As I Descended
No matter how much they adored Maria, though, the popular crowd seemed to think Brandon was barely good enough to be allowed across their threshold. That was Acheron for you. The school used to be a farm run by slaves, now it was a factory for shallowness and broken souls.
And for Maria and Brandon, most of what they had in common wasn’t stuff they talked about with everyone else. In fact, they seemed to spend most of their time together talking about everyone else.
Brandon had shown Mateo the list they used to keep in his old bio notebook. Freshman year, Brandon and Maria had made up nicknames for everyone in their class. Austin was “Pseudo-Vamp,” because he dressed all in black even though his favorite song was “Love Story” by Taylor Swift. Caitlin was “Dumber Than a Dumb Blonde Joke.” Delilah was “Her Most Insufferable Majesty.” Mateo was “Gay or Eurotrash?” (which made Mateo laugh harder than it probably should’ve). At the very bottom of the list was a name that had been crossed through so many times it was barely legible. Lily’s name. Before she and Maria got together they’d called her “Braided Just a Little Too Tight.”
Brandon kept giggling as he pointed down the list. Mateo smiled too. The names weren’t really that funny, but he was sure they’d seemed hilarious in ninth grade. He could picture the two of them lying side by side on Maria’s bed, telling jokes at their friends’ expense. Brandon had been doing it for the shits and giggles, but Mateo had a feeling Maria meant every word she wrote.
You wouldn’t know it to look at her, standing there smiling at everyone like they were her favorite people in the world, but Maria knew exactly what she wanted. How much of her was real and how much was her playing at what she thought these people expected from her?
“Hey,” Kei said. “I’ve got a scary story, actually.”
“Oh, come on,” Lily said. “Just because the lights went out that doesn’t mean we have to pretend we’re at a little kids’ slumber party.”
“What’s the matter, Lily, you scared?” Mateo grinned at her. “It’s just another blackout. What, you think La Llorona’s gonna get you in the dark?”
Lily kept her lips in a tight line. Most girls cheered up when Mateo teased them, but Lily wasn’t most girls.
When Mateo turned away, he saw Maria looking right at him. Her face was pale, her eyes narrow.
“What did you say?” she asked Mateo.
“What? About your roommate being a wuss?”
“No, the other part.”
Maria looked drunk all of a sudden. Really drunk. Mateo felt bad for not noticing sooner.
“You sure you’re okay?” Mateo asked her.
Maria must’ve imagined it. He couldn’t have said La Llorona’s name. No one knew about La Llorona except Maria.
And her old nanny, Altagracia. But Altagracia was dead.
“I’m okay,” she told Mateo.
She was not at all okay. Tonight was not a normal night. “Okay, so here’s my story,” Kei said. “Back in the Civil War, there were a bunch of Union officers camped out here, using the house as their command base, and there was a mutiny, and—”
“Everybody knows that story,” Tamika interrupted him. “The ambassadors tell it to you on the tour.”
Maria’s eyes drifted in and out of focus as she gazed from face to face. Room parties always felt endless.
“Yeah, but did you know the security guards still hear them?” Kei said. “They said you can hear the soldiers marching out on the grounds at night. They say that one lieutenant—the one who was shot by his own soldiers—you can still hear screaming at midnight when the moon’s full.”
“Oh, that’s so not true,” Emily said.
“I’ve never heard any soldiers, and I’ve been going to this school since the fourth grade,” Ryan said.
“Yeah, that’s bull,” Tamika said. “Like the one about the ghost of the old lady who’s supposed to come sit on your chest and smother you at night. Or the rampaging Indian spirits who stalk little kids. I mean, come on.”
“They’re not Indians, they’re Native Americans,” Caitlin said. “And you’d be pissed too if your land got invaded and your whole tribe got slaughtered.”
“Yes, please, tell me more about the evil things white folks have done,” Tamika said.
“Has anybody ever seen the kids on the lake?” Caitlin asked.
A hush fell over the room.
Oh God. Had someone else seen the kids on the lake? Maria had been sure she was the only one.
“Have you?” Austin asked.
“Well, no,” Caitlin said. “But you know the story, right?”
“Oh, sure,” Ryan said. “I mean, they teach that story to all the ambassadors, too. But it’s bullshit about there being stupid lake ghosts. Come on.”
“Wait, what story?” Mateo asked.
“The little kids say the lake has ghosts,” Ryan said. “The true part of the story is, back in the seventies, when the school grounds first got extended to include the lake, there were three kids who drowned all in one night.”
Everyone was quiet for a moment. It was one thing to think about Civil War soldiers dying on their campus, but the seventies weren’t that long ago.
“That’s why no one’s allowed to swim there,” Kei added. “I heard there’s, like, a whirlpool way out in the deep part that sucks you under.”
“The little kids think there’s a bogeyman who grabs you and drags you to the bottom,” Ryan said. “I think the school made that up so people would be too scared to go swim there. Like the one about the football players.”
“No, that one’s true too,” Mateo said. “I heard it before I came here. My parents told me they’d kill me if I ever went near the football field during a thunderstorm.”
“That’s an urban legend,” Ryan said. “You can’t really die just because you’re on a football field and lightning hits the goalposts. Do you pay attention in physics at all?”
“But the one about the lake is totally true,” Caitlin said. “There are pictures of the kids who died in an old yearbook. They were a guy and two girls and they were all in, like, a love triangle.”
“A love triangle?” Austin said. “Spare me.”
Maria had seen the kids on the lake. And there were four of them, not three. But she’d only told Lily and Brandon about that.
Brandon. Oh God, Brandon. She still had to figure out what to say to him about last night.
He’d pulled her into a side corridor that morning after class, breaking away from Felicia, the little freshman who always followed him around like a puppy.
“What the hell happened last night?” Brandon had whispered to Maria. “Did you have a psychotic break or something?”
“Of course not.” Maria had shifted her backpack strap on her shoulder, her heart pounding. She should’ve come up with some reasonable-sounding explanation, but all she’d been able to do since the chandelier fell was replay the spirit’s message in her head. The chiming voice she’d heard sing each line as the planchette spelled them out.
“So what was that?” Brandon asked. “How was that thing writing stuff when you and Lily had your eyes closed?”
“I don’t . . .” Maria shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. It was just a game.”
“Just a game my ass. You took it seriously.”