My mother always told me: behind every strong man is an even stronger woman.
Sarah’s alarm always went off at six am. She particularly struggled with Mondays, and this one was no exception. Dragging her feet across the carpeted floor, her memory of her home was proficient enough to navigate with her eyes closed, only opening them when she felt cold smooth tiles.
Cracking her eyes open, she was greeted by a familiar mess of thick brown hair. Lovey knots bunched in several directions, courtesy of tossing and turning in bed. She set to work straightening out her long hair, grabbing a fist full of hair, and digging into it. This part hurt, but had to be done. Twenty minutes of abusing her scalp would be followed by fixing it into position. Satisfaction came after her twelfth ponytail, her arms dangled from exhaustion.
Cosmetics were next, applying a base and blushing. Half her face was covered with base. Why do I even bother? her mind’s eye was filled with her clownish appearance. I should just go to school like this. I’d certainly get some attention. She smirked at her half done makeup, she came to her senses. Maybe the wrong kind of attention.
Plum colored lipstick was the final step to her morning ritual. She put her glasses on, and eyeballed her work. Spotting and correcting any mistakes. Cute librarian had been her favorite look. A quick flick of her finger pushed her glasses down the bridge of her nose. She puckered her lips. In the corner of the mirror a pair of eyes caught her attention, and her heart leapt out her mouth.
“Damn it Brandon! I told you not to sneak up on me!”
“Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt your date.”
She grimaced. The clock above the door struck seven fifteen am. They brushed their teeth and completed their usual hygiene routines, before Brandon chased her out of the bathroom so he could ‘drop the kids off at the pool’, as he put it.
She dressed humbly. Fashionable enough to not be singled out, either for lack of taste or extremely proficient fashion. Just average.
Her mother darted from one end of the kitchen to another, mumbling some adult business beneath her breath. Sarah didn't care to decipher her mother’s whisperings, and chewed a toasted waffle.
Being a senior came with few perks. One of them was front parking in the student lot. Mornings had a certain charm to Sarah, she felt comfort knowing she was not the only one dragged out of bed. Misery loves company. She remembered reading somewhere.
Morning classes passed quickly. Midterms had ended. Teachers and students alike were exhausted. Lunch followed third period on her itinerary. Mid term grades were posted outside of the cafeteria. Sarah cursed her height, if she could only grow a foot. A woman over six foot would easily be able to look over any crowd, see her grades, and be on her merry way.
To Sarah’s surprise, the crowd was far thinner than she anticipated. She peeked into the cafeteria, and took note of long lines. Sarah found her name in her usual spot. For seven consecutive semesters she was in the top ten students, specifically spot four. She had studied for weeks before exams, putting off reading the latest release of her favorite detective novels Herr Fritz, the Incipd Inspector. Above she saw more familiar names.
“Those damn Stacies.” She whispered to herself, and as if summoned, three young women strode toward her. Silky hair bouncing, as they strut past, no concern for names on any lists.
“Teachers adore them. Boys want to fuck them. Girls want to be them, or maybe fuck them too. That bit is confusing.” a voice beside her said. Sarah jumped..
“Why is everyone sneaking up on me!?” Sarah shouted at Becky. “And why would you say that?”
“I just read your mind is all.” Becky shrugged, her sandy blonde hair curling with her shoulders. “How do those three score perfect every time?’ I studied much more than usual for those damn exams, and I still couldn't break the top fifty.”
Those three were gorgeous, spent significant time alone with teachers, and always scored one hundred percent. It doesn't take Herr Fritz to draw those conclusions.
They sat at the nearest lunch table. “Their jaws must be pretty sore.”
“I think your ego is sore.” Becky smirked, and Sarah bit on her anger. “They are so popular, those stacies.”
Sarah endured Becky's whining, and endured more class. Mountain Oak High students crowded most exits after the final bell. Sarah took a detour to avoid them, eager to rush home to her novels. Along her detour, a high pitched squealing split her head, and nauseated her. Curiosity grasped her and she tracked it to a cracked door of a vacant classroom.
“Tiffany, shut off that infernal alarm.” Stacy sat at a desk, her legs crossed. Tiffany’s back to her.
“Yes Ma’am.” Tiffany said. Suddenly the squealing stopped. Sarah felt relief, but the hair on the back of her neck snapped straight.
“Amy, help this fool fix her face. We can not leave school with her like this.” Stacy clicked her tongue, and rested her hand in her hand. Hot pink painted fingernails tapped against her cheek.
“Of Course Ma’am.” Amy put her hands on Tiffanys shoulders, and something fell to the ground with a heavy thud.
Resting just at her feet was a pale mask, a beautiful face. Eyes included, as if it had been peeled off a doll. Sarah lost control of her jaw, her mouth gaping. Stacy let out another irritated click. A quick jerk, and Tiffany retrieved it. As she stood, Sarah got a full look at her faceless skull, and fell backward with a terrified squeak.
Wind shrieked in her ear as she sprinted through the closest exit, and found her car lonely. Inside, doors locked with a click. She cursed her unfortunate choice of parking space. She glanced over her dashboard, but no pursuers could be seen. The tail end of student traffic still clogged school streets. She swiftly joined it.
Visions of what she saw crept into her mind. Empty eye sockets with pinpricks of red deep inside them, surrounded by a cruel mixture of red sinew and rusted metal. Tiffany’s lipless mouth stood out. Her teeth had no roots, instead curled around where her chin would be. Sarah cringed, pressing her forehead against the steering wheel, trying to push the thoughts away. Most persistent of all, was the look of shock on her mutilated face, how the eyes on her mask stared at her.
Sarah convinced herself she had seen some sort of rehearsal. Other teenagers were busy making strange videos, it must have been make-up or a costume. Just a costume, just a costume, just a... She repeated it over and over again, until she believed it. Just before she fell asleep, she asked herself. How did those eyes move?
During her morning classes, she dove into readings. Desperately chasing away any unwanted memory with new information. Becky had decided to skip classes, leaving her alone at lunch. It was hardly ideal, but Sarah ate alone, with her head down. Hot pink fingernails penetrated her peripheral vision across the table from her.
“Sarah, how are you?”
Sarah had never realized how soothing Stacy’s voice was.
Stacy’s eyes were deep blue, deep enough to sink anything she set them on. Her short black haircut looked sharp enough to slice flesh. Her companions filled seats beside Sarah, surrounding her.
“I’m glad. The girls and I thought you looked lonely.” Stacy stared holes through Sarah’s forehead. Other students passed, confused by Stacy’s choice of seating. Sarah couldn’t speak, her voice too weak to speak.
Sarah made eye contact with Stacy, a prickling of fear on her neck.
“Please don’t tell on us.” Stacy’s hands pressed together. “We were working on a project for a surprise party. Tiffany’s brother loves horror. We want to really spook him.”
Relief washed over Sarah, her breath returning to her. “Is that so? You guys got me good.”
“I’m terribly sorry about it.” Stacy held Sarah’s hand, her voice dripping with sincerity.
“Your midterm scores are great!.” Amy said.
“Nothing like you guys. How do you do it?”
The edge’s of Stacy’s mouth curled, and her index finger pressed against her lips. “That's a secret. But we could show you.” she winked.
“Are you sure? I'm not sure if I could be a stacy.”
Now she’d done it.
“Sorry, I meant…”
Stacy cut her off with a giggle. “Is that what people call us behind our backs. I am disappointed it isn't something worse.” On she went, speaking with Sarah about school politics, which boys were sex pests, and which were sweet. Sarah let herself be swept away by conversation.
“Listen Sarah, the girls and I are getting together this friday night to enjoy some wine and cheese. You should join us.” Stacy asked in a hushed ‘need to know’ tone.
“I’m not sure.” Sarah couldn't help feeling happily overwhelmed. However pleasant, it was sudden.
“What a shame. I was going to introduce the girls to an old television show based on a novel series I adore. It's about a German inspector and occult mysteries.”
Sarah leaned in. “Are you talking about Herr Fritz?”
Stacy put her hand to her mouth. “The very same, I love those novels!” Her hand disappeared into her plaid backpack, and manicured fingers produced a copy of the latest novel. Sarah’s eyes widen to plates.
“I had no idea!” Sarah squeaked. Before she could seize any opportunity, the bell rang. Begrudging student shuffling filled the air with noise.
“Let’s talk more tomorrow.” Stacy smirked.
The week passed in a flash of excitement. Her worries put to rest, she looked forward to giggling with her new friends over shared intrigue. Details about their favorite and most hated characters, plotlines, and novels. Lunch hours seemed much shorter now, but Sarah had Friday night to look forward to.
Arriving early is considered polite behavior, but Sarah arrived a full hour ahead of their scheduled meeting time. Standing outside of Stacy’s front door, with her father looking down at her. He had a slight hunch, thinning blonde hair, sullen eyes, and wide loose glasses which desperately clung to his nose, but slipped down his nose when he spoke.
“Stacy isn't home yet” He looked past her, scanning vaguely behind her. “But you are welcome inside.”
Afraid of appearing rude, she stepped inside with little thought. Only considering risks after the front door shut. She scurried to the closest white sofa, but her host disappeared into a dark hallway.
Sarah had never been in a family room as large as this one. She investigated, looking over her shoulder frequently, lest someone catch her and misunderstand her actions. Most of the room was blank with white walls. A large flat screen television fused against a long white wall, and a handful of potted plants decorated the corners. There were few pictures, but what she found were photos of Stacy through her formative years. Young Stacy was an extremely cute girl.
A detail in some photos caught her attention. While Stacy was a child, her hair was blonde. Very blonde in fact. As she grew her hair began to darken, particularly around her middle school years. It became darker and darker, until finally becoming her iconic raven black. Sarah leaned back to consider possible answers, however leaning back also gave her a better view of what was behind the pictures.
Sarah had followed a string of photos, until she arrived in an entirely different room. Stacy’s family room had a facade of normalcy, this room felt still and empty. Various pieces of furniture were collected in a corner, like a mass of huddled sheep. A small collection of papers laid lazily on a slouched dresser.
Half expecting horror she flipped the top page right side up. To her relief a normal photo of a mature woman smiling consumed the frame. The woman’s hair was tied neatly into a black bun, and around her arm was a young blonde man with sullen eyes. His familiar face struck a nerve, but Sarah's attention was stolen by a leather bound book. It was heavy in her hand. She flicked through its contents, its flapping pages filled her nostrils with the smells of ink, must, and shredded wood.
Text walls of formulas, numbers, and descriptions of chemicals filled each page. Sarah lost interest quickly, and flipped to the cover’s interior. She read an inscription, which gave an impression of being scrawled in panic.
Don’t you ever forget, Claudia.
Suddenly, Sarah’s lost her nerve. Her quick exit was thwarted by Stacy’s father, who stood in the door frame. Glasses in hand.
“You should not be here.”
Sarah squeaked.. “I’m sorry I got lost.”
He continued. His face contorted with a grotesque fusion of stomach turning fear and regret. “No, you should not be here.”
He stepped back into the hallway, and Stacy popped into view.
“I hope you are not scaring my friend. I told you she was coming, you silly.” She chuckled.
Her fingers were wrapped around his forearm. His expression changed quickly, now wincing. “Of Course honey. I didn't mean to scare her.”
He gave a submissive apologetic nod, and disappeared.
“My father is so silly sometimes. Come along, this room isn’t a pleasant memory.” Stacy put her arm on the small of Sarah’s back.
“This was my mother’s office.” Stacy read her mind. “She died when I was in middle school.” Stacy pulled Sarah in close, her grip was ungodly strong. “It's alright. My mother and I were very close. It killed me when she died. However I am stronger than I ever was. And it is all thanks to her.”
A few strides later, Sarah and Stacy returned to her family room. Tiffany and Amy awaiting their return with smiles.
“It's only natural that you would want to look around. Don’t fret.” Amy said.
On a glass coffee table a pink pitcher claimed the center most position. Surrounding it were four empty glasses. Stacy took the closest one, filled it within an inch of the brim, placed it in front of Sarah on a coaster, and proceeded to the next glass. The girls giggled and chatter, Sarah took a sip from her glass.
Sarah gagged, nearly spitting it out. The taste reminded her of a foggy feverish bedstricken childhood memory. Pink lemonade should not taste this much like medicine. An uncomfortable silence yanked her from her thoughts, as the Stacies stared at her. She gulped instinctively. Awkward silence continued, and Stacy put the half full pitcher down with a clink.
“Aren't you going to give Tiffany some?” Sarah’s head felt heavy.
“There’s no need.” Stacy said. She snapped her fingers. Tiffany stood, and vanished out of sight. Sarah struggled to turn her head, her body rapidly felt weak and numb.
“What…” Sarah slurred her final word, and passed out.
Throbbing around her skull was the first sensation returned to Sarah. Her groggy eyes creaked open. She panicked, terrified she was choking on some gag, but it was only her tongue. She coughed and gurgled at the bizarre feeling. Moving her head caused terrible strain on her neck, but she managed some hazy glimpses of her accommodations.
Her arms and neck were bound to a large arm chair, the metal clamps dug into her skin whenever she shifted. Above her, a dim light dangled, it illuminated nothing more than arms length away. She heard footsteps.
“Sarah.” Stacy’s distinctly beautiful tone stretched out every syllable in her name.
“Please.” Sarah stumbled over her limp tongue. “I’m scared.”
“That’s only natural.” Slender fingers combed Sarah’s hair. Stacy’s face came close. Her cheerful smile was replaced with a somber scowl, and her beautiful skin sagged, shambling grotesquely. She was a shell of her former self, as if youth and joy were sucked from her.
“What are you doing?”
Amy walked into the dim light. In both arms she held an open briefcase filled with an assortment of sharp objects. Some for poking, others for scraping, and a host more Sarah dared not think about.
“Thank you Amy, I was about to ask for my tools.”
Tiffany appeared as well. Like Amy, her arms were occupied. She held a wide silver plater, shined to mirror polish.
“You girls are so well behaved.”
“Thank you, Miss Claudia.” The two said in unison. Their gratitude was repaid with an annoyed click from the walking corpse once known as Stacy.
“Please don't kill me.” Streams of tears ran down Sarah’s cheeks. Taste began to return to her mouth as it filled with the taste of salty snot. “I don’t want to die.”
Her captor came close, a portrait of disgust and offence painted across her sagging grey skin.
“I am not going to kill you, stupid girl.” A cold finger tip slid down her cheek, scooping up tear drops. She lapped her finger, as a lip sagged and dropped to the floor with a vile plop. Her other hand reached into the box Amy held. Sarah heard tinkling metal. “Nothing sweeter than a young girl’s terror. I have done this procedure many times. You will feel it all, however you may not remember the pain.” She nodded. “But the pain is necessary.”
Sarah’s eyes jerked open. She groaned and rolled out of bed. Monday morning had come again. To her surprise, the normal feelings of dismay were absent, and Monday did not seem so bad. What a fucking nightmare. She rubbed her eyes and glided into the bathroom. She reached for the brush, but could not feel it. She tried to look down, but could not move her neck. She focused on her face, and saw deep blue eyes staring back.