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The Hunter (Chapter 3)

God-the box, Jenny thought. Michael was the sort who would potter around the room reading your mail and opening your drawers in an absentminded way. Insatiably curious. She followed him.

Her stomach knotted at the sight of it, pristine and rectangular and gleaming on her mother's solid ponderosa pine coffee table. Jenny's mother had worked very hard with a very expensive decorator to make sure the living room looked "natural and inevitable and not at all arty." There were Navajo weavings and Hopi baskets on the walls, Zuni pots on the floor, and a Chimayo rug above the fireplace. Jenny wasn't allowed to touch any of them.

Calm down, she told herself. But even approaching the white box was strangely difficult. She picked it up and realized that her palms were sweaty enough to stick to it.

Thrummm. The current tingled through her fingers. The feeling of something wrong increased.

Oh, hell! I'll just throw the thing away, Jenny thought, surprised at the relief the idea brought. We'll play canasta.

Michael, munching spring rolls, was eyeing her with interest.

"What's that? A present?"

"No-just a game I bought, but I'm going to get rid of it. Michael, do you know how to play canasta?"

"Nope. So where's the sun bunny?"

"Not here yet-oh, that's probably her. Would you get the door?"

Michael just looked vaguely at the plate in his one hand and the roll in his other. Jenny ran to the hallway, still holding the box.

Summer Parker-Pearson was tiny, with thistledown hair and dimples you wanted to poke your fingers into. She was wearing a china blue shirtdress and shivering.

"It's freezing out here. How're we going to go swimming, Jenny?"

"We're not," Jenny said gently.

"Oh. Then why did I bring my bathing suit? Here's my present." She piled a shirt box wrapped in maroon paper on top of the white box Jenny was holding, added a small tote bag to the stack, and headed for the living room.

Jenny followed, put all the things on the coffee table, then pulled the white box from beneath them. Thrum. Summer was saying hello to Mike and Zach and Dee.

"Look," Jenny said, "if you guys will excuse me for a second-" She was cut off by the doorbell. This time she didn't want anybody else to answer it. "I'll get it."

Tom was on the doorstep.

He looked good. Of course, he always looked good to Jenny, but tonight he was especially handsome, really devilishly good-looking, with his dark brown hair neat and short and his smile faintly mocking. Tom wore simple clothes like other guys, but somehow he wore them differently. He could make a pair of Basic Jeans look as if they'd been tailored for him. Tonight he was wearing a teal T-shirt under a button-down shirt that was simply a beautiful blue, an intense color that reminded Jenny of something.

"Hi," Jenny said.

He grinned rakishly and held out an arm to her.

Jenny went willingly, as always, but she hung on to the box. "Tom, there's something I want to talk to you about, alone. It's hard to explain-"

"Oh, no, I'm getting 'Dear Johnned' on my birthday," he said loudly, arm still around her, leading her down the hallway to the living room.

"Quit it," Jenny said, exasperated. "Can you please be serious for a minute?"

Tom was clearly in no mood to be serious. He waltzed her into the living room, where everyone but Audrey was sitting around laughing and talking. He ignored her protests, which were growing fainter anyway. Tom always made Jenny feel better, and it was hard to stay worried with him around. All her fears of shadows and thrumming boxes seemed faraway and childish.

Still, she felt a prickle of unease as he took the box from her, asking, "What's this? For me?"

"It's a game," Michael said, "about which Jenny's being very mysterious. She can't let go of it, apparently."

"I understand why," Tom said as he shook the box to hear the rattle. Jenny looked at him sharply. He didn't seem to be joking, or at least no more than usual, but how could you say that about a blank white box? Why should Tom look so deeply intrigued by it, shifting it in his hands eagerly?

There is something about it, Jenny thought, opening her mouth to speak. But just then her mother came in from the back of the house, fastening an earring and wafting perfume. Jenny shut her mouth again.

Mrs. Thornton had been blond like Jenny when

she was young, but over the years her hair had darkened to a golden brown, honey-in-shadow tone. She smiled at everyone and said happy birthday to Tom. "Now, let me see," she said to Jenny, "Joey's out of the way at the Stensons', and we'll be back late Sunday, so everything should be ready for you."

Then, as Jenny's father appeared behind her with a small suitcase, she added earnestly, "Dear one, I know you're going to break something. Just don't let it be the R. C. Gorman vase, all right? It cost fifteen hundred dollars, and your father is deeply attached to it. Otherwise, clean up whatever you destroy and try to keep the roof on."

"If it comes off, we'll nail it back," Jenny promised, then kissed her mother's smooth Shalimar-scented cheek without embarrassment.

"Krazy Glue in the kitchen drawer," Jenny's father muttered in her ear as she kissed him in turn. "But watch out for the R. C. Gorman vase. Your mother would die."

"We won't go near it," Jenny said.

"And no …" Her father made a vague fiddling gesture with one hand. He was looking at Tom in a way that Jenny thought was what people meant when they said askance. He'd taken to looking like that at Tom lately.

"Daddy!"

"You know what I mean. Only the girls are staying the night, right?"

"Of course."

"Right." Her father pushed his wire-framed glasses higher on his nose, squared his shoulders, and looked at her mother. They both glanced around the living room one last time-as if to remember it-and then, like a pair of fatalistic soldiers, they turned and marched out the door.

"Don't have much faith in us, do they?" Michael said, looking after them.

"It's the first time I've had a party while they've been away for the weekend," said Jenny. "That they know about," she added thoughtfully.

When she looked back, Tom had the box open.

"Oh-" Jenny said. And that was all she said. Because Tom was lifting out sheets of thick, glossy tagboard, printed in colors so vibrant they glowed. Jenny saw doors and windows, a porch, a turret. Shingles.

"It's a dollhouse," said Summer. "No, I mean one of those paper thingies, like you get in the big flat books and cut out. A paper house."

Not a game, Jenny thought. And not dangerous. Just a kids' toy. She felt a wave of relaxation soften her, and when Audrey called from the kitchen that the food was ready, she went almost dreamily.

Tom was suitably surprised and impressed at the Chinese dinner, and the fact that Audrey was responsible for it.

"You can cook!"

"Of course I can cook. Why is it that everyone assumes I'm a mere social ornament?" She looked at him from under spiky lashes and smiled.

Tom smiled back, maintaining eye contact. Audrey kept flirting as she served him, smiling up at him, allowing her fingers to touch his as she handed him a plate. But when he moved away, she slanted a grim, significant glance at Jenny. You see? that glance said.

Jenny returned the look benevolently. Tom was always nice to other girls, and it didn't bother her. It didn't mean anything. She was feeling very pleased with the world as they all filled their plates and went back to the living room.

There was no formal dining. They all sat around the coffee table, some on leather footstools, some directly on the Mexican paved tiles. Jenny was surprised that the white box with the sheets of tagboard wasn't already put aside.

"You got some scissors?" asked Zach. "Actually, an X-Acto knife would be better. And a metal ruler, and glue."

Jenny stared at him. "You're going to make it?"

"Sure, why not? It looks like a good model."

"It's cute," Summer said and giggled.

"You've got to be kidding," Jenny said. "A paper house …" She looked around for support.

"It's a game," Dee said. "See, there are instructions on the back of the lid. Scary instructions." She shot a barbaric smile around the room. "I like them."

Michael, with bits of spring roll hanging out of his mouth, looked alarmed.

"But how can you play a game with a paper house?" Jenny felt her voice going weak again as she saw the way Tom was looking at her. The way only Tom could look-charming, persuasive, and tragic. It was all a put-on, but Jenny could never resist. "Oh, all right, you big baby," she said. "If you really want it. I should have gotten you a rattle and a pacifier, too." Shaking her head, she went off to fetch the scissors.

They put the model together as they ate, occasionally getting grease on the tagboard, gesturing with chopsticks. Tom supervised, naturally. Zach did a lot of the cutting; he'd had practice matting the photographs he took. Jenny watched his careful, clever fingers transform the flat sheets of paper into a three-foot-high Victorian house and was forced into admiration.

It had three floors and a turret and was open in front like a dollhouse. The roof was removable. Sheet after sheet had to be cut out to make all the chimneys and cornices and balconies and eaves, but no one got tired of working, and only Michael complained. Tom seemed delighted with the whole thing. Even Audrey, whom Jenny would have thought far too sophisticated to enjoy this, lent an experienced hand.

"Look, here's some furniture to put inside-are you done with the first floor, Zach? You see, this is the parlor, and here's a little parlor table. Gothic Revival, I think. Mother has one. I'll put it… here."

"Here's a sort of Oriental screen thing," Summer said. "I'll put it by the table for the dolls to look at."

"There aren't any dolls," said Jenny.

"Yes, there are," Dee said and grinned. She'd curled her long legs up and was reading the instructions to herself. "And they're us. It says we each get a paper doll for a playing piece, and we draw our own face on it, and then we move the pieces through the house, trying to get to the turret at the top. That's the game."

"You said it was scary," Tom objected.

"I didn't finish. It's a haunted house. You run into a different nightmare in every room while you're trying to get to the top. And you have to watch out for the Shadow Man."

"The what?" Jenny said.

"The Shadow Man. He's like the Sandman, only he brings you nightmares. He's lurking around inside, and if he catches you, he'll-well, listen. He'll 'bring to life your darkest fantasies and make you confess your most secret fears,'" she read with obvious enjoyment.

"All right!" said Tom.

"Oh, geez," said Michael.

"What kind of darkest fantasies?" said Summer.

Mystery, thought Jenny. Danger. Seduction. Fear. Secrets revealed. Desires unveiled.

Temptation.

"What's wrong with you, Thorny?" Tom said affectionately. "You're so nervous."

"It's just-I don't know if I like this game." Jenny looked up at him. "But you do, don't you?"

"Sure." His hazel eyes, brown flecked with green, were sparkling. "It's good for a laugh." Then he added, "Don't be scared. I'll protect you."

Jenny gave him a mock glare and leaned against him. When she was away from Tom, the skin of her forearm missed him, and so did her shoulder and her side and her hip. The right side because she always sat on Tom's left.

"Go get some of Joey's crayons," Dee was ordering Summer. "We're going to need to draw a lot. Not just the paper dolls that are us; we're also supposed to draw our worst nightmare."

"Why?" said Michael unhappily.

"I told you. We have to face a different nightmare

in every room. So we each draw one on a slip of paper and shuffle the papers and put them facedown on the floor of different rooms. Then when you get to a room, you can look at the slip and see what that person's nightmare is."

Tom wiped his fingers on his jeans and went to sit by Dee on the couch, bending his head over the instructions. Summer jumped up to get crayons from Jenny's little brother's room. Zach, ignoring the rest of them, was working silently. Zach didn't say anything unless he had something to say.

"I think I'm going to like this," Audrey said, judiciously placing furniture in the different rooms. She was humming a little, her polished nails gleaming, her hair shining copper under the track lighting.

"Here are the crayons, and I found some colored pencils, too," Summer said, returning with a Tupperware container. "Now we can all draw." She rummaged through the sheets of glossy tagboard left in the box, finally producing one printed with human outlines. The paper dolls.

They were all enjoying themselves. The game was a hit, the party a success. Jenny still felt cold inside.

She had to admit, though, that there was a certain satisfaction in cutting neatly along dotted lines. It brought back long-ago memories. Coloring the paper dolls was fun, too, the Crayola wax sliding richly onto the stiff matte tagboard.

But when it came to drawing on the rectangle of paper Summer gave her next, she stopped helplessly.

Draw a nightmare? Her worst nightmare? She couldn't.

Because the truth was that Jenny had a nightmare. Her own, personal, particular nightmare, based on

something that had happened long ago … and she couldn't remember it. She could never remember it when she was awake.

The bad feeling was coming on, the one she sometimes got late at night. The scared feeling. Was she the only person in the world who woke up in the middle of the night sure that she'd discovered some awful secret-only, once she'd awakened, she couldn't remember what it was? Who felt sick with fear over something she couldn't remember?

A picture flickered through her mind. Her grandfather. Her mother's father. Thinning white hair, a kind face, tired, twinkling dark eyes. He had entertained her when she was five years old with souvenirs from far-off places and magic tricks that had seemed real to a child. His basement had been full of the most wonderful things. Until the day something had happened….

That last horrible day…

The flicker died, and Jenny was glad. The only thing worse than not remembering was remembering. It was better to just leave the whole thing buried. The therapists had said differently at the time, but what did they know?

Anyway, she certainly couldn't draw it.

The others were all sketching assiduously. Tom and Dee were snickering together, using the lid of the game box as a desk. Summer was laughing, shaking back her soft light curls, drawing something with a lot of different colors. Zach was frowning over his nightmare, his face even more intense than usual; Audrey's eyebrows were arched in amusement.

"Where's green? I need lots of green," said Michael, hunting among the crayons.

"What for?" asked Audrey, eyes narrowed.

"Can't tell you. It's a secret."

Audrey turned her back on him, shielding her own paper.

"That's right, they're secrets," Dee agreed. "You don't get to see them until you reach the room they're in."

Nobody here could possibly have a secret from me, Jenny thought. Except Audrey, I've known them all forever. I know when they lost their first tooth and got their first bra. None of them could have a real secret-like mine.

If she had one, why not the others?

Jenny looked at Tom. Handsome Tom, headstrong and a little arrogant, as even Jenny had to admit, if only to herself. What was he drawing now?

"Mine needs green, too. And yellow," he said.

"Mine needs black," said Dee and chuckled.

"All right, done," Audrey said.

"Come on, Jenny," Tom said. "Aren't you finished yet?"

Jenny looked down at her paper. She had made a formless doodle around the edges; the middle was blank. After an embarrassed moment with everyone's eyes on her, she turned the paper over and gave it to Dee. She would just have to explain later.

Dee shuffled all the slips and put them facedown in various rooms on the upper floors. "Now we put our paper dolls in the parlor downstairs," she said. "That's where we all start. And there should be a pile of game cards in the box, Summer, to tell us what to do and where to move. Put them in a stack on the table."

Summer did while Audrey fixed the paper dolls on their little plastic anchors and set them up in the parlor.

"We need just one more thing," Dee said. She paused dramatically and then said, "The Shadow Man."

"Here he is," Summer said, picking up the last sheet of stiff tagboard from the box. "I'll cut out his friends first-the Creeper and the Lurker." She did, then handed the figures to Audrey. The Creeper was a giant snake, the Lurker a bristling wolf. Their names were printed in blood-red calligraphy.

"Charming," Audrey said, snapping anchors on. "Anywhere in particular I'm supposed to put them, Dee?"

"No, the cards will tell us when we meet them."

"Here's the Shadow Man. He can shadow me if he wants; I think he's cute," Summer said. Audrey took the paper doll from her, but as she did Jenny grabbed her wrist. Jenny couldn't speak. She couldn't breathe, actually.

It couldn't be-but it was. There was no question about it. The printed face that stared up at her was unmistakable.

It was the boy in black, the boy from the game store. The boy with the shocking blue eyes.

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