Steven had just reached the half-way point in his route when he saw the girl. He might not have noticed her at all if she hadn’t been the only other person he’d seen so far on his run. She was a mousy little thing; Steven could see that much even from twenty feet away. Light from the streetlamp illuminated her frizzy hair and glinted off the lenses of her glasses. She was the living image of a stereotypical wallflower. Steven frowned as he watched her descend the steps that led to the local college campus.
Probably some naïve freshman coming home from an evening class, he thought with a touch of disgust. Walking home by herself, in the dark, where anything could happen. Why weren’t girls more careful? It’s like they thought small towns like Provo were populated by saints. Didn’t they know there were criminals here just like anywhere else?
Steven reached the base of the stairs at the same time the girl did. Up close, he could see that her frizzy hair was blond—the dishwater kind of blond that you were never sure whether to call blonde or brown. The color of mouse fur, really. She gave him a shy smile as he ran by.
That’s right, smile at the random stranger—even though for all you know, I could be a total creeper. Steven shook his head in disbelief. These doe-eyed little freshman girls—so innocent, they couldn’t even conceive of anyone doing them harm. What girls like that didn’t realize was that innocence drew predators like flies. He peered back at her after he’d passed. The girl crossed the street and disappeared around the corner without a second glance at him—not even checking to see if the strange man in the dark was following her. Ugh. He just hoped, for her sake, that she didn’t meet anything worse than himself tonight.
That thought passed, and the rhythm of his pounding feet filled Steven’s mind instead. For a few seconds, that is. Until a shriek shattered his concentration.
“Crud!” Steven hissed, screeching to halt. The cry had come from behind him, and he was pretty sure he knew who was the one screaming. His sneakers slapped against the asphalt as he raced back to the street he’d just passed. The shrieks were turning into words now.
“Help! Get away from me, you—help!”
Steven skidded around the corner. Farther down the street, two dark silhouettes struggled with each other. The smaller silhouette—the girl—was trying the beat her assailant away with her backpack. The bag split along the seams suddenly, spilling binders and papers everywhere. Didn’t do much to the attacker, though; Steven’s tackle was far more effective. The other man let out a grunt of pain as they hit the concrete. Steven would have done the same if the fall hadn’t knocked the wind out of him. He gasped for air as the would-be criminal jumped to his feet, making a break for it. By the time Steven mustered the energy to sit up, the low-life had vanished.
Steven sighed and turned his attention to the little freshman. She stood frozen in shock, emitting a high-pitched little squeak as her brain processed what had just happened. She even sounded like a mouse.
“Eeee… Eeah… Yeah…” the girl squeaked. Her eyes wandered to the papers scattered on the ground. “My books…”
Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Steven helped the girl gather her fallen possessions. She clutched the notebooks to her chest as if they were a teddy bear. Even in the dim light, Steven could see her lower lip trembling, like a little girl about to burst into tears.
Welcome to the real world, missy, he couldn’t help thinking. It’s a nasty place. If you’re not careful, you’re going to get yourself in all kinds of trouble.
In any case, the future wasn’t the biggest issue here. Steven’s first priority was to get this girl home safely--and frankly, he didn’t trust her to do it herself. He handed her the last of her papers and gently took her elbow. “Here, why don’t I walk you home?”
The girl agreed eagerly. She huddled close to him as they walked down the block, gripping his arm with the hand that wasn’t holding papers.
“I really can’t thank you enough,” She breathed. “If you hadn’t been there, I don’t know what would have happened.”
“No problem,” Steven muttered, but the words belied his growing irritation. Not irritation at having to help, or even at the fact that the girl’s fingernails were digging into his arm. It was the fact that she’d narrowly escaped a disaster caused by her own naivety, and yet here she was again walking into a risky situation. Not only was she walking alone with a perfect stranger, she was actually going to show him where she lived. And she saw no danger in that? So what if he’d saved her—for all she knew, the rescue could have been staged as a way gain her trust. But of course, she’d never consider such a thing, being the pure little freshman that she was. Nope; as trusting as the day is long, that’s how these girls were. Well, he was going to set her straight right now. This incident was not going to repeat itself.
“Listen—what’s your name?”
“Sherry. Sherry Carthwright.”
Don’t tell me your last name! Gah, what’s wrong with you?! “Listen, Sherry,” Steven continued. “Next time you have to stay on campus late, you should walk home with a friend. Or get a ride. Don’t go by yourself like this again.”
“Because,” Steven couldn’t stop a testy tone from creeping into his voice “It’s not smart. Didn’t your parents ever teach you about ‘Stranger Danger?’ Or the buddy system? Living in Provo doesn’t make you safe, you still have to take precautions. And another thing,” he went on, turning to look her straight in her doe-eyes, “Don’t give out your personal information so easily. Random people on the street shouldn’t know your last name, or where you live, or anything like that.”
“But you’re not some random person! You saved my life!”
“As far as you know. You shouldn’t be so trusting of people.”
Sherry gave him a questioning look. “Are you saying I can’t trust you?”
“No—I mean, I’m not—you can, but you don’t know that! Ugh!” Steven rubbed his eyes, trying to get his thoughts straight. “What I’m saying is, people aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes they pretend to be Prince Charming when they’re really the Big Bad Wolf. You got to be on your guard; not take things for face value.”
“That’s a depressing way of thinking.” Sherry stopped suddenly between two apartment buildings. “Here, this is the way I always get home.”
A sense of despair crept over Steven as he saw the path she’d indicated. The two buildings formed a narrow alley that worked as a shortcut to the building on the other side. Or as a convenient spot for murder.
“See, this is what I mean. Alleyways are a crime scene waiting to happen. Walking in the open is always better. Come on, we’ll go around.” Steven tried to move, but Sherry stepped off the sidewalk, tugging his arm insistently. She was surprisingly strong for a mousy little girl, and he found himself being dragged along despite his wishes.
“Oh, come on!” Sherry scoffed at his protests. “I’ve been through here before, there’s nothing to worry about. Besides, I have you with me, don’t I?”
Steven mumbled a complaint, but relented and fall into step beside her. The alley was even darker than the street, not even a lightbulb to illuminate their way. If Sherry thought there was no danger to this place at night, she was even more naïve than he’d thought.
“It’s really not smart to walk somewhere so secluded,” he murmured. “Anything could happen.”
Sherry let out a tiny snort. Steven wasn’t sure if she was laughing at him, or at what he’d said. “I suppose you’re right. There’s danger everywhere these days.”
Sherry’s steps slowed suddenly, although Steven couldn’t tell why. “But a little danger can be good sometimes. After all—what did you say your name was?”
“Steven.” She breathed the name as if savoring its taste. “After all, Steven, if it hadn’t been for that attacker, I’d never have met you.”
Was she getting closer? It was hard to tell in the dark, but he felt as if she were leaning toward him. That feeling changed to a certainty as he felt her arm slip around his neck.
“What?” He could feel her breath on his ear, felt her cheek brush his. “What’s the matter, Steven?”
“I…” He stood frozen, unable to move. What should he do? Should he push away? Duck out of her grip? Give her a stern lecture on kissing people you just met?
As it turns out, he didn’t need to make a choice. Sherry tightened her grip suddenly, making him bend closer. There was a sharp and intense pain in his neck.
Then everything went black.
A murder would have upset any community, but its effect was far greater in a quiet town like Provo. The news spread in a flash; by noon, everyone within 50 miles knew of the body that had been found just a few blocks south of the college. The campus was a frenzy: students walked to class in huddled groups, whispered nervously in the halls, and every teacher gave their students a passionate speech on personal safety. The panic wasn’t helped by the stories which had sprouted among some of the students. The police had officially ruled the murder to be a stabbing, but that didn’t stop the bizarre rumor that the young man’s body had been found drained of blood—and that the wound on his neck looked suspiciously like a bite.
“I’m sure that’s not true, of course,” a young woman whispered to her friend as they walked to class. “It’s just ridiculous. But it’s still scary, isn’t it, to think there’s some killer running loose out there.” The woman shuddered.
Her friend nodded in agreement. “It’s just terrible. But the real tragedy is that it probably could have been avoided.”
“Of course,” the friend insisted, tucking a loose strand of frizzy blond hair behind her ear. “I mean, walking in an alley, in the dark, all by himself? That boy really should have been more careful. After all, there are predators everywhere.”