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Dying With Her Cheer Pants On:  Stories of the Fighting Pumpkins

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Dying With Her Cheer Pants On: Stories of the Fighting Pumpkins

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Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Subterranean Press, 2020
Series: Fighting Pumpkins

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Book Type: Collection
Genre: Fantasy / Horror
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Despite its humble origins, there is no more challenging or physically dangerous teen sport in the world than cheerleading. Cheerleaders are seriously injured and even killed at a higher rate than other high school sports. Their stunts are performed in skimpy uniforms without the benefit of proper safety equipment... and yet they love them, glittery eyeshadow, spirit bows, and all.

And then there are the Fighting Pumpkins, who take that injury rate as a challenge. Students of Johnson's Crossing High School, they answer to a higher calling than the pyramid and the basket toss, pursuing the pep rally that is rising up against mysteries and monsters, kicking gods with the pointed toes of professional athletes chasing a collegiate career.

Meet Jude, half-vampire squad leader; Laurie, who can compel anyone to do as she asks; Heather, occasionally recreationally dead; Marti, strong enough to provide a foundation for any stunt; Colleen, who knows the rule book so well she may as well have written it; and Steph, who may or may not be the goddess of the harvest. The rest of the squad is ready to support them, and braced for the chaos of the big game, which may have a big body count. Prepare to jump high, yell loud, and look pretty with the Fighting Pumpkins, those glorious girls in the orange and green, whose high kicks could still be enough to save the world. And if they're not, it isn't going to be for lack of trying.



The Most Sincere Patch

(Excerpt from the Introduction)

It is no secret to anyone who has met me ever that I am a Halloween girl at heart. My bedroom walls are painted the pleasant orange of a ripe pumpkin's insides; my wardrobe consists of way too many cheerful bat prints and Haunted Mansion souvenir shirts. I'm more of a Marilyn Munster than I am a Wednesday Addams, and I grew up with cheerleaders as one of my horror archetypes.

Cheerleaders are rife in the horror movies of the 1980s and 1990s, from Night of the Comet's Sam Belmont to The Midnight Hour's Sandy Matthews. They appear in every sub-genre, except for possibly movies actually set in space, a lack that wouldn't really be addressed until Jason X in 2001. Still, to childhood me, they seemed as inevitable and omnipresent as vampires, ghosts, or witches.

Dying With Her Cheer Pants On


Bridget ducked behind the remains of a burned-out Impala, crouching low as the zap-zap-zap of blaster fire split the October night. The sound was already familiar enough to turn her stomach. Not just because it meant another survivor had been spotted--because there was nothing she could do to help whoever it was. She huddled against the wheel, making herself as small as possible. She didn't think she'd been seen. She'd know for sure in a few minutes, when the patrol reached her position. There was nothing to do until then but wait.

It was still hard to believe that aliens were real, not just science-fiction bullshit for the geeks in the computer club to obsess over. Maybe they'd been science-fiction bullshit once, but not anymore. This was actually happening. Some guy on CNN had called them "blasters" when the aliens first landed, before anybody had a clue how destructive their quaint-looking little ray guns really were. He'd laughed when he said it. He wasn't laughing anymore.

That was sixteen hours ago, nine hours before the start of the homecoming game, and eleven hours before the game's untimely end. Nobody was laughing now, least of all Bridget, who'd been chosen for the unenviable duty of leaving the safety of the gym and crossing the ruins of town to get what Amy was saying the squad would need.

(They'd all put their names into the sacred gym bag, and when Maddy--who was Squad Leader, even though there was barely any squad left--pulled out Bridget's name, she couldn't argue. The gym bag's word was law.)

She wished she'd been allowed to stay in uniform. She would have felt safer that way, more confident, more in-control...more like herself. A Fighting Pumpkin was always a cheerleader on the inside, but there was still an undeniable security in being a cheerleader on the outside, a safety of sorts in their matching orange and green uniforms. Present a united front. Look your best, and you'll be the best. But she would have been too visible if she'd worn the school colors outside; they would have stood out like a floodlight against the scorch marks and gummy ash covering everything in town. Better to blend in. Better to make it back to the gym alive.

The blaster fire tapered off. Bridget managed to huddle down even further as she waited to hear the slithering sound the aliens made when they moved. She didn't want to see them almost as badly as she wanted them not to see her. She'd seen the aliens on the morning news, before the shooting had started, but it hadn't prepared her for the reality of them. The TV couldn't show the way they smelled, or the way their sticky-looking skins seemed to bend the light, as if even it didn't want to touch them.

(Amy had described them best. She'd looked at the pictures being flashed across the emergency broadcasts, sniffed, and said they looked like what you'd get if you let Dr. Frankenstein play with a giant squid, a spider, and a Pomeranian. She then went on to explain that Frankenstein was the doctor, not the monster. As if anybody cared. She would never have made the squad if she weren't the only one who could do a perfect back-handspring every single time. Plus, it was good to have a brain around, if only because the principal kept refusing to cancel finals.)

Finals were cancelled now, along with Homecoming, cheerleading, and everything else about the world that mattered. The only question left was whether the human race was getting cancelled. Things didn't look good for the home team.

The sound of tentacles slapping against broken pavement drew closer to Bridget's hiding place. She clapped a hand over her mouth to block the sound of her breathing, squeezing her eyes shut. They'd pass or they wouldn't. If they passed, she'd start running. If they didn't...

If they didn't, the sacred gym bag had been wrong. She wasn't the one.

The slapping sounds passed the car, getting softer as the alien patrol moved on to search for more survivors. You missed one, thought Bridget. She still stayed where she was, counting slowly to a hundred. The sounds didn't resume. Uncurling herself, she rose, her precious burden clutched against her chest.

Bridget ran.



The flyers went up all over the school first thing Monday morning, appearing before most of the student body had even arrived for classes. The stoners were out on the football field, lighting their joints in the bleachers and trying to figure out why there were scorch marks on the grass; the football team had already agreed, privately, that they would never discuss their collective amnesia about the previous weekend's events. School had let out on Friday and they had woken up Monday morning, the taste of ashes in their mouths and the strange feeling that they had forgotten something incredibly important. Worse yet, no one seemed to know who'd won the big game.

And all of the cheerleaders were missing. At any other high school, that might have been the alarming part, but this was Johnson's Crossing: the entire cheer squad disappeared with what felt like dismaying frequency, even if it was really only every two or three years. Most of the popular girls avoided tryouts like they were some sort of signup to become a sacrificial temple maiden, which maybe they were, considering the way the girls who made the team vanished into the night with nothing left behind to say where they had gone. Johnson's Crossing might be the only high school in America where being cheer captain was not somehow a shortcut to Prom Queen.

The absence of the cheerleaders from social media and the buses meant that it was no real surprise when the student body shuffled onto campus to find posters on every surface cajoling them to try out for the cheer squad. "Fun! Athletic! Looks great on your college applications!" said one. "Be part of something bigger than yourself: be part of a Johnson's Crossing tradition!" exhorted another. The third said only "Fly," with a picture of a girl that some members of the senior class almost thought they recognized in the middle of it, bent nearly double as she tumbled through a clear blue sky.

No one knew who'd hung the flyers, or who had been recruited to relaunch the cheer squad. Most of the students who saw them averted their eyes almost immediately, scurrying away like they were afraid that being a cheerleader might be somehow contagious. As more and more students filled the halls, a murmur began to rise, all of them comparing theories about their forgotten weekend, many scoffing at the idea that anyone would want to audition for the Fighting Pumpkins cheer squad.

"This is the third time they've held mid-season tryouts to replace the whole cheer squad since my freshman year and I'm only a junior," one girl said.

Well, maybe the rate of disappearances had been higher than the norm for the last few years. But there was always a good reason for that.

Copyright © 2020 by Seanan McGuire


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