Ian Golding

HOMECOMING

And despite the red blotted towel wedged under the door, the students knew. And despite Mrs. Switzer’s attempts to lecture on through her swollen eyes, the students knew. And even when the muffled voice of the principal came over the intercom ensuring that everything was going “swimmingly,” the students knew. How could they not? Everyone knew. Every last one, and no gym towel could absorb enough blood to make them think otherwise.

So when the janitor put down his saturated mop and quit his eleven dollars an hour Sisyphean task, there was little surprise. Things were falling apart, filling up, and while the school staff had put on a strong façade throughout the morning, by mid afternoon, it was too apparent to cover. Mrs. Switzer didn’t even try as the first thin stream of blood entered the classroom. She just gave up, closed her history lesson and sat at her desk in silence, gazing above her students’ heads at the laminated images that covered the back wall as the children watched the blood. It flowed in thin tendrils across the floor’s uneven surface as it ebbed and arced from the chalkboard to the desks under the apathetic eyes of two dozen high school students.

They had known all day, and as they watched, the principal’s voice again appeared and confirmed what they were waiting for. School was to be let out on account of “mechanical issues.” Students were to exit the school immediately. A telephone in the secretary’s office was available to contact rides home. The principal kept speaking, but his evacuation measures were ignored as the students cheered, passed high fives, and quickly loaded their backpacks. No one had been allowed to leave the classroom all morning. Not for lunch. Not for bathroom breaks. Not for medication or emergencies. But now they were free. Free to eat, to empty themselves, to evacuate a school slowly filling with blood. And they could not wait another second to get their freedom. They kicked the towel aside, swung up the door, rushed out in mass, and disappeared down the hall, their absence replaced with the earthy smell of the rising mess outside.

And within a few minutes, the classroom was empty. Almost empty. Empty except for Mrs. Switzer, her head now against the table, her pointed shoulders bobbing up and down between sobs, and Clare, who remained motionless in her desk near the front of the class, silently watching the towel deepen into a darker and darker red. She was certain that the principal wasn’t finished. He hadn’t mentioned a thing about the dance and that was how he finished all his announcements during homecoming week, so how could he be done? Confident that there was more, she remained in her chair, listening to Mrs. Switzer’s weeping, and thought about what Ashley had said over the phone last night between her anxious huffs and puffs. It seemed impossible, a lie at the time. A weak attempt to pull her leg on the eve of the big dance, she convinced herself. But between the bloodied towel and the rumors that had spread like a disease, she began to consider that maybe it was true. Maybe the gymnasium really was filling with manatees.

 

With three minutes and twenty-nine seconds left in the third quarter of the junior varsity girls’ basketball game a manatee fell out of thin air and landed at half court. The wood floor shook. The girls screamed. So did the parents. The manatee did nothing, its vertebrae severed from impact. Dead, the beast’s motionless presence was still enough to intimidate the terrified crowd, They clenched their bleacher seats in horror and watched. It did not move.

Though in certain rare situations fish and other small aquatic life can be sucked from the water and dropped a distance, even miles, inland, it was unheard of for anything of that size. Especially given the fact that the manatee landed at an indoor gymnasium in northeastern Ohio.

After a few anxious minutes one brave person, the boy in charge of filling water bottles and cleaning sweat from the floor, slowly made his way across the abandoned court and tried wiping up the water pooling beneath the manatee. He cleaned around the tail and diligently rubbed his towel between every leathery crack of the animal’s body. Even though it would take a handful of grown men to move the beast, he cleaned. And if he had time to finish, he would have dried the dead thing completely, but then the second manatee fell.

The girls screamed. So did the parents. Again. The new manatee landed directly on the last, and the smacking sound of two fat bodies colliding reverberated throughout the gymnasium. Most of the force was absorbed by the dead manatee, cushioning the new arrival. Still taking congested breaths, the second one slid off the side of the corpse and pathetically flapped its flipper against the hardwood floor, its glass eyes staring at the bleachers. The crowd went wild. Absolutely feral. They clawed at one another and trampled the weak trying to escape.

 

All day Clare had overheard theory after theory. The manatees were still falling. They never fell. They only appear when someone sneezes. She heard from Britney who heard from Jessica who heard from Brittany that Lisa followed Jason to peek into a second floor window and that Jason said a whole bunch fell one after another in a pile taller than the basketball hoops. The principal said over the static of the intercom that everything was going “swimmingly.” “Swimmingly.” No one knew, but everyone wanted to speculate about the dead and dying manatees. Everyone except Clare.

She wanted to talk about the dance. The decorations, the dress code, the types of cookies that would be spread across ornate tablecloths. That is what she wanted to hear. It had been months of planning every detail with the organization committee and now, tonight, she wanted to see the purple and black balloons and football shaped sugar cookies of her choosing. She wanted to talk about things that she controlled—not manatees. She wanted to talk about Adam. Adam with the short brown hair and perfect skin and the admiration of the entire school. Adam with a car and the captain’s armband. She wanted to find someone who somehow didn’t know that Clare and Adam were a “thing” so she could try to hide her smile as she explained. But no one seemed to care about that.

Just manatees.

 

Students were not allowed to leave Mrs. Switzer’s classroom without being called on. It was the third rule on the poster that hung beside the flag. Those were the golden rules, the unbreakable ones, the rules that meant trouble, and even though the other students had left, Clare thought it best to try and follow them. She patiently held her hand up high until her arm was sore, but when Mrs. Switzer failed to notice her or anything through the weeping, Clare began packing up. Today she would have to shirk classroom etiquette and risk getting a checkmark. Two checkmarks meant detention and three meant coming in on Saturday, and though after so many years Clare had never received a single negative or positive mark, she knew she had to make a decision. Either check the gymnasium to ensure the dance and her night with Adam were possible or follow the rules and remain in her seat until blood and entrails of the beasts rose past her head and filled her lungs.

And as Clare took a step out of the classroom, she was confronted with the potent smell of drying blood. She tried to hold her breath as she crossed the hall to her locker as if, somehow, the stench of death and decay would not be present with every breath. But there were no refreshing pockets of spring breeze, baked bread, fresh laundry. No, only the sour mildew of exposed innards, and there was no escaping it. So with faint breaths and a pinched nose, she stepped across the olive linoleum tiles, the ones she usually stared at as she walked alone from class to class, and avoided the crusted maroon streaks. Soon the janitor’s abandoned work would be smothered under the rising blood, but, for now, Clare managed to hop from one clear, dry island to the other until she reached the endless phalanx of lockers on the other side.

Clare loved her dress, and after pulling it out of her locker, she was certain it would be the best. Other girls had open slits or low cuts, cheap fabric and poor morals. Not Clare. No. She did not dress like the other girls. Her dress had no thin lacing, no holes to show a pierced belly. It was classical. And if a group were asked what they thought of upon seeing Clare’s dress, the answer would likely be blue. They would be right, but it was more than blue. It was cerulean. Deep and flawless with a white sash and subtle folds that opened tulip like around her knees. And the crystals. The crystals that had twinkled in the florescent store lights and would absolutely glow under the industrial bulbs of the gymnasium. It was blue, but it was beautiful, and as she stood in the abandoned school hallway and looked in the mirror hanging in her locker, draping the dress over her body as though she were a paper doll, she felt beautiful too.

For the past month, the dress hung on Clare’s bedroom door, and every night as she fell asleep and every morning as she got ready for school, she imaged how wonderful it would look. If she was still working on preparations when the first guests arrived, she wanted to guarantee that they’d remember her and her dress. She decided to change. Not wasting a moment, she shimmied out of her jeans, and though the building was empty aside from the distant sobs of Mrs. Switzer, Clare’s eyes still darted back and forth down the hall in embarrassment. No one was there to see her, but she moved quickly, fearing what people would say if Adam’s date were caught in her underwear.

Though she rushed, she took every precaution not to tear the delicate fabric or snag a crystal as she lowered the dress to her knees, carefully holding the bottom to stop it from dipping against the bloody floor. Leaning over, her nostrils burnt with the metallic smell that strengthened near the tile, but she never lost focus as she took a step in, then another, and then hiked it up, situating the straps on her shoulders. Beautiful.

But she could not admire herself for too long. Work needed done. Tables unfolded, punch mixed, and the blood would have to be taken care of as well. She wanted everything to be perfect, and with less than five hours before the first song, she had to act fast. So, with an anxious flip of her wrist, she threw her balled up jeans in the locker and made her way to the gymnasium wing. While her progress was quick at first, soon the clear, visible tiles gave way to an endless film until the entire floor was coated brown. No longer able to continue without stepping in blood, Clare waded through the shallow liquid with unwavering determination, nudging aside pieces of floating grey flesh with the tip of her shoes. Beams of sunlight reflected off her dress as she passed empty classrooms. The shadow of a tree waved back and forth from the wind, but inside it was stagnant and still. Her legs were splattered with a mist of red, but the dress remained safe above her knees as she walked on, sending waves of blood off to ripple against the ornate woodwork.

 

The magic and excitement of the Sadie Hawkins dance is in its ability to reverse the power structure, giving the often preyed upon girl the opportunity to choose her own beast. But that is not why Clare suggested it. She was not tired of being preyed on. In fact, she had never been hunted at all, and realizing this, she decided to imbed herself in the food chain right at the top. No matter what, she swore herself, there was no way another homecoming would be spent watching HGTV until the infomercials began. And with that promise, she tirelessly petitioned and convinced the committee to host a Sadie Hawkins Dance for homecoming where Clare was not only guaranteed a date, but a date of her choosing. And with her new power, why not select the best? Adam.

As Clare turned the corner to the gymnasium, she was overwhelmed by the sour stench and the tide of blood that filled the room. Outside her classmates enjoying the sun and luxury of a day of cancelled school, but in the breezeway it was quiet. Standing on the edge of the ramp to the gymnasium level, Clare sucked in a few shallow breaths and looked down the hall. The showcases that lined both sides of the hall were lit, sending reflected golden rays off trophies and illegible plaques onto the sea of red. At the end of the hall Clare could see the constant flow of liquid squeezing out of a door clogged entirely with dead bodies, but she did not pay attention to the blood or the trophies, and instead looked at the banner she had helped paint. “A Night To Remember” it said in bright yellow letters on black construction paper. It would be, she said to herself. It would be a night to remember. It had to be. Adam was going to be there and people would remember that. Adam would be there and he would be with Clare. He said he would. He said he would in front of his friends in a low voice so they would not hear, but he said yes. Clare had picked out a boutonniere and a tie for him so he would match her dress and everything. So it would most certainly definitely without doubt be a night to remember, and a bunch of manatees could not change that.

But only if they were cleaned up, and if Clare did not begin soon, then there would be nothing for her to show the world. Motivated and determined, she made her way down the ramp with small steps, careful not to slip, until her feet disappeared under the thickening crimson. Torrents of bubbles collected at the surface as the warm liquid filtered through her sneakers, soaked her socks, and squished between her toes. She wanted to stop, but she did not. No. She imagined that she was walking through bathwater, that she was in the natural tropical environment of the manatees, that she was not in a rising pool of their blood and flesh. And so she walked, step after step as the blood sloshed through the empty hall and the large waves left dried lines high on her shin. Everyone was expecting a dance, and she was not going to disappoint them.

Though Clare could not see, Mrs. Switzer had left her desk and was crawling into the hall, flakes of crusted blood under her fingernails. Her sobs had subsided, replaced with a moan that echoed through the building as she made her way towards the exit. But Clare did not notice her as she moved forward, thinking about how she had planned for her and Adam to go to the Olive Garden. For the parents to take photographs of the beautiful couple in their matching outfits. How romantic the dinner would be after Adam drove them. And then the dance. The perfect dance. But Adam decided he did not want to take pictures. He did not want breadsticks and endless pasta bowls either. He did not want to do anything before the dance except meet at the door once it had started. At the time she was hurt, but now as she made her way through the islands of coagulated blood that had congealed and spun in the slow moving lagoon between the vending machines, she felt lucky for the extra time.

Though the steady churn of the blood and bits of entrails filled the room with a humid stench, Clare moved forward, dragging her feet against the current, and pushing the floating pieces away until she made her way to the door. No one in her class would believe that one of their peers had reached the door, let alone Clare. No, they would never, ever expect her of all people to do it. But there she was.

Though open, the door was clogged with crushed carcasses, and the endless mass of bodies were unable to tumble in the hall, so now, as she stood in the threshold, only blood poured out. It trickled down the bodies like a waterfall until it reached the rising pool. With her hand on the doorframe, Clare felt the heat radiating from within the gymnasium. She leaned in towards the mass and ran her finger across the grey flesh, tracing the outline of a manatee’s deep wrinkle. It felt warm and alive even though she knew otherwise. She pulled back her arm and punched the carcass as hard as she could. Again and again she slammed her force against the beast, crushing her knuckles, until she could hardly make a fist. She did not know what she expected to happen by hitting it, but she knew that it didn’t. Nothing happened. The blood still poured out. No more, no less. The manatees were still there. The one she socked was still there. It did not apologize for filling her gymnasium. It did nothing at all.

And though there was a dance, and though Adam would be there, and though the principal never said it was all cancelled, Clare knew. How could she not. Her chance to show the school was dwindling. Powerless, the girl in her cerulean dress pressed the side of her face against the flesh she had struck. It warmed her cheek, and as she tried to think of a solution, she heard something. A faint cacophony of gurgles and high pitched cries as the beasts on the other side died from suffocation and pressure, their blood squeezing out as if someone were making orange juice. And as she pressed her ear harder against the manatee, she began hearing thumping from within. Faint and sporadic, it was almost unnoticeable, but with her eyes closed and a finger in her other ear, she kept listening. It was there. Her body remaining so rigid that the blood clotted and clung to her as the thumping grew louder and more rhythmic until it drowned out the manatees. It was a baseline, and as Clare pulled her ear away, she could hear the song loud and clear. A nice slow R&B song with a steady beat. The perfect type for the perfect dancing with the perfect Adam at the perfect homecoming. The DJ had arrived. He was a professional, the most expensive one Clare could find in the phonebook, and he, unlike so many others, did not give up. He was inside already, creating the ideal playlist.

So much needed to be done, and there she was, relaxing. Her once perfect, cerulean dress was saturated with blood from where she had pressed against the manatee. It clung to her body and sent chills up her spine. It was ruined and she hadn’t even noticed. The school could not see her like that, Adam too, but that was still far away. There was still work to do. So, with blood dripping down her knees, she looked at the crushed bodies on the other side of the door, hiked up her ruined dress and crawled in.


Ian Golding’s fiction has appeared in the Mid-American Review, CutBank, Hobart, Pank, and other journals.