By Sam Cooke
It all started with the cast list for the spring musical.
“Ms. Combs has posted it,” Dominic said as he climbed into the passenger seat of my Volkswagen Beetle.
I pulled my sunglasses down and stared at him over the rims. “How do you know?”
“She told me.”
I reversed out of the driveway of Dominic’s single-story home, one street over from Space Coast High. Whenever I asked why he couldn’t just walk to school, he would roll his eyes and make it clear he was Dominic Randalls—far above walking, especially as a senior. I joined the line of student and bus traffic on Homestead Avenue, the only way in or out of our small-town high school.
“Are you nervous?” he probed.
“No way.” Of course, I was. This wasn’t just any spring musical. This was my chance to prove to our very competitive theater department that I could handle being theater leader next year as a senior. I, Miranda Jacobsen, had one mission in life: to get the hell out of Port St. John. My grades weren’t stellar, I had no real athletic abilities, and I had no “my parents are alumni” plan to fall back on for college. But what I did have going for me was I was a kick-ass performer. Sure, there weren’t many colleges with theater scholarships, but at least it was a path. It was something.
In front of Dominic, though, I couldn’t let on about my nerves. Our football team always lost, our band teacher got fired for sleeping with a student—we were viewed as the poor version of Viera High, just twenty minutes down the highway. But our theater department? We won. We won everything, always. We were state ranked and nationally ranked as one of the best performing arts programs. And we were led by Ms. Combs, a spitfire theater artist who had only one goal for us as well: to win.
I turned into the student parking lot and parked the car, and Dominic and I got out. We had nearly a half an hour before the first bell rang, so if the cast list were up, there would be plenty of time for me to look at it and either celebrate my win or mourn my loss.
Looking at Dominic, I felt a pang of jealousy. He was a writer, always on the other side of the production. He had one foot out the door of Port St. John after accepting a scholarship to NYU for playwriting. To celebrate, Ms. Combs had agreed to stage the musical that earned him his acceptance.
Dominic had no pressure on him this morning. In fact, he probably even knew what was on the single sheet of computer paper Ms. Combs always scrawled the cast list on and haphazardly taped to her classroom door. He had a finger on the pulse of every production, and whether I liked it or not, right now he knew something I didn’t.
We walked up to the side door of the auditorium, which we always cut through to get to Ms. Combs’s classroom, and yanked on the handle. When it didn’t budge, Dominic peered through the window.
“All the lights are off.”
“That’s weird.” I pulled on the handle again.
“Oh, it didn’t magically unlock?” Dominic asked. I laughed.
We walked around the fence that surrounded the auditorium to the back of the building, where Ms. Combs’s classroom door was. The outdoor hallways were silent, but I could distantly hear the echo of voices from the courtyard where everyone hung out before classes started. As we approached Ms. Combs’s classroom door, my heart sank. There was no cast list.
Dominic patted my shoulder in that weird “are we dating or are you more like my big brother?” way he and I were bad at navigating. I reached for the door and pulled it open, expecting to be greeted by music playing from the small speaker Ms. Combs kept on her desk. But the classroom lights were off, and there was no music.
Dominic switched on the light, and there, in the middle of the classroom floor usually reserved for in-class performances, was Ms. Combs in a puddle of blood.
Dominic grabbed my wrist and pulled me back toward him. “Something happened.”
“No shit,” I choked out. My knees shook.
He dropped my wrist and ran over to Ms. Combs, he knelt next to her and then turned back to me. “Go to the front office. Or to another classroom. Anywhere! We need help!”
He heaved then, his chest rising and falling quickly. Standing, he stumbled to the trash can and threw his face into it. The sound of his retching echoed in my ears.
I nodded. I would follow my stage directions: Exit upstage center out the classroom door. Cross stage left to Mr. Wheeler, the music teacher in the classroom next door, and project to him the line: “Ms. Combs needs help!” I could do that. I was a performer. I would act like this was a performance.
I handed Dominic the water bottle I always kept in my backpack. “I’ll be back.” I followed my stage directions, pulling open Mr. Wheeler’s classroom door, but I shook as he looked up from his desk and smiled. Before he could say anything, I broke into a heavy sob.
Mr. Wheeler stood and rushed to me. “What’s wrong?”
I pointed to his door. My arm visibly shook. He jogged over and pushed opened the door.
I struggled to say anything else, but my legs started moving, and I followed Mr. Wheeler down the sidewalk to Ms. Combs’s classroom. He was several feet in front of me when he opened the door.
“Oh my God.” He fumbled with the staff-wide walkie-talkie on his belt loop. Once he got it off, he pressed the button and spoke into it. “We need assistance in room two fourteen now. Assistance now. Call the police.”
His words jumbled out of his mouth, and any eloquence I might have once thought he had was shot. I mentally took notes.
He turned to me. “Were you alone? Miranda, what happened?”
Confused, I peered into the classroom and understood why he asked. Dominic was gone.
Officer James “Jimmy” Phillips had graduated from Space Coast High with my older sister two years earlier. He seemed too young to be sitting across from me, pushing a can of diet coke at me, and avoiding eye contact as he stumbled through preliminary questions: Name? Birth date? Parents’ info? What time did I get to school? Who was with me?
“You entered Ms. Combs’s classroom alone?”
“No, I told you, Dominic was with me.”
Officer Phillips raised his eyebrows. “Mr. Wheeler said you were alone. That no other students were with you when you went to him for help.”
I shook my head. “Then something must have happened to Dominic. He was with me. I picked him up from his house this morning and drove him to school.” I pulled my cell phone from my pocket. “Look, I texted him. Seven thirty-four a.m. Today. ‘In your driveway.’”
Officer Phillips took my phone from my outstretched hand. He looked at the text message. “That doesn’t mean anything. He never responded.”
I racked my brain to try to remember if we had passed anyone on our way in this morning, anyone who could say, “Yeah, I saw her with Dominic.” They had to believe me. Something had to have happened to Dominic.
“Don’t you want to know what happened to your teacher?” Officer Phillips asked.
“Of course, but . . .”
I trailed off. I had seen enough episodes of SVU.
“Wait, you don’t think I had anything to do with it, do you?” I paused. “I told you, Dominic and I walked in, we saw Ms. Combs, he told me to go get help, and when I came back with Mr. Wheeler, he was gone.”
Officer Phillips sat back in his chair. I looked around the room, pretending it was the set of a play. The lighting was perfect, a single stream of light hung over us. Maybe it was too dark for the audience at first, but their eyes would adjust. The metal table and two chairs were predictable; I would change the metal table to a wooden one with visible carvings in it. There needed to be a phone on the wall or something. That would make it really—
“Dominic Randalls is home, Miranda. We got hold of him. He’s home in bed; he’s had plans to stay home from school. A stomach bug.”
I shook my head. “Because he saw a dead body this morning. He puked the minute he saw Ms. Combs. He—my water bottle. I left him my water bottle.”
Officer Phillips opened a manila folder. Another cliché prop. He was silent for a moment as he flipped through the pages within.
“Mr. Wheeler said you’re very active in the theater department.”
“Dominic said there was supposed to be a, quote, make-or-break cast list going up today. He said that must have been why you were at school so early.”
“Dominic was with me. He’s the one who told me the cast list was going up.”
“Officers are in Ms. Combs’s classroom now. They found the weapon.”
I said nothing, just shifted in my seat. My eyes felt heavy.
“A trophy. Her blood was caked on it. The trophy was put back, though. Found shredded paper in the trash can, too, with her blood on it.” Officer Phillips stopped. “Listen, I don’t know much about theater. Not a big fan of musicals. But when we talked to Dominic, he said you had been obsessing over this cast list.”
“I need a college scholarship. This show would guarantee me a chance to make that happen.”
“Dominic said you have been acting strange.”
I stared at Office Phillips. Dread caked the lining of my stomach, which lurched. “You think I had something to do with it.”
Officer Phillips shrugged, turning back to the manila folder. “Your fingerprints are all over the trophy.”
“Everyone touches the trophies when we win them.”
He closed the manila folder. “We found another copy of the cast list.” He paused. “Your name wasn’t on it.”
My heart dropped as embarrassment washed over me.
“Seems like a motive for a teenage girl who’s obsessed.”
“Get Dominic in here,” I said. “He’s lying to you.”
On the final day of callbacks, Annie Martin, Taylor Scott, and I were onstage reading a scene between Amelia, the female protagonist, and her two best friends when Ms. Combs interrupted my lamenting monologue about being stuck in a small town where no one understood me.
“Just one minute girls.
”As we fell silent, she turned to Dominic, who sat beside her in the audience. “I just don’t believe it.”
“What’s there not to believe?” Dominic argued, turning his chair around so his back faced the stage. I glanced up from reading ahead in the script and frowned at his back. In the months since his acceptance to NYU, he’d acted as if he knew more than Ms. Combs did.
“It lacks honesty, Dominic. It’s a cop-out to show how Amelia is really feeling. In the scene before, we see her after school with her debate team and she is vibrant and thriving. Now she’s all of a sudden miserable? And it’s unoriginal. Every teenage protagonist in a small town wants to get out.” She paused. “It’s a little too much Look Homeward, Angel meets every single Netflix teen drama.”
Dominic flushed and crossed his arms over his chest.
“I think you need another round of revisions. Just for this scene. This is Amelia’s big—”
Dominic stood and walked out of the auditorium. Ms. Combs’s mouth compressed into a straight line. She looked at the script and then back at us.
“Girls, I think we’re good. Really wonderful work.” She stood and followed Dominic out of the auditorium and into the lobby.
That evening, Dominic sat next to me in the library. “Ms. Combs is just a washed-up wannabe. She has no clue what she’s talking about. She’s a loser.”
In theater, a blackout occurred when the stage lights went out, usually signaling the end of a scene. A blackout usually begged the audience to react: applaud, gasp, laugh. A blackout gave the stage crew time to move set pieces and the actors time to get into position for the next scene.
If done poorly, a blackout could give the audience a few seconds to remember that what they were seeing was fiction. It had the power to take the magic away. It could remind them the play wasn’t real.
As I tapped my fingers on the metal table, I blinked slowly. I heard Ms. Combs’s voice in my head, encouraging us to move faster during the blackout. I closed my eyes and hoped the blackout we were in could move more quickly. That it would take me out of this bad play and put me back in my real life.
I thought of Dominic. This morning, he had been fine. He had been in good spirits about his musical. He hadn’t said anything else about Ms. Combs since the library. After all, he was going to be a star. We were going to be stars together; that was the whole point.
I looked at the small interrogation room’s door. Officer Phillips had walked out nearly an hour before, leaving me there to wait for my parents to show up.
“Am I in trouble for something?” I’d asked when he left. He’d given no answer, just let the door slam behind him on his way out.
My phone sat on the table in front of me. The second I had a moment alone, I’d texted Dominic a series of question marks. He’d yet to respond.
The door opened suddenly, and Officer Phillips stuck his head in. “Your dad is here.” I stood. “Don’t think about running off, Miranda, all right? Don’t make this harder than it already is.”
I followed Officer Phillips into the lobby of the police station, where my dad paced back and forth. He stopped when he saw me. We weren’t a very affectionate family. If this were onstage, the parent would run to their child and hug them, smooth their hair down, and whisper that everything would be okay.
In that moment, I needed my dad to do that. Instead, he just stared at me as if I were a monster. As if he, too, believed there was something I did or something I knew that I wasn’t saying.
Officer Phillips handed me a card with a handwritten phone number scrawled on it. “Answer your phone when we call, Miranda,” he said and walked out of the station.
“Let’s go.” My dad led me out the door to his rusted pickup truck.
I opened the passenger door and slid in. “Can we go by the school to get my car?”
Dad started the truck. He placed both hands on the wheel but didn’t shift the car out of park. Instead, he turned in his seat and looked at me.
“Your fingerprints on the murder weapon, Miranda? Really?”
“Dad, come on. You know I had nothing to do with this.”
“And why are you lying about Dominic being with you?”
Anger bubbled up in my chest. “I’m not lying, Dad. Dominic was with me. I picked him up from his house. We were in the classroom together.”
“No one saw you together.”
“No one else was on campus! They were all in the courtyard. We were going to see the cast list.”
Dad turned back to the wheel and said nothing else.
“What? You think I killed her or something?”
“I think you’re not telling me something.”
Fury coursed through me. I closed my eyes and was onstage again: Center stage, with a spotlight on me, costume blood made from red food coloring and corn syrup staining my hands. Delivering a “Please believe me” monologue to the audience. The audience was fighting for me. They knew I was innocent. They knew I wasn’t lying.
Dad gave me specific instructions to get in my car and drive straight home. He had to get back to work, he said, but he would find out if I didn’t follow his instructions. There was a police car blocking the entrance to the student parking lot, but the policeman waved Dad in as we approached. Besides my Volkswagen, the lot was empty; the students had been granted the rest of the week off.
When Dad drove away, I turned my car on and drove cautiously out of the parking lot. I turned right onto Homestead, knowing full well I wasn’t going home. Dominic had some serious explaining to do.
When I knocked on Dominic’s front door, he answered instantly.
“I was wondering when I’d see you.” He opened the door wider, but I hesitated.
“What’s going on?”
“You tell me, Ms. Murder.”
“Why did you tell the police you weren’t with me?”
Dominic motioned me inside. Whether because I had always followed him or just because I needed answers, I walked in and let him close the door behind me. Instinctively, I took off my shoes to follow the one house rule Dominic’s parents had and took my time trailing after him down the hallway.
“I’ve been so sick all morning.” Dominic picked up a can of ginger ale and shook it, producing a small splashing sound of liquid against aluminum.
“Yeah, because you saw a dead body!”
Dominic raised his eyebrows. “Still no clue what you’re talking about.” He stopped. “Though if I had seen a dead body and that dead body just so happened to be Ms. Combs, I would say she deserved it.”
I was back onstage again. This time, I crossed downstage so the audience could really see the terror on my face. I wanted them to feel it, to feel what I was feeling as I opened my mouth to my costar—the costar who, for the entirety of act one, had been a leading man. A hero.
Dominic took a sip of his ginger ale. “And let’s say I had seen a dead body. Tragic. But I didn’t. Just like I told the police, I’ve been here all morning.” He dropped his voice an octave lower. “My dad talked to them too.”
I swallowed. Dominic had always made the lunch table crack up with his completely accurate impersonation of his dad, which he used now.
“And if the police asked,” he continued, “I’d tell them Miranda Jacobsen was a little obsessed with me. She had made plans to go to NYU one day too, but only after I had assured her that once we were there, we could be boyfriend and girlfriend.”
“That’s not true,” I argued. “I’ve always wanted to go to NYU.” Sweat dripped down the back of my neck, and the graze of my short ponytail sent chills down my spine.
“And maybe Miranda just felt defensive of me after Ms. Combs shredded my work of art to shit in front of everyone. Calling it underdeveloped and cliché. Maybe Miranda wanted to defend me.”
“Is that what this is about? Your script? Dom, what did you do?”
Dominic laughed. “I didn’t do anything. I’ve been home sick all morning. But, Miranda, you went to school early. You saw you weren’t cast as the lead. Ms. Combs said you weren’t ready. That, coupled with your honor to me, well . . .” He shrugged. “You snapped.”
“What the fuck, Dominic? What are you even saying? You were with me! You know that’s not what happened!”
Dominic turned away from me. “Turns out, I’m a better actor than we thought.”
I shook my head. “I’m not crazy. I won’t take the blame for this. Just because you can’t handle criticism, that doesn’t mean—”
“Criticism? Please, that bitch had no right to give me criticism. She barely had a theater degree.”
“You killed her.”
“I did no such thing.” Dominic walked into the kitchen, and I followed him. He opened a cabinet and pulled out a plastic bag, from which he removed a T-shirt. Looking closely, I realized it was my T-shirt, covered in blood.
Dominic mimed holding a cell phone to his ear. “Officer, I need help. Miranda Jacobsen just came by my house and asked me to get rid of something for her.” He held up the plastic bag and shook it dramatically.
“No one will believe you,” I choked out.
“They already do. All it took was planting a fake cast list that didn’t have your name on it and telling the cops one time that you were obsessing over it lately.”
He stared at the T-shirt.
“You know what she said when I talked to her after rehearsal yesterday? She thought the play was excellent, but she didn’t know if it was ready to be produced.” Dominic paused. “She was going to announce today that the spring musical was changing. To something stupid, like Into the Woods.” Holding the T-shirt in his hand, Dominic looked at me, desperation coating his pupils.
“I couldn’t face everyone. I’d be laughed at. A failure. I’m not a failure; she is. You know she never made it on Broadway? She moved here because it was the only public school that would hire her. And I’m one foot out the door to New York City. I was going to show her.”
Fury settled on Dominic’s face. He ran a hand through his hair, then dropped the bag with the bloodied T-shirt on the floor. When he looked back at me, he was smiling smugly.
“No one even knew she didn’t go home last night.” He rolled his eyes. “No one is going to miss her.”
“All this because she didn’t want to produce your play?”
“She mocked my play, Miranda.” He straightened up and stared at me. “Let me know how prison is.” He walked out of the kitchen, picked up the plastic bag, leaving me standing there. My stomach churned, but I reached into my pocket, my hands shaking as I pulled out my phone. A breath of relief escaped my lungs as I saw Officer Phillips’s number still active on the screen from when I had dialed it in the car and begged him to listen in. My instincts had been right. Of course Dominic would deliver a searing monologue about his side of the story. With an ego like his, he could never miss an opportunity to steal the show.
I held the phone to my ear and whispered, “Did you hear that?”
“Officers are on their way, Miranda,” Officer Phillips said from the other end. “Get out of that house but don’t hang up.”
I put my phone back in my pocket and walked into the living room, where Dominic sat. I looked at him. He looked back. I was putting on the performance of a lifetime. I needed him to believe I thought I was going to take the fall for this.
“Well, good luck at NYU, then, I guess.”
I turned around, sucked in my breath, and held it, fearing at any moment Dominic would be behind me. I was in danger. My lungs straining, I reached for the doorknob and pulled. The door didn’t budge. I pulled again. It was still jammed, even though the lock was flipped open.
I inhaled sharply and balled my hands into fists. Before I could think, a hand grabbed my ponytail and yanked me backward. I screamed, hoping it was loud enough for Officer Phillips to hear over the phone. I turned around to find Dominic standing there, a knife clutched in his hand.
“Oldest trick in the book, Miranda! Calling the fucking cops while I’m right in front of you?”
“They’re on their way, Dominic. Please.”
He laughed, slammed me against the front door, and held the knife to my throat.
“It’s over,” I gasped out.
He grabbed me by the neck and slammed my head against the door. A throbbing pain exploded in my head and down my whole body. I squeezed my eyes shut as the sound of approaching sirens echoed through the house.
Pain sliced through my abdomen, and I choked out air as I doubled over. My hands immediately went to the pain, and I felt sticky liquid. This wasn’t food coloring and corn syrup; this was my actual blood leaking from my actual stomach.
I fought to breathe as Dominic pulled his arm back and sliced my stomach a second time. A third time. I fought for breath, fought for strength, but they weren’t there.
I squeezed my eyes shut for just a moment to imagine myself onstage at curtain call. I walked out, crossed my right ankle over my left, and bowed. I smiled at the audience, which was roaring with applause. A standing ovation, I realized, as I sank down Dominic’s front door and fell to the floor.
Police sirens in the real world mixed with the applause in my mind to rock me into unconsciousness.
Bio: Sam Cooke is a Boston based fiction writer and essayist. Her work has appeared in Bluing the Blade, Prometheus Dreaming, HerStry, AMC Outdoors, Boston City Paper and Manifest Station. She works as a communications coordinator for a charter school.