ars moriendi


I


I spent the final two minutes before the bell rang at my desk in Mr. Crouse's class, trying to get rid of an ink stain that some idiot before me had left. Squinting at the dark blot, I rubbed at it with my finger, applying more and more pressure, rubbing harder and harder.

"Jeez, Stas, don't put a hole in the damn thing," Erin said as she sank into her seat beside mine. I glanced up at her briefly, then returned my attention to the stain.

"I don't get why people do stuff like this," I mumbled, sitting back some and surveying my work. The blot had lightened a little, but it wasn't good enough. It needed to be gone. Erased, forever, like it was never there. I licked my thumb and rubbed at it again.

"Just let the janitor get it." Erin watched me boredly, with her head resting against her desk, her long black hair falling over her face in a way that obscured it. "That's what they get paid for. You're taking away how they make their living."

I ignored her and continued working at the stain, stealing a glance at the clock to see how much longer I had. About a minute and a half. I spent that time fighting the stain until it had finally lightened to a barely noticeable shade of cream that was a hair's breadth away from matching the off-white of the desk's surface. By then, Mr. Crouse had come in, closed the door, and begun taking role. I kept an ear out for my name and when he called it, I made sure to answer, unlike Erin, who had to be shouted at twice before she responded.

Once the teacher was done with that, however, I was still left with a dilemma. Sure, the stain was gone from the desk, but it was thought as if it had teleported to my hand. My thumb and forefinger were dark with ink residue and it stood out against my skin, marring it like some sort of stigma. The sight of it bothered me and the more I looked at it, the more annoyed I became and I found myself raising my other hand.

Mr. Crouse, glancing up, quirked a brow and adjusted his glasses. "Yes, Stassi?"

"I need to use the restroom," I said, drawing stares from a few other students.

The teacher sat back in his chair, a look of incredulity taking his features. "Seriously? Class started literally two minutes ago."

Nodding urgently, I stood and gently pressed a hand against my stomach, making a face. "I know, but it's an emergency," I half-groaned, half-insisted.

He studied me for a moment, then sat forward, reaching for the hall pass, and tossed it to me. "All right. But come back quickly."

"Yes, sir," I replied, catching it.

"All right, everyone," he said, taking to the front of the room, "if you'll turn to page nineteen in your textbooks."

Pass in hand, I slipped out of the room and into the hallway. It was empty, and my footsteps were the sole sound, rhythmic and low, easy on the ears. I headed to the bathroom and frowned at the mark on my hand. The sooner I got it off, the better. I felt like if I waited, it would spread, inch like worms across flesh and consume my entire hand, then my arm.

The thought made me uneasy and I finally tore my gaze from it. My thoughts moved to something more pleasant.

The high from our escapade on the roof during the lunch break had been intentionally reduced to a dull echo. It had to be that way, otherwise I wouldn't be able to concentrate in class. There was something thrilling about the time after killing someone, but before their body was found. A strange sort of anticipation built up inside of me; I wondered who would find it, and what would their reaction be. Would they be able to appreciate all the effort that Shane and I had gone to into making such a breathtaking scene? I'd never asked, but I was sure that the same thoughts would be going through Shane's mind. I knew him better than he knew himself, and vice versa. It was why we were able to do this.

It still felt so fresh, and I knew if I closed my eyes, the scene would still be there. Dug deep into memory like a scar that would never heal. And I didn't want it to, but I knew it would. Everything would eventually fade away, because everything was so temporary.

Ephemeral.

It was why we took pictures, and it was why Christine wouldn't be the last.

Distracted, I nearly ran into another girl as I entered the restroom. Mumbling a half-hearted apology, I shot a quick smile at her and then made a beeline for the sink. Unbuttoning my right cuff, I pushed my sleeve back and proceeded to pump the soap dispenser four or five times, just to be on the safe side. I ran my hands under warm water for a few minutes, scrubbing voraciously until skin started to turn pink, and then red. After a while, I washed away the overwhelming suds and inspected my fingers. All traces of ink were gone. I smiled and stepped over to the hand dryer, turned it on, and quickly dried my hands.

Once I was back in the hall, I unrolled my sleeve and buttoned my cuff again, making sure it was straight and orderly looking. I returned to my pristine desk in Mr. Crouse's class with as little disruption as possible, dropping my pass off at his desk, and as I sat down, Erin leaned into the aisle and got me up to speed on what material he'd covered so far. I flipped open my book to the right page and glanced at the whiteboard, where he was standing, with a hand-drawn diagram of molecules directly over his left shoulder.

"So last week we covered reduction-oxidation," he said, gesturing, "or redox, for those of you that are too lazy to write all of that out - "

I opened my notebook to the first blank page, fiddling with my pencil in my free hand. A mechanical pencil, even though Shane said they were soul-suckers. Most of my notes were just incoherent scribbles, meant only to be readable for the moment, when they were fresh and recognizable. But now, even to me, they made no sense; just a jumble of shapes that sometimes resembled letters, but more often than not, resembled nothing at all.

Chemistry was far from being my best subject. Anything so structured and artificial instantly drew dislike from me, and I'd never really excelled at it. So right there I knew the score of my test was going to be sub-par according to my parents' standards, but on top of that was the fact that I'd been preoccupied lately, and so I hadn't even studied for it, like I usually would.

"Who wants to tell me the definition of reduction in this context?"

Everyone's attention was forward, just from the teacher's tone alone. The more attentive you looked, the less chances were he would call on you.

Someone in the second row raised their hand. He gestured to them. "Okay, Nick. What's the definition?"

Nick supplied the answer.

"Very good." Mr. Crouse turned to the board again and started writing. "And what we'll be talking about today is displacement reactions." My pencil scratched over paper, mirroring notes jotted onto the whiteboard. "Now, does anyone have an idea of what that might be?"

I glanced at Erin. She was looking zoned-out, her dark brown eyes half-lidded as if she were in a trance, but when she noticed my stare, she flashed a grin and wiggled her eyebrows mischievously.

She was thinking about Trevor, probably. Daydreaming about what she'd do with him the next time she snuck into his dorm. The thought brought vile images to mind, so I quickly erased it from my mind and actually made a conscious effort to focus on what the teacher was saying, glancing between the whiteboard to my notes, making sure they matched.

Just then, the intercom clicked on. Static form the speaker mounted above the doorway crackled. My pulse immediately quickened, pencil frozen between my fingers.

Then, a voice: "Christine Meyers, please report to your fourth period class. Christine Meyers."

And off.

Mr. Crouse continued with the lesson and I closed my eyes, swinging my legs. Envisioned the scene again. A grin came to my lips.

Now, it was only a matter of time.

Her picture would be printed in the local paper - which someone would somehow get a hold of, even in an isolated place like Ophelia Falls - and everyone would remember her by it. It would be her senior picture, with the pretty backlighting and her dazzling smile. Only Shane and I would remember the true beauty that she'd been capable of, the potential she'd carried with her this whole time that we'd finally brought to fruition.

The feeling was euphoric.

Class carried on, and I grew more and more dismayed with how much of the lesson I'd tuned out. I scrambled to catch up on my notes and the teacher continued, gesturing with his marker as he spoke.

After a while, once I was caught up, I balanced my pencil on my nose and watched the clock. The hands seemed slower than usual. Nearly a half hour had passed, but it had felt like three. It wouldn't be long until someone went out to check the boarding houses to look for her, and as soon as they stepped outside -

Suddenly, sirens were blaring. Then, a tinge of red and white lights seeped through half-closed blinds and a few students stirred from their seats.

"What the hell's going on?" someone asked from the other side of the room.

There was a screech, metal against tile, as someone else pushed out their seat, but Mr. Crouse was quick to his feet.

"Nobody's getting up," he said tiredly as he made his way to the window. With a snap of the wrist, he closed the blinds completely. He didn't even look out, and I involuntarily frowned a little, eyes narrowing. "We'll get an explanation later if it's anything that concerns us."

"If?" a girl asked, with a disgruntled expression.

"Maybe there's, like, a bomb scare," a boy offered, stretching in his seat. The girl gave him a disgusted look and he laughed.

Erin was slumped over her desk, tapping boredly at the back of the seat of the girl in front of her. I watched, and after a few moments the girl turned around and tossed Erin a miffed look. Erin stopped.

"Focus, everyone." Mr. Crouse rapped his knuckles against the whiteboard. "I'm not passing your tests back until everyone has their notes finished."

A few students kept looking towards the window, as if the sirens drew them, but the majority returned their attention to their notes. I played with the cuff of my sleeve for a few moments, gauging everyone's reactions. There was a curiosity brewing and nobody could really sit still. Some were excited, some looked frightened. A boy sitting at the end of the row furthest from mine was looking towards the window with a strange expression that made me study it for a moment. At least, until he realized that I was staring at him, after which I quickly feigned interest in my cuff again.

It wasn't long after that there was a knock at the door. It opened, and everyone's attention was on it as if they were expecting the Dalai Lama. One of the Headmaster's assistants stepped through flashing us all a quick but fake smile, and motioned for Mr. Crouse to step into the hall with her. He complied, and they disappeared through the threshold, the door shutting quietly behind him.

I doodled in the empty margin of my paper, needing something to do with my hands. Otherwise, I'd start thinking too much and without Shane with me, over-thinking was a dangerous thing. A mutant-looking dog-something-or-another surfaced on my paper and I promptly scribbled it out, nearly putting a hole through it in the process.

I'd never been good with the visual arts. Not drawing, painting, sculpting, or anything like that. It flowed through some people's veins as richly as their own blood, but definitely not mine.

"Well, that's it for classes today," Mr. Crouse said abruptly, at his desk again. I hadn't even heard him return. "Everyone, back to your dorms." He patted a stack of papers that were sitting on the corner of the desk. "You can pick up your test on your way out."

Murmurs broke out, and then there was the rustling of notebooks closing and people standing up, gathering their things. A few left without asking any more, and several others flocked around the teacher's desk, rattling off one question after another.

"You don't suppose it's another suicide, do you?" Erin asked blandly as she stood up.

Shrugging, I sorted my things into a pile and took them under my arm. "Could be."

She scooped up her own materials and gave me a sour look. "People are so overdramatic."

"Yeah..." I nodded vaguely and followed her out of class, picking up my test along the way. At the top of the page, in red Sharpie, was the number 84, circled twice, as if once wasn't enough. I instinctively frowned the moment I laid eyes on it.

Not good.

The halls were filled with students, everyone mumbling and whispering, most with confused or worried expressions. I trailed after Erin as we passed through the halls, down the main corridor, where a mass of students had congregated near the front entrance. It was blocked off, the heavy oak doors outfitted with a padlock and guarded by several trash cans. The frosted windows only provided a vague idea of what was on the other side. Blurs of red, yellow, white, and blue shifted over the clouded glass panes. Quiet voices were muffled by the din of gossip, and one of the freshman teaches came around and told everyone to leave the area and use one of the other exists. The dorms were out back.

There was a chorus of complaints and questions that followed, but the teacher just ignored them and kept motioning for everyone to leave.

"Let's go," Erin said, linking her arm with mine.

We pushed against the throng of anxious students and made our way to one of the back exits, the one closest to our dorm.

The schoolyard was cold; winds tore leaves from their branches - shaped like mangled arms - sending a swirl of crumbled browns and oranges to the ground. They skipped over the sidewalk, tumbling, the sound of their pointed edges against the cement drown out by the voices of excited teens as they milled about, too eager and curious to want to return to their rooms.

I hated autumn. Everything was either dead or dying. It was ugly.

The two of us were the first of our dorm to arrive. There, the advisor, Mrs. Delaney, paced around the communal living room, constantly glancing at the window, waiting for the others. Ten minutes passed, and finally, the other six girls shuffled in, each wearing their own brand of inquisitive, disturbed, and panicked expressions.

The next thing I knew, I was stuffed onto the couch with Erin and four other dorm mates. The last two sat on the floor and Mrs. Delaney stood in front of us in her trademark timid fashion, wringing her hands.

"I'm sure all of you are curious about the incident today," she began, her voice quiet as her eyes skimmed over us, but without actually making eye contact with any of us. Erin was on my right and on my left was a lanky girl whose eyes were already red from crying. If she was a friend of Christine's, she'd probably been able to put two and two together and might've already figured out what was going on. "I just want you to know that this is as hard for me as it is for you," the advisor continued, touched a hand to her chest, "I don't like to be the bearer of bad news. It pains me, and it pains me to know that you're all going to go through this again - "

A few girls' breath hitched at that; the realization set in. Mrs. Delaney didn't have to continue, but she did anyway. I caught her mid-sentence, because the lanky girl's sniffling kept distracting me.

" - that Christine Meyers is no longer with us." She paused, waited, as a few girls teared up and the girl next to me finally let out a sob and buried her face in her hands. Mrs. Delaney gave her a sympathetic look. "And I'm afraid that's all I can divulge for now."


There was an atmosphere of unease in the cafeteria as us students gathered for dinner that night. A few teachers were present, mostly to calm the masses and drill it into our heads that we weren't to set foot onto the front quad, or to go onto the roof, no matter the reason.

Trevor was the last to reach our table. By then, Shane, Erin, Nate, Liz, and myself had already settled and starting eating. It was roasted chicken, after all - not the kind of thing you could just let sit around and get cold. I'd mostly tuned out Liz and Erin's chatter as they discussed Christine's death. That's what everyone else was doing too, or at least that's what it seemed like. The whole room was abuzz about it. They couldn't get their minds off of it, as if it were the first time it had happened. But it wasn't. This was Shane and I's fourth masterpiece, after all.

Although, calling it a masterpiece was a little too much. A little too proud. It wasn't perfect. It hadn't been without its flaws, but on the whole, it had been a rather nicely executed piece. Especially considering the scant experience we had; it wasn't as if we could practice our execution over and over, it was a one-shot deal. On that note, I figured that we were doing relatively well, considering it was only our fourth one. The lighting, setting, composition, and subject had already worked beautifully together, and delivered a scene that could be rivaled by little else. And while the excitement of having had a hand in creating it was as close to euphoric as I could imagine, there was now the added pressure of having to top it the next time around. To make something even better.

"Stassi." Shane's voice broke me from my thoughts and I looked up from my plate to him. He gave me a bored look, one brow raised, and took a drink from his glass. "You were daydreaming again."

I bit back a smile and let off a sheepish nod, then returned my attention to my food. Ophelia Falls usually served some pretty good stuff, but I guess that was to be expected, considering the steep tuition. I'd heard public school food tasted all sorts of awful, but I'd never attended one, so I wasn't sure if it was just one of those over-exaggerated rumors.

"Of course classes will be cancelled tomorrow," Liz said suddenly, apparently in response to something that either Erin or Trevor had said, I deduced, from the way she shot the couple a scathing look. Contrary her small frame and stature, she was probably the loudest of our group, aside from Trevor. She had one of those natural all-year tans that made her thick, ash blonde hair stand out even more than her vibrant amber eyes. "Someone just died, for Christ's sake," she continued as she cut at her piece of chicken. Steel ripped through meat. "They have to give us time to recover and heal and all that shit. That's how it always goes." She forked a piece and popped it into her mouth.

"But it shouldn't," Shane spoke up, pushing his now-empty tray forward and resting his arm against the edge of the table. He always finished early.

Liz shot him a bewildered look, swallowing. "Why not?"

"We're going to have to make up all of our cancelled days at the end of the year, you know," Erin said with a sigh, one hand propped against her cheek as she danced her spoon across the surface of her nearly untouched soup.

"It would be more convenient to just continue holding classes as usual than to have to stay here long into June," Shane replied.

"Exactly." Erin gave a fervent nod as she looked from him to Liz. "I agree."

I found myself nodding along with her. "Me too." It bothered me that classes were always cancelled the day after a student's death, which made it feel like the people that Shane and I killed were being glorified for their mediocrity, like they were being honored for their lack of contributing anything remotely meaningful to the world. Their deaths were the only gift they'd left, and yet people refused to see that. It was disgusting.

Liz's mouth dropped open and she scoffed. "You're all so heartless."

"One death isn't going to change the world." Shane regarded her with a look that could easily be read as condescending. "You can't expect everything to stop just for one person."

"Yeah, but - "

"But nothing. You can't go around seeing everything through the eyes of a three-year-old." His tone was dismissive.

"She's optimistic, not naive," Nate said lowly, and everyone's attention went to him. It was the first time he'd spoken since we sat down. He looked up and seemed to waver under our scrutiny. Or maybe he was just hesitant because of the bad case of acne he'd waken up to this morning. He had a history with that. Giving Shane an apologetic look, he started again, "I mean - "

"I know what you mean," Shane said, his arms crossed against the table. "No need to elaborate."

The air started to get awkward, and so I concentrated on mutilating my chicken. A few minutes passed and no one spoke; there was just the sound of knives and forks against ceramic, and the voices of those around us. Shane was great at killing conversation - he really had a knack for it.

I finished what was left of my chicken and eavesdropped as Erin and Trevor struck up a mindless, random little chat, as lovebirds often did. Trevor was on the burlier side, tall, with broad shoulders and an intimidating build in general. His eyes were green and his skin had a pinkish cast to it that contrasted with Erin's dark tone - the envious result of her Thai and Mexican ethnicity - in an unexpectedly charming way. They clashed in a complementary way, whereas Shane and I... well, things were different.

For a lot of reasons.


Shane and I met in the music hall a while after dinner. Most everyone else had returned to their dorms, but it was still technically study hour, and we were free to do anything we liked, within reason. And of course, today there were the added restrictions due to Christine's "untimely" demise, which included forbidding students to wander the front yard, which had been indicated with yellow police tape. It didn't matter to me, since the music hall was far behind the school, secluded a ways into the forest, built long before the school itself had been.

Since classes were bound to be cancelled tomorrow, I wanted to go there and pick up my violin so I could practice during my free time, and so meeting Shane there seemed only natural, as it gave us a chance to talk about our latest piece without having anyone else around to overhear.

At night, the building was just a mere shadow of itself compared to during the daytime, when sunlight filtered through stained glass windows and made the school's prized walnut Steinway piano shine. But now, at twilight, when the sun was disappearing behind shedding trees, it didn't seem all that special.

"It turned out better than I'd imagined," I mumbled, holding the picture of Christine in my hand as I stood near the piano, under the heavy, imposing chandelier that provided the sole lighting. Shane stood just behind me, one hand curled against my waist.

"I thought the distance might be a problem, but it turns out that the framing is perfect," he said, kissing me on the cheek. His breath tickled at my ear as he pulled away, and I giggled softly. "It was a good scenario."

I couldn't help but smile a little at that. An artist was allowed to take pride in their work, weren't they? "Thank you."

"You don't think anyone's suspicious of us, do you?"

Shaking my head, I handed the picture back to him. "No." He sat down on the bench, and I sat beside him, took to playing with the button on his sleeve cuff. It was a navy blue that blended in with his blazer, the same shade as my own. I watched him as he stared at the photo, watched his brown eyes drink in every detail, and noticed the hint of a smile that took the corners of his lips - just ever so slightly, ever so noticeable. Hidden to anyone other than me. Smiling, I leaned my head against his shoulder and looked down, towards my shoes. Then at them. There was a smudge of brown on the left one. Dirt, I supposed. I'd have to clean it once I got back to the dorm.

"Why were you so quiet at dinner?" he asked.

I shook my head a little. "I wasn't."

"You were." There was no leeway to his tone. A pause. "Were you thinking about Christine?"

My eyes went to the picture he still held. It caught light from the chandelier and reflected it. "I got a bad grade on my chem quiz," I found myself saying, without any premeditation. Had I been quiet at dinner?

"How bad?"

"I got a B," I mumbled, involuntarily frowning. All that studying and I'd still bombed it. I didn't want to believe it. "What about you? You aced it, right?"

"Something like that."

Reaching over, I tugged the photo from between his fingers and took a long look at it one more time before setting it on the piano behind us. He slipped an arm around my shoulder and his hand found mind, fingers intertwined with my own and the feeling of it seemed to assuage all the worries that had been growing and festering in my head.

The next few minutes passed in silence, and I liked it. I liked being here, with him, alone, and with the memory of our latest work still fresh in our minds. It seemed like the only real thing in the world. Like everything else was just a farce.

And maybe it was.