I have what my mom calls “two shoes syndrome.” I’m pretty sure she made up the name, but it fits me a little too well. Basically, whenever something good happens, I brace myself for the other shoe to drop.
And for good reason, I should add. So far, it’s always been pretty spot on. The week I won the school’s Spelling Bee in sixth grade was also the week I got my first B. Thanks to hours of prepping and studying hundreds of words (that I had printed and color-coded on flashcards based on root origins), I didn’t have much time to work on my book report. When we moved into a great new house, in the same upscale neighborhood as all my friends in ninth, I broke my ankle falling down the stairs and ended up in crutches for the first three months of high school. So, I’d say expecting the worst to come with the best is a valid mindset, based on real-world experience.
But this time, things are going to be different. I have all my assignments arranged in my planner, and the chances of me falling are slim. Still, I can’t fight the usual nerves as I try hard to look interested in whatever Shelly’s saying. The other student council members are looking anxious as well, but I hope I’m hiding it better than them.
Today, we’re forming the Halloween Bash committee, the biggest event of the year. We make most of our money from Halloween night alone, and the Halloween Bash committee chair is usually a shoo-in for student council president the next year. I want to pretend that it isn’t a big deal, but everyone knows it is. And I need that presidency for my transcript.
“Anyway,” Shelly says with a shrug and a toss of her long blonde curls. “I’m sure you’re all just waiting for me to talk about the Halloween Bash.”
We all giggle nervously and look around. The seniors don’t seem anxious—probably because they’re officers already and don’t have to worry about competing for committee chair positions. At this point, they’ve chaired or co-chaired enough to just ‘supervise’ while they apply for colleges and enjoy their last year here. Freshmen and sophomores are on the edges of their seats, more because they’re hoping their favorite junior gets the position and offers to bring them onto the committee for decorations or food or whatever. As for the juniors—me, Fraya, Ginny, Hannah, Kevin, Peyton, and Iz—we all have the same polite smile and sweat marks permeating through our sweaters.
Shelly had a vote last week to determine who the majority wanted in charge, but she kept the results secret and discussed the committee position privately with Principal Crowe. The ultimate decision is hers, since she’s the president, and she’s been cryptic and hard to read all week. Mostly because she loves the drama.
“We had a lot of great contenders,” Shelly continues, flashing each of us smiles in turn. “I mean Fraya killed it in the dance committees for the past two years—” Fraya beams and shoots me a smirk. “But also Ash was like, the brains behind setting up the dance-a-thon for charity last year, which raised so much money for kids with cancer.”
I want to add that I’m also the one who’s been organizing the supply closet and volunteering to help out on literally every project since freshman year… but I’m trying to play it cool. I give a wobbly smile and try to pay attention as Shelly lists Iz and Kevin’s accomplishments, which are basically running snack stands and forgetting to turn in their volunteer logs every month. I feel my nails dig into my cuticles, and I quickly sit on my hands before I make my cuticles bleed in front of everyone. Again.
“I really think that, like, if we want to have the best year ever,” Shelly says slowly, her lips curving up in a self-satisfied way.
It’s pretty obvious she loves having this much attention on her. Especially since last year, her Halloween Bash raised the most money in, like, a decade.
“I think it’s best to have someone, like, super reliable who can live up to our success last year,” she continues. “So, congrats… Ash!”
I let out a sigh of relief, remembering to duck my head shyly like it was so unexpected. No one likes a brag.
“Oh my gosh,” I say breathlessly, my shaky lips trying to give a graceful smile like Shelly’s. “Thank you so much, Shelly. I’m going to work really hard, because I have big shoes to fill.”
Shelly beams at me, and I feel others pat me on the back and offer shallow congratulations. Fraya shoots me a cold grimace (probably supposed to be a smile) and tosses her blonde braid with such force she’s probably imagining it to be a whip.
“Good luck, Ash,” she says in a sugary voice that is carrying a little too far. “I know that scary movies are, like, so not your thing, but I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
“I actually really enjoy the horror genre,” I lie quickly, pulling my hands from under me to give my own hair a toss. “Like I said last week when we all voted, I have a great background for this Bash.”
Fraya opens her mouth, like she’s about to point out how I always tried to do behind-the-scenes work on the Bash to avoid the main party. Or how when her movie night turned into a horror flick marathon, I suddenly had a family emergency and couldn’t stay. Surprisingly, though, Fraya mentions none of this as she purses her lips at me.
“Perfect,” Shelly says. “Because this year’s theme is ‘A Night of Horror.’ We’re expecting, like, a super scary but fun night with a bunch of classic horror references. Josh will give you all the budget and supply info, and Principal Crowe can give you the keys to the supply closet.”
I nod and try to keep the smile on my face. I will never say this out loud, but Fraya is right: I hate scary movies and have no idea what to do for this Bash. Everyone is going to realize I don’t know anything about horror movies. I really should have thought about this first, I realize, much too late.
The other shoe just dropped… and crushed my hope for this entire year.
I sit in the office at lunchtime, waiting for Principal Crowe to hand over the keys to the supply closet. I’m pretty sure that once I see all the decorations I’ll be hit with an epiphany for the perfect Bash. Or at least, I really hope so.
Unfortunately, Principal Crowe has been stuck in her office for twenty minutes already, which means I’m probably missing lunch. And Fraya is probably spinning some tale to everyone about how I’m puking in the bathroom because my nerves can’t take it or something. I tap my foot against the tile floor, but I stop as soon as the secretary glances over with a raised brow.
“She’ll be just another minute,” she says.
“No rush,” I reply quickly. “I’ve still got time before class.”
I realize I’ve moved my hand up to my mouth, and I’m already digging at one of my cuticles with my front teeth. I clamp my mouth shut and busy my hands with finger-brushing my hair. The curls I tried so hard to set this morning have already slipped into soft waves that are barely a step above my usual straight black locks.
The front door opens and a woman rushes in. Her long, wavy, perfect hair makes me wish I could transplant her hair onto my head. Her makeup is perfect, and she’s wearing lounge-wear with platform sneakers, a look my mom would definitely kill to be able to pull off. My guess is soccer mom, and I’m pretty sure I’m right when she leans over the secretary’s desk.
“I’m so sorry I’m late,” she says breathlessly. “I was at the store getting snacks for Breighleigh’s game—it’s my day to provide snacks—when I got your call. Is Rebecca okay?”
“As always,” the secretary replies, the corners of her mouth twitching. “You can go right in, Mrs. Adams.”
The woman rushes to the principal’s office, tapping once on the door with a manicured hand before throwing the door open. She doesn’t close it all the way, so I can hear snippets of the conversation inside.
“—third time this week,” Principal Crowe says.
“Well, that’s not too bad,” the woman says airily.
“Mrs. Adams, it’s Thursday.”
“She had one good day, then.”
“She skipped school on Tuesday.”
“That’s not my fault,” a new voice cuts in. “You told me Monday that you didn’t want to see me back in your office, so I thought you were giving me permission to not come.”
I have a feeling Principal Crowe is gripping her apple-shaped stress ball. Or maybe she’s at the point where she’s pacing behind her desk.
“I feel like we all got off on the wrong foot,” the woman is saying in an overly-sweet voice. “I mean, you have to understand my daughter’s situation.”
“And I have been very lenient, given the circumstances,” Principal Crowe says curtly. “However, there is only so much I can excuse—”
“And ripped jeans really are the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” the third voice remarks sarcastically. “No, I understand. I can totally see how it negatively impacts everyone’s ability to function in an educational environment.”
“Rebecca,” the woman’s voice turns steely.
“Rules are meant to be followed,” Principal Crowe says, and I know that she must be pacing by now.
“Except when the Americans broke the rules and started the revolution,” the third voice, Rebecca I guess, says. “Or when Protestants broke the rules and split from the Catholic Church. Or activists broke the rules about segregation.”
I have a feeling she has a list that can keep going, but her voice cuts off. My guess is her mother stopped her.
“This is different,” Principal Crowe says.
“How? Why can’t I exercise my constitutional right to protest sexist dress codes?”
“If you want to, then go ahead,” Principal Crowe replies with a sigh. “Just not during school hours when your little performances disrupt the entire class.”
I hear Principal Crowe’s heels click towards the door, and I lean back in my chair guiltily. The door opens fully.
“Next time, I will be considering suspension,” Principal Crowe says. “Now, once you’ve changed your clothes, you can head back to class.”
“I have trousers in the car,” the woman says, pulling along her daughter.
I try not to stare as the two walk past. They couldn’t look more different. The teenager has short black hair with burgundy highlights (which I know is a definite dress code violation), ripped jeans (another dress code violation), a red flannel shirt, and combat-style boots. I count at least three piercings on one ear, and she turns to look at me, like she knows I’m staring. I quickly glance away.
“Ah, Ms. Park,” Mrs. Crowe says, her face melting into a relieved smile (probably glad it’s not another delinquent waiting for a reprimand). “What can I do for you?”
“I need the key to the supply closet,” I say, standing up and grabbing my stack of books. “I have to do an inventory for the Bash supplies.”
“Oh, congratulations,” Mrs. Crowe says, patting me on the back warmly. “I’m sure you’re going to do a great job.”
I smile politely at her and thank her.
“I’m so excited to see what you come up with,” Mrs. Crowe continues, shifting through her long ring of keys. “I absolutely love horror movies. Just remember to keep things school-appropriate, okay?”
I feel the same sickening feeling return to me again as I promise and take the key from her.
Why is everyone so invested in horror?
Unsurprisingly, seeing the supplies for the Bash does nothing to help with having any ideas, and I spend the next several hours trying not to melt in a puddle of anxiety as I plan out the Bash.
I try to think about what Shelly did last year. I know it was basically the same as the year before that but with a twist. Her theme was “Zombie Night,” so she just added in some toxic waste décor and convinced half the school to dress as zombies. I want to be mad, since she only raised so much by having a lot of friends and rich parents, but I’m jealous. There’s no way I can do the same thing.
The year before was some sort of haunting theme with a bunch of ghosts and smoke machines, but I can’t really remember it. I was only a freshman, so I just knew the three types of drinks we were selling (red punch, green punch, and Coca-Cola). I’m pretty sure it was the same decorations too. Which just means these things are several years old and are falling apart.
Maybe I can get some new decorations, I think, twisting my necklace.
But then that cuts into whatever profit I would make. And I know that if I don’t make as much or more than last year, Fraya is going to use it in her campaign for president next year.
“Stop,” Mom says, leaning over to hiss in my ear.
I realize I’m chewing on my cuticles again. I quickly drop my hand and smooth my hair as I try to look more focused. Mom caught me, which gives me the sickening feeling that she won’t let me go get a gel manicure before the Bash now. Our deal was only if I dropped this ‘childish calming tactic.’ I glare at my nails, like they’re the ones who caused this.
Mom is PTA Vice President, so we are sitting towards the front of the room. I glance around, but I’m the only student actually here. Even Fraya got a pass from attending, but Mom was running late and needed someone to drive so she could finish putting on her makeup in the car.
I wonder if I can just get up and wander around. We’re in the school library, so I’m sure I could just go read quietly somewhere.
The door opens so hard that it smacks against the wall. I jump and look towards the entrance. It’s the girl from the principal’s office, I realize. She’s back in her ripped jeans, and her flannel shirt is tied around her waist. She has a tank top on, showing off surprisingly fit arms.
“Good evening,” she says casually, like she was the one who called the meeting tonight.
I’m pretty sure it’s her mom who says this. She’s standing up from her seat near the back of the room.
“Ms. Greene,” Principal Crowe says in a tired tone.
That’s strange. I could have sworn her mom was called Mrs. Adams today, I think, glancing back at the girl. She sees me, and I immediately look away.
“Don’t mind me,” she says, walking to the front of the room. “I just had to drop something off.”
She is holding a large stack of paper. She walks over to the news bulletin board in the front of the room. It’s where the clubs usually advertise or school announcements are posted sometimes. She pulls out a small hammer from her back pocket, and I hear a steady pounding sound. Principal Crowe and the girl’s mom rush up.
“What are you doing?” Principal Crowe demands.
The girl steps away, and I can see the papers she posted. In bold letters, it reads “The 95 Theses or Disputation on the School Dress Code.” I wonder if she’s actually written 95 different things on the dress code. I make a note to read it when everyone else is gone.
“I was just exercising my right to protest,” the girl says. “You told me it had to be outside of school hours.” She puts the hammer in her back pocket. “Sorry for the nail. I’m pretty sure a thumb tack won’t hold this.”
“Ms. Greene, I have tried being patient with you,” Principal Crowe says, her voice raising.
Mom leans over.
“Do you know that girl?” she asks.
I shake my head.
“Is she Kate Adams’s kid?” Mom continues with furrowed brows. “I thought she only had two boys. They’re both in elementary school. Hmm, I guess that’s why she showed up tonight.”
Mom’s look is one of disapproval, but I know she just hates Mrs. Adams because of that one time Mom made some mandu (Korean dumplings)for a book club they both belonged to years ago and Mrs. Adams said it was too spicy without even trying it. Then asked if Asian food was supposed to smell like that. I was in fourth grade when it happened, but Mom will still refuse to pull into the H-E-B parking lot if she sees a Range Rover that looks like Mrs. Adams’s. I honestly admire (and fear) her ability to hold a grudge, and I wonder if I should warn Mrs. Adams to run.
“I heard it’s a kid from another marriage,” a woman whispers, leaning forward, eager to get Mom’s attention. I think she’s Iz’s mom, but I can’t be sure. Her voice has the same stage-whisper tone as Iz. And the same hunger for spreading gossip. “I ran into Kate at the store the other day when she was on the phone. The girl’s father up and left the country, dropping off the girl on the way to… was it France? Or Italy?” The woman shakes her head.
The girl is looking at us, and I know she can hear Mom and the other woman talking. I pull out my phone and pretend to be busy.
“I didn’t even know she was married before,” Mom says with a clicking of her tongue as she looks the girl up and down, like someone just brought in a smelly cheese.
I really wish they’d stop talking.
“Suspended?” Mrs. Adams’s shriek brings our attention to her. “Rebecca’s suspended?”
“I have no other choice,” Principal Crowe says, shaking her head. “She’s shown a blatant disregard for the rules of the school, and I’m worried about the safety of the other students.”
“Do you think I’ll be nailing them up here next?” the girl asks with a raised brow. “’Cause I’d definitely need a bigger hammer.”
“Look, Principal Crowe,” Mrs. Adams says, elbowing her daughter to quiet her. “I feel that suspension isn’t the answer. I mean, it won’t help her integrate into school or adjust to her new surroundings. She wants to leave the school, so this is really more of a reward than punishment for her.”
Something about her tone makes me think that Mrs. Adams just doesn’t want to have her daughter at home.
“Why don’t we try a different route?” she continues, glancing around. “Like… community service?”
“We’re a school, not the legal system,” Principal Crowe says. “We don’t have a community service program.”
Mrs. Adams bites her lips. I feel Mom turn around and glance over, and I wonder if this is going to be the moment where she can finally have her revenge. Maybe she’s going to ask for the punishment to be making a thousand mandu.
“Don’t the Adams have money?” Mom asks.
Iz’s mom nods with emphasis, meaning that even by her standards, it’s a sizable amount. Mom nods in satisfaction and turns back around.
“I think Mrs. Adams makes an excellent point,” she says, raising her voice. “Really, in this day and age, haven’t we learned that suspension doesn’t help the children?”
Principal Crowe looks shocked. I’m pretty sure everyone does. Mom tosses her dark waves over her shoulder, and I know she loves having all eyes on her.
“I think this is indicating a deeper problem here,” Mom continues. “This child is crying for attention and trying to find a space to belong. If we want to help her, then we have to help her create a space in our community to belong.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Mrs. Adams says with a nod of her head.
Mom turns to me. I don’t even have time to shake my head or give her a pleading look before I’m dragged into it.
“My daughter was just named head of the Halloween Bash committee,” she announces, ignoring the murmurs of congratulations. “Why don’t we put—” she glances at the girl with a questioning look.
“Rebecca,” Mrs. Adams supplies.
“Bec,” the girl mutters, glaring at her mom like this has been an age-old argument between them.
“Rebecca on the committee too, as volunteer service?” Mom suggests.
“Well, she has a creative mind,” Mrs. Adams says, gesturing to the wall. “And she’s apparently adept with a hammer.”
The parents all chuckle.
“I think it’d be a great idea for her,” Mrs. Adams says, looking at Principal Crowe. “How about it?”
“It doesn’t seem like punishment,” Principal Crowe begins.
I want to say that it sounds exactly like punishment. For me. Does Mom have a grudge against me I didn’t know about?
“Oh, and, Mrs. Adams, weren’t you talking about donating to the new school theater?” Mom adds, as if it was a side thought. “It’s so generous of you to offer to help us all out, even though it’s only your first meeting.”
Mrs. Adams’s confusion appears on her face only briefly.
“Oh, right,” she says quickly. “I would love to help out.”
Principal Crowe sighs. She gives me an almost apologetic look, but I know that upgrading the sound system outranks my comfort level in her mind. Understandable, but it still sucks.
“Ash, dear, is this okay with you?” she asks.
No. No. No! I want to scream.
I can feel everyone’s eyes on me. All parents who are going to go home and tell their kids exactly what happened tonight. Either I got pressured into bringing the school delinquent onto the biggest event committee of the year… or I cost the PTA a big donation for upgrading the school theater. I fake a smile.
“We could always use the extra help,” I force out.
“Perfect! It’s settled!” Mrs. Adams says, shooting us a big smile.
I feel like I can hear Mom’s brain whirling like a cash register as she motions for Mrs. Adams to sit next to her. The girl sits on the chair next to me.
“Hi,” I say, glancing at her. “I’m Ash.”
“Bec,” she replies shortly. “You should’ve just let me get suspended.”
I immediately feel like crawling out of my chair and hiding behind a bookshelf to avoid her glare.
“Do you like horror movies?” I try instead.
“My life is a horror movie, so, yeah, they’re relatable.”
“Oh,” I say, swallowing hard. “Which character do you find most relatable?”
“The killer, usually.”
I look over at Mom, but she’s ignoring me as she talks money with Mrs. Adams. I remember that Bec has a hammer in her pocket still.
Well, I think, at least now I know someone who knows about horror.