Light as a Feather
UM, HELLO. YOU DID NOT mention that Henry would be home this weekend,” Candace said, interrupting Olivia’s sidewalk monologue about her pursuit of the perfect dress for the Fall Fling. The search had begun over the summer. Olivia could picture it in her head, and after having heard her detailed description twice during our after-school trip to the mall, we could all picture it in vivid detail too. The dream dress was the color of vanilla buttercream frosting, not so yellow as to be summery, less formal than a homecoming gown, and not so white as to be bridelike. Ecru would do, or eggshell, or any pale variation on white that would show off Olivia’s glamorous tan, obtained by rowing each morning at summer camp in Canada. Even my daily runs in Florida beneath the blazing sun hadn’t rewarded me with a tan as dark as Olivia’s.
We were walking to the Richmonds’ house from the bus stop a few blocks away. Our plan was to sleep over at Olivia’s house that night to celebrate her birthday, and the straps of my overnight bag, which I’d carried with me to school that day and afterward to the mall, dug into my shoulder. It was the first week of September, and although I’d known Olivia, Mischa, and Candace my entire life, I’d
only been hanging out with them since the beginning of the semester. There was no way I would have been invited to any of their birthday parties during our freshman or sophomore years, and I was highly aware that my admission into their group and consequential new popularity was due to the complete transformation I’d undergone over the summer. Just as I was still getting used to boys who’d never looked at me before suddenly checking me out, I was still getting to know my new circle of friends.
Olivia was the last among us to turn sixteen, but none of us had our own wheels yet that September. Mischa shared a car with her older sister, who seemed to always have custody of it. Candace’s divorced parents were denying her access to wheels until she picked up her grades when report cards were released at the end of the semester, one of the few things upon which they agreed. Taking the bus home from the mall was hardly desirable, but it was less nerdish than having a parent pick up all five of us in an SUV curbside outside Nordstrom. We were in high spirits that afternoon after having slurped down sugary lattes at the mall, dropping our parents’ money on earrings and paperback novels just to have purchased something to carry back to Olivia’s house. Leaving the mall empty-handed felt strange and wasteful. I had bought a pair of chandelier earrings I thought might be cool for the Fall Fling, if any boy were to ask me within the next week.
Olivia looked down the block toward her house, where Candace’s eyes had spotted Henry’s blue pickup truck in the driveway. Olivia’s angelic button nose wrinkled, and she put one hand on her hip as if objecting to her older brother’s presence within the three-story house. “Ugh. I didn’t know he’d be here,” Olivia replied.
Violet Simmons was new in town. Only a girl who had moved to Willow over the summer could be ignorant of Henry Richmond’s identity.
“My brother,” Olivia informed her with disgust.
“Her totally hot brother,” Candace added. Candace had a big chest and a loud mouth. Her last name was Cotton, which was abundant reason for every kid in class to crack up whenever a substitute teacher read roll call in homeroom and announced her name as Cotton, Candy. She wasn’t as pretty as Olivia, but from a distance if you kind of squinted at her when the sun was shining in just the right way, you might believe it if she told you she was a runway model. During my two weeks as an inductee into Olivia’s popular circle, I had been endlessly amused by Candace’s gravel-voiced musings and observations. Candace suspected that Mr. Tyrrell, the biology teacher, was probably a good kisser. She had been suspended from school for three days at the tail end of our sophomore year, back when I was still the old version of McKenna, for getting caught by Coach Highland under the bleachers during gym class with Isaac Johnston. Candace said exactly what she thought, and even though she was hilarious, I was a little terrified of her. It was likely that Candace thought about nothing but fooling around with boys, every second of every day.
“You are so gross, Candace.” Olivia rolled her eyes.
But Candace wasn’t alone in thinking Henry was hot. I’d had a crush on Henry Richmond since just about the second grade, way back when it was still the custom in our small town to invite every kid in your elementary school class to your birthday party.
Henry was two years older than Olivia and had just started college at Northwestern. He was majoring in sociology with the goal of getting into law school after undergrad. I only knew all this because I had practically committed every single photograph and mention of him in my yearbook to memory. Last year, it was likely that Henry had never even noticed me any of the times our paths had crossed in the hallway at school, when he was a graduating senior, already accepted at Northwestern with a generous scholarship, and I was an unremarkable sophomore. It was just as likely that if he had noticed me, he never would have remembered me as a chubby-cheeked second grader sitting at his parents’ dining room table, singing “Happy Birthday” in the dark to Olivia when she turned eight.
“I think it’s sweet! He came home for your birthday,” Mischa said. Mischa was the complete physical opposite of Candace. Mischa was petite and nimble, the school’s star gymnast, with perfectly straight, thick brown hair that hung down her back to her waist, heavy and glossy. She was sharp-tongued and chose her words carefully, but in our two weeks of fast friendship I had gotten the distinct feeling that there was always a storm of thought going on behind her eyes.
“He did not come home for my birthday,” Olivia corrected Mischa. “He’s probably home because of his stupid foot.”
Henry had been on the school’s tennis team, bringing Willow High School its only state title in tennis in over twenty years. He had played most of his senior-year season on a stress fracture in his fifth metatarsal, and only after he won the championship in Madison did he go to the doctor and start hobbling around the high school in a soft cast. At graduation, he crossed the stage on crutches and
Principal Nylander slapped him proudly on the back. I only knew this because I’d been at graduation, even as a lowly tenth grader, as part of the color guard team. I’d held my huge white flag throughout the entire commencement exercise in the hot June sun, watching Henry Richmond, a little in awe of his height, his auburn hair, his twinkling green eyes.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t pretty excited about Henry’s presence in the Richmond household the night of Olivia’s slumber party. As we approached the house, where we’d be setting up camp in Olivia’s carpeted basement for the night, my heart actually began to flutter at the prospect of catching a glimpse of Henry. Of having a chance to peek into his bedroom.
As we marched across the Richmonds’ front lawn, all carrying our shopping bags from our mall excursion in addition to our backpacks, the glass storm door of the house opened and Henry stepped out onto the Richmonds’ front porch.
“Well, look who’s finally home! It’s the birthday girl,” Henry called out to us. The keys to his truck dangled from his index finger.
“Why are you back, nerd?” Olivia asked him, thwacking him with the backpack she pulled off her shoulder. He deflected it expertly, accustomed to their lifetime together of play fights.
“I wouldn’t have missed your little princess party for the world,” Henry teased, looking us over. I felt color and heat rising in my cheeks under his gaze as he reviewed us, a collection of the prettiest sixteen-year-old girls Willow High School had to offer. Surely he knew Candace and Mischa from their years of friendship with Olivia. He was probably, at that very moment, realizing that one familiar face was missing from his sister’s gaggle of giggling friends:
Emily Morris, the redhead with the big pout, had moved to Chicago over the summer.
“Yeah, right.” Olivia smirked. “So, where’s my present?”
“My presence is your present,” Henry joked. “And besides, your birthday is tomorrow. So even if I had brought you back something really cool from campus, you’d have to wait until the morning to find out.”
I thought about the silver earrings in the shape of ribbons that I had brought with me, wrapped and tucked away in my backpack to give to Olivia in the morning as a gift. I’d spent the majority of the money I’d gotten from my grandparents and relatives for my own birthday on them.
“Meanie.” Olivia replied.
“Henry, you already know Mischa and Candace. This is Violet, and McKenna,” Olivia said, nodding her head at each of us as she made our introductions.
“McKenna,” Henry said, repeating my name, looking me over from head to toe with those green, green eyes. In the months that had passed since Henry had graduated and school had let out in the spring, I’d gone to Florida to stay with my dad and his wife, Rhonda, who was a registered nurse. She had helped me lose the twenty pounds of baby fat that had kept me shopping at plus-size stores throughout junior high and the first two years of high school. When I’d returned home to Wisconsin, my mother had studied my new appearance and had finally relented about the cost of contact lenses. I was glasses-free for the first time since the third grade, when it had been determined that I was nearsighted. According to Olivia, I was practically unrecognizable. Her opinion probably should have
offended me, but because I knew she thought I looked amazing, I was flattered by it.
“I remember you. You live over on Martha Road, right?”
This sudden attention from him was enough to make me stutter and stammer. If I had known when Olivia first asked me to spend the night at her house that Henry would be there, I might have chickened out entirely and made up an excuse about needing to go out of town with my mom.
“Yeah,” I managed to reply. The fact that he knew which street I lived on probably shouldn’t have surprised me; the year that I was eight, everyone knew where we lived. Everyone used to drive past. But I guess I was surprised that he still remembered, even after so many years.
“Cool,” Henry said, nodding without smiling. There was a moment of awkward silence, when I feared that all of us except Violet were thinking the same thing. It was the reason Henry might have remembered me since childhood, something no one in town spoke of often, and something I preferred not to think about much. Thankfully, no one said a word.
You’re McKenna Brady, that girl . . .
“I have Packers tickets for tomorrow,” Henry announced, breaking the silence. “Me and Dad are going to the game after my radiology appointment.”
“I knew it,” Olivia said to all of us. “See? He’s getting X-rays. He doesn’t even care that it’s my Sweet Sixteen.”
“I can’t help it if football season happens to start on my little sister’s birthday,” Henry teased. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Mom dispatched me to run some errands in town.”
It was almost six o’clock on a Friday night, the early September summer sky a lazy shade of periwinkle. The weather was still aggravatingly warm, a dry kind of warm that made it impossible for me to focus in class because my brain was convinced that it was still summer break. It was warm enough that Olivia had instructed all of us to bring bathing suits to her party just in case we felt like jumping in the pool before dinner. I wondered if that was still on her mind—that dip in the pool—because although I had worn my new bathing suit a few times in Florida while down at my dad’s condo, I had never worn it yet around people who I actually knew in Willow. The thought of debuting it in front of Henry thrilled me, and made my heart beat dangerously fast. My weight loss was recent enough that I still kind of couldn’t believe my own eyes when I looked in the mirror. It always kind of felt like at any given moment, the pounds could just appear back on my frame unexpectedly. The Richmonds were wealthy, or at least financially comfortable to the extent that I was pretty sure Olivia’s mom didn’t clip coupons out of the Sunday paper for dishwashing liquid and frozen low-cal dinners like my mom did. It was safe to assume that there would be a cute economy car with a bow on it in the Richmonds’ driveway waiting for Olivia in the morning. I found myself fighting a sudden surge of jealousy. I’d turned sixteen in July, and I’d known with certainty even months before my own Sweet Sixteen that there would be no car provided to me by my parents.
As the engine of Henry’s pickup revved behind us, Candace muttered, “When it’s my birthday, can your brother be my present?”
* * *
An hour later, as we all floated in the pool and conversation had once again returned to the upcoming dance, I watched distractedly as dark, angry storm clouds rolled in from the south. I was lingering in the deep end of the pool, treading water, keeping one hand on a pink floating lounger and one eye on the glass sliding door that led to the Richmonds’ living room. My friendship with Olivia was too fresh for me to ask for any information about her brother, and I was too insecure in my own new attractiveness to think I might stand any kind of shot with him. For all I knew, Henry had resurrected his high school relationship with Michelle Kimball, the girl he had dated throughout his junior and senior years. I had heard they’d broken up at the start of the summer, knowing they’d be going to separate colleges in the fall. Michelle was good friends with Amanda, Mischa’s older sister, so I assumed it was best to keep my interest in Henry suppressed.
“We’re going to Bobby’s after the dance, definitely,” Mischa was saying, drawing my attention back to the girls in the pool and away from the possibility of the door sliding open and Henry stepping out onto the patio. “Amanda and Brian are driving me and Matt. Is Pete going to have wheels?”
Violet perked up at the mention of Pete’s name. I doubted that anyone at school had clued her in yet to the fact that Olivia and Pete were practically an institution. They’d been into each other since fourth grade. If there was any guy in all of Willow who was definitely off-limits, he was the one. Violet must have figured out by the night of the party that being befriended by Olivia was the equivalent of winning the social lottery. Showing interest in Pete or challenging Olivia’s status would have just been foolish. Our town was so small that it wasn’t as if there were many other girls who
would want to hang with you if you had Olivia, Candace, or Mischa as an enemy.
Mischa was extremely fortunate in that Amanda was a senior who happened to be dating the captain of the varsity football team. Even though Amanda was always putting their shared car to use, Mischa never had to walk to school or ride the bus because Amanda drove her everywhere. Amanda’s own popularity had poured the foundation for Mischa to follow in her footsteps. Amanda had been the captain of the junior varsity cheerleading team and that year was the captain of the varsity team, as nimble and athletic as her younger sister.
“That’s the plan,” Olivia mused lazily, watching her own long, platinum-blonde hair fan out in the water. Pete was a junior, like us, and had just turned sixteen and gotten his license. His parents had bought him a black Infiniti, and he rolled into the parking lot every morning at school like a king. Bobby’s was the one and only twenty-four-hour diner in town, the place where cool high school kids congregated after school and football games. Even the McDonald’s and KFC in Willow closed at ten o’clock at night. Before junior year, I had never had the nerve to step into Bobby’s other than on a weekend morning with my mom for breakfast.
“So, what’s the plan? Should we drive together? My stepdad is going to freak if I tell him I’m driving with Isaac alone,” Candace said. She was sprawled on her back on the other floating chaise lounge, one that was an aquamarine shade of transparent blue, letting her arms drift across the surface of the water. Candace, for all her boy craziness, sort of had a boyfriend. Isaac, the guy who had been partially responsible for her sophomore-year suspension, was a senior that year. He played defense on the football team and was a
big guy with a booming laugh. I would have liked him immensely if it weren’t for the fact that as recently as five months earlier he had teased me callously about being a “dog” and a “cow.” So far, during my junior year, he hadn’t dared to utter a single insult at me. That was the power of being pretty, I was finding: not having to constantly dread childish insults being lobbed at me. Isaac wasn’t very bright, which seemed to bother Candace, even though she wasn’t exactly being invited to join National Honor Society either.
“Well, we have to figure out what these two nerds are going to do,” Olivia said, nodding at me and then at Violet.
Violet and I exchanged glances across the length of the pool, both momentarily hating each other. Neither of us had a boyfriend, or any solid prospective dates for the dance. Because my attractiveness was so new, boys who had known me since kindergarten weren’t sure what to do with it just yet. To them, I was still McKenna Brady, the smart girl, the girl liked by parents and teachers, the girl with glasses and braces who had lived through that thing back in third grade. I could have no way of knowing if any of them were ever going to work up the nerve to be the first boy to acknowledge that I’d changed by asking me out, even though I was all too aware of their eyes on me in the hallways at school. I could have taken matters into my own hands and asked Dan Marshall, a somewhat friendly junior whose locker was next to mine, or Paul Freeman, who had offered me his algebra notes when I’d been out sick for a week at the end of sophomore year. But asking either of them to be my date would be like an admission of defeat.
Violet was a source of intrigue throughout the high school. While it was not uncommon for people to move away from town,
like Emily, and disappear from the world of Willow forever—despite earnest promises to write letters and send e-mails—it was a rarity for anyone new to appear in the student body. Willow just hadn’t been the kind of town to attract new residents for at least a decade. It was far enough away from Green Bay that commuting was almost an hour-long drive for parents who had jobs there. For a long while in the eighties and nineties, there was a pretty big tourism business geared toward the nature lovers who wanted even more autumn leaves and clean air than were offered by Wisconsin Dells to the south of us, or by Door County, to our east. But there was no real reason for anyone to move to Willow. There was no major corporation offering high-paying jobs anywhere nearby. There wasn’t any big scientific research laboratory attracting the families of high-profile scientists. The beach along Lake Winnebago was rocky and surrounded by woods, not anything at all like the white sandy beaches in Tampa, near my dad’s place. However, I guess one could make the argument that Willow was a decent place to live if you were really into boating culture and happened to live in Wisconsin.
So the fact that Violet was new in town was enough to make her an instant celebrity at Willow High School. The fact that she was also gorgeous only added to her fame. Violet had a heart-shaped face with very wide-set crystal-blue eyes, which looked eerily iridescent because the brown hair framing her face was so dark.
She was porcelain pale in a town where every other girl made a point of showing off her summer’s worth of tanning efforts in September, pushing the limits of the high school dress code with short shorts and tank tops to expose as much bronzed flesh as possible. Even two weeks into the school year, none of us knew her
very well. She kept to herself and refrained from gossip, most likely because she didn’t know anyone at school well enough yet to contribute. She was a hair twirler, a lip biter, and seemingly a daydreamer, drifting off into her own thoughts often at lunchtime until she heard her name called as a command to rejoin the conversation. Everything about her was a little girlish and romantic, right down to the tiny but chic antique locket she wore around her neck.
And the fact that she was new in town meant that boys refrained from approaching her, just like they shied away from me.
“You should ask Jason,” Mischa told me when she surfaced from her underwater bolt across the pool. “He told Matt he thinks you’re hot. He’d totally say yes.”
The Fall Fling, and absolutely every detail related to it, was terrifying to me. I had never danced in public before, other than at my cousin’s wedding. Feeling pressured to find a date by a deadline, or else, was also a first for me. In this case, I wasn’t even sure what the else might entail if no one asked me to the dance. Olivia’s wrath? Banishment from the popular group? There was no way of knowing. There was only an increasing despair rising in my chest that the night of the dance would arrive, and I’d still be dateless. There was already a lavender cocktail-length strapless gown hanging despondently in my closet. I wouldn’t wear it to the dance the following Saturday night, but I had no way of knowing that in Olivia’s pool the night of her party.
“If he thinks I’m hot, then why doesn’t he just ask me? I don’t like the idea of doing the asking,” I grumbled.
“Oh, come on, McKenna! It’s not the Middle Ages. You can ask a boy out,” Candace scolded me. “You don’t even have to ask him
outright. Just linger around his locker and ask him if he’s going to the dance and if he’s asked anyone yet. He’ll get the picture. Boys just need to be pointed in the right direction.”
“That’s not very romantic,” I said. Why couldn’t my life be just like Olivia’s and Candace’s, with boys approaching me? The fear of being rebuffed and maybe additionally even insulted was something neither of them had ever experienced.
“What about Trey Emory for Violet?” Mischa suggested. Olivia squealed.
I felt a chill run up my spine and sensed dread filling my stomach. Trey Emory was a senior who might as well have been from another planet. He didn’t play on any sports teams, didn’t go to football games, and mostly kept to himself, other than his occasional outings with the skateboarder guys who often ditched classes to smoke cigarettes near the service entrance of the school cafeteria. He smoldered of danger and mystery; he had an actual tattoo. Teachers despised him. Even though he’d been placed in remedial classes most of his life, he had won a statewide high school bridge building competition and was taking Advanced Physics.
And he just happened to live next door to me.
There was no particular reason why any of my new friends would have known where the Emory family lived, or that every once in a great while, Trey and I would exchange solemn waves from our bedroom windows if we’d just happened to catch a glimpse of each other before closing our blinds at night. Once, toward the end of sophomore year, when I was still the old, unpopular McKenna, we stepped out of our houses in unison on a morning when it was pouring rain. He hadn’t even really asked me if I wanted a lift. He
had just flashed his keys and then lingered in his driveway with his engine idling until I worked up the nerve to dash through the sheets of rain and climb into the passenger side of his crappy, banged-up Toyota Corolla. We had ridden together all the way to school in silence after I awkwardly managed a “thanks” as we’d pulled out of his driveway.
“Oh my God, totally!” Candace agreed. “He’s a freak but a hot freak.”
“Who’s Trey Emory?” Violet asked innocently.
“You know who he is,” Olivia taunted. “He’s that smoking-hot senior guy with the dark hair who wears the green army jacket every day.”
“That guy? He gives me the creeps,” Violet complained, leaning back in the water to soak her hair again.
Trey and I were kind of friends in some very strange and abstract way, but I dared not leap to his defense. I had a suspicion that an admission of our acquaintance would not be well received.
“Yeah, so? I still wonder what’s under that army jacket,” Candace continued. She really was incorrigible.
One of Violet’s slim, lily-white legs kicked up, breaking the surface of the water and creating a little ripple that spread out in a circle around her, drifting toward the rest of us. “Whatever he’s got under there, I don’t want it coming with me to the dance.”
It bothered me a little that Mischa had suggested Trey as a potential boyfriend for Violet rather than for me, and I was a little relieved that Violet had dismissed the idea. It was probably because I’d known him for so long that I felt a little possessive about him, even though he’d never given me any reason to believe he was into me.
* * *
Hours later, after pizzas brought home by Henry and an ice cream cake served up by Olivia’s parents with a cheesy group performance of “Happy Birthday,” all five of us occupied the Richmonds’ basement in our pajamas.
“Yawn,” Candace declared as we flipped through Netflix options.
It was barely eleven o’clock on a Friday night and we were already out of fresh gossip, Fall Fling chat, and songs to which we could emulate moves from music videos. On the last two Friday nights at that hour, the five of us had been tumbling out of movie theaters, giggling and squeamish after watching horror movies.
“What about Blood Harvest?” Mischa suggested. Mischa was the one who especially loved scary flicks. . . . She loved being terrified out of her wits.
“Bring it,” Olivia commanded from her blanket nest on the couch. One of her deeply tanned legs poked out from beneath the striped wool blanket she had spread across her body. The warm summer evening had turned into a chilly autumn night, and Mr. Richmond had come downstairs with us after pizza to light a fire in the fireplace. I sat on the floor near the sofa, as far from the fireplace as I could get, paranoid about flames, as always.
“I love Ryan Marten,” Candace commented during the movie’s opening sequence, during which Ryan Marten, a Hollywood heartthrob portraying a vampire, arrived at a farming community with his loyal clan just as the town was preparing for its annual carnival.
Candace reached into the bag of mini pretzels that Mischa passed to her and popped a handful into her mouth. “I can’t imagine any guy as hot as Ryan Marten ever coming to this sad-ass town.”
“Hey! Pete’s as hot as Ryan Marten,” Olivia objected.
Candace dramatically rolled her eyes at Olivia across the couch. “Yeah, whatevs. Sure he is.”
I smiled nervously up at both of them, not daring to comment. In my own opinion, Pete Nicholson was every bit as hot and sexy as Ryan Marten, and just as untouchable as the famous action star too. Pete looked like an Olympic sprinter or something. He was so tall, his facial features were so perfect; he seemed entirely out of place in our town. In Willow, most guys were built like linebackers and were preparing for futures in which they would take over the failing family farms from their dads. Mischa’s boyfriend, Matt, was cute, but he was as tiny and compact as she was, herself. He wore baseball caps backward and threw gang signs like a rap star, even though the closest thing to a gang he belonged to was the wrestling team. Candace’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, Isaac, had a square jaw and probably would have been considered to be good-looking at any American high school, but it was easy to envision the kind of soft-gutted, sunburned farmhand he would be in as few as ten years. There were a lot of men in our town who looked just like Isaac someday would, with faces prematurely wrinkled from long days on a tractor in the hot sun, and dirt beneath their fingernails even at fancy restaurant dinners on Sundays.
Violet was looking down at her hands in her lap. She had rarely mentioned boys or contributed to conversations when boys were the topic in the two weeks since she had entered our world. I wondered if maybe she had decided that the only boy Willow had to offer worth her interest was Pete.
“Were there a lot more cute guys in your old town?” I asked her
suddenly, realizing I couldn’t even remember where it was she had told us she had lived before.
“Sure,” Violet replied. “I mean, not so many. But my last school had three thousand students, so you know, it’s just simple math that out of fifteen hundred boys, there would be more than one or two cute ones.”
Three thousand students. Our high school had barely three hundred students. There were fewer than eighty kids in each class, with the most in the senior class and the fewest in the freshman class. “Fifteen hundred boys,” Candace repeated dreamily. “I can’t even imagine so many boys under one roof.”
“Where are you from, again?” Olivia asked Violet.
“Lake Forest,” Violet said. “Outside Chicago.”
I’d only been to Chicago once. My mom had gone to college there, long before she’d met my dad when they taught together at the University of Wisconsin–Sheboygan. She’d been a graduate student teaching Introduction to the World of Natural Science as a requirement for earning her master’s degree in biology, way back when she still wanted to be a veterinarian. He’d been an established psychiatry professor, ten years her senior, already having an established taste for girls younger than him. My poor mom wouldn’t realize until she was no longer a young girl that his preference wouldn’t change. I felt a pang of guilt suddenly for leaving my mom home alone on a Friday. Before I became popular, Friday nights were when we watched all our favorite British sitcoms together until our faces hurt from laughing. She was probably relieved to have some time to herself, but I still felt uneasy about it. I felt a little sorry for myself, because I was the only girl in the basement who felt the
burden of her mother’s loneliness like a weight pressing down on my chest.
“God,” Olivia muttered. “I can’t wait to get out of this place and live in a real city.”
We all lost interest in the movie quickly, none of us particularly caring about the plight of the citizens in the town being invaded by vampires since all we wanted was for Ryan Marten to have more screen time. I was starting to get a little sleepy, but I knew very well what happens to the first girl who falls asleep at slumber parties. I stood and stretched, and excused myself to go upstairs to use the bathroom. “Me too,” Candace announced, and followed me up the stairs leading to the kitchen.
“One of you can use my bathroom on the second floor,” Olivia called after us.
We reached the top of the stairs and I suddenly felt strange—like a burglar—in the Richmonds’ house. I could hear a television on upstairs. The ice cream cake had already been cleaned up by Mrs. Richmond, and the kitchen was quiet other than the buzzing of the stainless steel fridge.
“Olivia’s room is to the right at the top of the stairs,” Candace told me as she stepped into the bathroom off the kitchen and flipped on the light.
I remembered the approximate layout of the Richmonds’ house from when I’d played there as a little kid. As I walked down the hallway toward the front of the house, where I could ascend the staircase that led up to the house’s second floor, I stopped to peek through the front windows at the driveway, where it looked like a red Toyota had been parked next to Henry’s truck. The Toyota had a big pink bow
on it. I immediately looked away, feeling guilty about having spotted Olivia’s grand birthday present before she did.
On the way up the stairs, I heard a door open on the second floor, and music leaked into the hallway. Suddenly, Henry was at the top of the stairs, smiling at me. We crossed paths in the middle of the staircase, and he was carrying a plastic cup in his left hand, presumably on his way down to the kitchen for a refill of whatever he’d been drinking.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hi,” I replied, realizing in a hot panic that I was wearing very, very short red shorts and a tank top as pajamas that I hadn’t really intended to model for any boys when I’d stuffed them into my backpack earlier that morning in preparation for the slumber party.
“You shouldn’t sweat the Fall Fling so much,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, blushing furiously, hoping he had not overheard our discussion in the pool.
“It’s just a dumb dance,” he said, his eyes locking with mine intently. “Just a bunch of idiots clapping their hands to bad music. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t go.”
“Well, that’s a relief, because I don’t think I’m going to go,” I said, only aware as the words left my mouth of how true they were.
“I mean, you could go,” Henry backtracked, studying my face. “I mean, I might happen to be back in town next weekend for my last radiology appointment. It would be kind of fun to be back in the high school gymnasium one more time. It would also be kind of fun to spy on my sister and ruin her big night of romance. If the only thing keeping you from going is not having a date, that is.”
My heart was beating awfully fast. I felt like I might have been starting to perspire under his gaze.
“Are you, like . . . asking me to the dance?” I asked with a confused smile, desperate to not be making a pathetic, wrong assumption. If I did, and if Henry told Olivia that I’d jumped to a silly, hopeful conclusion about him asking me out on a date, I would die of embarrassment.
“I guess I am,” Henry said. “I mean, if that’s allowed. I guess since I’m not technically a student at Willow anymore, you’d have to ask me.”
“Uh, okay,” I said, having a hard time believing that this was actually happening. That Henry Richmond was actually asking me—me—out. “Olivia might get kind of mad, though. You know, about you being there, as you said, to ruin her big night.”
Henry smiled his killer megawatt smile. “Come on, McKenna. She’ll get over it. It’ll be fun. I know my sister pretty well, and I think she’d rather have you come to the dance with me than not go at all. So, what do you say?”
“Yes, okay. That would be awesome.” I couldn’t help but grin so hard my cheeks hurt. “You can get my number from Olivia to, like, make plans.”
I danced across Olivia’s dark bedroom, taking care not to step on any of the discarded clothing or shoes littering her floor on my way to the adjoining bathroom. It might have been the happiest moment of my whole teenage life, being asked to the Fall Fling by a college guy, way, way cuter than any of the guys who still went to Willow High School. I smiled at my own reflection in the mirror over Olivia’s bathroom sink. My nose was peeling a little bit from my fading tan,
and my hair was wavy from having air-dried after the quick shower I’d taken before dinner. I was going to have to remember to thank Rhonda for the millionth time for making so many salads for me over the summer, and for dragging me with her to Pilates.
As I washed my hands, I wondered if Trey Emory would be going to the dance. The mere thought was so ridiculous that I rolled my eyes in the mirror. Trey would not wear a polyester suit and dare to show his face in the high school gymnasium, or do the step-and-clap dance beneath red and black streamers. Dances were not something a guy like him would be into, which made it all the more preposterous that Mischa had urged Violet to consider going with him. It would just never happen. But I wondered what he’d think if he heard I was going with Henry Richmond. It was possible he wouldn’t care at all.
Back in the basement, the movie was ending, and Candace was turning off the lamps on both sides of the couch to make the setting spookier for ghost stories.
“You first, Mischa,” Olivia insisted. “Mischa tells the best ghost stories,” she informed Violet.
Mischa’s eyes began glowing with enthusiasm. “Okay . . . What about Bloody Heather?”
“Oh, man,” Candace whined. “You always tell that one. I’ve heard it, like, a million times.”
“Yeah, but Violet’s never heard it,” Olivia said.
I had a vague idea of the story they were talking about, but I couldn’t recall ever having heard it in detail either. Ghost stories were one of the many things that kids who had older siblings heard before everyone else. Important information about dating was another one of those things. I didn’t have older siblings, and my only older
cousin, Krista, had moved away from Willow with Aunt JoAnne and Uncle Marty when I was in seventh grade.
“Okay, okay,” Candace relented. “But tell the abridged version. If you tell the whole thing, it’ll take all night.”
I wasn’t in the mood to hear a ghost story; I was still so excited about my exchange with Henry upstairs that I could barely sit still. It had already crossed my mind that despite what Henry had said, Olivia was going to be furious if he actually came to the dance as my date. Mischa might be upset too, if there was a possibility that her older sister might assume I was trying to push Henry’s ex-girlfriend further out of the picture. One trip upstairs to the bathroom had complicated my night infinitely, I was realizing as the initial rush of excitement passed.
Mischa dropped her voice mischievously to a low whisper as she began excitedly telling the story. “There’s a stretch of Route Thirty-Two that passes the St. Augustine Cemetery. It’s way out past the airport, and my family used to pass it every summer on our drive up to our summer home near Lake Superior—”
“What ever happened to that summer house? We should totally go up there over Christmas break,” Candace interrupted.
“My uncle Roger lives there now. Stop interrupting,” Mischa scolded. “Anyway. So a couple miles before the cemetery, there’s this little bar called Sven’s. It’s just a crappy little sports bar, you know the kind, with fluorescent beer signs in the windows. So, my mom’s boss goes in there one night after work last winter to watch the Packers game. Has a couple beers, probably shouldn’t drive home but figures it’s okay because he doesn’t feel drunk and everyone in the bar keeps saying a blizzard’s on the way. It’s December, and already dark out,
and the roads are empty because of the weather forecast and also because it’s just farms in every direction up there.”
We were all listening carefully, leaning in to be able to hear Mischa better. The television was still on, but playing music videos on mute.
“So he’s driving along, and snow’s falling. At first, there are just a few tiny flakes that he sees in his headlights, then the flakes start getting fatter, heavier. He’s so busy watching the snow, he almost doesn’t even see this girl walking along the side of the highway. From the back, she looks young, you know, like our age. She’s carrying her shoes in one hand. He wonders if he’s seeing things. The snow’s getting heavier, and this girl isn’t wearing a coat, so he thinks maybe she’s in some kind of trouble and just needs a ride home. So he lowers his window and asks if she needs a lift.”
“The girl gets into the back seat of the car and pushes all his flyers over to the other side of the seat. My mom is a real estate broker,” Mischa explained for Violet’s information, not realizing that I’d also never heard her tell this story before and benefited from the explanation. “So, her boss’s car had all these open-house flyers in the back seat. He really wants to know why this girl is wandering outside in a snowstorm, so he checks her out in the rearview mirror. He said she was pretty, and she wasn’t shivering at all even though she was just wearing a sweater. There were snowflakes stuck to her eyelashes, and she didn’t even seem to notice.”
Mischa’s lips began to hint at a smile; I could tell she was enjoying how tense we were all becoming, hanging on her every word. She began slipping in between the present and past tenses in her haste to push the entire story through her mouth, telling the story as if it had just occurred days ago.
“He asked her where he could drop her off, and she gave him some street address and some directions on how to get there. He pulled up in front of the house that matched the address she gave him, then looked in the rearview mirror again and almost had a heart attack. Because this time her whole face is bloody. Like her nose is bleeding, her eyes are bleeding, there’s blood gushing out of her mouth—”
“Ew!” Olivia shrieked, even though she’d heard Mischa tell this story before.
Mischa continued. “He swerved his car and it went off the road into a ditch. And when he checked to see if the girl was okay, she was gone. He got out of the car to see if maybe somehow she’d jumped out of the back seat. But she was nowhere. It was like she’d never existed at all.” She paused for dramatic effect, her eyes sparkling. “Except all those flyers in the back seat of his car were drenched with blood.”
“Wow,” Violet said solemnly, believing every word of it.
“He got his car out of the ditch, drove all the way back into town in the blizzard and went straight to the police station.”
“This is the best part,” Candace informed us.
“So he stumbled into the police station, heart pounding, sweat just, like, pouring off his forehead because he was terrified that he was going to look into his rearview mirror and see her back there, bleeding all over the place again. He ran up to the cop at the front desk and was like, The craziest thing just happened. I saw this girl walking along the side of the road. I asked her if she needed a ride, and the policeman just looked at him, and was like, And then you looked in your rearview mirror, and she was gone.”
I got a chill. It was a dumb story, but Mischa was doing an admirable job of making it scary.
“And my mom’s boss was like, Yeah! How did you know? And how freaky is this? The cop was like, We get people in here every winter, saying the exact same thing. It turns out, a real girl had been hit by a car while she was walking home from Sven’s during a snowstorm forty years ago. Whoever hit her just left her on the street to die in the snow. So, the legend of Bloody Heather is, the ghost of this girl only appears to people leaving Sven’s, driving home past the cemetery when it’s snowing. It’s only men who see her.”
“Good job,” Olivia commended Mischa. “What about the story of the six white horses?”
“God, no!” Candace protested. “That story is soooo long.”
Violet sat upright on the floor and folded her hands in her lap. Calmly, in a quiet voice with one eyebrow arched, she asked, “What about Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board? Have you guys ever played that?”
Olivia rolled her eyes. “Geez, not since middle school.”
“I don’t like that.” Candace shook her head. “I don’t like the idea of messing with spirits. Too scary.”
“It’s not spirits,” I interjected. “It’s group hypnosis. My dad has written papers on this. That’s why it works better for younger kids than for older people. The chanting hypnotizes everyone playing the game.” The game involved one participant making up an elaborate story about the future death of another participant, who would stretch out on the floor. All the other players would kneel around the girl lying down, sliding their fingertips underneath her body. At the end of the story, which was usually either remarkably gory or silly
enough to inspire giggling, everyone but the girl lying down would chant, light as a feather, stiff as a board, while raising the reclining girl toward the ceiling using nothing but the slightest bit of pressure from their fingertips. I could never figure out exactly how it worked, because during my own childhood, the handful of times when I’d played the game and the hypnosis had been successful, the body had been raised effortlessly over everyone’s heads. Inevitably, the state of hypnosis would be interrupted by one of the players, ruining the effect for everyone, and the body of the unfortunate girl who had been lifted into the air would crash down to the floor.
“I don’t believe that at all,” Candace told me, making me feel kind of like an idiot for having spoken up. “Something weird happens during that game. It’s scary as hell when it works.”
Violet smiled and shrugged. “It was just a suggestion.”
“Let’s play!” Mischa insisted, pulling a pillow off the couch. “I want to be the storyteller first.”
Olivia’s phone buzzed with a new text message. “It’s Pete,” she announced. “It’s midnight. He wanted to be the first one to wish me a happy birthday. Isn’t that sweet?”
We all agreed that it was quite sweet, and Mischa decided that Olivia would be the first subject in our game. I had a queasy feeling about participating even though I knew in my head what my father had told me was true. There was nothing occult or mystical about this game. But for me, making up stories about death scenarios didn’t feel right. Death had already visited my home in my lifetime, and I didn’t like the idea of tempting it, even just for the sake of a game.
Olivia lay on her back with her head balanced on the pillow that rested upon Mischa’s knees. I knelt along Olivia’s right side, facing
Violet, who positioned herself along her left side. Candace dropped to her knees at Olivia’s feet, tickling them lightly to make Olivia kick and squirm before Mischa got started. Olivia accidentally kicked a little too high and knocked Candace in the chin.
“Ow!” Candace wailed.
“No tickling!” Olivia bellowed.
“Quiet, everyone!” Mischa commanded with authority. “Everyone must be very serious for this to work! I mean it.”
Without exchanging any words, we all agreed to settle down. Mischa waited until the only noise in the basement was the crackling of the fire. We could distantly hear the talk show being watched upstairs by Olivia’s parents two floors above us, the fuzzy applause of its audience. Mischa placed her fingertips on Olivia’s temples and began concentrating on a wholly original description of Olivia’s future death, which was how the game went.
“It was the night before the Fall Fling,” Mischa began in her scariest storyteller voice.
“Not the night before the dance,” Olivia complained. “Can’t I at least die the night after the dance so I have a chance to fool around with Pete one last time before I die?”
Candace smirked. “You’ve already fooled around with Pete plenty.”
Violet and I blushed. The full details of how much Olivia and Pete had fooled around so far hadn’t really been disclosed to either of us yet. We were juniors in high school; naturally we were curious about who among us had gone all the way. I had barely gone any part of the way, except for a few chaste kisses I’d exchanged over the summer with a guy named Rob who lived in the same condominium
community as my dad and Rhonda. I didn’t know anything about Violet’s history with boys, but she looked as uncomfortable as I felt.
“Quiet!” Mischa ordered. “I’m the storyteller, and I decide! Okay, fine. It was the night after the Fall Fling. Olivia Richmond had been grounded by her parents for staying out way past her extended curfew the night of the dance, having innocently fallen asleep in the big field behind the high school track beneath the stars with Pete. No matter how many times Olivia insisted to her parents that she was only guilty of being sleepy, they wouldn’t believe her, because they knew their daughter and her boyfriend were total horndogs who couldn’t keep their hands off each other.”
“You’re gross,” Olivia said without opening her eyes.
“The problem with being grounded,” Mischa continued, “was that Pete had told Olivia he wanted to show her something very special that night, the night after the dance. So Olivia waited until her parents fell asleep, and decided to sneak out of the house to meet him down by Shawano Lake.”
Candace made an insinuating ooooh noise, earning herself a frown from Mischa.
“She got out of bed and changed out of her blue satin pajamas and into her skinny jeans and the totally amazing cashmere sweater that her best friend Mischa had given to her for her sixteenth birthday.”
“Nice touch,” Candace whispered off to my left.
“She raised the window of her second-floor bedroom and climbed through. But the fabric of her skinny jeans caught on a rusty nail in her window frame. She forcefully jerked her leg to try to break free, and in doing so lost her grip on the drainpipe and fell forward.
Her pants tore, and she tumbled to the ground, breaking her neck in the fall. However, she did not die instantly. She writhed in pain, struggling to breathe, paralyzed, until dawn. She drew her last excruciating breath as sunlight broke over the horizon.
“Two days later at the funeral home, to the horror of her friends and loved ones, Olivia’s body rested in her coffin, light as a feather, stiff as a board.”
“Light as a feather, stiff as a board,” we all chanted in unison, our expectant fingertips beneath Olivia’s limbs gently pushing her heavy body upward.
“This isn’t working,” Candace said after about five iterations of the chant.
“I don’t feel anything happening,” Olivia announced. She opened her eyes and sat straight up.
“Can I try?” Violet asked, looking directly at Mischa.
“Sure,” Mischa said, handing her the pillow that she’d been balancing on her knees.
Something about Violet’s demeanor changed when she switched places with Mischa. For the first time since I’d met her, she seemed fully present instead of distracted by a daydream. And for the first time that night, she seemed genuinely thrilled to have been invited to the party.