The Initiation (Chapter Five)

The gray cashmere sweater or the blue-and-white Fair Isle cardigan, that was the question. Cassie stood in front of the gilt-framed mirror, holding first one and then the other in front of her. The blue cardigan, she decided; blue was her favorite color, and it brought out the blue of her eyes. The plump cherubs on top of the old-fashioned looking glass seemed to agree, smiling at her approvingly.

Now that the first day of school had actually come, Cassie found that she was excited. Of course, she was nervous too, but it wasn't the stark and hopeless dread she'd expected to feel. There was something interesting about beginning school in a new place. It was like starting her life over. Maybe she'd adopt a whole new personality. Back home, her friends would probably describe her as "nice, but shy" or "fun, but kind of quiet." But no one here knew that. Maybe this year she'd be Cassie the Extrovert or even Cassie the Party Girl. Maybe she'd even be good enough for the girl with the shining hair. Cassie's heart beat more quickly at the thought.

It all depended on first impressions. It was vital she get off to a good start. Cassie pulled on the blue sweater and anxiously checked her reflection again in the mirror.

She wished there were something more to do with her own hair. It was soft and it waved slightly, with pretty highlights, but she wished she could do something more dramatic with it. Like the girl in this ad – she glanced at the magazine open on the dressing table. She'd bought it specially when she'd driven into town last week so she could see the back-to-school fashions. She'd never gotten the courage to walk up to the yellow Victorian house again, although she'd cruised by it slowly in her grandmother's Volkswagen Rabbit, hoping vainly to bump into the girl "accidentally."

Yes, tomorrow she'd pull her hair back like the model in the ad, she decided.

Just as she was about to step away, something on the opposite page of the magazine caught her eye. A horoscope column. Her birth sign, Cancer, seemed to be staring out at her. Automatically her eyes followed the words after it.

That daggy insecure feeling has got you again. It's time for positive thinking! If that doesn't work, remember that nothing lasts forever. Try not to make waves in your personal relationships this month. You've got enough to cope with already.

Horoscopes are such garbage, Cassie thought, closing the magazine with a slap. Her mother had always said so, and it was true. "That daggy insecure feeling" – just telling someone they felt insecure was enough to make them feel it! There was nothing supernatural about that.

But if she didn't believe in the supernatural, what was the chalcedony lucky piece doing in the zipper compartment of her backpack? Setting her jaw, she took it out and put it in her jewelry box, then went downstairs to say good-bye.

The school was an impressive three-story red brick building. So impressive that after Cassie had parked the Rabbit, she was almost afraid to go any closer. There were several narrow paths that led up the hill, and she finally nerved herself to take one. At the top her throat closed and she simply stared.

God, it looked like a college or something. Like a historical landmark. The bold stone facing on the front read NEW SALEM HIGH SCHOOL, and below was a sort of crest with the words Town of New Salem, Incorporated 1693. Was that how old this town was? Three hundred years? Back in Reseda, the oldest buildings around had been there for maybe fifty years.

I am not shy, Cassie told herself, forcing herself to walk forward. I am Cassie the Confident.

An incredibly loud roar made her head jerk around, and sheer instinct sent her jumping to the side just in time to avoid being run over. Heart pounding, she stood and gawked at what had almost hit her. It was a motorcycle on the bike path. But even more astonishing was its rider – a girl. She was wearing tight black jeans and a motorcycle jacket, and her trim, athletic body looked tough. But when she turned around after parking the motorcycle by a bike rack, Cassie saw that her face was ravishingly pretty. It was small and feminine, framed by tumbling dark curls, and marred only by a sullen, belligerent expression.

"What are you staring at?" the girl demanded suddenly.

Cassie started. She supposed she had been staring. The girl took a step forward, and Cassie found herself stepping back.

"I'm sorry – I didn't mean to – " She tried to tear her eyes away, but it was hard. The girl was wearing a skimpy black midriff top under the jacket, and Cassie glimpsed what looked like a small tattoo just above the material. A tattoo of a crescent moon. "I'm sorry," Cassie said again, helplessly.

"You better be. You keep out of my face, get it?"

You were the one who almost ran me over, Cassie thought. But she nodded hastily, and to her vast relief the girl turned away.

God, what a horrible way to start the first day of school, Cassie thought, hurrying toward the entrance. What a horrible person to be the first one you spoke to. Well, at least after a beginning like that, things could only get better.

All around her teenagers were greeting one another, shouting hello; the girls giggling and hugging, the boys horsing around. It was an excited bustle, and everybody seemed to know everybody else.

Except Cassie. She stood looking at the fresh haircuts of the guys, the brand-new clothes of the girls, smelling the scents of too much perfume and unnecessary aftershave and feeling more alone than she ever had in her life.

Keep moving, she told herself sternly. Don't stand around looking for that girl – find your first class. Maybe you'll see somebody there who's alone, and you can talk to them. You've got to look extroverted if you want people to think you are.

Her first class was writing for publication, an English elective, and Cassie was glad she had it. She liked creative writing, and the Program of Studies had said that the class would offer opportunities for publication in the school literary magazine and newspaper. She'd worked on the newspaper in her old school; maybe she could here, too.

Of course, the Program also said you had to sign up for writing for publication the previous spring, and Cassie still couldn't quite understand how her grandmother had gotten her enrolled just before school started. Maybe her grandmother had special pull with the administration or something.

She found the class without much trouble and took an inconspicuous desk near the back. The room was filling up, and everyone seemed to have someone to talk to. Nobody took the slightest notice of Cassie.

She began doodling ferociously on the front of her notebook, trying to look totally involved in it, trying to look as if she weren't the only one in class sitting alone.

"You're new, aren't you?"

The boy in front of her had turned around. His smile was genuinely friendly, but it was also dazzling, and she had a feeling he knew exactly how dazzling it was. His hair was auburn and curly, and it was clear that when he stood, he'd be very tall.

"You're new," he said again.

"Yes," said Cassie, and was furious to hear her voice shake. But this guy was so good-looking… "I'm Cassie Blake. I just moved here from California."

"I'm Jeffrey Lovejoy," he said.

"Oh," Cassie said, trying to make it sound as if she'd heard of him before, since this seemed to be what he expected.

"Center on the basketball team," he said. "Also captain."

"Oh, how great." Oh, how stupid. She had to do better than this. She sounded brainless. "I mean – that must be really interesting."

"Are you interested in basketball? Maybe we could talk about it sometime." Suddenly Cassie felt very grateful to him. He was ignoring her blundering, her lameness. Okay, so maybe he liked to be admired, but what difference did that make? He was nice, and it would definitely improve her status to be seen around the campus with him.

"That would be great," she said, wishing she could think of another adjective. "Maybe – maybe at lunch…"

A shadow fell over her. Or at least that was how it felt. In any case, she was aware, all at once, of a presence at her side, a presence that made her voice trail off blankly as she looked up, wide-eyed.

A girl was standing there, the most striking girl Cassie had ever seen. A big, beautiful girl, both tall and voluptuous. She had a mane of pitch-black hair and her pale skin was touched with the glow of confidence and power.

"Hello, Jeffrey," she said. Her voice was low for a girl's; vibrant and almost husky.

"Faye." Jeffrey's voice, by contrast, was noticeably unenthusiastic. He looked tense. "Hi."

The girl leaned over him, one hand on the back of his chair, and Cassie caught the scent of some heady perfume. "I didn't see much of you over summer vacation," she said. "Where've you been?"

"Around," Jeffrey said lightly. But his smile was forced, and his entire body was taut now.

"You shouldn't keep yourself hidden away like that. Naughty boy." Faye leaned in closer yet. She was wearing an off-the-shoulder top – completely off both shoulders. It left a great deal of skin exposed just at Jeffrey's eye level. But it was her face Cassie couldn't help staring at. She had a sensuous, sulky mouth and extraordinary honey-colored eyes. They seemed almost to glow with a strange golden light. "You know, there's a new horror movie at the Capri this week," she said. "I like horror movies, Jeffrey."

"I can take them or leave them myself," Jeffrey said.

Faye chuckled, a rich, disturbing sound. "Maybe you just haven't seen them with the right girl," she murmured. "Under the proper circumstances, I think they can be very… stimulating."

Cassie felt embarrassed blood rise to her cheeks, though she scarcely knew why. Jeffrey wet his lips, looking fascinated in spite of himself, but also scared. Like a rabbit in a trap.

"I was going to take Sally down to Gloucester this weekend – " he began, voice strained.

"Well, you'll just have to tell Sally that… something came up," Faye said, raking him with her eyes. "You can come get me Saturday night at seven."

"Faye, I – "

"Oh, and don't be late, all right? I hate it when boys are late."

All this time, the black-haired girl had not even glanced at Cassie. But now, as she straightened up to leave, she did. The look she turned on Cassie was sly and secretive, as if she were perfectly aware that Cassie had been listening, and she liked it. Then she turned back to Jeffrey.

"Oh, and by the way," she said, lifting one hand in a languid gesture that showed off her long red nails, "she's from Crowhaven Road too."

Jeffrey's jaw dropped. He stared at Cassie a moment with an expression of shock and distaste, and then he quickly turned around to face the front of the room. Faye was chuckling as she walked away to take a seat at the very back.

What is going on? Cassie thought wildly. What difference did it make where she lived? The only thing she could see now of Jeffrey-of-the-dazzling-smile was his rigid back.

She had no time to think anything more, because the teacher was talking. He was a mild-looking man with a graying beard and glasses. He introduced himself as Mr. Humphries.

"And since you've all had a chance to talk during your summer vacation, now I'll give you a chance to write," he said. "I want each of you to write a poem, right now, spontaneously. We'll read some of them aloud afterward. The poem can be about anything, but if you have trouble thinking of a subject, write about your dreams."

There were groans from the class, which gradually died into silence and pen chewing. But Cassie bent over her notebook with her heart beating rapidly. A vague memory of her dream of last week intruded, the one where her mother and grandmother had stood over her. But she didn't want to write about that. She wanted to write about him.

After a few minutes she scribbled down a line. When Mr. Humphries announced that the time was up, she had a poem, and reading it over she felt a thin chill of excitement. It was good – or at least she thought so.

What if the teacher called on her to read it out loud? She didn't want him to, of course, but what if he made her, and what if somebody else in class thought it was good and wanted to talk to her afterward? Maybe they'd ask her about the guy in the poem, and then she could tell them the mysterious and romantic story about him. Maybe she'd get a reputation for being kind of mysterious and romantic herself. Maybe the girl in the Victorian house would hear about her…

Mr. Humphries was calling for volunteers. Predictably, no hands were raised… until one went up in the back.

The teacher hesitated. Cassie turned to see that the raised hand had long red nails.

"Faye Chamberlain," Mr. Humphries said at last.

He sat on the edge of his desk as the tall, striking girl came to stand beside him, but Cassie had the oddest feeling that he would have moved away if he could. An almost palpable air of tension had filled the room, and all eyes were on Faye.

She tossed her glorious mane of black hair back and shrugged, causing her off-the-shoulder top to slip down a little lower. Tilting her head back, she smiled slowly at the class and held up a piece of paper.

"This is my poem," she said in her lazy, husky voice. "It's about fire."

Shocked, Cassie looked down at the poem on her own desk. Then Faye's voice caught her attention.

I dream about fire –

Tongues of flame licking me.

My hair burns like a torch;

My body burns for you.

Touch my skin and your fingers will stick –

You'll blacken like a cinder.

But you'll die smiling;

Then you'll be part of the fire too.

As the entire class watched, riveted, Faye produced a match and somehow – Cassie didn't quite see how – managed to light it. She touched it to the paper and the paper caught fire. Then, walking slowly, she moved to stand directly in front of Jeffrey Lovejoy, waving the burning paper gently before his eyes.

Howls, whistles, and desk banging from the audience. Many of them looked scared, but most of the guys looked excited, too. Some of the girls looked as if they wished they dared to do something like that.

Voices called out, "See, Jeffrey, that's what you get for being so cute!" "Go for it, man!" "Watch out, Jeff, Sally's gonna hear about this!"

Jeffrey just sat there, the back of his neck slowly flushing dull red.

As the paper was about to burn her fingers, Faye sashayed away from Jeffrey again and dropped it in the metal wastebasket by the teacher's desk. Mr. Humphries didn't flinch when something in the wastebasket flared up, and Cassie admired him for that.

"Thank you, Faye," he said evenly. "Class, I think we can call what we've just seen an example of… concrete poetry. Tomorrow we'll study some more traditional methods. Class dismissed."

Faye walked out the door. There was an instant's pause; then, as if everyone had been released by a spring, a sudden mass exodus. Jeffrey grabbed his notebook and was gone.

Cassie looked at her own poem. Fire. She and Faye had both written about the same thing…

Suddenly she tore the sheet out and, crumpling it into a ball, thrust it into her backpack. So much for her dreams of being romantic and mysterious. With a girl like that around, who was ever going to notice Cassie?

And yet they all seemed almost afraid of her, she thought. Even the teacher. Why didn't he give her a detention or something? Or is lighting fires in trash cans normal in New Salem?

And why did Jeffrey let her hit on him that way? And why did he care where I live, for God's sake?

In the hall, she nerved herself to stop someone and ask where room C310 was.

"It's on the third floor," the girl said. "All the math classes are. Go up that stairway – "

"Yo! Look out! Heads up, everybody!" a shouting voice interrupted. Something was whizzing down the hall, scattering students right and left from its path. Two somethings. Dumbfounded, Cassie saw that it was two guys on roller blades, laughing and bellowing as they tore through the crowd. Cassie had a glimpse of disheveled shoulder-length blond hair and almond-shaped, slightly tilted blue-green eyes as one passed – and then she saw it all again as the second one streaked by. The boys were identical, except that one was wearing a Megadeth T-shirt and the other's said Motley Cr��e.

They were creating chaos as they went, knocking books out of people's arms and grabbing at girls' clothes. As they reached the end of the hallway, one of them caught a pretty redhead's miniskirt and deftly flipped it up to waist level. The girl shrieked and dropped her backpack to push it down.

"Why doesn't somebody do something?" Cassie blurted out. Was everybody in this school crazy? "Why doesn't somebody stop them – or report them – or something. …"

"Are you kidding? Those are the Henderson brothers," the girl said, and she walked away, joining another girl. Cassie heard a fragment of a sentence float back: "… doesn't even know about the Club…" and both girls glanced back at her, then walked on.

What Club? That girl had said it as if it had capital letters. What did a club have to do with breaking school rules? What kind of place was this?

Another bell rang, and Cassie realized that she was now late for class. She slung her backpack over her shoulder and ran for the stairs.

By lunchtime, she still hadn't exchanged more than a "hi" or "hello" with anyone, no matter how she tried. And she hadn't seen the girl with the shining hair anywhere – not that that was really surprising, considering the many floors and corridors of this school. In her present state of insecurity, Cassie wouldn't have dared to approach the girl if she had seen her. A leaden, miserable feeling had settled in her stomach.

And one glance at the glass-walled cafeteria teeming with laughing students made her knees go weak.

She couldn't face it. She just didn't have the nerve.

Arms wrapped around herself, she walked away and kept walking. She walked right through the main entrance and out the door. She didn't know where she was going – maybe she was going home. But then she saw the lush green grass of the hill.

No, she decided; I'll just eat here. Partway down the hill there were several craggy outcrops of natural rock, and she found she could sit comfortably in a little hollow below one, shaded by a tree. She was shielded by the rock from the school; it was almost as if the school didn't exist. She could look down a flight of meandering steps to the bottom of the hill and the road beyond, but no one from above could see her.

As she sat, looking at the dandelions dotting the grass, the tension gradually drained out of her. So what if the morning hadn't been the greatest? Things would be better this afternoon. The clear blue sky seemed to tell her that.

And the rock at her back – the famous red granite of New England – gave her a feeling of security. It was strange, but she almost felt she could hear a buzzing in the rock, like a heartbeat tremendously speeded up. A buzzing of life. If I put my cheek to it, I wonder what would hap-pen? she thought with a curious excitement.

Voices distracted her. Dismayed, Cassie knelt up to look over the top of the rock – and tensed.

It was that girl, Faye. There were two other girls with her, and one of them was the biker who'd nearly run Cassie over that morning. The other was a strawberry blond with a tiny waist and the most well-developed chest Cassie had ever seen on a teenager. They were laughing and sauntering down the steps – right toward Cassie.

I'll just stand up and say hi, Cassie thought, but she didn't. The memory of those disturbing honey-colored eyes was still with her. She kept quiet and hoped they'd pass her by, go all the way down the hill and off campus.

Instead they stopped on the landing just above Cassie, sitting with their feet on the steps below and pulling out paper lunch bags.

They were so close that Cassie could see the red stone blazing at Faye's throat. Although she was in shadow now, if she moved they wouldn't be able to miss her. She was trapped.

"Did anybody follow us, Deborah?" Faye asked lazily as she rummaged through her backpack.

The biker girl snorted. "Nobody's stupid enough to try."

"Good. Because this is top secret. I don't want you-know-who to hear anything about it," Faye said. She took out a stenographer's notebook with a red cover and laid it on her knee. "Now let me see, what shall we do to start this year off? I feel like something really wicked."