Blood coming out of the bathroom faucets of Charity Hooper's Hawthorn School dormitory doesn't just mean Charity can't wash her face to maintain her porcelain (well, kind of) complexion--it means there's a dead body from 1923 buried in the plumbing, astonishingly well-preserved by the wet sewage conditions.
Well-preserved enough, in fact, for the dead girl's vampire boyfriend to reanimate her as a zombie so they can live happily ever after, massacring innocent Hawthorn students side-by-side.
Faced with such homicidal creatures, Charity would ordinarily consult her English teacher, Ms. Van Tessel, whose knowledge of zombie extermination rivals only her knowledge of British literature. But Ms. Van Tessel has gone mysteriously missing. Can Charity track down her teacher before the annual midnight Capture the Flag tournament, which will be nothing more than an all-you-can-eat buffet for the vampire-zombie tag team?
Kelly Lougheed attended an all-girls high school in northern California. She launched her writing career in freshman physics, the class before lunch, where she crafted heart-wrenching poetry about how hungry she was. Soon she was using novel and short story writing as an excuse to stay up late and not brush her hair in the morning. She is currently studying Classics at Brown University, where she draws inspiration from dashing through the library stacks, pretending a vampire is chasing her, and having near death experiences, such as forgetting to wear a hat outside in the snow.
Charity put the candles to her nose and inhaled the fresh vanilla scent. The man sitting opposite her on the train stared. Charity pretended not to notice, flipping her hair casually and gazing out the window in rapt fascination, even though it was night and the window was completely black, so it just looked like she was admiring her own reflection.
She wished she’d changed clothes before hopping on the train, but technically she wasn’t allowed to be off-campus, and she didn’t want to arouse suspicion by strutting across campus in jeans. So she sat on the train, her plaid skirt and “Hawthorn School” hoodie totally giving her away as a student at the local all-girls boarding school.
The man opposite her probably thought she was a nerd who had never even touched a boy, a completely false assumption. Not only was Charity making a C in Geometry, but she had also just last semester kissed a Romanian exchange student behind the dining hall microwave.
Unfortunately, she had then discovered that the Romanians were all vampires intent on massacring the school, and had driven them out of the country, with the help of her English teacher Ms. Van Tessel, who had unfortunately become a ghost with a detachable head in the process. It was the first, she was certain, of many grimy affairs she would confide to her awestruck grandchildren, or recollect in a series of bestselling memoirs.
“22nd Street,” came the conductor’s voice. Charity tried to look startled from a reverie, as though she had just been mulling over the some symbolism in The Scarlet Letter and was therefore an intellectual boarding school genius, not some undeserving rich girl who had paid her way into Hawthorn. This wasn’t some prep school in New England, after all—this was northern California, where half the girls didn’t bother brushing their hair before dashing off to class. Who did they have to impress, anyway? Mr. Stoneman, the Physics teacher? “Next stop, 22nd Street.”
Charity stood up, grasping the top of her seat as the train jolted to a stop. Clutching the candles to her, she hurried out the doors, glancing behind her to make sure the staring man wasn’t following. What if he was a serial killer? It would be so easy for him to slay her right here, at the desolate train station, with its abandoned benches and dirt path.
But he remained inside as the doors slid shut and the train rattled off. Breathing a sigh of relief, she hoped no serial killer would spring out of the tall weeds sprouting around the side of the station. She felt in her pocket for her room key. She would use it to gouge a serial killer’s eyes out.
She pulled her hood over her head as she tramped up the rickety stairs out of the station and began the ten-minute trudge back to school, and felt goose bumps spring up on her bare legs. The spring nights of San Francisco chilled her bones. Fifty degrees? She might as well live in Alaska.
Mr. Edwards, the school principal, would probably sentence her to a week of filing if he caught her sneaking back on campus, but the risk would be worth smuggling these candles back. For she and Louise were holding a séance tonight.
Her phone buzzed. A text from Louise: “VAN TESSEL GETTING SUSPICIOUS. COME BACK ASAP!!!”
Only utmost panic could prompt Louise to abuse the exclamation point in such a manner. Charity quickened her pace as she entered the streets of suburbia, with their overarching trees and TVs shining in the windows. After glancing around to make sure there were no housewives peeking out their windows, she broke into a full-on sprint.
She was panting and gasping by the time she stumbled onto the school grounds. Now she was warmed up. She slumped against the gate. And nobody could accuse her of being off-campus. She could just pretend she’d been stumbling around, looking for a lost earring. Right by the gate.
She forced herself to march towards the dorm. She thrust a limp hand into her pocket and groped around for her key, before shoving it into the lock, yanking the door open, and staggering up the dorm stairs.
She rounded the corner to her hall and found—how perfect—Ms. Van Tessel leaning against her doorframe, chatting with Louise. Were they gossiping about her? Was Louise nervously babbling on about Charity’s habit of reading CliffsNotes instead of the actual English class books? Good God, had Louise fished out Charity’s collection of CliffsNotes from under her bed as visual aids?
“Hi!” Charity shouted, bounding into the room. She leapt into her desk chair. “Oh my god,” she confided to Charity and Van Tessel, “I really have to study. Because I care so deeply about my intellectual development.” She smoothed down her hair self-consciously, not quite sure her performance had been believable.
“Have a nice walk?” Van Tessel inquired, in a manner suggesting she doubted Charity had actually been strolling leisurely around campus.
“Yes, how was it?” Louise asked, bouncing on her bed. “Did you think of a thesis for your English paper?”
Louise was actually the one who took strolls around campus, mentally outlining her English essays instead of thinking about something sensible, like whether or not a serial killer might be lurking in the bushes.
Charity was the one who wolfed down the CliffsNotes the night before the essay was due, and then, when she found the actual text of the book insufficient to prove her thesis statement, invented her own textual evidence. She was always shocked when the teacher noticed—how did English teachers have the patience to read the same book over and over again? Charity could barely stand television reruns.
“Oh, yeah,” Charity said, even though she had no idea what they were even reading in English class. “It was actually more of a run,” she explained to Ms. Van Tessel. “Hence the redness is my cheeks.” Her face was actually red because she was lying. It was so inconvenient. She would totally crack under police interrogation. So she'd better not commit any federal crimes.
“Really.” Van Tessel crossed her arms. “Because I did not see you anywhere on campus.”
Charity smiled nervously. “You must be losing your head,” she said with a shrug. This was a hilarious joke, as a vampire had decapitated Ms. Van Tessel just last semester. Fortunately for her, however, she had been able to screw her head back on and become a ghost.
“Look, I don’t know what you girls are up to,” Van Tessel announced, her eyes raking over Charity’s hoodie, the front pocket bulging with candles, “but you better not make any noise tonight. I have a ton of grading to do.”
Charity thought it was really inappropriate of Van Tessel to complain about grading papers, considering how Charity had offered dozens of times to assist her, but she decided to let the woman slide.
“Well, bye then!” said Charity, waving. Hopefully Van Tessel would take the hint and walk out the door so she and Louise could summon some spirits.
Van Tessel just gave her a weird look.
“Bye,” she said, gliding away in a somewhat ghostlike manner. She was getting better at ghostliness, Charity decided—even though she refused to enter her classroom by walking through the whiteboard, as Charity so often begged her to (until Van Tessel told her to “for God’s sake, lower your voice”).
She turned to Louise. “Did you get the matches?”
Louise held up the pack of matches “I swiped them from Chemistry lab today,” she said in a low voice, as though there were teachers lurking around every corner, ready to give her detention for her misdemeanor—or worse, judge her for her rule-breaking ways.
“Excellent,” said Charity. “I’ve got the candles. Vanilla-scented—they were the only white ones.”
“That’s what eHow.com recommended,” Charity explained, still breathless as she shoved all her discarded clothes aside, clearing a place for the séance in the middle of the floor. “Black ones would probably attract Satanic spirits or something.”
“What are you doing?” Louise looked alarmed as Charity slid her piles of textbooks away from the center of the room. “We’re not doing it now, are we?”
“Of course we’re doing it now! Our room is haunted, Louise. There’s a poltergeist in here, if not a bloodthirsty 19th century ghost hankering for vengeance on a long-lost lover. It’s been eating my homework, turning all my uniform shirts inside out, completely screwing up my sock drawer, fooling around with my alarm clock—”
Louise opened her mouth—probably to say something sensible like, “Charity, a ghost couldn’t eat your homework because you never do your homework”—but Charity plunged on. “This ghost is like a disobedient child, Louise. It misbehaves, but really, it’s just crying for attention.”
Louse bit her lip. She totally had that expression on her face that she got when she and Charity had made a solemn oath to approach a teacher after class and plead for an extension, and then she backed out, forcing Charity to beg the teacher alone.
“You know,” said Louise in an imploring tone, “It’s really easier to believe in your messy, disorganized nature than an invisible supernatural being who is, um, eating your homework.” When Charity could do nothing but drop her jaw in outrage, Louise shrugged. “Occam’s Razor.”
“Whose razor?” Charity demanded, running her hands self-consciously over the stubble on her legs. “Are you trying to make me shave my legs? I’m comfortable with my body! Just because you don’t even have to shave...” Louise was so blonde, she could go weeks without shaving without anybody noticing. Charity writhed in envy daily.
Louise rolled her eyes and tried to take up her math book again, but Charity snatched the obese volume away from her. However, she was unable to hold up the heavy tome in one hand, and it crashed to the floor. Louise looked scandalized. Charity tried to look like she’d done it as a statement.
“You know there’s a ghost haunting this room,” she insisted. “And you know it’s targeting us! Because we two are the only ones who know what happened that fateful night in 1923 when the gymnasium collapsed!”
Indeed, she and Louise had just last semester flirted with the two vampires responsible for plotting a massacre in the Hawthorn gym a century ago. Unfortunately, the vampires’ plans for bloodshed fell through when Ms. Van Tessel, then a vampire herself and privy to their plot, collapsed the gymnasium, saving her students from the gnarly fate of becoming rabid, bloodsucking fiends, but also, unfortunately, killing them. Charity found Van Tessel’s actions heroic; Louise found them morally questionable. Then again, Louise had been unfortunately turned into a vampire during last semester’s scuffle, which might predispose her to have more sympathy with the bloodsuckers.
“You think the ghost is from 1923?” Louise asked. Her eyes lit up. “Do you think we could interview it for history class?”
“Don’t tell me you didn’t think the ghost was from 1923,” Charity scoffed. “That’s the only reason you agreed to this dark and arcane ritual!”
Well, that and her inner desire to rebel. Louise claimed that she was only participating in the séance out of intellectual curiosity—to observe ancient rituals designed to contact the dead, courtesy of eHow.com—but Charity knew she really just wanted to express her inner rebelliousness. Lighting candles was forbidden in the dorm lest anybody burn the building down, and paganism was generally shunned, except for that brief period some people (like Charity) went through in seventh grade when they wore all black and tried to cast Wiccan spells they found on the internet.
“We’re doing the séance.” Charity began setting up candles on the carpet as Louise looked on, horrified. “And I’ll show you there are spirits in this room!”
“Why are you putting a newspaper underneath the candles?” Louise asked as she watched her friend scramble around in preparation for the dark and arcane ritual.
“Well, in case they fall over!” Charity said earnestly.
“The newspaper is flammable,” Louise said, snatching it away. “Just put the candles in cups. Not paper cups. And not that one!” she called, as Charity puttered around on her dresser and grabbed a mug. “I wash my retainer in that!”
“Nobody actually wears their retainer, you know.” Charity rolled her eyes, but came back with another cup.
“Just put the candles down here,” Louise instructed her. Good. Now that Louise was all concerned Charity was going to burn down the dorm, she was totally obsessed with doing the séance right. “Here. I’ll light them.”
Charity’s breath caught as Louise struck the match and lowered the dancing flame onto each wick.
“The heat attracts spirits,” she whispered to Louise knowledgeably.
Louise raised a snarky eyebrow. “Did the internet tell you that?”
God, she was so mean sometimes! And then she just sat innocently in history seminar, making shy comments about Thomas Jefferson, and everyone thought she was such a brainiac and not someone who dished out verbal barbs left and right, totally wounding her friends.
Charity flipped off the light in revenge.
“Are we doing this in the dark?” Louise cried.
“Yes. It’s more conducive to encouraging, um, spirit activity.”
“I think you just saw it in the movies. Turn the lights back on! This is creepy.”
“If you’re too weak-hearted...” Charity began, but Louise grabbed her hands and yanked her downwards to form a two-person circle around the candles.
“You were the one who fainted during the eighth grade frog dissection,” she snapped. “I can handle this. It’s not like anything’s going to actually happen.”
Charity smiled to herself. Louise had basically just guaranteed the arrival of an angry spirit, perhaps one who would paint them a message on the wall in rat blood. Then she would get to bounce around the room singing, “I told you so” until Louise told her to shut up, because she had to study for tomorrow’s math test.
“Now, close your eyes.” Charity let her own lids fall until she could no longer see the candles flickering inside the cups they ordinarily used to store their toothbrushes.
Darkness cloaked her vision. Louise’s hands tightened on hers, and Charity felt a thrill of excitement shoot down her spine.
“O whatever spirits are haunting this dorm room,” she began in lofty tones, “defiling my sock drawer and messing with my alarm clock, I beseech you, come forth and honor us with your presence!”
She paused as she and Louise strained their ears to search out any sound in the overpowering silence.
“Nothing’s happening,” Louise hissed. “Can we blow out the candle now?”
“Ignore the non-believer!” Charity shouted, hoping to drown Louise out. “We are friendly and receptive to whatever ghostly messages you may wish us to bear—”
A thunderous sound shook the room—in three consecutive booms. Louise shrieked and clutched Charity, knocking a candle over and snuffing it out.
“Is it a spirit?” she whispered, voice intense with terror. Charity’s heart rate rocketed upwards, and her fingers dug into Louise’s arms.
“Are there any spirits present?” she called, forcing her voice to remain calm, drawing upon all her skills from sixth grade drama class. There was a pause. Then a rapping sounded at the door, much more tentative than the previous, thunderous knocks.
“Um...Charity? Louise?” Esther, the girl who lived next door, cracked the door open with a creak. “Are you guys in here? What are you doing?”
“Communicating with spirits,” Charity informed her at the same time Louise said, “Nothing.”
“And I would stay in the doorway if I were you,” Charity said. “I don’t know what kind of spirits we’ve summoned. They could be hostile.”
“Well,” said Esther doubtfully, lingering in the doorway—no doubt afraid an evil spirit would swoop out and bite her head off—”I was just wondering if you could keep it down. You know there's a math test tomorrow, right?”
“Only for you people in smart math.” Charity couldn’t contain a smug smile in Esther’s direction, pretending to be secretly triumphant about having been kicked out of the honors track and assigned to stupid math. It was a coping mechanism for her pain.
“Right,” said Esther, clearly looking down her nose at Charity for being so thick-headed when it came to numbers. Little did she know that while Charity may be book stupid, she was street smart. She had watched hours of crime shows (instead of studying for math, but it was a price well-paid) and could totally survive on the slick streets of New York City with the combination of her portable pepper spray, keen senses, and the flying sidekick she sometimes practiced in her room at night. After all, the ability to drop kick a serial killer in the dark alleyways of New York City was way more applicable to real life than the ability to rotate a polygon on the Cartesian plane.
But Esther, sadly, was unaware of this. “Well,” she said, tossing her hair, “if you could just keep it down, that would be great. Even if you aren’t in smart math, there’s still the Capture the Flag tournament tomorrow night.”
The Capture the Flag tournament was an annual Hawthorn tradition between all the dormitories, and it was important to rest up for this athletic endeavor in order to prove the superiority of Bronte House, Charity and Louise’s dorm—and also to win a free dress day.
“Sure. Charity pretended she didn't want to rip Esther’s throat out for disturbing their spiritual communication.
“Sorry!” called Louise as Esther exited and the door clicked shut. Charity smacked her friend’s hand. Louise looked indignant.
“Don't apologize for talking to the spirits,” she admonished her friend. “It insults them.”
“Charity, there are no spirits here.” Louise climbed to her feet though Charity yanked on her hand, trying to pull her down. “You totally freaked me out for no reason at all. I'm going to study for math—”
Charity opened her mouth to unleash a deluge of complaints about how Louise was no fun, completely dedicated to school, utterly lacking in imagination, and had probably never taken a risk in her life, when a scream ripped through the dormitory hallway, shrill and piercing.
Charity and Louise bugged their eyes out at each other as the high-decibel scream assaulted their eardrums, and then lunged for the door as the screamer apparently paused to gasp for breath.
A cacophony of slamming doors echoed through the hallway as everybody spilled out of their rooms, some alarmed, convinced somebody had just been serial killed, others merely salivating for the latest piece of gossip, convinced one of their classmates had just received a break-up email from her long-distance boyfriend and was taking it rather badly.
“What’s going on?”
Some of Charity’s classmates were already donning pajamas, or had bunny slippers poking out from the bottom of their sweats. One girl, Maude, had clearly just leapt out of bed—her braided hair was slightly mussed, probably from ripping off her eye mask. Two white spots of zit cream contrasted against her tan, vaguely ethnic skin.
“Has there been a murder?” she asked eagerly.
“Do you think this has anything to do with the spirits we summoned?” Charity muttered to Louise under the buzz of her excited classmates. Louise kicked her in the shin. Charity couldn’t figure out if Louise didn’t want to incriminate them for summoning possibly dangerous spirits, or if she, as a champion of science, didn’t want to be associated with such out-of-date rituals.
Then Esther burst out of her room, her white face betraying that it was she who screamed. Everybody immediately crowded around her, saying “Esther” in a benign, concerned, but ultimately pointless way, asking, “What’s wrong?” or “What happened?”
Charity didn’t bother with any of these vapid courtesies, but rather, pressed closer to Esther, craning her neck for a better view in case Esther launched into a dramatic tale of murder and intrigue.
“Hey! Guys! Give her some breathing room!” Van Tessel came out and started shooing people away. Probably because she wanted a better view herself. Charity slouched against the wall and pretended she hadn’t been inching towards Esther, craving a good story.
“She’s probably in shock,” Louise said in her ear. Wow, she was close—apparently she too had been gravitating towards the celebrity of the hour.
“Esther, what happened?” Maude demanded, shoving through several of her classmates, having apparently elected herself chief interrogator. “Did you throw back your flowery comforter only to see a skull staring back at you? Or a decomposing body lounging on your bed?”
Maude’s eyes gleamed. Beside Charity, Louise looked a bit nauseous.
“Hey,” said Charity. “Maybe if she really did find a decomposing body, they’ll cancel your math test tomorrow. And send you all to trauma counseling instead.” Perhaps Charity could fake a catatonic breakdown and get out of tests for a month...
“Oh, God, I hope not.” Louise looked even more horrified. “I’m completely prepared for this math test! I’m at the peak of my Geometry understanding—the apex, the crest, the acrophase—”
“Can we see the dead body?” Charity shouted to Esther. Louise needed to learn that spouting jargon didn’t make her look intelligent, it made her look like a weirdo with a propensity for memorizing textbooks.
Esther still stood shell-shocked outside the door, white-faced with her jaw hanging open, like a fish, so Charity shouldered past a few giggling, pajama-wearing girls and slipped into Esther’s room.
“Hey, let’s not just barge into people’s rooms,” Van Tessel called, but Charity chose not to heed her suggestion. She was an empowered woman, like Hawthorn had taught her to be—she did what she wanted, and if that meant barging into people’s rooms or skipping math class, so be it. When her math teacher tried to assign her detention, she’d just accuse them of supressing her womanhood.
Louise breathed down her back as Charity stumbled in, looking around the room frantically for the cadaver.
“I can actually feel your breath tickling my back, you know,” she muttered, observing the rumpled sheets, clothes thrown over the chair, homework askew on the floor...Charity slowly raised her eyes to the walls, which Esther had plastered with posters from the latest vampire movie.
Brooding vampires glared down from the walls and ceiling, scorning the room’s inhabitants through their shaggy, eternally unwashed hair—but a blank space stood out at the head of Esther’s bed, above her flowery pillows.
The space, however, was blank no more. A message now adorned the wall—a message shining in still-wet scarlet paint.
I AM BURIED BENEATH.
But Charity had a feeling it wasn’t paint.
This seemed like a pretty unlucky sign for their dormitory’s luck in the Capture the Flag tournament tomorrow.