“Kettle Corn Is For Quitters” by Kate Panagakos

Non-Fiction, Short Stories

To all the young women who believed they were ready when they weren’t.

 Left by my mother on our kitchen counter was the invitation for Rachel’s annual Halloween party, a tradition carried out for the past several years. The only notable difference per the invitation was that this year, I was invited to a haunted house. Not surprised, as we were now twelve and or on the cusp. Admittedly I was initially thrown by the idea of not attending a mild-mannered corn maze, as we had in previous years. Our evenings would be navigated with a map, most likely in the shape of a cartoon pumpkin. 

We would also be served hot chocolate in small, styrofoam cups. I watched as my peers imprinted their teeth marks around the spongy tops. Some, proudly biting a whole strip off. I never took part as I did not want to reveal an imprint of the prominent gap in between my two front teeth. Each year I continued to brave the, not cool, but unseasonably cold evenings. The outdoor festivities would require I dress in no particular shade of orange and or black. I abided by the laws of festivities, tightly bound in mine and my older brother’s fall coat. 

At the age of eight, I had ginormous eyebrows and was nervous sixty to one hundred percent of the time. This was also the age when I would attend my first sleepover, hosted by my friend Madison, who lived two houses down and across the street from me. Madison’s family lived in a large old home with a wrap-around porch that was always warm and busy. Madison had her very own pocket-sized washroom attached to her bedroom. It was covered in wallpaper with details of apples and peaches, done with love by her mother Kelly. 

Madison’s older half-brother, Blaire also lived in the house. Blaire was no more than four years my senior. Though my image of him is and will always be a dashing young man returning home from war, or something of a similar handsomeness. His hair was color of motor oil that often covered his eyes, which were bright green. He caused me to lose any of my already limited ability to convey basic emotions. Speaking to him or around him was beyond the realm of reason.  

I would do my very best to seem disinterested when he would occasionally interact with us, as I did not want to come across as overeager. The physical reality of this was me, sitting on a chair very far away from him and suffering from a case of severe upper lip sweat. 

The time of night arrived that called for both Madison and me to change into our respective dragonfly pajamas. We began to decide on a movie for the evening. Blaire, with the aloofness of a runaway bad boy, sat down on the couch next to us. 

I engaged with imaginary conversations between myself and Blaire: expressions of love and mutual respect for one another. Blaire then made the real-life suggestion that we watch Edward Scissorhands

If I was not able to out loud- internally I shouted. I would love to! I also love the way your hair naturally wraps around your ears and I truly believe we would work well together, y’know, romantically. I found his movie suggestion both nerve-wracking as well as titillating. The picture on the DVD case seemed something of the out of my league category of films. I feel my prepubescent arousal was the reality of Blaire intentionally speaking those words out loud around me. I chose to ignore my inherent panic that presented itself through my now incredibly active flatulence. Still, I went along with my excitement to watch this film.

The film starring a young Johnny Depp did a rather large number of my developing head and heart. Paying special notice to Edwards’s lips, they were in the shape of a clove and the color of frozen plums. His vacant stares and black, buckled leather suit shook my little bones. 

Neither Madison nor Blaire had any sort of reaction to the film. I, on the other hand, spent the rest of the evening awake, listening to Madison adjust herself in her sleep.

The next night at home, I set myself up and with every intention of sleeping in, a sleeping bag designed for winter camping. I then proceeded to sleep on my parent’s bedroom floor in said sleeping bag, every night for a week and a half. 

Though never spoken out-loud. At the age of twelve, I felt it appropriate that I be deemed by societal standards, an adult woman. I would now have places to be and form-fitting vests to wear. My internal monologue became increasingly loud about the fact that I was no longer scared of “dumb shit” like in years prior. No longer would I be seduced and therefore revert to my old ways when I became fearful. I would not be tempted by the unmatched comfort of sleeping on my parent’s bedroom floor.

So, I felt that Rachel’s party being held at a haunted house only made sense. As we were all grown women now and we must act accordingly. We would have to drive thirty minutes outside of town. Looking back, I am certain it was no more than ten minutes, regardless, we were outside of town! My mother’s hesitancy of my “being ready” was displayed through her presence as an accompanying parental chaperone. 

We pulled up to what appeared to be a mansion previously owned by a wealthy murderer. My ears then remained hot for the duration of the evening. Reassured by the sounds of “Monster Mash” playing in the distance, I gathered myself. The familiar odor of the chemical smoke from the fog machine filled my lungs. We made our way to the house. 

Before entering the house, the upper echelons of girls became transparent as they placed themselves at the front of the line. I delegated myself the cowardly middle. The line to enter the haunted house wrapped around the building descending into small set of stairs. 

At the bottom was the entrance: which was more of a metal sheet with a handle, a door one might find on a meat locker. The door was guarded by- what I can only describe as- a doorman who had passed away but was also a clown. 

 The deceased clown’s job was to inform us of the rules of the house, whilst remaining in character. He stressed that once we entered, we could not leave. That we could not touch the creatures we met inside and they would not touch us. He paused for effect, “Well at least they have been told not to”. 

All the other girls at the party laughed, I did the same. 

I wondered if they noticed my eyes darting around, in the hopes of finding someone who was on the verge of tears. If so, I could bring them to the group’s attention- allowing me to make a clean getaway. My mother stood very close beside me, sending me Morse code signals via hand squeezing. This was her assuring me that I was going to be fine. I rudely and- very of my age- shook her off and began to scan the faces of the other girls. I wanted so badly for one of them to break. I only saw that every girl in line had nicer hair than me and not one seemed afraid.

 We had now reached the doors. I had been swallowing the nothing in my throat for the past several minutes when the clown opened the doors revealing strobe lights, high pitched pleas for help, bodies chained down and seizing violently. 

Then I let out the loudest scream my twelve-year-old body was physically capable of and started to cry. My mom was already in the house when the door slammed shut. I was on the outside. Standing next to me was the other wimp Taylor, who also started to cry. 

 A young woman dressed as a zombie hired to walk around and scare the people waiting in line took our hands. The three of us pushed upstream through those still in line. Onlookers watched as at Taylor and me, with puffy eyes, fled from the scene. Each person who chose to look, greeted us with the universal head tilt and a non-threatening smile. I should have just wet myself to really commit to the character that I was now cast in.  

The zombie/employee lady took us to a smaller house that we had passed on the way in. Inside was a stage and small, cabaret-like tables with lamps to match. The zombie sat us down at a table, smiled, and walked towards the stage, leaving us feeling a burdensome and with a youthful sense of shame. Though I was seemingly relinquished from a truly horrifying encounter, I now faced a much longer-lasting sense of disappointment. The curtains rose on the dimly lit stage and Michael Jacksons “Thriller” started to play. All the other zombies crept on stage and began to perform a choreographed dance routine. 

It was really, very well done. Presumably catered to those who weren’t able to muster up the courage for the main event. Those who didn’t make it in were sent here. 

Taylor and I sat in silence like the babies we were. We watched the performance as a grown man dressed as Betelgeuse stood next to us and made kettle corn.

KATE PANAGAKOS is a 22-year-old woman- beginning to believe in her voice as a storyteller. Kate is a graduate of The University of Western Ontario with a Bachelor of Arts, where she majored in film and creative writing. Kate is a writer of creative non-fiction and essayist. Inspired by the work of writers such as Durga Chew-Bose and David Sedaris.

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