Stranger Online – Chapter One


faithful1: Maybe I should change my user name . . .

Amber pressed enter. She had been staring at the screen – for over an hour. In the last part of the conversation still on-screen, only two names were listed in their chat room: her own “faithful1” and her best friend’s “nycbutterfly.” Maya’s user name fit great-she was born in New York City, and she swam the best butterfly on the team.

nycbutterfly: NW!! faithful1!! It’s who u r!

faithful1: GR8! But it’s boring (like everything else around here) and it’s not very cool.

nycbutterfly: Do you want to pretend to be something

u r not?

faithful1: So I’m NOT cool?

nycbutterfly: Oops. Didn’t mean that the way it sounded.

faithful1: i know. faithful I am, and faithful1 I’ll be.

Amber heard a luscious little sound that meant only one thing: she had new e-mail! She clicked on the mailbox icon, and, in a flash, she could see what somebody had written.

You’ll get yours.

There was no address, only a screen name: Stranger.

A chill ran through Amber. Someone, a stranger, had accessed her e-mail while she was in the middle of an upgrade! She leaned back in her chair and tried to think. Who would threaten her? And why? She absently twisted a lock of hair around her finger-a nervous habit she’d had forever.

After a few minutes, while breathing was optional, she shook her head and laughed. It had to be a joke!

Maya never would have sent the e-mail, but Bren could have. She and Bren had been playing tricks on each other since Brownies.

The name chicChick appeared in the chat room roll on the side of Amber’s screen.

There she is, thought Amber. She’ll get hers, too.

chicChick: hi ho, people. What’s up?

nycbutterfly: I’ve just been insulting Amber. What are you into?

chicChick: YOU?? I’m the insulting one . . .

nycbutterfly: not tonight, u r not. Amber wants to change her user name. thinks faithful1’s not kewl enuf.

chicChick: whatever. she’s had months to think about this . . .

faithful1: yeah, Chic, and you’ve had months to get

me back for taking your naked baby pictures to the cafeteria.

chicChick: what?

faithful1: You feeling strange tonight??

chicChick: What????

faithful1: oh, come on. I’ll get mine, Chic? You can’t scare me. And you could have dreamed up a better screen name than “Stranger.”

chicChick: ok, what are you blabbering about?

nycbutterfly: ????

faithful1: I just got an e-mail . . . says “you’ll get yours.” And the sender’s address isn’t listed. And it’s signed “Stranger.” I wonder who could’ve sent it, Bren.

nycbutterfly: EW! Scary. You told us not to give out our e-mail addresses! Or our passwords!!

chicChick: I didn’t do it.

faithful1: I must be freaking out. Our site is protected! It’s completely secure–who would have known?

chicChick: pinkie promise–it’s not me. My sense of humor might be strange, but I’m not your Stranger. When I’m after revenge, I serve it up like Coach says: cold on a silver platter. You won’t even suspect me when I get you back for picture day. In fact, I’d forgotten all about that . . .

Amber pulled her eyes away from the screen. If it’s really not Bren, she wondered, then who is it? She had spent months working on security for Their site was supposed to be a haven where they could escape the online weirdos in their own private chat room. I guess I’m not the computer expert I think I am, she decided.

She had started working on computers before anyone else even had one. Her dad had given her a kiddy-game typing program when she was still in elementary school. And since then, she’d progressed from processing through programming to her current role as computer diva, even at school. She knew their site was impenetrable. So how did the Stranger get her address? Amber glanced back at the screen.

chicChick: r u there, f1?? Hello? Yoo hoo, mission control?

Amber snapped back to reality and typed.

faithful1: sorry. I spaced out for a sec.

nycbutterfly: hey–hit reply on his message and see where it takes you.

faithful1: NW. What if it’s one of those cyber-freaks like in the public chat rooms?

chicChick: maybe it’s just a joke. or a message like one of those fortune cookies that we get down @ Fun Chows?

nycbutterfly: Chic–nobody gets threats in fortune cookies from Fun Chows. I read about a girl who got stalked on the Internet. It’s called “cyber-stalking.”

Amber’s hands hung trembling a half-inch above the keyboard. The word stalking threw her off. Her computer suddenly felt alien to her, like a rat had crawled inside and built a nest before she even knew it was there. She leaned over and looked out the window just to see if some weirdo was lurking in the bushes.

“I am freaking out!” she said aloud, forcibly shifting her eyes and fingertips back to the computer screen. Her friends were still debating the e-mail.

chicChick: NYC, you are totally paranoid. It’s probably faithful’s brother e-mailing her from the den. Go look for Ryan in the den!!!!!

nycbutterfly: I am not paranoid. Maybe it’s from Coach–he could be playing a joke on you.

faithful1: Coach would never do anything creepy like this, and he would never be up this late. My brother’s dead meat, too. It’s almost midnight.

chicChick: ACK! It IS late. We’ve got practice in the morning. Go to bed. I’m outta here.

chicChick left the room

nycbutterfly: Amber, seriously, we’d better tell someone about the e-mail tomorrow. But for tonight, you need to chill. This dude, whoever he is, can’t crawl through your cables into your room, so it can wait until morning. ‘night.

faithful1: thanks, sister. Good night.

Amber printed out the e-mail before she shut everything down for the night. She stuffed it in her gym bag with her suit and swim goggles, and then she crawled into bed. Morning swim practice waited for no one, and Coach Short was scheduled to pick her up in five short hours.

She brushed her teeth, and then scanned every inch of her face, freckles and all. Mustering a big fake smile, she grinned at herself in the makeup mirror. She could look at Maya and Bren and know that her friends were pretty. Amber squinted her eyes almost shut, making her light freckles disappear altogether, as though she were looking through a frosted lens. Giving up on self-analysis, she scrubbed her face and flipped off the bathroom light.

Sleep didn’t come easily for Amber that night. As a kid, she had never been scared of monsters under the bed. Or in the closet. But the image of something crawling through her computer cables like a virus in her bloodstream kept returning. She sat up and looked around her room. There was enough light through the blinds so she could make out familiar shapes like her computer table, her big stuffed dog from last year’s fair, and the coat tree in the corner. She could see the green numbers on the stereo clock peeking through the half-open door of her antique wardrobe as if they were blinking sleepily at her.

She flounced back on her pillow. What am I doing? I’m in my own bedroom. The Stranger can just take a hike. Still, after a few more sleepless tosses, she turned on the table lamp, walked over to her desk, and unplugged her computer and its phone line. It can’t hurt, she thought, but I’ll never tell anyone that I did this.

Amber’s alarm clock shrieked its unwelcome cry, urging her awake from across the room. A muffled “thud” against the wall let her know that she’d woken up her brother as well.

“Turn that stupid clock off!” Ryan yelled through the wall.

Amber ignored him. She hunkered deeper under her down comforter, pulling her pillow over her head. If he didn’t care enough to get out of bed, he must not be that bothered. And this reasoning held out until Ryan’s voice boomed next to her ear.


“Get over it,” Amber snarled, swooping up and stomping across the room to turn off the radio. She sounded tough, but she was putting as much distance between herself and Ryan as she could manage.

¡yan’s eyes were barely open. His hair looked like someone had pulled it up into several ponytails when it was wet and

left it overnight before setting it free. He still had a glob of acne cream on his chin and sleep dust in his eyes.

“If the girls could see you now,” Amber teased, “they wouldn’t be chasing you, big brother.”

“I don’t care if you and your stupid friends like to get up in the middle of the night. But the rest of us don’t want to wake up with you!” he bellowed, turning sharply and retreating toward his dark, messy cave of a room. He slammed his door.

Amber had to smile. She wasn’t bothering the rest of them. Her parents’ bedroom was at the other end of the house. She was just bothering Ryan. The truth was, she enjoyed it . . . except when he sneaked up on her. She slammed her own door shut just to make a point, and then she spotted headlights shining through her window.

Amber knew exactly what would happen next, so she took her time gathering her books and stuffing a pair of towels in her bag. Coach would send Morgan to ring the doorbell. He had no patience. Amber could’ve run to catch Morgan before she rang, but since the doorbell speaker was right beside Ryan’s door . . . Ding-dong, Ding-dong . . . She just let it ring as she dashed down the hallway, smiling at her brother’s muffled wails.

“Amber!” he yelled. “If they ring that stupid doorbell one more time . . . I’m going to get you!”

I’m going to get you. You’ll get yours. The front doorknob turned to ice and froze Amber’s arm halfway up. Instantly the October air felt ten degrees colder.



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