Mary Matus is a graduate of Susquehanna University. She lives in Pennsylvania, where she works as a customer service representative. She is an avid book worm, and her influences range from Stephen King to Joyce Carol Oates and Virginia Woolf. She has been a frequent contributor to wildviolet.net.
High School Hell
“Last night I dreamt again of Manderly.” That first sentence of Rebecca is one of my favorite opening lines of all time. Maybe because I know what it’s like to dream of Manderly.
Not Manderly, actually. But my high school.
A lot of people dream of their high school. They dream that they’re back in school again. They dream they’re hanging out with their old friends. Maybe if high school wasn’t a pleasant experience for you, they’re more like nightmares. I’ll bet you don’t have nightmares like mine.
There’s certain things you just take for granted in life. Like high school reunions. We were a small school, averaging between 100 and 150 students per graduating class. Twenty-two years later, you’d think all of us would be alive.
You’d be wrong.
They called it the greatest tragedy our community had ever seen. Of the 120 students in the senior class, 116 were killed in a fire at that year’s prom. The other three were killed in a car accident shortly afterwards.
Since I was the only survivor, all the graduation activities were cancelled. They offered to include me at the graduation at the neighboring school, but the thought of me being the only senior from my class made me ill.
For months afterwards, I was a nervous wreck, so much so that my parents took me to a therapist. I went for a few years, but I never warmed to the psychiatrist. I also never got used to the idea of spilling my guts. He did help me deal with some of the guilt - “survivor’s guilt,” he called it.
I learned that the best way to deal with it was denial. I tried to move on with my life, but every so often someone would bring up my past. I wanted to keep a low profile in college. Eventually, someone on the school paper learned of the story and insisted on writing a feature article about me. I begged them not to run it, but the overzealous editor thought she was the next Woodward and Bernstein.
After college, I finally stopped seeing my therapist. By then, it had been four years and people talked about it less and less. If I had any sense, I would have moved far away. Then I would have been more secure that no one would have thought to bring it up casually.
I was okay for a while. Then the dreams started again. Nightmares, I should say. They started soon after I read in the paper that they’re finally going to demolish the old school.
“End of the Road For Old School,” the headline read. That was our class song. Apparently, the writers loved the irony of it.
In the dreams, all of my friends were dancing. They never stopped. They just kept dancing. The same song playing over and over again. Like they were frozen in time.
I had to see the school one more time. If anybody had asked me to explain, I don’t think I would have been able to.
That night I pulled in the school parking lot. The construction equipment was already there, but nobody was there. It was a foggy night. Logically I knew that the weather conditions were perfect for fog, but there almost seemed to be an otherworldly quality about it. If I had any sense I would have just left without even getting out of the car. But as I said, something was drawing me to the school.
As I approached the entrance, I saw a figure in white. Blond hair flowing halfway down her back. Emily. My best friend. How many times had I seen her burnt alive in my nightmares?
She was waltzing with her arms spread out but no dance partner.
She stopped spinning. I suddenly noticed there were burns on the right side of her face and her right arm.
“Hello Anna. How have you been? It’s been such a long time. You’ve aged, of course, but I would know you anywhere.”
She continued: “ You know the good thing about being dead is that you don’t have to age. I’ll be 18 forever. Of course, I’ll never have children or a husband or a career. All the things I dreamed about. And I don’t seem to go further than the parking lot. So, I guess there are some drawbacks, such as…” she motioned towards her burns. “I may be forever young, but I’m not forever beautiful.”
“Is that shock I see? I bet you told yourself I died from the smoke. I didn’t. I remember everything. You’ve never known pain like that. But people don’t like to think about stuff like that. So, they tell themselves little lies so they can sleep at night. Lies like ‘they probably died from the smoke’ and ‘they probably didn’t even suffer.’ But I did suffer. A lot. ”
She walked towards me. “Everybody’s waiting. Don’t you want to see them?”
I didn’t have time to register that I had my first supernatural encounter. Somehow I knew that for them that night never ended. You’re probably thinking I must be crazy not to run away. I think I was.
I stepped through the rubble. They had tape across the entrance where the door used to be. I ducked under the tape.
A voice in my head said “Leave now!” Everything about this place seemed to be about death. My heartbeat and the sound of my breath were the only sounds of life in this place of death. It seemed unnatural.
For a couple minutes, the silence was unnerving. There was a crackling behind me, and the intercom came to life.
It’s the end of the road
And I can’t let go
I belong to you
You belong to me
The verse kept repeating, like a needle stuck on an old record.
This is wrong. I snapped out of it and turned around.
Back where there was a hole in the wall was the main entrance looking just like new.
I turned around and the whole school was coming to life. The linoleum looked new. The lights started coming on one by one, working their way towards me. As the last light above me lit up, a mist started to materialize.
The mist became shapes and the shapes became outlines of people – students and teachers.
The intercom crackled again, and the principal’s voice came on. “Don’t forget about the pep rally tonight and the big game against St. Francis. Let’s give a big welcome to our most famous alumna from 1995, our only alumna from 1995.
“Anna…” I jumped as one of the forms just appeared in front of me. It was Miss Johnson. She had been the chaperone at the prom. She had been one of the younger teachers at my school. She had only been there a few years and had started right out of college.
She had been a little self-conscious that she hadn’t been much older than her students and had worn her hair up and had worn plain colors to make herself seem older.
But now she was standing in front of me with her blonde hair flowing in soft curls and she was wearing a low cut but tasteful royal blue gown. She looked so young.
When you’re a teenage, age is different. Thirty seems old. Until you actually turn 30. Seeing Miss Johnson like this, only 27 years old…
“I never went to my prom, you know. I was Little Miss Overachiever in high school. I was too busy to worry about a social life. You don’t know how much it used to hurt me, watching all you children, suddenly realizing everything I had missed out in high school. When the students heard I was chaperoning, they encouraged me to go have fun. I never confided in my students, but I think they knew that I needed that.”
“There was no way to go back in time. I knew it wouldn’t be the same as going to my high school prom, but it was the next best thing. I actually started enjoying myself. And then we saw the smoke. And heard the screams.”
“What could have ended up being one of the most fun nights of my life ended up being the last night of my life.”
“Do you remember the last thing that you said to me that day in class?”
Last words. After someone you know dies, you’re haunted by those last words. Even though more than 100 people died, I still remembered. “I….” Still in shock that I was speaking to a ghost, my voice came out as a whisper. “I told you that I would see you there.”
“But you didn’t, did you?” I just shook my head. “What was so important that you would decide not to come to your senior prom?”
“WHERE WERE YOU?” Her soft voice turned into a growl and her eyes flashed red.
I’m not stupid. I ran. I expected the door to not open but it did. But it was what was outside that scared me. The parking lot was full.
I started looking around but the fog had gotten thicker. Now it was all around. I could try to leave and run through the fog, but somehow I knew it was a bad idea.
“Do you have a date?”
I turned around, and it was my high school boyfriend Frankie. “We were supposed to go. Do you remember? But we broke up. Well, I dumped you.”
As you mature, you realize the truth of all those adages, particularly the one about hindsight. “You said I was too needy. Frankie… I was offended, even more than hurt. I was humiliated. You were right. I was a mess in high school. I was clingy and insecure.”
Looking back, he had been very patient, but it was never enough. Maybe he could have handled it better, but he wasn’t the bad guy I had believed. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” Something passed through his eyes quickly. I backed away but there was nowhere to run.
Frankie started laughing. It began as a soft chuckle and erupted into maniacal laughter. “You’re sorry. I guess I should be honored. This was for me, wasn’t it? Was I worth it?”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. I didn’t know what else he wanted me to say. A group of Frankie’s friends appeared around us.
“What are we waiting for? We’re late.” I felt myself being pulled through the parking lot. Even if I had wanted to run through the fog, the growing crowd was dragging me through the lot.
Something in my gut told me this wouldn’t end well. I had screwed up. I had made it for this long, but my time was up. What could I possibly tell them?
I was no longer in denial. It was hard to deny the past when you were surrounded by it.
The movement stopped and the crowd backed away. We were in the gym. It was decorated with streamers and balloons. Everybody was dressed up.
And so was I.
I was no longer wearing an old sweatshirt and jeans. I was wearing the red taffeta gown I had bought for the prom. The glasses I had bought five years ago were gone. Yet my eyesight was magically perfect. My hair had a gentle wave and was resting on my shoulders. It was as if I was 18 again.
I wondered if I looked in a mirror if I actually would see myself as 18. I’m sure everybody has wanted to recapture their youth. But not like this. They had brought me back to my past, and somehow I knew they would never let me leave.
“No,” I tried to scream but it came out as a hoarse whisper. I ran towards the door but Frankie grabbed me and started leading me into a waltz. The song started playing again.
It’s the end of the road
And I can’t let go
“Please…” a weak sob came out. We danced around the gym until I ended up standing on the stage.
Emily came forward. “Look at our star graduate! Our only graduate. The star reporter. The honorable purveyor of truth. She’s been lying to everyone and to herself for years.”
“I used to defend you, you know. You were my best friend. Sure, you made a mistake, but you would own up to it.”
Miss Johnson stepped up. “Yes, we’ve been watching you. All these years. Surprised? We’ve been stuck here for the most part. We’ve checked in on certain friends.”
“Your accomplices went out partying the following weekend. They were having too much fun. We couldn’t have that.”
“You had the good sense to feel guilty,” Emily continued. “That depression was more than simple survivor’s guilt. I think we all know that.”
Frankie spoke: “Some of us waited for you to do the right thing. Or maybe the idea of you living with your guilt was just too tempting. But with each interview, you kept your mouth shut. You cared more about saving your own ass.”
“And then you seemed to forget about us.”
“No. I’ve never forgotten.”
“Or maybe you just forgot about your own role in it. It’s a shame about them, but I’m just sweet and innocent.” The three of them started walking towards me.
“I never meant to hurt anyone.”
“That’s what they all say.”
“It was a prank. I wanted to set off the sprinklers. I wanted to ruin the prom like it was ruined for me.”
“You did more than ruin the prom.”
“It was only supposed to be a small fire, but it got out of control.”
“You didn’t even warn us. You just ran.”
“I’m sorry. If you let me go, I’ll go straight to the police.”
“I think we all know it’s too late for that.”
“Shall we dance?”
The following day, the headline read: Last Survivor Found Dead.