They met in a creative writing class. It seemed like happenstance at the time.
“I’m Jane,” she extended her hand outward, smiling effusively.
Shanah had previously noticed Jane. She was the type of student who interjected often during workshops to offer their own opinions, sometimes to the collective eyerolls of the class. However, as a newly arrived transfer student, Shanah was in no position to reject a potential friendship. She pumped this new girl’s hand in return, introduced herself, and sat at a desk next to her while they compared schedules.
This particular class was one Shanah considered fairly simple. Their professor asked so little of them, in terms of actual writing. Shanah had to compose a poem each week consisting of some observation she’d made; she peppered her writing with line breaks and em-dashes to make it appear profound.
That day, she’d written a free-verse piece about the chain link fence that surrounded her backyard in the duplex she was renting. She looked at the fence all the time as it was the primary sense of horizon from both her bedroom and bathroom windows. It was also ugly, it pervaded her day, and the poem was, in turn, about ugliness. Shanah wasn’t sure why, but their professor applauded it profusely.
“Such sharp insight, a very interesting metaphor, the fence as a barrier to your own imagination,” she announced to Shanah in workshop.
This praise was enough to draw attention from her classmates in the form of both admiration and envy.
“Your poems are really good,” Jane complimented her after class, waving Shanah over to her group.
They were sitting along a crumbling concrete ledge outside the English department building where everyone congregated to smoke cigarettes and play at being the next Jack Kerouac. The English building itself was once two separate buildings, combined sometime in the early 70’s. Now there was a joint in the middle, where students usually tripped, and suddenly you were six inches lower and the room numbers inexplicably went from 450 to A15. At a university where agriculture was the premiere program, no one had much thought for their dilapidated edifice. Shanah found the hodgepodge nature of it rather charming.
She joined Jane on the ledge. Jane was dating another Humanities major. He was a big guy named Eddie who favored Marlboros and had been kicked out of a female professor’s class for arguing that “women didn’t belong in the military” in the midst of her Women in Wartime literature lecture. It was rumored she had told him: “When you have your PhD in literature, you’re welcome to come teach the class, until then, shut the fuck up.” Shanah did not particularly admire him.
Jane inclined her head toward the book Shanah was holding, “What are you reading?”
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem, it’s by Joan Didion.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“The title is actually from a William Butler Yeats poem, ‘The Second Coming.’ But Didion is kind of essential reading for any aspiring writer.”
Eddie scoffed, Shanah was certain it was a scoff, but he’d disguised it as a smoker’s hack.
“Eddie’s frat is having a party this weekend and I’m in charge of inviting the female contingent,” Jane informed her, leaning into Eddie’s shoulder. Eddie didn’t acknowledge her physical advance, just provided a bulky support for her back.
Shanah nodded, using her hand to bat away an eye-watering cloud of smoke, behind Jane’s head, the blooming dogwood tree was barely visible through their collective haze. Maybe there was a poem there, Shanah thought.
Jane was still talking, “I’d love for you to come.”
“To the frat party?”
“Yes, of course!”
“It’s not really my thing.”
“It isn’t one of those frats, these guys are all intellectual and interesting. You’ll meet some people. You said you hadn’t met anyone yet. Come on, please?” Jane turned her face into an attractive pout.
If Eddie was the yardstick against which Jane was judging the intellect of said frat brothers, Shanah felt assured of their mediocrity. On the other hand, it was almost halfway through her first semester and she hadn’t been to a proper party yet, unless you counted throwing darts at the local dive bar with the townies, and she didn’t.
“Okay. Yes, I’ll come.”
“Hooray!” Jane squealed, clapping her hands together like a child with a sweet.
* * *
The party was held in a two-story, wooden house on the part of campus referred to as ‘Fraternity Hill.’ The houses were lined up on a literal hill, so the monicker wasn’t particularly creative. The house Shanah was meant to arrive at was perhaps the most ramshackle one on the entire block, the Greek letters hung askew and unrecognizable — Epsilon Delta or maybe Kappa? She couldn’t tell.
Music filled the night, radio hits layered over DJed synth beats, people spilled out onto the lawn, smoking, laughing. It was an impoverished West Egg. She squeezed past a group of guys lingering near the threshold.
“Oh no you don’t! You cannot enter the party, unless you slap the bag,” one of them commanded, blocking Shanah’s entrance.
“Slap the bag!”
“Look, I was invited by Jane, I don’t want…”
The frat boy moved to reveal a plastic wine bag, the type usually concealed by a box in your great-aunt’s fridge, hanging from a noose and swinging morbidly in the air.
“You gotta slap it, show it who’s boss, then take a swig from the spout!”
He demonstrated by bringing his palm down hard on the plastic bladder of blood red liquid, yelling something incomprehensible, then taking a knee underneath the bag to drink eagerly from its plastic teat.
This demonstration was met with much applause.
“Your turn!” He pointed at Shanah, his mouth garnet-tinged in the low light, a flannel clad vampire.
Shanah sighed, she had come here seeking an authentic collegiate experience. This is it, she told herself, you are experiencing it.
Obediently, though less than enthusiastically, she patted the bag, yelled, “This is gross!” then took a knee and a swig from the spigot.
“Alright, you’re admitted! But next time, you need to hit it harder.”
Everyone laughed. Shanah went inside feeling slightly humiliated despite being entirely sober. Her teeth had a distinctly fuzzy feeling and she desperately tried not to think about how many people’s mouths had already graced the threshold.
Cutting across the dance floor she spotted a friend from community college, they’d both transferred recently but didn’t have any classes together.
The two embraced in the midst of co-eds dry-humping to a mix of Prince and Nine Inch Nails. Somewhere a disco ball cast tiny windows of light and sent them spinning across the wall. The room also had a somewhat unnecessary black light that only served to illuminate the copious stains on the floor.
“How’d you end up at this party?” Shanah asked her friend.
“Some guy invited me. He went to go get us drinks, but that was a while ago. I hesitated about ‘slapping the bag’ and he…”
“Yeah, what the fuck was that?”
They both laughed.
A tall, curly haired guy appeared with two red Solo cups. He handed one to Lashae and Shanah gave her a questioning look.
“Shanah, this is Mark. Shanah and I went to community college together.”
“Well, we all have to start somewhere,” he quipped.
“I have to find a friend,” Shanah interjected. “Leave me a note in campus mail, let’s meet up soon,” she called to Lashae before wandering off in the direction of the kitchen.
Someone handed her a cup of beer from the communal keg. Wordlessly, a frat boy toiled at the pump holding the cups aloft for whomever happened to walk by. Shanah accepted the cup, glad to now have something to do with her hands.
She spotted Jane leaning against the counter, surrounded by Eddie and a few other guys Shanah recognized from her classes.
“Kurt Vonnegut is the deciding writer of the 20th century, if the professor can’t understand that, then she is simply being intentionally obtuse…”
Shanah approached them and Jane spotted her, squealed.
“Oh my god, you made it! Everyone, this is Shanah,” she shoved her forward into the middle of their small circle.
“Hi,” she managed.
They cast their eyes over her, one nodded slightly, the conversation resumed around her.
Jane talked excitedly to Shanah about their classes and an upcoming costume party the frat would be hosting, “You just have to come!”
Shanah found herself in possession of a second beer, nodding to Jane’s chatter. She didn’t see Lashae again, but the house seemed to have endless rooms and corridors, an attic, a basement, a yard that expanded into the night. There were so many places to disappear into. She finished her beer.
“So, we are going to do it tonight.”
“Do what?” Shanah realized she hadn’t been listening.
“Mushrooms,” Jane quipped. Eddie scowled.
“Do you want to come to the basement with us?” one of the guys asked.
“Oh.” Shanah had experimented with drugs in high school and she wasn’t particularly inclined to spend her evening tripping in a sweaty dungeon with people she didn’t know. “No, thanks. I think I am going to head out, actually.”
Jane shrugged. “Suit yourself, see you in class on Monday. And don’t forget about the costume party!”
With Shanah’s refusal, Jane turned briskly, closing her out of the circle entirely. She laughed at something Eddie said and did not turn back to speak to Shanah again.
Left holding an empty cup, and without anyone to talk to, Shanah recognized she’d been dismissed and began the long trek back to her duplex.
* * *
Shanah ran into Lashae on her way to the dining hall Sunday afternoon.
“Did you have fun at the party?” Shanah asked.
Lashae rolled her eyes, “That guy was a total douchebag.”
“Did you slap the douchebag?”
They both laughed halfheartedly.
“What about you?”
“It was okay, I just talked to my friend Jane from poetry class. Her boyfriend seems to think he’s god’s gift to the English department, smoking cigarettes like some off-brand Beat poet. They wanted me to do some drugs in the basement and I left.”
“Oh, yeah. That basement action was fucking weird. I went down the stairs, looking for the bathroom, and all these people were rolling around on the ground half clothed. They had some weird ass music playing and someone was wearing a mask? I don’t know. They slammed the door in my face, and I got the heck out of there.”
“Jane kept talking about a costume party, I wonder if they were like, practicing or something,” Shanah wondered.
“It looked like some kind of initiation thing. I don’t know much about fraternities, but I know people have died doing those stupid secret rituals. Or, like that sorority where they made the girls wear blindfolds and listed all of their physical flaws and read letters from their exes. They said one of the pledges tried to kill herself afterwards. I’m not down with any of that,” Lashae crossed her arms.
“Me neither,” Shanah agreed, though she also wondered if Jane had wanted her to be a part of this strange initiation rite. And, if so, why hadn’t she just been real about it?
“Also, that Jane girl, I heard she had the cops called to her dorm room during freshman year.”
“I heard it was something about threatening her roommate with a knife.”
“That sounds a little far-fetched.”
Lashae shrugged, “Well, anyway, do you want to go grab some food with me? I think it’s buffalo chicken wraps for lunch today.”
Shanah nodded and they headed toward the dining hall together, neither of them wanted to discuss the party again.
Still, at the beginning of the following week, Shanah continued to be bothered by what Lashae had said about the frat house basement.
The whole thing seemed absurd and, anyway, who cared if Eddie and his friends worshipped the Church of Satan or whatever. They were probably just doing psychedelics in the basement and would rather be outed as occultists than druggies, the former had a bit more cachet among the pseudo-intellectual set. In an attempt at logic, she mentally outlined the campaigns against Dungeons & Dragons, ‘reefer madness,’ Helter Skelter, and felt convinced the fraternity was a group of almost-men who wanted to be perceived as more interesting than they actually were.
She took a shower to clear her head and walked to creative writing class.
Jane was already seated at the front of the classroom when Shanah arrived, a poem printed out on her desk, a worn copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem sat next to it. She raised her eyes and acknowledged Shanah with a slight smile, but there was no squealing or effusive hellos.
Before Shanah could consider her new friend’s coldness, or ask about the book, their professor swished in, with her customary: “Who is ready to read today?”
Jane’s hand shot up.
The professor acknowledged her and sat behind the desk.
Jane stood and in her clear, high-pitched voice read her carefully handwritten poem.
When she’d finished, Shanah’s mouth was slightly agape. Jane had essentially written a copy of Shanah’s own poem from the week prior. It had the same cadence and a similar theme, though hers focused on a drainage ditch rather than a fence as the central metaphor. Without pulling her own work out to compare, Shanah was almost certain Jane had used the exact same amount of lines with breaks in similar places.
Jane sat back down at her desk, a smile on her face.
“Very decent, Jane,” their professor commented. “Who’s next?”
Jane’s smile downgraded itself to a firm, set line.
* * *
It was a couple of days before Jane approached Shanah again, waving her over to the smokers’ ledge. Shanah was neither brave nor defiant enough to coldly pass her by.
“Hey,” she mumbled.
“Shanah! I am so glad I caught you. I wanted to remind you about the costume party this weekend! It’s a big mixer so a lot of people will be there.”
“Oh, I don’t know…,” Shanah trailed off.
“Hey, I’m really sorry for being rude lately. I’ve just been so busy planning and totally overwhelmed with schoolwork, anyway, it would be great if you could make it.”
“Yeah, maybe. Depends on how much work I have to do.”
“You should think of a costume. We can brainstorm if you want. Oh, you could be a ballerina!”
“I used to dance ballet,” Shanah mused.
Jane’s smile didn’t falter.
Shanah was taken off-guard by the mea culpa and found herself assuring Jane she’d be there and Jane assuring her, “It’s going to be so fun!”
When she got home Shanah considered the clothes hanging in her closet. She didn’t have anything costume-y, but, as she tossed aside shirts, she found a black and white Breton number. Paired with black pants and a bit of stage makeup, she could easily be a mime. Not the sexiest costume, Shanah admitted to herself, but Lashae was a theater major with access to the requisite makeup and it could be easily assembled in time.
Lashae cocked an eyebrow when Shanah explained her costume requirements.
“You’re going back to that place?”
“They’re just a bunch of wannabes who’ve read too much Lovecraft. Plus, I like costume parties and it’s an excuse to go out, otherwise I’ll stay inside watching re-runs on TV all weekend.”
“Didn’t that girl try to steal your writing?”
“Stylistically, yes, I suppose.”
Lashae just shrugged and handed her the face paint and a black beret.
* * *
On the night of the party, Shanah arrived at the same rundown house, no one had fixed the dangling letters, with her face completely obscured by white and black stage makeup, her hair pulled back into a tight bun, offset by a beret she had jauntily angled to the right side.
The house felt different that evening, a little more subdued, though there were still people spilling out into the dry, unwatered lawn. A full moon illuminated people in cloaks, togas, fluffy dresses, like something out of a fairy tale.
Shanah took a step toward the threshold where sheer black curtains had replaced the wine bladder previously displayed. To her right the DJ stand was still set up, but no one was there, and the droning of Gregorian monks played over an ambient track and filled the room with a live, pulsing sound.
No one was handing out beers, though in the kitchen a group of cloaked figures huddled around a bottle of tequila, drinking it as though it were water.
Shanah sidestepped them and walked into the yard where a fire pit cast long shadows onto the back lawn. A hand touched her shoulder and she jumped.
“It’s just me, silly,” Jane’s voice cut through the darkness like a shard of light.
“What’s up with the creepy vibe?” Shanah asked, turning to face her, but her voice faded away as she took in Jane’s appearance.
Shanah gasped a little, the face reflected back to her was a mirror image of her own, the striped shirt, the stage makeup, even Jane’s beret was tilted to the side.
“Don’t you love it? We are totally twinning!” Jane whipped out a digital camera and snapped a picture, Shanah’s eyes sparkled with imaginary light. She blinked several times, adjusting her eyes back to darkness, then looking around again for Jane. She found nothing but the firelit darkness.
Shanah’s stomach turned over a little. She headed toward the door, this had officially gotten too weird. She could see the moonlit courtyard, the street, when a hand roughly grabbed the tender flesh on the upper part of her arm.
“Jane, what do you think you’re doing? We need you downstairs, they’re about to begin.” It was Eddie’s gruff smoker’s voice that emanated from underneath the dark cloak.
“I…” Shanah began.
“I told you, this is important for us. We talked about your participation as a partner to the Brotherhood,” he hissed. “You agreed. You know the ritual requires a female body for the Brothers to commune through, you agreed to be the medium.”
Shanah swallowed around the lump growing in her throat.
“I… just need some fresh air before we begin,” she whispered in an imitation of Jane’s voice.
Eddie released her arm. “Two minutes,” he conceded, before kissing her forehead and turning back to the group in the kitchen.
Shanah ran. She ran as fast and hard as she could, legs pumping, mouth dry, she lost Lashae’s beret almost immediately. She could feel sweat running from her hairline along the sides of her face, white and black makeup pooling in rivulets around her collarbone. She ran until she reached the chain link fence separating her from the world, pulling it protectively closed behind her.
She ran a shower and washed the whole evening down the drain. As she pat herself dry in the foggy mirror she noticed a dark thumbprint where Eddie had roughly grabbed her arm. She wrapped herself in the towel and collapsed on her bed into a damp and dreamless sleep.
Jane didn’t return to the creative writing class and, despite Shanah’s attempts to locate her, she didn’t return to school at all that semester. Even her parents came looking for her. Shanah saw Eddie once, smoking on the concrete ledge, but he didn’t acknowledge her existence. She involuntarily rubbed the upper part of her arm.
Only during daylight did she chance a walk past the fraternity house a few weeks later, the doors were boarded up and the dangling Greek letters had been extracted like bad teeth. Shanah put her head down and walked past it, letting the building fade to the edges of her periphery.