One of the kids has spilled milk in the hall. The carton lies crushed: puking lactose onto the floor. I mop it up in one zig-zag motion and toss the carton in the trash.
As I turn, I catch sight of the flyer, I pinned to the notice board: High School Reunion. The folks who made it went hella-retro: permanent markers, bright yellow construction paper, and a Xerox Machine. I stare at the ink dots where the markers bled through the paper and try to join the dots in my memories.
Eventually, I come up with something. It’s Finals and I’m in the bathroom stalls. I’m swigging a celebratory, smuggled, bottle of vodka. It burns all the way down. I can still feel it burning – I can still remember… that burning, it meant, I was out of there. High School was truly over.
I put the mop away, in the hallway closet, shutting the door firmly behind me. I can hear the kids playing outside, so I hope there are no more tears over spilled milk.
I try and picture the reunion. I decide that it’ll most likely be in the gym, like some perverse, reverse dance. Maybe they’ll have black balloons, that when you pop ‘em, you’ll get showered in black confetti. Maybe they’ll have military-issue material over the windows as drapes. They can call it reunion all they like. Everyone knows it’ll be a funeral for our ambition and what we could of been.
Jesse’ll be there. The Quarterback. Mr. Football jersey. He’ll have peaked too early, dropped outta college and spent his days shouting, “I used to be that ripped!” at the tanned guys in the exercise infomercials. I can see Suzie L and Suzie F showing up (last initials changed by now, of course, …numerous times, due to numerous nuptials). They’ll still be Hairspray Queens; still, be walking about with masses of hair, but this time, it’ll just be styled differently. They cake their faces in as much make-up as they used to, in a desperate attempt to cling on to their youth.
It won’t just be the Jesse’s and the Suzies, neither. I’m missing out all the other folk; the kids that walked by me, day-in, day-out. They were nothin’ more to me than the yellow of their windbreaker, or the dirty red of their sneakers. These kids, (well, not so much now) – I’ll just squint at their name-tags and make a big show: “You signed my yearbook! I’ve never forgotten what you wrote…”
Newsflash: Everyone signs everyone’s yearbook.
Of course, I’m not really going, because I didn’t ever really belong…but if I did go…
The Suzies would make a show in too-big, too-cheap earrings – that will show everyone they haven’t really done well for themselves at all.
I’ll walk in…unassuming, understated…business of my own…own boss…turning over a dime…going to work in a grey suit…name on my security pass….name plaque on my door in bright sliver….
What will the other dumb schmucks have?
I stare at the spot on the hallway floor, where the milk had puddled. It’s all dried up now, and you can hardly tell that anything happened, at all.
What will the other dumb schmucks have?
Suddenly, I see the pattern of the floor change. I see the parquet floor give way to a familiar shining laminate.
I probably won’t go…but I’m already there.
I can hear music, faint and distant, wafting from the gym. As I get closer, it sounds less like any music we would have listened to. It sounds more like a requiem.
I shuffle through the corridor, pushing through the black streamer-curtain that covers the gymnasium doors. Inside, the place looks smaller – like you could have never fit Cheer practice or Basketball in here. Things are half-dark and there’s a smoke machine. The punch on the table is a toxic, foreboding lime…
I see a mass of curly brown hair; the girl turns to face me. She doesn’t look a day over sixteen. Her left eye is bloody and hanging from its socket. Her friend, with identical hair, turns, too. She offers me a wave, and as she lifts her arm, I see a long vertical cut from her wrist to her elbow. I approach them cautiously. I tell myself it’s just the light, and my eyes. I ask myself if I just looked at the punch, or did I take a sip, without really realizing?
“We’ve been trying to get you here for so damn long…” One of them says, sarcastically. Before I can ask what they do for a living, and why they dressed for Halloween early, I hear the sound of football boot-studs on the floor.
“Didn’t think I’d ever see you here.” The sound came from a huge figure: his face obscured by the canary-yellow of his helmet; his physique padded by the defensive armor under his football jersey. The girls with the huge hair, sighed as he approached. They batted their Halloween-ish eyes at him. For them, they were our country’s answer to a Medieval Knight.
“That’s my name… don’t wear it out…” His voice was monotone, droll. Once, in class, he’d asked me how to spell chair. That was a week before Finals. If he’d passed his SATs, it was because they’d given him points for correctly spelling his own name.
“Hey Jesse, can I try the helmet on?” I asked. I’d always wanted to get into that helmet, to shrug on the jersey – but I’d always been the brains, not the brawn. I reach out for the helmet. We’re not kids now – I can’t be banned from this now. It’s just clothes, after all. Jesse places his own hands either side of the helmet, to stop me.
“My head fall off if you do that…” He says in the same monotone, drawl.
I laugh. This is the first time, to my knowledge, Jesse has ever made a joke. I reach for the helmet again, but he doesn’t move his hands.
“Heads will literally roll…” he says. There’s an edge in his tone, now. The edge I remember. He used to have this edge in his voice when he shoved kids up against lockers and into trash cans. He never hurt me, though. It wasn’t like he ever liked me. I wasn’t cool enough for that. I was just real invisible, so he never even saw me, to pay me any mind.
What I hadn’t banked on, was like all school dances, this one needed a chaperone, and ours was none other than Principal Ellis…at least it looked like him from the back. I couldn’t ever forget the tweed he wore. I remember how he always wanted to be British. I remember how he always drank tea outta a bone china cup and wore tweed with elbow patches. I always used to stare at him when we were pledging allegiance to the flag because I could swear his lips didn’t move, most of the time.
He approached now, bug-eyed, his tie hanging loosely around his neck.
“Principal Ellis, I thought you were…” The words stuck in my throat. “…Dead.”
His eyes were bloodshot, and his tie was an actual noose. I could see the bruising around his neck. I start to back away. Maybe it’s Halloween and I forgot? Maybe I’m dreaming? Maybe I’m facing down in the spilled milk.
“You are most certainly not dreaming…” Principal Ellis sneers, walking towards me.
I back away, not managing to put any distance between myself and the Principal. I bump into Casey and Brad. I’m not sure if I walked backward into them, or if everyone is crowding around me. The look normal enough, dressed in their old prom clothes. They’re all puffed sleeves and permed hair. Then Casey turns, and she’s like Janus. Half her face is powder-blue eyeshadow and pale pink lipstick; the other half is blood and gravel. Chad smiles, and I see his molars – because half his face is missing.
“We had a car accident on Prom Night..” Casey says breathlessly. “Mr. Drink ‘n Drive, here…”
I hear the studs of Jesse’s football boots, again. “I broke my neck on the football field…” He steps in my way, so he’s now between me and The Principal. “Wanna see?” He put his hands either side of the yellow helmet, the helmet I’ve always wanted to try on…and I clamp my hands over my eyes.
Go away, go away, go away. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong here.
I can still hear them, louder than the crowd at our Friday Night football games:
I died in my sleep.
I left the safety of my gun.
I got drunk, then drowned in my pool.
I got murdered.
When I open my eyes, everyone is gone. There is nothing but a thick velvet curtain. I have no idea if I’m still in the gym. An unseen hand pulls an unseen cord and the curtains suddenly open. At first glance, this is a Hall of Fame: huge black and white yearbook-style photos, in thick, gilded frames. They are hung too close together so that each portrait practically nudges the next. They go on forever, climbing up the wall. From where I am, it’s like looking up at the tiny illuminated windows of a skyscraper.
“What this then?” Mr. Ellis asks. He’s suddenly sky-scraper-high himself. His voice is all-encompassing, like a thick, vocal fog. “Hall of Fame? Notable Alumni?” He clears his throat, and there’s a stale stench as he speaks. “Or is it: Gone but not Forgotten?”
I see the images as if viewing a movie. They are sudden flashes. Sudden still pictures. They are frame-by-frame. The Suzies with their big hair. Jesse. Casey really did die on Prom Night.
Why didn’t I remember?
Why didn’t I mourn their deaths?
There’s another set of curtains, higher up. I see these two, through the eyes of a camera-man. The plaque above them is enormous: matte black, with rich gold lettering. The sign reads Longest Serving Resident. The curtains part and I see my yearbook photo. I see my eyes, full of life.
I got out.
I escaped High School.
I got out.
“Go to work in a suit, do we?” Principal Ellis is suddenly over-my-shoulder. “Clean up after your kids when they spill milk in the hall, do you?” He laughs. I can see his laughter. It’s lime green like the punch. It seeps out of his mouth like a noxious gas. “Shall we look at that grey suit of yours?”
I glance down, expecting to see my light grey suit – the gentle sheen of my tie. Instead, I see a deep dirt-grey. My overalls are made of a heavy-duty cotton, and my name tag is stitched-in in red, white and blue. I’m suddenly holding a dirty mop. Nothing I have ever touched has ever felt more real.
“Cleaning up after the kids…” Principal Ellis observes. “That suburban house of yours, the picket fence, the flowers out front… all a dream.” He clears his throat. “But what you do during your break is up to you.”
I see everything around me like a strong sea current. I swam against the tide of high school; each oncoming wave. The parties, the academics. I swam through. I reached the shore. I reached the shore.
“How were your finals?” Principal Ellis, asked. All that was left for him to do now, was throw my permanent record at me…but then I remember, the Gone but not Forgotten Wall. He was up there, too. “How were your finals?” He asks again.
“They were…I mean…I did…” I stuttered. “I drank vodka when I was done. I celebrated.” He was hardly gonna call the cops now, over a little underage drinking.
“I found you in the Boys’ Bathroom. You were lying on the tiled floor – limp and pale. You’d taken a whole load of pills and washed them down with a bottle of the Russian stuff. You were long dead by the time I got there… You didn’t celebrate anything. You killed yourself after you sat your finals. You were the leak in the dam. You were that tiny bit of water leaking out…then…the floodgates opened.”
I saw the portraits on the Gone but not Forgotten wall begin to shake as if there was an earthquake. One by one, they loosened on their hooks and fell from a great height. One by one, they smashed into bits. He grabbed hold of my collar, his face dangerously close to mine, his lips curled back and his teeth, almost filed, like a demon’s.
“This school went to hell because of you… We were respectable, before. Pupils went on to do…maybe not great things…but things. Now, what do we have? I just couldn’t take it anymore. It was you first, then the girls, then the Quarterback… a deadly domino effect. The kids that could went on to the Major Leagues…they didn’t wanna die…they had things to live for…air still left to breathe…but for me, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was the Shepherd that couldn’t watch his flock…” He lets go of my collar. “You really are nothing. You really are…dumb. This is just like all the other dances. Dance with us, or not. Just make sure you mop the floor after…”
All the others?
“We have this conversation every so often…you periodically forget…” Principal Ellis said. He turned as if hearing a noise only he could hear. “You’ll have to excuse me… Miss Williams has just walked in. You remember her? Librarian. Young. Auburn hair?”
“Shot in the head during a home invasion.” He puts his finger to his lips. “But don’t tell her just yet…”
The dance goes on around me. Suddenly, Ellis is gone and there’s nothing but the gloomy gloss of black balloons and the everyday gore of teens dancing cheek to half-missing cheek. They disappear in scratches, like a vinyl record slowly spinning to a close. I sweep the floor, gathering the black ticker tape up like fallen leaves. I collect the punch glasses. I drag the mop along behind me, as I sulk down the corridor. I stop dead when I reach the janitor’s closet. There, I see my name clearly written on a silver plaque, on the door.
Inside, the closet is small. Top shelf: cleaning fluid; buckets up the back; a selection of brooms and mops propped against the other wall. Suddenly, it fades away, the grey of the dirty mops giving way to a milky white; then the bright yellow-white light of the sun, as it shines on my front lawn. My neighbor, across the street, raises his hand, in a cheery wave, as he picks up the morning paper from his doorstep. There are four bottles of just-delivered milk on my own porch. The kids have just hopped on their bikes and headed out.
Liz Wride gained her PhD in dramatic writing from Swansea University in 2012. Her 2014 Dylan Thomas Centenary play: No 5 Cwmdonkin Drive was produced by Welsh Fargo Stage Company and featured at their On the Edge Festival. The play was also performed at The Lost Theatre’s 30th Anniversary Festival in London, The Being Human Festival in Swansea, and at The Dylan Thomas Birthplace. The play was shortlisted for the Times Higher Education Awards 2015. In 2015, her short story Potato was runner up in Elle UK’s Talent Competition. In 2017, her dark short story Fillet was shortlisted for Liar’s League’s ‘Heads and Tails’ Competition. Fillet will soon feature in Mantle Arts Beneath the Waves anthology (coming 2018). Her short fiction has appeared in The Gull, and Cheval. She currently lives in Wales.