Danielle’s Last Dance
Erika Fisher swore she could still smell fire somewhere nearby. Fire, and charred flesh. In the parking lot of Smith County High, police lights flashed red and blue, making the night look strange and otherworldly. The night of her junior prom needed no help being either. She was seated on a concrete bench, next to the bike rack. A pudgy, baldheaded officer whose badge said his name was Kurtz stood over her, frowning at his notepad and pinching a pen he’d gotten from Greener Pastures Baptist Church. Radio chatter hissed and crackled on his CB.
“And you’ve never seen this guy before?” he asked again. “You’re sure about this?”
“No, I’ve never seen him before.” She let out a grim sigh. “And yes, I’m sure.”
“And he just … what? Waltzed into the auditorium, started dancing with your friend, and then they just … what? Vanished?”
She chewed her lip and stared at her glittery shoes. The police strobes gave the illusion they were burning.
“Vanished is the wrong word,” she said. “It wasn’t … into thin air or anything.”
The corner of his mouth twitched up.
“Right, it was like what? Their feet started a fire and it just consumed them.”
“Look, I know how it sounds. You don’t have to tell me it sounds crazy.”
“You’re sure she and this boy didn’t just run off together and…”
“And now I’m covering for them?”
“You said it, not me.”
“I guess that’s why I’m so upset. Right, Officer?”
“Don’t get smart with me, girl. If I had half a mind, I’d put you away for obstruction of justice.”
She blew out another breath. She tried not to think of Danielle’s face in those final moments. It was contorted in some awful marriage of fear and pain. And that boy, that gorgeous, dark-eyed boy had been grinning so wide, she thought his cheeks might split open and reveal all his teeth.
“Now, is there anything else you can think of? Anything at all you think might help us find your friend and this mystery boy?”
“I’ve told you all I know.” She put her head in her hands but did not close her eyes. She feared if she did, that boy would be standing there when she opened them instead of this cop. Or even Danielle, which would be somehow worse. “Not like you’d believe me anyway.”
“It’s not my job to believe or not believe,” he said, as if he hadn’t been condescending to her the entire time. “I just have to turn in my reports and bust scumbags. Now, are you sure there’s nothing else?”
“There’s nothing else. Does this mean I can go home?”
He pressed his lips together. She thought he meant to admonish her again. Instead, he handed her a business card.
“You think of anything else, you call me. I or a detective may call you if we have additional questions. Your parents picking you up tonight?” Erika nodded. “You better give them a call. Let them know the prom ended early.”
He smirked again walked to a cluster of officers standing in a semicircle.
And he says I’m the smartass.
Erika dug her phone out of her clutch and called her mother.
On the way back, Erika told her mother everything. The woman who hadn’t birthed her but had raised her just the same said nothing, only listened. Dark as it was inside the car, Erika could see her getting paler after every sentence. Erika finished the story and asked what her mother thought. She took so long to answer, Erika thought she might not have heard the question. Before she could repeat it, her mother began to speak.
“That’s almost word-for-word an old Texas folktale,” she said. “Supposedly, in the 1950s or so, a girl about your age was forbidden from going to a dance because a preacher told her mama it was for the devil. Of course, she snuck out anyway and at the dance, she met this gorgeous stranger. He danced with her, spinning her round and round until the earth opened up and sucked her down to Hell. The stranger was the devil.”
“Yeah, but mine really happened,” she said.
Her mother looked at her. Exhaustion had darkened the skin beneath her eyes.
“But you agree the stories are very similar, yes?”
“So, maybe you heard it before and…”
“And what? Imagined the whole thing? Other people were there, Mom. Other people saw it.”
Her mother pressed her lips together. A muscle worked in her jaw.
“I love you, Erika Marie. I just want you to be honest with me. You can tell me anything. I promise.”
“Yeah, Mom,” Erika said and rested her head against the cool window.
She watched the trees go by along the dark country road. She wondered if it was dark where Danielle was.
That night, when she came home, she got undressed and turned off the light. Though she harbored no delusions that she’d be able to sleep, she decided to at least try. She lay down on her bed. Moonlight shone through her window. On most nights, she thought the silver-blue illumination was pretty and comforting. This was not most nights. With her curtains parted, it was all too easy to imagine the mysterious boy levitating up the side of her house and peering through her window with those obsidian eyes of his. Smiling that smile that looked like it’d split open his cheeks.
Erika closed the curtains. The moonlight backlit them. The shadows of the still somewhat bare tree branches danced like skeletons under some bizarre resurrection spell. She expected the shadow of the boy to rise up and join them. To reach through her window and its curtains. To take her dancing, like he’d taken Danielle. She turned onto her side and faced the wall. Her Luke Bryan poster was unrecognizable in the dimness. She felt no safer.
As she lay in bed not sleeping, she remembered meeting Danielle for the first time.
Back in freshman year, Danielle had transferred in after her parents joined the ever-growing ranks of mass shooting victims. Danielle had almost joined those ranks herself. One afternoon, her family had gone to a Sonic for frozen cherry lemonades. While they waited, a man opened fire on every car in the lot. Danielle had managed to escape into the nearby woods with a boy from another vehicle.
He’d lost his parents in the massacre too. Danielle told Erika that she developed an intense attraction to the boy, not like a crush or anything, just an intense need to be around him as much as possible. They’d been through this terrible thing together. They were the only survivors, other than a couple of fry-cooks and a car hop who’d all hidden inside when the killer opened fire. This shared experience had created an intense, psychic bond between them. Danielle worried she would never fully heal from the experience without him. Unfortunately for her, the death of her parents put her in the care of her aunt and uncle who lived in Tyler. She didn’t know where the boy was sent.
“But you seem sweet,” she’d said to Erika.
Erika gave her a hug then, said she was sorry all that horrible stuff had happened.
Even at her young age, Erika found it a little weird for someone to give away such an intense, personal story to a total stranger. More than that though, she felt a responsibility to show love and compassion to the new girl. At that time, she’d already started to question, and in some cases outright reject, the religiosity her mother had attempted to instill. Heaven and Hell, angels, Jonah getting swallowed by a whale and living to talk about it, men rising from the dead; it all felt like fairy tale stuff to her. Metaphors in the best cases. Propaganda in the worst.
What stuck were the tenets of loving strangers and caring for those who suffered.
When she’d given Danielle that hug and expressed regret for the new girl’s family tragedy, she still thought of these behaviors as Christian love in action. Looking back now, it just seemed like basic human decency. Whether divinely-inspired love or secular humanism at its finest, it hadn’t been enough to save Danielle Prescott. That girl had a shadow over her. Maybe the shooting deaths of her parents had brought it. Maybe it was older than that. Whatever its origin, whatever its age, it’d finally caught up to her.
“You believe they’re calling this a regular kidnapping?” Bobby Kirsch said the Monday after.
They were standing behind the same auditorium where it’d happened. School was in session but they’d gone around the side of the building so he could vape while they talked. She was usually careful about not putting herself in situations which could land her in trouble. Today, she didn’t care about suspension or fines. She just needed to share her grief with someone who’d also loved Danielle.
For Erika, the weekend had been weirdly normal. Shopping trips with Mom. Morning jogs. Homework. A lot of denial. She slept probably more than was healthy, but she didn’t care, and Mom let her do it.
Bobby sucked furiously on his vape pen. His face tightened and went red. To Erika, it looked like he just couldn’t get enough of a hit to take him away from whatever he was feeling. He’d dated Danielle a little bit, back in the fall. It hadn’t worked out, but he’d tried more than once to get her back. He’d even threatened to knock out the gorgeous stranger in a jealous rage earlier that night, but Erika had stopped him. She bet he wished he hadn’t listened to her. She sure wished she’d just let him do it. Maybe things would have gone differently.
“They’re acting like that shit we all fucking saw was some kind of mass hysteria.” He took another drag and shook his head as he coughed out a plume of cherry-scented smoke. “That was some devil shit.”
Bobby was still pretty religious, but it didn’t stop him from vaping or talking like a sailor. Erika nodded here and there throughout his tirade. He was saying everything she was feeling. In spite of this, she couldn’t help but tune him out. She couldn’t help feeling like his tough talk was some effort on his part to make this all about him. Maybe she wasn’t being fair. Her mother had offered to let her stay home for a few days. Ultimately, Erika decided it’d be better to be with friends. She probably should’ve taken her mother up on the offer.
School turned out to be every bit the nightmare she’d feared it might be.
During every class, her gaze drifted to the seats where Danielle usually sat. She daydreamed about the strange way her friend had been taken. The awful expression on her face. The grinning stranger who’d made her go up in flames with him. Danielle’s story about the massacre she’d survived with some strange boy. At lunch, she couldn’t eat. Between classes, she tried not to hear the other kids talk about what happened, spinning ridiculous theories, and telling outright lies about what kind of person Danielle had been. They said she was into drugs, sex with older men, and had even known the shooter who’d killed her parents and all those people at the Sonic. None of it was true. All of it pissed Erika off.
When she came home to an empty house, she rushed upstairs and collapsed on her bed. She tried to cry but no tears came. She seldom cried anymore. Some days, she thought she’d run out of tears. Other days, she thought she was saving them for a time she’d really need them. If the latter was true, she couldn’t imagine something that could make her feel worse than how she felt now.
She went to visit Danielle’s Aunt and Uncle after she tried and failed to do her homework. On her way there, she remembered Bobby’s words. Mass hysteria. No wonder that pissed him off. It was an insulting suggestion and unfortunately all too typical when it came to how the locals viewed the young: like lost sheep susceptible to all manner of deception, satanic or otherwise.
She parked her bike in the patchy lawn and walked to the door. As if he’d been watching for her, Danielle’s Uncle Horatio answered before she even had the chance to knock. His steely gaze kept her from coming in. Not only was it intimidating, it caught her off-guard. He’d always been kind to her in the past. Danielle had even said he liked her, so why the cold stare now?
“H-hi, Mr. Prescott,” she said. “I wanted to check in with y’all. Can I come in?”
He narrowed his eyes, and it made his expression even less welcoming.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, let the poor girl come in,” Danielle’s Aunt Stella called from further back in the house. “Winter’s not over and she rode all the way over here.”
It was only a mile, but Erika appreciated the sentiment.
Horatio opened the door wider and stepped aside. The house smelled like cinnamon. It made her nostalgic for happier times, even if happy was sometimes a weird way to describe any time spent with Danielle. She did have a light side, of course. Everybody did. For Danielle, it shone most prominently when she and Erika were riding bikes together. Or when she was dancing to X Ambassadors or Walk the Moon. She often looked so radiant when dancing, her end seemed all the more bitter.
Though Horatio didn’t slam the door, it sounded overwhelmingly loud as it closed behind Erika. Stella came out to meet her. Her eyes were dry but red. She wore periwinkle pajamas and her hair was unkempt.
“Erika,” she said, holding out her arms. They felt frail and brittle around Erika. She smelled stuffy and dry, like she’d just gotten out of bed.
They sat down in the living room and Stella put on water for tea. Horatio sat alone on a dusty recliner, scowling at Erika. She and Stella sat on opposite ends of a worn, leather sofa. For almost a minute and a half, no one said anything. Erika licked her lips.
“Um, have you heard anything from the police?” she asked.
“No,” Stella said. “Not a word.”
“Of course not,” Horatio said. “She vanished into thin air.”
He said it with bitter disdain. His scowl deepened.
“That’s not what I said. I said…”
He coughed out a dry laugh. “She went up in flames.”
“Honey…” Stella said.
“I know you’re covering for her. Her and that boy ran off together.”
“I’m not, Mr. Prescott. I’ve never seen that boy in my life. If she planned to run away with a boy, I’d know who he was. We were close.”
“Maybe you two weren’t as close as you think.” He focused his attention on his wife. “Everyone has secrets.”
Stella looked down and away.
“Maybe I should go,” Erika said.
“Maybe you should.”
The tea kettle whistled and broke the tension. Stella bolted up and walked quickly to the kitchen. While she grabbed mugs and saucers, Erika tried to look anywhere but at Horatio. Family photos, a dark TV screen, a painting of Jesus, a framed Texas flag and a shelf of porcelain clowns.
Everyone has secrets. The statement played on repeat in her mind. She knew Danielle had secrets. Those secrets were part of what had made her so intriguing. Every day with her was a revelation.
Stella came back with a tray full of steaming teacups.
“That boy,” she said. “What did he look like?”
Horatio’s cheeks flushed pink.
“He had thick, dark hair, purplish-black, like a raven’s. Dark eyes. He was tall and well-built and very pale. His skin reminded me of the moon.”
“Did he have a scar?” Stella pointed to her left eyebrow.
Erika tried to remember. The lighting hadn’t been great in the auditorium. She closed her eyes and pictured the boy’s face. All she could see was that awful, cheek-splitting smile. She made herself remember his eyes. Above the left one, sure enough, he’d had an X-shaped scar. She nodded.
Stella looked at Horatio. Her eyes were wide and soft.
“It’s him,” she said.
“Who?” Erika asked, though she had a feeling she knew.
“The boy she wouldn’t stop talking about after…”
“The one who escaped with her.”
Stella slowly shook her head. Horatio pressed his fingers to his temples like he had a mean migraine coming on.
“Erika,” Stella said. “No one but Danielle survived that day.”
Erika rode home, her entire body knotted with tension. Stella’s revelation repeated in her head like a hypnotist’s mantra. When she got back to her room, she called Bobby.
“Erika?” he said.
She understood his uncertainty. Though she’d texted him a couple of times when he and Danielle were dating, she never called him, back then or any other time before now.
“We need to talk,” she said. “Can I come over?”
He didn’t live as far as Danielle had, so she walked. When he answered the door, he was holding two bottles of Miller High Life. His parents let him drink, so long as he did so in their house and not out where he could get into trouble. Erika imagined he’d taken full advantage of this freedom over the past few days. He offered a bottle to her. She shook her head. They went inside and sat in the kitchen.
“So, what’s up?” he asked.
She told him. With every sentence, his eyes grew wider. He chugged the first beer and started on the second. When she finished, he shook his head.
“Like I said, some devil shit, man.”
“Maybe. Whoever he is, do you know why he came back to her?”
He took another long pull of beer. Finished nearly half the second bottle in one swallow. Then he got up and went into the other room. He returned with an envelope and tossed it at her. She unsealed it and pulled out its contents. It was a photo. A gray image, the shape of an enlarged lima bean, sat against an all-black background. It was an ultrasound image. She could feel her eyes stretch wide. She met Bobby’s gaze. His bottom lip trembled.
“She couldn’t get an abortion.”
“The baby was yours?”
His face darkened and he nodded.
“You were okay with her getting one?”
He chewed his lip and looked away.
“I mean, not really,” he said. “But … Well, she and I weren’t ready to be parents. We’re just kids. I think … I hope God would understand.”
She thought for a second.
“Is that why you were so aggressive the other night? She was carrying your kid and here was this gorgeous stranger, sweeping her off her feet.”
“Well, yeah. I was feeling … protective. Then you stopped me, and I went to go sulk in the corner, wishing the punch was spiked with something that could make me forget.”
“The police probably think it was.” She shook her head. “Mass hysteria. Pigs.”
“Ah, you don’t have to be like that.”
“Maybe not. I guess I’m still mad about how the one condescended to me.”
“Well, some of them can be pigs. That’s for sure.”
“Especially in this town.”
“Amen, girl.” He finished his second beer. Went to the fridge for a third. “Anyway, no doctor in town would help her. I thought about taking her out of state but neither of us had a license yet. I could’ve borrowed dad’s truck, but honestly, he’d kill me if he found out I knocked up a girl. Especially Danielle. He never liked her.”
“Did her aunt and uncle know? About the baby, I mean.”
“No. She didn’t want them to know. Didn’t think they’d be any help.”
Erika remembered Horatio’s scowl earlier that afternoon. No, she didn’t suppose they would’ve been any help.
“So, what does all this mean?” she asked.
“Like I said, devil shit. He helped her survive that shooting. I bet she asked him to help her out again. Not sure whatever she could’ve offered him though if he already had dibs on her soul.”
“You really believe that.” She didn’t pose it as a question.
“How could I not? They hardwire that shit into you from birth in this town.”
“Doesn’t mean it’s true though.”
“I guess not. Hard to rewire it. Hard as hell.”
“So, the devil took her. That’s that?”
He laughed then but it lacked humor. It was almost a sob. She didn’t think she could handle it if he started crying. Not that she expected to cry herself but still. It’d be too much to see. If she had lost all her tears or was storing them for something that was somehow worse than watching her friend go up in flames, how could he still cry?
“I guess…” He drifted off and tightened his expression. “I guess I like to think he took her somewhere she could free herself. Not just of our child but of this town, even of me. I like to think wherever she is, she’s happy. That she’s somehow made peace with all she’s been through. Most of all, I hope she’s alive and I hope she repents. Maybe if she prays hard enough, her soul…”
He sounded uncertain of himself. She didn’t know if he doubted what he hoped for the mother of his unborn child or if he doubted everything he thought he knew, all the things his parents and preachers and teachers had programmed into his brain since birth.
Erika took Bobby’s hand, gave it a squeeze, and left him to cry into his beer.
She didn’t even bother trying to start her homework. Instead, she sat in her room, staring out the window at the tree. A few more leaves had begun to bud on its branches. Occasionally, she checked Instagram and absently LIKED photos of dogs and good-looking girls. She thought about recording an Insta-story, some kind of tribute to Danielle. But if she did that, she feared it would confirm, once and for all, that her friend was lost forever. Dead, dragged to hell, or simply gone, without a trace, never to return. She wasn’t ready to accept that. Didn’t think she ever would be, even if they found Danielle’s charred remains tomorrow, and had a funeral sometime in the middle of the week. Danielle would live on somehow, someway. Erika was too young for people her age to start dying.
On that note, she realized just how tired she actually was. She texted her mother to say she’d be skipping dinner, and willed herself to dream of Danielle, somewhere else in the country, but safe and happy. At first, she imagined the mystery boy at her friend’s side but then she decided he was best relegated to being no more than a bad dream.
She imagined her friend deciding to keep the baby, but wandering the highways like some cowgirl samurai, drifting town to town and finding odd jobs to keep her and the baby fed and sheltered. It was nice to think about and it helped her sleep, peacefully this time.
Erika got her driver’s license that summer. She went driving a lot, mostly alone. Though Tyler itself was some bizarre marriage of a working-class suburbia and some kind of skyscraperless inner-city, many winding country roads cut through the surrounding rural areas. It was easy to get lost, even with the best GPS technology. She liked to drive aimlessly and while she physically seldom got lost, she often wandered the remote acres of her mind.
She’d finally allowed herself to accept that whether Danielle was dead or alive, she’d likely never see her again. Sometimes, it still made her sad. She often felt a sickening emptiness, but she never cried. She just drove.
She drove these country roads, blasting country music and letting her thoughts run free. She thought of Danielle the wanderer, Danielle the dead girl, Danielle the damned. She thought of Bobby sobbing into a Miller High Life. She thought of the way Horatio Prescott scowled at her. How Stella Prescott smelled stuffy and dry. The condescending smirk of Officer Kurtz. The way everything smelled like fire that night. How she sometimes smelled fire when she walked outside. Or when she was trying to sleep. Or when she was driving.
Like now. At night. Not intoxicated. She never drove drunk. She was one of the few kids in her class on which the fear-mongering, if well-intended, PSAs had worked. Instead, she downed mug after mug of black coffee. She liked to feel it surge through her veins as she rounded sharp curves. As lights from homes appeared scattered far and wide and the stars seemed so multitudinous and close together, they were like seams in a silvery, glowing blanket across the blackness overhead.
She wasn’t drunk, nor was she driving all that much higher than the speed limit, but the unpredictability of the road played no favorites.
The deer jumped out at her just as she rounded a sharp, sloping curve. It leapt into the road with timing so expert, it was as if it had hoped to strike her car. The thumping impact scared Erika so bad, she lost her grip on the wheel. Her tires lost their grip on the road. Her car tumbled down a steep embankment, striking stone and clay and stumps. As the car flipped, an image of Danielle spinning on the dance floor broke through her overwhelming panic and confusion.
Then the car lay still, and she smelled fire and it was there for real this time, all around her, it seemed. Adrenaline blocked out the pain from the rough ride off the road, but it could not dampen her terror, nor would it hold off the agony for long.
She frantically tried to unbuckle her seatbelt, succeeded, but the door wouldn’t open. She screamed and tried to scramble to the passenger side, but she came face to face with the deer. The animal was still alive but mortally wounded. Shards of glass from the windshield had lodged in its throat. Blood had matted his fur. Terror blazed in its eyes. Terror, and the fire’s reflection. It made an awful, wet mewing sound and kicked its hooves against the hood.
Everything was hot, so goddamn impossibly hot.
Erika glanced back to the driver’s window.
The gorgeous stranger from her junior prom crouched there, behind the glass. His dark eyes blazed. He smiled, but it was subdued, a subtle curving of the lips, not the cheek-splitting horror he’d flashed while spinning Danielle to her fiery death. His X-shaped scar looked red and irritated.
He reached for the window with spidery fingers. The glass bent inward and parted. It looked like slow-motion footage of stones thrown into an unmuddied pool. His hand came all the way inside the car. Up to his elbow now, his fingers curled and uncurled, beckoning to Erika.
As her hair began to sizzle and her flesh began to bubble and pain broke through the adrenaline, she remembered how this boy devil had saved Danielle from a gunman in a Sonic parking lot. How he’d spun her into oblivion when, in a fit of desperation, she could find help nowhere else. Would taking his hand damn her soul? Did she care?
Even as her skin burned, even with damnation certain, Erika reached for the boy devil’s hand and let him pull her from the flames of premature death into a life under his Damoclean sword, and she cried while they danced.
Lucas Mangum is a Splatterpunk Award nominee for best novel (Pandemonium with Ryan Harding) and best novella (Saint Sadist), as well as the author of the cult hit Gods of the Dark Web. His most recent book is The Final Gate which he co-wrote with Wesley Southard. Alongside author and critic Jeff Burk, he co-hosts Make Your Own Damn Podcast, a show centered on the films of the Troma Team and director Lloyd Kaufman. San Diego-born and Philly-raised, he now lives in Austin with his family.
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A young adult tries to hold his band of burnouts together while navigating his own mental illness and tumultuous intimate relationships during the early years of the War on Terror.