Note: This short story is featured in issue two of RETURN.
“She can do a headstand,” Becca Grundy told me as we slid our trays on the lunch line. “I saw her at summer practice. She was on the grass, upside down!”
“So I watched her for a bit, and she stayed that for what seemed like forever.” She stopped for a moment to consider dessert options: pudding? Jell-O with whipped topping? A sugar cookie with a smiley face pattern? She selected the cookie and along we slid.
We took a seat at a far table. Under the harsh lights of the cafeteria the light blue swelling on the side of her face was less avoidable, though Becca’s expression was entirely oblivious. Bubbly even, at the prospect of her new mentorship.
“Do you think Captain knows how to do a headstand?” she asked.
“I don’t actually know.”
“Right? It’s that not knowing that gets to me sometimes. Like what is she keeping from us?”
“I don’t think she’s keeping anything from us.” I believed this.
No one ever knew that I called Susan de Búrca “Dark Susan” and Susan Johnson “Regular Susan.” And even in the beginning what made them distinct was vague to me. I think it was the way Susan Johnson stood: hip jutting out, arms to the side, shoulders perfectly aligned, and her frame so rigid as to accentuate the already pronounced definitions of her musculature. She seemed always positioned as to obscure the lesser Susan. She could move on command, even as she was doing the commanding, with a kind of automatic reliability, as if carrying out a service. “Serviceable” would fit Susan Johnson to a T. Dark Susan in turn could be reclined and diffident in one moment, tense and fidgety in another, but could exert just as forceful a stance as Susan Johnson when she felt the compulsion to do so. It was as if Regular Susan was guided by discipline without technique and Dark Susan by technique without discipline.
Dark Susan was consistently the first at practice, and never missed one. If you didn’t see her walking to our designated field at the absolute farthest edge of school property, past the soccer field and even the tennis courts, just as the final bell rang, her cacophonous music – “school shooter music” the other girls called it – blasting from her portable boombox once there could reverberate as far out as the football field like an aural toxic emanation.
Amid the noise, Dark Susan would undertake a four-tiered regimen. First was a series of contorted stretches that most of us assumed came out of extensive yoga practice but which seemed to me more complicated, like a celibate’s Kama Sutra. Next was a rundown of our complete but narrow canon of cheer routines, consisting of arm motions and standing splits and reliant on little more than our ability to synchronize. Dark Susan did this by herself in half the time it took us to do it. She followed this with a freeform period of splits, kicks, flips, jumps, and any other above-average gestures we never incorporated into our cheers and were never expected to learn. She concluded with a rest period, hugging her knees and holding her head down between them, a position that suggested both meditation and punishment. By that point Regular Susan would press the STOP button on the boombox and Dark Susan would look up in a daze from the abrupt silence to see us all gathered on the field, waiting.
The Screaming Banshees cheer squad was not expected to represent the school in our own competitions. We were not even expected to get into the yearbook if space was a luxury or if the staff couldn’t remember. To most who noticed us, when they cared to or could not avoid it, we were weirdly smiling relics, like old dolls you find in an attic.
This carried over into our quality standards. If you were coordinated, or even if you could just walk, and wanted to join, you were not refused. Auditions were bland formalities; pleasantries, really. Cheer squad was something you could join if you, or more accurately your parents, felt you were lacking in heft for college admissions. That at least is how I ended up there my sophomore year. You showed up, you accepted it, and you made an acceptable sort of effort.
I never knew why this was, and I always wondered if cheer squads in other high schools were just as hated as ours. Maybe they had Dark Susans thriving there as well.
I had seen Dark Susan during normal school hours. We shared an occasional elective together. She’d sit in class upright and attentive, her full blonde hair flowing to her shoulders and wearing American Eagle or Hollister outfits. I never considered her eager or studious in any special way. If she knew an answer to a teacher’s question she’d raise her hand, giving it in the same smooth deferential tone that conveyed a passable facsimile of respect for authority. I’d see her in the halls with the same four girls in her grade who dressed and looked and talked in a manner nearly identical to her. If she was not popular or widely recognizable, she was at least secure in her position, and displayed no obvious signs of discontent. I would sometimes see her in the library during study hall tutoring underclassmen in English or test prep. I always thought that was odd, but then she was still vaguely drawn in my mind. I never regarded her as anything other than a typical kind of girl, the golden mean of American promise. Or, anyway, that is what she wanted to present to us for most of the time.
My head shot quickly downward thinking I saw something writhing in my spaghetti. Becca continued with a mournful mouthful of stale baked goods.
“When she’s teaching me, my mind goes back … to when I was a kid. In my backyard with my grandpa when he first taught me how to cartwheel.” She paused and dug into the middle of her meatloaf. “You should check it out with us.”
“A couple of us are doing it on our own time.”
My spaghetti appeared immobile, but I still lost my appetite. Give me a break, I thought as I dumped the contents of my tray into the garbage, I know how to fucking cartwheel.
I always hated Screaming Banshee Spirit Days at Waterston High. Pretty much every girl on the cheer squad, unless they found a comforting source of delusion, hated Screaming Banshee Spirit Days. The day when we had to roam the halls in our uniforms that no one felt the need to modify since Ford was president: the bulky sweater, the restrictive turtleneck, the knee socks, the skirt that looks like it was cut out of window drapery. All rendered in the ugly orange and black school colors on top of that.
We sat together at the same table at lunch, always in the far-off corner flanked by tables of stoners, band geeks, and/or the dance team. Those days we brought our lunches from home, avoiding the silent derision, or worse the blithe obliviousness, of the more respected uniform-wearers eating at the center of the cafeteria like a medieval feast after a joust. We just hunched over our brown bags and foil-enshrouded sandwiches, dreading the pep rally that was to follow.
Standing front and center in the gymnasium, we gyrated to jock jams like short-circuiting animatronic dummies as each football player was called onto the floor. I flung my pompoms morosely and struggled to stay in sync with the squad whenever they jumped and squealed, all the while conscious of having to shore up a team whose record, and certain defeat at the next day’s game, did not merit them much greater prestige than ours. We faced our peers as a wall of boredom and indifference that could twitch into hostility at its leisure. I don’t know who threw the Coke can; by the velocity and precision, I’d say it was a lacrosse goon. But it was full enough to both spill all over whomever it hit and give her a black eye, which it did for Cassie DeSilva, for being only a millisecond slower on the take than the rest of us.
Coach Nielson – or Miss Nielson to her math students – was slight and prim. Her constitution was as robust as crumpled tissue paper; her voice was stuffed with down feathers. She wore narrow-lens glasses that darkened in the sunlight. She would show up to practice in an oversized Waterston sweatshirt and with a smile that curved like a prostrate parenthesis. If she had ideas, she did not voice them. Her sense of rhythm suggested a regular diet of Sting and Dido. She regarded positive reinforcement as an iron law. On her person you could project anything about her life with a fair degree of accuracy. She probably had a cat. She probably had decorative phrases on her walls. She probably kissed very badly and would marry out of desperation. Though she may also have had a toxic affair with another teacher and probably thought about having affairs with students. When Dark Susan started coming to practice, she probably thought her life had changed. Her life needed to change, even for the worse if need be. I once saw her crying in her car after all the other teachers had left. I could be wrong, though. She could have been yawning. She needed to clean her windshield. I don’t think about her much beyond that. I just thought you should know.
Seeing Dark Susan lounging indifferently against the bleachers the day of tryouts in her Ray Bans and gym sweats that looked as if they’d not been cleaned a single day, she seemed a different person. She was being redrawn in more careful detail until she was similar to someone like me. Though my sweats were clean, I had to block the sun with my hands, and I was fidgety and uncomfortable on the hot metal seating, I thought maybe her parents had also made the push to beef up her extracurriculars or she just wanted to get out of gym, and she was displaying a more confident, very upperclassman, mindset of detachment.
That impression was shared with added irritation by Susan Johnson, standing on the field in a skeptical, cross-armed stance one makes toward a potential time-waster, if not a potential threat. Susan-on-the-field was two years ahead of Susan-on-the-bleachers in terms of her squad experience, and while not strictly a captain (I actually don’t think there was any at that time), she commanded an air of commitment she expected everyone on the squad to replicate. Or pretend as if they could.
Kelly Denton was falling apart at the seams the August before junior year. Devon O’Leary had dumped her at his family’s beach house in Point Pleasant. Or she dumped him. It didn’t make a difference because she responded to these separations, which seemed to follow a summer pattern, in the same fashion: like a newly minted confederate widow. The only thing that could console her were the most violent horror films we could find at Randall’s Video. We’d become fairly accustomed to this ritual since after seventh grade. We, that is, I, Miranda, and Julia, would each receive a tearful call from her private line, with the same wording. “I need you here,” she’d sob as a chainsaw revved in the background. What could we do?
We sat in a semicircle in her spacious basement on the beige carpet, matching the beige-painted walls. We nibbled at stale tortilla chips dipped in quickly browning guacamole as we plowed through three or four VHS tapes that Kelly had curated for us. None of us had ever heard of these films. They were always at least two decades old, cheaply made, and badly acted. They all featured women ostensibly our age but who looked much older, running through dark woods in skimpy outfits – a nightie, a cheerleader uniform, a bikini – while a burly killer in some preposterous costume pursued her, caught her, and tore her limb from limb. Kelly always sat at the center of the semicircle, hugging her knees, held in a trance by the gruesomeness as her obliging entourage averted our gazes. I looked back at the other end of the room where our flickering totemic outlines extended back to a dust-caked drum kit.
Halfway into the horrorthon, we’d finally had enough. “We’re going out,” Miranda said as she ejected Revenge at Lake Blood Part IV, or whatever, from the VCR.
I turned on the lights and Kelly shook out of her trance. She looked at us puppy-eyed as we stood around her like Satanic priests over an altar. “But this is our thing,” she pouted.
“This is your thing, Kelly,” I said.
“Yeah, we need a new thing,” Julia added.
There was silence.
“What is our new thing?” Miranda asked.
Silence again as we tried to conjure a new thing.
“Bowling,” Julia blurted out.
“Works for me,” I said.
Kelly rose quickly, stomping her feet on the carpet. “I hate bowling. It’s so boring.”
“Well, Kelly, now you’ll know how we feel right now.”
“Jesus Christ, Miranda,” I said, “don’t be so bitter.”
Not that she was wrong. Kelly didn’t budge from her seat in our lane. She never even rented shoes. The three of us hardly noticed as we engaged in what could pass for light competition among three people who hadn’t bowled since the last birthday party they’d attended there.
Occasionally I’d look back and see her eyes glaze further into some deep dissociation while the three of us giggled and high-fived over successive gutter balls. We got her mind off of Devon, I thought to myself contentedly, insofar as her mind is completely gone off somewhere.
But something had kicked her out of it. “Hey, look over there,” she said.
We looked back at her and saw she was staring fixedly down at the lanes to the right of us. We followed suit.
“What about ‘em?” Julia asked, referring to the two large men in dockers and league shirts a few lanes down.
“Not them,” Kelly said abruptly.
We looked beyond them. It was a weeknight and not very crowded. The only lane taken up past them men was a slight female figure who none of us could make out at first but who Kelly, with her idle gaze, seemed to recognize already.
“Susan de Búrca,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Really?” Miranda asked.
We looked again. Her details were still obscured by the dimness that coagulated at the end of the alley. I could see a woman holding up a bowling ball for an inordinate amount of time before she slowly walked up to the end of the lane, crouched down in a frog stance, and seemed to set the ball loose as if she was setting a fish back into the water.
“Was she kissing the ball?” Julia asked.
“I think she was talking to it,” I said.
“I had home ec with her last year,” Kelly said. “She never cooked. She never ate. She just sat and bit her nails.”
“Really?” Julia said.
“Well, I think she did.”
Without waiting, Miranda grabbed her ball and launched it down the lane to hit one pin. “Well, I heard she’s a product of incest,” she said holding her hands over the air dryer. “Brother-sister incest.”
“I never heard that,” I looked at her coldly. Miranda just smiled back and picked her ball back up.
“I know,” she said, getting her second turn ready. “I just made that up. But we should tell others that.”
Miranda tossed her ball, sending it into the gutter. She looked back at me unfazed.
“No,” Julia interjected as she went for her frame, holding her ball like an infant. “It shouldn’t be gross. Not that gross.”
“Well then what?”
Julia’s turn knocked three pins and shrugged.
“Let’s say she spends study hall looking at porn on the library computers.” She picked up her ball and cradled it in arms again. “Say she was caught rubbing one out.”
“That’s still not very believable,” Kelly said with slightly more engagement.
“Say it took place at another school,” Miranda suggested.
“Guys,” I said, “she’s not a new kid. At least not since, like, middle school.”
“Whatever, Miss Perfect,” Miranda said.
“I still don’t know why any of this is necessary.”
“Look at her,” Kelly said. “Go and look at her.”
I made my way down the alley, past stacked balls, encased trophies, and the always-closed pro shop, and settled by the vending machine some 15 or so feet from Susan’s lane. While I fake-deliberated over my soda selection, I looked haltingly back at her. She was dressed in what at first glance looked like a red jumpsuit, but was closer to a tracksuit. I looked up at her score screen and saw entirely empty frames. From where I stood, I could see she was trying to avoid the pins altogether. As before, she crouched down and let the ball drift on its own course toward the gutter. She stayed in the crouched position until the ball had completed its trek to oblivion. She arose and waited for its return with a slight smile on her face, the exact register of which was hard to place. Depending on how the light caught it, it could be faintly amused or slyly sinister. By that point I’d forgotten my ulterior objective, and our eyes met. Her expression did not change, she waved. I shot back to the vending machine and pressed for a Mountain Dew.
“See?” Kelly said upon my return. “Someone who does whatever that is won’t care what anyone says about her.”
The other two chuckled as they changed out of their shoes.
“Or she shouldn’t.”
This memory is inexact, as the more I saw of Dark Susan the following school year, the less I saw of them, as if they were dissolving and deforming as she was taking shape. Elements rearranged themselves out of proper order as if my internal hardware had suffered water-damage. Miranda might have been Julia, and Julia Miranda. One of them might have had mono and was never actually there at all. Kelly now feels like a collective figment. Too good or too bad to be true. Maybe it was I who liked those horrible movies, who hated bowling, and whose heart was broken at Point Pleasant. If so, I owe Susan for helping me forget it.
Regular Susan intuited something in this new Susan that most everyone else did not. And she didn’t like it. Here she saw a likely year-long headache, someone sure to drag the squad further into the bottom than it already was, and quit once she became tired of it, as so many before her did. The lesser Susan did nothing to dispel this as she made her way casually down the bleachers and commenced a comically extended stretch routine.
Once Coach Nielson blew the whistle, all joking was aside. Every formation, every rhythm and every gesture, was landed to perfection. Dark Susan even cocked her head as a seasoned cheerleader was expected to, and she smiled convincingly enough. “Well, well,” Susan Johnson said with the barely veiled sarcasm of someone publicly disproven, “someone’s been cramming.” Missing that beat, Dark Susan held up a finger and then demonstrated a triple backflip along a row of orange cones. She sauntered back to the slow, astonished applause of the coach and a pseudo-captain whose purely polite smile had hardened into plastic.
Dark Susan grinned back and said something in return that I didn’t hear, and shook Coach Nielson’s hand.
Spirit Days seemed to always end with us facing each other on the benches of the girls’ locker room. Outside, our de facto leader Regular Susan berated Principal Ackerman while her junior classmate on the squad, Dark Susan, pressed a chilled Mountain Dew bottle onto Cassie’s face and gave us a pep talk, of a kind anyway. “You all know what this makes us,” she began. “We’re jackals. Field hockey: they’re wolves. Soccer: they’re foxes. Life is about learning to live with who you are and finding an upside. When you’re a jackal, a truly ugly thing, no one else is going to show you what that is.” Dark Susan stopped when Regular Susan came back in. She checked on Cassie without having to touch her or regard her with any recognizable human sympathy, and related to us the assurances of Principal Ackerman that no soda cans would be thrown at us again. Dark Susan snickered noticeably but Susan Johnson ignored her and told everyone that she’d see us tomorrow morning for the game.
She was right. Next year someone threw dog shit.
Regular Susan was also blonde, though her hair was thinner and cut in an ear-length bob. She preferred J. Crew and Ralph Lauren. She dated a tight-end and so was always seen with the girlfriends of other football players. That seems very traditional, but even here she was limited to exclusive football players, not those who crossed over into the higher realms of wrestling and baseball. Regular Susan was less in need of application-padding, already volunteering to read at the old folks’ home, serving at the soup kitchen of her Methodist (or Presbyterian) Church, and mentoring special needs kids. I don’t even think she and Dark Susan ever associated with each other before that day.
Becca was taken to the emergency room in the back of Mrs. Johnson’s Escalade. The rest of us went to an IHOP on the Interstate that sat across from an old motel with no lights except for a flickering neon sign. The squad sat according to their Susan loyalties at extreme ends of the restaurant. No one to the best of my memory remarked on the events of the night. No table looked over at the other. Dana Cardoza fretted over the approaching deadline of a history paper. Colleen Fallon and Emma Kratovil debated the likeability of certain Gilmore Girls characters. Emma turned to me and asked if I thought Paris Gellar was the real hero of the show. I told her I didn’t understand the question and she turned away from me, incredulous.
I just joined the bowling team after all that. I never lettered.
“You think Susan de Búrca talks to the dead?” Steve Daly asked as we stood on the sidelines of the homecoming game. Steve’s voice was muffled under the head of his Screaming Banshee mascot costume, basically a hooded ghost that in the gray soggy November morning was more of a swamp hag. I told him to take it off and repeat the question. Once I understood it, I gave a nonverbal response of perplexity.
“You must have noticed it. Whenever Coach Nielson tells her to do something she turns away and nods to the air before she does it.”
“Maybe,” I lied.
“Oh come on, she’s always doing that shit.”
“Well maybe it’s a motivational exercise. It’s not like Coach Nielson provides a lot of that herself.” I paused. “Maybe you should ask her yourself, Steve, if you’re so curious to know.”
“Hey,” I yelled to him before he went back to the crowd.
“Don’t go spreading rumors.”
He ruptured into laughter as he donned his Banshee head.
I looked down at the floor just under the stall door and noticed for the first time that one Susan wore black sneakers and the other wore red sneakers as opposed to the standard white sneakers that everyone else had.
I heard the latch of the stall unlock and quickly turned around and blasted the faucet, staring into the mirror. Dark Susan emerged first. Our eyes caught each other in the reflection; she smirked as she walked back out into the IHOP dining room. Regular Susan went up to the sink to my right, leaning into the mirror to idly examine her lipstick.
“You look sick,” she said, still fixed on the mirror, and exited.
After the start of the new school year, Becca and four other girls on the squad would follow behind Dark Susan as she led them, boombox-in-hand, back to the practice field ahead of everyone else. By the time the rest of the squad got there for regular practice with Regular Susan, they would be out of commission on the bleachers, icing down their joints and backs. The next day, their abrasions and bandages were more prominent; sometimes they would limp. But always – or at least consistently – without a trace hint that they had suffered for it.
Regular Susan’s reliable vivacity had collapsed into a more neutral sobriety. Her eyes hardened like marbles as she recalibrated her circuitry until it processed the circumstances as normal and bearable. Her smile would return, but nothing else on her face would follow.
Dark Susan sat in the lawn chair on the grass of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson’s backyard, sipping from a solo cup that had very likely nothing left in it to drink. She remained there in a state of stiff furtiveness while the rest of us crowded the hot tub or played meandering rounds of badminton between servings of virgin daiquiris. All to mark the establishment of a fact: the fact of Susan Johnson, squad captain.
A portly man in a floral-patterned shirt and khaki shorts, who was extending his hand to her.
“So you’re Susan de Búrca,” the man said. Susan did not return the gesture, and not paying attention, he reached out to her hand and shook it himself. “Suzie has told us about you. I guess you really gave our daughter a run for her money.”
Susan smiled and bit the rim of her cup.
“I just want to say that I and Mrs. Johnson really appreciate your initiative. I think Suzie needed a fire lit under her, and I hope there’s no hard feelings.”
“It’s fine,” Susan said with deferential smile. “Whatever Suzie said about me is probably right.”
Mr. Johnson chuckled and said it was nice to meet her. He walked back to his wife seated at the patio picnic table.
“Interesting girl,” he said to her.
“Interesting good or interesting bad?”
Mr. Johnson thought for a moment and quickly glanced back at Susan, still in the lawn chair. “That’s a good question.”
I hung back behind some overgrown shrubbery at the edge of the practice field. Dark Susan sat on the grass as the five girls got into headstands in front of her. They remained there, stiff and spire-like, resilient even against the pounding of Susan’s relentlessly atonal music. She pointed to Becca, positioned at her far left, and she fell flat onto her back. As Becca was repositioning back into her headstand, Susan pointed to Cassie DeSilva, standing next to her, and did the same as Becca. She repeated this all the way down, and did it in two more cycles before she began pointing at them at random. She kept pointing at Maisie Chung several times consecutively. Susan continued this until the girls had synced into Susan’s rhythm, as if they were an instrument and she was searching for the perfect tune. Susan got up and turned off her boombox, causing me to flinch back behind the shrubbery. “Just wretched,” I heard her say flatly.
It’s one of those nightmares. The kind where I’m back at school. I’m running around the halls of Waterston in my cheer uniform. It’s dark and there’s no one around. But the sounds of chainsaws, thudding feet, and clanging metal echo all around me as if something is chasing me. But all I see are two shapes. Two girls, also in cheer uniforms. They’re in silhouette. They’re flickering like dying light bulbs but in different colors: pale blue, blood red, burnt orange, and so on. Sometimes it seems like they know I’m there, like when they stand stiffly at each end of a hallway and I’m between them. But somehow I evade them and I keep running. I keep getting lost even though I know every part of that godforsaken place. I go and follow the chainsaw. Or the uniform does. It feels like it’s pulling me around wherever it wants to go. Then I feel it grow. It’s getting bigger. Or I’m getting smaller. But it takes up more space until it’s all around me and I can’t see the school. I feel something sharp. I feel teeth. All around me; prodding me, then tearing into me. The uniform is hungry and I am its nourishment. As it’s satisfied, the uniform shrinks back to size, and I disappear. The uniform crawls away, leaving behind it an inky trail of what I’m guessing are remains of me.
The dream is always the same, but not the point-of-view. Sometimes I see it from the outside, like it’s a bad drive-in movie. Sometimes I see it from my own eyes. Sometimes I see it from the uniform’s. That version is a little longer. The uniform turns a corner and the silhouettes are still there, swing-dancing or high-fiving or both; celebrating some kind of victory they won’t let me (or the uniform) share in.
The annual carwash fundraiser never managed to raise meaningful funds. If we were fortunate some of the parents would drive in with hardly a speck on their vehicles, donating pizza or one of those six-foot sub sandwiches. Otherwise, it was not long before the event broke down into a fury of hurled soapsuds and exchanges of hose spray, all while a continuously recycling classic rock playlist filled the air. So long as we showed up and followed Regular Susan’s emailed and group-texted instructions to leave out our matching school t-shirts the night before, we completed her utopian ideal.
Dark Susan sat in a folding chair on the other side of the lot, holding a hose that was making a puddle on some mulch, and wearing an oversized red t-shirt advertising a monster truck rally. Around her, Becca Grundy and Maisie Chung, who also wore t-shirts bearing no relation to their school or its colors, gave crude demonstrations of their flexibility and balance. Through her Ray Bans it was impossible to tell if she was paying attention to them, asleep, or in some transcendental out-of-body state. The two underclasswomen continued imparting their skills even as Dark Susan’s gaze turned to the sky. Her attention did not appear fixed until Regular Susan was halfway across the lot, obscured by our water-wasting hysterics but nonetheless in her line of sight. Becca and Maisie quickly receded into the now-mostly orange mass.
“Black Betty” was blaring for maybe the fifth time that day. Body language again did most of the talking. Regular Susan wrapped her forearms and lowered her head in a way that projected either concern or curiosity. I like to think that she was asking Dark Susan about monster trucks. Dark Susan remained lax, as if her folding chair was a usurper’s throne, she nodded and said something into Regular Susan’s ear that she didn’t appear to comprehend but which didn’t seem to upset her either. She let out an ecstatic yelp as Dark Susan chased her with the hose.
Dark Susan’s head darted in all directions on the basketball court of Benson Regional, where Waterston was trailing by four points in the fourth quarter. Rather than being called, she appeared now to be actively in search of her ghost coach, as if it had been milling around the audience. She and her bruised squad had carried out their motions in an exceptionally fretful state, and just visible enough that for once it seemed as if Regular Susan was not going to tolerate it. I kept waiting for that moment, if only out of curiosity, but other events took hold.
Seemingly without any regard to their surroundings, and certainly in complete indifference to the rest of the squad, Dark Susan snapped the five girls to attention. She got on her hands and knees; two other girls followed next to her. Two more climbed on top of them, leaving Becca Grundy to complete the pyramid. She knelt on the backs of the two girls, wincing as she did so, and waved her pompoms in a frenzied fashion, yelling something indecipherable to everyone but which was likely not coherent anyway.
The pyramid held for 30 or so seconds. The rest of us stood at its base waiting for the point to be made clear, but no point within our range of conception was available.
Disasters are always a matter of conjecture, and while some would say that the structure was unsteady to begin with, burdened by a girl who was not small enough to be sustained on that formation, it is not for nothing that in the process, Dark Susan looked to be taking additional invisible instruction before she shifted her position enough to unsteady the bodily edifice. The two girls on top flinched and split away from each other. While they were cushioned by the girls below, Becca had managed to lunge forward and fell face-first onto the floor, thudding like a test dummy and just as immobile after impact. The crowd went wild; Waterston had scored a three-pointer from the center of the court. Becca’s remaining incisors were left as property of a custodial broom.
“Do you ever just want to win something?” Dark Susan asked almost wistfully.
“I mostly just don’t want my Montclair acceptance rescinded.” Regular Susan replied.
“Reach for the stars, Suzie.”
Regular Susan groaned. “I knew from the first day you’d be a pain.”
“You’re a good judge of character,” Dark Susan counseled. “Lean into that.”
They paused. I heard knuckles crack.
“You know,” Regular Susan resumed, “I don’t envy you.”
“I didn’t think you did.”
“I should, though, shouldn’t I?”
Dark Susan probably shrugged.
“But when I think about it you have it worse than I do. I think about every bone in every body in the world. I think of all the hard work that goes into breaking those bones, and the disappointment in never being satisfied by that. Maybe because there are always more bones on the horizon. Or maybe because doing that at all is overrated.” She paused. “I think it is. Overrated, I mean.”
Dark Susan broke the silence by clearing her throat. In an affected Valley girl voice she declared, “I’m like totally Death: destroyer of worlds.” Regular Susan let out a hushed chuckle.
Dark Susan sat at the table in the library with a magazine in front of her that she was not so much reading as honing in on and rapidly flipping pages at erratic intervals. Across from her sat a boy, whose name I never knew, in glasses, spiked and bleached hair, and a flame-patterned bowling shirt. Between them was a chessboard. The boy leaned over the table to plot his next move, placing his hands on a piece and lifting it slowly over the board. Midway through his maneuver, Susan would abruptly flip another page causing the boy to sharply reverse course and restart his thinking.
I went into the stacks for a minute or two. When I came back out, Susan had left the table and the boy, still staring at the chessboard.
Illustration by Eilish Gormley