Allegra Hyde | Fiction
Cori had not lived with a roommate in several years and approached the situation with trepidation. She had not been told with whom she would board. This was intentional, she suspected, not merely clerical truancy. The organization liked to have the upper hand. Most organizations do, but this one was famous for its rigid worship of hierarchy, process, as well as its near mystical ability to launch a career. The annual retreat was considered an industry secret, though everyone knew about it: a well-worn path for up-and-coming filmmakers on their way to fame and fortune. Roommate pairings were a calibrated alchemy. The unification of two strangers could hold significance in years to come. Cori tried not to imagine who her roommate might be—tried to focus instead on what a person needed to pack for twelve days in rural northern Arizona—but the off-chance she’d be matched with Florence Hess nipped at her mind: a delicious possibility. Terrifying, too.
Cori arrived at the retreat site early, anxious to select her bunk with strategic care. She hadn’t done so back in college and the long-term effects were disastrous. She was a light sleeper. A frequent pee-er. She was, in her mother’s words, “easily rattled.”
The room was empty. Cori dropped her suitcases on the floor. Retreat participants were housed in an old hunting compound that sprawled through several acres of pine forest. The main lodge—where Cori was staying—was timber-built, cobwebbed in corners, with elk and bighorn heads mounted on its lobby walls. Cori’s room was on the second floor, at the end of a long hallway, tucked under the eaves. The room contained two dressers, though only one had a mirror—an antique, with a burnished patina—and two twin beds with one nightstand between them. A single open window exhaled late-August air, rippling a thin white curtain like the hem of a nightgown.
Cori picked the bed nearest the window. She would live here for twelve days, an amount of time that could be very long or very short.
She sat on the bed, then stood by the window, then sat on the bed again, waiting for her roommate to arrive. A charter bus had pulled in front of the lodge, along with a handful of cars, and people milled about in the dusty lot, talking loudly and shaking hands, before thumping into the lodge with their luggage.
Cori gripped the bedspread. She reminded herself that it was enough to have been invited to the retreat; she should be happy to haunt the proceedings, invisible as a ghost. She was out of her league in many respects. Most of the other participants had made the rounds of film festivals. They’d won awards. They lived in LA or New York, and likely already knew one another. Cori lived in Phoenix; she spent most of her time answering the phone for a dog food company. She shot her short, weird films on a borrowed Super 8 with the sporadic help of a routinely-stoned film collective.
Still no roommate.
Cori speed-ate a bag of chocolate almonds, felt sick to her stomach. She hurried to the communal bathroom down the hall. There were only two stalls and three sinks for a whole floor of retreat participants; practicing personal hygiene with any privacy would be impossible. She felt sicker. When she heard someone coming, she panicked and hid in a stall.
The person took a long time by the sink—so long that if Cori emerged, her appearance would be off-putting. Voices drifted through the lodge, followed by a shrieky laugh, a slammed door. Cori peered through the crack running along the stall’s hinge. A slouchy, dark-haired man caught her movement in the mirror and spun around. Cori reared backwards into the toilet paper dispenser.
“I won’t bite,” said the man.
Another five minutes passed before he finally left.
When Cori slunk back to the room it was still unoccupied, though a pile of belongings had been deposited on the other bed. Cori leaned over a nametag tossed beside a duffel bag.
Florence Hess, it read.
Cori flopped onto her own bed, overwhelmed—and then exultant. Perhaps her inclusion in the retreat was not an aberration. She truly was on the precipice of a new life. This roommate pairing would be her longed-for career catalyst: a lucky break.
Cori’s joy was short-lived. Comparing Florence’s belongings to her own, she discovered she had brought too much. Too many suitcases. Too many face creams and sweatshirts and shoes. A fan from home. Her own pillow. Having driven up from Phoenix, it had been easy to second-guess what she might need and over-pack her car.
Florence had hardly brought anything, and what she had looked expensive and cool. A few designer dresses. A jeweled bottle of perfume. Over-sized sunglasses. Leather-lined headphones and a shiny new laptop.
Cori’s belongings came from thrift stores and TJ Maxx. Like her, the possessions were functional, passably attractive, but fundamentally flawed. Cori was too tall, chubby in the face and skinny elsewhere, with maddeningly persistent adult acne. Surveying Florence’s belongings, she felt the gulf between who she was and what she wanted to be.
When she called her husband and described her anxiety, he suggested drinking.
“It has helped me in the past,” he said.
She nodded; the pair took one another’s advice seriously. Despite having had little success in their respective fields, they buoyed one another with inflated optimism: a survival technique for broke people with out-sized goals. Her husband was an architect—at least on paper—and had recently attended a similar retreat, though his had been shorter and he had needed to pay to attend.
“Remember, you’re there for a reason,” said her husband. “They invited you because they saw your potential. You have a unique perspective to share.”
Cori pretended she agreed and hung up. Even if she did not have to pay for the retreat, it cost them both for her to be here, missing work. She’d had to pull favors to get enough time off. Running a finger down the retreat’s schedule—a list of daily speakers, screenings, meals, panels, critique sessions—she discovered there was a welcome mixer happening in a barn on the edge of the hunting compound. Though normally a teetotaler, she resolved to get tipsy enough to be brave.
Cori saw Florence immediately, but avoided her. Brushing past her roommate, she stepped through the wide open barn doors and into the swirl of people scuffing stray bits of straw in the afternoon light. She went through the motions of meeting fellow retreat attendees, remembering none of their names. There were twin documentarians from Minnesota, both with shaved heads. An actress turned director. A producer who spoke exclusively in elevator pitches. She met one of the wealthy film-enthusiasts who sponsored the retreat—a barrel-chested airline executive who talked endlessly about his new ranch—and who was allowed to attend only because he’d donated so much money. Of course, none of them would be there, out in the pine forest, in a barn at the edge of the world, had people like him not coughed up the funds.
Florence wore a flannel button-down tucked into her jeans. This seemed so obviously cool and effortlessly hip, Cori had to resist putting down her drink and tucking her own blouse into her pants right then and there.
Florence was small, but most people were small compared to Cori. She had a doll’s face, as well as a doll’s body: thin and boneless. Her hair was silver-gray, which had been fashionable for young women at some point—though Florence had the hair before and after. So gray hair and a doll’s face. Sharp little red fingernails. She did not look happy—she looked bored, pained by the proceedings—but she made unhappiness look good. A rotating set of people talked at her while she said very little.
Cori acquired a second cup of something fizzy and tart. She wedged herself between two hay bales to avoid another conversation with the airline executive. She had a bad habit of holding ice cubes in her mouth—the way some amphibians hold their young—and she did this though the chill of the ice made her tremble.
Across the barn, two washed-up film mentors patted one another on the back. Retreat attendees mingled and laughed, everyone’s faces shiny with goodwill, as if they were all setting off on a voyage together: sailing into the setting sun.
Maybe they were. They would be spending a lot of time in one another’s company. Cori had been warned by a friend who’d attended the retreat several years prior, that time would become distorted—reality too. The outside world would recede.
“Don’t forget about it, though,” her friend had said, with more seriousness than seemed warranted. “You’ll have to go back to that world after and that’s all you’ll have.”
This warning fled Cori’s mind when she and Florence finally met—jostled into proximity by the retreat’s already-drunk supervisor. Cori tried to appear surprised that Florence was her roommate. She strove to hold herself steady and sound normal. But she had crossed the threshold of intoxication faster than expected. She was too enthusiastic and spit when she spoke. A tiny white fleck landed on Florence’s cheek. Cori watched the fleck burn out against Florence’s skin, as if Florence had absorbed her.
Florence seemed not to notice. She took tiny sips of her beverage, leaning forward to drink rather than bringing the cup to her lips, like a doe dipping its head to water.
“I went to Maine once,” she said, in a gauzy voice, after Cori shared a long description of her hometown.
“I mean, I don’t live there anymore,” said Cori. “I moved to Phoenix. With my husband. He does architecture—or tries to.”
The faintest smile passed over Florence, like a breeze rustling through pine trees. She excused herself to collect another drink.
Cori berated herself for her bumbling, self-indulgent commentary—as well as for caring so much about what Florence thought. She wished she could be dismissive of this girl-phenom who was so unfairly beautiful, and talented, and rich. But there was nothing obviously awful about her. And Cori had seen Florence’s first feature like everyone else: a film lauded at Cannes. Exquisitely grotesque, one reviewer had said. A feminist triumph, said another. Hess subverts our understanding of womanhood through gore. Given the hype, Cori had expected to find flaws in artistic execution, sophomoric sentimentalities, cinematic parlor tricks. Instead, she was deeply moved. The film reimagined the facts of the Slender Man stabbing, offering up a meditation on female adolescence that was as graceful as it was graphic. It was the kind of film Cori hoped to make.
Cori tried not to be clingy in the days that followed. Sharing a room with Florence involved a careful dance of giving space, while trying to maintain her usual routines. Cori found it difficult to sleep, for instance, without a fan blowing at a specific setting, in a particular direction across her face. For Florence, Cori positioned the fan in an innocuous location by the window. She made a show of busyness—as if she always had somewhere else to be—while trying not to appear too invested in the retreat, taking a cue from Florence, who seemed bored by the screenings and speakers and critique sessions. Florence said little to Cori. Her comments were brisk and businesslike, though after two days, she did bemoan the idea of staying for twelve. Cori moaned with her, happy to have a common point of connection. She tried to appear easy-going, open-minded. Florence locked their door at night, which seemed unnecessary given the retreat’s remoteness, but Cori said nothing, even if she did have to unlock the door in the night to pee.
When Florence made phone calls—which she often did—Cori pretended she had a reason to leave the room. She took many walks. She did this even when it was late and the air grew chilly and she was tired. She became well-acquainted with the pine forest around the hunting lodge: the huge sap-sticky trees rising from a bed of pine needles. The walks brought to mind the hours she’d spent alone on the Maine coast—just her and the salt water, sea breeze, gulls—nature going about the stately business of centuries. Even so, Cori would have preferred to hole up in the room. But part of her hoped that if she was not clingy toward Florence, she and Florence would become friends, and such a friendship would have significant—if at present undefined—impacts on her life.
One night, though, Cori’s non-clinginess went too far. After another long walk, she crawled into her bed, exhausted, while Florence read a book in hers.
“I’m going to sleep,” said Cori. “Feel free to keep the light on—I don’t mind.”
“You can sleep with the light on?”
Florence sounded incredulous, as if Cori had offered to slice herself open on her roommate’s behalf.
“I don’t know,” Cori admitted. “Maybe not.”
They agreed to turn off the light. Florence was surprisingly, even disappointingly, kind about the whole thing.
Cori couldn’t sleep anyway. She lay awake, wanting to dislike Florence but disliking herself more. By the time morning broke—sunlight skewering the pine forest, a chill stealing through the open window—the strain of her agitation gave way to raw beatification. Across the room, Florence’s silver hair nestled on her pillow like a curled gray fox, her doll-body consumed by blankets. Cori tiptoed to the window and closed it. Florence looked so vulnerable lying there, fast asleep. If Cori had wanted to, she could have smothered Florence with one of the lodge’s lumpy pillows—ended her roommate’s life with the swiftness of a snuffed candle—and this realization filled her with a sense of peace. For all of Florence’s gifts, she was a fellow human, breathing softly in a mortal body, asleep in a twin bed far from home.
Cori got dressed, descended the creaky wooden staircase and exited the lodge. She walked across the hunting compound to the mess hall where a buffet breakfast was served. There, she ate a bowl of oatmeal with brown sugar. She drank two cups of coffee. On her way out, she palmed an orange stacked in a bowl and considered bringing the fruit back to the room for Florence, who would again miss breakfast.
Instead, Cori waved to a group of other young filmmakers. A few waved back. Someone complimented her dress: a black shift with large front pockets, coincidentally similar to one in Florence’s wardrobe. The dress was one of Cori’s nicer clothing items—a major thrift store discovery—and wearing it she felt gifted with an innate sense of taste.
Cori attended a presentation on visual materiality and a critique session where her short was praised for its “nice sense of timing” by one of the mentor filmmakers.
The day opened up, big and beautiful.
Florence’s mood declined. While she had attended retreat events over the first few days, she began to spend most of her time in bed, watching TV on her laptop. The shows, as far as Cori could tell, were lowbrow, garish spectacles—Judge Judy, Real Housewives, Cops—at odds with the nuanced study of the human condition in Florence’s first feature.
Florence skipped most meals, which was unsurprising for a certain type of young woman. More surprising was all the candy she ate in the room. Skittles. Starbursts. Cadbury Eggs. She had a little girl-ness about her, but not the innocence. Once, Cori walked into their room when Florence was watching porn. Florence looked up from the screen with that wise doll face, flicked her silver hair behind her ear, as if to say, What? There was a vein of perversion in her sharp red fingernails as they strummed the edge of her laptop, and then, in the evening, the cups she held at parties: the only events that regularly roused Florence from the room.
“Are you going to the presentation tonight?” said Cori, in an effort to show she was unfazed by the porn incident. “It’s supposed to be—”
Florence held up a finger as Judge Judy made a pronouncement. Cori waited, but then Florence’s phone lit up with a call and another conversation ended before it began.
If Cori was disappointed to observe Florence behave this way, she wasn’t sure. If she was disappointed about anything, it was that they weren’t friends yet. At least, she told herself, the retreat held other opportunities. She went to lectures, screenings, and workshops—content with her own industriousness—though at times she wondered if she was doing the retreat wrong. If Florence didn’t need to attend such events, were they necessary? Cori also wondered why Florence was at the retreat at all. Her roommate had the support she needed for a second feature. Cori, on the other hand, could barely afford the entry fees to film festivals for her shorts. She didn’t know many people in the industry, or no one with power. That was why she’d taken so much time off to attend the retreat: there would be opportunities to pitch projects and forge the connections she coveted.
Cori tried to put Florence out of her mind. She focused on making friends with the other young filmmakers. They seemed to like her—or else, they accepted her presence. At parties, she drank. She held ice in her mouth and listened, because talking too much might reveal how far she was from their world. When she spoke to her husband on the phone, her pent-up thoughts burst forth—stories about social faux pas, the surprising traits of industry people she’d met—though there were some things she didn’t say.
“What’s Florence Hess like?” asked her husband.
“Oh, you know,” said Cori, “she’s great.”
One evening, Cori returned to the room to change a shirt stained by a dinner of sloppy joe sandwiches. The retreat food had worsened in quality. She ate it anyway. Halfway through the retreat, her tiredness begged to be fed, whether or not she needed actual calories.
Florence stood in the middle of their room, waiting. She beamed at Cori—the expression off-putting in its unfamiliarity. Her voice, too, was newly chipper.
“I found my bracelet,” she said. “I thought I’d lost it, but it was tangled in my sheets.”
She raised one of her thin arms; a gold chain slid down her wrist.
“That’s wonderful,” said Cori.
Florence giggled, and Cori realized that Florence may have believed she’d stolen the bracelet. Florence may have been secretly fuming this whole time, speculating to loved ones on the phone about how Cori had taken it. Maybe Florence had gone through Cori’s belongings looking for the bracelet, and been disgusted by her cheap clothes, her motivational notes to herself, her acne cream.
“I was worried I’d have to file a report or something,” said Florence, still smiling.
Cori felt the room’s pine walls press closer, the slanted ceiling descending like a lid. She’d heard this before. Back in college, on a spring training trip with the crew team, the other girls had played a game in which people were voted “most likely to” in various categories. These categories included “become a housewife,” “compete in the Olympics,” “go on The Price is Right.” Cori had been named “most likely to steal.” She hadn’t understood why at the time. There had been a series of thefts in the college locker room—but hadn’t that perpetrator been caught? At least, Cori told herself, she wasn’t named “most likely to be a stripper.” Now she wasn’t sure that was worse. It had been a dumb game, played by her dumb self-absorbed teammates, and yet, shopkeepers did tend to lurk near her. She wondered if they could sense her hunger for things: her desperate desire to rise beyond her circumstances. There was a dirtiness to that desire—an ugliness. One of the reasons she and her husband connected, she believed, was because they accepted this ugliness in each other. They supported one another’s sweaty, dirty, desperate ambition. They were co-conspirators in that sense—honest at least in that regard.
Cori had assumed she barely registered on her roommate’s consciousness. It had not seemed possible that Florence had formed specific ideas about her; that those ideas were negative made Cori shudder.
Florence was pulling on a pair of leather boots. “Want to go over to that party?” she said. “I think it’s in one of the private cabins.”
If the offer was a matter of coincidence—being in the room at the same time—or a result of the bracelet, Cori
did not know. The discussion felt incomplete. Yet Florence
stood before her, radiating expectation. Cori said okay. Florence seemed pleased by this answer, as if there was a universe in which Cori could have said anything else.
All night, Florence moved through the party, luminous as a torch. Even in the dim kitchen of the old hunting cabin, where people scrounged ice for their drinks; even in the swampy murk of mildewed lamp shades in the living room; even in the ashy haze of the outdoor smoking section, she glowed with an internal phosphorescence. When she moved, it was with doe-like delicacy; when she paused, it was with placid ease. She was attentive to those around her, though never too interested, never tied down. She wore a tank top—insufficient for the night air—but did not shiver.
If men gravitated toward Florence, or if Florence gravitated toward them, Cori could not tell. The proportion of men in her vicinity always seemed twice the average. Some men looked at her with open desire, and Cori wondered if Florence fed on this attention, if this was what gave her special powers—advantages—though as soon as this sentiment surfaced, she chided herself for the sexist implications. Besides, how to explain Florence’s film, with its careful attention to female suffering, female rage? Though titled Slender Man, the film had nothing to do with men. Nothing at all.
Across the cabin, Florence smiled noncommittally at the men circling around her. Her gaze flicked to Cori; she smiled the same way.
Cori looked at her feet. She squeezed her plastic cup of lukewarm gin, directed her attention to the other young filmmakers gathered in a circle to gossip. They were talking about a suspected creep in attendance at the retreat.
“I heard he propositioned Karen,” someone said, “and apparently he was spying on Anea through her window.”
“His stuff isn’t even that good.”
“Shhh—he’s, like, right there.”
A dark-haired, lanky man lurched out of the kitchen holding a beer in each hand. Cori realized it was the same man who’d taken forever in the bathroom her first day. She opened her mouth to describe the anecdote, then caught herself; she did not want to divulge her own awkward behavior.
“Oh god,” someone said, “he’s going for it.”
The suspected creep inserted himself in front of Florence, handed her a beer. The group watched closely, cackled. Florence had accepted the beer, only to pass it smoothly to another male director lurking nearby.
“Fucking ruthless,” someone said. “No wonder people throw money at her.”
“Isn’t her latest thing stalled?”
The group glanced at Cori, aware of her status as Florence’s roommate.
Cori hesitated, then said: “She has seemed stressed. She’s been watching a lot of television, in the room.”
This information delighted the group. They pressed Cori for more. Everyone wanted something from Florence, even if only gossip. They looked at Florence and saw an opportunity to be plundered. Cori despised them for this—despised herself for giving in. The whole idea of networking, the expectation of ingratiation, it repulsed her.
“I’m getting another drink,” Cori said.
She downed more G&Ts, drinking even after the limes ran out and people’s faces floated disembodied in the dim light. She had wanted to use Florence like everyone else. No wonder Florence treated her coolly. No wonder Florence, like her crew teammates, had suspected her of stealing. She was lucky Florence talked to her at all.
Eight days in. Not such a long time, but time expanded at the retreat—as Cori had been warned. Her fatigue deepened. She could no longer eat breakfast, her stomach heavy with the previous night’s alcohol. She could only drink the battery-acid coffee, her vision blurry as she tried to make sense of the retreat schedule, weighing the pros and cons of skipping events to nap.
She had gotten thinner, somehow. Her internal organs felt closer to the surface; the skin on her face heavy, like a mask that might fall off.
When her husband texted to ask how things were going, she took a long time to answer. She did not want to say how things were going. She did not want a husband, either, because having one felt dowdy among all these bright, striving people.
She had the sense that sex was happening—though where, and between whom, she wasn’t sure.
She wasn’t sure of a lot of things.
This included whether the organization—the people who had invited her to attend the retreat—could see her faltering and if they were disappointed.
Then she wondered if the screenings and talks and workshops were a façade, and the whole point of the retreat was the parties: the glow of a golden hour through the pine forest, ice cubes clinking. Lime pulp. Conversation as light and forgettable as smoke.
Nine days in. She was running out of clothing options. She wore the dress again—the one that looked like Florence’s dress.
“We have the same dress,” Florence said, when they crossed paths in the room. “Did you notice?”
Of course Cori noticed. She noticed everything about Florence. Florence never showered but maintained a dewy radiance. She was never naked—while Cori was always awkwardly unzipping when Florence entered their room. Florence ate jellybeans by the handful. She watched Judge Judy and sometimes porn. She had brought more belongings than Cori originally observed; they’d been stowed under her bed. And her expensive leather boots were actually quite worn. She used men’s deodorant.
“That’s funny about the dress,” said Cori. “I didn’t.”
Florence smiled wide enough to show her teeth.
Did she know Cori was lying? Cori felt transparent, too fatigued to maintain appearances. Maybe Florence was toying with her. Cori had read, once, that Florence pursued acting before pivoting to filmmaking. Was she acting now? Was it possible Florence had complete control of the situation—that, in addition to being beautiful and talented and rich, she possessed the gift of manipulation? Perhaps certain people were simply better than others. In which case, there was no point in bothering to make art. It would inevitably be inferior when people like Florence were also involved.
Cori might have let jealousy crash over her, but then Florence started talking about being fed up with the retreat, with everyone packed together, leering. She wished she had a means to leave the compound, especially since there was a cute town not far away. A place with real food—handmade doughnuts.
Cori couldn’t respond fast enough. “I have a car. Let’s go.”
“You sure?” said Florence. “There isn’t anything you have to do today?”
Cori did have something: a one-on-one session with a producer who’d read her in-progress script. The meeting was a major opportunity, a reason alone to have come to the retreat.
Yet going on an adventure with Florence—Florence Hess—was an opportunity as well. One that might never come up again.
“It’s not a big deal if you’re busy,” said Florence. “I can figure something out. Maybe one of those tech guys are on break and can drive me.”
“No,” said Cori. “I’m not busy—we can leave right now.”
“Really?” Florence’s eyes lit up with little girl enthusiasm.
Cori affirmed the offer, speaking carelessness like a foreign language in which she’d suddenly become fluent. They’d drive to this town: the retreat be damned. After so much anxiety about every decision, shrugging off the meeting with the producer felt good—the terror and exhilaration felt like making it—as did fleeing the compound she’d worked so hard to get to, Florence Hess strapped into her passenger seat.
Two other retreat attendees joined them: the twins with shaved heads and comfortably malleable Midwestern affectations. Their addition had been spontaneous, the pair picked up as Cori and Florence walked to the car. Documentary filmmakers could be like that—ready to go along with anything just to see what happens.
“Check out that guy’s hat,” said one of the twins as Cori drove into town.
“A legit cowboy,” said the other twin. “Whoa—”
It was a mining town. An old west town. Dust in the air. Lace curtains in the windows. Smoked meat. It was a wonderland. They all got sugar doughnuts. They bought amethysts for their protective powers. They window-shopped horse saddles. They talked to the guy in a cowboy hat, then laughed when he was out of earshot. Florence bought a woven blanket with a Navajo design.
“What do you think?” she said, holding it up for Cori to inspect.
Cori rushed to say the blanket was beautiful—extraordinarily so. She resisted buying the exact same one.
The twins bought matching chaps.
Cori felt light and loose as she wandered with the others. She had been nervously anticipating meeting with the producer, knowing he could help build her project, but there would be other producers, other times. It felt too good to get away. Maybe the retreat had been the problem: they’d escaped something. They were free. Florence talked more than she had in nine days. She could be wryly funny, even deadpan. While she, Cori, and the twins, sat in the shade of an awning eating ice cream, she did a nasally impression of a famous actor she’d once met at an awards ceremony.
“Excuse me,” said Florence to an imaginary caterer, “is this shrimp free-range?”
Then she talked about filmmaking the way friends might talk—describing the difficulty of getting her first film finished. In post-production, when the money was gone, she’d actually met with a loan shark. Almost went through with the deal.
“Then we found another way,” she said, mysteriously.
The real problem, she went on, was finding the right subject for her next film. Following a breakout success had its own challenges. Your second feature had to be similar to the first, yet better; recognizable, yet totally new.
“Coming up with the first concept was so organic,” she said. “When I heard about the Slender Man stabbing, I was like—I know these girls. I know this friendship.”
Now she was starting projects and stopping them. Nothing felt right. Nothing had the same pull. Meanwhile, she’d been dealing with family drama. Siblings in trouble. She was a middle child and had always been expected to fix things.
“I feel stuck.”
Cori touched the place above her heart, her face sympathetic even as joy sparked inside her: Florence’s disclosures were the seeds of friendship being sown. Light faded from the sky, turning the little mineral town golden. The wind changed, smoke blowing in from elsewhere. The world became romantic and blurry. The twins nuzzled one another.
The group returned to the retreat site late, after dinner, though in time for Florence to give a talk for the evening round of presentations. The organization had asked her to speak about women in contemporary horror films.
“I know,” said Florence, with a weary flick of her hand. “Kill me.”
Cori laughed, thrilled by the intimacy of this remark. She sat in the front row of Florence’s talk and felt like a guest of honor. The presentation hall was packed, everyone going out of their way to hear Florence speak. She was not a gifted orator, yet her commentary rang sharp and true as she described how blood was the ultimate symbol of violence, as well as—for women—a sign of renewal. Blood was a chance to start again. On a projected screen, film clips flashed crimson-drenched limbs and screaming faces. Tears pricked Cori’s eyes. When it was over, she clapped until her hands hurt. She couldn’t wait to tell Florence how good the presentation had been.
Florence, however, was mobbed by admirers after the talk—and then she wasn’t at any of the night’s parties. Cori checked everywhere, including the lodge basement where the old directors played poker and smoked cigars. Florence did not return to the room, either. Cori lay awake, listening for footsteps. Around 4 a.m., she began to wonder if she should alert the retreat supervisor, the police, file a missing person’s report. By the time the first light poked through the window—Florence’s bed still unoccupied—Cori was ready to pull the fire alarm. She was ready to knock on everyone’s door and organize a search party. Leaping out from under her covers, she berated herself for failing to act sooner. It was her responsibility, as a roommate, to keep an eye on Florence.
Still in her pajamas, Cori rushed out of the room and down the stairs, exiting the lodge and hurrying toward the retreat’s staff headquarters.
Midway there, Florence appeared, casually carrying a mug of coffee.
“Where are you off to?” she asked. “It’s so early.”
The laugh that followed was tinkling, sparkling. Cori gaped.
“This is Winston, by the way.”
There was a man beside Florence.
“You must be the roommate,” he said. “I’ve heard all about you.”
He held out his hand. Cori’s pajamas rippled in the chilly morning air, a heat rose in her face as he crushed her fingers in his own. She muttered nice to meet you.
“Winston arrived yesterday and surprised me,” Florence explained cheerfully—though Cori wondered if she also heard an undertone of annoyance.
“Are you headed to breakfast?” Winston asked Cori. “Because it’s awful.”
“Yeah,” said Cori. “So hungry. Couldn’t wait.”
She felt humiliated standing there in her pajamas. But she could not turn back. Turning back would require explaining to Florence what she’d really been doing. She said goodbye and continued to the mess hall, where early-rising retreat attendees chatted by the coffee station, or sat among the communal tables scrolling their phones. Cori grabbed a bran muffin from the buffet. Sitting alone, she choked down the muffin in dry bites. She tried not to make eye contact with anyone—though when she stood up to leave, this caused her to knock into a person passing behind her. It was the producer she’d blown off.
“Pardon,” he said coldly. “I’m sure you have somewhere important to be.”
Florence’s boyfriend was twice her age—a manfriend, really. He had three children. Also a wife. He, too, was a filmmaker, though Cori had not heard of him and got the impression he had not made a film in a long time. But at dinner that night—Cori and the twins squished on one side of a table, Florence and Winston on the other—Florence spoke about his films with reverence.
“I watched them in high school,” she said. “They felt like someone telling you a story directly. They were authentic, uncontrived. They dazzled me.”
Cori had to process this notion: Florence Hess could be dazzled.
The manfriend was stocky, though not flabby. Hair a blustery blond. Clean fingernails. Big watch. His face weathered, but not too weathered, like he’d done a lot of sailing but never had to catch his own dinner. Cheeks cherubic, eyes shrewd. Cori was disappointed she found him attractive.
The manfriend patted the pocket of his linen blazer, mentioned coke. The twins hooted in celebration. Cori’s heart sank further as the manfriend put his arm around Florence, nipped her ear. She protested, but did not wriggle free. This man would take Florence away from Cori—had taken her away. Through his connections with the organization, he had rented a private cabin, which was where Florence was now staying.
Had Florence been anyone else, Cori would have been happy to have the room to herself. It was easier to sleep alone—and she was sorely sleep-deprived. She could catch her breath, get her head on straight for the retreat’s conclusion. But Cori would miss the possibility of friendship with Florence: a door she kept hoping would open. She’d miss waking up to see the knot of Florence’s silver hair across the room. She’d miss being the keeper of the window. Monitoring the fan she’d brought from home. Their sparse yet thrilling conversation. Trying not to get up too often in the night to pee.
“Cori, what about you?” said one of the twins. “Has he made a pass?”
They were talking about the suspected creep, who, it was rumored, might be kicked out of the retreat. Cori started to answer, but Florence’s manfriend cut her off.
“Pretty sure I saw him earlier. Lanky dude in the fedora? Definitely a creep.”
Florence chirped: “Takes one to know one.”
Her pointy red fingernails clicked against table. The twins chuckled into the awkward pause as a caterer appeared and refilled their water. The manfriend withdrew his arm from Florence’s shoulders. Cori felt a surge of hope: maybe Florence didn’t want him here. Maybe she didn’t even like him—and he would leave.
“That hurt my feelings, Flo,” said Winston. “You should apologize.”
His scolding tone made Cori’s skin crawl. Even years later, the memory brought back the sensation—though by that time, there were far more disturbing aspects of the retreat to recall.
“Maybe the creep’s not even real,” said one of the twins. “Has anyone actually talked to him—maybe he’s, like, a ghost?”
The other twin made a wooing sound, while Florence and the manfriend muttered to one another. The manfriend looked at his watch. He rejoined the conversation with the irritated pronouncement: “I don’t believe in ghosts.”
He was about to leave—to take Florence away—so Cori said: “I do.”
Everyone turned. Cori flushed, and yet she would have said anything to keep Florence at the table longer; she would have contradicted the manfriend even if it meant arguing the earth was flat.
Ghosts were easy, though. Her belief was real.
“I saw one. A couple summers ago, on an island in Maine.” Cori swallowed. “This was after I dropped out of college. I was having a hard time—a mental breakdown.”
After so many days of trying to maintain a veneer of accomplishment, revealing this information seemed reckless. Yet Cori also felt a power in exposing herself. People couldn’t turn away from the disclosure she’d made; everyone at the table had to listen, and they were. The twins had frozen, as had Florence. Even Winston was quiet.
“To be clear, I didn’t see the ghost because I was hallucinating. It wasn’t that kind of breakdown, just a lot of crying.”
No one laughed and Cori didn’t care. The memory blasted over her: a summer of filth and salt and sea wind. The island was one in a series of rocky outcroppings, seven miles off the Maine coast. Cori worked as a dishwasher at an old hotel on one of the larger islands. Workers like Cori lived in the hotel’s attic, served the guests dumped ashore by occasional ferries. Cori put in as many hours as she could to pay off the debts for a degree she’d never earn. On her breaks, she avoided the other workers. She rowed a paint-chipped skiff around the shoals, her crew-training quivering in her limbs.
“One afternoon, I rowed out to this uninhabited island. A bare rock, essentially, except for scraps of seaweed and poison ivy and old fishing nets. The weather was foggy, the water choppy. I’d only been there ten minutes when I saw her—”
The voice belonged to Florence—Florence echoing the story. Cori felt breathless.
“A woman in a white nightgown. I knew right away she was a ghost—I just knew it. She was barefoot, glowing. It started raining, but her hair didn’t get wet. I was terrified. I couldn’t move, even when she came toward me. There was blood on her dress and—”
The chatter of the mess hall swelled, interrupted Cori. It was time for the retreat’s final evening presentation.
The manfriend nudged Florence.
“Then the rain got worse and the woman disappeared,” said Cori, hurrying along. “Later, I looked up the island’s history and learned a famous murder had taken place there. These women living together in a fishing hut were attacked by some guy, on a night their husbands were away. Two of the women died—and one escaped. She hid out on an island all night, though it was the middle of winter and she was only wearing a nightgown.”
“Damn,” said one of the twins, “that’s wild.”
Florence stared at Cori as if she were a faraway place.
What Cori hadn’t said was that the ghost-encounter was the start of everything. After she’d rowed through the rain and the slap of the sea—back to safety—she walked into the hotel’s staff quarters dripping wet. One of the carpentry crew asked why she looked so unsettled. She told him about the spectral woman and he’d listened carefully.
“Are you going to go back?” he said. “To get footage?”
She was—and she did. On her next break, she used her phone’s tiny camera to record scenes of the island. She never saw the woman again, but the landscape had its own hauntedness. All that hard beauty—shores weather-worn, in-flux—made the passage of time seem at once material and infinite. When Cori learned more about filmmaking, she was drawn to Super 8 film because the grainy texture had an elemental quality. Process, again, was both conspicuous and otherworldly. Though she’d never used her original shaky phone footage, the aesthetics of the island underlay everything she’d ever made. And one day, when she was ready, she planned to tell the story of the ghost-woman and capture the eerie divinity of the place.
The carpenter ended up as her husband.
The next morning, her husband texted, Call me back?
He’d sent several links; she ignored them, him. She’d deal with the mundane details of her life back home later. Only hours remained in the retreat and everything about it felt precious: the pine forest, the bison heads in the lodge lobby, the bad coffee, the people she’d met only days before. Florence.
Cori remembered she’d brought business cards. Feeling foolish yet purposeful, she distributed them to the other retreat attendees at the goodbye barbecue, where people made the same boring comments about re-entering “the real world.” Cori nodded politely, bracing for the right moment to deliver a card to her roommate. When the moment came, she felt like she was presenting a ticket to a show she still wasn’t sure she could see.
“Thanks,” said Florence—distracted, though the manfriend had left. She palmed the card into the pocket of her jeans.
“It was so nice getting to know you,” said Cori. “I’d love to stay in touch.”
Florence blinked, her gaze unfocused. Though it was only midday, she might have been drunk, or high. Cori wasn’t good at detecting the difference. She felt like crying. She felt exhausted and ashamed of her desperate, needy efforts to make this friendship happen. Yet she couldn’t stop herself.
“Let me know if you’re ever in Phoenix,” she added—as if there would be a reason for Florence to visit Phoenix.
Her phone buzzed again; her husband wouldn’t stop calling. Florence drummed her fingernails against her thighs, her gold bracelet glinting. A cloud of barbecue smoke engulfed them. When it passed, Florence’s eyes were pinked, ruminative.
“The murders you mentioned,” she said. “I looked them up.”
Cori’s hope resurfaced—her ghost story had stuck with Florence.
“I read about the surviving woman. How she claimed to have hid outside all night. In the middle of winter. Only wearing a nightgown. How some people find that suspicious.”
Cori smiled. She knew the conspiracy theories; she’d read them when first researching the island’s history. There were those who speculated that the man hanged for the murders had been framed. Their reasoning: from the mainland, he would have had to row seven miles to the island—and back again—in a single night, to steal the money he hadn’t taken. This man who claimed his innocence all the way to the gallows: an immigrant, a drunkard—he’d made an easy scapegoat.
Still, most historians agreed that he had done it.
“You think the surviving woman was the murderer?” said Cori, if only to keep the conversation going. “But why? What reason would she have had to kill the others?”
Florence looked at Cori then—really looked at her—gaze straight-on and steady. She never had before and the precision of focus stunned Cori. Was that pity in her roommate’s eyes? No—a cold compassion. Love as sharp as a blade, that kept Cori frozen as Florence leaned in close—breath humid against Cori’s ear, fingers tight on her wrist—to whisper an answer.
When Cori finally returned her husband’s call, he was flustered and panicky. Why hadn’t she responded? Had she not been checking the news? Seconds later, Cori got an alert on her phone: a massive monsoon was approaching Phoenix. Flood predictions were dire. The desert city wasn’t built to handle so much rainfall.
Cori stayed quiet as her husband talked through contingency plans: what they’d do, where to meet. She was sitting under a pine tree on the edge of the lodge parking lot. Disaster seemed distant, even then. Cori had lingered at the retreat site longer than necessary, taken her time packing, gone for a last stroll in the pine forest—though all the other retreat attendees had already caught a charter bus to the airport. Only the suspected creep remained in the lodge; having been banned from official retreat transportation, he’d had to call a taxi.
“We might to need to evacuate,” said her husband. “Best option is probably to head to my cousin’s place in Albuquerque. What do you think? Are you even listening?”
Cori wasn’t. She was thinking about Florence; about the murder conspiracy theory; about how some people speculated that the surviving woman had gone mad from the confines of an isolated fishing cabin on a barren island off the Maine coast. Cooped up for so long. Smoky fires. Stale biscuits. Over-salted cod. The same food, day after day. Bitter cold. Constant damp. No sunlight. Trapped on that tiny rocky island, miles from shore—miles from her homeland—in such close quarters all winter. Perhaps, in a fit of madness, on a night all the women’s husbands were away, she’d axed her companions dead.
Then, in the morning, the surviving woman walked across the island barefoot, letting the rocky ground shred her soles bloody. She made up her lie.
“Cori, Cori,” said her husband. “Please—”
That’s when Cori saw Florence: floating across the parking lot, steps light as dust, hair silver in the sunshine. Florence, who hadn’t left on the charter bus with the others after all.
Cori put her phone down to call out, then stopped. A cold sweat prickled her limbs, the axe of understanding coming down hard—that cudgel of awareness. Is this how those chilly, miserable women felt, with blows raining down? Angel of death, sweet sister, why?
Mercy, Florence had whispered into Cori’s ear at the barbecue. She put those wretched other women out of their misery.
Florence was pulling out a set of keys.
She was getting into a car with California plates—the car she’d had all along—that would take her onward, away to all the possibilities Cori only now realized she’d had.
Allegra Hyde is the author of Of This New World, which won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Her writing has been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing, Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, as well as The Pushcart Prize XL, XLII, and XLII. She has received fellowships and grants from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Elizabeth George Foundation, the Lucas Artist Residency Program, the Jentel Foundation, and the U.S. Fulbright Commission. Her debut novel, Eleutheria, along with a second story collection, are forthcoming from Vintage. She currently teaches at Oberlin College.A Walk in the Forest by Inggrid Koe