But today my sister goes splat. There is screaming, running, tripping, crying. Teachers yell but are ignored as the student body pulses out of the school like a giant clot from a tightened vein. They stare. My sister lies on the pavement under the tall math block, twisted limbs like a sprawled out doll. There's blood instead of honey all around her, a sick little pool where she floats like a drowned fly, face down. There isn't a single wing on her broken back.
Her hand lies limp on the grass beside the pavement. Every single graceful finger is stained with muck and filth and I see that the earth is all disturbed as if she were trying to dig her way down when she was dying, down to the prince she found, the prince beneath the school.
I ask myself a thousand times if my sister was crazy. If my sister was depressed. The school counsellor questions me, she tries to make me cry but I can't. Her thin crossed legs are swinging under the table. She's scribbling notes about me, chewing the side of her lip in a way that makes me wish she would bite right through and eat it up so she cannot ask another question.
"Did your sister mention how she was feeling to you at any point, Aaron? Did she say anything strange before...you know..."
I laugh. I can't help it, it skitters from my mouth like a dirty little mouse and I try to shove it back in.
The counsellor drops her pen and stares at me. Her rag bitten lips curl back from her teeth. There on her face I see she thinks that I am evil. That I may even be the sick reason my sister took that jump from the top of math. A twisted kind of brother. The unforgivable sort. I don't tell her I’m gay and there isn't a chance I abused my sister. I can’t tell her because when my parents find out they will pack me off to a religious rehabilitation centre.
I close my eyes and rub my eyelids. “My sister told me there was a prince under the school," I finally say.
"Have you any idea what she meant by that?" the counsellor drawls, picking up her pen again.
I shrug. My shoulders go up and then down again, but it feels like they sink right into my chest this time. That I am now deformed, and can wear my wrongness on the outside, instead of hiding it away forever.
The bell rings and I grab my school bag, my shoulders reappear so that everything is normal again. But the world turns upside down, for I glimpse the wrongness it is trying to hide. My eyes catch a few words on the counsellor's page...
Another meal for the prince?
She flips the notebook closed. I look away coldly, and pretend that my heart isn't turning to liquid and draining out of my rib cage. I leave the room but don't go back to class.
Home isn't home. It's 21 Fairymount Avenue, and I live there with two blank eyed strangers that say they are my mum and dad. School becomes an odd sort of haven that I escape to. I never imagined it could ever be such a place, I never thought I'd rather sit on the pavement where my sister died all broken and bloody, than go home and eat dinner. Everything tastes like dust in my mouth. I sit in the cafeteria watching students eat their lunch after the special memorial assembly. I wonder how any one of them could remember someone they had never bothered to look at before.
My sister was a nobody like me. I understand why I pass unseen beneath the radar but I always thought she might at least have been bullied. I know it is a strange thing to think, but the popular girls should have been jealous of her. They should have acknowledged her existence.
She was a pixie, all fun and glitter. She wasn't sporty, no, but she was pretty and smart, and still the boys never glanced her way. I watched her and wondered if it bothered her, but she just kept on sparkling. Right up until she met this prince. Then her glitter was mud, all the sparkling dulled by drying blood.
And suddenly, just like that, I dare to find this prince. I will find him and if he has made a meal out of my sweet sister, I will force him to bring her back up.
The Prince Beneath the school. That title leads me straight to the school basement. I skulk in the entrance of the assembly hall and watch the door that opens onto the basement stairs. It takes a week for me to see anything suspicious, but when I do I think I've found my sister's prince.
I wish she'd had better taste. The unravelling of it is too cliché for me to believe at first. Wasn't my sister stranger than this, wasn't she unique and unconventional? He struts down the corridor, lord of all the jocks. Tyson Hayes, captain of the football team. A brick wall of bulging muscle. He stops at the basement door, peers surreptitiously around and then descends.
If I was braver, I would follow him. I would find out what he's about. Instead I stand and wait for him to come back up. A voice in my head berates me. This is absolutely ridiculous. Maybe he's only after sports equipment. What exactly am I expecting him to have down there. A harem of suicidal girls?
He returns with a neat little smile folded on his lips. A self satisfied gleam in his Aryan blue eyes. I ready myself to investigate under the school just as soon as he is out of sight, but to my horror he pulls a key from his pocket on a red cord and locks the door.
My heart pounds in my chest. I come out of the shadowy doorway and into the corridor. I will confront him here and now. Ask him what he knows about a so called prince. Demand to know what happened to my sister. Adrenaline spurs me on. But it all comes to nothing.
I am selfish. I am weak. I am distracted by the prettiest boy I've ever seen. He walks up the corridor, and Tyson shoves him hard. The boy sinks against the wall waiting for the jock-prince to pass. Then he pulls a crumpled school map out of his pocket and starts looking around him. He steps up to the basement door, peering through the dark glass that shows the steps leading down, his forehead presses against it, lightly creased as he frowns. It's an adorable expression of confusion, and I suddenly feel like I've inhaled air for the first time in weeks.
"You lost?" I ask, expecting to fall beneath the radar as usual. But he turns, green eyes bright with shock.
"Oh, sorry." He apologises for nothing, which makes me smile. And that smile becomes a grin when I see the blush that stains his cheeks. "I mean, I'm lost. Do you know where the math rooms are?"
Do I indeed.
"Sure," I answer, as if people talk to me all the time. "I have class there now. I'll walk you." I jerk my head to the side, all casual and sexy. He believes that body language, and hitching his bag up with smoothly muscled arms he comes to my side.
"I'm new here," he explains.
"Figured," I say, as smooth as his smooth muscles. "What room you in?"
And my facade comes crashing down. "Same class as me," I tell him, and I wonder if I'm getting smaller by the second. By the time we reach that room I will be invisible, and he will be eaten up by all the pretty people in there, waiting like wolves at tables. The green door comes in to sight and I think about grabbing him now and pressing my lips to his whether he goes for boys or not. That way I will never be invisible to him.
Instead I open the door and let him brush past me. "Thanks," he says.
"No problem," I reply as I close the door behind us. The pretty people pulse like hearts in their seats, and they recognise his beauty. They stand, and like some public letting they share the blood that runs between them. It's that certain something that makes them brighter than the rest of us. They're arterial, they're luscious, red and vibrant, and he is one of them.
I slide into my seat, but the sickness has me now, and makes my dead blood hungry. I spend the entire class staring at the back of his head, at his wavy brown hair as it tickles the collar of his school shirt. He scratches the back of his neck. He can feel me on him, but he doesn't turn to look.
My sister's room is pink, and when I close my eyes I smell her favourite perfume. I used to complain when she sprayed it. Now I sit on the floor, my back against her bed and wish she was here to turn the air to claustrophobic mist. I'd let her empty the whole bottle of that sick sweet rot into my mouth just to have her here with me now, to hear her infuriating giggle one more time, another outrageous story. I would really listen to it though, I wouldn't just laugh and roll my eyes.
"Get out!" my mum says, and she shoos me from the room like a dog. "Get out, get out!"
She straightens up the perfectly straight bed covers and shuts the door behind us so my sister stays entombed in there. Sometimes I stand outside the door and imagine she's sitting by her little blue lamp scribbling in her butterfly diary.
If I don't go in, maybe she really is.
It's midterm, and still I have no vengeance. My attempts to suss out Tyson Hayes all come to nothing. I need to be a part of his gang to find out more, and I have no hope of it. I hear rumours that the basement is haunted. I stand at the top of the basement stairs and think about going down into that darkness. But the damn door stays locked.
"What's your obsession with this place?"
The new boy is beside me, looking at me, smiling a blood red smile. My eyes scan the corridor behind us, it's empty so I know he's free to talk to me. I am not going to jeopardise his newly found popularity. Tyson sees him as a threat but the rest of the pretty people opened their arms.
"Don't you want to know what Tyson keeps down there?" I ask, and my confident grin comes back.
He winks at me. He really does. "Actually I'm more interested in finding out other things." I see his pointy tongue play idly over the tips of his teeth before he slips into a nearby store room, a challenge dancing in his eyes.
I take the bait, I follow him. I stalk him, I hunt him. There aren't any lights on in here and somehow it makes me feel more visible than ever. "Where are you?" I whisper. There really is no need, but the dead silence compels me.
"Here," he says, and I feel his breath on my face because he's standing right before me.
I reach for him, and pull him closer. His hands are on my back and sliding down, grasping violently. He tastes like sugar, fizzing on my lips, popping candy that stings my tongue as much as delights it.
His sweet, soft gasps are sin turned to air and I breathe him in to get high. But then he breaks away. I hear his footsteps, the room brightens as he opens the door and out he goes to the electric lights and narrow corridors, the place where I just don't exist.
"Do you miss your sister?" the counsellor asks, and I can see her boredom in the way her eyes blink, heavy as a cat that longs to take a nap.
"Of course I do," I sneer. I can't keep the irritation out of my voice any longer. How could I not miss the girl I grew up with? My sister, who teased me as much as she took me seriously. The girl that looked at me and saw everything that I was before I faded into myself entirely. Who smiled and told me she knew I was too good looking to be straight. With her a piece of me is gone and sometimes I wish the rest of me could go too.
The new boy has an idea. He suggests I try to join the pulsing pretty people. I don't have that arterial blood to share with them, that little magic something that makes them high school royalty, but maybe I can slip in and find an unobtrusive place. I wonder if he's afraid that I'll open my mouth and tell everyone about our store-room rendezvous.
"How?" I ask, and I'm surprised at the way my heart starts to beat, and my mouth waters. I realise I want this as much as I want him.
"The school is supposed to be haunted," he whispers, with a wicked little smile. "They say some wannabe killed herself and that she wanders up and down the basement stairs now." He shrugs skeptically. "Tyson says he's stashed drink and cigarettes down there for a Halloween party. The Janitor doesn't use it anymore. So that answers your question. Why don't you come with me?"
"Sure," I snap. "How cool to be hobo freaks that sleep over in the school basement." But I'm looking down the corridor towards the basement door and wondering if it's my sister who wanders on those stairs, stuck between two floors and two worlds. The bell rings and the corridor floods with people. The new boy flows into them and disappears, not before casting a hopeful glance back at me.
"My name's Michael Quinn, by the way," he calls.
Tyson makes several more trips to his basement stash. The day before the party he coaxes my blood to bubble fast in my veins. Lucy Whiteside is beside the basement door, stashing a heavy pile of history text books in her locker. Lucy was Erin's sometime friend. They found solace together, once joined the D and D after-school club and played games that went over my head. Lucy is pretty, but geeky. Not Tyson's type at all. These things certainly don't interest me, but her chest is as flat as I am bent.
Tyson taps on her bony shoulder and she gasps in surprise, spinning in defense. Tyson laughs gently, and his icy eyes glint with malice. Lucy stares, her mouth slightly agape.
"I don't do this a lot Lucy, but since you helped me with the History finals, I've been thinking about you. A lot."
Lucy closes her mouth, swallows hard. "I..I..I've been thinking about you too," she stammers.
He smiles. It's a broad, gorgeous smile, a smile to fall in to. Lucy's swimming now. She was drowning before she even jumped.
"There's a party tomorrow night. Top secret. I want you to come, my guest of honour."
"Really?" she gushes. It's pathetic. Is this what happened to Erin? Was she reeled in and ridiculed? Didn't she know better?
My palms are sweating out of anger. I clench them into fists, bite my lower lip hard and enjoy the sting as my teeth sink into flesh.
"The party is under the school. In the basement tomorrow at 8 p.m. We've got a skeleton key cut. Come in Fortwilliam entrance."
And off he struts.
I don't see Michael Quinn for the rest of the day. Or the next day. Maybe he changed his mind about slipping me in. Maybe he's decided there's too much to loose. No matter.
I'll be there.
I have a torch, some snacks and a blanket in my school bag. Probably not the coolest equipment to be bringing to a party. Mum and Dad won't notice if I don't come home. They sit at the TV every night, and then they traipse to bed and sleep until midday. If I dived off the math block to join my sister, their lives wouldn't change. But I'll settle for seeing my sister. I want to take her hand and lead her up the stairs and out from under the school. I know of course her body isn't there, it's a waxy slab of flesh in a coffin, done up all pretty so we can't see the pain any more. Kind of like how we couldn't see it before.
I go to the front door, and as I reach for the handle a memory sifts down from my brain and plays a little scene before my eyes. My sister caught sneaking in to the house at five in the morning after she stayed out all night. Her face a tearstain of mascara and eyeliner, her uniform soaked through. My father and mother waiting red eyed and pale in the living room.
They hadn't been angry, even when she wouldn't say where she had been.
They hadn't been angry because it was the first and last time she ever did anything like that. Now I wonder on an impulse if she had been staying with the 'prince' under the school?
Just as Tyson promised, the school is open for intruders. I'm half an hour early, but the basement door is finally unlocked. The creak of the handle in the silence of the empty school is deafening. I push the door open and take the first step down.
It's darker than I imagined. The only light comes from the exit sign that lights the door above the stairs, and the square of dull yellow leaking from the window to the corridor above. I look for a switch, but I don't see anything, so I resign myself to the darkness and pull the blanket and torch out of my bag. I don't switch the torch on yet.
I sit down on the blanket, and wait.
No one comes. At 8.15 I flick the light on the torch and shine it around the room. I see the stash of drinks, and cigarettes, a box full of weed, filters, lighters. Supplies for a good time.
“Aaron?” A whisper. It's Lucy Whiteside.
"No one's here," I whisper back. "I think we've been set up." She shuts the door and comes down the stairs, a black silhouette against the green glow of the exit sign. I don't think it is exactly the sort of set up she's imagining. It occurs to me that Tyson probably has something planned for us losers. He doesn't like Michael either, so I'm sure he wants to bring him low too.
"Lucy, I heard Tyson was just going to make out with you and pass rumours around. You wouldn't be his first victim like that."
I shine the torch her way. She shivers, forlorn and upset. Tears glitter in her eyes, and she holds a tan-stained hand up to block the light from her face. Without another word she takes off up the stairs again. Her high heels clatter and clang on the metal and I wince.
Maybe I should go too. Maybe I should call it a night. What good is this really going to do? At least I've saved Lucy, even if I couldn't save my sister. But I need more than this. I want to know exactly how he did it. How he made her jump. I want to see him broken like she was. I wait.
9.15. The door creaks open again and I feel like I'm going to puke my guts and my heart up.
“Aaron?” It's Michael. I feel a little thrill of delight on the heels of the fear.
"Where the hell have you been?" I call back. He comes down the stairs, and I shine the torch on him. An inquisitor's spotlight.
"It's called being fashionably late, fool." He shrugs his lovely shoulders.
"I think it's only us." I pat the blanket beside me, and switch off the torch. He comes closer and sinks down beside me. My body reacts to his nearness, as if some electric current passes between us at the place where our legs brush ever so slightly against each other.
"This is weird, huh?" he says.
I nod, even though he can't see me in the dark.
And then I reach for him again.
It's still black when I wake, no sign of a party. I can't help but be a little glad the night isn't over. Michael lies on the blanket beside me, breathing sweetly but I can hear something else is with us.
It breathes too, but it's fast paced and ragged and distinctly female.
"Erin?" I call my sister's name. I know it's her, but there isn't any answer.
I stand up. And I see her.
The green glow is just enough, she takes small steps on the stairs and they make no sound because the dead have no weight. She isn't waxy though, and nothing hides the tired lines that draw her face down. She's no longer a pixie, or a buzzing little bee.
"Erin. It's me," I say, and my voice cracks a little. Tears sting my eyes for the first time since I lost her.
She doesn't look up. She can't see or hear me. She takes another little step down the stairs, and then another.
"Erin!" I say, louder this time. I need her to see me. I need her so much. She reaches the last step, and her foot dangles out over the basement floor. But then, like a marionette she spins and I can almost hear bones crack like clacking wooden limbs. Step by slow step, she begins to ascend. I want to go to her, but I can't. My legs are two stone pillars that bind me in place. She reaches the top step, then does that disjointed turn and comes back down again.
Tears stream down my face, they leave burning little trails. And maybe because I finally cry, she looks up. Her eyes are wide, the only things that seem alive now. Alive and terrified. She lifts her pale hand and points behind me.
I turn. I'm just in time to see a black booted foot disappearing through an open vent in the wall as the new boy crawls away. I look at Erin, but she is climbing the stairs again, her back to me. Suspicion wriggles like a little worm in my bowels.
I have found her prince, I realise. More than just found him.
I get on my hands and knees and go through the vent. I'm going to tear him apart. I'm going to devour his lying guts and smear his filthy blood all over me. Anger tastes a thousand times better than useless salty tears. I pursue, dragging myself through the metal corridor until I slide out the other side. The walls are mud with tree roots poking through. All around me I see stairways leading to nowhere, and on each one a person wanders up and down, up and down, as lost and miserable as my poor, dead sister.
In the centre of it all there is a throne. It isn't grand. It's just as if someone has built a mountain out of everything in the school's lost property store. It's sport kits, blazers, jackets, backpacks, stacks of books and papers, scribbled notes floating down and scattered along the bottom, surrounding the base of the throne which I see is made of a thousand diaries. And sitting on top of all of this, lounging even, is the prince under the school. He's leaning back, and in his graceful hand he holds a purple diary I know well. I know it by the embroidered butterflies that climb the spine. It belongs to my sister. He reads it provocatively. One eyebrow quirking up as he reaches the bottom of the page, and then licks a finger, turning over.
He looks the same. Just the new boy. Then he looks entirely different. He changes as I watch, and he really is all the things that make him one of them. One of the pretty people. He is confidence and cruelty. The right body, and the perfect smile. The captain of the football team, the head of the school, the prom king, the perfectly straight jock that has his fill of cheerleaders and perfumed kisses. There's a laugh on those pretty lips that taste of popping candy but hide a hint of cyanide.
I can't help it. I spit on the floor to get it off me. He looks up, and his eyes scan me the way that eyes have always scanned me. They barely see me, but what they do see, they dislike. "Teenage drivel," he sighs, and he drops the diary like he's dropping a piece of rotten fruit into the trash. It flops onto the floor at the bottom of the throne, where I know my sister must have come bowing to him. It's hard not to get down there myself and beg him to knight me. To make me one of the pretty people like he said he would.
"So you are the prince beneath the school?" I ask, keeping my voice as even as I can.
"As charged," he says and sits up straighter. "I make the unspoken rules, the one's that really matter, the ones that never change."
"You killed my sister," I say. A statement, not an accusation.
He nods admission. A statement, not an apology. "I get hungry. Speaking of which." He stands from the throne, and cranes his neck to look behind the throne. I step closer. And see Tyson on the floor. He's the colour of porridge. And he's crawling toward the bottom of the throne.
"Please..." he begs. I've never heard his voice so soft, so desparate. "I asked her to come," he whines. "And she did. She did! Just another chance. I haven't failed before."
The prince spreads his hands. The benevolent ruler. But those lips I kissed, so yielding and soft are now set in a hard, bitter line.
He says nothing, only steps carefully down the mess of objects that make his dais, and yanks Tyson to his feet. He rams a fist into Tyson's stomach, sharp and precise. Tyson doubles over and begins to wretch. I'm rooted to the spot. I only stare as pills begin to bubble out of Tyson's mouth. Prozac and painkillers, they fountain from his lips and scatter of the floor, he chokes and spits but still they come, more and more until he writhes on the floor, bile and suicide spilling from him. He stills. The prince kicks him so he rolls onto his front. I know he's dead. His body disappears and another staircase erupts from the floor. Tyson appears, less than he ever was. A specter of his glory. A ghost. He walks the steps the same as all the ones he sacrificed.
The Prince turns serenely, and makes his way back to his throne.
"So am I another meal?" I ask, finding my voice and forcing it out of my insides like a splinter that's been lodged in my lungs.
He smiles a pitying smile. "Afraid so, Aaron. Sometimes I have to cull the flock. Not everyone makes the team, you know."
And that look says gay people don't. It says ugly people don't. It adds too fat, too smart, too strange, too emotional, too different, too anything.
I smile at him, this prince. I realise at that moment that he just doesn't understand. He doesn't have the capacity to understand. Life doesn't end at eighteen. There's a world beyond the walls of high school that he has never seen. A world that he stole from my sister and the thousand other souls that walk the staircases all around us.
I begin to climb his throne. The books and bags slide under me and he stands up, eyes wide as my sister’s. This isn't one of his unspoken rules. I reach him and I grip his football shirt. Boy meets boy. Boy throws boy. Right down, right off his throne of lost things in his kingdom of lost people. He hits the floor, and rolls on to his back. I glare down at him, fury burning like a small sun in my chest when I hear him laugh. "Foolish little Aaron. You can't hurt me." He stands, brushing himself off as if I've contaminated him with my touch.
I ignore his chide, and begin to search for a weapon. But all around me there are clothes and diaries. Warmth and words that are completely useless.
I'm running out of time. The prince scrapes his boot on the floor as if he's trying to wipe away a stain. Then he steps back and a set of winding stairs spiral out of the ground. "Twisting stairs are more apt than straight stairs, don't you think?" He says, and a quicksilver smile slits his pretty face. I wonder how I ever found him alluring, and I scatter diaries and throw clothes off the throne. Searching.
"Come now, Aaron. Time to start climbing. You do need the exercise." He comes to the base of the dais, but seems to tower over me despite the fact that I am above him. He reaches out and yanks a dirty sweater out of the dais. It causes an avalanche and I lose my footing and slid down, landing in a mess of books and age old gym shoes at his feet. He drags me up by my shirt. This is it. But for me there are no pills. Instead his touch slices me open. All down my arms, slashes appear. My flesh gapes open, blood runs warm and sticky. My clothes soak it up. I fall back. I try to get away, skittering on my back like a little bug. He advances, licks my blood off his hand and reaches out again. Those hands touched me first in love, I thought. The betrayal thickens my tongue. Stings my eyes. From pain I draw strength. I stand, and make it out of his reach. I start to climb the dais again, a broken hockey stick in my view. If I can just reach it.
Then I see the end of a small black book peeking out from under the throne. My instinct flares, and I reach down and snatch it.
"Michael Quinn," I read the gold inscription on the cover. The Prince's head snaps up, his face drains of all colour leaving him so pale he's almost translucent. "Michael Quinn," I repeat, louder.
His name. As if compelled, he too begins to climb the dais, his fingers digging into the other diaries, the teenage drivel and all the lost items he's been hoarding. "Put that down," he growls.
My blood-stained hands are shaking, but I open his diary. More blood drips on the crisp white pages but I narrow my eyes and read. It's a shallow, boasting litany of his life. A list of girls he screwed and dumped, of nerds he tortured and boys he bullied. It's his CV for the post of the prince beneath the school.
He's nearly at the top of the dais. I step back as he swipes his hand out trying to catch my foot. All he does is cause a stack of textbooks to dislodge, revealing a blue lighter, long ago confiscated from a teenage smoker. I grab it as he struggles not to fall and I flick it open. I put flame to book. It catches light as though it's been waiting to burn. I throw it off the dais, and he turns after it, but loses his footing and topples down. He hits the floor below and cracks like a porcelain vase. His black blood spills out and creates a shallow pool for a shallow life. All his broken pieces smoulder in an unseen fire and turn to dust as the diary burns out and crumbles to ash at his side.
It's sweet rebellion. It's a revolution. All around me, doorways open at the top of the staircases and the souls walk on through. I sink down onto my new throne and dub myself the prince beneath the school. Those doorways close and I know my sister has moved on. I look at my arms, lift my shirt and see only perfect, unblemished skin. I'm good as new. I'm better.
But what has this cost? I'm under the school with only a stack of diaries to read.
It's dark. And inside me there's a gnawing feeling, its deeper than bone, and has its roots under my organs and somewhere in my depths.
I'm hungry. I'm hungry for the things I never had and never will.
And it's so lonely with all these empty stairs, and all these empty hours.