Chaaya tapped the yellow flashlight against her palm, chiding herself for not bringing enough batteries. Did she think she was a superhero who could see in the darkness? There was no moonlight to illuminate her way to the Institute, and she doubted there would be any lights in the old, dilapidated building ahead of her.
The Savannah Women’s Institute was a large, three-story house. Two separate wings jutted forward from the left and right of the main building. A balcony protruded from the second floor of the main building. Even in the darkness Chaaya could see the missing sections of the balcony, like missing teeth.
Chaaya shivered and walked up the stairs to the double doors with large, stained glass windows. There was a note wedged between them. Chaaya opened it and shined a dim sphere of light on the paper.
Congratulations. You’ve been chosen to become one of us.
To complete your initiation, you must take a walk through the Savannah Women’s Institute. You’ll stop on each floor and go into each room marked with a trident. Every marked room contains an item that will describe the background of the Institute, and what happened here one hundred and twenty-five years ago, today.
Find the clues, follow the path, and you will be rewarded.
Chaaya shined her light on the Institute again. Her apprehension was dwarfed by her need. Completing this initiation meant she would finally have friends and no longer be an outcast. No more lonely lunches, no more bullying, no more walking the halls of Windsor Forest High alone.
She cracked open the door on the right and stepped inside. The door closed behind her with a thump and Chaaya jumped.
“You can do this,” she murmured.
The Institute was as grand as she expected. The floors were marble and chandeliers hung from the ceiling. A long oriental rug ran from the front door to the grand staircase.
There was a room to the right of the entrance. Chaaya shined her light on the door. In the center of the mahogany door was a bright, red trident.
Chaaya winced as she touched the cold, brass handle. She half expected to see a ghostly figure lurking near the window. But the room was empty when she walked in. It was a dining room, complete with a fireplace and a long, dust-covered table.
A large painting hung above the fireplace. In it was a group of immaculately-dressed women. The woman in the center was striking, her jet-black hair in a high bun. Her eyes, a vibrant green, looked life-like, the kind of eyes that could follow a person’s every move.
Chaaya looked around for the clue that would lead her to the other room. A grand piano sat in the far corner of the room. She flashed her light over its ebony body and saw a white bag with a red trident resting on the top. She reached out for the bag but thought the better of it. What if it was something dangerous?
If I don’t do this, Chaaya thought, I’ll never be initiated and I can kiss any chance of making friends goodbye. She sighed and grabbed the bag. It felt light in her grip. She set the flashlight down and opened the bag, spilling its contents onto the top of the piano. It was a white nightgown. The front of the dress was splattered with dark spots. Chaaya gasped and tossed the dress down onto the piano when she realized they were bloodstains. A note stuck out from the top of the bag.
You found your first clue. Well done.
Girls from all over the country were sent to this institute with the hopes of becoming perfect wives. The class of 1891 had 173 members. After a massacre on June 18, 1892, only twenty girls survived. This dress belonged to Anna Quinn. Her death was responsible for ensuring that people were persecuted for the massacre.
Chaaya shone her flashlight over the dress. She’d never heard about the Savannah Women’s Institute or the massacre in any of her classes. Was it some sordid bit of local lore that was off-limits?
There was a creaking sound, and Chaaya turned towards the door. There was nothing there. Chaaya hesitated before grabbing the note, slipping it into her pocket, and tiptoeing towards the door. She cast one last glance towards the painting and the woman with bright green eyes. Eyes that she swore bore straight into her as she left the room.
She stepped out into the foyer. That creaking sound again, but Chaaya couldn’t place it. Her stomach was churning, her heart pumping like a piston. She felt a knot was forming in her stomach, hard and vibrating. The dining room door slammed. Chaaya yelped and sprinted towards the stairs. She flashed her light towards the now-closed dining room. There was no other movement. Chaaya ascended the musty stairs.
Only one of the rooms in the left-wing was marked. She walked down the hall, passing room after room. Each door had a brass name tag, and the marked door had the names, Minerva Hall and Olivia Von Maur.
Chaaya opened the door, uncertain of what she’d find.
The dusty, cobwebbed room was more modest than she expected. Two beds sat on either side of the window. A nightstand sat between them. On the wall near the door was a desk, and on the opposite side stood an armoire.
Chaaya blanched when she didn’t see a bag in plain sight. She swept her flashlight around the room, but there was nothing. She looked under the bed, in the desk drawer, beneath the nightstand. Finally, she stood before the armoire and cringed.
“Get it together,” she chided herself. She grabbed the handles and opened the doors. The bag hung behind a set of musty dresses. This bag felt heavier than the last. She dumped the contents onto the bed. There was a candelabra, five candles, and a lighter. Another note fell out of the bag.
Clue number two. The SWI was led by a woman named Eleanor Caraway. She was known for running a tight ship and being the first female headmistress in Chatham County. Eleanor was said to have freaky, intensely green eyes. It’s believed that Eleanor and a group of teachers went rogue one night and killed most of their students. The survivors were said to have escaped death by holding up in this room.
Chaaya was still, her mouth dry but her palms sweaty. She’d been right to be disquieted by the picture downstairs, it seemed. Especially because Eleanor had been crazy enough to murder her students, Chaaya thought.
The flashlight died. She hit it against her palm again, but the batteries were toast. She had to use the candles now. She set the candelabra down on the nightstand and felt for the candles, her hands her still shaking. Once the candles were secure, she lit them. The light cast an eerie glow as the flames danced in the air. Chaaya decided to press on to the right wing.
There were no marks on any of the doors, but she stopped before a photograph near the stairs. At least a hundred-people posed, all in dark clothes and with somber expressions. More than half the women wore a small pin in the shape of a trident, the same symbol on the doors and bags. Below the photo was the inscription: “The Savannah Women’s Institute Class of 1891. Cultum Poseidon.”
She scowled as she read that last part. Cultum Poseidon? Cult?
Chaaya was being watched. She felt it. She heard another creak from behind the closed door to her left. As she rounded the steps to the third floor, she saw that the dining room door was now open.
The third floor’s layout was the same as the second. The first door on the right was marked with a trident. Chaaya recalled the words “Cultum Poseidon.” She knew that Poseidon was the god of the sea in Greek mythology and that he carried a trident. Were there really people who worshiped him? Was the Institute really a cult? Was Eleanor trying to initiate the girls? She must have killed the ones who wouldn’t comply, Chaaya thought.
The marked room belonged to Anna Quinn and Martha Tilby. Once again there was no visible clue, so she searched the room. As she looked beneath the bed she heard footsteps, the swish of a dress passing by. The butterflies in her stomach rattled around at sonic speed.
The bag was beneath the pillow of the bed on the right. In it was a single object: a gold-tipped dagger. Etched into the silver handle were the initials E.C. The customary note was tied to the handle.
Clue three. This is the dagger used to kill Anna Quinn. Eleanor and five others were tried, convicted, and hung for their crimes. They were revealed to be members of the Cult of Poseidon, a secret order that worshiped the sea god and who believed that the sacrifice of a pure soul would lead to prosperity.
Chaaya was afraid. Her fear had only intensified as she stared at the dagger in her hand. She couldn’t understand how six people could murder more than one hundred girls.
The sound of a door slamming startled her. Chaaya walked outside of the room and looked over the balcony. Footsteps trudged into the house, walking slowly in the foyer.
She ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time. These stairs led to a long hall with only a handful of rooms. At the end of the hall was a room with a big, red trident on the door. Chaaya wavered. Did she really want to see what was on the other side?
Footsteps again, these ones coming up the first set of stairs. She stood rooted in place for what seemed like forever. A door opened and closed within seconds. Chaaya covered her mouth as she heard the stairs to the third-floor creak under the footfalls of whoever, whatever was down there. It was now or never, and she knew it. She ran towards the door at the end of the hall and flung the door open with reckless abandon.
Five people stood in a circle wearing blue-hooded robes with a large, red trident on the back. Candlelight cast an eerie orange glow about the room. They had been chanting something but stopped the second Chaaya opened the door. The one standing with her back towards Chaaya lifted its head and turned towards her slowly. Chaaya flattened her body against the wall, her heart beating so loudly she thought they’d all be able to hear it.
From beneath the hood, large green eyes peered at her mischievously.
“Molly?” Chaaya asked. “What is this?”
“What does it look like? It’s your initiation. I have to say, you’ve done very, very well. Found the clues in record time. It took Ginger twice as long.” Molly motioned towards the petite blonde standing on the left.
“Why are you doing this? Why couldn’t I have just… pantsed a freshman or something?” Chaaya said.
Molly shook her head. “Chaaya, Chaaya. You don’t get it, do you?”
Molly paused, canting her head to the side. Deep down, Chaaya knew what she would say.
“We’re the Cult of Poseidon.” Molly said. The butterflies were gone and were replaced by nausea so acute, she nearly fainted.
“But I thought… they were killed-”
“Oh, yes, they were. But only because they refused to see things Minerva’s way. See, Minerva knew that sacrifices had to be made for the Cult to really be successful. She argued with Eleanor.” Molly walked towards Chaaya.
“But, Eleanor wouldn’t listen. So, Minerva recruited twenty loyal girls to follow her. Eleanor and the other teachers wouldn’t stand for it.” Molly said. “So, Minerva decided to do away with the Institute altogether. When some of the other girls found out her plans, they told Eleanor.”
Molly walked to the table beside the door. She picked up a tall silver canister and held it out to Chaaya.
“Potassium chloride,” Molly said. “She poisoned them, and blamed it on Eleanor and the teachers.”
“How could they believe them? They were just kids!” Chaaya said.
“Why not? Minerva and her followers were very convincing. What really sealed the deal was Anna’s death. She was killed with Eleanor’s own dagger.” Chaaya looked down at the dagger in her hand, at the initials E.C. Eleanor Caraway. A deluge of tears fell from Chaaya’s eyes.
“What do you want from me?” She wheezed.
“To be a part of us, don’t you see? With us, you will prosper. You can have anything you want, have all your dreams come true. Don’t you want to belong, Chaaya? Isn’t that why you came here?” Molly said.
Chaaya wiped her tears with her sleeve. She did want to belong, God, did she. She didn’t want to eat lunches by herself at school. She didn’t want to be made fun of or bullied. Didn’t she deserve this? To have friends? Be a part of something bigger than herself?
“What do I have to do?” Chaaya asked.
Molly smiled. She grabbed the candelabra from Chaaya’s hand and turned her towards the door. She kissed Chaaya’s ear and whispered:
“There was another girl who came here tonight. She’s the one walking towards the door right now. All you’ve got to do is kill her, and you’re in.”
“What?” Chaaya balked.
Molly’s face hardened.
“Kill or be killed, Chaaya. That’s it. If you don’t kill her, she’ll kill you, believe me. She’s even more desperate for friends than you are.”
Molly pushed her towards the door.
Chaaya swallowed hard as she heard the doorknob turn. The door opened and Chaaya tackled the girl. She brought the knife down.
Minutes later Chaaya stood, sobs wracking her body. She looked down at her hands, now coated in blood.
“You did it,” Molly said, coming to her side. Molly took the blood-covered knife from her hands. “You did it, Chaaya. Now you are one of us.”