As I Descended
“Austin,” she said. “Truth or dare?”
“Dare.” Austin didn’t hesitate.
“I dare you to tell us the scariest story you’ve ever heard.”
“Whooo!” A bunch of people giggled.
Austin didn’t laugh. “You don’t want me to do that, Princess.”
“What’s the matter, Austin?” Tamika whispered. “You scared of ghosts?”
Austin still didn’t laugh.
“I’ve got a scary story!” Delilah said. “This one time, I went running by the lake at night and —”
“Wait, wait, Maria just said to tell a scary story,” Kei interrupted. “Not about something that happened to you.”
“But it was scary!” Delilah said. “It was the scariest story ever!”
“You did not go out running by the lake at night,” Tamika said. “No one goes out to the lake at night. Besides, the security guards would catch you.”
“No, I totally did it,” Delilah said. “It was a couple of years ago. All of a sudden it got really cold, like, out of nowhere, and then I heard someone else run past me. He totally brushed my sleeve. Which was weird, because I hadn’t seen anyone else running. And when I turned to see who it was, there was no one there!”
“Dun-dun-DUN!” Kei whispered loudly. Everyone, even the boys, dissolved into giggles.
Lily closed her eyes and tried to imagine what it would be like if she really could get rid of everyone else and have the whole world to herself. Her and Maria.
If only there were a way . . .
HOURS DREADFUL AND THINGS STRANGE (#ulink_f6a7a29d-1c39-5189-9b42-be10015124ba)
For the life of him, Mateo couldn’t figure out what the hell Maria was doing.
She was still sitting next to him from when she’d fallen, but she was scribbling on a notepad now. Off to one side, in the dark, where the others wouldn’t see.
He could’ve asked her, but ever since he’d come to Acheron, Mateo had made it a policy not to ask the rich girls too many questions. They only got flustered and made something up, and at the end of it he was just as embarrassed as they were.
Now that he knew the truth about Maria, though, it was harder to hold back. Last week, Brandon had told him about her and Lily Boiten. They were “in loooove,” Brandon had said, giggling. Maria thought she was probably bi, Brandon said, but Lily was all-the-way gay.
Mateo didn’t believe it at first. Both those girls seemed way too uptight to like pussy. Now that he was paying attention, though, he was surprised he hadn’t figured it out before.
There was the way Maria was staring at Lily, for one thing. As if she wanted to shove everyone else out the door so Maria could have her all to herself.
There was something about the way they were with each other, too. An easiness. They looked like they could have whole conversations without ever needing to talk out loud.
It made Mateo kind of jealous, honestly. Not of the part where the girls felt like they had to stay closeted—which was kind of weird, actually, since for him, being gay had only upped his stud factor at school. Maybe Maria felt like she had to keep quiet since her mom was a state senator?
No, the part that made him jealous was that he’d definitely never been “in loooove.” He’d been hooking up with Brandon for a few weeks, but he didn’t see it lasting through the semester. He liked the guy, sure, but there just wasn’t that much there. It was more of a we’re the only two gay guys in this backwater school, so let’s screw already thing than a Romeo-and-Juliet one.
Or Romeo-and-Romeo. Whatever. Beer.
“Hey.” Mateo nudged Maria’s shoulder. Another dare was starting on the far side of the room. “You okay?”
“What? Oh. Yeah.” Maria shrugged. “Thinking about the match.”
Mateo smiled at her. She didn’t smile back. Caitlin and Emily had started a contest to see who could touch their noses with their tongues. All the guys except Mateo were watching, rapt.
“Don’t worry,” he told Maria. “You ladies have been working your asses off in practice. You’ll crush ’em.”
The girls’ soccer team was playing its league championship next week, and it was going to be a lot harder than the guys’ game had been. Mateo’s team had won easily, and a WVU scout even showed up to watch. Mateo had been checking the mail every day since, praying for a scholarship offer.
But the girls were gearing up to play Acheron’s big rival, Birnam Academy. Birnam had won the Virginia state championship two years in a row, and all the girls on Acheron’s team were freaking out about the game. Why? He couldn’t really say. It wasn’t like any of them would need scholarships to go to college.
Some people thought the Kingsley Prize committee cared about the team’s record, but Mateo was pretty sure that theory was mostly bullshit. Just like the Kingsley Prize itself. He hadn’t even bothered to put his name in for the thing. Delilah Dufrey had it in the bag.
Mateo liked Delilah. They’d been friends since Mateo first transferred to Acheron in ninth grade. He could’ve been the weird new brown kid at school—and the gay one, to boot—but Delilah had started hanging out with him right away. When he told her he wanted to start a Gay-Straight Alliance, she said she’d be vice president. Thanks to Delilah, joining the GSA became cool, and so did Mateo.
But if anyone had asked his opinion of the Kingsley thing, he’d have said that if some rich, dead dude wanted to give out a free ride to college, he should give it to someone who actually needed one. Not someone whose parents could afford the most expensive school on the planet four times over.
The championship game was a matter of pride for Maria and the others, though, and Mateo certainly understood about pride. Soccer was the whole reason he’d come here. Acheron had recruited him from Birnam back in middle school. Offered him a full scholarship in exchange for captaining the soccer team and upping Acheron’s diversity quotient. Getting into college didn’t feel half as sweet as listening to that crowd cheering your name.
Just then, the air conditioner stopped humming. The hall light went out. The room sank into dim candlelight.
Great. Another power failure. Acheron’s electrical system was about as old as the house itself. Someone, somewhere, was probably microwaving popcorn.
The room fell silent. Even Delilah’s giggling trailed off. Emily, who’d just been dared to dance like Beyoncé, stopped mid-hip-thrust. Mateo rummaged in his pocket for the matches they all carried and lit two extra candles on the bedside table. Across the room, Austin lit three more.
A sharp clang came from the far corner—the dark, empty corner near the boarded-over fireplace, on the wall the room shared with the old dining hall.
Caitlin squealed. Everyone turned to look in the direction of the clattering sound.
“Emily, was that you?” Mateo asked. Emily had been closest to that side of the room. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” Emily shook her head. “I mean, no. Whatever that noise was, I didn’t make it.”
Maria walked unsteadily into the dark, empty corner and bent down. A photo frame lay facedown on the ground. She flipped it over. It was an old picture of her and Brandon from her beach house last summer, in a pink novelty frame that said “BFFs 4-EVA!” in block letters along the bottom. Brandon had the same picture up in his room.
The glass in the frame Maria held was cracked neatly in half, the fracture running right over Brandon’s face.
Maria frowned and turned the frame over in her hands. Lily whispered from her perch on the bed, “Don’t worry, Ree, it was a crappy picture of you anyway.”
They all laughed, even Maria.
It was weird, her and Brandon being best friends. They seemed like total opposites.
Mateo had always liked Maria, of course. Everyone did. She was smart and cute and funny. She had dimples that flashed when she smiled, and she had a way of looking at you that made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. She was the school princess, only one step down from Queen Delilah herself. Which Delilah never let Maria, or anyone else, forget.