KILLERS

We all play a game sometimes, when we get too fucked up.

It’s a game of predator and prey—of boy and girl.

 

Huge cabins hang on the mountain—empty all year.

We come on the first of December, let out early on our names. Our bags are packed for us; flight reservations are booked. When we all arrive, someone’s already been there. Everything is dusted and fresh.

 

We all talk about the girl who died. A couple seasons ago she tiptoed from the house—out the back door, down the deck steps and into the frozen air. Her tiny bare feet made footprints in the snow—winding around trees, up and over snow drifts. She wanted the boys to come looking for her, all full of concern and heroism—kiss her icy lips to life. But they got distracted, as heroes do, and didn’t notice. So she slumped down at the base of a tree with long green needles to wait.

 

There is a bar in each of the houses. Off the kitchen or off the dining room sits a pool table and dark wood bar stocked with bourbons and vodkas and scotches and decanters refilled each night with red wine. Leather barstools sit, permanently pushed in just below the bar so everyone can mingle. The party never starts until five or six; we get our drinks early so our parents won’t see.

We say, “Alfred, make us drinks.”

He says, “That’s not my name.”

We snap our fingers at him. “Alfred! Drinks!”

He makes them, and we slide off—socks like skates on the new wood floors.

 

Me and the girl who died used to tease my brother’s friend. We’d pretend we didn’t know he was over, walking down the carpeted steps in our underwear to make a drink, or feed the dog, or check the news, or get an apple, or look out the window that leads to the back deck and then out to clear, cold air. He’d watch us the whole time, but we’d never turn toward him and we’d never turn away. We’d just walk straight by, then turn around and walk straight back—models on a dim runway.

 

I come downstairs late every morning to my mother slicing fruit she won’t eat and my father commenting quietly on the newspaper spread in his lap, uneaten eggs before him on the table. My head always hurts, and my mouth’s always dry. I drink orange juice and eat grapefruit with a serrated spoon.

She says, “Clean up your dishes.” But she is just saying this because she thinks it is what mothers say to daughters in the mornings. She’s like an actress. Putting on plays for dinner party guests, extended family members, empty rooms. I leave my dishes on the counter, or the table, or dump them in the sink. We have maids fluttering around the house fixing things and cleaning things like birds in a fairytale.

She says, “Dress nice for dinner tonight. The Stewarts are joining us.”

 

Just before she died, the girl stole pills from her mother’s bedside drawer. We’d take them together and stand out on the deck in the freezing wind to stay awake until we weren’t so tired, and then we’d go back in and get under the covers together, giggling from the drugs and the adrenaline of the cold, our skin touching under the sheets.

The boys would come over and we’d tell them, “Oh, not much, we were just in bed together,” our hair wild and our minds full—stomachs empty.

They’d say, “Really? Show us.”

And we’d say, “Make us,” and run down to the basement together.

 

Everyone is starting to arrive; I’ve put on something nice like my mother instructed. And I’ve taken something nice from the pills the girl left behind. I take one more and get a drink from the bar before the adults work their way in. The Stewart kids have the same idea. They are already standing with my brother by the basement stairs, glasses in hand.

In the basement, we put on music and sway around on the carpeted floor. We let some neighborhood kids in the basement door and turn the music up. Someone brought a bottle and we pass it around, drips falling from our lips as we twirl, dresses flying up around us like popped umbrellas.

We cling to the boys, draping ourselves over them, hanging from them, letting them lift us and push us between them—trading us. We stand on their feet, and they walk us around. They walk us to the couch or the corner or the guest bedroom. But when they plop us down wherever they’ve dragged us, we run screaming back together like shrill magnets.

 

The girl who died, on the night she died, kissed me in front of the boys.

They said, “Kiss.”

And we said, “Okay.”

She sat down across from me on the soft floor in the dim basement with the music low and everyone watching. We sat with our legs crossed, knees nearly touching, and she put her hands on my thighs when she leaned in.

 

The heat is always up so high in the house to keep out the cold; it makes us crazed—tugging off clothes, sucking down drinks on ice, sprinting into the night and back again.

 

Upstairs, the adults are winding down—putting on wraps, collecting parkas, and saying goodbye. But downstairs, things are only just beginning. The boys are sweating. The girls are nearly naked. We keep drinking and dancing, thinking we might really dance until we drop. They put their hands out for us from where they sit watching, and we glide our hips or legs over them.

They say, “You tease.”

They say, “You better not be wasting our time down here.”

They say, “Come closer. Come here.”

Finally they grab us. They say, “You’re acting crazy.”

“So kill us,” we say.

 

TIGER DRILL IN BUTTERFLY CLASS

Preston Rigalloe is going blind. I have a slip from his mother that says so. We trust you will deal with this gently.

I’m watching Preston try to write a sentence involving an adjective, his eyes an inch from the page and squinting. Someone could teach him braille, but in two months he won’t be a Butterfly anymore; he’ll be the middle school’s problem and I’ll retire to the coast. I debate ordering the books anyway, just to slide my fingertips over the bumps. Like, bump-bump. Daiquiri. Bump-bump. Please.

That’s when the Big Cat Alarm starts to peal.

I have a look through the split blinds. Nothing but gray sky and wind over the Play Yard. No twitching tails in the high grass by the cafeteria dumpsters. We figure it for a drill.

This is Jeffers’ first year as a teacher’s aide. She has Preston’s twin brother at the Designated Freak-Out Spot. It’s just a laminated red circle taped to the floor, but there’s nothing like the affirmation of protocol to get the scaries out, and boy is he: clasping his arms across his chest and bending at the knees while Jeffers talks him through some respiration cycles.

I’m right there with you, buddy, I’d like to say, but I’m directing traffic to the marker box, leading Preston by the shoulder.

The idea is: tigers attack where you’re not looking. From behind. But they don’t know the difference between Helen of Troy and a pair of plum-sized googly eyes glued under yellow yarn hair. So let’s doll up those paper plates, says the Board of Education Crises. Let’s get some color in those eyes. Really wow this beast.

I patrol the room. Pen stray freckles and moles on the mask faces. Jeffers gives a gap-toothed girl a nasty scar.

With a tiger loose, we wouldn’t normally risk an ice cream, but what ill could come with each child touching shoulders, buddy-to-buddy, as they walk to the creamery van?

“Are you sure?” Jeffers asks. She’s checking her email. Looking for the All Clear.

“Let them live,” I say.

We march to the Play Yard with thirty masks affixed.

Jeffers climbs to the roof with her rifle, and I slump against the brick face of the Learning Hall with a Disaster Whistle in my teeth. Watch the children pass.

The Butterflies are trudging arm-in-arm across the yard, and it is eerie—the way their faces change from human to facsimile. On one side, they’re grim, focused on reaching the ice cream unmauled, keeping their zig-zagging Flee Routes clear like we’ve practiced. And on the other side, they’re smiling, wide-eyed and vibrant in the open sun. Preston is in the middle of the chain, being led on his left and right, and thinking, what? What is happening to me?

And I can see why these masks were chosen as a countermeasure. How they might give a tiger pause.