Meghan Chase. We see you. We’re coming for you.
I froze. The words continued, those three sentences, over and over. Meghan Chase. We see you. We’re coming for you. Meghan Chase we see you we’re coming for you. Meghan Chase we see you we’re coming for you… over and over until it completely filled the screen.
Scott leaned back in his seat, glaring at me, then at the computer. “What is this?” he asked, scowling. “What the hell are you doing, freak?” Pushing him aside, I shook the mouse, punched Escape, and pressed Ctrl/Alt/Del to stop the endless string of words. Nothing worked.
Suddenly, without warning, the words stopped, and the screen went blank for a moment. Then, in giant letters, another message flashed into view.
SCOTT WALDRON PEEKS AT GUYS IN THE SHOWER ROOM, ROFL.
I gasped. The message began to scroll across all the computer screens, wending its way around the room, with me powerless to stop it. The other students at the desks paused, shocked for a moment, then began to point and laugh.
I could feel Scott’s gaze like a knife in my back. Fearfully, I turned to find him glaring at me, chest heaving. His face was crimson, probably from rage or embarrassment, and he jabbed a finger in my direction.
“You think that’s funny, swamp girl? Do you? Just wait. I’ll show you funny. You just dug your own grave, bitch.”
He stormed out of the room with the echo of laughter trailing behind him. A few of the students gave me grins, applause, and thumbs-up; one of them even winked at me.
My knees were shaking. I dropped into a chair and stared blankly at the computer screen, which suddenly flicked off, taking the offensive message with it, but the damage was already done. My stomach roiled, and there was a stinging sensation behind my eyes.
I buried my face in my hands. I’m dead. I’m so dead. That’s it, game over, Meghan. I wonder if Mom will let me move to a boarding school in Canada?
A faint snicker cut through my bleak thoughts, and I raised my head.
Crouched atop the monitor, silhouetted black against the open window, was a tiny, misshapen thing. Spindly and emaciated, it had long, thin arms and huge batlike ears. Slitted green eyes regarded me across the table, gleaming with intelligence. It grinned, showing off a mouthful of pointed teeth that glowed with neon-blue light, before it vanished, like an image on the computer screen.
I sat there a moment, staring at the spot where the creature had been, my mind spinning in a dozen directions at once. Okay. Great. Not only does Scott hate me, I’m starting to hallucinate, as well. Meghan Chase, victim of a nervous breakdown the day before she turned sixteen. Just send me off to the loony bin, ’cause I sure won’t survive another day at school.
Dragging myself upright, I shuffled, zombielike, into the hall.
Robbie waited for me by the lockers, a soda bottle in each hand. “Hey, princess,” he greeted as I shambled past. “You’re out early. How’d the tutoring session go?”
“Don’t call me that,” I muttered, banging my forehead into my locker. “And the tutoring session went fabulous. Please kill me now.”
“That good, huh?” He tossed me a diet soda, which I barely caught, and twisted open his root beer in a hiss of foam. I could hear the grin in his voice. “Well, I suppose I could say ‘I told you so—’”
I glared daggers at him, daring him to continue.
The smile vanished from his face. “—but…I won’t.” He pursed his lips, trying not to grin. “’Cause…that would just be wrong.”
“What are you doing here, anyway?” I demanded. “The buses have all left by now. Were you lurking by the computer lab, like some creepy stalker guy?”
Rob coughed loudly and took a long sip of his root beer. “Hey, I was wondering,” he continued brightly, “what are you doing for your birthday tomorrow?”
Hiding in my room, with the covers over my head, I thought, but shrugged and yanked open my rusty locker. “I dunno. Whatever. I don’t have anything planned.” I grabbed my books, stuffed them in my bag, and slammed the locker door. “Why?”
Robbie gave me that smile that always makes me nervous, a grin that stretched his entire face so that his eyes narrowed to green slits. “I’ve got a bottle of champagne I managed to swipe from the wine cabinet,” he said in a low voice, waggling his eyebrows. “How ’bout I come by your place tomorrow? We can celebrate your birthday in style.”
I’d never had champagne. I did try a sip of Luke’s beer once, and thought I was going to throw up. Mom sometimes brought home wine in a box, and that wasn’t terrible, but I wasn’t much of an alcohol drinker.
What the hell? You’re only sixteen once, right? “Sure,” I told Robbie, and gave a resigned shrug. “Sounds good. Might as well go out with a bang.”
He cocked his head at me. “You okay, princess?”
What could I tell him? That the captain of the football team, whom I’d been crushing on for two years, was out to get me, that I was seeing monsters at every turn, and that the school computers were either hacked or possessed? Yeah, right. I’d get no sympathy from the school’s greatest prankster. Knowing Robbie, he’d think it was a brilliant joke and congratulate me. If I didn’t know him better, I might even think he set it up.
I just gave him a tired smile and nodded. “I’m fine. I’ll see you tomorrow, Robbie.”
“See you then, princess.”
Mom was late picking me up, again. The tutoring session was only supposed to be an hour, but I sat on the curb, in the drizzling rain, for another good half hour, contemplating my miserable life and watching cars pull in and out of the parking lot. Finally, her blue station wagon turned the corner and pulled to a stop in front of me. The front seat was filled with grocery bags and newspapers, so I slid into the back.
“Meg, you’re sopping wet,” cried my mother, watching me from the rearview mirror. “Don’t sit on the upholstery—get a towel or something. Didn’t you bring an umbrella?”
Nice to see you, too, Mom, I thought, scowling as I grabbed a newspaper off the floor to put on the seat. No “how was your day?” or “sorry I’m late.” I should’ve abandoned the stupid tutoring session with Scott and taken the bus home.
We drove in silence. People used to tell me I looked like her, that is, before Ethan came along and swallowed up the spotlight. To this day, I don’t know where they saw the resemblance. Mom is one of those ladies who looks natural in a three-piece suit and heels; me, I like baggy cargo pants and sneakers. Mom’s hair hangs in thick golden ringlets; mine is limp and fine, almost silver if it catches the light just right. She looks regal and graceful and slender; I just look skinny.
Mom could’ve married anyone in the world—a movie star, a rich business tycoon—but she chose Luke the pig farmer and a shabby little farm out in the sticks. Which reminded me…
“Hey, Mom. Don’t forget, you have to take me to get a permit this weekend.”
“Oh, Meg.” Mom sighed. “I don’t know. I’ve got a lot of work this week, and your father wants me to help him fix the barn. Maybe next week.”
“Mom, you promised!”
“Meghan, please. I’ve had a long day.” Mom sighed again and looked back at me in the mirror. Her eyes were bloodshot and ringed with smeared mascara. I shifted uncomfortably. Had Mom been crying?
“What’s up?” I asked cautiously.
She hesitated. “There was an…accident at home,” she began, and her voice made my insides squirm. “Your father had to take Ethan to the hospital this afternoon.” She paused again, blinking rapidly, and took a short breath. “Beau attacked him.”
“What?” My outburst made her start. Our German shepherd? Attacking Ethan? “Is Ethan all right?” I demanded, feeling my stomach twist in fear.
“Yes.” Mom gave me a tired smile. “Very shaken up, but nothing serious, thank God.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. “What happened?” I asked, still unable to believe our dog actually attacked a family member. Beau adored Ethan; he got upset if anyone even scolded my half brother. I’d seen Ethan yanking on Beau’s fur, ears, and tail, and the dog barely responded with a lick. I’d seen Beau take Ethan’s sleeve and gently tug him back from the driveway. Our German shepherd might be a terror to squirrels and deer, but he’d never even shown teeth to anyone in the house. “Why did Beau go crazy like that?”
Mom shook her head. “I don’t know. Luke saw Beau run up the stairs, then heard Ethan screaming. When he got to his room, he found the dog dragging Ethan across the floor. His face was badly scratched, and there were bite marks on his arm.”
My blood ran cold. I saw Ethan being mauled, imagined his absolute terror when our previously trustworthy shepherd turned on him. It was so hard to believe, like something out of a horror movie. I knew Mom was just as stunned as I was; she’d trusted Beau completely.
Still, Mom was holding back, I could tell by the way she pressed her lips together. There was something she wasn’t telling me, and I was afraid I knew what it was.
“What will happen to Beau?”
Her eyes filled with tears, and my heart sank. “We can’t have a dangerous dog running around, Meg,” she said, and I heard the plea for understanding. “If Ethan asks, tell him that we found Beau another home.” She took a deep breath and gripped the steering wheel tightly, not looking at me. “It’s for the safety of the family, Meghan. Don’t blame your father. But, after Luke brought Ethan home, he took Beau to the pound.”
Ring Tone of Doom
Dinner was tense that night. I was furious at both my parents: Luke for doing the deed, and Mom for allowing him to do it. I refused to speak to either of them. Mom and Luke talked between themselves about useless, trivial stuff, and Ethan sat clutching Floppy in silence. It was weird not having Beau pacing round the table like he always did, looking for crumbs. I excused myself early and retreated to my room, slamming the door behind me.
I flopped back on my bed, remembering all the times Beau had curled up here with me, a solid, warm presence. He never asked anyone for anything, content just to be near, making sure his charges were safe. Now he was gone, and the house seemed emptier for it.
I wished I could talk to someone. I wanted to call Robbie and rant about the total unfairness of it all, but his parents—who were even more backward than mine, apparently—didn’t have a phone, or even a computer. Talk about living in the Dark Ages. Rob and I made our plans at school, or sometimes he would just show up outside my window, having walked the two miles to my house. It was a total pain in the ass, something I fully intended to fix once I got my own car. Mom and Luke couldn’t keep me in this isolated bubble forever. Maybe my next big purchase would be cell phones for both of us, and screw what Luke thought about that. This whole “technology is evil” thing was getting really old.
I’d talk to Robbie tomorrow. I couldn’t do it tonight. Besides, the only phone in my house was the landline in the kitchen, and I didn’t want to vent about grown-up stupidity with them in the same room. That would be pushing it.