heard them grunting and puffing, swearing and moaning, their breaths like a sharp summer storm as they threshed about. She had heard flesh slap against flesh, bodies and breathless motion. Then she saw the girls, beautiful angels with a sheen on their bodies and a glow about them. Their sex halo. An awakened aura that meant they’d just got laid. They had crossed to the other side.
She looked round trying to imagine dates here, deflowering dates, desperate dates for those who hated their clean untouched state. They slipped out of the shadows and her conscious mind and then slipped back in again as if playing a game with her. Part of her rejoiced for them, another part of her despised them.
As Marnee stood there transfixed by the scene playing out in her mind she was aware of something else. In the distance the perimeter lights were flickering on and off, the November Furies had been threatening power cuts for the last few days and now they’d made good their promise. The lights in the dormitory flickered and faded too and then finally died.
The darkness grew, the nothingness enveloping her but then something intruded. From somewhere she heard a phone ring, shrill and incessant. She walked across the dormitory and out into the corridor; the sound was coming from downstairs.
She slipped back in her room, sat on her bed and put her boots on. After carefully hiding her notebook under the mattress she went down the stairs into the reception area. The ringing phone was on the desk, a red light flashing urgently on it and punctuating the dark. She stood and looked at it. Should she answer it? Perhaps it might be important but she didn’t want to answer it, she didn’t like taking messages. She felt she couldn’t ignore it though.
Slowly she picked the phone up and put it to her ear.
No voice, no sound, nothing.
She put it down with a shrug but immediately it rang again and again she picked it up. There was no one on the line, no one calling, just an emptiness, a void. A nothingness that seemed to say more than words ever could. A nothingness that chilled her.
With a deep shudder she replaced the phone slowly and it rang the moment it hit its cradle. She didn’t want to answer it this time. She backed away from it and after a few moments it stopped ringing. She breathed a sigh of relief but it was interrupted by another phone ringing, this time in the small back office behind the reception desk.
She stood there trying to decide what to do. That area was out of bounds to students, but it might be important, perhaps the other phone had a fault? She slipped into the small office and tried the light switch. The power was still down. She moved over to the desk and picked up the ringing phone.
‘Hello?’ she said tremulously, ‘hello?’
There was no reply, just that deep penetrating silence.
Slowly she sat in the seat behind the desk with the phone still in her hand trying to work out what to do. She knew that if she put the phone back it would ring again. Could one of the students be playing a joke on her? She didn’t think so, could it be Mr. Oberforce or Aiden trying to contact her? She couldn’t think of a reason that they would, both were away. She suddenly chilled as she realized something.
The call could be from the college.
She stood up and looked out of the small window, the perimeter lights were all off now. She knew the place was secure, but a thought crossed her mind. Was the perimeter fence to keep people out?
Or keep her in?
All of this meant something but as she was trying to sort out her thoughts she was interrupted by something hard and throbbing, incessant.
The intruder alarm had gone off.
Somebody had got in!
The alarm wailed, a cross between a scream and a siren. She flinched from the sound and covered her ears. She hurtled out of the room and past the reception desk and ran blindly, on instinct. Her feet echoed, slapping on the hard floor.
She went past the locked sport hall and into the music room. At the back there was a small stage hidden behind a heavy drop cloth. She headed for it and squeezed herself in and crouched low between the two pianos, instrument cases, music stands and bits of left over scenery.
In a chink in the heavy curtain she watched the door. She held her breath, her body tense. No one came and she heard nothing over the sound of the intruder alarm.
Silently she counted to a hundred then started to ease herself out of her hiding place. As she slipped between the folds of the curtain the music room suddenly reverberated to a crashing noise. A chord, a dozen chords. All playing at once. She threw herself down from the small stage, rolled over and rushed out of the room!
She headed down the deserted darkened corridors till she got to the showers. It would be the best place to hide she thought as she crouched down in one of the shower cubicles. Apart from the alarm she heard nothing except the distant discordant echo from the music room. Had she dislodged something? Knocked something over in her nervous haste?
She could hide here; it was the female student wash rooms. She had a good view of the door from under the shower cubicle screen but no one could see her. She was wired, every sense straining. Then she heard it. It was a low noise, a rhythmic pulse.
He was coming closer!
She huddled down in the shower cubicle, trying to make herself as small as she could. The sound grew. She held her breath. There was doubt about it. He was close to her.
She leaned forwards to take a quick look under the shower screen as the noise intensified. There was no one there. But she could definitely hear something, someone.
Then she slowly looked up……..
Marnee screamed as the icy jet of water hit her full in the face.
She scrambled out of the way. She couldn’t stay here so she ran out of the shower room, the water like muddy pools in the half dark. If there was someone in the building she needed to get to someplace secure, somewhere she could lock and hide, at least until help arrived. She could only think of one place, the security center.
It would be deserted, the security staff was on holiday but it was almost like a panic room. It was deep in the basement. She ran as fast as she could down the dark corridors, throwing herself round corners and then stopping to listen, her senses primed. She couldn’t hear anyone, but the alarm was still screeching, rhythmic, incessant, penetrating. Hurting.
She headed towards the security suite, the corridor to it was long and angled down slightly. Even as she ran down it she realized it was a dead end but she should be safe in the room. At least until help came. Suddenly she came to the end of the corridor and almost collided with the door and her heart sank. In the half-light she could see it had a keypad on it. She didn’t know the code. In despair she looked around for somewhere to run. There was nowhere.
She was in a dead end.
She looked at the keypad, could she guess it? Ten digits? How many million combinations of those could there be? What if she got it wrong? With rising desperation her fingers hit the keypad as she leaned on the door. She hit the numbers time and time again. Her breath coming in ragged pants as she swore and cursed. Tears of frustration began to well up in her eyes.
Suddenly without warning the door opened and she stumbled into the room!
Maybe it wasn’t locked in the first place Marnee thought as she slammed the door shut, hit the lock then took a deep breath and looked around her. There wasn’t much to see in the security center except a bank of small black and white monitors with the feed from the TV cameras playing on them. She stared at them intently. They covered the grounds and the building. The only place they didn’t have them was around the old boathouse. She wiped her wet hair, she’d got drenched but at least her jacket was waterproof.
Next she checked the phones; none of them could get a connection. Who she was going to call she didn’t know. The police? That seemed the obvious answer, she didn’t know anyone else to call. But didn’t the police come automatically when the intruder alarm went off? She thought they did but she hadn’t heard or seen them. She was on her own.
She sat down at the console in front of the bank of monitors. The clock said it was now one in the morning. The alarm had gone off how long ago? She wasn’t sure, maybe an hour or so. The noise disorientated her. She found it hard to think but here in the womb like suite it was muted.
Her eyes moved from one screen to another. She couldn’t see anyone but something had triggered the alarm. Could it have been the wind? A lightning strike, water seeping into the system? An animal? Whatever it was it had set it off.
She studied the controls on the console and then had an idea. The red record light was flashing and under it there was a large ridged knob. Freeze and replay were written each side of it. Carefully she turned it backward, anticlockwise. The screens now replayed what they had recorded over the last few hours. Her eyes flicked from one monitor to another but every one told the same story. She watched them open mouthed in shock. Was that her? That dark dressed shape walking around the deserted school with her shoulders hunched and body tense? She was stunned. Did she really look like that? Was that how people saw her? Stooped and head down, fringe hiding her features?
With a heavy sigh she didn’t like what she was seeing. She looked old before her time, weighed down, shuffling. Her head was hanging, her fringe hiding her face. Her clothes were shapeless. She had seen herself plenty of times before but this time she was really seeing herself, analyzing herself almost. What she saw most of all was a solitary person, lonely, without any friends, someone who was going nowhere. More than that she’d been nowhere too. She was seeing herself in the present but it was someone without a past or a future. What she was seeing was what she’d always be.
She sank deeper into her seat as she watched herself on the screen start running away from something but what? Suddenly something else on the screen caught her eye. She hit the freeze button and stared at it intently, her heart in her mouth.
At the same time the pens and cups on the console began to rattle as the small room began to vibrate. Then it stopped. Then started again. What was it? Subsidence? High winds? A lightning bolt? The same fury that had brought down the bell tower all those years ago? She placed a hand flat on the console; it was shaking, undulating up and down, slow and rhythmically. So what had caused the vibration? Her imagination or something else?
For the first time she realized she might be safe in here but it was too easy to get trapped, she needed to get out into the open. If the building fell she would be trapped. Carefully she got up and crept to the door and put her ear to it. There was no sound coming from the other side.
As quietly as she could she unlocked the door and teased it open a fraction of an inch. The alarm was sharper now, angrier and more urgent. She couldn’t make out anything in the dark corridor. A weapon, she needed a weapon. She looked round for one. Uniforms were hung on the walls, dark blue and official, belts too but no guns. She’d never shot a gun anyway but it least it would be a threat.
If she wanted a weapon she would have to look someplace else and she knew where. As quietly as she could she fully opened the door, took one last look back at the frozen image on the monitor then stepped out of the security center and into the darkness. She could see a weak splash of washed out light at the end of the corridor where the night glow from outside came in. She took a deep breath and steadied herself.
She would head for that.
The janitors’ store was at the end of the corridor. Holding her breath she eased open the cupboard door, crouched down and reached in. Her fingers closed around a bottle and she quickly took it out to examine in the half light. She nodded in satisfaction; its shape and ridges told her all she needed to know. It was the only weapon she could find. She gripped the plastic bottle tighter and twisted the cap off. The smell of scented ammonia hit her immediately. It was only bleach. Acid. It would blind, maybe not permanently but enough to give her a fighting chance!
She moved from the black to the gray. Through the windows of the deserted college the moon now shone and stars twinkled, the same moon and stars that shone on other people, happy people, carefree people, girlfriends and boyfriends, families, then she stopped dead in her tracks. Suddenly the college was quiet and still. The vibrations had stopped and the alarm had turned itself off, winding down to a series of slow deep moans like a spent lover.
She stood there holding the bottle of bleach, turning one way and then the other. She needed to get out; she didn’t want to get trapped in here. She moved slowly now, every sense heightened. She was on the bottom floor, all she had to do was head for the rear door of the East Wing, then run!
She edged along the wall. She was close now; a dozen paces should take her to the rear exit. It would be open. All the locks were tripped open when the intruder alarm went off so no one could get trapped in the building. Once through the door she would be in the college grounds, but where would she go them? Stay there and wait for help? Hide? She couldn’t call the police or anyone, she didn’t have a mobile phone, she didn’t need one, and she knew no one. Besides, what could she say? Every time she’d run the conversations over in her head they’d seemed weak. She could go and wait at Mr. Oberforce’s house. He was away, or was he?
She was close to the exit now, very close. She didn’t have a plan; she didn’t need one other than get out of this building. The intruder alarm was thankfully silent but she would still feel safer out in the open.
She could see the exit door ahead of her. It was just a few steps away. A few steps between being imprisoned here and freedom. She took a deep breath and steadied herself. For a split second she would be in the open. It was a one shot system; she needed to get it right.
She braced herself against the wall and listened intently, her ears still buzzing from the alarm. Silence.
For the first time in her life she had to make a decision, a real decision. It was now or never!
Suddenly she was running. The college was behind her, the door swinging shut.
She was free!
As she ran she felt hands, touching, grabbing, holding her back. They raked her skin and pulled her hair. She screamed, her voice distant and muffled. She twisted away and held the bleach bottle in front of her, squeezed it then it was torn from her hands.
She kicked and screamed again, flailed wildly and tried to shake herself free from what was holding her. Her clothes tore, she kicked out with her boots and felt them connect with something hard, then suddenly she was free.
She ran, her breath roaring in her ears, her eyes tight shut. Where she was going she didn’t know but she needed to get away from here. She hit objects in her way, bouncing off them, shaking herself free of their deathly grip. Her lungs were bursting and her legs ached. She didn’t know how much longer she could keep this up. She opened her eyes and risked a quick glance over her shoulder then she was falling, falling…….
It was dawn. A bitter dawn. A dawn of regrets and what might have been.
Marnee woke up. She was lying on a hard cold floor. Slowly she got up and looked around. Bare wood. She knew where she was. The boathouse. She had ran there last night, through the trees and found it without even knowing it. In truth she wasn’t surprised. That was where it all began all those years ago.
She looked down at her jeans. They were dirty and torn, bloodied too. She ached, her ears were ringing, her hair still sodden. Leaning against the weathered walls for support she edged to the door of the boathouse and looked back to the college, an apparition through the trees. It seemed so far away. Slowly and wearily she began the long walk towards the building framed in the rose tinted rays of dawn. It was so far away, how had she misjudged things so much?
Her pace slowed as her thoughts took her over. The power cut. The intruder alarm. She had a panic attack. It was a rush of emotions, wave after wave of hits to her psyche. Fear, the noise and the dark disorientating her. It had brought on that panic attack. The strangeness and otherworldliness had overloaded her senses. Silly Marnee she chided herself, it was just the school campus at night. But it was a strange threatening place, so different to the day. Maybe she had gone stir crazy? A touch of cabin fever even? She doubted it; she was used to being on her own.
It was so out of character for her to do anything like that, so unusual. It was, she searched her mind for the word and found it at last. Impulsive. That was it. But it perplexed her. She didn’t do impulsive any more than she ran round in the middle of the night but she’d done both.
Something had made her run.
Maybe the winds and rain had set the intruder alarm off she thought as she slowly pieced together the events of last night. She thought that was a likely explanation but for one thing.
When she was in the security suite watching the camera monitors she had seen something. She hit the freeze button. It was no more than a fleeting shadow but it was there.
She hadn’t imagined that.
It was real.
Right in front of her, frozen on the screen.
Someone or something was in the building!
The power was back on but of Mr. Oberforce and Aiden there was neither sight nor sound. She had the place to herself again. Good, she thought with a smile, she had things to do. It was the last night, the next day the other students would be back.
In the shower she examined herself. The worst of the damage done last night was on the inside, those scars wouldn’t show. Her clothes had been ruined, torn and dirty. She had a few small scratches, some bruising but that was all. She hurriedly dressed in some spare clothes then bundled her old ones up and put them in the garbage outside then went back up to her dormitory and rested some more, she didn’t feel like eating, or sleeping.
She was disturbed by Aiden knocking respectfully on the door later on in the day and asking to see her. He mentioned the alarm going off and wanted to check she was OK. Marnee couldn’t twist out of it, he really needed to check, face to face. It was his job he insisted.
She had no choice.
‘Was there really a intruder?’ Aiden asked Marnee carefully.
They were in the canteen, he would have preferred his office but decided this was neutral territory. Mr. Oberforce had told him the alarm had been triggered last night. Marnee had gone over the events of last night in fine detail. He’d asked her and she said there was an intruder. She had no doubt about it.
‘What do you mean?’ Marnee said, head down, bristling slightly at the question.
‘Was there really someone in the place?’ he asked her again.
She sat back in the chair and shook her fringe from her eyes so she could glare at him momentarily, ‘you think I’m lying?’
‘You could have been mistaken.’
‘I wasn’t,’ she said, losing eye contact.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Sure a man was chasing me? Yes, I’m sure Aiden.’
‘And there’s no doubt?’
Aiden nodded, was it real or just attention seeking, or something deeper?
‘Looking back, you’re sure it really happened the way you told me?’
‘Why should I lie?’ she asked.
‘Perhaps you don’t know you are doing Marnee.’
She ignored his comment. ‘I could have been killed.’
‘It could all have been a misunderstanding.’
‘You think I made it all up?’ she asked quietly but defiantly.
Aiden shrugged, ‘Marnee, it’s so unlike you,’ he replied.
‘It wasn’t me. It was him. He was coming after me, remember, not the other way around. He was the intruder, not me!’
‘Why did he target you do you think?’
She shook her head, her heavy fringe bobbing.
‘Why did he want you?’
She sank deeper in her chair. ‘You mean no one wants me, I know that.’
‘I didn’t meant that.’
‘You did, you just didn’t say it. Why should he want me when no one else does.’
Aiden let her comments pass. ‘Are you sure about all this?’ he asked her again.
‘So why would I invent something like that?’
‘Perhaps because you’re lonely?’ he spoke slowly, wary of spooking her. And ultimately losing her.
‘I’m not lonely,’ she said.
Aiden let her calm down for a few moments. She was very skittish. ‘Why do you think he was coming after you?’
‘He wanted to,’ she said bluntly.
‘Why don’t you find him and ask him?’
‘If I thought he existed I would.’
‘So you think I’m imagining all this?’
‘Marnee, do you love yourself?’
‘What a stupid question.’
‘But do you?’ he asked again.
‘Maybe,’ she relied eventually and added a shrug.
‘Do you think this intruder found you attractive?’
‘Why didn’t you report it to the police?’
‘None of the phones worked, the power was down,’ Marnee faltered, ‘he’s got away, the police would never find him,’ she added hurriedly.
Nor believe you Aiden thought but didn’t say. The lines were down and the alarm, on its own power circuit did go off but anything could have triggered it.
‘Can you describe him?’ he asked gently.
‘Again? I already have!’
‘One more time.’ Aiden knew most people could lie convincingly once, but not tell the same lie twice.
‘I can’t really remember him. I didn’t get a close look at him, as soon as he turned up I went in the opposite direction,’ she said. ‘He was a blur, a shape, menacing, dangerous.’
‘You said he had gray eyes?’
Marnee nodded, ‘wild looking.’
‘So you must have seen him? You said you didn’t get a close look at him but you did.’
Marnee shook her head in annoyance, knowing Aiden had caught her out. ‘He looked angry, manic, charging towards me. Like a bull.’
‘A bull?’ Aiden said incredulously then let the sexual metaphor pass. He also knew the police would have questioned Marnee more closely than he was doing. She knew it too.
‘I was frightened, I ran. I hid,’ she said.
‘Marnee,’ Aiden said, resting his hand on her arm, ‘is any of this real?’
‘The alarm went off didn’t it?’ she said triumphantly, yanking her arm away.
‘The weather could have caused it.’
‘So could the intruder,’ she retorted.
‘Again Marnee, did it happen? Is any of it real?’
‘Is what real?’ she said irritably.
‘You know what I mean.’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘The dead phones, this intruder, everything.’
‘You think I’m making it all up?’
‘You might be, without knowing it.’ Marnee looked hard at him. ‘You had a bump on the head, it might have done some damage inside. You blacked out too, upstairs on the top floor, I nearly ran you over the other day, you were just stood in the middle of the road.’
Marnee lost eye contact and put her head down. ‘I can prove it, she said quietly. ‘I can prove there was someone here.’
‘The cameras in the security center, that’s where I saw him. On them.’
‘And they recorded it?’
‘All of it.’
‘You running and hiding? everything?’
She nodded, ‘everything.’
‘Let’s go see,’ he said, standing up and heading down to the security room with Marnee following him.
Once in there Aiden sat at the console with Marnee stood at his shoulder. The monitors showed the school. The entrance to the washrooms and changing rooms, the grounds, everything but the boathouse.
‘How long ago?’ Aiden asked.
‘More like twenty,’ she said.
Aiden turned the knurled knob back and watched as the time stamp on the monitors counted off the hours.
‘STOP THERE!’ Marnee said suddenly.
Aiden froze the screen, on it was a small red flashing icon in the corner, “ALARM”’ it said.
‘That’s when the alarm went off,’ she said.
‘And the intruder was in the building?’
‘Run it forward and you’ll see him…..’ she said, ‘any time now.’
Aiden rocked the feed back and forth. ‘You said you ran and hid?’
‘I ran and hit in the music room, behind the curtain, then in the showers.’
‘I went outside and hid in the boathouse.’
‘There’s no cameras there.’
‘But that’s where I hid!’
Aiden and Marnee watched the screen intently.
‘There’s nothing on them,’ Aiden said at last.
Marnee looked at the screens than at Aiden. ‘But he was here, in the building…..’
‘No he wasn’t Marnee, there was no one here last night but you.’
Marnee hadn’t imagined it. There was someone in the building. She knew that. She had frozen the frame and seen him. The camera didn’t lie but they had lied. They had lied to make her seen stupid. They’d made a fool of her. It didn’t matter anymore though. The days of her being used and abused were enduing. Tonight was the night and she hurried it to come, for the curtain to drop on this day so she could begin the rest of her life. Tonight would be something special.
It was the last night she would ever be alone.
She watched the sun set, hazy and slow and when at last it was nearing dark she made her way out of her dormitory and went round the back of the building. She knew each wing mirrored the other and there was a rear entrance to the West Wing just as there was to the East Wing. It was the one she had escaped from last night.
A line of weeds and brambles marked the path to the entrance, overgrown and wild and as she approached the door it welcomed her with a series of signs, stark, bold and threatening.
NO STUDENT PERMITTED BEYOND THIS POINT.
That was the first one, she ignored it. She had ceased to be a student.
DO NOT ENTER.
The next sign, half hidden by brambles, their berries shriveled and diseased.
DANGER OF DEATH.
That was the last sign. She paused for a second, she doubted. Danger of death? She put the doubts out of her mind and carried on. She knew what she had to do.
She stood there staring at the door. She knew she had to go in, someone was waiting for her and they wanted her to hear the tale they would tell. She already knew it, or half suspected it. She had written it without realizing it. It had given her words and now she would give it life. As she stood there in the rapidly falling light, the sky getting lower and lower till it became the earth, there was no border anymore. Heaven and earth had become one and the same.
She looked down; the key was in her hand. She didn’t even remember bringing it with her. The key had been given to her, now she knew its purpose. That was the start of the journey, this was the final part of it.
She had come full circle.
Without thinking she slipped it into the lock and turned it.
Then she opened the door and stepped through the portal into the West Wing.
As Marnee stepped through it she was transported back to a different world. It was a place no one had been for over half a century. A world of different morals and values. The hallway of the West Wing itself was dull and dead. It had sat there that length of time brooding and resentful of the students who didn’t come here anymore, who weren’t allowed in it.
Suddenly she jumped as the door slammed shut behind her, cutting out what little light there was. There was no turning back now she thought as she stood in the shadowy silence. The place was chilled, some windows were boarded up and some broken.
As she walked in she was conscious of the bare bulbs flickering into weak light above her and the hum of electricity surging through the old cables. In the distance there was the rattle and cough of a diseased generator. The corridor was dimly lit by the low watt bulbs but she could just make out old posters peeling on the walls, meetings for pupils, sports results, faded photos. Lives half lived she thought, would hers be that way too? A life that never was, never had been and never will be? Or would tonight be the night all that changed?
Slowly she walked towards the light at the end of the long half dark hallway. The West Wing was silent and the weak light faded fast from the bulbs. She was conscious of going in deeper, of being on a journey almost and she knew it was too late to back out now. The key, the calling, they had all led her to this place of memories.
She walked on, one faltering step after another. She moved slowly, as if wanting to make time slow down. The world outside had faded to insignificance, this was where she was meant to be. Slowly, carefully, one foot in front of the other, her breath shallow she carried on. She was wired, her nerves on edge. She didn’t know what to expect or what was waiting for her here then suddenly she screamed.
And kept screaming.
She had walked right into a huge spider’s web. It enveloped her. Trapped her. The more she flailed the more it held her. Its silky tendrils wreathed her hair and she felt a crawling sensation on her neck. She screamed again and began to brush frantically at her body and clothes. She broke the bonds of the web and at last staggered free of them.
She stood there with her breath rasping too frightened to move until her panic subsided and her racing heart slowed. She steeled herself and, keeping her head down, walked on, her hands held up in front of her to break through the other webs hanging down from the high ceiling. So many of them and so strong. Things moved in her hair, she dragged her fingers through the strands and resisted the temptation to scream again. Her skin crawled and tingled.
She daren’t look up into the blackness above her and kept her eyes down as she shuffled forward on the pitted and scarred floor cursing herself for her stupidly. Everything in life had a price to be paid. What price would she pay for the key? What was waiting for her in the West Wing?
The past and the outside world had gone now. The howling winds couldn’t hurt her or the cold chill. No sound entered. This place was safe from the Furies. She walked on, instinctively knowing the layout, it was a mirror of the East Wing, a perfect reflection frozen in time and she knew at the end of the corridor there was a room. She stood by its half open door and peered into it. Then she took a deep breath and walked in.
Suddenly she was bathed in light as a surge of power turned the lights over bright and brilliant. She was in the middle of a large room. She guessed this was the old dining hall. Some of the tables had been overturned, some rotted away to rusted iron frames and some smashed. Once it echoed with the sounds of its students, now nothing disturbed it. It had a tale to tell though, like the rest of the wing.
As her eyes blinked away the near dark of the badly lit corridor and grew accustomed to the flickering strip lights she took in some more of the room. Old style vending machines lined the walls and dated advertising posters peeled from the walls. Every so often the old style strip light above her flashed brighter as a spark jumped between bare shriveled wires, a small snap and hiss accompanying them, like a mini storm.
She sought and she found. On one of the tables was a punchbowl and beside it a glass of wine. Sacramental wine for the students? She stood and stared at it for a long time and then, with a shaking hand, she picked up the glass and inhaled the pink liquid inside.
She didn’t drink, ever. She was always frightened of losing control or even worse, someone taking advantage of her. The wine had a nice smell though, bouquet they call it she thought. She gently cupped the glass, hard and warm and carefully raised it to her lips. Then took a small sip. She ran her tongue slowly around her lips savoring the sensation and the taste. She wanted this moment to last forever as her tongue teased and then at last, she swallowed.
The wine seemed to fill her mind and a warm glow rose up through her body. One little drink wouldn’t hurt she thought as she took another sip. It tasted of summer, of late nights, of fun and companionship.
She had never tasted anything like it before.
Most of all it tasted of something sacred and forbidden.
In drinking it she had done something she had never done before, it was a rite of passage. She closed her eyes to savor the taste a little longer.
She knew she would never pass this way again.
‘Hello?’ Marnee said, then again more confidently. Her voice echoed in the empty West Wing, a solitary voice filling its rooms and hallways momentarily then fading away to almost nothing. It came back to her in fragments, whispering and breathy, hissing and husky then finally dying among the old timbers and stones of Belvedere College. Once the place had been full of teenage anticipation, squeals and screams, girls and boys, breaking voices, flirting voices. Now they were just dead voices.
No one had lived in the West Wing for over half a century, the generation that had last been here were now facing their final years, memories dimmed by age. In those memories lay the reason for the abandonment of the West Wing. That was what had called her here on this long dark night. She didn’t know the reason but had half grasped it. She had tried to work it out before, using music, words, repetitive rhythm even but the truth stayed tantalizingly out of touch. She knew there were logical reasons but she couldn’t fathom them out, in truth her head felt a little fuzzy.
‘Hello?’ she said again, voicing it as a question but there were no answers. If she wanted answers she would have to look for them herself she realized.
She went along the corridor and up the stairs. They were wide and curved, part rotted and the ornate balustrade seemingly fragile under her hand. Limp wasted streamers hung down from a party long ago. Small wonder the West Wing was sealed off. The only sound seemed to be her heart beating wildly and the power humming through the old wiring. With each tremulous step she took under the weak flickering lights the stairs creaked louder and she mounted them carefully. At the top she stopped and tried to see beyond the glow of aged lights. Most of the windows were boarded up, the others weather worn and streaked with dirt. There were doors each side of the corridor. It was the dormitory wing, she knew that, it mirrored the East Wing where she had her sleeping quarters.
She stood at the top of the stairs a little longer. She sensed something here, she was going to the heart of the house she felt as she stepped along the corridor, its paint faded and blistered, its walls peeling and discolored with damp, warped and distorted like time itself.
Halfway along one of the doors was open, and the others closed. She walked carefully towards it. Was she really doing this? Was she really walking round the old West Wing? It was too late to turn back now, in fact with every step she took she seemed to be getting, she searched for the word, stronger? Braver? Or more foolish?
She stepped through the half open door and into the wide high ceilinged room. The strip light above glowed a dull orange, its power all but spent. Large windows let in silvery light when the moon showed through the clouds. It was an old fashioned dormitory still with the cast iron beds it had when a dozen giggling laughing dreaming sweetly scented college girls lived there. All but one perhaps, the one who was like Marnee, friendless and lost. As alone in her bed at night as she was during the day. Or perhaps she wasn’t, perhaps she was the opposite of Marnee?
Cobwebs hung from the ceiling to its floor and ran from the walls to the stark furniture. The beds were mainly bare, some had hard mattresses on them still. If those beds could speak what would they say Marnee thought? What would they tell her? Did the girls dream about lovers? Of good times to come as they got older and left the college? Of ecstasy? Of forbidden lust? Of secret desires? Of something no one else believed in? Of a romance that others tried to deny? Now the beds sagged and looked as if they would turn to dust with the slightest whisper of adolescent passion.
There was little to see in the room except shadows and whatever secrets they held. Marnee didn’t want to see but as she turned to go she suddenly stopped. As a shaft of moonlight filled the room she saw it. On one of the walls was a series of photos and pieces from a school yearbook, yellowing and curled and long forgotten. One of the pictures was of a young girl stood at the door of Belvedere College, positioned by one of the thick erect columns. She went up closer to it. Who was it? What did she do? Marnee looked for a clue and found it eventually.
At the bottom of the picture was a caption. She read it out loud, her voice hoarse and whispering. “Prom Queen 1963”. That was the year the West Wing shut down, she would have been it’s last ever Prom Queen but who was she?
Another picture, this time taken in the dormitory. Her dormitory. The girl was dressed in a sheath of shimmering silver, the thin fabric clinging to her tall slim figure, hugging her small breasts and shaping her slim narrow hips. It was almost virginal, but only almost.
The gown was worn off both shoulders and showing a breathtaking amount of cleavage, very daring Marnee thought, at least for 1963. She was elegant and classy in that simple unadorned sheath but still dangerously sexy and sexily dangerous. Her breasts seemed to swell, rising rich orbs of someone in the full bloom of her menstruating girlhood. Her dark hair was piled up in a glorious beehive.
Marnee couldn’t take her eyes from it. It was as if the photographer was trying to show the woman the girl would become, and show her in her own domain, almost like a spider at the center of a web she thought with an involuntary shudder. What held her attention most was the face of the teenage girl in the faded photo. It was daring, devil may care. It was the face of hope, of beauty, it was the face of the future from 1963 then with a shock she realized she could be looking into a mirror!
They had the same light colored eyes, unmissable even in the black and white pictures. Their faces matched too, both were even and strong. Marnee hid hers behind a fringe, the Prom Queen highlighted hers, piling her hair high on her head like a Prom Queen should.
The eyes of the girl had a calm but direct gaze, majestic almost. So different to Marnee’s. Their smiles were different too, this girl had a knowing smile, something Marnee certainly didn’t have. The girl spoke to her; she told her of a wild exuberance and a gloriously uninhibited lifestyle. As Marnee looked at the portrait the Prom Queen seemed to be mocking her slightly but gently, as if to say, “I know things you don’t know”.
Marnee suddenly saw it, pushed against the far wall in the dormitory disguised by dust and the detritus of decades of neglect. It was a large travel case. Gently she wiped the dust from the brass nameplate at the top.
Now she understood more she thought as she slowly lifted the lid. Inside was a gown wrapped in tissue paper. She caught her breath as she stared at it. Tonight she was going to be the new Prom Queen. Something she would never be in real life.
Gently she reached in and took the dress out. The silk and taffeta rustled. She held it up against her. After all these years the color was still rich, it seemed to shine a white silver, something that could not be tarnished, a noble color, pure and unsullied. Passionate and flowing, beautifully made, and made for her she realized.
As soon as she saw the dress she knew what she had to do. It was obvious. Put it on. She wanted to do the Prom Queen and this special night full justice. She wanted to be what she could never be, live the life that had been denied her, just this one time.
She carefully wiped the dust off one of the old bed frames and equally carefully draped the gown over it. With a sigh she gripped the hem of her sweater. Then she froze. She just couldn’t do it. She tried again, screwed up her eyes and quickly took her sweater off before she could think about what she was doing. Next she took off her jeans and folded them neatly and put them on the old bed with the sweater. She stood there in her underwear. Then she slowly reached behind and unhooked her bra. As she took it off she hugged herself then slowly she put the bra with her other clothes then, as if in slow motion, took off her knickers.
Then she suddenly jumped!
In the corner of the room was an old pitted and scarred dress mirror, seven feet high at least with an ornate rolled gold surround, gleaming and untarnished after all these years. As the moon peeped from behind a cloud the moonbeams danced into the room and briefly illuminated her nakedness. She stood there mesmerized by her reflection. White skinned and angular, incandescent and ethereal. She had never seen herself this way before. Not in the shower, not on her own. Naked. Uncovered. Open.
She was nude, one hand between her legs covering her bushy pubic mound, lush and rich, a mound that had never been trimmed even, let alone seen a razor. Her wiry pubic hair edged towards her belly becoming sparser and sparser. Her other arm was crossed over her breasts. Slowly she moved them and gasped at herself. She had never really seen herself naked before. Not in this way, not through this lens. Her nipples were hard and jutting, her breasts rising and falling evenly and between her legs a beautifully symmetric triangle of fine dark hair. She too was in the full bloom of her menstruating early womanhood, just like the Prom Queen.
She lifted her head up and shook her mousy locks over her shoulders and down her back and brushed her fringe from her face. Then she gently piled her head on her head like a sixties beehive, just like in the faded photo.
As she did so her breasts seemed to swell, their nipples becoming even more erect, and she arched her back and sighed. Slowly her hand moved from her breasts to her flat belly then between her legs.
Suddenly the room chilled. There was a noise, a rattle, and a sound she was expecting.
Bump bump bump.
The still naked Marnee gasped and spun round. She grabbed the gown and held it to her front for modesty’s sake. There was a movement outside, in the corridor. A scuttling sound, scraping. Light steps. Rats? Mice? The lights flickered, the current surging and fading, surging and fading. The bulbs died and glowed then burst back into brilliance.
Her skin crawled and with a shudder she quickly slipped into the prom gown and arranged it carefully around her naked frame. She stood still for a long moment holding her breath then the old West Wing seemed to fall into patient sentient silence again. Perhaps it was a ghost she thought with a nervous giggle; perhaps someone was angry she was wearing her dress. And she wore it well she thought.
Shapely and sexy. Sexy? Marnee Carter?
The gown hugged her hips and flared out as it reached the floor. Her breasts swelled above the neckline, full and feminine. She turned first left then right, admiring herself with a shiver of shock and excitement. She had never seen herself this way before. She stepped up to the mirror and couldn’t believe the transformation. There was a glow about her.
She caught her breath as she heard another sound.
It was above her, dull and discordant but she heard what she wanted to hear, a joyous peeling. She stood there as still as a statue and the dormitory in the old West Wing seemed to shift around her, the floor swaying and the rafters shedding the dust of long lost time on to her.
Small stones and splinters fell too but she stood solemn and silent, oblivious to the decaying building all around her. It was an old building that was ready to give up its final ghost. It began to shake, the moonbeams dancing through the gaps appearing in the roof.
The old Marnee was dead. The mousy Marnee, the friendless Marnee, the Marnee no one wanted or bothered with, the Marnee without make up or ambition for that matter. The Marnee who was stooped and bowed, hunched and hungry. That old Marnee was dead. She had become the Prom Queen, something she would never be in real life.
Marnee didn’t know but she knew the answer was here in the West Wing of Belvedere College. Everything she had done had led her here to this time and place. Her fear had gone now, she was meant to be here wearing this gown that fitted her so perfectly. It seemed to embolden her, to make her a new person she thought as she strode barefoot from the room. The hem of the gown swished along the floor.
She walked on more confidently now, brushing away the spider’s webs with disdain as the old light bulbs fizzed and popped above her. It seems this dress had empowered her, wrapping her in its feminine and silvery moonlit strength. Even the cold kept its distance, bitter that it could not chill as it once did. Now only did she look different she felt different too. She felt like a growing women she suddenly realized. She also realized for the first time in her life she was living!
Marnee came to a sudden halt at the top of the wide curving staircase. From the room below she could hear music. It was wild and frenetic. Organs and twangy guitars punctuated by trumpets and saxophones. There was laughter, cheers, shouting. Most of all though there was expectation. Tonight they awaited their Queen!
Excitedly she skipped down the stairs bedecked with bright colorful streamers and headed to where the sound was coming from. As soon as she swung open the double doors at the bottom the music hit her like a fast rising swell of sound and rocked her back on her heels. This was the old hall in the West Wing, the heart of the college in 1963 and the place the Prom Queen truly belonged.
She stood for a moment transfixed by the scene.
The light came from above, a huge chandelier glittering and twinkling as the light from the old bulbs danced off the facets of the crystals. The shallow white light shone on the streamers and balloons that festooned the room. There were pictures on the walls, good luck messages and love tokens.
It was Prom Night!
Hanging from the ceiling were mirror balls and globes. They were old and warped and cracked, bending and twisting the light into all the colors of the spectrum. It seemed to be reflected in every direction, like she was in the middle of a light storm. She had never seen anything like this in her life before. It was like stepping into another world. It was the world of the feted and popular and those who would walk with destiny one day and now it was her world!
She was the Queen of all she saw.
This was the next stage on her journey, her transformation. She had one more role to play, one more night to live life to the full. Then her new life would begin. The old Marnee would become a ghost, quickly forgotten and unlamented.
She also realized for the first time in her life that she was happy. She was dressed in that tight fitting sixties style sheath, a silvery almost white dress that clothed her to perfection. Her breasts swelled above it, a sixties statement, decadent and almost indecent. Her lips were moist and parted, her blue eyes bright and gleaming. Her hair was piled high on her head, she felt like the Queen but part of her also felt like an impostor. She was cheating both life and death but she closed her mind to her inner voice as, barefoot and breathless, she stepped eagerly into the middle of the room and began to whirl round and round in time to the music.
She had never danced before, no one had ever asked her, she said she didn’t want them to ask her but it was what she craved most. Tonight she was the Queen and these people had come to pay court to her. She seemed to skip across the dance floor and caught sight of herself in the mirrors. Was that really her? Was that really Marnee Carter? Or the Prom Queen?
The music began to get faster and faster and Marnee danced in time to the beat, she didn’t tire, she seemed to have endless energy. Her steps were sure and light as she moved over the dance floor. She closed her eyes and let the music fill her head, voices too, laughter, clinking glasses, but most of all the cheers. She had never felt this way before. All she knew was that she was having the time of her life.
Faster and faster the music played, wilder and wilder, Marnee danced frenetically. She seemed to have been dancing forever and she would dance forever too. She was the Prom Queen and this was Prom Night.
Then something changed.
She missed the beat and began to slip and slide across the dance floor. Her feet became clumsy, tripping her up and making her stumble. Instead of gliding she reeled. That happy warm glow had been replaced by a feeling of dizziness.
Marnee Carter looked around her. More pieces of timber and masonry began to fall, the room began to tilt and the sound now was deafening. For the first time she was conscious of the bell, it didn’t ring; it was more of a death rattle, dull and discordant. The bell tower had gone. It was there in 1963 but not anymore. It was so different to the sound she had thought it made when she was deep in her reverie. She knew she had to get out of here.
She dashed through the now decaying ballroom, the bell’s death knell raw in her ears. More debris fell to reveal a full moon and dark clouds passing quickly as if this was not a place to look down on. The whole building heaved and roared.
Suddenly she knew the truth. The old Marnee would indeed be laid to rest tonight. If she didn’t get out of here soon she would die. She made a mad dash for the door and flung herself against it.
‘Damn!’ she hissed under her breath then said it louder.
The music still played but now it was more of dirge, dull and discordant.
She ran to another door, slipping and sliding over the floor, but that door too was locked. She was trapped. There was no way out. She looked around, the room seemed to be fading and then she slowly realized the truth. The room wasn’t fading.
As the music rose to a shattering crescendo, she screamed and covered her ears.
She was alone.
More than that.
She would be what she always had been.
She closed her eyes and lay down.
She never wanted to wake up again.
She woke slowly and tried to sit up. She felt heavy, her legs ached and there was a buzzing in her head. A shape moved into view.
It was Aiden.
‘I’m sorry, Aiden, I’m so sorry, so very very sorry,’ she sobbed. ‘Please forgive me, please.’
Aiden spoke kindly, carefully, and calmed her a little. ‘I got your notebook, I read all the things you’d written, about her, I knew what was going to happen.’
‘My notebook?’ she said vaguely. She couldn’t remember writing anything in it. But the story was in there she knew. She was lying on a chipped and scratched dirty wooden floor in the old West Wing of Belvedere College. She looked down at herself. Pain and shame. Part of a new poem she thought, but she knew she’d never write anything again.
Her feet were raw, barefoot and bleeding. She was wearing a gown, a tatty dirty dull silver rag. No gown though she realized. It was more of a shroud. A memory slipped quickly through her mind. Once she had thought it so fine but now it was disheveled and stained. The harsh material squashed her breasts, and the wide hem was caked in dirt.
Prom Night was over.
The Queen was dead.
Jacqueline Oberforce committed suicide. She hung herself in one of the top floor rooms. That much was a fact. The newspapers of the day told the story. Stark and simple in the style of the sixties.
She swung on the end of a rope made from a bed sheet.
Bump bump bump.
She killed herself and she also killed someone else too.
She was seventeen and pregnant.
Marnee had seen photos of her before in Mr. Oberforce’s house. Many of them in groups with her in the middle. The modern Mistress of Belvedere. despite her looks and vitality she still chose to take her own life.
She was the same age as me Marnee thought sadly. She had made it her mission to find out as much about the girl who spoke to her, whispers and gasps, deathly and sometime sexual. The girl whose spirit occupied the space Marnee occupied. The girl who wanted someone to allow her to live again, however briefly. To have that final prom night. To relive her past.
Did she get pregnant on that night?
She and her boyfriend had made the baby in the boathouse, even without knowing it as a hard fact Marnee knew. The boathouse and the lake were strange places. A border between life ending and life beginning.
It was there the Mistress died and there Jackie had sex with her boyfriend. There was no new life to replace the Mistress’s. Jackie’s baby hung with her, that small Thanksgiving bump, that life inside her she killed too on the top floor of the college. She hung herself in one of the washrooms.
Did Jackie listen in the night and hear things? Did she dream the way Marnee dreamed? Did the Mistress speak to her the way Jackie had spoken to me Marnee thought? She would never know but she liked to think she did. Jackie tuned into it, did she understand it? Did it play any role in her death? Marnee would like to know but the only way she will find out was to wait until she died too. Death reveals all its secrets then, but she couldn’t help but wonder it the Mistress and her voice from a century ago played any part in Jacqueline Oberforce’s actions.
What of Mr. Oberforce, her father? He left Belvedere College, never to return. He had been there since 1963, the year of his daughter’s suicide. He was in his thirties when he came and had given up a lucrative high flying career in the space industry to work in a menial job for the rest of his life. Was it his penance?
Did he drive her to kill herself or was he trying to save her and he arrived too late? He was kind to me Marnee thought, was he trying to save me as well?
And what of the unnamed boyfriend? The father of Jackie’s baby? Did he serve a proper penance too or did he prosper? Did he slip easily back into the Brahman society that had bred him and carry on with his life? Perhaps he didn’t know she was pregnant and it was his baby? Perhaps he was one of many boys? Perhaps he’s lived in blissful ignorance of the two deaths his actions caused?
Jackie’s baby, if it had lived, would probably be a grandparent now and revered for its age and wisdom, instead it lies rotting in the cold earth still surrounded by its mother’s decaying tissue.
She was bright, Brahman bright and beautiful. Was he the college bad boy? Was he a rebel? Was he a hard screwing superhero and she a tramp? Either way she paid the price, hanging herself one Thanksgiving night.
Her bump would have begun to show by then, conceived on Prom Night, dead by Thanksgiving, his seed giving it life and taking it away. Jackie wanted to relive that Prom Night. Why? So she wouldn’t make the same mistake?
Marnee said nothing about the events to anyone, neither did Aiden. Mr. Oberforce was gone, to die someplace she imagined, his job done, his daughter’s spirit freed and his penance paid.
She left the college after that.
She said her goodbyes, in silence, to the spirits that had guided her.
It had been a journey of awakenings, emotional, sexual and spiritual.
She was right.
She would never pass this way again.
Seventeen year old Marnee Carter stays at Belvedere College during the Thanksgiving holiday. Apart from her just a counselor and the mysterious caretaker are there too. The rambling old building has its secrets and slowly reveals them to her but is it all just a cry for help from lonely friendless Marnee or is there something more mysterious at work? Slowly she pieces together the past and the tragic story from 1963 in this intriguing novella of a teenage girl's emotional, sexual and spiritual wakening.