The Initiation (Chapter Ten)

That Friday, Kori came to the back room for lunch. She seemed in awe of the older girls and was even absently respectful of Cassie, which was nice. Certainly Suzan and Deborah had no such respect. The strawberry blond seemed unaware of Cassie's existence unless she wanted something passed to her or picked up, and the biker fixed Cassie with a surly glare whenever they passed in the hall. Deborah and Doug – the other Henderson brother – had appeared in the back room only once since Cassie started eating there, and they had spent the entire time arguing furiously about some heavy-metal band.

Neither Faye nor Nick, the dark, coldly handsome boy who'd rescued Cassie's backpack, showed up at all that week.

But Kori Henderson was nice. Now that Cassie knew, she could see the resemblance to Chris and Doug – the blond hair and the blue-green eyes that Kori emphasized by wearing a turquoise necklace and ring all the time. Kori wasn't as wild as her brothers, though. She seemed just an ordinary, friendly, going-on-fifteen girl.

"I've been waiting so long for it, I can't believe it's finally here," she was saying at the end of lunch. "I mean, just think, next Tuesday's the day! And Dad says we can have the party down on the beach – or at least he didn't say we couldn't – and I want to make it really special, because of it being a holiday, too…" She trailed off suddenly. Cassie, following her gaze, saw that Diana had her lip caught between her teeth and was almost imperceptibly shaking her head.

What was Kori saying wrong? Cassie wondered. And then it struck her: this was the first she'd heard about a party, although it clearly wasn't news to the others. Was she not invited?

"So, uh, do you think Adam will be back in time for- – for – I mean, when do you think Adam will be back?" Kori stuttered.

"I don't really know. I hope it's soon, but…" Diana gave a little shrug. "Who can tell? Who can ever tell?"

"Who's Adam?" Cassie said, determined to show she didn't care about the party.

"You mean she hasn't told you about Adam yet? Diana, there's such a thing as carrying modesty too far," Melanie said, her cool gray eyes disbelieving.

The color had come to Diana's cheeks. "There just hasn't been time – " she began, and Laurel and Melanie hooted.

Cassie was surprised. She'd never seen Diana react this way. "No, but really," she said. "Who is he? Is he your boyfriend?"

"Only since childhood," Laurel said. "They've been together forever."

"But where is he? Is he in college? What's he like?"

"No, he's just – visiting some people," Diana said. "He's a senior, but he's been away so far this year. And as for what he's like… well, he's nice. I think you'll like him." She smiled.

Cassie looked toward Laurel for more information. Laurel waved a zucchini stick in the air. "Adam's…"

Kori said, "Yes, he's…"

Even Melanie couldn't seem to find the right words. "You'll have to meet him," she said.

Cassie was intrigued. "Do you have a picture of him?" she asked Diana.

"As a matter of fact, I don't," Diana said. Seeing Cassie's disappointment, she went on, "You see, around here people have a sort of silly superstition about photographs – they don't like them. So lots of us don't get pictures taken."

Cassie tried to pretend this wasn't as bizarre as she thought it was. Like aboriginals, she thought in amazement. Thinking the camera will steal their souls. How can anybody in the twentieth century think that?

"He's cute, though," Kori was saying fervently.

Suzan, who had been absorbed in eating, looked up from her lunch to proclaim in feeling tones: "That bod."

"Those eyes," Laurel said.

"You'd better go easy," Melanie said, smiling. "You're going to drive Diana crazy before he gets back."

"Crazy enough to give somebody else a chance, maybe?" Sean piped up. Looks of forbearance passed between the girls.

"Maybe, Sean – sometime in the next millennium," Laurel said. But being a kind girl, she didn't say it very loudly.

Looking amused, Melanie explained to Cassie, "Adam and Diana don't even see anyone of the opposite sex except each other. For years Adam thought the rest of us were boys."

"Which in Suzan's case took quite a lot of imagination," Laurel put in.

Suzan sniffed and glanced at Laurel's flat chest. "And in some people's case took no imagination at all."

"What about you, Cassie?" Diana interrupted before an argument could begin. "Did you leave a boyfriend back home?"

"Not really," Cassie said. "There was one guy, though, this summer. He was…" She stopped. She didn't want to tell the story in front of Suzan. "He was sort of… all right. So, anyway, how did Faye's date with Jeffrey go?" she asked Suzan abruptly.

Suzan's look said she wasn't fooled by the sudden change of subject, but she couldn't resist answering. "The fish got hooked," she said with a smirk. "Now all she has to do is reel him in."

The bell rang then, and there was no further conversation about boyfriends or dates. But Cassie noticed a look about Diana's eyes – a tender, wistful dreaminess – that lingered for the rest of the day.

After school, Diana and Cassie drove back to Crowhaven Road together. As they drove by the Henderson house – one of those in the worst repair – Cassie noticed Diana biting her lip. It was a sure sign the older girl was worried about something.

Cassie thought she knew what. "I don't mind about Kori's party," she offered quietly, and Diana looked at her, surprised. "I don't," Cassie insisted. "I don't even know Kori, really. The only time I saw her before was when she was out with Faye on the steps. What's wrong?" she added as Diana looked even more surprised.

"Kori was eating with Faye and the others that day you overheard them talking?"

"Yes – well, she came when they were almost finished eating. There was a whole group of kids, but she was the only one Faye would let stay. Faye said…"

"Faye said what?" Diana sounded resigned.

"She said, 'I thought you'd be eating in the cafeteria with the rest of the goody-goodies.'" Cassie left out the Princess of Purity part.

"Hm. And what did Kori say to that?"

Cassie felt uncomfortable. "She said something about too much goodness being boring. She didn't stay with them long, though. I think Faye and Suzan were trying to embarrass her."

"Mm," said Diana. She was biting her lip again.

"Anyway," Cassie went on, "I don't mind not being invited to her party, but do you think… well, do you think there's a chance that someday I could be in the Club too?"

Diana's green eyes had widened fractionally. "Oh, Cassie. But you don't want to," she said.

"I know I said things last week that sounded that way. But you told me not to judge the Club by Faye, and I'm not, now. And I like you and Melanie and Laurel and Kori – and Suzan's sort of okay. Even Chris Henderson is. So I thought, maybe…" She let her sentence trail off delicately. She could feel her heart beating faster.

"That's not what I meant," Diana replied. "I meant you don't want to because you want to go back home, to California, whenever you can. That's the truth, isn't it? You said you were planning to go to college there."

"Well, yes, eventually, but…" Cassie had said that, that first night at Diana's house. Now she was no longer so sure, but she didn't quite know how to explain this. "What has that got to do with it?" she said. "I mean, joining doesn't mean staying here the rest of your life, does it?"

Diana's eyes were on the road. "It's hard to explain." Then she said softly, "And in any case – well, I'm afraid membership is sort of limited."

Abruptly Cassie remembered Deborah's words after Kori had left that day. One empty space, one candidate, you know? And Kori was part of the neighborhood. She'd grown up here. Chris and

Doug were her brothers. She wasn't a stranger taken in just because Diana insisted, a puppy picked up off the street.

"I understand," Cassie said. She tried to sound as if it were all okay, as if it didn't matter. But it did. It did, terribly.

"No, you don't," Diana murmured. "But I think that's better. It really is, Cassie, believe me."

"Oh, no," Diana said. "I don't have the Scotch tape. It must have rolled under the car seat. You stay here; there's no reason for us both to go back." She turned and hurried toward the parking lot.

They were early that morning. Diana had a banner that she and Laurel had painted, saying "Happy Birthday, Kori." She was going to hang it above the main entrance of the school, and Cassie had offered to help. Cassie thought that was a particularly noble and unselfish gesture, considering she still wasn't invited to Kori's party. It also showed how much she didn't really mind.

Now she looked up at the main entrance of the school building that had scared her to death two weeks ago.

Two weeks. The first week she had spent as a pariah, an outcast, someone too dangerous to speak to because it might bring down the wrath of Faye on the speaker's head. But the second week…

Diana, she mused, didn't influence people by frightening them. She did it much more subtly, with love. It sounded impossibly stupid and Hallmark card-ish, but it was true. Everyone loved Diana – girls as well as boys – and most of them would walk over hot coals for her. As Diana's adopted "little sister" Cassie had instantly gained status far beyond anything she could have ever achieved on her own. She now went around with the coolest crowd in school – and if she wasn't completely a part of it, only the real insiders knew.

You're almost one of us. She heard Faye's words to Kori in her mind again. Well, today was Kori's birthday, and today Kori would be one of them. Today Kori would join the Club.

And Cassie never would.

Cassie hunched her shoulders, trying to shrug the thought off, but a shiver caught her midway through. She wrapped her arms around herself, clasping her elbows. It was colder than she was used to for late September. Laurel and Melanie had been talking over the weekend about the fall equinox, which was today too. Melanie had explained that it was the day when the hours of daylight and darkness were of equal length, which meant the start of fall. Cassie supposed it had a right to be cold. Everyone said the leaves would be turning soon.

Melanie and Laurel had really gotten into that discussion of the equinox. It had seemed terribly important to them, although Cassie couldn't exactly see why. It was another of the little mysteries about New Salemers that were starting to drive Cassie crazy.

She shivered again and began to pace, rubbing her arms.

The hill spread out beneath her. She walked to the top of the stairs and stood bouncing on her toes. It was a clear, crisp day, and mixed in with the luxuriant green all around her she could see a tinge of fall colors here and there. The shrubs across the road – what had Laurel called them? Sumac. The sumac across the road was already red. And some of the sugar maples were turning golden yellow, and there was more red at the bottom of the hill…

Cassie frowned and forgot to rub her arms. She took a step or two down and leaned forward, looking again. The red at the bottom of the hill was almost too red, too bright. She'd never known foliage could turn that color. It wasn't natural.

A violent shiver went through her. God, it was cold. Whatever was down there was half hidden by the underbrush, but it wasn't a bush itself, she decided. It looked more like a sweater somebody had discarded.

It'll get ruined, lying on the damp ground like that, Cassie thought. Whoever owns it is going to be unhappy.

She took another step down. Of course, it's probably ruined already – or maybe it's just a scrap somebody's thrown out.

But it didn't look like a scrap. It had a shape – she could see what looked like the sweater's arm. In fact, it looked like a whole bundle of clothes. See, there was something like jeans lying below it…

Suddenly Cassie couldn't breathe.

That's funny – that's really funny, because it looks almost like a person. But that would be so stupid – it's cold and wet on the ground. Anybody lying down there would freeze –

She was moving down the steps quickly now.

Stupid – but it really does look a lot like somebody. See, there's legs. That yellow could be hair. They must be asleep – but who would go to sleep like that? Right beside the road. Of course, the weeds and stuff screen them –

She was very close now, and everything had gone into slow motion – everything but her whirling, reeling thoughts.

Oh, thank God – it isn't a person after all; it's just a dummy. Like one of those stuffed scarecrow things they put out at Halloween to scare people. See, it's all floppy in the middle… no person could bend that way… the neck looks like the neck of that doll in my locker. Like somebody pulled the head out…

Cassie's own body was reacting strangely. Her chest was heaving and her muscles were shaking. Her knees were trembling so hard she could scarcely remain standing. And her vision was sparkling at the edges as if she were going to faint.

Thank God, it's not a person – but oh, my God, is that a hand? Dummies don't have hands like that… not hands with little pink fingers… and dummies don't wear rings, turquoise rings…

Where had she seen a ring like that before?

Look at it closer; no, don't look, don't look –

But she had seen. The hand, stiff as a claw, was human. And the ring was Kori's.

Cassie didn't realize that she was screaming until she was halfway up the hill. Her legs, which had been trembling so badly, were taking her up in leaps and surges. And she was screaming over and over again: "Help, help, help." Only they were such thin, pathetic little shrieks – it was no wonder no one heard her. It was like one of those nightmares where your vocal cords are paralyzed.

But someone had heard. As she reached the top of the hill Diana appeared, running. She caught Cassie by the shoulders.

"What is it?"

"Kori!" Cassie gasped in a strangled voice. She could hardly speak. "Diana – help Kori! She's hurt. Something's wrong – " She knew it was more than something wrong, but she couldn't bring herself to say the words. "Help her, please – "

"Where?" Diana cut in sharply.

"The bottom. Bottom of the hill. But don't go down there," Cassie gasped illogically. Oh, God, she was completely falling apart. She couldn't cope – but she couldn't let Diana go down there alone, either.

Diana was flying down the stairs. Stiff-legged, Cassie followed. She saw Diana reach the bottom and hesitate, then swiftly kneel and bend forward.

"Is she – ?" Cassie's hands were clenched.

Diana straightened up. Cassie saw the answer in the set of her shoulders. "She's cold. She's dead."

Then Diana turned around. Her face was white, her green eyes burning. Something in her expression gave Cassie strength, and she stumbled down the last two steps and flung her arms around her.

She could feel Diana shaking, clinging to her. Kori had been Diana's friend, not hers.

"It'll be okay. It'll be okay," she gasped, illogical again. There was no way for this to be okay, ever. And over and over in Cassie's mind other words were echoing.

Someday they may find you at the bottom of those stairs with a broken neck. Someday they may find you…

Kori's neck was broken.

That was what the police doctor said. After Cassie and Diana went back up the stairs, everything that day seemed like a dream. Adults came and took over. School officials, the police, the doctor. They asked questions. They made notes in their notebooks. Throughout it all the kids in the school stood aside and watched. They weren't part of the adults' process. They had questions of their own.

"What are we waiting for? Why don't we just get her?" Deborah was saying as Cassie came into the back room. It wasn't her lunch period, but all the rules seemed to have been suspended that day.

"We all heard her say it," Deborah was continuing. "Suzan, Faye, and me – even she heard it." She gestured at Cassie, who was numbly trying to get a can of juice out of the machine. "That bitch said she was going to do it, and she did it. So what are we waiting for?"

"For the truth," Melanie said quietly and coldly.

"From them? Outsiders? You can't be serious. They'll never admit Sally did it. The police are saying it was an accident. An accident! No sign of a struggle, they're saying. She slipped on a wet step. And you know what the kids are saying? They're saying it was one of us!"

Laurel looked up from the hot water she was pouring over some dried leaves in a mug. The end of her nose was pink. "Maybe it was one of us," she said.

"Like who?" Deborah blazed back.

"Like somebody who didn't want her in the Club. Somebody who was afraid she'd come in on the wrong side," said Laurel.

"And we all know which side would be afraid," said a new voice, and Cassie jerked around, nearly dropping her juice.

It was Faye. Cassie had never seen her in the back room before, but she was here now, her honey-colored eyes hooded and smoldering.

"Well, Diana's side certainly had nothing to be afraid of," Laurel said. "Kori idolized Diana."

"Did she? Then why did she spend the last week having lunch with me?" Faye said in her slow, husky voice.

Laurel stared, looking uncertain. Then her face cleared and she shook her head. "I don't care what you say; you're never going to make me believe Diana would hurt Kori."

"She's right," Suzan put in, to Cassie's surprise. "Diana wouldn't."

"Besides, we already know who would," Deborah said sharply. "It was Sally – or maybe that moron boyfriend of hers. I say we get them – now!"

"She's right," said Sean.

Laurel looked at him, then at Deborah, then at Faye. "What do you think, Melanie?" she said finally.

Melanie's voice was still quiet, detached. "I think we need to have a meeting," she said.

Sean bobbed his head. "She's right," he said.

Just then Diana came in. The Henderson brothers were behind her. They both looked ravaged – and bewildered. As if they couldn't understand how this could happen to them. Chris's eyes were red-rimmed.

Everyone sobered at the sight of the brothers. There was silence as they sat down at the table.

Then Faye turned to Diana. Her golden eyes were like two golden flames. "Sit down," she said flatly. "We need to talk."

"Yes," said Diana.

She sat down, and so did Faye. Laurel, after putting two cups of hot liquid in front of the Henderson brothers, did the same. Deborah jerked out a chair and threw herself into it. Suzan and Melanie had already been seated.

Everyone turned to look at Cassie.

Their faces were strange. Alien. Laurel's normally elfin face was closed. Melanie's cool gray eyes were more remote than ever; Suzan's pouting lips were compressed tightly; Deborah's fierceness was barely kept in check. Even Sean's usually furtive expression had an unprecedented dignity. Diana was pale and stern.

The glass door swung open and Nick came in. His face was like a cold and handsome stone, revealing nothing, but he sat down at the table beside Doug.

Cassie was the only one in the room left standing. She looked at them, the members of the Club, and they looked at her. No one needed to say anything. She turned around and left the room.