“Losing my mind.” The words are scrawled in pink permanent marker in a girlish script with a sad face next to “mind.” The declaration is in a remote part of the nature preserve, located just at the edge of the Lyon Estates-like housing community. It’s one of the few “wild” places left in this overdeveloped neighborhood. The type of place you can tell teenagers go at night because there’s nothing else to do in this suburban sprawl, and God knows they need a fuckin’ drink and a fuckin’ smoke to deal with their parents. The ones who expect so much from them. “The best.” Whatever the fuck that means anymore. What can it really mean? In conditions like these? Constantly waiting for the other “shoe” to drop. If by “shoe” what is meant is “glacier” and if by “drop” what is meant is “melt.” Once that happens, it’s game over anyway. Nothing really matters, but it really doesn’t matter when the only topic of concern is surviving whatever the climate shift throws at one on a daily basis.
Here, every day is the same. And so is every night. The only difference during the moonlit hours is that the youths at least have a chance to numb themselves out the old-fashioned way, instead of sitting inside staring at a screen. No, at night, that’s when an adolescent can come alive. Drink bottles of Popov chased with some not-cold seltzer. It was disgusting, sure, but they were too young to know any better, and it got the job done. The job being: near-blackout. Of course, no matter how badly someone like Gisele Friedman wanted to exit consciousness and forget who she was and where she lived altogether, she was forever careful to constantly toe the line between total mental annihilation and semi-cognizance. She could never be found out by her parents. None of them could. It would put their one source of solace in this mind-flaying town at risk.
In the beginning, it was just Gisele and her “best friend,” Renee. Of course, at this age and in a town with as limited of a selection as this, what is really meant by “best friend” is, “You’re good enough to amuse me for now.” Or, “We’re more similar to each other than we are to anyone else at our high school.” What’s more, Renee was better at engaging boys than Gisele. And even though Gisele was fascinated with the prospect of boys, she was also terrified of them and kind of didn’t want them anywhere near her. Renee was a buffer. The one who would laugh and flirt and keep the hormones at bay from Gisele. It was Renee who clued Mark, Ryan and Luke in on their almost nightly jaunts to this “special” part of the nature preserve. The one that only those “in the know” could unearth. Initially, Gisele was somewhat resentful that Renee had given up the information. Tainted what was once a pure secret. But then she realized that with more people in the mix, Gisele found Renee to be more tolerable. She didn’t have to bear the brunt of listening to her various nonstop banalities. One of the three boys could do it instead. Better still, Renee seemed to care less if they were “attentive” to what she was actually saying, whereas Gisele was held to a higher standard of “truly listening.”
While Renee was running her mouth in the darkness as the sounds of owls hooting coalesced with other assorted mystery nocturnal animals weighing in on those “calls of the night,” Gisele was free to stare dreamily at Mark under the guise of being “fucked up.” Mark was the one who introduced the weed into the equation, even though Gisele would have been fine sticking to garden-variety cigarettes. Although she wasn’t quite prepared for this level of rebellion, she went along with it. Because that’s what you did for boys you secretly “loved.” And yes, at the time, Gisele was convinced that’s how she felt about Mark. Based on “dreamy looks” alone, of course. Even when she started talking to him more “deeply” (or as deeply as one could with a person who willingly wore Old Navy) and found that they had little common, she still genuinely felt herself to be in love. Maybe that’s why she was so eager to take Mark up on his dare one fateful late night/early morning. The very same one when she had scrawled “Losing my mind” in pink marker on the pebbled “bench” they would sit upon, throwing empty bottles to the ground and stubbing out cigarette butts to leave behind all the telltale signs of teenage angst and boredom for anyone who cared to notice. Naturally, no one ever cared to notice.
Maybe that’s part of why Renee could go on screaming for so long without anyone ever coming to her rescue. For part of the dare was for Gisele to help Luke and Ryan hold Renee up by the ankles just over the ravine that would plunge her into an abyss of uncertainty—filled with all manner of potential predators ranging from rattlesnakes to mountain lions to black bears. There was no telling what the darkness beyond might hold. None of them had ever dared to bother it before, so it had never bothered them. The aim of the dare was to see how long they could hold Renee without dropping her, which was a rather stupid and inane aim. And apparently, Renee was drunk enough to agree to it. But being turned upside down like that sobered her up real quick as she proceeded to shriek more viscerally than any banshee ever could. If there weren’t animals out before, surely there were now—responding to her feral cries.
Her screams of terror freaked Luke out enough to loosen his grip, setting off a chain reaction in Ryan and Gisele’s own grasp as she tumbled down, down, down from the overhang they were perched on and into a thicket of unknown doom. The four remaining revelers—no longer appearing so reveling—looked at one another in stunned silence. It was Mark who spoke first. “We can’t tell anyone about this.”
Gisele snapped back, “What the fuck are you saying? We have to get help.”
Luke chimed in, “Fuck that, I can’t be caught out here. My parents would ground me until after college.”
Ryan added quietly, “This could get me in a lot of trouble with the team. I think we should just keep it on the downlow.”
Gisele glanced out into the darkness, hearing not a sound. She then turned back to flash the others a skeptical expression, prompting Mark to “reason,” “Look, if Renee were alive, wouldn’t she still be screaming?”
“She’s probably unconscious, you insensitive shithead!” The way she seethed the last word seemed to actually sting Mark, who had never seen a side of her that would “talk back” or “question his authority.” It startled him into momentary silence before he doubled down and insisted, “You need to get yourself together. We’re all guilty here. And every one of us will go down for this if the other decides to say something—got it?”
Luke and Ryan nodded in silent agreement while Gisele continued to glare at him, repulsed by his very being, but more repulsed by herself for ever believing she was in love with someone so foul. Mark smirked at her as he picked up the remaining bottle of vodka from the ground and took a swig. “Now, how about we all relax and pretend this never happened?”
But it did happen. That much was confirmed the next day when a search party was sent out to find Renee, whose parents had reported her missing the second they saw she wasn’t in her room that morning. Gisele was the first person they contacted, and she was ready for them. She couldn’t say what had changed in the last few hours to make her want to get on board “the boys’” solidarity-in-silence train. To feign ignorance about what had transpired. Maybe she knew, at her core, that Mark was right. That there would be no understanding from the adults about what had occurred. That they were bored out of their gourds and wanted to test the limits of fear, not quite yet knowing that meant testing the limit between life and death.
As high school continued, Mark, Ryan and Luke took no issue with continuing to go to the same spot where Renee had probably died a slow, painful death because they hadn’t directed the search party to her. Gisele, on the other hand, vowed to never return, only hearing of it in terms of being a “legendary” and “haunted” after-hours place where the upperclassmen started going thanks to the trio spreading the word like wildfire. Sort of like the very wildfire that inexplicably barbequed all ten students that were hanging out at “the secret place” a year later. This included Mark, Ryan and Luke. Suddenly, the word was out to the adults about the erstwhile “shrouded” location, and Gisele was petrified that they might discover Renee’s body among the charred carnage. But no, there was no mention of her, of an eleventh body. And it was all Gisele could do not to flee to Vermont ahead of schedule to get to the college she had been accepted into early. The stain of what she had done was starting to become truly unignorable, as though Renee herself wanted to bleed into every facet of the town so that Gisele could only think of her crime. Her crime of silence.
But if Renee had hoped to get under her skin, she had underestimated Gisele’s strength when it came to repressing trauma. One didn’t spend most of their life having the shit smacked out of them by their father and not learn something about hiding the truth. A truth she had never even shared with Renee, knowing full well she would gossip to everyone at school about it. And since Gisele’s father was a prominent member of the community, that would just never do. Maybe, in the end, Renee “had to” be sacrificed, Gisele told herself as she proceeded to live her life with a greater sense of freedom once she had escaped from her small town. Not to return to it until almost a full decade later when her father died.
After the funeral, Gisele decided it was finally time to go back to the same spot in the nature preserve, finding that it only seemed more secreted away than ever. Jagged, crudely made signs along the way offered cliches like, “Abandon hope” and “Turn back now!” The legend of the wildfire that killed those ten kids was still alive and well. And it was as though, without Gisele, Renee and “the boys” to visit, the spot had grown a protective force field around it designed to keep all others way. To never discover its wonders as Gisele and the others had. To hold onto the horror of that night, and never let anyone else experience the residual energy from it.
Gisele drew closer to the seating ledge made out of rocks. Before she could even tell what she was doing, she found herself checking on whether or not the graffito she had scrawled in those small hours of the morning so long ago was still intact. Catching sight of the pink markings, she looked closer to see that “Losing my mind” appeared as freshly written as the night she had thought it into reality. And that’s when it happened. Renee’s head popped up from behind the wall of rocks, her spectral and transparent presence—also looking just the same as it did that night—had materialized to tell Gisele, “Well it’s about fucking time you showed up. Did you brink the vodka?” As a matter of fact, she had. Gisele pulled out a flask from the interior pocket of her suit jacket and rotely passed it to Renee, who drank as though this was something they did all the time. Which, of course, it used to be. Maybe this was, at last, Gisele’s punishment. Condemned to spend the rest of her days as she did in high school, because Renee still had to. Stuck in this purgatory called adolescence with the type of girl who never stopped talking about nothing.