June 18, 1890
The carriage stopped in front of the Institute and it was just as Minerva predicted – the police would rush to the scene of the crime, spurred on by the accusations of twenty-one hysterical girls.
“They tortured us!” cried Ruth, showing off a string of burn marks on her arm. They were self-inflicted but the inspector balked when Ruth said it was punishment for not showing proper respect.
“Yes, and they locked us in our closets every day!” Martha wailed. She was pale by nature, which lent credence to her story of being trapped in darkness for six months.
Anna kept her eyes downcast, just like Minerva told her. She was to claim she had been especially targeted, that she’d been bullied and beaten more than the others.
“What about you, Miss?” The inspector asked her. He lifted his lamp and rested his other hand beneath her chin. She looked at him now, her left eye nearly swollen shut from Ruth’s punch.
“Who did this to you?” Asked another inspector. There was doubt in his eyes, and Anna knew that it was up to her to extinguish it. She knew it’s what Minerva would want, knew that it would secure her position as a Perfect Woman. She pulled her nightgown over her head, exposing the bruises and bite marks on her body. Some of them she made herself, but the other girls did the most damage. After all, it was Minerva who drove the gold-tipped dagger into Anna’s stomach just before the police arrived.
The inspectors gasped. Blood seeped from Anna’s stomach. She was sweating and her legs were weak, but Anna was determined to do what Minerva urged her to do.
She would be the saving grace of the Cult of Poseidon. Mustering all her strength, she said:
“It was them,” she pointed towards a group of teachers and staff. At the center was the headmistress of the Windsor Forest Institute, Mrs. Caraway.
Her fierce green eyes stared at them from beneath bold, black eyebrows. “She’s the one who stabbed me. Please, don’t let them get away with what they did to us.”
Anna’s legs buckled and she fell to the ground, her head smacking on the concrete. Minerva was by her side, holding her hand and stroking her hair. She looked at Anna, her green eyes vibrant with appreciation. To the police she shouted “help!” and “those monsters killed an innocent girl!”
To Anna, she whispered: “You’ve done it, my Perfect Woman. Your sacrifice will not be in vain.”
Anna smiled and her vision blurred. It felt like she was falling into a deep sleep. She hoped that when she awoke she’d be rewarded, and that Minerva would be there, ready to take her hand and lead her home.
Shayla tapped the yellow flashlight against her palm, chiding herself for not bringing enough batteries. Did she think she was some kind of superhero who could see in the darkness?
Way to go, dummy, she thought.
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 Windsor Forest Institute was a large, four-story house. Two separate wings jutted forward from the left and right of the main building. A balcony sagged in front of the second story. Even in the darkness, Shayla could see the missing sections of the balcony, like missing teeth.
She shivered and walked up concrete steps to the front doors.
Two massive, wooden doors greeted her harshly. Shayla gulped and placed a hand on the door handle. It was cold and slightly damp to the touch and she held her breath as she turned the handle. Maybe it’ll be locked. Then I won’t have to go—
The door opened with a groan. Shayla’s heartbeat quickened. As she pushed the door open, she saw a note sitting just inside the foyer. She pressed her lips together and bent over to pick up the small slip of paper.
Congratulations. You’ve been chosen to become one of us.
To complete your initiation, you must take a walk through the Windsor Forest Institute, stopping on each floor, going to each room marked with a trident. Each room contains an item that will describe the background of the Institute, and what happened here over one hundred years ago.
Find the clues, follow the path, and you will be rewarded.
Shayla folded the note and slid it into her jeans pocket. She looked up at the Institute, taking in its enormity. She turned to look behind her, shining her light on the woods that hid the Institute away from the world.
I could just turn back. The note would be proof enough that I came, she thought. She sighed her breath a cloud before her. She knew Molly and the rest of the group would know the truth: that she was too scared to even take a step inside. They’d call her a chicken. They’d never talk to her again, leaving her to her loneliness. Leaving her to walk the halls of Chatham High alone.
“You can do this, Shayla,” she murmured.
She took a step inside. The door closed behind her with a thump, and Shayla jumped back, stifling a scream. After several moments of quiet, she exhaled and shone her flashlight around the room.
The Institute was as grand as she expected. Marble floors stretched out before her and crystal chandeliers hung in a line from the ceiling. Twin staircases hugged the left and right walls, joining on the second-floor landing, where a large bay window let in some moonlight.
There was a room to the right of the entrance. Shayla turned towards it, shining her light upon the door. A large trident was carved in the center. She stretched out a hand, running her fingers along the smoothly carved lines.
She pushed the door open, half expecting to see a ghost standing just beyond the door. But the room was empty. It looked like a dining room, a long dust-cover table dominating the space. At the far side of the room was a fireplace, the mantle still sturdy despite its chipped paint.
A large painting hung above the fireplace. In it, a group of people sat staring at the camera. Though the photo was black and white
Shayla could see how immaculately they were dressed. All dressed in black, the men with mustaches and cravats and the women with buns pinned at the top of their heads. The woman in the center was the most striking. Her dark hair contrasted with her pale skin and her light eyes were life-like, the kind of eyes that would follow a person’s every move.
Shayla looked around for the clue that would lead her to the other room. A grand piano sat to the left of the fireplace. 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, Shayla thought, I’ll never be initiated, and 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. Dark spots littered the front of it. Shayla winced 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 women. The class of 1891 had 53 members. After a massacre on June 18, 1890, only twenty girls survived. This dress belonged to Anna Quinn. Her death was responsible for ensuring that people were persecuted for the massacre.
Shayla dropped the dress onto the piano. She’d never heard about the massacre in any of her classes. Was it some sordid bit of local lore that was off-limits?
A creaking sound made Shayla turn towards the door. There was nothing there. She 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 the light eyes. Eyes that she swore bore straight into her back as she left the room.
She stepped out into the foyer. That creaking sound again, but Shayla couldn’t place it. Her temples throbbed. She felt a knot forming in her stomach, hard and vibrating. The dining room door slammed. Shayla yelped and ran up the stairs in front of her, the wood groaning beneath her.
Only one of the rooms in the right-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.
Shayla opened the door, uncertain of what she’d find.
The 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.
Shayla blanched when she didn’t see a bag in plain sight. She swept her flashlight around the room but saw no such bag. 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 cobwebs and 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 Institute was led by a woman named Eleanor Caraway, the first female headmistress. She was known for her beauty and for running a tight ship. 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 escape death by holding up in this room.
Shayla was still, her mouth dry but her palms sweaty. Had it been Eleanor in the photo downstairs, the one whose eyes seemed to follow her as she moved around? If Eleanor had been crazy enough to murder her students—
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 around in the bag for the candles, her hands still shaking.
Once the candles were secure on the candelabra, she lit them. The light cast an eerie glow as the flames danced in the air. Shayla decided to press on to the left-wing.
There were no marks on any of the doors, but she was stopped by 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 Perfect Woman Institute Class of 1891. Cultum Poseidon.”
She scowled as she read that last part. Cultum Poseidon? Cult?
Shayla 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.
Shayla 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, Shayla 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 the sound of 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. The women of this order were called Perfect Women, as they seemed to be more graceful, intelligent, and blessed than all the rest.
Shayla’s hand trembled as she held the dagger up to examine it. Her head pounded and she wanted nothing more than to drop the candelabra and the dagger and run down the stairs and out into the night, loneliness be damned. But instead, she sat on the bed, a cloud of dust rising into the air. How could six people murder more than thirty girls? What happened to the ones who survived?
A door slammed somewhere in the Institute. Shayla squealed and nearly dropped the candelabra. She tiptoed across the room and stood by the stairs. Footsteps echoed on the marble floors 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. Shayla wavered. Did she really want to see what was on the other side?
Footsteps again. She heard a creaking sound and guessed that the person was walking up the staircase. She stood rooted in place for what seemed like forever.
A door opened and closed within seconds. Shayla 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 it open.
Five people stood in a circle wearing white-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 Shayla opened the door. The one standing with her back towards Shayla lifted its head and turned towards her slowly. Shayla 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?” Shayla asked.
“What…what is this?”
“What does it look like? It’s your initiation. Might I 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?” Shayla said.
Molly shook her head and tsked. “Shayla, Shayla. You don’t get it do you?”
Molly paused, canting her head to the side. Deep down, Shayla 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 in order for the Cult to really be successful. She argued with Eleanor.” Molly walked towards Shayla.
“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 spat. “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 Shayla.
“Potassium chloride,” Molly said. “She poisoned them, and blamed it on Eleanor and the teachers.”
“How could they believe them? They were just kids!” Shayla 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.”
Shayla looked down at the dagger in her hand, at the initials E.C. Eleanor Caraway. A deluge of tears fell from Shayla’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, Shayla? Isn’t that why you came here?” Molly said.
Shayla 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?” Shayla asked.
Molly smiled. She grabbed the candelabra from Shayla’s hand and turned her towards the door. She kissed Shayla’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?” Shayla balked.
Molly’s face hardened. “Kill or be killed, Shayla. 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.
Shayla swallowed hard as she heard the door knob turn. The door opened and Shayla was upon her, cutting and slicing and stabbing. There was no time to scream for help, or beg for mercy. Soon, the girl stopped moving.
Shayla sobbed, agonizing over the blood that covered her body.
“You did it,” Molly said, coming to her side. She took the knife from Shayla’s hands. “You did it, Shayla. Now you are a Perfect Woman.”