It was the last semester of senior year and all the cool kids were boycotting prom in favor of something better.
Why rent a limousine when you could make an entrance in an art car shaped like a pumpkin? Why break the bank on a pastel dress when you could wear a piece designed by one of your friends? Why go to a twerk-a-thon in a hotel ballroom when you could go to a masquerade in the Hollywood hills?
Moira promised carriage rides around her estate, vaudevillian cabaret dancers, and a hard rock cello quartet. She promised sword swallowers, contortionists, and devils on stilts. She promised a magician with body modifications who did tricks with his magnetic hands, a pain proof man that hammered nails into his nostrils, and a death defying woman who escaped coffins buried underground.
She promised memories worth making, which was more than our school was offering.
Moira came from wealth and fame. She was the queen bee of our hedonistic hive. If she wanted to live out her Victorian carnival fantasy us drones had, to lace up our corsets, and come a-buzzing.
Tonight we were going to party like it was 1929.
At least that’s what I’d heard. The carrier pigeon must have gotten lost with my invitation, my locker had come up empty, and Moria spent the week avoiding me.
But here’s the thing about masked affairs: it’s hard to keep them exclusive when a disguise is part of the dress code.
I stood in line with the Goth kids from neighboring schools. Each of their black fingernails clutched the wax seals with Moira’s initials. Everyone was looking for an alternative to the Under the Sea dance their district was putting on, and who could resist a party when the demigod of gothery himself would be in attendance?
Moira’s father was a rockstar back when there was still money in the music industry. Kurt Cobain had offed himself and the labels were scrambling to find the next big thing. Moira’s father seemed to be the dark savior they were looking for. You’ve heard of him, but I’m not going to inflate his ego by namedropping him here.
Most of the guests dressed to impress Moria’s dad.
While all the quarterbacks rented tuxes these lads raided the costume shops instead. They wore industrial goggles with screws lining the eye holes, leather gas masks with open stitching, and long plague doctor beaks. Their outfits were a mix of straightjackets, bondage pants, and capes.
Most of the girls erred on the side of burlesque. They wore pieces of lace that barely covered their faces. Those designs matched the floral patterns on their stalkings. They wore leather boleros, corsets, and tight satin skirts with laces that ran from their thighs to their hips.
The bouncer must have learned his trade from the LA club scene, because he made a point to check every boys’ invitation before waving them in, and merely checked the girls out.
He stepped back to scan my ensemble from slippers to bodice. My dress was yellow, a powerful color to my people. It symbolized change, knowledge, and most importantly: clarity. My apron was orange and my gloves were red. Those color symbolized other things.
The bouncer shined his light at my blank ceramic mask.
“What are you supposed to be?”
I curtsied. “I eat, I live, I breathe, I live, I drink, I die. What am I?”
The bouncer shook his head. “I give up. What are you?”
I didn’t need to see behind the revelers’ masks to know where Moira’s entourage would be. They’d be where the lights were lowest and the music was slowest.
You know how every party has a room where people are passing a pipe of skunk weed around, snickering like they’re getting away with murder? My friends were in the room behind that room, doing drugs with names that mirrored the fickle fashionability of internet slang: Chron Fleek, Vitamin OMG, and Snowlo.
The room was hidden in a dark corner of the study. Moira’s father prided himself on having the largest collection of gothic fiction in the region, from Aikin to Zhukovsky and everything in between. He’d kept the room dark to deter drunken revelers from stumbling in and bringing the leather bound library down on top of them.
I used my phone to light the way. I wish I could say I tilted a copy of the Necronomicon and a secret door popped open, but my destination was barely hidden behind some shelving.
The door was red with a grid of rivets. It looked like it had been pried off an old Anglican church and shipped to the states. The knocker was a golden bumblebee, how appropriate. I knocked. A slot opened.
The figure on the other side glared. “What’s the password?”
I opened my purse to show it was packed with little blue capsules. “I brought party favors.”
The slot shut. There was muttering on the other side. The slot opened again. “What kind of party favors?”
I waved to the shelves. “The kind that would help someone concentrate on all this literature.”
A valley girl said. “She’s got addy. Let her in.”
The door unlatched and I was welcomed with open arms, because nobody tells Santa Claus to turn around.
I walked into the parlor to find my friends lounging on long leather couches, their masks tilted partway to accommodate their cigarette holders.
The flickering candelabras made the room look like it was shaking. One of the boys, Lexie based on his height, was running his fingers through the flames, an act of seductive self harm he’d picked up from a film.
The red harvest moon filled half of the two-story window. Its light stretched across the floorboards like a carpet.
The view extended from the Douglas-fir trees lining the property to the palm trees in the distance. The firs looked thirsty with their sagging branches and thinning leaves. The Santa Monica Mountains got dry this time of year. It’s why the insurance was so high. One spark and livelihoods went up in flames.
The rest of the backyard was filled with girls in tiny top hats, with black feathers, and little veils. They fanned their striped bodices, twirled their black hoop skirts, and stomped their platform boots in circles.
A pair of white horses, Gypsies by the look of their long hair, clip-clopped along. A Cinderella carriage came to a stop. A stagecoach driver opened the side door and a set of steps unfolded.
Mustached men on unicycles juggled hatchets back and forth. A fortune teller set tarot cards on a blanket. A belly dancer arched her back and spat fire.
I couldn’t see Moria’s father amongst the revelers. I figured he was standing where the jet black hair concentration was darkest.
The whole scene was a Tim Burton wet dream.
My friends were oblivious to the festivities below. They were doing the same things they’d be doing if they were beneath the bleachers: smoking cloves, giving each other hickies, and rubbing powders into their grills. Opulence was wasted on them.
I set my parcel on the end table. These distinguished guests showed none of the discipline that came with their station. They grabbed the Adderall capsules by the fistful, popped them open, and rammed their snouts into the dust like kittens with catnip.
I kept my gaze fixed on the moon, the horses, and the hill. The palm trees at the bottom tilted toward the estate. A strong gust cascaded upward. The Douglas-firs threw the breeze at the window. It wobbled in its frame. Clouds rolled across the sky, blotted out the harvest moon, and cast a shadow across the room. It was almost time.
I counted each long inhale on my fingers, careful not to face my friends until everyone had taken a dose of my concoction. When I was certain they’d all had a taste I spun around and removed my mask.
“What is Gretchen doing here?” Said an anonymous reveler.
I pointed to the bag of capsules. “I’m sharing.”
A girl with a golden mask, corset with laces that went on forever, and breasts like two heaping helpings of pudding, came jiggling toward me. “Gretchen, I was afraid someone forgot to give you an invitation.”
This was Moira retroactively extending an invite to me.
I shrugged. “I wasn’t invited, actually.”
Moira put her fists to her hips. “Those fucking printers waited until the eleventh hour to fill the order.”
I shrugged. “I’m not a vampire. I don’t need permission to go where I want.”
Moira inspected me from heels to hemline. “Well, it’s good to see someone got the theme right.”
I pointed my longest nail in her direction. Moira froze. I twirled my finger like a mad conductor. Moira’s head bobbled with the motion. I glared in her eyes, a cobra staring down a rat.
“Is that how you really feel?”
Moira jerked her head to her shoulder like she’d taken a stiff shot. Her arms jut out, her fingers spread wide. She tried to shake it off. Moira tore off her mask. Her face had gone red. Sweat trickled down her forehead.
“No, Gretchen, it’s not how I feel. Not at all. You’re a third wheel. You suffer from a condition that makes it impossible for you to read social situations. When I’m venting you sit down and start talking about bands. When I’m flirting you pop up and start quoting memes. You’re a vibe killer.”
Moira cupped her hands over her mouth. Then something happened I hadn’t expected: smoke billowed through her fingers. Her hands started glowing orange. Tears welled up in her eyes and turned to steam on her cheeks.
I waved my fingers in an arch. “It’s okay. Just let your hands fall to your sides and keep going.”
Moira obeyed, coughing up dust as her hand let go of her mouth. She said, “You’re not cute, charming, or interesting. You’re quiet, yet that does nothing for your mystique. You’re a plain Jane in black press-ons, an ugly duckling who thought swimming in oil might improve her appearance. You bring nothing to the table. You’re the girl boys hit on when they want me to notice them.”
She nodded to the row of red lines peeking out of my gloves.
“You’re so fucking boring you have to cut yourself just to accessorize.”
A reveler stepped between us. “Damn Moira. Do you have to be so brutal?”
Moira took a deep breath and exhaled smoke. “I don’t want to be, but I have to.”
I nodded. “She does. You all do. There was a secret ingredient in your medicine.”
“What did you dose us with?” Asked a mask in back.
I smirked. “I’ll give you a hint: It wasn’t love.”
Lexie perked up from his station beside the candelabra. “Was it sodium thiopental?”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s not a truth serum. It’s more like a truth or dare serum. Moira will start us off and in a moment you’ll all feel like playing.”
A lanky hunchback made his way for the door. I didn’t need to peek behind his mask to know it was Blake.
Blake waved a peace sign. “Right, I’m out.”
Blake’s default setting was contrarian. If you humored the possibility of an afterlife he’d attack organized religion. If you were an atheist he’d attack the scientific establishment. He shepherded his flock to the middle of every argument, never tolerating passionate opinions other than his own.
I snapped my fingers and pointed in his direction.
Blake stepped forward, but his leg stopped midair. I took my time approaching him.
Blake was built like a vulture, with a warped back and crocked neck that was all Adam’s apple.
I slipped out of my heels, hefted myself up on my tiptoes, and plopped down on Blake’s leg. It didn’t dip, not one degree. He was paralyzed everywhere but his eyes. He glared at me with a mixture of rage and terror.
Then something else happened that I hadn’t seen coming. Blake got hot under his collar. Smoke rolled out of his cowl, up his Adam’s apple, and over his mask. I unlaced it to find it pooling with sweat. Blake’s mascara had smeared down his face like warpaint.
I flicked my wrist to Moira. “I didn’t say you could stop.”
She gritted her teeth. “What do you want?”
Blake’s face turned a deep crimson red. I flicked my fan open and fanned myself like I hadn’t noticed.
“I want a lot of things. Right now I want to see you squirm.” I snapped my fingers. “Literally squirm.”
Moira’s arms quivered as she pressed her tailor made dress into the floorboards, locked her hands behind her back, and did the worm.
My friends, who had yet to participate, raised their masks in astonishment. I felt bad clapping alone so I waved my hand over them.
“Don’t be rude. Make some noise.”
The room burst into forced applause. This must have been how Kim Jong-Un felt.
In light of what happened next I’d like to say that I didn’t sing Lady Gaga’s Applause, but I did.
“I live for the applause-plause, live for the applause-plause” I snapped at Moira. “Sing along.”
Moira winced and shook her head. Smoke shot out her ears like a cartoon character. I snapped my finger again and something else happened that I hadn’t foreseen: Moira spontaneously combusted, and she went up fast.
$2,000 dresses are made from some of the finest fabrics, but they’re so rarely flame retardant.
I snapped at Moira. “Moira roll.” I snapped at my clapping minions. “Put her out, now!”
The boys tried to smother the flames with their capes. The girls tried to put them out with their drinks, but by the time Moira stopped rolling there was nothing left but a wire frame and a smell like burnt chicken.
I knelt over my dead friend, forced myself to see the scope of what I’d done, and wept in silence.
I am the descendant of a long line of witches, mages, and psychic sages. My ancestors have never been that fond of fire. The flames licked our heels as we fled from France to Switzerland, from there to Germany, from Europe to the colonies, where we almost got snuffed out completely.
I whispered a lot of things when I prepared my potion. Some of my words were in the old tongue, and the others, well, I think I might have been verbally processing. Those mutterings could have messed with my original incantation. Now the potion was having unforeseen side effects.
When I looked up from Moria’s remains I found my friends were motionless, aware of the minefield they were standing in. I turned to Blake, still standing with one foot up, and snapped, “You can stop doing that.”
Blake fell forward, growled, and skittered to his feet. He limped toward me with his fist cocked back.
I snapped. “Freeze.”
Blake didn’t freeze this time. He pressed on in slow motion, pushing past my influence.
I put my hands up. “Blake, stop.”
Blake glared. His blood vessels lit up. The brown of his eyes turned to amber. They flickered right before bursting like a pair of cherry bombs. Fumes flared from the empty sockets.
Cracks of light spread across Blake’s skin like scales on the sun. His pale flesh went tan and his cloak burst into flames. His blazing body knelt at my feet.
I snapped, “Stop burning.”
I snapped, “Go back to normal.”
I snapped, “Be okay.”
I snapped, “Please, be okay.”
But the laws of physics outranked me.
My friends tried to help, but by the time they put Blake out he was a black silhouette, a villager at the foot of a volcano.
Now the hive was without a queen. The pack was without an alpha. They fled for the door, but something else happened that I hadn’t imagined. The first boy to reach the door clutched the knob. His palm sizzled like Joe Pesci in that scene from Home Alone. The stampede behind him threw off their masks. Their faces had already started to change color.
The magic had created a boiling boarder around the room. I believe the technical term is a “ring of fire.”
I snapped at all the moths swarming toward the flame.
“Stop, sit, or burn.”
They followed my command without too much hesitation. Although a few had smoke trailing from their hairlines.
Lexie coughed into his fist. When he opened his hand it was filled with soot. “Why would you do this to us?”
“I was casting a truth spell. I must have uttered something else in a moment of weakness.”
Lexie threw his hands up and the soot with them. “A moment of weakness?”
I rolled my eyes. “Okay, a long stretch of weakness.”
Lexie took a deep breath. A light swelled up in his chest, revealing the outline of his lungs through his shirt. “So how the hell do we break this spell?”
I covered Moria’s body with the cloak that had failed to put her out in time.
“Moria wasn’t my biggest fan, but there must have been another reason I didn’t get an invitation.”
Cleo threw her hands up too. Her fingernails were glowing so brightly they streaked. “Jesus Gretchen, let it go.”
I shook my head. “Don’t you get it? It’s not up to me. The spell doesn’t break until the truth comes out.”
I jerked at the drapes until the rod broke free, and unrolled them over Blake’s bones.
Lexie nodded toward Blake’s burial shroud.
“What if he was the one who knew why you weren’t invited?”
I shrugged. “Then we all burn.”
Cleo opened a lace umbrella between us, as if the spell couldn’t breach such a barrier. “And how the hell are you able to cremate people?”
I shrugged. Maybe it was the shock, or maybe I’m just a terrible person, but I couldn’t help but sing, “Do you believe in magic, in a young girl’s heart, how the music can free her whenever it starts?”
My audience looked at me like they’d caught me bathing in a tub full of baby blood.
I waved their judgement away. “I’m not giving out any fucks today. Half of you posers claim Salem heritage. Don’t act so surprised when you meet a real witch?”
For the next half an hour we played a brutally honest game of truth or dare. What did I learn? None of my friends cared that much for me, nor did they care that much for each other.
Rumor had it that Moria thought I was “a basic bitch in black. An extra to booster the click’s numbers and nothing more.”
Turns out, she’d felt this way about most of people. So why was I singled out?
Here were the facts: Rose and Derek had been dating for a solid semester, which was a decade in high school years. Rose drank one too many glasses of Absinthe at the Anti-Homecoming party and passed out early. Derek and Cleo spent some time in the coatroom and the next day Rose and Derek were no longer an item.
Two days later, Rose forwarded Cleo’s Instagram account to the Los Angeles County sheriff’s office with the caption: This girl is only 16.
Cleo’s sexy selfies didn’t appear to violate Instagram’s nudity policy. Her forearm kept her nipples hidden, but she was still a minor posing topless. Cleo was brought up on charges of self-shot child pornography, sentenced to 50 hours of community service, body image counseling, and given a curfew (that she was currently violating).
Her friend Emily was a budding fashion designer who liked going to thrift stores and buying out all the tacky ties. She sewed them into skirts and sold them online. Cleo had modeled outfits for her several times. During that time Emily, who was a larger lass, made no secret that she envied Cleo’s hourglass physique.
Cleo was working her court-ordered position at the Salvation Army when Emily came in. Emily claimed she was looking for materials, but Cleo figured she was there to see her humiliated. Cleo reckoned Emily was the one who tipped the cops off, because she was so jealous of Cleo’s hot rocking body.
This is how the string of friendly fire led to me.
Cleo had copied Emily’s credit card information at the checkout counter. She used it to buy a dragon pendant that I’d talked about splurging on. Emily saw the pendant on her bill, told Moria that I was a thief, and I was disinvited from all future festivities.
This all happened because Derek and Cleo spent time alone in a coat room. And what were they doing in there you ask? Snogging up a storm? Nope. Cleo was counseling Derek on why he needed to come out as gay before Rose caught him fooling around with Lexie.
Lexie, as it turns out, was at that place on the Kinsey scale of bisexuality where he could flirt with Derek, enough to lead him on, without reciprocating a physical attraction. So in conclusion, Lexie was the one responsible for our situation.
Cleo eyed the doorway. “So is it safe?”
I nodded. “The spell was supposed to wear off when the truth came out.” Then I shook my head. “But that was the spell I’d meant to cast.”
Lexie circled the candelabra, snuffing the flames between his fingers. “Then how will we know?”
I snapped my finger at him. “Give Derek a kiss.”
Lexie came at Derek with his tongue out ready to taste his buddy’s tonsils. Derek put his hands out to halt Lexie’s advance.
“Uh, Gretchen. I don’t know about you, but all my romantic fantasies involve consent.”
Lexie cupped Derek’s hand and started pecking on his wrist, a French aristocrat drawing out a greeting.
I flicked my wrist. “Okay Lexie, you can stop. That is, if you really want to.”
Lexie shook off the enchantment and eased Derek’s hand down, careful not to seem too disgusted.
Lexie stormed back to his corner, telling me off over his shoulder. “You can go fuck yourself.”
Without warning I found my hand dipping below my waistband, beneath the fishnet stalkings, and into my underpants. This was the last thing I’d failed to foresee. The herbs I’d spiked the pills with had somehow made their way into my own bloodstream.
My lace glove peeled back as it grazed my skirt. There were blue grains mixed in with the scabbing.
You see Moria was right. I was a cutter. I used paper to slice thin slits along my wrists. That’s where the potion must have gotten in. I was just as much under the spell’s influence as everyone else in the room.
My fingers found their way inside of me. I fought the urge to gasp. When I did exhale my breath came out as a smoke ring.
My friends backed into their chairs as if this was the weirdest thing they’d seen all evening.
It felt like there was a hot piece of charcoal in my throat. When I grit my teeth it felt like steel striking flint. Sparks singed my tongue. The only thing that seemed to cool my lungs was when I let out a long loud moan.
My audience cackled with the reckless abandon of kids who’d heard their substitute teacher farting. They’d been deathly afraid of me for the last hour, now they realized they held all the power.
“Looks like Gretchen took some of her own medicine.” Lexie stated the obvious.
Cleo’s eyes lit up. “Punch yourself in the face.”
Smoke rolled up my blouse as my fingers slid out of my skirt. My knuckles glowed as I made a fist. I hadn’t the time to brace for impact. There was an arc of red mist as I fell back.
Cleo punched the air. “Boom! Right in her fucking nose.”
I sneezed steam and coughed a black cloud.
My sinuses filled with napalm, my eyes boiled, and my tears felt like acid on my cheeks. My blood stunk of gasoline, I was dizzy with fever, and sunspots filled my vision.
I rolled over until I could feel the floorboards. The wetness coating my fingers faded as the blood turned to vapor.
Cleo rolled up her sleeves. “Tear your hair out.”
“All of it.” Lexie added.
I wrapped my hair through my fist, like the anchor of a tug of war contest, and yanked until I heard a sound like Velcro tearing.
I dropped the first knotted clump at Cleo’s feet.
She kicked it. “That was for Moria.”
She spat on the second clump I threw.
“That was for Blake.”
Her saliva sizzled.
Lexie glared from his place beside the candelabra. The firelight made his expression all the more menacing. He’d had a hunch he was dying to try out. “Resist Cleo’s command.”
This was a nuanced instruction. It didn’t cancel out Cleo’s order. It just guaranteed failure. I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. I pried my hair out with one hand and pulled it back with the other.
There was a crackling sound. The room stunk of sulfur and burger. The flames were cooking the flesh from my skull.
Cleo shouted, “Burn the witch! Burn the witch!”
Lexie joined in and the group followed suit, clapping and chanting, “Burn the witch! Burn the witch!”
My forehead throbbed. Each pulse of blood was an accelerant on the bonfire of my scalp.
It took all of my will power to point in Lexie’s direction. I shouted, “Light yourself up and give Cleo a big warm hug!”
Lexie’s eyes twinkled as he put up five solid seconds of resistance. Then he waved his forearm through the candelabra, ignited the cuff, introduced one smoldering sleeve to the other, and shambled toward his target.
Cleo pushed her friends aside, dashed for the study, and cooked her palm on the doorknob.
Lexie adjusted coarse, raised his arms out in front of him, and lumbered toward her like Frankenstein’s molten monster.
Cleo staggered back to the group, but they pushed her away. No one was eager to be the meat in that hug sandwich.
I jerked my last few hairs back and forth until the fire on my head went out. I’d survived Cleo and Lexie’s contradictory commands, at the cost of my hair and skin. If my hands were anything to go by my head must have looked like a big black marshmallow.
Lexie wore Cleo down, cornered her, and embraced her. She screamed at the terrible heat coming off of his arms. Cleo kicked Lexie in crotch, pried herself free, and dove out the window. Two stories of glass came crashing down like an ice waterfall.
Cleo’s dress lit up as she fell. She streaked through the forest like a comet, igniting all the branches in her path. Her body exploded on impact.
One by one the evergreens turned orange, the breeze carried the fire across the Douglas-firs, and the Hollywood hills became a violent hell-scape.
The horses squealed and ran the carriage off the trail. The chamber music stopped as the revelers rushed up the lawn. Tires screeched, metal crunched, and glass shattered. There were screams everywhere.
My friends kicked down the door, set their legs aflame and reduced all the leather bound first editions to kindling.
I stayed in that secret parlor, hoping my metabolism would burn the potion out of my system, before the room burned down around me. I wasn’t too worried. Either outcome suited me.
You see I eat, I live, I breathe, I live, I drink, I die. You ought to know what I am by now.
My audiobook Terms and Conditions is now free on Bandcamp. You can listen to it right here!