Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1702641-Vanderpools-Island
Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Gothic · #1702641
A modern retelling of Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death."
    The private jet flew over the ocean, if it could be called flying. It would have been more accurate to say that the jet sliced the air before it, and glided through the invisible slit it made with calculated grace. Inside, the passengers didn’t just feel as though they were riding in some luxury vehicle on the ground. Were it not for the blue expanse under them, they would not have believed they were flying at all.
Each passenger was carefully engaged in his or her own activity. Andrea Morgenstern was watching the sea. She’d never seen anything so blue, not even the sky; or, out here, so tranquil. It reminded her of a bowl of blue raspberry Jell-o, or an indoor pool with no one using it. And it looked deceptively shallow. She wanted to dive in.
“Will this Vanderpool guy have a beach we can swim from?” she asked without turning around.
“Of course he will. He’s got everything,” said her father, looking up from the Law and Order rerun that Andrea was half-watching. “I showed you a picture of his beach, right? White sand and green shallows. Beautiful.”
“Remind me who else is coming.”
“I already said, Andrea.”
“Tell me again.”
Her father sighed and paused the episode with Jack McCoy’s mouth half-open in mid-rant. It looked strange and wrong. Andrea noticed for the first time how dark and little and round Sam Waterston’s eyes were. “It’s us, plus the other VP’s and their families,” he reiterated. “And then Vanderpool’s in-laws, which includes his cousin, who runs that chain of megachurches. And he brought everyone in his congregation who donated enough to the collection plate. And then there’s the help staff.”
“Why couldn’t Rosa have been one of the maids?”
“Andrea, don’t do this again.”
“Why not? Mom said she was the best cleaning lady ever. She said you could eat off the floor once Rosa was done with it.”
“We weren’t given input in who would be hired.”
“Why didn’t you ask anyway?”
“Because, Andrea, I was worried if I made too much of a stink he would decide not to bring us.”
Andrea didn’t have an answer then. She was silent a few minutes, and then she asked, “Why couldn’t we have just brought Evie, then?”
“Families only, he said.”
“You could’ve said she was my adopted sister.”
“He would have checked.”
“You should have donated to his cousin’s church and said it was from her.”
“Andrea, it’s really not such a big deal,” interjected her mother. “Honestly. This is all just a precaution. We’ll only stay a few months, and when we get home, Rosa and Evie will be waiting for us. I promise.”
“If it’s just a precaution, why was everyone so desperate to go?” retorted Andrea.
Her parents didn’t answer.

    A smiling woman in a pink dress, cropped matching jacket, and wedge heels met them on the runway. She was blond and toned with wide brown eyes, vacant features, and pendulous breasts. “Hi! You must be Vice President Morgenstern. And Mrs. Morgenstern-“
“Ms. Sinclair,” corrected Andrea’s mother, as nicely as she could.
The woman’s eyes registered confusion for a moment, and then she rallied. “Oh, I’m sorry. My mistake. And this must be Andrea.” She smiled even more broadly. “You’re going to have so much fun here, Andrea. Do you like to be called Andy?”
“Not really,” said Andrea. Her mother nudged her. “It’s okay, though,” she added.
“Well, Andrea, we have two pools here, a mall, and two beauty salons. And a spa.”
“Oh. Cool.”
“I’m sorry to be rude,” said Andrea’s mother hesitantly. “But…who are you?”
“Ohhh, I’m so sorry, I was so excited I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Casey. The new Mrs. Vanderpool.”
“Oh. Congratulations,” said Mr. Morgenstern. “Er, when did that-“
“Just, um, just a month or two ago.” Mrs. Vanderpool looked down. “We’d been, um, dating for a while and decided it was a good time.”
You mean you decided it was a good time, thought Andrea. Because you wanted to get onto this island. I can’t believe there’s room for a ho like you and not Rosa and Evie.
“So,” said Mrs. Vanderpool in the silence that followed. “How about a tour?”
Ms. Sinclair coughed. “That sounds lovely.”

    “The part of the complex you’ll be staying in is divided into five wings,” explained Mrs. Vanderpool. “The blue and green wings have the apartments. The purple and violet wings have the shops and entertainment. And the orange wing is the gardens, pools and beaches. All the VP’s are in the blue wing. I’ll take you. The porters will get the bags.”
  The complex was a strange shape from the cable car they took to the entrance proper. It circled on itself in a kind of round shape- a pentagon, it might have been-like a high-security prison from the movies. Each wing except for orange, which was mostly outside, was at least two stories, and with roof tiles in its designated color. The architecture was modern and the complex was built into the green hills on the island. It was beautiful.
But there seemed to be another wing, or at least a structure. Like a mesa, it rose from the pentagon’s center and loomed over the complex. Its roof tiles were black, and the long sheets of window that wrapped around it were tinted blood red.
“What’s that?” Andrea asked, indicating it.
Mrs. Vanderpool looked worried for a moment. “Oh- that’s…our house. Where my husband lives. And me too, of course.”
“It’s…nice,” offered Ms. Sinclair. “Very…artistic.”
“Thanks. He designed it himself. He designed this whole complex, actually.” The glass doors opened, and Mrs. Vanderpool ushered them into the blue wing. “Your suite is right along here. Feel free to unpack whenever you want. Make yourselves at home. It was nice to meet you.”

    They ate dinner that night in one of the new steakhouses overlooking the orange wing. It was the kind of restaurant that made Andrea feel sophisticated to be in, with elegant dark wood furniture, blackberry-colored cloth on the walls and deep grape cloth on the tables, little crystal chandeliers and goblets of raspberry crystal, and an entire wall of amethyst windows overlooking the sea. For the first time, Andrea wasn’t thinking of Rosa and Evie Montoya. She was wearing a “new” dress she’d found in a thrift store back in New York and had altered according to designs of her own making. She also wore her new pearl earrings from Hanukkah. Looking around at other patrons, she tried to seem nonchalant, as if she were as secure and confident as any grown woman.
Giving her sore hand a rest from sawing the fat off her ribeye, Andrea looked up in time to see an old man enter the restaurant. He was as hunched and shriveled as a mummy, but with a wiry strength to his thin limbs. He was with the woman who had greeted the Morgensterns, now in a tight black satin tube that might count as a dress in Las Vegas or Reno. He was immediately shown to a private parlor, and every head turned to look as he passed, in awed and intimidated silence, as if he were a prince.
“Prospero Vanderpool,” murmured Mr. Morgenstern as soon as they were gone.
“Prospero?” asked Andrea. “’Vanderpool’ ’s not an Italian name.”
“He changed his last name when he immigrated,” explained Ms. Sinclair. “He assumed a more American-sounding name would benefit the company, and they say he wanted to avoid being associated with the Mob by customers.”
“He built this company from the ground up,” added Mr. Morgenstern. “Nobody knows how he did it.”
“There’ve been rumors,” pointed out Ms. Sinclair.
“Oh, yes. Nothing proven, though.” Mr. Morgenstern laughed and poured steak sauce on his plate for dipping. “I never thought it was anything to worry about. Just people talking.”

    A storm blew in from Puerto Rico that night, making the dark blue-black sky low and angry with clouds. Sporadic downpours soaked the windows and a thin, wailing wind rocked the palm trees. Usually, Andrea enjoyed sleeping during night storms- they made her feel cozy and sheltered in her bed. Tonight, though, shadows danced across the wall and ceiling of the unfamiliar room, the building creaked under invisible footsteps, and the wind moaned like an infected person she’d seen before she left.
A person infected with the sickness.
A secret and experimental weapon of biological warfare, the protovirus had escaped from a government facility and started a worldwide pandemic that everyone on this island was fleeing. On the news they’d called it the Red Death, because it led to the body producing extra blood plasma and red blood cells, until blood vessels burst and the body drowned in its own fluids- if it hadn’t already died from dehydration, all its water turning to blood. People infected took at most a few hours to die, and their skin turned blood red. One of the stupid boys on Andrea’s block had said that if you poked a corpse that had died of the Red Death with a pin, blood spurted out of them like Old Faithful.
  Andrea shivered and turned over, staring out her wide bedroom window. She had an almost unobstructed view of Mr. Vanderpool’s black tower- the black wing, she supposed it was. The lights were on inside, and through the red windows she could see Mrs. Vanderpool, watching TV and huddling in bed. A floor below, she could see old Mr. Vanderpool pacing. Every so often he would stop and explode in rage at something Andrea couldn’t see. She had a feeling no one was there but Vanderpool himself, and shivered again.

    The nights were stormy on Vanderpool’s island, but the days were sunny and warm. Andrea found she had artist’s block, so she took to swimming. She swam either in the clear ocean water- green at the shore because of the carpet of soft seaweed that sat on the sandy bottom- or in the enormous pool. It was at the center of the orange sector, with water that was never too cold, thanks to heaters, and a fountain in the middle, with orange lights along its walls. There was even a bar that you could swim right up to, and drink while you swam. Andrea’s favorite thing to do was get a drink- a virgin piña colada, usually- and float on her back right over one of the fountain jets, so the water pressure massaged her.
  “You look comfy,” said an unfamiliar voice. Andrea opened her eyes and peered up. A boy about her age was sitting on the steps leading into the pool. He had the build of a jock- tall and a little skinny, but with a really nice chest. His face was tanned, vapid, and open, framed by blond-red hair. He was smiling at her.
She smiled back. How long had it been since she’d broken up with her first and only boyfriend? Months. She took a sip of her drink and licked the pineapple slush off the straw. “Why don’t you join me?”
  He obliged, paddling over and sitting too lightly on another fountain jet, so that it threw him into the water with a splash. Andrea laughed.
“So,” he said when he’d resurfaced. “I’ve never seen you in the purple wing.”
“No, I don’t much like shopping. I don’t really go to the mall.” She didn’t want him to think she was trying to discourage him, so she added, “I like movies, though. Especially on the big screen. It’s so cool we have them in advance here.”
“I like ‘em, too.” He rolled in the water like a dolphin. “I’m Jimmy Bauer, by the way.”
“Andrea Morgenstern. I think my dad knows yours.” Which wasn’t the whole story. Mr. Morgenstern had an annoying- to Andrea and her mother- prejudice against Germans. He often called his fellow VP Bauer “Franz Liepkind”, after the nutty ex-Nazi playwright from The Producers. But Jimmy didn’t need to know that.
  “Well, I heard from my dad that old man Vanderpool is gonna have this huge costume party this Saturday night.” Jimmy was grinning at her. “Wanna come with me?”
  The word “Yes” died on Andrea’s tongue. Her eyes had flicked idly over to a corner of the pool area, where a young Hispanic woman was picking up wet towels. For a minute, she looked exactly like Evie Montoya. Goose bumps rose on Andrea’s legs- she’d forgotten about the Montoyas.
“Sorry,” she told Jimmy. “Yeah, I’d like to come with you. We can meet by the elevator on the first floor of the blue wing.”
“Sure.” Jimmy looked vaguely concerned. “Are you okay? You’re really pale all of a sudden.”
“I’m okay.” Andrea shook her head. “Sorry. See, back on the mainland, my family had this lady, Rosa Montoya, who came to clean our house. I hung out with her daughter Evie- that’s short for Evangelina. We were friends, because Rosa had worked for us so long. But when we got invited to come here, we couldn’t bring them with us. So sometimes I just worry about them a little. I know it’s kind of weird.”
  Jimmy nodded. Andrea could see he was trying to look sympathetic, but blank incomprehension filled his eyes.
She smiled at him and asked, “So. What time should I meet you?”

    If the days were tranquil and bright, the nights were dark and sopping wet. Each evening, the clouds of some tropical storm, fueled by the greenhouse gases in the air (said Andrea’s science teacher), could be seen gathering like an invading army, vast, puffy, and the color of bruises. The winds would pick up, shoving the ornamental palm trees back and forth like tetherballs. They turned the pools into mud-filled cesspits dotted with the bodies of the finches that lived in the orange wing’s beams, and occasionally picked up deck chairs that were never seen again.
It was the night after Andrea had gotten her date with Jimmy Bauer, and although she was tired, she couldn’t fall asleep. Outside, rain pounded the walls and thunder boomed, receding to dull thuds and then pepping back up into a heart-stopping bass drum when she least expected it. Lightning flashed, illuminating the unfamiliar bedroom from odd angles. Andrea huddled under the sheets, blanket, and bedspread, for security more than for warmth. It wasn’t just that she’d never completely gotten over her fear of the dark. It was this island. During the day, when the sun shone and she was occupied with all the pleasant diversions there were to be had, so that she barely had a chance to stop and think about anything, she was fine. But at night, when it was dark and the complex got silent but for the storms, a terrible and nameless fear settled in her stomach like ice. She would lie awake, and then toss and turn in fitful, shallow sleep. She knew she was having bad dreams, because she would wake up in the early hours as the storm was winding down, covered in sweat, but she couldn’t remember them at all.
Lightning flashed in the window, projecting a big square of blue light on the wall opposite her bed. In it she could make out the shadows of palm trees, swaying forlornly in the night wind.
Her eyes snapped open. Just for a second, she was sure she’d seen the shadow of something else. It hadn’t looked like a palm tree.
It had looked like a person.
But that was impossible, wasn’t it? They were four floors up here, and it was storming outside. No one would be doing maintenance at this time of night. She was getting tired, and now she was seeing things. Without thinking, she turned over and hunkered down, to try again to drift off.
The lightning flashed again. This time, she was facing the window. Her eyes had not quite closed.
She didn’t scream. She gasped. Her heart felt as though it had stopped, or at least skipped a few beats. She shut her eyes, but not quickly enough.
  A figure stood, inexplicably, outside her window. It was maybe a few inches taller than she was. It seemed to be cloaked in a long robe of some kind, which also covered its head and hid its face. It didn’t matter; the silhouette was terrifying enough. Scariest of all was the fact that it did nothing- she almost wished it would pull out a scythe or chainsaw or something. Instead, it just stood at the window. It was looking at her, she knew.
Oh god. How could this be real? Was she still awake? What was that thing doing?
  With trembling fingers, she reached for the cords that controlled the curtains. She yanked, and the heavy cloth flew across the window, hiding anything outside the glass from view. She reached up and switched on the lamp over her bed. Her hands found a book.
This way, if she tried, she could forget it was still out there, watching her silently in the rain.

    She tried to convince herself it was a dream the next day, as she shopped for her costume. Her getup should not, she felt, be some skintight polyester tube that looked as though it came secondhand from a porno. She wanted to show Jimmy that girls like her were quiet because they were classy, that she would be a much cooler date- and maybe girlfriend- than one of those blond, reed-thin girls who would no doubt go as sexy nurses or vampire cheerleaders. So she perused the purple wing’s mainstream party and costume outlets, but aside from some “gothic princess” style gowns that didn’t flatter her bust, she found nothing except an elegantly beaded and feathered mask. No doubt meant for Mardi Gras, it covered her eyes and the bridge of her nose, and the skin around them. It was shaped like either a butterfly or a bat, covered in tiny white beads- beads, not cheap glitter- each with a unique iridescent sheen. Some were silver, others pearly, and still others like little diamonds. The effect was as if the mask was carved from a piece of solid opal. Around the eyeholes and sides was black brocade piping, with black sequins and beads sewn into it in vaguely floral designs. Between the mask’s eyeholes, the black trimming dripped down into a teardrop shape. Set into the black teardrop’s center was an oval stone. Andrea thought it might be some kind of ruby or garnet- she knew that was silly, but it felt too solid and heavy, and glittered too brightly, to seem plastic. At each end of the mask were about six feathers- some tawny gray, some speckled- fanning out to suggest a wingspan, or the ears of an animal. Small, curling feathers had also been added to the outside corner of each eyehole, which gave the eyes of the mask’s wearer a mysterious, alluring, almost feline gaze, or the appearance of elegant sorrow. As soon as Andrea saw it she knew she had to have it; she could tell that it was worth much more than what its price tag said.
  Modeling it to herself in the restroom mirror, she knew no costume could come close to it in complexity or beauty. Eventually, she went to one of the regular dress shops and, amid the white walls, pulsing music, and sparsely, coldly modern furniture and clothes, found a plain white gown, cut sheer and made of floaty, gauzy, vaguely glittering fabric, and some white-silver shoes, low-heeled, translucent like frosted glass. They made her think of Cinderella’s slippers.
    A part of Andrea still dreaded going to the party, mainly because she was still anxious about her dream of the figure at the window. She would have liked to stay home, relax with her parents, watch Mel Brooks with her father and read with her mother, but she felt she couldn’t back out now. She had, after all, already bought the dress, shoes, and mask she’d be wearing. Besides, she told herself, it would do her good to get out and interact, live a little. And she couldn’t have stayed home with her parents anyway; they were going, too. Everyone on Vanderpool’s island was, it seemed. She’d even heard some of the staff- the cleaning ladies and maintenance men, plus some others- whispering that they might try to sneak in through the kitchens. She was happy about that; they should get to have some fun, too.
    She looked at herself in the mirror, that night, and was satisfied. She was beautiful- ethereal as some spirit or fairy, like Arwen or Galadriel from The Fellowship of the Ring. The mask lent her an air of mystery, and the dress flattered her slender physique, leaving just enough to the imagination. Her skin, for once, was clear of its usual tendency toward blotchiness, and she had dusted her chest, neck, shoulders, upper arms, and cheeks with pearly body glitter. She wore the diamond studs from her Bat Mitzvah in her ears. In the dim light of her bedroom lamp, she glittered softly.
    The earrings. She felt their tiny facets with her fingertips. She could almost hear the memories radiate from them, suddenly, as if diamonds could trap the echoes of past neuron flashes.
    The earrings weren’t from Evie. Evie had given her a scrapbook. It showed photos of them together through the years, at holidays, birthdays, and on days when nothing was happening at all, but Ms. Sinclair had decided to take a snapshot of them anyway. There were the patches they had sewn in Andrea’s art class and Evie’s home ec, the friendship bracelets they made for each other at summer camp. The notebook itself was of the kind of textured paper that is organic and has bits of flower stuck in it, with elaborate covers. It was better than any diamond. She’d left it behind in New York; taking it would have made her too sad.
  And after the party, Evie had come up to her room, where she was recuperating from the crowds and noise. “Hey.”
“Hey. Thanks for coming. I really did love your present. I hope everybody was nice to you?”
“Nice enough.” She didn’t have to say more; Andrea understood. She’d invited some school friends to the party, as well as her Hebrew School class. She didn’t mind them, but they could be snobby. Not always, and not to everyone. They weren’t bad. They just didn’t know Evie well enough.
“Stay over,” she invited. “Help me break in Rent.” She’d gotten the DVD as one of her presents. She’d gotten into Rent when Evie had lent her her CD soundtrack. They’d even gone to see the show with Ms. Sinclair before it closed on Broadway.
“Okay,” Evie had said, and then suggested, “Let’s get our pajamas on first. That way when it’s over, we can just go to sleep.”
  And it had been winter, late November, because Andrea hadn’t been a good Hebrew student (they’d only learned enough to say prayers, they weren’t learning it as a language, but by rote) so she had been one of the last in her class to be ready, and gotten one of the last open slots. And despite the size and beauty of the townhouse, it got cold early in New York City, and Andrea’s room was always frigid. So they huddled together, in flannel pajamas, up on Andrea’s high double bed, piled even higher with a down comforter, her dressy bedspread, afghan blankets, and fuzzy wraps, and watched the DVD. Only one light was on, in the farthest corner of the room, casting a warm orange-berry glow on the soft rose-colored walls, flowered sheets, and paisley bedcovers. The girls shivered with excitement and cold as they watched events play out onscreen, and they pressed against each other, under the same blanket. And Evie said, “That’s real life, you know.”
“What do you mean? It’s a movie.”
“Yeah, I know that. But living that way- with nothing material, but within a community of people who love you-“ She shook her head. “Never to live past your desire for life, never to live at others’ expense- that’s a really good life, Andrea.”
And even with Evie’s arms around her, keeping her warm, Andrea still shivered, and couldn’t respond. Would she like that- to live with loved ones, but no money or comfort, no guarantee even of a long life? Would she choose that, if she had the choice?
    She still did not know. But she felt that her choice was already made, had been made the day she came to Vanderpool’s island.

    Jimmy met her just outside the blue wing, in khakis, a blazer, and a button shirt with no tie. He wore no costume but a red, white, and blue half-mask, almost eerily patriotic with his sun-bleached hair and brown eyes. That hair was heavily gelled, and glistened in the fluorescent lighting that flicked on around dusk. It was tinted blue in the residential wing. Andrea didn’t much care for this. It made Jimmy look ill, nauseous. In her white outfit, it made her look like some kind of drowning victim, somehow raised from the grave. She thought of the succubi from those medieval legends where a man went to bed with a woman and woke up the next morning to find she was really a corpse, gray and cold and clammy-soft, like half-melted wax. “Where’s the party?” she asked, anxious to get going. “Purple wing?”
    “No, it’s in Old Man Vanderpool’s tower,” informed Jimmy. “You know, the black wing? Always wanted to see what it was like inside there; don’t you?”
    “I guess so. It always seemed kind of creepy to me.”
    “Nah,” he grinned, reaching a greedy arm around her slender, white-blue shoulders. “I think it’s cool, in a goth kinda way. Dracula and all that stuff.” He pulled her closer. “Kind of sexy, maybe.”
    Andrea smiled. She couldn’t help it; Jimmy’s charm was deceptively simple, and very flattering. She was glad she hadn’t worn blush- she didn’t need it right now. Stretching her arm around his waist, she let him lead her out over the boardwalk, toward the black tower.

    As they went through the front door, Andrea could hear the wind whipping through the palm fronds and winding alleys between wings and buildings, wailing like the dying. The sky was dark and starless, a night at sea, with no progress to distill it except the island’s fixtures, but she suspected clouds were gathering. Another storm was on the way. Her last thought before entering the party wing was that she was glad she had decided to come, because she wouldn’t have liked to be alone in the apartment anyway, especially after the other night’s dream.
    Then they were past the heavy black doors, made from some kind of thick, aromatic wood, and Andrea nearly changed her mind and walked out.
    They had walked into an enormous, circular room. It was really a very thick ring-shape, with its second half curving away out of sight behind a massive central column of obsidian-like stone, jagged, catching the dim light and glittering almost wetly. This, it seemed from the sliding door cut into it, was an elevator shaft.
    The room was black, almost entirely. The floor was covered in tiles of polished onyx, or something like onyx, although as Andrea looked she could see tiny veins of gold embedded in the stone. The walls were also black, made of the plainer concrete that the outside of the building was covered in, but hung with black swatches of cloth- velvet, brocade, and glittery silk that barely fluttered in the still air, which smelled of wine and cigar smoke. The couches and chairs, of which there were many, were upholstered in black leather, low to the ground and vengefully modern. The floor was covered with rugs of what looked like the long black fur of some great beast. Walking on it gave Andrea the willies.
    The only things not black in this room were the windows and the lights. The windows were great slabs of glass on the wall, tinted dark and deep crimson, as if they had been carved from raw garnet. Andrea could not see out of the ones that looked out, and instead of comforting her, this made her more nervous. The figure could be there and she might not even… but it was only a dream. The figure was not there. Looking up, she could see that bits of the ceiling were glass panels, which was also eerie. She could see people walking and standing above her head, seemingly supported only by a blood-colored mist. People crowded together on this floor, too. Everyone wore a mask.
    “Wait here, I’ll get us drinks,” suggested Jimmy. “My brother says they won’t be carding.”
    Suddenly, a sound boomed through the tower. At first, Andrea thought it might be thunder from the tropical storm that had been brewing outside. But no, it didn’t thump the way thunder did- it chimed, but not brightly. The sound was a loud, solid, sepulchral toll, gigantic and hollow and deep, chilling to the bone. It was the sort of bell you expected to hear from an abandoned church, or to be rung at a mass funeral. Its volume was such that each toll- there were nine already, or maybe ten, the night seemed to be going so fast- seemed to sound inside Andrea’s chest cavity, almost like a heartbeat. It was so like a heartbeat that for a moment after the bell stopped, she felt as if she couldn’t breathe. “What was that?” she whispered to Jimmy, who had managed to grab a few glasses of some dark red wine from the bar in the stunned silence the bell had wrought.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Oh wait- sure I do. It was that.” He pointed.
    It was a great clock, and it stood against the side of the wall farthest from their part of the room, just visible beyond the elevator shaft. It was a grandfather clock, and it reached to within a foot of the ceiling. It was elegantly carved from some black wood, perhaps ebony, with a face so white it was almost fluorescent looking, and seemed to glow faintly in the dim red-black room. It seemed so out- of- step with the modernity of the rest of the furniture that Andrea felt almost threatened by its presence, which was silly. She took a sip of the wine. It was bitter and left a disgusting, almost chemical taste in her mouth, but it relaxed her. She drank a little more.
    “Want to dance?” asked Jimmy, draining his glass. Sure enough, someone had put on music, its digital backbeat already pounding through the crowd, as if hoping to replace the clock as the island’s pulse.
    They must have danced for an hour- only fast songs, techno- rap and post-punk alternative rock. There were no slow songs, as if nobody but Andrea wanted time to dance slowly with their partner, to talk more deeply with him, to think. She felt as though she were in the center of a tornado of sensations- colors, sounds, smells, tastes, and yes, feelings of arousal from the wine and Jimmy’s playful grinding. She was dizzy (how many glasses of wine had she had? Two?)- and then the clock tolled again.
    She counted the chimes this time. There were eleven. It was eleven o’clock at night. The night was nearly half over and she felt as though she was wasting time, but had no idea what she should have been doing instead. She felt tired, so tired, an aching exhaustion that seemed to be in her bones. Around her, people had again grown quiet at the sound of the bell. A nameless fear passed through the crowd, a single synapse in the communal subconscious. When the music came on again- it hadn’t really been turned off, but no one had listened to it over the clock- it was louder, and faster, and even more computerized-sounding.
    “Hey,” she yelled to Jimmy. “It’s really loud in here, isn’t it?” She was dizzy again- maybe she’d had three glasses of wine, not two.
“Yeah,” he agreed, looking as pale and unsteady as she felt. “Wanna go someplace more, you know…”
“Quiet,” she said, and they both laughed, because suddenly it seemed funny, how drunk they were. “Yeah, let’s go right now, okay?”

    The elevator was a godsend to Andrea. Inside, it was a small, round room, made of some transparent, light gray rock, like smoky quartz. There were gray-marble tiles on its floor. Water trickled down over a small monolith against one of the side walls. It made a lovely noise. There was no music of any kind, and the shaft seemed to be soundproof. It was cool, and not too bright. It was a long ride up to the guest rooms, though- Andrea and Jimmy soon got tired of standing, wound up sitting down against the wall. They both had to vomit then, and then they were thirsty. There was nothing to drink from but the fountain, so they put their tongues between the monolith and its brass basin, and caught the drops that flowed down. Then they vomited again. This time, they felt better afterward.
    The guest room was modern and simplistic, with boxy furniture of dark wood, the fabric in blocks of black and crimson. But it was quiet there, and you could see out the windows, and there was an adjoining bathroom that they took turns using. The wine had made them both thirsty, but at least they weren’t puking up the water they drank anymore. They also ran their wrists under the cold tap, because it seemed unusually hot and dry in that room. Andrea felt her dress sticking to her, and hoped she didn’t smell.
    They found some toothpaste, and rinsed it in their mouths until their breath smelled better, and then Jimmy started to kiss her. It was a little hot, but she liked his arms around her, and kissed him back. Soon his hand felt, predictably, for her breast. He rubbed and cupped it through her dress, while his other hand tunneled under the layers of her skirt. He was fondling her inner thigh and she was reaching under his shirt, exploring his shoulders, back and abs, when he said, “Andrea?”
“It’s…would it be okay if we just rested for a little while? I’m just so…so hot, you know. And thirsty.”
And she felt it too, so she said, “Yeah. That’s fine. Just…just check to see if there’s a thermostat here or whatever, okay? We could put on the AC.”
“Yeah,” he replied dimly, but didn’t get up. They both lay back on the double bed, and Andrea realized she was chilly now.
“Thanks for the air,” she muttered, crawling under the bedspread beside him and huddling close to him to keep warm.

    They awoke to chiming.
    Andrea woke up first, feeling at once better and worse. The heat was gone, and so were the sudden chills. Now, she just felt cold in a normal way, even though she knew for a fact that it was about seventy-five degrees in the room. She was drenched with sweat, as were her dress and the coverlet on the bed. She was lucid, but the thirst and nausea remained. And now she felt bloated, and knew for a fact that it couldn’t be her period. And she was weak, could barely turn over and look at Jimmy, who had also begun to stir.
      She looked into his face, and screamed, loud and long, because it was red as a beet.

    The lights were out in the room, the only illumination coming from the nightlight in the bathroom, which had a reddish bulb. Of course, that was what she’d seen in Jimmy’s face, not blood. She was probably reeling from hallucination-dreams she couldn’t quite remember at the moment. It had to do with the fever she’d had, which had broken as she slept. Jimmy had had one too (that might also explain his flushed complexion)- so there must have been some bad food. Or the wine had been rotten. Or something.
    Did a broken fever mean you were better, or did it just mean your immune system had given up?
    People in the hall were running past the room, and she didn’t know why. They screamed, short and sharp, like birds before a cat got them. Jimmy groaned, curling toward her, crying softly. Andrea couldn’t speak- she felt short of breath, and a fresh sense of terror was running through her, like a sickness. Like a virus.
    Out of the red darkness came the creak of an opening door.

    Andrea held perfectly still, holding her breath until the pounding in her ears grew too loud, listening as hard as she could. She asked herself why she wasn’t calling out, asking if anyone was there. She realized it was because she didn’t really want to know.
    But if someone was- so what? Maybe it was another one of the guests, needing to lie down because they’d eaten or drunk whatever she and Jimmy had. And even if…if it wasn’t, which was completely stupid, by the way, but even if it wasn’t, they’d already heard Jimmy, hadn’t they? And she was in no condition to run anywhere, and neither was he. Best to just find out. Put the irrational, leftover-hallucination fears to rest.
    “Hello?” she said, unable to speak much above a whisper. “Sorry, but we’re in here. This room’s occupied.”
    There was no answer. She really, really wished she’d stayed home. She wanted to be home, right now, with her parents. Not their apartment, but their real home on the mainland. Tears came to her eyes. She felt so sick, and tired, and so scared. She wanted her mother. She wanted Evie.
    Her breath caught in her chest as the door groaned shut.

    The light in the bathroom glinted off something in the dark. Andrea could see an indistinct shape looming before the bed, becoming more defined as her eyes adjusted to the dark. She was terrified now. It was the thing- the figure- from outside her window. She knew it. How could it- what is it-
Oh, my God. Oh my God, what do I do? Is it- oh God, it’s getting closer. It’s getting closer. Why hadn’t she screamed?
    She could see its face now, below the hood. At first, it horrified her- it was white, oval, looking like a skull made of stretched silly putty. Its eyes were widened sockets, nose a hole, mouth a gaping 0, pantomiming the silent shriek ricocheting through her mind.
    And then her logical brain surfaced, amazingly, and she realized she’d seen that face before. The Scream. Of course. This was a masked party, wasn’t it? At a masked party, you wore a mask. Hadn’t that been the hottest Halloween mask, a few years back, The Scream? It was still grotesque, still profoundly eerie, but now she knew it was just a mask.
    Blood dripped down it, coursing down in jets like the water from the fountain. Even as she tensed and stifled a gag, she remembered that, too. They’d sold Scream masks with those blood pumps, where you filled it with water and food coloring and then squeezed the pump, so it looked like blood was running down the mask’s face. Evie had once had a mask like that. To wear one now, though- that was pretty bad taste, considering the red virus and all. But then, what other adult- because no kids had been allowed to come- would wear a kid’s Halloween mask to a masked ball, but a truly bizarre individual?
    And seeing as he wasn’t pulling a knife or gun, she found she could speak more normally. “Look, dude, this isn’t funny. My friend and I are feeling really crappy, and if you’re not going to help, leave us alone. Find another room; there’s plenty. In fact”- she pushed herself, with difficulty, up to a sitting position- “who do you think you are, wearing a stupid, cheesy costume and going around scaring kids? I bet it was you outside my window- bet you found a ladder or something, right? That’s really pervy. Take off your mask and look me in the eye, why don’t you? Come on.” When she found out who this loser was, she was going to report him to anyone she could find…
      Slowly, the figure reached up and pulled back its hood. Okay, so it probably wasn’t a guy, she thought, with dark hair as long and curly and thick as that. Didn’t make it any less perverted.
      And then, slowly, so slowly, it pulled the mask- it was a mask, she’d been right- from its face. And for a moment, the feeling of relief remained in Andrea’s chest, like a balloon left over from a party that had ended. Then, as she stared mutely at the figure, she was shocked, felt nothing at all.
    Then, finally, she screamed.
    It was Evie. Evie was under the mask. Evie had been outside her window. It was Evie, Evie with skin darkened to auburn-ebony, face swollen with the blood barely contained behind it. Evie, with the frozen, grimly stunned look of a dead girl, Evie with the wide, glassy, staring, bloodshot eyes. Evie, so silent, gliding slowly toward her, reaching stiff, cold, waxy hands, fingers reddened, fat, and bloated like leeches, taking her around the shoulder and waist and laying her gently back down on the bed. Evie’s blood stained the gown, or was it her own?
    She screamed again, and again, until she lost her breath, because her lungs were full of water, as if she’d been swimming and gone under, and she couldn’t cough them dry. And the water choked her, and she gagged, and her chest burned, and the thing she saw before it all faded into red darkness, the last thing, was Evie’s face, staring horribly, blindly, forlornly down.

    Evangelina Montoya, or “Evie” as she was known to her fellow nurses, gazed down at the dead girl on the quarantine cot with the tired, vast sorrow of a woman who has been up for three days looking at death. “I’m glad they’re finally letting you all in,” she said to the young reporter beside her, a flaxen-haired wisp of a girl in a button-up oxford blouse, long khaki skirt, and gold crucifix necklace, no older than twenty-one or so. Probably straight out of Brigham Young or Bob Jones or some such school, thought Evie without contempt- she was too drained for contempt. “The government should have known better than to think it could keep this quiet.”
    The girl professed no opinion. Her eyes were wide at the gore and pain around her, giving her a vaguely chipmunk-like expression. At last, face crinkling in order to hold back tears, she asked, “Can- can you tell me about her?” She indicated the body that still lay on the cot in front of them.
    Evie nodded. “She was one of the first to get diagnosed. Also took her longest to die. She was here for almost a month; back before the pandemic really hit us, there was talk from the bureaucrats about releasing her. None of the treatments were having any effect, but she was mostly lucid and we couldn’t find out who she was to get insurance information. She was afraid that if she told us, we’d call child services. She was probably a runaway, living on the streets. Not more than sixteen. She got delusional at the end, because of the fever- she thought she was on a tropical island.”
    “I guess…I guess that must have been nice for her, at least.”
    “Maybe.” Evie felt unable to be comforted by this. No matter how many times you dealt with terminal illness, it never got easier. Especially where kids were involved.
    “So you don’t know who she was?”
    “We do now. One of the other RN’s, Rosa, found this.” From the pocket of her scrubs, Evie pulled a bent, stained learner’s permit. “When she was alive, her name was Andrea Morgenstern.”

                                                      The End
© Copyright 2010 Shulamith Bonderovsky (shulamith at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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