The Hunter (Chapter 2)

She stopped. The boy was holding out the box to her. Jenny hesitated, nonplussed.

"You can hold it if you want," he said gently.

"Okay," Jenny said, embarrassed, her vehemence fading. She took the glossy box gingerly between her palms-and forgot everything else. It was cool and just weighty enough to be intriguing. Something inside rattled slightly, mysteriously. There was a quality about it that Jenny couldn't describe, a sort of electric current that ran up her fingers as she held it.

"We're closing," the boy said briskly, with another of his arbitrary mood swings. "You gonna buy it?"

She was. She knew perfectly well anybody crazy enough to buy a box without looking inside it deserved whatever they got, but she didn't care. She wanted it, and she felt a strange reluctance to take the lid off and peek in. No matter what, this would make a great story to tell Tom and the others tonight. "The craziest thing happened to me today. …"

"How much?" she asked.

He went to the counter and hit a key on an antique-looking brass cash register. "Call it twenty."

Jenny paid. She noticed the cash drawer was full of odd-looking money all jumbled together: square coins, coins with holes in the center, crumpled bills in pastel colors. The wrongness of that cut into her pleasure in the box a little, and she felt another chill, like spiders walking on gooseflesh.

When she looked up, the boy was smiling at her.

"Enjoy," he said, and then his heavy lashes drooped as if at a private joke.

From somewhere a clock chimed the little unfinished tune that meant half past some hour. Jenny glanced down at her watch and stiffened in horror.

Seven-thirty-it couldn't be! There was no way she could have been in this store for over an hour, but it was true.

"Thank you; I have to go," she gasped distractedly, heading for the door. "Uh-see you later."

It was just a politeness, not meant to be answered, but he did answer. He murmured what sounded like "at nine" but undoubtedly was "that's fine" or something like that.

When she looked back, he was standing half in shadow, with the stained glass of a lamp throwing blue and purple stripes on his hair. For just a second she caught something in his eyes-a hungry look. A look completely at odds with the indifferent manner he'd worn while speaking to her. Like-a starving tiger about to go hunting. It shocked Jenny so much that her "goodbye" froze in her throat.

Then it was gone. The boy in black reached over and turned the acid house music on.

Terrific soundproofing, Jenny thought as the door closed behind her and the music was cut off. She gave herself a mental shake, throwing off the lingering image of those blue eyes. Now if she ran all the way home, she might just have time to throw some Cheez Whiz in the microwave and shove a handful of CDs in the player. Oh, God, what a day!

That was when she noticed the tough guys.

They were waiting for her across the street, hidden in the blue-gray shadows of dusk. Jenny saw them coming and felt a jolt to her stomach. Swiftly and automatically she stepped backward, reaching behind her for the doorknob. Where was it? And why was she so stupid today? She should have asked the guy in black if she could use the phone; she should have called Tom-or Dee-Where was the knob?

They were close enough that she could see that the one in the flannel shirt had bad skin. The one with the bandanna was grinning in a very creepy way. They were both coming toward her and where was the freaking doorknob? All she could feel behind her was cool, painted concrete.

Where is it where is it –

Throw the box at them, she thought, suddenly calm and clear. Throw it and run. Maybe they'll stop to investigate it. Her mind, utterly practical, ordered her hand to stop searching for a doorknob that wasn't there. Waste of time.

With both hands she lifted the white box to throw it. She wasn't sure exactly what happened next. Both guys stared at her and then-they turned around and started running.

Running. Flannels was in the lead, and Bandanna just a length behind him, and they were running like deer, with an animal grace and economy of motion. Fast.

And Jenny hadn't thrown the box after all.

My fingers … I didn't throw the box because I couldn't let go because my fingers …

Shut up, her mind told her. If you're dumb enough to care more about a box than about your own life, okay, but at least we don't have to dwell on the subject.

Walking quickly, sweatered arms cradling the box to her chest, she started for home.

She didn't turn around to see how she'd missed the

doorknob with all her behind-the-back fumbling. At the time she simply forgot.

It was ten to eight when Jenny finally neared her street. The lighted living rooms in the houses she passed looked cozy. She was out in the chill dark.

Somewhere on the way home she'd started to have misgivings about the game. Her mother always said she was too impulsive. Now she'd bought this-thing-without even knowing exactly what was inside. Even as she thought it, the box seemed to thrum slightly in her arms as if charged with hidden power.

Don't be silly. It's a box.

But those guys ran, something whispered in the back of her mind. Those guys were spooked.

As soon as she got home, she was going to check this game out. Examine it thoroughly.

A wind had sprung up and was moving the trees on Mariposa Street. Jenny lived in a sprawling ranch-style house set among those trees. As she approached it, something slunk furtively by the front doorway. A shadow-a small one.

Jenny felt a prickling at the back of her neck.

Then the shadow moved under the porch light and turned into the ugliest cat in America. Its fur was mottled gray and cream (like a case of mange, Michael said), and its left eye had a permanent squint. Jenny had taken it in a year ago, and it was still wild.

"Hey, Cosette," Jenny said, darting forward and petting the cat as relief swept through her. I'm really getting jumpy, she thought, scared by every little shadow.

Cosette put her ears back and growled like the possessed girl in The Exorcist. She didn't bite, though. Animals never bit Jenny.

Once in the front hallway Jenny sniffed suspiciously. Sesame oil? Her parents were supposed to be leaving for the weekend. If they'd changed their minds…

Alarmed, she dumped her backpack-and the white box-on the living room coffee table as she galloped to the kitchen.

"At last! We were beginning to think you weren't coming."

Jenny stared. The girl who'd spoken was wearing an army fatigue jacket and sitting on the counter, one incredibly long leg braced on Jenny's mother's blondwood kitchen table, the other dangling. Her hair was cropped so close to her head it looked like little nubs of black velvet on her skull. She was as beautiful as an African priestess, and she was grinning wickedly.

"Dee …" Jenny began.

The other inhabitant of the kitchen was wearing a black-and-white houndstooth-check jacket and Chanel earrings. Around her was spread a sea of utensils and ingredients: metal cleavers and ladles, eggs, a can of bamboo shoots, a bottle of rice wine. A wok was sizzling on the stove.

"… and Audrey!" Jenny said. "What are you doing here?"

"Saving your butt," Audrey answered calmly.

"But-you're cooking!"

"Of course. Why shouldn't I cook? When Daddy was assigned to Hong Kong we had a chef who was like part of the family; he used to talk Cantonese to

me while Daddy was working and Mother was at the beauty parlor. I loved him. Naturally I can cook."

While this speech was going on, Jenny was looking back and forth from one girl to the other. When it was over she burst into laughter, shaking her head. Of course. She should have known she couldn't fool these two. They must have seen that under her facade of self-confidence about the party she was frantic. They knew her far too well-and they'd come to rescue her. Impulsively Jenny hugged each of them in turn.

"Since Tom loves Chinese, I decided to take care of the food," Audrey went on, dropping something dumpling-like into the wok. "But where have you been, hmm? Run into some kind of trouble?"

"Oh-no," Jenny said. If she explained what had happened, she'd just get yelled at for going into a bad neighborhood. Not by Dee, of course-Deirdre Eliade's recklessness was matched only by her somewhat skewed sense of humor-but by the ever-practical Audrey Myers. "I was just buying a game for tonight-but I don't know if we're going to need it after all."

"Why not?"

"Well…" Jenny didn't want to explain that, either. She didn't know how to explain it. She only knew she needed to look at that box before anyone else arrived. "It might be boring. So what are you making?" She peered into the wok to change the subject.

"Oh, just some Mu shu rou and a few Heijiao niu liu." Audrey was moving around the kitchen with her usual mannered grace, her tailored clothes un –

marred by a single spot of grease. "That's stir-fried pork and spring rolls to you provincial types. Also fried rice and the trimmings."

"Pork," said Dee, taking a leisurely sip of Carbo Force, her favorite energy drink, "is death on wheels. You have to lift at the gym for a week to work off one pork chop."

"Tom loves it," Audrey said shortly. "And he looks all right."

Dee gave a maddening laugh, and hostility flashed across the room like lightning.

Jenny sighed. "Oh, get over it. Can't you call a truce for just one day in the year?"

"I don't think so," Audrey hummed, expertly fishing a spring roll out of the wok with chopsticks.

Dee's teeth flashed white in her night-dark face. "And ruin a perfect record?" she said.

"Look, I am not going to have Tom's party ruined -not even by my two best friends. Understand?"

"Oh, go to your room and become beautiful," Audrey said indulgently and picked up a cleaver.

The box, thought Jenny-but she did have to change her clothes. She'd better make it fast.

In her room Jenny exchanged her crewneck sweater and jeans for a flowing cream-colored skirt, a tissue-linen blouse, and a beaded batik vest that glowed with hundreds of tiny golden threads.

Her eyes were drawn to a stuffed white rabbit on the dresser. The rabbit was holding a daisy with the words love you emblazoned across its center. An Easter gift from Tom, a ridiculous thing, but one she knew she would keep forever. The fact that he wouldn't say the words in public just made this secret confession all the sweeter.p>

For as long as she could remember, she had been terribly in love with Tom. Whenever she thought of him, it was like a sudden quick ache, a sweetness almost too much to bear. She felt it in various places in her body, but it was an emotional thing, mainly, and centered in her chest. It had been that way since second grade. Stuck around the frame of the mirror were pictures of them together-at the sixth-grade Halloween Hop (in costume), at the ninth-grade graduation dance, at the junior prom two weeks ago, at the beach. They had been a couple for so long that everyone thought of them as Tom-and-Jenny, a single unit.

As always, the very image of Tom seemed to wrap a thin blanket of comfort over her. This time, though, Jenny felt something nagging at her underneath the comfort. Something tugging at her to think about it.

The box again.

Okay, go look at it. Then think party.

She was dragging a brush through her hair when there was a perfunctory tap at the door and Audrey came in.

"The spring rolls are finished and the stir-fry has to wait till the last minute." Audrey's own hair, which she always wore up, was glossy auburn, almost copper. Her eyes were chestnut and just now narrowed in disapproval. "New skirt, I see," she added. "A long one."

Jenny winced. Tom liked her in long skirts, especially the soft and flowing kind. Audrey knew it and Jenny knew she knew it. "So?" she said dangerously.

Audrey sighed. "Can't you see? You're letting him get too sure of you."

"Audrey, please-"

"There's such a thing as being too good," Audrey said firmly. "Listen to me, because I know. Guys are weird, n'est-ce pas? You never want one to be that sure of you."

"Don't be ridiculous," Jenny began, then stopped. For some reason, for just a second, she thought of the guy at the game store. Eyes as blue as the core of a flame.

"I'm serious," Audrey was saying, her head tilted back to look at Jenny through spiky jet-black eyelashes that touched equally spiky copper bangs. "If a guy feels too secure, you lose his attention, he takes you for granted. Starts looking at other girls. You want to keep him off balance, never knowing what you'll do next."

"Like you do with Michael," Jenny said absently.

"Oh, Michael." Audrey made a dismissive gesture with exquisitely polished nails. "He's just keeping the seat warm until I decide who's next. He's a-a bookmark. But do you see what I'm saying? Even Dee thinks you give in to Tom too much."

"Dee?" Jenny raised her eyebrows ironically. "Dee thinks all guys are lying hounds. As boyfriends, anyway."

"True," said Audrey. "It's strange," she added thoughtfully, "how she can be so right about that and so wrong about everything else."

Jenny just made a wry face at her. Then she said, "You know, Audrey, maybe if you tried being nice first-"

"Hmm, maybe … when the devil goes ice-skating," Audrey said.

Jenny sighed. Audrey was the newcomer to their group; she'd moved to Vista Grande last year. All the others had known each other since elementary school, and Dee had known Jenny longest of all. When Audrey arrived, Dee had gotten-well, jealous. They'd been fighting ever since.

"Just try not to kill each other during the party," Jenny said. Deliberately she pulled her hair back –

the way Tom liked it-and anchored its silkiness with an elastic band.

Then she smiled at Audrey and said, "Let's go back to the kitchen."

When they did they found that Michael and Zach had arrived-looking, as usual, as different as night and day.

Michael Cohen was shaped like a teddy bear, with dark hair as rumpled as his gray sweats and the eyes of a sarcastic spaniel. Zach Taylor had light hair pulled back in a casual ponytail, an intense beaky-nosed face, and eyes as gray as the winter sky.

"How's the flu?" Jenny said, kissing Zachary's cheek. She could do this safely because she'd been exposed to his germs all week, and besides, he was her cousin. Zach's gray eyes softened for just an instant, then went cool again. Jenny was never quite sure if Zach liked her or merely tolerated her the way he did everyone else.

"Hello, Michael," she said, giving him a pat instead of a kiss. The liquid spaniel eyes turned toward her.

"You know," Michael said, "sometimes I worry about us, about our whole generation. Do we know what we're doing? Are we any better than the Me Generation? What do we have to look forward to, except driving better cars than our parents? I mean, what is the point?"

"Hello, Michael," said Audrey.

"Hello, O light of my life. Is this an egg roll I see before me?" Michael said, reaching.

"Don't eat that. Put it back on the plate with the others and take it out to the living room."

"I live to serve," Michael said and departed.