By Barbara A. Barnett
Reason #1: Wrong Demographic
This is not a horror story. Because horror stories, Heather would tell me, are about dumb horny teenagers. If they are about middle-aged people, those people are parents with a child to protect. Or perhaps they’re a brilliant but arrogant scientist whose creation ends up biting them in the ass.
This story, though, is about a childless forty-something (me), surrounded by other forty-somethings, some of whom are dumb and horny, and some of whom are parents, but their children are safely elsewhere.
None of these people, I assure you, are brilliant scientists. The one girl from our class who is—something involving the neurobiology of trauma—was too smart to come.
This is a high school reunion, you see. Class of 1994. So, okay, kind of horrifying.
This one’s being held in the high school gym, not at a nice catering hall like the previous reunions I didn’t attend. The gym smells like feet, but worse is the cheesy yearbook display at the sign-in table. Yearbooks creep me out. All those disembodied heads forced neatly into squares, the rest of their awkward teenage bodies lopped off as if they never existed.
Heather has no photo.
The display also includes a big posterboard to sign: “Yearbook Messages to Our Past Selves.” Most people have written regrets. Should have paid more attention in class. Should have asked out my crush.
Matt Cox shoves past a guy he used to give wedgies to, like he’s still the villain in a John Hughes movie, and scrawls, Should have partied harder.
Should have been nicer to the weird kids is what that walking cliché should have written. All that adolescent bullshit I thought I was over comes surging back, squeezing my chest until my lungs burn even though I took the pills that are supposed to prevent the panic attacks.
“All that pain,” my therapist told me, “you need to give it a place to live that’s not inside your body.”
Except I learned how to do that a long time ago, when all I had was a sticker-plastered diary to talk to instead of a therapist. But she seems to know what she’s talking about so I took her advice and came here tonight even though I’d sworn I would never attend one of these things. I try the breathing exercise she taught me. I exhale the pain, so heavy that I’d swear it’s tangible. Then I grab a marker and write on the posterboard, “Wish you were here, Heather.”
I stare one more time at the yearbook display. The people in these photos are all normal boring adults now, and therefore not part of a horror story, so there’s no reason to worry later when I find a severed head in the bathroom.
Reason #2: The Monsters Are Not Monsters
This is not a horror story. Because in a horror story, the things that terrify me would be literal monsters. They wouldn’t be the Karen kind of monster.
“Oh my god, Amandaaaaaa! You look amaaaaaazing!”
It’s hard to believe those words no matter how many times I hear them tonight. No matter how much I want to believe them. No matter how much I pretend I never craved such approval when I was young and awkward instead of middle-aged and awkward.
This particular Karen-monster probably doesn’t remember how she and her Karen-monster friends used to tape tissues to my locker in middle school. Because clearly I stuffed my bra. Because clearly a girl our age couldn’t have boobs that big. Because clearly I wasn’t self-conscious enough already.
Heather was the one who defended me back then, because unlike me, she was strong and had no shits to give. I never would have dared to grab some glue from the art room and slap those tissues onto the back of the Karen-monster’s cashmere sweater.
Earlier tonight, the Karen-monster hugged me like we’ve never been anything but the bestest of friends. She also sloshed a martini down her dress while her husband, star quarterback turned balding realtor, searched the room as if he was looking for her dignity.
I offered the Karen-monster a tissue to wipe up the martini. The irony was lost on her. She cried and thanked me and told me I was the best. It wasn’t even five minutes later when I overheard her snort-guffawing to another Karen-monster about my outdated taste in footwear.
The only thing scarier than a Karen-monster is the number of drinks that particular one continued to down. It’s for the best that someone finally cut her off.
I should probably mention that it’s her head in the bathroom.
Reason #3: The Authorities Shouldn’t Believe You
This is not a horror story. Because Jesse Hanson’s a cop now, and he definitely believes me about the head, because he’s staring right at it.
Before I decided to show him the head, though, he was assaulting me with all the requisite reunion questions back in the gym.
Married? Kids? Having fun?
The answer to each was no, but I don’t think Jesse was really listening to my answers. Too many “I can’t get over how great you look” interjections. A far cry from the way he used to call me “Amandurrrrr” or “She’s A Man, Duh!” back in high school.
I didn’t tell him I was taking him to see a head, so the fact that he screamed is understandable. I only told him there was something in the bathroom I wanted to show him. He clearly had a very different interpretation of what that meant, because despite being married, his hands were all over me the second we stepped inside. But it didn’t take long for him to notice the coppery blood scent mixed in with the lingering hints of urine and weed.
Now that he’s seen the Karen-monster’s head in the sink, that unpleasant misunderstanding about why we’re here is out of the way.
“You knew this was here and didn’t say anything!?”
His voice gets irritatingly high-pitched when he’s scared. It’s a good thing he lives in the kind of town where the worst thing the cops have to deal with is breaking up parties full of underage drinkers like he used to be.
I explain to him how I found the head. The women’s room closest to the gym was full of Karen-monsters, so I came here instead to do my breathing exercise and avert another panic attack. Karen-monsters don’t know about the all-gender restroom by the auditorium’s backstage entrance, though it was called the unisex back in the day so that’s how I think of it still. Only theater kids and stoners ever came down this hallway when we were in school.
“What kind of fucking freak doesn’t call the cops?” Jesse says.
“You are the cops,” I remind him as he fumbles his phone from his pocket.
He glances at the head, makes a noise like he’s going to puke, then runs from the bathroom. Just leaves me here. With a Karen-monster. Well, part of a Karen-monster. Such chivalry.
I follow him into the hall just in time to see Heather rip his head off with her bare hands.
If this was a horror story, I’d be worried that she’s a lot stronger than she used to be.
Reason #4: This Guy Didn’t Die First
This is not a horror story. Because in the white-washed horror stories me and my classmates grew up with, the Black guy dies first, and Troy is very much alive.
Troy is someone I don’t mind catching up with. We were in band together. Trombone player, but I don’t hold that against him.
We’re laughing about the Haunted Hallway, when the band seniors would turn the hall outside the music room into a haunted house for the underclassmen to pass through. Our senior year, we made it look like Troy had gotten impaled on his trombone slide.
That memory makes me think of Jesse’s head sitting in the sink next to the Karen-monster’s. I’m not sure where Heather put their bodies. I couldn’t watch because the way she lapped up the blood was gross.
Now I’m staring at that yearbook display again and thinking of all those pages and pages of decapitated heads without bodies. And I must have said something about that out loud, because Troy is giving me exactly the kind of wary side eye you’d expect to get for a comment like that.
“Sorry,” I mumble. “Still the weird kid all these years later.”
“Weird is better than boring.” The side eye vanishes, and the conversation turns to other things, like how much we hated gym class. “Remember that time you nailed Jesse Hanson in the nuts with a soccer ball?”
“That was Heather.”
Troy scrunches his face. “I don’t remember a Heather. She was our year?”
I laugh, but it’s forced. “Ignore me, I’m just being weird again.”
The side eye is back. That’s the thing about creatures you manifest out of thin air—they can vanish right back into it, leaving you the credit for that little bit of revenge they just took on your behalf.
I’m glad this isn’t a horror story. If it was, Troy would die next because I’ve said too much. But Troy has to work in the morning, so he cuts out early and misses the worst of it.
Reason #5: The Sins of the Past Aren’t So Bad
This is not a horror story. Because in horror stories, there’s often some deep-seated trauma or past wrong that resurfaces in appropriately karmic ways. But we’re at a high school reunion, and the worst thing that happened to me wasn’t in high school. It was at work. It was the reason I started seeing that therapist.
I came here ready for the “what do you do for a living?” question. I’m the orchestra manager for a major symphony orchestra, which is supposed to be impressive except none of my classmates know what an orchestra manager does and they don’t understand why I’m not playing my flute with the orchestra instead. I guess that would be cooler now that I’m not a band geek. So rather than revenge-by-accomplishment, I’m explaining why I’m not a good enough musician to be the cooler thing. That gets awkward fast, and so people abandon it for an awkward they’re more familiar with.
It would be even more awkward if I told them about what happened in the conductor’s dressing room that one night. Heather wasn’t there to defend me because I didn’t think I needed her anymore.
She’s here now, though, assuring me this has nothing to do with a horror story. She’s just trying to make sure I don’t get hurt again.
Reason #6: I’m a Terrible Final Girl
This is not a horror story. Because in horror stories, the Final Girl wants to stop the killer. Instead I created her.
Heather’s a wish. A wish I make every time I breathe out my pain. I wish I had glued tissues to the Karen-monster’s sweater. I wish I had kicked that soccer ball at Jesse. I wish I was strong enough to defend myself.
Sometimes, wishes come true. Even the bad ones we don’t really mean. Sometimes this big hulking girl you drew in your diary one day, this girl who’s somehow as beautiful as she is hideous, steps off the page and into reality and finally does something about that rage you created her with.
I gave my pain a place to live outside my body, but I don’t think this is what my therapist meant.
Right now I wish I hadn’t come here, but Heather’s fixated on that moment when I looked at the yearbook display and thought of severed heads. That moment when teenage-me shoved adult-me out of the way and I felt the kind of vulnerable I swore I’d never be again.
If I was a Final Girl, I’d try to take my wish back. Try to uncreate Heather. But Matt Cox has come over to say hello. He reeks of pot and privilege, and the scent sparks a memory of how the worst thing that ever happened to me actually happened sooner, senior year in the unisex by the auditorium.
I tell Matt there’s something in the bathroom I want to show him.
This is a horror story.