Oy. No more weekday frat parties for me, no matter how noble the cause, especially when I have a test the next day. What was I thinking? And last minute cramming with a headache was not a good idea either. Forget it. My eyes drifted to the clock.
And now I was late. Damn it. With a sigh, I threw down my pencil and scrambled up, my head throbbing. I traded my Eeyore jammies for skinny jeans and a fitted white t-shirt. Shoes, where were my shoes? Gah. I ducked and rooted around in the deep, dark spaces under my bed. Hmm, the green dress I borrowed from Sarah. Mental note: I need to return that. English book, various dust bunnies of uncertain lineage…there.
Sketchers on, I grabbed my backpack, turned up my iPod, and ran out the door. No time to primp.
Good thing the campus I lived on was small. There was a big central courtyard—the quad—filled with towering oak trees and wide open spaces surrounded by squat school buildings and classrooms. If I hurried, I’d make it…
I raced into the quad out of breath and slowed, turning in a complete circle.
No one around. Unease skittered through me on soft paws. The courtyard was always busy. I pulled my headphones out of my ears. Was there some sort of event I didn’t know about going on?
The unnatural silence pressed in on me for a second as the echoes of my steps faded.
Then screams—men’s and women’s—poured from Main Street. I broke into a run and shot between the buildings toward the sound.
Cars littered the intersection. Some guy rear-ended someone else, causing a chain reaction down the road. A horn blared nearby, and a faint breeze blew the smell of gasoline, smoke, and copper my way. Clusters of people stood among the wreckage.
In the closest group, a short dude around my own age, nineteen, twenty maybe, bellowed at a huge, hairy bear of a man with a too tight grungy white t—shirt with his belly hanging out. The short dude wore a ton of bling, pants hanging low. He rushed toward his opponent with his fists out. Though why the hell was he fighting that behemoth? Talk about lose-lose.
The bear didn’t hesitate. He hammered a punch to the dude’s temple and knocked him out cold. One hit. Bam.
My stomach dropped. I covered my mouth and backed up until my butt hit brick.
The bear looked up from the guy on the ground to stare at me from only a few feet away. His eyes showed no emotion. No exultation, no pleasure, no pain. That made everything worse, somehow. They were fighting—shouldn’t he be pissed? Annoyed at the very least? Anything would have been better than nothing. It was like looking into the eyes of a doll. Dead.
I held my breath, growing dizzy, while the bear panted and cracked his knuckles.
“Guy stepped up on me,” he mumbled and staggered back toward his F150.
My hand fell to my side, and I took a deep breath before running to the short dude. He lay sprawled across the pavement, a bit of blood dribbling from the corner of his mouth.
“Are you okay?" I whispered.
My hand drifted across his face, and I felt for a pulse. Nothing. My head reeled and I sat back on my heels. What the hell was going on here? This was… I didn’t know what this was.
I pivoted to take in the rest of the scene.
To my left, two men exchanged sloppy blows. To my right, a young couple shoved each other, screaming. I recognized them from calculus class. They were dating and all over each other last I knew. This didn’t make sense.
But not everybody was fighting. A businesswoman power—walked up and down the sidewalk, smiling. One guy wore exercise clothes, a pedometer hung from his belt, and blood dripped down his face onto his chest from his nose. He walked, slack—jawed and silent, around the debris in the middle of the road. Luck must have been on his side because no one hit him. Not that there was much traffic. Why wasn’t there any traffic?
As if summoned, a car screeched around the corner fast, rolled up over the curb, and slammed into a telephone pole nearby.
It just missed an old lady who wrestled with a young punk who apparently tried to steal her purse. The old broad beat the punk with said handbag. He cringed, trying to get away. Go, grandma.
The crash pulled me out of my trance.
I needed to call the police. My hands shook when I grabbed my phone from my backpack and tapped in the numbers. I tucked my hair behind my ears. The smoke stung my eyes as I gazed around, keeping track of every whack thing in the area. What was going on here?
No one answered at 9-1-1. I looked at the phone. My reception was good; I had four bars. I shook it a few times for good measure, then tried again. No answer. It rang and rang.
What use was the emergency line if no one answered? Wasn’t it staffed twenty-four seven? I tried two more times before I gave up and called my mom. The answering machine picked up after eight rings.
I hung up without leaving a message and stared at my phone as if it held all the answers. This wasn’t normal; the police should have already been here. Hysterical laughter pushed at my throat. I swallowed it back and straightened. I could—.
“Hey you, girl, did you do this?” The bear shuffled back toward me.
“What? Do wha—.” I blinked at him.
He growled and stepped closer, pushing back his Moon baseball cap. He got so close, I smelled the coffee on his breath. “I don’t believe you. You did this.”
“No, I didn’t do any—.”
“You did this.” He snarled, his eyes going flat.
Out of nowhere, he swung at me. I dodged left. His knuckles grazed the side of my cheek. One of his fingers caught in my hair, pulling. Sharp pain made me see pretty stars. My head throbbed. Roaring filled my ears as I stumbled back, cradling my jaw.
He swung again and missed. For some reason, the sight of his hand fixated me as it flashed in front of my face. His fingers were bruised and swollen, his knuckles hairy. A trickle of blood dripped down his wrist. Not his. He didn’t have any cuts on his hands. Maybe from the guy earlier, I didn’t know. All I knew was that this was fucking crazy.
I shoved him away. My heart skipped a beat then started to race. I could not believe this. None of this could possibly be real.
I held my hands up in surrender, but he continued to advance.
He looked down at me, eyes focused, intent clear.
No way I’d beat this guy. He had at least a foot on me and over a hundred pounds. Plus, I saw what he did to the dude earlier.
I bolted toward the cafeteria without looking back. I had my running shoes on and about fifteen years on the guy. I could do it.
When I got there, I checked to make sure the bear hadn’t followed. Clear. Just in case, I grabbed a chair and wedged it under the handles.
My breath whooshed out, and I hugged myself, hands running down my arms, adrenaline still coursing through my veins.
What the hell?
Dishes rattled behind me, and I jerked to stare at the room behind me. A few of the tables were still occupied. There. Red-hair. Sarah! Thank God.
Relief flooded me. I hurried over and plopped down next to her.
She looked up at me with blank hazel eyes devoid of their usual spark. “Hey.”
“What the hell’s going on?” It came out harsher than I intended, but given the situation, she’d have to forgive me.
“What?” Sarah asked.
My eyebrows winged up. “Where is everyone? I saw this huge accident on the street outside and people were fighting. I tried to call 9-1-1, but no one picked up. Then some dude tried to hit me!”
Sarah didn’t appear to be duly impressed. She continued to stare at me, her eyes empty, that same lack of expression the bear had. I got goose bumps and not the good kind.
“What?” Her eyes narrowed. “Who’re you?”
“What game are you playing?” My voice rose on the last note. “We’ve been friends since kindergarten. We sit next to each other in chemistry—talk every day. You know, Beta? Elizabeth. They call us the twins?” I waved a lock of my own matching auburn hair.
What was going on here? I gave a slow, disbelieving head shake. Hell, she was the reason I was late this morning. She’d broken up with her boyfriend and had wanted to party. I was her wing woman. I couldn’t let her go by herself, now could I? My mind flashed to me dragging her back home in the wee hours of the morning, plowed off her ass. She hung off me, singing and saying how much she loved me, how I was her best friend in this silly French accent, making me laugh.
How much did she have to drink? I thought just the three but maybe someone slipped her something? Hell, did someone slip everyone something?
“Beta?” Sarah said, interrupting my thoughts. “I don’t know anyone named Beta.”
“What?” My stomach dropped again. I felt like I was on a roller coaster the way my stomach twisted.
Sarah glanced down and swirled her fork through the syrup on her pancakes, ignoring me.
I was her BFF; how could she forget me? Seriously, what was going on? Was I still dreaming? I stared at her a second longer. My hands trembled and I didn’t know what to do. That was unlike me. I needed the police. I called 9-1-1 again; this time, the line was busy.
Yes. I pumped my fist. Progress, kind of. I dialed my mom next. The answering machine picked up. I had the phone up to my ear when Sarah glanced up at me again.
“Who’re you?” she repeated.
I shivered as I gazed into her clueless eyes. The bottom fell out of my gut. I let my hand drop, slid off my seat, and stood up. This was not normal. This was not the result of alcohol or drugs. There was something seriously wrong here.
“No one, Sarah,” I whispered.
She nodded and resumed her pancake destruction.
A tray skidded across the room with a clatter. A Goth chick stood nearby, chest heaving.
“Bugs,” she screamed. “Bugs.” She started smacking at her arms and legs. When she backed up, her long black dress caught on a chair and ripped. She twirled, swinging her hands. “They’re everywhere.”
Tears streamed down her face as she palmed a knife. I lunged and grabbed the utensil. Hard to cut yourself with a butter knife, but given her expression, I didn’t want to take the chance.
“Hey, give me that,” I said with a fake smile and brushed at her arms. “See there, all gone now.”
She hiccupped out a breath then smiled. “Okay.”
That look, the lack of expression.
I knew this blank, trusting look. I knew this madness. My grandmother had had Alzheimer’s and acted like this near the end. Mindless and happy one minute, angry and violent the next. We never knew what would set her off. But these weren’t elderly men and women. These were teenagers. Alzheimer’s was for old people.
While we were talking, Sarah must have gotten up and left. When I glanced back at her table, she wasn’t there. Probably went back to her room. I’d call her later. She’d obviously been feeling the effects of this too. Whatever this was. That had to be why she didn’t remember me.
Skirting the counters, I headed to the kitchen to search for a landline. Maybe the cell towers were out. I’d use a regular phone. There must be one around here someplace.
As I entered the room, a cook craned to look at me. She cut some carrots. They were long since minced into teeny tiny orange pieces, and she massacred the remains.
She didn’t ask me any questions, just stared, knife going up and down.
I glanced around the kitchen. Gleaming countertops, tile floor, and dirty dishes in the sink met my eyes. And other than the one cook, no one was around. I listened and heard the faint piping of a TV. I homed in on the sound.
The cook kept slaughtering the vegetables.
A small break room opened up immediately off the kitchen. It contained a round table, chairs, refrigerator, and countertop. A bulletin board and time clock decorated one side of the room. Attached to the wall was a twelve-inch television, tuned to a sports channel.
I searched for the remote. No dice. I stood on a chair and used the TV controls to cruise the channels.
I put on KDKA, the local news. The segment was about a dog show the night before. No sidebar, no flashing footer at the bottom with breaking news. No latest report. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. How could people not be reporting this? How could this not be news? An entire university of students gone bonkers—violence in the streets.
I surveyed the room for that landline. An old-fashioned dial phone hung against the wall, next to the calendar. Today’s date, Thursday, September 28, was circled.
I picked up the phone and listened for the dial tone, then I called the police.
I dialed my home number and waited, shifting from one foot to the other.
After four rings, the answering machine picked up. This time I stayed on the line.
“Sorry, we can’t answer the phone right now. Please leave a message,” I heard myself say in a perky ten-year-old voice.
I remembered when I made that message. I’d felt very mature. Since then, I’d tried so many times to get my mom to change it. She refused. She loved my giggle at the end. She said it made her smile every time she heard it. I fussed at her, but I loved that she kept my message. Such a weird thing to think about, given all that was going on right now.
The machine beeped.
“Mom, give me a call when you get this. There is some crazy stuff going on.” I paused, phone held tight to my ear. “I love you…”
Standing there, I realized I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know who to call. This situation defied reason. I was the calm one, the girl with the plan. My eyes burned, but I forced myself to take a deep breath. What would my dad do? Not cry about it that was for sure. I needed a new strategy. The police would be here soon.
A crash rang out from the kitchen. What now?
I sprinted back the way I’d come. The Goth girl from the cafeteria swung a knife at the cook.
“Bugs,” the girl bellowed. “There were bugs in the food.”
The cook studied her, bleeding from a thin slice along her shoulder. When the girl raised her blade again, the cook used her own knife and stabbed the girl in the belly without a word.
My stomach fell. This was worse than a roller coaster.
When the cook pulled the knife out, sticky blood sprayed the room. My breath hitched. A splash hit me across the chest.
The red stood out starkly against my clean white shirt. The sight mesmerized me. So red. So very, very red. Time faded as I stared at the drops that stained my clothes. My vision went gray, and I leaned against the doorway. A shriek broke my reverie.
The Goth girl had staggered back and now launched herself at the cook, injury ignored. They both started to swing at each other. Blood arced to paint the ceiling, the walls. Someone must have hit an artery. Oh God.
I covered my mouth, my mind whirling. I knew better than to approach them. This couldn’t be happening. None of this should be happening.
I raced back to the break room and barricaded the door. There was food, water, and a small bathroom off to the side. I could stay here awhile. No use being brave. I didn’t know where Sarah had gotten to, and no one picked up when I called. I’d hide here until the police arrived.
I cranked the volume on the TV to cover the noise of the fighting, but I found myself drifting to the door and straining to listen anyways. It didn’t take long. The Goth girl gave a sharp cry. A crash followed, and then silence.
I slid down to the floor onto my knees, facing the door.
“Who’s there?” I covered my mouth with my hand, suppressing a giggle. Not the time to laugh. But the urge remained. That was just panic. Relax. Deep breath in and out. In and out. I couldn’t panic now. I shook out my hands and sat on my ass.
A fierce slam jarred the door.
I put my hands over my ears and concentrated on the screen. Still the dog show. Who watched this stuff?
The clip seemed interminably long. A minute later, a tampon commercial flashed on the screen. A pool of blood slid under the door. The noises stopped after that.
In the ensuing hours, I tried countless times to call home, to call 9-1-1, every number in my contact list. No answer. A time or two, I thought I heard people moving around outside, but I didn’t investigate. I kept the door locked and watched the TV for news. If someone identified themselves as police, I’d answer, but not for anyone else. Not now.
I confiscated a knife from a drawer and waited behind the door. That way, if anyone got in, they wouldn’t see me right away, and I still had a clear view of the TV.
My heart rate slowed, but my hands kept shaking. Huh. I didn’t know why. I should be calm now. I needed to be calm, but my mind spun like a hamster on a wheel. None of this made any sense. What the hell was going on here?
Maybe food would help me settle, caffeine. I grabbed a sandwich from the fridge, and a drink. But the thought of food nauseated me even more, and I threw it away, waiting.
The clock read 8:34 p.m. when I gathered the nerve to venture outside. It would be dark now, easier to hide. I’d managed to nap a little bit, but my mind raced too much for true rest. My eyes felt gritty, and I still smelled carrots. God, that was gross.
I lived on campus, but my mom was only fifteen miles away. By car, that wasn’t too bad. On foot, the trip would suck, but I could make it. I had to make it. There were no police around, nobody had come. I needed to go home. I needed to see my mom and make sure she was okay.
I shook out my sweaty hands, then rubbed then down my outer thighs while my gut did internal cartwheels. I could do this. I grabbed the doorknob and stepped across the dried puddle on the floor into the hallway.
Hatch marks scored the outer surface of the door, and a bloody kitchen knife rested near the outstretched hand of the cook who lay across the threshold.
I averted my eyes and skirted around the cook’s inert form then walked through the kitchen into the cafeteria, failing to avoid the blood-tinged carrot-soaked air.
Wait. Red hair.
Sarah! She sat in a different spot by the cereal dispensers. She’d put her face down on the table, her red hair spread across the plate; some vomit decorated the floor. Guess she didn’t head back to her room after all. And she was so still.
My heart clenched. Please no.
Slowly, I approached and touched her shoulder. No response. Did she have a seizure or something? I lifted her head.
Her hazel eyes were wide and filmed over. Dead. Pancake and puke dribbled down her chin.
I let go and her head fell. The thunk when it hit the table made me jump.
Oh god. Oh god. Oh god.
The smell of the sweet syrup made me sick; my vision blurred. I turned and dry-heaved next to the body. The strength went out of my legs and I sat. My head dropped between my knees.
My mind flashed to that same image of her hanging off me, saying how much she loved me, how I was her best friend. I saw her running away from me on the playground when we were little, passing me notes in high school, all the sleepovers as kids.
I brushed the back of her head with my hand. My insides twisting, mouth dry. I should’ve found her. I should’ve taken her with me to that room. But what if she went nuts? I didn’t know, but too late now. She was my best friend. I should’ve looked for her.
I’m so sorry.
A sob slipped out, then another until I couldn’t stop. My dad would have been so disappointed in me. I rocked back and forth on my seat.
Oh god. What was I going to do? Nobody was answering. What the fuck was going on here! What sort of madness was this?
I rubbed my hands over my wet face, wiping away my tears. Home. That was still the plan. I needed to go home. My heart pounded a sick rhythm in my ears, and my thoughts scattered. I needed to find my mom.
No room for tears, not now.
I ran toward the street. There were a few pools of blood. No signs of the bear or anyone else. Nobody alive, anyway. The short dude from earlier remained curled on the ground. Cars lay scattered in piles, and more debris littered the asphalt. The same damn car alarm blared in the distance, and the air carried the smell of decay.
Red lights bathed the ground, and I looked up.
This time I couldn’t hold back the laughter.