Imogene stood in front of the floor length mirror. Her dress glimmered in the dim lights of her bedroom. She marvelled at her costume, a white tutu made of a 'shimmery' satin. The bodice was decorated with silver embroidery and the skirt flared all around her as though she wore a cloud on her waist. She was a ballerina. She had asked the seamstress who made her costume to make her look like the White Swan from Swan Lake and they had done just that.
"Imogene, hurry up, your dad wants to drop you off so he can get back home in time for his show," called her mother from downstairs. Ugh, she thought. They were rushing her because of some TV show. This was a special night!
"Just a second!" screeched Imogene in a tone not befitting of a gentle ballerina. She turned to her best friend for approval. He sat on her bed, looking at her curiously. "What do you think, Spot?" she asked him. Spot cocked his head to one side, causing his brown fuzzy ears to flop back and forth. Spot was a Beagle with a brown face, white body and a black spot right on the middle of his back. He gave a bark of approval, wagging his tail, and with that, she knew she was ready.
She bounded down the stairs taking them two at a time. Her white ballet flats allowed her all this agility. If she had worn a costume that had required heels, she would have been in trouble. Her parents were waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. They smiled at her in her costume. She smoothed her hair and felt the bun at the back of her head, making sure it was in place. She was so excited for this party.
"Have fun," her mother said as she gave Imogene a kiss on the cheek.
"You're gonna win Halloween Queen in that get-up, hun. You look beautiful," said her father as she followed him outside to the car. "I hope so," she murmured to herself as they pulled out of the driveway.A glowing, full moon presided over the night, as was only fitting for All Hallow's Eve. It hung in the sky like a crystal ball, a glistening orb, surrounded by countless stars, pinned like bejewelled brooches adorning the sky. Imogene glittered under the light cast by the inhabitants of the night sky as she stepped daintily out of the car. She waved goodbye to her father who reminded her to be safe and to keep her phone with her at all times. She was standing on the pathway that led to the mansion where the All Hallow's Eve Ball would be thrown. Other teenagers were making their way to the front entrance. The neatly manicured front lawn was lined with jack o' lanterns. Everywhere Imogene turned, the carved pumpkin-faces smiled, jeered and frowned at her, gleaming with the light of the candles placed inside of them. They illuminated the front lawn. Imogene stood staring at them, mesmerised. She loved these sorts of decorations. They were so...
"Genie!" squealed a voice. Imogene jumped and then gave a sigh of relief. Lo and behold, it was Yvette, her best friend, dressed as a pumpkin. An orange, felt sack tapered at her neck, arms and legs and had been stuffed so that her costume ballooned all about her. She wore green stockings and shoes (roots, Imogene supposed) and on her head, there was an orange hat with the green stalk of the pumpkin stuck to the top. Imogene pulled her friend into an awkward hug. She could not get within two feet of Yvette herself. She released her friend and the two of them headed up the path, chatting animatedly.
As they passed through the entrance into the main ballroom, Imogene gasped. The ballroom had been transformed to look like something out of a haunted manor. Fake skeletons covered in silver cobwebs lay in the corners. The walls were lined in red velvet. The hardwood floor gleamed. There was a coffin on one side of the room and a huge jack o' lantern hung over the ballroom acting as a chandelier, with four faces carved into the sides facing the four cardinals. The pumpkin bore happy, sad, angry and scared expressions that lit up the ballroom with flashing orange, yellow and red lights. The dance floor was crowded with people from Imogene's school. Imogene gazed at the different costumes. Some people were household items; some were characters from movies and books. There were local characters: soucouyants, lagahoos and douens. She and Yvette shuffled through the sea of party-goers, making their way to the food table when the red boa of a girl walking past whipped them both right in the face.
"Well, if it isn't Imo-geek and the Yeti," sneered the boa's owner Malicia, in her ear-splitting voice. She was dressed as a showgirl in a red Can-can styled dress and wore red heels. The sycophants flanking Malicia laughed spitefully. Imogene rolled her eyes and continued towards the food table. Malicia tried to block her with another wave of her red boa.
"And don't delude yourself into thinking you'll win Halloween Queen," said Malicia, glaring down at Imogene, "I'm a shoo-in." Imogene ignored her taunts and grabbing Yvette's hand, she moved away from Malicia and her two idiotic friends. Malicia stalked away, her heels clacking on the hardwood floor.
"Forget about that, Imogene," said Yvette soothingly, "No one actually likes her.... They put up with her... to get invited to parties." Yvette was talking between mouthfuls. She had an aloo pie in one hand and a chocolate bar in the other. She offered them both to Imogene who politely refused. The girls spent the rest of the night dancing with their friends. They danced until they were red in the face and headed back to the food table with their friend Morgan who was dressed as a La Diablesse. She looked stunning in her wide brimmed silver hat and gown except for the prosthetic cow foot that poked out through the slit of her dress.
"You look great, Morgan!" piped Imogene. "I'm a regular beauty queen," replied Morgan, clunking her hoof for dramatic effect on the ground. The three girls laughed as they headed up the sweeping staircase on the western side of the ballroom. They had decided to explore the mansion. The rooms upstairs seemed like a never-ending show of artifacts to them. There were strange scrolls behind glass cases and bookshelves covered in dust and laden with books in different languages. The heart of the first floor showcased a huge glass case in an otherwise uninteresting room. On a red, velvet pillow inside the case was a golden tiara encrusted with red jewels.
"Do you think this is real?" said Morgan excitedly.
"Look at all those rubies," said Yvette. The girls oohed and aahed over it. A sharp voice came out of nowhere, startling the girls.
"Those aren't rubies you dimwits! They're red diamonds," spat Malicia.
Her annoyance seemed to increase as she took in the quizzical looks on the girls' faces."That's Harlow's Tiara!" she added, exasperatedly. "Don't you know the story?" She didn't wait for their reply.
"The owner of this manor had a wife, half his age. Her name was Harlow. She was very vain and fancied herself a princess. This wing of the manor, where we're having our party is normal, but the South wing is just a skeleton of what it used to be, before the fire destroyed it long ago. They said that Harlow got out before the fire spread, but she realised she'd left her tiara back in her dressing room and ran back inside for it. She died clutching that tiara. Ironically, the tiara was recovered unscathed. They had to pry Harlow's melted fingers from it." Malicia laughed disdainfully as she finished her story.
"What a stupid woman; she got what she deserved, huh?" said Malicia.
"Well, you said she was really young, didn't you," said Imogene indignantly, saddened by Malicia's story. "She probably got married off to that man. Maybe her tiara was special to her." With one last contemptuous look at Imogene, Malicia flounced out of the room, heels clacking and twirling her red boa in disgust.
It was only a few minutes to midnight. The girls hurried downstairs – the Halloween Queen was going to be announced at the stroke of midnight. The voting for the Halloween Queen was done within the first two hours of the ball.
Imogene spotted Malicia darting down the staircase. Hadn't she left before them? Had she gone back for something?
As Malicia came down the staircase, the student body president, Daniel, took the stage. The crowd was fixated on the envelope that held the name of the winner. He waved it teasingly at the audience.
"Let's start the countdown people," he said, his voice booming through the high-ceilinged room, magnified by the microphone. It was eleven seconds to midnight.The crowd chorused, led by Daniel: "Ten, nine, eight..." Imogene noticed Malicia was now standing very close to the stage with an expectant look on her face.
Imogene crossed her fingers.
"Seven, six, five..." The three girls neared the stage to get a better view of things.
"Four, three, two..."
How Imogene hated suspense.
"One!" Daniel bellowed into the mike: "And the Halloween Queen is... Morgan Matthison!" Imogene hated disappointment too.
She sighed as Morgan, dumbstruck, scrambled onto the stage in her cow foot with a little push from Yvette. She watched Morgan remove her wide brimmed hat. She was happy for her though. At least it was not Malicia.
Malicia looked infuriated as she glared up at Morgan who was being crowned by Daniel. The moment the tiara touched her head, the audience erupted in cheers. Morgan barely got a moment to enjoy it. Malicia leapt on stage and shoved Morgan off the stage; she went hurtling into the crowd.
A few girls screamed. What on earth had gotten into Malicia?
With a look of triumph, Malicia grabbed the microphone from a dumbfounded Daniel and shrieked into it: "I'll crown myself!" She grabbed her red boa and revealed what she had hidden in it: Harlow's tiara. Malicia held the tiara in both hands and lowered it onto her head. As if Malicia's outburst had not been shocking enough, what happened next sent the crowd into hysterics. As soon as the red diamond tiara touched Malicia's head, the red from the diamonds seemed to spread through her like a poison. Scarlet streaks coursed down Malicia's face and formed patterns on her arms and legs.
Malicia stood, frozen. The smile left her face. Within moments, the redness vanished leaving scaly, disfigured skin behind. Malicia looked as though she had been severely burned in a fire.
Imogene gasped in horror.
Malicia's head darted from side to side taking in the reactions of the crowd. She suddenly noticed her burnt scaly hands. Her hands flew to her face and then to the top of her head. She tried to yank the tiara off but it stuck, molded to her scalp. She screamed in horror, an unbearable sound, reverberating through the ball room. It cut through the night like a sword piercing through flesh.
It was this scream that started the panic. Boys and girls screamed in horror and ran in throngs, pushing towards the exit. Imogene, Morgan and Yvette stayed close to the stage, fearing they would be trampled if they got swept up in the crowd.
As Malicia wrestled with the crown she had so desperately wanted, Imogene smelled something strange.... Smoke! She looked around and a jolt of terror lurched through her as she saw a trail of fire was coming down the staircase, blazing its way towards them. Yvette and Morgan screamed and raced towards the door. The ballroom was almost clear. Imogene hesitated. Malicia was still on the stage, struggling. The room filled with smoke, the fire roared. It blackened the ceiling and scorched the decorations. It burnt through the hardwood staircase, picking up speed and increasing in size and fury. Imogene watched as the All Hallow's Eve ball deteriorated around her, realising Malacia would be burnt to death, just like Harlow in the story. She had to act now.
She clambered onto the stage. She could feel the heat of the flames as they danced across the other side of the room, smoke filling her lungs. Mustering every ounce of courage, Imogene grabbed the tiara on Malicia's head. To her surprise, it freed itself without a tug-of-war. She was about to fling it into the raging fire when an unnaturally high wail left her frozen, afraid to move. She slowly turned and saw a woman coming out of the flames, heer long hair billowing about her. The ruffles of her gown trailed with each step. As she neared them, Imogene realised the woman bore burn marks identical to Malicia's.
"Harlow," Imogene thought.The ghostly Harlow gave another deafening howl that sent chills up and down Imogene's spine. She wore the expression of a mad woman, desperately reaching with both hands, reaching for the tiara, moving with supernatural speed. Suddenly she was before them. She grabbed both girls, dragging them towards the fire, cackling madly.
"Take it, take it!" Imogene screamed. Imogene let the tiara fall.
Harlow grabbed it, releasing the girls. Without hesitation, Imogene was on her feet. She grabbed Malicia, supporting her, hurrying out of the mansion. as she left the burning building, she looked over her shoulder to see Harlow crown herself.
As the crown touched her head, she burst into flames.
Harlow's shrieks pierced the night and escalated in pitch until they faded into the crackling of the red flames.
Imogene and Malicia ran out the double doors and onto the path. They then trudged slowly, futher and further until they collapsed on the grass.
Imogene was vaguely aware of the sound of sirens. Yvette was sobbing. Morgan was there too. She looked frail and shaky, her crown askew. Imogene heard her father's voice, thick with worry. She thought she heard the huge jack o' lantern laughing from inside the burning mansion. The smaller jack o' lanterns outside swirled around her. She felt herself being lifted up and carried somewhere amidst the sobs and the sirens.
When Imogene awoke, she was in a white room hooked up to an IV. A gaggle of worried-looking people surrounded her. She was told that she had inhaled a dangerous amount of smoke and that she had second-degree burns on her hands. That was strange. She had not felt anything then but as she tried to move her fingers, she felt them now, stinging under the dressings. A voice was saying that Malicia's burns covered her face and limbs but they were surface burns and would heal with time.
According to the fire department, the mansion fire was caused by a candle from a jack o' lantern that had tipped over. Imogene did not say anything in response to this information. She did not want to believe her own memories of the fire. Her parents fussed over her. Yvette cried, apologising through her tears for leaving Imogene. Morgan came over to her shyly. Daniel was there too. He whispered something to Morgan who nodded.
"You were really brave, Imogene! You're the real Halloween Queen," said Morgan with a slight smile. Daniel took the Halloween Queen crown from Morgan and was about to place it on Imogene when she stopped him, holding her bandaged hands up in protest.
"No thanks. I'm really honoured but... I'm not a big fan of tiaras."