It isn’t my fault.
That was my first thought as I sat completely still, trying not to breathe, in one of the bathroom stalls. But she’d find me. She knows this school like the back of her hand, and knows me even better. She will find me, like she did the others.
I squeeze my eyes shut. The events of the past day unfold in my mind, making me unable to think of anything else. It all started two days ago...it wasn’t our fault…
My friends and I were sitting around a table at school, even though it had ended a few hours ago. No one was here to tell us to leave. And, being seventh graders, we thought the world belonged to us. The world being the school.
“I think we should play mafia!” says Lana, giggling. Her blond curls bounce around her face as she speaks. I laugh.
“Come on, Lana. We haven’t played that since, like . . . fifth grade!” says Lanie, rolling her eyes. Lana crosses her arms and sighs.
“Yeah, I know! That’s why we should,” she says, smiling smugly. The fourth and fifth members of our little group, Bri and Nicole, groan but don’t disagree.
“I think we should play,” I say, feeling immature but not caring. Lana claps her hands and lets out a giggle.
“You see guys? Cia thinks we should play!” Lana skips around us in a circle. Lana’s sister, Angie, crosses her arms. They do not look or act like sisters.
“Okay, fine.” Bri sighs, pushing back her reddish brown hair with one hand. “But only if Cia gets to be storyteller.” I punch her arm. Bri and I have been best friends since forever, probably, and she thinks I’m an amazing writer or something. I’m not.
Lana bobs her head. “Cia, tell the story!” She plops down in her chair with a fit of giggles. Gosh. She still acts like a fifth grader, but she’s a nice girl. I stand and slowly begin to walk around the circle.
“Um . . . okay. Townspeople, go to sleep.” I think I still remember how to do this. There is a the mafia, who kills people, the detective who tries to find out who the mafia is, and the doctor who saves the victims. They rest their heads on the table, eyes closed. “Since there are only six of us, I’m only choosing a mafia. Whoever I tap once is it.” I tap Lanie firmly on the head, smiling.
After circling around a few more times, I speak again. “Mafia, wake up. Point to who you want to kill.” Lanie pops her head up quietly, looking around the circle. Finally, she points at Lana, whose curls spill over the fake wood tabletop. I nod and she puts her head back down.
“Townspeople, wake up!” I say, trying to make my voice dramatic. They all lift their heads, and Lana is smiling. I smirk at her. “Last night, our dear friend Lana was at home with her friends, when -” I start, before Angie cuts in.
“Make it gory! And we want details!” she says. Lana shoots her glare, which Angie shrugs off. They are not the closest sisters.
I begin talking again. “As I was saying; Lana was at home with her friends, then went upstairs to get something from her room. The mafia was waiting in her closet and killed her with a knife!” I say, finishing with a dramatic fling of my hand.
Lana opens her mouth to say something when a gruff voice pipes up. “Hey! What’re y’all doin’ in here after hours?” I whip around to see, of course, our janitor. We all get up to leave.
“We were just leaving!” lies Nicole, smiling at him. His scruffy chin wobbles as his beady little eyes follow us suspiciously out of the room. He smells of stale cigarettes. I hold my breath in hopes to avoid the acrid smell.
“We’ll finish the game tonight!” Lana whispers. After all, it is her birthday, and we’re all going to her house tonight for her party. We nod and leave the building.
They all go left at the front door, and I turn right. I only live a few blocks away from the school anyway. But even though I have taken this route a thousand times, and I’m not doing anything wrong, I feel like something is off.
Lana has had more than one glass of soda and a slice of cake. It’s not a good combination for someone who is already hyperactive without sugar. She insisted we finish the game, so we’re all in a circle. So far, the only ones “dead” are Lana and Bri.
“You guys keep playing, I’m need to go get something!” yells Lana, bouncing up and running to the stairs. I smile and start to walk around the circle again.
“Townspeople, go to sleep!” I say, and they all sigh and close their eyes again. I pace a few more times. “Mafia, wake up!” Lanie pops her head up, eyes all narrow and mischievous. “Point to who you want to kill.” I say. She points at Angie and then puts her head back down. Lanie gets up to go to the bathroom, and then we hear the scream.
The others lift their heads. There are no more sounds from upstairs. “Hey, Lana, you okay?” calls Nicole. We exchange a few glances and then go upstairs, turning left at the top of the stairs and pushing open the door to her room. Angie screams.
I am completely frozen, with my hand on the doorknob. I can’t breathe. I can’t swallow. I can’t do anything but stand there.
Lana is there, on the floor. Her arms are splayed out to either side of her, and her hair is fanned out around her head. But none of this registers until I see the dark red stain on the front of her black sweater. That and the knife laying next to her.
Lana’s mom’s footsteps are coming up the stairs. “Girls, I -” she stops in the doorway and screams. I back out of the room. Oh my God. Lana. I hear her mom shakily grabbing her phone, and the three pings that a phone makes when you dial 911.
Angie is crying, Bri is screaming, and I am still just standing there. I cannot move, and I cannot stop looking at Lana’s bent form. In fact, I don’t think I move until the police arrive, and they take me down to the living room. We all sit on the couch in silence. I pinch my leg. It’s not a dream.
The police ask us questions, but I don’t answer any of them. I sit there and look out the window. After what feels like forever, my parents come and take me home. I don’t sleep at all that night.
In the morning, my parents make me go to school. I do not feel like doing anything. I go to school in my sweatpants and an overlarge sweater, and don’t even bother to brush my hair. Lana is gone. She will not be in the desk in front of me in Science. She will not sit next to me at lunch. She will not be here.
Bri sees me at the entrance of the school and starts crying. We walk into the school together, silently, ignoring all the sympathetic looks from the people around us. They do not, and will not, understand. Ever.
We part at the door to my English classroom. She touches my shoulder and hugs me one last time before I enter the room and sit in the back, next to the window. My English teacher is talking, and the girl next to me is texting under the desk. This is not where I usually sit.
I make it through three periods without saying a word. The teachers seem to know that I need space, and I am perfectly fine with everything staying that way. I’m on my way to my fourth class, which will be the worst. Lana was in that class with me. Then, someone starts to scream.
When I hear it, the school hallway disappears, and I am in Lana’s house again. Her mom and sister sitting on the couch with curled postures while a coroner carries out a black bag.
It came from down the hall. I slip through the crowd gathering around it, more worried gasps and horrified noises coming from around. Something is wrong. Again. A teacher’s voice is talking, loud and panicked. I reach the front of the crowd.
My breath hitches in my throat and I stand still. There is a girl laying on the floor. She has reddish brown hair and a familiar hooked nose. Bri.
I cannot think or breathe. Bri is going to be fine. She has to be fine. I can’t lose two of them like this.
The teachers make us go to class. I sit in science next to an empty seat. While the teacher talks, I close my eyes and imagine this room how it was last week. Lana was sitting next to me, her curly hair pulled up in a ridiculous ponytail, smiling at me with narrowed eyes and purple braces. I imagine Bri walking in and sitting on the teacher’s desk. I imagine them here. Like it should be.
The class goes on forever. Kids are whispering about that girl in the hallway, wondering what was wrong. But all I can think of is when we played mafia at Lana’s house. In the game, Lana had died in her room. And Bri had died in a hallway at school.
I freeze, the weight of dread filling me. It has to be some crazy coincidence. And anyway, I don’t even know if Bri is hurt. She could have just passed out. She could be sitting in the nurse’s office with a big mug of tea. But, I can’t help but feel that Angie is next. Because she was next in our little game.
I raise my hand and prepare myself to speak for the first time since Lana’s death. “Excuse me?” My voice sounds raspy and rough. I clear my throat. “Can I have a bathroom pass?” The teacher hands me one and I sprint out into the hallway. Angie is in French right now. It’s at the other side of the building.
The halls are empty and quiet. I can hear my shoes slapping down on the tile with each running step. I am almost there. I am almost there.
I reach the classroom door and fling it open. Everyone in the room falls silent and stares at me. The teacher stops talking and gives me a stern look. I scan the room with my eyes. Where’s Angie?
I see her. She sits in the second row, near the middle. She gives me a confused look and lifts her water bottle to her mouth to take a drink. I open my mouth to yell at her to spit it out when she falls on the floor.
The teacher rushes over to her and tries to sit her up. I don’t remember walking into the room, but I am standing over her. Her eyes are wild, rolling up into her head, and she is shaking. Like she’s been . . .
“Poisoned,” I whisper. I shake my head and back away, pushing her wide-eyed classmates out of my way.
This is not a coincidence. There is no way it can be. So Nicole will die next, and then only the mafia will be left. The mafia and the storyteller. The mafia. Oh my gosh. Lanie.
I’m running again, but this time not to save someone, but to stop someone. There are people in the hallway now, heading towards Angie’s English room. Everything screams for me to go back to her, to make sure she’s okay, but I have to find Lanie. The mafia. I chose her to be the killer.
I find her math classroom and open the door. The math teacher scowls at me. I barge in, ignoring his question. Why can’t I see Lanie?
“Where’s Lanie?” I turn to the teacher and bounce on my toes. He sighs and sets down a stack of papers. His eyes are light brown, and look stern.
“Why should I answer someone that interrupts my class and gives demands?” he says. He has a classic math teacher voice. Drawling and slow and deep. I clench my hands into fists and stare him straight in the eye.
“I said.” I say, my voice clenched. Then I take a deep breath and scream, “WHERE IS LANIE?”
The teacher steps back and looks almost a bit, I don’t know, concerned? About my stability? Probably. He glances around as says, “She just went out with a bathroom pass. Now I’m going to have to ask you to stay after and . . .” I run out of the room before he can finish. I do not have time for him and his teacher questions.
I run through the halls, ignoring the cramp in my side and the burning dryness of my throat. I have to find her or Nicole will die. I’m sure of it. The thought makes me run faster, try harder.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, something makes me stop. A sweater on the side of the hall, in between two instruments. A dirty, dark blue sweater. The one Nicole wears every day. Next to it is a door. But not a classroom. A janitor closet.
I wheeze as I push the door open. Inside, it is warm and dark. I fumble for a light switch. There isn’t one. With slow, quiet footsteps, I make my way into the small dark room. Something brushes my cheek and I gasp. Just a string. I pull it and a dim lightbulb flickers to life.
The room lights up, and I see them. Lanie and Nicole. Nicole on the ground, splayed out. Lanie, standing over her with a mop. She smiles at me. Lanie has crooked teeth and wears a light blue top with a few droplets of water on it. I freeze.
“Hey, Cia.” she says, all calm. Nicole has not moved since I came in. Dread seizes my limbs, making me feel heavy, like my muscles have been replaced with lead. I can’t move or breathe.
“Why?” I whisper. Lanie smiles at me, and tilts her head. I’ve seen her do that a thousand times. It had seemed normal when she used to do it, but now it is out of place.
She smirks. “You tell me. After all, it was you who chose me to be the killer. The mafia.” Lanie lets out a weird laugh.
I shake my head. “But Lanie . . . it was just a game!” I feel tears welling up in my eyes, but I cannot let them loose. Not now, not yet.
“Nothing is ever just a game. And now that everyone else is out of the way, it’s your turn.’’
As soon as the words register, I run. I sprint out of the janitor closet and down the hall, without any thoughts. She is going to kill me like she killed Lana, and Bri, and Angie. And Nicole, I remind myself. A tear escapes and slips down across my cheek as I run on the scuffed up floors.
There is a bathroom ahead. I throw myself into the place and run into a stall, locking the door with shaking hands. I have to survive.
I shudder. It wasn’t my fault. I wrap my arms around myself and sit on the top of the toilet. I close my eyes and imagine that Bri is sitting next to me on the cold white seat, Nicole leaning against the door, Lana giggling as she tells a story, and Angie rolling her eyes at all of us. Together again.
The image disappears as soon as my eyes open. Because the bathroom door is swinging, and there are footsteps on the tile floor. I see a pair of shoes through the slot under the door. Black and white sneakers. Lanie’s shoes.
There are loud sounds. She’s kicking the stall doors open. I hold my breath, trying to stay silent. Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh.
She kicks the door to my stall, and the lock holds. She kicks it again. This time it gives, banging open and slamming against the stall wall.
I breathe in a shaky breath. “Lanie . . . I was the storyteller. I wasn’t in the game, I’m not supposed to die!”
Lanie smiles and lets out an airy laugh. “Oh, Cia. You are the last piece of the puzzle. My grand finale.” I close my eyes. There’s a loud crash. I lose my conscious.