By Olivia Loccisano
A few years ago, I was camping with some friends in Ontario’s North. We were all sitting around a bonfire on our towels, and someone asked:
“What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you?”
Each person went around the circle telling stories about seeing a dead body or almost drowning. I kept counting down how many people were in the circle until I had to share. I was so afraid for them to call on me; not because I did not know what the scariest thing in my life was, but because I had to relive it.
When I was eleven, I took ballet class. Nikita and I stood in the locker room giggling as we watched little Stevie hide boxes of cookies and one frozen lasagna inside her locker. She had been hoarding and eating food throughout class and everyone knew it. All the other girls in the class would give her condescending glances because she was the biggest among all of the girls. All of the other girls were thin and this was a sign of beauty among us, and these beauty standards excluded Stevie. The dress rehearsal of our Winter concert was in two weeks, and we were all dreaming of sugarplums dancing in our heads.
Everyone knew that Stevie loved Akari. She was the most beautiful girl in our class and was the only girl who was kind to Stevie. Whenever we would laugh at Stevie, Akari would turn and hush us. She would never join in with the laughter. Stevie’s love for Akari was obvious. During dance practice, Stevie would stare at Akari with a dreamy, almost stunned, smile. Her infatuation with Akari was so serious that our teacher, Ms. Caroline constantly had to tell Stevie to pay attention every time she missed a pirouette or stance because she was held in enchantment.
At the end of one class, I heard screams coming from the locker room. I walked in to see the girls running to the benches, tucking their long legs into their chests. Ms. Caroline, walked up to where the girls’ eyes were locked: a boil infested rat scraping its claws at Stevie’s locker. I immediately joined them in screaming. Ms. Caroline busted the locker open to which frozen lasagna and two boxes of cookies fell out.
“Girls! What did I tell you about leaving food in your locker!” she wailed as the rat grabbed a cookie in its teeth and ran away.
Our screams turned into loud guffaws as the threat of the rat was now obsolete. We pointed to Stevie, laughing, and howling words of disgust. Akari immediately shushed us.
At the end of class that night, Akari was coming for a sleepover and we were waiting for my mom to pick us up. We were the last ones waiting outside along with Stevie. It was snowing and we were silent. Then Akari said:
“Rats are kind of cute.”
“Yeah?” Stevie replied.
“Yeah,” Akari continued, “I love their cute little whiskers.” She made a tong with her index finger and thumb and repeatedly clamped. Then, to our dismay Akari said:
“You should come over Friday before dress rehearsal. We are doing a gift exchange.”
Stevie looked as though she was trying to conceal an uncontrollable and wild joy. She agreed with that huge smile spread across her face. Then my mom came to pick us up and we jumped in the car before Akari could say anything back.
During the next ballet class, I watched Akari walk up to Stevie with a winter toque.
“Reach inside. Pick a piece of paper. That’s your Secret Santa.”
All the other girls, including me, looked at this in revulsion. We never wanted Stevie involved in our lives more than she had to be.
I can still remember the cold tactile experience that was the marble floor beneath my legs on the night of the dress rehearsal. All the girls were sitting on the floor of the locker room with our make up in little polar white powdered faces. Then Stevie walked in, and we immediately started chatting with each other, giggling about her. Akari jumped up from the floor, her legs twisting deer-like in the air and hugged her.
We all opened our Secret Santa gifts. Stevie had brought Martha a pair of earmuffs, and Martha did not do a good job at hiding her apathetic emotion, if she even was trying. Tissue paper riddled the floor, and Stevie was the only girl without a gift. Then Akari handed her a tiny box.
“I was your Secret Santa!” she cried out.
Stevie carefully opened the box. We all waited in anticipation. As Stevie’s chubby fingers lifted the lid, she was greeted by a long-pointed nose with whiskers and little claws prying their way out. She threw the box across the floor while we all screamed and laughed.
She then turned to Akari who was laughing among us. Stevie sat there, tears welling so obviously in her eyes. Her body stiffened and she glared at Akari who stared back at her, laughing. Stevie remained silent. The rat scurried to her locker and began to nibble a cookie crumb on the floor near it. The girls and I then howled in a gut laugh that roared and echoed the locker room walls.
Stevie, tears and redness welled within her eyes, walked towards the rat. She knelt close to the nibbling grey creature and stared at it. She looked at us as we continued to laugh at her expense. Akari continued grinning and giggling as we all marinated in awe at the punch line she had created. Stevie picked up the rat. While looking directly at Akari, she dug her teeth deep into the rodent’s skin. Stevie ripped off the flesh with her teeth and began eating it. She was staring at us girls right in the eyes while she was doing it. Blood spread over her cheeks, chin and chest. Our laughter turned into screams of horror. We all began to cry and yell for Ms. Caroline to come in and help us. We ran to the walls of the locker room terrified but forced to stare in awe as Stevie continued gnawing and chewing as the rat squealed and screamed louder and louder. There was nothing we could do as she devoured that animal right in front of us.
Ballet class was shut down, and I have no idea what became of Stevie. Never again have I ever danced without smelling the rat’s blood or seeing the look of betrayal in Stevie’s eyes as she munched its skin. Almost a decade after the incident, I recognized Akari at my university library. We did not greet one another. Our eyes met, and we clearly recognized one another. It was a paradoxical look of sickly panic and understanding: a look that stabbed me with the reminiscent fear that we were part of a cruel and unspeakable joke. The look was much like the feeling one gets from stepping up the stairs and thinking there is one more stair that there actually is. She turned her eyes away from mine and back down at her books.
I did not mention my story at the bonfire. Instead, I made up a story about a non-existent monster I had seen as a child. I was dreading that something about me recounting the story about Stevie would mean that a part of it would be brought back to life and unmask the monster that lives inside me. Of all the things that happened in those years of my childhood, that is all I can remember.
Olivia Loccisano is a storyteller and Arts teacher from Toronto, Canada. She is inspired by magical realism, folk horror, and how young women and children navigate the strange realms of life through their own imagination and rituals.