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When she saw that eleven o'clock had come and gone, Andrea finally gave up on Rachel’s call. Bitter, she plugged her cell phone into the charger and set it aside.
It didn't really surprise her that she was hearing less and less from her best friend lately. After all, Rachel had a boyfriend now and a part time job at the movie theater. New acquaintances were requiring more and more of the time that used to be reserved for old and that was perfectly natural.
But the point was that Rachel promised. She said she’d call. She said they could talk. But broken promises were becoming the rule rather than the exception lately when it came to Rachel Penning.
It was just a stupid phone call. It shouldn't have even mattered to her. What did she care if Rachel didn't want to chat with her anymore?
But she was feeling unusually lonely lately. None of her friends seemed to have any time for her these days. Boyfriends and jobs and new interests were apparently crowding her right out of their lives. No one could find the time to visit or talk or even send her a quick text most days. And it hurt the most with Rachel, because Rachel had always been the best of her friends, the one she trusted most.
She wondered if it was the loneliness brought on by her friends' disinterest that made her feel so emotional lately, or if she was only hurt so much by their disinterest because she'd felt so extraordinarily emotional. It was difficult to tell. Either way, she was sad. And it was because she’d been feeling so sad that she’d pleaded with Rachel to call her after work.
She was sitting at her desk, in front of her computer, staring at the research paper she was supposed to have done by the end of the week but wasn’t making any progress on. She closed the word processor and logged into her e-mail account, hoping that maybe someone wrote to her, but the only messages were three forwards from Wendy Gavon.
She regretted ever giving Wendy her e-mail address. She never actually wrote anybody. All the girl ever did was forward chain letters and stupid jokes. Sometimes she sent twenty or thirty at a single sitting and just lately things she’d already forwarded had begun to recycle themselves, suggesting that either Wendy wasn’t actually reading the messages with which she was clogging other people’s inboxes anymore, or that she had the memory of a box of crayons.
She deleted all three messages without reading them.
She should have just gone to bed. It was Wednesday night and tomorrow was another school day, but she didn’t feel like sleeping just yet. In fact, she was afraid that if she crawled into bed right now, she’d only start to cry.
She wasn’t sure why she felt so down. Surely she couldn't be this upset over some stupid missed phone call. She was ordinarily a very cheerful person. Perhaps it was simply the common hormones of a teenage girl, her body in perpetual motion, still trying to bridge that seemingly impossible gap between child and woman, physically, chemically and emotionally. This unusual depression in a usually perky and optimistic personality was perhaps nothing more than the emotional equivalent to the pimples against which she and a cabinet full of facial cleansers had been waging war for the past six years.
She browsed the web for another twenty minutes, finding nothing that interested her in the least. Then, finally, she shut down the computer and stood up. She crossed the room and threw herself onto her bed, still feeling as if she might cry.
She lay there on her back for a long time, staring up at the ceiling in the harsh glow of the overhead fixture, not really thinking anything, but merely pitying herself.
Andrea Prophett was a petite girl, just a few weeks past her eighteenth birthday, with a skinny, girlish body and a fair, heart-shaped face. Her hair, naturally a darker shade of blonde, but currently dyed a light golden color, was cut just short of shoulder-length and spilled onto her pillow as she lay, revealing every detail of her pretty face to her empty bedroom. Her skin was smooth and fair, free of blemishes because she worked hard to keep it that way. On most days, her blue eyes held a perky shine and her smile was bright and warm. Tonight, however, her eyes shimmered despondently and her pink lips were curled into a pouting frown.
Unlike the other features of her face, which were all round and soft, her nose was straight, triangular, her father's nose. The left side was pierced, a small gold ring encircling her nostril. Her right eyebrow was also pierced, and she wore an array of jewelry in both of her ears, seven in one and eight in the other. Even her navel was pierced.
She had a fondness for jewelry and almost always wore lots of rings, bracelets and necklaces. She owned a jewelry box filled with pretty things with which she regularly redecorated herself. Rarely did she wear the same trinkets two days in a row. Typically, the only items that remained the same from day to day were her favorite watch, her class ring and a gold ring with a large topaz that once belonged to her late grandmother. Hardly any of it was actually worth anything. It wasn't the physical value that she cared for. As her father always joked, she quite simply liked shiny things.
And she wanted more. She fully intended to get her tongue pierced someday. And maybe her lip as well. Her other eyebrow was also an option. She also wanted to get a tattoo as soon as she could talk someone into going with her. She hadn’t decided yet where she wanted it, or even what she wanted to have tattooed on her, but she knew for a fact that she wanted one. Perhaps she’d eventually have several, but for now she didn’t have the courage to go alone.
And what were the chances of anyone going to get a tattoo with her when she couldn’t even get her best friend to call her on the phone?
When at last she turned and looked at the clock, she expected to find that midnight had come and gone and one o’clock was quickly approaching, but it wasn’t yet even twelve.
With a mournful sigh, she sat up, crossed her legs beneath her and began removing her bracelets and placing them in a neat pile on the nightstand.
She was reaching for her watchband when she was startled so fiercely by a noise at the window that a short, shrill scream escaped her throat before she could stifle it behind her hands.
For a long moment she sat there, her hands pressed to her mouth, her heart pounding in her chest, staring wide-eyed at the window.
From her angle, she couldn’t see what it was, but something was there, pressed against the screen. It was making an odd noise, very soft, subtle, but very distinct. It was a sort of crinkling noise. It was a sound that kept her anchored to the bed in fear long after she should have recovered from her start.
Elsewhere, there was only silence. Her scream obviously hadn’t awakened her mother, and her father, a fireman here in Briar Hills, wouldn’t be home from work until late tomorrow morning. The only sound to be heard over the strange crinkling was the distant chirping of crickets.
She wished she could turn off the light. Sitting there in the seventy-five-watt glow, she was in full view of whatever stared back at her from the dark cover of the night. But the switch to the overhead fixture was located across the room by the door.
Gradually, as the seconds ticked by and nothing more than the redundant crinkling was heard, her courage began to return.
As silently as she could, she slipped off the bed and crept toward the window.
In the first moments of her fear, she was certain that this thing at the window was some sort of monster, human or otherwise, attracted by the light of her window and now staring at her with brutal hunger, but it soon became obvious that the thing at the window was neither man nor beast. The crinkling sound she heard wasn’t the gnashing of alien teeth but of plastic rustling in the breeze. Someone had wrapped a large manila envelope in a clear plastic bag, crept across her empty backyard, and fixed it to the screen with a single strip of duct tape.
She peered around the package, scanning the empty yard behind it. Her parents’ comfortable, three-bedroom home was located at the very end of Straight Creek Road near the northernmost city limits. A small patch of forest lay just to the north of the university campus and it was in these woods that her house was nestled. It was the darkness of this forest that made her anxious to see what might be there, but there was nothing that wasn’t there when the sun went down. The back yard was exactly as it was supposed to be, filled with ordinary moonlight and shadow from an ordinary early October evening.
Convinced that no ghastly beings were lurking out there, she turned her attention to the envelope itself. There was a name and address scribbled across the front in black marker, but neither was familiar to her. Perhaps whoever left it did so by mistake. The university campus was within walking distance, after all, and it wouldn’t be the first time that a drunken student found his or her way this far from the dormitories.
On the other hand, there was something eerie about the purposefulness with which this envelope was left for her. Whoever it was who had crept up to her window surely could have looked in and seen her sitting on the bed, surely couldn’t have mistaken her for the person to whom this envelope was addressed. For one thing the envelope was addressed to a man. Secondly, would someone so drunk or confused have been so stealthy about delivering a package?
But then again, she hadn’t exactly sprung off her bed to see who was there…
Quickly, she closed the window and then the blinds, removing the envelope from her view and wishing she could remove it from her thoughts. A part of her wanted to know what was inside that envelope, but a bigger part of her was afraid of what she might find. Perhaps it was drugs, mistakenly delivered to the wrong house. In that case, let the true owner realize the mistake and come and get it himself. She didn’t want to get in the middle of something like that.
Or perhaps something worse waited inside. There was no limit to the awful things her imagination could produce if she allowed it. Countless horror movie scenarios played through her mind as she backed away from the closed window with a shiver.
She turned off the overhead light and finished removing her jewelry by the glow of her bedside lamp. She then crawled under the covers without changing into her usual sleepwear, switched off the lamp and tried to go to sleep.
But for a long time, she lay awake, thinking about the envelope, about what might be inside. Who had been creeping around in her backyard, peering through her open window, watching her, unseen in the darkness? She wondered why someone would choose to deliver a package in such a way. Why would someone just slap it to the screen of her bedroom window without a word and then run away?
And of course she wondered about the name that was written on the envelope.
Who was Albert Cross?