Reading time: 20 min
Kera’s parents had imposed a curfew, as if that could prevent anything—those girls had gone Gothic in the middle of the day. What did anyone know? Only that it was hitting all girls: queer, straight, trans, Black, white, whatever. But no one understood anything.
An hour after curfew, Kera got a text from her best friend: SOS.
A curfew wasn’t going to keep Kera from helping Olivia. She pulled on a sweater and laced her Vans, and slipped past her parents’ bedroom door. They were watching a Netflix show about a teen with superpowers, the kind of girl who wasn’t afraid of super villains from outer space and never worried about being called ugly or too slutty or not slutty enough and whether that might make her go Gothic.
Olivia was waiting under the hemlock trees at the edge of Callahan Park, her face lit by her iPhone. Pale and dark-lidded, she looked like a Byzantine icon in a candlelit niche.
Olivia spotted Kera and yelled, “Hurry your ass!”—and the moment vanished.
“Shit, Kera,” Olivia said, pacing under the hemlock trees. “Harrison sent the selfie to Charlie, and that douche sent the photo to everyone. Everyone. Only half my face cropped out, but of course you can see everything else, and with my fucking name on it. Every college is going to see that when they Google me. And the high school suspended me. ‘Failure of moral conduct’.”
“It’ll blow over,” Kera said, although she knew it wouldn’t. Her chest felt tight as she imagined walking through school tomorrow. People would laugh about how stupid Olivia was to send that photo. Eventually Kera’s parents would find out and want to have a heart-to-heart about the dangers of social media and how she shouldn’t spend time with a bad influence like Olivia. This could be the beginning of the end of everything.
“My life is ruined. Ruined.” Olivia stopped pacing and hugged her phone to her chest.
“Hey, you still have me.”
“I was just taking pity on the guy.” Olivia rubbed her eyes. “God, I was stupid.”
“What about Harrison? He must have gotten in trouble.”
“Only a warning.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Kera’s dislike of Harrison swelled to even greater proportions. “You can sue him for defamation or child pornography or something.”
Olivia shook her head. “They’ll say I’m a slut, or worse. But Harrison can do whatever the fuck he wants, apparently. Sometimes I wish I were one of those Gothic girls. None of this shit would matter.”
“Jesus, Olivia.” Kera had read a Buzzfeed story earlier that day about the original Gothic girl. In one photo, two tiny figures—the girl’s parents?—stood inside the Gothic girl, pointing at her vaulted ceiling, decorated with characters from “Howl’s Moving Castle,” her favorite movie and book. The cathedral was in a parking lot somewhere in New Jersey. The interviewer asked the parents if there had been any signs or hints that something was wrong. They said she was an ordinary girl.
“I bet the Gothic girls suffer from a psychological pressure to be perfect.” A lot of theories were floating around—a curse, a miracle, a disease, hysteria—but Kera caught a glimpse of something deeper in their architecture, as if their spires and arches were designed to soothe an internal ache.
“What do you mean?” Olivia looked at her sharply.
“Nothing’s more Insta-worthy than a Gothic ceiling.” Kera expected Olivia to laugh, but instead her friend reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze. Olivia’s touch was stone-cold.
“Damn, that’s cynical,” Olivia said. “Remember when you told the Sunday school class that Jesus was the original zombie, and then she kicked you out?”
Kera grinned, but Olivia wasn’t in the mood to joke. Her gaze was pensive, as if she were staring into a different world, one hidden from Kera.
The air shifted, with a chill brushing away the warm October night. The scent of snow surrounded Kera, crisp and icy. No, not quite snow, but something harder, less forgiving. Stone, maybe. The air felt unnaturally still, like an invisible dome had encircled the pair and was magnifying yet isolating every sound.
A strangled noise escaped from Olivia’s lips.
“Olivia?” Kera gripped her friend’s hand.
The principal had warned about this: The first signs of Gothicism: the scent of snow, the chill of a stone cathedral. Was Olivia—? Not her best friend. Not like this.
“One day, no one will remember this. I promise, by this summer, when we go on that road trip to visit colleges…” Kera trailed off as Olivia pulled away with heavy limbs, as if she couldn’t support her arms.
Kera crushed Olivia in an embrace, holding her close; she didn’t care whether the Gothicism was contagious, like some people said. But Olivia’s skin was changing. It reminded Kera of when she was little and had blown soap bubbles onto a snowbank. The bubbles were barely visible, but within seconds, ice crystals spread across their surfaces, replacing the soap with a perfect replica of ice.
For a moment, Kera thought her friend might shake it off. But then Olivia pushed Kera away, sending her sprawling backwards with an unimaginable force, as her feet sank into the ground and her pale skin crackled into a polished, hard surface. Her arms arched overhead and her ribs vaulted into moldings; her ears curved into delicately carved mullions. Seconds, millennia, eternity, the change happened at all timescales, at once and forever.
“Please, Olivia, please, stop!” Kera shut her eyes against the change; it was too big, too frightening.
Kera’s heart thumped against her chest. Too fast. Was she having a panic attack? She could barely pick up her phone, the way her hands were trembling. She pressed 911 on her phone, and the key tones echoed in the vast perfection of Olivia’s cathedral.
“My friend—” she said haltingly into the phone.
The massive rose window of Olivia’s cathedral, more ornate than anything she’d ever seen, was adorned with stained-glass depictions of smartphones, a Prius, and the Hunger Games books.
At its center was a roundel as dark as Olivia’s eyes. It stared at Kera, unblinking yet all-seeing.
Kera awoke in a hospital bed pushed to the center of a small room built from unpainted drywall. Fluorescent lights buzzed overhead, washing out the beige linoleum floor. To the left was a small bathroom with a curtain hung across the doorway for privacy. The room had a single window that overlooked a cavernous, low-ceilinged room. Next to the window was a door with a magnetic lock. There was a sign taped to the back of the door: By order of the CDC: Mandatory quarantine for juvenile females in contact with Gothicism.
She leaned against the door, and when it wouldn’t open, she threw her shoulder against it until her arm ached.
She studied the large room beyond her internal window. It was floored with the same drab linoleum and hung with identical lights. In the corner sat a contraption made of thin silver tubes resembling a small goalpost. It looked like an empty clothing rack, the kind you’d see at a department store. The room was familiar, but she couldn’t remember where she’d seen it before.
When a man in a hazmat suit pushed open the door, it took her a second to recognize her pediatrician, Dr. Baker, buried inside the white suit. The door swung shut behind him.
“Hey there, Kera.” His voice was confident and plummy. “We are keeping you in isolation until we are confident your stress levels are within an acceptable range. How are you feeling now?”
“My friend turned into a cathedral in front of me, Dr. Baker.”
“I hope you don’t think it’s your fault. Or her fault.”
“Why would it be?”
The doctor frowned. “Girls tend to blame themselves.”
Kera bristled—but she’d said something similar to Olivia, something about Gothic girls wanting to achieve a perfect image.
“I don’t remember how I got here.” The last thing she could recall was staring into Olivia’s huge rose window.
“A side effect of the sedative. The EMTs said they had quite a struggle. It’s best that you don’t remember, to be honest.”
“I’m calm now,” Kera lied. “I want to call my parents so they can pick me up.”
“I’ve already talked with your parents. They know you are safe here in quarantine.” Dr. Baker patted the hospital bed, as if he wanted to have a warm heart-to-heart, but Kera remained by the window, her arms folded. If he was implying her parents wanted her in quarantine, she didn’t buy it. He looked wounded when he realized Kera wasn’t going to sit next to him.
“We’ll observe you for 14 days. If there are no signs of abnormal stress, you can return home.”
“How many people have you released?”
Dr. Baker shuffled to the door, placing his hand on the doorknob. “You’re among the first patients in this facility. We have a responsibility not only to you, but to the public. I’m sure the worst will be over soon.”
So no one’s gotten out of quarantine yet, Kera thought.
The door buzzed briefly, and Dr. Baker slid through it. From her place by the window, she watched him scribble on a notepad hung on the other side of the door. Kera craned her neck to follow him as his white-covered frame lumbered out of view, around the back of the drywalled cube she was stuck inside.
Kera studied the empty clothes rack, the linoleum floor, the fluorescent lights. It hit her why the quarantine facility looked so familiar: she’d been here with her mother when it was a mall. Kera couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old, before everyone switched to Amazon and shopping centers died.
A place to buy dreams, her mother had called it. Kera remembered telling her it looked like the place where dreams go to die.
Later that day, Kera knocked on the walls, hoping she had neighbors. A girl to talk with, a girl who could commiserate. Someone pounded back on the wall to the right.
“What’s your name?” Kera shouted. But when she placed her ear against the drywall, she couldn’t hear anything.
Drywall. She didn’t know much about it, but she remembered her dad talking about a guy at his office who got so angry he put his fist through the sheetrock. She wrapped the corner of a blanket around her right fist and pounded against the unfinished surface. Her knuckles ached, and her spirits sank as the surface dented but otherwise remained stubbornly solid. She needed more force.
She grabbed the metal chair by the hospital bed and rammed it into the wall. One foot caught in the drywall. Satisfied, Kera rammed the foot into the wall again and again, until the hole deepened and broke through to the next room.
The girl’s worried eye stared at her. A flash of eyelashes.
“What do you want?”
Kera was startled by the girl’s hostility. “Help getting out of here.”
“I asked my parents to bring me in, for my own protection.”
“Sometimes I can feel it, inside me. I don’t want to be pretty like I’m supposed to be.”
“Did you see anyone go Gothic?” Kera asked.
“No. Did you?”
“My best friend.”
The girl backed away from the hole. A second later, Kera heard scrabbling as the girl stuffed crumbled bits of drywall back into the hole, mumbling apologies.
“Please don’t go.” Her brief hope of finding an ally was quickly deflating. If she couldn’t even make a connection with another quarantined girl, she was more alone than she had feared.
“I know you’ll hate me, but I can’t risk it. Sorry, sorry, sorry.” The girl’s voice quieted, a shadow falling over a dark room.
Workers patched up the hole while Dr. Baker drew blood and delivered a lecture about how fraternizing with other girls could harm not only Kera’s health, but her neighbor’s.
“When you and Olivia were in kindergarten and played with blocks, did she build churches, cathedrals, or castles?” Dr. Baker asked as he taped a Band-aid over the site where he’d drawn blood.
“I don’t think this is related to toys.” Kera tugged at her hospital gown.
“And you’re the expert because…?” A young male doctor who was accompanying Dr. Baker on his rounds leaned toward her, his nostrils flaring behind the shield of his hazmat suit.
“If I’m in quarantine, you must think it’s a virus or bug or something.” Kera looked between the two doctors, who exchanged a look so quickly that Kera almost didn’t catch it.
The young doctor narrowed his eyes and lifted the corner of his mouth. “Contagion doesn’t have to be spread by a virus.”
Dr. Baker cleared his throat. “When Olivia went Gothic, how did you feel?”
“How do you think?”
Dr. Baker didn’t reply, but the younger doctor jumped in. “Angry that she left you behind. Maybe you wondered why you didn’t go Gothic. How did you feel about Olivia? She was quite popular, especially with boys, I take it?”
Kera pressed her lips together. They would see this as some sort of rivalry, unable to understand female friendship. But, she admitted to herself, she’d had a few moments when she questioned whether her self-esteem was too high or too low to catch Gothicism. But she wasn’t going to let either of them know about that.
“That’s the best theory you’ve got?” Kera swung her legs back and forth.
“My colleague was just trying to understand your state of mind,” Dr. Baker said in a soothing voice.
“Gothicism is spreading, and we’re trying to figure this out as quickly as we can. My daughter is also in quarantine, so believe me, we’re doing our best to keep you girls safe. Do you remember, after Olivia went Gothic, if she communicated with you?”
“What do you mean?”
“It could be anything. The wind through her doorways, or the echo of a hymn in her nave. Maybe the stone spoke to you.” When Kera shook her head, Dr. Baker scribbled a few notes in her chart. “Well, it’s time for us to check on the next bed.”
“Bed? Are girls turning into furniture now?” Kera meant it sarcastically, but of course Dr. Baker gave her a serious, searching look.
“Just a manner of speaking. The next patient, I mean.” He passed her an envelope. “A letter from your parents. We made sure there was nothing upsetting in it.”
After Dr. Baker and the young doctor buzzed out of her room, she ripped open the envelope. Portions of her mother’s handwriting were blacked out.
Dear Kera, We are [REDACTED]; Things are [REDACTED]. We are working on your release but the authorities are [REDACTED] and churches are attracting [REDACTED]. Remember that we love you. Mom & Dad.
She blinked back tears. Her parents knew she was here and were trying to get her out, but Dr. Baker said Gothicism was spreading, which meant the quarantine wasn’t effective.
If she wanted to get out, she’d have to find her own way to escape.
Days stretched to weeks, weeks to months. There was no one to talk with and no exercise, because Dr. Baker explained it was too risky for Kera to elevate her heart rate. Only books without stressful ideas were provided, like nonfiction books about plant biology or the history of glassware in America.
One night—Kera didn’t know how long it had been since she was quarantined—she awoke suddenly, unsettled and anxious. At first, she couldn’t put her finger on what roused her. Her room was dark except for the dim reddish light from the “Exit” signs that glowed throughout the mall. After a few more seconds of wakefulness, she tensed: her room was filled with the scent of stone and snow, the untethered feeling of existing inside a vacuum. The air filled with the sound of cracking and tumbling stone, like boulders falling against each other.
“No, no, no.” Kera huddled by the door as the wall crumpled between her room and her neighbor, the girl who had refused to talk. The sheetrock slivered into shards and dust clouded the room.
Please let her be something small, she thought.
When she heard the final stone clink into place, Kera opened her eyes.
A Gothic arch had broken through the walls, spanning her room and the girl’s and destroying the locked doors that had kept them in quarantine. The arch was topped with delicate stone pedestals adorned with melancholy gargoyles, although whether the figures were warnings or protections, Kera wasn’t sure. Beyond the arch, nurses were running from room to room, checking on the girls.
Kera touched the stone, thinking about how Dr. Baker had asked whether she had heard or seen any sign of Olivia after she’d gone Gothic. Kera pressed her hand against the chiseled marble, and a tremor traveled across her skin, two syllables running over and over. Sorry sorry sorry.
“I’m sorry too,” she said. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to know you.”
Kera would only have seconds before the doctors rounded her up. She ran to the clothing rack and grabbed a hazmat suit from a hanger, stepping into it as her heart hammered against her ribs. The quarantine block stretched across the mall floor, as far as she could see. Little windows, each holding a girl safe from themselves. Hundreds of cells had been built inside abandoned stores and the food court. Hundreds of girls. Maybe all of the girls in town.
Kera ran for the mall exit and pushed her way outside.
As she walked along the four-lane road by the old department store, she passed a strip mall bisected by a Gothic revival house. Its steeply gabled roof had knocked off the sign from a PetSmart store.
The Hooters restaurant had been destroyed by a massive Gothic crypt, pieces of its orange sign scattered around the parking lot.
The stones of the Gothic buildings were darkened by a recent spring rain. Kera felt a surge of bitterness at the budding trees and crocuses pushing their green tips through the dark earth, because she understood an entire winter had passed while she was locked up. She’d missed college applications. Missed the holidays, the winter dance at school.
When she reached Shelburne Road, she spun around in confusion. Something had changed along the usually busy street, the four-lane main artery in and out of town.
She swiveled toward the rotary, where cars normally would be lining up to swerve around the traffic circle. Instead, a stone gatehouse straddled the five-way intersection, blocking cars from entering or leaving town. Its arched gateway was barred with a thick wrought-iron grate. Even if it were open, the passage was too narrow for anyone but two friends to stroll through, arm in arm.
Words were spray painted on its flanks.
Kera continued to Pine Street, where the traffic flowed. A few cars beeped. A pedestrian frowned when he saw her and punched a number into his smartphone. Kids playing in their front yards pretended not to stare, but she sensed their gazes turning to her as soon as she passed by.
She had hoped the hazmat suit would provide camouflage, but something about her was attracting attention. She was nearly at her neighborhood when she understood why she felt so out of place: There were no girls on the street. No women either.
Only boys and men.
She glanced down at her body. Even though she was wearing a formless hazmat suit, they must have noticed the curves of her breasts and hips.
“Mom, Dad, it’s me!” Kera banged on her locked front door. No one and she didn’t have her keys.
She slipped around the back and picked up a garden paver, hurling it through the kitchen window. After brushing the glass out of the frame, she pulled a garden chair under the window and climbed through.
A thin layer of dust covered the kitchen table and counters, but their belongings were still there—the tatty potholders, her dad’s stained copy of “The Joy of Cooking” on the kitchen table. Her school schedule stuck to the fridge with a “Life Is Good” magnet. With relief, she spotted her phone on the counter, plugged into a charger.
When she swiped, the first image that popped up was Olivia’s selfie. Some asshole had sent it to her that night when Olivia went Gothic, with the caption, “Class skank.” Her trembling hands widened the image until Olivia’s black-lined eyes filled the screen, searching for signs of what she’d missed, the latent Gothicism that must have been hiding inside her friend. All she saw was herself reflected in Olivia’s eyes.
She had hundreds of messages, even some from those girls who had never bothered to talk with her. Panic, worry, questions about where she was. Some texting that they were being picked up for quarantine. She scrolled to the messages from her parents.
Dad: We found your phone in the park after the CDC took you into quarantine. We’re keeping it charged up at home in case you get out.
Mom: We hired an attorney, but he says the National Emergencies Act means the CDC can do this. All girls are getting quarantined.
Dad: Be strong.
Mom: There’s now a Church of Gothic Girls. They think girls’ bodies are holy and they worship inside the Gothic girls. If you get this message, keep away from them.
Dad: Mom has been taken into quarantine. The authorities say every woman could be a carrier.
The texts finished with:
Dad: I volunteered to work on a new holding center for girls and women, out near the Home Depot. I will find a way to get you both out. Stay strong.
Kera held her breath as she texted her parents, praying that one of them would answer. Her hope faded as the sound of trumpets blared from the living room—the ringtone her mother had programmed into her phone for Kera’s texts. So her mom hadn’t been allowed to take her mobile phone to quarantine either.
She almost dropped her phone in relief when a grey oval appeared on her screen with three ellipses.
Her heartbeat thumped hard with every dot that shimmered on her screen while her dad was writing a text.
Dad: Kera, thank god. Where are you?
Kera: At our house.
Dad: It’s not safe there.
Kera: I don’t think it’s safe anywhere. Is Mom okay?
Dad: No one in quarantine is allowed to have visitors or calls. I have to hope she’s all right. I’m a half hour away. Did anyone see you?
Kera: Maybe. I don’t know.
Dad: Hide inside Olivia’s cathedral. I don’t think anyone goes in there. I’m driving over to get you, but stay out of sight until I text you again.
Kera stole along the path to the park, still in her hazmat suit, but kept close to the budding mock orange bushes that lined the pathway. She hoped it would provide some concealment of her shape.
Olivia’s cathedral was grander and more breathtaking than Kera remembered. Its narthex began at the hemlock trees where they used to meet, and the nave and transept swept across the soccer field. A stirring of pride rose within Kera at Olivia’s massive expanse, covering almost every inch of the park.
Kera slipped inside the front doors and inhaled Olivia’s scent, the cedar and honeysuckle aroma of some Sephora perfume she was crazy about. Kera ran her fingers over the smooth wooden pews, then knelt at one of her devotional niches.
“Are you there, Olivia?”
She raised her eyes to the rose window. Olivia’s eye was no longer unblinking and dark; it was half-lidded, and the light from the setting sun illuminated it with hazel and gold flecks. Kera rested her forehead on her hands, hoping Olivia might hear her.
“I miss you so much.”
Her words echoed in the vast space. When she looked up again at the roundel, Olivia’s eye was open and now focused on her. Goosebumps spread across Kera’s arms at the proof that Olivia was still here. Maybe she understood what was going on.
The quiet was broken by the sound of banging on the cathedral doors.
“Open up, Kera! I know you’re in there.”
It took Kera a moment to recognize the voice: Harrison, that asshole who sent Olivia’s selfie to everyone in school.
She ignored him, and continued to tell Olivia everything that had happened since she had gone Gothic, but Harrison wouldn’t stop pounding on the door. With an annoyed sigh, Kera walked to the cathedral doors.
“Cut it out, asshole,” Kera said through the door.
“Open up. I need to talk with you.”
“Why don’t you open the door yourself?”
“Olivia won’t let me in.” The doors rattled as he pulled from the outside. “I can’t believe she unlocked her doors for you.”
Kera called into the cathedral, “Good for you, Olivia.”
“You shouldn’t be here,” Harrison’s emotionless voice squeezed through the doors.
“I have every right to be here.”
“Females aren’t allowed inside the Churches of the Gothic Girls.”
“Apparently you aren’t either,” Kera shot back. “And you were the one who made her go Gothic. If anyone shouldn’t be allowed inside, it’s you.”
“I visit her every day.” Harrison’s voice was so quiet she had to strain to hear him. “The brothers of the Church of the Gothic Girls straightened me out. They helped me understand that Olivia is the ultimate expression of the feminine. It’s the farthest thing from a curse.”
His voice had softened into a coaxing purr. Maybe this was how he spoke to Olivia when he convinced her to send the selfie. “The brotherhood can help you become as beautiful as Olivia.”
The blood pounded in Kera’s head, loud and thick. “What do you mean?”
“Every girl should aspire to Olivia’s ideal—she makes no demands on mankind, except for men to worship her perfection.”
“Fuck. You.” Olivia yanked on the doors again. She had a sudden urge to punch Harrison in his face. But the doors remained locked. “I’m just as human as you.”
Harrison’s voice was low and mumbled. When she pressed her ear to the door, Kera made out the words of a prayer. A supplication for Kera to be granted the miracle of Gothicism.
Kera hurried away, walking briskly toward the transept. The wind blew through the cathedral, melancholy and elemental and unforgiving. Olivia’s sentience was tangible, but could she ever return to flesh-and-blood? And even if she did, would her life be any better? Olivia would be prodded with needles or prayed over, an object of fascination and anxiety.
Police sirens blared in the distance, and a spike of fear raced through Kera. Harrison must have called 911 to report her. Or Dr. Baker must have realized she was missing and called the authorities. Or maybe some of the men she’d passed earlier in the day had called in reports of a female roaming the streets.
A second later, her phone buzzed.
Dad: Come outside. Be quick. Police are behind me.
She tried a side door, relief flooding through her as it yielded to her grip.
The hazmat suit bunched against her legs as she ran outside. Her dad’s face, grim and strained through the window of their old beat-up Subaru. His expression eased with a fleeting expression of joy as he caught sight of her. She ran along Olivia’s flanks, toward the edge of the park. She would jump in the car and she and her dad would pull away from this nightmare. They would find her mom, and they’d be a family again. Kera was sure of it. There had to be a happy ending, some way for her and her mom to be human again.
An ambulance and two police cars pulled up behind her father.
The police jumped out of their cars, kneeled, and pulled their guns from their holsters, aiming at her father.
“Do not approach the fugitive female,” one of them shouted.
For a moment Kera thought her father might drive away. Maybe he’d save himself. Instead, he unbuckled himself and opened the car door, calling her name.
The police fired.
It was like watching an object fall from a shelf. Her father had no power to resist the force of gravity. He slumped forward and to the left, so slowly, and his body tumbled out of the car and onto the pavement.
She cried out. He had to move or turn his head. He had to.
Dr. Baker stepped out of the back of the ambulance, a syringe in his right hand and a worried expression playing across his hazmat-shielded face, as if he were thinking about all the damage that girls’ bodies could do.
Kera grasped that she had misunderstood the Gothic girls when she had told Olivia they were in search of the ultimate selfie. They weren’t seeking photo-ready perfection, but something bigger.
It would be a relief to go Gothic, to turn her body into a fortress that could fend off Dr. Baker and his needles and tests. No, more than relief—justice, reclaiming her physical space and locking out Dr. Baker and Harrison and everyone else who was unworthy. And she would reunite with Olivia, their edifices side-by-side, light from their rose windows shifting in conversation.
Kera could taste it, hard and satisfying. She leaned against Olivia’s stone flanks, closed her eyes, and prayed for the scent of snow and stone.
Copyright 2022 Aimee Picchi
“Gothic Girls” came from my anger at watching my teenage daughters encounter a world that began objectifying them—catcalls, harassment, and the like. It was discouraging to realize that, in some ways, not a lot has changed since I was their age, and to witness its damaging impact on my kids. It got me thinking: What if objectification turned people into actual objects? And not just any objects: Gothic structures that are both frightening and awe-inspiring. I consider “Gothic Girls” a horror story, even though Olivia and Kera take back some control of their lives through this transformation. To me, “Gothic Girls” feels even more relevant today given recent events that are stripping rights and bodily autonomy from so many.