He didn’t go to the party, it called him. He’d been going along his business as usual, bringing a child down from a tree here, walking an elderly lady into a street there, when he found himself walking towards the gleaming house. He felt sure, purposeful. Something here would need him.
A couple of boys were walking up the driveway in front of him, and it was easy to grab the edge of the door as the last one passed through, receiving nothing but a nod in response to his muttered thanks. No suspicion, and why should there be? A house just off campus, and a college too big to know everyone. He knocked his black boots on the welcome mat to be courteous. It was still chilly in the house, but not enough to warrant paying extra for extra heating. He left his coat on.
The living room had a fireplace going and easily thirty people in it, clustered around lamps like moths and clutching beer bottles. So it was a nice party then, he noted, one with IPAs and Angry Orchards rather than a couple of kegs gone warm and foamy. They all seemed to know each other, they held fluid conversation and sat crooked in chairs. No anxious girls lurked next to the wall to give him a clue of what brought him here. No angry boys sat muttering in dark corners. He took a seat at the foot of an attractive sofa and listened to what the students were complaining about. Finals this. Professors that. The cost of alcohol was going up. The average GPA was going down. If there was no demand for sober dorms, why was there so much supply? And how to turn that into an essay. A girl arrived with three drinks in hand; she gave one to a friend and offered one to him, smiling with interested eyes. He took the drink and smiled back, but looked away. She sat next to him anyways and let their legs brush. He took a second glance; her smudged eyeliner pulled together her eyelashes in a way that looked artistic, like in older comics where the women had thick, dark lines for eyes and red heart-shaped lips. He liked the smudging, and the slight shadows underneath.
The conversation wove around him and he melted into the creases of the sofa, becoming unnoticed. It felt too nice, to bourgeoise for him to be there at nine pm amongst people who brought their own beer, him in his too dark and eons old clothing. He didn’t know yet what he’d be meeting here, but time had again and again taught him right. He learned their names; John with a greenhouse project due in two days, Sarah in a velvet shirt that she kept giving a tiny stroke or two on the sly, Kellie, worried for her mother in the hospital. He wished he could tell her not to worry. He knew she wouldn’t take it to heart. He saw a tiny tattoo of a scythe on the inside of the wrist of the girl who sat next to him; he liked that about her too. He thought about getting a similar tattoo. Instead he rose and started to look for the next room.
The sound of music lead him to it, Death Cab for Cutie’s plaintive promises creeping out of a speaker. This room, this room was more his style. It must’ve been someone’s bedroom, though perhaps the bed was folded up into the couch that a few people were sitting on. It was darker, the lamps replaced by neon signs giving a sort of rave aesthetic to the walls. Two boys bumped into each other. One gave the second a pat on the shoulder and stepped to the side, and the second just scowled and pushed through. A little drunk, he thought, and smiled. Here were better reasons. The first boy reached the table that the drinks sat on and poured himself a novice rum and coke; he seemed to have forgotten the coke part. A girl on the couch reached out and tucked a lock of hair behind the ear of the girl next to her. He looked away to give their flirting privacy.
The clock hit ten, and with it came a small shiver of change. Plastic cups began to replace the glass bottles in people’s hands. Music shifted to something with a lower bass, a darker key. He looked over the stair banisters to watch a group of boys carry in boxes and boxes of cheaper beer, their shoulders straining from the weight but their teeth gleaming. He could see a few extra shadows creeping in at their feet, ones with teeth of their own, hiding under windblown leaves. They avoided the lamps. Behind him the angry boy and the coke-and-rum boy brushed past to clatter downstairs. Conversations broke up as some became eager and loud, and some simply stopped talking.
A shame about that sofa, he thought, looking ruefully at the beautiful one he had sat next to on the first floor. He felt like something terrible would happen to it. It really was too nice a piece of furniture to have at a party like this; cans, once shaken, couldn’t be controlled by anyone. The door, left open by the drink-bringers, was letting in cold wind. He went to close it. One more hand gripped its edge from outside, muttered thanks, and entered. Its owner tapped feet on the mat. He closed the door, gazing without suspicion at the shape his reason for being here had come in, which looked back at him, gave him a smirk, and pulled out a handle of vodka.
“Want a drink?”
“No thanks,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of work to do tonight.”
“Indeed you do,” it agreed. “What are all these lights doing on? People will feel ashamed if they can be seen.”
And off it went, dimming the lamps and topping off cups with whatever liquor it had brought in its pockets.
Kellie walked past him, her mother still in the hospital. She bumped into a door frame, readjusted, and then went walking off again like an especially confused bumblebee.
“You didn’t come here with anyone, did you?”
It was the girl from earlier. She’d let her hair down by now. A few strands curled around her collarbones.
“I didn’t. I don’t really know anyone here.”
“That’s alright. A party like this, there’s bound to be an uninvited guest.”
Or two, he thought, but kept that to himself.
“I should repay the host somehow anyways,” he said. “Straighten a bookshelf, sweep a floor.”
“I’m the hostess. You could do a thing to help me out.” She moved a little bit closer. “You study French?”
“You ever hear of la petite mort?”
He had. He liked the term. He never really thought the name too fitting, but it seemed flattering, a seductive juxtaposition.
“You want to come upstairs?”
He couldn’t make out the details of her smudged makeup anymore, with the dimness of the house. His reason was still downstairs, the boys seeming taller and broader, with more glass bottles appearing on the sills of windows. He shifted his shoulders and blocked the light of the last lamp still lit, obscuring her face completely.
“Let’s go,” he said, and rested a guiding hand on her arm. She opened the door to her room; he gestured and went in the opposite direction, closing the bathroom door behind him, hoping she’d wait, safe, in her room. He gazed silently at himself in the mirror. The shadows of his eye sockets looked back, and he remembered the bright, maniac shine in the eyes of more than a few students earlier.
The noises downstairs had become muted somewhat, but there were some angry tones beginning, a screech of furniture being pushed sharply. Someone laughed, too loudly and joyfully to be favorable. A door slammed, and suddenly many more voices came through the window from the street. Downstairs someone was still arguing. Too many people were arguing. Someone yelled to stop. The crunch of a fist hitting a cheekbone. Boots, hard, back and forth on the floor. The glint of a weapon. A gasp just below a scream. The sound of many curses, over and over again fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. The sound of a smile; not his.
He turned up the hood on his coat, checked the blade on his scythe, and set about gathering souls.