“Come to the dance with me,” she beckons softly from my porch. I step outside, entranced by her ivory skin glowing eerily in the moonlight. How could I say no? Girls never notice me. My palm tingles as our hands brush together. My chest swells with pride as we start off toward the Dance. She laughs, a soft pleasing sound. It’s Halloween and I’m more excited than I care to admit.
We walk silently along the grass, the damp dirt absorbing our footfalls, wisps of fog caressing our ankles, remnants of a crisp fall rain. The air smells like wet leaves and cheap candy. I have high hopes tonight, after last year’s disappointment with the guys.
“Well,” she says, pulling me out of my thoughts, “I’m not a damsel, but a shikome. You know, those dead ladies who crawl around? I love spooky folklore – it reminds me of my sobo – grandma,” her smile, much like her lips, is thin.
Mae has always been crafty, and she made her own costume again this year. Layers of dark fabric wrapped around her like a big kimono, the outer layer has these sewn designs of figures I can’t make out. In spite of dad’s help, I feel underdressed next to her. I got my knight costume at the party store. It’s overpriced, and the plastic gloves and helmet don’t fit right. I left the helmet at home. My sword and shield belong to my dad. He says they’re decorations, which apparently means heavy. The sword hangs from my right hip. I’m glad I wore a belt tonight, otherwise I’d be tripping over my pants. This thought does nothing to slow the beating of my heart.
As we begin walking side by side along the sidewalk, Mae turns to me. “Your costume is fun, by the way. The steel is a nice touch. I hope they let you inside with it.”
I smile softly, feeling my cheeks redden. As if on cue, the dogs in the neighbourhood start barking. As I look around, finding nothing out of the ordinary, a creeping sense of dread begins to slither up my spine. I shake it off, knowing it simply must be the nerves about tonight.
“Have you danced before?” she asks casually.
I shake my head, feeling my face flush.
“Not even in your own house?”
“N-nope,” I try to sound casual but my voice shakes with embarrassment.
She raises a brow in surprise.
“Really? That’s okay, we’ll take it slow tonight.” She smiles confidently. “I love to dance. So I’ll take the lead.” Her smile grows larger as an unspoken thought has clearly made its way into her mind.
“What?” I asked as her smile lingers.
“Nothing; just a funny thought I had.”
My follow up is interrupted by an unexpected crackle and pop overhead. Instinctively, I throw both of my arms over Mae’s head as bits of glass rain down, tinkling off my costume.
“Whoa, thanks,” Mae says, so stunned her smile is broken. She carefully steps around all the glass and I stiffly follow. Once we’re clear of the debris we pause to look up at the lamppost. It looks totally normal, now with a hole where the glass bulb should have been.
“Must have overheated or something,” I say, exhaling deeply.
“Yeah…” Mae says, already moving on.
We walk another couple of blocks, quietly gossiping about our classmates. This mostly consists of the love triangle between Jin, Beth and Andy. A rugby player, a cheerleader and the chess team captain. It’s like a cliché walked into a fairy tale hoping for a happy ending.
We stop giggling when other students come into view.
I pull my phone out to check the time. We’ve still got over half an hour before the dance officially starts. I wave at Priya, the leader of several zombies as she shambles toward us. Bill and Ted are dressed up like a couple of stoners from the 90s, all baggy pants and baseball caps. Andy greets me from atop his Segway, dressed as one of those grey skinned aliens, only with boobs. His costume is gross, so I just wave and keep walking.
Mae waves frantically when she sees Mike and Serena, her sleeves swishing in the still air. They’re her friends from elementary school, dressed as Archie and Veronica from Riverdale. I recognize others beneath their face paint of tribal nomads and pixies. Trying to wave and smile at everyone makes my face hurt. I get a few winks from some of the more ‘mature’ guys, too, even though we’re the same age. I feel my face getting warm. Thankfully, Mae doesn’t notice, distracted by her own friends.
It isn’t long before we find ourselves at the back end of a mob waiting to be let into the community centre. I’m just glad the front doors are well lit, and the lampposts are far away.
Before we’ve moved ten feet, Abe Lincoln is up on a ladder set in against the building’s red brick exterior. Right beneath it reads “HAPPY HALLOWEEN” on a thick banner. Abe begins banging his fist on the top rung drawing everyone’s attention.
“Four score and seven years ago, we were the champions! Football was God and we its King. We need to make the team great again! If you can run, or if you’re just big, you should attend tryouts in the spring! We don’t care who you are, we just need you to hit, and kick, and run!” he shouts through an oversized beard. I can’t tell who it is, the top hat eating half their face. His rant is met with a mixture of cheers and boos. I’m left wondering who wrote that speech. It must have been Kyle…
Before he can speak again, the ladder wobbles and both collapse to the ground. A momentary silence shatters as several people scream in fright. People begin calling for a teacher, others have brought out their phones and are dialing 911. Mae and I watch, frozen with panic of indecision. A chill runs unbidden down my spine, like earlier.
We watch silently as after a few seconds, Lincoln rises. Looks like all he’s done is scratch his lip and his ego. Blood drips into the beard as a teacher dressed as a cuffed felon checks on him. They whisk him away with a loud scolding. No one dares touch the ladder as we continue to file inside. It lays there innocently, victim trapped in circumstance.
Mae and I flow with the crowd, squeezing into the gym. They have pulled back the divider so it’s the size of two basketball courts, bleachers tucked into the wall. The fluorescent bulbs overhead have all been swapped out for black lights.
Some silly decorations are strewn about, but what really creeps me out is how many of the floorboards are bleached white in the light, and they don’t even have the fog machine on yet. I try to ignore the weird feeling in my gut, looking over to Mae. But she’s gone!
I look through the crowds for her pale outfit. There! Is that her across the gym already? The white figure makes eye contact with me and I feel sweat trickle down the back of my neck. Before I can react I hear a small cough and notice Mae is right here. I didn’t notice her before because she had knelt over, checking her shoes. I take a deep breath in, trying to calm myself. It must have just been another student dressed as a ghost with contacts.
She stands and smiles at me, “Ready to dance?”
“I’ll give it a try, but how do you dance to this song?” I inquire just as the Halloween theme starts blasting.
“Don’t be silly, we’re not dancing to this! It’s just to set the mood… I hope,” she sounds distrustful of the DJ, who looks like Ms Krieger in clown make up. I hate clowns.
“Let’s wait for a good song,” Mae replies contentedly.
I nod, gazing around the rest of the gym, spotting something. “Hey, are those funhouse mirrors?” I ask loudly.
Mae looks over to where I’m now pointing.
“Let’s go check!”
Mae leads us over to the corner, conveniently avoiding a really cute girl I had a crush on in ninth grade. She’s dressed up as Belle, which suits her love of books.
To our surprise the school rented those weird funhouse mirrors. Mae’s phone is immediately out and she starts making goofy faces and snapping selfies. When she draws me into them I shyly oblige. I try looking menacing in a few, holding my sword up with an angry face, but the mirror makes it look way too silly. Mae’s laughter is caught in several of the photos, and I’m sure it’s because of me. I smile at the thought.
After a few minutes, I feel a crowd butting in for their own photos. I start pulling Mae away from them. In the corner of my eye I see a black haired demon, all fangs and yellow eyes looking back out at me through the farthest mirror. I whip my head around to see who was standing behind us, but there’s only Mae. I take a deep breath, sure that since no one is screaming, the visage must have just been my nerves.
I shake off my apprehension, and guide us both to the drinks table. There are four punch bowls available for tasting; red, pink, orange, and green. The red liquid is labelled ‘Vampire’s Treat’; the pink ‘Banshee Sweet’; the orange ‘Zombitini’; and the green ‘Toxic Tasteland’. These names are really cheesy! Mae beats me to the punch, getting in close and smelling each bowl.
After a thoughtful pause she pours two cups of the red and offers me the second cup. I tip my cup and nod, but wait for her to take the first sip. She hesitates for a moment, eyeing the glass suspiciously, before tipping it to her mouth. I follow suit after her lips fall away and gives a satisfied nod. It’s sweeter than an energy drink.
A new song comes on and she downs her cup in a single gulp, grabbing me before I can finish mine. I quickly drop my cup onto the table, and before I can blink we’re on the dance floor. Thumping bass pounds deep within my chest as I stare meekly at Mae. Releasing me, she starts to whirl around, extending her arms and legs like some turbo-powered Tai Chi routine. Dancing in her outfit makes her seem terrifying, but I can’t look away. I try moving my feet at a fraction of her pace.
Grinning fiendishly at me, she shakes her head and grabs my arms, forcing me into this weird routine. We lock eyes as I experience revulsion, my brain struggling with the coordination of dancing. The realization that Mae’s movements flow in perfect time with every beat of this strange song makes me feel even more inadequate. I don’t know the name or even what genre the song playing might be, but it definitely doesn’t sound like Halloween…just primal, pounding.
Sweat drips everywhere as my body frantically attempts to replicate these movements. I start to wonder how many other people are dancing to this song but can’t see beyond Mae’s whirling robe. After a moment, I realize that I don’t want to see farther. The embroidery on her costume looks like majestic stories, flying by as we sweep along the floor in twisted synchronization.
My back feels twisted at least.
It takes a moment to register when Mae spins away from me at the climax of the song. I keep dancing, thinking she will find her way back to me after the song has shifted back down again to its rhythmic pounding. The next song is half over before I realize she hasn’t come back yet.
“Good evening and welcome students to the third annual Hallow’s Eve Dance,” a deep robotic voice pierces through the music.
“We appreciate you being here with us instead of trolling the streets for candy. You’re welcome to check out the snack bar if you haven’t already tried one of our Halloween themed drinks! We also hope you’re wearing your best; there will be prizes for the two best costumes!”
The DJ makes some scratching noises at the end of the announcement, and I cringe at the coolness. Overcome with anxiety, I leave the dance floor to search for Mae. I spin frantically through several groups of costumed partygoers, all headed for the snacks. I split off, having already looked; she wasn’t there.
“No more than forty students at a time on the stage!” Another teacher calls out through the PA system.
Speeding to the other side of the gym, I’m interrupted by Captain America who rudely coughs in my face. Phlegm stings my eyes. I put my back to the wall as Cap stumbles toward me, clawing at me to steady themselves.
I scream as a fluorescent stream of green vomit covers my neck and chest. I try and shove Cap away, but the hands and arms are rigidly stiff, I can’t even lift a finger.
As Cap begins to projectile vomit once more I am finally able to pry him off and he slumps to the floor. I hear the laughter of several students witnessing my humiliation. I start running out the doors toward the washroom, slipping across the floor. I catch myself on the door and make it into the hall. I always wanted to be a nurse or a surgeon when I grow up, and feel bad leaving Cap there. This is just too gross.
I make it to the washroom, while cursing the Toxic Tasteland. Shoving the door open, I immediately feel like I’ve stepped into an herbal sauna. I lock the door right away, not caring if anyone else is in here with me. I don’t want anyone walking on me covered in puke. I make it to the nearest sink and jam fistfuls of paper towel into the drain before turning on the faucet full blast. While it fills I wash the sticky gunk from my hands and neck with the other sink. Some of the sludge has already crusted dry. Retching, I quickly begin scrubbing.
After several minutes, I’ve scoured my skin clean, though it still smells like rotten, sugar-coated potatoes. I sigh and then the lights flicker. I pause and look around, my chest clenching in fright. After checking that the stalls are empty, the lights stop flickering. Nothing happens for several minutes and my breathing starts to relax when there’s a gentle knock at the door.
“Hello?” I call out with annoyance.
“Hey! You okay in there?” Mae calls through the door.
“Yeah! Just have to clean up,” I call back.
“Okay…” her voice sounds distant.
I quickly finish up and reach for the hand dryer. My hope is that in the moment I have left I can at least dry out the damp patch now on my costumes crotch.
Another knock sounds on the door just as I give up on the dryer.
“Could you hurry? They’re playing my favourite song.”
“I’m trying.” I call back.
As my attention is focused on the dryer, I don’t quite see the shadow that crosses the mirror to my left. I feel the hairs on the back of neck rise as my gaze shifts on its own. As I turn and face the mirror, I find someone staring back at me. It looks uncannily like Mae.
Whoever, whatever it is, stares blankly at me with cold, glowing eyes. Their lips slowly curl into a disgusting smile between limp curtains of dark hair. I crane my neck but my eyes won’t leave the mirror. I panic and twist my body harder, but nothing above my shoulders responds. The longer I look, the more it looks like Mae, but her costume is white.
“Mae?” I whisper.
“Yeah?” her voice comes from behind the locked door.
If she’s still outside the bathroom…
The dead eyes glimmer. “I want you to come play. But first, you’ll have to find me!” the figure cackles through the mirror. It sounds unearthly. Like a bunch of voices blended through Autotune.
“I…” I stammer. This can’t be real. The punch must have been spiked. I reach to touch the mirror, unsure of what else I can do.
Definitely-Not-Mae screams as my fingers brush the edge of the mirror.
The other mirrors crack and the figure disappears as I collapse to the floor and hold my ears. The noise is like a flashbang grenade. I curl up, waiting. My body convulses, sobbing while my ears feel like they’re bleeding.
After a while I come to, the gush of angry water crashing onto thin metal barraging my ears. I cry out wordlessly, hoping to stop the water. It ignores me, continuing to pour above me. I manage to clasp both hands over the edge and hoist myself up. Slowly I stand, swaying with dizziness. Exhausted I twist the taps off, gazing at the mirror before me. But they’re unbroken and only my own terrified face stares back at me.
Did I even really see anything? I reach out, practically falling into the mirror as I feel a wave of nausea. It’s cold, empty, void of anything but my reflection.
After a few minutes I feel able to walk. Carefully collecting my belongings, I slide out the door into the hallway. Mae is there waiting for me. Not the mirror Mae, but the real one. It takes me a second to realize this and I barely manage not to flinch when her hand reaches out to touch my arm.
“Are you okay?” she asks, sounding concerned.
“Y-yes, I’m fine,” I lie, trying to reassure her with a smile.
Her brows knit together in disbelief. Just as I think she is going to scold me for lying, another song blast through the hall towards us.
“Oh no! The song I requested is playing! Come on! We’re going to miss it!” she cries turning away. I follow after her silently and barely miss running into an overweight Ken Doll in a pink suit.
Partying students are oblivious to us as we re-enter. The stage lights are on now, costumes glowing brightly in the limelight.
The world moves in slow motion as I lag, weary from the aftershock of the poison punch and my encounter in the bathroom. I follow Mae back on to the dance floor, her body swaying with the beat of the song. It’s practically overflowing with students, moshing, jumping and swaying.
I watch her cautiously as the music takes her far away. She is dancing only with me, drawing me into the beats and helping me keep track of my body. Her smile is enthralling, and I soon find myself lost in the moment.
“Attention students! The Costume contest will now begin! Clear the stage for participants!” a teacher abruptly cuts the song off.
Mae grabs my hand and my heart flutters nervously.
“I worked on this costume for weeks, so I’m going to enter,” she says, eyes shining with excitement.
I nod as she rushes away. I just catch the top of her head as it bounces through the throng of students milling about the edge of the stage.
Something in the pit of my stomach stirs. The dancers are led off the stage as the contestants step up. The stage creaks with all the bodies. There are over forty contestants, Mae among them. As they begin forming a line, that feeling won’t leave. It grows into a full bout of indigestion.
“Mae.” I call out, gesturing with my hand firmly for her to get off the stage.
She waves back but stays put.
“Mae!” I call out frantically. My voice is drowned out by the PA system.
“Students, I said no more than forty on the stage!” the same teacher from earlier shouts.
Every hair on my body is on edge. I jump and wave my arms, hoping to get Mae’s attention. But it’s useless as my voice cracks, just like the wooden stage. With a gut wrenching crunch the air fills with clouds of dust and debris. The cries of stunned students fill the air as I cover my face and mouth.
Part of my brain draws me towards the stage as many dancers flee.
As I get closer I see the broken stage. Pieces of wood are everywhere, like a bonfire before it burns. A teacher is on the DJ’s system, probably trying to establish order after the accident. I can’t hear, beneath the pings of the fire alarm. Scrambling, I look for a way into the wreckage, but away from several zombies moaning, fingers clawing aimlessly.
Hauling myself through the debris I squat down on a small patch of even surface. Wincing, I look for Mae among the many bodies in the wreck. I wretch at the smell of blood and the sight of open wounds. The wood beneath me gives way and I faceplant into the bust of a crossdressed Disney princess.
From my halfway-downward dog I spy a familiar outfit. Rolling over my classmate I crawl forward. “Mae! Can you hear me?” I ask, getting up on my knees for leverage.
That’s when I see her. Bent in unnatural angles, Mae stares up at me through clouded eyes. I quickly reach her and grab her hand. I heave for several seconds, grunting in fear that I’ll dislocate her shoulder. It takes more effort than her small frame would suggest.
I sob when her body doesn’t even budge. I’m so tired of my night going to hell. My vision swims with tears as Mae’s body comes into focus. She’s impaled on a steel pole, back arched like a cat. Screaming, I attempt to yank the pole free. But my efforts are in vain. It just won’t budge.
“Mae, just hold on, I’ll go get help,” the words slip out in a quiet whisper.
Breathless, I hobble through the debris and manage to get safely off the broken stage. The few remaining students flee, screaming at the sight of me. Exiting the gym, move down the hall to somewhere familiar, around the nonsensical maze of twists and turns, but my brain won’t say where. Something tickles my ear. But I stay focused.
Slowing down, I notice the moon through a window. It still shines brightly but seems different than before – less yellow. The glow is faint beneath the interior lights. Soft breathing tickles my ears.
Spinning slowly, I see Definitely-Not-Mae staring up at me, dead eyes piercing the veil of her limp hair. I twist to run away, but my feet are glued to the floor. It grasps my cheeks with point hands, long nails digging in uncomfortably. Her eyes never leave mine. She rises as if floating, drawing her face close to mine.
Nervously, I close my eyes, noticing her damp cloth smell. Instead of meeting me for a kiss she licks the moist blood trail up my cheek.
“It’s all right now. You’re safe with me,” she coos into my ear, her breath cold and foul.
Despite my fears I believe her, calm washing over me like a wave. She caresses me again, her small hand running down my back. She leans into me and I feel a prick, gentle as her hands. My world starts to spin. I start to fall, but her arms catch me, drawing me in close.
The last thing I see as the lights flicker is the moon. Full, bold, and blood red.
A gamer, lover of autumn, its dark histories, and horror media, Aaron Grierson's work often blends folk elements into society's love of technology. He is a First Reader for Flash Fiction Online and former Senior Articles Editor at The Missing Slate. Always hungry for more literature, references and puns inevitably sneak into his musings. Previous publications appear in The Missing Slate, Marisa's Recurring Nightmares, The Siren's Call, Polar Borealis, and Polar Starlight.