Mean Girls, a Horror Story
"Hannah-Beast" by Jennifer McMahon is a story about living with the Halloween prank that went too far
INTRODUCTION BY KATE RACCULIA
Holidays are natural reminders of the past. But there’s no holiday for confronting the past—and our former selves—quite like Halloween. It’s a celebration built around the malleability of identity. We wear, for one wild night, the wigs and feathers and furs of strange creatures, monsters and myths we love to imagine or are afraid of becoming.
For young girls, whose identities are already restricted and policed, Halloween can be a revelation: a chance to become not something else but truly ourselves. We have the power to transform and delight in our bodies. We can also use that power to torment others, to lay blame, to cast out the witch to save our own skins. But the codes and crimes of childhood have an echo. And Halloween is a dark, kaleidoscopic tunnel to the past, through which we can still hear the truth about who we’ve pretended to be, and who we’ve been all along.
Jennifer McMahon’s “Hannah-Beast” understands Halloween. It’s full of the aesthetic pleasures of celebrating the holiday in America: buckets of candy. Pumpkins waiting to be carved (until the last minute), porches strung with lights. Packs of children roaming the streets, some of them far too old to still be trick-or-treating. And everywhere, the whispered warning of the local boogeywoman. Hannah-Beast, whom children still dress up as. Hannah-Beast, as legendary of Bloody Mary. Did she kill people? Was she real?
She was real. McMahon braids together the story of the real Hannah in 1982, and the real, now-grown Amanda—one of three girls who toyed with and bullied Hannah on that night thirty-four years ago––who is now a mother to a girl of her own, in 2016. As we shuttle back and forth between the past and the present, it’s the act of looking back that scares us the most.
– Kate Racculia
Author of Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts
Mean Girls, a Horror Story
by Jennifer McMahon
Please, Hannah, please, come out with us tonight.
It won’t be like before, we promise.
Please, please, please, please, say you’ll be our friend again and come with us.
We’ll get candy. So much candy. Whole pillowcases stuffed full of KitKats, peanut butter cups, Mars bars.
So much sugar, we won’t sleep for a week.
Trust us, Hannah.
Come with us, Hannah.
It’ll be a night you won’t ever forget.
“There’s no way you’re leaving the house like that.” Amanda spoke in her flat, level I’m-the-mom-here tone, doing her best to hide the shak- ing in her voice. Really, she wanted to scream. Scream not in fury, but horror. She wanted to run from the kitchen and hide in her bedroom, slamming the door maybe, like she was the teenager. Her skin prick- led with cold sweat. Her stomach churned. She worked to steady her breathing as she made herself look at her daughter, take in the whole grotesque costume.
It was like some hole had been ripped in time, and Amanda was twelve years old again, dressed in her lame cat burglar costume with a striped shirt and pillowcase money bag, handing her mask over so that Hannah-beast’s costume would be complete. Thanks, Manda Panda!
Erin’s face was painted blue with thick greasepaint. There was a black plastic eye mask held in place by elastic. A pink feather boa. A silver cape. Topping it all off was a rainbow clown wig.
Jesus, how many rainbow clown wigs did the drugstore in town sell each Halloween?
The costume was spot-on; a near-exact replica with the exception of the face paint—it was the wrong shade of blue and too thick. The real Hannah-beast had worn makeup that was thin, patchy, a dull pale blue that had made her look cyanotic.
“That is totally unfair,” Erin said.
“I thought you were going as a cat.”
“I’m a cat every fucking year, Mom.”
This was a new thing for Erin, the swearing all the time. She’d never done it back when Jim was here. He wouldn’t have stood for it. But Amanda had decided to ignore it. To ride it out and let Erin blow off steam by dropping a few f-bombs here and there.
Pick your battles, Amanda told herself. And besides, didn’t letting the swearing slide make her the cool mom as opposed to the uptight dad? The dad who had walked out on them four months ago, claiming Amanda was too distant, too walled off, and he couldn’t live his life with a woman he didn’t know how to reach.
“You know the rules,” Amanda said to her daughter. “You are not going out like that.”
“Your rules suck and make no sense,” Erin said with disgust. “They’re totally arbitrary.”
Erin always thought she could win an argument if she used big words. Jim had often let himself be distracted or amused. Not Amanda. Amanda said nothing.
“It’s my last year of trick-or-treating,” Erin whined. Next year she’d be a freshman in high school. “Why do you have to ruin it?” Her voice broke a little bit, and Amanda thought Erin might start crying.
She cried a lot lately, mostly while fighting with Amanda over per- ceived unfairnesses. It had been so much easier when she was younger, crying over a scraped knee or some hardship she’d endured at school— not getting enough turns on the big slide or her teacher saying she hadn’t shown her work properly on a math worksheet. Then, all prob- lems could be solved with a hug—Give me one of your boa constrictor hugs, Mommy, real tight like you’ll never let me go!—and a trip to the ice-cream shop, where they’d split a cookie-dough sundae with extra whipped cream.
Now Amanda took in a breath, forced a smile. “That’s my job. Fun ruiner.”
Erin stared at her through her mask, her eyes angry and a little desperate. They could have been the real Hannah-beast’s eyes.
Manda, the eyes pleaded. Manda Panda, please. Don’t let them do this to me.
Amanda had to look away, glancing over at the kitchen island, where the pumpkin they’d bought last week at the farmers market still sat, uncarved. Pumpkin carving had always been Jim’s job, a task he’d taken seriously, downloading templates from the internet, spending hours cutting out perfect cat faces, witches flying on brooms, and one year, a raven with intricate feathers and glowing eyes.
“Go change,” Amanda told her daughter. “Now.”
Erin sighed dramatically. “Can you just explain why? Can you be that fair?”
Every year since she was in third grade, Erin had asked to go as Hannah-beast. She’d seen the older kids doing it, a handful each year, and she’d heard the stories. How the real Hannah-beast came back each year at Halloween, came back with a box of matches in her pocket, so you better look out, better be careful, better hope you didn’t run into her. She was a crazy ghost girl, Hannah-beast was. She’d killed in life and she’d kill again in death, given half a chance.
But the stories were just that: stories. Myths with pieces of truth hidden inside.
Over the years, Erin had seemed eager for these nuggets of truth.
“But Hannah-beast was a real girl, right?” Erin would ask.
“Yes,” Amanda would tell her.
“A girl who died a long time ago.”
“And she set a fire?”
Amanda would nod, always having to look away. “Yes,” she’d say, the same reply she’d given hundreds of times, beginning back when she was Erin’s age and the police first questioned her about it.
“And people died?”
“Did you know her, Mom?” Erin would ask, eyes wide and hopeful. “Did you know the real Hannah-beast?”
“No,” Amanda would say, the lie so practiced it rolled off her tongue in a loose and natural way. “I didn’t know her at all.”
She looked at her daughter now in her blue face paint—thirteen years old, gangly as a scarecrow.
“Please, Mom,” Erin said, voice quiet and pleading now. “Seriously, it’s not fair. At least tell me why.”
“Because,” Amanda said, pausing for a moment to breathe and keep her tone calm. “Because I said so.”
Erin shook her head to express her utter contempt, the bright rainbow wig slipping slightly. She stomped off, out of the kitchen and up the stairs to her room, slamming the door with impressive force. Amanda went into the living room and sank down into the couch, eyes focused on the overflowing bowl of brightly wrapped candy in a plastic pumpkin bowl.
Erin came downstairs half an hour later, face cleaned of blue makeup, replaced by cat whiskers drawn with eyeliner, cherry-red lip- stick. She wore black leggings, a black hoodie, and a headband with furry black ears gone mangy from one too many Halloweens. She had on her school backpack, which would soon be stuffed with candy, pop- corn balls, and glow sticks given out by the police officers who were out in full force each Halloween, as if by sheer numbers they could ward off what was coming: the small army of Hannah-beasts, the little fires all over town—dumpsters, trash cans, vacant buildings, the old salt shed. And somehow, they never managed to stop a stuffed effigy of Hannah- beast from being hung by a noose from the town gazebo each year, cloth body stuffed full of newspaper and rags, pillowcase face painted blue, rainbow wig stapled on, pink boa ruffling in the breeze as the creepy doll swung in circles from the thick rope.
Erin went straight to the front door, passing Amanda in the living room without a word. There was a rapid-fire knocking, and she flung the door open. Her friends were gathered on the front porch — they must have texted Erin that they were there. Two Hannah-beasts, Wonder Woman, and a red devil in a too-tight, too-short dress.
Erin walked out and slammed the door behind her, but not quickly enough to drown out the first words she spoke: “I fucking hate my mother.”
“Please, Hannah, please, come out with us tonight,” the three girls cooed like sweet little doves, funny partridges, as they stood gathered outside her first-floor bedroom window. They knew better than to come to the front door, deal with Daddy and his fire-breathing bour- bon breath telling them they weren’t good girls, they were trash, little dipshit whores.
Girls like that, they’re going straight to hell. That’s what Daddy said. You stay away from them unless you want to get burned.
Their porch light was dark, no smiling jack-o’-lantern to greet trick- or-treaters, no bowl of candy waiting by the front door.
Hannah bit her lip, looked through the screen at the girls gathered outside smiling in at her from the shadows, begging: “Please, please, pleeeeeaze.”
“It won’t be like before, we promise.”
“Please say you’ll be our friend and come with us,” they begged.
Hannah shook her head. “I’m not supposed to.”
It was more than the fact that her daddy would skin her alive if he caught her going out with these girls. It was that she didn’t trust them. Not one bit.
They’d given her dog biscuits, telling her they were oatmeal cookies, then barked out their own laughs, saying, “Hannah’s a dog! Bowwow, Dog-face! Bow-fucking-wow!”
Then she’d cried, actually cried, and they’d said they were sorry, sorry, so, so sorry. It was a joke. Just having a little fun is all.
Some days they took her lunch money, saying it was a tax she had to pay, and if she didn’t pay it, they wouldn’t be her friends anymore, wouldn’t let her sit with them, not ever. Not like they did all that much anyway. Mostly she was greeted with disgusted snarls of “Go away, Hannah.”
The worst was the time they’d tried to turn her into a real girl. “Trust us,” Mel said. “We’ll make you pretty. You want to be pretty, don’t you, Hannah?”
And they took her to Katie’s house, where they made her soak in a tub full of “pretty-girl bath salts” that made her break out in a hot rash all over her body. Then they coated her legs with shaving cream, and Mel shaved her with a pink razor, saying, “You’ve got quite the pelt going on here, Hannah. What are you, a wolf-girl?”
And Hannah had bared her teeth, laughed, and said, “Maybe I am. Maybe I’m going to eat you up.” She gave them a growl, deep in her throat, and snapped her jaws at Mel, made like she was going to bite her.
This had startled Mel. Or maybe she just pretended to be startled. Maybe she slipped on purpose.
The next thing Hannah knew, she was dripping blood down her leg, not like little weeping dots, but like a spring stream that runneth over. “Fuck,” Mel said. “Sorry.” But then she smiled ever so slightly and shot a quick glance at Manda and Katie, and Hannah knew she wasn’t sorry. Not one bit.
Hannah still had the scar.
“It’s Halloween, Hannah,” Manda said now, pleading. She was dressed up like a cat burglar with a striped shirt and watch cap, a black mask, and a pillowcase with a huge dollar sign drawn on the outside. Katie was a girlie clown, a feather boa draped around her shoulders. And Mel, she was some kind of superhero space princess with a silver dress, tall black boots, a silver cape, a tiara, and a big plastic laser gun strapped to her back.
“Don’t you want candy?” Katie asked as she stood shoulder to shoulder with Mel. “We’ll get candy. So much candy! Whole pillowcases stuffed full of KitKats, peanut butter cups, Mars bars.”
“So much sugar we won’t sleep for a week,” Mel promised.
“Then we can swap,” Manda said. “I know you love peanut butter cups — I’ll give you all of mine.”
Hannah let herself imagine it: roaming the streets, going door-to- door with these girls, opening her sack up, and watching the candy fill it until it was heavy, so heavy that it was hard to carry, bulging with chocolate, lollipops, wax lips, candy she’d never even heard of, never even tried.
“Come with us,” Mel said.
“Come with us,” Katie begged, an echo of Mel. Which was how Hannah thought of her. Not a person all her own, just an echo. Whatever Mel said, Katie did. Whatever Mel wore, Katie wore. She even brought the same kind of sandwich as Mel to school each day— peanut butter and fluff, with the crust cut off.
Hannah looked at Manda. The only one she half trusted. She’d been to Manda’s house before, spent the night once even. It had been during February break, and the other girls were away; Hannah knew this would never have happened if they’d been around, if there’d been even the slightest possibility that they’d find out.
Manda’s house was big and beautiful. Her parents were real nice too. They took Hannah and Amanda to the video store, let them pick out whatever they wanted; then they stopped at the grocery store and bought a pan of popcorn that they cooked on the stovetop—pop, pop, pop—and the foil over it puffed up as it filled, turning it into a crinkly, metallic mushroom. She and Manda made pink cupcakes with purple sprinkles, and Manda’s mom wrapped the leftovers up for Hannah to take home. Hannah stayed in her clothes at bedtime, and Manda’s mom was all like, “Where’s your nightgown, sweetheart?” and Hannah said, “I forgot it,” when the truth was she didn’t own one at all.
“Well, I’m sure Amanda has something you can borrow! Let’s go see.” Then Amanda’s mom was opening all the drawers in her dresser and going through the closet and making a whole pile of stuff that she said was either too small for Amanda or that Amanda never wore any- more. Not just nightgowns, but jeans and a dress and shirts and this pair of pink cowboy boots that Hannah tried on, and they fit perfect, like her feet and Manda’s were the same shape and everything. “Take them,” Manda’s mother said. “Take all these things. Amanda doesn’t wear any of it anymore.” Amanda looked kind of surprised, a little angry maybe even, so Hannah said, “No, thanks. I’ll just borrow the nightgown for tonight.” Manda’s mom gave Manda a look, and Manda smiled at Hannah and said, “No, you should take all this stuff. I was just gonna give it to the Salvation Army anyway.”
Hannah went to sleep that night curled up against Manda, wearing her white nightgown, Manda’s heavy comforter on top of them, and it was the happiest she’d ever been. “I love you, Manda,” she said. “Manda Panda,” she added, giggling the new name into Manda’s shoulder.
“Go to sleep,” Manda said.
She wore Manda’s pleated acid-washed jeans and lavender polo shirt (with the collar turned up, the way Manda always wore it) to school when they all came back from break the next Monday, and Mel had laughed, then got all angry, and asked, “Amanda, isn’t that your shirt? And your jeans?” and Manda turned bright red, and Hannah said, “Yeah, they are. I stole them. When I was at her house.”
Mel glared at Manda. “When was Dog-face at your house?” And Manda—she looked all frantic, little drops of sweat dotting her forehead.
“I broke in,” Hannah said quickly. “Broke in when no one was home.”
“Thieving little bitch,” Mel said. “Give them back. Right now.”
“Yeah, go take them off, or we’ll do it for you,” Katie said. She took a step closer to Hannah like she was going to start ripping them off right in the hall.
“It’s okay, really,” Manda had said. “They’re like a hundred years old, they don’t even fit, just let her—”
“It is not fucking okay,” Mel snarled. Manda hadn’t said any more.
And Hannah had gone into the bathroom and taken off the clothes and put on her gym clothes and worn those all day instead—her stinky T-shirt and too-tight shorts. She’d folded Manda’s clothes up neatly and returned them to her during study hall. Manda slipped them into her book bag without saying anything, but she smiled apologetically at Hannah. When Hannah got home from school that day, she put the rest of the hand-me-downs in a kitchen garbage bag, sealed it tight, and hid them in the bottom of the trash bin in the garage. One of her chores was rolling the bin to the curb every Friday night, so she knew it’d be gone soon, and her daddy would never know.
But the boots, those lovely pink boots, she kept those. She knew better than to wear them to school. She put them on every day when she got home and danced around in her bedroom, imagining she was Manda, and she lived in a big house with a big closet full of clothes she never wore and sweet pink cupcakes baking in the kitchen.
The real Manda, just outside her bedroom window, smiled at her now, held out her hand. “Come on,” she said. “Come trick-or-treating with us. It’ll be so much fun. Promise.”
“I . . . I don’t even have a costume.”
“It’s cool. We’ll make you one,” Mel said. “We’ll give you parts of ours.”
Then Mel reached up, untied her beautiful silver cape, and held it out.
It sparkled in the streetlights.
“Katie will give you her wig,” Mel said.
“But the wig is—” Katie started to protest, then Mel shot her a glance.
“The boa too,” Mel ordered.
Katie took off the wig and boa without question and held them out to Hannah.
Hannah lifted up the screen, wiggled her way out the window.
It was only when she dropped to the ground that she realized she was wearing the pink boots, Manda’s boots, but no one said anything; no one seemed to notice, not even Manda.
“Oh, Hannah,” they all said, putting their hands on her, patting her back, stroking her hair like she was something truly great, like their own pet unicorn. “We’re going to have so much fun. It’ll be a night you won’t ever forget.”
Amanda stood looking out the living room window, watching Erin and her friends saunter off down the street. They moved so easily together, bumping against each other, moving the same way, the same direc- tion, like a school of fish. She’d walked that way once with Mel and Katie, like they were one being, a three-headed beast, finishing each other’s sentences, breaking into Journey songs: “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Who’s Crying Now.”
It was just past six now, already full dark. Amanda went out onto the porch, plugged in the plastic glowing witch, the strings of tiny orange lights wrapped around the porch railings. Putting up the lights had been Jim’s job too, but Amanda had gone out and bravely gotten up on a stepladder, wrapping them around the posts, but no matter how she’d tried, she couldn’t get them to come out even.
“Being honest? Looks like shit, Mom,” Erin had said with a shrug. And she’d been right.
Amanda didn’t even attempt to do the fake cobwebs and dangling plastic spiders Jim usually decorated the porch with. He loved Halloween.
Amanda hated it.
She shivered now, looked down the street at a group of small ghosts and witches heading her way with their parents. Amanda went in, readied herself with the giant plastic bowl of chocolate bars and lollipops.
Jim had dressed up every year, answering the door dressed as a zombie, a vampire, a mummy. Always a monster. Always something slightly frightening.
The trick-or-treaters had loved it. Erin had always made a show of running from him as he chased her around the house, arms out- stretched, reaching for her as she screamed in mock horror.
Amanda had hidden in the back of the house, claiming she had so much work to catch up on, or a migraine coming on.
“Trick or treat!” the little crew gathered on her porch now called. She forced a smile, opened the door.
“Oh my goodness, what do we have here?” she said, holding out the bowl. “A ghost, two witches, and—what are you, sweetie?”
The girl in the back stepped forward, into the light. She looked about five or six years old.
“I’m a chicken,” she said, showing off her cardboard wings with yellow feathers glued on. She wore a yellow shirt all splattered in red.
“And what a fine chicken you are,” Amanda said.
“I’m a dead chicken,” the little girl said delightedly. “See my blood?”
“Oh my,” Amanda said. The woman with them (too young to be a mother, surely—must be an older sister, or a babysitter maybe) gave her an apologetic you-know-how-kids-are smile.
Amanda spotted another group coming down the street. Older children. One of them wearing a rainbow wig.
“Happy Halloween,” she said, closing the door on the small children, wanting to lock it.
She went back into the kitchen, opened a bottle of merlot, and poured herself a full glass. The uncarved pumpkin sat on the island, taunting. She took a good swig of wine, caught a glimpse of her reflection in the dark window over the sink: a frazzled-looking woman in jeans and a black turtleneck, dark circles under her eyes. She took another long sip of wine, feeling it warming her from the inside out, and turned toward the pumpkin.
She could do this. And wouldn’t Erin be surprised when she got home and saw the soft glow of a grinning jack-o’-lantern decorating their porch?
See, your old mom’s not such a Halloween party pooper after all.
Amanda opened drawers and cabinets, pulled out a large carving knife and small paring knife, a big metal spoon, a plastic bowl for the guts, and a baking tray for the seeds because that’s another thing Jim had always done—roasted the seeds after sprinkling them with cinnamon and sugar. Erin loved them that way. “These,” she’d say, holding a handful of seeds, “are the epitome of fall.” Then she’d give a coy grin, clearly pleased with herself for showing off her vocabulary.
There was a knock on the door. Amanda set her glass of wine down, picked up the bowl of candy, and opened the door.
Not one but two Hannah-beasts greeted her, blue faces leering, smiling, rainbow wigs glowing.
“Trick or treat,” they said.
Amanda took a step back. There was a third girl, wearing a white lab coat and big black- framed eyeglasses, just behind them. She said, “Dumbasses, you’re sup- posed to say boo! That’s what the real Hannah-beast said.”
Amanda’s breath caught in her throat.
Say boo, Hannah.
“Say boo, Hannah,” Mel instructed as they stood on their first porch, holding open their bags.
Hannah’s face itched and felt tight from the blue makeup they’d put on, left over from Katie’s clown kit—she’d used up all the white and red on her own face, and blue was the only color she had left, so they’d coated Hannah’s face in it. At first it had been greasy, sticky as they rubbed it on. Now, as it dried, it itched.
The old man passing out candy stared at her, taking in her rainbow clown wig, feather boa, and silver cape. He asked, “And what are you supposed to be?”
“She’s a Hannah-beast!” Mel crowed. “Say boo, Hannah. Say boo and show the man how scary you can be.”
“Boo,” Hannah said quietly.
The man shook his head, laughed. The girls laughed too.
Hannah stood up taller, rocked back on her heels, and lunged for- ward like a snake about to strike. “BOO!” she screamed.
The old man jumped, startled. Then he frowned, muttered, “Crazy kid,” and closed the door in their faces.
The girls squealed, squealed with joy, patted her on the back.
“Nice job, Hannah-beast.”
“Holy shit, did you see his face?”
“Hannah-beast is scary!”
“Hannah-beast is crazy!”
“Hannah-beast is spectacular!”
They ran down the sidewalk, laughing. All the other groups of trick-or-treaters, all the adults on porches, turned to look their way.
The soles of Hannah’s pink boots clapped as loud as a horse’s hooves along the sidewalk. “The boots look good on you,” Manda whispered in her ear, her breath sweet with sugar.
They ran through the center of town, past the park where the Halloween party for the little kids had been earlier—the park where tiny ghosts and goblins and princesses had bobbed for apples, played pin the arm on the skeleton, and attacked a ghost piñata strung up with heavy rope from a beam in the center of the white gazebo.
They ran and ran until Mel stopped them at a house with a porch decorated with Halloween lights, several happy jack-o’-lanterns, and a patchwork scarecrow slumped in a chair.
They all crowded together on the tiny front porch with sloping floorboards, shoulder to shoulder, and it felt good, so good to be bump- ing against these girls, laughing with them under the Halloween wind chimes hung above the front door—little ghosts dancing, banging into each other, making music. They were like those ghosts, Hannah thought, smiling up at them.
They knocked too loud on the door, sang out, “Trick or treat, trick or treat!” and a woman answered, held out a bowl of candy, said, “Happy Halloween!” A poodle danced around the lady’s feet, barking in that little yappy-dog kind of way, a pink collar with fake diamonds glittering around its neck.
And the girls didn’t have to tell Hannah this time; she did it with- out being asked. She pressed forward, stood on her tiptoes to make herself taller. She held up her arms, cape flapping behind her, got right in this lady’s face, and screamed, “BOO!” which made the poor lady recoil and scream a little, and once she caught her breath, she asked, “What is wrong with you?”
“She’s Hannah-beast,” Mel said, giggling. “That’s what’s wrong.”
“She can’t help it,” Katie said. “She’s crazy. I’d bring your puppy inside if I was you. She might just eat it up!”
And Hannah bared her teeth and growled. The lady pulled her dog inside, slammed the door in their faces.
The girls all laughed loud and shrieking laughs.
“You’re the real thing, Hannah-beast,” Katie said, twirling around her like Hannah was the sun and she was just a little planet trying to get warm.
“I am spectacular!” Hannah crowed to the night as she flew down the steps, the others following her now, chasing her, calling after her: come back, slow down, don’t leave us, we love you, Hannah-beast.
Amanda cut the top off the pumpkin in six quick slashes, lifted it off, a neat little cap with a curved stem. She went to work hollowing the thing out. She hated the cold, squishy feel of the pumpkin’s insides— “the guts,” as Erin called them.
She thought of that long-ago Halloween, the week before, actually, when Mel had presented her carefully laid-out plan.
“I think it’s totally brilliant, but are you sure it’ll work?” Katie asked.
“Of course I’m sure. She’ll come with us. She’ll do what we say.”
“But don’t you think it’s kind of . . .” Amanda hesitated.
“Kind of what?” Mel snapped, eyes daring Amanda to continue.
“I don’t know.” Amanda bit her lip. “Think of all the trouble she’s going to get in.”
Mel looked at her, head cocked. “So? Come on, Amanda. It’s not like she doesn’t deserve it. Think about it. Always pestering us all the time. Being so fucking weird.”
“And don’t forget, the bitch broke into your house and stole your old clothes!” Katie added. “She’s probably, like, all obsessed with you or some- thing. Gross. Plus, it will be hilarious and you know it.”
“What if she tells?” Amanda asked.
Mel laughed. “As if anyone would believe her.”
“As if,” Katie repeated, trying to copy Mel’s laugh.
Mel smiled. “It’s the perfect plan.”
Now, Amanda topped off her wine, told herself to stop it. Stop thinking about that night, stop reliving every moment, every terrible decision she’d made, stop playing the “if only” game. She’d trained her- self well over the years. If you spend enough time blocking something out, built sturdy enough walls around it, then it’s almost like it didn’t happen.
Except on Halloween. One night each year it all came back when the parade of Hannahs showed up at her door, when the life-size rag doll dressed as Hannah-beast was cut down from the gazebo in the center of town, a noose around its neck.
Say boo, Hannah. Now she picked up the knife and started on the eyes of the jack- o’-lantern. Round eyes, she decided. Jim had always done scary slit eyes with dramatic, angry arched eyebrows. A frowning mouth full of jagged, dangerous teeth.
Her pumpkin was going to be happy. Cheerful.
She was finishing up the second eye when there was a knock at the door, another round of trick-or-treaters. Supergirl, a soldier, two zombies, and one Hannah-beast who made sure to say, “Boo!”
Amanda gritted her teeth and held out the bowl.
She’d just started on the nose when there was another knock. A Hannah-beast and a vampire.
Trick or treat.
This Hannah-beast was collecting candy in a red plastic gas can with a hole cut in the top. Too goddamned much. Amanda stared at the gas can full of bright candy wrappers, thought of saying something, something adult, like “You’ve taken this too far” or “Don’t you think that’s in poor taste?” But before she got the chance, the girl was gone.
Before she even got to close the door, another group was coming up the walkway toward the porch.
Jesus. Why so many Hannah-beasts this year? It had to be a record.
This time it was a boy dressed as Hannah-beast. He was accompanied by a girl who looked to be dressed as a prostitute, and another boy in a long black trench coat and a ski mask.
This Hannah-beast had visible stubble on his chin under the thin blue makeup. “Boo,” he said, voice bullfrog deep.
Fuck you, Amanda said back to him in her head. She kept her lips tightly pursed so the words wouldn’t find their way out and thrust the bowl of candy in the boy’s direction. He took a whole handful, then was gone, the others trailing behind him.
Come back, slow down, don’t leave us, we love you, Hannah-beast.
“You’re only supposed to take one!” Amanda shouted at him. He gave her the finger behind his back, not even bothering to look at her.
Amanda closed the door, refilled her wine (the bottle was almost empty now) and went back to the pumpkin. She was further along with it than she’d realized. The nose was done and had a delicate triangle shape. Now for the mouth. A happy pumpkin needed a big grin. Some chunky teeth maybe. Cheerful, but not too goofy. She picked up the paring knife and started at the left corner of the mouth, working her way down, doing a light line at first, just breaking the skin to get the design roughed out, then going in deeper.
The pumpkin was soon smiling back at her.
“Hello, you,” she said to it, thinking, Won’t Erin be pleased? Job well done, Mom.
A shadow passed in front of the kitchen window. Amanda glanced up just in time to see a figure moving by the living room window—someone in a cape with a black eye mask and a rainbow wig.
“Fuck!” Amanda jumped back off the kitchen stool, the knife slip- ping. She’d cut herself at the base of the thumb. There was blood on the mouth of the pumpkin, covering its lower teeth. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
There was a knock at the door.
“Trick or treat!” voices called. Amanda wrapped a kitchen towel around her hand, went to the door. A Hannah-beast and a slutty devil.
“You’re not supposed to cross the yard!” she scolded. “You’re supposed to stay on the walkway.”
“Um. We did,” said the girl devil.
“You crossed the yard. I saw you from the kitchen.”
“It wasn’t us,” the devil said with a shrug.
“Boo?” the Hannah-beast behind her said, cautiously.
“Fuck off,” said Amanda, slamming the door in their faces, looking down to see the blood had soaked through the towel.
They went from house to house until her pillowcase was heavy, heavy like she really did have a dead dog inside it, which was what the girls were telling everyone they met.
Hannah-beast’s a real monster, that’s for sure! Be careful, or she’ll eat you up! She’s got a dead poodle inside her bag. She’s gonna snack on it later. Yum, yum, yum.
You’re doing so good, Hannah. We love you, Hannah. You’re scaring the shit out of the whole town, Hannah. This is your night. The night of Hannah-beast. Say boo. Boo! Boo! Boo!
They flew through town; Manda was holding her hand as they ran, and Hannah’s heartbeat pounded in her ears. Her face felt tight, her head itched under the rainbow wig, but she was happy, so happy, the feathers of the boa tickling her as she ran, the cape flying out behind her. Everyone in town, all the kids from school, they all saw her. They saw her with the other girls, and they knew . . . they knew she was something special.
But now it was late. Nearly ten. The streets were clear of trick-or- treaters. Porch lights had been turned off. They sat on the wooden floor of the gazebo in the park, eating candy, trading favorites. Manda didn’t like anything with nuts. Mel hated Mounds bars (which meant Katie did too). They gave Hannah all their peanut butter cups, didn’t even make her trade for them.
“I should go home,” Hannah said. Even though she knew Daddy would be sleeping his bourbon sleep until the alarm went off at seven tomorrow.
“No way! Not yet!” Katie said, grabbing her arm.
“We’ve got one more special surprise, Hannah,” Mel said.
“It’s a scavenger hunt,” Katie explained.
“Do you know what that is?” Manda asked.
“Sure, I guess,” said Hannah, thinking it sounded like a thing from birthday parties, even though she hadn’t been invited to a birthday party since second grade.
“It’s where you follow clues, gather objects, and find a prize.”
“Like a treasure hunt?” she asked. “Yeah, like a treasure hunt,” Katie said, smiling, bobbing her head.
“Well, what’s the prize?”
Mel laughed. “Think about the word prize, Hannah. It’s short for surprise, right? And it wouldn’t be a surprise if we told you.”
“It’s gonna be good, Hannah,” Katie promised. “Something you’ll never forget.”
“Are you ready?” Mel asked. “Ready for the first clue?”
“I don’t know,” Hannah said. “It’s late, and my dad—”
“If you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to,” Manda said.
“Of course she wants to do it,” Mel said, giving Manda a disgusted look.
“Yeah,” Katie said. “You want the surprise, don’t you, Hannah?”
Hannah hefted her sack, heavy with candy over shoulder. “BOO!” she howled at the top of her lungs, and the girls all laughed and patted her on the back, and she was the star of the show. It was the night of Hannah-beast. Hannah-beast unleashed, that’s what Mel said.
“You can leave your candy with me,” Manda said. “It’ll be easier without it. And I’ll keep it safe, I promise.”
Mel handed her a piece of paper, and Hannah squinted down at it through the eyeholes of her mask. “‘You’ll find me in Old Man Jarvis’s garage. I’m made of metal. I ring but I’m not a phone.’”
Hannah looked up from the paper to the others.
“What are you waiting for?” Mel asked. “Go!”
Hannah started off running toward Old Man Jarvis’s place. She looked back and saw the girls standing in the gazebo, watching her. “Aren’t you coming?” she called.
“We’ll meet you at the end.”
“But how will I know what to do?”
“Just follow the clues,” Katie said. “You can do it!”
“Yeah, you can do anything!” shouted Mel. “You’re Hannah-beast!”
Amanda wrapped up her hand in gauze and surgical tape. The bleeding had finally stopped.
“Fucking idiot,” she mumbled to herself. She went back out to the kitchen, poured the last swallows of wine into her glass. She lit the votive and dropped it inside the pumpkin, stepped back to admire her handiwork.
The smiling face leered back at her—round eyes hopeful, expectant, a slack-jawed grin giving the thing a bewildered look.
Her stomach twisted, the wine turning to acid.
Hannah. It was Hannah’s face.
Hello, Manda Panda.
Long time no see.
The air seemed to go out of her. The cut on the base of her thumb throbbed in time with her heartbeat.
At that moment, the power went out, plunging the house into darkness and silence.
The wineglass slipped out of her hand, crashing onto the tile floor.
I ring but I’m not a phone.
Hannah worked the clue around in her brain as she entered Mr. Jarvis’s garage through the open door. She squinted in the darkness as she walked around the old Plymouth parked there. There were tools hanging on the wall: rakes and hoes and shovels. And a workbench at the end. She walked over to it.
Ring around the Rosie.
She looked at the tools on the bench and the wall: hammer, saws, screwdrivers, wrenches.
“None of you ring,” she said.
She bit her lip. She could do this. She had to do this. Show them that she wasn’t a dummy. Not like everyone thought she was.
“I’m Hannah-beast,” she whispered. “I can do anything.”
Then, like a miracle (the power of Hannah-beast brought miracles!), she saw it! There on the shelf above was what she’d come for: an old brass cowbell. It was sitting on top of a crowbar. She picked up the bell, saw it had a note tied to it. She moved closer to the window and read the note by the light coming in from Mr. Jarvis’s front porch.
Ring me for one FULL minute. NO CHEATING. Then take the crowbar underneath and go to the Blakelys’. Use the crowbar to pry open the door to the shed. Inside, look for something red. Bring this note with you.
Hannah stuck the note in her pocket, held on to the bell, and started ringing it and counting, “One, two, three . . .”
She was at fifty-five when the front door to the Jarvis house banged open, and Mr. Jarvis came walking stiffly toward the garage, calling, “Who’s there? What the hell is going on?”
She started counting faster: “Fifty-five-fifty-six-fifty-seven-fifty- eight-fifty-nine-sixty!” She dropped the bell, grabbed the crowbar, and tore out of the garage, nearly running into Mr. Jarvis in the driveway.
“Hey, come back here!” he yelled. But she did not slow. Did not turn. She zigzagged her way through backyards, across the Caldwells’ field, and over to the Blakelys’. The old wooden shed was in their back- yard along a split-rail fence. She tugged on the door handle, but it was locked, as the note had said, so she slid the chiseled end of the crowbar between the door and frame, pushing it in as far as it would go; then she pulled her full weight behind it. The old wood on the doorframe cracked and splintered and the door flew open.
She laughed. She was Hannah-beast. No locks could stop her.
The red thing was waiting for her right in the middle of the shed: an old gas can with a note tied around the handle.
Use the crowbar to smash out the window of the shed, then leave it behind. Take the gas can to the Caldwells’ old barn. Look for something small and brass. Keep all the notes with you.
Without pausing to think, she smashed out the old single-pane windows with the crowbar, then threw it to the ground. As she sprinted across the yard, lights came on in the house. A man shouted, “Stop right there!” but she didn’t even turn around, just ran faster, harder, the wig bobbing around on the top of her head, the cape flying out behind her.
“BOO!” she screamed as loud as she could.
“What the fuck?” Amanda said, blinking in the darkness. All the back- ground noises of life were gone: the humming refrigerator, the ice maker, the furnace clicking on, and fans starting.
She tried to remember where the breaker box was in the basement. What you were even supposed to do to try to get the power back on— flip a switch, change a fuse? This had always been Jim’s department.
She stumbled forward, stepping over the broken glass and spilled wine, toward the window, saw it wasn’t just her house that was out. It was the whole street. The whole town, maybe. She didn’t see a hint of light anywhere.
Amanda held still, watching, listening.
A siren whined far off. A girl screamed. Someone laughed.
Amanda thought she smelled smoke.
Her throat grew tight.
The grinning jack-o’-lantern, with the candle sputtering inside, was now the only light in the room, filling the kitchen with a fiery-orange glow. The flickering eyes were watching, following her, saying, I know who you are. I know what you’ve done.
“I’m sorry,” she said out loud, the words tumbling out before she could stop them. “I didn’t know what would happen. I should have stopped it, but I had no idea. None of us did. I was young and scared and stupid.”
Tears filled her eyes; her throat grew tight as she tried to keep down the sob she felt coming.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “Sorry for being such a fucking coward.”
The pumpkin only stared, the hideous grin seeming to grow wider, more taunting.
She was not going to be forgiven.
Not this easily.
Running, running, wind in her blue face, blowing the cape back, and the hair, oh the hair, the great rainbow happy clown wig. She’s a wild thing. Hannah-beast unleashed. The gas can bumped against her thigh, the gas in it sloshing around like water in an empty belly. Her brain buzzed from sugar, from the high being around those girls had given her, and now, now she was on a hunt, a scavenger hunt, and she was going to get a prize, a SURPRISE, something good, something wonder- ful, something that would make the girls love her even more.
Love her more, more, more. Her heart pounded as she ran, felt like it was going to explode right out of her chest. The barn was in sight, a big old leaning thing—miracle it was still standing. The Caldwells were sleeping, tucked safe in their beds, the lights in the white farmhouse all turned off, too late for trick-or-treaters. Mr. and Mrs. Caldwell had two kids, little kids, still in elementary school, fourth and fifth grade, lucky little buggers. Elementary school wasn’t like middle school, where the halls were long and dark, and people jumped out at you, shoved you, kicked you; people left horrible stuff in your locker—dog shit in paper bags, notes that said “Why don’t you just curl up and die, Hannah?”
She entered the barn, ducked into the shadows, pausing to catch her breath, trying to slow her racing heart. The barn was open at one end and had a hayloft with a wooden ladder leading up to it, and it was still full of old hay bales from back when there used to be cows and horses. There was a long row of windows, most with the glass busted out. The floor was dirt. There was a broken tractor. An old motorcycle. Engine parts. Kids’ bicycles. The barn smelled like old wood, grease, and gasoline.
How was she going to find something brass in here? Needle in a haystack.
But they’d made it easy for her.
Did they think she was that dumb? Or were they just being nice? Nice, nice. Nice as spice. Manda Panda maybe, but not the others. Maybe Manda had left this for her, right where she could find it. Manda was on her side. Manda wanted her to win, to get the big surprise of a prize.
At the other end of the barn, there was a dim glow. A flashlight turned on, left on the floor. And there, in the beam of the flashlight, was an old brass lighter with a note tucked underneath.
She picked up the lighter, opened it up, and flicked it to see if it worked. The wheel struck the flint, and a flame came to life. Hannah knew how to work lighters. She sometimes lit Daddy’s cigarettes for him while he was driving. “Light me up, Hannah Banana,” he’d say. She’d pull a Camel out of his pack and get it going for him, take a few puffs herself first just ’cause it made Daddy smile.
She picked up the note:
You’re almost done! Take the three notes and burn them with the lighter. Leave the ashes in the barn. Take the lighter and gas can and bring them to the tallest oak tree at the edge of the yard. We’ll meet you there and give you your prize.
Hannah scrabbled the notes out of her pocket, held them with this final one, and flicked the lighter, watched the flame swallow them up. She held them until her fingers were hot and she couldn’t stand it any longer; then she dropped them, watched what was left of the pages sink and flutter to the dirt floor like burning moths. Once they were down there and had burned out, she stomped on them to make sure—didn’t want to leave anything smoldering, not in this old barn.
The wind blew hard outside, rattling the glass left in the windows. She thought she heard something up above her, coming from the hay- loft. A board creaking like a sigh.
She pocketed the lighter, picked up the gas can, and headed out, scanning the tree line, looking for the tallest oak. She didn’t know her trees, didn’t know an oak from a maple from an ash, especially now that most of them had their leaves off. She headed for the tallest tree she could see, walking across the big yard, through grass that needed to be cut, so long it was like a hayfield.
She got to the tree and looked around for the girls. Nothing.
“Manda?” she called, keeping her voice low, not wanting to wake up the Caldwells. “Mel? Katie?”
She was there before them. She’d been faster than they’d thought she’d be. Wouldn’t they be impressed? Hannah-beast was fast. Hannah- beast was clever.
She stood next to the tree, fidgeting with the lighter. It made her fingers smell tangy and metallic, like raw metal. She flicked it, watched the flame. They’d see her now as they came. See her and know she had the lighter.
She was like the Statue of Liberty with her torch. She held it up high, her eye on the flame.
I got it.
I found it.
The acrid lighter-fluid smell filled her nostrils.
But there was something else. Another smell behind it. A campfire smell.
She smelled smoke.
She looked over at the barn and saw flames curling out through the windows, reaching up like long fingers, all the way to the roof.
Her heart jackhammered in her chest.
Had she done this? Had the paper not been out?
No. It had been. She’d made sure.
She stood, frozen. She thought of running, but then the girls would never find her. So she stood and watched from her safe place tucked behind the thick old tree. The lights from the house came on, and Mrs. Caldwell came out, screaming. She tried to run into the burning barn, but Mr. Caldwell was running now too, grabbed her from behind, stopped her.
There was another sound too. Screaming. High pitched and hysteri- cal, from inside the barn.
Animals, Hannah thought at first. There must have been animals in there after all—a horse or cow, a couple of pigs maybe tucked away in a dark corner.
“Ben! Brian!” Mrs. Caldwell called. She fought against Mr. Caldwell, kicking, digging her nails into his arms. “Let me go!”
“For God’s sake, Margaret,” he said. “You can’t go in there.”
“Brian! Ben!” she howled.
The Langs came over from across the street. The barn was com- pletely engulfed in flames now—it seemed to have taken only a minute. Mrs. Caldwell was screaming, sobbing, hysterical, and Mr. Caldwell kept his arms wrapped tight around her. More people came, people from down the street. Sirens started in the distance. Too late now. The VFD boys with their pumper trucks and miles of hose could never save that old barn.
Hannah watched from behind the tree, feeling like she was watch- ing some show on TV, not something from her very own life. The barn roof caved in with a terrible cracking, roaring sound, and Mrs. Caldwell sank to her knees, howling like she was the one on fire.
Then Hannah saw the girls, her girls, coming down the street, twit- tering and bobbing like a flock of birds. They slowed, all three staring at the burning barn. Manda grabbed Mel’s shoulder, leaned in, said something Hannah couldn’t hear. Then they all ran to the sidewalk in front of the barn, to the group of neighbors gathered there.
Hannah stepped out from behind the tree, waving, trying to get the girls’ attention, not sure if she should run to them or wait right where she was. That was what the note said, to wait. So that’s probably what she was supposed to do?
Mr. Jarvis was there in the circle of men the girls were talking to. The fire was so loud she could make out only snippets.
“I saw her,” she heard Mr. Jarvis say.
Mr. Blakely was there. She heard “Gasoline.”
A lady in a fluffy turquoise bathrobe—it might have been Mrs. Novak?—spoke to the girls grimly. Hannah heard every word this time.
“Benjamin and Brian were sleeping in the hayloft. They do it every Halloween.”
Hannah looked back at the fire, showers of sparks going up and up and away.
It was like hell. Like what she’d imagined hell might be like. That hot. That smoky. That loud.
Then Mel turned toward Hannah’s hiding place by the tree, pointed. Her eyes blazed with the reflection of the fire—devil eyes. “There she is!” she shouted. “She did this!”
Everyone looked her way. Saw the gas can by her feet. The lighter in her hand.
Katie stared, stunned, slack-jawed, but slowly, she reached up her hand and pointed too.
Some of the men, they took a step in Hannah’s direction.
Hannah looked right at Manda, her eyes pleading: Please. Say something. Don’t let them do this to me.
Manda was crying now, crying hard. “But she—” she began, and Mel clamped a hand down on Manda’s shoulder, held tight with a claw- like grip that would surely leave a bruise. Manda looked down at the ground, then back to Hannah. “Yes, that’s her,” she said through her tears. “That’s Hannah-beast.”
And Hannah, she turned and ran.
It had been Mel who’d set the fire. Amanda should have stopped her. She should have done something—actually fucking stood up to her for once. Now, as an adult, she couldn’t believe how much power Mel had had over her. What had she been so afraid of? Being shunned from the lunch table? Having nasty notes left in her locker? It all seemed so trivial compared to what had happened to those Caldwell boys, what had happened to Hannah.
Over the years, Amanda had told herself that she didn’t think Mel would really do it, that she’d been sure it was just another of Mel’s grand schemes that would come to nothing. Like the way she said one day they’d go to the mall and hide in the bathroom with their feet up dur- ing closing time; then they’d sneak back out and have the whole mall to themselves, and they’d get skateboards from the sporting goods store and go up and down the mall, eating all the candy they wanted from the Sweet Spot, then play Ms. Pac-Man all night at the arcade. Mel would go on and on about everything they’d do that night at the mall, but Amanda knew it would never happen. Amanda had told herself the barn fire would be like that.
So when Mel came sprinting out of the barn, grinning wildly, say- ing she’d done it, Amanda was sure she was just fooling around. Until she saw the smoke.
She could have run in then, tried to put it out. Or gone and pounded on the Caldwells’ door and told them to call the fire depart- ment quick. She could have done something.
Instead, she saw the smoke, the orange glow of fire from deep inside the barn, and she ran like the coward she was, the coward she would always be.
She took off right behind Mel and Katie. They were laughing, giddy, and hadn’t Amanda laughed too? Sure she had. It was terrible, but it was also exciting and crazy, like nothing she’d ever done. Thrilling. They’d had no idea the Caldwell boys were sleeping up in the hay- loft. The plan was to make people think Hannah had burned down the barn. Get her in a little trouble. Not have the whole town think she was a murderer. Not to be murderers themselves.
The pumpkin watched, smiling stupidly at her, looking more like Hannah than ever.
I love you, Manda Panda.
Amanda remembered feeling Hannah’s warm breath on her neck the night she’d slept over, snuggled up against Amanda in her twin bed.
Go to sleep, Amanda had said that night, irritated that Hannah was there, that she was so pathetic and desperate, but also a little thrilled by the power she had over this girl, this girl who loved her so completely. Who called her Manda Panda, which was incredibly stupid but kind of sweet.
Amanda had hated it and loved it all at the same time. Which was the way she’d felt about Hannah, wasn’t it?
Amanda wondered for a moment if Katie or Mel ever thought about that night, about Hannah, about those boys in the barn—she hadn’t spoken to either in years, couldn’t even bear to keep up with them on social media. No, she thought. Neither of them ever under- stood the enormity of what they had done. Neither of them could.
The candle flickered, making the pumpkin seem to open its eyes wider, looking frightened, desperate.
Please, Manda. Don’t let them do this to me.
“Enough already,” Amanda said, picking up the carving knife, digging it into the pumpkin’s left eye, determined to change its shape, to make it look less Hannah-like.
In the darkness and silence, she worked to make the eyes more triangular, angrier, more like one of Jim’s devil-faced pumpkins.
When she finished with the eyes, she stepped back. It was no good. It just looked like a furious version of Hannah leering back at her.
You can’t make me go away this time.
She picked up the knife again, thinking she’d fix it—change the nose and mouth, banish Hannah-beast once and for all.
She froze, sure she’d heard a giggle from somewhere behind her, deep in the dark center of the house.
She listened hard, and it was not laughter she heard this time but the clip-clap sound of boot heels moving across the floor. The sound of her old pink cowboy boots—the boots her mother had shamed her into giving to Hannah.
The boots Hannah had been wearing that night.
The boots look good on you, Hannah.
“Hello?” she called. She waited, knife clutched in her hand, heart pounding in her ears.
“Hannah?” she asked, choking out the name.
The jack-o’-lantern grinned, seemed to give her an evil wink. I’m right here. I have been all along.
Sometimes the best place to hide was right in plain sight.
She sat, cross-legged, in the dark gazebo right in the middle of town, the same spot where she’d been just hours before, trading candy with the girls, taking all their peanut butter cups. The floor of the gazebo was littered with the wrappers they’d left behind.
She sat for so long her legs turned to pins and needles.
The sirens went on and on. It seemed everyone in town was up and awake, walking the streets, talking. They talked over each other, shouted across the street to friends and neighbors.
Did you hear, did you hear? Bad fire at the Caldwells’ place. Both their boys dead. They were sleeping in the barn. It was that Hannah Talbott girl.
She came to my house tonight, dressed all crazy, acting like some kind of animal. Threatened my dog. Screamed right in my face.
Mental, that one is.
What was that crazy costume she was wearing, anyway?
Said she was some kind of beast. She was all over town, wicked girl running wild. Broke into the Jarvises’ garage, stole a crowbar. Used it to get a gas can from the Blakelys’ shed. Busted up the shed while she was at it. Then she walked right on over to the Caldwells’ place, soaked that old barn in gasoline, torched it. Those poor boys never had a chance.
She could tell, of course. She could tell, but who was going to believe her? Who ever believed a girl like Hannah? A girl who’d been caught with a gas can and a lighter.
That’s her, Manda had said. That’s Hannah-beast.
She was still in her costume, now dirty, stinking of smoke and gasoline.
Girls like that, they’re going straight to hell. You stay away from them unless you want to get burned.
Her face itched, didn’t feel like her face at all. The wig was on crooked. The cape was torn.
She looked up, saw a rope dangling down—an old piece of clothes- line maybe—looped around the overhead beam. The rope that had held the ghost piñata earlier. The little kids had swung at it with a stick, the ghost bobbing, dancing in circles until it was hit dead-on, torn open, candy flying out, the little kids all pushing each other, scrambling to collect the most pieces.
Hannah stood, reaching for the rope, hands shaking a little. She gave it a tug like she was ringing an invisible bell.
I ring but I’m not a phone.
The rope was looped over one of the rafters, tied tight with a string of knots. She gripped it with both hands and swung, feet drifting over the refuse of the evening—the clear cellophane of Manda’s Smarties, the bright scraps from Mel’s Tootsie Pops, the wrappers from all those Hershey’s bars Katie had eaten.
She was her own piñata, swinging. The rope held her weight. She climbed up on the low wall of the gazebo, cape flapping in the breeze like she really was some kind of superhero about to take flight. The cowboy boots were slippery and she had to lean quite a bit to reach the center, but she kept her balance. She made a careful slipknot in the rope. Her hands didn’t feel like her hands at all.
It was like it was some other girl. Like she was watching some other version of herself in some far-off place tie the knot.
A ghost of a girl.
A beast of a girl.
The real Hannah was home, tucked up all safe and warm in her bed like a good girl, right where she belonged, a girl who wasn’t going to hell. A girl who had a best friend named Manda who’d given her a pair of special pink boots, boots that fit so perfectly it was like she and Manda were one.
The candy wrappers got caught in the breeze, skittered across the floor below her, empty and forgotten.
Hannah looped the rope around her neck over the rainbow wig, over the pink boa. She heard the girls’ voices in her head as she jumped off the wall—Hannah-beast takes flight!—swinging, flying, legs dangling over the floor.
Amanda held her breath, listening to the footsteps come up behind her. They were real; she was sure of it. Not born of paranoia and too much wine, right? She glanced down at the pumpkin, her knife now turning the blocky teeth into pointed ones, giving it a vampire grin.
Hannah-beast’s a real monster, that’s for sure. Be careful, or she’ll eat you up!
Amanda looked up, out across the kitchen at the window over the sink, and saw the reflection in it: the dim kitchen lit only by the candle in the jack-o’-lantern; herself, hunched over before it, whittling away; and a figure behind her—a girl with a blue face, a bright clown wig, a pink feather boa, a silver cape.
She blinked, but it did not go away, just came closer, closer still.
I love you, Manda Panda.
She could hear the creature breathing as it drew near, could smell smoke and gasoline.
Amanda could not move, could not speak or scream.
She was twelve years old again, looking at Hannah as she stood with the gas can by her feet, the lighter in her hand, staring desperately at Amanda: Please. Don’t let them do this to me.
But Amanda had only pointed. That’s her. That’s Hannah-beast.
“Boo!” Hannah roared in her ear, right behind her now.
“Go away!” Amanda screamed as she spun. They were the words she and the other girls had said so many times to Hannah when she followed them around like some pathetic dog at school, when she sat down at their lunch table, when she showed up at Amanda’s house, wanting to ride bikes, wanting to sleep over again. Why can’t you just go away?
Amanda plunged her carving knife deep into Hannah-beast’s belly, shouting, “Go the fuck away!”
But the creature did not disappear like smoke, like the ghost she should have been.
Amanda’s hands were warm and sticky with blood. Hannah-beast looked down at the knife in her belly, slack-jawed, stupid.
When she looked up, Amanda saw her, really saw her.
And in that moment, she realized Hannah had won.
“No!” Amanda cried, the word a wailing sob. “No, no, nooo!”
Erin looked so surprised, so puzzled, as she reached down and touched the knife, like she couldn’t believe it was real. Amanda could see traces of cat whiskers beneath the blue face paint.