The light glistened through the window, breaking into small boxes where the iron frame divided the glass into nine separate squares. Nine separate sunrises broke over the horizon and Elaine Thomas, facing the orange sky, knew she should have gone home in the kind of way she knew the last few notes to a song vaguely rattling around in her brain. It was there and then it wasn’t; did it ever really exist at all? Instead, she pulled a cigarette from the pocket of her shearling jean jacket. Menthol, again. She forgot she bummed one from her sister. It was cheaper than buying her own pack, but god, at what cost?
She lit the cigarette and rose from the bed, standing in the empty, decrepit room. The mattress itself was bare, and leaning against the rusted bedframe. Elaine sat atop a tarp spread out in the little triangle of space formed by the lean-to. Dust and debris consumed the ground, tarnishing the hardwood. Elaine didn’t usually go on the fifth floor, but the windows downstairs were mostly broken, leaving everything coated in small bits of glass. This one, however, stood tall and untouched by the rocks and bricks of the bored kids that thought nothing of destroying the already decaying and abandoned school for girls. Elaine didn’t understand those kinds of people. This place was hers, as precious as stained glass. She had been coming here since forever. Since she took the wrong way home through the woods and found the school hidden like a bird in the hands of the trees. But she had been having a nagging feeling lately, like déjà vu, or something equally sinister and hard to pronounce. She shook her head and blew away her concerns in a long exhale of smoke as she left the sunrise behind her.
Walking the length of the hallway and taking care to step over fallen beams, she noticed the small fort still sitting on the floor of the upstairs lounge. The Vicovich kids must have left it up. They explored the building almost as much as she did and set up little camps around the school. They never included her, but they looked like they had so much fun when they were here. Elaine stopped at the fort and squatted down close to it, using a hand to lift the crumbling sheet from the pieces of rotting wood. She grimaced and let the makeshift tent fall back into place. She never played those kinds of games with her sister. Nancy was eight years older than her and made sure Elaine never forgot it. They were worlds apart, not that that was anything new. Even at school, Elaine kept to herself. She couldn’t seem to connect to her classmates and their gossip, their jokes, their crushes. She couldn’t seem to connect to even herself. Her report cards were littered with references to her incessant daydreaming during class. If Elaine turned her head away from the window and back to the chalkboard, I really think she’d learn a thing or two. She tossed her cigarette to the floor and crushed it beneath her heel, letting it join the other butts on the ground.
Elaine balled her fists and jammed them into the pockets of her jacket. The sun, now shining clearly in the sky, didn’t stop the cool wind from whistling in the room through the myriad broken windows. Glass can cut air just like skin, Elaine found. The gusts that swept into the building rippled and shuddered, uneven like jagged breath. It felt like October, all the cold still yet to come brewing on the edge of the growing shorter days. Or maybe November? She couldn’t remember. She knew she had been here for a while, but the treetops were green when she broke inside of the school. She was sure of it. And it had been…hot? No, she had jeans on. And this coat. She stopped where she was and slowly dropped down to the floor, sitting with her arms wrapped around her legs. Her head was spinning. Her body hurt, or maybe, it didn’t hurt, but her brain was telling her it should. Could brains do that?
Focus, Lanie. Think.
She swallowed and a crow cawed outside the window. She snapped her head to follow the noise and like the crash of the waterfall at the creek behind her house, the memories came rushing back.
It was spring….
But it still felt cool. And Elaine didn’t want to go to school. Junior year didn’t feel like her parents told her it would. Nothing fell into place, nothing slowed down, and nothing made sense. Once again, the world kept spinning, as Elaine stood on the sidelines, baffled as to how to get back on. Her only solace lay in the moments of pause she could hang onto: a long shower, a dense forest, an abandoned school. Plus, Nancy was visiting. She just got a job in New York City, hours away, at a fancy company called Morgan Stimply or something that. She had this neat little trick of making everything Elaine did seem small.
“Got a B on my English paper, Mom.”
“Ugh, Mom, remember when I was in eleventh grade? Four AP classes and a job and I still managed to get a four-point-oh,” Nancy leveled her with a gaze over a glass of iced tea, then laughed lightly as if to wave away the dust settling from the crash of her words. Legend had it in their family that when Elaine was born, Nancy tried to insist that her baby doll was her sister instead. Two Christmas cards in a row feature the toy nestled in her arms, a serene smile across her face. Life grew into a competition after that. Nancy lived life better when she was fighting for something, anything. Elaine never knew what. Simply existing meant she already lost to Nancy, always.
Mom shook her head slightly, forever firmly believing a healthy sisterly relationship to include enough conflict to foster growth and smiled as she continued to cut carrots for the soup.
Elaine decided to ditch. She walked to the bus stop, paused, and then ran across the deserted street. She didn’t stop until she was deep in the woods. She slowed to a walk, noisily snapping branches beneath her Keds. The trees trunks were thick and gnarled in this area of the forest, the leaves wide and richly green, but sparse from buds that still sprinkled the ends of limbs. She lived in the oldest part of town, where houses from the 1800s and useless barns made of wood seconds away from collapsing in a heap were a regular thing. But she explored these woods whenever she could: after school, before school, weekends, when her parents thought she was in her room, it didn’t matter to her. These days she chased the moments of pause she craved. It was the only kind of doing that didn’t overwhelm her.
Once she saw the tree with the massive knot that looked like a fist in the center of its trunk, she knew she was close. She went left and came to a large clearing. The grass was the kind of tall that hasn’t seen a mower in decades and just on the top of the rolling hill sat a crumbling building. It stood five stories high, but sagged from age and almost fifty years of disuse. Elaine gazed up at the old, main edifice of this forgotten college and let a grin break across her face. She was home.
Elaine lowered her body through a small square in a grate on the ground and wiggled her way inside the biggest window. The glass was completely gone from the pane, but dusted the floor of the building in shards of various sizes. The trick was to swing her momentum and fling herself into the basement. One time, she missed and landed arm first in the shards. She had to wear sleeves for weeks to hide the angry gashes from her parents. Once in, she brushed herself off, got up, and lit the cigarette she filched before she left the house. Exhaling briefly, she made her way down to the end of the hallway and to the stairwell. She always started her explorations in the grand hall; it just felt right.
Located directly behind what once was the main entrance, the grand hall still loomed with an air of paused grandeur. The chandelier hung, blanketed in dust, at the highest point of the vaulted ceiling and the stairs, though draped with debris, swept across the foyer, remnants of marble gleaming in patches. It was as if the whole school decided, like Elaine, to ditch. She had uncovered desks and chalks in classrooms, even pictures and clothing in the dorms. This place was only the spot that showed outwardly just how stilted Elaine felt inwardly. As she made her way to the center of the hall, something small bumped her from behind and she stumbled to the side.
“What the fuck?” She said, spinning around.
“Oof, don’t stop, baby,” A scratchy voice called out and Elaine groaned.
“Seriously, Vin. I will smack your head into that wall.”
Vin Vicovich grinned at her, his teeth yellowed and his entire body covered with a layer of grim that suggested he neither slept nor showered. He was twelve going on twenty-five and Elaine forged a sort of tolerance for him and his band of brothers. They all ran into each at this place far too much to avoid at least some semblance of pleasantries. They were by no means friends, but maybe more like reluctant allies.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” Elaine asked, tapping the ash off of the end of her cigarette.
“Shouldn’t you?” Vin responded, taking his own pack out of a pocket of his filthy zip-up. He grabbed a smoke, lit it, and took a long drag.
Elaine shrugged her shoulders and smiled at Vin. He coughed a laugh and kicked a piece of wood on the ground.
“Where d’ya think we should do one today? Third? Basement?” Elaine didn’t know what the brothers’ fascination was with forts but the kids didn’t judge her for breaking in only to walk the corridors. Sometimes she put in her Walkman, sometimes she strode in silence, and sometimes, but not too often, she danced. The kind of moving dance that spread out from her core and radiated down to her arms and legs, seemingly turning them liquid light. She wished she knew how to translate that outside of here, outside of the tiny bit of solitude where she felt like a ball jointed doll, pulled taut to the elastic limit of her joints. Stretched, she realized, could be another word for free. But how could she ever truly uncurl when the life she lived pushed her deep inside a shell?
“Nah, fifth floor,” she said, “less glass.” Elaine nodded in the direction of the staircase tucked in the corner, the only one that went straight to the top level without any landings along the way.
“Done. See ya ‘round,” Vin called as he turned away and ran up the steps. Elaine didn’t bother saying goodbye as she too walked out of the grand hall and towards the dining room. It would have been nice to be asked to come along, too. She didn’t have to wage war with them, or join in on their epic stick sword fights. She used to agonize for hours over little fairy house painstakingly constructed from twigs, rocks, and leaves. She didn’t think any magical beings would come to live in her creations, well, not after Nancy laughed at her, but there was something inherently good about the sensation of making a home where there wasn’t one before. She knew she could help, but understood, deep down, she probably never would. There was something definitive to the way they did not play with her, as if they operated on a separate plane from her. It didn’t matter how deeply Elaine explored even this place; she was forever outside, palm pressed against the window, longing to be let in.
She took several turns, one after another, her head lost in a tornado of thoughts that buzzed like static on her clunky television, and wound up in a hallway she hadn’t explored. The rear of the building nestled closely to the woods and the trees began to claim it as if calling the brick and mortar back home. The ceiling was clean broken through by a fallen branch and exposed sky lit up the room as if its lights worked once more. Sticking perpendicularly down, the broken limb cleaved deep into a part of the floor as well. Green leaves wrapped around the splintering beams of the roof and Elaine stepped closer until she stood right under the whole mess.
She leaned up on the tips of her toes and touched the wood carefully with one finger. There was a strange hypnotism to the way the tree simply didn’t fit, how it belonged better outside, with others of its kind, and yet it found itself here. Just like she did. Elaine felt as though she could be this tree, and maybe this tree was her; maybe this tree could open up and swallow her whole and make each other one and the same. She heaved through her heavy thoughts, nearly as lost as the bare whistle of wind when she heard a shattering kind of crack. It sounded ten times louder than the bang of the front door when she stormed out of her house, but Elaine couldn’t place it. She looked around, her eyes tracing up and down the walls, certain to see Vin with a firework when her feet jolted beneath her. Strange. She only moved her neck, but all of a sudden, she couldn’t seem to find purchase on the ground. She stuck out her hands, as if to somehow brace her wobbling body, and then the floorboards splintered.
Her legs swept out from under her and she slammed onto her bottom, breaking right through the weakened wood of the floor. Down another level with a blast and a smash. Down another level with a smash and a blast. The tree branch loosened from the ceiling and fell, fell, fell right with her. Elaine and tree tumbled and twisted into one as they fell deeper into the building, all the way to the basement. The tree clattered next to her, an echoing song in the dark, cavernous space. She landed hard, spread out like paint on the concrete floor.
Her body was empty. There should be pain, breath rising to her chest, anything. Instead, it was as though she herself was silence, the radiating hum after the crash of cymbals. The branch lay next to her, gently shaking back and forth as it settled amongst broken pieces of hardwood. She should move. She knew this. Her brain communicated futility to the rest of her: nerves, muscles, bones. She started small and thought of her hands. Her small hands. All of the things she’d ever carried. Clementines, batteries, socks. Her sister’s palm as they crossed the street to go to the diner together. Don’t tell mom I let you ditch but Elaine did; she was so excited to have spent the afternoon with Nancy. The soft skin of her pillow as she punched it, punished by her mother and sister in the same day. The cold frame of her window. It was an easy push open, done in a breath. There were windows all around Elaine now, false, glittering, not-windows, burning bright somehow in this blackened basement. She could touch their edges, but she’d have to move her fingers first. Concentrating, she willed her thoughts down to the very tips of her nails. She remained still, a moan like a creaky door pulling out of her closed lips.
She couldn’t move. The very air of the basement seemed to press down upon her like it wished to force her into the ground itself. The windows grew brighter, swirling around her like rotating fringe. She wanted to be swept inside, swept away, but the glowing frames offered nothing but more brilliant darkness from their panes. Pain returned in blips, pushing her breath into small pulses that only left her emptier. It would be easier not to breathe. She could let her mind go off into those windows and leave behind whatever was left of her on this floor.
And so, she did.
Elaine opened her eyes from the pitch that lived in her mind and memories and found herself, once more, in front of a brilliant sunrise. She looked about the empty room and then out the unbroken window to the new morning breaking just outside. She sighed and got up, brushing off her jeans. She pulled a cigarette out of her jacket and stared at it for a beat. Menthol. Again.
Jillian LaRussa is a multigenrist with an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from Stony Brook University. She lives on Long Island and is an avid painter, urban explorer, and parking lot roller skater. Find her working at a local vineyard, where she can open a bottle of wine in under twenty seconds.