I’m not entirely sure where “New Athens; or How to Talk to Boys at Parties” originated from, most likely it came from a dream with some rather dark content spread throughout. It took a while before I finally hit the mark where I felt that the story worked and it seemed comfortable where it was at. The title is inspired by Shakespeare, with its alternative title being an homage to Neil Gaiman’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”, there are some similarities to them but I think mine ends up being far creepier. If you happen to read the story and think to yourself “Well, what the hell is going on here?” don’t fret, there are answers, references, and allusions sprinkled throughout. Some of them are subtle and carefully (or attempted to be) planted, others sound off like fog horns. So if you enjoy parties, being creeped out, and something different, I cordially invite you to “New Anthens; or How to Talk to Boys at Parties”.
For my family, who told me stories where sometimes the good guys win, sometimes the bad guys win, and sometimes no one ends up happy.
“Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrew’d and knauish spirit...”
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
It was a secondhand invite, hardly an invitation at all. No one really wanted her there, or even thought about her, but she grasped onto it like a life jacket that would save her adolescence from sinking into anonymity.
“What kind of party is it?” Holly asked Mallory, who for the umpteenth time had to
“It’s a college party, how many goddamn times do I have to say it?” Mallory was driving
her Lexus towards the beach house where the festivities were situated, and trying not to get aggravated with her friend.
“Is there going to be drinking?”
“We go to high school parties where there are more booze than most bar mitzvahs, what do you think?”
Holly didn’t know what to think; she had been to several parties before, for which two things were certain: Nick Bottom would host and, before the evening was through, would make an ass out of himself.
But Holly had never attended any event with people several years older and whom she never met. It didn’t help that Holly didn’t go out much, comparing cars to coffins and the rides made her nauseous, the stink of the metal filling her nostrils and rocking her brain. Still, she thought that treating the car ride as an interrogation was unfair to Mallory, so remained silent for the rest of the trip. Instead she took note of what Mallory was wearing.
Mallory said she wanted to look glamorous, but Holly thought she looked more like a sexual predator, which in reality was the look Mallory was going for in the first place. Thick layers of eye shadow, a deep shade of red lipstick, just enough foundation to hide acne scars and antiperspirant to get her through the night. She was wearing a bathing suit under her jacket, but it was obvious that she had no intentions of going swimming.
Holly on the other hand went with a hoodie, jean shorts, and flip-flops. She didn’t understand how to use makeup to its fullest extent, as if she was a finger painter to Mallory’s Da Vinci. Besides, Holly had no intentions on meeting a guy tonight, opting to bring her tome of essential works of Lord Dunsany.
Mallory was the one who was on the prowl. Her sexual appetite was only on par with her dedication to her friends. Except with Holly, who assumed that “friendship” to Mallory meant “charity work”. The two had been together since grade school, but suddenly Mallory’s growth from child to woman had changed her. She became arrogant and controlling, shattering her previous friendships and leaving Holly to pick up the pieces.
That they remained friends was hardly more than a miracle to Holly, both growing up and apart and now complete opposites since fifth grade. Holly liked books, antiques, and old movies. Mallory liked makeup, drinking, and older men. They couldn’t be further apart on the spectrum.
“Ok, so a guy walks up and starts talking to you, what do you do?”
Mallory began. “Introduce myself and find similar interest?”
Holly perked. “Yeah, if you just want to be friends...”
“I like having friends.” Holly murmured as Mallory rolled her eyes.
“The trick is to not say anything at all. Ask questions, but be brief. These are the kind of guys who like talking about themselves and who like listening to themselves talk. As a girl, you hardly need to say anything. Standup straight and look interested, you’ll get more attention that way.”
“You have this down to a science don’t you?”
Mallory didn’t say anything, even Holly knew that her friend had a reputation for sleeping around, so the comment was more of a backhanded compliment than anything. In truth, Holly had never been with anyone. She had a boyfriend once, in fourth grade. Timothy Duke. It didn’t end well when Timothy realized that video games were more interesting.
She was not a girl who grew into her looks, either. She had a Roman nose that clashed with her features, hair that seemed to find itself both mousy and stringy, and a murky complexion that gave her a sickly appearance most of the time. The only thing that Holly really liked about herself was her eyes, almonds with thick swashes of moss for color.
They reached the beach house before Holly realized it, and only with Mallory giving a jubilant “We’re heeere!” did she feel her heart in her throat. People were standing outside the house, others were half naked and playing volleyball on the beach just below a balcony as the sun was beginning to dip down behind the horizon. Mallory parked her car and was buzzing to get out; Holly was half-heartedly opening the door but was secretly clawing to stay in.
Blue hour was seeping slowly pass, and as they approached, Holly got more nervous. These people were beautiful, and not just a few of them, all of them, as if someone had weaved an enchantment and made sure to sculpt every facial feature perfectly on perfect bodies; someone took the time to make them gorgeous and Holly had never felt so out of place.
The people around them seemed to notice the fresh meat and like wolves to a wounded deer, approached Mallory, one after another. Even some of the women took notice of her. Holly was noticed too, but in a different manner. The other partygoers looked at her in the same way people look at road kill, with pity and disgust. Some saw her and averted their gaze, others would look on in fear, and some looked at her with a mixture of antipathy and shame.
She left Mallory to her own affairs (which Holly assumed would be many) and made her way to the kegs. It was easy to find them; the other guest watched her and parted like the Red Sea. She realized that she forgot her Lord Dunsany book in the car and tried to make the best of the situation. She smiled as a deterrent to they’re unsteady glances, which only worsened as the guest turned away, as if her smile was a grotesque gouge on her face. She gave up and decided that if this was going to be the scenario for the next few hours, she could at least be drunk during it.
She took a red cup and plunged the keg until her cup was frothy and sipped it to test the waters. She grimaced. Pabst. And her belief that college kids had good taste in alcohol diminished. Getting drunk was still an option, but so was arsenic and one was definitely more enticing than the other.
She swallowed, fought to keep it down, and when she turned around to view the party she noticed half of the guest staring or just beginning to turn away. She rolled her eyes, downed her beer and readied her cup for another. It was the only thing that was stopping her from shouting “What the hell is your problem!?”
“You’re not tipping your cup enough, that’s why you get nothing but foam,” said a voice, warm and high, like trumpets.
“I’m a seventeen year old girl in high school, we’re practically the oracles of alcohol and poor decision making,” Holly snorted, turning around to see the speaker.
A boy, she thought, this is new. He must have been the poster-child for anything labeled “tall, dark, and handsome” with a wicked smile on his face as if always up to something malicious and dressed in a sleeveless shirt and blue swimming shorts. There was a slight glaze of moisture on him, like he had just gotten out of the water. She dropped her jaw a little and her cup would have followed suite if she didn’t retain her grasp on the situation.
“You just come here?”
Holly had trouble nodding, “Yeah, with a friend of mine,” and she motioned to where Mallory was standing with some of the men and a few woman who appeared to be fawning over her, “just look for the admirers and the empty packets of rohypnol.”
He laughed, like dark wind chimes made of wood, showing off a perfect set of teeth.
“You’re funny,” he said, looking at her, “you got a dark sense of humor. I like that.”
He had the same eyes as her; almonds, but with pond water.
“I’m Holly,” she said, trying to be coy.
“Nick,” he smiled again, his unsettling grin somehow welcoming. Holly nodded to get her mind off of it, and going against Mallory’s advice started small talk.
“Oh, really? I have a friend who’s name is Nick. He’s a total ass.”
He laughed. “Do I come off as a total ass?” Nick asked silkily.
Holly blushed, “Not yet,” she said coyly.
The moments ticked passed, and the beer kept coming along. They found they had similar interests: Elizabethan writers, Renaissance painters, and Errol Flynn to name a few. Holly could not get her eyes to fall away from his. The night seemed to wear away, and the blue hues died to violet and splashes of red and pink. Eventually Nick extended his hand for Holly to take, but she shook her head. He seemed a little peeved at first but brushed it aside and motioned for her to follow him. She was too pleasantly buzzed to say no, and walked after him.
She stumbled a bit and was too intoxicated to notice the looks following her; some looked relieved, others looked worried, and some had the same jagged smile on their faces as Nick.
She couldn’t remember where they walked; it was some back room in the beach house. Where she ended up, though, was most definitely not the beach. She followed him and reached a dark hall where Nick was waiting, leaning against the frame. With his clothes looking soaked, he walked on into the night.
She went to reach for him and instead only caught air; she passed through the door and felt a shift like the whole world had been moved and something like mint filled her nostrils as fogged thoughts rolled through her mind. She let her hand lead her, and she touched something prickly. A tree. A conifer. A pine tree. A pine tree in the middle of a room. Like Christmas, she thought. She let the tree slip away and tried to follow Nick before walking into another in the dark.
No, not a pine tree, she thought, a pine forest. She began to worry.
“Nick,” she called after him, “Nick?”
“Here,” he said, a few yards away from where she stood. She pushed the branches out of the way to see a shore with soft sands, overlooking a pool, and there was the softest light she ever saw draping over him in this pine forest. A moon hung over where the ceiling should have been, complete with stars.
She let out a little laugh; sure that she had really lost herself.
“Someone should tell whoever owns this house they have a moon in it.”
But she found that she was only talking to herself. With a splash, Nick had taken a dive into the pond and reemerged with his hand extended again.
Holly laughed, “But I don’t have any swimming gear,” she slurred a bit.
Nick’s smile grew, but it tightened in his impatience, “Then come with all your clothes on, or haven’t you ever been skinny dipping?”
She took off her hoodie and slipped off her flip-flops before an awful thought sprang in her head. Was she the only one who has come this far with him? Was she the only girl that had followed his lead to this moonlit pond in an impossible wood in a beach house by the sea? She said silently to herself, “No,” but she didn’t care anymore. She didn’t want sex, but she knew she wanted him.
He reached out his hand, she reached out with hers. They clasped finally, longingly, and an unsettling feeling shocked up her arm, like this is a hand that will not let you go, whether you wanted it to or not, and you will be punished for it. Nick’s hand wasn’t wet from the water, it was sticky. A thick layer of something was cupped between their palms.
For a moment Holly tried to move her hand, but it was like adhesive bonded them together. He stepped back into the pond slowly with that wicked smile on his face. Her inebriation was wearing away as his torso was slipping under the water, and she knew that he was going to become fully submerge and take her down with him.
Her hand would not be set free as she used her other to peel his away, but it too got stuck in the glue. She began to panic, trying to pull away from him but she couldn’t fight, and he was slowly dragging her to the edge of the shore and towards the depths. She was close to the water, and the moon showed her the truth beneath the surface. Bodies. Some were skeletons, the meat disintegrated; others were fresher, bloated. Nick’s face had contorted, and his features became sharper, more equine. His mouth became huge, and his jaw loose and two pointed ears poked out from the mess of his hair, and like some twisted Cheshire Cat his smile and eyes shimmered. She would scream, but screaming wouldn’t help, she would be pulled down. She could feel her feet hit the water.
And then it slipped. Her hand became free, and he stood back up, confused until he realized something. Holly fell back nursing her hand as if it had been wounded; the residue was slick now, greasy. His face had returned to normal as he stepped out of the water.
“I thought you would be easy,” he said disappointed, like his evening was ruined, “I didn’t realize that you were just like us.”
He picked up her hoodie and threw it at her.
“You should go,” he said before turning back to the waters, “you’re like us. You’re just not glamorous. There’s no glamour to you at all.”
She pulled her hoodie back on before she herself made the connection, scoffing.
“Nick,” she said, laughing a little at how dense she could be, “Nicky. Nixie. How uninspired.”
“The door should be right behind you, you shouldn’t have to wander too far.” He called before finally submerging beneath the depths of the pond.
Holly stood up and stomped off. More upset that she didn’t have the last word over the fact that something had attempted to drown her. The one thing she was grateful for was that Nick never lied, and the door was indeed very close by.
“Where have you been?” Mallory would say later when she found Holly.
“Talking to boys,” said Holly, full of venom.
“Oh yeah? Well pack your crap; these people are into some pretty weird shit.”
Holly was about to respond when Mallory grabbed her hand and began walking to the door, but she slipped away.
“Ew. What the hell is on your hands?”
Holly gave her a tired looked, a thought flashed through Mallory’s head and she grimaced.
“Fuck it. We’re going.”
As they passed through the guest, most them shocked that Holly was back in their midst, they were stopped at a door by a short fellow with chestnut hair and an olive complexion.
“Ah, come on, Mallory, leaving so soon? I thought we were just beginning to have fun.” He said in a high pitched voice, a familiar smile played across his lips and Holly thought she was going to be sick.
“I think we have differing opinions on what we consider fun, Robert.”
“Robin.” “What-the-fuck-ever. The difference being your fun is sick; so good night. Call me when you do something normal for a change.”
Mallory stormed off with Holly in tow, leaving Robin shrugging to his guest.
Situated in their car, they drove off. The night had fallen slowly and there was no moon out. The stars were peeking out behind the layer of clouds as Holly fell asleep to the sound of bad music and Mallory ranting. She dreamt of boys and of horses in the water.