Sole Survivor

Da kamen alsbald die Ratten und Mäuse aus allen Häusern hervorgekrochen und sammelten sich um ihn herum. Als er nun meinte, es wäre keine zurückgeblieben, ging er aus der Stadt hinaus in die Weser; der ganze Haufen folgte ihm nach, stürzte ins Wasser und ertrank.

Soon all the rats and mice came creeping out from all the houses and gathered around him. Once he knew that none of them were left behind, he went out of the city and into the Weser River; the whole pack followed him, plunged into the water, and drowned.

—German Legends, The Brothers Grimm

 

I.

The first time he comes, he’s red like a bird. Stockinged and slight, the sharp prongs of his shoes pecking the pavers like beaks. He keeps his instrument tucked inside a billowing cape and withdraws it for a demonstration. A sound like a thin, pinked ribbon unfurls and tugs the rodents from their slumber beneath the hay. They dance the way rats dance, the sour flesh of their feet flashing as they follow him through the gate, down the path to the Weser. There they dance a preamble to their deaths while the Mayor glad-hands the deal: He’ll pay, yes, he’ll pay. He’ll pay the Piper to drown the vermin one and all.

If the Mayor kept his word, there would be no story to tell. And so perhaps we have him to thank for the spectacle of one hundred and thirty children dancing at water’s edge and the deadly roil to follow. The Weser is not kind to those little bodies. It is, after all, under no obligation to show mercy. Only the Piper holds that claim. But he is dressed this time in green, the uniform of the hunter, and has no intention of shifting form. Maybe, if the townspeople were at home today, he might accept a doubled fee or an apology, but they’re off worshipping martyrs, so he murders all of their children instead. Or, at least he thinks he does. As it turns out, he’s left the job woefully incomplete.

 

II.

In the video, twelve dancers are arranged like sequined dollops on stage. They are all between five and seven years old and all of them have learned to hold their hands above their heads and wait for the music. They will dance to Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, but they are not sugar plum fairies; rather, they are rainbow sherbets. Were we to watch the show in its entirety, we’d witness the spectacle of spumonis, frosty malts, root beer floats, and eggnogs executing halting pirouettes and plies—Dancing for Desserts is generously funded by the local dairy operation—but this recording features only the rainbow sherbets. In particular, the third dancer from the left. She doesn’t know it now, but she’s about to endure the first of many worst days of her life.

The tulle bunched beneath her tutu is orange, her tight elastic bodice is wrapped in green and pink satin, and her bun is topped with a heavily pinned swirl of flapping yellow sequins. She is ready for the dance to begin. She is un-nervous and prepared. She harbors a secret belief that this performance will secure her status as a dancer with some talent—or at least a little girl who follows direction well. She has shared this secret with no one and understands it is self-serious and strange. No one else in her class appears to care about dancing or following directions.

As the camera (manned shakily by grandpa’s hand) pans from left to right, we will note the first dancer. She is the oldest and strongest. She will dutifully lead the line. The second dancer is the cutest. Her lacquered ringlets bounce appealingly. The third dancer is also strong, but is quiet, her enthusiasm suspect. She has been described as morose. She has difficulty holding her smile in the mirrored wall of the practice space. Her own mother has instructed her to lighten up. If the performance goes well, the third dancer from the left may stand the chance of dispelling, once and for all, the familial myth that she is the reincarnation of the great aunt who ruined her own wedding photos with her obscene frown.

The choreography is embarrassingly simple. It’s not ballet, exactly, though there are a few easily recognizable moves peppered throughout. The idea is to march in a circular shape that gradually collapses until the line of dancers is reduced to a small, hopping ring. Then they all run off stage, run back on, and bow deeply. The only complication is the sudden reversal on the refrain. When rehearsing, this had proven to be a force of chaos and destruction. More than once, the instructor threatened to murder all of the sherbets if they didn’t get it right. Above all, the third dancer from the left fears the shame of a failed reversal. Her mother, a widow whose overprotective tendencies have recently given way to abject exhaustion, has warned her against making the wrong move. Whatever you do, don’t make a fool of yourself—or me.

 

III.

On the day the gunman rages through campus, the professor is late to class. It’s odd, really, because the professor is never late to class. At times, she wished she were the kind of teacher who could walk in late, the lecture hall abuzz with gossip, and fling a briefcase on a table, startling the students into silence. She wished she were the type to offer no excuses for her tardiness and launch into a chalk-dusted screed of a lecture. But the truth is she has never known herself to miss the start of a class by more than a minute. More often than not, in fact, she’s in the room a quarter of an hour before class starts, tinkering with equipment and needlessly re-arranging sheets of paper.

She suspects that professorial lateness is a male prerogative. Females are reluctant to give their classes one more reason to dismiss them. But it is also a matter of her tenuous position at the university. She’s a lecturer, not a tenured member of the faculty. (Lecturers are reluctant to give administrations one more reason to dismiss them.) And life has shown her repeatedly that if things can go wrong, they will. She’s a pessimist. (Pessimists are reluctant to give the world one more reason to shit on them.)

All of this is to say that it’d be highly unusual for her to walk into her classroom late. But, in addition to being a female, a lecturer, and a pessimist, the professor is also very unhappy. She has spent many years unraveling the knot in her heart that prevents her from having what other women her age have: husbands, children, steady jobs. But on this occasion, in her sleep, she has come to the understanding that the knot isn’t the problem; it’s the whole damn ball of yarn. She wakes with a knowledge that her insides are comprised of the wrong material: limp, weak, colorless. It’s impossible to make a happy life out of insides like this.

She’s only able to force herself out of bed when she remembers that she has promised to offer her students extra credit today. If she fails to appear, they’ll be more likely to complain about their final grades and then an administrator will have at least three reasons to replace her. Full disclosure: It has been noted, recently, that she exerts an uncomfortable presence in the faculty lounge. No one ate the bright red sugar cookies she baked in an effort to counter the claim. (Perhaps red cookies suggest aggression or hostility rather than friendliness?) She’s almost certain she’s going to lose her position as she speeds to campus in her Acura.

Her usual lot is full, which means she’ll be forced to circle like a starving vulture until a spot opens, a strategy that annoys her when she’s the one walking back to her car. She hates the pressure, the sense that she’s taking too long to unlock her door and buckle her seatbelt. Get here on time and you won’t have to wait for me to get situated, she always wants to tell the vultures. She doesn’t want anyone telling her such a thing today, so she decides in a huff to splurge on the pay-by-the-hour lot in the middle of campus. She’ll blow twenty dollars by merely driving through the gate.

Relief spreads like a warmth in her brain, until the strap on her Mary Janes breaks on the way up the cobblestone hill. She has gym shoes in her desk, but her desk is on the other side of campus from the lecture hall where she teaches music theory to students who don’t know what music theory is after studying it for fifteen weeks. Fucking fuck all of them, she thinks, as she limps back down the hill. Her office (in the basement, shared with some twenty-five other lecturers, smelling faintly of the chemical cleaning agents it housed when it was the janitor’s store room) contains a giant, ticking wall clock, which tells her that she will be at least ten minutes late to class. If she’s fifteen minutes late, half of her students will already be gone. All it will take is one complaint to bring down the axe. And then what will she do? Move in with her mother?

By the time she reaches the hill with her ridiculous purple running shoes pounding the cobblestones, a stream of students is emerging from the lecture hall. The bastards. She’s only ten minutes late. What happened to the fifteen-minute rule? Is that a real thing or an urban legend? As she nears the hall, she recognizes some of the students as her own, but there are also others—far too many students for the exodus to be confined to her class. The students meander down the cobblestone, chatting amiably. They don’t seem to be in any hurry. No one attempts to meet her eye. She senses that she’s headed the wrong way; she should be at home, tending to her colorless insides.

 

I.

The lone surviving girl is the subject of investigation: What did she see and why didn’t she try to do anything to stop it? Was she working in congress with the Piper? She has no answer to these, or any, questions. She is only forgiven her failures because they think her deaf, mute, and lame. Her mother, an otherwise pious widow, is wise enough not to contradict them. And even if she did want to tell the truth, what would she say? My daughter is only silent because she despises you for mocking her gait. No, better to let the deaf mute of their imaginations tell the story with her fingertips, playing the piper’s tune on a carrot and walking one hundred and thirty children off the dinner table’s edge. Better to let them assume her poor child incapable of malice or spite.

Later, when they are alone together, the mother pries out the whole sordid line. Why would I follow those brats into the water? Why would I listen to such a foolish song? Why would I run and fetch you, if I knew my torment would soon end? Of course, the girl could have rushed to the church to warn the people of the piper’s return, she could have shouted or screamed the children out of their dreadful reverie, she could have at least tried, but she did not care if they drowned. It served them right, she now says, if they couldn’t control their own bodies or minds. It served them right for never treating her with respect. And now we’ll be alone, Mommy, and no one will ever harm us.

The girl is not wrong. They are indeed alone together—their singular status makes them outsiders and targets of superstition—and while no one appears to wish them harm, her mother never forgets that her daughter is a monster. She lives her life in fear of discovery and retribution. All it would take is one knock on the door and her daughter’s unthinking move to answer it and they’d both be revealed as frauds. She waits for years, watches. She sleeps with her ear to the floor so that she might hear a visitor’s light step in the night; then, out of exhaustion, she binds her daughter’s hands and feet with ribbon and forbids her from leaving her room; she even seals the girl’s ears with wax and forces her to carry a glass ball in her mouth. Nothing eases her worry.

Her nerves shorn by a decade of fear and silence, the mother finally endeavors to do the right thing, which is also the wrong thing: She walks her daughter to the banks of the Weser and shoves her into its winter churn. Bystanders will claim the young woman sang a song as she went down smooth as a spear—without any resistance. It’s the Piper, they’ll say. He found a way to overcome the defense of her impairment and made his curse complete: All of the children born before Saint John and Paul’s Day are now gone. The widow is a pious woman, but she is also wise. She holds her tongue again. The moral of her story, should one choose to discern it, is as cold as the river: It’s better to expose a monster than to harbor a sin.

 

II.

Things go wrong almost immediately. The first dancer forgets the dreaded reversal. The second dancer follows her without hesitation, without pause. She is cute, remember, but not smart. The third dancer from the left is not a stickler for conformity, but she wants things to be done as they should be done. This may make her a prude (her mother’s word), but it also makes her strong. It means she can think for herself. She makes the turn. Some of the dancers follow, others do not. There are conferences among the fourth through twelfth as the first, second, and third continue to execute their steps. They all choose a leader—the oldest and the strongest—thereby rendering the third dancer from the left an errant, flouncing dessert.

It may seem as though she is ignorant of the choreography, it may seem as though she has made a grave mistake and has stuck stubbornly to her guns, but the truth is that she’s the only dancer executing the dance properly, she’s the only one following the rules. This truth lodges painfully in her throat as she begins to cry, still faithfully conducting her march. She knows her mascara will run. She can sense her mother watching her from the audience, can hear her thoughts: Don’t ruin it for everyone. And so the man beckoning her from the side of the stage is a welcome sight. It is a relief to be called off. He wraps his shiny green jacket around her shoulders and they stand together for a moment, watching the travesty of Dancing for Desserts, one marching sherbet bumping into the next as they all turn their heads to see what happened to the third dancer from the left. Where has she gone?

When they finally discover her, sitting on a bench outside the auditorium, nibbling at the soggy bottom of an ice cream cone, she has no memory of the man. I saw her leave with him and I assumed he was one of yours, the dance teacher says, gesturing to the mother, the grandfather with the camcorder still strapped to his hand. One of your people. They ask her time and time again: Did he do anything to you? Did he touch you? There’s an answer somewhere inside her slick-bunned head, but they aren’t asking the right questions. What they should be asking her is how she came to know that she’d never be a dancer. It had happened in the instant she realized none of the other girls had any talent and that none of it mattered.

The video of the recital becomes the subject of intense scrutiny. The moment the dancers split in their paths, the moment the third dancer seems to recognize someone beyond the red drape of the curtains, the moment she smiles and runs. Who were you running to? Who was there? But there was no one there. How can she explain that there was no one there? Later, the mother will strip the girl of her costume, unpin her hair, smear the makeup from her face, bathe her roughly, and review her body for signs of violation. Finding none, she will tell her daughter that she hopes she’s happy. Do you realize how much trouble you’ve caused? The next time this happens, I want you to do one thing for me, can you do that? The girl nods. Follow the God damned leader.

 

III.

In her classroom, a fair portion of the students remain in their seats. Maybe twenty of the total seventy-five. The grade-grubbers. The kind of students who would remain seated through a hurricane if it meant they’d get the A. She’s close to telling them they may as well all leave—she’s not going to teach the class with so many missing students—when the intercom voice makes his first confounding announcement: “Attention students. A threat has been perceived on campus. We request that you stay calm and follow Crisis Plan B, as detailed in your student handbook.” The announcement is followed by a three-toned electronic scale. Bong, bong, bong. One of the seated students raises his hand and only lowers it when she finally thinks to call on him.

“Yes, James, what is it?”

“Is Crisis Plan B the one where we wait for you tell us what to do?”

James is never wrong. He could teach this class to the professor and she’d learn from him. He has memorized the textbook and can quote from her master’s thesis, if prompted. On the first day of class he told her he was proficient in twenty-seven instruments, but he was aiming for an even number. He might take up harmonica. Was that stupid? How would that look on his résumé? The professor remembers telling James that the harmonica would indeed look stupid; if he wanted to impress potential employers, he should call it a blues harp instead. He did not detect her sarcasm and she was helpless to correct their toxic dynamic. Now, she asks him if he knows what Crisis Plan A is all about.  

“That’s the one where we evacuate immediately and return to our dorms or places of residence.”

“That voice clearly said Plan B, did it not?”

A student on her left pipes up. “That’s why we’re sitting here waiting for you to show up and tell us what to do. He’s already told us to do Plan B three times.”

“Right,” she says. “I’m sorry I’m late. I’ve never been late for a class in my life. I slept in and then my shoe broke. That’s why I’m wearing these sneakers.” She looks down at her shoes. The spring-like structures built into the soles make her feel like a clown athlete. Real athletes don’t need springs to help them walk up hills; real athletes don’t buy off-brand shoes on clearance at the drug store. Only clown athletes do that.

“You’d think I’d have some training for events like these, but there’s nothing like that for professors in my position,” she says. She snorts. “I guess they expect us to inflate our grades enough to avoid being shot in the head. Anyway, I’m sure it’s a glitch in the system. If it were a real threat, campus police would be here, right? I came up the hill a minute ago and I didn’t see any sign of them.”

Several students stand and rush up the carpeted ramp to the exits, leaving their belongings at their desks. “Sorry,” she calls after them. “That was a dumb thing to say. I’m a little off today.” She smacks the side of her head like there’s a loose stone rattling inside and if she tries, she can pop it out the opposite ear.

James, one the final holdouts, rises slowly and puts his arms through the straps of his neon backpack. “You don’t have any clue what we’re supposed to do,” he says. It’s a question, but it’s also a statement; more importantly, it’s the most direct approach he has ever taken with her. She knows she upset him, and that was wrong, but the truth is these glitches happen all the time. Last week there was a voice in the student union telling everyone to evacuate to higher ground. Flood warning, it said, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

“Go, if you want,” she says. “It won’t impact your grade.”

“I think I’ll go.”

“Great, go. Frankly, I wonder why you didn’t follow the others.”

The intercom voice interrupts with his second confounding missive. “Attention students. The perceived threat level has been raised to Status Orange.” The three-toned scale follows. Bong, bong, bong.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” she says. This is the first and only time she’s ever taken the Lord’s name in vain in the presence of students. It’s a Jesuit institution and though she’s not religious herself, she doesn’t want to give the powers that be one more reason to oust her. “What in the hell is Status Orange supposed to be?”

The paralyzed shrimp to James’s left raises his smartphone in the air. “It means we await further instruction,” he says.

She becomes aware of the scent of sulfur, faint plumes of smoke licking the undersides of the rear doors and is hit with the nauseating understanding that her dithering has endangered them all. If they all die, it will be her fault they’ve all died.

“No,” she says. “It means we hide. Right now.”  

Despite her earnest attempts to herd her students toward and through the door she knows is hidden behind the giant, stacked chalkboards at the front of the classroom, they all defy her. Instead, they follow James, who reveals himself as their true leader and tells her to go to hell. He drops his backpack and runs. All of her remaining students follow suit, disappearing through the heavy doors at the back. 

“There’s something terrible happening out there,” she yells after them.

She briefly considers following James too, attempting to re-assert herself as a leader, but then decides she’ll only slow them down. It would be better if they didn’t have to worry about her. Behind the chalkboards, a short hall leads to an anteroom where only faculty are allowed. It’s a bland, windowless space. Only a very lonely person would spend any time here, which is why it’s the perfect place for her lunch, regularly conducted after class and comprised of egg salad and chocolate milk. She feels perfectly at home there and utterly safe. No one appears to know about this room but her.

The intercom voice interrupts to offer his first clear instruction of the ordeal. “A definitive threat has been perceived,” he says. “Proceed to the nearest exit and evacuate immediately.” Bong, bong, bong.

“Run if you want to run,” the professor says. She checks herself for the impulse, but it isn’t there. She wants to stay; she’s not a runner. It’s only when she hears the tapping of gunfire that she remembers the smartphone in her pocket. Her mother texts her as she holds the phone in her hand. Don’t be a hero! Get the hell out of there now! And then, Are you OK? And then, They’re shooting kids in there. Do you know that? And then, They don’t pay you enough to take a bullet! She tells her mother too much, she decides. That’s the problem. In the future, she’ll be more careful to withhold. She’ll tell her mother that teaching is the fire in her eye. She’ll tell her it’s her true calling. It doesn’t matter what she gets paid if she loves what she does.

When the smoke clears and the authorities discover her unharmed, sitting comfortably in a cold off-white room not even the janitor seems to know about, there are likely to be questions: Why didn’t you leave with your students? Why didn’t you attempt to protect the twelve who stayed? Why were you late today? How did you manage to survive? And she will have good answers for none of them. It’s possible she may not survive, of course. She may be harmed. The lunatic roving the halls in his green duster—the one with the bone to pick with feminists, the one who felt lonely in the dining hall, or the one who spent too much time on the internet playing war games—might be aware of this intermediary space, this non-classroom/non-non-classroom. It’s possible he’s worked it into his attack plan: Drive the students down the funnel of the lecture hall and pick them off once they’re confined and easy to target. These shooter kids aren’t often very good marksmen. Their training is often only in their minds.

If he finds only her, he’s likely to be disappointed. She’ll be sitting on a deflated couch, feet propped up on a molded plastic chair, while texting her mother. Do you think you could take care of the cats for a while? She’ll be as likely to invite his bullet as she will be to fear it. If he asks her a question—Why didn’t you leave while you still had the chance?—she’ll probably feel obliged to answer, but she may not. What does she owe this pimply-faced lout? No, better to let him deal with the disconcertion of an unafraid and unfleeing victim. Let that be her last gift to the planet: adult woman disaffection in the face of teenaged male disaffection.

The gunfire is closer and it quickens her heart, brings sweat into her eyes. Despite her fear, she still fully intends to dismiss the threat and the overwhelming temptation to bolt. She knows who she is and she knows who she isn’t and she isn’t a runner. The intercom voice begins an announcement—“Attention students”—and then stops. The three-toned scale bongs. Bong, bong, bong. It’s like a song, she realizes, luring the few remaining students and faculty members out of their hiding places and into the open. It’s the Pied Piper of poor campus crisis planning. What was the lesson of that story? Always pay your bills, never follow the leader, avoid suspicious street musicians?

The way it was told by her mother, whose text messages have quickly evolved from panic and concern to frustration and resentment—Why are you doing this to me? What did I do to deserve this? Get out of there!—it was a threatening warning that shifted with the violence of her moods. Embarrass me in front of strangers again and I’ll be entitled to punish you endlessly. Or, it is better to die than to stand out in a crowd. Or, sooner or later, you’ll get what you deserve. Her mother had a tendency of writing mother characters into all of the old fairy tales she told the professor as a child. The mother characters weren’t always heroes (her attempt at even-handedness?), but they always stole the show. The mother character might be one of the main reasons the professor is not a mother.

Her smartphone now tells her that a lone gunman is prowling the halls. He’s shooting at anyone in sight. The police can’t get to him because he has barricaded the front doors and placed explosives around some or all of the windows and doors. She considers ducking behind the couch, but doesn’t want to be caught that way—cowering. She wants to be the one who throws this guy off with her seeming nonchalance. Go ahead. I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life. She unties the laces on her awful purple shoes and settles in for the long haul, wedging a lumpy pillow behind her back. She resolves to conserve battery power and puts her phone in do-not-disturb mode, whatever that means, and tilts back her head. When the gunman flings open the door to the hidden anteroom, she won’t even be surprised. She’ll be napping, she thinks. Then, eight hours later, when the stress of appearing nonchalant has reduced her to an exhausted, huddled mass, she actually does manage to sleep.

A day passes. The crisis resolves itself without her knowledge or awareness. When she wakes, she tries to turn on her phone, but it refuses, battery dead. The device is as useless as a chalk eraser to her. It takes her a few hours of consideration and re-consideration, but she finally musters the courage to emerge. Her fear is not that the gunman will still be waiting for her, but rather that she’ll catch a policeman off guard and be shot mistakenly. There’s a headline she does not wish to court: CONTINGENT FACULTY SLAIN BY FRIENDLY FIRE.

Her slow progress down the back stairway is marred by no signs of great violence. There are no pools of blood or broken glass. Once outside, she can see that all of the activity is focused on the front of the building. A herd of reporters stands under bright lights and yellow police tape flaps in the wind.

As she makes her way down the cobblestone walkway, no one tries to stop her for questioning. No one appears to notice her at all. By the time she makes it to her usual lot and realizes that her Acura is parked in the pay-by-the-hour lot, her day has taken on the familiar hue of her life’s chronic frustrations. Now she’ll have to pay at least fifty dollars to get her car off campus. She could contest the fee, but then she’d have to explain that she’d been sleeping in the lecture hall while a crazy person riddled the places with bullets. Yes, that’s right, she’d slept through the worst tragedy of her life. What’s the moral of that story? Be careful where you lounge, it may be more sleep-inducing than it first appears. When she arrives home, it’s clear her mother has not been by to feed the cats. They swarm her, as though she’s been gone for months, and then evade her touch. She dumps a full bag of kibble on the kitchen floor, fills a soup pot with fresh water for them, and marches up the stairs to take a shower.

She considers turning on NPR as the waters steam the mirror, her usual habit, but she’s not prepared to hear any of the shooting’s details: the body count; the names of the dead, which are likely to include a few of her own students, if not all of the twelve who left her hiding and alone in the lecture hall; the early tales of professorial heroism, her colleagues who sacrificed themselves. She’s not prepared to hear her own name among those who are missing or presumed dead. Most of all, she’s not prepared to hear her mother’s weeping reprisals. I told her to get out of there. She steps into the scald of the water, that voice still ringing in her head. I told her to find another line of work. Something where she didn’t have to deal with people. You’d be appalled to know what they pay her. A PhD shopping at Goodwill for work clothes. Can you imagine?

It is then that it comes to her: She will leave this place. She will escape her dark fate. She will wash her body, toss her clothes and her shoes into the neighbor’s trash, and use the presumption of her death to give herself a head start on anyone who might want to find her. She steps into the water, feels her old self falling away, and catches herself on the other side of herself humming a strange little three-toned tune. Bong, bong, bong.

 

IV.

Rest assured, the mother has regrets. There is a way of seeing the story that makes it seem like she’s the villain. But she has always prided herself on her ability to overcome hardship. She won’t let the loss of the daughter slow her down. Now that she’s free from the embarrassment of her charge, she considers remarrying. She considers radically revising her appearance. She considers an occupation that might lead her out of the house. She waits a month (she has no wish to appear unfeeling) and emerges a changed woman, but every time she sets foot on the other side of the gate, she finds herself inexplicably drawn to the little cobblestone road down by the river. Try as she might, she cannot deviate from this path.

After trying and failing for months to arrive anywhere else, she finally walks into the water and is never seen or heard from again. Bystanders will claim that she showed signs of distress as she moved through the water, reaching back to the banks with her arms while her legs marched her steadily forward. It was the strangest thing, they will say, but she seemed as though she were dancing. 

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