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The Initiation (Chapter Seven)

The first person Cassie saw at school the next morning was Faye. The tall girl was standing with a group in front of a side entrance that Cassie had been taking to be inconspicuous.

Deborah, the biker, and Suzan, the pneumatic strawberry blond, were in the group. So were the two blond guys who had been roller blading through the halls yesterday. And there were two other guys. One was a short boy with a hesitant, slinking look and a furtive smile. The second was tall, with dark hair and a handsome, cold face. He was wearing a T-shirt with rolled-up sleeves and black jeans like Deborah's, and he was smoking a cigarette. Nick? thought Cassie, remembering the girls' conversation yesterday. The reptile?

Cassie flattened herself against the red brick wall and retreated as quickly and quietly as possible. She went in the main entrance, then hurried to her English class.

Almost guiltily, she reached down to pat her hip pocket. It was stupid to have brought it, but the little piece of chalcedony did make her feel better. And of course it was ridiculous to believe that it could bring her luck – but then again, she'd gotten to school this morning without running into Faye, hadn't she?

She found an empty desk in a back corner of the classroom on the opposite side from where Faye had sat yesterday. She didn't want Faye near her – or behind her. Here, she was shielded by a whole cluster of people.

But strangely, soon after she sat down, there was a sort of shuffling around her. She looked up to see a couple of girls moving forward. The guy beside her was moving too.

For a moment she sat quite still, not even breathing.

Don't be paranoid.

Just because people move doesn't mean it has anything to do with you. But she couldn't help notice that there was now a wide expanse of empty desks all around her.

Faye breezed in, talking to a stiff Jeffrey Lovejoy. Cassie got a glimpse of her and then quickly looked away.

She couldn't keep her mind on Mr. Humphries's lecture. How could she think with so much space around her? It had to be only a coincidence, but it shook her just the same.

At the end of class, when Cassie stood up, she felt eyes on her. She turned to see Faye looking at her and smiling.

Slowly, Faye closed one eye in a wink.

Once out of the room Cassie headed for her locker. As she twirled the combination dial she saw someone standing nearby, and with a jolt recognized the short, slinking boy who'd been with Faye that morning.

His locker was open, and she could see several ads from what looked like Soloflex brochures taped inside the door. He was grinning at her. His belt buckle was silver with shiny, mirrorlike stones in it, and it was engraved Sean.

Cassie gave him the unimpressed look she reserved for little boys she baby-sat back home and pulled open her locker.

And screamed.

It was more of a choked, strangled cry, actually, because her throat closed up on her. Dangling from the top of her locker by a piece of twine around its neck was a doll. The doll's head lolled grotesquely to one side – it had been pulled out of the socket. One blue glass eye was open; the other was stuck gruesomely halfway shut.

It seemed to be winking at her.

The short boy was gazing at her with a strange, eager expression. As if he were drinking in her horror. As if it intoxicated htm.

"Aren't you going to report that? Shouldn't you go to the principal's office?" he said. His voice was high and excited.

Cassie just stared at him, her breath coming quickly.

Then: "Yes, I am," she said. She grabbed the doll and jerked it and the twine came free. Slamming the locker shut, she headed for the stairs.

The principal's office was on the second floor. Cassie thought she'd have to wait, but to her surprise the secretary ushered her in as soon as she gave her name.

"Can I help you?" The principal was tall, with an austere, forbidding face. His office had a fireplace, Cassie noted distractedly, and he stood in front of it with his hands clasped behind his back.

"Yes," she said. Her voice was shaking. And now that she'd gotten here, she wasn't at all sure that this was a good idea. "I'm new at school; my name is Cassie Blake – "

"I'm aware of who you are." His voice was clipped and brusque.

"Well…" Cassie faltered. "I just wanted to report… Yesterday, I saw this girl having a fight with another girl, and she pushed her…" What was she talking about? She was babbling. "And I saw it, and so she threatened me. She's in this club – but the point is, she threatened me. And I wasn't going to do anything about it, but then today I found this in my locker."

He took the doll, holding it by the back of the dress with two fingers. He looked at it as if she'd handed him something the dog had dug up in the yard. His lip was curled in a way that reminded Cassie somehow of Portia.

"Very amusing," he said. "How apt."

Cassie had no idea what that was supposed to mean. Apt meant appropriate, didn't it? It was appropriate that somebody was hanging dolls in her locker?

"It was Faye Chamberlain," she said.

"Oh, no doubt," he said. "I'm quite aware of the problems Miss Chamberlain has in interacting with other students. I've even had a report about this incident yesterday, about how you tried to push Sally Waltman down the stairs – "

Cassie stared, then blurted out, "I what ? Who told you that?"

"I believe it was Suzan Whittier."

"It isn't true! I never – "

"Be that as it may," the principal interrupted, "I really think you'd better learn to solve these problems among yourselves, don't you? Instead of relying on – outside help."

Cassie just went on staring, speechless.

"That's all." The principal tossed the doll in the wastebasket, where it hit with a resounding plastic clunk.

Cassie realized she was dismissed. There was nothing to do but turn around and walk out.

She was late for her next class. As she walked in the door all eyes turned to her, and for an instant she felt a flash of paranoia. But at least no one got up and left when she took a desk.

She was watching the teacher do an example on the board when her backpack moved.

It was lying on the floor beside her, and out of the corner of her eye she saw the dark blue nylon hump up. She thought she saw it. When she turned to stare at it, it was still.

Imagination…

As soon as she faced the board, it happened again.

Turn and stare. It was still. Look at the board. It humped up. As if something were wriggling inside it.

It must be waves of hot air, or something wrong with her eyes.

Very slowly and carefully, Cassie edged her foot over to the backpack. She stared at the blackboard as she lifted her foot and then brought it down suddenly on the "hump."

All she felt was the flatness of her French book.

She hadn't realized she was holding her breath until it sighed out. Her eyes shut in helpless relief…

And then something beneath her foot writhed. She felt it under her Reebok.

With a piercing shriek, she leaped to her feet.

"What is the matter?" the teacher cried. Now everyone really was staring at her.

"There's something – something in my backpack. It moved." Cassie had a hard time not clutching at the teacher's arm. "No, don't – don't reach in there…"

Shaking her off, the teacher held the backpack open. Then she plunged her hand inside and pulled out a long rubber snake.

Rubber.

"Is this supposed to be funny?" the teacher demanded.

"It's not mine," Cassie said stupidly. "I didn't put it there."

She was gazing, mesmerized, at the flopping, bobbing rubber head and the painted black rubber tongue. It looked real, but it wasn't. It was unalive. Dead meat?

"It did move," she whispered. "I felt it move… I thought. It must have just been my foot shifting."

The class was watching silently. Looking up, Cassie thought she saw a flash of something like pity on the teacher's face, but the next moment it was gone.

"All right, everybody. Let's get back to work," the teacher said, dropping the snake on her desk and returning to the blackboard. Cassie spent the rest of the period with her eyes locked on those of the rubber snake. It never moved again.

Cassie looked through the glass at the cafeteria full of laughing, talking students. French class had passed in a blur. And the paranoia, the feeling that people were looking at her and then deliberately turning their backs, kept growing.

I should go outside, she thought, but of course that was ridiculous. Look where going outside had gotten her yesterday. No, she would do today what she should have done then: walk up and ask somebody if she could sit next to them.

All right. Do it. It would have been easier if she hadn't been feeling so giddy. Lack of sleep, she thought.

She stopped, with her filled tray, beside two girls eating at a square table built for four. They looked nice, and more important, they looked like sophomores. They should be glad to have a junior sit with them.

"Hi," she heard her own voice saying, disembodied but polite. "Can I sit here?"

They looked at each other. Cassie could almost see the frantic telegraphing. Then one spoke up.

"Sure… but we were just leaving. Help yourself." She picked up her tray and made for the garbage can. The other girl looked dismayed an instant, gazing down at her own tray. Then she followed.

Cassie stood as if she'd taken root in the floor.

Okay, that was too bad – you picked somebody who was just leaving, all right. But that's no reason to be upset…

Even though their lunches were only half eaten?

With a supreme effort, she made herself walk over to another table. A round one this time, seating six. There was one seat empty.

Don't ask, she thought. Just sit. She put her tray down at the empty place, shrugged her backpack off her shoulder, and sat. She kept her eyes glued to her tray, concentrating on one piece of pepperoni in her slice of pizza. She didn't want to seem to be asking permission of anyone.

All around her, conversation died. Then she heard the scraping of chairs.

Oh my God I don't believe this I don't believe this is happening it's not true…

But it was. Her worst nightmare. Something so much worse than dead dolls or rubber snakes.

In a daze of unreality she looked up to see every other occupant of the table rising. They were picking up their lunches; they were leaving. But unlike the two nice sophomore girls, they weren't heading for the garbage cans. They were just moving to other tables, one here, another there, anywhere they could fit in.

Away from her. Anywhere so long as it was away from her.

"Mom… ?" She looked down at the shut eyes with their thick black lashes, the pale face.

She didn't know how she'd made it through the rest of school today, and when she came home, her grandmother said her mom had been doing worse. Not a lot worse, nothing to be worried about, but worse. She needed peace and quiet. She'd taken some sleeping medicine.

Cassie stared at the dark circles under the shut eyes. Her mother looked sick. And more than that, fragile. Vulnerable. So young.

"Mom…" Her voice was pleading but hollow. Her mother stirred, a twinge of pain crossing her face. Then she was still again.

Cassie felt the numbness sink in a little deeper. There was nobody to help her here.

She turned and left the room.

In her own bedroom, she put the chalcedony piece in her jewelry box and didn't touch it again. So much for luck.

The creaking and rattling of the house kept her up that night, too.

On Thursday morning, there was a bird in her locker. A stuffed owl. It stared at her with shining round yellow eyes. A custodian happened to be passing by, and she pointed it out to him mutely, her hand shaking. He took it away.

That afternoon, it was a dead goldfish. She made a funnel of a sheet of paper and scooped it out. She didn't go near her locker for the rest of the day.

She didn't go near the cafeteria, either. And she spent lunch in the farthest corner of the library.

It was there that she saw the girl again.

The girl with the shining hair, the girl she'd given up on ever meeting. It was hardly surprising that Cassie hadn't seen her at school before this moment. These days Cassie slunk around like a shadow, walking through the halls with her eyes on the ground, speaking to no one. She didn't know why she was at school at all, except that there was nowhere else to go. And if she had seen the girl, she'd probably have run the other way. The thought of being rejected by her as Cassie was rejected by everyone else at school was unbearable.

But now Cassie looked up from her table at the back of the library and saw a brightness like sunlight.

That hair. It was just as Cassie remembered, impossibly long, an impossible color. The girl was facing the circulation desk, smiling and talking to the librarian. Cassie could feel the radiance of her presence from across the room.

She had the wildest urge to leap up and run to the girl. And then… what? She didn't know. But the urge was almost beyond her control. Her throat ached, and tears filled her eyes. She realized she was on her feet. She would run to the girl, and then – and then… Images flooded Cassie's mind, of her mother hugging her when she was young, cleaning out a skinned knee, kissing it better. Comfort. Rescue. Love.

"Diana!"

Another girl was hurrying up to the circulation desk. "Diana, don't you know what time it is? Hurry up!"

She was pulling the girl with the shining hair away, laughing and waving at the librarian. They were at the door; they were gone.

Cassie was left standing alone. The girl had never even glanced her way.

On Friday morning Cassie stopped in front of her locker. She didn't want to open it. But it exerted a bizarre fascination over her. She couldn't stand feeling it there, wondering what was in it and not knowing.

She dialed the combination slowly, everything too bright.

The locker door opened.

This time she couldn't even scream. She felt her eyes opening, straining as wide as the stuffed owl's. Her mouth opened in a soundless gasp. Her stomach heaved. The smell…

Her locker was full of hamburger. Raw and red like flesh with the skin torn off, darkening to purple where it was going bad from lack of refrigeration. Pounds and pounds of it. It smelled like…

Like meat. Dead meat.

Cassie slammed the locker shut, but it bounced off some of the hamburger that was oozing out the bottom. She whirled and stumbled away, her vision hazing over.

A hand grabbed her. For an instant she thought it was an offer of support. Then she felt her backpack being pulled off her shoulder.

She turned and saw a pretty, sullen face. Malicious dark eyes. A motorcycle jacket. Deborah tossed the backpack past Cassie, and automatically Cassie whirled, following it.

On the other side she saw shoulder-length blond hair. Slanted, slightly mad blue-green eyes. A laughing mouth. It was one of the roller-blade guys – the Henderson brothers.

"Welcome to the jungle," he sang. He threw the backpack to Deborah, who caught it, singing another line.

Cassie couldn't help turning around and around between them, like a cat chasing a fur mouse on a string.

Tears flooded her eyes. The laughter and singing rang in her ears, louder and louder.

Suddenly a brown arm thrust into her field of vision. A hand caught the backpack in midair. The laughter died.

She turned to see through a blur of tears the cold, handsome face of the dark-haired guy who had stood with Faye that morning two days ago… could it really be only two days ago? He was wearing another T-shirt with rolled-up sleeves and the same worn-in black jeans.

"Aw, Nick," the Henderson brother complained. "You're wrecking our game."

"Get out of here," Nick said.

"You get out," Deborah snarled from behind Cassie. "Doug and me were just – "

"Yeah, we were only – "

"Shut up." Nick glanced at Cassie's locker, with globs of meat still seeping out of it. Then he thrust the backpack at her. "You get out," he said.

Cassie looked into his eyes. They were dark brown, the color of her grandmother's mahogany furniture. And like the furniture, they seemed to reflect the overhead lights back at her. They weren't unfriendly, exactly. Just – unimpassioned. As if nothing much touched this guy.

"Thank you," she said, blinking back the tears.

Something flickered in those mahogany-dark eyes. "It's not much to thank me for," he said. His voice was like a cold wind, but Cassie didn't care. Clutching the backpack to her, she fled.

It was in physics class that she got the note.

A girl named Tina dropped it on her desk, casually, trying to look as if she were doing nothing of the sort. She went right on walking and took a seat on the other side of the room. Cassie looked at the square of folded paper as if it might burn her if she touched it. Her name was written across the front in handwriting that managed to look pompous and prim at the same time.

Slowly, she unfolded the paper.

Cassie, it read. Meet me in the old science building, second floor, after school. I think we can help each other. A friend.

Cassie stared at it until the writing doubled. After class she cornered Tina.

"Who gave you this to give to me?"

The girl looked at the note disowningly. "What are you talking about? I didn't…"

"Yes, you did. Who gave it to you?"

Tina cast a hunted look around. Then she whispered, "Sally Waltman, all right? But she told me not to tell anybody. I have to go now."

Cassie blocked her. "Where's the old science building?"

"Look – "

"Where is it?"

Tina hissed, "On the other side of E-wing. In back of the parking lot. Now let me go!" She broke away from Cassie and hurried off.

A friend, Cassie thought sarcastically. If Sally were really a friend, she'd talk to Cassie in public. If she were really a friend, she'd have stayed that day on the steps, instead of leaving Cassie alone with Faye. She'd have said, "Thanks for saving my life."

But maybe she was sorry now.

The old science building didn't look as if it had been used for a while; there was a padlock on the door, but that had been sprung. Cassie pushed on the door and it swung away from her.

Inside, it was dim. She couldn't make out any details with her light-dazzled eyes. But she could see a stairway. She climbed it, one hand on the wall to guide herself.

It was when she reached the top of the stairway that she noticed something strange. Her fingers were touching something… soft. Almost furry. She moved them in front of her face, peering at them. Soot?

Something moved in the room in front of her.

"Sally?" She took a hesitant step forward. Why wasn't more light coming in the windows? she wondered. She could see only glowing white cracks here and there. She took another shuffling step, and another, and another.

"Sally?"

Even as she said it, realization finally dawned on her exhausted brain. Not Sally. Whoever, whatever was out there, it wasn't Sally.

Turn around, idiot. Get out of here. Now.

She whirled, clumsily, straining her dark-adapting eyes, looking for the deeper blackness of the stairwell –

And light shone suddenly, streaming into her face, blinding her. There was a creaking, wrenching noise and more light burst into the room. Through a window that had been boarded up, Cassie realized. Someone was standing in front of it now, holding a piece of wood.

She turned toward the stairway again. But someone was standing there, too. Enough light shone into the room now that she could see features as the girl stepped forward.

"Hello, Cassie," said Faye. "I'm afraid Sally couldn't make it. But maybe you and I can help each other instead."

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