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    Their expedition party had returned triumphant from a trick-or-treating mission that had possibly gone too well. After the seventh neighborhood, Mrs. Seelbaugh had asked with a look of amusement if everyone wanted to keep going, and received a resounding and determined affirmative. When they’d completed the eighth and ninth, and each of them had a second bag of candy that was beginning to fill—the boys were using spare pillowcases— they’d all continued to push on despite their aching feet.

   I… think I might sit this one out, Tabitha had reluctantly said before their final planned neighborhood on the route. To her surprise, both of her teenage friends and all four of the cousins agreed with enthusiasm and relief. It had been an absurdly successful night, the amount of candy each of them had collected was ridiculous, and everyone seemed more than satisfied with their haul. With everyone unanimously deciding to skip their eleventh area, Mrs. Seelbaugh had instead steered them in the silvery minivan back towards the trailer at Sunset Estates. Once again, the trailer was crowded and bustling with people, more than Tabitha ever remembered seeing inside all at once.

    “Tabby—can I talk to you for a second?” Elena asked, regarding Tabitha with a solemn expression. “Privately?”

    “Is… something wrong?” Tabitha said carefully, feeling her mouth go dry. Is she asking about the future already? Did Alicia say something, or did I let something slip? “Here, let’s head into my room.”

    “Alicia—can you watch the boys for a little bit?” Elena asked.

    The request revealed a lot about Elena to Tabitha. Though the night was ostensibly over and they were back in the trailer with all of the adults, Elena never relinquished her unspoken mantle of responsibility to any of the parents present. She’d decided that the teenage girls were going to remain in charge of the four younger cousins at all times, was set on affirming this hierarchy, and seemed to take their duties very seriously.

    “Yeah, sure,” Alicia smiled. “Boys. No one’s had any candy yet—right?”

    “No,” they obediently replied. Over the course of the night they’d become well-trained and were getting pretty good at synchronizing their responses. Joshua’s no was an eager one, because he thought they were about to get permission to start gorging themselves. Nick’s no sounded a little sullen and frustrated, while Aiden’s was chipper, like he was proud to have not broken a rule this time. Sam’s no was curious, and he was carefully appraising Alicia from across his open bags of candy.

    “Alright,” Alicia grinned. “It’s a good thing you didn’t, because it’s time to see which one of you won. Everyone—start counting your loot!”

    “This way,” Tabitha said with a wry smile, leading Elena down the hallway to her tiny room. I thought I was really good at managing the cousins, but ‘Lena and ‘Licia are teaching me a lot. It’s... actually a little scary how good they are at this.

    Tabitha’s bedroom was small, very small, a simple box measuring nine feet along her bare walls in one direction and seven feet in the other, which featured little else but a small window with curtains. She kept her decor rather bare and minimalistic to help provide the illusion that the bedroom wasn’t quite as cramped as it actually was, with furnishings likewise extremely spartan. All of the odds and ends of her now incredibly distant-seeming prior childhood had been carefully packed into boxes and stacked in the shed. Oddly enough, Tabitha’s room had no closet at all— the previous owners of the mobile home had removed it to give the adjacent bathroom a little more space during a remodel. All of her clothing that didn’t fit in her battered vintage dresser was hanging up in the back of her parent’s closet.

    Watching Elena evaluate her living space with an interested look around had Tabitha feeling more anxious than she’d ever imagined, and so she awkwardly sat down on the neatly-made bed to await her friend’s verdict. She’d left her bag of candy on the kitchen counter, but was still hugging the Flounder pillow against herself.

    “Needs more kitten posters,” Elena judged, shooting her a teasing look.

    “Yeah,” Tabitha said with a nervous smile. “I’ll… work on that.”

    “Good,” Elena nodded, sitting down on the other side of the bed. “I’m kidding, it’s fine. Okay, um. First of all; how are you feeling?”

    “Better,” Tabitha answered with a wince. “...And also worse.”

    “Why worse?” Elena asked. Her tall blonde friend seemed a little too composed, and Tabitha began to suspect that Elena had been planning and preparing for the different ways this conversation might go.

    “I feel… out of place,” Tabitha said with caution, watching Elena for any clue as to what this talk was about.

    “Out of place because you missed school this week?” Elena pressed. “Or, out of place in a... general, social way?”

    “...Both, really,” Tabitha swallowed uneasily.

    “Okay. That’s perfectly normal,” Elena reassured her. Tabitha could practically hear Mrs. Seelbaugh’s kind and patient voice within Elena’s. “But, I want us to do something about that.”

    “Something?” Tabitha echoed.

    “Matthew’s Halloween party is tomorrow,” Elena reminded her. “We were all invited, and I want you to go.”

    “Okay,” Tabitha inwardly let out a sigh of relief. “I thought that was a bad idea. Because Erica might be there.”

    “I know I said we shouldn’t go if she was going to be there, but… I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Are you willing to hear me out?”

    “...I’m listening.”

    “I really like Matthew,” Elena said. “Just to be like, completely clear and totally transparent about my... priorities and ulterior motives.”

   Elena doesn’t really sound like a teenage girl at all either, Tabitha mused. But, she’s so much better at making it all still sound natural. Her words and mannerisms come off as just being picked up from her parents. In a really strong way. How can I make it start to seem like that when I’m in my… PROPER DICTION mindset?

    “So… I want to go, no matter what,” Elena continued. “But, you going or not is... the big topic. Everyone at school thinks you’ll be there.”

    “You’re kidding,” Tabitha felt herself go pale.

    “Both Erica Taylor and Clarissa Dole are gonna be at the party,” Elena revealed. “Clarissa privately approached Matthew and asked if she could go, because people think you’ll be there and she wants to apologize to you. She legit didn’t know what she was getting into with all of this, I think, and will switch to your side in an instant if it means you can put in a good word. So that she doesn’t have to repeat a year.”

   “Sides?” Tabitha made a face. “I really don’t think—”

    “There are sides to this, whether you like it or not,” Elena insisted. “You’re one of them. The Taylor girls—well, Erica’s pretty much the other, right now. It’s pretty much confirmed that she’s gonna be there, and Matthew’s mom is kinda-sorta okay with it—to ‘give her a chance to apologize in person.’ No one actually thinks that’s gonna happen, though. Erica apparently shrugs things off whenever people ask her about it, but word from Carrie is that she’s still completely trash-talking you, and that actually it’s gotten way worse. Way worse.”

    “Then, I definitely don’t go,” Tabitha blinked. “...Right?”

    “I really want you to go,” Elena repeated. “You’ll literally never have these kind of advantages in a confrontation like, ever again. Matthew and his parents are both on your side, so right off the bat that’s like having a home-ground advantage. I’ll be there with you, right by your side the whole time. Alicia and Casey will both be there with us—together, they pretty much represent the Art Club people. You’re like, the poster girl of the whole club right now, ‘cause that print of you is literally hung up by the board like a poster, and Mr. Peterson is totally in your corner. All the teachers are, really. It’s bitchy popular girls versus everyone with common sense, at this point.”

    “Um,” Tabitha blanched. “Is it… wrong, or cowardly or something, to admit that I just don’t want any kind of confrontation, period?”

    “No, it’s not,” Elena put a hand on Tabitha’s shoulder. “I mean that. But, I mean, also if there ever is a confrontation—and there probably will be—this is your best shot ever. Like, the terms’ll never be as… favorable? You know what I mean? I really think you need to go. If you go, that makes a statement, and people are going to take it a certain way. If you don’t go, but Erica does, then everyone’ll make these certain... assumptions? Think you’re hiding, or have a guilty conscience, or that you’re afraid of her. Or afraid of the truth. She can spin things however she wants, if you don’t go.”

    “That doesn’t seem very fair,” Tabitha frowned.

    “I know,” Elena gave her a helpless shrug. “I’m just saying. I really want you to go, Tabitha—I think it’s in your best interests to go, and... I’ll hope that you trust my judgement on that.”

    “Okay,” Tabitha said after a moment of consideration. “I do trust you. We’re friends, right?”

    “Friends!” Elena promised, lighting up at the word and clasping Tabitha’s hand. “Thank you. You’ll really go?”

    “I’ll go. But, you don’t say ‘thank you,’” Tabitha chuckled, thinking back to her prior conversation with Alicia. “You say; ‘definitely. We’re friends.’”

    “Definitely!” Elena affirmed. “We are friends. The party’s going to be amazing, and we’re all gonna be there with you. Everything’s gonna be fine, no matter what Erica tries to pull. There’s nothing she can even pull, really. It’s a costume party, and we’re all already set there. Oh—uhhh, we should probably talk about this, too. How do you actually feel about Matthew?”

    “He’s cute. I like him,” Tabitha revealed, fidgeting with her cast for a moment. “But, I don’t like him, like him. No… um, conflict of interests, there. He’s all yours?”

    “Cool,” Elena let out a sigh of relief. “I mean—it’s totally cool either way, it wouldn’t be a problem. Just... I do get competitive, and I don’t want things to get weird between us right now. Did Alicia talk to you about dating, who you’re interested in?”

    “Um,” Tabitha remembered the awkward earlier talk. “Kinda? I don’t think I’m ready, not for a long while. Years, maybe?”

    “Okay. That’s perfectly fine too,” Elena said, again in that way Tabitha couldn’t help but think was in imitation of Mrs. Seelbaugh. “Just, there’s been freshman guys at school... expressing interest, and we weren’t sure if we should vet them or not. Or, if you’re even coming back soon. Are you coming back soon?”

    “I don’t know, right now,” Tabitha admitted honestly. “I think… it’ll depend on how things go at the big hearing thingie, this coming Monday.”

    “Okay,” Elena nodded again. “Is that gonna be like, at the courthouse or something? Can anyone go and watch? I want to be there with you. Alicia, too.”

    “I think they’re normally held at the district office,” Tabitha racked her brain for what she remembered from her experiences working in Springton Town Hall. “This one sounds like it involves a lot more people though, so… they’ll meet in one of the local school cafeterias in the evening on Monday. Either Springton Middle, or Springton High—probably Springton High. They might use the auditorium instead, maybe. I’m not sure. I can ask?”

    “If we’re allowed to go, we want to be there with you,” Elena said in a determined voice.

    “I really appreciate that,” Tabitha said honestly, feeling as if a slight weight was disappearing from her shoulders. “I mean it. Um—actually. I just had a random thought—are you going to be dressed as a cat again for the Halloween party?”

    “I… was, yeah,” Elena looked down at her outfit. “Is it actually too lame?”

    “This might be weird, or super awkward or something— but, we’re definitely friends, right?” Tabitha said, sliding off the bed and pulling open one of the drawers of her dresser. “Can I give you one of my blouses, as a—a friendship thing? I mean, it’s—”

    “We’re definitely friends!” Elena affirmed, her blue eyes lighting up at the prospect. “I was trying to think up a way to steal one anyways—uhh, because that’s what friends do!”

    Tabitha carefully lifted a neatly folded pile of shirts—mostly tees or workout clothes—and pulled out a blouse she’d had hidden beneath the pile. It unfolded itself as she held it up, a long-sleeved black affair with rather intricate lace.

    “What the fuck,” Elena mouthed in surprise, accepting it from her friend and holding it up for a better look. “You never wore this one to school. Tabby—this is sexy!”

    “Yeah... that’s actually the reason I don’t think I can wear it, ever,” Tabitha said in a weak voice. “It’s just not me. It was part of a dress that was really, really beautiful, but I don’t like layering it with anything else I have, and… um. I’m not comfortable showing cleavage, yet. At all.”

    “Can I try it on real quick?” Elena asked. “Yeah, cleavage is hard to get used to— Mom and I’ve been over that a lot. We clipped out these two different magazine article guides on it, they’re up beside my mirror at home. My comfort zone goes as far as showing two inches, right now—and that’s like, only even a recent thing. Don’t ever feel pressured to show off more than you’re okay with. Damn, are you sure about this, though? Tabby, this is a really nice top.”

    “Try it on, please,” Tabitha nodded. “If it fits, I want you to have it. I’m glad we made it, but it wasn’t ever really me. It’d be really cool if it works with your cat costume.”

    “I think it will,” Elena stepped in front of the mirror and held the slinky garment up in front of herself. “Probably? Tabitha—thank you so much, this is amazing.”

    Slipping out of the bedroom and closing the door to give Elena privacy to change, Tabitha walked back down the hallway towards the living room with a faint smile. It was silly, but it felt good giving Elena the black blouse, like there would be a bit of visible solidarity between the three girls in wearing them. Would it be super weird if we all wore them to school on the same day, or… just together sometime, so we could get a picture of us all looking fancy?

    The living room was still a madhouse of activity—both of her parents and Grandma Laurie were at the table with Mrs. Brooks and Mrs. Seelbaugh, while Alicia and the boys had pushed aside the coffee table and were crowded together in front of the TV amongst their heaping piles of candy.

    “Everything okay, Sweetie?” Mr. Moore called over.

    “Uh-huh,” Tabitha nodded. “Who ended up having the most candy?”

    “I did,” Grandma Laurie joked. “All of the boys candy is goin’ right to me.”

    “Is not!” Joshua took the bait, sounding horrified.

    “No way,” Sam protested, hunching protectively over his loot.

    “I won—I had the most,” Aiden boasted proudly. “By thirty-two pieces. Way ahead of Sam.”

    “Good job, Aiden,” Tabitha praised, feeling a little surprised. Isn’t a thirty-two piece lead several handfuls of candy? They all went to the same doors! “How do you feel about sharing with your brothers?”

    Their side of the room went quiet, and each of the cousins—still with ridiculous smudged South Park eyes drawn across their entire faces—regarded each other with narrowed eyes.

    “You’re all a team,” Tabitha explained, grabbing her own bulging bag of candy off of the counter. “You’re my team. If all four of you boys put your candy together in one big pile, for all of you to share together… I’ll add my haul in with yours. I really don’t want any candy for myself.”

    “Tabs—it’s Halloween,” Alicia protested, pulling three lollipops at once out of her mouth so that she could speak clearly. “You’re not allowed to have no candy. You have to have at least something. It’s the law.”

    “That is the law, I’m afraid,” Grandma Laurie agreed with a smile. “Rules are rules!”

    “It’s a Kentucky state statute, I believe,” Mrs. Seelbaugh joined in with a wink.

    “We’ll do it,” Sam said with conviction, already pushing and shoving his rather enormous pile of candy across the carpet into the middle. All at once the other three cousins began nudging and tossing their piles to join the heap.

    “You say, ‘we accept your proposal,’” Alicia directed. “But Tabitha—you do have to have a piece. At least one, c’mon.”

    “We accept your proposal,” the four cousins said in a chipper chorus, marveling at how humongous the pile of Halloween candy had become when gathered into a single mound.

    “I’m... trying not to eat too much sugar,” Tabitha protested weakly, looking around at all of the expectant faces.

    “It’s Halloween,” Mr. Moore said. “I’m sorry, Sweetie—but, the law is what it is.”

   I don’t think I’ve had any candy in… what, years? Tabitha thought to herself, reluctantly peeking inside the heavy bag. Since well before the stomach ulcers…

    With no small amount of bashful excitement, she picked out the best thing she spotted— the bright orange wrapper of a pair of large Reeses peanut butter cups, and then passed the rest of her candy to the nearby Joshua. He gleefully poured it out in a rush atop their collected pile, and all four boys marvelled at the sheer size of the thing. It was enormous, almost a foot and a half high and with a large, spread-out base made up of hundreds upon hundreds of different colors of wrapped treats.

    “Look at that, you’re all gonna get diabetes,” Grandma Laurie sighed, getting up out of her chair. “Well come on, then, boys. Gather ‘round behind it for a picture.”

    “What’d you pick?” Mrs. Seelbaugh asked, sending Tabitha a curious look.

    “Reeses,” Tabitha said. “Um. Mom, if I have one of these cups... would you want the other one?”

    “Aww, Tabitha,” Mrs. Moore looked moved. “I’d love that!”

    “Are those tears I see, Shannon?” Mrs. Seelbaugh teased.

    “It’s true,” Mrs. Moore theatrically wiped away some moisture with her fingertips. “I really do just love Reeses that much.”

    “Uh-huh,” Mr. Moore rolled his eyes.

    Tabitha had just begun to tear open the orange packaging when Elena stepped out of her room and pranced down the hallway with an enormous smile. She was still wearing the cat-eared headband, and unlike the boys had managed to keep her face-paint from smudging—but, the black blouse she was wearing now looked incredible, and when replacing her previous long-sleeved shirt it added a certain elegance to her entire look. It was low-cut enough to show cleavage, but on Elena’s taller figure it seemed to work. The lines of what had once been a rather sexy party dress were embroidered with a lace pattern, which continued across the mesh of her shoulders and back where the garment was mostly see-through.

    “Well—what do you think?” Elena asked, stepping out and giving a twirl to show it off.

   “Ooh la la,” Mrs. Brooks laughed. “It’s lovely—is this another one of Tabitha’s?”

    “I helped a little with that one!” Grandma Laurie called over.

    “She did more than help—she did most of the work,” Tabitha corrected with a smile. “I was the one who only helped a little bit.”

    “I like it, it looks great,” Mrs. Moore decided. “Daring, but not distasteful. It looks good on you, Miss Elena.”

    “Thank you!” Elena beamed, turning to Alicia and the boys. “What do you think?”

    “It looks really good,” Sam said politely, trying not so stare.

    “It’s cool!” Nick offered.

    “Cool,” Joshua agreed.

    “Me-ow,” Alicia growled, playfully clawing at the air in an Austin Powers imitation.

    “It’s... alright,” Aiden tried to sound unimpressed, but his eyes had gone a little too wide at the sight of her. “I guess.”

    “Oooh, Aiden’s got the hots for Elena?!” Alicia blurted out in mock-surprise. “My, how scandalous!”

    “I do not!”

    “Aiden and Elena, sittin’ in a tree!” Joshua sung. “K-I-S-S-I-N—”

    “Oh, shush,” Elena rolled her eyes.

    “It does show a lot of neck, though…” Mrs. Seelbaugh leaned forward with a thoughtful look. “I think you need a necklace to go with it—or, maybe a matching choker?”

    “A cat collar, with a little bell!” Alicia proposed. “Maybe we can find one that fits?”

    “Ooh, kitty collar, that’s a really good idea,” Elena said with an appreciative nod. “I think I have a thin little belt at home that could work if I cut it shorter—then, just slip on a jingle bell, I guess?”

    “Sure, that’ll work. But… c’mon, Elena,” Alicia smirked. “Don’t keep us in suspense. Did Tabs say yes, or did she say no?”

    “She said yes,” Elena smiled.

    “To the big sleepover tonight—or to the big party tomorrow?” Mrs. Seelbaugh asked for clarification.

    ...Was everyone here in on this?! Tabitha couldn’t help but give them incredulous looks.

    “Oh, right!” Elena seemed to remember, twisting to face Tabitha. “Would you want to—”

    “Yes!” Tabitha grinned, carefully sliding out one of the peanut butter cups into her good palm— it was awkward holding anything with her left hand trapped in a cast—and passing it to her mother. “Please—can we?”

    “Yes, pleeeaase!” The four cousins called out, instead of saying cheeeese from where they were posing for a picture huddled together—and almost obscured behind—the gigantic pile of candy.

    “Good, good,” Mrs. Brooks said with a pleased nod. “We hoped you’d say yes—we went and hid Alicia’s sleeping bag and things right outside the door there.”

    “Cool!” Joshua said. “We can pillow-fight.”

    “Hah, well—I don’t think any of you boys are invited,” Grandma Laurie laughed. She took the first picture with a flash of light, and then stooped down lower for one with an even better angle. “I think it’s a girls only slumber party.”

    “Yeah—no icky boys allowed!” Alicia teased, wrinkling her nose at the nearby Aiden.

    “I’m not icky,” Aiden protested.

    “You’re a little icky,” Alicia compromised.

    “Whose idea was it, to have slumber party?” Tabitha asked in bewilderment, looking from Elena to Alicia.

    To her surprise, both of her friends turned their grins towards the table of adults, and from there Mrs. Brooks and Mrs. Seelbaugh turned to pointedly look over at—

    “...Mom?” Tabitha felt absolutely stunned.

    “Happy Halloween, Sweetie,” Mrs. Moore said quietly, and there was a sparkle she’d never seen before in her eye as she took a bite of her peanut butter cup.

    “Happy Halloween, Mom,” Tabitha said, feeling her eyes betray her and tear up again— they’d been doing that too damned often, lately. “Happy Halloween, everyone.”

    “Happy Halloween, Honey,” her father said softly.

    “Happy Halloween!” Grandma Laurie exclaimed.

    Tabitha slowly—tentatively—unwrapped her own Reeses cup and put it to her lips. When she bit into it, experiencing the sweet flavor of chocolate and the rich peanut butter, she let out a small noise of appreciation. It should have been a guilty pleasure… but it didn’t feel like one, not anymore. Instead, it was the most delicious-tasting thing she’d ever had in either of her lives, and as she took a spot on the floor next to Alicia to sit down, tears rolled down her cheeks.

    “Wow,” Mrs. Seelbaugh remarked with a wry smile. “Look at you two—you Moore ladies sure do love Reeses, huh?”

    “Really?” Elena said, crouching down to open up her bag of candy. “They’re alright. Actually, if you’ll trade a Snickers for each—wait, Tabitha! What happ—why are you crying?!”


    “These are really nice houses out here,” Elena observed in an awed tone.

    “They really are, aren’t they?” Mrs. Seelbaugh sighed, glancing over at her daughter situated in the passenger seat of the minivan, and then at Tabitha and Alicia sitting in the back. “How’d you like to live in one of these someday, girls?”

   “I wish,” Tabitha chuckled with a small sigh.

    Seeing how large and expensive these lakehouses were was a lot more intimidating than she’d prepared herself for. Tabitha had already been a little uncomfortable having Elena over for the night—she knew the Seelbaughs were more affluent than her family, and by more than just a degree or two. When all three teenage girls had been packed into her tiny bedroom for the impromptu slumber party, she couldn’t help but keep apologizing for the cramped accommodations. They were friends, and they attended the same school together, but the stark difference in social class was an embarrassment difficult for Tabitha to shake.

    All things considered, Tabitha thought of it as more of a sleepover than a proper slumber party, because it had already been getting pretty late by the time the group returned from trick-or-treating. The girls wound up chatting in the darkness for almost an hour before all falling asleep, mostly just discussing the tense situation at school that followed all of the suspensions. Elena had a finger on the pulse of the Springton student drama, and had been dying to regale Tabitha with all of the stories—Alicia binged her way through her bag of candy while making an occasional clarification or inserting a snarky remark.

   It absolutely makes me want us to have a REAL slumber party, Tabitha thought, watching the scenery roll by outside her window with a wistful expression. Having fun with friends is… beyond amazing. I’d gladly trade my entire previous life for a few hours with them, just giggling over stupid stories in the dark like dumb girls.

    The Williams’ Halloween party was a fair distance outside of Springton, in an area sequestered away from commercial districts and busy intersections by miles and miles of forested hills. Even after the lake itself became visible through the trees, it was a fifteen-minute drive skirting around it towards their destination. Each of the lots they passed were enormous, sprawling things with long driveways, featuring opulent structures that didn’t quite register to Tabitha as houses—these were estates, or possibly even mansions—often complete with their own luxurious-looking boathouses built out onto the water.

    “I will live someplace like this, someday,” Elena decided, smiling out the window.

    “Not me,” Alicia laughed. “No way. Too far out from everything. This is where like, horror movies take place. Slashers, y’know?”

    “Well, you are having a party on the lake, and it is Halloween,” Mrs. Seelbaugh teased, playfully imitating the iconic horror movie sound cue from Friday the Thirteenth. “Ch ch ch, ka ka ka…”

    Alicia and Elena broke into a fit of giggles that was so contagious Tabitha couldn’t help but laugh along with them. As someone only recently in possession of a mother she was on friendly terms with, Tabitha found the relationship between Elena and Mrs. Seelbaugh endlessly fascinating.

   Will Mom and I ever be like this? It seems… possible. Things between us have already deviated so much from the original timeline that it’s like the story’s completely jumped into a different genre.

    “It’s after the real Halloween, technically. So, I think we’re safe,” Elena chuckled, twisting in her seat to check on her two friends. “Hey, Tabby—you okay?”

    “I’m… yeah. Okay, but also a little nervous,” Tabitha admitted, unable to keep from smiling at seeing the elaborate cat makeup once again turned her way.

    “Ladies—I think this is it!” Mrs. Seelbaugh announced.

    The silvery minivan slowed to a stop at a rustic wooden mailbox with a bundle of Halloween balloons twisting in the wind, and then pulled into a long hedge-lined driveway. The Williams family seemed wealthy even in comparison to the other houses in the area, and Tabitha’s discomfort continued to rise.

    “Guys… holy cow,” Alicia muttered in awe.

    The house itself was enormous, a multiple-story affair with a three-car garage connected as a wing to the lower level. A half-dozen other cars were already parked in a large gravel parking area for the party, boxed in on the opposite side by a shed the size of a small barn. An extravagant split-level porch wrapped around the lakehouse itself, with an upper-level veranda and then broad stairs down to the ground-level porch, which connected to a covered walkway that led all the way out to the lake. Their docks stretched out dozens of yards into the water, where a large pontoon boat was nestled into a berth beneath a roofed enclosure.

    “Well, when you get a place like this, Elena... I’m movin’ in with you,” Mrs. Seelbaugh told her daughter.

    “Of course,” Elena snorted. “You can babysit the kids while I gallivant around Europe with my rich husband.”

    “Deal!” Mrs. Seelbaugh grinned. “Alright, girls, have fun! Alicia, take lots of pictures. I’ll be back by to pick you all up at midnight, so try not to fall in the lake or anything.”

    “You’re not staying for the party?” Alicia asked, surprised.

    “Of course not,” Mrs. Seelbaugh said with a gentle smile. “Elena needs to be able to let her hair down, spread her wings, and party with people her own age! Without having to worry about having her boring old mother being there and seeing everything she gets up to.”

    “You are the coolest Mom,” Alicia said with wide eyes.

   “Pffft,” Elena blew a raspberry. “She’s lying, it’s totally backwards—Dad’s taking her to an actual adult Halloween party with skimpy costumes and lots of alcohol, and they don’t want me there spoiling their fun.”

    “Well, yeah,” Mrs. Seelbaugh’s eyes twinkled. “That too.”

    “You are the coolest Mom ever,” Alicia remarked.

    “Alright, ladies, get out of here,” Mrs. Seelbaugh shooed them away with a gesture. “Go on, get! Kiss lots of boys, break lots of hearts.”

    “Thanks, Mom,” Elena said, opening her door and hopping out.

    “Thanks, Mrs. Elena’s Mom!” Alicia chimed in. “You too!”

    “Don’t tell her that!” Elena protested.

    “Thank you for driving us all the way out here,” Tabitha said with a nervous smile. “And for taking us around everywhere trick-or-treating yesterday.”

    “Anytime, anytime,” Mrs. Seelbaugh reached over to pat her shoulder. “Hey. You’ll be fine. Just go and have a great time.”

    “I’ll try,” Tabitha promised, sliding out after Alicia and carefully closing the door behind her.

    The three girls hesitated outside together, staring up at the big lakehouse as Mrs. Seelbaugh waved and then backed out down the driveway. There were a lot of cars present, but it seemed like everyone was inside for the party. They’d just started walking towards the large front entrance when a pair of french doors on the second-story veranda opened and a small figure scampered out to welcome them.

    “Hello to Tabitha!” Hannah squeaked out, just barely lurching to a stop at the edge of the porch and beckoning them forward. “C’mon, this way, this way! Everyone’s up here. Ugh, okay I’ll show you.”

    “Hello to Hannah!” Tabitha called out in return, letting out a small breath of relief at seeing a familiar face.

    Hannah Macintire was just as impossibly adorable as Tabitha remembered, but now the little girl was dressed in a pink and blue Mulan Halloween costume, tied at the waist with a bright red sash. The seven-year-old carelessly bunched up the hem of the faux-feudal Chinese dress in tiny fists so she could plod down the steps.

    “Say hello to Hannah,” Tabitha shared a smile with her friends.

    “Hello there!” Elena called out. “Happy Halloween.”

    “Hello to Hannah,” Alicia waved.

    “Hi, and hi,” Hannah greeted, giving both of them a perfunct nod before staring at Tabitha. “You got a cast.”

    “I do have a cast,” Tabitha said, awkwardly switching the Flounder pillow to her good hand so that she could show off the blue cast to Hannah. “You can sign your name on it later, if anyone here has a marker.”

    “I’ll ask Aunt Karen!” Hannah’s cute cheeks lit up in a bright smile. “I’m in first grade, I can already write my name.”

    “First grade at Springton Elementary?” Tabitha gave her a thoughtful look. “Actually, do you know a Joshua Moore? He’s one of my cousins.”

    “Ummm… I dunno? Joshua?” Hannah hopped off the porch, and then jumped right back up onto it in alarm. “Whoops—I’m not allowed to go off of the porch without shoes. See?”

    Hannah lifted up her dress to show them her bare feet.

    “...I can see that,” Tabitha remarked. “You don’t want to step on anything, or get splinters!”

    “I’ve already got splinters before,” Hannah scoffed. “They’re no big deal. I even got stung by a bee before.”

    “Well, this is Elena, and this is Alicia,” Tabitha introduced her friends as they all stepped up to join her on the porch. “They’re friends of both Matthew and I.”

    “Hi,” Hannah said again.

    “I hate bees!” Alicia said with a chipper smile. “They’re the worst, and they should all die.”

   “Alicia!” Elena scolded, slapping the girl’s arm.

    “I used to think they were cool, but now I hate bees too,” Hannah nodded with understanding. Seeming to bond in the kind of immediate friendship that only a mutual hatred of bees can produce, the cute seven-year-old grabbed Alicia’s costume-gloved hand and began to lead them all up the stairs.

    “This way, this way! Anyways, I’m Mulan. Tabitha is Ariel from the Little Mermaid, she’s a black cat, and… what are you supposed to be? A Ghostbuster?”

    “I’m from Star Wars!” Alicia explained, looking crestfallen.

    “Ew, Star Wars,” Hannah teased, making a face. “Matthew likes Star Wars. I think it’s dumb, though.”

    “Star Wars isn’t dumb!” Alicia cried out in mock-indignation, pulling her hand out of Hannah’s little grasp. “Everyone loves Star Wars! There’s statistics that even prove it!”

    “I love your dress, Hannah,” Elena remarked, swatting Alicia on the shoulder. “I really liked Mulan.”

    “Thanks!” Hannah said. “You’re really pretty.”

    “Um—thank you,” Elena laughed.

    Entering through the set of french doors, they found themselves in an enormous living room with high ceilings and skylights that faced toward the lake. The carpet was plush, a fireplace was lit, and row upon row of family photos seemed to decorate every wall. A large, somewhat antiquated tube TV built into a wooden cabinet was playing The Nightmare Before Christmas.

    Aside from the familiar face of Casey standing nearby to watch the movie—wearing a decidedly unfamiliar white bridal gown—there was only a single other lone teenage girl, seated on one of the three couches. Several adults could be seen chatting in the nearby kitchen, but otherwise there was only the telltale sound of a ping-pong game going on somewhere nearby and occasional interspersed voices in the distance. The Halloween party seemed surprisingly empty.

    “I’m gonna bug Aunt Karen for a marker so I can sign your cast—don’t go anywhere!” Hannah called, bunching up her Mulan dress again so that she could dash over into the kitchen.

    “Oh, hey guys!” Casey waved. “You’re early! Pretty much only the youth group’s here so far. We all came over right after second service. The guys’re all downstairs in the rec room.”

    “Which church?” Elena asked with interest.

    “Springton United Methodist,” Casey said. “Wow, you guys look awesome!”

    “Aww. My parents are Presbyterian,” Elena pouted. “Not enough kids for a youth group, though.”

    “First United Methodist Church, but over in Fairfield,” Alicia said. “I think we just have Youth Choir, hah. Not my thing.”

    “Oh my gosh, Matthew’s gonna die when he sees you, ‘Licia,” Casey exclaimed, marveling at Alicia’s rebel pilot costume. “We’re both real into Star Wars. Both of us have Shadows of the Empire for Nintendo 64. They’re actually making an X-wing flying game for 64 this Christmas, called Rogue Squadron! Did you buy this outfit?”

    “Made everything but the helmet!” Alicia said with pride. “And the lightsaber, I guess.”

    Incredibly relieved that the conversation had turned in a different direction before anyone thought to ask her what church her family attended, Tabitha sidled over to stand behind one of the couches and idly watched as the familiar scenes of the stop-motion Tim Burton classic played out.

   My parents both SEEM religious, so it’s hard to call them Godless heathens, but… they definitely never took me to church. Maybe that’s something I should ask them about? Even with the miracle or whatever it is that’s happened to send me back in time, I don’t think I have any strong beliefs one way or another. Getting them involved in some sort of community—Mom especially—might actually help a lot, though. Why didn’t I ever think of it?

    “There’s a Darth Vader downstairs playing ping pong with all of them, but he’s just got one of the lame-o store bought cheap costumes,” Casey laughed, turning to see Tabitha and Elena. “I mean, you both look great, too! You’re like, spot-on for Ariel, and Elena—I just love your blouse! I’m guessing Alicia did your facepaint?”

    “Thank you, and yes,” Elena grinned. “Let me guess: you’re a run-away bride?”

    “Yep, you got it!” Casey said with a mischievous laugh, plucking at a number-emblazoned runner’s bib that was safety-pinned overtop the wedding dress. “Got me Nikes on and everything! My Mom ran a marathon in Lexington, this was her tag thingie-ma-bob.”

    “Cool!” Elena nodded. “I actually ran a 5K with my mom, once. Tabitha jogs in the mornings, I was thinking about really getting into it so I can run with her.”

    “You guys thinking about joining the track team?” Casey asked. “One of the dudes in my Geometry class just—”

    “—Tabitha? Tabitha Moore?” The lone teenage girl who’d been seated on the couch watching the movie jumped to her feet in surprise. She was wearing a very brief dress in surprisingly loud colors made out to resemble the British flag, and her face looked vaguely familiar—but with her strawberry-blonde hair teased out for whatever Halloween costume she wearing, Tabitha couldn’t quite place where she’d met her before.

    “I took your notebook,” the teen blurted out, staring at Tabitha with wide eyes. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t even know you, but everyone was saying things and I believed them but I shouldn’t have. Please don’t hate me—I’m so, so sorry. I mean it. I didn’t know anything about how things with you really were, I just—”

    “Clarissa?” Tabitha guessed, examining the erstwhile classmate.

    “Yeah. I didn’t even think you’d know who I was,” Clarissa paled. “We—we never even talked. Tabitha—I’m so, so sorry.”

    “Um,” Tabitha said, reigning in a brief surge of emotions. “Is it okay if we all sit here with you?”

    “Okay,” Clarissa readily agreed. “I really am sorry, though— I mean it.”

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A note from FortySixtyFour

   2020's off to a rough start. My girlfriend broke up with me between Christmas and New Years, and while I should be over it by now, we were together just shy of seven years. Disentangling your life from someone who was a close part of it for that long is... tough.

   Working hard to not let it affect my writing. This wasn't much of a chapter though, and it wasn't really meant to be read on it's own, so... I'm posting Chapter 25: The Big Halloween Bash tomorrow, on February 2nd.

   If you guys feel like cheering me up, any feedback or comments you can leave would be greatly appreciated. Voting link for those who feel like helping our position on the Top Web Fiction list, and please leave ratings or reviews here on Royal Road if you enjoy the fiction. I'm setting a personal goal of getting our 4.69 RR score up to 4.70 by May of this year.


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FortySixtyFour

Bio: Avid reader, reluctant writer.

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