Authors: Christopher Pike
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lison 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
“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
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
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
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.”
“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
“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
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
“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,
“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 page . . . ”
“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.
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
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.