C. C. Lewis
The invitation arrives at 8:00 pm on the first Friday night of the spring semester.
Christi is in bed already, rereading her battered copy of The Night Circus for probably the 34th time. Bertha had gotten it for her when she first arrived at her house two years ago, after she was placed in state care, after her dad took off, after her mom died.
She’s just read her favorite part, where Marco reveals his true face to Celia, when she hears a faint rustling. She looks up in time to see something slide under her door.
Sighing, she flips Celia and Marco upside down on the school-issued down comforter and reluctantly emerges from said comforter to investigate.
The cream-colored envelope is made of thick paper, as is the card inside. Words in thick black script jump out at her:
You’re cordially invited
ten o’clock p.m. Saturday
712 Jordan Hall
She opens the door, but the hallway is empty.
Who would have left this for her? She has no friends at Rocky Mountain Academy. As she’d reminded Bertha on the phone yesterday, she hasn’t even been here a week.
“I had to call in a lot of favors to get you here,” her ex-foster mom had said. “So, try, please? I can’t help you after this.”
Christi wouldn’t have needed help if her mom hadn’t died, if her dad hadn’t been a piece of shit, if Bertha hadn’t gotten cancer, if that guy had kept his hands to himself.
A bubble of rage makes its way up her throat as she remembers the triumphant look on that guy’s face when he grabbed her tit through her sweatshirt in the hall after 3rd period last year. She was the one who got expelled, though, just because she’d punched that triumphant look right off his face.
A laugh that’s not her own sounds through her brain, high-pitched and cold. Goosebumps erupt on her arms as she runs her thumb over the embossed post-script:
P.S. Don’t be late
At 9:45 pm the next night, Christi is pacing her room, half dressed in her favorite jeans and her only bra. She’s gotten dressed and undressed at least seven times in the last ten minutes.
She shouldn’t go. This is a stupid idea. She doesn’t know these people. It’s probably a prank, a trick. She’ll get there and get a bucket of pig’s blood dumped on her when she crosses the threshold.
Okay, there are no pigs at the century-old Gothic structure nestled high in the Rocky Mountains.
But students aren’t supposed to be out. She glances at the piece of paper attached to the back of her door. She assumes every room has RMA’s rules posted.
Number two sticks out as if it’s highlighted and enlarged:
2. Students must be in their rooms by 10 pm every night, with lights out by midnight.
Her gaze turns to the invitation on her desk. She’s never been invited anywhere. Even before all that shit with the guy last year, she’d gotten a reputation for “anger issues.” Why wouldn’t she? The life she’s had, she had every right to be angry.
Bertha echoes in her mind. “Try, okay? For me?”
Then, a laugh—the same eerie laugh from last night—replaces Bertha’s warm voice.
At 9:52 she throws on the nearest sweater, grabs her coat off the floor, and pushes herself out of her room before she can change her mind.
Jordan Hall is on the far side of campus. Christi runs faster than she has in years—maybe ever—the invitation postscript and the laugh taunting her with every step.
The single-digit January air stings her throat, and her lungs—already deprived of oxygen at 10,000 feet—scream at her.
She arrives at room 712, Jordan Hall as the huge campus clock strikes ten. The door swings open before she can knock, spilling light into the dark hallway.
“You made it.” A pretty brown-skinned girl with glasses and wavy hair stands aside to let Christie in.
Christi can’t tell whether her drawl is disappointed or pleased. She clutches the stitch in her side, breathes through the icy fire in her chest.
“I’m Vanessa,” the girl says, locking the door behind them.
The room is arranged the same as Christi’s: twin bed pushed against one wall, desk and chair against another. This is a corner room, though, so it has two windows. And there’s a ladder descending from a hole in the ceiling.
“After you,” Vanessa says, gesturing to the ladder.
Christi stares up at the hole, seeing nothing but darkness. They totally could have gotten pig’s blood somehow. Denver’s only three hours away.
“Everyone’s upstairs already,” Vanessa prompts.
Christi reaches out and grabs the rungs.
There are five other students in the attic and they all turn their heads when Christi pulls herself up. The space is just big enough for the small group to stand together in the middle without hitting their heads on the sloping ceiling. Candles dot the floor in a circle around them. The flickering light casts shadows across their faces and illuminates strange shapes painted on the wooden floorboards like Rorschach blots. The baby hairs on the back of Christi’s neck prickle, but before she can get a closer look, Vanessa introduces her.
“This is Chris, y’all.”
Christi doesn’t know if Vanessa gave her a nickname or got her name wrong, but a warm sensation spreads through her chest anyway. She raises a hand in response to the nods in her direction and opens her mouth to say hi, but everyone goes back to their conversations.
Heat flushes her body as her heartbeat pounds in her ears. She knew this was a bad idea. The dusty air tickles her throat. She needs a—
“Drink?” A redheaded girl is arranging liquor bottles of all shapes and sizes on a card table behind her.
“Careful what you wish for.” A white guy walks up and pulls a beer from a case beneath the table. He’s tall and skinny and his eyes are way too big for his face. “Mel’s drinks are dangerous,” he says.
“Only if you’re a pussy,” the girl named Mel says.
The guy winks at Christi—like they’ve known each other for years and this is their favorite inside joke—before rejoining the group.
Christi’s annoyance must look like concern, because Mel says, “Josh is harmless,” when she hands Christi a red Solo cup. “The least of your worries,” she adds.
Before Christi can ask what the fuck she meant by that, Mel joins the group, too.
Christi stares into her cup, filled nearly to the brim. One drink, then she’ll leave. Then she can read The Night Circus with a nice buzz.
Slightly cheered by this thought, Christi takes a sip. Fruity, with a faint afterburn. Not bad.
“Vanessa, pick something already!” Mel shrieks. “It’s too fucking quiet in here.”
Vanessa gives Mel the finger, but not three seconds later, EDM fills the small space. Not Christi’s first choice, but not terrible, either. Goes with the whole vibe, she supposes.
Before she realizes it, her cup is empty. Her fingers are tingling in the most pleasant way and her body is swaying to the beat. She doesn’t know how the throbbing music isn’t drawing the attention of the whole floor below them and she’s finding that she doesn’t really care.
She’s trying to remember how Mel made that drink when Josh appears at her elbow.
“Need a refill?”
“That’s why I’m here.” It comes out more blunt than she’d intended, but whatever. She’s staying for one more drink, but that doesn’t mean she needs to talk to anyone.
She studies the array of bottles on the table.
“Here, let me make it for you—” Josh starts, and as he reaches across her for the bottle of Grey Goose, his hand brushes her chest.
Christi isn’t in this dark, dusty attic room; she’s in the hallway of John P. Martin High School.
A meathead with hands like baseball gloves leers before her, her left breast a baseball clutched in his grip.
The candlelight burns red, flashing, flickering. The mirthless laugh bounces off the walls, louder than the pumping music.
The laughter stops. The light isn’t red; it’s golden, soft. Josh with the huge eyes stands in front of her. His hands aren’t on her; they’re raised in front of his chest, palms open in surrender.
Invisible ants crawl up Christi’s arms, her heart threatens to pound right out of her chest. The armpits of her sweater are damp. She hasn’t had an episode in months, but no matter what Bertha says, she obviously isn’t over it. There’s no trying, no changing. She’ll always be this way.
“Yeah,” she says, her voice still shaky.
“Do you—” Josh clears his throat, takes a sip from his cup. “Do you want to—” He jerks his head to the center of the room.
At some point everyone had stopped standing around talking and started dancing. The sight of their bodies swaying to the beat, their eyes closed, lips open, teeth bared in laughter sends shocks of energy across Christi’s skin in time with the music. No one’s ever asked her to dance. She isn’t sure she even knows how.
But when she opens her mouth to say no, “yes,” comes out instead.
Christi doesn’t know if it’s the music, the alcohol, or Josh, or everything together, but she’s never felt so light in her life. Free. Weightless. The repeated beat is soothing, a river of rhythm that flows in and out of her. She’s a conduit for the bass pulsing from Bluetooth speakers and nothing more.
“I’m glad you came tonight,” Josh whispers in her ear.
She closes her eyes, letting his words crash over her, over and over again, like waves against the shore. Her mind is blissfully blank; a giant eraser came and swiped it clean.
Then the song changes. Josh shifts against her; she opens her eyes in time to see him smile at her then twist away. Before she can open her mouth to protest, someone else takes his place. It’s like some weird game of musical chairs; the redheaded girl—Mel—is next.
Mel stares at Christi the whole time with deep, chocolate brown eyes. Normally, the intense eye contact would bother Christi, but not tonight, Not here. Not now. She matches Mel’s gaze, reveling in the attention from all these beautiful people, in the heat building between her legs with every grind and sway in time to the music.
Then Mel reaches up up up under Christi’s sweater and the trail of cold fingers on Christi’s hot skin steals the breath from her lungs.
“Can I?” The whispered words in Christi’s ear activate every nerve in her body. She would let Mel slit her throat if she asked.
Christi can’t remember how to breathe properly, so she nods.
Mel tugs Christi’s sweater off in one swift movement, revealing the dingy, nude-colored bra she’s had for years, then puts Christi’s hands on her own waist and moves them up, signaling that Christi should take her top off, too. Christi pauses, nervous for the first time since she started dancing. She glances around.
Everyone else is in various states of undress.
Christi exhales, finally remembering how, and she pulls off Mel’s shirt and tosses it to the floor. Of course, Mel has on a lacy black bra, and fills it out almost to bursting.
Then the song changes, and Mel twists away, leaving Christi breathless in her wake.
Josh is back to her. He’s wearing nothing but a pair of striped boxers. Christi’s stomach lurches. She averts her eyes.
“Hey,” he says. “Why do you have all these clothes on?”
Christi looks around again. Everyone is now down to their underwear. She’s the only one with her pants still on.
She drains her cup and throws it aside, barely hearing it clatter to the floor over the music. She undoes her zipper then grabs Josh’s hands and puts them inside her open waistband.
He gets the hint. He pushes her jeans down down down, kneeling as he goes. Her face burns when he gets level with her dingy underwear. At least she thought to shave her legs today.
Josh whips her jeans around his head like a lasso. When he lets them go, they sail through the air before disappearing into the shadows beyond the reach of the candlelight.
“All done!” he shouts, and the music stops.
The warm, free, floating feeling is rushing out of her body like a receding wave. She shifts from one foot to the other, trying to regain the rhythm, trying to stop it from leaving her. She grinds her teeth; beads of sweat form on her forehead.
“It’s time to make the punch, y’all!” Vanessa’s twang clatters around Christi’s cranium without the cushioning of the music.
Everyone drifts to the center of the room, each taking a spot in a circle, like they’ve done this before. There’s an empty space between Josh and Mel, who gives Christi a slow, closed-lipped smile that sends another giant swoop into her stomach.
“Ready, Chris?” Vanessa says.
Five faces are grinning at her. The candlelight throws long shadows against their mouths, making their teeth look longer than they have any right to be, making Christi shiver.
Josh puts a warm hand on her lower back.
“To make the punch! New blood gets first dibs.”
Josh ignores her and pushes her into the center of the circle.
Vanessa pulls a strip of black cloth out of her bright orange bra. She starts reaching up towards Christi’s face, then stops mid-air.
“You’re a virgin, right?”
Christi’s cheeks burn hotter than they’ve been all night.
“What? Yeah. I mean—how—” She’s glad Josh and Mel are at her back and can’t see her.
“I can just tell.” Vanessa shrugs.
“She can,” Mel calls. “It’s a gift.”
Christi’s sexual status confirmed, Vanessa raises the cloth again.
“I’m going to blindfold you, okay?”
Christi isn’t sure that it’s okay, but her voice isn’t working. She nods. The blindfold didn’t look that thick in Vanessa’s hands, but it blocks out all semblance of light. It was already dim in the attic, that’s probably why.
“You good?” Vanessa says. She’s holding Christi’s hands. Hers are clammy.
“Good. Here’s what’s going to happen: Mel’s going to turn the music back on, and we’re going to dance again, just like before. Okay?”
“Yeah, but—” Christi squeaks out. She doesn’t understand how she’s supposed to make punch while dancing. And blindfolded.
“Drink this.” A small glass is pressed into Christi’s hand and guided up to her lips. “All at once now, good girl,” Vanessa says encouragingly.
The liquid ignites her taste buds. Her mouth is on fire. She sputters, coughs. She wants to claw out her tongue—
“Don’t think about it,” Vanessa says, pulling Christi’s hands away from her mouth. “And you can stop whenever you want. Mel?”
The music starts again, and Christi forgets the burning in her throat, the desire to vomit up everything she’s ever consumed.
Christi feels a hand on her shoulder, twisting her around. Then another, and another, like they’re spinning her up for a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.
“Now.” Vanessa says, and everyone starts clapping in time to the beat.
Christi releases her body like never before. Her limbs start moving, powered by the familiar soothing sensation trickling through her veins. Her skin ripples with energy, the energy from the music, the clapping, her own kinetics. Her face hurts from grinning. She must look like an idiot—but she doesn’t care.
She isn’t Christi Sanchez anymore. She’s someone else, another person, another girl. A confident girl. A girl with friends. A girl who belongs. A girl who isn’t just anger and state records and juvie stints.
Then something sharp pricks her above her left hip bone.
Heat flushes up her torso, down her legs. She stumbles, losing the beat.
“Keep going,” someone calls out.
Of course she will. Of course she won’t.
The pain is gone. Maybe she just bumped into something.
She starts again. She doesn’t remember starting again. What was in that shot they gave her?
Another prick, and another, faster this time.
The words are added in time with the clapping, chanted, hypnotic. The air is thick with sweat and heat.
She keeps going. She doesn’t stop.
The pricks come faster, harder. Her stomach, her back, in between her shoulder blades, her breasts. She’s warmer, then colder. Her body is wet, slick, sweaty.
Hands are on her, all over her, rubbing the slickness into her skin, soothing the burning pricks.
Then something else wet trails up her back, like a slug, leaving goosebumps shooting up in its wake.
Someone is licking her.
No, not someone.
Multiple tongues are licking her, where the pricks were. Her stomach, her back, in between her shoulder blades, her breasts.
Some are soft, some are rough. Her skin tightens, as if it’s attempting to shrink itself, reduce the surface area available.
She’s dizzy; the ground is uneven, moving, under her feet. She throws out her hands to steady herself and is pushed back.
“I can’t—please, st—”
A click sounds in the distance, like a lighter.
“What did she say?”
Her muscles grow weak, loose.
She told them to stop, why aren’t they stopping?
Her legs can’t support her body.
Didn’t she tell them to stop?
Her mind is fuzzy. Where is she? She can’t remember.
“Stop!” she says with the last of her energy, and she falls to her hands and knees, landing in something thick and wet.
Laughter shoots through her brain. More clicks, rapid, one after the other like a semi-automatic weapon.
She can’t steady herself enough to reach up to take off the blindfold. If she lifts a hand, she’ll fall flat on her face in this puddle. It’s sticky, like someone dropped their drink. Something sharp and tangy fills her nostrils.
They stop. They stop touching her, they stop clapping. The music is still playing, but it’s faint, like it’s coming from downstairs. A single pair of hands land on her. Her brain protests, an episode is close, she can feel it. Not here. Not now.
Someone pulls the blindfold off.
After being in complete darkness for the last few minutes—or has it been hours? —the candlelight is blinding. Christi blinks, feeling like a mole just surfaced from his underground lair.
Josh’s face is very close to hers, their lips nearly touching. This close, she can see that his too-big eyes are hazel. This should bother her; she should be losing her shit.
But her mind has never felt more clear. She avoids Josh’s huge hazel eyes and looks around him. The circle dissolved; everyone is paired or tripled off, dancing with abandon once again. But something is different this time.
Their movements are smooth, as if they’re ice skating. The floor is shiny, red. Splotches of red, like ink blots.
Christi knows what the shapes were, the shapes she noticed when she first arrived.
She looks back at Josh. He doesn’t seem to think any of this is strange or weird or completely fucked up.
He’s no better than them, than any of them. They all just want to use her. Touch her, take her then leave her.
Why can’t she do it, too?
That disembodied laughterbounces off the sloping attic walls and her addled brain.
“Want to get out of here?” Josh asks.
She nods. Getting out of here, with Josh, is exactly what she wants.
Josh lives in Jordan Hall, too. Christi didn’t grab her clothes when they left, so Josh puts his arm around her shoulders as they walk down two flights of stairs. Christi wraps her arms around her waist. She’s shivering; cold, ashamed, invigorated for what would come next.
“This is me,” Josh says a minute later. He unlocks his door, then pushes it open and motions for Christi go in first. What a gentleman.
But panic shoots up Christi’s throat when she steps inside.
Josh has a double.
“Where’s your roommate?” This won’t work with a roommate.
“He’s on the ski club trip this weekend.”
Christi lowers her shoulders from her ears but keeps her arms around her waist. Josh closes the door and Christi catches her reflection in the mirror attached to it, where the list of RMA rules should be.
Rainbows of red splatter her bra and underwear and skin. Her face is streaked like she’s been crying crimson tears. Her hair, long escaped from its ponytail, is tangled, the blonde matted with red.
She looks down at her hands. Red. She brings them to her nose. Sharp. Rusty.
She knew it up in the attic room, of course she did. She hadn’t wanted to believe it, hadn’t wanted to think this was happening to her, at this bougie school in the middle of the Rockies. But it happened.
And something shifted up there. The sadistic ritual that should have set Christi off completely, should have sent her to a mental place she’d never come back from, instead fueled something in her, gave her the juice she needed.
It had to be them.
The laughter she’s been hearing, the chorus of voices. She doesn’t know what—or who—they are, but she knows they’re on her side. They want her to act. They believe in her plan.
Yes. The plan.
As if on cue, they sound in her mind. They’re with her, listening.
She runs through it once, twice, three times, her heartbeat increasing with each run through until her entire body is shivering with anticipation.
Josh reaches into his closet and pulls out a towel. “Want to sit?” he asks, pointing to his bed.
After a moment in silence, Christi’s heartrate slows to a normal pace. Her mind clears enough to bring forth one burning question, her plan hinging on his answer.
“What the fuck was all that?”
Josh chuckles. He rubs his neck with one hand, stares at the wall across from them. Christi clenches her fists beneath the towel. His body language tells her all she needs to know.
“Vanessa and Mel started it last year. There’s one at the beginning of every semester.”
He clears his throat, rubs his neck again.
“It’s just a game.”
“It’s cool,” she says quickly, ignoring the throbbing in her temples. She needs him relaxed. Acquiescent.
“Yeah?” Josh asks, turning to her finally, eyebrows raised.
Will he want to resume it? It’s all dried now. And there’s no frenzied clapping or EDM. This won’t work as well if he doesn’t want it. Christi forces herself to smile.
Josh leans in closer. That didn’t take long. She should have expected this. He was licking her blood off her body not twenty minutes ago.
And now he’s looking at her like she’s a tasty morsel to be devoured. Of course he wants it. What was it that he’d said to her?
“I’m glad you came tonight.”
It might have been the girls’ idea, but he was a willing participant. He’s still a willing participant.
She opens her towel, and something ignites in Josh’s eyes. He grabs the back of her head and kisses her with such force that their teeth knock together.
“Sorry,” he mutters into her mouth. His lips are on hers, on her neck, on her chest, moaning as he travels over the trails of dried blood on her skin. She was right. He loves this.
Something sharp sinks into Christi’s skin above her hip bone, that first place that drew blood in the attic room. She gasps in pain and looks down. Josh had just bit her. Now he’s grinning at her.
Rage pounds back into her skull.
With a surge of adrenaline, she shoots out from under him, pushes him on his back, and straddles him.
From this angle, he looks smaller.
His hands slide up her thighs to grab her ass. She bucks on top of him in response. He’s hard already, and she slides herself along his length.
As they grind, a thought enters Christi’s brain, planted there by the unseen force that’s been guiding her since yesterday.
No, she thinks.
Yes. You can do it.
Pushing the thought away, for now, she focuses on the task at hand: making sure she’ll never be able to make the punch again.
She swings one leg off Josh and eases off the bed. He pushes himself up on one elbow to watch. Her underwear crack with dried blood as she kicks them aside. Her bra, too, off in a flash.
Josh’s lips part, his eyes unfocus ever so slightly.
“Shh,” she mumbles as she climbs back on the bed. Josh’s erection strains against the thin fabric of his boxers.
“Please,” he begs. It enflames and disgusts her. “I have to fuck you.”
“No,” she says, leaning forward so that their lips are an inch apart. She reaches down and squeezes him, eliciting a sharp inhale. “I have to fuck you.”
She sits down, hard. It hurts; she’s too tight. But the way Josh’s eyes disappear into the back of his head, the way his head falls back, outweighs the pain. She has him. He grabs her hips. She moves up and down. Each time, it gets looser, easier.
Their breathing increases, the build-up in her core intensifies. But it isn’t enough. Her fingers itch for something more. Where should she put them?
Josh’s head is still thrown back, exposing his neck.
Christi places her palms against his neck, presses her thumbs lightly into his trachea.
“Can I?” she asks him, asks herself.
He arches up into her. He nods.
Their movements grow wilder. She is an animal, uncaged, unhinged. Josh’s fingers press harder against her hips. A delicious energy builds in her core. Josh is hitting something inside her, something that’s making her start to see spots.
Josh is the latest in a long line of people who disappointed her in her life. Her mother, her father—Bertha, even. Bertha even went and got cancer. She would probably die before the semester was over.
His hands are wrapped around her waist, thumbs pressing into the thin, sensitive skin right inside her hip bones.
His pupils are so blown out she can’t see his hazel irises anymore. Power floods Christi’s veins, so much more intoxicating than Mel’s cocktails. She could do anything to him right now.
Her hands are wrapped around his throat, thumbs pressing into the thin, sensitive skin in the center.
He looks shocked for a moment, but she grins down at him.
It’s just a game.
“It’s just a game,” she says. “You can stop anytime you want.”
She rocks faster, hitting that spot over and over. Josh’s breath grows more ragged and with each strained inhale Christi’s insides throb.
She’s close, almost to bursting, when he moves his hands from her waist to grip her wrists, his eyes pleading. He starts writhing beneath her, jerking in a way that’s fucking up her building orgasm.
“Stop,” she says, pressing down harder with her hands, her hips. “Stop it!”
All the rage that’s built up this year, last year, her whole life, surges through her. Her body is hot, her hands on fire. Her vision narrows to just the face beneath her.
It isn’t Josh anymore. It’s the guy from last year.
Christi grits her teeth as an inhuman sound escapes her lips—a roar, maybe, a growl—and her hands don’t feel like her hands anymore. They’re with her now. They’re stronger. He doesn’t stand a chance.
Neither does her mother. Bertha. Her father.
The faces of everything who ever left her, who ever wronged her, flash before her like a slideshow.
The guy from last year smirks at her once again, that face her gave her when he grabbed her, after weeks of talking shit about her body, her clothes, her parents.
She doesn’t notice his—Josh’s, he’s back to Josh—fingers release her wrists, she’s too focused on her own. Pressing harder and harder on his throat, matching the pressure that’s building inside her. She’s so close—
And then, she explodes. She screams, freeing all the rage and pleasure pent up for years. She’s a queen, a tiger, a monster. She’s nothing. She wants to tear out his jugular with her bare hands, wants to rip his skin off with her teeth, lick his bones clean.
“Fuck,” she gasps, running her aching fingers through her blood-matted hair as she rides out the final waves of her pleasure. “That was—wow.”
Josh is still staring at her, hazel eyes popping, hands limp at his sides.
A laugh, triumphant and ethereal, bursts from her lips, greeting the metallic air.
C.C. Lewis is an educator and horror writer currently living in Germany with her family. She is working on her first novel.