There was no reason to expect it, despite the fact that it had been prowling in the back of my mind for a very long time.
When you leave behind one life for another, it is always with the expectation that you must learn to balance the two in some way, shape, or form. Some people can make this transition smoothly, can integrate their memories and affections and damning sentiments into a new framework. These people are lucky. For others, the integration is rocky, consisting of the pushes and pulls of change.
And then there are some for which the two are mutually exclusive, where the past life is forgotten completely to make room for new possibilities. For those who choose this path – or are forced onto it by circumstance – the cost is usually negligible. Perhaps it is even desired.
I grew up in a small community. It’s nothing special, located in a corner of rural Minnesota, where nothing much happens and life for most people consists of the tending of cows and fields. It is the kind of place that goes unnoticed by the outside world, which suits the locals just fine, they don’t like outsiders, anyway. People like me know that very well. The town is obscure and unimportant, and one would never see it on the morning news unless something very, very bad had happened.
Well, that morning, it was on the news.
That wasn’t how I found out, of course. No, I was still in bed when everything started, sleeping, dreaming about sinking into my pillows and breathing in the cotton. I was startled awake –rather rudely, I might add – by the shrill beeping of my cell phone.
My alarm wasn’t due to scream for another hour yet, so you can imagine my annoyance. I sucked it up, however, and reached for the offending piece of shit, trying to bite back the choice words I had for the caller.
I glanced at the caller ID – Todd Inlet, cousin from my father’s side of the family. He was just about my age, though we were never particularly close. He, like most of his immediate family, had chosen to stay in the town after graduation, enrolling in the police force and spending his days writing petty speeding tickets and bitching about sports with his cop buddies over coffee. So why the fuck was he calling me at nine in the morning on a Wednesday?
“Yeah?” I answered, trying to keep the grogginess out of my voice and failing.
The response was more of a snarl than anything else, rocketing through my phone and assaulting my ear. “Taylor Denson.”
And just like that, I knew.
I like to take my time getting ready in the mornings. I take long showers. I put on makeup. I try on my different outfits. I play with my jewelry. I use that time to feel ready for my day.
Apparently, when I need to, I can be out the door in less than five minutes.
When those words thundered in through my cell phone, the words I’d been waiting to hear for 10 years now, I’d shot out of bed, pulled on some fresh clothes, brushed my teeth, ignored my hair, swiped my car keys, and ran for it.
I wish I’d been more prepared, but it wasn’t something I could bare to prepare for. It was an eventuality, but one that was going to break my heart, and nobody prepares for a broken heart, do they?
It was only an hour to my hometown, but I expected to make it in half the time as my foot drove down hard on the gas pedal. I raced down the highway, hoping to avoid the cops or that they’d already been informed of my… situation. Any second of delay could be a second too long.
As I flew down the road, my mind flew back to a time when I hadn’t been so adept at hiding from my problems. Back to the root of the trouble from which sprang the future that I had grown for myself.
Back to Taylor.
She and I weren’t so different, and that’s what had been eating away at me for so long.
It was natural that we’d find each other. We were both considered outsiders and, as such, subject to the harsher treatment of the townsfolk.
For me, it was my mother. She was from out of town, and the whole community was in an uproar when my father married her. She wasn’t even from nearby – she was from about six states away, and heaven knows why the hell she chose to move out to the middle of Bumfuck, Minnesota, but she had, and so here I was. I couldn’t have missed the sneers and suspicious glares if I’d wanted to. And I didn’t want to. It was safer, to know that this wasn’t my home, this wasn’t a place I was welcome, only a place that I was forced to occupy until I could escape.
Taylor’s story was different, but the same in all the ways that mattered. Her family had moved into the community, living in what was little more than a shack on the outskirts of town. Her father was a laborer, worked a lot with his hands, which were always caked with dirt. Her mother sewed her own clothing from worn old scraps of fabric. Taylor’s clothing consisted of much the same, and the few times I went to her house I was able to tell that her nicest dress was cut from the same fabric as the drapes on the kitchen window.
Two little outside girls, living in a cold and quiet hellscape. It’s no wonder that we found each other. It’s no wonder that we hid from everyone else.
She moved to our town in the second grade. She and I found each other almost immediately. There was some sameness inside us that drew us to each other. I remember thinking that I could see it in her eyes, some kind of light that sparked when she glanced at me. Her eyes were my favorite. They were so comforting, big, beautiful. They were green, I remember, how could I forget? I only felt noticed, felt alive, when they were looking at me.
Of course, I also felt watched.
We became fast friends on her very first day in class. I knew it was something special from the moment she introduced herself to all the students and I found that I COULDN’T forget her name, not even if I tried. She was already inside my head, not by trying, simply by existing. That’s how I knew we were meant for each other.
Of course, sometimes these connections can bring as much misery as they can bring happiness.
As we grew older, the town hated us more and more. Of course they did – why would they hold any love for outsiders like us? My own extended family treated me with a strange distance that I had learned to understand at a young age. Sure, we wanted to be accepted, loved… but that could never happen. We had to find that love within ourselves. Within each other.
That meant, however, that we directed our hatred towards THEM.
It’s not that they didn’t deserve it. Anyone remotely different who grew up in a small town can assure you that the bastards deserve the hatred they receive. But the thing about hatred is that it’s a double-edged sword. It hurts the wielder as much as the victim.
Their hatred poisoned us, and it poisoned the love we had for each other. We held on to each other with a vise-like grip and, soon, began to feel strong enough to change something. To change THEM.
We continued down our little hole of madness. By the time I was in high school, I was severely depressed and barely spoke to anyone who wasn’t Taylor. Taylor wasn’t much better, although her family didn’t really notice what she had become. We could find comfort in each other, though. A twisted form of comfort that I can’t describe, even now.
Things changed one day halfway through our freshman year.
“They’re bastards – every last one of them,” Taylor said.
I mumbled an agreement. We were sitting in my room, playing video games, trying to forget the awful day of school we’d had – we’d been attacked walking to my house, not that unusual but I’d sustained a pretty hard hit to my midsection and it was going to be difficult to hide the pain from my parents once they got home.
“There’s nothing we could do to them that they wouldn’t deserve,” she said.
And that caught my attention. “Like… what?”
Taylor turned those eyes on me and they pinned me in place, our game left forgotten on the screen. “Think for a moment. Think about what they’ve done to us. All these years, they’ve tortured us, and they’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Haven’t they?”
It was true. It hurt, but it was true. “What of it?” I knew better than to think that we could fight back – I’d learned the hard way that we didn’t hold any power, and only the ones in power got to cause pain.
“Your father has a gun,” she said in a low voice.
That was the moment that everything changed. The moment I knew, the moment I made the decision…
That was the real moment I betrayed her.
Less than a week later, I had started at a new school a few towns over. No one knew me and the town was big enough that no one cared. They were kind. I was a bit strange but eventually I fit in.
None of us – my family and myself included – ever spoke her name again.
That was where my recollection ended. As I pulled onto the exit ramp for our little town, I firmly put a stop to the end of the story. No, it had been over ten years since I’d made my decision. One that I knew Taylor could never forgive. I wasn’t going to replay it in my head again, not today, or at least not yet. I was sure that she’d remind me when I saw her, anyway, so why torture myself now?
Once I turned onto the highway leading into town, I was met with an escort. Two of the town’s police cars preceded me as we headed for the school.
That goddamn school.
It had been years since I’d been back, but if I closed my eyes, I could see everything as clear as day. The blue lockers lining the hallway, the cold linoleum floors, the front office with its glass windows that surveyed everything. I’d hoped that I’d never have to see it again anywhere other than my worse nightmares, but here I was. In less than an hour, probably, I’d be seeing it all over again.
She knew that this was hell for me. That’s why she did it.
Once we reached the school, I saw every cop car from the five closest counties lined up outside. Police dotted the area in multitudes but none of them seemed to quite know what to do – it was almost as though they were waiting for something. The parents standing outside were angry about it, too. Some of them, the ones that weren’t crying and having mental breakdowns, were screaming at the cops to fucking DO something already, Jesus Christ our KIDS are in there!
They didn’t know that the cops were waiting for me.
Todd was next to me the instant I stepped out of the car. He looked exhausted – being related to me does that, I suppose, especially when I am the one connection to Taylor that matters. Or, at least, mattered at that moment.
“Lily, thanks for coming,” he said. He didn’t mean it, but he didn’t really know what else to say. Like I said, we were never close. Not many people would willingly ostracize themselves for my sake, not even my own family.
I decided to cut the shit, because I just couldn’t deal with it that day. “No, you’re not, Todd, because me being here isn’t exactly how you all wanted this to go, is it? How the hell did you convince your partners of this? You and I both know this isn’t protocol.”
No, what we were about to do wasn’t protocol. And I knew damn well how he’d convinced them, but I wanted to hear it. I wanted to hear if he’d give me an honest answer or if he’d lie to me.
“There wasn’t any other option. She’s demanding it. She’s got kids hostage. Lily, some of them are only seven or eight! Besides, we… we are going to take every possible precaution.”
I listened as the lies spilled out of his lips like he’d rehearsed them and then realized that, probably, he had. I wanted to scream at him, no, you guys don’t give a shit if she kills me, it would probably be a godsend if I were to die in this fucked up situation, too. You’re sending me in because you want to punish me for having known her. Because you want someone else to deal with the mess that you unknowingly created. Because you can’t take responsibility, you goddamn cowards.
Instead, I asked, “Why didn’t you just send someone in to shoot her? You have men trained to do just that.”
I didn’t expect Todd’s answer, I’ll admit, and it froze me for just a moment. Of course, Taylor would know how to get my attention. “She’s… she’s holding one of them. Sitting in the front of the room with the kid on her lap, a gun pressed to his head. We couldn’t risk it.”
I had never actually seen Todd so shook up. He is usually the epitome of calm and collected – which helps a lot when you’re a cop – but he looked absolutely terrified in that moment. And in his eyes, I did see a flash of guilt for sending me in to deal with the situation. But wait, the guilt was something more, there was something he wasn’t telling me…
“You’re sending me in without a gun,” I said.
He didn’t try to dodge the question this time, he just nodded. “You’ll have a bulletproof vest on, make no mistake, but she demanded that you come unarmed. If she thinks that you have a gun, we’re afraid that she’ll shoot the child.”
I nodded. “I think it’s for the best,” was my truthful answer. The details of that night so long ago seeped into my head and I thought to myself, no, I don’t want to die, but maybe I do deserve it. Maybe I helped them create this monster and now I have to go down with it.
The thought hurt, but it was true, and so I couldn’t deny it. Not anymore.
I wondered if my parents would ever forgive me for what I was about to do. I wondered if they even KNEW what was happening. Based on the fact that they weren’t here trying to stop me, I’d say the town had gone to great pains to keep my involvement a secret.
So I did what I had to.
I took a deep breath and, as the police force and townsfolk gathered around me to watch, I stepped towards the large glass doors.
And I remembered.
They’d fitted me up with an earpiece and a microphone. I wished they hadn’t, I didn’t want them to hear what Taylor was going to say, but maybe it was for the best.
As I stepped into the school, Todd’s voice buzzed into my ear.
“She’s in room 107. Do you know where it is?”
How could I forget? Ms. Anderson’s old classroom. She used to be the second-grade teacher. That was where Taylor and I first laid eyes on each other. Fitting, don’t you think?
I grunted my assent as I moved past the front office, walking down the main hallway, my eyes darting back and forth, taking in all the sights that I’d thought once to forget.
It couldn’t have taken me more than two minutes to reach the first hallway, but it felt like hours. Everything about this was so surreal. Were they really the halls that I’d run down trying to make it to class on time? They hadn’t changed at all, so why did this feel so strange? Perhaps I was the one that changed, or maybe I really hadn’t changed and that’s why everything seemed wrong. It was like stepping back into a past where I didn’t belong.
Where I’d never belonged.
I turned right down the hallway and spotted the room. It was four doors down and to the right. It was easy to tell that it was my destination because all the other rooms were empty, their doors hanging open as though they’d been abandoned in a hurry. The only room that hadn’t been evacuated had its door shut, glowing with a light that seemed sinister. As my feet carried me towards the door, I wondered if this was the last light that I would see. This sickly yellow that cast a jaundice hue on everything around it.
I reached the door and thought about my family. I should have left a note. I should have called them. I should have warned them. Because for the first time this whole day, I was absolutely certain that whatever happened in that room would end in death.
Taking a deep breath, I pushed the door open.
One of the reasons that people go to high school reunions is that they can see how their old classmates have aged. Although, perhaps the age of reunions is over, what with the advent of Facebook. Still, you expect there to be some kind of change. So-and-so got fat, or rich, or super attractive. Something is different to let you know that time has passed.
Taylor looked exactly like the last time I had seen her.
She still wore grungy, second-hand clothing that always looked like it could use a wash. Her long brown hair and green eyes hadn’t dulled. She hadn’t grown or gained weight. She was just as she always had been, and she smiled at me as though she were happy to see me.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Lily,” she said.
I took a moment to take in the rest of the room, to properly assess the situation. The children were all seated silently at their desks, as was the teacher in the back. It was a man this time – a pity that Ms. Anderson wasn’t here to see this reunion. She’d always hated the two of us. She probably would have enjoyed watching us both die. At this point, I had no illusions that this wasn’t going to be the outcome. All that mattered to me now was making sure that she didn’t kill any of the students on her way out. I wondered if I could succeed in that, at least.
Taylor herself was sitting at the front of the classroom, a young boy huddled on her lap. He was small, even for a seven-year-old, and his eyes were wet with tears. He was shaking but his face was strangely calm, almost apathetic, and I knew right then that he was suffering from shock. He was going to need medical attention soon – looks like Taylor and I were going to have to wrap this up quickly. She seemed to be waiting for an answer as I looked at the child, so I gave her one.
“It’s been a long time, Taylor,” I said, and she smiled.
Todd’s voice buzzed in my ear like a mosquito. “Lily, ask what she wants.”
I shook my head just a little, even though I knew he couldn’t see me. I knew what she wanted, or at least, I thought I did.
“I suppose that asking you to forgive me wouldn’t help at all, would it?” I asked. Taylor gave me a sad smile and I continued. “I’ll take any punishment you want to give me, so could you let the boy go? You’re scaring him, Taylor, and you don’t want to scare him.”
“What makes you think that?” she asked, genuinely curious, and I paused, wondering if I had miscalculated the situation. “Do you know who this boy is?” She continued, sounding almost casual.
I shook my head. She smiled a little wider and her eyes gleamed.
“I don’t blame you, Lily. When I brought up your dad’s gun… I should have known you weren’t ready yet. I should have known you would be scared.”
A part of me piped up and, for some reason, it became imperative that Taylor understood the truth of what I’d done, and the reason behind it. “No, Taylor, that’s not right. I wasn’t scared.” Her brows furrowed as I continued. “Not for the reason you think, anyway. I… when you said that, when you opened up to me about your plans for revenge… I was excited. I was happy. More than anything, I wanted to do exactly what you’d suggested. And that… that was why I was scared. That’s why I asked my parents to switch me to a new school. That’s why I…” I couldn’t finish.
“That’s why you screamed at me to leave and told me you’d tattle if I ever tried to find you again?” She asked, her voice barely above a whisper. There was hurt in her eyes, yes, but there was also understanding.
“Yes,” I answered, “I wasn’t afraid of you, I was afraid of me, and what I would do. So I ran away.”
“You abandoned me.”
“Did you… in all these years, did you ever think of me?”
My voice was breathless when I answered, “Oh, yes. So many times, Taylor.”
Her rueful little smile returned as she readjusted her grip on the boy. “Did you ever expect this?”
I considered lying, but she didn’t deserve a lie, even with what she was doing and what she’d become. “Yes, Taylor. I thought it might end up like this.”
“No… you KNEW it would end up like this.”
We stood there silently for just a moment. Todd’s voice didn’t come back in my ear, but I knew that he was listening intently. I guessed that he was shocked at what I’d just revealed.
Yes, I’d wanted to do this. I’d wanted to take revenge on my classmates and anyone else who got in our way. I’d wanted to do it with Taylor, and that’s why I made her believe I hated her, that’s why I’d hidden myself from her. That’s why I pretended that she’d never existed. Because if I hadn’t…
I shook the thought away from my head. It wouldn’t do any good to start thinking like that. I had a job to do, so I said, “Taylor, I know you want to hurt the people who hurt us, but these kids haven’t done anything to you. They aren’t the ones you want to hurt. Let them go, Taylor.”
She shook her head and a strange gleam entered her eyes. At that moment, those green orbs were the most beautiful I’d ever seen them… until she gave me her answer. “Ah, that’s where you’re wrong, Lily. These kids… they’re poisoned. Poisoned by this town and its people. And they’re going to hurt some poor kids just like we were hurt. You know it and I know it.”
“Taylor…” I didn’t like where this was going.
“No, listen. This boy right here. Don’t you know who it is? Look at his face. Look and tell me.”
I humored her and looked at him. Now that she’d said it, he did look a little familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him.
“It’s Amanda’s son. You remember Amanda, don’t you?”
It was a rhetorical question. How could I forget the name of the worst bully in school? Well, not that I hadn’t tried. I’d tried so very hard for so many years. And in the end, it came back to this.
“We can hurt her, Lily. We can hurt her and, at the same time, stop this town from poisoning anyone else.”
“Taylor, listen to yourself. This isn’t like you.” But it was like her. It was exactly what she’d do. And I had to find some way to convince her to let go of the gun or she’d do it.
And then, of course, the game changed.
I saw her shifting in her seat and I tensed… until she pulled out a switchblade and threw it towards me. I caught it and marveled at it, wondering what she wanted from me. Why did she arm me? I mean, a knife was nothing against a gun, but it still struck me as odd.
“Do you remember,” she continued, “the day that Amanda told everyone in school that you were pregnant? A little slut who fucked any guy who she came across? And she cornered you in the yard after school and mocked you until one of the teachers finally stepped in.”
Oh, yes. Yes, I remembered.
Taylor saw the flicker in my eyes. “Think about that while you do it.”
And she waited.
My eyes were shadowed in confusion as I stared at her. As I did what…?
And then I understood.
“No,” I whispered.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Taylor, I can’t hurt him. I can’t. You should know that.”
“You have a choice, Lily,” she continued. “If you don’t want to kill him, fine, then I will shoot every child in this room, him included.” The children gasped as she waved her gun at them in the air. The teacher at the back of the room blanched. My pulse thundered in my throat and, suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. “But if you chose to do as I asked, what I know you WANT to do, then there will only be three deaths today.” She gave me a pointed look as she asked, “Do you understand?”
And so I stood in limbo, staring first at the terrified face of the boy in front of me, then at those crazy eyes that were holding him in place, and finally at the captive audience that was beginning to tremble. I hadn’t expected this. I knew that she would kill me, yes, and I knew that she would die with me, but to make me an accomplice to murder… that was not a part of the plan that I had fashioned for myself.
That was so like Taylor, to come up with something so horrific.
I don’t know how long I debated because time seemed to cease in those moments, but the illusion was shattered when the teacher’s voice piped up from the back of the room.
“Do it!” He was trying not to scream and failing miserably. “For fuck’s sake, do it!”
No. No, all of this was wrong, no, I didn’t understand, I couldn’t understand. And the teacher just kept SCREAMING at me (“oh God please just do it for fuck’s sake it’s only one child just KILL HIM”) and everything in my mind was screaming, too (you can’t do it yes you can no you can’t it’s only one child to save twenty others but I can’t yes you can) and Todd’s voice came in over the earpiece (“Shit, Lily, don’t do it, don’t listen to her, we’re sending help in as fast as we can, try to stall”)…
And then I realized that, maybe, there was another choice.
I took a deep breath before I spoke, praying that this would work, please, God, let this work.
“Taylor… you know I can’t kill that child. There’s… a part of me that wants to. A part of me that wishes it could inflict the pain that I received on someone else, as though that would get rid of it. But it can’t. And I won’t. It’s better that I let that part of me die here and now. What you do about this is up to you, but I can’t play this game with you. I’m sorry, Taylor. If I hadn’t left… maybe none of this would have happened. I’m… I’m so sorry.”
As I spoke, I turned the knife towards myself. Suddenly, the world didn’t exist outside of Taylor and me. She stared and I returned it as I lifted the knife to my own throat.
“Lily…” she warned.
But it was already too late.
I dug the knife deep into my throat and gasped. Oh, God, it HURT. It felt like every nerve of my flesh was on fire and the blood that rushed into my throat only served to inflame it further. I could feel myself choking, but I couldn’t stop yet. It was harder than I expected, dragging the knife across my neck, cutting through so much muscle and flesh. But I had to do it. It was the only option – perhaps, without me as an audience, without me to participate in this act, it would become meaningless.
I dropped to the floor, the blood filling my throat, spilling from it. Fuck, I couldn’t breathe. What would happen first, I wondered? Would I die from blood loss or would I suffocate?
My thoughts were momentarily interrupted by a BANG…
And then everything went dark.
I was beyond surprised to wake up in the hospital. Actually, I was pretty shocked that I had woken up at all. I was pretty sure that I’d dug that knife deep into my throat. Or had that all been a dream? I reached up and fingered the bandage around my neck gently. No, it had happened. Then, what…?
And then my parents were beside me. And they were shouting for the doctor and crying over me and it was so loud that I couldn’t hear anything. And Todd was there and why is Todd here what does he want? And Taylor, Taylor, Taylor…
“What happened to her?” I tried to ask, but no noise came out of my wounded throat. Another shock when Todd pulled out a pad of paper and a pencil. Handing it to me, he said, “You won’t be able to talk for a while, so you’ll have to use this.” He was giving me a strange look as I wrote out my question.
He stared at the pad a moment longer than it should have taken to read my message before he answered, “She’s dead. She… shot herself after you tried to kill yourself.”
I took the pad back. And the boy?
“She didn’t hurt him. He’s okay.”
How am I not dead?
“We were able to get to you before you bled out. We heard the shots and the screaming, we came in expecting the worse. Turns out she was the only casualty.”
That was all the further we could communicate before the doctor was in the room and tending to me. My mother was clinging to my side and weeping, and my father looked positively relieved, although there were shards of anger and hurt in their eyes that I knew might never go away. I only hoped that they would accept my apologies, or at least understand why I had to do it.
My recovery wasn’t quick. It took a few months before I could really talk again, the flesh coming back together slowly and painfully. But eventually life returned to normal and I was able to go back to my home.
And so a year passed.
It was on the anniversary that Todd came back to see me. I guess I had been wondering if he would – you know, he and I still aren’t close, although I think he’s changed the way he looks at me.
When he came back to me, he had questions, as I knew he would.
“How did you know it would work?” He asked.
“I didn’t,” I answered. When that didn’t satisfy him, I said, “She wanted me to come back to her. When I tried to sacrifice myself, she knew that she’d really lost me. There was no point to her plan anymore.”
“Why didn’t you just stall for time? We could have…”
“No, you couldn’t have,” I cut him off. “If you had come in, she would have killed that child. You and I both know that. There was no other choice.”
“You’d sacrifice yourself for that kid?”
The answer to that was obvious, so he continued.
“Because… because I had a hand in making Taylor what she was. When she told me about her dreams of revenge, I should have told somebody. I should have done something. But I didn’t, and that means that I’m no better than the rest of you. I had to pay for my sins.”
For a long time, Todd didn’t say anything. We sat in my kitchen, drinking coffee, thinking about the past and the future and the strange turning of the world in between.
And then he asked me something I never expected.
“Do you think it’s over?”
There was a long pause as I stared at him, wondering. And then I answered.
“I don’t know.”