The sound of bottles floating in the pool. Son, she said, have I got a little story for you.
She’d decided that Cliffside was a lot of people’s last stop. It wasn’t a bad neighborhood, not really; it was close to New York, offered several ways into the city, and bustled respectfully enough. The buildings were worn and wind scarred, the apartments cheap and unrenovated, the tiny groceries on every other corner all smelled like onions. People sat on their front stoops and watched you go about your business, apparently without any business of their own. Kids drove around at night playing loud music that rose and fell outside her window like ocean waves.
The apartment wasn’t bad, either. It was five rooms in a line, with floors painted brown and kitchen cabinets that were permanently sticky from decades of other people’s cooking, but the water pressure was fine and there was a lot of light, and she’d discovered that she could climb out onto the fire escape in the back and ascend to the roof, where there was something close to open air.
But everything was worn smooth and handled, handed-down and rubbed. None of it was new, all of it was off-center and settled. When she signed the lease and moved her stuff into the place, she knew she was leaning into a decline she’d begun some time before. She’d been in the city, hustling, and now she was outside the city—still hustling, but she’d lost her grip and slid down a few rungs and instead of climbing back up with trembling limbs and sweat stinging her eyes she’d decided to say fuck it and find cheaper rent.
The bodega on the corner was called Pedro’s on the faded, weathered sign, but was currently owned by a bearded man of indeterminate ethnicity who seemed to believe he was part of the resistance in some sort of blasted dystopia. When she entered and plucked two plastic bottles of gin from the back shelves, he watched her approach as if preparing to chase her when she ran. As he rang her up, he insisted in musical, accented English that he could get anything she wished, all she had to do was ask and he would track it down for her like he was running a blockade or crossing the front line to bring nylons and cans of sardines back to the trapped city dwellers instead of clicking a mouse or making a phone call.
Her neighbors were mostly older folks. The woman downstairs spoke English with an imperious energy that was disconcerting, like she was physically producing words from within herself, spitting them up as physical objects. She had a son who was obviously a challenge, an overgrown body and underdeveloped mind, and she wore the exhausted, deep-eyed look of someone who would die so deeply in sleep debt her body would immediately turn to dust.
The superintendent was a tall, gangly man named Spencer who spent his days acting as if he was single-handedly holding the building together via the magic ritual of polishing everything with a greasy rag. He was nice to her, though she began avoiding him on her second day when he helped her carry some boxes up to her apartment and then stayed for forty minutes telling her the Complete and Total History of the Building According to Spencer, composed of lengthy recitations of names in a biblical rhythm that meant nothing to her.
Up above on the top floor was a shy, quiet Japanese man who was a particular friend of Spencer’s. She found his silent, ninja-like movements around the building disconcerting; she always expected to find him lurking in a corner, filming her. He appeared to speak no English and the idea of him thinking Japanese thoughts all the time was equally disturbing. She wondered what in the world he and Spencer did, two old men with no shared language. All her theories were unsavory.
Down below somewhere was the middle-aged white man who favored the sort of shapeless, too-large shirts and trousers exclusive to middle-aged white men, giving them the appearance of having shrunk slightly since getting dressed the day before. He was polite and disinterested in the halls, and looked like a drinker to her jaundiced eye, though she never smelled any liquor on him. His name, according to the mailbox he opened promptly at noon every day as if expecting it to not be empty, was Marks.
The demon who lived above her was also a middle-aged white man, because Cliffside was the sort of neighborhood where the dregs of prior immigrant waves were still clinging to the bottom of everything like barnacles. The first night, when she collapsed in drunken exhaustion onto her mattress, one bottle of gin empty, she enjoyed five minutes of being too head-spinningly tired to sleep before ludicrous jazz music began thumping down from above—and not the sort of tinkly, coffeeshop, jazz-for-people-who-hate-jazz jazz, but the Buddy Rich-on-Speed kind that was all syncopated drums and sweaty, spitty trumpet. The man also wore shoes while walking on his old wood floors, which as far as she was concerned made him a complete, irredeemable monster.
She’d marched wearily upstairs. She was no rookie; this was the seventh apartment she’d rented in her life, if only the second without roommates, and she’d had her share of assholes who imagined they lived in some cocoon of privilege. She banged on the door for five minutes and got no response, so she marched back downstairs and dug through boxes. She found many wondrous treasures, several of which she had no memory of packing. At one point she lifted her old high school yearbook from a box and held it for a few bars of music; it felt warm and alive in her hand. Then she put it down, found some paper, and wrote her upstairs neighbor what she hoped was and intended to be the nastiest note he’d ever received in his life.
“Comes from money, Mr. Hammond,” Spencer said the next day, working his rag over a random doorknob. He glanced at her. “You’re Number Three, right?”
“Zilla,” she replied, nodding, making a private bet as to how long it would be before he started calling her Zill, a nick-name she despised but which followed her like bad luck. It was eleven o’clock in the morning and she was in the process of forcing herself to wait until the afternoon before dismissing her pounding headache and sour stomach with a cocktail. “Money, and he lives here?” she asked.
Spencer scoffed. “He ain’t got money. He comes from money, same way I come from Newark.”
She accepted this and contemplated a new theory that life was just an immense sorting algorithm, and she had been sorted down to Cliffside Heights, Bergen City, New Jersey.
In the warm afternoon, all the heat below her rising into her apartment, she dozed in a sweat and dreamed of voices raised in alarm, bottles clicking in the pool, that guitar riff, soaring and twisting and already old-fashioned when she’d gotten to it.
The war escalated the next evening when the music and the stomping was repeated. She’d been dreaming about Quentin, a recurring dream she’d been having for four years which began with their first kiss, her first ever kiss, timid and weird in a movie theater dark and sticky and he tasted like Southern Comfort and the warm jelly burn in her stomach from the liquor spreading through her veins and bones. Then the scene shifted and they were under water, a thick viscous darkness that was cold and clingy and slimy, the surface up above like a sheet of plate glass. And when she turned to Quentin, sweet, odd little Quent, he was dead, swollen and pale, his skin flaking and peeling just as she imagined it had when they pulled him from the Everglades.
She woke up suffocating as if the air had been sucked from the room. The sound of drums dripped from above, the pulse of a dying, terrified man.
She once again dragged herself up to pound on his door. Then she went down into the basement, where the breaker boxes were lined up on a piece of plywood directly across from the single coin-op washer and dryer. She located #5 and with savage glee she slapped all the breakers over to OFF.
When she got back to her apartment, the quiet was bliss. She worried for a moment about retaliation, then poured herself the last of the second bottle and fell asleep. She didn’t see Quentin again.
The quiet held for a few days. She imagined that Hammond was trying to puzzle out what had happened, was perhaps superstitiously keeping his volume low in case it was ghosts, or aliens, or Acts of God. But then she was startled out of a nap by the thunderous roll of snare and clarinet, and she was staggering down the stairs and through the basement door, only to discover the man had locked his breaker box with a padlock. She retrieved the old ballpeen hammer that constituted exactly one-third of her toolbox (the other two-thirds being a rusted flathead screwdriver that served a multitude of purposes and a tape measure that had never actually been used), returned to the basement, and a few seconds later the blessed quiet had returned.
She bought two more bottles of gin from Pedro’s for fifteen dollars. The price should have concerned her, made her suspect that Not Pedro was distilling his own in the basement from whatever rotting vegetables were left in the dirty bins at the front of the store, but she thought it more prudent to concentrate on the budgetary angle. She’d crunched some numbers and realized that in order to survive the winter with her rent paid she was either going to have to find a much better job or live on approximately five dollars a day, total. This was theoretically possible, but it required that her liquor budget be Pedro-sized.
Back in her surprisingly warm apartment, she set the bottles on the old wooden table that had been left behind along with three chairs, her only pieces of actual furniture. She studied them with red eyes and runny nose. She’d discovered gin twenty years before, at the Outing Party. She could remember George Heffernan, his shirt collar popped, sunglasses on at night, serving her cocktails he called GSTs, for gin sans tonic, which were just gin with lemon wedges. They were horrible and terrible and disgusting and she’d consumed about seven, never felt drunk, and had no hangover the next day despite all the horror and awfulness. She’d been chasing the experiment ever since.
Years and years later, George had gotten extremely drunk at a party during a bad snowstorm, and rather than walk home had crawled under everyone’s winter coats in the spare bedroom, where he vomited, choking to death under a heavy carpet of Gore-Tex and faux fur. She could still see him at Bishop Carlbus Prep, seashell necklace and Vans, sunglasses propped on his head.
In her youth, during college and her early days in New York as a broke young professional as opposed to a broke middle-aged professional, gin as a drink of choice, as a signature move, felt baller. The proles could have their lite beers, their whiskey sours, their low-class flights of shots. She ordered gin with a twist and smiled at the reactions she imagined. It made her feel unique and interesting.
Her tolerance became part of the legend. She was the cool young girl who drank neat liquor and kept up with the boys. Hangovers were part of the game, comparing your misery, sneaking off at lunch to a bar to get some medicine. Being lightly hammered in the afternoon after being sick in the morning felt naughty, wild. Days went by in bleary, blurry jump cuts. The most recent of which saw her snapping awake in HR, being informed that she was being let go, she would get no severance, she would be escorted from the building as soon as she’d gathered her things.
She’d waited for the elevator, but when several co-workers emerged she’d turned and taken her box of possessions to the stairs. As she turned around each landing, she thought for a split second she could see Amy at the bottom, her head twisted around. She thought she could hear music.
Son, she said, have I got a little story for you
Just as she was beginning to suspect that the smell of onions pervading her apartment would not actually fade away over time—that perhaps it was part of the molecular structure of the place and not just the lingering impression of the previous occupant, which in turn led her to worry over the possibility that she herself was beginning to smell like onions without realizing it, that the smell was getting into her skin, her clothes, her very DNA—the strange Japanese man upstairs died.
She’d begun the day with resolve. Head pounding, stomach churning, she’d decided this was the day she planted her feet, caught a branch as it hurtled towards her, and hung on. This was the moment when she began the climb back. She might never make the summit she’d once thought within reach, but any gained altitude would be better than the wind in her ears as she plummeted.
She was working at the kitchen table when she noticed the commotion—steps up and down the stairs, doors opening, sirens. She closed her laptop carefully, the left hinge held together with duct tape, and listened at her front door for a moment, trying to ascertain whether she should grab her things and light out the back, shimmying down the fire escape and fleeing into the weeds and junky yards of Bergen City to start a new life as an urchin.
When she crept upstairs, she found paramedics filling out paperwork along with Spencer and Marks, standing in the hallway. They didn’t notice her, and Spencer’s obvious posture of grief made her retreat without inserting herself, feeling for the first time that perhaps her neighbors were human beings instead of demonic, distorted homunculi placed there solely to torture or amuse her.
This led to her contemplating the fact that if the Japanese man was a real human being, then his death was a warning: She’d been sorted into Bergen City, into Cliffside, into this apartment building, and if it was her final destination and not simply a step on her way to the bottom, then she had to seriously consider the possibility that she was going to die there.
After all, she was the last one alive. Victor Drummond had been pushed under an oncoming subway the same day she’d been fired.
She poured herself a stiff drink and didn’t bother chopping up any lemons. Later, so drunk typing a single word into a search engine took two minutes, she found the song and played it on repeat until she passed out.
She made her living as a transcriptionist. It was all freelance, all over the Internet. She downloaded videos and audio files, she listened to them, she typed up the words. It was the sort of job any monkey could do, and she felt ridiculous doing it. She had a degree in Communications. She’d gotten good grades. She’d worked for advertising agencies, she’d had people report to her.
But that was the thing about the city. It spun you around, and if you didn’t hang on you lost your grip and started hitting things on the way down.
The fact that it wasn’t complicated work didn’t mean it was easy. It was, actually, quite difficult. The audio was usually muddy and very difficult to parse. She slowed it down and looped it, sometimes sitting for long moments with her eyes closed, listening to the same incomprehensible blast of audio over and over again, a second’s worth of speech that had turned into a blob of noise because of a passing bus, a cough, or an accent.
The hourly pay was terrible, so she cheated industriously. She created three distinct freelance identities and took on more jobs than were technically possible, then did Internet searches to see if the audio had already been transcribed, which sometimes happened with videos that had already lived online for a while. She then extracted the audio and uploaded it to a free machine transcription site, which spat back garbled, terrible text files, but this at least gave her something to work with. Then she aggressively guessed and sometimes made up entire sentences from whole cloth. As she sank lower the proportion of bullshit in her transcriptions grew, but no one ever called her out on it.
The sorting had begun, she realized, eight years ago. She’d still been at her first job out of school, comfortably writing copy as part of a small team. Then she’d been downsized. She’d dutifully refreshed her resume and set up interviews, and was pleasantly surprised to find she was relatively popular among hiring managers, all of whom saw great things for her.
One, a brusque middle-aged woman who leaned back in her chair with her resume held aloft as if seeking invisible ink messages on the thick, creamy paper, told her that she would, of course, have to take on a manager’s role at her age and her level of experience. She remembered vividly the air of received wisdom with which this was communicated, the matter-of-factness of the statement impressing her. Two weeks later she started a new job that came with four people reporting to her. She’d arrived on her first day in a new suit, carrying a new briefcase. She felt grown-up. She remembered because it was the day she’d heard that Desmond Brady, who’d once asked her to dance with him at a school social and who she’d seen from time to time on television in small acting roles, and once in a fast food commercial eating hamburgers like his life depended on it, had been thrown from a snowmobile and killed.
Just a month later, she knew she’d made a terrible mistake.
Some people, she thought, were born for management. They somehow effortlessly compelled others to do their jobs while dealing with paperwork, their own work, and the many headaches of managing human resources. Zilla found it confusing and dispiriting. Two of her direct reports thought they should have been promoted, and treated her every decision as the mistake of a rank amateur. Deadlines slipped, details were missed, and within six months she’d found herself having regular check-ins with her own boss, who greeted her every statement with a pinched expression of doubt.
Panicked, she fled. And then fled again. Slowly, her options constricted and she began to wonder if she’d always been secretly incompetent, if her sheen of professional success had always been an illusion. When she was fired from her last job, the firing that had finally pushed her out of New York and sent her drifting downward to a five-room railroad apartment in Cliffside Heights, Bergen City, New Jersey, she’d felt something akin to relief instead of despair.
After sprinting from that first management job and settling on a course that led to Bergen City, she became obsessed with the social media of old friends, colleagues, relatives, and complete strangers, all of whom had better careers. Her old high school friends especially seemed to be charmed; short weirdo Leo Barone looked like a millionaire, working in finance. Una, as thin as ever, opened a trendy art gallery in the City. Kate Huxtable was an executive at a top insurance company, her Instagram a parade of amazing hair styles and new frocks. She had no idea what Ernest Bundy did for a living, but he seemed to always be on vacation somewhere, and Fanny Heck did nothing but volunteer in exotic places, implying a lavish income.
She knew their stories by heart. Leo swallowed thumbtacks that had been dropped into his schwarma, and they’d perforated his bowels. Una fell into an old, forgotten drain pipe, broke both legs, and died of exposure before they’d found her. Kate was chopped up with an axe and left by the side of her Tesla on a deserted country road. Ernest inhaled a peach pit and died in an ice cream parlor in front of his three kids, his face turning purple.
She knew, on one level, that she’d been one of the Poor Kids at Bishop Carlbus Prep. A scholarship kid. Out of twenty-six kids in the Senior Class, there had been three of them on scholarship, the rest were rich, ranging from merely wealthy to Illuminati-scale rich. So it wasn’t a fair comparison. Fanny Heck didn’t have to work.
But she knew better. Whatever advantages the other kids had, they were killing it. They were being promoted, being taken seriously, moving upwards. At least they had been before they all died. If she was never going to have the access they had, she could have at least paralleled their success on a different, lower track. Instead, she’d boofed on the fifty-yard line.
Even though it was painful and horrifying, she couldn’t stop herself from following along with them all. Every promotion, every new house, every baby. And it made her sick, and when she noticed how many of them were dead, she felt better. Then, worse.
She thought she detected the pattern, finally. She began searching for the obituaries. At night she heard the bottles, and the guitar riff, and saw Amy Keaton’s face staring up at her from the basement floor.
Sometimes, late at night when she was being especially creative with her assignments, interpreting muddy monologues as epic speeches about man’s duty to a universe of random chance and increasing entropy, she contemplated the likely possibility that Cliffside Heights and the yellow brick building were not her final resting place in the existential sorting machine, but simply a plateau where she would idle away a few months or years before being tipped down to the next level.
The freelance would dry up. She would get sick and have no insurance. She would miss two, three, four months rent, and be evicted.
Or the freelance would hold steady, allowing her to hang on by her fingernails until she was the weird old lady in #3, and one day she would be found dead in her bathtub, a neighbor drawn by the smell, the eerie silence, and no one would have the energy or impetus to figure out if it had been suicide or simple despair. She contemplated the other ways her classmates had expired: Amy Keaton, fell down the stairs, broke her neck. Lived for some hours, alone, unconscious and possibly paralyzed. Hector Ricardo, mugged and beaten to death. Nothing was stolen. James Forman took lye in an apparent accident involving a dietary supplement. Yoric Evans was hit over the head with a piece of sculpture during a break-in at his apartment. Titus Cunningham, Rhoda Anderson, Ida Tanner, Desmond Brady, Winnie Taylor, Prue Nelson, and Basil Jefferson. Explosion, fire, drowning, thrown from a snowmobile, accidentally locked inside a walk-in freezer overnight, trampled, killed by bear during a camping trip with his Boy Scout troop. The Sandford twins, Quentin sunk into a mire, his sister Olive stabbed repeatedly with a rusty old awl at their family home. Susan Petrie, who crashed her car when she had a seizure on the freeway. Bluth, Huang, Heffernan, Bundy. Drowned, natural causes despite a clean bill of health, smothered, choking. Clair Addams and Xerc Bartokomous, anorexia and mice. Fanny Heck, extreme anemia from leeches she encountered while serving as a missionary in Africa.
She thought drinking herself to death at least sounded purposeful.
She sipped gin and tapped her fingers to the beat of Mr. Hammond’s music, pounding down from above, pushing her under.
At the age of thirteen, as her parents went through what turned out to be a long and bitter divorce that might not even be entirely over, as far as she knew, twenty-five years and both their deaths later, Zilla began experiencing Exploding Head Syndrome.
It didn’t happen every night. Sometimes three or four times a week, sometimes once a month, but for years she was semi-regularly awakened at night by an incredibly loud, terrifying bang that sounded like her house collapsing around her. But then she would sit up in bed, soaked with sweat, trembling, listening to the suffocating hiss of the fan, the drip of the bathroom faucet, and, later on in the infinite process of the divorce, possibly her father’s thunderous snoring.
She never told her parents, who had demonstrated a disturbingly itchy trigger finger when it came to her mental health. She diagnosed herself with an Internet search and some videos. There was no cure. There was not even an official disease, despite the millions of hits she found.
It reached crisis levels in her Junior Year of high school. She lost so much sleep huge black bags formed under her eyes and her grades fell. The explosions that sent her, rigid and damp, hurtling from sleep sounded like an atomic bomb going off in the next room, and the sudden, perfect silence that followed was just as horrifying. Going back to sleep was impossible, so she found herself roaming her room with headphones, exhausted and bored.
She had her first drink at Prudence Nelson’s house, red wine stolen from her parents’ cellar, where there were so many bottles they’d never notice one or three missing. They’d gotten silly and sloppy, and then she’d dozed off on Prue’s couch. She woke up with a headache and sketchy stomach, but she realized she’d slept for almost three hours without hearing a thing.
Zilla flipped blearily through the yearbook and thought incredulously that this had been her high-water mark. Senior Year at Bishop Carlbus Prep, until the After the Outing Party and Amy Keaton’s death, had been the literal best year of her life. This was so utterly basic and cliche she was offended. But it was undeniable. With her nights peaceful, with her parents in a momentary holding pattern that she recalled as Truce Mark One, with her class at BCP winnowed down to twenty-six kids with whom she had a passing familiarity if not an intimate relationship, things were calm. She was able to think. Catch her breath.
She stared down at Amy Keaton’s photo. Her face, fat and round and squinting distrustfully at the camera, reminded her what a total bitch Amy had been. Loud. Bullying. Always angry, always disappointed. Always easily disappointed.
The head explosions had started again after the Outing Party. Except, instead of explosions, she started waking up to the sound of Amy Keaton screaming in her ear.
She threw up a lot, but it wasn’t so bad. When she’d been younger she’d had a morbid fear of puking, and she’d put a lot of effort into avoiding the experience. But now she did it frequently, and didn’t mind—it was a relief, a pleasure. She began to feel poorly, but all it took was a quick trip to the bathroom and she was ready to have another drink and get back to work.
She took a creative spin in her transcription services, crafting sentences and even whole paragraphs from an artistic understanding of the subject matter and the speaking style without the benefit of actually listening closely to the recordings. Superstitiously, she continued to play the recordings as she wrote, she just didn’t pay any attention to them.
Surprisingly, no one complained. She kept snagging assignments, and being able to make up most of the text made it go much faster.
When she came across someone’s obituary, she opened the yearbook and put a thick red X over their photo, along with a date. It made her feel better, for a moment. Then it made her want another drink. And another drink made her remember the bottles floating in the pool. The braying laughter coming from the living room in that huge, cold house. The throbbing music. And the sudden silence and then the crowd of bodies, overheated, pushing for a view.
And Amy. Staring up at them, as if in on the joke, but unamused.
The war with Hammond turned into a cold war that ruined her sleep. He spent some money on a real lock, and no matter how she pounded away at it, squinting in the gloom of the basement as it dodged and ducked away from her, gin singing in her veins, it held. Every time she managed to drink herself into a fitful slumber, a spray of snare and bass, trumpet blast and clarinet call would drag her back. It was worse than the explosions, in a way.
She would drag herself from the bed and get up on top of a chair to hammer at the ceiling. She shouted. The mystery of why no one else complained, why everyone else seemed able to ignore not just Hammond’s boozy jazz concerts but also her own screaming into the abyss that was Hammond’s boozy jazz concerts was inscrutable. She wondered if she was dead, if she’d slipped off the edge one evening, rolled out of bed insensibly drunk and cracked her head on the edge of the frame and bled out, and this was her gasping Owl Creek Bridge moment.
She rejected the idea for one simple reason: Not enough ghosts.
She thought of Prudence, who’d been dead two years before she heard about it. She imagined her, crushed under the weight of bodies, merciless steel-toed boots and stiletto heels and crushed fingers her final sensations. There was, she knew, no dignity in death. Everyone died badly. But Prue had died worse than some. She sometimes wondered what had brought Prue into that bar, in a small town, apparently alone.
Twenty-five people under the age of 45, two-and-a-half-decades of bad deaths. Twenty five pictures in her yearbook with a thick red X over their faces. And then her own photo, beaming back at the camera, the photo taken weeks before the Outing Party, when everything had been wonderful. She wore her hair up, her mother’s cat necklace, a simple black dress. She looked young and fresh. She had great teeth. She’d always been oddly proud of her teeth, which had erupted inside her mouth perfect without any dentist’s intervention.
The page before the Senior Photos was a spread devoted to the Senior Outing. She remembered how exciting the Outing sounded to her when the older kids described it, all the Seniors and Juniors talking like past Senior Outings had been transformative, spectacular, possibly illegal. Lives had been changed, virginities lost, fortunes made on past Senior Outings. Among her tiny, insular class, shrinking over the course of four years from forty-three kids to twenty-six, the Outing had taken on an occult aspect. Rumors involved international trips, elaborate character-building alternate reality games, survival challenges—the only thing everyone was certain about was the awesomeness of the Outing.
But the Outing was just a retreat. They were piled onto a bus, driven to a campground, and for two days they got a lot of bullshit group therapy. Their phones and devices were taken away, they were encouraged to roam the grounds, and at night they were gathered around a campfire to engage in various weird chants and confessions. And the morning of the third day as they hastily packed their shit back onto the bus, they were solemnly warned to never reveal what they’d experienced, in order to preserve the surprise for the next class.
That night, as was traditional, there was an After the Outing Party. Amy Keaton hosted, because her parents were away and it was just her and her little brother Alton.
Zilla remembered the bottles floating in the pool. She remembered Amy raging, pissed off that no one was paying attention to her party rules.
She remembered Amy’s scream. Everyone rushing to the basement door. Amy staring up at them from the bottom of the stairs.
She remembered a moment of shocked silence. And then the guitar riff blasting from the stereo, the perfect song, the ideal song for the moment you discover your classmate and party host has fallen down a flight of stairs in a stupor and broken her neck.
Son, she said, have I got a little story for you
Over the course of four years at Bishop Carlbus Prep, Zilla had gained a shadow education in BCP lore and myths.
For example, she knew that the second-most important Senior Outing party dated back forty years or so, and was enshrined in the June 5th issue of the Bergen Journal as a report about a raucous party that resulted in Mr. and Mrs. Steven Douglas being arrested on charges of supplying minors with liquor. The legendary status of this party began with lurid tales of the parents working as bartenders for their children and their schoolmates and includes, in the most recent tellings, intimations that Mrs. Douglas, an attractive older woman of some distinction, being quite drunkenly free with several of the kids. The fact that this party made the papers in an era when the papers were the Internet made it a very important piece of BCP folklore no matter how old the story gets. Every incoming Freshman class heard a version of the legend.
Zilla knew that the most important Senior Outing party, however, would forever be the Seaver Shit Party.
Brett Seaver was a Big Man on BCP’s campus, and his photo and several trophies still adorn the awards case in the lobby of the BCP building. He still held a few records for the BCP in the track and field category; BCP was too small for team sports. He was, if you dig up his yearbook photo, a good-looking kid, great bone structure, really fit, an easy smile. He was popular and off to Stanford and did not host the Senior Outing Party that year. He did, however, shit his pants during it.
As the story goes, Brett was actually a ball of quivering stress. He’d cheated industriously through BCP, knew basically nothing, and, worse, knew he was an idiot. His acceptance to Stanford—he hadn’t written the essay himself—filled him with so much unease he stopped sleeping.
He told no one. He affected to be the same laid-back kid who never wore socks. But inside he was a mess, and self-medicated using whatever he could steal from his parents’ medicine cabinet. At the Senior Outing Party, he parked himself by the pool with a bottle of Jack Daniels, a pack of cigarettes, and a pair of sunglasses, and proceeded to drink, smoke, or eat anything he was handed. He slipped into a near-total nervous system shutdown, passed out, and shit his pants. A fact discovered some time later when the party had mellowed out and slow jams were tinkling in the night and several virginities were being lost in the upstairs bedrooms, and someone remarked on the smell.
The night that Brett Seaver shit his pants was immediately codified as the greatest party anyone had ever attended. It became a part of BCP jargon. The Masons had are you a traveling man and the BCP had well, that was great but it was no Seaver Shit Party, was it?
Zilla remembered that the Keaton Party was earmarked for legendary status from the beginning. No parents in sight, the end of the school year looming, the Outing—it was all a recipe for greatness. She could remember the palpable sense of excitement. People talked about it as if the world would be forever changed in its aftermath. She could remember walking the halls of the BCP and hearing it spoken of in dewy tones of awe: The Keaton Party, After the Outing. All in Implied Caps, like some sort of historic event.
Amy was red hot for the party to be epic, but Zilla remembered Amy as red hot for everything. For weeks, plans were laid. Liquor, wine, and beer were acquired through various means including older siblings, sketchy neighbors, unmonitored home supplies, and outright theft. People pledged to bring weed, pills stolen from medicine cabinets, and an exotic list of other pharma, most of which was known to be fanciful but still ignited visions of a bacchanalia unlike any previous Senior Class had ever managed.
The Keaton House was more of a compound. There was the main house, six bedrooms and seven baths, everything too large, too far apart. Changing a light bulb required a work order and construction permits because the sconces were so high up. There was a four-car garage and a mother-in-law unit which was essentially a small cottage, plus a large shed in the backyard. There was a pool and a finished basement with a wet bar, as well.
Only a handful of students had ever been to the Keaton House. Zilla recalled that the Keatons didn’t approve of kids. They regarded them as barely housebroken chaos agents who had no respect for property or appreciation for the time and effort they’d put into the design and decoration of the home they spent a maximum of seventy-four days in every year. The place was like a museum; there were entire rooms no one was allowed to actually use, and even in the common areas there were chairs or other features that Mrs. Keaton had clearly marked as untouchable.
In fact, the square footage of the Keaton Compound that was off-limits to everyone but highly-trained professionals from various fields including but not limited to catering, cleaning, security, and interior design grew at a rate that threatened to engulf nearby homes within a few short years.
The audio recordings she downloaded from her transcription clients got muddier and muddier, the words slurring into a wall of noise. Occasionally a word would rise to the surface as she sat there sipping her GSTSL, a new variation of her favorite cocktail now sans tonic and lemons, but mainly it was static and noise and she began writing a lengthy epic novel in short bursts of ersatz transcription.
When her login credentials stopped working, she realized it had been some time since she’d been paid for the work.
She busied herself with collecting information about her dead classmates, sitting on the bed with her laptop and the yearbook, bopping along with puffy eyes and labored breathing to the lurching rhythms beating down from above. She imagined she would write a book about them, chronicling their deaths, something moving and revelatory. She knew this would mean discussing and revealing what had happened to Amy, but she realized she was okay with this. It would be necessary, for one thing, and for another it didn’t matter. They were all dead, except her, and she knew she couldn’t last long.
It would be a relief.
Head spinning, breathing feeling like entirely too much trouble, she roamed the apartment glass in hand, breaking into little spins and balletic moves as the beat went on from above. Then she would sail back to the bed and spill gin and push the soggy clippings and notes around and flip through the yearbook.
And then she paused, going quiet, the emptiness filled by a sudden crash of snare and cymbal muted by the ceiling. She realized she’d seen something, something in a dream, or maybe in real life, something long ago but quite recently. A dark figure, a tall, spectral figure in a heavy overcoat and a fancy hat, looming over each of them. She’d seen it, she’d seen him, Death, visiting each of them. When Rhoda had burned alive in the bathroom of her apartment, he’d been there in the mirror, grinning. When Fanny drank water infested with leeches in Africa and they attached themselves to her throat and bled her to death, he’d been there, a black umbrella shielding his face from the hot sun. When Zerc contracted hantavirus from airborne particles of mouse shit, he was visited, she was sure, by this looming figure in his hospital bed as his insides turned to liquid and breathing became the same as drowning, she was sure of it.
As she poured the last of the bottle into her glass she felt a warm sense of completion. She’d finally cracked the code. She’d finally understood. She was part of something enormous, and inevitable.
It was Hector who switched the music. This Zilla remembered clearly.
Amy originally scored the party to a sludge of pop hits and dance slurry, constant basslines that made your teeth ache and your eyeballs dance. But then Hector Ricardo and Ernest Bundy arrived with their guitars and portable amps and began setting them up in the formal living room—despite Amy’s immediate and profane complaints—so their excruciatingly, almost aggressively terrible mathcore band Polybius could perform the four songs they’d composed. And Amy had lost. her. shit.
Amy Keaton losing her shit wasn’t unusual, of course. Amy lost her shit constantly. Amy’s default setting was SHIT:LOST. Everyone knew that the After the Outing Party at the Keaton compound was going to be a prime-time Amy Shit Losing Moment; that had been part of the fun, happily lapping up all of Amy’s rules and regulations about the party with the sure knowledge that everyone would ignore her, making her ragey.
Ragey Amy was very popular.
Zilla remembered the escalation. The painter’s tape across doorways torn down. The stolen diet chocolate bars passed out to everyone. The invasion of the master bedroom and bath. Throwing bottles into the pool and laughing.
And Amy raging, raging, raging.
Zilla remembered the shouts and screams. She remembered being very, very drunk. She remembered feeling weirdly unsafe. They carried all the televisions out to the patio and began searching the house for extension cords. When they discovered the door to the basement was locked, Basil Jefferson, who would one day in the future be mauled by a bear, took off his shirt and hurled himself against it until it snapped open, sending Basil crashing into the opposite wall hard enough to crack the plaster.
She remembered kids on the roof overlooking the patio, dancing. She remembered Amy, red faced and crying, screaming that she was going to cut the fucking power if Hec and Ernie played one single fucking goddamned power chord, and she remembered the silence as Hector stopped tuning up to shout at her. She remembered Amy standing at the top of the basement stairs to marvel at the cracked plaster, her rage reaching incandescent levels as a red glow began to leak out of the cracks in her skin. She remembered Amy stopping and turning to shout back at Hector.
And then Amy went down the stairs.
Zilla remembered the strange silence that followed. The sound of everyone moving at once to crowd around the doorway. Bleary and blurry, amazed. She remembered Amy at the bottom of the stairs, looking back up at them, her head twisted in a way it shouldn’t be twisted.
There was a beat of silence. Two.
And then the stereo, loaded up by a spiteful Hector. That guitar riff, forever seared into her mind.
Son, she said, have I got a little story for you
She woke up in the hall at the foot of the landing, one arm draped on the bottom step leading up to the floor above. She stared around blearily, working her mouth, wincing as she moved her shoulder and was rewarded with a sharp stab of pain. The sound of drums drooled down from above, a thick cloud of percussion that sank down like smog, smothering her in heavy bass.
She rolled over onto her knees, head pounding. She pulled herself onto her feet with laborious effort, fought back a wave of nausea, and hung onto the banister for support. She rifled back through her memories for clues as to how she’d wound up in the hallway and found nothing going back some time, just empty blankness. Smoothing her clothes and shaking herself, she staggered back towards the open door of her own apartment.
In the bathroom, she didn’t have to kneel down and throw her arms around the toilet like an amateur. She’d perfected the art of simply bending over and throwing up, a stream of clear liquid, pinkish when it hit the water. This was followed by cramps, and she remained bent over the toilet for some time, breathing hard and humming as her guts spasmed.
Sweating, she walked unsteadily into the kitchen and found the plastic jug of gin. She swallowed some, then took another swig and rinsed her mouth out. She felt better, and everything clarified.
For a moment she just stood there studying the mess of papers and photos on the kitchen table. Ancient artifacts, mementos of her high school days. Standing in Cliffside in her railroad apartment, she couldn’t believe she’d once attended a pricey private school, that she’d once dreamed of being a superstar, a Draperesque force of nature ramming corporate America’s wretched things down everyone’s collective throat, a master of the universe. That scholarship had once seemed like her ticket to riches and fortune.
She couldn’t believe she’d watched Amy Keaton die. She couldn’t believe she was the last one standing. Picking up her laptop, she stared at Victor Drummond’s obituary beaming out misery and death. They’d used his high school photo. They always did, she’d noticed, for some reason. Every obituary she’d found for a classmate showed them when they were eighteen—except for Desmond, who’d been sixteen when he graduated—bright and young and shiny.
The truth she’d discovered was obvious: They’d all died at the After the Outing Party. The rest of it had been a spasm, a twitching remnant of life, brain cells dying and firing their last spluttering energy into the void.
The drums pounded from above. They’d lost their jazzy raggedness and become insistent, regular, compulsory. She picked up a random glass and sipped from it, swaying back and forth.
They were dead. She was dead. It was the only explanation.
They’d danced. For years she’d told herself that she hadn’t really believed Amy was dead—it was all just hilarious. They were all loaded, and Amy had been such a bitch—the music had dropped as if on cue and it was perfect, so they’d all turned away from the basement door and danced and sang along even though the song itself was terrible, a grinding dirge from a prior age when people like their parents had not yet discovered pop hooks and spat rhymes and good taste. And she told herself that she’d expected Amy to come crawling back upstairs at any moment, foul-mouthed and red-faced. They were kids. They didn’t die. Dying was for olds.
Then they’d panicked.
The music faded and the drugs wore off and everyone got scratchy-eyed and sore throated and Amy remained at the bottom of the stairs, dead as could fucking be, and they all saw their futures: Ruined, in the main. No one knew or could find out how accurate a time-of-death determination from a medical examiner was, but once the thought was put out there that maybe—just maybe—there was a way to figure out that they’d left her lying there and danced and drank and made out for several hours, there was no dispelling the panic. It would be discovered.
So they’d cleaned up.
She realized she was dancing in the hallway. Her apartment door was wide open, light and heat pouring out of it like a portal to the sun. Her head spun, dizzy and light-filled. Hammond’s music had gotten to her. It was in her blood, in her ligaments, invisible strings to make her sway and jerk, something dissolved and bonding with gun and red cells to create a new kind of energy.
It was so hot. Sweat dripped off of her. Her heart was pounding. The drums beat.
Snare. Cymbals. Tom. Bass.
She started walking up the stairs. snare. cymbals. tom. bass. Each step felt like it was a mile high, and she kept both arms wrapped around the railing as she moved. snare. cymbals. tom. bass. She couldn’t breathe enough. have I got a little story for you. they fished all the bottles from the pool. snare. cymbals. tom. bass. they scrubbed the bathrooms. have I got a little story for you. they mopped and vacuumed the floors. snare. cymbals. tom. bass. they carted off all the liquor and the pills and the hash and the powder. have I got a little story for you. they sprayed deodorizers into the air with abandon. snare. cymbals. tom. bass. they went home and said nothing. have I got a little story for you. the party had never happened. snare. cymbals. tom. bass. no one had ever been there.
The upstairs hallway was undulating, rippling with the sonic impact of each drum hit; walking down it was like riding dry, dusty waves. Hammond’s door was open, too, but instead of heat and light it was darkness and cold, a purplish glow leaking out. It felt good, splashing against her hot skin with every beat as she crawled closer.
When Amy’s parents came home two days later, they found her, swollen and gnawed upon. The twenty-six members of the graduating class of Bishop Carlbus Prep evinced shock and dismay. Surprise and horror.
Hammond’s kitchen was exactly like hers, but shrouded in darkness and mystery. The music was no louder, it was still syrupy and thick and pounding. She pulled herself up to the table and lifted a glass. It was the heaviest thing she’d ever picked up, and trembled in her hand. She put it to her lips and tipped backwards, falling and falling and falling.
She panicked, suddenly, the absence of gravity sending a thrill of terror through her. She tried to scream for help, but the drums drowned her out. My name is Zilla! she tried to shout. Then, more quietly.
My name is Zilla, she whispered. And I drank too much gin.
Jeff Somers began writing by court order as an attempt to steer his creative impulses away from engineering genetic grotesqueries. He has published nine novels, including the Avery Cates Series of noir-science fiction novels and the Ustari Cycle series of urban fantasy novels. His short story “Ringing the Changes” was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2006, his story “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through” appeared in the anthology Crimes by Moonlight edited by Charlaine Harris, and his story “Three Cups of Tea” appeared in the anthology Hanzai Japan. He also writes about books for Barnes and Noble and about the craft of writing for Writer’s Digest, which published his book on the craft of writing Writing Without Rules in 2018. He lives in Hoboken with his wife, The Duchess, and their cats. He considers pants to always be optional.