Written by Tara Cameron
The halls were soundless, so silent the discreet shuffle of her unadorned feet across the chilly stone floor echoed throughout the foyer. She was halfway across the black and white geometrical slabs, only a few feet from the antique mahogany staircase, when the enormous grandfather clock began to chime.
She froze mid-step. One, two, three, four.
She waited and continued to count silently until the last chime sounded, thirteen. Her lips curled into a smile that didn’t quite reach her dark eyes as she mouthed the word to the empty hall.
She stayed quiet and still, for nearly as long as the chimes had taken to sound, watching the dust swirl and sparkle in the beams of moonlight from the tall rectangular windows set high in the walls. She waited. Once the echo of the ringing bells subsided, and she was certain everyone was still sound asleep, she continued toward the ornately carved staircase. It, like the grandfather clock, the floors and the remainder of the décor, even the buildings themselves, were all antique and all luxurious, only the best for the movers and shakers of tomorrow, mummy and daddy would suffered nothing less for their precious angels.
It was the sixth university she’d graced with her presence in half as many years.
All were distinguished and expensive, each school a picturesque postcard of colligate life with sprawling grounds and high enrollment numbers. All were prestigious, affluent, and tastefully decorated. All private. All perfect for her purpose. Each school filled to capacity with the snot-nosed brats of the upper-most echelons of society. She stopped at the bottom of the spiral stairs, running a perfectly manicured hand over the gleaming wood, the moonlight giving it a lustre she preferred to the shine it gave off in the harsh light of day.
She’d previously removed the three hundred-dollar heels upon entering through the hefty ligneous doors, her feet sore and covered in blisters. She despised the damn things, but understood the importance in looking the part, her success was contingent on it. That only made her despise them all the more. Taking a minute to curl her toes in the thick plush carpet covering the steps, her thoughts turned not toward the previous evening and the latest man but toward the first as she began climbing the stairs.
Handsome, articulate, and immaculately dressed, he’d been the standard to which she measured all that followed. She often wished she could recall his name but she’d never actually committed it to memory in the first place. Three years and six schools later, she could recall nothing of the tiny private college or the village it was ensconced in either, only that both were somewhat charming although nothing exceptional.
He had been the most remarkable thing for miles around, she’d been thorough in her search as she’d been taught. Although finding him after only three days of roaming the campus, it was three months before she positioned herself for approach.
Never go in before first doing your homework, a rather annoying but solid lesson she still carried with her.
With all her homework complete, she’d still felt butterflies when she caught sight of him walking toward her. Excitement, anticipation, freedom, all running through her veins so loudly she hardly heard a word he said. None of it mattered, nor did anything he said afterward. It was all predetermined in that first moment. She’d stored none of it in her memory, only his face and the memory of that last night were crystal clear.
The last night was always unforgettable.
She began her soundless ascent of the staircase, still savouring the dark burgundy carpet beneath her slim feet as she went, being mindful of the squeaky step on the third tier and careful to stay in the shadows. Always be mindful of your pride no matter your success, another lesson she couldn’t shake. In truth, she remembered them all, not that she would admit they were the key to her continued success thus far.
Admit nothing, another rather important lesson.
She reached the forth floor without incident, only needing to chid herself when she nearly stopped to admire one of her favorite pieces decorating the wall next to her room. Not a reproduction, she’d checked. It was only a moment, nonetheless it was a mistake.
Mistakes must be addressed so as to ensure no repetition, one of her least favorite lessons.
She entered the tastefully decorated private rooms, still needing to shower, and finish her evening routine, making an unspoken promise to address it in the morning. Her arms were sore and legs felt as if made of jelly, the night’s work having sapped nearly all of her strength.
After ensuring she followed the remainder of her routine meticulously, she found herself melting into the orthopedic mattress between soft cotton sheets. Very high thread count, she’d checked. She curled her hand around her newest prize, now safely tucked under her plush down pillow, just as the grandfather clock finished chiming the new hour. She was asleep in a matter of minutes, a smile of anticipation still on her face. Sleeping the remainder of the night in peace, she didn’t so much as twitch until the screaming began the next morning.
“There’s a body…”
“The tree, in the oak tree…”
“Oh my god! Is he dead?”
She lazily sat up, rubbing her eyes as the screams of her classmates came humming through the walls from all directions.
Someone was dead.
There was a body in the giant oak outside the main building.
She reached behind her back, pulling her prize out from under the overstuffed pillow before sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed. She stared at it for a moment, a predatory smile spreading slowly across her face as she began stroking the lock of blond hair. Another trophy, another success. She pressed a light gentle kiss to the small red bow keeping it together, stroking it once more before placing it with the others.
This was her lucky thirteen, she had now surpassed her teacher. She gave herself a moment, just a moment, to be prideful of her latest accomplishment before wiping the pleasure from her face. In an instant, the smiling joyful young woman sitting in the middle of the bed vanished, replaced with a shocked grieving creature bearing no resemblance. Rising from the tangle of sheets and sliding on a pair of satin slippers sitting at the ready next to the bed, she moved toward the door. Squaring her shoulders and then thinking better of it, she hunched forward a bit instead and reached for the polished vintage door knob.
Stepping out into the chaos of the hallway, she began her usual exit routine with unusual relish, having already begun arrangements for her next enrolment. All around her, screaming chaos ensued, within minutes four different students had given her differing details on the cause of the commotion. Each description was more gruesome than the last.
As the tears began to brim and her lip started to quiver, she wondered if she would enjoy snow. It would be her first white Christmas.