Authors: Rosemary Clement-Moore
To my dad, Robert Wallace Clement,
who never forgot how to tell a story
s an interactive horror experience, with beasts from Hell, mayhem, gore, and dismemberment, it was an impressive event. As a high school prom, however, the evening was marginally less successful.
I should start at the beginning, but I’m not entirely certain when that is, so I’ll start with the day I realized that despite my most determined efforts, I was not going to be able to ignore the prom entirely.
The end of April, and a rabid satin and tulle frenzy had attached to every double X chromosome in the senior class. All available wall space—hallway, cafeteria, even the bathrooms—sprouted signage in the most obnoxious colors possible. I was assaulted by flyers in the courtyard, and harassed by thrice-daily announcements. Had I gotten my tickets yet? Had I voted for the class song? Had I voted for the King and Queen? No, no, and Hell no, because voting for royalty was not just moronic, it was oxymoronic.
No one was safe from the Prom Plague. When dog-eared copies of
magazine started circulating through AP English, I knew I’d soon have to fall back to the band hall and call the CDC from there.
Then one day my neutrality was over. My indifference punctured. Stanley Dozer asked me to be his date.
Stanley Dozer was even lower on the high school food chain than I was, and I was in the journalism club. Sometimes I think God must have a kind of divine craps table; every once in a while He shoots snake eyes and the next baby born is screwed from the jump. I mean, “Stanley Dozer,” for starters. Maybe he could have aesthetically overcome this name, but the guy was about six foot five, pale and bony as a corpse, with hair the color of spiderwebs. His ankles and wrists shot out of his too short jeans and the sleeves of his plaid button-down shirt. I sympathized with the sizing problems, but I had to wonder at the complete inattention to fashion. And by fashion I mean “camouflage.”
Back on the middle school Serengeti I learned that, lacking a certain killer instinct, my best bet was to avoid standing out from the herd and making myself a target for the apex social predators, at least until I’d built up a tough skin. Now I’m sort of like the spiny anteater. Small and prickly, trundling along, a threat to no one. Except ants, I guess, which is where the metaphor runs out.
Back to Stanley’s ambush. On the second-story breezeway that overlooked the courtyard below, the Spanish Club was selling candy to raise money for their Guatemalan sponsor child and I was taking their picture. Privately I thought little Juanita would benefit a lot faster if they sold tequila shots instead. Not that I advocate underage alcohol, but I bet there were a few teachers who could use a drink this time of year.
“Hi, Maggie!” Stanley’s voice startled me.
I spun around, narrowly missing hitting him in his bony chest with my camera. I’m used to looking up, but with Stanley I had to crane my neck and squint. “Oh. Hi, Stanley.”
Behind me, the Spanish Club giggled. What was Español for “Bite me”?
“How are you?” he asked, hefting his book bag onto his shoulder. The canvas bag bore the logo of the natural history museum. High on the geek quotient, but worlds better than the briefcase he’d carried freshman year.
“I’m taking some pictures for the yearbook.” I hinted broadly that I was busy. After all, the next box of Chiclets might be the one that sent little Juanita to college.
“I saw you up here, and I thought…Well, you know how the prom is coming up?”
“Is it really?” I mumbled, messing with the settings on my camera. “I had no idea.”
Sarcasm sailed over his head, which was a trick considering his height. He shuffled from foot to foot, giving the unfortunate appearance of a dancing skeleton. “Well, I was thinking you could go with me. We could, you know, go together.”
The words entered my ears, but my brain rejected them. Stanley Dozer was
asking me to the prom. Words failed me, and that’s just not something that happens. Ever. I’d known Stanley since his paste-eating days, and had always tried to be nice to him. I was the spoilsport who pulled the
sign off his back, or helped him pick up his books after he’d been tripped—either by his own overlong legs or someone else’s. I guess if I were a better person I’d have befriended him more thoroughly. I felt bad about that, but not that bad.
“Wow. The prom.” I stalled as the rest of the school continued normal operations, electric bells calling students to class, kids buffeting us as they passed on the breezeway, calling to the people below. “I really wasn’t planning to go,” I said honestly. “I might have to take pictures, but I’d kind of be working.”
“Yeah, but if you have to go anyway…”
“Oh, you wouldn’t have fun that way.” I flipped through my mental student files, clinging to the notion that there is somebody for everyone. “What about Karen Foley? Weren’t you guys in Mathletes together?”
“Until she blew our answer in the district semifinal round,” Stanley sneered. “She’s not nearly as smart as everyone thinks she is.”
“Oh-kay. That was a little harsh.”
“Yeah, well, Karen Foley is a dork.”
was unkind and rather nasty. Also, Mr. Glass House didn’t have any business throwing stones. But before I could react, someone grabbed Stanley from behind. Amid laughter and alarmed squeals, the breezeway cleared of traffic as Biff the Jock bent poor Stanley over for a noogie.
Biff wasn’t his name, but he reminded me of the bully in
Back to the Future,
so that was the name my brain supplied. Though Stanley had half a foot of height on him, the football player was muscular, so watching Biff rough up the poor dweeb was like watching an English mastiff pin an Afghan hound.
“Hey, Bulldozer! Trying to get a date?” I willed Stanley to fight back; he should have leverage to his advantage if nothing else. But his spindly arms and legs just flailed around as the pack of jocks and cheerleaders jeered.
“Leave him alone,” I said, not much more effectively.
“Awww.” Biff wrapped a meaty arm around Stanley’s neck and baby-talked, “Does oo haff a widdle girlfriend, Dozer?” His friends roared at this example of their leader’s wit. Stanley’s face was turning purple with what I hoped was rage and not asphyxiation.
“I said, leave him alone. Go find another Mack truck to pick on.”
Biff’s girlfriend—whose name, like half of the cheer squad, was Jessica—got up in my face. “That’s so cute! I think she likes him back.”
“How sweet.” Biff and his friend pushed poor Stanley to the edge of the breezeway, pretending they were going to launch him over the brick barrier onto the courtyard below. “You going to
for her, Bulldozer?”
Stanley didn’t answer; he looked paralyzed by terror. The jocks might have been pretending, but the horror on Stanley’s face was very real. I raised the best weapon at my disposal and clicked off a rapid-fire series of pictures on my camera. It got Cheerleader Barbie’s attention.
“What are you doing!” Yell-leading had definitely developed her lungs. Her shriek made my right eye twitch, but I replied calmly.
“I’m documenting the event. Maybe for the principal. Maybe just for the school paper. Maybe for an insert, right next to the ballot for prom queen.”
“You can’t do that!” My eardrum gave a seismic shudder. “I’ve worked for four years. My mom already bought my dress. It’s
, you hag.” My camera clicked in her livid, bug-eyed face. It is probably all that saved me from her claws. Instead she turned to her boyfriend. “Let him go, Brandon! You and your stupid sense of humor.”
Brandon. That was his real name. He and his buddies let poor Stanley go, and the geek collapsed onto the concrete in a jumble of bony elbows and knees as Brandon turned on me. “You are nothing but a snitch and a tattletale, Quinn.”
“It’s called investigative journalism, asshole. The next time I even hear about you attacking someone, I’ll e-mail these pictures to the principal, the local paper, and the admissions board of every school with a Division One football team.”
Brandon took a threatening step toward me, but restrained himself when I raised the camera. He gestured to his knuckle-cracking goon squad and they lumbered off, followed by Jessica, Jessica, and Jessica, who each gave me the death eye before they flipped their hair and flounced after them. I wondered if they worked on that synchronized hair flip during cheer practice.
When they’d gone, the Spanish Club and their customers emerged from behind the table where they’d been hunkered, and began to applaud. I pshawed and, with a sense of whimsy, dropped a deep curtsy that probably looked silly in my jeans and Doc Martens.
“You bitch.” The depth of venom in the word prickled the skin on the back of my neck. The faces of the Spanish Club changed as well, like villagers in a werewolf movie, when their kindly town grocer suddenly turns into a slavering beast.
I whirled, but saw only Stanley. He was a mess; his colorless hair stood up in limp spikes, and his clothes were askew, so that even his skin didn’t seem to fit quite right. The sight should have been comically pathetic. But his eyes blazed at me from his thin face, so poisonous that I took an instinctive step back. “I don’t need your help handling those asswipes. I don’t need anyone’s help!”
“Of course you don’t.” I made my voice soothing, the way they talk to crazy people on TV. I wanted to tell him to get over himself, but the malice in him stopped my tongue. I was fighting the urge to cross myself, like Granny Quinn did when she talked about the evil eye, or bad news, or my mother’s cooking.
“You don’t believe me.” He brushed by, bumping me aside, stomping past the Mexican candy table. We all watched him, maybe afraid to look away, in case he sprouted another head or something. It didn’t seem impossible. “You’ll see. I don’t need anyone’s protection. You’ll all be sorry.”
Still muttering, he flung open the glass door and went in. I heard the Spanish Club exhale their pent-up breath, and someone laughed nervously. I didn’t blame her. Talk about your B-movie dialogue. It was ridiculous to feel anything but sorry for the guy.
That’s what I told myself as I rubbed my arm where Stanley’s bony elbow had hit me, hard enough to leave a bruise.
valon High was the older of the town’s two public secondary schools. The oldest building on our campus had been around since World War II, and I was pretty sure my civics teacher had been on the faculty then.
Mr. Wells lectured straight from a series of overhead transparencies that dated back to the Reagan administration. I wasn’t sure if the material was that outdated, or if the government process was that stagnant, but it meant that as long as you copied down the information from the overhead (or got the transcription later), you could pretty much do whatever you wanted and the slightly deaf Wells would keep droning on, like the little bald-headed engine that could.
This, and the fact that I had D&D Lisa to share my misery, kept me from skipping too much, despite it being the last class of the day.
Lisa had been D&D Lisa since the seventh grade. When she’d moved into the district midterm, there was already a Lisa in our class. Asked to “stand up and tell the students something about yourself,” the new Lisa said shamelessly, “I like to play Dungeons and Dragons.”
We laughed, of course, but she repeated this introduction in each new class period, with the same result. Finally I asked her, “Why do you say that, when you know everyone’s going to laugh?” She told me it was the quickest way to separate friend from foe: one laughs
her, the other laughs
her. “And when I take over the world,” she had said, with a very straight face, “I will know who to embrace into the fold, and who to feed to my undead zombie minions.”
That was Lisa. She said outrageous things, and you could never tell if she was being sarcastic or not. Geeky pretty, like that Goth girl on the TV show
and wicked smart, she didn’t even need fashion camouflage. She had the armadillo plating of unflappable self-confidence, and nothing she said, no matter how droll, seemed impossible.
Since I had no desire to be Zombie Chow, I resolved to stay on her good side. Eventually, I got over my intimidation and we became good friends, despite our obvious differences. Though she gave up the spikes and black nail polish in tenth grade, Lisa still had a way of throwing together vintage-store finds—things that should never go together—and somehow making it work. When I do that, I just look like I dressed in the dark.
Maybe it helped that she had a tall and naturally slender physique, with chestnut hair that fell in a smooth curtain around her face. I’m short, but otherwise average, which means that I wish my butt were smaller, but I don’t wish it enough to actually exercise. My dark hair is cut in a bob, which is supposed to look like Velma Kelly in the movie
. Only it never works out that way. My hair has a mind of its own, so with my round face and pointed chin, I mostly look like that crazy girl in
only without the chain smoking and the, you know, crazy part.
Maybe I’m just saving the chain smoking, binge drinking, and crazy wild sex until I go off to college. But at the moment, my major vice is sarcasm, with a side of caffeine addiction.
Anyway, Lisa had the Geek Chic thing working for her, was the front-runner for valedictorian, and though she was in no way popular, she knew people in every subgroup in the school and had her finger on the pulse of the student body in a way that even I—plucky girl reporter—could only envy.
“I heard you took on the Jocks and Jessicas this morning,” she said as we sat in civics class that afternoon. The hum of the overhead projector covered our conversation easily. “When I am an evil overlord, you may be my minister of disinformation.”
“Thanks. I’ll need a job after you dissolve the free press.”
“Of course you will.”
Mr. Wells changed the transparency and we copied down the overview of the judicial system. Test questions came word for word from the notes, making rote memorization the path of least effort. “I heard Stanley Dozer totally wigged out.”
I made bored curlicues out of the bottoms of my
’s. “Who could blame him after the meatheads roughed him up?”
“Did he really call you a bitch?” I nodded and she made an annoyed sound. “That’s gratitude for you.”
“The fragile male ego makes no exceptions for nerds, I guess.” Finished copying the page, I slumped back down until the next installment, and rubbed the bruise on my arm. “You think he might climb the clock tower with an assault weapon one day?”
“Dozer? He’s in the Chess Club, for crying out loud.” She chewed the end of her pen. “Besides, we don’t have a clock tower.”
“You know what I mean.” No one really talked about Columbine High School anymore, but when I was in middle school we had three drills: fire, tornado, and one that involved locking the doors and huddling together as far away from the windows as possible. They told us this was an “extreme-weather drill,” for when there wasn’t time to move to safety. But it didn’t take a genius to figure out that nobody locked a door against a tornado.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Lisa mumbled around the pen in her mouth. “If Dozer comes to school in a black trench coat, we’ll ditch the rest of the day.”
“We can take my Jeep.”
Wells changed the transparency again, and we had to shut up because the plastic was yellowed to the point where deciphering the print took all our concentration.
“There’s no coffee.” At five-thirty the next morning I stood in our kitchen in my pajamas and ratty old bathrobe and stared at the coffeemaker stupidly. “Why is there no coffee?”
My father continued to eat his cereal, showing not nearly enough concern for this crisis. “Write it on the grocery list.” He gestured with his spoon to the scrap of paper that was stuck to the fridge with a Disneyland magnet. “Your mom is going to the store this afternoon.”
“I don’t need coffee in the afternoon. I need it now.” I was whining, but I didn’t care. I needed caffeine.
“Have some tea.”
Grumbling, I opened the fridge. There was no Coke, either. This day was shot to Hell already. I scuffed my bunny slippers to the breakfast table and sat, head in hands, moaning piteously until he noticed my misery.
“What’s the matter, Magpie? You’re up early.”
“I had a nightmare.” I laid my cheek on the table. “I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I figured I’d get up.”
“You’re not nervous about your exams, are you?”
“No.” True, I was a little swamped at the moment. But the nightmare that rattled me wasn’t a brain dream, where my anxieties ran around in my skull like ADD gerbils. It was what, when I was little, I used to call “gut dreams,” after the “gut instincts” I still sometimes get. Those flashes were easier to filter than the dreams they sparked, because my defenses were down while I slept.
This nightmare was little more than disjointed images, but I’d awoken in a sweat, certain that something was very wrong somewhere. I had stumbled downstairs to try and chase the shadows away, but without my usual morning stimulant, the unease simply would not fade.
“Is Mom all right?” I asked.
Dad set down his spoon; his bowl was empty except for three Cheerios clinging together like tiny lifesavers in an ocean of milk. “She’s delicately snoring away.” He paused, then gave me a verbal nudge. “Did you dream about your mom?”
“No. It was really vague.” I frowned, doubting myself. “Probably just random stuff.”
“Tell me. Maybe you’ll feel better.”
Eyes fixed on those three little oat rings, I let my thoughts drift back to the dream, which always worked better than trying to purposefully remember details.
“I was somewhere really hot,” I began haltingly. “As hot as that blast of air when you open the oven door. There was fire, and really foul smelling smoke.” My brows knotted. “Or maybe I only thought there were flames, because of the heat and the smoke. It was more the
of fire, of trying to leash a force of nature.”
He nodded. I saw the motion in the corner of my eye as I let my mind float with the Cheerios. “And smoke?”
“All around me, burning my eyes and my throat. The smell was horrible, like a Dumpster on a hot day. Rotten eggs, spoiled meat, and something like gunpowder.” The images played before my unfocused eyes and I went on describing them in a droning voice. “In the center, the smoke thickened. Not solid, but with substance. Viscous, maybe.”
I wasn’t sure that was the right word. I remembered the toy slime I’d had as a kid, and the way the goo would slide through your hands, and squish through your fingers. The stuff also made a comical farting noise when you pushed it into the jar, but there was nothing funny about the formed yet formless darkness in my dream.
“What else happened?” Dad leaned on his elbows, eyes alive with an academic interest.
“A voice was calling out a list of names. Gibberish or another language, but definitely a roll call of some kind. I knew they were names of people. And I knew which name was mine.”
The images slipped away now, faster and faster the more I tried to grasp them. Then Dad bumped the bowl; the Cheerio rings broke apart, and with them my concentration. I breathed deep, and scrubbed my hands over my face.
“That’s all I remember.” My fingers speared through my thick mop of hair, worsening a raging case of bedhead. Dad watched me carefully, and I dredged up a sheepish sort of smile. “The whole thing doesn’t sound that scary when I say it aloud.”
He rose, gathering his breakfast dishes, and gave my shoulder an encouraging squeeze. “Isn’t that the point?”
“I guess.” I rubbed a little crust of sleep from my eye and asked, as casually as I could “What do you suppose the dream means?”
“I don’t know, Magpie. What do you think?”
“I think it means I’m going to Hell.”
His dishes clattered in the sink. “What in God’s name makes you say that?”
“Come on, Dad. Fire? Brimstone? And that roll call, like Gabriel, only on the crispy end of things.” I did feel better voicing the fear. Things lose a lot of power once you name them. “I’m probably going to Hell for telling Stanley I wouldn’t go to the prom with him.”
“Professor Dozer’s son?” Dad taught history in the same department where Stanley’s mom taught anthropology.
“Yeah. He asked me yesterday.”
That was the support I got from my loving parent. “Heh.” I also noticed that he didn’t deny I might be Hellbound. I was
glad we’d had this little heart-to-heart.
I got up and shuffled toward the hall. “I’m going upstairs to get dressed. I’ll grab some coffee on the way to school.”
“You need to eat some breakfast.”
“Maggie?” I turned at the door, my hand resting on the jamb. “If you want, you can talk to your granny about the dream.” Despite the length of the kitchen between us, he spoke softly, in case Mom was awake. There are certain things that make Mom give this
a sort of forced exhalation of see-what-I-have-to-put-up-with martyrdom. Granny Quinn’s “superstitions” rank somewhere between not eating breakfast and Dad’s insistence, every year, that there is nothing wrong with leaving the Christmas lights on the roof until Valentine’s Day, as long as you don’t turn them on.
“Thanks, Dad. But it’s no big deal. Probably just graduation anxiety. I mean, we’ve got eight bazillion seniors. That ceremony is bound to be hellishly long if nothing else.”
He smiled, I smiled, and then I turned to go. With all that smiling, you’d think at least one of us would be reassured.
I climbed the stairs without my usual caffeinated zip. A few years ago Mom had been hinting about a new house, but Dad didn’t want to move. He has tenure at the university, and he can walk from home if he wants. All the shiny new subdivisions are all the way on the outskirts of town, near the state highway that leads to the big city. Plus they have no trees.
To compromise, my parents remodeled our raised ranch-style house so that it looked less like the Brady Bunch lived here. Among other things, they’d moved me upstairs into what used to be the game room, and my old room became Mom’s home office. I think the plan was to encourage me to stay home and go to school here. It isn’t that I don’t like Avalon. It’s a college town, with an idealized retro feel. We didn’t even have a Starbucks until a year ago. People love it or hate it here. I love it, but it’s not really on my road to the Pulitzer Prize.