Skin was the thing that owned us tonight. Demanded the full attention of our eyes. Rushed that merciless yearning to our groins. Young skin. Perfect skin. Skin warmed daily by the sun even in fall. Skin smooth and firm over muscles and the lowest of body fat worked out daily in the gym or at beach volleyball or ocean kayaking or on long campus runs. Guys in tank tops or with their shirts yanked off and tucked into the backs of their pants. Girls in crop tops and spaghetti strings and breasts moving freely to the beats under sheer tops. The strobe lights tantalizing us by beating these fleeting images of it into our brains and in the dark spots in between still the glow bracelets and occasional streaks of neon body paint highlighting it. Skin moist with dancing, but who cared? Sweat that didn’t smell. The intense music carrying us on and forward to more and more and more.
The party was the best of the year, so far. People would be talking about it for weeks to come. Right here and now in this moment dancing together it felt like the culmination of so much we’d so longed for and so often fought for. It was what we needed now with all the problems of this semester. What college should have been, not what it was when we got here. It was all the things we weren’t supposed to think about growing up and college was supposed to finally give to us. Like under the super-strict eyes of my parents who never wanted to even admit that sex existed and my stupid school that preached we should just wait for marriage. God, I needed this. This is what I came here hoping for. To be with these people who were like me, who got it, who wanted the same things. This. This was Freedom. Freedom from parents and rules and the things we were supposed to be doing, the way we were supposed to be living our lives. Freedom from the trespass of the outside world trying to come onto our campus with problems that weren’t ours, but that so many of us were succumbing to and obsessing over. Freedom from that outside world that seemed to be going slowly, but lately more and more quickly, mad. Freedom to reach over and touch the skin of the one dancing near us even though they were a stranger before just now.
How crazy was it that something without mind or soul could drive us so wild and control us so? The way a shoulder curved around and into a bicep. The hint of a nipple under fabric. The smooth or jagged ravines that cut through the perfect set of abs. The sly little curves of a flirtatious smile. These were just lines, just shapes, just colors and even at that just the slightest variations from that which we found gross. How could they control our emotions and desires and every thought? The small of a girl’s back or a boy’s just before it traces down below the low-sitting pants or skirt and into the barely-hidden valley of their ass. And around the front, those happy trail, vertical or curvy-v-shaped muscles that drew your eyes down and down below the waistline to that sacred place: the place you’d only get to see if you were special. If you made it tonight.
And the pressure of that. In the weeks that we’d be talking about this party—who did you get, fuck, pull down the pants of to follow the path of those happy trail muscles and smalls of backs to secret gardens to spend some quality time there and work all your tricks?—that would be the topic of conversation, despite all the problems, and our answers, real, or embellished, or completely imaginary, would be the cards we could play in the most political game of all: popularity. So the pressure was on. And nothing was more important than the skin.
We’d have to be careful, of course. There were dangers there, even in the most pure- and innocent-looking of us. But we had protection, didn’t we? And, anyway, that was for later. For now, we should enjoy this moment. All of us here dancing together. The DJ was on top of his game and worth every dollar they must have paid him. Surely, there were still others outside dying to get in. But we were here. We’d made it. And with the strobes and the beat and all of us moving together with them in this party packed wall-to-wall with this sea of college students we looked out over it felt—and maybe it was all the booze or the drugs—but it felt as if we were one. We—many of us strangers before, but now intimate, half-naked together—were dancing together as one.
The bookbag was an annoyance. What drunk asshole left his bookbag in the middle of the dance floor? We kept dancing despite it. I think I kicked it once—angry at it. The beats and the strobes continued on, but then one was different. One beat was more of a pop. To most, distant and unnoticeable; but to some, very loud; and to a few, quieting. Like suddenly and with pain we’d lost our hearing to a ringing. And with the pop one of the flashes of the strobes seemed different. Different color, different intensity. Suddenly confusion seemed all around, but just right here, just near the strange pop and flash. Was it the drugs? What was happening? Some students were lying on the floor now. Why the fuck? Like a big hole in the center of the dancing mass. And there was a smell in the air different from the cotton candy smell you’d expect from a fog machine. And pains suddenly noticeable all over. Pains I’d never felt before. And confusion and some people suddenly rushing around us and no longer as one.
And then I saw her at my feet. I think I slipped on her blood. She was choking and as she choked blood came out from a deep hole in the right side of her throat and more from around her collarbone and the whole right side of her face, half-hidden under the hand she held it with, was a bright red and seemed to have these, like, bubbles of clear flesh on it. I knelt down to her even though it hurt so bad to do so. Why was I in so much pain? Why was it so hard to catch my breath after the pop and had it felt like some huge guy had slammed into me at full speed when no one had? Why did the skin of the whole right side of my body seem to singe with a million little stings of pain as I reached out to touch her arm? I wanted to help her. I don’t know why I thought touching her arm would do that. But as I touched it, it jolted, and there, underneath where her hand had been holding it, sticking out of her cheekbone was what seemed like a piece of metal. Did something explode? One of the huge speakers or something? What the fuck just happened? What did I take? I thought it was just Molly. Jesus, was it laced with something? I feel faint now. I need to rest here a minute. Oh. My head’s on this girl’s tummy now. When did that happen? She’s breathing up and down. Her skin is so soft. It’s pleasant here.
Later, we’d learn nine of us died right now. Two more, of the sixteen critically injured, would be dying soon. One of those two would be me. In a few more hours.
In less than half that time, I’d wake up in a hospital and it’d all be explained to me. I hadn’t really felt it—not like I would have thought—but a jagged piece of metal had ripped through my liver and something smaller, maybe a nail, through my spleen. I was bleeding more within than without. They needed to put me under and operate immediately. My parents weren’t there. I was alone and I never wanted them so badly in my life. My life. She told me she wasn’t going to lie to me, the doctor. She said things were serious. That my chances were bad. What?! What was she saying?! I was 18 years old! I just got here! Death wasn’t … What?! No. I wasn’t going to die. God wouldn’t do that. She said she’d tell the anesthesiologist to wait a few more minutes if I wanted to call my parents to … to what? Call my mom, my dad? Wake them up to tell them … what? That this could be goodbye? No. That couldn’t be how this would end. God, You wouldn’t? … You wouldn’t. I’d ask for the anesthesia and to get on with it. I’d have faith. I’d know I’d see my mom again, my dad. Everyone that mattered. I’d know it. I had to know it. Because if that wasn’t true … then why did any of it matter?
But I didn’t know all of that yet.
For now, a guy above me is yelling with all the air he’s got, his voice squealing, unmanly. “Cut the music! Cut the music!” But it didn’t cut. The music wasn’t stopping, nor the pulse of the strobes. And most of us were still dancing. Especially the further and further out I looked. Legs moving all around me to the beat. Still dancing. Still as one.
They must not have heard, must not have seen.
They didn’t even notice.