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Authors: Erica Spindler

Tags: #Fiction, #Psychological, #Thrillers

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BOOK: Shocking Pink
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“It’s kind of creepy,” Andie whispered. “I keep getting this feeling, like all the houses are watching us.”

“They’re empty, Andie. Nobody lives in them, so how could they be watching?”

She inched closer to Raven. “They’re
supposed
to be empty, but what if they’re not? I mean, it would be so easy for someone to hide in one of them.”

“And do what? Jump out and grab some poor, unsuspecting teenager? I don’t think so.”

Andie made a face at her friend’s sarcasm. “It could happen. Look at those houses at the end of the circle. There’s nothing behind them but old man Trent’s fields. And the one on the left’s bordered by a wooded lot.” Andie shuddered, imagining. “That doesn’t spook you at all?”

“Nope.” Raven shook her head. “I like that they’re empty. There’s no nosy old busybody peering out her window at us, scolding us for crossing her yard and threatening to call our parents. I wish they were all empty.”

They reached Julie’s house, a beige-colored two-story with dark blue shutters, and went around to the rear. Their friend’s bedroom was on the second floor, in back. Luckily, her parents’ bedroom was on the other side of the house.

They had done this before, though they didn’t push their luck. Of all their parents, Julie’s father was the toughest. He believed in punishment as a daily cleansing ritual. It didn’t matter what Julie did, she always did wrong. He made it clear she always let him down.

When she really
did
let him down, he made his daughter pay in ways that scared Andie. Forcing his daughter to stay on her knees for hours reading the Scriptures, humiliating her publicly, controlling her in ways that went way beyond what any other parents did.

Andie was of the opinion that the Good Reverend Cooper, as she and Raven called him, was obsessed with sin and sinfulness, and that he kind of got off on it. It didn’t help that Julie looked more like a
Playboy
magazine centerfold than a regular fifteen-year-old. Andie also thought he was a complete A-hole and that Julie deserved lots better than him for a father. She only wished Julie thought so, too.

Raven scooped up some gravel and threw a few pieces at a time at Julie’s window. Within moments, Julie appeared. She saw it was them and raised the window and unlatched the screen.

“What are you guys doing here?” she whispered, then glanced nervously over her shoulder.

Raven grinned. “Come down and find out.”

“I don’t know.” Julie looked over her shoulder again, then back at them. “Dad was pretty suspicious tonight. After you guys left, he asked me lots of questions about how you got hurt. Then we had to pray for purity and forgiveness.” She lifted the screen higher and leaned her face out, squinting without her glasses. “How’s your leg?”

“Hurts. It’s no big deal.”

“She got twenty stitches,” Andie said.

“Twenty?”
Julie’s eyes widened. “Oh, Rave.”

“Forget my leg, okay? Come on down.” Raven stuck her hands in her back pockets. “Your dad’s going to beat your ass even if you don’t come. He’ll find some reason, you know he will.”

Julie pushed her honey-blond hair away from her face and grinned. “If I’m going to go down anyway, I suppose I might as well have a little fun on the way. Give me a sec.”

A minute or so later, Julie appeared at the window once more, gave them a thumbs-up, then within moments emerged from her house, locking the door behind her. She hurried over to them.

“Andie’s folks are splitting up,” Raven said without preamble.

“Oh my God!” Julie swung to face Andie. “It’s not true, not your parents!”

Andie’s eyes welled with tears. “He told us tonight. He’s been…cheating on my mom. With his secretary.”

“No! That little blonde?” Andie nodded and Julie hugged her. “That really sucks, Andie. You know, I always thought your parents were so happy. So perfect. Like one of those TV families. And your dad, I thought he was the best and that you were so lucky.”

Andie started to cry. “So did I.”

“Great, Julie. You made her cry.”

“I didn’t mean to!”

“Well, you did anyway. Geez!”

Andie made a sound that was half laugh, half sob, then wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “It’s not Julie’s fault. I’m just upset, that’s all.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Raven said, “before Julie’s dad or one of her tattletale brothers gets up to take a pee and sees us out here.”

They started off, keeping to the shadows until they were well clear of Julie’s house. As they neared the bottom of the cul-de-sac, Andie stopped. “Wait.” She held up a hand to quiet them. “Do you hear that?”

“What?”

“Music. Shh…there.”

The other two girls listened. They heard it, too.

“Where’s it coming from?” Julie asked, frowning. They were standing dead center between the four empty houses at the end of the cul-de-sac.

Andie strained to locate the source of the faint music. It floated on the night air, disembodied, there and then gone. It was odd music, disturbing somehow, with a slow, deep beat that made her pulse pound.

“We shouldn’t be hearing music here.” Andie looked at her friends. “Where would it be coming from?”

Julie glanced over her shoulder at the rest of the houses on her street. All were completely dark. “This is weird. Everybody on this block is asleep.”

“We’re not.” At her friend’s blank glances, Raven giggled. “Guys, get a grip. It’s probably coming from a couple blocks away. Sound carries on the night air. Which I should know.” She grimaced. “My parents’ fights were legendary, all over every neighborhood we ever lived in.”

“You’re right.” Andie laughed, sounding a bit breathless even to her own ears. “My imagination is working overtime.”

“But it is kind of creepy,” Julie said, rubbing her arms. “It’s so quiet otherwise.”

Raven laughed. “Come on you chickenshits. Follow me!” She took off in a sort of run-limp-hop because of her stitches; with a sound of surprise, the other two followed her. They cut across the backyard of the last house, then ducked into the twenty-foot stand of trees that separated Trent’s farm from Happy Hollow. Once in the open fields, it was easier to see; their shed stood out incongruously against the otherwise flat, barren field.

They reached it, but instead of going inside, climbed onto the metal roof, lay back and gazed up at the black velvet sky. Minutes passed; none of them spoke. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked.

“It’s so beautiful,” Julie murmured.

Raven murmured her agreement. “And so quiet.”

Andie folded her arms behind her head and breathed deeply. “It’s like we’re the only people in the whole universe. Just us and the stars.”

“What if it was just us?” Raven mused. “No asshole parents? Nobody making us be what they want us to be?”

“If it was just us,” Andie murmured, “I wouldn’t be so sad right now.”

“What about boys?”

Andie and Raven looked at each other, then burst out laughing. “Leave it to you, Julie.”

“Well, really.” She sniffed, sounding annoyed. “We’d have to have boys. You guys might be able to do without…well, you know, but not me.”

“Well, I could,” Raven said, her tone fierce. “Boys become men. Then they become like your dad or mine.” She made a sound of disgust. “No thank you.”

Andie looked at her. “They don’t have to be that way.”

“No?” Raven frowned. “Go ask your mom if I’m right.”

The girls fell silent for long moments, then Raven reached across and touched Andie’s arm. “I’m sorry I said that.”

“It’s okay.”

Raven propped herself up on her elbow. “Do either of you ever think about the future? Where we’re going to be? What we’re going to be?”

“College,” Andie offered.

“Together,” Julie added.

“But beyond that? Like,
who
do you want to be? And what do you want your life to be like?”

“That’s easy,” Julie said. “I want to be popular. I mean
really
popular. And I won’t feel bad about it. I won’t feel guilty about being pretty and having fun or about going out every single night if I want to.”

Raven sat up and drew her knees to her chest. “I want to be the one who says how it’s going to be. I want to be the one other people follow.”

Julie giggled. “You’ll probably be the first woman president. They’ll put your face on a postage stamp or something.”

“This face? Please, I’d scare little children.”

“Stop that,” Andie said, frowning, feeling bad for her friend. “You’re gorgeous. The only reason the boys say those things about you is because they can’t get anything over on you. They call you freak ’cause they want into your pants and you won’t let them.”

For a long moment, Raven was silent. Then she cleared her throat. “Do you really mean that?”

“I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t.”

Raven grinned. “I like that.” She inclined her head regally. “I accept your presidential nomination, Julie.”

Julie tipped her face toward Andie’s. “What about you? What do you want?”

Andie met her friend’s gaze. Tears choked her; she struggled to speak past them. “I just want my family back. I just want…” She made a strangled sound. “I used to think of the future and imagine myself married. To someone like my dad. I used to think that’s what—”

She bit back the words and sat up, wrapping her arms around her drawn-up knees. “I’d hear about bad stuff happening to other people, other kids’ families, but I never thought that could happen to me or my family. I thought we were…protected. Special.”

She turned to her friends. “How can he do this to Mom? How can he do this to me? And to Pete and Danny?” Her voice broke. “How?”

Raven scooted over and put an arm around Andie. “It’s going to get better.”

Julie did the same. “It really will. You’ll see.”

“No.” Andie shook her head. “I feel like nothing’s ever going to be okay again.”

“You’ve got us, Andie. That hasn’t changed.”

“That’s right.” Julie leaned her head against Andie’s. “We love you.”

Tears stung Andie’s eyes. She held out her hand. “Best friends.”

Julie covered it. “More than family.”

“Together forever,” Raven added, joining her hands to theirs. “Just us three.”

“Best friends forever,” they said again, this time in unison.

4
 

A
ndie passed the next two weeks in alternating fits and states of grief, anger, panic and betrayal.

Her father had completely moved out—his clothes and books, the plaques in his office, his golf clubs and tennis racket. Her mother had taken down every family picture in which he was included, she had emptied the pantry and refrigerator of the foods he and nobody else ate—the whole-grain cereal and Fig Newtons, his beer, the sprouted wheat bread and spicy brown mustard—not just throwing them out, but opening and emptying each one, then smashing the box or breaking the bottle.

Within days it had been as if he had never lived there at all.

Except in Andie’s memory. And in her heart. Andie had never realized the effect one person could have on a place, but her father had had a profound one on their home. The house was changed, it seemed empty now. Quieter. Sad. Even the smell had changed.

Her house didn’t feel like home anymore.

Even though she saw him on weekends, even though she knew he was trying to make up to her and her brothers, it wasn’t the same. She missed him being around. She missed the family—and the father—she’d thought she had. And, as angry as she was at him, as hurt, she still longed for him. She still longed to hear his deep voice call out that he was home at the end of the day, longed to hear the rumble of his laughter while he wrestled with her brothers, longed for the reassurance just knowing he was there had given her. A reassurance she hadn’t even realized she’d felt until now, until it was gone. She felt as if his leaving had ripped a huge hole in her life, leaving an empty place that ached so bad she sometimes couldn’t breathe.

Danny and Pete felt it, too. Either they were even louder and naughtier than usual or unnaturally subdued. Her mother hardly got out of bed. She was listless, uninterested in her children, friends, food or any of the other activities she used to throw herself into with such energy.

Andie had lost her father
and
her mother.

Andie did everything she could to help, to make her mother’s life easier. She never mentioned her dad, never expressed her own feelings of fear or despair. She helped with the house and the cooking and her brothers.

Raven and Julie had pitched in. They’d baked cookies, made beds and run the vacuum for her, they’d run to the grocery whenever Andie needed bread, milk or peanut butter. They were her constants, her anchors. With them she still laughed, with them she shared all her feelings, good and bad.

For the first time Andie understood the devastation Raven must have experienced when her mother left, for the first time she truly understood Raven’s fierce loyalty to their friendship.

Raven and Julie truly were her family now.

“Andie? Andie, are you okay?”

Andie blinked, realizing Raven was speaking to her. She moved her gaze between her two friends. They were sitting on Raven’s bed, listening to music and eating chips; both were staring at her, their expressions concerned. Andie averted her eyes, shocked at the tears that sprang to them, shocked that after two weeks just thinking of her father could still make her cry.

She forced herself to meet her friends’ gazes. “Mom and I…yesterday we went downtown to look for new…sheets for her bed. She doesn’t want to…sleep on the old ones.”

“I can dig that,” Julie said, shuddering. “I wouldn’t want to, either. It’d be too sad.”

“The thing is,” Andie continued, “we were in the car, at the stoplight by the McDonald’s, and I…we—” Her throat closed over the words, and she cleared it. She clasped her hands together. “He was in the car next to us. With her.”

The other girls squealed with disbelief. “No way!”

“They were…she was…right on top of him. You know, kissing him and—”

Andie bit the words back, unable to go on. She brought her hands to her eyes, wishing she could block out the image of her father and the other woman. “He’s not supposed to be kissing anybody but my mom. It’s not right.”

“It’s disgusting!” Julie sat up, indignant. “I still can’t believe your dad’s doing this. I just can’t.”

Andie dropped her hands and looked at her friends. “Mom saw them, too. She got hysterical. That was yesterday, and she hasn’t come out of her room yet. I called Grandma. She came to help us.”

“It’s that Barbie doll’s fault,” Raven said suddenly, narrowing her eyes. “She
stole
your dad.”

“I hate her,” Andie said. “I wish she was dead.”

Raven moved her gaze between the other two. “She’s a lying, husband-stealing little bitch and she should be punished. We have to come up with a plan.”

Julie leaned forward. “Punished? Like how?”

Andie made a sound of frustration. “Get real, Rave. As much as I like to fantasize about frying the little slut in hot oil, the fact is, my dad left my mom. He left me and my brothers. She couldn’t have done it without his cooperation.”

Raven shook her head. “She
stole
him. These things don’t just happen, Andie. She set out to get your dad…and she did.”

Andie thought of the times she, either alone or with her mother and brothers, had stopped by her dad’s office. She pictured Leeza’s short dresses and tight tops, pictured the way she had hovered around her father, as if trying to keep
them
from seeing him. As if she were his wife and Andie’s mom the interloper. Andie remembered being uncomfortable with the way the other woman had looked up at her dad from under her dark lashes, the way she had every so often touched his arm, so lightly it was like a caress.

Andie’s blood boiled. Raven was right. Leeza had set out to steal her father. “How do we get her?”

“We could roll her house?” Julie offered, reaching for a handful of chips from the bag between them on the bed. “Or egg it?”

“Worse,” Raven said.

“Like what?”

Raven smiled. “We could hit her over the head and bury her in the backyard.”

Julie nearly choked on her chips, and Andie slapped her on the back while rolling her eyes at Raven. “Very funny.”

“It was just a thought.” She propped her chin on her fist. “I’m going to have to think about this.”

“Wait a minute.” Julie reached for another bunch of chips, turning her gaze to Andie. “Doesn’t she have some fancy little sports car?”

Andie thought of the way she had once admired the car and of the way she had wished her dad would get one just like it. Now, no doubt, he could drive it anytime he wanted. Hatred burned in the pit of her gut. “Yeah. A bright red Fiat. She leaves the top down all the time, except when it’s raining. She thinks she’s so cool.”

“Do you know where she parks it?”

“Oh, yeah. At my father’s office building. Around back, in the shade from that row of trees.”

Julie giggled and clapped her hands together. “I say we key it. Or let the air out of her tires.”

“Let’s not be hasty,” Raven murmured. “We want to do something that’ll really hurt her. At the very least, scare the crap out of her. I mean, she stole Andie’s dad. That’s a lot to be punished for, and a paint job can be repaired.”

“Let’s just drop it,” Andie said, her stomach beginning to hurt. “We’re not really going to do anything, and just talking about her—” She sucked in a quick breath. “Let’s talk about something else. Okay?”

So they did. They talked about an upcoming pool party and what they would wear, boys—in particular Ryan Tolber and why Julie shouldn’t call him—and the new Michael Jackson music video.

Julie sat up suddenly. “I almost forgot to tell you guys! That music, I heard it again.”

“What music?” Andie asked, rolling onto her side to check the time on Raven’s bedside clock.

“You know, from the other night. That was coming from the empty house.”

Andie saw that it was time to go home and make sure the twins were in bed. She sat up and began collecting her things. “It wasn’t coming from the empty house. Remember? We decided.”

“But I heard it again,” Julie offered. “The other night, when I was walking Toto. Don’t you think that’s weird?”

“You’re weird,” Raven said, tossing a pillow at her. “Music coming from empty houses? Wouldn’t surprise me if you suddenly claimed you were abducted by little green men. And that they’re great kissers.”

“They are.” Laughing, Julie tossed the pillow back. “Great kissers!”

Next thing Andie knew, a feather pillow hit her square in the face, knocking her back onto her butt on the bed. With a squeal of surprise, she grabbed a pillow, scrambled to her knees and swung.

It was war. Each girl swung until her shoulders ached, they laughed until their sides hurt so bad they could hardly breathe. Raven was, as always, the last to call “Give!” and as she took her final shot, her pillow split and feathers flew.

A half hour later, smiling to herself, Andie made her way across Raven’s yard and into her own. As she shimmied through a bare place in the row of oleander bushes that separated the two properties, a car passed, music pouring out of its open windows.

Andie stopped, listening as the sound faded quickly away, remembering what Julie had said. She had heard that strange music again. On her quiet little street.

Andie didn’t know why that suddenly seemed wrong to her. She didn’t know why it felt so…ominous. But it did. Prickles crawled up her arms and she rubbed them. Silly, she told herself, starting off again. She was being silly.

Just because other sounds weren’t carrying for blocks, just because the same music had been heard twice, seeming to come from someplace it shouldn’t, that didn’t mean anything weird was going on.

But what if it did? The prickling of goose bumps returned, this time racing up her spine, all the way to her hairline. What if their imaginations weren’t running away with them and someone really was in one of those empty houses?

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