Content Warning: passing, veiled references to physical abuse and sexual assault.
How the prom committee thinks they’ve turned this gods-awful gym into a passable Greek temple is beyond me. I stand in the foyer, heels digging into the linoleum floor as if the flimsy material could keep me safe. I’m early and dateless and the sound of faint drums meets my ears. Did they really decide to go with war drums as the students enter?
Pushing down the anger, I try to calm my stomach, focusing on images of marble statues as I walk past the gaudy, white-and-blue streamers hung from the ceiling. The poor chaperones are lined up along the wall, squeezed into tight suits and dresses they haven’t worn since this time last year. Different students, same outfits.
My ankle wobbles as my heel catches a divot on the floor of the basketball court. At least that’s what I tell myself. It’s easier to chalk it up to human error rather than the panic clutching my chest when I spot the papier-mâché horse in the corner of the gym. The editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Elaine, and her boyfriend, Brad are posed beneath it, tight against each other. And as the photographer’s flash goes off, I see her smile waver. See the way the beach volleyball captain’s hand squeezes the flesh at her hip. Hard. Too hard.
And even though the flash disappears, and her smile is painted back in place, the little nagging in the back of my head that I’ve come to know so well tells me I must help her. It would’ve been nice if the nag had appeared in the last journalism staff meeting. But no, it’s gotta be tonight, of all nights.
As I make my way across the gym toward that horse, I realize I’ve stopped counting the new lives I’ve led, the prophecies I’ve given. The first couple of times, I tried to make it back to Troy. I prayed and prayed and prayed until the prayers turned to screams.
I’d warned that young French girl not to lead them into battle. That they wouldn’t trust the voices she heard in her head. They martyred her anyway.
I’d tried to hide the young princess from the paparazzi. But she was everywhere, the car crash on the front page of the tabloids.
Too many others to count or think about. Too many lives and countries and years. Too many deaths. Names and lives distilled to a textbook chapter or Wikipedia page or headline. So in this life, I decided to try to be a part of the narrative, shaping it all by writing headlines and interviewing people. Maybe someone will listen to me if my name is in the byline. Maybe someone will hear me if the headline is snappy enough. Maybe someone will finally see me. Maybe—
“Cas, what are you doing?”
I stop abruptly at the sound of my twin’s voice. I try to peer around him to calm the buzzing in my chest, the need to keep moving. But his uncalloused fingers lift my chin toward him. I miss his battle-worn hands; I wonder if he misses holding a sword.
We look nothing alike in this lifetime. Not that we ever do anymore. I think the gods like playing games, making it impossible for us to find each other. It gets harder every time we are brought back.
This time around, my parents are immigrants from Mexico City. I’m short and brown and speak with an accent. At least my name is mostly the same this time. My parents sing my name, lilting over the dropped S, caressing the vowels throughout. I wish I could love them the way they love me. I wish I could be their Casandra.
My brother moved here from South Carolina with his uncle. He’s tall, almost too tall. He’s white and lanky and his hair is a shock of platinum white, like a blanched seashell. He sat next to me in homeroom last year, introduced himself to the class as Harry. I didn’t look twice at him until he slid a bookmark my way with a cartoon drawing of the Parthenon. That’s when I knew he’d found me.
I’d skipped journalism to meet him in the hallway. I thought we’d hatch a plan, figure out who we were supposed to help, figure out how to make them listen this time around. No matter how often I was overlooked or called insane, I always knew at least I had him. But it didn’t happen like that. Instead, he told me he wanted to live this time around. He’d grown tired of trying to figure out how we could find peace. He’d said he wanted to be normal for once, and as I looked into his eyes, which were the only constant to his many forms, I couldn’t refuse him this. I couldn’t make him die again.
And looking at his eyes now, bright from what I’m sure is cheap alcohol, it hurts knowing what he’s going to give up if I don’t get this right.
“They’re giving us another chance, Helenus.”
“No, Cas, they’re not,” he says, voice low and deep. It reverberates down my spine, matching the pace of the weird drum beat the DJ is playing. “The gods are playing you again.”
“But what if this is the time I break the curse? What if Athena’s on our side finally? What if it’s not a trick?”
He glances toward the horse, wincing just like I did. I’m sure he’s reliving the part he played in giving up Troy to our enemies. But then again, that was a long time ago. Maybe he’s just cringing at the lopsided papier-mâché eyes.
“Maybe. But I wasn’t kidding, Cas,” he says, taking a step back. “You’re on your own this time.”
My knees lock. I’ve never done this on my own. He’s always been there, a heavy protector. I was comfortable being his shadow. I was comfortable standing behind him, peeking out only to offer words they wouldn’t listen to. It was easier with him protecting me. But for the first time, in this smelly gym, surrounded by hundreds of my classmates, I’m suddenly exposed. And it’s terrifying. Because even though my blood is pulsing, it feels for the first time like I can do this.
On my own.
“Okay, H. I hope you find what you need here.”
And I do. I really do. Maybe he’ll get to live. He’ll go to college and buy a motorcycle. He’ll win bets and the lottery and every game of luck he’s up against, because well, that’s what we do. He’ll smile a bit too wide, and he’ll grow into his bright hair. He’ll move back to Greece and open up a bar, where the bachelorette parties are loud, and the wine is strong. And he’ll fall in love by the sea as he did so many years ago. Gods, I wish I could be there for all of it. I want to say more, break down, or beg him to reconsider.
All of this must show because the strong face he plastered on wavers, and I can see he’s on the brink of following me. Like he always does. So, for the first time in our history, I grab his hand, squeeze it tight, and unlock my knees. And I set out on my own. I don’t turn around, knowing that if I do, I’ll break. I start walking toward where I last saw Brad and Elaine.
My brother fades into the mosh of teenagers as I make my way over to the refreshment table. They say refreshments but really, it’s just stale cupcakes our chemistry teacher, Mrs. Liang, pretends she baked, and radioactive punch the teachers pretend isn’t spiked with every kind of alcohol stolen from unlocked liquor cabinets. I fill a cup and knock it back, wincing as the liquid burns on the way down. This is nothing like the wine we used to have at every meal. Back when everything was simple. Back before that night in the temple. Back before they refused to listen, before our city burned to the ground.
The buzz flares to life and I know she’s close. I check my phone and it shows 9:01 p.m. Still pretty early in the night, and Principal Martinez hasn’t announced prom king or queen yet. In other words, there’s still enough time for me to royally screw this up. I hear the unsteady clacking of stiletto heels before I see her.
The first thing I notice is that Elaine is wasted. Which seems impossible compared to Brad, who’s slumped over with his teammates on the pull-out bleachers. Her red hair’s pulled back in intricate braids, complimenting her impeccable makeup and fashion-forward, metallic midi dress. She knows she doesn’t belong in this tiny town. She belongs in New York, walking a Doberman through Central Park. Eating fancy Italian food in the West Village with her model friends. Managing one of the upscale imprints for Condé Nast—maybe Vanity Fair or Vogue. She doesn’t belong in this gym, where her fresh gardenia perfume is smothered by the smell of teenage hormones and Axe body spray.
I fake a cough, so Elaine knows I’m here, and when her hazy eyes meet mine, she gives a half-hearted wave. She fills another cup of punch before putting it down on the table.
“I gotta find a bathroom, babe,” she whines, running her nails through Brad’s curly hair. “Don’t let my camera out of your sight. I’ve gotta use it to take pictures of the prom court.”
Brad grunts, not looking at her as she careens into the foyer toward the family bathroom. I follow her quietly. She tries the door, but as most drunk girls do, she doesn’t bother trying to read if it’s a push or pull. She pushes; it’s a pull. After three tries, Elaine staggers over to the wall opposite me and crouches down, ignoring a pile of wetness near the water fountain.
“Cas, do you know if someone’s in there?” she says, voice faking steadiness and cheerfulness.
“Yeah, I think I saw someone go in.”
No matter what year or what country or what their problem is, they always start off unassuming. Like they don’t want to upset others around them. Whether the person I’m supposed to be helping is a future queen or a CEO’s assistant, they’re always so, well, nice. They’ve been trained to be agreeable and cordial and at ease. Even if that’s the last thing they want. And that’s the problem.
But maybe Elaine will be different.
I shove my hands into the pockets of my sparkly blue pantsuit, trying not to feel the pressure of the buzzing in my chest. I’ll need to use my lifetimes of experience to ask the right questions.
“So, who’s your pick for prom king?” I say brightly, craning my head at the bathroom door. “You’re here with Brad, so I’m assuming him?”
She lets out a tiny laugh then stops, as if she’s surprised that a sound escaped her. But she recovers quickly.
“Um, yeah, it’ll be Brad. Some computer genius on the volleyball team hacked the admin’s Google poll and rigged it.”
Now it’s my turn to laugh. These teenagers are resourceful, I’ll give them that.
“Oh, shit!” she says, neck turning red and blotchy with embarrassment. “I totally shouldn’t have said that! I’m not even supposed to know that. Brad got pissed when I found out and said I’d better not run an exposé. Don’t spill or you’ll be writing the Horoscopes for the last three issues, too.”
No one reads my news articles or op-eds. No matter how extensive my research is or how creative an interviewee. But they all laugh at my horoscopes. They’re funny and trendy and no one takes them seriously. Little do they know that they’re all right. But no one believes.
“No, I won’t tell,” I answer. “And I’ll write the horoscopes, it’s fine.”
“They’re always really good, Cas. Thanks.”
We both go quiet, taking turns looking at the bathroom door. She crouches over all of a sudden, before pushing herself back up to stand. She wobbles on her stilettos and hits the wall hard. She won’t remember it except for maybe a bruise tomorrow morning.
“Maybe the bathroom next to Principal Martinez’s office is open. Wanna come with?”
I nod and follow her along the edges of the gym. She rarely talks to me outside of staff meetings, but then again, bonds are strengthened when Svedka’s all but replaced the blood in a girl’s veins. We’ve almost reached the doors to the foyer when a tuxedoed arm comes flying out of nowhere and lands heavily on my shoulders.
I feel the immediate panic rise in my stomach: a push to run down the hallway. To escape from his grasp. To pray Athena won’t ignore me like she always does. Instead, I grab his wrist and shove him off.
Brad just laughs and stumbles over toward Elaine. Her face is blank, revealing nothing.
“Hey, babe, where’d you escape to?”
“I told you already,” she says, eyes darting to me as if to make sure I haven’t left her. “I needed to find a bathroom.”
“Well, Eduardo wants to leave soon, so hurry up. His cousin got the keg delivered already and needs to set it up.”
“But I need to stay to see who gets crowned,” she says, swaying more than she was earlier. “It’s gonna be the cover story for this week’s paper. Where’s my camera?”
“How would I know?” he slurs.
“I asked you to keep it with you!” she says, looking him up and down as color rises in her cheeks. “I need it for the next issue’s pictures.”
“Babe, just relax. Let’s just get out of here.”
“Brad, it’s important!”
He reaches out to grab her forearm, and the buzzing in my chest gets louder. Almost painful.
“I thought I was important.”
Her smile slips, so quickly I almost miss it. But I don’t.
I channel drunk, happy girl energy, and muscle myself between them.
“Elaine,” I say, whining over the top. “I’ve really gotta peeee.”
Brad smiles at me in a way that reminds me of rope on a ship about to snap. Tension, too tight. But he doesn’t say anything, just presses a kiss to the side of her neck and slinks back to the gym.
Elaine all but runs into the bathroom, which is luckily empty. I pretend not to notice her hands shaking as she opens her clutch and pulls out a roller tube of her gardenia perfume.
“So, remind me, how long have you and Brad been a thing?” I ask. The pressure in my chest pauses for a second and I know I’m on the right track.
“Um, since like October? So, I guess seven months or so? But I’ve known him since fifth grade, so it feels way longer than that.”
I push, knowing that the more she talks, the less she will remember of our conversation. Even if she did recall it, it’ll be dulled and not just by the alcohol. She’d wonder why she was able to open up to a classmate that was practically a stranger. Why she felt comfortable pouring out her darkest secrets under the fluorescent lights the janitor never got around to fixing. Why, when she was so used to asking the questions, she felt comfortable answering mine.
“He’s always been super sweet, you know?” she says, all in a rush. “My dad really likes him, and he’s going to Chapman for economics. Which is close enough to USC that it won’t even be actual long distance. Way easier than Columbia like I’d originally wanted. Like, can I really ask for much more?”
Elaine twirls the bracelet on her wrist around and around with each excuse, as if hoping I don’t hear the question at the end of all of her sentences. But even if she wasn’t talking, I’d still be able to hear them. She continues, not waiting for me to say anything.
“I just keep thinking I’ll feel more, but Brad is just so…Brad, you know? He’s nice and, and, I don’t know, I think I’m lucky to have found someone like him. He says he loves me and—”
She cuts herself off, looking at the spot above her bracelet where he grabbed her. We both stare at the red imprint of his fingers.
“I’m fine,” she says, glancing over her shoulder at me. Her eyes are completely dry. She thinks she’s placating me, but I can hear the question, the quake in her voice.
Hoping I’m wrong, I reach out, letting my own hand cover the red spot. And I see it all in an instant.
I see the way Brad’s hands always tighten too quickly on the controller in his hands when he plays video games. Sneaking beer from the extra fridge stocked in the garage. The pistols he admires because his whole family hunts. The shudder of doors slamming open against newly painted walls. The raw cut of his throat from screaming expletives at his dad at 2 a.m.
I see them later tonight, Elaine’s shiny dress ripped. I see him telling her to get back in the car, to stop complaining, he hasn’t had that much to drink, she was being ridiculous, he has to get her home before curfew. I see the semi he doesn’t around the curve because he’s too preoccupied with Elaine’s crying. I see blinding lights, a long honk, and one scream. The smell of gardenias doesn’t linger long, it’s replaced with rust and beer in the air.
Her skin is stark white in the mirror, and I know I’ve projected enough of it her way for her to feel. She’ll chalk it up to drinking, but she felt it: she felt her future and the impact of the truck.
“Does he love you?” I ask her quietly.
And then, that little nag in the back of my head turns into a voice as sharp as it was in my first life.
“Tell her,” Athena whispers.
Elaine refuses to look at me, but she hiccups as if her emotions are trying to break out of her diaphragm. As if she refuses to allow herself to feel it all. I break because I know what that pressure is like.
“I know how you feel, Elaine,” I say, grabbing her hand. I clutch it so tight I can’t tell if I draw blood. I know my voice will be so urgent it’ll sound like I’m speaking in tongues. If anyone passes by, my Spanish would frazzle them, phonetics frantic and hurried. Later, Elaine will think it sounded ancient, all Greek to her. But the words aren’t important. What’s important is that she believes me.
“It started off perfect. He was so kind and sweet and he looked right at you like he understood. But then somewhere along the line, he stopped hearing you, stopped listening, and he took everything he wanted.”
My grip tightens as I remember Apollo’s smile, the sunlight in his eye that turned taunting. And even worse, how Ajax smelled of sea salt and sweat and rage. Night and day, but both ultimately the same.
“Elaine, don’t leave with Brad to go to the afterparty. Call an Uber and head home. If you go with him, something terrible is going to happen.”
“What do you mean something’s going to happen?”
“Just, please, believe me. Please believe me.”
“This isn’t something to joke about, Cas,” she says, tearing her hand from mine. “This isn’t pretend like your horoscopes, so just stop.”
“I’m not kidding, Elaine. Please believe me.”
I remember when people didn’t question me. When they didn’t automatically assume I was kidding. When they didn’t laugh at me. When I would sit in the temple and they’d line up. They’d come from far and wide and wait for hours for my predictions. I remember the absolute power. To have everyone listen. Back then, the buzzing wasn’t gusts of winds looking for a way to escape. Back then it was just me and the future. But I’d give all of those memories up if this girl, this time, in this place would hear me.
Elaine puts her perfume away and glances toward the bathroom door. My heart rate ratchets up even more.
“Please,” I whisper.
She doesn’t look at me when she leaves the bathroom and walks back down the hallway. I follow her as she pauses in the foyer, the sounds of prom winding down muffled out here. Principal Martinez’s voice is garbled, but I’m sure she’s announcing the prom court. Elaine staggers a couple of steps toward the gym doors but hesitates. One of her ankles wobbles and her heel rolls a bit. But she’s barely paying attention. She stares into the gym through the windowed panels in the door, and I see Brad over her shoulder.
He’s standing near his friends, a drunken smile on his face. And, I know she’s thinking how simple it would be. How easy to go in and borrow his jacket, lying that she’s cold. How easy it’d be to allow another alcohol tinged kiss. And I’m so tired of trying and failing yet again. For thinking this time would be different.
But then Brad leaves the table, and Elaine straightens up, head held high. He’s left her camera on the table. And his cup of spiked punch falls over, leaking into the lens. It’s ruined. Keeping her eye on him, she lurches back while pulling her phone out of the pocket of her dress. She starts toward the parking lot until she catches me out of her periphery.
And she just looks at me, blinking slowly. As she leaves the foyer, I feel the pressure lift off of my chest and the buzzing stops for the first time in this life. I recognize the sound of my brother shouting my name from inside the gym as he feels the curse lift too, and Athena’s laughter in my ear as I breathe in the disappearing scent of gardenias.
I push open the doors, and Harry runs to meet me. Confetti is falling, and Taylor Swift is being played by the local cover band, and it’s perfect. I finally did it, and now, it’s time to live. Enjoy prom. And then maybe I’ll look up flights to Greece. Or maybe I’ll give this life a chance.
I can’t see what the future holds anymore.