January 15, 1978 Five minutes before
It must have been more than hunger pains that roused me, but at the time all I wanted was to go downstairs and make myself a peanut butter sandwich and fall right back to sleep.
I rolled out of bed, stretching, groaning when I saw myself in the small oval mirror tacky-glued to the wall. I’d fallen asleep fully clothed, using my textbook for a pillow. After I’d posted the volunteer schedule to the bulletin board outside the bathrooms, I’d moved on to the reading for Monday morning’s American Political Thought, and now my cheek bore a faint printing of the Equal Rights Amendment. I rubbed at it hard with the heel of my hand, but Alice Paul’s words wouldn’t so much as smudge.
Perks of chapter presidency started with living alone in the big balcony room off the front set of stairs and ended there. The bay window, the privacy, fooled some girls into thinking they wanted to run for the position, until they took the time to consider how much thankless work it was on top of your regular course load. It was the inverse for me. The meetings, budgeting, and managing, the litigating of the slights small and smaller—those were the draw. I fell into a depression with too much free time on my hands, and I dreaded going out, dating, guys, the whole scene. My figure had helped me secure a respectable boyfriend freshman year, and while kissing him didn’t exactly set my heart on fire, I’d kept him around for expediency’s sake.
The chandelier in the front hallway was set on a timer, switching off automatically at nine. But when I came out of my room a few minutes shy of three in the morning, the foyer was spit-shined in platinum light. They still don’t know how this happened, but that chandelier saved my life. If I had turned right out of my bedroom, headed down the narrow hall for the back staircase designated for after-hours use, I never would have come back.
I descended the front set of stairs, hand grazing the wrought-iron railing, one of the oldest and prettiest parts of The House. In the foyer, I spent a minute or two fiddling with the light switch on the wall, to no avail. I added it to the morning’s ever-expanding chore list: call the houseboy first thing, before the alumnae arrived for—
Don’t just stand there, a woman cried. Do something. Do something!
A glass shattered somewhere in the back of The House. Then another. Another.
I looked down at my feet, in the corduroy slippers I’d wear for the last time, and found they were somehow moving toward the disturbance coming from the Jefferson Street side of The House. Even as I came around the bend to the rec room and saw that it was only the television, left on by one of my sisters to an old episode of I Love Lucy, the one where Lucy keeps offering Ricky objects to smash in lieu of her face, I knew something wasn’t right.
Still, I went around, turning off all the lamps that had been left on in the room, collecting the plates littering the coffee table, sticky with the residue of Jerry’s hot fudge cake. My eyes were burning with tears because I was someone who could cry only when she was angry. The alumnae Tea & Tour started at nine a.m. sharp, and this was how the girls left the place?
My ponytail had loosened in my sleep, and I kept having to shoulder my hair out of my eyes, and at some point, I realized it was because there was a freezing draft filtering through the room. I rocked back on my heels and squinted through the archway to see that the back door had been left open too. Goddamn fucking children, I thought, because that’s what I would normally think if a part of me didn’t also suspect that something unspeakable was unfolding, that moment, right above my head. Drunk goddamn fucking children, I thought again, performing for myself, clinging to the last seconds of normalcy before—
A thud. The thud.
I stopped. Stopped moving. Breathing. Thinking. All functions seem to shut down to divert resources to my eardrums. Overhead, there was a flurry of footsteps. Someone on the second floor was running at a nauseating, inhuman speed.
It was as though a magnet were attached to the soles of those feet, and the nickel in my scalp dragged me along for the ride—past the wall of our composites, under the poorly plastered crack in the ceiling, and finally, to the place between the coat closet and the louvered kitchen doors where the footsteps stopped and so did I. I was standing in the shadow of the main stairwell, facing the double front doors approximately thirteen feet and two inches in front of me. I guessed fifteen feet, but when the detective measured no more than an hour later, I found I’d ever so slightly overshot the distance between us.[T]he chandelier acted as my archivist, logging a clear and unabridged shot of him as he paused, crouched down low, one hand on the doorknob.
The crystal chandelier was undulating, disturbed but still unerringly bright. When the man came down the stairs and darted across the foyer, he should have been very hard to see. Instead, the chandelier acted as my archivist, logging a clear and unabridged shot of him as he paused, crouched down low, one hand on the doorknob. In his other hand he held what looked like a child’s wooden baseball bat, the end wrapped in a dark fabric that seemed to arch and writhe. Blood, my brain would not yet permit me to acknowledge. He wore a knit cap, pulled down over his brows. His nose was sharp and straight, his lips thin. He was young and trim and good-looking. I’m not here to dispute facts, even the ones that annoy me.
For a brief, blissful moment, I got to be angry. I recognized the man at the door. It was Roger Yul, Denise’s on-again, off-again boyfriend. I could not believe she’d sneaked him upstairs. That was an orange-level violation of the code of conduct. Grounds for expulsion.
But then I watched as every muscle in the man’s body tensed, as though he sensed he was being watched. With a slow swivel of his head, he focused like a raptor on a spot just beyond my shoulder. I was paralyzed by a hammering dread that still comes for me in my nightmares, locking my spine and vaporizing my scream in the sandpapered walls of my throat. We both stood there, alert and immobile, and I realized with a wrecking ball of relief he could not actually find me in the shadow of the stairwell, that while he was visible to me, I remained unwitnessed.
He was not Roger.
The man opened the door and went. The next time I saw him, he would be wearing a jacket and tie, he would have groupies and the New York Times on his side, and when he asked me where I was currently living, legally, I would have no choice but to give my home address to a man who murdered thirty-five women and escaped prison twice.
I found myself heading for Denise’s room, planning on reading her the riot act. I would never be able to adequately explain this to the cops, the court, Denise’s parents, or my own. That while I knew it was not Roger I’d seen at the front door, I had not picked up the phone and called the police but instead had gone back upstairs to reprimand Denise.
Halfway down the hall, the door to room number six opened, and a sophomore named Jill Hoffman staggered out, hunched over at the waist and headed for the bathroom down the hall. She was drunk and running to the toilet to be sick.
I called out her name and Jill turned fearfully, like she thought I might be mad about the flesh on the right side of her face, peeled back to reveal the very bone the fashion magazines told us to highlight with blush. She was trying to speak, but her tongue kept getting pushed under by thick currents of blood.
I took off down the hall, flapping my arms strangely and cawing for everyone to get up. One of the girls opened her door and asked blearily if The House was on fire. I guided Jill into the girl’s arms and, in a moment of cogency, instructed her to close the door and lock it behind her. In my peripheral vision, someone else wandered into Jill’s room and screamed that we needed a bucket. I thought we needed to start cleaning up the bloodstains Jill had left on the carpet before they set, and this made absolute sense to me at the time.
I went into room twelve on the right side of the hall and hollered for the girls in there to call the police. When they asked why, I had to stop and think for a moment. I do not remember saying this, but the author of one of the more ethical true-crime books wrote that I did. “Jill Hoffman has been slightly mutilated,” I was alleged to have said, calmly, and then I walked at an unhurried pace to the bathroom, got a bucket from under the sink, and went into Jill’s room, thinking I was going in there to scrub a stain out of the carpet.Jill’s room was wet, her sheets submerged in a dark, oily spill, the yellow curtains splashed with so much blood they strained on their hooks, heavier than they’d been seventeen minutes ago.
Jill’s room was wet, her sheets submerged in a dark, oily spill, the yellow curtains splashed with so much blood they strained on their hooks, heavier than they’d been seventeen minutes ago. Her roommate, Eileen, was sitting up in her bed, holding her mangled face in her hands and moaning mama in her low country twang. Eileen was a loyal listener of Pastor Charles Swindoll’s radio show, and though I was not at all religious, she’d gotten me hooked too. He was always saying that life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent how you react to it.
I shoved the bucket under Eileen’s jaw and pried her hands away from her face. Blood and saliva hailed the metal base, indeed sounding so much thicker than water.
“Take this,” I said to a junior who had followed me into the room. She turned her face away, gagging, but she held that bucket for Eileen until the ambulance arrived. “Don’t let her cover her face or she’ll choke.”
I went left out of Jill and Eileen’s room, toward my own. It was just like taking rounds at chapter on Monday evenings. The count started at the front.
Most of the girls were startled awake as I barged through their doors and hit the lights, raising the backs of their hands to their eyes, tonguing sleep crust from the corners of their mouths. Though their faces were scrunched up irritably, they were at least in one piece. Insanely, I started to wonder if Jill and Eileen had gotten into a fight with each other, if things had perhaps gotten out of hand. But then I got to room eight. A girl named Roberta Shepherd lived in room eight. Her roommate was away on a ski vacation that weekend, and unlike the others, Robbie did not moan and groan when I told her to wake up and turn on her light.
“Robbie,” I repeated in the schoolmarm voice they all mocked me for behind my back. “I’m sorry, but you have to wake up.” I was stepping into the room, my adrenaline performing the function of courage. But it turned out there wasn’t a need to be brave. Robbie was asleep with the covers pulled up under her chin. I walked in and touched her shoulder and told her that Jill and Eileen had been in an accident and the police would be here any moment.
When she still refused to respond, I rolled her onto her back, and that’s when I saw the thin scribble of red on the pillow. Nosebleed. I patted her on the shoulder assuredly, telling her I used to get them when I was upset too.
Out of nowhere there was a man in a uniform by my side, bellowing and blustering at me. The medic! Get the medic! I went out into the hallway, feeling at first wounded and then incensed. Who was he to yell at me in my own house?
The hallway seemed to have morphed in the brief time I’d spent in Robbie’s room, into a crawl space of surrealism, crackling with the radios of pipsqueak campus officers not much older than we were. Girls wandered the halls wearing winter coats over their nightgowns. Someone said with total confidence that the Iranians had bombed us.
“There’s a weird smell coming from Denise’s room,” reported Bernadette, our Miss Florida and, as treasurer, my second in command. Together we went around the curve in the hallway, sidestepping two slack-mouthed and useless officers. I wondered if maybe Denise had forgotten to wrap up her paint palette before going out for the evening. Sometimes she did that, and it emitted an odor like a gas leak.
Denise was someone who hated to be told what to do. She was bullheaded and talented and conceited and sensitive. Our friendship had not survived the role I had stepped into willingly, one where it was my mandate to make sure everyone followed the rules, no matter how pointless and archaic Denise thought they were. But still I loved her. Still I wanted her to have the big, swaggering life she was destined to have, though I had come to accept it would likely not involve me.
The moment I walked into her room, I knew. I knew. I’d only lost her sooner than I’d readied for. Denise was sleeping on her side with the covers pulled up over her shoulder. It had to be close to eighty degrees in the room, and the air was sick with a fetid bathroom smell.
Bernadette was physically restraining me, telling me to wait for the medic, but I wriggled free from her grasp. “She’s a sound sleeper,” I insisted in a strangled, furious voice. Whatever Bernadette was implying, whatever she was thinking—she was mistaken.
“I’ll be right back,” Bernadette said, and then she banged her elbow painfully on the doorframe as she turned to run down the hall.
As though she had been waiting for us to be alone, Denise’s hand shot straight up into the air, a stiff-armed salute. “Denise!” My laugh sounded deranged, even to my own ears. “You have to get dressed,” I told her. “It’s a Code Bra. There are policemen everywhere.”
I went over to her, and though I continued the ruse that she was only dreaming, I understood enough to cradle her in my arms. Her dark hair was studded with bits of bark, but unlike Jill’s and Eileen’s, it was dry and soft as I stroked it and told her again that she needed to dress. There was not a scratch on her face. It would have mattered to Denise that she left this earth unscathed.
I pushed the covers off her—she had to be hot—and found that although she still wore her favorite nightgown, her underwear was balled up on the floor, next to an overturned Clairol hair mist bottle. I did not understand how this was at all possible, but the nozzle top was gummed over with a dark substance and a clot of wiry dark hair, the kind of hair that gets stuck in your razor when you shave before going to the beach.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, nudging me out of the way, and that man was by my side again, the one who’d yelled at me. He dragged Denise out of the bed and onto the floor. I told him her name and that she had an allergy to latex. She had to be careful what paints she stored in the room because of it.
“That’s good to know,” he said, and I forgave him then, because he was so gentle with Denise as he pinched her nose and lowered his face over hers. She had fallen back asleep, but when she woke again, I would tell her that the man who’d saved her was handsome and not wearing a wedding ring. Was a medic the same thing as a doctor? Denise was the type to wind up with a doctor. Maybe this would be the story of how she met her husband, and someday soon I’d be telling it at her wedding.
Excerpted from BRIGHT YOUNG WOMEN: A Novel. Copyright © 2023, Jessica Knoll. Reproduced by permission of Marysue Rucci Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.
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