Source: Pixabay

Only the pretty girls

“I’m an average-looking girl at a college where being pretty is a blood sport…”

Beryl hauls her suitcase across the parking lot. It bangs against her leg with every step. Her tiny, wispy-haired mother follows, balancing two milk crates in her arms. Young men lean against their cars and watch them struggle. Their faces are expectant. Perhaps they are waiting for one or both to fall.

“I don’t believe this,” huffs Beryl’s mother. “Those boys have no manners. The Internet is right. Chivalry is dead.”

Beryl rolls her eyes, pressing herself against a thick, double-paned door. “It’s perfectly alive if you’re pretty. And, let’s face it, I’m not.”

“Damn it, Beryl. I hate it when you run yourself down.”

Beryl sighs as they enter the Longstreet Memorial dorm. “Mom, I don’t have a self-esteem problem. I’m an average-looking girl at a college where being pretty is a blood sport. And it’s OK. I’m here to get a good-but-cheap education, so we can afford to send me to med school, right?”

“I know, but I think you’re beautiful. You have your father’s eyes.”

Beryl ignores the tightening in her throat. Her big, slightly tilted brown eyes are all she has left of her father, who died last year from cancer. Everything else — mousy hair, soft features, a boyish, no-waist figure — came from Mom.

After a long, silent walk, Beryl unlocks her room and drags her suitcase-albatross inside. Her mother places the milk crates on her ancient, graffiti-covered desk. Beryl’s bed is neatly made with a snow-white duvet. Her roommate’s is stripped bare.

Beryl’s mother puts a thin arm around her daughter. “Honey, are you sure you want to stay? Do you really think it’s safe?”

Beryl notes the dark circles under her mother’s eyes and tells a comforting lie. “I’ll be fine, Mom. Those girls who died were major partiers. Drinkers. You know that’s not me.” She didn’t add that all the murdered girls had one more thing in common. They were exceptionally pretty.

It’s almost midnight, and Beryl is uncomfortably awake. She can’t stop checking her phone. Her best friend Clarissa was supposed to have texted hours ago. She tells herself that Clarissa is busy catching up with her sorority friends, that she lost track of time. But she can’t stop looking at the empty bed where her roommate Emily used to sleep.

Emily’s parents were so worried about the Sorority Slayings that they refused to pay her tuition. Now Emily is stuck waitressing and taking classes at community college until she can apply someplace else. Of course, Emily, a pudgy girl with stubborn cystic acne, was at no more risk than Beryl.

Clarissa is another story altogether. She is beautiful. Ambitious. A winner of countless beauty pageants. Beryl’s polar opposite. Somehow, the two girls became close friends in high school. Beryl helped Clarissa pass AP English; Clarissa distracted Beryl from her father’s death with dirty jokes and lurid gossip. Miraculously, both women ended up at Mississippi University with full scholarships, Beryl’s for academics and Clarissa’s for winning a rich county’s signature pageant.

Beryl is certain Clarissa would be a pharmaceutical-grade high for the Sorority Slayer. She checks her phone again. Nothing. She frowns and punches her pillow. Beryl is self-sufficient. She doesn’t need a lot of friends. But she doesn’t think she could endure the loss of Clarissa, who held her hand at her father’s funeral.

Beryl pulls on her shoes. She can’t just sit in her room with her metaphorical thumb up her butt. Instead, she will walk to Omega Rho and make sure Clarissa is alive. Yes, she’ll look like an asshole and a borderline stalker. But she won’t be able to sleep until she knows that Clarissa is safe. She glides through the dorm like a ghost, ignoring knots of tittering freshmen.

In the parking lot, she finds police cars and yellow tape. A campus security officer with a weary, square-jawed face stops her. “Miss,” he barks. “Go back inside. Now.”

“What happened?” she asks, although she knows the answer.

“Another girl was murdered, God rest her soul. She was a pretty little thing.”

Beryl is late to organic chemistry. She looks like she’s hungover, but she’s just tired. She barely slept, imagining the many ways Clarissa might have died. Clutching a cup of corrosive coffee, she enters the crowded lecture hall. Every time she tries to sit, she is waved off. The boys in her class would rather sit beside a pretty girl. Beryl represents sixty minutes of lost opportunity.

Eventually, Beryl finds a vacant row in the back and sets up her laptop. The professor grouses pointedly about latecomers and finally, mercifully, begins. Beryl does her best to concentrate on the lecture. Getting an A in organic chemistry is a critical step on her journey to medical school. Her life’s goal is to become a research oncologist. She worries that her mother is looking a little too thin. Unlike lightning, cancer will gladly strike the same place twice.

As the professor drones on, Beryl pulls out her phone. No texts from Clarissa or anybody else. She still has saved messages from her father, missives from beyond the grave. No, not now. She locks her phone and resumes taking notes. The sound of her fingers on the keyboard is a metronome for her fear.

Where is Clarissa?

What happened to Clarissa?

She types faster and faster. Her breath comes in short gasps. She feels dizzy, as if the world is a marble in a cup. She wonders if she’s about to pass out when her phone chirps.

Lunch at the square? 12ish?

Beryl exhales and burns with relief. Clarissa is OK.

The square is an outdoor food court that assembles every day, rain or shine. Today is chilly and overcast, but Beryl doesn’t mind. She orders a burrito and a latte, then grabs the cleanest table she can find. She quickly spots Clarissa at Sushi on Wheels. Something in Beryl’s chest loosens and stretches like she just came home.

Beryl watches her friend order a green tea and miso soup combo. With her waist-length blond curls and fitted crimson jacket, she is a cardinal among wrens. Everyone in high school — even the teachers — assumed Beryl was jealous of Clarissa. But she never was. She appreciates Clarissa’s beauty the way she would a snow-capped mountain or a perfect sunset.

“Hey, Beryllium. How’s it hanging?” Clarissa sits across from Beryl and takes a small sip of tea. Somehow, she doesn’t get lipstick on the rim. A smile blooms across her face.

Beryl smiles back. “Heavy, low, and hairy, Clarice. When did you get in?”

“Yesterday. The sisters tried to get me drunk.”

Beryl snorts. She doesn’t drink. She dislikes the effects and the taste. “Did they succeed?”

Clarissa shakes her head. “Only a little. It was a good stress-reliever. I have a pageant next month. State level. I need to win it if I want to stay in school.”

Beryl is confused. “I thought you already had a full ride.”

Clarissa’s smile turns rueful. “I did. But the pageant company invested all their money in a pyramid scheme. It’s gone now.”

Beryl frowns. Clarissa may not be a brilliant student, but she is smart and ambitious and charming as hell. She deserves a college education. “I’m so sorry, Clar. If there’s anything…”

Clarissa cuts her off. “Don’t worry. I’ve got it covered. Have you heard the latest on the Slayer?”

Beryl shivers. She doesn’t like her friend talking about the murders in such a pert tone. It feels like tempting fate. “Another girl was killed last night. That’s about all I know.”

Clarissa attacks the tidbit of information like a starving dog. “It was Kendall, a pageant girl from Beta house. I knew her a little. She was kind of a bitch. She was totally bulimic and stole other girls’ food all the time.

“She didn’t deserve to die,” blurts Beryl surprised at her friend’s casual cruelty.

“C’mon Beryl, you know I’m only joking. Using humor to cope and all that. But listen, I have something to ask you.”

Beryl’s eyes widen with expectation. Maybe Clarissa needs help with a class. Or perhaps she wants to plan a road trip like they did in high school. “What is it?”

“Our sorority’s GPA is getting dicey. We need some new members with decent grades. Would you mind rushing? You won’t even have to be nice to anyone. I have pull with the seniors. I’ll get you in.”

Beryl swallows. Hard. She would do anything for Clarissa. And maybe, if she lived at the sorority house, she could help keep her safe.

“Sure. Anything for you.”

Rush. A series of vapid parties culminating in a shallow judgement. The idea of wearing a cocktail dress and making small talk with drunken Barbie clones makes Beryl’s skin crawl. And knowing the other women will be silently critiquing her body and clothes makes her want to vomit. But Clarissa is her oldest friend. Her only friend. She has to help her.

As the date of the first party approaches, Beryl finds herself unable to sleep. At first, it doesn’t bother her. She uses the long nights to be more productive, reading ahead in organic chemistry and dissecting a full-sized pig for extra credit. But now that she’s completed her to-do list, she has endless time to brood.

By the night before rush, her nails are chewed to the quick. When midnight approaches, she pulls on her jacket and steps outside. Clarissa invited her to a frat party. And, for the first time ever, Beryl is going to show.

As she walks, her mind keeps drifting to the murders. It’s been a month since the last one. Her classmates are cautiously wondering if it’s all over. But Beryl knows better.

It doesn’t work that way.

We’re due.

The frat house is a crumbling splendor, all Doric columns and peeling paint. The lawn is dotted with empty Solo cups. Beryl follows the sound of rough laughter and strained guitar. She slips by the sleeping bouncer and texts Clarissa.

I’m here. Where are you?

Clarissa does not reply, so Beryl wanders, sticking to the dark, quiet spaces. The party is concentrated in the dining room, but the game room is deserted. She sidles over to a pool table and racks the balls. They break with a satisfying smack. After several shots, she is fully entranced. When the last eight-ball hits the far corner pocket, she is startled by applause.

Clarissa is clapping, and she is not alone. She is wedged between a tall, beefy linebacker and a thinner specimen with the handsome, bony face of an artist or a douchebag.

“Guys, this is my friend Beryl. And she can kick your asses at pool. Want to play?”

The men shuffle their feet. Beryl knows she is an unwelcome distraction from their pursuit of Clarissa.

Clarissa, oblivious, continues her breezy introductions. “The big guy is Ben. He’s a running back for the Wildcats. The other one is Malcolm. He plays bass and lacrosse.”

Malcolm winks and flashes a forced smile. He knows how important it is to be liked by the pretty girl’s friend. “I don’t need to get my ass kicked tonight. Maybe some other time. Can I get you a drink?”

“No, I’m good. Clarissa?”

Clarissa downs the rest of her beer. “Beer me, baby!”

Ben chortles and grins. “Why don’t we play some drinking games? I’ll take two penalty drinks for every one of Clarissa’s.”

“You’re on!”

Beryl spends the rest of the night running the pool table and checking on her friend. She observes with growing concern as Clarissa progresses from swaying to slurring. When Clarissa starts making out with both Ben and Malcolm, she knows she has to intervene.

She puts her arm around Clarissa and pulls her off Malcolm. “OK, Clarissa, we’ve had some fun. But it’s time to bring you home.”

Malcolm glares at Beryl, disappointed rage beaming from his eyes. His voice is sober and sharp. “Beryl, honey, are you a dirty lesbian? Are you going to take advantage of your friend in her compromised state?”

“Shut up, Mal. Don’t be a dick,” mutters Clarissa before she empties the contents of her stomach onto the sticky floor.

As Beryl walks Clarissa home across the dark, empty campus, her thoughts return to the murders. According to the school paper, the police think the Slayer is a man from the surrounding community. Someone with a criminal record. Certainly not a student.

She wonders if that’s what they really think, or if they’re trying to keep the university and its donors happy.

“How long have you known Malcolm?” asks Beryl, recalling the venom in his voice.

“Since I pledged. He’s a friend. We hook up sometimes, but he gets a little intense.”

Beryl shivers. Clarissa has always been a casual breaker of hearts, taking male obsession for granted. Could Malcolm be killing women who resemble Clarissa as a way of venting his rage at Clarissa herself?

Beryl clears her throat. “Do you think Malcolm might be….dangerous?”

“Hell no!” shrieks Clarissa, laughing. “Malcolm is harmless.”

“If you say so.”

They fall into an uneasy silence, Clarissa listing gently. Every now and then, Beryl glances backwards. She sees nothing and hears nothing, but that’s no guarantee. They pass a series of posters warning women not to walk alone or drink too much. Too late for that. A high-pitched howl flies from her throat.

“What’s so funny?” asks Clarissa.

“All those posters telling women to be careful. Why don’t they tell men not to kill?”

Clarissa shakes her head. “You are a weird one, Beryl. And, um, could you do me a favor? At rush tomorrow, can you try to blend in a little? Maybe wear some makeup and skip the maniacal laughter?”

It is the first day of rush at Omega Rho, and Beryl is terrified. Another lovely pageant girl was killed last night — a Beta in her sophomore year, last year’s first runner up for Miss State. But rush will go on, followed by a candlelight vigil. “We will not let the terrorists and the serial killers win,” the university president proclaimed.

At least Clarissa is safe.

Beryl paws through her closet, looking for something suitable. But everything is brown, black, or gray and oversized. She might fit into a flock of starlings, but Clarissa and her friends are bright, tropical birds.

Try to blend in. Yeah, right.

Beryl takes her one credit card out of her wallet. She has a two thousand dollar limit, for emergencies only.

This is an emergency.

Mom is always telling me to ‘take care of myself.’

Maybe she’ll understand.

Beryl calls two salons, a personal shopper, and an Uber. It’s going to be a very long day.

Beryl is definitely not herself. Her mousy hair is platinum blonde, floating in gentle waves. Her pale skin is golden. Her basic brown eyes are mysterious pools. A blue, shimmery cocktail dress makes the most of narrow hips while skimming a boyish waist.

As she walks to rush in the deepening twilight, she feels the weight of hungry eyes. She is, for the first time in her life, seen. It is both oppressive and exhilarating. Men and women wave at her. A Frisbee crosses her path; its owner rushes to apologize. Two women hand her invitations to rush parties. She also receives invitations to five frat parties and innumerable smiles.

She is powerful and vulnerable, both at the same time. People want to please her and be noticed by her. But she is no longer invisible. She is wondering if beauty is just a costume, a gauzy garment to be put on and taken off at will, when something hits the back of her head with a wet thud.

There is a sharp pain, a sensation of falling, and a vast, silent wall of nothingness.

Oh Beryl, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it. I’m not a bad person.

Beryl follows the voice into a world of shards and needles. Her head is full of broken, shifting glass. Her eyes flutter open, pulsing with pain. Her lashes are sticky with something warm. She tries to wipe her face, but her hand won’t obey. She pivots her head towards the sound and gasps with agony.

Clarissa’s face is spattered with blood. She holds a tire iron loosely in one hand. “I swear, I didn’t know it was you.”

Beryl tries to speak, to ask questions beginning with what and why, but all she can do is groan.

“When I told you to blend in, I didn’t think you’d go all extreme makeover on me.

Clarissa smiles ruefully. “I thought you were Kelsey, another pageant girl. She’s a total flirt and an amazing singer.

“If I don’t win at the state level, I won’t be able to stay in college. I’ll end up at the plant, scalding chickens like my mother. And that can never happen.

“I’m sorry, but you kind of brought this on yourself. You shouldn’t have changed.”

Clarissa strokes Beryl’s face. Her touch is soft. Tender. Beryl closes her eyes. Perhaps it is all a dream.

“Don’t worry, Beryllium,” whispers Clarissa. “It will all be over soon.”