Belle of the Ball

 Prompt: A balloon. A ball. Balustrades. Genre: Horror. 

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Belle said goodbye to her mom through the car window, excited to attend her first dance at her new school. The student body had rented the old Bailey Mansion for the annual Halloween Masquerade Ball: A haunted house for a ghoulishly good time, the posters had said.

Whatever. Belle didn’t believe in ghosts. But this disbelief was gravely challenged as she walked up the pathway leading to the Bailey house, with creeping vines on its walls, and statues all about the grounds casting their shadows over tombstones claiming to belong to various members of the Bailey family. A “greeter”– dressed as a mummy– intercepted her and placed in her hand a string attached to a black helium-filled balloon. “Don’t loose it,” the mummy had commanded in a low, wavering voice.

“You mean don’t lose it?” Belle corrected the grammatical error.

“I mean just what I said, the mummy replied, sounding affronted.

“Why?”

“If any balloons float up into the ceiling rafters, the Guardians of this place will get angry and exact an additional price for the inconvenience of dealing with them after the party.”

“Guardians? Don’t you mean residents, or landlords, or something like that?”

“Excuse me,” said the mummy, removing her mask to reveal the face of Belinda Barymore, the leader of the Senior Pep Squad. “I’m not illiterate; I know what all those words mean, and I said what I meant.” She replaced her mask with a huff. “Look, I know you’re new here. Just, keep an eye on your balloon; you can’t leave the party without it.”

“What?” said Belle, but Belinda gave her a shove to get her moving and the press of the other partygoers forced her forward until she stood at the door’s threshold. She stood aside to let others enter ahead of her and hesitated. But then her new friend, Beth (dressed as Cleopatra), arrived and stepped inside without pause, turning and waving an arm to beckon Belle to follow. Belle put on her mask and plunged into the throng of costumed characters.

“Isn’t it creepy?” she said to Belle as she joined her, taking her friend by the arm and showing her around the place. “It’s decked out for the dance, of course, but I’ve seen it empty and it’s even more eerie then.”

“Sure,” said Belle, preoccupied by the array of masks, and the bobbing of hundreds of black balloons secured to the wrists of their owners. She made a slip-knot in her own balloon and tightened it around her hand, wrapping the string once more for added reassurance that it wasn’t going anywhere. “What’s the deal with the balloons?”

“Oh, them,” said Beth. “It’s just a creepy old tradition to spook people. My dad says they used the same balloons back when he was in high school. Well, not the same same–.”

“Belinda said something about ‘Guardians’ getting upset if they float up to the ceiling?”

“Oh, that. Well, there’s an old legend about a guy who– Hey, it’s Ben! Let’s go say hi.”

So Beth dragged Belle from one group to another, insisted on dancing every other dance, and stopping at the refreshments bar in between. Their balloons accompanied them everywhere, but after a while Belle became used to them and stopped paying them so much attention. Only once in a while, she’d see or overhear someone fretting about nearly losing their hold on their string, or catch snippets of gossip about past masquerade balls. During one such conversation, Belle stopped and froze, forcing Beth to go on without her as Belle retraced her steps to eavesdrop.

“…I heard he came to school the next week with three fingers missing from his right hand. Said they’d been crushed in a ski accident over the weekend, but of course the Guardians would’ve forced him to say that,” said a boy dressed as Spock.

“My sister nearly let go of hers three years ago– came home from the ball white as a ghost and wouldn’t talk for days,” said a bloody ballerina. “Even though nothing happened, it scared her half to death thinking about what if.”

“Whatever,” said a third kid, whom Belle recognized as a boy named Bert from her biology class. He polished off a mini corndog and wiped his greasy hands on his blue jeans which he’d paired with a black t-shirt (too cool for dress-up). “You all are so gullible.”

“Who are the Guardians?” Belle asked, intruding into the conversation. The three talkers turned and stared. “I mean,” she said, glancing at the ballerina’s shoes, “I’m new here, so I can’t just be expected to know, can I?”

Spock pulled his two friends aside, and they mumbled to each other with their heads together so Belle couldn’t overhear them. Only her burning curiosity kept her rooted to her spot, overcoming her embarrassment of having drawn so much attention to herself.

Finally, the bloody ballerina broke from the trio and stepped forward. “The Guardians,” she said, “are the ghosts of the Bailey family who died here over a hundred years ago.”

Belle snorted and her eyes met those of Bert, whom she expected to back up her skepticism. “Ghosts aren’t real,” she said. “And even if they were, they’re, like, immaterial so they can’t hurt anyone.”

“There’s only one way to find out,” said Bert with a shrug.

“Yeah,” said Spock. “If you’re really so sure, then let go of your balloon.”

The ballerina pulled a pair of nail scissors from her purse and snipped the air. “I’ll help you, if you’re too afraid to do it yourself.”

The three surrounded Belle– a pack of wolves circling their prey. Belle heard the distant voice of her friend calling– or maybe not so distant, only it seemed so over the loud thumping of her heart.

Others had taken notice of the scene now, and all about her came shouts of “Cut the string!” and “Give her to the ghosts!”

Belle managed to duck under Bert’s arms and escaped up three steps of the spiral staircase before new hands grabbed her by the fabric of her dress. She screamed and fought to free herself. Someone grabbed her wrist and began working the slipknot of her balloon string. It floated up, out of reach.

Laughing, her assailants released her. She scrambled up the stairs, as the balloon continued its slow ascent. Time around her seemed to slow as she rushed up to the balcony, hoping to catch the balloon as it rose past the balustrade. She reached the top, leaned and stretched; her fingers brushed the balloon. She stretched just a bit more, and pinched the string between her thumb and pointer. Yes!

No! Her body tipped, head-first off the balcony. Arms flailing, she managed to keep hold of the balloon string, for all the good it did her. But as she fell, the crowd parted beneath her and her last thought before hitting the lower steps with a spine-cracking thud, was one of vengeance upon those who had driven her to her fate.

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They say that a new ghost now wanders the halls of the Bailey Mansion, dressed in a yellow Disney ballgown. She’s not a Guardian like the others, and it’s rumored that the Guardians themselves haunt her and her black balloon wherever she goes, attempting in vain to drive her from the place. But she lies in wait for the next Halloween Ball, unaware that the community outside has decided not to allow any parties to be held at the old house anymore.

She will be stuck there for a long, long time…

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