Chain letter, p.1
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       Chain Letter, p.1

           Christopher Pike
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Chain Letter


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  Contents

  CHAIN LETTER

  THE ANCIENT EVIL

  CHAIN LETTER

  For Ann

  Chapter One

  Alison Parker saw the letter first. Normally, she wouldn’t have checked on her friend’s mail, but the mailbox was slightly ajar, and she couldn’t help noticing the off-purple envelope addressed to Fran Darey. It was a peculiar letter, taller than it was long, with no return address. Alison wondered if it was a love letter. Whatever it was, whoever had sent it had lousy taste in color. The off-purple envelope reminded her of spoiled meat.

  “Do you need help?” Alison called. She was standing on Fran’s porch, holding an assortment of books and bags: enough for three girls’ homework and personal items. Fran Darey and Brenda Paxson were unloading a half-painted set from the back of Alison’s station wagon, trying to maneuver it into the garage with a minimum of damage. The prop was for a play the three of them were involved in at school: You Can’t Take It with You. Fran was in charge of special effects. Brenda had a small, wacky role. Alison was the star.

  “Whatever gave you that idea?” Brenda gasped, swiping at her overly long bangs and losing her grip on a portion of their characters’ living room. It hit the concrete driveway at an unfavorable angle, and a strip of wallpaper bent back.

  “I took this home to finish it, not destroy it,” Fran complained in her quick, nervous voice. Fran fretted over everything; it was a quality that made her excel at detail work. Brenda professed to be the opposite. She worried only about “things of importance.” Still, on bad days, it was hard to tell the two of them apart. They were always arguing. They were Alison’s best friends.

  “I’m coming,” Alison said, setting aside her gear and hurrying down the steps. It was hot and smoggy, not the best of days for heavy labor. Yet Alison didn’t mind the weather. It reminded her of summer—only a few weeks away—and of their quickly approaching graduation. Lately, she had been anxious to finish with high school, to begin her real life. Her game plan called for four years in UCLA’s drama department, followed by forty years starring in Hollywood feature films. Her chances were one in a million, so her parents often said, but she liked a challenge and she loved acting. Besides, when had she ever listened to her parents?

  “Grab here,” Brenda said, wanting help with her end.

  “No, Ali, come over here,” Fran said.

  “Why should she help you?” Brenda asked. “This is your project. I’m just a volunteer. I’m not even getting union scale.”

  “But you’re stronger than me,” Fran said, straining.

  “I’ll get in the middle,” Alison said, her usual position when the three of them were together. With a fair quota of groans and curses, they got the makeshift wall into the garage. If the truth be known, and Brenda was quick to point it out, there was absolutely no reason for Fran to have brought the set home. You Can’t Take It with You’s opening night was not for over a month.

  Because they entered the empty house through the garage, Fran didn’t immediately check on her mail. Only when they were seated at the kitchen table drinking milk and eating Hostess Twinkies and complaining about how many miserable calories were in each bite did Alison remember the books and bags she had left on the porch. While fetching them, standing just outside the kitchen window, she called to Fran, “Do you want me to bring in your mail?”

  “She doesn’t care,” Brenda said. “No one sends real mail these days.”

  “Ain’t that the truth,” Fran said. “Sure, Ali.”

  Alison waited expectantly while Fran dawdled over the front cover of a Glamour magazine that promised an exciting exclusive on Princess Kate’s tastes in sweaters and an in-depth article by a prominent psychiatrist on why women didn’t trust their husbands. Finally Alison got fed up and, clearing her throat, pointed out the purple envelope to Fran.

  “That letter has your name on it,” she said.

  “Are you serious?” Brenda asked between mouthfuls of cream and cake. “Who’s it from?”

  Fran did not immediately answer, examining the envelope slowly, apparently savoring hopes that would almost inevitably be disappointed when she opened the thing. Not having a boyfriend, not having ever been asked out on a date, Fran had to make the most out of the small pleasures in life. Not that she was ugly. Her clear-skinned oval face and wide generous mouth gave her the foundation for an above-average appearance. Plus her light brown hair had a natural sheen that none of them could duplicate with expensive shampoos and rinses. Yet she was shy and high strung. She was a gifted artist, a B-plus student, but when she got around the guys, she inevitably wound herself into a catatonic cocoon, and couldn’t say a word.

  “There’s no return address,” she said finally.

  Alison smiled. “It must be a love letter. Why else would someone use snail mail?”

  Fran blushed. “Oh, I don’t think so.”

  “Open it,” Brenda said.

  “I will.” Fran set the letter aside. “Later.”

  “Open it now,” Brenda insisted. “I want to see what it says.”

  “No.”

  “Why not?”

  “Brenda, if it’s personal . . . ” Alison began. But Brenda had long arms, excellent reflexes, and—suddenly—the letter in her hand.

  “I’ll spare you the trauma,” Brenda told hysterical Fran, casually ripping open the top.

  “Give that back to me!” Fran knocked over her chair and tore into Brenda with a ferocity that must have surprised them both. There ensued a brief brawl during which Alison finished her milk and Twinkie. Fran emerged the victor, her short hair a mess and her cheeks pounding with blood but otherwise none the worse for wear.

  “I was just trying to be helpful,” Brenda said, fixing her blouse and catching her breath.

  Fran straightened her chair and sat down, staring at the envelope. “Well, it’s none of your business.”

  “I’m also curious who it’s from,” Alison said casually.

  “Are you?” Fran asked meekly. They had grown up together, but for reasons that always eluded Alison, Fran took her opinions seriously and was at pains to please her. Alison didn’t mind the minor hero worship, but she was generally careful not to take advantage of it. So she felt a little guilty at her remark. She knew Fran would open the letter for her.

  “Never mind,” she said. “We don’t have time to read letters now. We should start on our biology notes. I have that long drive home.”

  Her father had recently changed jobs and they’d had to move. Because graduation was so near, she hadn’t wanted to transfer to another school. It was thirty-five miles of highway to her house, out in the boonies of the San Bernardino Valley. Their house was brand-new, part of a recently developed tract, an oasis of civilization in a desert of dried shrubs. To make their isolation complete, they were the only family to have moved into the tract. Lately, at nighttime, being surrounded by the rows of deserted houses made her nervous. The empty windows seemed like so many eyes, watching her.

  “If you really want to read it . . . ” Fran said reluctantly.

  “I don’t,” Alison said, opening her textbook. “Let’s study photosynthesis first. I still don’t understand how chlorophyll turns carbon dioxide into oxygen. On page . . . ”

  “I can open it,” Fran said.

  “Don’t bother. On pag
e . . . ”

  “Open the blasted thing and be done with it,” Brenda grumbled, pushing another Twinkie into her mouth. “Why am I eating these things? They’re just going to make me fat.”

  “You’ll never be fat,” Alison said.

  “Want to bet?”

  “So what if you gain weight?” Alison said. “Essie is played better chunky.” Essie was Brenda’s part in the play.

  “That’s not what the book says and don’t give me the excuse,” Brenda said, adding, “I wish that I’d gotten the Alice role, then I’d have a reason to stay on my diet.”

  Alice was Alison’s part. Alison wondered if there hadn’t been a trace of resentment in Brenda’s last remark. After all, Brenda also wanted to study drama in college, and their school nominated only one person for the Thespian Scholarship program. They both needed the money. As You Can’t Take It with You was the last play of the year, and since Alice was one of the leads, Alison had maneuvered herself into a favorable position to win the scholarship by landing the role. Brenda had tried out for it but had been passed over because she didn’t—in the words of Mr. Hoglan, their drama instructor—have the “right look.”

  Alice was supposed to be pretty. Having known Brenda since childhood, Alison found it difficult to judge whether she was more attractive than herself. Certainly Brenda had enviable qualities: a tall lithe figure, bright blond hair and green eyes, sharp features that complemented her sharp wit. Yet Brenda’s strengths were her weaknesses. Her cuteness was typical. She looked like too many other girls.

  Fortunately, she had none of Fran’s shyness and guys—particularly Kipp Coughlan—brought out the best in her. Brenda could sing. Brenda could dance. Brenda knew how to dress. Brenda knew how to have a good time. Brenda was doing all right.

  If it was difficult to judge Brenda’s appearance, it was impossible to be objective about her own. Her black hair was long, curly and unmanageable—contrasting nicely with her fair complexion. Throughout her freshman and sophomore years, she had worried about her small breasts but since that Victoria’s Secret model had become a big star and the guys had flipped over the curve of her hips—Alison figured she could have doubled for her from the neck down—the concern had diminished. Her face was another story; nobody looked like her. She couldn’t make up her mind whether that was good or bad. Her dark eyes were big and round and she had a wide mouth, but the rest of the ingredients were at odds with each other: a button nose, a firm jaw, a low forehead, thick eyebrows—it was amazing Nature had salvaged a human face out of the collection. Quite often, however, complete strangers would stop her in stores and tell her she was beautiful. Depending on her mood, she would either believe or disbelieve them. Not that she ever felt a compulsion to wear a bag over her head. Plenty of guys asked her out. She supposed she was doing all right, too.

  “I may as well open it,” Fran said, as if the idea were her own. Using a butter knife, she neatly sliced through the end opposite where Brenda had torn and pulled out a single crisp pale green page. Brenda waited with a mixture of exasperation and boredom while Fran silently read the letter. Fran was taking her time, apparently rereading. Alison watched her closely. She could not understand what the note could say that could so suddenly drain the last trace of color from Fran’s face.

  “Who is it from?” Brenda finally demanded.

  Fran did not answer, but slowly set down the letter and stared off into empty space. Alison sat up sharply and grabbed the page. Like the address on the purple envelope, it was neatly typed. With Brenda peering over her shoulder, she read:

  My Dear Friend,

  You do not know me, but I know you. Since you first breathed in this world, I have watched you. The hopes you have wished, the worries you have feared, the sins you have committed—I know them all. I am The Observer, The Recorder. I am also The Punisher. The time has come for your punishment. Listen closely, the hourglass runs low.

  At the bottom of this communication is a list of names. Your name is at the top. What is required of you—at present—is a small token of obedience. After you have performed this small service, you will remove your name from the top of Column I and place it at the bottom of Column II. Then you will make a copy of this communication and mail it to the individual now at the top of Column I. The specifics of the small service you are to perform will be listed in the classified ads of the Times under personals. The individual following you on the list must receive their letter within five days of today.

  Feel free to discuss this communication with the others on the list. Like myself, they are your friends and are privy to your sins. Do not discuss this communication with anyone outside this group. If you do, that one very sinful night will be revealed to all.

  If you do not perform the small service listed in the paper or if you break the chain of this communication, you will be hurt.

  Sincerely,

  Your Caretaker

  Column I

  Column II

  Column III

  Fran

  Kipp

  Brenda

  Neil

  Joan

  Tony

  Alison

  For a full minute, none of them spoke or moved. Then Brenda reached to tear the letter in two. Alison stopped her.

  “But that’s insane!” Brenda protested. She was angry. Fran was shaking. Alison was confused. In a way, they all felt the same.

  “Let’s think a minute before we do anything rash,” she said. “If we destroy this letter, what advantage does that give us over the person who sent it?” Alison drummed her knuckles on the table top. “Give me that envelope.” Fran did so. Alison studied the postmark, frowned. “It was mailed locally.”

  “Maybe it’s a joke,” Brenda said hopefully. “One of the guys at school, maybe?”

  “How could they know about that night?” Fran asked, her voice cracking.

  With the mere reference to the incident, the room changed horribly. An invisible choking cloud of fear could have poured through the windows. Brenda bowed her head. Fran closed her eyes. Alison had to fight to fill her lungs. Whenever she remembered back to last summer, she couldn’t breathe. Were this letter and her recent nightmares connected or coincidental? Seven of them had been there that night. The same seven were listed at the bottom of the letter. She had felt the empty windows of the neighboring houses staring at her. Did this Caretaker wait behind one of them?

  Alison shook herself. This was not a nightmare. She was awake. She was in control. The hollow, bloodshot eyes and the lifeless, grinning mouth were only memories. They couldn’t reach her here in the present.

  “We should have gone to the police.” Fran wept. “I wanted to, and so did Neil.”

  “No, you didn’t,” Brenda said. “You didn’t say anything about going to the police.”

  “I wanted to, but you guys wouldn’t let me. We killed him. We should have . . . ”

  “We didn’t kill anybody!” Brenda exploded. “Don’t you ever say that again. Are you listening to me, Fran? What happened was an accident. For all we know, he was already dead.”

  “He wasn’t,” Fran sobbed. “I saw him move. I saw . . . ”

  “Shut up!”

  “He was making gurgling sounds. That meant . . . ”

  “Stop it!”

  “Quiet down, both of you,” Alison said, knowing she had to take charge. “Arguing won’t help us. We had this same argument a hundred times last summer. The fact is, none of us knows whether he’s dead or alive. . . . ” She froze, aghast at her slip, at the idea that must have formed deep in her mind the moment she had read the letter. Fran and Brenda were staring at her, waiting for an explanation. She had meant to say: The fact is, none of us knows whether he was dead or alive. Of course, he must be dead now. They had buried him.

  “What do you mean?” Fran asked, shredding her palms with her clenched fingernails.

  “Nothing,” Alison said.

  “You mean that he wrote this letter,” Fran said, noddin
g to herself. “That’s what you mean, I know. He’s coming back for revenge. He’s going to . . . ”

  “Stop it!” Brenda shouted again. “Listen to yourself; you’re babbling like a child. There are no ghosts. There are no vampires. This is nothing but a joke, a sick, sick joke.”

  “Then why are you so upset?” Fran snapped back.

  “If I am, you made me this way. It’s your fault. And that’s all I’m going to say about this. Alison, give me that letter. I’m throwing it away, and then I’m going home.”

  Alison rested her head in her hands, massaging her temples. A few minutes ago, they had been happily gossiping and stuffing their faces. Now they were at each other’s throats and had the dead haunting them. “Would you two do me a favor?” she asked. “Would you both please stop shouting and allow us to discuss this calmly?” She rubbed her eyes. “Boy, have I got a headache.”

  “What is there to discuss?” Brenda asked, picking at a Twinkie with nervous fingers. “One of the others, either Joan, Tony or Neil sent this letter as a joke.”

  “You didn’t mention Kipp,” Fran said. Kipp was Brenda’s boyfriend. He was also, without question, the smartest person in the school.

  Brenda was defensive. “Kipp would never have written something this perverse.”

  “Would Neil or Tony have?” Alison asked. Tony was the school quarterback, all-around Mr. Nice Guy, and a fox to boot. She was crazy about him. He hardly knew she was alive. Kipp and Neil were two of his best friends. “Brenda, you know them best.”

  “Neil wouldn’t have, that’s for sure,” Fran cut in. She shared Alison’s problem. Fran was crazy about Neil and he hardly knew she was alive. It was a mixed-up world.

  Alison had to agree with Fran. Though she had spoken to him only a few times, Neil had impressed her as an extremely thoughtful person. Besides Fran, he had been the only one who had wanted to go to the police last summer.

 

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