Stephanie Lauter cornered her right after lunch break with a friendly smile that made Hannah anxious of what could hide behind it. She leaned against the row of lockers excitedly.
"Hey, kiddo," she said in a warm voice. "I’m throwing a Halloween party next weekend, you wanna come?"
Hannah stared at her. She half expected Stephanie to be speaking to someone invisible somehow located at the same spot she was standing in, that there was a trick she did not understand. She had never been invited to a party before – or indeed to anything at all, dates or hangouts or any social event that didn't take place in the confines of her own bedroom. Webby was company enough, all considered. Certainly less cryptic to her than the present invitation.
"Why?" She asked bluntly.
Stephanie's smile only wavered a little.
"Cause I’d like you to come?" She said, a little sassy. Hannah liked sass. She did not always understand it, but Lexi was always being snarky. It was familiar. "Hannah, there’s no trick. It’s just an invite. Mull it over if you need to, but I think it’d be fun."
She pulled out her phone, which was big and square and twice the size of Lexi’s.
"Give me your number," she said. "I’ll message you the address."
"I don’t have a phone."
Stephanie stared, as if she were torn into calling out Hannah for lying to worm her way out of the invitation or filled with pity for her misfortune. Hannah was used to that, too. She hated telling lies and even here, she was telling the truth, but not all of it. Stephanie did not need to know more about her circumstances than she already did. Nobody ever needed to know that. Hannah liked to keep to herself, details or big picture.
"Well, I got a class starting soon," Stephanie said dubiously. "Here, I’ll just write it for you."
From a pocket, she produced a pen with which she jotted down her address on the back of Hannah’s hand in blotchy black ink. She blew on it a little to dry it, and gave back the hand with a smile. She cocked a finger gun at Hannah on her way to class on the opposite end of school.
Hannah stared at the scribbled note all throughout math. She excelled at the class anyways, so that the mystery of the invitation was harder to pierce than anything the teacher threw at them. She had disliked Hannah from the start and all the more than usual she unfurled on her today, sensing that she was distracted from the topic at hand. It bothered her, it seemed, that Hannah could be paying attention to her own mind more than the class itself and still manage to follow along and get every answer right that was asked of her. A hundred times before she had tried to catch her unguarded, and every single time, Hannah had pulled her focus back to mathematics and given a solid answer. Hannah was not doing this to spite her, but it seemed to her that there were people who were simply implacable.
She had never been to a party before. Had Lex? She could not remember any mention of a party from her sister either in the past, but then there were times when Lex was out of the home and failed to mention whatever it was that she was doing out there. This was because she wanted their mother in the dark of her whereabouts, but there was so little privacy in the trailer the effect unwittingly was that Hannah was kept out of it too. She did not think she minded that, not too much. It would have been nice to know if Lex knew how parties went, though. Nobody else at home could help her with that. Pamela Foster, assuredly, went to the types of parties Hannah would never even be invited to.
Before the end of the school day, Hannah had made up her mind that she would be going to the party. If she liked it, then she would have had a good time and perhaps even made a friend or two. And if she did not like it, it was just one night and she would do her best to forget all about it afterwards. She would not be drinking alcohol − she had tasted from her mother’s bottles before and had been less than convinced by the bitter taste. She would not smoke either − Lex carried the smell of cigarettes on her clothes, in her hair, and it always made Hannah a bit queasy. She would be sitting somewhere quiet, listen in to the conversations, and enjoy herself if she could. That was the plan.
"Nanners!" Her mother called out the moment she walked home. "Where’s your sister? She forgot to pay the bill again, the heater’s gone cold. I’m freezin’ my tits off over here."
Hannah shrugged. Lex must have been at work again, pulling overtime in prevision of the holidays coming up in a few weeks. Black Friday was right around the corner. When she was little, Hannah had used to hang around Toy Zone in Lakeside Mall and sit in a corner to look with envy at all the toys they could never afford. She was a teenager now and too old for playing, and she had convinced Lex that she could stay at home with their mother just fine. Lex was the one who could not help clashing with Pamela. Hannah managed quite alright locking herself in her room − it was Lex who fought back at their mother’s caustic remarks and who fanned the sparks. Hannah could be content on her own and ignore her mother’s remarks when they were less than kind. Webby kept an eye on her and she handled herself perfectly fine.
"I dunno," she replied. On her hand, the address of the Lauter house, the mayor’s house. She supposed Solomon Lauter must have been out of town next weekend. Stephanie did not seem like the sort of daughter who partied with her dad. "Mom…"
She could not ask for Lex’s permission. Lex would never give it in a million years. Often, it seemed to Hannah that Lex would never stop seeing her as a very young kid who had to be watched all the time for everything. Being left at home with just their mother had already been a compromise she had fought for, but to be allowed to visit a classmate’s house… In her mind’s eye, she could already imagine Lex refusing flatly. She would think it too dangerous, too mature for a girl as young as Hannah, as gullible. The whole idea would be thrown out altogether and Hannah could just forget about it. That was what would happen if she asked Lex.
"My classmate’s invited me over for Halloween," she said quietly. It was better to be unassuming when talking to Pamela, as anything could get on her nerves quite easily if one was not careful. "Can I go?"
"Halloween?" Pamela repeated, incredulous. She frowned. "Wait, you got invited?"
Hannah’s mouth narrowed. She had made calculations already of the risk that the invitation would be a joke and had decided to take on that margin of risk anyways. Regardless, it wasn’t for her mother to joke about and she remained silent, only staring back at her without a word in answer. Eventually, Pamela gave a smirk.
"Well, it ain’t for me to stop you," she said, "Once in your fuckin’ life, love. You better enjoy it."
She paused and crashed on her spot of the couch again, covering herself with several blankets.
"But if you come home too drunk and puke anywhere I gotta clean up, you’re sleepin’ outside."
Hannah nodded. Inside her chest, she felt a sudden rush of warmth, the joy of having gotten her way.
"Thanks," she said as she dashed away to her bedroom, which really was nothing more than a closet with a bed in it. It was a bunk bed and she sank into the bottom one to hide her grin into the pillows.
She felt a familiar little tickle at her shoulder and perked up as Webby hopped from her flannel to the pillow. She was smiling, if there could be such a thing as a smile on a spider’s face.
"A party, huh?" She said and she was the only one who understood how impressive this was. "That’s a milestone. What are you going to do?"
Hannah rolled over and took Webby in her palm to look at her. Her feet dangled from the end of the bed and she could not stop smiling. The more she thought about it, the more she found to look forward to about the party and the more she built up in her own mind the possibilities of it being something truly great.
"I’m going to introduce myself," she said, "And the people are going to be nice to me."
"That’s the spirit, baby!" Webby replied, chipper. "You know what I always say, you’re not the one who’s lucky, they should be so lucky to meet you!"
"Uh huh," Hannah said, nodding. Webby always said that indeed, although Hannah could see right through her that it was a cheap attempt at cheering her up. At the moment, though, she needed no cheering up at all. She was feeling very happy. "I think Stephanie is kind of nice."
Webby leaned her little head on several legs bent at the elbow. Her many eyes blinked, all with a slight delay from one another, like a wave.
"Tell me all about her."
Hannah had not talked to Stephanie many times before. Once, Mr Houston had paired them up for a project and Stephanie had slacked off a lot less than usual. Every time she spoke to her, she was kind, although she had many friends of her own and never paid Hannah any mind outside of shop class. Never before today.
"She’s nice," she repeated, unable to come up with more than just that. She thought of the iPhone. "I think she’s rich."
"Nice and rich?" Webby said. "Those don’t often run together. You hit the jackpot."
The days rolled by till the weekend of Halloween. Stephanie spent the next wood workshop class working on a jewelry box she wanted to craft for herself and Hannah did not distract her from her task to let her know of her decision. She would see soon enough, anyways. And if she’d wanted to know, she would have asked. Some people liked surprises, after all. Or rather, an insecure little voice at the back of her mind reminded her, she had way too many friends to care about the one guest she hardly knew showing up or not.
Still, Hannah was looking forward to the party. Pamela had not mentioned it again and Hannah was half afraid that she had forgotten about it, that she would change her mind if Hannah spoke of it. She still had not told Lex about it. It was silly and it was selfish, but she was finding that she liked having this plan all of her own making that did not require her sister at all. Sometimes, it was good to be her own person. She was sure Lex would have thought something different.
The day of the party, she braced herself for the possibility of it having been a terrible prank she had fallen right into. She checked the address again, which she had copied on a post-it note and memorized anyways. She would have to walk there (she did not want to ask Lex for a ride and her mother never drove anymore) and it would take up a chunk of the evening, and she would have to wear two flannels on top of one another because the nights were getting more than chilly. The party would be warm, she thought. She did not think the heating broke for too long at the Lauters. Instead of taking the bus home, she walked.
She knocked and was invited in.
The house was big. They could have stacked a couple of trailers in just the entrance hall of it with room to spare and every single part of the house was filled with people. Did Stephanie know every single student in Hatchetfield? There were people here Hannah had never seen in her life. Sycamore, she reflected, though she did not dare to ask anyone. She realized with horror that every single person here was dressed up. It was Halloween, wasn’t it? She had not thought about that at all. She had not trick-or-treated for years and Halloween meant very little to her when a magical spider from outer space lived in her home day in and day out.
"Aww, widdle Hannah was inwited to the pawty!" Brad had dressed up as a baseball player for the occasion and swung his bat in front of him. "Or are you crashing, Foster?"
He advanced on her with a roguish grin that made her heart pulse a little faster. Around them, a few groups of people were chatting together. Nobody was paying attention to her. Nobody ever did. Trapping her against the door, he leaned a hand on the wall behind her and Hannah felt very young and very small. She held up his gaze resolutely. There were dozens of people in here. What evil could he do in front of such a crowd?
"What did you dress up as?" He asked viciously. "A freak?"
She glared at him. He was a senior and big for his age, too big for her to push him off. If she tried, then he might fight back with a strength much bigger than hers. She wished Webby were here.
"Oh, shut the fuck up, Brad," Stephanie called out from behind. She gave him a kick in the shin. "You weren’t invited!"
She smiled brightly at Hannah as Brad limped away, muttering something about his college scholarship depending on his work on the football field. Stephanie was dressed up in what was certainly a movie character Hannah did not recognize. The costume was very well made and she wondered if Stephanie had sewn it herself. Probably, she had paid for it instead.
"Hey, Hannah," Stephanie said in a warm tone that seemed very sincere. "So glad you came! Make yourself at home, dude."
She gave Hannah a quick hug and went on to greet new arrivals behind her. When she tried to turn back and introduce them, Hannah had already made her way into the rest of the house.
There were people everywhere. The music was loud and weird and nothing like what Lex listened to at home on their old CD player. It smelled like beer, which was nothing Hannah wasn’t used to. It smelled like sweat, like a cramped locker room after double PE. People were shouting over the music, but even more than the deafening noise all around, it was the house that Hannah was overwhelmed by. Everywhere she walked, there was expensive furniture, there were screens as big as a whiteboard from school, and she kept glancing around in case anyone accused her of trying to steal or being dishonest. She was terrified to touch anything at all. Outside the kitchen, in the backyard behind a big window door, she spotted a dog.
"Oh god, Steph invited freshmen too?" Someone snickered at Hannah trying to sneak her way through the crowd. "That girl’s got a bleeding heart."
Hannah ignored them. She knew now that her plan of sitting quietly somewhere she could listen in on the atmosphere and seep it in had been ludicrous. Not in a million years could she ever feel relaxed enough to enjoy that level of noise in a dimly lit space full of people she did not know. On the best of days, most of them ignored her existence entirely.
"Sorry, I’m just…"
She managed her way through eventually, not without bumping into several sweaty people who laughed at something − perhaps at her very presence there. Why hadn’t she taken her hat with her? She would have felt more at peace. She considered trying to summon Webby to support her but Webby never showed up when there was company.
"Hey," she told the dog once outside.
He was a quiet, friendly dog and when she sat on a garden chair in the patio, he rested his big head between her knees. Hannah hesitantly passed her fingers over his soft ears. She closed her eyes and let out a sigh. Even with the door closed, the music was too loud. Why had she come here?
"What’s your name?" She asked him.
The dog panted and drooled over her jeans. His name was Oreo, she realized, and checked a tag around his neck to make sure. He was spotted black and white with a very fluffy tail. It suited him. She smiled down at him. The night was icy cold.
"Do you have friends, Oreo?" She asked softly. "Or are you just nice to everyone?"
The kitchen door opened with a blasting sound and closed just as fast. Before she knew it, Hannah found herself blanketed with a very cushiony, very soft plaid laid over her shoulders.
"You’re shivering, kid," Stephanie told her. She passed her hands over Hannah’s shoulders, rubbing her arms up and down to try and warm her up. "Winter’s coming, you know."
Hannah thought about the heater which still wasn’t working, about Lex and her huddling for warmth on some nights.
Inelegantly, Stephanie crashed into the chair next to her. She was holding a bottle of beer and she seemed a bit tipsy, which made her particularly cheerful.
"His name is Oreo," she told Hannah. "He’s an Australian Shepherd."
Hannah knew nothing about dog breeds, but she nodded and petted Oreo. He was a good dog. On the trailer, they had a watch dog to keep their little home safe, but it only obeyed their mother and Hannah had never made a friend of it. Oreo seemed much more affectionate. She was starting to warm up a little bit. Stephanie took a swig of her bottle and flung it aside after realizing it was now empty.
"You’re on your own a lot, huh?"
Hannah did not know how to reply to that, and only looked down at the dog. When she scratched him under his ears, he made a certain face that looked like he was smiling.
"You know, that’s totally okay," Stephanie said. "It’s not what matters."
As if Stephanie would know anything about that, Hannah thought with bitter amusement. She had friends everywhere she went. She was one of the most popular girls in the whole school − everyone liked her. Even Hannah liked her, and she hated school.
"That’s easy for you to say," she muttered.
Stephanie sighed. Her chair scraped the tiles of the patio as she scooted it closer to Hannah’s to touch her shoulder affectionately.
"Hey, you’re a nice kid, alright? That’s what matters. You’re super creative, I’ve heard you on the uke, that shit’s dope as fuck. And you’re the only person I know who’s ever impressed Mr Houston, have you seen his resting bitch face with everyone else?"
Hannah looked up at her and Stephanie smiled reassuringly. She wrapped an arm around Hannah’s shoulders. Often, Hannah did not like being touched, but there were moments she did not mind. She liked it when Lexi hugged her, anyways. And she liked this.
Little by little, she was warming up to Stephanie and to the cold night air from under her blanket. Not once did Stephanie make to leave her there, to join everyone else inside. It was her party, wasn’t it? She would have had every right to enjoy it to the fullest and spend time with her guests, and yet she sat out there with Hannah talking about everything that came to mind. Hannah confessed in half-truths her anxieties of being too different to find a place anywhere. Of not mattering.
"You do matter," Stephanie told her firmly. "You’d still matter even if I didn’t invite you to some stupid party. I just thought I wanted to see you around, but I should have thought you and I don’t really have fun the same way…"
Hannah pulled up her knees and sat back comfortably into the chair, rolled up in a loose ball, her favorite position. The sky was bright with stars.
"Your father," she said hesitantly. "Is he okay with…"
Stephanie snorted. She was so bold in everything she did. Hannah admired that. It reminded her of Lexi.
"Nope," Stephanie replied. "He’s out to visit some shitty town god knows where. He doesn’t know I invited anyone over. I’m a trouble maker, remember?"
Now was Hannah’s turn to smirk and she rested her chin on her elbows.
"I wish I was a bit less in the public eye sometimes…"
"It’s… the opposite," Hannah said, slowly making sense of it. "Either way is hard."
They looked at each other and exchanged a smile.
"You want me to grab you a…" Stephanie started to say, but outside they heard the loud creaking of tires and she frowned. "What the fuck was that?"
There was ruckus coming from inside and Stephanie stood to her feet to go and have a look. She opened the kitchen door and Hannah’s blood chilled in her veins as she recognized the voice shouting.
"Where’s my sister?!"
Ignoring everyone calling her a party crasher, Lex was barging in and frantically looking for Hannah. Oreo barked. Hannah’s heart fell in her chest. It would be so much easier to go along. She shouldn’t have lied to Lexi. The blanket fell off her shoulders as she stood and walked back inside.
"Oh, there you are! Come on, Hannah, we’re going home."
But the moment they had passed the door, it opened again and a hand touched Hannah’s shoulder.
"The party’s not over, you know," Stephanie said. "You can stay as long as you’d like."
Lexi swirled around with the fury of an ancient god. She glared at Stephanie.
"I’m taking her home," she replied coldly. "She didn’t even ask for permission. She was not allowed to come, and I’m making sure she’s safe."
She tugged on Hannah’s hand a little, but Hannah did not budge and even as mad as she was, Lexi did not want to force her. She stared at her astonished. It was as though she had not even considered that Hannah could resist.
"I asked mom," Hannah said. "She said I could come."
Lexi’s face fell and her eyes looked hurt with betrayal − and a thick dose of anger.
"Of course you did!" She shouted. "You knew she’d say yes!"
Stephanie walked down a couple of steps on the stone staircase leading to the front door. She poked a finger into Lex’s shoulder.
"You’re not her mom!" She cried. "Dude, work on your anger issues. It’s just a party, she’s not doing anything wrong."
"Well, my mom’s a drunk bitch so maybe stick your nose somewhere else, dude," Lex retorted. "You don’t know anything about us."
"I know Hannah was having a good time and you’re ruining her evening!"
It was like a silent tug of war between the two, the way they glared at each other, each of them completely convinced they were doing the right thing for Hannah who stood there in the middle unsure of what she should do. Lexi was really mad. She hated when that happened.
"Ruining her evening? Please. I don’t know what game you’re playing, inviting her over to make fun of or whatever, but it ends today."
Stephanie’s grasp loosened on Hannah’s shoulder and she glanced down at her, then back at Lex.
"That is… incredibly hurtful," she said quietly. "Why would you just assume I’m inviting her to make fun of her? I think she’s a cool kid and I wanted to see her. You’ve got issues."
At this, Lex seemed to back down at last and she turned to Hannah with widened eyes.
"Plus, even if I was, which I’m not, don’t you think that her sister crashing my party to come and get her is like way more embarrassing anyways?"
Lexi’s hand squeezed Hannah’s. She had forgotten all about her anger at Stephanie, focused only on her sister once more.
"I’m so sorry, Banana. I shouldn’t have assumed, I just… got scared something could go wrong."
Hannah squeezed the hand back.
"Shit, I’m so sorry," Lexi went on. "Everyone’s gonna tease you for this, fuck. I just heard mom saying you were going to a party and I thought, oh hell no, she’s gonna do drugs and have sex and…"
"I don’t wanna do either of those," Hannah mumbled under her breath. "That’s what you do."
This struck a nerve, but Lexi was too apologetic to protest it. She only stared bewildered that Hannah would be so bold as to say something like this. Stephanie gently patted Hannah’s shoulder.
"Well, a woman after my own heart," she said, trying to calm down the atmosphere. "Look, next time, just ask to be invited too."
She looked at Hannah and smiled.
"There will be a next time."
In the car, Lex apologized several times more. Hannah leaned her head against the window and did not reply. Stephanie had talked to her so easily, so kindly. Like she wasn’t a weirdo at all, like she was interested in what Hannah was saying. Like she was just any other kid at school.
"Did you have a good time, at least? Before, you know…"
Hannah hesitated. The evening had been a rollercoaster of surprises, but all that could stick was the nice chat in the backyard, the warmth she had felt. She nodded.
"Stephanie is really nice," she said. "I think she wants to be my friend."
"Well, she should be so lucky," Lex retorted. "Kids like you come one in a million, you know that?"
Hannah thought of Webby.
At home, they walked in on their mother at an advanced stage of making out with a man Hannah had never seen before. At first, she did not notice them, but the moment she did, she broke the kiss and groaned in frustration.
"Ah, shit, you’re home."
The guy turned around to face the girls and must have seen on their faces the resemblance they each bore to their mother. He buttoned his jeans again and scrambled to his feet.
"Fuck, you’ve got kids?!"
"Bane of my existence," Pamela replied with a sigh and flopped back against the cushions.
Hannah and the guy passed each other as she went to her room. Behind the door she closed shut, she could hear a screaming match starting between Lexi and her mother and she tried not to think about it. On the bed, Webby appeared. She looked like a teenage girl, something halfway between a cheerleader and a math champion.
"So how’s my party goer?" She asked merrily.
Hannah sat down next to her and began recounting her the events of the evening, the walk, the huge wealthy house, Brad and the others taunting her, and Stephanie. Webby listened patiently, petting Hannah’s hair with her translucid immaterial hands that tickled whenever she touched her. Despite Lexi and her mother fighting outside her room, Hannah could not stop smiling when she thought about the good parts of the night. She had only had a small taste of it tonight, but already she knew a very important truth. There was no sweeter thing in life than having a good friend.