Prom Nights from Hell (Chapter Three)

"Wait!" I cried. "How does it work? What does it do?"

"I'm not telling," she said stubbornly.

"'I'm not telling'?" I repeated. "How old are you, four?"

"Frankie!" Yun Sun said.

"You're just like all the rest, aren't you?" Madame Z said to me. "Willing to do anything for a boyfriend? Desperate for a heart-stopping romance, no matter the cost?"

I felt my face go hot. But here it was, out on the table. Boyfriends. Romance. Hope flickered in my chest.

"Just tell her," Yun Sun said, "or we'll never get to leave."

"No," Madame Z insisted.

"She can't, because she made it up," I said.

Madame Z's eyes flashed. I'd provoked her, which wasn't nice, but something told me that whatever it was, she hadn't made it up. And I really wanted to know.

She put the corsage in the middle of the table, where it sat doing absolutely nothing.

"Three people, three wishes apiece," Madame Z declared. "That's its magic."

Yun Sun, Will, and I looked at one another, then burst out laughing. It was ludicrous and at the same time perfect: the storm, the wacko, and now the ominously issued pronouncement.

And yet the way Madame Z regarded us made our laughter trickle off. The way she regarded Will, especially.

He tried to resurrect the hilarity.

"So, why don't you use it?" he asked in the manner of a teenager being helpful and polite.

"I did," she said. Her orange lipstick was like a stain.

"And… were your three wishes granted?" I asked.

"Every last one," she said flatly.

None of us knew what to say to that.

"Well, has anyone else used it?" Yun Sun asked.

"One other lady. I don't know what her first two wishes were, but her last was for death. That's how the corsage came to me."

We sat there, all silliness squelched. The situation felt unreal, yet here we were, in this moment.

"Dude, that's spooky," Will said.

"So… why do you keep it?" I asked. "If you've used up your three wishes?"

"Excellent question," Madame Z said after staring at the corsage for a few heavy seconds. She pulled a turquoise lighter from her pocket and struck a flame. She picked up the corsage with a fierce determination, as if committing to a course of action long overdue.

"No!" I yelped, snatching it from her grasp. "Let me have it, if you don't want it!"

"Never. It should be burned."

My fingers closed over the rose petals. They were the texture of my grandfather's wizened cheek, which I stroked when I visited him at the nursing home.

"You're making a mistake," Madame Z warned. She reached to reclaim the bundle, then jerked her hand back convulsively. I sensed the same internal warring as when I first goaded her into speaking of the corsage, as if the corsage had an element of actual power over her. Which was ridiculous, of course.

"It's not too late to change your fate," she managed.

"What fate would that be?" I said. My voice broke. "The fate where a tree falls in the forest, but poor me, I'm wearing earplugs?"

Madame Z fixed me with her thick-lashed eyes. The skin around them was as thin as crepe paper, and I realized she was older than I originally assumed.

"You are a rude and disrespectful child. You deserve a spanking." She leaned back in her swivel chair, and I could tell-snap, like that-she'd released herself from the corsage's unhealthy hold. Or perhaps the corsage had done the releasing? "You keep it, that's your decision. I take no responsibility for what happens."

"How do you use it?" I asked.

She snorted.

"C'mon," I pleaded. I didn't mean to be a brat. It was just that it was so terribly important. "If you don't tell me, I'll do it all wrong. I'll probably… I don't know. Destroy the whole world."

"Frankie… let it go," Will said under his breath.

I shook my head. I couldn't.

Madame Z clucked at dim, foolish me. Well, let her.

"You hold it in your right hand and speak your wish aloud," she said. "But I'm telling you, no good will come of it."

"You don't need to be so negative," I said. "I'm not as stupid as you think."

"No, you're far more stupid," she agreed.

Will jumped in to redirect, because that's what he did. He hated all unpleasantness. "So… you wouldn't use it again, if you were able?"

Madame Z raised her eyebrows. "Do I look like I need more wishes?"

Yun Sun sighed loudly. "Well, I could sure use a wish or two. Wish me up Lindsay Lohan's thighs, will you?"

I loved my friends. They were so wonderful. I lifted the corsage, and Madame Z gasped and grabbed my wrist.

"For heaven's sake, girl," she cried. "If you're going to wish, at least make it for something sensible!"

"Yeah, Frankie," Will said. "Think of poor Lindsay-you want the girl to be thighless?"

"She'd still have her calves," I pointed out.

"But would they be attached? And what movie producer's going to hire a girl who's just a torso?"

I giggled, and Will looked pleased with himself.

Yun Sun said, "You guys. Ew."

Madame Zanzibar's breathing was uneven. She might have resolved to wash her hands of me, but her fright, when I lifted the withered rosebuds, hadn't been contrived.

I placed the corsage in my messenger bag, careful not to squish it. And when I drew out my wallet, I paid Madame Z twice the amount she'd quoted. I didn't elaborate, just handed over the bills. She counted them, then assessed me in a bone-tired, orange-lipsticked way.

Fine, then, her demeanor conveyed. Just… beware.

We headed to my house for pizza, because that was our Friday night ritual. Saturdays and Sundays, too, more often than not. My parents were on sabbatical in Botswana for the semester, which meant Chez Frankie was party central. Except we didn't have actual parties. We could have; my house was miles from town on an unmaintained dirt road, with no nearby neighbors to complain. But we preferred our own company, with an occasional pop-in from Jeremy, Yun Sun's boyfriend. Jeremy thought Will and I were weird, though. He didn't like pineapple on his pizza, and he didn't share our taste in movies.

The rain pounded the roof of Will's pickup as he navigated the winding curves of Restoration Boulevard, past the Krispy Kreme and the Piggly Wiggly and the county watertower, which stretched toward the sky in lonely glory. The cab of the truck was crowded with all three of us scrunched in, but I didn't mind. I had the middle seat. Will's hand brushed my knee when he shifted gears.

"Ah, the cemetery," he said, nodding as we reached the wrought iron gates to his left. "Shall we have a moment of silence for Fernando?"

"We shall," I said.

A bolt of lightning illuminated the rows of tombstones, and I thought to myself what eerie and disturbing places cemeteries really were. Bones. Rotted-away skin. Coffins, which sometimes came undug.

I was glad to get home. I went from room to room flicking on all the lights while Will ordered the pizza and Yun Sun shuffled through this week's Netflix arrivals.

"Something cheerful, 'kay?" I called from the hall.

"Not Night Stalker?" she said.

I joined her in the den and sifted through the stack. "How about High School Musical? There is nothing the slightest bit creepy about High School Musical."

"Surely you jest," Will said, clicking off his phone. "Sharpay and her brother doing their sexy dance with maracas? You wouldn't call that creepy?"