Disclaimer: I own all this. And I also own this awesome bridge that I'd be willing to sell you at a discount.
This is set between two other stories I've uploaded to the site, 'Wells Street Station' and 'The Ellipse'. Knowledge of the first may be necessary to understand any of this.
As always, any constructive criticism will be welcome.
"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."
– Abraham Lincoln
It's trite, but true, that a given operation's chance of success relies on the preparation put in beforehand. This can be anything. A route walked, by consultation of a map. A marathon, by regular exercise done for months beforehand and maintaining a good physique. A battle, by careful plotting of strategy. A high school Prom.
Case in point.
"Dammit," said Coraline as she rummaged furiously through the chests of drawers by the window in her bedroom. "Dammit, dammit, dammit, double dammit, and triple dammit with a side-order of where the hell is it?"
"Frustrated, are we?" asked Mel. She had her back to her daughter, her own attention preoccupied with looking out scattered cosmetics from the cabinet at the other end of the room.
"Just a bit."
"What have you lost?" Mel's voice was patient, mild. She could recall being in the same position herself around thirty years ago. She could recall the exact state of second-last-minute panic.
"My good barrette." There was a resounding clunk from a slammed-shut chest, the elderly wood groaning under the force. "The blue one, the one we agreed that would go with the whole outfit."
"The one you're wearing at the moment?" suggested Mel.
There was a short silence before Coraline answered. "I'm not freaking out."
"Of course you're not," said Mel, laying out a bottle of nail polish next to a boutonnière. The dress Coraline would wear was carefully hung at the back of the room's door, a simple long shoulderless dress of deep blue silk. It was a good fit for Coraline, all of five feet tall and with hair the same dark shade of blue as the dress.
"I'm completely calm and collected about this. I'm not going to run away screaming. I am going to make this the best prom night ever," said Coraline.
"Of course you are," said Mel, hoping that the reassuring tone she injected into her voice would do its job.
A time interval of roughly five seconds passed before Coraline said "Oh sweet god, kill me now."
"Remember that your mom once had a prom night as well," said Mel sympathetically, turning to face her daughter. "I was stressing out as much as you. I thought something would go horribly wrong. And you know what happened? I had a great time. Nothing went wrong, and I danced the night away with your dad."
A stressed-out mind is rarely inclined to accept well-meant advice, and it was only with difficulty that Coraline suppressed a query about whether they really called it that back then. Instead, while redirecting her attention to the hunt for a favoured pair of earrings, she muttered "Maria hasn't been stressing out at all. And I bet Wybie's as laid-back as ever. Boys probably have an easy time of this."
"I'm going to screw up, I'm going to screw up, I'm going to screw up, I know I'm going to screw up."
Another case in point.
Wybie's usual demeanour, a mix of quirky sanguinity and an almost zen-like attitude of overall unflappability, had been entirely replaced with gibbering terror. His posture was close as one could get to the fetal position one could get while remaining seated upright in a sofa.
Mr Bobinski, sitting next to Wybie while bottle-feeding an infant mouse, sighed. The two were in the attic-room that was his house, the air thick with the sharp smells of exotic cooking and mouse detritus. An elderly cockerel bawked from one side, sitting in a perch in the middle of an incoming sunbeam.
"Assuming failure from outset is no way to win, dah?"
"It's not assuming, it's knowing."
"Do as Red Army did. Draw up list, then stick to it." Mr Bobinski gently placed the mouse into a hand-made nest of down and fibre, a little silver clarinet nestled within the fabric. "What do you do first?"
"Well…first? At the beginning? Right at the start?" Wybie leaned forward, cupping his head in his heads. "Okay, I get ready at my place. I've got a tux looked out. I got it ahead of time."
"See? You've already prepared."
"My grandma would have had me use my great-uncle's old tux, but he was about two feet shorter than me. We rented a new one, more's the luck." This was somewhat fortunate. Puberty had left Wybie nearly six-and-a-half feet tall, almost on a par with Mr Bobinski himself. "Next … next, Maria's date, Lance O'Neil. He'll meet me at my place with the limo – we're splitting the cost for that - and then we'll swing round to the Pink Palace and pick up Coraline and Maria. They'll be all ready."
"And then we'll swing by the Gilded Heights Hotel, get into the prom, and I'll proceed to make a complete barking embarrassment out of myself. And assuming that Hollywood hasn't lied to me, one of our classmates will manifest psychic powers and kill everything, at which point I'll probably accept that as a mercy."
"So sure are you of bad things happening? Stage fright, is it?" Mr Bobinski pursed his lips, and rapped his fingertips together. He'd known this boy since he was small enough to fit in a basket, and if anyone should be able to deliver a pep-talk, it should be him.
"Where I am from, in the village where I was born, there was a saying," said the old acrobat, his expression far-off and thoughtful. "'If things seem like zey are at their worse, then never fear. Zey can always get worse.'"
Wybie hesitated before answering. "That … that isn't reassuring. Like, at all."
"Perhaps something is lost in translation, eh? But never fear. You will get all dressed up and Caroline and Maria will get all dressed up and the night will be danced away and no matter what happens, things will never be as bad as they could be." Mr Bobinski mentally congratulated himself on a pep-talk well given.
"Good, then we are agreed! And now, it is time I gave you more than words." Mr Bobinski leaned over one side of the battered sofa and retrieved a small bag. He dropped it onto his lap and rummaged through it, Wybie looking on with mixed marks curiosity and dread.
"First, you must borrow an old thing of mine. A good luck charm." From the bag, Mr Bobinski withdrew a little amulet of tiny metal links, a tiny wrought iron design of an open eye at one end of the loop.
"Stave off witches. And death. It's worked so far."
"Ah." Wybie gingerly accepted the amulet, trusting that a tuxedo shirt and collar could keep it concealed. (Not, of course, that he, a proud skeptic, put any intellectual or logical stock in what was just a glorified necklace, but quite frankly, one's beliefs could go hang when a prom was at stake.)
"Second, aftershave. Military-issue. Kept a few bottles back from the days, and made them last. Also, a razor" Mr Bobinski pulled out the latest offerings, a plain bottle in which a truculent and grey-hued liquid swished, and an unadorned razor.
Wybie gave the items an alarmed look, and raised a hand protectively to the sparse growth of hair adorning his chin and cheeks. "Is this implying something?"
"Beards are great. Moustaches, greater. Just … are best grown when they don't look like a dog moulted over your face, dah?"
Mr Bobinski delved into the bag one last time while Wybie's self-confidence in his hitherto-majestic facial hair found a bar in which to drink itself into a stupor. "And one last thing for the dashing young prom-goer, dah?"
Wybie looked up from the floor, drawing his hand away from where it had been neurotically rubbing his chin, and found himself presented with a condom in its package.
After a few seconds of decelerating cogitation, he managed to produce a stupefied "Buh? I … ah ..."
"Is past the days when that is a concern for me, though the stories I could tell you," said Mr Bobinski, his expression faraway with happy remembrance, partially lit by the kilowatts radiating off Wybie's cheeks. "But might be of more use to you, no? Perhaps, I do not judge. Think of it like escape tower on Soyuz rocket. Take it, just in case."
What parts of Wybie's mind felt at that moment up to addressing other concerns wondered why he went to Mr Bobinski for these pep-talks in the first place.
"Open your eyes, dearie."
One more case in point.
Maria Ortega, sitting on the couch in Miss Spink and Forcible's basement flat, opened her eyes, having been asked to keep them closed for the past few minutes while the sounds of shuffling and banging and genteelly-British swearing came from before her.
Her open eyes saw a mannequin, its previous duty holding one of several old theatre costume for Miss Spink relinquished in favour of holding the much anticipated prom dress.
She carefully and slightly adjusted the glasses perched on the bridge of her nose, to no avail.
"A masterpiece, if I do say so myself," said Miss Forcible, triumphantly tapping the dresses' shoulder with her lorgnette. "I'll admit, I had my doubts when April promised you a dress for your gallivanting. I didn't think we still had in us. But neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night, as they say. I'm very pleased with it."
Maria's jaw dropped open, just a tad. A Scottie, which had previously been preoccupied licking itself in a corner, looked up at the presented dress and excused itself to be quietly sick in the bedroom. Another of the dogs gave Maria a sympathetic look, another draped its paw over its downturned face, and the rest of the pack shuffled away uncomfortably.
"No need to thank us, dearie," said Miss Spink with a wink. "Everybody should get something special for a special occasion. And it was no trouble to do this for you."
Maria tried to answer, to pull her attention away from the dress. But this was easier said than done.
There was taffeta. There was lace. There was red and yellow and green and brown, in pastel and in saturated. There were frills and ribbons and, god help her, plaid. Some salvaged article from a Hamlet production had provided the material for ruffled sleeves, other theatre costumes had furnished copious loads of sequins and buttons, and something mercifully lost to the ages, but not mercifully lost enough, had even yielded a bustle.
Mere human words couldn't do it justice. Even the tongues of angels and demons would give up after a few spluttering seconds.
Maria knew that she had no sense of fashion and little aptitude for planning, and had been grateful when, on the occasion where the prom came up in past conversation a few weeks before, Miss Spink and Forcible had offered to take care of furnishing a dress.
Now that foresight was loudly saying that it had told her so, she found herself bereft of options. Maria was one of these people cursed with both overdeveloped conscientiousness and the complete absence of anything resembling a nasty bone in her body.
"It's … lovely," she managed, a desperate and slightly manic smile flickering on her face as she hunted for any thread of conversation that could possibly lead to her exiting the flat at full speed and hiring whatever dregs might be left in the outfitters in Ashland.
"Super, dearie," said Miss Spink. "Now pop it on and we'll get a photo. You can see what your date thinks when he comes over later."
And a last case in point.
The creature waited in her lair, beyond physical walls and physical affairs, tensed for the evening ahead.
Her six metal legs tapped impatiently through the rooms of her lair, a storied and gaudy reflection of the hotel it occupied, exact but for the layer of mould and moss and tangled dark clumps of overgrown things.
The creature was ready, eager for the hunt to come. This night, there would be another grand gala of the humans, thrown in honour of whatever trivial events they obsessed themselves with. A time of revelry, of heightened desire and lowered attentions. It was perfect. It had worked once before, the first time some thirty years past.
Come this midnight, she would have seized another victim, and sewn in another pair of buttons, and taken another soul.
The whisper of something entering her lair broke her out of her thoughts, and she turned, suddenly tense and still.
Another of the hunter-kin had insinuated herself into her lair through Sur-real trails, entering through the mirror-hotel's front door. She felt their presence, though they didn't announce themselves and moved quietly.
Who are you, and what business have you?, sent the creature from her position in the building's ballroom, a polite sending under the circumstances. She got no reply.
Annoyance and curiosity got the better of her, and she moved from her still position to where she felt the intruder's presence. Her claws tapped against her sides, and she motioned for one of the puppets at attention nearby to open the room's door. They moved stiffly forwards, their silk-and-straw hand clasping the handle.
The door suddenly flew open, knocking the puppet backwards. A flash of gold came from the shadow behind the door, and the puppet fell to the ground, opened from head to gut and spilling tarry straw onto the floor.
The creature screeched with fury, at this astounding intrusion and this unwarranted aggression, and she flew forwards at the intruder, this accursed intruder who was smaller and hence weaker, and who would give their full account if they wanted to live after they had been subdued.
But as the creature struck, the intruder moved with astonishing speed, one golden claw flying out and grabbing the creature's arm, using the limb to swing her right into the white plaster wall. She was smashed off it, dazed and reeling, and lashed out crazily to catch her balance and to claw through the intruder.
Once again, the intruder was ready, and caught the attacking claw with one hand of her one, and used her other to swipe downwards, slashing it clean from the creature's body.
The creature was too stunned to react when her own limb was once again used against her. With motion that was beyond a blur, the outstretched blade-fingers of the detached arm were rammed right through her, slamming her back and pinning her to the wall.
Spitting black blood and rolling her head weakly, the creature looked up at her attacker.
It was one of the kin, with a tapering, upright body rising from a six-limbed abdomen. The metal for the limbs was a dull gold, and their upper body and head was shrouded by a flapping dark cloak and a shroud set into the brim of a conical, wide-brimmed hat. The heavy shoulders of the cloak were set with grey marbles, repositories for acquired souls fuelling the intruder. There were eight of them, and that truly gave the creature pause past her pain. Only the oldest and and most ruthless and most skilled of the kin lived long enough to acquire anything like that number of souls, souls which made them all the more powerful, which made them all the more able to withstand the deadly journeys through the untamed Sur-real.
"A … ancient one," choked the creature, speaking with her physical form, as was done when one of the kin wished to show complete submission. "Please, mercy. I … I will give you what you want, yield my … my hunted soul, only..."
The ancient intruder sent No. The creature fell silent.
The intruder sent again, her message surprising gentle. This is regretted. I would not have had you in the way. I did not come here for your life, but for what happens here tonight at your lair. I am here with purpose. For a hunt of my choosing.
Golden fingers reached up and teased away the shroud that fell from the front of her hat's brim, revealing a pinched face set with red-threaded black buttons. Their hand reached out and gently caressed the face of the stricken creature, who winced and tried to turn aside.
You are young, sent the intruder, almost sadly. Too young. Her voice hardened. But needs must. I have spent too long preparing, and I could not have had you in the way.
The fingers at the creature's thin throat scissored, flashing in the cold light.
This is a family matter, sent the intruder as the creature's head fell. And blood shall have blood.
Coraline stood ready on the Pink Palace's porch under the steadily darkening sky, tapping one foot against the aged wood.
She was dressed and ready, so she thought. She had her dress donned, her barrette in place, her favourite pair of earrings attached, Wybie's boutonnière in one hand and her handbag in the other. It was half past five on the dot, and she was all ready. Just as planned.
A minute passed while she waited for Maria to emerge and for Wybie to appear in the limo, neither of which manifested.
Well, that was okay, she thought. After all, they didn't specify half-six as the meeting time exactly, without fail. You were allowed some wiggle room when it came to time. And in the time scale she'd privately allowed, even ten minute's tardiness wouldn't be too much of a problem. Maybe she was early. There wasn't a problem.
Another minute later, she reminded herself that there wasn't a problem.
Thirty seconds after that, she was quickly pacing back and forth and muttering heartfelt blasphemies and creasing the boutonnière ever-so-slightly, glancing at her watch every five seconds.
"Come on," she implored of empty air. "How hard can it be to just look at a clock every once in a while? Answer: it's not that hard." Her left cheek flushed and twinged, and she stopped and winced as she rubbed at it. The scars on it, two horizontal lines of white tissue, acquired more than seven years ago and slow in the healing, still sometimes irked her. She had done her best to cover them over with makeup for this night, but they were still visible. She resumed pacing with some irritation, banishing the marks from mind. "Where are..."
"I'm here," came Maria's quiet voice, from the stairs leading from Miss Spink and Forcible's flat. "Sorry I'm late. I was a little delayed."
Coraline turned, relief breaking over her face like a sunbeam. She saw Maria's dress. The relief carefully froze in place.
The test of a true friendship isn't necessarily whether or not one friend laughs at another's embarrassment, but how hard they try to stop themselves from doing so, and Coraline had drawn blood from the inside of her cheek before Maria said "You're allowed to laugh. I know it looks … well."
After a few moments, Coraline, in between attempts to regain oxygen, managed "Don't tell me they took bits from their old theatre ..." and then once again broke down.
"They did," sighed Maria, holding one of the frills attached at the side out at arm's length. "It's okay. If I manage to avoid the limelight, then this evening might not end up leaving scars on my psyche."
"You're dating the quarterback. Good luck with that," said Coraline, wiping tears from her eyes. "God, I'm sorry, I'm a horrible friend. I ought to be horrified on your behalf, but..."
"It's alright," said Maria ruefully. "I'd probably react the same way if our places were switched. But try to stop laughing, please?"
Coraline, through an effort nothing short of Herculean, did so just as the welcome blast of a limo's horn came from the road.
"Finally," she said with satisfaction as the long vehicle cautiously wound its way through the looping trail of road. "I was this close to sending out search parties."
It pulled to a stop just before the Pink Palace, with the door on the side facing the Palace opening and an occupant tumbling out before the limo had stopped, with nary a second's passing before he righted himself and salvaged what he could of his dignity.
"Ow," Wybie muttered, brushing road dust off his suit trousers and retrieving a fallen corsage. "I meant to do that."
"I could tell. It was up to your usual standard." Wybie gave Coraline a reproachful look, for which he received a light punch to the upper arm in exchange. "I'm kidding. But what took you so long?"
"Our-" He checked his watch. "-magnificent two-and-a-half minutes were spent trying to find this." He gestured with the corsage. "Don't ask me how it ended up hanging from a lamp."
"How did it end up ha..."
"I have no idea." He shook it once more with a sort of futile pique, until he caught sight of Maria's dress.
"Messrs Spink and Forcible work?" he asked.
"Once, when I was a kid, they knitted me a scarf for my birthday," he said with weary sympathy. "It had legholes. Legholes."
"What had legholes?" The limo's second occupant appeared from around the vehicle's far side. Lance O'Neil was blond-haired, blue-eyed, cleft-chinned, built like a quarterback (fortunate, considering his position in the school's football team) and possessed of both the sweet nature and cutting intellect of a Golden Retriever puppy. He had foregone a tuxedo in favour of formal wear with a kilt of green-brown tartan. "Hey, Coraline. Hey, Maria. That is an awesome dress."
"Thank you, Lance," said Maria. She was secure in the certainty that the compliment didn't have any sarcasm (or, for that matter, comprehension of dressmaking or discreet fashion) behind it at all. "We're all here. What's next?"
"Photos!" came Charlie's eager cry from within the Pink Palace. "And if you'll give me a second to set up this damn camera, we'll get that over with soon as."
Wybie coughed, swinging his arms back and forth while several interminable moments passed. He looked round at Coraline, who met his gaze with a slight smile.
"You..." He racked his brain over for a turn of phrase that would stun doves with its sheer romanticness, and gave up. "You look great."
"That's my line," she said, reaching out with a finger to trace the curve of his jaw. She stopped when her fingertip hit a piece of red tissue paper, and then she clicked what was missing. "You shaved?"
"Badly," he conceded, flicking off the piece of tissue with some embarrassment. "I think I acquired no less than five scars during the process. But I'm reliably informed chicks dig men with scars, so I'm still okay sans the beard."
Coraline smiled again. "It's probably silly to say this now, but I didn't mind the beard."
"Oh. Permission to rewind to three hours ago then?"
A cough and a door creak interrupted them. Charlie and Mel stood in the doorway, Charlie holding a camera and looking at the four expectantly. Coraline raised the boutonnière and gave Wybie's corsage a look.
"Swap?" she asked.
The limo navigated the narrow Ashland streets in good time, making its way to the Gilded Heights Hotel, where the prom was just getting started.
Some ten stories of gleaming stone and glass rose from the high ground in the most affluent part of the town, done in gentle curves that accented the skyline. Golden lights shone from the ascending windows, striking against the dusk sky. A long carpet ran like a tongue from the building's glass-fronted lobby. The sounds of group laughter and chatting undercut with the steady beat of some unidentifiable music were already spilling out from the inside when the limo pulled to a stop.
There were other couples waiting outside, some of whom Coraline recognised, as well as a couple of local journalists documenting the occasion, one of them snapping away with a camera. The other couples turned their heads as the four emerged from the limo, shouting out greetings or simply nodding, depending on familiarity. There was a girl from Coraline's history class, Jasmin, chatting with her date. There was Robert and Sanford, two linemen from the school team who were as fond of football as they were of each other, and two of Wybie's nerd fellowship happy to stand silently hand-in-hand, and most of the others she knew by name at least. A geography teacher-as-chaperone standing to one side did their best to look nonchalant and vigilant at the same time.
One of the journalists saw the four as they extricated themselves from the limo and nudged the other, and the two diverted the camera's scope. Lance smiled and waved at them, and Coraline rolled her eyes.
"Chicago again," she muttered to Wybie, the scars on her cheek almost seeming to prickle as she did so. "They're not going to let that stop haunting us, are they?"
"Hey, it's not as bad as it used to be," he said. "Remember when they first let us out of hospital afterwards? You couldn't move without bludgeoning your way through a line of cameras and conspiracy theorists."
"I do remember your grandma punching a cameraman out cold when he pestered us in the garden."
Wybie grinned at the memory, as did Coraline, but to a lesser degree. She had hated the press attention after what had happened at Wells Street Station, and she didn't like being reminded of it. Especially not on this night.
A shadow swept past their right and she glanced around. Whatever was casting it, it was small, and it kept itself inside the deep shadow cast against the dark ground by a dumpster.
And as she peered closer, it craned its head around the metal side, regarded her with large blue eyes.
Coraline brightened, and nudged Wybie. "There he is. I haven't seen him since your birthday last year."
"Who?" Wybie turned, and his grin deepened. "Hey, cat. What have you been up to?"
The cat crept out of the shadow, keeping his gaze firmly on them. He wore his uncertain years well, as healthy as he'd ever been save for a little stiffness in his movement and a slight filminess to his eyes. He prowled forward deliberately, his entire form tense and wary.
Coraline's smile dipped, then slipped away entirely at the wary reception. She looked around: Maria was caught up in a conversation with Lance and Robert and Sanford. Everyone else's attention was otherwise diverted. She looked back down at the cat. "Something wrong?"
Wybie dropped down to one knee beside the cat. "You do remember it's us, don't you?"
The cat, after a brief moment trying to recall the appropriate human gesture, nodded. He looked at the Gilded Heights Hotel, back to them, and hissed and spat.
"What? The building's bad?" asked Wybie.
"Cat," began Coraline, apprehension insinuating its way down her spine, "Are you trying to warn us about something?"
The cat nodded, and hissed again for emphasis.
The cat paused, as if trying to think through his response, and stiffly raised one paw and drew it across in front of his eyes. He paused again, and shook his head. He hissed once more, and turned and padded off swiftly.
"What was that about? You think he was trying to warn us about something?" asked Wybie.
"What do we know about cats, Wybie? Yeah, he was. But about what?" said Coraline, staring after the vanishing cat.
Wybie took hold of her hand. "We've got a whole evening to find out, I guess."
"I … guess." Coraline shook her head, and turned for the lobby. But the encounter had left some small amount of unease in her head.
None of which she actually needed more of, thank you.
Inside the lobby, the furnishings of the hotel was clean and sparkling, with security staff and teachers waiting to check tickets and welcome couples.
Past that, inside the foyer, other attired couples had sought a brief breathing space, laughing and bickering in a relatively quiet spot.
And past that, inside the ballroom, the prom was just getting into full swing.
Lights strung along the walls and poring down from the ceiling accented the dark and lively atmosphere; the sound of chatter and arguments and the constant buzz of conversation almost, but not quite, outweighed the pulse of the music coming from the far of the room, where music equipment had been set up on a raised platform, and where a DJ was cheerfully bopping their head to some obscure beat from the nineties. Before them, in the room's centre, the dance floor was thick with dozens more couples, looping and swirling in the wide space, filling the room with wild and joyful energy. Around the edges and by the room's high pillars, dozens of couples mingled and took snacks and drank punch from the bowls laid out along long tables.
Despite the cat's warning, Coraline felt any concerns she might have felt about the night ebb away. They'd made it here in time, with all necessary persons and accoutrements, and the stressful part was over.
"Where were we to store this?" asked Maria, hefting her handbag, pausing briefly to unsnag it from a torso-sized bow on the bustle.
"The year pooled money for … Room Oh-Four, was it? Wybie," Coraline said, getting Wybie's attention via the application of an elbow. "Maria and I are just going to put out stuff away. You and Lance make sure each other doesn't get lost."
"That was my kidney. And don't worry about us. We'll get punch and keep each other entertained. Won't we, Lance?"
"There's lemon-lime," came Lance's enthused voice from over by the punch table. "And orange. And Shirley Temples."
"How could I resist that siren-song? Catch you in a moment," said Wybie, winking and moving off. Coraline and Maria left the ballroom with a minimal amount of shoving and emerged into one of the passages leading to the hotel's ground-floor rooms, the walls lined with tasteful decoration and paintings and the carpet soothingly plush underfoot.
"Room four," said Maria out loud, glancing up at the plagues by the doorframes. "We can do this. We can find a room. We can find what we're looking for. We're like Columbus."
"Not like Columbus, hopefully. He was trying to find Asia, and didn't. And it'll be the next one on the left," said Coraline as they passed room six.
"I stand corrected. We're like not-Columbus. More specifically, you're like not-Columbus," said Maria, opening the right door and letting them in. The room had been rented by the prom-going girls in their year as storage, and was already piled high with bags and coats. Thick gold curtains were drawn tight over the window, beyond which the sound of gently pattering rain came. On the wall opposite the window, past an oak wardrobe, a body-length mirror was suspended.
"Now that we're here, there's one problem that we have to solve," said Maria, depositing her own bag on the pile accumulating on the bed while Coraline placed her own by the side of the wardrobe next to the mirror. "Do you, by some miracle, have a spare dress and sundry items concealed in your bag?"
"Not last time I checked, no," said Coraline, turning to Maria and biting her lip as she scrutinised the dress.
"Then do you have any ideas how we could, ah … tone this down slightly? Are there any ribbons that look like they'll detach easily? And go back on easily as well. I don't want to return a damaged dress to Miss Spink and Forcible."
"There's nothing that seems like it'll just come off without damaging it," said Coraline hesitantly, stooping slightly as she pored it over. "These are sewn in pretty tightly, this bow looks like it holds the back together, and this … this is a Christmas bauble."
"In which case, do you have a cyanide pill or two? Or ten?"
"There's always something you forget, isn't there?" Coraline patted Maria's back. "It'll be alright. The usual faces'll get all the attention. If someone comes near, we can shove Wybie in front of you. We could say you were going to a fancy dress party and got a little lost along the way. Lance could start a fight somewhere else and everyone'll rush to see. We could set the stage on fire as a distraction."
"I like the suggestions. Some of them seem needlessly destructive though."
"What good's a friend if they don't propose needlessly destructive solutions on your behalf?" Coraline turned to the mirror, frowned, and then delved into her bag for a small eye shadow palette. "I'm just going to fix..."
The top of the mirror steamed over, and Coraline reflexively glanced upwards. Clear lines swiftly scored through the steam with the faint sound of scratching glass, forming letters stark and apparent against the obscured surface.
Payment in kind, murderer. Two demand another.
Coraline blinked and quickly stood back, and as soon as she'd done so the steam receded, leaving no trace of the writing.
"Are you okay?" said Maria, who had been near enough to see Coraline's alarm but not the writing in the mirror. Coraline didn't answer immediately, and rubbed one hand against her cheek as she felt the scars prickle again.
"Maria," she said quietly, keeping her eyes firmly upon the mirror, "Is anyone in the bathroom? Are there any hot taps running?"
"The doors ajar, there's no lights on, and there's no taps running," said Maria hesitantly, craning her head around to see where the room's bathroom fell a few inches short of meeting the entryway at a right angle. "Why?"
"Do me a favour," said Coraline. "Go there and run the hot faucets. Sink, shower, wherever you find them."
Maria paused, then did so while Coraline watched the mirror like a hawk. There came the sound of gurgling water, a brief moment of silence, a cut-off query of "Er...how do you work this showGAH!", and the sound of a running shower. After a few moments, steam from the bathroom trickled through to the main room and the edges of the mirror misted over. But look as she might, Coraline saw nothing of the writing.
"What was that about?" asked Maria, walking back through and rubbing a towel at her dripping sleeve. She wore an expression of mixed concern and bemusement.
"That was … proof that I may be going insane," said Coraline, suddenly shaking her head and turning away from the mirror.
"And that doesn't go without saying?" said Maria dryly.
"Oh, shush." Coraline stepped away from the mirror. "Come on. We probably shouldn't leave Wybie and Lance unattended."
They left the room shut behind them, and were only delayed by a few minutes when Maria remembered to run back and turn the taps off.
"...So there. Point proven beyond all possible refutation. Ha."
"No, it isn't. How could he move fast enough to pull it off?"
"Peak physical prowess and agility. You should know about that."
"Thanks, man. But top human quality still wouldn't hold up against..."
"Dare I even ask about this current conversation?" said Coraline, reappearing with Maria in the ballroom, homing in on where Wybie and Lance were deep in discussion, their voices raised to compensate for the dozens of other conversations all around.
"Since you ask," started Wybie, placing one hand on his chest as he turned to regard Coraline, "We are partaking of an aged and learned debate, layered with subtle meaning and conflicting interpretation. A matter contested by us, and by our fathers, and their fathers before them..."
"Whether Batman could beat Superman in a fight," supplied Lance helpfully. "Which he couldn't, by the way."
"My esteemed opponent summarises the debate's nature neatly, even if his conclusions are those also reached by quarter-witted lobotomy patients," said Wybie. "His entire argument rests on Superman blowing up Batman with eye-beams from orbit before the fight even starts."
"Which Batman couldn't defend against."
"Of course he could. He'd have the tech ready to block heat-vision if he wanted it. And he'd always have a plan ready in case of it. That's the point of his character. He's got a plan for everything."
"Not possible, man."
"Alright, let's look at the comic books. During the Yet Another Crisis run..."
Lance frowned. "They made comic books with the guys?"
"They...kind of did?"
"Oh. I thought Superman and Batman were just in the movies. I didn't know they made comic books to go along with them." Lance finished his glass of punch. "Sorry, man, I'm interrupting you. You were saying...?"
"...Maria, have Lance back for a sec. I … something … words." Wybie made for the punch table.
Lance looked at his retreating back, and then brightened. "I think I won the argument. Awesome." He turned back to Maria and brightened even more. "This music track's almost done. Want to go for the next dance?"
"We could try. I'm not sure how you dance in a bustle, though."
"...Hm. I'm not sure how to dance in a kilt either." Lance's expression dipped into contemplation, and then broke back into a guileless smile. "Hey, we can both learn as we go."
"It's good to do things as a pair," said Maria as she was led to the floor for the changing of the music, just before it dawned on her that as far as places to be inconspicuous went, a dance floor was a pretty abysmal choice.
The current music track ground it way to a belated halt and shifted to a new one, some track from the early noughties that Coraline half-recognised. Her smile grew mischievous, and she looked round at Wybie, breaking his outstretched hand away from the punch jug with a hand to his forearm.
"Lance and Maria are dancing. Shall we join them?"
"Ah." Wybie's careful expression shifted away entirely in favour of pensive worry. "I don't suppose I get a say in overriding that suggestion, do I?"
"Complicit in being a prom date is the fact that you have to dance whenever. Come on, it won't be too bad."
"You sure you don't want to ask later, when I'm more sleep-deprived? More amenable to suggestion?"
"Don't worry. I'll make sure the nasty dance floor doesn't try to bite you."
"I can't dance. I've got a doctor's note saying I've got two left feet. Whenever I try dancing, well-meaning bystanders try to put something soft under my head and call an ambulance. The President's authorised to use lethal force in the event of my attempting to dance. I can't dance. I can't help but note that you're dragging me there by my forearm."
The music shifted into full gear just as they found a space to themselves. Wybie glanced for a brief second to his left, where the DJ had dragooned the principal, Mr Sanchez, into going through the steps of the dance. He turned back to Coraline, who winked.
And then, for the next few minutes, there was much spinning and swaying of limbs and stepping backwards into other dancers, in which Wybie discovered that while Hollywood and its crafted expectations may be full of professional dancers, the school definitely wasn't, and that while his own movements were uncoordinated and unplanned and rough, Coraline's were as well, and so were half the rest of student body.
Once the music had reached its end, admitting that he had enjoyed himself would have felt like a betrayal of previously-held principles. So he just went with the flow for the second dance.
From her position, which was a position unseen by anyone else in the building, the intruder saw everything.
Past the flailing throng, there was one – the male, the boy grown into something with the size of two men and the motor control of half a man. A useful, but optional prize. And there – the girl who had sought help, at this moment apologising to another human couple whom she had knocked over with an energetic swing of her rainment, next to her own irrelevant partner.
And there – the liar and cheater and murderer. The human who had forgotten their place and dared to take the lives of her two blood-kin.
Ready for the taking, ready for all necessary vengeance – but not quite. First, terror to be sown. Then, isolation. Then, the knowledge of what her past deeds had bought her. And then, seizing, along with the other two if it could be managed. And then -
She controlled herself. She prepared for the first step, already assured of how she could do so. In the Sur-real, ties of blood had power, and interactions with humans had power, and in the old bones of this building, the two could be wielded by the intruder to satisfying effect.
She reached out.
"See?" said Coraline afterwards. "You were as crap as everyone else."
"That's almost encouragement, and I'll take it as such," said Wybie around some orange punch. "And if you wanted a third, I wouldn't necessarily say no on reflex."
"A third? Who are you and what have you done with Wybie, imposter?"
"Ye gods, it's over at last," said Maria wearily, appearing next to them. "I lost track of how many times I said the word 'sorry' in the last two minutes, but I don't think Fiona and Mickey thought it was enough."
"I did point out it wasn't your fault the bustle stuck out so far," said Lance.
"Which was both helpful and inadvertently gratifying of you, but they weren't satisfied."
"We could try again," said Lance. "This time, with something that doesn't involve as much spinning."
"Best to wait for when it's a little less crowded."
Coraline absently rubbed her cheek and turned to Wybie, holding out her hand.
"I'll take you up on that third dance. And remember, you can't say no on reflex anymore. You're now Wybie-Who-Dances."
"It's nice having an allotted role in life," he said, reaching to take her own hand, and then recoiling, his face contorting with concern. "Holy … there's, ah, red on your hand."
"What?" Coraline looked down at her hand, the fingers of which gleamed scarlet under the lights.
"Your face as well," said Maria, paling. "Your scars..."
Cold pain washed across her scarred cheek as Coraline reached up her hand to touch it. It came away sticky and crimson to the touch, blood coming out in a wash from the reopened lines.
A colder dread ran through her.
"Stay … stay here," she said, pulling away from the other three and holding her hand against the cheek. "I need to check on this."
"But..." started Wybie, too late to stop her as she sped to a run out of the room. She caught a few glances as she went, from couples and groups who would stop, stare briefly, and throw an ignored question in her direction.
"Dammit, dammit, dammit," said Wybie, spinning on his heel back to Maria and Lance just as Coraline vanished from the ballroom. "Lance, hold my punch. Maria, stay here and look out for anything … unusual. Like … Chicago unusual. I've got a bad feeling about this, and I'm going to see if she's alright."
"I'll come with you," said Maria, eyes narrowing at 'Chicago unusual'. "This needs..."
"No, please, just … hold the fort here. I'll be back pronto, just … dammit," he finished, turning on his heel again and accelerating.
Water splashed and fell red-tinged into the ivory-white sink, gurgling down the plug hole with the sound of a rushing void.
Coraline blew water droplets in a spray off the end of her nose, and looked up to face the mirror past a sopping blue fringe. The flow from her cheeks had receded almost as quickly as it had come, a scant trickle edging its way down. The door behind her was ajar by a thin margin. Leaving it open could have been awkward, leaving it closed could, for all she knew, prove lethal.
"The hell," she spat between grinding teeth, venom lacing the last word, "is going on."
A scratching came from the mirror. This time, it was frost that almost seemed to run across the mirror's interior, forming a white surface on which black letters scratched themselves out.
What is merely due, killer.
"How illuminating," snarled Coraline. "How about a new question? How about you tell me who you are."
Can you not guess? The fresh letters wiped away the previous line.
"Another beldam," said Coraline. "And god knows why I appear to have become the stalking target for every last one of you child-killing freaks, but if you don't leave, now, then I'll tear you to pieces. I swear to God." Anger and fear made her voice harsh and her mind blaze, lent bile to her words and elicited the most silent mocking laughter any mirror had no right to not-produce.
And there's my motivation. Another beldam, you say as though counting tally marks. Guess who I am.
Coraline stared with undisguised anger at the mirror, keeping silent.
Shall I put it in doggerel? Will that help? Dearest daughters had I two, though now have I none. Prey fled and metal fell, and had I one. Then fire raged, and one daughter died while children ran for the sun, and now … now inspiration fails me. But such should make it obvious.
Coraline stared at the mirror. Then she clasped her forehead with one hand and wearily drew the fingers down her face. "Christ's sake," she hissed under her breath. "I've wandered into Norse mythology. You're Grendel's freaking mother. Or the Beldam and the Czarina's mother, rather."
And there's the vaunted human intellect at work. And Lady Grendel was of another kin altogether, killer.
"I didn't even like the film," Coraline muttered into her hand. "The animation was weird. And it had some hack of a writer." She pulled herself back to more pressing matters. "And this is the part where you take revenge for the outcome of fights which your daughters forced on me?"
My daughters followed their rightful natures, and my daughters defended their homes, and my daughters died at your hand, and at those of your friends.
"Your daughters killed children, and they tried to do the same to us. Back. Off."
You would deny me the same vengeance you would find understandable in a human? The writing became more sharply defined, all but cutting into the glass itself. The eldest became an uncontrolled beast. The youngest tried to kill me and believed she'd succeeded. And that matters not. I loved them. The blood of one's family demands a response in kind.
Coraline held her silence, and backed away from the mirror, keeping her eyes firmly on it.
Silent? No defiance? Nothing to say? Too proud to plead? Not that it would avail you. I have longed for this night for every hour of every day of seven long years.
Why don't you return to your ball.
Find your friends.
Such as it will be.
Coraline edged out from the bathroom, just as the glass mirror suddenly erupted outwards in a storm of gleaming splinters, slashing into the few hanging towels and glancing off the white-tiled wall. Coraline jumped back from the doorway, avoiding the cutting glass as several shards flew into the main room.
She fumbled back, feeling for the edge of the bed and leaning on it, breathing heavily as the clattering died away and her own heartbeat steadied.
She thought of Wybie and Maria, still down in the ballroom and unaware of their peril, and of the other students, who would be even less prepared, and of the cold and controlled anger that had loomed behind the writing in the mirror. An anger capable of doing anything.
She glanced at the full-length mirror in the room, which stayed still and unblemished.
She pulled herself up, and sprinted as fast as her dress would let her for the door.
Wybie, after a few minutes, had come to two conclusions.
One, he didn't actually know where in the ground floor the girls had established their base of operations.
Two, he didn't actually know where he was in the ground floor for that matter.
It was therefore with no little surprise and some relief that the door he'd stopped beside to catch his breath suddenly flew open to admit Coraline moving at a charge.
"Coraline!" he called, rushing to fall into pace alongside her, "What's going on? Is there …?"
"It's another beldam! That's what the cat was trying to warn us about!" she said, speaking in a rush.
"Another one? Are … are we now magnets for them? Is that our new role in life?"
"It's the mother of my beldam and the Czarina. It's after us."
Wybie ran, thinking. Then, "We have to find Maria."
"And we have to get everyone else out of the building."
"In that order?"
They were nearly at the door leading into the ballroom, a older chaperone napping in a padded chair outside. "Fine. It doesn't sound like anything's been sprung yet..."
They rounded the corner through the doorway, back into the bustling ballroom, into a roomful of chatter and beating music, weaving their way through the crowd, skirting a pair of red-faced boys being escorted from the room by a chaperone with a confiscated bottle, followed by two furious dates, past Mr Sanchez catching a quiet conversation with with the vice-principal, towards two familiar figures standing where they'd been left.
"Maria," said Coraline, barely stopping to catch her breath. "It's a beldam. The mother of the two from Chicago. We've got to get everyone out of here."
"What's a beldam? What's the problem...?" started Lance, before Maria interjected, her expression hardening.
"Fire alarms. Once something starts, they'll get people out."
"Before something starts. Wybie, you go and..."
"Never fear," he said, moving off, "Wybie-Who-Dances-And-Starts-Alarms is on the case."
"That won't be enough," said Maria quietly. "Once they know it won't be a real alarm, they'll reopen the hotel and get on with the prom."
"I know, and the beldam'll probably try and use the others and hostages if we don't play along." Coraline looked around the room, biting her lip. "But if we get them out, then we can deal with her without anyone else getting hurt."
"Look, could you please tell me what's..." restarted Lance.
"After this next little number," whooped the DJ into a microphone over the conversation, "We'll be getting the lucky Prom King and Prom Queen up on the stage, Fiona Whittaker and Mickey Rickman! So, for that happy pair, let me play..."
The microphone warbled, hissed, and then fell apart in his hands, parts spilling from the plastic casing and onto the raised podium.
The DJ stopped and gave the fragments left in his hand a puzzled look, just as the rising ballad trembling from the sound system behind him gurgled, in a mess of spluttering metal and electricity. The female singer stuttered, dived down suddenly into a screaming, discordant G-major, and fell silent.
The prom-goers muttered, confused, and the DJ's expression fell into utter bewilderment.
More so when the largest, man-sized speaker directly at the back of the podium began to gently slide forwards. It stopped after three feet, and the crowd's murmuring reached fever-pitch. Some of them began edging forwards.
And then immediately leapt back when it was hurled to one side, smashing clear through one of the large windows by the side and tumbling in a pile of smashed pieces on the hotel's shadowed lawn. The DJ jumped right back off the podium, scrabbling backwards into the crowd.
Behind where the speaker had stood, a tall figure stood still on six metal legs, their upper body enveloped by a dark cloak and their head covered by a pilgrim-style hat, a shroud hiding all of the face upwards from a sharp-edged line of a mouth. An open door, barely knee-height for many of those present, was set into the wall behind them.
They took several careful steps forwards, foot-tips slicing shallow curves into the wooden flooring, while the prom as a whole stood still, unsure of whether or not this was some planned surprise. A few giggled nervously, others stepped back, and yet others met the creature's hidden thousand-yard stare with naked curiosity.
The creature lowered their gaze and scanned the crowd, their lips drawing all but imperceptibly, gleaming needle-teeth glinting past them.
"Coraline Jones," it said, in a smooth and motherly tone as the crowd stood stunned. "Will you kindly step forward?"
And at that very moment, Wybie found a glass case with 'In case of fire, break glass' inscribed on the front, and shattered it to the acclaim of an alarm.
The sound of a screeching alarm did what some monstrosity from a dark other world could not. It made the prom evacuate. People, acting on instincts that had been bewildered by the beldam, fled, directed by quickly acting security staff and chaperones calling out, with some futility, "Keep calm! Orderly lines, people! Orderly lines!"
Unseen amidst the churning crowd, Coraline pushed her way forward with a chair, Maria quickly following her and Lance following her in turn, his face a picture. Wybie grabbed for a fire extinguisher below the broken case and made his way after them.
The beldam waited, watching Coraline press her way forward, watching the wooden chair she brandished with a cool contempt. Her arms hung by her sides, the brim of her hat tilted down slightly.
She spread her arms open as the room emptied, inviting Coraline forward.
And before she could do so, Lance pushed past her.
"Now look," he started. "I don't know who you are, or … what you are for that matter, but you're not wanted. Clear out."
"Lance, for Christ's sake, get out and go with the others..." hissed an ignored Maria. The beldam regarded Lance blankly.
"You're irrelevant," she decided. "You may yet leave. In fact, you shall leave."
"Make me," said Lance, his eyes narrowing and his body shifting into a boxer's stance.
The beldam smiled, and Lance stepped forward.
Half a second later, a backhanded Lance was sent flying out through the same window from which the speaker had departed, bouncing and landing in a concussed heap next to scattered electrical components on the damp lawn.
"Lance!" screamed Maria. A distant groan came from the window.
"Maria," said Coraline, lowly and quickly, "Listen, please. Get me something, anything. Anything more than a chair. Anything you find. Go."
"Who shall come next?" said the beldam, resuming her open-armed pose, her gaze turning from Coraline to Wybie and Maria, the room now emptied. "Anyone? Or shall I step forward?"
Coraline rose the chair with both hands, holding it by the two bands of wood giving form to its back, and stepping forward into an overhead lunge. The beldam pulled backwards swiftly, and smirked as it shattered into spinning wooden fragments on the floor. Coraline leapt back, snapping the top stretcher as she pulled at the bands, grasping one in either hand.
"Again?" suggested the beldam. "For luck's sake?"
"In a few minutes, there'll be emergency services here," said Coraline, panting and shifting one foot forward, adjusting her grasp on the bands. "You'll have to run then."
"Shall I? But in any case, long before then, you will have vanished under mysterious circumstances," said the beldam. Her head turned, taking in the room again. Her voice purred with amusement as she noted Maria's sudden absence. "And it seems as though you're even being deserted..."
Coraline stepped in again, wood blurring in the air, as Wybie swept from the right, still holding the fire extinguisher and one hand scrabbling at the lever at the top. A golden claw lashed out and knocked aside the first band, and swung out at belly height, being smacked out of the way in turn by the upswing of the next band. The beldam hissed and sidestepped in a blur to her left, leaving Coraline wheeling and off-balance with the bands. A metal leg whipped out and tore at empty air, Coraline converting her stagger into motion away from the beldam.
The two turned to face each other anew, the beldam taut and still, Coraline breathing heavily and brandishing both bands for what deterrent they were worth.
"Come now," sneered the beldam. "I'm fighting for revenge. But you're fighting for your life. You can surely do better than..."
And Coraline lashed out again just as a solid spray of foam hammered into the beldam from behind, sending her keeling forwards and cursing in outrage just as the bands crashed into her upper body. Her frame was large, but light, and a sharp kick from Coraline sent her staggering backwards in turn.
Wybie lunged in closer, holding the fire extinguisher above his head with both hands and yelling wordlessly as he did so, and the beldam was ready to meet him. Stunned as she was, she still whirled around, one claw slicing an arc through the air, almost cutting him open as he stopped sharply and yelled in alarm. Her claw snared out and grabbed the trembling extinguisher, yanking it down sharply onto the top of his head. He wobbled on the spot, and she pulled the extinguisher free of his grasp, foam pulsing out where her claws dug into the metal. With one swift, brutal move, she cold-clocked him with his own weapon and he spun senseless to the ground. She dropped the extinguisher and wheeled in turn to deal with Coraline, sliding past and under the downswing from the bands, swinging one metal knee up into Coraline's midriff and sending her falling head-over-heels to the ground with a choked release of breath, sprawling face-down next to Wybie.
The beldam hissed with contempt at the two prone figures, stooping as she did so to retrieve her fallen hat from the floor. She shook her hair back and forth, shaking off foam from the thick and gleaming mass of silver-black. Her button eyes bored down down at them, her surprisingly human face alive with a bitter glee.
"Now my daughters will rest easy. Now they'll have justice," she hissed, as Wybie slowly reached one hand up to his head and Coraline fought to push herself up, trying to regain air with deep, rasping breaths.
Coraline slowly looked up. The beldam casually turned for the door in the wall, reaching out a hand for Coraline as she did so. She tried to find the energy to pull away...
...Just as there came a new, lower hiss from the broken window behind her, and the beldam turned.
And behind her, in the doorway from which everyone else had fled, Maria reappeared. In her hands, she held a fireaxe, the edge gleaming.
"This is not a Grimalkin matter," the beldam spat at the window. "Stay out of this."
The hiss rose to a feline yowl, and a black blur sprang over Coraline's head and at the beldam, who slashed at the cat as he swept past her, fast enough to only cut at empty air. He landed on his feet just as Coraline forced herself to her own. The cat steadied himself and turned to face the beldam, blue eyes blazing, claws extended and digging into the floor.
The beldam stared at him, and then almost double-taked as she caught sight of Maria, standing with an upraised axe.
Over her shoulder, Coraline made eye contact with Maria, nodded expectantly, and raised her hands.
Maria hurled the axe like a shot-putter, the beldam's gaze swerving to the axe as it flew overhead, Coraline leaping up and grabbing it by the long handle.
The cat took this as his cue to dash forward, sprinting under and through the beldam's legs and slashing out with his claws as he did so. She screeched and stabbed at him, leg-tips flaying splinters from the ground.
But no sooner had she been distracted by him then Coraline charged forward, axe angled forward. The beldam turned to meet her, claws flying out and being deflected in a zig-zag blur of wood and gold and red-plated steel. The beldam drew back and Coraline stepped back as well, getting some breathing space and shifting the axe into a two-handed hold, the haft bottom pressed into her left shoulder.
As she breathed and held the position, she saw the beldam's shoulders, and the marbles set there. Eight smoke-filled marble.
Eight children, too easily ensnared, taken without thought, taken with the calculating malice of a predator, taken from their families, eight ghosts locked away without light and hope for decade upon decade, until they forgot their own names...
The pain in her lower body and her laboured breathing ceased to be relevant. Red crept in along the edges of her vision, as Wybie rose unheeded behind her.
"So," said Coraline, nodding at the souls, speaking with her steadiest and calmest voice, "Whose children were they?"
"You vile brat, what are you talking about..."
In the same moment, the cat once again pounced in at ankle height, claws gashing into the soft gold of the beldam's legs and sending her off-guard, and Wybie hurled the fire extinguisher in, still trailing foam and smashing into the beldam's chest, staggering her.
Coraline hurled herself forward, axe burning a silver-red arc into the air as she extended it down in a diagonal slash into the beldam's centre of mass. The beldam screeched in rage as it fell, and swept out with one last, desperate attack, claws jabbing at Coraline's throat. Too slowly.
This time, the overhead lunge didn't hit the floor. At least, not initially.
It was an hour or so later.
The complexity of necessary explanations had been diminished by the crumbling and fading away of the beldam's body, but not by too much. The presence of something that seemed like blood but was too dark to belong to anything found in nature remained a mystery to Mr Sanchez. As did the comatose Lance on the hotel's side lawn, the smashed speaker and window, the circling gouges in the floor, the cat that stalked about the place with a self-satisfied air, and the evasive answers given by three students who had been, if not exactly model students, nowhere near troublemakers.
Coraline and Wybie had slipped away to the hotel's back garden as other distractions had begun to compete for Mr Sanchez and the hotel management's attention, not least of which were some baffled firemen, the two journalists from earlier, and the apparently exploded mirror in the girl's room which, per rules, had to cleared away before anyone could retrieve their stuff. Maria had excused herself to make sure Lance was okay, although by her last account, among his words upon regaining some semblance of consciousness were "I'd be a cruddy quarterback if that could have taken me out."
In the garden, under the cool night, you had to strain to hear the distant raised voices.
"Look on the bright side," said Wybie, holding a liberated ice pack against the side of his head, "We certainly got a special prom night. Once again, nothing's trying to kill us. I got an ice pack gratis. And an interesting story to tell our grandchildren when they're not yet too cool to pay attention to old people. I might have to tell Mr Bobinski that his good luck charm's defective."
"And I got to play with axes," said Coraline. The cat lay beside her on the stone step, snoring gently as she scratched her hand down through his soft fur. Her bag, hanging by its strap from her shoulder, was heavier to the tune of eight souls, waiting to be placed under her pillow that night. "Though I noticed you did drop a few things during the fight."
"Yep. They fell out your pockets. Here."
She extended a closed hand and dropped the items into Wybie own open hand. He glanced down at them. Two quarters, the coiled eye-charm, his grandma's spare house key. And a condom in its package.
Coraline tried not to laugh at the expression on his face, but failed miserably.
"If it makes you feel any better, I'm inclined to take it as a compliment," she said, patting his closed-tight hand. "Come on. We're living in a modern and enlightened and liberated world. You don't have to blush."
"Can if I want to."
She laughed and looked out once again at the garden under night. A wide paved path ran down from the stairs on which they sat, framed by dark and gently rusting poplar trees. Crickets chirped in branches and from shaded bushes, the scant silhouettes of birds brushing through the dusk. The wind raised soft sounds from all across the garden, through the tall grass and thickly-leaved branches, over the rippling surface of the pond at the centre.
It was tranquil, and it was obviously in dire need of some sudden human involvement.
"As memory serves," said Coraline, drumming her fingers on the stone, "I'm still owed a third dance."
Wybie remained silent, and then pulled away the ice pack and placed it on the stone step. "Wybie-Who-Dances will haunt me for some time, won't it?"
Coraline smiled and extended a hand. "Hardly. Only for this next number."
He grinned, and took her hand in return.
And all things considered, there were worse times, and worse places, and worse contexts, in which to dance the night away.
I never went to my school's prom. But I've been assured that this sort of thing happens all the time.
I'd like to thank anyone who read this far. And in addition, I'd like to deliver especial thanks to Model Builder, another writer on this site and an ex-prom-goer himself, who was able to fill me in on the details and stop this story being any more unrealistic than it turned out.
Until next time.
-Marquis Carabas, signing off.