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i'm just a dreamer with a matchbook and a little kerosene

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people don't get better, they just get smarter.
carrie, stephen king

 

 

It was a well-known fact that practically everyone in Chamberlain, Maine, hated Carrie White.

Everyone, of course, included Norma Watson, who had spent her whole life in Chamberlain and thus, had spent her whole life hating Carrie. Carrie was the sort of person who was really easy to hate; Chris Hargensen, Norma's best friend since second grade, once told her that you could only feel two things about Carrie: hatred or sympathy. And no one wanted to feel sorry for Carrie. Like Chris said, everyone wanted someone to hate. Hate was so much easier because it didn't require anything.

(it was fun, too, in a terrible way, she'd never admit it out loud, but they all knew)

So of course, no one could remember why they all hated Carrie so much — though if Norma thought hard about it, she supposed it was back in first grade when they just knew that they did. It was a feeling that had taken root a long, long time ago, and had slowly grown until it had spread everywhere. It was more of a grudging sort of hatred than a seething one; it always bubbled just under the surface, waiting for the opportunity to boil over.

Which was exactly what had happened in the girls' locker room two weeks before the senior prom — and everything else that came afterward. As Norma watched the bucket of blood splash down from the rafters, she couldn't help but feel as if this was the only path they could have ever taken, as if somehow, in every world, they'd always come to this conclusion: humiliating Carrie White just one final time. It seemed like everything had somehow led up to this point — and maybe it had, maybe this had been the final breaking point.

For everyone, really. Carrie included.

Which is exactly what Norma thought as she skidded across the wet gymnasium floor, nearly tripping over the hem of her dress. Of course Carrie had to go and fucking ruin things, like she always did. Like when they all went to summer camp that one time and they'd all gotten in trouble because Carrie had cried about them dunking her too much. Or the fucking issue with the locker room. She just couldn't take a goddamn joke, she never got the fucking point.

How quickly the mood of the crowd had changed, when all the doors — the exits — suddenly slammed shut of their own accord and the bright stage lights dimmed down, casting a red, ominous glow around the room. And then all hell broke loose: the fire hose took on a life of its own, knocking people down like they were made of paper; Miss Collins, Mr. Morton, and Mr. Fromme were all up on stage, simultaneously trying to calm people down by yelling into the mic and checking on the unconscious Tommy Ross on stage; some students were still trying to push their way through the gym's front doors, while others made pathetically futile attempts to climb up and out the windows, ten feet up.

She tried desperately to think of some way to escape. She wanted nothing more than to be outside, away from the sudden panic and chaos. Outside, where it was calm and quiet, where maybe then she could make sense of things. And oh!, Chris; she could find Chris, who she'd caught a glimpse of only some minutes ago, hiding under the stage. They could get out of here and —

"Norma?" Helen Shyres shouted, panicked, grabbing Norma's arm. She'd lost her glasses and her dress was stained red — it was blood, Norma realized, with surprising calmness. "Norma, what's going on?"

As if Norma knew. She opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. There was too much noise, too much shouting, too much screaming; it was so loud. Her head was pounding. "I don't know," she told Helen, eyes darting around the room frantically. "I don't — "

But then Helen was shoving her away, and Norma only had a small moment to turn and look at her before she was hit with the spray of the fire hose. It felt like someone had smacked her full force with a baseball bat; she was knocked forward and she put her hands out in front of her in a vain attempt to brace herself as she hit the ground. She saw stars as she collided with a table while falling, too shocked to even cry out in pain.

(oh, oh)

And then it was, thankfully, silent.

 

;;

 

Chris said, "Could you please stop staring at my tits?"

"What?" Norma asked, startled.

It was a warm day for early May and the last class on a Friday afternoon. Up at the front of the classroom, their history teacher droned on and on — Norma didn't even remember what they were supposed to be discussing in class today. She'd zoned out about ten minutes into the class, staring off into space. Somehow, apparently, she'd ended up with her gaze focused on Chris' chest.

She blushed. "Sorry."

"Whatever." Chris snapped her gum loudly, rolling her eyes.

Mr. Downing, their history teacher, paused briefly to clear his throat at the interruption, glaring disapprovingly in their direction. Norma slouched down in her seat and pretended to be dutifully taking notes. She didn't really want to have to sit in detention on a Friday afternoon, even if Chris did think it was funny to annoy Mr. Downing; she barely suppressed a giggle as he glared over at them.

After Mr. Downing's back was turned, Norma glanced over at Chris, who was twirling a strand of blonde hair around her index finger and doodling hearts in her notebook. Norma looked down at her own notes: she'd only written the date, at the top of the page, and half a line of something that was up on the blackboard. There was no way she was going to get anything higher than a C in this class. Maybe a C+ if she put some effort into the final.

Fuck it, though. That's what Chris would say: Fuck it. They were a little more than a month from graduation and Norma'd already secured herself a place at Bowdoin college, two hours west. She wasn't entirely sure how she'd managed to get accepted, given the poor state of her grades, but — as Sue had pointed out, in that know-it-all tone of hers that Norma hated — colleges had a lax acceptance policy when it came to girls. Diversity and all that shit.

She glanced back over at Chris. This time Chris caught her eye; the corners of her mouth turned up into a sly grin, winking across the desks. Norma felt a little spark of heat shoot through her at that and she swallowed hard to rid herself of the lump that had suddenly appeared in her throat. She turned downwards, staring at her non-existent notes, feeling her face grow hot. Chris had a way of making her feel awkward.

Later, in the hallway, standing at Norma's locker, Chris said, "Jesus Christ, Watson, keep it together."

Norma laughed nervously. "You're lucky we didn't get detention," she said, trying to decide which homework assignments actually had to get done at some point over the weekend and which ones could wait until Monday morning, when she'd be furiously copying down answers from one of the girls — probably Helen, it was usually her — before homeroom.

Chris folded her arms, leaning against the row of lockers. "Don't be such a goody-goody," she said. And then, "You coming out tonight with me and Billy?"

"Um." Norma stared into her locker. She didn't really like Billy Nolan much at all, he had wandering hands and cursed like a sailor; it wasn't as if Norma was a prude or anything like that, but she didn't like that Billy seemed to have zero concept about when it was and was not appropriate to do things.

Two weekends ago, when the three of them had gone out to a local bar, one that Chris and Billy frequented — and Norma didn't even want to think about that, the dirty upstairs bedrooms that reeked of booze and piss and were rented out $10 for an hour — Chris had left them sitting alone in a booth, while she'd sauntered away to get them drinks.

Billy had put his mouth against her ear, murmuring something about seeing her without Chris sometime. His breath was hot and he smelled like cheap cologne and sweat. He'd put his hand on her thigh, really high up, almost under her miniskirt; she'd squirmed away, her stomach churning. A moment later, Chris was back, setting down three bottles of beer, dripping with perspiration. They were something cheap, something generic.

Norma spent the whole evening nursing that beer and watching Chris and Billy dance. Every once in a while, when Chris wasn't looking, Billy shot a wink over in Norma's direction. The whole thing both embarrassed and disgusted her; she felt sleazy, even though she'd done nothing wrong.

She'd thought about telling Chris about what happened, but she knew that Chris would respond in one of two ways: either she'd blow it off by giving the old, tired, well that's just how he is, he's just playing around or she'd get angry at Norma for saying something, all, you're just looking to break us up, aren't you!, and give Norma the silent treatment for a few unbearable days.

Neither situation would result in Chris dumping Billy or Norma getting any sort of sympathy, so she kept her mouth shut about the whole damn thing. No point in fucking things up, anyway. Lately Chris had been in a good mood — more so than usual, all ready to give Norma drunken kisses on weekends when they sat around listening to records and filling each other in on the latest gossip — and Norma didn't want to do anything that might spoil that.

"Yeah, I guess I'll come," she said finally, because it was not like there was anything else for her to do. She still felt a bit warm all over from that wink Chris had given her in history class. The warmth burst right back into a flame, a hot lick of desire, as Chris grinned and shut Norma's locker for her, linking their arms together as they walked down the hall.

"Did you buy your tickets yet?" Chris asked they passed a poster in the hallway advertising the prom coming up in two weeks.

"Of course."

"Who're you going with again?"

Norma rolled her eyes; she'd only mentioned it to Chris just the other day. It was like Chris couldn't be bothered to remember anything that wasn't related to her in some way. "Freddie Talbot, remember? He plays on the baseball team with Tommy, Sue's boyfriend."

"Right." Chris led the way out the doors and down the front steps of the school. "So," she said, as they paused at her car. "I'll see you tonight? Billy and I can come pick you up around eight.

Norma squinted in the bright sunlight. "Yeah, okay. See you later."

 

;;

 

She and Chris had been friends almost their entire lives. Norma could hardly remember a time when she and Chris hadn't been joined at the hip, though she could, quite clearly, remember they day when they first became friends. Chris had jumped off a swing — someone had dared her to, and of course, Chris would never pass up an opportunity to show off — and landed wrong, which had resulted in a broken arm. Norma had been tasked to bring her to the nurse's office.

Once they'd been alone, sitting in the waiting room outside the nurse's office, Chris had begun to cry. It had startled Norma, as Chris was the only girl in their class who never cried about anything, not even when the boys pulled her hair or teased her. She hadn't even cried when she'd broken her arm only a few moments ago, had only winced and tried to play it off as nothing. Norma had always secretly admired Chris for being so brave.

Surprised, she did the only thing she could think of: she put an arm around Chris' shoulders. Chris had sniffled and leaned against her. Even now when Norma recalled it, it gave her a warm, nostalgic feeling; she sometimes wished nothing had ever changed since that day.

"Want to come over?" Helen asked, loudly chewing gum on the other end of the line. Norma could picture her lying down in bed and twirling the phone cord around and around the end of her finger. Helen, and Sue Snell, the fourth girl in their clique, had joined up with Norma and Chris not long after starting middle school. "Sue and I were gonna go down to Kelly Fruit Company for a malt."

"Can't," Norma told her, taking a swig of vodka from the little flask she kept on her bed. If there was one thing she'd learned from always playing the role of third wheel, it was that it was painful to spend even a few minutes sober. "Going to the roadhouse with Chris and Billy."

She could almost hear the sound of Helen's eyes rolling in their sockets. "Of course you are."

"What?"

"Norma," Helen sighed, "you hate Billy. All you do is complain about Chris dragging you out with them. Just tell her you don't want to go."

Norma picked at her cuticles, cradling the phone between her ear and shoulder. "I already agreed to go along, I can't just back out now. Chris'll be pissed and we've got gym first period on Monday; I don't want her to be trying to take my head off with a volleyball. Besides," she said, holding her hand up and inspecting her nails before reaching for a bottle of bright red nail polish and unscrewing the cap, "someone should be there to keep an eye on her."

 

;;

 

It wasn't like it was all that surprising when, later that evening, Chris pulled Norma into the last stall in the bathroom and pressed her against the wall with a heady kiss. They'd been doing this sort of thing for a while now; it had started all the way back in seventh grade, when Chris had sworn up and down that it didn't make them total lesbos or something because they were just friends. Back then, it had just been lots of soft kisses and a few tentative brushes of fingers against skin, things which had made Norma's heart race and blood turn to fire in her veins.

Not like she'd ever tell Chris that she felt that way — she wasn't an idiot.

Besides, she really didn't want to think about what it meant, the fact that one look from Chris could give Norma butterflies. She wasn't one of those kinds of people, she knew, the kind of girls who only wanted to be with other girls. After all, she had a boyfriend. Maybe he wasn't the best boyfriend she could have had, but nevertheless, he was one. And she'd crushed over lots of guys when she was younger, all the time; she and Chris used to sit in the stands during football practice when they were younger and whisper back and forth about which boys they'd totally like, go all the way with.

So what, too, Norma told herself, if sometimes when she and Chris thumbed through back issues of Seventeen in the library (instead of studying) and her gaze lingered on the models — all tanned and toned and their hair done just so — a bit too long. It didn't mean anything. She just wanted to get an idea of what she was supposed to match herself up against. That was all.

Chris laughed as she pulled away, letting Norma pin her back against the wall. Chris smelled like gin and smoke and bubblegum and she began undoing the buttons on her shirt as Norma trailed light, teasing kisses up and down the length of her neck. It always made Norma feel giddy when Chris wanted to do this with her, in part because it was something that Chris would never do with anyone else, and also because it meant Norma meant more to her than anyone else.

"You're not going to be all weird about this, are you?" Chris asked after a moment, when Norma's hand went up to her breast, giving it an appreciative squeeze.

(don't)

"What?" Norma mumbled against Chris' neck. Her brain was fuzzy from drinking and the faint, lingering smell of weed on Chris' clothes. "What're you talking about?"

"You do this thing sometimes, after this happens," Chris said, annoyed, like she shouldn't even have to explain it. "Like you expect something more." She shifted, pushing into Norma's hand. "Sometimes I think you like this a little too much. Like, I don't know," she was rambling now, and the distraction was beginning to get on Norma's nerves. "Like you want to hold my hand in the hallway," Chris continued, her breath hitching as Norma's thumb stroked across her nipple, through her shirt, "or exchange love letters or some equally fucked up thing, I don't know. I mean, how much clearer do I have to make it — that this, this, doesn't mean anything?"

Of course Chris had to ruin the moment. Of course. She could never let anything just be fine for five seconds; now, drunk, and very much wound up, Norma felt herself suddenly furious about the whole thing. She nipped angrily at Chris' neck, trying to ignore her. But Chris just kept going: "It's just — sometimes we just need it," she sighed, closing her eyes. "But I don't want to, if you're going to be all weird about it."

"I don't get weird," Norma snapped, stopping her kisses and taking a step back, flushing with anger. "And what's all that bullshit you're saying — I don't want to hold your hand in the hallway, idiot. I'm not some kind — some kind of dyke." She spat the word out; it left a bad taste in her mouth.

(it was the kind of word she and chris sneered at girls in the hallway)

Chris grinned; she always found it funny when Norma got angry about things, as if somehow Norma's feelings were never really valid. Or maybe because she knew that no matter how pissed Norma got at her, it would all be forgiven the next day. "Could have fooled me," she said, in a cheery, mocking tone. She reached for Norma's hand, as if to draw her back in.

"Fuck you, Chris." Norma took another step back.

"You always do a pretty good job of it." Chris smirked. The door banged open and a group of obviously drunk girls came in, gossiping loudly. "Come on," Chris purred in Norma's ear, the distance between them suddenly gone. Her fingers ran up and down the length of Norma's arm. "Don't ruin the evening."

Norma shook her head, once more wrenching herself free from Chris's grasp. "No," she told Chris firmly, hands going up to adjust her baseball cap. "Find someone else to get you off." She stormed out of the stall, ignoring the stares of the other girls, standing at the counter.

(let them gossip, they can talk all they want)

Outside, Chris caught up to her, grabbing Norma by the elbow and spinning her around. "Look, I'm sorry," she said, and Norma knew it wasn't entirely sincere, but Chris' apologies came few and far between, so it was almost good enough. "Can we just forget about it? Let's go back inside. Billy bought us drinks."

"I'm not a dyke," Norma told her, with a bit more force than she intended. "Honestly," she added a second later, in a softer tone. "I'm not. I promise. I just — I don't know. I'm tired of always being the third wheel," she admitted, slumping against one of the cars on the far end of the parking lot. "We always used to hang out on our own, but now Billy always has to come along too. I miss when we just spent time by ourselves."

Chris leaned against the car, crossing her arms. "Summer's almost here. We can spend time together then."

Norma couldn't explain to Chris, the way it just wasn't enough. She'd never been second best until Billy had showed up; Chris had had lots of boyfriends before him, too many for Norma to remember them all, but things hadn't been like this. It had always been the two of them, Chris leading the way. They'd laughed at the way she could so easily string boys along, using them for a while before tossing them aside. In retrospect, Norma thought she should have realized it wasn't going to be like that with Billy. Billy didn't work to win a girl's attention, he made them work for his.

She couldn't believe that Chris had actually fallen for him. She didn't know what Chris saw in Billy that she didn't.

"Yeah, sure," Norma said at last, trying to seem as nonchalant about the whole thing as possible. Already she was embarrassed about her fight with Chris in the bathroom only a few minutes prior. No wonder Chris thought that she was being weird. "I guess."

"Now." Chris straightened up, hands smoothing down the front of her blouse. "You gonna sit out here and pout some more? Or are you gonna come back inside?"

Norma nodded, looking down at her feet. Her new high-top sneakers already had a long, ugly black mark on them, cutting across the white of the toe.

"Good," Chris said, moving forward and pressing a kiss to the side of Norma's mouth. "I'll be waiting."

Norma brought her hand up to her mouth, touched the space where Chris had kissed her; her skin seemed to tingle and the feeling of Chris's lips against her skin remained long after Chris had disappeared back inside the roadhouse and Norma, with a sigh, pushed herself back to her feet and gone inside as well.

 

;;

 

"It wasn't so bad," Norma told Helen the next morning after gym, while she toweled her hair. "Chris actually apologized for being a bitch."

Helen raised an eyebrow.

"Well, in so many words, anyway," Norma mumbled, glancing across the locker room where Chris was coming out of the shower, wringing the water out of her hair before twisting it around to one side. She had her towel draped over her shoulder — Norma couldn't remember if Chris ever once bothered to cover up once she'd finished showering. It was just like Chris to use the moment to show off; it made Norma smile. She liked it when Chris was easy to read.

(liked it too, the beads of water rolling down chris' legs and off her tits, flushed all the way down to her stomach, she won't ever let herself think about it longer than the length of time of a quick glance)

Chris caught her eye and winked. Norma smiled and ducked her head, turning her gaze inside her gym locker and pretending to be busy with braiding her hair in the mirror.

"Hey," Chris chirped, playfully snapping her towel at Norma. "Did you do the homework for Downing's class? I need to copy down your answers." She popped over her locker and began to pull out her clothes, lying them across the bench next to them.

Norma shook her head, looking past Chris towards Sue. "Have you got the right answers?" she asked. "I didn't even get a chance to look at our history assignment this weekend." Chris had showed up on Saturday to go shopping — without Billy in tow, which Norma assumed was meant to placate her. Sunday, her parents had dragged her and her younger sister down to Portland to visit relatives.

"Yeah," Sue said, toweling her hair dry. "I've got it in my bag. Just give it back to me at lunch."

Chris slipped her shirt on and grinned at Norma. "So," she said, reaching for her lipstick, "want to come out tonight? There's a double feature down at the drive in. Some horror movie or whatever. Billy's taking me, but I hate going with him, he's always such a pain. He thinks I want to go just so we can make out in the car — I mean, we do that all the time."

"I don't know," Norma said slowly, closing her locker. "Maybe."

"Bring Freddie along," Chris suggested, wiping away a tiny smear of lipstick with her thumb.

"Yeah, I guess." Norma shrugged.

She didn't really like having to go on double dates. When she and Freddie went out with Tommy and Sue, the boys always ended up talking about baseball, which Norma knew nothing about (and she cared even less). With Billy and Chris, it was the exact opposite; Billy and Freddie had spent time in summer school together since sixth grade and they were good at goading each other into doing stupid shit. It wasn't as boring as listening to baseball talk, but it was equally unpleasant.

Collins banged into the locker room. "Five minutes til the bell," she announced. She surveyed the room. "Get out of the damn shower, Carrie," she said. Everyone tittered at that, glancing over at the last steam-filled shower stall being occupied. Miss Collins made an irritated cranking motion at Carrie before ducking back out. Norma checked her reflection once more in the mirror hanging in her locker before slamming it shut, spinning the lock.

She pulled her cap on and snagged a piece of gum from Chris, popping it in her mouth as she leaned against the row of lockers, watching Chris get dressed. She looked away when she heard the sound of the last shower being turned off; Carrie stepped out, reaching for her towel.

It was then that they all saw the blood running down her leg.

 

;;

 

If there was anyone in Chamberlain who hated Carrie the most, it was Chris.

To this day, Norma was never quite sure why Chris hated Carrie with such vehemence, though she supposed the simple fact that Carrie existed may have been one of the biggest reasons. Or maybe it was because how even after all this time, Carrie had still never learned to just take it; it was just as satisfying to make fun of her the second, third, fourth, hundredth time as it was the first. Every prank seemed to be just as funny as the last one, every taunt or jeer seemed to cut just as deep.

It was fun to make fun of Carrie White, and no one had more fun than Chris — and, by default, Norma, who was more than happy to go along with whatever Chris had in mind. Ever since that first day of elementary, when stupid, clueless Carrie had gotten down on her knees to pray at lunch, Chris had gone out of her way to torment Carrie. She wasn't alone; Norma and Sue and Helen and all the other girls had always been happy to go along with it, to keep pushing Carrie back down every time she tried to get up. It had become a game of sorts. But Chris was the only one who took it personally.

"Oh my God," Chris giggled later, once they were down the hallway and well out of earshot of Miss Collins. "Did you see her face? What a fucking freak." She stopped short, putting a hand against the wall for support, short of breath from laughing too much. "She actually thought she was dying."

Norma laughed too, putting her hand over her mouth to muffle the sound. Chris' laughter and the feeling that it was just so hilarious seemed to be contagious. "It was just — no way. No fucking way."

"I know, right?" Chris grinned. "She's an even bigger loser than we thought she was. Help me," she mocked cried, grabbing Norma, her fingers knitting into the front of Norma's shirt. "Help me, I'm dying." She fell against Norma as she burst into another fit of laughter, her arm looping itself lazily around Norma's waist.

"What about Collins, though?" Norma asked, a little while later, when they were sitting in the back of study hall copying down the answers to their history homework. "She looked really pissed off. Do you think she's going to say something — ?"

Chris rolled her eyes. "Probably. That bitch can't mind her own business."

"If she goes to Morton — "

"So what if she does?" Chris asked flippantly, shifting in closer and squinting at Sue's handwriting. "He's just a high school principle, for Christ's sake, Norma, he can't do anything to us. And it's not like Carrie's going to say anything about it."

"I just don't want to get expelled," Norma whined quietly, staring down at her desk. "Or suspended."

Chris nudged Norma's shoulder with her own. "Look at me," Chris said, in a firm voice. Norma looked up. Chris' eyes were cold and hard, like ice. "Nothing bad is going to happen, okay? What's the worst they can really do to us, huh? Give us detention? We didn't even do anything. It was just a joke. It's not our fault that Carrie totally freaked out. So don't worry about it, okay?"

Norma picked at a scratch on her desk. "I guess. Yeah."

Truth be told, though, she was still worried about it. Collins was one of the strictest teachers at Ewen — she'd been accountable for more than half of all the detentions Norma had gotten over her four years of high school — and with the end of the school year looming, it seemed like she might use this as an excuse to punish them all one last time. And maybe Chris was lucky enough to have a father who could pull a few strings to get Chris out of any mess she'd gotten herself into, but Norma was not so lucky. She didn't want to risk losing her place at all because of Carrie fucking White.

"Don't worry about it," Chris said again, at the end of class while they were packing up their things. "I told you it's going to be fine. And if Morton calls you down to his office," she added, dropping her voice to just above a whisper, "you just tell him you don't know what Collins is talking about, okay? Don't say a word. Just play dumb."

"Come on, Chris," Norma said, shrugging her bag onto her shoulder. "It's me."

 

;;

 

She went straight to Chris' house after detention; they always went to Chris' house after school, it had been a routine of theirs for as long as Norma could remember. It felt so weird walking along, however; they'd always done everything together, and Norma was still trying to process the fact that Chris wasn't going to be able to go to prom. They'd been planning this evening since they started at Ewen High and now everything had gone to hell. Norma was angry at Chris for being so goddamn stubborn — she expected it of Chris, of course, but she had also expected Chris to know when to just shut the hell up.

"I wonder if there's still a chance that I can convince them to let me go to prom." Chris snapped her gum. Norma turned over on the bed, watching Chris admire herself in the mirror, fixing her hair to get it just so. She caught Norma's eye, raising an eyebrow at her. "What do you think?"

"Chris," Norma sighed, rolling her eyes, "you called Collins a bitch, told her to shove the detention up her ass, and then stormed off the field. I don't think they'll be reconsidering their decision."

"And you're a bitch for not siding with me," Chris told her. She sounded less angry than Norma had expected her to be; if anything, she just seemed mildly annoyed, like Norma had skipped out on their last period class to go shopping and hadn't told her.

"I — we — weren't about to miss out on prom," Norma said lightly. "If you'd just stuck it out for another ten minutes, it wouldn't even be such a big deal right now."

"This is all Carrie White's fault," Chris announced, frowning and ignoring Norma. She turned around, arms crossed. "I mean, it was a joke. Get over it. That bitch walks around Ewen acting all holier-than-thou." She sat down on the edge of the bed. "Someone needs to put her in her place."

Norma sighed, sitting up. "Just let it go, Chris. Look, maybe if you talk to your dad, get him to — "

"My dad's a fucking pussy." Chris' frown deepened. "He won't go after the goddamn school board; he said it would just make us look bad."

Norma shoved her hands into her pockets, swinging her legs over the edge of Chris' bed. "So then let it go. There's nothing you can do about it now; what's done is done. Come on, you're in a bad mood," she said, nudging Chris with her elbow. "Let's go do something about it."

"Oh, we'll do something alright," Chris said, in a strange tone, staring off into space. "We'll do something."

 

;;

 

A week later, instead of going to their second period class, Norma pulled Chris aside to skip. Chris made a face at Norma as she tugged her outside and towards the small shed on the far side of the athletic fields, where Norma knew they wouldn't get caught. What? Chris snapped at Norma, as she dropped her bag, grinning. "You'll never guess what I just found out."

Chris rolled her eyes. "What?" she asked again, impatiently.

Norma could barely contain herself, but she wasn't going to clue Chris in that easily. It wasn't often when she knew something that Chris didn't, and she liked being the center of Chris' attention every once in a while, instead of it being the other way around. "Okay," she said, leaning back against the shed. "Who is the last person that Tommy Ross would take to prom?"

"Tommy's going with Sue," Chris said, in a tone that usually would have made Norma feel like an idiot.

"No he's not. I was just in the office bringing in the attendance papers. Sue's making him go with someone else."

Chris narrowed her eyes. "No way. Who — "

"Carrie White," Norma announced triumphantly, with a grin.

Chris' mouth dropped. "No shit. Seriously?"

Norma nodded. "Swear to God," she told Chris gleefully. "I heard it myself — saw it myself, actually, until that bitch Collins kicked me out of the office. She was trying to get Tommy to back out of the whole thing, but Sue was insisting that it happen."

"Why would she do that?" Chris asked, rummaging in her purse and pulling out two cigarettes, one for herself and one for Norma. She brought out her Bic lighter and held the flame out towards Norma, who leaned forward and inhaled, feeling the smoke burn in her lungs. "What is Sue playing at?"

"Who cares?" Norma exhaled a stream of bluish smoke. "It's hilarious. Can you just imagine it, Carrie and Tommy? They're going to be on the ballot for the king and queen of prom too," she added, digging into her back pocket and producing a small slip of paper. It was a copy of the revised voting ballot for prom king and queen. She brandished it at Chris. "See?"

Chris shook her head in disbelief, a smile creeping across her face. "I just can't believe it," she said at last dropping the ends of her cigarette into the dirt and grinding them out with the toe of her shoe. "This is perfect — you know that, right? This is a perfect chance to ruin that bitch Carrie. Just think about it. She'll be so fucking pleased just to be going, she won't even suspect a thing."

Norma finished up her own cigarette. "What did you have in mind?"

"I'm not sure yet," Chris said slowly, toying with the snap on her purse. "But I'm going to think of something. Oh," she exclaimed, clapping her hands together gleefully. "I'm getting excited just thinking about it. Thank you, Norma," she said, stepping in close and looping her arms around Norma's waist. "If you hadn't told me, well. This is the best news I've gotten all year."

"Just passing along relevant information," Norma sighed, feeling a little rush of warmth as Chris' fingers traced little circles on the small of her back. "What are best friends for, right?"

Chris kissed her, once, on the mouth, before working her way down to Norma's neck, nipping at it. Not hard enough to leave a mark, though; they never left marks on one another. It was an unspoken rule. She guided them both until Norma's back hit the shed, her fingers working to undo Norma's pants. Norma shivered as Chris' hands stroked across her bare skin, casting a furtive glance around the area to make good and sure they were alone.

(she said she wasn't like those kinds of girls)

(but maybe she was)

A moment later Chris dropped to her knees and pressed a kiss to the top of Norma's thigh. "I think you've earned a bit of reward for getting me that kind of information," she said, looking up at Norma, who blushed a little, just because. "Don't you think?"

(maybe she was)

 

;;

 

Norma was in the gym after school with the rest of the prom committee, directing Sue and the other girls on where they should be hanging stars from the rafters, when Chris showed up. Normally Chris didn't stay behind and wait for Norma to be done with whatever task the prom committee had been assigned to that day, which was why Norma was surprised to see her.

"What's up?"

Chris flashed a wolfish grin at her. "Remember I said that we were going to do something about that Carrie bitch?"

Norma blinked. "You came up with something? What?"

"I can't tell you." Chris put a hand on her heart and held three fingers in the air like they used to do when they were in Girl Scouts together. "It's a secret. But I can tell you that it's going to be the best fucking surprise this town has ever seen. Billy and I came up with it last night. When you see it, you're totally going to piss yourself. Guaranteed."

"Chris," Norma whined, glancing up at Sue, who was too busy talking to Helen to pay attention to them. "Come on, tell me. I'm you're best friend, remember?" Chris eyed her skeptically; Norma pushed on. "I swear, I won't tell anyone. I promise. Honestly. Now can you please tell me?"

Chris seemed to debate it for a moment and then said, "Oh, all right, come here," and leaned forward to whisper it in Norma's ear.

It was a better plan than Norma could have ever dreamed up: dumping pig's blood on Carrie at prom. The plan, Chris admitted with a coy grin, involved getting someone to help them rig the prom king and queen election so that Carrie and Tommy would win. Once they were on stage, Billy and Chris (hiding under the stage) would pull the rope that tipped the bucket over. Chris snickered as she pulled her mouth away from Norma's ear, looking tremendously pleased with herself.

"I told you it was good," she said with a wide smile, with an excited clap of her hands. "Can you just imagine it? Think of her face. She'll flip. It'll be like the locker room all over again." She paused, folding her arms across her chest. "But we're gonna need help to pull this off. We need someone who can rig the vote."

"I'll help," Norma said.

She wasn't entirely sure why she said it. True, she'd always gone along with Chris' schemes before, but this one carried a much higher risk than all the others. It wouldn't be like the locker room incident, it would be beyond the locker room incident. If they got found out — forget detention, forget suspension, they'd be expelled for sure. And yet, still, she found herself compelled to offer her help to Chris. After all, why shouldn't they go out together with a bang?

Chris gave a tiny squeal of joy and grabbed Norma, hugging her tightly. "I knew you were my best friend for a reason," she told Norma, letting her go and reaching for Norma's hand. She gave it a squeeze. "Now, you're going to ask Freddie to help too, right?"

Norma started. "Wait, Freddie?"

Chris explained that she'd thought the whole thing through, stating that they needed Freddie because he could hide the fake ballots in his tuxedo jacket. "Keeping them hidden in plain sight, dig?" She gave Norma's hand another squeeze. "I mean, it'll be so perfect."

Freddie, as it turned out, was more than willing to help, especially after Norma gave him a handjob that evening, in the backseat of his car after he'd taken her out on a double date with Sue and Tommy to the bowling alley. "Sure babe, whatever you need," he mumbled, as Norma wiped her hand on one of his old baseball socks.

The next morning, Helen invited her out to skip school so that they could all spend the day getting ready for prom. Norma invited Chris too, but she declined, telling Norma that she wasn't going to sit on her ass all day and watch them having fun.

"You know," Helen said casually, when they were sitting in the beauty parlor downtown getting their hair done for the prom tomorrow, "I'm surprised you're not more upset about Chris not being able to go to prom."

Norma looked up from her magazine. "What? Why would I care?"

"Because you two have done everything together since you were kids." Helen shrugged, examining her freshly painted nails. She'd gotten them painted like a candy striper's outfit, little pink and white stripes slanted inwards towards her palm. Norma had wanted to get hers done the same way, but ended up just going with plain, apple red, just because she didn't want to look like a copycat. "I mean," Helen went on, "it was a pretty big shock when you didn't take Chris' side over the whole detention thing with Collins, but I can understand that." She waved her hand dismissively. "Senior prom is our one big moment, though; aren't you sad you won't be able to share it with Chris?"

Norma gave a small shrug, turning a page of the magazine in her lap without bothering to read it. "I guess. Maybe, yeah. It's okay," she clarified, after a moment. "I mean, I'm not going to let Chris ruin it for me. It's not my fault she was dumb enough to fight Collins on the detention."

"Yeah, you're right. It just seems kind of weird though, you know?" Helen pushed on, after a few minutes of heavy silence. "Maybe it's just me."

(just shut the hell up, helen)

"It's just you," Norma told her, with a bit more force than she intended, and ended up blushing.

Helen gave her a look. "Well, I don't know what's going to be more weird, seeing you at prom without being joined at the hip with Chris or seeing Carrie White on the arm of Tommy Ross!" She made an exaggerated flourish with her hands, laughing at herself. "What was Sue thinking."

Norma shrugged again, trying to keep a straight face, all the while thinking of what would happen at the prom tomorrow. If everything went as planned, they'd all be in for one hell of a shock. Norma pictured Helen's face, her wide eyes magnified by her glasses, her mouth frozen in an o shape. None of them would see it coming. She tried not to laugh, but couldn't help herself, quickly bringing her hand to her mouth to stifle the sound.

"What's so funny?" Helen asked.

(carrie, drenched in blood, all slow and stupid, bringing her hands to her face and not knowing what had happened)

"Nothing," Norma lied, forcing her laughter back down. "I'm just thinking, you know, about what you said. About Tommy and Carrie being at prom tomorrow together."

Helen smirked. "They're going to look ridiculous," she agreed.

That was an understatement.

 

;;

 

"You look hot." Chris was perched on top of Norma's small dresser, one leg crossed over the other, a can of beer sitting forgotten off to the side. Norma watched Chris watch her, in the mirror; their eyes met and Norma blushed, looking down at her dress and smoothing the front of it down with her hands, suddenly self-conscious.

"Thanks."

Chris smirked. "When Freddie sees you, he'll probably . . . " she trailed off, jumping down from the dresser and coming up behind Norma. "Well, you know." Her breath was hot against Norma's ear and she smelled like Macy's perfume. "You know he's gonna try and get you into the backseat of his car tonight."

Norma frowned. "Terrific."

"You're being weird again," Chris said with an exaggerated sigh, rolling her eyes and moving away, throwing herself down onto Norma's bed and hugging a pillow. "I thought you'd be happy. Do you not want to do it with him? You're such a lesbo, you really are. I knew I shouldn't have — "

"Shut up, Chris," Norma snapped, reaching for her cap and jamming it down onto her head, pushing aside a few stay curls. "It's not like that." And it wasn't; truth be told, she'd barely thought about the prom itself since Chris had told her the plan about the ultimate prank on Carrie White. Sure, at first it had seemed like a thrilling idea, but now she wasn't so sure. "I'm worried about tonight," she confessed to Chris, feeling a little guilty.

Chris sat up, eying her."Worried? What the fuck is there to be worried about? Just make sure everything gets done right and the whole thing will go off without a hitch. I told you," she said forcefully, climbing off the bed and coming over to Norma. She put her hands on Norma's shoulders, gripping them a bit too tightly; it made Norma's stomach twist into anxious knots. "It's all been worked out," Chris told her. "Billy and I did a dry run of it; it's cool."

"If anyone finds out — " Norma began to protest.

"No one's gonna find out, so long as you don't tell anyone. See, this is exactly why I wasn't going to let you in on the plan in the first place," Chris complained. She met Norma's eyes with an even stare. "Just calm the fuck down, okay? It's gonna be fine. Just wait. You'll see."

She sounded so confident — and that was Chris, she was never anything but confident — that Norma could only believe she was right. And maybe she was; Chris hadn't ever been wrong about anything ever before. Even walking out of Collins' detention and giving her a piece of her mind, well, it might have been stupid, but all of them had wanted to do that. Chris had just been the only one ballsy enough. She'd been right, too, about what she said, that it was just a joke.

Maybe she was right about everything. Carrie deserved this, didn't she? All of those times that they'd teased her, tripped her up on her way to the blackboard, stolen her books from her locker, they weren't just done for no reason. Everyone hated Carrie, because she was so stupid and weird and just so goddamn clueless about what was wrong with herself in the first place. And the whole locker room incident had really just been her fault too, freaking out over getting her fucking period, for Christ's sake. They were just having fun, like always. And that bitch Collins had stuck up for her, of course, and then Sue'd gone along with it as well, which was just typical, because Sue had always been a pushover.

They deserved it. They all deserved it, for acting like they were suddenly better than everyone else. Sue had gone along with more than her share of pranks and Collins had looked the other way dozens of times, when people had said or done things to Carrie. If what had happened in the locker room had been the breaking point for Sue and Collins, then it damn well had been for Norma and the others as well. She didn't know why she hadn't realized it before.

Norma watched Chris toss her hair in the mirror, trying to get it just so. "You're right," she said. "It's a good joke."

Chris looked at her and smiled.

 

;;

 

At a quarter to ten that evening, Norma collected the prom vote ballots with a grin, skipping from table to table and scooping them up. She flashed a grin at Tommy and Carrie as she grabbed their ballot. They'd voted for themselves, of course; Norma had to force down a laugh. "Good luck!" she chirped at them, catching Freddie's eye across the room.

"Well, hello," she said, handing him the stack of ballots and putting her hands on his chest. She pulled him in for a kiss. He tasted like vodka and fruit punch and smelled like the Marlboros he was always smoking. When she pressed her cheek against his, she could feel the roughness of his stubble; normally she hated it, but now for some reason it made her smile.

(she could maybe love him, if she tried)

She felt a little drunk with giddiness right now.

"You cool?" Freddie mumbled, turning his head and kissing Norma's neck. "I'm dropping the ballots now. They're right behind you," he mumbled a moment later, and she could feel his hand moving back up to her waist. "Just start kicking."

And she did, the heel of her shoe hitting the stack of papers and pushing them underneath the edge of the stage. As she reached into Freddie's jacket, taking out the stack of forged prom votes out, she felt oddly giddy. This was going to be the best joke of all time, something people would be talking about for years to come, long after they'd graduated. Everyone would wonder who had done it — how they'd done it; it would be the stuff of legends.

They'd made it this far, played their parts. The rest was up to Chris and Billy.

"You sure they're gonna get it done?" Freddie asked her, as they settled back down at their table. Across from them, Tina was making out with her boyfriend, Roy Evarts. "I mean, it'd be a waste to go through all of this and come out empty-handed. Billy said he was gonna let Chris pull the rope; can she do it?"

Norma watched Helen flirt with one of Chris' old boyfriends near the refreshments table. "Of course she can do it," she told Freddie, rolling her eyes and sliding her index finger around the rim of her empty punch glass.

 

;;

 

It wasn't really funny, but it also kind of was.

Carrie just looked so ridiculous standing there, frozen in shock, as blood dripped off her hands, her chin, down her dress. She had this deer-in-the-headlights look in her eyes, exactly like the one she'd had in the girl's locker room only a few weeks earlier. Only now there wasn't just blood on her hands, but blood everywhere, all over her, all over the stage. Some of it had even splashed onto Tommy, whose expression was a mix of shock and anger.

And then the buckets fell, the rope loose; the rim of one of them hit Tommy on the side of the head and his eyes rolled back as he crumpled to the floor. And it shouldn't have been funny — it wasn't funny; in the back of Norma's mind she knew it was wrong — but the whole thing was just so utterly ridiculous.

(like being back in the locker room, god, it was the same fucking look)

(plug it up, plug it up)

"Oh my God," Norma said, putting her hands over her mouth, trying to suppress her laughter. "Oh my God." She elbowed Freddie in the chest, gesturing at Carrie, still standing, shocked, on stage. Norma felt like she was trying to clue him on on a really clever punch line. Get it? Get it?

Freddie began to laugh too; it was nervous, hesitant laughter, like he wasn't sure if it was appropriate or not. He laughed and then Helen, to Norma's left, began to laugh, and then suddenly everyone was laughing right along with them. Carrie was standing there all wide-eyed, staring at them, and Miss Collins looked like she was about to blow a fuse, but it only made everyone laugh that much harder.

"What a loser," Norma shrieked, clapping her hands together with glee, falling against Helen, who was doubled over. Norma thought about Chris, who was probably already outside in the car with Billy, driving off. She imagined Chris imagining Carrie, laughing and congratulating herself on a job well done.

Freddie grabbed her by the hand, tugging her away from the stage. "Come on," he said, in a low voice. "Let's get out of here before there's any trouble."

They pushed their way through the crowd, trying to get to the doors. Norma knew that leaving now was practically nothing short of an admission of guilt, but no one seemed to be paying attention to them, still transfixed by the sight of Carrie on stage. Some of them were still laughing, others were turning towards their friends and wondering what would happen next.

As they neared the doors, Norma felt relief wash over her like a wave. They were going to get away with this. They had gotten away with it.

And then, suddenly, everything changed.

 

;;

 

"Norma?" Helen Shyres grabbed Norma's arm, wide-eyed and panicked. "Norma, what's going on?"

(sunday masses, falling asleep in the pew, dreaming about hell and jolting awake to the sound of the organ groaning to life)

"I don't know," she shouted at Helen, whose dress was stained with blood. "I don't — "

She didn't even get a chance to finish her sentence, as Helen tore away from her and the fire hose hit her in the back, knocking her forward. Norma didn't even have a chance to react; her arms flailed as she fell forward, her head striking the edge of one of the couples' tables near the refreshments. She saw stars, pain exploding behind her eyelids. She blinked her eyes, vision blurry with tears.

Her head ached like she'd just been hit with a baseball bat, but other than that, she was okay. For now, anyway. Ignoring the throbbing pain in her head, Norma pushed herself back up onto her feet; pressing a hand against her table, she looked around the room, trying to take in the chaos all around her. People were still trying to break down the doors or climb out through the windows, but none of seemed it to be working. Mr. Morton and Mr. Fromme, their English teacher, were arguing on stage, trying to grab the mic to calm the students down. That didn't seem to be working either. Miss Collins was on the stage with a group of girls from the prom committee; they were all kneeling around someone —

Oh, right. Tommy. Norma had forgotten how the bucket had hit him on the head when the rope had snapped.

(he was lying so still)

And then the fire hose swept across the stage; Fromme and Morton went dead silent. Shuddering violently, they clutched the metal stand of the microphone as if it was a lifeline. Morton fell over, tumbling off the stage into a crumpled heap. There was a smell in the air — it reminded Norma of fall, when her father burned leaves in the backyard. Fromme's sleeve caught fire and he fell against the backdrop of the stage.

The place lit up in an instant, as if everything had been doused in gasoline. Flames racing along the rafters, where decorations had been hung; they licked down the edges of the stage, around to all of the chairs and tables that had been knocked aside during all of the commotion. Norma coughed, putting a hand up to her mouth to try and keep from breathing in smoke.

The floor was slippery as she ran across it, her high heels not meant for this sort of thing; they wobbled underneath her, threatening to give out — and then she did fall, her ankle twisting painfully. She crashed into an overturned chair, crying out. She pushed herself up onto her knees, gritting her teeth and wiping her wet bangs out of her eyes. There was something wrong, something terribly, terribly wrong — she didn't know what it was, but she knew, almost innately, that it was because of Carrie. It was more of a feeling than a knowing, and Norma stared up at her, still on stage, the light from the fire and the wetness of the blood giving her a terrifying look.

She had to get out of here. She had to find Chris. Surely there had to be another way out of the gym — she thought at once of the door behind the stage, the small one usually hidden behind a stack of worn-out instruments and old stage prop pieces. It was the door Chris and Billy had used to sneak in with. Maybe it was still open. Maybe it was a way out. Escape! Her heart raced at the very idea of it.

Norma glanced back over at Carrie, who seemed to not even be aware of the chaos going on around her. Norma scrambled back up to her feet. She was exhausted and aching, but she pushing herself to keep going, as she skirted around the edge of the stage, ducking around to the back.

She tried the handle.

(please)

It was unlocked.

Wrenching open the door, she stumbled outside, gasping for air. Behind her, the door swung in the wind, and Norma could hear the sounds of people screaming and the crackling of the fire. And the smell — Norma doubled over, retching, her head spinning. She could go back, she thought to herself. She could go back and try to save someone else; her mind recoiled against the idea, forcing her to keep moving forward, further and further from the gymnasium.

A few yards away, Norma collapsed to the ground, panting. She felt ten times worse than that time sophomore year when she and Chris had gone on a bender all weekend, drinking until they'd blacked out. All she wanted to do was lie down on the grass and sleep until she felt like she wasn't half dead. She was just about to close her eyes when she hear the roar of a car engine and the skidding of tires on pavement. Norma looked up, squinting in the darkness as she watched Billy's fire engine red Ford come to a stop, just a few feet away.

It was then she heard what seemed like the sweetest sound in the world: Chris. Calling her name.

"Oh my God, Norma," Chris said, climbing out of the car, her face a mixture of surprise and relief. "Norma, you're okay." In two more long strides she was upon Norma, pulling her into her arms and embracing her tightly. "I thought I'd lost you," she said, her mouth against the crook of Norma's neck. "When I saw the gym on fire, I thought you — "

Norma shushed her, her hand going up to smooth down Chris' hair. She could still smell smoke, could taste it in her mouth, thick and chalky. Her lungs burned.

"I'm okay, I'm okay," she murmured, though she wasn't sure which one of them she was reassuring of this fact. "I got out just in time." And just like that, the reality of the evening hit her like a physical pump. Her stomach twisted and she coughed, feeling like she was going to be sick. She pulled away from Chris. "I don't know — what do we do now?" She felt panic begin to rise within her again and she tried to force it back down, tried to stay calm.

"Let's just get you home," Chris said, leading Norma back to the car where Billy was waiting. "Come on," she urged gently, opening one of the doors and helping Norma into the backseat. "Just lie down now, okay? Rest. You're going to be fine." She leaned forward and kissed Norma, gently. Like she was made of glass.

Norma couldn't remember Chris ever being so gentle before.

(there was chris, in seventh grade, saying, come on, just once, and putting her hands on norma's shoulders and bringing their mouths together for a kiss, she was gentle then)

Chris climbed into the front seat, shutting the door with a nod in Billy's direction. Norma groaned as the engine turned over, the car springing to life. Her headache hadn't subsided at all — in fact, it seemed to have gotten worse. She pressed her palm to her temple and her hand came away sticky and bright with blood; she could feel a warm trickle of blood slide down along her cheek, dripping off her chin.

(carrie and the locker room and oh, fuck)

(can't breathe, there's too much smoke in her lungs, the air's too hot)

She wiped her hand on her dress. Her eyes felt so heavy; she struggled to keep them open. The world seemed to spin all around her. She was still feeling the effects of smacking her head against the edge of the table when the fire hose had knocked her down. The whole evening seemed so unreal to her, like it was a dream — she wanted nothing more than for that to be the truth, to be able to wake up in a moment and discover none of this had actually happened.

She was so tired.

(hurts too much to think)

She shifted on the seats until she was lying down. Chris glanced back at her, her expression soft. She turned in her own seat, reaching out towards Norma. As Norma moved forward to take Chris' hand in hers, she felt, suddenly, a stunning blow against the side of her head, followed by a blinding white flash of light and pain.

(oh, oh)

 

;;

 

And then, nothing.