Mary perched on Hershel’s bed as he haphazardly hurled various clothes into his worn suitcase. The early morning sun streamed through his window, illuminating the mess of clothes that betrayed Hershel’s procrastination in packing. Tests had wrapped up yesterday and Mr. Transport was teleporting everyone except Alice home in about half an hour. This had required multiple assurances on the part of both Mr. Transport and Mr. Numbers that their journey home wouldn’t go by way of a mountain-climb. If not for their help at the end of last year, it was doubtful any of the students would have gambled on the trip, but between the budding trust and the supreme convenience, most had elected to take the chance.
“Am I mistaken, or are you only packing dirty clothes?” Mary noted that while the distinction between the two was largely up to interpretation, it did seem that only the most wrinkled and stained garments were making it into the suitcase.
“Yeah. Not much sense in washing clean ones at home.”
“I’m sure your mother will appreciate that.”
Hershel paused the rain of clothes to stick his tongue out at Mary. “I do my own laundry, thank you very much. I just prefer the ease of using the washer at my house to the ones in the laundromat.”
“Ah yes.” The laundry facilities at the Lander dorms were much like the ones in every other college basement. They worked in the sense that they left clothes wetter than when they came in and smelling faintly of soap, but to call anything produced from them clean was something of a stretch. “I might need to rethink my own suitcase composition.”
“You might be a little short on time for that,” Hershel pointed out.
“Oh, only you’re allowed to cram clothes at the last minute?”
“I’ve got more practice. This sort of thing is an art.”
“Mmmmhmm. You could just say you prefer me to stay with you until we leave, seeing as we won’t be together again for nearly three weeks.”
“Okay, then. Yes. That.” Hershel took another break from his rush, but this time it was to kiss his girlfriend rather than sass her. Mary responded with enthusiastic affection, and it was only the impending departure time that forced Hershel to pull back from the girl he so evidently adored.
“You’re sure you’ll be okay, right?” All the flippancy was gone from his voice, in its place lay naked concern.
“I’m positive,” Mary reassured him. “Mr. Numbers arranged for some people to keep an eye on me during the break. I might look like I’m alone but I’ll always have protection.”
“Alice’s place is still safer, and I’m sure she’d love to have you.”
“I know she would, but I’m not going to spend my life hiding from whoever these people are. It’s Christmas, and I’m going to see my family. I already had this fight with Alice, and I wound up convincing her to come visit me instead. We’ll be fine, Hershel, I promise.”
“Be sure you are,” he replied. “Otherwise I’m going to miss a lot of school hunting you down.”
“If you don’t hurry you’ll be spending a lot of time on a bus to Chicago.”
“I’m relatively certain Mr. Transport won’t leave without me,” Hershel said, turning his attention back to the clothes. “I think he’s scared of my mom.”
* * *
Mr. Transport did indeed look a bit nervous as he sat in the living room and periodically glanced at his watch. Whether that was related to seeing Ms. Daniels or a general regard for punctuality would be speculation to anyone but Mary, who wasn’t listening to thoughts at the moment. Neither Vince nor Alice paid his intermittently-shaking foot any regard: both were absorbed in last-minute luggage checks as they gathered their things by the common room couch. The only one who might have caught on was Nick, and he was occupied with a different mystery as he entered the building.
“So,” he said, swaggering through the door from the entrance hall, “I went to do a last-minute mail check and look what was sitting by the door.” From behind his back Nick produced a small parcel wrapped in blue paper with cartoon snowmen patterned about. A light red ribbon topped the present along with small tag that presumably bore the name of its intended recipient.
“It seems some anonymous person wanted to wish Alice a Merry Christmas,” Nick continued, purposely answering the obvious question before anyone else could ask it.
“Unless there is another Alice Adair at this residence.” Nick walked over and set the gift down in front of her. Rather than reaching for it she merely stared in disbelief.
“Should we get it checked or something? I mean, we’ve been targeted before.”
“Mary was targeted,” Mr. Numbers corrected from the kitchen. “And I sincerely doubt even the most enthusiastic critic of Powereds has the gumption to send you something dangerous.”
“We could still get it looked at, just to be sure. I know a guy in my study group with X-ray vision,” Vince offered.
“No, Mr. Numbers is right,” Alice replied. She plucked the present from the table and quickly tore through the paper to reveal a plain brown box. A swift slice of her well-manicured nail destroyed the tape binding it together. Her hands carefully pulled open the top flaps and she peered inside slowly.
“So what is it?” Vince asked.
“Glitter.” Alice’s tone was no less dumbfounded than the uncertain look on her face. She pulled out a small plastic tube that sparkled with pink light. “It’s ten tubes of colored glitter, the kind you can put on like make-up.”
“You don’t generally wear glitter,” Nick noted.
“Only when I’m rocking a particularly sparkly top or dress and it pulls the look together,” Alice agreed.
“Maybe the person thought you should wear more?” Vince suggested.
“Great, now I have strangers giving me fashion advice.” Alice’s tone seemed curt, yet Nick noticed she carefully tucked the box into her luggage, making extra sure it was secure.
“Would someone please go check on Hershel?” Mr. Transport interrupted. “We’re due to leave very soon.”
“I’ll go see if he needs help,” Vince volunteered. Mr. Transport nodded and tried to push down his jangling nerves. Whatever was bothering him seemed to only be getting worse the closer they drew to departure.