She came in November, when the school-year had already started, and new students were automatically just a little out of place. "Etta," was what she wanted to be called. Short for Marietta. It sounded old-fashioned, and you could tell in the way Mr Duvall's eyebrows knitted together as he looked at her, and the way a few students at the back of the class sniggered only to stifle themselves seconds later. In my mind, she will always be as she was at that moment, with a smile that stretched too far and her dark hair sliding over her dull cheeks like a kiss. Etta smiled whenever she said anything, and the effect was unnerving.
Mr Duvall faltered for a second before he answered her, standing at the front of the classroom, pointer to the board. "I don't have you on my register."
"I am new. I am not on the system yet. The secretary said it would be fixed." She made an odd little bobbing motion then, and it took me a few seconds to realize it was supposed to be a curtsey. The sniggers started up again.
Mr Duvall frowned but still nodded reluctantly, waving her away in the direction of a seat. My heart sank as I remembered the only available seat was next to me. She walked stiffly down the aisle, looking straight ahead, and then turned that unnatural smile on me before sitting down.
Mr Duvall nodded. "Yes. Right. Well… well. Cell mitosis…" He turned back to the board.
She was staring at me. Etta was always bad for that, I remember. I shifted uncomfortably under her gaze, folding my arms.
"Hello. I am Etta."
I glanced at her. "I heard."
"Please, this is a good town?"
I shrugged, wishing for tact and diplomacy and conversational skills- for her, not for me. "Fairhollow? It's not bad I guess." And then, more out of the compulsion of manners than any real desire to know: "You've not been here long?"
She shook her head slowly from side to side and it made her hair shift against her skin. "I lived here before, but it has been a long time. What is your name?"
She was nice, I guessed. A bit weird, but nice. My answer was still a little unwilling. "Mike."
The smile widened by a few more inches. "Hello Mike."
I smiled tightly. "Hi."
I shifted away from her, turning my gaze to the front of the class, and assumed that would be the end of it.
It wasn't fair to call her a stalker. She reminded me of a puppy more than anything: all over-eager and jumping on your toes by mistake. She'd talk to me every day in Biology, asking questions that were sometimes pointless and sometimes too personal.
"Do you believe in God?" she asked once.
I paused before answering. "I'm not religious if that's what you mean. Are you?"
She frowned wistfully that time, instead of smiling, and it looked good. As the days and weeks trailed on, Etta began to act almost normal, and even if she still smiled too much, it didn't look quite as psychotic. "I do not know. I thought I did not believe in Him once, but it is so difficult to know. Sometimes things happen which are so strange they make you want to believe, yes?"
It was a long answer, for her, and one of the few things she ever said to me that I remember verbatim. Of course, Etta is just memories to me now, but mostly she isn't even that. She's fragments, like splintered glass on a pavement, refracting back light and shadow. A year after they dragged the body out of the lake, I realized I couldn't remember what colour her eyes had been. Now I remember even less, but it has been more than a decade.
I never snapped at her, even if she did tend to drift after me in the cafeteria, and hang back at the end of Biology to walk me home. You couldn't snap at someone that pathetic. You could of course, make irritable remarks to your real friends on the rare occasions she left you alone- and they'd laugh like drains while you kicked a ball about on the playing field. (Felt so stupid calling it a playground like the younger kids did- we were fifteen, and fancied ourselves adults.) Only then you saw her like something out of a bad dream, walking along the side of the playing field, her head down so no one would notice her. (You could hardly ever tell who she was in a high wind anyway, with all that hair. I don't think I ever saw her tie it back.) It felt like a punch to the gut. She didn't say anything. Not on the field anyway. It was later, in Biology (the only class we shared) when she said abruptly, as if it surprised her: "You do not like me."
I flinched. That wasn't a punch. That was a slap, even if there was no anger in her tone. She sounded confused. "I never said that."
"Not to me, but to your other friends. You make jokes and say I am a 'psycho'," she said, looking at me with such an expression of hurt confusion I can't help but feel bad.
"You don't act normal," I said, staring down at my interlaced hands. It was true, all true, but that didn't make me feel any better about admitting it to her face. Who did that anyway? She wasn't normal- if someone was talking behind your back, you didn't confront them for God's sake.
"What is normal?"
I shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. You… you don't- smile- all the time, and you have more than one friend, and you- you-" I was staring at the tangled strands of black hair trailing over her left eye. "You cut your hair. You brush it."
The smile returned, and just for a minute, it almost looked natural. "I like my hair."
I couldn't control my own returning grin. "I can tell."
I guess it got a little easier after that. That smile- her first, almost normal person smile- was the start, and after that, Etta became a little more like a real person, even if she still didn't make any other friends. She never could get jokes though.
"A man went to the doctor and said he was having trouble sleeping." Her eyes were shining bright, and if the grin was wide, it was out of excitement, not default.
"Did he?" I said. We were sitting in the cafeteria while I stared at my Maths homework and occasionally, added embellishments to a drawing of a T-Rex in the margin. I'd had to get used to the idea of her sitting next to me at lunch within a few weeks, and now it was fairly natural, even if none of the guys wanted to sit with us.
"The doctor said he should climb onto the wardrobe and he would soon sleep."
I paused in adding dragon wings to the T-Rex's back. "Right."
Her grin shrank a little. "It is a joke."
Etta never quite got jokes, although she tried them again. And again. And again.
A few days before Valentine's Day, Etta sat down next to me in Biology and then stared expectantly for five minutes. It took that long for me to think of a reply.
"Are you wearing makeup?"
"I made myself pretty. Do you like it?" There was a bright pink satin ribbon sticking out at a right angle from her head, the ends of it just as tangled as her hair. It looked ridiculous. Her face was another matter. Etta's skin was glowing as if she'd just been for a run, and her eyes seemed wider than before- wide enough for me to see that, rather than the dishwater dull colour I'd thought they were, her eyes were green. A very bright green, almost luminous. Her lips seemed fuller, and pinker.
"It's very nice."
I spent the rest of the lesson staring rigidly at my exam paper. I sneaked a glance at Etta exactly once, and she was looking at me, her face dejected.
The only thing that marred the day really was when I heard a couple of girls in the year above us had died in a car-crash the other night.
When Valentine's Day came, I got a card from Hannah Rixon. I did know her, even if it was only vaguely. She was in the year above us, tall and pretty with long brown hair. Played hockey, I think. I stared down at the card numbly.
When I looked up, it was to come face to face with Etta and I started in surprise. She tilted her head to one side, looking at me.
"Something is wrong?" She looked at what was in my hands and grinned widely. "You have gotten a card."
"From Hannah. Hannah Rixon," I said, still staring at it. I swallowed. "She was one of the girls that died the other week, wasn't she?"
Etta's smile faltered. "You liked her?"
"Does that matter?" I said, hearing the waspish tone in my voice and already regretting it. "It's still- awful. What happened." It wasn't Etta's fault. I'd always hated the thought of car crashes, and even now at the age of more than thirty, driving makes me more nervous than most. I never had nightmares about those girls, but I thought about them- a lot.
Etta's face had fallen, and she looked at me uncertainly. "I am- I am very, very sorry, Mike."
I looked away from her gaze, which was too serious, too sad. "S'fine," I said, hitching my bag up onto my shoulder and walking away. "See you in Biology."
If Etta was different those next few weeks, I didn't notice it. We had three deadlines coming up, not to mention I was still preoccupied with the card I'd tacked onto my corkboard at home. It was my first encounter with death. First encounter for a lot of us. Even among those who hadn't known the girls, there was an uncomfortable feeling in the air for weeks, and if you passed a girl in the corridor with red eyes, you knew it was possible she wasn't crying for an ex. You think you're immortal when you're sixteen, and this was a memento mori for all of us.
I think there was a memorial service, probably. Hell, what does it matter? Eventually Hannah Rixon and the other one- I think her name was June- passed out of memory for all but her family and those who passed the dying flowers left by the side of the nearby motorway where their car had suddenly swerved. The police were saying they'd probably been startled, maybe by an animal. As they said it though, they never looked convinced.
I say that Hannah and June were forgotten. That's a lie, I guess. I didn't know if it was the sharpness with which I'd rebuked her, or if she'd never seen death before either, but as the months passed and the school body eliminate them from its collective mind, Etta's moods continued to deteriorate. Her hair started to look dull and splitty again; she didn't bother with ribbons after that. I noticed grey shadows around her eyes that hadn't been there before.
"Have you been sleeping badly?" I asked suddenly one Thursday, at the end of Biology.
She turned her head to look at me, her chin propped up in her hands as if she were too weary to hold her head up. Etta nodded once, twice. "Yes." It was a cracked whisper.
Evasively, I glanced down at my bag and spoke without looking at her. "Look, I'm sorry I snapped at you. It was a shitty thing to do. Not like it was your fault."
"I am very, very sorry, Mike."
I stood up and pushed my chair back quickly, looking at her now, suddenly irritated. "You wanna stop saying that?"
Etta bit her lip. "But I am. I-" Her voice cracked, and with a mounting sense of horror, I realized she was about to cry.
I looked around and saw we were the only ones left in the classroom but for Mr Duvall. He gave me a stern look and tapped his watch before turning off the light: five minutes until the cleaners came in. I dropped back into my seat and put my arm around Etta.
"Don't cry," I said hopelessly. As a line, it had never worked before, and I didn't expect it to work now. Etta sniffed and dashed at her cheek with one hand, and I noticed vaguely that her purplish nails were broken and bleeding in places. "It wasn't your fault, and I shouldn't have yelled at you. But- Christ-" I stared at her, not understanding how someone could be so sensitive. She continued to sniff quietly, still dashing uselessly at her cheeks from time to time, even if there didn't seem to be that many tears.
I pulled my bag off the desk and tugged on her shoulder. "Come on. The cleaners are going to be coming soon. You don't want them to see you crying, do you?"
Etta said nothing, and continued rocking gently in her seat, sniffing. Suddenly, I realized I had no patience left with her. I hitched my bag onto my shoulder and headed for the door.
I turned the door handle in the dark, having to grope for it.
"The police are saying that they do not think it was an animal, and they are saying that someone must have been with them, and they are saying that they do not understand why parts of the bodies were not there."
I stared ahead into the light flowing into the classroom from the corridor beyond, hand still on the door. Then, I turned back to face Etta.
Her face, greyer than ever in the dark, was streaked with tears and flushed just a little, and for a dead girl, she'd never looked more alive.
"I was so hungry. And I wanted to be pretty for you."
Her hand was cold in mine, and clammy with moisture, but whenever I glanced sideways at her, she smiled like a child who had been given a treat, and so, we walked down by the lake together.
"So what will you do?" I said.
"They will arrest me," said Etta, her eyes dark, frightened pools in her face. "I do not want to be arrested, Mike. If I do not eat, I will just stop, and it will be okay." She smiled again then, that unnaturally wide stretching of the lips that was just completely Etta.
"How long have you been… like this?" I couldn't envision it in my mind, but once, I knew, Etta was just like any other girl, and she was pretty and hopeful, and there had been things she wanted to do and places she wanted to see and none of it had ever happened.
"A long time," she said. "There was a boy. I did not like him, but he liked me, and I said no, and he put me in the lake."
I could see it all in my mind's eye. The blue lips, the dancing black hair, the eyes open wide in a silent scream for justice. It wasn't fair. But then another image warred with it: one of two terrified girls in a shadowy car at night, and their screams as one, in a panic, swerved off the road. And then no screams at all. Etta had said, nervously, that it had not been the car crash that killed them.
She was staring at me sadly, as if she knew my thoughts. "I wanted to be pretty for you."
"It doesn't make it okay, Etta." She looked dejected, and gently, I squeezed her hand. "How long now?"
"Until the sun comes up. An hour. Perhaps two. You will stay with me?"
The air was warm and thick with midges; my school shirt stuck to my skin as we walked, and I could feel how Etta's hand was beginning to warm unpleasantly in mine. Eventually, we sat down by the side of the water, her dangling her feet in with a shy, nervous apology for the state of them. I smiled and squeezed her hand again. "Nobody needs ten toes anyway." For a while we just sat, and watched as the velvet dark of the sky turned gradually to indigo, then to grey. As the thinnest sliver of gold appeared on the horizon, I felt her gaze on me again, and turned to look at her.
Etta was smiling foolishly. "I would like it if you kissed me. I have not been kissed."
I pressed my lips to hers, just once. They were dry and cracked now, and I could tell there was very little time left. She smiled brilliantly at me. "Thank you. I love you, Mike."
"I love you too."
By the time the sun cleared the horizon, her hand was limp in mine.
A/N: As I wrote this, I mentally appended the subtitle: "A Tragedy in Four Acts". Even though it's not a play. And then there were six sections to it. So really, the subtitle doesn't work at all.
It was really hard to classify the genre of this piece too. It's not really horror, because it's not frightening (or at least I don't think it is), but it's not really a romance either. Or angst. Supernatural seemed the easiest classification. Also, it made me sad for Etta, but I don't know if you guys felt the same way, because it does occur to me it's possible you all think she's an evil monster. (This would not be an unreasonable assessment.) So review? I'm curious as to what you think. :3