Part 1: Natalie — The Bookworm
Part 2: Danica — The Party Girl
Written by Mikel Andrews
17 Years Ago
Almonds and syrup.
That’s what the wildflowers in the woods behind the park smelled like, Elise decided. She plucked one of the milky white blossoms just below its base and tucked the ragged stem behind her ear, pinning back a lock of her summer-platinum hair. A giant grin split beneath her reddened nose, and she wiggled her loose front tooth.
It was the perfect weekend. Yesterday, she’d turned eight. And today her best friend was getting married.
Not for reals, Elise knew. Jess was just pretending. They both were. But was it pretending or practice? Someday she was going to be in Jess’s wedding for reals and Elise knew, even at eight, it had to be perfect. After all, Jess was Elise’s best friend and always would be. So if anything went wrong at Jess’s for reals wedding, Elise would just die.
She knew it.
So this was practice, Elise discovered. Practice makes perfect.
“It’s almost time.”
Elise stood up from the ground and scowled at the mud left on her bare knees. She rubbed away at the splotches but only succeeded in smearing them. This would not do. If this were for reals, the stains would have been on her bridesmaid dress.
Hoping Jess wouldn’t notice, Elise whirled around and found Jess grinning proudly, cheeks dimpled. The bride-to-be wore a white t-shirt tinged pink at the bottom, but you couldn’t see the pink anymore because Elise had wrapped her in two rolls of paper towels in order to make an elegant wedding dress.
“You look beautiful,” Elise told Jess. That’s what you were supposed to say to brides. “But you need flowers.”
“Flowers?” Jess whistled through the gap in her smile.
Nodding, Elise approached her with the handful of honeysuckles and pinned a couple in Jess’s hair just like hers. “Just a couple. We need to save the rest for your bouquet.”
Jess squealed and nodded in agreement.
Elise frowned. “Where’s the groom?”
“Elise!” Jess cried. “You can’t see the groom before the wedding!”
“Oh. Right,” Elise agreed hesitantly. She frowned again. “But how do you meet him then?”
This one stumped Jess too. She chewed on her lip a bit and then shook her head. “Never mind that part.”
Elise shrugged it off and tidied up the wildflower bouquet. “This is going to be the best wedding ever.”
“Can I be in it?” a quiet voice, cold as a gravestone, asked from behind the two girls. The whisper was all gravel and smoke and gave Elise the creeps. Jess gave a shriek as they both turned around to see who had snuck up on them.
“Oh,” Jess groaned. “It’s you.”
Elise didn’t recognize the girl at first, with only tiny tufts of her telltale red hair sticking out from beneath the hood of her faded black sweatshirt. The girl tugged up and down on the shirt’s zipper, pointing her eyes anywhere but at Elise and Jess.
“Hi,” Elise said quietly, ashamed. Just because they weren’t supposed to like the new girl in the neighborhood, didn’t mean Elise had to be rude. “You’re Mary, right?”
“Yeah.” Mary’s eyes met hers for just a second. “Hi.”
“What do you want, Mary? We’re busy,” Jess lisped hotly, crossing her arms. Elise cringed as a couple of the white flowers fell from the cluster in Jess’s grip.
“Just to play,” Mary answered innocently, scratching the back of her leg with the opposite shoe. “My dad says I should meet some kids my own age. Some girls.”
Elise looked up from the fallen petals to stare at Mary. It seemed like the girl’s face was set in a perpetual frown, and Elise suddenly felt sorry for the frail girl, realizing she could never be pretty.
How sad that Mary would grow up plain.
With a hmph, Jess unclenched her arms, only slightly, and turned to Elise as the loose strands of paper toweling flowed around her like tendrils of a tornado. “Elise,” she said, but it came out like Eleeth because of her missing tooth, “I think I’d like my wedding someplace perfecter.”
Elise nodded. Of course. “Like where?”
Jess feigned thinking about it, although it was clear that she’d already decided. “Down by the creek, I think.”
“My dad says I can’t go down there,” Mary added quietly. “It’s dangerous.”
Jess’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Even perfecter.”
So they left Mary there. Jess, stalking away like a fairytale queen that had just ordered a beheading, and Elise, daintily but desperately trying to keep the bride’s dress intact. She looked back only once to watch Mary retreat into the shadows of the forest. There were no tears on the girl’s face as Elise had feared, but her dry eyes turned out to be even sadder.
As if Mary expected it. As if it had all gone exactly as it was supposed to.
Deeper into the woods, a creek babbled over stones. It was the first sunny day after many rainy ones, and the usually quiet creek whispered loudly to anyone listening.
The wedding went on as planned. Elise played all the roles—bridesmaid, pastor, photographer—while Jess only played the bride. At some point, Elise hoped she and Jess would switch, but Jess was always the bride and Elise didn’t argue.
“Get a picture of me, photographer,” Jess ordered. “I want the creek behind me. Make it look like the ocean.”
Like her words were a magic spell, Jess slipped on a wet stone and disappeared. The creek took her with barely a shriek. Elise screamed—she was pretty sure she screamed—as the bouquet came apart in the air like down from a dandelion. She watched, frozen, as Jess flailed about in the water, the paper towel dress unraveling and slicking against her arms and face like paper mache.
Elise did nothing.
In fact, the only thing she could do was think, Jess is dead.
My best friend is gone.
And just as a spasm quivered in her knee, telling her it was okay to step forward, Elise looked upstream and saw a hand shoot out of the bramble and grasp Jess’s frantic fluttering paw.
Jess cried and pleaded and begged for Mary not to let go, even though the strain on the redhead’s face showed that she had no intention of losing her grip.
“Barbie Doll!” Mary screamed, and it took Elise too long to realize the girl was talking to her. “A little help, please!”
Elise woke up. Sounds and scents and time itself rushed over her like a tidal wave and a sense of urgency finally spurred her in the side. In an instant, she was at Mary’s side, grabbing for Jess’s arm, although Mary had done most of the work already. As though the creek had decided it didn’t want Jess after all, the pull of the water finally gave the girl up and Jess and Mary fell to the ground, a thicket of arms, legs, and tissue, sloppy and wet.
Elise just stood there, mouth hanging open, knees trembling.
The new girl had just saved her best friend.
“You came back for me,” Jess kept saying. “She came back for me.”
“Are you okay?” Mary said quietly, helping Jess to her feet.
Jess found her balance, pulling away the suckling strands of paper. “I think so.”
“Okay,” Mary replied. She lingered another second, glanced at Elise, then turned and walked back up the slope away from the creek.
“Hey,” Jess shouted after her.
Mary turned back. “Yeah?”
Jess chewed on her lip like usual. “You want to be in my wedding?”
Mary mustered a sort-of grin. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Jess replied, grinning widely as the little redhead returned to make them a trio. “You can be my bridesmaid. This wedding is just for pretend—but you can be in my real one someday, okay?”
Mary looked shocked, like she’d discovered a new taste and didn’t know what to make of it quite yet. “You mean it?”
“Yeah I mean it,” Jess said warmly. “I swear it.”
“Okay, then,” Mary agreed. She let Jess take her arm and the two started up the slope without Elise.
“Jess,” Elise called. “We have to find you a new dress!”
Jess turned on her, lips taut, humorless. A look burned in her eyes. Elise wasn’t sure what it meant, but she knew it wasn’t good.
“Mary is my bridesmaid,” Jess told her coldly. “You can just be the photographer now.”
It was a dumb thought to come upon. Not even a thought, just wisps of a memory from ages ago. Silly, in fact, given the circumstances. And yet Elise couldn’t think of anything but.
Her head throbbed. Cool tiles behind her head leeched the dull ache from her skull, but it still felt cracked. Damaged.
Her eyes shot open. Where am I?
The last thing she remembered was being pinned down behind some stool legs where what seemed like thousands of guys—no, not human, no way—were trying to claw their way to her. And before that—
“Oh, God,” she muttered.
“Elise?” a soft voice asked. “Are you okay?”
Natalie, Jess’s future sister-in-law was sitting across from her in a bathroom—a bathroom?—watching her with squinting, barely focused eyes. Where were her glasses?
“Yeah, Nat,” Elise replied. “How’d I get here?”
Where is here?
“We’re in the bathroom of The Attic,” Natalie explained. “Mary brought you. Then she went back for Jess.”
Back for Jess. Something about that rang in her head too. Just a wisp like before. “What—”
“They’re vampires,” Natalie said flatly, almost as though she was exhausted of the answer. “Mary thinks it’s her fault.”
Natalie was pointing to Elise’s left. She followed the accusatory finger across the bathroom to the sinks, where Danica held herself up to a long mirror riddled with phone numbers and obscenities. A long cascade of blood ran from a gash in the girl’s throat. Tears pooled and fell from Elise’s eyes as she stared at the wound on her friend’s once-perfect neck. Though the wound didn’t appear too deep and most of the blood there was dried, not fresh, Elise could tell it was going to leave a scar.
“No,” Elise cried, fighting vertigo to stand. She hobbled to Danica’s side, her bare feet cold against the ceramic floor. “Oh, sweetie, no.”
She reached Danica, placing a hand on her friend’s bare arm. Danica went rigid, pulling her arm away from Elise’s grip. Elise caught Danica’s burning glare in the mirror. The spiky-haired girl didn’t need words to send the message—if Elise wanted to keep her hand, it better stay off Danica.
“She can’t talk,” Natalie said, crossing her arms hotly. “But Mary is going to have a few questions for her when she gets back.”
In the mirror, Danica rolled her eyes and let go a breathy sigh. Even that made her wince, and her hand went to her throat.
Elise whirled on Natalie. “It’s not her fault!”
“No?” Natalie replied acidly. “Whose was it? Yours?”
“No,” Elise answered reflexively. “Why does it have to be somebody’s fault? They’re vampires—you said it yourself.”
“Yeah,” Natalie said, squinting—although this time Elise felt it wasn’t because of her missing lenses. “And somebody made them real mad.”
No matter how she’d pushed the memory down until then, what happened in that alley came rocketing back to Elise in an instant. A big-screen TV that she couldn’t look away from—and the movie was real bad.
As much as she tried, Elise couldn’t put her finger on why she’d done it. Was it the drinks? Was it some sort of supernaturally sexy vampire charm? She prayed it was a love spell, or a drug. Yeah, she’d even take being drugged over the thought that this might have been her doing. Her choosing.
The idea that she was of sound mind and body when she’d jumped all over that guy in the alley and cheated on Mark without so much as a second guess was almost scarier than what followed.
That was the one she couldn’t tell. And even though she hated herself a little more for it, she was actually relieved that Danica couldn’t say a word. Danica probably didn’t know the whole truth anyway. True, Elise’s memory was a little spotty, but she was pretty sure Danica had been occupied in the alley when that guy—Jesus, she didn’t even get his name—had swept her away into that building. She thought it might’ve been another bar, maybe a hallway, or just the entrance, but it was quieter. No lights, no music—no people. Just her and him and too many buttons to be undone.
Elise shivered as she remembered ravaging him, putting her mouth on any spot of bared flesh. He smelled so sickly sweet. Clean and pure.
When are you getting married? he asked her.
Between mouthfuls she’d answered him. I’m not.
You’re not the bride?
That’s a shame, he gasped. Guess I’ll have to go back for another drink after you.
It didn’t mean too much in the moment. Just typical frat boy arrogance. She’d been a leggy blonde in college once—nothing she hadn’t heard before. But it was enough to make her skin crawl. And that crawling reminded her where she was. Who she was.
Elise was the good girl. The saint. She was not Danica.
Stop, she whispered.
So she pulled away from him. Or tried to—he wasn’t giving up an inch. His hand climbed higher on her thigh. Clenched tighter. Angered, she channeled some of that old volleyball strength, the kind that used to level girls at the net, and sent him reeling backwards, colliding against a wall.
He hissed at her. Hissed. Like an animal.
For a second, he didn’t understand what she’d done. Maybe he wasn’t used to girls saying no. The look of disbelief on his face was sickening. He actually smirked as he started for her again. Slowly, as if having her was so inevitable that he didn’t need to rush.
So Elise rushed. Feeling some kind of countertop behind her, she braced herself, rearing up both her coiled viper legs and planting her heels square in his chest. He flew backwards, harder than before.
One of Elise’s stilettos went with him.
Both of them looked just as surprised as they stared down at the shiny black shoe sticking out from his chest, peeking from beneath his blazer like a shadowy figure behind a stage curtain.
Their eyes met, but his turned blaze white. Elise thought maybe his eyes were rolling back in his head, but in hindsight, the pupils had just disappeared, burned away by luminescence. A similar light appeared in the back of his throat as his mouth dropped open impossibly far.
And then he collapsed.
And Elise ran.
“Elise,” Natalie was saying. “Elise, are you still with us?”
Elise shook away the thought. Trembled it away. “Yeah.”
“Then answer me,” Natalie continued. “Did you see Jess?”
Jess. Elise’s breath caught in her throat, jagged. No.
She couldn’t remember where Jess was. Not really. She had caught a glimpse of the head bachelorette as she sought refuge behind the bar stools, but, no, she didn’t remember what had become of her. She only really remembered Mary clearing away the savage boys clawing at her.
Mary. She’d cut through them like a knife, cleaving an escape route. She’d splintered a leg at the knee with the ease of taking a step, and put a wooden table leg through another guy’s temple. So effortless. So precise.
Elise had just enough time to think, What happened to Mary?
Then Mary had offered her a hand. Time to go, Legs.
And that’s when things went real fuzzy.
“Elise!” Natalie jarred her again.
Elise shook her head. “No. No, I didn’t see Jess. Not after they swarmed me.”
Natalie’s face turned positively green. Elise’s words had poisoned her, and the infection spread quickly to Elise. A mixture of guilt and arsenic swam through her veins.
It was me.
I caused this.
And Mary saved me.
But Mary was always going back for Jess. From that day at the creek right up until now. Even with what Mary had done, she was still the better friend. The real saint.
Thank God Jess had invited her.
“Mary will bring her back,” Elise promised Natalie. “She always does.”
Natalie’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
Even Danica’s bowed head picked up, her ears pricked. Elise knew that, despite everything that had happened, the redhead was the real mystery to Danica. She’d treated Mary as her nemesis since the night began—since Jess had first mentioned Mary’s name to her, actually—but Elise knew why Mary was there. It wasn’t just because of an eight-year-old’s promise either. Mary was meant to be here.
To clean up after Elise’s mess. To save Jess.
“Nothing,” Elise finally answered. She turned to Danica. “Dani, please, I’m so sorry. Let me have a look at that.”
Danica regarded her with a sneer. She sucked in a painful breath and expunged it hotly through her nose. Finally, she shut her sparkly eyelids and the harsh angle of her shoulders drooped tiredly. Elise took it as a safe sign and wrapped her arms gently around her friend. Danica didn’t return the hug, but didn’t pull away either.
It was a start.
“I’m sorry, Dani,” Elise sobbed quietly into her ear. “It was me. I know it was me.”
Elise felt a warm hand at the small of her back and the slight clench of Danica’s arm. A dam broke behind her eyes and her tears gushed hotly onto Danica’s shoulder.
Like an eerily warm fog, Elise felt Danica’s strained whisper on her ear. “You sure ’bout Mary?”
Elise shivered. She could almost feel the pain that Danica had stifled to speak. Still, she managed a smile. “She’ll bring her back, I know it. Now let’s get you cleaned up.”
Using a paper towel from the dispenser and some pink hand soap, Elise made a crude swab with which she gently swiped away the blood at Danica’s neck.
“What do you think is happening out there?” Natalie asked, returning to her vigil of the badly-chipped bathroom door. Judging from the thickness of her lost glasses, Elise assumed the young girl could barely make out the door inches from her face, but it didn’t matter. Natalie was staring at passed it. Beyond it.
Elise didn’t have a clue what was happening on the other side of that door. Her entire reality had been upended in the last few minutes. She thought she’d known the guy in the alley–or at least the type. She thought she knew who Mary was.
Thought she knew herself.
Yeah, that was it. The thing that kept gnawing at her. Mary was different and, apparently, so was Elise. Something had changed since they last met.
Or rather, since they’d all parted ways.
7 Years Ago
Senior year couldn’t have lasted any longer if time was moving backward. Elise was so, so, so ready to graduate it was killing her. Granted she loved high school, but didn’t most popular girls?
Yeah, that’s right: Elise was popular. She knew it. She wasn’t going to pretend the cliques didn’t exist. And she, along with Jess and Mary, had garnered a certain fame from their four epic seasons of volleyball. They were the Holy Trinity. Unstoppable. A nearly perfect record of wins, championship trophies, newspaper stories—the three of them even ate free at most restaurants along the strip in downtown Irvine. As long as she lived, she’d never forget the crowd chanting.
It was a nickname from Mary that had turned into a legacy as she stuffed girls at the net. She was a monolith of intimidation on that front line.
But Elise was ready to move on to bigger and better things. College was right around the corner. She could taste it.
In fact, she was holding the acceptance letter from Macalester and subsequent paperwork in her hands as she waited for Jess and Mary at the local coffee house, Perks. The three of them were meeting to fill out the forms together—it was only fitting since they’d accepted the full-ride volleyball scholarship together.
They were a team. Nobody broke up the Holy Trinity—not even a prestigious college like Macalester.
Elise’s eyes shot to the door of the shop as the tinkling of entrance bells was followed by Jess’s signature squeal. The caramel-haired girl strode towards Elise’s table, a beacon of gold-and-red pride in her varsity letterman jacket.
“This is it,” Jess said, the same Macalester paperwork trembling in her hand. “This is really it.”
Elise smiled. She was pumped about the scholarship, no doubt, but not as much as Jess. With Elise’s family funds, she could go anywhere she wanted for college, grades or not. But Jess was a different story. Macalester was so far out of her price range, it had taken a miracle for her to be offered enrollment.
Sometimes Elise wondered if that wasn’t Jess’s plan all along. That girl always played her heart out. Took the losses the hardest. Maybe every bump, set, and spike really was her future at stake.
Either way, it had paid off. Big time.
“Are you psyched or what?” Jess asked Elise as the server brought her her favorite smoothie. On the house, of course. “I couldn’t even sleep last night.”
“You better have,” Elise scolded her playfully. “Season’s not over yet.”
Jess held up the acceptance letter and winked. “Might as well be.”
Elise rolled her eyes. “So now you’re just gonna phone it in, huh?”
Jess grew serious. “Never. Is Mary here yet?”
Elise shook her head. “Not yet.”
Just as Jess was craning her neck to double check, the bells tinkled again and Mary was walking towards them. She didn’t carry herself with the same confidence as Jess, and her letterman jacket seemed more like a heavy cloak than a coat. It hung from her frame, baggy, weighing her down.
Although she was hunched more than normal, Elise noticed. And her face looked tired. Her eyes red.
Jess sprang from her chair and flung her arms around the redhead. “There she is!”
“Hi, Jess,” Mary said in that quiet voice of hers. “Legs.”
“Hey, Mar,” Elise shot back. She held up the paperwork. “Ready to hash this out?”
“Yeah, here’s the thing,” Mary said, pulling away from Jess. “I’m not going.”
Jess half-laughed. “What?”
Elise felt a tingling in her stomach. A queasiness, but not hers. Like she was feeling Jess’s reaction in her gut. “What do you mean?”
Tiny pearls of water gathered in the corners of Mary’s eyes and Elise realized where the redness came from.
“I’m sorry,” Mary sobbed, just a whisper. “I’m going post-secondary. Out of state.”
“Post-secondary,” Elise mimicked. The implications swam in her head.
“You’re joking, right?” Jess asked, but she was already crying too. The hand that clutched her acceptance letter had started to ball into a fist. “I mean, you’re kidding. Tell me you’re fucking kidding, Mary.”
Elise wasn’t sure if Jess got it fully. That going post-secondary meant Mary wasn’t just out after graduation–she was out now. Before the season was over.
Mary’s eyes pressed shut and she shook her head. “I got a better offer, Jess. An academic one. I have to take it.”
“But, but,” Jess stuttered, wiping her nose. “The deal is for all three of us. The Holy Trinity, remember?”
Mary’s lip quivered. “I can’t go to college for fucking volleyball, Jessica. Okay? I’m sorry, but—”
“Fuck you, Mary!” Jess screamed wetly. “You’re a selfish bitch, you know that? A selfish fucking bitch!”
Jess stormed away, making for the door. Mary reached for her once, but Jess swatted her hand away. Just plowed right through her.
Jess spun around. ”You better listen, Mary, because this is the last time you and I will ever speak: I hope you burn for this. I hope your precious academic career goes straight to hell–your whole fucking life, in fact.”
Mary sniffed. ”You don’t mean that.”
“I mean it all right. I swear by it,” Jess hissed. ”You’re dead to me, Mary. Dead!“
The door clattered behind her, the bells erupting into a cacophony. Elise watched Jess through the windows as Jess got in her car, slammed her palms on the steering wheel, and drove off.
Mary sniffled. “I’m sorry, Legs. I really am.”
Elise was crying now too. Not because she’d lost out on the scholarship—those were a dime a dozen to her—but because she was losing Mary. She was losing the trio they’d built over a decade. The Holy Trinity. Broken.
“Aren’t you going after her?” Elise sobbed. “You always go after her.”
“Not this time,” Mary sighed, shaking her head. “She’s on her own.”
to be concluded