cover of Nightmare Hall 17 Last Breath by Diane HohTitle: Nightmare Hall #17: Last Breath by Diane Hoh 

Summary: Finding her seemingly perfect life haunted by a series of strange occurrences, Cassidy is frustrated by rumors that she is losing her mind, until a fall down the stairs and an encounter with poison [JC: Lies! There was no poison!] prove that someone wants Cassidy dead. 

Initial Thoughts

I don’t remember anything about this one, so it’s highly likely I never read it back in my actual teen years. It opens with a prologue, though, and possibly bad guy pov, and we all know how I feel about those, so things are off to a great start even without any memories of it. [JC: At least this one is actually written by Hoh rather than *shudders* Nola Thacker. I did read it back in the day, but couldn’t remember how it played out.]

Recap

Prologue talks about how body parts are important but not as important as the mind because when it’s lost all is lost. So …. yeah. I’m sure I’m going to enjoy this one.

We kick off the story in Suite 56A in the Quad, one of the bigger dorms at Salem University. Our four roommates are: Talia Quick (pretty, blond, glowing skin, tall), Sophie Green (small, round, dark eyes and hair), Ann Ataska (pale hair, tall), and Cassidy Kirk (our protagonist, red head, short). Talia and Sophie (who share one of the two rooms) tease Cassidy about borrowing her clothes even though they never iron them or return them. It’s actually a pretty cute friendship so far.

Cassidy’s been down with a severe asthma attack; apparently it hit her so hard because she’s been doing too much. The doctor warned her to slow down, but she loves college and loves being busy: classes, clubs, activities, parties, dances, movies — add in jobs and Cassidy and I approached university in similar ways. [JC: Meanwhile, I went to community college in my 30s, so all of these campus life stories are alien to my experience!]

She stays busy in part because she’s making up for growing up with nothing to do, first because chronic asthma kept her out of things when she was a kid and then, after new meds controlled it, because her small town didn’t even have a movie theater and was boring as hell. I feel you, Cassidy. (Though mine did have a theater.)

All four roommates are going to major in psychology, in part because all four of them have at least one relative working in the field: Ann’s dad is a psychiatric social worker, Sophie’s mum and Cassidy’s aunt are psychiatric nurses, and Talia’s mum is a psychiatrist in a well-know psych facility.

… between the hint at gaslighting in the summary and this focus on psychiatry in particular, I am apprehensive about how Hoh will handle this. [JC: Quick note about me and gaslighting – my mother has gaslit me my whole life about things ranging from stupid, inconsequential bullshit up to actual life-altering things, so I dread gaslighting stories. Even if they’re well written, hell, especially if they’re well-written, I will inevitably hate them because of my own background with gaslighting.] [Wing: I’m glad we have your perspective, JC. That experience is important to bring to our recaps and conversations.]

Talk turns to Travis McVey (tall and bony farm boy; which, uh, tall and bony are not usually what you see in farm boys), who wants a girl to make him the centre of her universe, which Cassidy refuses to do. Apparently he’s been asking Ann about her but hasn’t bothered to call or visit Cassidy himself.

On the other hand, Sawyer Duncan did visit and brought her violets and her favourite cinnamon gum. Sawyer (big and solid and easygoing; sounds far more like a farm boy to me, really) is as busy as Cassidy and loves it just as much as she does.

Travis gave Cassidy all sorts of shit over her schedule, even telling her that he’s surprised she leaves herself time to breathe in their last argument. That’s pretty goddamn shitty to say to someone whose life is so deeply impacted by her asthma and who has tried to explain to you why it is important for her to be involved in everything. Fuck out of here, Travis. Cassidy, you deserve way the hell better.

Hoh, they’d better not end up together, damn it.

The four girls hurry off to Psych 101 with Professor Leona Bruin, who is one of the strictest teachers at Salem. Almost all the guys in class hate her [JC: I smell misogyny! . . . it smells like Axe Body Spray, crusted cum, and sadness.] [Wing: I just threw up a little in my mouth.] [JC: You’re welcome!], which means she’s doing something right, and Cassidy thinks she’s strict but fair.

(Ann’s from Florida and is NOT enjoying the cold November weather. You and me both, Ann. You and me both.)

Despite acting like she’s better, Cassidy is still struggling with the fallout from the asthma attack, the only one she’s had since she came to campus. She has a headache still, and she’s exhausted, and she’s having a hard time concentrating.

I feel for Cassidy and am enjoying Hoh writing a compelling protagonist. I hope it continues.

Bruin’s lecture is about the fragility of the human mind, and Cassidy thinks about how it’s only interesting if you have a fragile mind, but hers is strong, not like her lungs. Oh, young adults, so certain they’re invincible (even when they have a chronic illness, apparently).

Hoh doesn’t make us wait long for the story to start fucking with Cassidy. Bruin asks her for her essay on the fragility of the mind which was assigned two weeks before her asthma attack. Cassidy swears that she turned it in before she got sick. She gave it to Travis before their big fight and breakup.

UMM. Really. R E A L L Y. You didn’t turn it the fuck in yourself?

Apparently she cut class that time to finish planning a car wash the freshmen psych majors were holding to raise money to hold a dance which was to raise money for the mental health clinic in Twin Falls, Salem’s host community.

What the fuck is a host community? Is that the town where the university is located? I have never heard that phrase in my life. [JC: I think I’ve heard the term, but not in a context like this. I assume they just mean it’s the community that “hosts” the college? Which is a really odd way to phrase that. Maybe it’s a generational thing?]

To loop back to her making terrible choices in trusting Travis to turn in her paper, apparently their big fight started over her skipping that class and that she’s not indispensable and she didn’t have to be the only one to do things and he thinks she’s desperate to make people think she’s indispensable. They paused the fight for him to go to class, but then broke up later that day.

AND YET YOU TRUSTED HIM TO TURN IN YOUR PAPER AFTER THE FIRST HALF OF THAT FIGHT. OH MY GOD CASSIDY.

That part aside, I am here for Cassidy trying so hard to prove herself (mostly to herself). I, too, want to be useful and finish things, and while I try hard not to be indispensable (especially at work) because I don’t ever want to be the only person who can do a thing (what happens when I’m not there to do it?), I do well know that drive to get things done and to do it because no one else is or could do it as well or whatever.

Cassidy tracks Travis down at his dorm (Lester, a tall, skinny dorm opposite the Quad), angry but hoping that he’d just forgotten or something, not intentionally tried to hurt her. 

When she asks about the paper, he claims he doesn’t remember her giving him one. He promises to check, but doesn’t think it’s there. He even brings down his black backpack for her to go through because she’ll recognise it faster than he will.

Of course the paper isn’t there.

Travis gives her shit, again, about being too busy and maybe she only thought she gave it to him because of being too busy. Cassidy is certain she’d given it to him, but starts to doubt when she thinks back on that day.

But if she didn’t give it to him, where is it? She knows she finished it.

Oh, for the days when your papers weren’t saved on your personal computer (even if it was a brick of a machine that never left your dorm room) or a disk that you carried around between computer labs. [JC: If only TurnItIn.com had been around back then. Then Cassidy would at least have the digital copy to point to to prove she did the paper and, well, turned it in!] [Wing: Oooooh, that is so damn useful.]

(University computer labs, where I learned how relaxing I find the sound of typing. I sometimes now find ASMR videos that are all typing, no talking, and play them in the background when I’m stressed or working on a big project.)

We get a quick flash back through Cassidy and Travis’s relationship (meeting at the bike club, dancing, talking about how different university is from high school, going to the movies, biking, making out in his car) and good lord, her dating life is enough to fill all her time. Fuck off, Travis, you don’t want her to slow down, you just want her to spend all her time on you.

Which, yes, we learned very early on, but this has driven it home. I like it. (Well, the way it’s written, not what he’s doing.)

Cassidy and her roommates search all over their rooms, but do not find her paper. She’s still pretty sure she gave it to him, but is shaken that he says he didn’t get it.

Sophie is the one who points out that maybe he was mad enough to fuck her over. Ann defends him, claiming he wouldn’t do anything so slimy. He’s been a dick so far, I wouldn’t put it past him. [JC: Why are you defending him, Ann? Hmmm? Do you have a thing for him???]

Saturday, the four roommates are hanging out while Cassidy gets ready for the car wash and hoping that the rain holds off until it’s done. Talia tells Cassidy that Talia’s mother thinks Cassidy lost the essay on purpose, passive-aggressive style; she didn’t want to turn it in so she lost it instead.

Cassidy doesn’t like the idea that Talia talked about her with a shrink, even a shrink who is Talia’s own mother. Even more, though, she knows she wanted to turn in the essay. She worked hard on it, and she didn’t lose it, Travis did.

Though the roommates all worked together to set it up, only Cassidy will be there. Ann is baby-sitting, Talia is running a race, and Sophie is frantically writing a paper at the last minute.

On the way to breakfast, they talk boys. Specifically, Sawyer, Cassidy’s new crush, and Travis, the bag of dicks who had better not come back into the picture as a romantic option. Though Cassidy says they had an argument and she didn’t dump him, Ann implies she dumped him for Sawyer and Sophie flat out says it wasn’t an argument it was a full-blown fight.

Only Talia stands up for her.

Cassidy doesn’t eat breakfast both because she’s worried about when she’ll fit in rewriting the psych paper between the car wash and going to the movies with Sawyer and because the food is disgusting (watery scrambled eggs, gag me). [JC: Scrambled eggs are a very delicate balance to cook right. Not done enough and it’s like eating snot. Too done, and it’s like chewing rubber. The trick is to take them off the heat before you think they’re done enough, then let them finish cooking in the pan. Don’t know who needs that tip, but there ya go.]

At the car wash, Cassidy puts one person on each car so that there isn’t as much goofing off as there would be with teams working, and she’s correct to do so. The work goes fast, though, because they have so many volunteers, and Cassidy is glad because it will give her time to work on her psych paper.

Sawyer calls it the paper she lost, which annoys her more than ever.

At least, she thinks she’s going to have time to rewrite it, but the line of dirty cars just keeps coming. She might have to write it on Sunday instead.

Even though she’s impatient and annoyed, she’s still impressed when a black TransAm pulls up for her to wash it, and she daydreams about driving it. And I love her for it.

She can’t see who is actually driving it, though, because the windows are tinted dark enough that she can’t see inside. (Most states have limits on how dark you can go with the front windows, at the very least, if not all the glass, and those limits are specifically tied to safety. I’m going to roll with these dark windows, though, because it is a very cool look.) Cassidy doesn’t recognise the car but thinks whoever owns it must be a cool person.

There are two red plastic hearts tied together and fastened to the driver’s door handle. …to the outside of the door? That seems like a bad place to hang something on any car, but especially on a gorgeous car like that. [JC: This imagery has stayed with me, but it’s weird. Are they dangling so that they’d scratch the car up in the wind? Because that’s the impression I’m left with.] [Wing: Exactly! They aren’t inside or she couldn’t see them, but why would they be left there dangling in the wind? And especially after we learn who is driving the car, did they add them for drama? What’s the point here?]

Cassidy doesn’t even see who the driver is when she’s done washing the car. They roll down the window only enough to give her $10; all she sees is a glimpse of a cream-coloured parka hood.

She’s distracted from this weirdness by a water fight that occurs in a brief break between cars. It’s delightful and fun and exactly the kind of thing that happened back when we had car wash fundraisers in high school.

Unfortunately, it’s much harder to work in wet clothes (um, I zero percent believe you managed to wash that many cars without getting your clothes wet before this moment, Cassidy) and the storm is building, blocking out the sun and cooling off the air, so now she’s chilly and worried about getting sick again.

And then the black TransAm turns up, once again coated in dirt. Cassidy is confused, but washes the car again. This time, she can’t stop thinking about how eerie it is to not be able to see the driver, and how it feels like there is no one inside at all. It’s like a futuristic car that drives itself.

Holy shit, y’all, the future is now.

via GIPHY

[JC: Whereas I was thinking more along the lines of Johnny Cab.

]

Then she wonders if the car is a benefactor, someone who wants to support them but doesn’t want to take credit for their generosity. This is supported when they give Cassidy $20 this time and don’t wait for their change even though she asks them to.

Travis shows up to be a jackass about her health, how she’s “fooling around out here in the cold in wet clothes” right after she got out of the infirmary. Fuck off, Travis. Whether or not you’re right, Cassidy is a grown ass adult who can make her own decisions.

Cassidy agrees with me and wants him to keep opinions to himself, but he never did. She seems to think this is because he’s the first person in his family to go to college and his main purpose of being at Salem is to get a degree.

…goddamnit. I do not want to empathise with Travis here, but I was also the first person in my family to go to university and despite being busy and involved with everything, my main focus was to get a degree in four years.

Cassidy tells him off and goes back to washing cars. (Also, her hair is apparently spiralling into “rust-colored corkscrews” from being wet, and I have my doubts that it looks as cute as that sounds, not when she’s washing cars and it also got soapy and not just wet, but still, she’s adorable.)

She admits that he has a point, though, because she’s getting colder and colder. Eventually, Sawyer says similar things to her, though he is kind about it, asking if they should go back to the dorm so she can clean up and warm up. She likes it better that way without Travis calling her dumb.

Word, girl. Word.

Cassidy doesn’t want to leave because she’s running the event and she doesn’t want to chicken out when everyone else is still working. Sawyer points out that there are plenty of people working and she doesn’t have to do everything herself, she can delegate.

That annoys Cassidy (even though he’s right); it would have annoyed Wing at Cassidy’s age, too. (Wing now has mostly learned to delegate. Mostly.) She tells him she’ll leave after they get through one more batch of cars.

Which includes the TransAm for a third time. This time, she’s a little creeped out. Is the driver trying to test her, to see if she’ll acknowledge how many times they’ve been there? Why won’t the driver joke around with her like all the other drivers do? Why so secretive?

via GIPHY

 

She decides she can’t very well tell them they can’t have their car washed again, since they are paying, and so she washes it again and they pay $20 again.

Cassidy still finds it weird, but thinks maybe she’ll keep an eye out for the car around campus. Creepy or not, she wants to thank their benefactor. 

She’s back in the dorm by the time the storm fully hits, warm and dry and eating popcorn with her roommates and Sawyer. She tells them about the weird TransAm driver, and Sawyer admits he never noticed the TransAm.

And then when she goes through the car wash money, she can’t find the crisp, new bills that the driver gave her. No ten, no twenties, nothing at all.

The money that had been thrust through the small window opening three different times by the driver in the cream-colored parka sitting behind the eerie, dark glass, was gone.

No one else remembers her washing the same car (or even seeing the car) and Sawyer especially waives away the missing new money. Old money spends just as good, he claims.

And then Ann flat out says “if” the driver gave Cassidy $50, because if they did, where is it? Cassidy snaps that they’re patronising her and is really upset that none of them believe her story. And if they keep talking about it, she’s not sure what she’s going to believe either. [JC: While they are doubting her, I took the way Ann used “if” to be less that, and more just the way people phrase things. “If this, then that,” rather than “Well if it really happened and you didn’t imagine it.” Although it’s understandable that Cassidy would take it that way.] [Wing: That’s a fair point. Hoh did a good job writing Cassidy so I’m on her side far enough already to also read Ann’s tone as negative toward Cassidy, but it very well could have been neutral. That’s part of the appeal of this book, though, for as long as I liked it; Hoh gets me sympathising with Cassidy, believing Cassidy, and therefore looking at the world more from her perspective, too, rather than seeing all the ways she’s possibly overreacting.]

She changes the topic to going to the movies with Sawyer, but he no longer wants to go out because of the weather, he’d rather watch a movie in the dorm building. Plus it’s not a good idea for her to get wet again, too.

Cassidy flat out snaps at that, because damn, she might get sick and hallucinating money again, because that’s what they think, isn’t it?

Awkward silence, but when she goes to brush her hair, she can hear them whispering outside the bathroom door, and it enrages her. UNDERSTANDABLY! 

Apparently there is a basement movie room in the Quad, and it is packed. Lots of people come by to congratulate Cassidy on how well the car wash went. She has a hard time accepting their kind words, though, because she’s still caught up in the missing $50.

AGAIN, UNDERSTANDABLY.

She tries to think about when her money pack was out of her sight during the car wash. She took it off once to make change for Rita Nevins and then set it on the hood of a red pickup truck long enough to brush her hair and put it in a ponytail. Someone could have grabbed money then. Or when she’d gotten wet later in the day, she put the back behind her instead of against her stomach and someone could have sneaked money then.

Though she then immediately doubts the idea of a thief at the car wash.

Right before the movie starts, Ann shows up with her date: Travis.

Well then. [JC: Called it!]

Talia finds it weird that Ann is dating Travis and that she didn’t say anything to the rest of them; Cassidy doesn’t, in part because she bets Ann just wasn’t sure how Cassidy would react and that was a fair point. What is weird: that black TransAm and the missing money.

Oh, Cassidy, I love your focus.

The next day, Cassidy hosts a dance planning session in her suite because the weather is still bad. She wants to get the band Misstery to play; the lead singer, Lola Sturdevant, is Cassidy’s friend.

Misstery is simultaneously a fucking weird and wonderful name for a band. It had better be all women, too. [JC: I will allow one man in the band, who stands to the side playing tambourine.] [Wing: I love this.] [JC: In my head, he’s also wearing white bell-bottoms. Because apparently my brain is insisting this is the Partridge Family. Possibly because our protag is named “Cassidy.”]

Even though Travis has been a jackass about the fundraisers before, he’s at the meeting. Cassidy is grumpy about that, despite everything.

They make plans: tickets sold both around campus and at the door; black and silver decorations; candlelight; red flowers as accents; they’ll rent everything and it won’t be too expensive, despite Sawyer’s concerns.

Cassidy, Sophie, and Talia go to the rental place that afternoon; Ann is baby-sitting again. Cassidy complains about it, but Ann points out that the woman she’s baby-sitting for has her hands full and needs her more than Cassidy does.

I have my doubts about the veracity of this job, but if it is true, she has a point.

The rented supplies are more expensive than Cassidy expects, $20 over the limit she set. If only she had that extra $50. She’s determined to have the decorations she wants, though, and orders them anyway.

While they have dinner at the food court, they see Ann and Travis standing in line at the egg roll booth. (Egg. Roll. Booth. Why is there a booth entirely devoted to egg rolls and where can I find one?)

Cassidy is, again, grumpy, and Talia diagnoses her with a form of PTSD, because the end of a close relationship can produce the same symptoms: sleep issues, loss of appetite, depression, nervousness, absent-mindedness, lack of concentration, nightmares, etc.

Cassidy is adamant that she doesn’t have PTSD over a boy how very dare. 

After dinner, Talia and Sophie go shopping and Cassidy goes back to the dorm to work on that psych paper. Before she even makes it out of the mall she has an asthma attack. She’s able to stop it with her inhaler, but she’s frustrated that the regular meds didn’t work this time and she knows why: she had an emotional reaction to seeing Ann and Travis together, no matter how much she tried to convince herself she didn’t.

When she finally leaves the mall, she finds a black TransAm idling in front of it. Despite how she planned to thank the driver, she’s reluctant to go near it, in part because the money is missing and in part because they were so weird what with the whole not even talking to her during three different car washes.

She finally goes and knocks on the window, but no one responds. When she tries to walk away, though, it paces her steps, blocking her from getting back on the sidewalk to go wait for the shuttle bus.

After a few times of this, she starts to get scared of moving. Finally she forces herself to walk behind the car, and sure enough, the driver guns the car backward to block her.

The shuttle back to campus shows up, but it stops some distance away to load and unload passengers, and there’s no one else moving in the parking lot. No one to see her war with the TransAm.

This would be stressful as hell, and I love cars. Having someone you can’t see keep their car between you and your exit, your way home, hell, your way back to people, that is creepy as fuck. Nicely tense, Hoh, and a strong chapter ending.

Cassidy is freaked out, but forces herself to calm down so that she can actually do something. Once she gets the fear under control, anger comes next. She races behind the car and almost makes it, but first, the TransAm hits her left ankle and foot. She does manage to land on the curb without getting run over, but on top of her leg and foot, she scrapes up her palms and the right side of her face.

The TransAm honks and races off. She tries to catch the plate as it leaves, because she’s clever, but it’s covered with mud.

Cassidy lies there for a few minutes, then finally drags herself to her feet and checks her injuries. In addition to everything else, her jeans tore and her skin from her knee to her ankle is torn and bleeding.

Ugh, Cassidy, honey.

She finally gets on the bus and waiting for it (and dealing with the TransAm) took so long that Talia and Sophie get on the same damn bus back to campus. Good lord.

They notice her wounds, but she simply says she fell because it was slick out; she can’t handle it if they don’t believe her and after the earlier stuff with them not believing her about the TransAm and the money, I don’t blame her. Sophie nearly fell, too, and seems to buy her story. Cassidy refuses to go to the infirmary, either; all she wants is the safety of their suite.

After she’s cleaned up, she writes a letter to Misstery, asking them to play at the dance, and leaves it with a stack of other envelopes waiting to be mailed.

…CASSIDY. Have you learned nothing about taking care of things yourself?

Even weirder, though, why wouldn’t you just call your friend in the band? You wrote a fucking letter?! I get that email and cell phones aren’t a thing, really, at least night in the timeline of this series, but come the fuck on. [JC: This is so confusing. For all the reasons you mentioned, and also because the mail takes a while. Aren’t we on a schedule here? Doing this through the mail is going to take an unnecessarily long time!] [Wing: Another good point!]

She’s almost asleep when she remembers she hasn’t finished her psych paper. She decides not to get up to write it and instead tell Bruin she just hasn’t finished rewriting it.

The next morning, she wakes up to an empty suite and is hurt that they left for breakfast without her. They always have breakfast together on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday because they all have that same 9 a.m. psych class. She decides that they must have assumed she wouldn’t go to class because of her injuries, but she’s determined to go. She can’t really hurry because of her leg, and she wastes time looking for her wristwatch which is missing from where she always leaves it on her nightstand, so when she finally leaves, it’s already 10 minutes to class.

When she reaches the classroom, though, the class is letting out. Travis is the first person she sees and he tells her she missed the entire thing. She swears the alarm clock said 8 a.m., but Ann says they got up at 8 and Cassidy must have gotten up at 9.

Gee, I wonder why her watch is missing. I am getting so annoyed with whoever is gaslighting her, and I’m going to be furious if there’s a twist that no one actually is, Hoh, so be warned.

They all doubt her story about the clock and her missing watch, and she is annoyed with them. Life doesn’t get much better after she talks to Bruin, either. 

Sawyer is waiting for her outside the dorm, though he didn’t wait for her outside the classroom, and up in the suite are the rest of the roommates and Travis. She immediately goes to show them her alarm clock, and, of course, it reads 10 a.m., and her watch is on the nightstand.

Oh Cassidy, honey, I’m so sorry. Feeling like you can’t trust your own mind is the worst, and trying to convince the people around you that what you’re experiencing is real is the worst, and I am so angry at whoever is doing this to you. 

Super compelling characterisation and writing, Hoh. Don’t fuck it up.

Cassidy doesn’t understand what’s happening to her. She asks if someone could have been in the room, but her roommates shoot that idea down fast, and even she doesn’t really believe it was possible. (But what if roommates, Cassidy? ROOMMATES.) [JC: And good luck not being called paranoid if you actually insist someone is doing this to you. Ugh. Gaslighting.

She quickly gives up on convincing them that the time really had changed and that her watch was missing when she first got up, and she’s even more relieved that she didn’t tell them about her run-in with the TransAm at the mall.

Ugh, Cassidy, honey, you deserve better friends. I get being skeptical, but there are ways to support your goddamn friend, too, people.

(Also, I’m entertained by how this bit of gaslighting would be more difficult these days. It’s harder to misread a digital clock than an analog one, which is what Cassidy has, and beyond that, most people use their phone for watch and alarm clock and everything. That going missing would be harder to pull off in the first place and nearly impossible to make her think it was the wrong time and then set it back to the correct time.) [JC: I just spent several minutes messing with my own phone to see if you even can manually set the time. Took me a while to find it, but it’s possible and could be done quickly once you know where the option is. Getting hold of the phone to switch it back before Cassidy or whoever could show everyone the time on it, though . . . there would probably have to be hacking involved. Which can be done, but isn’t in my particular skill set.] [Wing: Yeah, it was the getting ahold of it to set it back before she shows it to them that I can’t find a way around without some serious tech skills or a lot of handwaving by the author. (Though, INVITING A BAND BY MAIL, maybe it wouldn’t be so far fetched for Hoh to handle it that way with more modern technology.)]

Cassidy makes it through the rest of the day, though she’s hurting, and on her way back to the dorm, she sees the TransAm idling in front of the Quad. Oh boy.

For a moment, she’s terrified that she can’t get into the Quad without going past it, but then reminds herself the Quad is huge and has multiple entrances. She makes it inside without any other problems.

In the mail she collected are invitations to a party at Nightmare Hall. Good lord, how many gatherings does that off-campus dorm have?! This one is hosted by Cath Devon, one of Ann’s friends who is also Sophie’s art class partner; Sophie is surprised she’s throwing the party, she doesn’t seem like the type, but they all four got written invitations, so.

Sophie’s thrilled to finally see inside Nightmare Hall (…you could have just gone to work on a project there with Cath, you know that, right?), but Cassidy really can’t care less about creepy Nightmare Hall. She loves big, old houses, but wants them to look cheerful. [JC: I feel personally attacked. She wants to paint it white or “mellow yellow” and paint the shutters and front door red. You DO NOT DO THIS to the creepy old house! Sacrilege!]

She is excited about the party, though she’s surprised she’s on the guest list since she barely knows Cath.

Sophie loves all parties, we learn, and she says that it’s because she never went to any parties in high school because everyone thought she was too fat. Oh, Sophie. I hope you’re not the bad guy around here. Also, fuck your former classmates. 

Talia’s not sure she’s going to the party because it’s on a Friday night and she’s running on Saturday. Ann might have to baby-sit; Professor Benham [JC: Or possibly “Brenham” – my copy kept switching back and forth so often that I had no idea which one was the typo.] (that professor she’s allegedly been sitting for all this time) is “finally” starting to date again. “Finally,” Ann says, after one whole entire year of her husband being dead. WTF, Ann. What. The. Fuck.

Cassidy has nightmares about being driven to the party in the black TransAm and finding out that the driver has no face.

She manages to turn in her psych paper on Wednesday, but she’s feeling cold and clammy and sick. She nearly falls asleep in class during another discussion of the fragility of the human mind. One of the things they talk about is how fatigue and stress can damage immune systems, weakening resistance to illnesses, and also our control; under the right circumstances, “even the strongest ego can slip over the edge of sanity, giving enough reason.”

Oh boy. [JC: This . . . this is Psych 101, right? Because I’ve taken Intro to Psych, and this is not it. This is going far beyond the basic Intro class in my experience. And I took Psych at a 4-year university, too, that one wasn’t the community college!] [Wing: Yeah, my understanding is that this is their first semester of a four-year plan, so this would be psych 101 (and I’m pretty sure the book actually calls it that at least once).]

Some of the class is skeptical, but Bruin goes into more detail about how lots of factors make us more vulnerable to being overwhelmed by the ordinary stresses of daily life, which is part of why people can snap when they are too stressed. Even the strongest person can struggle with it.

No matter how strong we think we are, certain stimuli, such as the ones I mentioned above, can convince us that we’re seeing things we really aren’t, hearing sounds no one else hears, can take from us the ability to perform the simplest tasks. This is why managing your time and your physical and emotional resources well is so important.”

Cassidy sat up straighter. “Seeing things?” “Losing it?” “Over-burdened?” What was Professor Bruin talking about?

Involuntarily, Cassidy’s head swivelled and she found herself looking straight into Travis’s dark eyes. He was nodding knowingly, as if Professor Bruin had said aloud, “Cassidy Kirk, I’m talking about you!”

Maybe she is, Cassidy thought as she flushed and looked away, maybe she is.

Oh. Boy.

I seriously dislike Travis, but Cassidy is also starting to sound paranoid. Poor girl. I hope she gets some actual fucking support from someone soon. [JC: On the other hand, the whole point of gaslighting is to make you feel/sound paranoid, so whoever’s doing it to her (do we still call the antagonist the “Muffin Man” around here, because of The Mall? 😀 ) is doing a good job.] [Wing: Ha, yeah, we still can! This Muffin Man is being incredibly successful with the gaslighting, but I still think at least one friend should have been more willing to cut Cassidy some slack. Of course, it’s possible her friends didn’t grow up on horror stories or with a manipulative parent.]

Anyway, she’s busy the rest of the week writing essays and attending dance committee meetings and going to class and going to a movie with Sawyer and running errands and and and and.

Sawyer suggests she delegate and stop trying to do everything herself. She finally decides to try that out and asks Talia and Sophie to help with her errands. I’m sure nothing will ever go wrong here.

Friday, Bruin asks her to stay after class to remind her that she has a test to make up, one she missed while she was out sick, and she should have arranged to take it by now. Cassidy has no idea what the fuck she’s talking about, and now she has to take it that afternoon. [JC: Okay, no. I don’t believe this. If this were an actual test/exam, it would be listed in the syllabus and it would have been mentioned several times in class leading up to the day. And if it were just a pop quiz like Cassidy thinks it is, she probably wouldn’t be allowed to make it up. Also, in my experience you make tests up at the testing center on campus, not in the classroom with the prof.] [Wing: …I just realised I never had to make up an exam during university, so I don’t know about that, but during grad school, I did. We didn’t have a specific testing center, but we also didn’t take it in the classroom with the professor. The professors weren’t even around for our tests in grad school, though in undergrad, at least at the lower level classes, we did take them in the class with the professor. In the upper level classes, there were fewer tests and more papers and projects anyway.]

When she asks Sawyer about it, he says he forgot about it and moves on because he’s there to tell her he can’t see her that night because he has a physics test first thin in the morning.

Saturday. Morning.

I know some classes at some universities are sometimes held on Saturdays, but it would be unusual at a school like Salem. 

They make plans to go out Saturday night and Cassidy spends the next few hours cramming for the psych test at 4 p.m. Which ends up not being a psych test, Bruin just wanted her there to schedule a time to take the test.

You … you couldn’t do that earlier when you told her to be in your office at 4 p.m.? WTF, Bruin.

There is a lot of what the fuckery going on around Salem right now. [JC: Is this school populated by Sweet Valley teachers? That might explain some of the what the fuckery.]

Anyway, Bruin wants her to take the test at 7 p.m. that night. Why the fuck would you want to administer a test at 7 p.m. on a Friday night? Go home, woman! Do something fun! What the fuck are you even doing right now?

When Cassidy gets back to the dorm, everyone’s gone, off to the mall because Sophie forgot to buy shoes when she was there last time. Cassidy gets ready, waiting for them to turn up while she studies, but they don’t. The tests takes her an hour and a half. I thought this was a fucking pop quiz per that conversation with Sawyer! She’s studied the wrong things, she struggles, she debates not going to the party because she doesn’t feel well, and when she finally finishes, she’s certain she’s failed and ruined her psych grade, and determined to go to the party. She decides to take the shuttle because parking will be a mess at Nightmare Hall with the party.

But when she arrives, there aren’t a lot of cars. She can hear people talking inside and lets herself in. It’s not until she’s inside that she notices there’s no music, either.

Geeeeeeeee, this is truly a surprise.

There is, of course, not a party that night, it’s next Friday. 

Yeah. Fuck everyone around Cassidy.

Cassidy argues with Jess Vogt, who breaks the news to her, instead of just bouncing like she should do considering how many times she’s been arguing with people and getting nowhere. 

She knows she should make a joke, try to wave it off, but she’s too close to tears. She backs down and leaves, completely embarrassed. So much so that she won’t wait for the shuttle and decides to walk instead. She mulls over everything and realises that Sawyer hadn’t said he wouldn’t see her at the party, just that he wouldn’t see her that night; Ann’s note hadn’t said see you later at the party, just that they’ll catch up with her later, no word on where. And whenever anyone talked about it, they just said “Friday night” because why wouldn’t they, everyone read the invitations, they knew it was next week.

Oh, Cassidy.

She doesn’t much like walking along the road alone at night, and at the best of times, that can be dangerous, but THE FUCKING TRANSAM IS STILL OUT THERE. Oh my god, Cassidy.

AND SURE ENOUGH, it shows up while she’s lost in her thoughts, worrying about what’s wrong with her because she’s getting things wrong and seeing things that aren’t there and just having a miserable time of things. It’s close enough that the right mirror brushes her elbow. Jesus, that’s close.

But also, Jesus, that’s a quiet fucking car if it got that close without her hearing anything.

Cassidy’s anger gets to her and she kicks the front tire.

And gets a response: the horn blares, the engine roars (…the engine that was quiet enough to sneak up on her a minute ago?), the tires spray her with gravel, it cuts across the side of the road in front of her, and the passenger’s door opens hard enough that it knocks her off her feet.

Goddamn.

Then TransAm takes off, then, “with a triumphant blast of its horn.” I love how the same sound can be angry and threatening and triumphant. I’m sincere about that; a honk can mean so many things depending on context, and Hoh’s got it down here. [JC: I would love a horn that conveys “Sorry, person in front of me, I’m not honking at you, I’m honking at the asshole going the other way who just ran that red light.”]

Cassidy doesn’t understand why the driver did what they did, but she has bigger problems: the stress of it causes an asthma attack and for a terrible moment, she can’t remember if she moved the inhaler to the purse she grabbed for the party.

But she did, and it works. She’s shaky and cold and frightened and angry, but she can breathe.

She finds solace in Burgers Etc., a diner across the road from campus. She hopes for a crowd, but it’s almost empty because it’s still too early for the diner crowd. Hot coffee helps her calm down, though, and she decides to wait until someone she knows arrives, because surely they will.

Sure enough, someone does: Travis. Shocking. An actual surprise is that Ann isn’t with him. She waves him over despite herself, and though he is reluctant, he joins her and even listens to her story. Even sort of believes her, or at least doesn’t say anything about not believing her.

Shortly after, Ann, Sophie, and Talia show up and Travis tells them her story even though she hadn’t planned on telling them. Damn, Travis, let a woman share her own information in her own time, fucker. 

Ann points out that it’s weird no one saw it happen, and wants to know why she was walking on the highway alone when she was supposed to be on a date with Sawyer. Cassidy admits her goof-up with the party (or “goof-up” I guess), and Sophie and Talia are sympathetic.

Ann, though, Ann mocks her for reading the invitation wrong and asks if her medication causes hallucinations. All done in the tone of someone worried about a friend, but there’s an edge to it. [JC: Textbook concern trolling.] (And yes, that could just be because we’re in Cassidy’s point of view for this book, but Hoh is doing a good job of giving just enough alternatives to make us start to doubt Cassidy while also making Cassidy sympathetic and engaging. I want her to be okay. I want someone to be doing this to her and for her to be able to stop it.)

Cassidy snarks back at that and heads out. Travis says he’ll walk her back, and Ann immediately says they all will, but Sophie and Talia stay behind to eat dinner.

Ann apologises to Cassidy, and Cassidy waves it off, but it’s not okay and we all know it.

As soon as she’s back in the dorm (Ann stays outside to make out with Travis for a bit, Cassidy thinks), she checks the invitation, but the date on the one she finds is next Friday. Of course it is. Oh, honey.

She had hoped that Cath had made the mistake, not herself, but the lettering hasn’t been tampered with, no smudges or anything. She doesn’t consider that someone might have switched the entire invitation, though, despite the alarm clock and her missing watch and missing money and other various things that have happened inside the damn room.

Cassidy’s starting to be scared of her own mind, and my heart is breaking for her.

I’m pretty open about the fact I have bipolar, and one of the things I fear most in the world is losing my sense of self into the disease. I’m in treatment, I have a great psych and a fairly balanced med regime right now, but it won’t last. It doesn’t last. The meds aren’t a cure, and things get worse sometimes, and eventually they stop working.

Involuntary commitment and not being able to trust my own mind. Those are my big fears. Spiders are a phobia, illogical, I know, but full-blown, logical fears, those are my two. [JC: I’ve been sitting here (and walking around the house, and taking a shower) for a while trying to figure out how best to say this. I think my fear is not exactly the opposite of yours, but more like the flip side of the same coin. I’m maybe a little *too* confident when it comes to trusting my own mind. My fear is knowing I’m right, but nobody believes me, and just thinks I’m paranoid/delusional, even though my bipolar, fortunately, has not included psychosis/hallucinations. I don’t feel like I could ever doubt my own mind; which means if my mind does turn out to be unreliable, I’ll go down convinced it’s everyone else who’s wrong.] [Wing: Ooh, that is very interesting, especially coming at it from the different parenting situations we grew up with. Maybe because your mind was challenged so often that you do settle so hard in not doubting your own mind, whereas I was not gaslit and as a result, haven’t had the default around me be for someone to try to make me doubt my own mind. I’m not sure I’m saying this well, but the different experiences younger basically leading to different responses on the same coin.]

She finds a letter in the mail, an acceptance from Misstery to play at the dance and an offer to waive their usual fee because it’s a fundraiser.

Oh, Cassidy, why do you continue to be so trusting of things that could so easily be messed with? This one doesn’t even have a return address on it. (And I still think a fucking phone call is how this would actually have gone down; as much as I enjoy what Hoh’s done so far in this book, this particularly choice feels so fucking forced just to create more conflict.)

AND THEN SHE TRIES TO CALL LOLA TO THANK HER. WHAT THE EVER LOVING FUCK, HOH?! Now the written request and acceptance is 100% unnecessary and forced, and I am completely thrown out of my enjoyment of the story. Goddamnit. [JC: Such a weird choice.]

Sawyer calls after Ann’s back in the room, and Cassidy reluctantly tells him the entire story of her evening. He sounds doubtful, and she’s disappointed. Then Ann tells her to have her medication checked out, and Cassidy tells her to mind her own business.

Jesus, Cassidy, you deserve such better people in your life. I’m sad the realistic-feeling friendship early on has become all of this mess.

Sawyer calls the next morning to tell her that he had a friend of his run all car registrations on campus, and there is no TransAm registered at Salem University. [JC: I’m not calling total bullshit, but I’m doubtful. TransAms were all over the place in 1994, and Salem seems to be a fairly good-sized school. Not a single TransAm on the whole campus? Mmkay . . . .]

This ends a chapter like it is supposed to be a (needlessly dramatic cliffhanger chapter ending) reveal, but (a) everyone saw that coming and (b) who the hell says it has to be registered on campus? It could be a local. It could be someone who doesn’t want their car being so easy to find when they’re using it to run people over. It could be someone who doesn’t want to pay for parking. It could be any number of things.

Sawyer does admit it could be from Twin Falls, but Cassidy doesn’t know anyone in Twin Falls and is completely shaken by no car being registered. Come on, Cassidy. I know you can do better than this.

Sawyer also brings up the fact that this, if it is happening, doesn’t have to be someone she knows, it could be someone who picked her at random, the way serial killers pick their victims. Damn, dude, way to feed her fear.

(I’m going to note that her friends brought her coffee and she takes her medication with it, because as subtle as the line is, it reads like it might be important.) [Wing: It was not important, not really. Maybe a little bit of foreshadowing, but even then, not much. As JC pointed out earlier, there’s no actual poisoning despite the summary.

This reminds me that there’s also no messing with her meds, minus the potential full disappearance of her inhaler. One of the most terrifying moments in an otherwise not-frightening show was the med thing in the first season of Unreal. I haven’t watched a season sense, it got to me that bad.]

Ann says she called Cath to reassure her that she hadn’t made a mistake because the possibility she had was upsetting her; Cassidy’s annoyed that Ann brought it up again and says that Cath sounded very sure the night before.

Talia offers to talk to her mother about Cassidy, get her some free advice. Because she needs a shrink, they’re implying, and Cassidy snaps at them in anger that what she really seems to need is a damn eye doctor.

Normally, I’d be annoyed by this dismissal of treatment, but it doesn’t actually seem like Cassidy undervalues mental health treatment what with her being a psych major and all. She’s just angry at her friends for being pushy and diagnosing her without, you know, them actually being trained (which is something a lot of people try to do to other people), and she’s understandably upset. [JC: I’m not so sure. It was either here or elsewhere it read to me like she was offended at the very idea that she might want to talk to a professional.] [Wing: I still think it’s tied into her annoyance and frustration at no one listening to her more than it is to her belief seeing a professional is always wrong, but that’s also a fair reading.]

Then Sophie admits that she hasn’t made it to the bike shop like she said she would. Cassidy wonders if she shouldn’t just take the bike herself to make sure it gets done, but she’s going to delegate like Sawyer said.

Uh, yeah, okay, delegating is good, but she’s already forgotten (or chosen not to do it, whichever) and also things keep going wrong around you. No one should blame you for wanting to see things done yourself.

Cassidy triple checks everything before they all leave for the (American) football game that afternoon. Ann is baby-sitting again, but the other three are going. Cassidy’s still annoyed at Ann, but Talia is sympathetic with Ann and how worried she is about her grade in that professor’s class and how she feels sorry for Dr Benham who is raising three kids by herself and how the kids are monsters to Ann.

Fuck off, Ann.

Cassidy feels like everyone is staring at her when they get settled in the bleachers, certain that everyone has heard about her party mistake, and she has a hard time ignoring the whispers. It also makes her angry, and that makes her realise it can’t all be about the invitations, they must have heard about everything else that happened and of course the whole picture is a bad one.

Yeah, honey, maybe they are, but this sounds more like your anxiety and anger (and shitty treatment from the people who are supposed to care about you) mixing to make you think everyone is talking about you even when they aren’t. [JC: I’m finding it hard to believe that everyone would care so much that some girl showed up late for class and “misread” the date of a party. Either these kids have no damn lives of their own, or this is just Cassidy’s anxiety-clouded perception.

At halftime, Tobie Shea from the dance committee (short, heavyset, beautiful hair and eyes) says that a couple other people on the committee have been talking and they’re wondering if Cassidy wants someone else to take over as chairperson.

Jesus christ, the people in Cassidy’s life are fucking shit.

Cassidy shoots her down but can’t stop thinking about Bruin talked about total denial on the part of the patient which makes proper treatment difficult, and sometimes impossible, during early stages. And that’s fair, though a huge part of that can also be the stigma attached to being mentally ill. That stops people from pursuing treatment, too.

After the game (Salem wins against their archrival, State), Cassidy is with Sawyer and his friends when she sees the TransAm again. Sawyer’s too busy talking about the game to notice it, but Cassidy is pleased she can point it out to him and have someone corroborate her story.

Except then the crowd pushes her away from Sawyer and by the time she gets back to her, the TransAm is gone. She takes her frustration out on Sawyer, shouting at him for not looking, and oh, honey, I understand why, but you are not helping your case here.

All the girls are going out on dates that night, and there’s some sharp-edged joking around as they get ready (part of it is when Sophie forgets her key right after asking if Cassidy remembered her inhaler), and while it didn’t soften me toward any of them after how they’re treating Cassidy, I wasn’t completely annoyed until Talia said that at least her asthma is a physical condition not a mental one and she’s lucky there’s medication for it. [JC: Because . . . psychiatric meds . . . don’t exist . . . ? WTF Talia.]

AND YOU ARE A GODDAMN PSYCH MAJOR?!

Fuck. You. Talia. Fuck you.

F U C K. Y O U.

Most of the night goes well, Cassidy dances with Sawyer and with Travis (and Ann shoots her nasty looks; Cassidy is surprised by how possessive she’s turning out to be), but when Cassidy goes to talk to Lola about the details of the dance (apparently Misstery is playing this party, too), she, of course, has no idea what Cassidy is talking about.

This is why you fucking call her to make arrangements, Cassidy.

Lola says that she never got a letter from Cassidy and that she would never make arrangements by writing back, she does everything by phone. (BECAUSE THAT’S HOW HIRING A BAND WORKS, CASSIDY! At least at the time. It can probably be done online now, if you prefer.)

Everyone is annoyed, of course, though Sophie points out they’ve sold a lot of tickets and they can get another band instead. No one flat out says she fucked it up, but she knows they’re thinking it. And Ann is going to get the replacement band, not Cassidy.

When Tobie hears the story (from Ann, of course), she decides to call a meeting next week to choose a new chairperson because they need someone who knows what she’s doing.

Ouch, Tobie. O U C H.

Though I blame her less than Cassidy’s friends. She doesn’t know Cassidy well, and from the outside, it does look like Cassidy is dropping the ball. She has not heard Cassidy’s point of view nor does she have any loyalty that should be leading to her giving Cassidy the benefit of the doubt, at the very least, like Cassidy’s friends should be doing.

They leave shortly after and all of them go back to the dorm, including Travis and Sawyer. (So much for Sophie and Talia’s dates; there’s not even any names for them.) [JC: . . . I forgot they existed.] [Wing: Pretty sure Hoh did as well.] Cassidy tries to casually look for the acceptance letter, but doesn’t find it, of course, and sees even Sawyer doubting her.

And then she’s muttering to herself when Sophie and Talia return with drinks for everyone.

Cassidy knows how it looks but tries to tell them that someone must have taken the letter anyway. None of them believe her.

Ugh, Cassidy, my heart.

Dear god, she keeps talking about it to them, describing the letter to them. Cassidy, stooooop. (Also, we’re only halfway through the book, and while the tension and frustration with the gaslighting is working really well, every chapter picking up the same conversation as the one before is starting to really drag.)

Ann thinks they should have Tobie as Cal Donner, the lead singer for Tattoo (these bands, y’all. These bands.), but Cassidy doesn’t like that idea because Tattoo is a rock band and wouldn’t play a slow, romantic song if they were forced.

Uh, do you know anything about rock music? There are plenty of slow romantic songs by rock bands. In fact, isn’t Misstery a fucking rock band? [JC: These kids have never heard of a power ballad, Wing.] [Wing: I am sad for them all.

In fact, let’s take a little power ballad break. Here’s my favourite from the 90s:

However, they might have preferred something like this:

 

Let’s end Wing’s Power Ballad Happy Hour there.]

[JC: And start JC’s Loud Lyrical Lovin’ Extravaganza! How about

Or maybe

Possibly even

]

Cassidy ends their night, using the excuse that they have the big bike ride in the morning, even though she doesn’t plan on going anymore. She doesn’t want people to stare and whisper about her; it makes her so nervous she will act weird and only prove their beliefs.

Cassidy tries to sleep away the morning, and her roommates leave her be even when they know she’ll be late for the bike ride, but Travis shows up to collect her and shouts at her to open the door or he’ll break it down.

What the fuck, Travis. What the fuck.

Hoh, if he goes back to being a love interest for her, I’m setting something on fire. [JC: I’ve got boxes and boxes of matches! The good kind! And a variety pack of mini-torches!] [Wing: And you are my new favourite.] [JC: *blushes*]

He argues with her that she’s going and finally gets her agree to do so when he points out that everyone else will spend the time speculating about why she’s not there and will come up with wilder and wilder stories.

Cassidy checks her back tire before she gets on the bike and it looks fine, so she’s relieved that Sophie came through. Clearly delegating responsibilities was a good idea.

I’m not sure I buy this quick about-face on delegation. Control freaks like Cassidy (and Wing) generally do not embrace it so completely ever, much less after one successful attempt. (If it really is successful. I have my doubts.) [JC: I am a control freak as well, and I’ve had to make a conscious effort to tell myself that my way isn’t the only “right” way to do a thing. Which has involved a lot of teeth-gritting and eye-averting to keep myself from jumping in to do a thing myself, “my” way. So I also doubt Cassidy is an immediate delegating convert.]

They have a great time, but because of a detour, they get to the state park late and by the time they leave, darkness is falling. Though she and Travis have gotten along all day, on the ride back to campus, they argue over Sawyer and Ann not being with them, which is a stupid thing to argue about, and he leaves her riding alone, because he’s a fucking jackass.

To add to this horribleness, as she whips around a curve trying to catch up with the rest of the group, her tire goes flat. She’s having trouble breathing, too, but before she can grab her inhaler, a car comes up. She’s thrilled because it means that someone can give her a ride back to campus.

Uh, probably not a good time for you to be so relieved over a car coming up on you while you’re on the side of the road.

Sure enough, it’s the TransAm, and it hits her bike, sending it into the woods.

She’s terrified that if she’d still been on the bike, the TransAm would have done the same thing. She sinks down to her knees, overwhelmed, and screams at the car to leave her alone. 

It does, after another mocking honk, and finally she starts walking again.

Travis comes back shouting at her about not being right behind him. WTF, Travis, you left her alone.

She tells him that a car hit her bike, but he hasn’t seen a single car in the last hour and anything that passed her would have had to pass him too. He gives her a ride back to where she remembers the accident happening. There’s no glass on the road from where the headlamp broke on her bike even though her leg is still cut from the flying pieces and, worse, her bike is sitting by the side of the road, completely whole and with her water bottle (marked with her initials) in the holder.

The tire isn’t even flat.

Travis ONCE A FUCKING GAIN pedals off whether or not she’s behind him, and she’s so scared of being alone she goes after him even though she knows he doesn’t believe her. She’s starting not to believe herself, even.

UGH CASSIDY.

Back at the dorm, she asks Sophie for the receipt for the repair (so she can pay her back is the cover), but Sophie can’t find it. 

Cassidy doesn’t tell her anything important about the night, nor does she return Sawyer’s call. Instead she sleeps.

It doesn’t much help, though, because she’s still tired and horrified the next morning in psych class. Bruins continues to talk about the breaking points of the human mind, still about stress weakening the strongest of people. Pretty sure you said that exact same thing last time we sat through this lecture with Cassidy, but cool.

Later, she calls Sawyer’s friend who ran the student registrations and asks him to check the faculty ones, too. Nothing, though. She has him check other employees, too, and still nothing. [JC: So, are there no rules against giving out this sort of information, or . . . ?] [Wing: Apparently not! Or he’s willing to break them for any of Sawyer’s friends.]

She’s so worn out and disheartened and confused she doesn’t even fight when she’s replaced as the dance chairperson that afternoon. Replaced by Ann. 

Cassidy goes down to the river instead of back to the Quad because she doesn’t want to deal with her friends. She’s sitting on a rock overlooking the water and mourning how much she loved college before now when someone asks if she’s thinking about jumping.

What the fuck, Tr — oh, wait, it’s Sawyer. Damn, Cassidy has shit taste in men.

Sawyer’s heard the story, of course, and suggests that she fell and hit her head while on her bike and maybe she dreamed of the car while she was unconscious. She claims she’d know if she had an accident, but he looks doubtful, and that hurts her feelings.

When she gets back to her dorm, she gets the pleasure of overhearing Travis and her roommates talking about how she’s self-destructing and right on the edge and Ann’s worried about living with her when she’s seeing things that aren’t there and clearly she’s dangerous and jesus fucking christ you are a goddamn psych major what the ever loving fuck, Ann. [JC: Well, we were told earlier on that they learned in Psych class that serial killers – real “whackos” – don’t need a reason to kill. You know, other than being “whacko.” So I’m not super confident about the quality of education they’re getting in this class, you know?]

(Note that I’m not blaming Hoh here. [JC: I kinda am, given the “crazy people kill because they’re crazy” trope we were treated to earlier. Which apparently came from the professor, who ought to know better.] This is intentional ableism, it fits the characters, and it is terrible. I don’t like it, but it works for the story. I hate accidental ableism even more, when the author doesn’t even know what they’re doing, as Hoh has done in other books. Intentional, like this, can suck to read, but it is a choice, and I can respect that.)

Ann suggests they go to their parents, Talia suggests Bruin, and Cassidy finally walks in and kicks them all out (but Ann, who shares the room with her). She wants to sleep and she doesn’t need a “bunch of amateur psychologists discussing” her. 

I love you, Cassidy.

Cassidy decides she has two options. She can go home, or she can stay and either avoid weird, strange things. And if they happen, she’ll tell no one about them.

God, Cassidy, my heart.

She spends the next week stressed and intentionally alone and sleeping as much as possible. Sophie and Talia try to talk to her, but she brushes them off. She’s not planning to do anything social, including the Nightmare Hall party —

— up until Friday morning when Travis asks Bruin about what the treatment for stress-induced hallucination and whether retreating from everyday life is the answer.

God fucking damn it, Travis, fuck the fuck out of here. She doesn’t want your “help” and all you’ve done is make things worse.

Bruin tells him to reach the next chapter but also that if the treatment was that simple, most people would hide in their rooms.

Cassidy wants to slap him, but she’s too far away (good thing, really, because that’d go over well) and manages not to do it when he catches up with her after class. They fight again about him and his need to be right and whether she should go back to her “normal” life and I hate him so much.

She decides she has to go to the party, though, has to face the discomfort of it because that’ll show Travis and wipe the smugness off his face.

Fuck. Travis.

Cassidy is very careful when she gets ready and doesn’t even snap when Talia is carelessly shitty about her mother’s advice. When Ann finds out that Cassidy is going to the party, she looks surprised and something else Cassidy isn’t sure about, maybe disappointment or surprise.

Cassidy doesn’t have much fun at the party, in large part because people keep stopping their conversations when she walks into a room. Jesus, people, at the very least be more fucking subtle. [JC: If this is even a medium-sized campus, I’m still not convinced all these people would know who the fuck she is. Or, again, care that she showed up late to class and a week early for a party. Still, this sounds so anxiety-inducing.

Travis breaks away from Ann long enough to check on her and bring her a can of soda. Ann’s angry when she sees them together, but relaxes when Cassidy calls her over, saying that Travis has been wondering where she is. Travis, though, is annoyed.

Cassidy leaves her soda on the windowsill so she can go dance with Sawyer’s friend who did all the research on the car registrations.

Bullshit.

Wait, when was this published … 1994. 

I zero percent believe she doesn’t even spare a thought for someone being able to put something in her drink if she leaves it sitting somewhere. I was much younger than she is in 1994, and sheltered as fuck (religious extremism will do that), and I knew about the risk. Not to mention, things keep being done to and around her. I’m shocked she even accepts anything from anyone else.

This feels like another misstep on Hoh’s part, another choice of forcing the actions to match what she wants to happen and not doing the things that make more sense. [JC: Maybe not? I was 13 in 1994, and I’m pretty sure I hadn’t heard of roofies or any other drug that might be slipped in a drink. It would be a few years before I became aware of that as a danger. But I still wouldn’t leave a drink alone and come back to it, simply because someone else might have taken a drink from it, or a bug might have flown/crawled into it.] [Wing: Well now I have a terrible image of a spider crawling out of my drink right after I’ve taken a drink, so thanks for that, JC. Heh.]

Sure enough, she goes back to get her drink, hot and breathless from dancing, and gulps some of it down before she notices that the can is warm and the liquid hot enough to burn her.

She races through the house, screaming, until she can get to the sink and gulp cold water. Her “friends” gather around her and, of course, don’t believe her when she tells them about the hot coffee, nor does Ann believe that she’s actually injured herself from it.

And, of course, the can is cold when she goes back for it. She doesn’t want to face them again, but Talia catches her before she can leave, so she goes back to the kitchen and tells them that this is cold but she drank a hot one just a few minutes ago.

In that awkward silence, Sawyer rocks up. 

She finally shoos them back to the party, saying that she is going to drink a little more water and try to get the water spots off her vest and then she’ll be out to join them.

God, Cassidy.

She goes to the bathroom to check her mouth, but even though Ann told her the doors are marked with special stickers, the one she opens leads her onto a set of narrow stairs and she falls straight down them.

It’s the cellar, and there’s plenty of mold and mildew which kick off her allergies. (I feel so hard for Cassidy right now! I also have that issue, though not asthma.) Unfortunately, she dropped her bag (and the inhaler) when she fell.

She frantically searches for it, listening to the party overhead, but unable to breathe enough to let her call out for help. After a second, she can hear Travis and Ann talking in the kitchen. Apparently Ann disappeared a few minutes ago and that’s been happening a lot lately. She says she was talking to Sophie about the dance he hasn’t asked her to yet.

Subtle, Ann. You know, you could ask him to the dance.

She goes on to say that they’re worried about the decorations what with how Cassidy’s been, but Travis interrupts her because he’s hearing a noise from the cellar, a sound “like a car with a bad battery.”

That sure is an interesting description of raspy breathing.

Ann recognises it from the last time she heard Cassidy have an asthma attack and they race to help her. Travis finds her inhaler while Ann calls an ambulance. When she’s taken out of the cellar, she sees there’s no sticker on the door, of course.

(Cassidy feels safe with Travis and is sad when Sawyer comes to support her instead. Goddamnit, Hoh, Travis is a bag of dicks. Why are you still leaning into this love interest thing?) [JC: Can I offer you a match in these trying times?] [Wing: Please and thank you.]

She gets to go back to her dorm Sunday, and forces herself to go about her regular schedule all week, including classes and meeting and socialisation, but she’s just going through the motions and she knows she needs helps.

How much of her mind was left? How long would it take to lose the rest of it? Then what would she be? When the last of the real Cassidy Kirk had disappeared forever, where would the put the empty shell that was left?

God, Cassidy, my heaaaaaart.

Her fears are so believable and so close to some of mine that my heart aches for her. This is some excellent storytelling, Hoh, despite my handful of complaints. Cassidy is amazing and a wonderful protagonist and I’m worried as hell about her.

Cassidy goes to pick up the decorations and drives herself instead of taking the shuttle because it would be awkward to carry everything. She leaves campus a little late, though, considering she hates driving in the dark.

And when she gets the decorations, of course they aren’t the right colour. The tablecloth is royal blue and not black. Apparently, Cassidy called her a week ago, with her student id number, to change the order to blue and orange. 

Which are State’s colours, not Salem’s. [JC: Also, Mets colors! Let’s go, Mets! (Don’t ask me why this Kansas girl cheers for a New York team. It’s a mystery. *shrug*)] [Wing: I feel the need to start singing M-I-Z Z-O-U, which isn’t related to the Mets at all and isn’t one of my college sports teams anyway, but here we are, Kansas and Missouri.]

Oh boy.

She begs the woman to find black and silver, and the clerk promises to try.

Cassidy is shaken when she leaves the story. How could she have called and not remember it? What was wrong with her? Why was one part of her trying to sabotage her.

OOOOR, and work with me here, maybe SOMEONE ELSE is trying to sabotage you, poor woman.

She cries as she drives home, and when her eyes get blurry, she reaches for tissues just in time for something large to dart out of the woods right in front of her car. She hits it, hard.

She’s terrified that she just killed someone but can’t bring herself to look. Instead she races back to Nightmare Hall (which she just passed) and begs for help. Blood is streaming down her face from a cut on her forehead and she drags Jess and Ian out with her to check the body.

And, of course, there’s no one there when they get back.

She starts wailing, completely overwhelmed by everything, and Jess and Ian race her to the infirmary on campus where she’s treated by Dr Cleo Mandini. Jess and Ian told Mandini that Cassidy is having a rough time of things, and Cassidy finally admits that she’s seeing things and even tells her about the TransAm with its cute little red hearts.

She’s been given something to help her deal with pain and is very drowsy, but not too drowsy to hear when Mandini says that the car is real and right there on campus. It belonged to Pat Benham, the best American history teacher they had, the best gardener of roses in the county, and a very sad story when he died of cancer and left behind a wife and three children.

Oh, hmm, like the family for which Ann keeps baby-sitting? That family?

Apparently Leona Benham can’t handle getting rid of the car because her husband loved it so much, so it sits in the garage unless she lets a student take it for a drive to keep it in working order until she’s finally ready to sell it.

If the car exists, then maybe the other things actually existed, too. Mandini asks why she would think she imagined the car, and Cassidy says she doesn’t know. And if the Benhams own the car, how the hell wouldn’t Ann know about it? And if Ann knew about it, why the hell wouldn’t she say anything?

Cassidy thinks all these things, but meds have fully kicked in, trying to drag her to sleep. She fights it, though, trying to figure out the truth. Ann had access to everything that had happened, but why. Why would she do it? [JC: If this were R.L. Stine, it would be because of Travis, one hundred percent. Good thing Hoh isn’t Stine.]

Mandini has to go take a phone call, and Cassidy slips out of the infirmary while she’s distracted. She’s slow and unsteady as she makes her way across campus, but determined to unmask Ann.

Before she makes it back to the Quad, someone comes rushing up to her, saying that Mandini is frantically looking for her. The figure is dressed in a white doctor’s coat and a white mask, and claims to be Dr Robert Caswell. He claims he’s going to take her back to the infirmary, angry that she’s wasted their time — and then he takes her to a black TransAm.

She tries to fight, but he throws her into the trunk.

The trunk smells like mold and mildew, which starts to kick off her asthma and allergies again, but her purse and inhaler are gone. She feels around, searching for anything to help her with any of the situations she’s in, and manages to find some garden tools.

But they don’t open the trunk, just talk to her through it, asking if she’s still alive because driving around once she’s dead just wastes gas.

Cassidy begs for her inhaler, and they open the trunk enough to taunt her with it. Cassidy manages to kick the trunk open, and as the person shouts at her, she finally recognises the voice: Talia Quick.

Talia, it turns out, was one of the students Benham hired to drive her car. (Wait a minute, no one said anything about being paid to drive that cool car. I want the job, Benham!) She made a copy of the key the first time and takes it out whenever she wants. Benham never even notices when Talia keeps it overnight.

Conveniently Talia tells her all about the ways she found a nearly perfect match for Cassidy’s bike and then made a few adjustments and how there was a cutoff in between the two curves and that’s why Travis didn’t see her and she wasn’t with Sophie at the mall, Sophie was so pleased she found the dress all by herself and Cassidy would know that if she’d just listen, and Cassidy hit Malcolm, Sophie’s life-size stuffed alligator toy.

…why does Sophie have a life-size stuffed alligator toy? I realise this isn’t actually the important part, but my curiosity has been piqued. [JC: I’m more curious about how you hit a stuffed animal with your car and somehow mistake it for a person. We’re told there was a “loud, sickening thunk” when Cassidy hit it, and I’m so confused as to how a stuffed animal could have that much heft to it. What is it stuffed with? Bricks?] [Wing: Ha! Yes, true. I mean, some big stuffed animals are pretty sturdy, and a life-size alligator might be stuffed with foam instead of cotton, but probably not enough to pull off a “loud, sickening thunk.”]

Anyway, Talia’s been doing this because she needed to see what would “drive a really strong mind insane.” Her mother isn’t a doctor at the hospital, she’s a patient. Talia felt confident telling Cassidy to call her for advice because she knew Cassidy never would. People like her are too busy proving how strong and independent they are to ever hand control to someone else.

I feel seen right now, and it kind of sucks, because fuck Talia.

Talia was teased all the time growing up because everyone saw her mother try to hang herself from a tree in the front yard. Jesus, Talia. That’s fucking rough.

Talia’s father always told her that her mother lost her mind because she was weak. [JC: Yes. This is how mental illness works. You are mentally ill because you’re weak, and not because of, you know, fucked up brain chemistry or anything. Fuck you, Talia’s dad.] Talia has been determined to prove him wrong ever since, and she thought she had done so with Cassidy, but she hasn’t and now she hates Cassidy for it and she’ll never forgive her.

Yes, yes, hating Cassidy makes total sense when your father is a complete and utter asshole. 

(Yes, it does actually make sense, transference and all. It’s sometimes easier to lash out at other people than the parent who put you through hell.)

Talia’s going to leave her in the trunk to die and then proper her under a tree. She won’t have her inhaler so everyone will assume she got too rattled, left the infirmary, and didn’t have her inhaler on her.

Talia’s not weak like her mother, after all, she’s strong and she’s never going to be like her mother ever.

UGH. I did not expect to feel for the bad guy, but right now I do. That fear is familiar and understandable and something a lot of people in my family have dealt with. The fear of passing it on is one of the reasons I’m glad I don’t want kids, because as much as I can survive this, I would feel so much guilt over making someone else deal with it, too. (Logical or not.)

Cassidy tells her that her mother’s illness is hereditary and Talia’s just as sick. 

…yeah, mental illness = dangerous, I’m so glad this story landed there after everything. Thanks, Hoh.

Talia starts shouting at her and leans over the trunk. Cassidy sprays Talia in the face with the garden chemicals she found in the trunk and then hits her with the garden tool. She’s weak, but the tip catches Talia just above her temple and makes her fall sideways.

Cassidy grabs her inhaler, stops the asthma attack, and is checking on Talia when Mandin comes running out yelling at her for walking around on her medication.

My, how convenient.

Epilogue takes us to the dance. The black and silver decorations look amazing, and Sophie is being friendly and warm to Cassidy. Ann’s colder, but Cassidy’s okay with that because she still has a hard time believing Ann never once saw the car while she was baby-sitting.

Travis doubts her, too, and he and Cassidy have been talking a lot lately. She’s promised to slow down now that she’s proven how strong she really is, and he’s promised to let her set her own pace.

ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME, HOH?! Travis is a complete and utter bag of dicks throughout the entire book and NOW HE’S HER BOYFRIEND AGAIN?!

FUCK. YOU. [JC: Which accelerant do you prefer, lighter fluid or gasoline? I have both!] [Wing: BOTH IS GOOD.]

Final Thoughts

My god, Hoh almost, almost pulled this off. I loved the book, loved the tension of it, the way things never quite lined up, the way Cassidy both was and wasn’t an unreliable narrator, even the way mental health was treated throughout most of it —

— AND THEN THAT FUCKING ENDING.

Not only did Hoh dump the nuanced (for Point Horror/Nightmare Hall/etc., at least) discussion of mental health, she stomped all over it going for the crazy = dangerous bullshit trope, and then she didn’t even try to redeem Travis, just made him Cassidy’s boyfriend again.

For that matter, she’s pretty forgiving of Sophie, too, and Sawyer considering all the shit they put her through.

Goddamn it, Cassidy, you deserve better.

Goddamn it, Hoh, so do we.

[JC: Right. So. For whatever reason, the gaslighting in this one didn’t bother me the way I expected it to, so that’s a plus. I don’t necessarily agree that Hoh handled the mental health aspect well at any point, though. There’s something about all this talk of the “fragility of the mind” that really rubs me the wrong way. Strong mind vs weak mind, and trying to break the mind, as if it’s that simple or quantifiable. Conversely, I didn’t see it as “crazy = dangerous” at the end. I took it as Cassidy just trying to get under Talia’s skin so that she’d be distracted and give Cassidy a better chance of escape.

I hate Travis. Why, Hoh? Why. Sawyer was all right for a while, then he did a heel turn, never recovered, and disappeared? Mmkay. I thought Sophie was okay, at least compared to Ann and Talia. 

Hey, WTF actually happened to Cassidy’s paper? Hoh didn’t actually resolve that, but I assume Travis just used it to line someone’s bird cage, right?

I enjoyed this one overall, with the exceptions of the ultimately sub-par handling of mental health, and the fact that Cassidy should have yeeted Travis into a fucking volcano.]

[Wing: Oh, yeah, that’s a good question about her paper. Maybe Talia managed to steal it from him at one point? Very curious. 

I think the “fragility of the mind” stuff was fairly true to some of the theories around psychology at the time, and while I’m probably being too optimistic considering what else we’ve seen from her and books like these, I think Hoh was building off that without the text supporting it, at least until the end. 

You make a good point RE Cassidy using it as a distraction, so I walk back my complaint at that part.]

I am the evil twin. I'm in a feud with R.L. Stine, who is terribly prolific. Every story needs more werewolves.

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