The Falling Girls
By Cathy Ulrich
The first girl that jumped was Mary Song. She dressed herself up in her mother’s wedding gown, which was too long for her and had a stain that the dry cleaners could never get out. She climbed out her bedroom window in the middle of the night, and her neighbor Warner Helmer saw her go. He figured she was eloping.
Why else would she be in a wedding dress? he said later.
He watched her run down the street, holding the gown up so she wouldn’t trip. He thought she was running toward love.
Later, we found a torn piece of her mother’s wedding dress caught on the chain-link fence surrounding the school, so we knew she must have climbed it to get inside. There was a door with a stubborn latch that didn’t always catch (the first thing the school fixed, after Mary Song), which she used to get inside the school.
Mary Song, running through the empty hallways, barefoot and wan. She hadn’t left a note for her parents or anybody. Her best friends all said: We didn’t know. How could we have known? She ran through the school, and we found her dirty footprints later. Some of the boys took photos with their cellphones before the floors were cleaned, and shared them round the school. We all saw Mary Song’s footprints. We all saw how fast she ran.
After Mary Song, the school installed security cameras. We could see the rest of them as they went through the school (and when we saw the video of Shelly Pease, we all wept and called for her to turn back, but she had gone long beyond the sound of our voices), but for the first, for Mary Song, we could only imagine how it was.
She was beautiful, said Warner Helmer. Like a fairy-tale princess.
We imagined Mary Song in glass slippers, cavorting with enchanted animals. We wrote poetry in her honor. We dreamed of her, and woke with our arms embracing air. Dead Mary Song in her wedding dress. We all loved her then. We knew her better, we thought, than ourselves, Mary Song who sat in the last row, Mary Song who twirled her black hair round her fingers.
After her death, the girls began seeing Mary Song. Mary Song was a flicker in the corners of their eyes, an apparition in a wedding gown.
At school, the girls whispered to each other in the restroom: Did you see? Did you see her too?
The girls held séances in the school restrooms, flickering flashlights underneath their chins.
Mary Song, are you there? they said. Mary Song, can you hear us?
When hot water poured into the sinks though the faucets were set to cold, the girls said that was Mary Song, trying to reach them from the other side.
Are you happy, Mary Song? the girls whispered in the restrooms. Are you happy now?
The boys didn’t see Mary Song. The boys didn’t hear the whispers. It was a secret only for the girls, the appearance of Mary Song, barefoot Mary, running through the hallways, running faster than she’d ever done, running to meet her destiny.
Madelyn Strever was the next. She broke in through one of the windows. We all saw the glass on the floor in the chemistry lab, and flecks of blood where she had cut herself. The security cameras were still being installed when she took her turn, and only the one in the main hallway was functional. We saw her stop to admire her reflection in the glass of the trophy case, and tuck her hair behind her ear. Then she went round the corner and was gone.
We played the video over and over. Some said you could see the reflection of Mary Song beside Madelyn’s in the trophy case, that she was a troubled spirit leading other young girls to their doom.
The girls flushed pinky rings down the toilets as offerings to Mary Song, till finally the principal said they were wrecking the pipes. They held hands in the restrooms and called out to Mary Song: Is Madelyn there with you? Is she happy too?
Madelyn Strever’s ghost, if it occupied the school, was quieter than Mary Song’s. Only cold water flowed into the sinks.
The faulty boiler has been repaired, the principal announced. We remind you not to flush anything down the toilet that doesn’t belong.
After Madelyn Strever, it was Timber Hansen, then Charlotte Gibbs, Shelly Pease and Lucinda Watkins. We wept for all of them. We pinned their yearbook photos to our walls. Timber Hansen’s prom date scratched her name into his forearm with a thumbtack. We saw the scar heal and fade. We fell asleep with their smiling faces watching us. We loved them all, but especially Mary Song, the first.
Something must be done, said parents to the school, and security lights were installed, and alarms, and extra locks, and even a security guard who caught the hem of Lucinda Watkins’ dress when she fluttered backward off the roof. The security guard clutched the torn piece of fabric in his hand and shouted: Wait, please wait, as if it could be taken back, even then.
Parents began holding protests at the school, carrying signs that read Protect Our Children. We watched them through our classroom windows. We listened to their chants.
Pay them no mind, the teachers said, but their eyes, too, were inevitably drawn to the roof, and to the place on the pavement where the stains had been washed clean. Mrs. Halverson, the algebra teacher, put her head into her hands and wept.
I can’t, she said. I just can’t.
The other teachers helped her away to the lounge. Both Mary Song and Timber Hansen had been in her first period class. She remembered their aptitude for numbers.
After a while, the parents packed up their signs and returned to their homes. Mothers took their wedding dresses from their closets and tucked them into trunks. The photos on our walls curled and yellowed. We thought about taking them down. We thought about track meets and tennis games and going to college in the fall. The girls said they no longer saw Mary Song. They said she must have gone. They twisted rings on their pinky fingers and said how quiet the school seemed now, how empty.
The school newspaper ran an opinion piece about how sometimes it seems like it’s the end of the world, but it’s really not, and things will always get better, and you should talk to somebody if you’re feeling sad, even a teacher if you had to, and our parents all clipped the article and said to us at family dinnertime: Is there anything you’d like to talk about?
We wanted to talk about Mary Song. We wanted to say did you even know she existed before she died? Did we ever mention her? We couldn’t remember if we ever had, quiet Mary Song from our literature classes, from the hallways, tugging her skirt down, twisting her hair.
Our parents said: Is there anything you’d like to talk about?
And we, eating our buttered peas, shook our heads, mentioned a tough teacher, dropped our spoons on the floor and listened to them clatter.
Is there anything you’d like to talk about?
No, we said.
Ella Jenkins was the last, a week before graduation. Her mother had never been married, so she found her grandmother’s dress in a storage facility and sneaked it home to alter it. Her friends said she must have been bringing it to school with her too, to work on it in the home ec room. They had seen, they said, when she opened her backpack, a flash of white fabric.
If only we’d known, they said. If only we’d known.
Ella Jenkins lay in the parking lot over the weekend while her mother worriedly telephoned her friends. Mrs. Halverson came early to prep for finals and found her. She turned in her resignation letter that afternoon, and was taken from the school by her husband, arm over her shoulder.
That poor girl, she said. Those poor girls.
We all talked about Ella Jenkins that day. We all loved Ella Jenkins that day, as much as Mary Song and the rest. We had a moment of silence for her, like we’d done for the others. We traced her name onto our desks, looping it with Mary Song’s.
Ella Jenkins was the only one to leave a note. She was clutching it in her hands when she was found, and the coroner put it with her other belongings: one wristwatch, a pair of pearl earrings (fake), ponytail holder, stationary.
There were two versions of the note that went round the school: the real one and the fake one. No one knew which was which. We read them over and over again, looking for clues.
The one said goodbye forever and the other said See you soon. Neither note was addressed to anyone in particular, and we went round the school saying to each other see you soon and goodbye forever when we went our separate ways at the gate. We felt what Ella Jenkins had felt. Or we felt the opposite. We called our friends that evening. We never said Ella Jenkins’ name. We said see you soon. We said goodbye forever. We pinned her picture up next to the others’. Our parents wrung their ineffectual hands. Our little brothers and sisters played video games, or colored in coloring books, or wanted horsey rides.
Not tonight, we said.
They said: Why not?
We said: We’re sad. We’re so very sad.
We lay in our beds with the lights turned off and willed the dreams of Mary Song to return, beautiful Mary Song. Mary Song the wisp. Mary Song the first. We held crumpled copies of the real note, or the fake one. Mary Song didn’t come to us that night, not in dreams, not in visions. The girls gathered in the restrooms at school in the morning. They saw graffiti scratched into the handicap stall of the girls’ restroom that read: Goodbye Mary Song.
That, too, might have been written by Ella Jenkins.
Cathy Ulrich is a writer from Montana. Her work has been published in various journals, including Lunch Ticket, Knee-Jerk and Booth.