The Halloween Dance at the General Robert E. Lee Middle School was a lively affair. It was held after school so the kids could wear their costumes to school that day, then attend the dance and still have time left to go trick-or-treating. Because it was scheduled this way, practically all the kids at the school attended.
There was another reason for such exceptionally high attendance. For many of the dances, only the kids brave enough to ask another kid to dance with them would come. The shyer kids, the ones who’d be devastated by being rejected, always had dentist appointments or music lessons or a younger sib to babysit or something else that they simply had to do on those days. These were middle schoolers: they wouldn’t have admitted they were shy to save their lives; telling other kids they had an appointment for an psychiatric examination would be a better that admitting they were bashful.
But today, they all were there, even Billy Vincent, the shyest kid in school, because today they had costumes on. Franklin could ask Jennifer to dance, and if she said no, it was the horse with the purple mane who was being rejected, and the horse’s feelings weren’t on display to anyone else. Well, perhaps they were still felt by Franklin, but no one would really know or see, and Franklin could retain at least a semblance of dignity.
The costumes made all the difference. Anyone could be anything he liked and get away with it.
The room was colorful enough. There was Johnny Bowers, dressed as a clown. That was an appropriate costume, thought Mr. Tanlon, the gym teacher/chaperone. Johnny was a clown. Nice kid, but he covered his insecurities with humor and outrageous shenanigans.
Then there was Melissa Combs, a devil. That was certainly playing against type. And there was the usual assortment of superheroes and cartoon characters with the occasional policeman and priest, goblin and ghost, badger and bear, and all the rest. Mr. Tanlon looked around and grinned. The kids were all having a ball, and it didn’t look like he’d have to put on his tough guy persona today, which pleased him. He liked these kids and took no pleasure in playing bad cop.
He took his duties seriously, as one had to who was in charge of 12- and 13-year-olds. This was the age of awakening for some, and stunts like trying to spike the punch or lock some kid in a closet or the restroom were always possible. And of course, as in any group of kids, there were the really nice ones and the meaner ones. Every school seemed to have bullies. Mr. Tanlon hated bullies.
He was staying busy keeping an eye on the refreshment table and the doors to the restrooms while watching both the kids dancing and the ones who were keeping to the sides of the floor. He’d been monitoring dances for a number of years now and was good at anticipating problems. For instance, the restrooms. He could mentally picture kids going in and out, and how long they remained inside. When he saw one of the smaller, less aggressive kids go in, followed quickly by one of the rowdier ones, he’d always begin walking in that direction.
Billy Vincent was dressed all in black. He lived with just his mother, and they didn’t have much money. When he’d told her he needed a costume, she’d smiled and said she’d see what she could do, and what she’d been able to do was scrounge up an old costume one of her co-worker’s sons had worn years ago. Billy thought it was pretty cool, even if half the kids there had no idea who Darth Vader was. The best part, other than the fact it fit pretty well, was that his face was covered. For a shyest kid in school, that was wonderful.
He even spoke to a couple of kids. That was pushing the envelope for Billy. But they came up to him and complimented him on how cool his costume was. He was happy they couldn’t see him blush. Blushing wasn’t cool in middle school. People always made jokes about you if you blushed, and he hated having attention drawn to him.
Melissa Combs, complete with devil costume and made-up face, was enjoying herself. She was a very nice girl, pretty in the ways a young teen could be and was quite popular. She had parents who were both social workers and helping people who needed a hand had been drummed into her from birth. She always looked out for the kids who she saw needed help. She was especially attentive to Billy. The poor kid was too shy to have any friends, he could hardly answer when people spoke to him, and he was a frequent target of Carl Hodges, the school’s worst bully. She’d protected Billy from him all year.
Carl was there. His costume was very appropriate. He’d come as a gangbanger. Ratty tee shirt with the sleeves rolled up to show his burgeoning jugs, a plastic switchblade sticking conspicuously out of the pocket of his tight-fitting jeans, unkempt hair with a ski-mask on top, pushed back but waiting to be used to cover his face. He managed to convey menace rather well, but perhaps to those who saw him at school he didn’t need to dress differently to do that. He’d beaten up many of the boys at the school, managing to do so when no witnesses were present. He enjoyed hurting other boys and getting away with it.
Carl was a little older than most of the kids, having been left back one year. He was also more hormonal, and for the past few months had been watching Melissa with an avid eye. To put it less than delicately, Carl wanted to get into Melissa’s pants, and wanted to do so badly. He saw how she tried to look after the more tentative kids at school and wondered if he could act that way to attract her attention. He’d decided he couldn’t. It wasn’t in him to pretend to be weak. He was a badass and proud of it. And so she paid no attention to him at all, while he focused most of his attention on her whenever they were in the same place at the same time. Tonight was no exception.
Mr. Tanlon was checking the boys’ bathroom when the problem started. As frequently is the case, things can escalate very quickly with middle schoolers. They often have limited self-control and very shallow thought processes. Especially boys like Carl.
Billy was standing against a wall, watching others dance, sort of moving to the throb of the music, and wishing he had the nerve to ask someone out onto the floor. But even in costume, he didn’t think he could. He wanted to. He wanted to so badly he even took a step or too in the direction of the someone he wanted to ask. But then his courage faltered. He was moving, however, and thought he might get some punch, as long as he was already walking.
He had to cross the gym floor to get to the refreshments table. He was about in the middle when he was stopped. Melissa was there, and she had grabbed his arm.
“Billy, that’s you, isn’t it? I heard you were in the Darth Vader costume. That’s really a great costume!”
Billy started to look down, his normal reaction, but then remembered the mask and looked right at her instead. “Thanks, Melissa. You look good too.”
“Hey, why don’t we dance? Come on! I saw you moving to the music before.”
“You were watching me?”
Melissa wasn’t one to get embarrassed, and even his somewhat annoyed tone of voice didn’t bother her. “I was just looking around and saw you there. All by yourself again. I asked Johnny who that was, and he said it was you. That’s all. You want to dance? Let’s dance!”
Billy hesitated, and then only said what he did because of the costume and mask. He’d never have been so bold without it. “Melissa, you’re nice, but I really wish you wouldn’t be acting like you’re taking care of me all the time. It’s embarrassing, and it makes me look like I need your help.”
Melissa pulled back in surprise. Then, as teens do, she became surly. “I was just trying to help. You don’t have to be rude. See if I’ll ever try to help you again!”
Carl had been watching. Carl watched Melissa all the time. Now, suddenly, he saw an opportunity. He stepped forward.
“What did you say to her, you little jerk?” His voice was raised, and with a quick motion, he swept Billy’s mask off.
And just that quickly, the room fell silent, except for the canned music that was playing. Suddenly, a crowd was gathering around the three kids in the center of the floor.
“I asked you a question, Jerk-off.” Carl pushed Billy by the shoulder hard enough that Billy fell down. He scrambled back up as quickly as he could, and Carl was right in his face.
“You don’t ever treat Melissa that way. You do, you’ll have to answer to me.” Then he drew back his fist, and Billy, with nowhere to run with the crowd pressing in on him, shrank as small as he could get, raised his shaking hands futilely and prepared to get hit.
Except he never was, because at that point Johnny Bowers stepped between him and Carl. “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size, you left-back, asshole moron?” he asked, and shoved Carl back away from Billy with a hand in the middle of the larger boy’s chest.
It was not a scene seen often. It was a middle-school gym filled with costumed kids, all gathered around a small circle in the center of the floor. At the outside of the circle, Mr. Tanlon was trying to get to the center, realizing something was going on when he was in the bathroom and heard all the noise in the gym suddenly stop. But he could make no headway at all through the kids all clamoring to see the fight. As quickly as he’d push a kid aside, another took the hole he’d created.
The front row of the circle had a witch, a baseball player, a goblin, a nurse, a heavily bearded Hasidic Jew, a weight-lifter with fake muscles and barbell, a camel with the head hanging to the side and a boy’s head wearing glasses looking on eagerly, and a majorette with pompoms.
Carl was surprised, but then elated. He could easily take any boy in school, and certainly this clown, for God’s sake. And he could do it in front of Melissa, for Melissa actually, and then the pants-getting-into thing might become real. Once she saw what a man he was.
So he smiled, and he raised his fists, and eager and over-confident, stepped forward and swung hard at Johnny’s head.
Johnny easily dodged the telegraphed punch and countered with a straight jab. A hard, straight jab right to Carl’s unprotected nose.
Blood spurted. Carl raised his hands to cover it, and blood ran though his fingers, dripping to the floor.
What happened next, well, there were almost as many versions as there were kids at the dance. All agreed on one thing, and one thing only. There was a loud, evil, inhuman moan, a moan that grew louder as the blood continued to flow. Everyone agreed on that. After that…
The version that was generally accepted as fact, cobbled together from notes of many interviews, was this. After moaning, the goblin in the front row seemed to emerge from its bent-over crouch, seemed to grow a foot taller till it was looking down on everyone through glowing, golden-red eyes. Its paper mask fell off to reveal an even more evil, fox-like pointy face. Its fingernails seemed to grow longer and become sharp claws, and its shirt and pants ripped open as its size increased, falling to the floor, revealing a body so covered with reddish-brown hair that no skin could be seen. It was generally felt the creature was male as there was certainly something long and gross and slimy between its legs, but just what it was, was again not entirely agreed upon. Most of the girls blushed when describing it.
Then the moan turned into a roar as the beast sprang forward. It grabbed Carl, licked his hands, lapping at the blood with a long, forked, snake-like tongue. Then it threw back its head, bayed at the ceiling with a horrible sound, Carl’s blood running down it’s face, and, picking up Carl and throwing him over its shoulder, it burst through the crowd of kids, knocking them over like bowling pins. It slammed through the gym doors, and it, and Carl, were suddenly gone.
Bedlam ensued. When Mr. Tanlon finally arrived at the center of the floor, Johnny was there with his arm around Billy. Melissa was in shock, and most of the other kids were scattering into groups of two and three to the edges of the floor. No one wanted to go outside. Everyone was scared that the creature might be waiting for them.
Mr. Tanlon had the lights turned on, then spoke to Billy and Johnny. He told them the police would arrive momentarily, but he needed to know what had happened first.
Johnny was the one who answered. “Carl was picking on Billy. I was and am tired of seeing that. I decided to stop it. He took a swing at me, and I popped him one in the nose. After that, well, it’s kind of a blur, but some kid in a goblin costume seemed to become real, and he hauled Carl off. I’m actually glad about that. No one’s hurting Billy any more.”
Billy looked up at him. He no longer wore his mask, so his eyes were easy to see and read. When he spoke, he kept right on looking at Johnny. “I was going to ask you to dance with me, earlier. Except I chickened out.”
Johnny smiled, and he tightened the arm still around Billy’s shoulders. It would remain there all during questioning, whether the police liked it or not.