It all started with Gemma, or at least that was what everyone thought until it was too late. The ostensible study session in the common room had devolved into a conversation about everyone's worst slumber party experience, and just after Ami finished with hers ("and her mom came in with something she called 'Better Than Pizza', and it had this horrifying gluten-free crust and dyed tofu instead of pepperoni and the cheese tasted like, like congealed glue or something! And she wouldn't leave until we all finished our slices") and everyone looked over to Gemma to top it, she blushed fiercely and said, "I, um... I never went to a slumber party."
A look of mingled horror and sympathy went around the room. "We moved around a lot growing up," Gemma blurted into the silence, feeling the weight of everyone's stares on her. "Dad was a regional manager for a big investment firm, and whenever someone else was underperforming, they sent in Dad for a year to whip things into shape. I think I went to something like eight schools in twelve years. It kind of made it hard to make friends."
Everyone made clucks and murmurs of sympathy--even Annette, who lived in a small town outside of Paris until she was nineteen and whose only experience with slumber parties was the slow cultural infiltration of American movies and television throughout the entire world. "How sad," she said softly, shaking her head at the tragedy of an American denied what she assumed was the most quintessential rite of passage for a young girl.
But it was Christine, one of the new freshman class, who immediately insisted on doing something about it. "Guys," she said, "we have to have a slumber party. Tonight. Sleeping bags in the common room, popcorn and sappy Nora Ephron movies, braiding each other's hair and telling each other's fortunes, talking about cute boys... or, um, girls," she added quickly, glancing over at Melanie with a slight blush. "All of it. The full slumber party experience."
Gemma scowled a little, not wanting to diminish the new sister's enthusiasm but also not entirely comfortable with being someone's new charity case over something as insignificant as missing a slumber party or two. She also missed out on Girl Scouts, birthday parties with kids her own age, and a mom who didn't numb her marital troubles away with Valium, but she was talking to a therapist about it and not her sorority. It was a little presumptuous of Christine to just decide that this was what she needed.
But she could see the other sisters beginning to get excited, their eyes lighting up at the prospect of abandoning the responsibilities of early adulthood for a night and retreating into childhood nostalgia, so out loud she just said, "Tonight's a school night, though. Maybe Friday?" Maybe someone would have a scheduling conflict on Friday or she'd get more comfortable with the idea by then, Gemma thought but didn't add.
Instead, the others all cheerfully agreed. "Friday it is!" Christine squealed, clapping her hands in excitement. "I'll make my special party punch and my super messy s'more brownies and my ooey gooey salted caramel popcorn and we can tell scary stories by flashlight with the lights out and we can all have the bestest time ever!" Gemma tried to smile, to join in with the younger woman's radiant enthusiasm and determination. She knew it came out as forced, though. She couldn't help it. Christine seemed so hellbound to drag everyone along with her to Party Town that it somehow managed to make Gemma even less interested in the idea.
Still, she could hardly duck out of her own party. She was just going to have to make the best of it... and maybe not let Christine know when her birthday was this year.
* * * * *
For all that she grew to dread the upcoming weekend, it was still kind of fun to see everyone get into the preparations. Thea dug into her secret stash of romantic comedies to pull out 'Sleepless in Seattle', 'Mama Mia', and 'Better Off Dead' ("it's a cult classic," she added defensively, "and we've got to have a John Cusack movie in there!") Ami used her dad's credit card to buy a dozen sleeping bags, insisting that it was far from the weirdest purchase she'd ever had to justify to her parents. Deena, the sorority mother, was duly informed and invited and agreed to sit in on a single hair-braiding session on the condition that she in no way had to dish about her current romantic life. "Trust me, girls," she said, "you do not want to know."
And of course Christine went into a whirlwind of buying, mixing, baking, popping, and melting, all of which got so intense that she skipped class on Friday in order to have the kitchen to herself. "It's just a review session anyway," she replied dismissively to Tori, who came in with Gemma in tow to convey the news that her absence was noticed by Professor Deane. "Here, try the punch." She handed Tori a glass with one hand while stirring liquid caramel with the other. "Tell me if it needs more grenadine."
Tori sniffed. "It's non-alcoholic, right?" she asked, before hesitantly taking a tiny sip. "Only Deena's going to be in the actual room with us, and she's going to be eating and drinking the same things we are. If this stuff has booze in it, she is going to bust us immediately if not sooner." As soon as the liquid hit her tongue, she made a face. "Oooh, too sour!" She waved the cup over to Gemma, who politely declined. At this rate, it was beginning to feel like she was going to be able to have her 'worst slumber party' story after just one slumber party.
"More Sun Drop, then," Christine murmured, lifting a two-liter bottle and tipping it out over the punch bowl next to the stove. "Don't worry, I'll have it all sorted out by seven. It's going to be a hit, just you watch. I'll probably have to make a second batch." There was an intensity to her eyes that kept putting Gemma's teeth on edge for some reason. She'd been around women like that at the big business parties her dad sometimes dragged her to, the hostesses who understood that even though officially, they were just having a friendly get-together so that everyone could meet each other's families, this was unofficially the difference between a big promotion for their husband and a life stuck in middle management hell. Christine was going to be absolutely insufferable if anyone expressed the slightest dissatisfaction with the evening's festivities, Gemma could tell.
Which meant she had to hope that the punch tasted better when it was done. Demurring was not going to be an option for Christine's treats tonight.
Despite that, the evening started well. Deena helped coordinate the sisters' efforts to move all the furniture up against the walls, and Renee found an Uno deck that kept everyone occupied with one remarkably cutthroat hand after another until everyone was done with classes and homework and could join them down in the common room and spread out their sleeping bags to watch the first movie. "I've got popcorn!" Christine shouted, bringing everyone out an individual dish of puffy kernels slathered in gooey, semi-congealed caramel that practically hid them from view. It tasted vaguely burnt, but Gemma knew better than to say anything. Judging by the carefully polite expressions on the other women's faces, they all felt the same.
After everyone giggled their way through 'Better Off Dead' ("I told you!" Thea shrieked triumphantly, half-in and half-out of her sleeping bag), they took a break to order pizza despite Christine's passive-aggressive protests. "Sorry," Annette said, her French accent rivaling Diane Franklin's Monique for comical thickness. "But ordering pizza for a slumber party is an American tradition. You cannot refuse it, not if you are having an authentic sleepover!"
"Well, okay," Christine said, her rictus grin possibly glued into position by her own caramel. "But everyone better save room for dessert! My s'more brownies are legendary." She went back in the kitchen, presumably to make another gallon or two of punch. Gemma hated to admit it, but the intense tartness of the citrus and cherry flavors helped cut through some of the sickly sweet residue of the sugary popcorn. She'd gone through four cups already, and she was far from alone in her consumption.
The punch also did a good job of cutting through the salt and fat of the pizza, and Christine was kept so busy with her self-appointed role as hostess that she missed most of the next film. Then again, so did everyone else--by the time Thea went up to her room to get 'Say Anything', announcing that the theme was now John Cusack in his young hot period and there would be no further discussion of this decision, they were deep into the official 'braiding hair and talking about boys' part of the evening. As promised, Deena let down her long chestnut locks and said, "Gemma, I understand this is your night. You want in on this?"
"Sure," Gemma replied, smiling despite herself. She looked down at fingers covered in pizza grease and sticky caramel. "Just let me wash my hands first."
When she got back, it was to loud peals of laughter--apparently, Melanie had just confessed a crush on Professor Deane. "I like older women, okay?" she huffed, as Gemma sat down behind Deena and began to plait her gorgeous hair. "And something about that snippy authority figure vibe she has makes me squirmy. I make no apologies." From there, the conversation drifted into a discussion of which teacher they'd be most likely to hatefuck which Deena struggled very hard to pretend not to hear. Christine came in with the promised s'more brownies ("still hot!") but Gemma held off on eating hers until she could put a ribbon around the base of the sorority mother's new ponytail.
The brownies were as ooey and gooey as promised, and also so nauseatingly sweet that Gemma could barely taste anything but sugar. It practically glued her teeth together, and she was far from alone on that score; by the time Thea desultorily put in 'High Fidelity', conversation had dropped to a minimum and everyone had retreated most of the way into their sleeping bag to watch the movie. Clearly, this was not going to be one of those slumber parties where everyone stayed up until three in the morning and only hushed when their parents walked by. (And not just because Deena was half-asleep already.)
Gemma imagined that the sheer amount of sugary food and drink would have given them all more energy, but it seemed like Christine was the only one still up for doing anything when the movie ended. "We all have to tell scary stories!" she said cheerfully, flipping the light switch before finding her way to her sleeping bag by flashlight. "It's a tradition, guys. And remember, you can't refuse tradition during an authentic sleepover!" There were a few grumbling moans of protest, but they'd been hoist on their own petard.
Ami took the flashlight out of Christine's hands, evidently hoping to placate Christine with something short. "So there was this guy and this girl out parked in the overnight lot next to Hembrook Hall a few years ago," she said, referencing one of the local makeout spots. She wasn't exactly selling the steamy heavy petting between her protagonists, though. She sounded tired and vaguely stoned, despite the fact that not a single one of the sisters had been dumb enough to bring out a joint in front of the sorority mother. "And the radio says there's this dude on the loose."
She waved the flashlight under her face desultorily. "And the girl says, let's go home, and the guy is like, nah, it's cool, let's kiss a little more. But she says they should, and so they do, and when he goes around to let her out, there's, like... a hook on the door." She paused, furrowing her brow in exhausted consternation. "Oh. Right. The dude on the loose had a hook for a hand." Her head sagged forward, as though the pillow was beckoning her with its softness.
Christine rolled her eyes. "Oh, come on!" she pouted, clearly determined not to let anyone sleep until she was satisfied with the festivities. "I can do better than that!" She snatched the flashlight from Ami's unresisting fingers and put it up under her face. "I'm going to tell you a story about a group of sex traffickers that used to operate at this very school, stealing girls from right under the noses of the campus police. They had their own secret chemical concoction, a drug that would render any woman drowsy and docile and compliant, and they had all sorts of sneaky ways to inject students with it without them noticing."
Gemma frowned. She'd heard a number of variations on this particular urban legend during her Modern Folklore and Mythology class last year. Most of them were dreadfully racist and misogynist, full of 'swarthy foreigners' stealing white women and bustling them off to a life of drugs and prostitution. It was anything but appropriate for this audience and this night. She should really say something about it, tell Christine to knock it off and go to sleep. She was a senior and Christine was a freshman, after all. She could pull rank if nothing else.
But it just seemed like too much work to complain. The other sisters were already huddled in their sleeping bags and slumped onto their pillows, barely even listening as Christine added, "But over the years, they had to refine their techniques as girls got wary of their drugged needles and poisoned pins. They knew they couldn't get a young woman to accept food or drink from a stranger, either; too many campus pick-up artists had tried that trick. They needed to find a way to catch their prey off-guard." Gemma decided to just let Christine run her string rather than force a confrontation.
Even so, the next words seemed a little too nasty to ignore. "They needed to find a way to get to them inside their sorority houses." Christine waved the flashlight under her face menacingly for emphasis. Somehow it looked scarier than it had with Ami.
"They improved their drugs, turning them from a mere narcotic to a specialized cocktail of potent hypnotic chemicals that would render a woman susceptible to suggestions. They combined that with intense brainwashing techniques borrowed from the Soviets, sensory bombardment that would permanently and irresistibly alter the loyalties of their victims until they eagerly participated in their own degradation. These sleeper agents had only one task--to help recruit new girls to be mind controlled and sold into slavery by their masters." Gemma levered herself up onto one elbow, fixing Christine with her best attempt at an indignant glare. It proved to be surprisingly difficult to achieve.
"And once these girls were completely brainwashed," Christine continued, seemingly oblivious to Gemma's consternation, "they would go out and pledge to a sorority at a small college. They were perfectly programmed to be charming, friendly and appealing, and they invariably succeeded in getting accepted. Then it was just a matter of waiting for an opportunity. Steering a conversation, subtly nudging the other sisters with tiny suggestions, until one night, she could find an excuse to hold a slumber party."
She grinned wickedly. "It had to be a slumber party. That way the girls would already be bagged up for extraction."
That was enough to give Gemma back her voice. "Christine, that's enough," she said, trying to convince herself that her sleepy-sounding tone was merely the result of exhaustion. "It's late, this story is mean and creepy, and it's genuinely scaring some of the other girls." Other girls, she insisted in the privacy of her own head. Not her. She wasn't scared at all. "Let's just drop it and go to bed, okay?" Her eyelids drooped at the mere mention of the word 'bed', but that didn't mean she was suggestible at all. It just meant she was tired. So... so tired.
Christine's grin only widened. "You want to go to sleep, Gemma?" she asked, leaning forward so the flashlight put her features into sharp relief. "You're getting drowsy, you mean? Your eyes want to close, your head keeps drooping on your shoulders, and even though you're thinking about getting up and going back to your room, somehow it seems like your body is paralyzed with exhaustion? Is that it, Gemma? Because if it is, maybe the drugs have already gotten to you. Maybe they're making your mind too hazy and dull to resist. Maybe you're going to be a good little fucktoy when the slavers come for you."
Gemma could see what the other woman was trying to do, but somehow the sense of righteous indignation that she knew she felt was separated from the rest of her by a sense of glassy, indifferent calm. She was too tired to call Christine on her bullshit. Too drowsy to tell her that sex trafficking didn't work like that. Too sleepy to tell her that of course she would have noticed drugs in the food and drink, it wasn't like they were overpoweringly flavored with sour grenadine or burnt caramel or sickly sweet marshmallows... oh shit. Gemma suddenly felt her face pressing into the pillow. She couldn't remember how it got there.
"And as the slumber party went on, each girl grew so weak and malleable that they trotted obediently to their sleeping bags," Christine continued, her voice growing more and more sinister with every word. "They didn't realize that the drugs were coursing through their bloodstream, sapping their energy, leaving them helpless to resist the voice of their new controller as she lulled them deeper and deeper into slumber. They didn't know that the back door was unlocked, just one more way that the sleeper agent betrayed them while they laughed and giggled. They only knew they couldn't keep their heavy eyes open any longer. The sorority house was about to be emptied out, and every girl was going to disappear forever."
She chuckled. "And the sorority where that happened... was this very house." The flashlight went out. Gemma heard footsteps from the kitchen, but the darkness was so cool and soothing that her eyelids slipped shut and she knew no more.