I had a problem, and it wasn't that I was needing to dodge Debbie the glasses girl at least once a day in increasingly bizarre situations. That was more amusing than anything, really. Sure, I was late to a few more classes than just pre-calc, but I figured the fact a potential new harem member was being thrown at me so insistently meant that things were working out in my favor for once.
No, my problem was of course my upcoming Halloween date with Paula. Though I tried multiple times to pin her down on what exactly she had planned on Saturday, the only info I extracted was that she expected me in costume, would pick me up at 3pm, and that we would be attending a Halloween party of some sort.
I'm fairly certain the only reason she didn't tell me more was because she liked watching me squirm.
In any case, the costume wasn't too difficult. I dug out the pirate getup I'd worn a few years ago, which aside from the pants still fit pretty well. It wasn't exactly a fancy costume—mostly just an eyepatch, a hat that vaguely resembled a tricorn if you squinted, and an off-white shirt with ruffles. I added a dark pair of pants and figured that was good enough. If Paula wanted to win at a Halloween fashion show, she should have given me significantly more warning.
What stumped me was that I'd never attended a high school party before—much less one presumably hosted by seniors—and had no idea what to expect. Not only that, but a Halloween party simply wasn't something I'd ever come across in a manga. Heck, Halloween getting a mention at all was pretty rare, since it was more of a Western holiday and hadn't really been coopted by the Japanese the way holidays like Christmas and Valentine's Day had. Perhaps this was related to what Mom had told me about the manga getting more realistic the further I stretched the genre; I'd subverted the last few manga situations, so now I was stuck dealing with something a little further from the manga baseline. Impossible to tell for sure, I suppose, but I hadn't realized how much I'd been relying on knowing what sorts of things I could expect thanks to my generalized manga knowledge. I had certain preconceptions about high school parties from various American movies, but was doubtful they had any bearing on my situation. Or reality in general.
Ugh, it was like I was right back to the summer when I had no idea what to expect. I was half tempted to just call up Paula and cancel the whole thing, but I wasn't confident I would be able to successfully dodge a manga coincidence with Debbie forever. I was reasonably certain Paula wasn't interested in getting closer to me romantically, at least, though that begged the question of what she was doing in the harem in the first place. If she hadn't basically promised to talk to me if I agreed to this scheme of hers, I'd have had no compunction refusing outright. Especially because I was beginning to wonder if alienating Paula would actually do that much damage to my social life, given that she was two grades my senior and despite appearances did not appear to be particularly interested in socializing with kids her own age. Perhaps a thought to keep in mind if this whole situation went south…
In any case, I suffered through the rest of the week dreading the coming of the weekend. Which ended up rolling around anyway, as time is wont to do. Stupid time.
A little before 3pm on Saturday I was loitering in the kitchen, half-heartedly snapping the elastic strand on my plastic eyepatch back and forth between my hands. The darn thing was even more uncomfortable than I remembered it being, and I was debating just conveniently forgetting it at home. Before I had a chance to make up my mind, however, the doorbell rang.
"I'll get it," I called, and went to meet my fate.
It was indeed Paula, but if I hadn't been expecting her, I might not have recognized her. She was wearing an ornate, old-style dress made out of what looked like embossed velvet in such a deep shade of red it was almost black. Her white shirt or blouse or whatever it was featured bountiful lacey ruffles, but pulled taught about her chest. She still looked well-endowed, but the cut of the dress or the ruffles or something made her chest seem much more normally sized. Aside from her face, she had almost no skin showing at all. The dress was high-necked, long-sleeved, and fell right to the tops of her feet. She wasn't wearing gloves, but the lace spilling out at her wrists came all the way to the back of her hands.
Her hair was done up in a much tighter bun that her usual loose pony-tail, but she'd left a patch at the front to drape across her face. Her skin was a borderline deathly pallor, and partially obscured by her loose hair was what looked like an unhealthy red circular scar or burn mark with a faint cross or X in the middle. Near the corner of her mouth was a small smear of red, like she'd slipped while applying lipstick. Or maybe been drinking tomato juice a little too enthusiastically.
"Who on Earth are you dressed as?" I asked.
The distant expression that she'd affected when I opened the door fell away and Paula grinned like the Cheshire cat. "Now now, Xavier, have you been skimping on your classics? I'm clearly Mina Harker. No, the real question is what on earth is this sorry excuse for a costume? Are you some sort of itinerant revolutionary soldier?"
I scowled, and snapped the eyepatch on. Damn, this thing was uncomfortable. "I'm a pirate. Obviously! Arrr! And who is Mina Harker?"
Paula ignored my question and took a slow stroll around me as she examined me from head to toe. "Good thing I came prepared for something like this. Okay, time to change!" She clapped her hands and grabbed a duffel bag that I hadn't noticed lying at her feet on the porch. "Shoo shoo, in you go! There's no way I'm going to let some cut-rate pirate escort Mina Harker, who, by the way, is the heroine of Bram Stoker's Dracula."
"You've read Dracula? Who reads Dracula?"
Paula gave me a blank stare. "You haven't? Anyway, in we go! Here, take this and go get changed, then meet me—mm—here in the kitchen should work. Looks like the light is good enough." Paula shoved the duffel bag into my arms and gave me a push down the hallway toward the bathroom.
In the duffel I discovered a very Dracula-esque black suit. Rather than a cape, the jacket had two extremely long, sharp tails that fell almost to my knees like wings. All of the jacket's lines were quite sharp and abrupt, actually. What was a little disturbing was that the shirt, jacket, and pants all fit me perfectly.
"Where the hell did you even get this?" I asked Paula as I entered the kitchen after changing.
She gave me an appreciative whistle in lieu of an answer. "Damn, I'm good. I nailed the sizing on that sucker. Now come sit over here, Xavier, we're only partly finished."
I sat down and Paula whisked behind me. There was a squirting sound, a slightly fruity scent, and then she was rubbing some sort of gunk into my hair.
"Wha—!" I began, but she leaned an elbow on my shoulder and forced me back down into the chair.
"Down, boy!" she said cheerfully. "What sort of Dracula would you be with that bird's nest?"
Once she'd gelled my hair into submission, she had me scoot around until I was facing backwards on the chair, and then pulled up her own chair right in front of me and started putting makeup on my face.
I froze. This whole pre-party experience was turning out a lot more physically intimate than I'd been expecting and I wasn't sure what to do about it. Especially now that Paula's face was just a few inches away from my own as she carefully applied various unknowable substances around my eyes.
"Uh," I said uncomfortably, not even sure where I was going with it myself.
"Shh, hold still," she muttered, intent on her work.
As stereotypical as it was, Paula smelled really nice. Ever since the start of the year she'd made a habit of occasionally getting into my personal space, but usually she was attacking me from the side or behind. This was the first time she'd undertaken a frontal assault, and I was feeling incredibly off-balance. This close, I could easily make out the makeup that she herself was wearing, though I felt super awkward staring at her from so near.
She didn't appear to notice, which paradoxically was even more appealing than her normal flirtatious assaults. I don't think I'd ever seen the laid-back Paula so intent on something before, and it was kind of intoxicating that it was me she was staring at that way.
Which was completely infuriating. Here I was struck dumb just because a girl was offering casual physical contact, which was a complete manga cliché. Yet despite knowing it was a cliché and wanting nothing more than to move on, it was still getting me all flustered.
As I searched desperately for somewhere to look other than Paula's eyes in hopes that I could ignore her and make her go away, I noticed that obscured by the lace of her collar were two red marks on her neck that looked almost swollen. Geez, how much detail did she pour into this costume, anyway?!
None too soon, Paula finally sat back, gave my face a critical glance, and proclaimed me fit to accompany her.
While she was packing up her supplies, my dad wandered by, glanced our way, and stopped dead in his tracks. "Wow, Xavier. And Paula, wasn't it? You two look fantastic. What are you, Dracula and a bride of Dracula?"
"Close!" said Paula. "You got Dracula right, but I'm Mina Harker."
"She's one of the characters? I'm pretty fuzzy on the original Dracula. Anyway, that is an amazing pair of costumes. You have real talent, young lady."
Paula actually blushed and looked away. "Thank you."
What the hell? Who are you, and what have you done with Paula?
"Seriously, Xavier, you should go look in a mirror," my Dad said.
I did just that, and had to admit that Dad had a point. Paula had somehow managed to give me a widow's peak and slicked the rest of my hair back along my head. With the addition of her makeup, I really did look like an undead, blood-sucking monster. Albeit one with impeccable style.
When I made it back to the kitchen, Paula was packed and ready to go and Mom and Vickie had joined Dad in ogling her costume. I wondered where Rachel had gotten to, but put the thought aside in favor of corralling Paula away from her adoring fans.
"Come on," I said gruffly. "We have to go, right?"
"Yep, we should hit the road."
"You two have fun!" said Dad. "I hope you win Best Costume."
Paula threw him a wink. "I always do."
I dragged her out of there before she could flirt any more with my dad. Bad enough when she was flirting with me.