By college, I thought I understood the rules. I thought I knew the laws instilled upon me. And in a moment of desperation, I thought I knew how to play the system.
But I was very, very wrong.
At age 20, I went to a party.
It was my junior year of college and I was struggling to fit in. People who didn’t know me looked at my deformed hand with disgust and morbid fascination, wanting to know how I lost a thumb and two fingers but not wanting to ask. They noticed my glass eyes with scrunched up noses and ill hid stares. I could see the questions form in their minds even as they bit their tongues, giving me tight lipped smiles. It didn’t help that I wouldn’t stay out long after dark and that I never drank or smoked. It’s hard to make friends when you’re afraid of everything and everyone. When you’re so damaged. So utterly broken.
I watched my freshman and sophomore roommates melt into the social stew of college, of sex and alcohol and drama, while I stood at the sidelines. No, not stood. As I hid behind bushes along the sidelines, praying no one would see me. By junior year, I lived in a small dorm room by myself where I’d eat every meal, only leaving to go to class and church.
And then I met Hayley.
Mom had always told me that sitting in the front row made you get better grades. I don’t know how founded that piece of advice was, but I listened to it all throughout high school and college. But my alarm didn’t go off that morning and I was running late. I normally get to Organic Chemistry ten to fifteen minutes early. The class was a common requirement taught by two professors: Professor Goldwick in the spring and Professor Martin in the fall. Professor Goldwick was in his late seventies and thought the 19th amendment was a temporary fluke. He was a boring asshole, but he was a tenured one. Professor Martin was younger, prettier, and actually competent at her job. Which meant that Organic Chemistry in the fall was always full beyond capacity. She was smart enough, and considerate enough, to hold extra lab classes for the spillover, but there was still only one lecture a week.
But the time I arrived, there was standing room only. I groaned as I picked my way towards the back where there was room. I sat down heavily on an empty step, frustrated with the morning’s events. I began to skim through my notes from last week when someone sat down beside me. I looked up and was faced with the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She smiled warmly at me.
“Running late?” She asked, her voice low and smooth.
I nodded dumbly, not saying a word.
She smiled. “Yeah, I normally see you sit at the front.” She pointed to my normal seat and I blushed. She giggled slightly, “sorry, that came off as creepy. I’ve just…” She paused to think, “I’ve just noticed you.” She watched my face, waiting for a response. I swallowed and gave her a half hearted smile in return before looking back down at my notes.
A hand appeared between my face and the page. “I’m Hayley.” She said. I looked up and took her hand.
I saw the question form on her forehead as she tried to register what was wrong with the handshake. What was wrong with me. Her gaze shifted down and hesitated on the large white scar over my missing fingers, but her eyes quickly lifted back to my face and she gave me a small but genuine smile.
“It’s nice to meet you, Taylor.” She said as I turned to face the front of the room. My ears burned with heat and I blushed deeper. Miguel once told me that my ears grew bright red when I was horny. I know he told me that with affection but it horrified me. Like a public boner. I didn’t like my feelings being transparent.
Professor Martin began the lecture and I tried to forget about Hayley. Tried to ignore her presence beside me. The room was so crowded and she was so close. The slim space between us vibrated with electricity and the sounds of the professor’s words grew in and out of focus.
Class ended and Hayley and I began to pack our bags as students trickled out of the room. “Any fun plans for today?” She asked, picking up her pen and notebook. I paused and looked at her. She was watching me, waiting for me to respond.
“Uh, no. Not really.” I said honestly.
She smiled. “Wanna go get something to eat at the shack with me?” She tilted her head slightly with the question and my heart stopped. It was the same way Jackie used to look at me. My breath caught in my throat and I coughed awkwardly, looking around the room.
What would a normal person say? I thought, but it was too late. I was already being weird. I stood and sped out of the room without saying a word.
She called after me, her voice faltering with confusion. “Oh, uh… see you next time!”
I could think of nothing but her for the rest of the week, looking forward to Organic Chemistry as if it were Christmas. Even though I hated straying from my routines, I walked past the still empty front row and waited there in the back of the classroom, hoping she’d sit by me again. And, to my surprise, she did. She smiled and said hi before sitting down beside me. This became our new tradition every Thursday morning. She’d make small talk and at first it was mostly one sided, but slowly I was able to warm up to her. We talked about our majors, what dorm we lived in. Small things. And then one morning Hayley asked me to get a bite after class and I agreed.
We were eating chicken tenders at the shack, a fried food place on campus, when she started excitedly discussing Halloween. Only two days away, it made sense. It’s what normal people talked about. I swallowed hard, my chicken getting caught painfully in my suddenly dry throat. A little pit in my stomach began to grow.
“Are you going to Pi Kappa Alpha’s Halloween party Saturday?” Hayley asked, her eyes large and filled with childlike excitement.
The pit grew hot in my gut. “Uh… I wasn’t going to.”
She smiled at me and my knees literally went weak. “Would you like to come with me?”
The pit fell as if it were an anvil in an old cartoon. I could feel it fall down, deep into the earth and far away from me. And with it, the world. I was in a dark place. A place of shadows and the shadows were speaking. Some were calling to me and some screaming at me. Beckoning me to come, telling me to leave. Green figures with thin sharp teeth asked me to play.
There was a pressure on my shoulder and I realized it was Hayley’s hand. She was looking at me, her eyes filled with concern. I had stopped breathing. Humming filled my brain as I inhaled. My heart was racing, thumping against my chest as if it were trying to get out. I looked at Hayley and she was smiling at me. I exhaled with a sigh, the sensations falling from my body like a too tight coat. Her smile was like a life preserver, giving me something to focus on. Something to bring me back.
I heard a voice, distant and far off. “I’d love to.” It said. I didn’t think it was my voice at first. I knew I would’ve never agreed. But it was my voice and that’s what it said. It betrayed me.
Hayley wrote her number down on a piece of paper and handed it to me. “See you there.”
I knew the consequences of Halloween. I knew it was a mistake. I had intended to text her that I couldn’t make it. That I was sick. But then my thoughts would fill with Hayley’s smile and I’d find myself somewhere else. Somewhere without worry or fear. And so, filled with an optimism and hope I hadn’t had in years, I didn’t text her to cancel. Instead, I skipped class to try and think of a way to save the night. A way to avoid the wrath of Halloween.
The aisles of the store were practically empty, a ghost town on the night before Halloween. I scanned the remnants of the costumes for something useable. A nurse, a pirate, a nun. I hesitated at the last costume, but images of evil nuns and priests made me move on quickly. I was about to give up on finding a costume that was Halloween-proof when something white caught my eye. It was hiding, three plastic costume bags deep on the metal arm, no longer sorted into any particular order. I pushed aside a bag with a man in a devil’s costume on the front.
“Perfect.” I said, smiling at the costume that lay beneath.
Already drunk kids filled the frat house’s front yard as I approached. My phone buzzed in my hand with Hayley’s newest text message:
Out front. See you soon.
I looked up and immediately spotted her. She was dressed in a torn pale gown that flowed out around her. Her skin was painted grey with heavy black shadows under her eyes. Around her neck was a loose rope, tied in a noose. Her eyes lit up as she spotted me and she jogged over to where I stood. She wrapped her arms around me and kissed me lightly on the cheek. I blushed as she fell away, leaving her hand on my shoulder, her body still close to mine.
“Hey.” She said as she smiled up at me. I had several inches on her and seeing those big brown eyes look up into mine sent shivers through me.
We stared at each other for several seconds before I looked her up and down. “And what are you supposed to be?”
She stepped back and spun for me. “A witch!” She laughed.
I returned the laughter. “Oh, I get it. Like from the Salem witch trials. Uh… You don’t think that’s… in bad taste?”
She shrugged. “Maybe. But don’t you think witches are probably already offended by commercialized pointy hats?”
I sighed, “I guess.”
“Besides,” she said, pushing my shoulder back playfully, “I could say the same thing about you!”
I looked down at my own white gown, careful not to let my halo fall from my head in the process. “What’s wrong with my costume?”
“You don’t think Christians would be offended by you dressing up as an angel?”
I rolled my eyes. “As a Christian, I don’t find it offensive.”
She raised an eyebrow, “and how do you know I’m not a witch?” She pulled at my gown and looked up at my coyly. “As someone who worships Satan, I find your costume very offensive.”
Hayley turned and lead me into the house, now pulsing with loud music and party-goers.
The party was actually really fun. Despite drunk jocks and more slutty bees than you’d think was necessary, I enjoyed watching Hayley’s face open with excitement as she introduced me to her friends. My face and skin burned pleasantly with the first alcohol I had drank since middle school.
We left on the early side.
“It’s her first college party.” Hayley slurred as she very un-delicately stroked my face. “We don’t want to overwhelm her!”
Hayley’s friend Paul, dressed as a pokemon character I didn’t recognize, rolled his eyes at me. “Yes, Taylor seems very delicate. It’s a good thing she has you to take care of her.”
She smiled at him coyly as she pulled me into her in a faux gesture of protection. Paul winked at me and I blushed, thankful that the room we were in was dimly lit.
Hayley fell into me as she stepped off the house’s front steps and I wrapped my arm around her to steady her. She had been excitedly babbling about her dreams of going to veterinary school since we said good-bye to Paul, her words unnecessarily loud and sloppy, interrupted here and there with small violent hiccups. I patiently let her talk, relishing learning more about her.
“Wait,” she slurred, pausing and pointing at the woods beside the street. “I know a shortcut.”
I looked at the densely packed trees. “Maybe we should stick to the road.”
“No, trust me.” She said, her breath reeking of alcohol. “I take this path all the time to get to my dorm.”
“Come on, not tonight.” I said, trying to lead her away.
She giggled as she slipped from my grasp and ran into the woods.
“Hayley!” I called, but she was gone. I jogged in after her. I could hear her footsteps, loud through the dry autumn leaves. She hiccuped and giggled. I ran forward, following the sounds. And then they stopped.
My steps slowed. “Hayley?” I asked tentatively. I stopped for a second, listening for any sign of her, but the woods were silent. I began walking again, the forest tall and dark and quiet around me.
“Boo!” Hayley said as she jumped out from behind a tree.
I screamed in surprise. “Jesus Christ!” I cried, my breath hitching as I laughed in relief. “Fuck, you scared me.” My breathing calmed and my laughing turned into giggles. Hayley was looking at me intently, her smile lopsided from drink.
And then she leaned forward and kissed me. The world faded as she pushed her soft lips into mine. She pressed her body against me and electricity shot through my skin. I remember she smelled like vanilla, despite the cloud of alcohol that hung around her.
Hayley pulled away. I opened my eyes, slowly as if just waking from a deep sleep. She smiled again and laughed before whispering, “catch me if you want another kiss.” And she was off.
It took me a few seconds before I registered what she had said and I ran after her, again following the noises of her feet through the forest. And just like last time, the sounds soon stopped. I began to walk, excitement filling my lower abdomen as I eagerly waited for her to jump out again and kiss me. The thought sent tingles up my spine and back down to my inner thighs. This time, I’d kiss her deeper, taste her. This time, I’d pull her into me and never let her go.
A snapping of a stick brought me back to the present and I paused, “Hayley?”
Another stick broke, a thicker one from the sound. It was coming from above me. I looked up. The dark woods were still. I searched the branches for her. Movement caught my eye and I saw something on a thick branch several feet above my head. There wasn’t much light from the moon, but I thought I could make out shoes.
Two feet stood motionless above me.
“Hayley, is that you? What the fuck are you doing?”
One of the feet moved forward hesitantly, as if testing the still night air, before stepping forward. I went to reach my hands out to grab her but she was in front of me so quickly. I hadn’t had a chance to move. In just a second Hayley’s eyes in line with mine. And then there was another snap, louder than before. It sounded wet, much wetter than a stick. A splintering noise that I still hear in my nightmares.
Hayley spasmed in front of me and I stepped back in surprise. The noose was around her neck, but it was no longer loose. It pressed up and into her throat. Her head was bent at a wrong angle and I could see her bones pressing into her skin where her spine had broken. Her big brown eyes bulged and her mouth was open, exposing a bloated tongue.
We weren’t that deep into the woods and students walking past soon heard my screams. They found me hugging Hayley’s lifeless form, pulling at the tight noose around her neck with my two fingers.
It was ruled a suicide.
Sometimes I think if I hadn’t blindly grabbed her, if I had actually used my bad hand to hold her and my good hand to free her, she would’ve survived. But I know it was too late.
Since that night, I have never wavered from my strict no Halloween policy. My husband Chris has been incredibly understanding. He knows about Hayley and the story I told everyone about what happened to my hand. To my eye. He thinks I have Halloween PTSD, which I guess is true. The nasty coincidences. So many horrible events on the same night, years apart. It’s understandable why I’d hate the holiday. Anyone would.
Our son, Zack, has never dressed up. He’s never gone to a Halloween party nor has he even gone trick or treating. I’ll admit, it hasn’t been easy. The other parents don’t understand. They assume I’m a religious nut. But I have to protect myself, and I have to protect Chris and Zack. I’m still plagued by the memories of Hayley’s face, her eyes bulging from their sockets. I look at my beautiful, wonderful family and I’m reminded that Hayley will never have one.
Zack turned five this year and it’s beginning to get even harder to keep him from celebrating. But I thought I had been strict enough, that I had stressed to Chris how sensitive the situation was. I thought he realized that Halloween was forbidden for a reason, even if he didn’t know what it was.
But he caved. He took Zack to a Halloween store without my knowledge and bought him a costume. I came home to my beautiful baby boy squealing with delight as he showed me what he was going to be for Halloween.
Zack’s dressing up as a black cat tonight.
I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.