Jennifer stops when she sees Charlene leaving the sorority house, the administrator dressed in an ebony pantsuit. Her mouth goes dry when the woman turns to her and waves before ducking into a waiting taxi. The confused student watches the vehicle go by, the windows too dark for her to see what is going on inside. She continues to stare until it disappears around the corner and a rumble of thunder snaps her out of the trance. Cautiously heading up the uneven walkway, Jennifer looks around for the sisters and is freaked out that there are none on the patio or in the windows. The shades have been drawn to prevent anyone from seeing inside, which is unusual for the daytime. Getting to the door, she calms herself down with some breathing exercises and takes the pause to listen through the keyhole. The two actions offset each other, so she goes inside with the same amount of tension she had several minutes ago.
To Jennifer’s horror, every sister, pledge, and friend of the sorority has gathered on the main floor of the house. A sea of scowls and whispered curses meet the nervous theater major when she closes the door and steps further inside. Intimidated by the massive crowd, she stays near the wall and attempts to inch her way upstairs with her head down. Jennifer gets to the first step when the mob parts and shows her what they have prepared for her arrival. The other students have brought all of her belongings to the center of the lounge, which has been cleared out of furniture. Several of the silent students have bottles of lighter fluid, their hands dripping from enthusiastically dousing the pile. Those with matches are standing near the windows, a mad glint in their hungry eyes. Jennifer opens her mouth to speak when one of her former friends steps forward to slap her across the face.
“Don’t you dare try to say that you don’t want any trouble,” the freckled student hisses like a cornered cat. Tying back her blonde hair, she returns to the mob and signals for them to continuing bathing the pile in lighter fluid. “Charlene is revoking our charter because of what you did. She said our parties and acts of vandalism have been tolerated long enough. You killing Natalie and James was the final straw that they couldn’t overlook. Now, we all have to be punished when our only mistake was letting a psychopath into our home.”
“I didn’t kill anyone,” Jennifer timidly argues while she massages her aching jaw. She ducks when another sister tries to hit her again, but a kick to her leg knocks her to the floor. “Let me talk to Charlene tomorrow. Coach Warner said only I had to leave. He didn’t tell me anything about this, so let me fix it. At least let me get my photos and some of my clothes. For god’s sake, how can any of you think I killed Natalie and James? Do I really look like I have the strength or even the ability to do that?”
“You are a theater major, so you could have been faking it,” says a drunken voice from the middling of the pack. Emboldened by the nods of agreement, the short girl pushes through the crowd until she can grab Jennifer by the ear. “You ruined our futures, bitch. Charlene isn’t going to let us off the hook so easily. She thinks our influence drove you to kill, so she’s keeping an eye on all of us. This might even be noted on our records, which is something I didn’t even think was possible or legal. All because Natalie hurt your feelings?”
“She was trying to drive me out of the house.”
“Then you should have left.”
“I didn’t want to leave. This was my home.”
“Well, you sure as hell didn’t care enough about us to commit murder off the property.”
“I didn’t kill anyone!”
“Nobody believes you, O’Connor, so stop wasting your breath.”
With a high-pitched whistle from the seniors, those with the matches get close to the soaked pile and begin setting it on fire. Cheers go up as clothing ignites and posters swiftly turn to ember-tinted ashes. Sparks fly from the computer and television, which release foul-smelling pops as they burn. An acridness fills the air as Jennifer’s collection of makeup and paints melt into puddles, the stench making her think something toxic was added to the mixture. Blocked from getting close, the theater major can only watch everything she owns go up in smoke that lingers around the ceiling. Staring at the thickening cloud, the thought of suffocating crosses her mind, but she is kicked whenever she attempts to move or speak.
It takes a few minutes for the furniture to start crumbling, which causes the pile to fall apart and spread toward the crowd. Those closest to the bonfire do nothing to get out of the way, their legs struck by the fiery refuse. With screams, most of them fall back in pain, but three pitched forward and land in the flames. Having shown no concern for getting lighter fluid on themselves, the students ignite as quickly as the posters and struggle to get back to their feet. One of them becomes trapped beneath the desk, her shouts for help falling on panicking ears. The other two get free and lunge to their friends for help, but they only spread the flames and force the rest of the crowd to shove all of them into the inferno. With the added fuel, the bonfire licks at the ceiling and pumps out smoke that smells of burning flesh. None of the sisters try to escape even though their eyes are filled with terror, the only time they move being to prevent Jennifer from crawling away.
The tension snaps when one of the pledges tackles a senior into the flames, the pair battling while they burn. Jennifer huddles in the corner as violence breaks out throughout the main floor of the house. Those who are too scared to fight are chased upstairs where the smoke is so thick that only their choking silhouettes can be seen in the cloud. One of the newer members comes falling to the foyer, her neck snapping on impact. Nobody else emerges from the second floor, their faint gasps and coughs lasting for a few minutes Others fight blow for blow, the brawls typically ending with both people falling into the growing inferno. A high-pitched scream startles everyone as one of the seniors rips off her best friend’s arm and begins beating her with it, foam flying from both of their mouths. Cheers rise up at the scene as more try to tear into their opponents with a primal ferocity. Throughout the bloodbath, the fire continues to spread as if driven to swallow the entire building.
A finger falling on her leg snaps Jennifer out of her fear and she tries to make a mad crawl for the door. Staying low to avoid the smoke, she mutters every prayer that she can remember, including fictional ones for movies. Hearing footsteps coming towards her, she turns around to see the short sister approaching. Jennifer tries to move faster, but her ankle is grabbed and she is dragged toward the bonfire. Grabbing an umbrella, she twists her body and flails at the other student’s hands. The weak blows have no effect on the student whose eyes have become glazed with an oily film. Charged from the side, the sister lets go with one hand to lash out and snap the neck of her attacker. Out of ideas and stricken with fear, Jennifer opens the umbrella in the hopes of hitting the other woman in the face. Instead, the ribs extend and stretch to form a mouth that snaps off the upper half of the student’s body like a crocodile. Horrified by the unexpected event, the theater major drops the umbrella and scrambles under a table.
“Please be a dream,” Jennifer whimpers while staring at the hand on her ankle. She gingerly pries it off and nearly throws up before she gets free, the severed body part seeping onto her shoe. “This doesn’t make any sense. Fire . . . People shouldn’t be able to do any of this. It’s insane. I’m going to die in the middle of insanity. Unless this is a dream. Maybe I fell asleep on the bus. After all, none of this can happen. It’s not real. It’s not . . . normal.”
“Never any fun in normal,” a voice coos from a wall outlet.
The chaos freezes in midmotion as a chilling laugh rolls down the stairs and blows out all of the windows. Fed by the rush of fresh air, the inferno explodes and rapidly consumes everything in the house. Dancing figures can be seen in the flames, their movements matching those of the faint arm that extend from the smoke over. Charred bodies fall to the floor while Jennifer closes her eyes, a sudden sense of weightlessness the last thing she feels before passing out.