Exactly one week after she found out that Pete Meyer had asked Jennifer O'Connell to senior prom, Shannon awoke with a strange tingling feeling in her right cheek. She hadn't been picked by Pete to walk with him through those big gymnasium doors, and it was all she thought about. In fact Shannon was thinking about it as she padded to the bathroom, and examined a small red puckering just beneath the skin. She could feel the round nodule with the tip of her tongue inside her mouth, sandwiched between two slabs of skin, just festering there.
The trouble was that Shannon and Jen were friends. In their girl-club, known by students and teachers as "The Ponytails" because of the way they wore their hair, Shannon was widely considered to be Jen's consigliere -- playing defense for her in the lunch room against sub-par suitors, gladly hurrying to Jen's locker when she’d forgotten her lip gloss, or tracking down the answers to the Spanish final when one of the tech nerds scored them from Mr. Molina’s computer. If a murder of Ponytails were walking down the hall, it would be Shannon's job to quell the asides, something out of a Baltimore street corner: "Ponytails comin'!" When the lacrosse team found out that the Ponytails would be making their presence known at Dan, the captain’s, party earlier that year, and one of them wrote on Dan's Facebook wall: "There will be blowjobs," Shannon very proudly nipped that one in the bud.
"Nice third eye," joked Shannon's dad from behind his e-reader when she came down to join him for breakfast. She shot her dad a shit-eating scowl, and dove into her granola. The stuff tasted like she'd felt recently. Chalky and grey, a poor substitute for anything. Shannon’s application to Vanderbilt was rejected, and she was wait-listed at Brown. It seamed like everyone was getting into their dream schools, on their way to doing great things... While poor Shannon got left behind in the dust. Mr. Perkins, her softball coach, even pulled her into his office to tell her she looked like a zombie out there. Then, like the icing on the cake, Pete asked Jen. Word on the street was that he'd had eyes for Shannon initially, especially since they'd hooked up on the senior trip. Now all The Ponytails were cooing over the snub. So Shannon took all her disappointment and anger, and she balled it up inside. It festered for a week, but now it was coming to a head.
When she excused herself to the ladies room during third period, the pimple on her cheek had inflated into a shiny, red pustule with a perfect little white-head in the center. The thing just screamed "Pop me!" So she did. All over the bathroom mirror -- a squirt of fine, white puss speckled with milky, red. Shannon could feel her cheek drain gloriously... and in that moment, a voice played thinly through her mind, like the voice of a very sick, very ancient woman. Even though the voice was foreign, unfamiliar to Shannon... she smirked at it, taking satisfaction in the very dubious things it said. The voice was right. Shannon had played second fiddle for far too long. She deserved to be in Pete's arms, not Jen. Like a witch, the voice said: "Jenny O'cunt. She deserves what's coming to her!!" She blotted the pimple, applied some coverup, and returned to class feeling a weight had been lifted. She knew now how to proceed.
The next day at school, Shannon met up with three other Ponytails at their locker. They shot her a concerned glance, and when she asked them what was up, one of them laughed and rolled her eyes. The three girls parted like the red sea when Jenny showed up, face red, and eyes wet. She stormed up to Shannon and pointed her finger at her: "YOU'RE the cunt for doing that you did," she shouted, turning several heads. Jen eyed the crusty, red, about-to-burst-again fistule on Shannon's face with disgust. It was now three times the size it was the day before. Then she stormed off in a fit of tears, coddled by her subordinates. "How could she? We were friends!" Shannon heard her say.
The night before Shannon had made a Facebook account under the avatar "Jenny O'Cunt" and left a scathing tirade on Jennifer's wall. "I heard Jenny sucked a guy's cock in the men's bathroom at a Girl Talk show last June." (All The Ponytails had been there, and they all knew it was true, but were sworn to absolute, triple pinky-swear secrecy) The post linked to Pete's profile, and asked him directly: "Still want to take this slut to prom???" Shannon clocked the maneuver as a success when she noticed that Jen and Pete were not sitting together during lunch period like they had been all last week. Shannon sat by herself, occasionally fielding stern looks from the other Ponytails. Her turkey sandwich tasted absolutely divine.
That morning, Shannon had raided the skincare shelf at Wall-Greens on her way into school. After quickly finishing lunch, she booked it to the ladies room. She laid out the creme, the foaming face wash, the benzyle peroxide... In the mirror she could see that the pimple was ready for another draining, something she had been looking forward to all day. She picked the scab open with her fingernail. As she squeezed and squeezed, cheek turning bright red with the pressure applied, the white infection squirted out like toothpaste from a tube. It was really remarkable how much was in there, Shannon thought. This time, however, Shannon's eyes went wide with concern. There, buried deep in the flesh, was a small black node, a seedling-sized discoloration just below the surface.
A sharp pain suddenly pierced her cheek like a hot coal, sending searing lightning up into her eye socket, her sinuses, and beyond. Shannon stood bolt upright from the pain, and squeezed the infected skin between her knuckles, which only turned the pain dial up to 15. Her eyes watered and her vision became blurry for a moment... The voice in her head spoke once again. This time it told her to do something even more egregious than harmless word-slinging. "It's time to step this puppy into high gear, Shannon. Prom is only 8 days away, Shannon. It's do-or-die, Shannon!"
Shannon, entranced by the other-woman shrill in her mind, lowered her hands to the sink, cluttered with the skincare products she had purchased that morning. She gazed from them, back to the weeping wound on her face. Shannon lifted the bottles and jars up in her arms and dumped them in the trash just as a hipster chick walked in on her. She stopped to look at the bloody open wound on Shannon's face for just a beat too long. "The fuck you looking at, bitch?" snarled Shannon as she walked out. "Zen out, Ponytail," the hipster laughed as Shannon dashed back out into the hallway.
The next morning Shannon awoke to a spectacular pain in her cheek. She went to inspect, and found that the pimple there had multiplied into a small cluster of puss-filled sacks in her face, arranged like scales on a reptile, one on top of the other. That black node beneath her skin had grown in size as well... almost seemed to be coiled up, an embryonic form of infection waiting to be birthed. Shannon resisted the urge to pull her hair back into a ponytail today. Instead, she let her dark locks hang down over the right side of her face. The witchy voice inside her head told her it would all be over soon. “So soon.”
At the end of lunch, Shannon approached the Ponytails at their table. She carried with her a baking tin filled with cupcakes she had baked the night before. She noticed the way some of the girls regarded her... then Tess Lautner tapped Jen on the shoulder, alerting her to Shannon’s wraith-like presence. Her hair hung in strings over her right cheek, exposing only her left eye. She looked pail, used up, and tired. Shannon offered the tin to Jen, hands outstretched. “I made you these,” she said meekly. Jen pried open the tin, revealing the chocolate covered delights. “Mrs. Fields. Your favorite.”
Jen laid the tin out in the middle of the table. She glared around at all the other girls as she addressed Shannon: “Why the fuck would I eat anything you made me?” Shannon lowered her head. “I’m sorry for what I did. It was totally wrong, and I know now that I was just being... a bitch. I made these as a peace offering.” Jen still looked skeptical. “They’re not poisoned or anything,” she said. Shannon snatched a cupcake and took a big, gluttonous bite out of it. As her face stretched to engulf the tasty treat, she could feel the pull of the scab, like a piece of too-tight tape. She wiped some of the frosting from her mouth, smiling with teeth stained black. “See? I’m not dead.”
Jen reached for a cupcake, then retracted her hand again. “Still. That was some crazy talk, Shannon. We tripple pinky-swore! I’ll never tell you another secret.”
Shannon smiled. “Cupcakes make everything better, Jen.”
Jen mulled that detail over, and then finally took a big old bite... and the rest is history. After the ambulances came and took Jen to the hospital, Shannon was panged with thethought: “If only I’d put just a little more peanut butter in there. It just might’ve done the trick.”
Jen was severely allergic to peanuts, which Shannon knew full well. She took one swallow of the laced cupcake, and her throat began closing up immediately. As she tilted back in her chair, readying for a full-on episode of anaphylactic shock... Shannon’s heart rate elevated, and she realized that she could feel the gash in her cheek pulsing with each downbeat of her heart.
Shannon came home bathed in a euphoria of revenge. She had seen the paramedics loading Jen into the cab of the ambulance, and it had filled her with great joy. When she saw her father sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for her to return, her glow faded. “Have a seat,” her dad said. “How was your day?” He asked.
Shannon averted her eyes. “Fine.”
“Fine? Okay, because I just got off the phone with your principal. She said Jen got sick today. She said that you had something to do with it. Your own friends... they say you knew that she had an allergy. They say you did it intentionally because of--”
“Oh, what the hell do they know?” Shannon growled. Of course The Ponytails had ratted her out. Shannon’s dad crossed his arms. “I saw those things you wrote on Facebook. Shannon. Over a guy? Come on...”
“Daddy...” she pleaded. Her pulse increased, the fissure on her face throbbing. She could feel it up in her eye socket.
“It was all an accident,” she said.
Dad was having none of it. “Well, they’re barring you from going to prom anyway,” he said.
Shannon couldn’t believe her ears. An anger rose in her. Her dad went on to say more, but her world was filled with a white-hot searing sensation, a whine which drowned out the world. Shannon stormed up to her bedroom, absolutely fuming. She slammed her door, and found her phone ringing: PETE, it said. She quickly answered, breathless. “Oh god, Pete. Thank god you called.”
The voice on the other end was hushed. “I can’t believe you would do something like this,” said Pete. “I’m here with her now. Jen could have died.” The witchy-voice inside Shannon’s head spoke up, but Shannon pushed it away as she listened to Pete continue: “We might’ve hooked up that one time, but... for you to go and do this... I just wanted to tell you that I think you’re a terrible person. You need to hear that. You’ve totally lost sight of everything that’s--”
Shannon recoiled from the phone like it bit her. She hung up in Pete’s face, her very core vibrating with regret. But it was already too late. She’d ruined everything for herself, for Jen, for any semblance of moving forward in a happy way.
As she sat there with her head in her hands, the dull pulse in her face sent her mind reeling. Shannon stood up, slowly padding over the carpet in her bedroom... toward the desk... where she swiped an open pair of scissors from atop it. “What are you doing, Shannie? What’s running through your pretty head? ‘Cuz I can’t get a read on ya.”
Shannon felt the cold tile underneath her feet as she flicked on the bathroom light. Her face in the mirror was almost unrecognizable to her. Gaunt, yellowed, the patch of oozing skin on her cheek the only place where a flush existed, as if it were drawing the blood to it unnaturally. She didn’t bother to examine it any closer.
Instead, she brought the point of the scissors up through her cheek, filling her eye with blood. The pain was incredible, dribbling down through her body like poisoned milk through the depths of a cup of coffee. When the pain reached her feet, Shannon twisted the scissors fully round.
She felt something weighted and twitching, something -- dare she say it -- something alive tumble out from between her flayed cheek and land with a splat in the blood-filled sink. Shannon fell to her knees, the feeling of pressure blissfully relieved. She toppled forward in a heap, and it was lights out for her.
In the momentary lapse induced from loss of blood and shock, Shannon dreamed the following (and it had to be a dream, because it was just too fucking weird):
Shannon awakes again, face down in a puddle of her blood. She briefly has the sensation that someone or something is watching her. She groggily turns over to see a small, scraggly figure standing on the edge of the sink, looking down. Lit from behind, this pale, four-inch pygmy is covered in blood and infection. Thin strands of hair hang down from its head, and it is distinctly female. Shannon just stares at it, wondering and knowing at the same time about its origin. Then the tiny thing sprints along the counter, leaps onto the toilet, and lands in a puddle of Shannon’s blood on the floor. It’s here that she can see it clearly, she can see the loose way its skin hangs, she can see the way its face looks... like a tiny, scrunched up version of her own. The thing laughs at her -- and when it laughs, it laughs the laugh of the witch-voice from inside her head. Then it takes off running, leaving tiny, demented footprints of blood across her bedroom carpet. Shannon begins to woozily follow the footprints down the stairs in her house, through the foyer, and eventually out the front door, before the dream cuts to a hospital room--
--Jennifer O’Connell’s hospital room, where she sleeps soundly, her allergic reaction under control. Shannon sees the tiny, bloody footprints across the floor... the streaks of it that run up the IV tubing, pitter-patter across Jen’s pillow, and lead to a terrible tableau. There is the creature born from the infection in Shannon’s face -- there it stands, trying to crawl its way into Jen O’Connell’s cheek now. The thing has torn a hole in the young girl’s face, and is stretching it to make room for itself inside a new host, to hibernate and fester there and grow into hell knows what.
Shannon snatches the homunculus between her thumb and forefinger, snatches it by the head. It twitches and tries to get free, all the while screaming at her in witch-speak. This thing has been inside her body for some time, and in the dream logic, it knows all her darkest secrets and desires. It screams them at Shannon -- but Shannon doesn’t fall for it this time. She squashes the atrocity mid-tirade between her palms. The residue of it runs down like so much jelly, and when it splashes at her feet--
--Shannon woke up, remembering the dream from a few nights before. She was home now, resting. The doctors had sewn up her cheek and ordered her to undergo some psychiatric testing. She was saying some pretty strange things. The shrink told her she’d experienced an episode, and that self-mutilation was more common in girls her age than people thought. This made Shannon fell a bit more at ease... but she couldn’t shake the dream, or the feeling that there had been something real about it. The voices were gone now. Shannon was left alone with her thoughts.
Shannon spent prom night with her dad. They went out to Chinese food and then watched a movie on Netflix. It was a pretty great night. When the movie ended, she pulled the blanket up to her father’s chin and left him sleeping there on the couch. She went upstairs and absentmindedly browsed Facebook... where kids were already posting pictures from the dance. She scrolled through several of them, until she came to the one of Jen and Pete donning crowns, voted King and Queen. Shannon smiled, thinking that they looked so happy, backlit by the blue twinkle lights hung across the auditorium. How perfect for them.
The next photo of the happy couple was washed out by another camera’s flash. Shannon leaned in closer. She could see it in the harsh light, even though Jen had used concealer. A small, gnarled bump on her cheek.
And it looked just about ready to be popped.