Tuesday, June 20, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 20

City of Secrets

Chapter 20

Previously: Natasha's first week in Caribou Canyon isn't going as planned. Not only was her guidance counselor murdered, but Natasha was the one who discovered the body. Still shaken from the experience, Natasha is confused and upset that most of the other students don't seem to care. Natasha's plan to get in with the popular crowd was a success, but three different students warned her to be careful around them. Natasha doesn't know what to think of her new school, or the town. 

Chapter 20

    “I bet it’s nice to be you. Life must be so simple,” Natasha said as she scratched Surya, her aunt’s cat, behind the ears. Surya, a giant orange ball of fluff, rubbed her head against Natasha’s stomach and purred.

    “She likes you,” Claudia said as she walked into the living room, carrying a mug in each hand.

    “She’s been my little shadow since I got here. Shadow. Maybe that should be her new name.”

    Claudia gave the cat a scrutinizing look. “I’m not sure she looks like a Shadow. She’s more like a sun.”

    “Good point.” Natasha had never had a pet. When she was a kid she’d always wanted a dog, but Ellen and Steven had never agreed to it. Natasha remembered that not so long ago, she thought not being allowed a pet was the greatest injustice ever done to her. If only, she thought.

    Claudia set the mugs on the coffee table and took a seat next to Natasha. “She doesn’t like most people. In fact, she hates Liam.”

    “I noticed. Poor Liam.” Natasha thought the overly dramatic way Surya reacted to Claudia’s fiancé was funny.

    “He’s tough. He can take it.”

    When Natasha turned to look at her aunt, she still felt the same jolt to her system she’d felt the first time she’d laid eyes on Claudia. It was just too weird, seeing a woman who looked like an older version of yourself, considering that until recently, you didn’t even know that person existed. That shock was followed by an ever-ripening anger. That anger wasn’t directed at Claudia, nor was it brought on by her. It was the fact that, every time Natasha looked at her, she was reminded of the lie she’d lived for seventeen years. She felt like the world’s biggest fool that it had never occurred to her that she looked nothing like Steven or Ellen.

    Claudia let out a large, prolonged yawn. There were dark circles under her eyes, and her face was paler than usual.

    “Still tired?”

    “It seems to be my permanent state lately.”

    Natasha fidgeted with the sleeve of her sweater, trying to decide whether to ask her next question. One more glance at her aunt’s weary appearance made up her mind. “Claudia, do you think you should see a doctor?”

    “I have. He checked everything. I’m in perfect health. He says it’s probably just stress. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. This vacation is coming at just the right time.”

    “Yeah, it is.” Natasha was relieved there was nothing wrong with her aunt, but the reminder of Claudia’s upcoming vacation irritated her. She’d just connected with her aunt, and in three days she would be taking a two-week vacation. It wasn’t fair. The trip had been planned months before Natasha had come into the picture, so there was nothing she could say about it. She just hoped the time would go by quickly, but it was going to be awkward staying alone in the house with Claudia’s fiancé, a strangely quiet man who rarely smiled.

    Not wanting her aunt to notice her discomfort, Natasha turned her attention to the mug on the table. When she leaned forward to take it, Surya jumped off her lap. After sitting on the floor for a few seconds looking thoroughly affronted, the cat jumped onto the recliner and curled up. Natasha glanced into the mug. “Marshmallows? I haven’t had marshmallows in my hot chocolate since I was a kid.”

    Claudia smiled. “I thought you could use the extra comfort.”

    “Yeah. Thanks.” Right, because marshmallows are going to bring my parents back. Natasha immediately felt guilty. Claudia was trying, at least. Natasha sipped the cocoa, but it didn’t give her comfort; drinking hot chocolate in early September wasn’t something she’d ever done. It just wasn’t right, despite the fact that the weather called for it.

    “How are you doing?” Claudia asked.

    “I don’t know. Okay, I guess. It’s just—weird still.”

    Claudia patted her on the knee. “I can’t imagine. I’m sorry your first week turned out like this.”

    “Claudia, why haven’t my pa—Steven and Ellen called?” She cringed at her slip up, anger and pain warring in her heart. Despite the fact that she knew Ellen and Steven were her aunt and uncle, it was hard not to still think of them as her parents. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they haven’t, but I don’t get why. It’s been three days. I was sure they’d have freaked and dragged me back home by now.”

    “First of all, Natasha, I wouldn’t let them just take you back home if it’s not what you wanted. You’ve been left without a choice your whole life. You’re almost eighteen, it’s about time you got one.”

    “Thanks. At least someone’s on my side.” Though Natasha wasn’t completely sure of that statement. She wanted to believe everything Claudia said was true, but her story didn’t completely add up.

    “I am.” Claudia gave her another reassuring pat on the leg. “And second of all, the reason they haven’t called is because they don’t know there’s a reason to call.”

    It took a second for the meaning of that statement to register. “Wait, you mean they don’t know about Ms. Miller?”

    “I doubt it. If they did, I’m sure they would’ve ‘freaked and dragged you home’ as you put it. Or at least, they would’ve tried.”

    “But why don’t they know? A murder in a small town like this?” Natasha felt her frustration rise as the same nagging feeling that she’d had for the past few days popped up: something wasn’t right.

    “They don’t know for the same reason they don’t know about most things that happen here. No one does. We—the residents, I mean—don’t want publicity. We like our privacy. Right now, it’s Douglas Harper we have to thank for preserving it.”

    “Douglas Harper? I don’t get it,” Natasha said, Penny Harper’s face flashing into her mind.

    “Doug is one of the top executives at First Digital News Group. They’re based in Denver, and own a number of newspapers in—I think it’s ten different states. Not to mention all the Internet magazines.”

    Natasha was silent for a few seconds, letting Claudia’s words sink in. “So, you’re saying that Douglas Harper covers up stories? Is that legal?” As the pieces came together in her mind, she felt like an idiot for not making the connection sooner. The world hadn’t known about Richie’s death, not at first. The news of his accident wasn’t in any papers or any Internet news or gossip sites. Richie’s fans found out about his death only after the band had announced Toni Torrance as the new lead guitarist. That was almost a week later.

    “He doesn’t cover up stories.” There was a clear note of defensiveness in Claudia’s voice that Natasha made a point to remember later. “He just makes sure things up here don’t get too much attention. Nothing ever makes the front page, the articles don’t get pictures or catchy headlines. That sort of thing. He’s doing the town a favor.”

    Natasha took a drink of cocoa to give herself time to reply without sounding angry. She didn’t want her aunt to know how suspicious she found the whole thing. She kept her voice neutral when she asked, “How is that?”

     “Think about it. The people here are high profile. They’re wealthy and they hold important positions. Doug’s own wife is an actress—small time—but still. And here we all are, in one town. This place could easily be a circus, but it’s not, because we keep things quiet. We’re here for a reason: privacy. Peace and quiet. If we wanted publicity, we’d move to the city.”

    “Yeah, I guess that makes sense,” Natasha said, though it didn’t, not completely. It wasn’t as though people had gotten famous and moved up there for the quiet. Most of the residents were natives of Caribou Canyon, or married to natives. Most people hadn’t chosen to move there—they’d chosen to stay. The question, was why?

    “It has its benefits. For instance, you don’t have to deal with your aunt and uncle overreacting and trying to make you come home.” Claudia smiled when she said it, but Natasha couldn’t help but wonder if she hadn’t brought it up for a reason.

    “You’re not going to tell them, are you?” she asked, mainly to make her aunt think that the subject of Douglas Harper and his sketchy media coverage was forgotten.

    Claudia shook her head. “Not if you don’t want me to. I’m on your side, Natasha. I hate that they lied to you. Now, I only want to do whatever I can to make it right.”

    Claudia sounded sincere, and Natasha wanted to believe her, but something told her not to trust Claudia—not completely. Natasha bit her lip, wondering if she should ask Claudia the thing that had been bothering her from the beginning. Since Claudia seemed to be in a talkative mood, she decided to go for it. “Why didn’t you try harder? Write more letters, come to see me, something.” Though she tried to stop it, her voice rose in pitch, giving away the hurt she felt that her aunt had given up on her so easily.

    This was what didn’t add up. According to Claudia, she hadn’t known that Steven and Ellen never told Natasha about her real parents. Claudia said she’d spent the past fifteen years thinking Natasha didn’t want anything to do with her. Claudia had written Natasha letters, but she’d never seen a single one of them. Steven and Ellen had hidden them from her. Just the thought of it made the anger that was now always simmering inside her heat to a boil.

    “I’m sorry, Natasha. I should’ve tried harder. I wish I had. But I truly thought you had no interest in getting to know me. I didn’t want to pressure you, so I stopped writing when it became clear you weren’t going to respond. I figured you knew I was here if you wanted to reach out. In retrospect, I should’ve known something wasn’t right,” Claudia said, her voice full of regret. It was almost enough to make Natasha believe her. Almost. “I’m truly sorry, Natasha,” Claudia repeated. “I want to make it up to you.”

    “I know, and you are. You’re letting me live here. I really appreciate it.” Natasha meant it. She was genuinely grateful for her aunt’s hospitality, despite the things that made her spidey sense tingle.

    “Not as much as I appreciate having you here. I’m so glad to finally get to know you. I just wish—” Claudia paused, her forehead wrinkling. After a few seconds, she shook her head swiftly, as though clearing it. “I just wish things had been different.”

    Natasha was about to ask if something was wrong, but her aunt continued before she got the chance. “It’s too bad I’ll be missing you for these next two weeks. If I’d known you were coming, I wouldn’t have planned the trip.”

    “It’s okay,” Natasha lied, because what else could she say?

    “You’re sure you’ll be okay here with Liam?”

    It’s like she’s reading my mind. But she couldn’t tell her aunt the truth. Natasha had no real reason to dislike Liam. It was just that she didn’t know him. “I told you, it’s fine. Go and enjoy yourself.”

    “I keep telling her the same thing. She worries too much,” Liam said, walking into the room.

    Natasha jumped, causing lukewarm liquid to slosh out of the mug onto her hand. Where the heck did he come from? She hadn’t heard a sound; she hadn’t even known Liam was home.

    “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Here.” Liam’s voice was soft, like it always was, and he moved with graceful steps into the room. He reached for a box of tissues on the end table, which just happened to be next to the chair Surya was curled up on. The cat lifted her head and fixed her gaze on Liam. When he leaned forward to hand Natasha the box, a low growl emanated from her throat. Natasha hadn’t even known cats were capable of growling.

    She set the mug on the table and took the tissues from Liam. “It’s okay. Surya’s got my back,” she said, trying to make light of the situation.

    “That she does.” Liam said, his voice even and calm, and without amusement. Natasha would’ve thought he was angry, if his voice weren’t so soft.

    Natasha wiped up the spilled cocoa, wondering what her aunt saw in Liam. The two of them seemed to have nothing in common. Claudia was perky and friendly, whereas Liam was quiet, mysterious, and didn’t know how to make—or take—a joke. Then there was the age difference. Claudia was thirty-nine, and though Natasha didn’t know Liam’s age, he didn’t look older than twenty-five.

    “Hey, you. How long have you been home?” Claudia asked, affection in her voice.

    Liam moved to stand behind Claudia. He put his hands on her shoulders, gently massaging them, and Surya’s growling grew louder. “Just a few minutes.”

    “Claudia, do my pa—aunt and uncle know you’re going on a cruise?” Natasha asked.
    “Not unless you told them.”

    Natasha shook her head. “No. Um, do you think we could keep it that way?” Natasha knew there was no way Steven and Ellen would be okay with her being alone for two weeks in a house with a man they didn’t know.

    “Natasha, I’ll only tell them what you want me to. I hope you know that. I’m on your side,” she said, smiling.

    “Thanks.” Natasha smiled back at Claudia, trying to pretend she didn’t notice the way Liam’s eyes were fixed on her. He did that a lot. His eyes were a watery dark brown, like black coffee. They were set deep into his smooth, pale face. His hair was thick and wavy, and almost as dark as his eyes. The contrast between his face and his hair added to the mysterious vibe he carried with him. Natasha thought he might be attractive if he ever smiled, but there was always a look of intensity on his face, as though he were solving some intricate math problem, or possibly plotting a murder. It was unnerving, and it sometimes gave Natasha the impression he could pull every thought from her head just by looking into her eyes.

    Natasha wasn’t the only one who hated the way Liam looked at her. Surya was growling so loud that she sounded like a vacuum cleaner. She was now standing on the chair, back arched, fur standing up, and head stretched toward Liam, ready to attack.

    “You cut that out,” Claudia said. Surya hissed in Liam’s direction before jumping off the chair and bounding out of the room. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why she does that with you.”

    “It’s okay. At least you’re not one of those women who judges men based on how her cat feels about them.” Liam’s voice was as soft and even as always, but it was a statement that was meant to be accompanied by a smile, a laugh, something. The fact that it wasn’t made it seem hostile, at least to Natasha.

    Claudia tilted her head back, looking at Liam with a serious expression. “I don’t know, honey, she may have a point.”

    Eek, mushy teasing: my cue to leave. Natasha stood, grabbing her mug and the dirty tissues. She nodded at Claudia’s mostly empty mug. “Are you done?”

    “Yeah, thanks.”

    Natasha took the mugs into the kitchen. She was rinsing them out when the landline telephone rang. She thought nothing of it until Liam came into the kitchen. “Natasha, it’s for you.”

    “Me?” she asked in surprise. Liam nodded.

    Natasha’s stomach fluttered nervously. There was only one person she’d given that number to, and she wasn’t prepared to talk to him. She whispered, “Tell him I’m not here.”

    Liam raised his eyebrows, but the effect was more accusatory than questioning, and it only increased the sick feeling in Natasha’s stomach. At least Liam had the sense to cover the receiver with his hand when he said, “I already told him you were home.”

    She sighed in annoyance, but moved to take the phone from Liam.

    “Why is he calling the landline?” he asked, staring at her with that intense gaze again, the one that told her he knew exactly what she was thinking.

    Because I’ve been ignoring his texts. “Uh, my cell died. It’s upstairs charging.” It was a lie. She’d just left her phone upstairs so she wouldn’t have to hear Nick’s calls and texts, and therefore wouldn’t have to think about it. She’d forgotten that she’d given him Claudia’s home number.

    Liam nodded, though it was clear from his expression that he didn’t believe her. Natasha took the phone and carried it upstairs to her bedroom, her legs heavy and her heart sick.

Next Chapter Coming Soon!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 19

City of Secrets

Chapter 19

Previously: On the first day of school, popular boy Jason helped out school outcast Frankie by bringing Frankie and her brother dinner. Though mistrustful of Jason's motives, Frankie invited him to stay for dinner, and they talked like friends.
At school, Natasha caught Penny breaking into the guidance counselor's office, and bailed her out just before the principal caught her. While Natasha and Penny were in the bathroom talking about it, Frankie overheard, but promised not to bust them. Frankie and Penny confirmed their plans for Penny to tutor Frankie. Frankie warned Natasha about Chase and the rest of her new friends. 



     Frankie stood at the front of her fifth period class, deciding whether she wanted to sit down or not. The room was empty; she was ten minutes early. Sitting down for class that early was wrong on principle, but she didn’t have anywhere else to go. She wished she hadn’t quit smoking—that would at least give her something to do.

    Ugh, I really am turning into a nerd. Nervous excitement coursed through her body when she remembered what she’d said to Penny. She didn’t know what had come over her; she hadn’t meant to be so bold. Flirtatious. You were flirtatious. Standing with Penny in the bathroom had felt both familiar and new. Frankie was comforted by the familiar, and struck by the idea that she wanted to explore the new feeling, whatever it was.

    She reminds you of Richie. That’s all it is, Frankie told herself. It was true, but Frankie didn’t think it was the whole reason behind her feelings. There was so much more to Penny than the quiet, shy girl who liked school and followed the rules. Richie had said as much. He’d said that he thought Frankie and Penny would get along.

    Frankie braced herself against the teacher’s desk as a flood of aching loneliness threatened to overwhelm her. Why does everything have to be so confusing? She didn’t know if getting to know Penny was a good idea. How would Richie feel if he knew Frankie was taking the time to get to know Penny after she’d refused his pleas for her to do just that?

    If only she could talk to him. She tried to picture his face, but instead it was Penny’s face she saw: her pale skin, the slight flush to her cheeks, the depth of emotion in her eyes. . . . Frankie’s stomach somersaulted. Stop it, Frankie! You do not like her like that! That’s way too messed up. It was, and it was one of the reasons Frankie had left the bathroom when she had.

    The new girl was the other reason. Frankie felt guilty for having been so rude to her, but Natasha was already friends with Laurel and her gang of minions, which meant she’d be joining the “let’s torment Frankie” mission any day now. Frankie had simply been firing a preemptive strike. But still, she couldn’t help but think that the new girl didn’t seem like the others, and that brought on the guilt. Who cares? You warned her about Chase, that’s all you needed to do. 

    “Can’t decide where to sit?” a voice asked. Frankie turned. Jason stood in the doorway, a small smile on his face.

    That smile was infectious, because Frankie found herself returning it on reflex. “Oh, it’s no contest. I always sit in the back, it’s just that I’m never this early.”

    “Yeah, I’m not either actually.” Jason glanced at the sea of empty desks, his smile fading.

    Frankie thought he looked upset and almost asked him what was wrong, but stopped herself. It was none of her business. Instead she said, “It seems weird to sit down so early. Last year I would’ve gone out to smoke, but I quit.”

    “Oh yeah?” There was a note of interest in his voice.

    “Yeah, over the summer.”

    “That’s great. My dad’s been trying to quit forever.”

    He should get pregnant. It’s a good motivator. When Frankie had decided to quit, she’d told herself she would start again after the baby was born. The reassurance hadn’t worked, because thinking about the baby being born was so terrifying that she had a hard time even imagining it. As far as she was concerned, the baby was better off staying right where it was. “Yeah, it kind of sucks.”

    “But you did it. You should be proud.” He gave her another smile before moving to take a seat. That smile sent a surge of warmth to her insides, but it wasn’t his smile she was thinking about as she watched him walk to a desk in the middle of the room. When he sat down and glanced up at her, she realized how stupid she must look standing at the front of the room staring at him.

    She tore her gaze away and headed to the back of the room, trying to pretend she hadn’t just been checking him out. What was she doing? She wasn’t into jocks, not that Jason had the traditional “jock” look. He was the smallest guy on the football team, which meant he still towered over her, but he was leaner than the other guys. Wait—was she still checking him out? She decided to blame it on out of control hormones and convinced herself that was actually a thing. So why was she disappointed that the conversation was over?

    It didn’t have to be over, did it? “Hey, thanks for not saying anything. About the other night,” she said, unable to think of a better exchange.

    He turned to face her, his expression unreadable. “I said I wouldn’t.”

    I know. I didn’t believe you. “Yeah, I know—just—thanks again.”

    He nodded. “No problem.”

    Frankie thought that was it—the end of whatever it was between them that was beginning to feel like friendship. There was nothing left to say. Except Jason hadn’t turned back around. He was looking in her direction, his eyes focused behind her, as though he were reading the posters on the wall. Frankie racked her brain for something else to say, but she couldn’t think of a thing.

    “So, how’s it going?” he asked after a few seconds of silence.

    What? How’s it going? What does that mean? Frankie blinked, unsure how to handle what sounded like casual conversation. After staring at him for a few more seconds, she realized he was waiting for an answer. “Oh, not bad, I guess. I’m trying this new thing where I go to all my classes. It’s not as horrible as I thought it would be.”

    He laughed. “Yeah, it’s not all bad.”

    “How’s it going with you?” she asked.

    He shrugged. “Not bad.” His facial expression didn’t agree with his words.

    “Is everything okay?”

    He didn’t answer right away, but instead looked at her thoughtfully. He was probably deciding whether or not to answer. Frankie was wondering if she’d been out of line to ask when he said, “I don’t know. It’s just—”

     “No way, man. You’re yanking my chain,” Dave Colton said as he walked into the room. So much for that, Frankie thought. She automatically fixed Dave with a scowl, but it disappeared when Chase entered behind him. She looked down at her desk, fear washing over her. What is he doing here? He wasn’t in this class the first day. She’d thought that she’d gotten lucky enough not to have any classes with Chase. Apparently, she’d been wrong. She resisted the almost overpowering urge to get up and walk out, but she wouldn’t give Chase that pleasure.

    “Fine. Believe what you want,” Chase said, laughing. It was a friendly, joking sound, but Frankie didn’t hear it that way. To her it was loud and harsh; it filled the entire classroom until she didn’t see the classroom anymore. Instead, she saw the gray morning sky and the tops of the trees reaching upward. She felt the rock that had become a pillow for her throbbing head and the branches that were digging into her back.

    Don’t. Come on, Frankie. You can handle this. She wasn’t sure she could. She felt dizzy as she leaned over and reached into her backpack.

    “Dude, you weren’t talking to it, were you?” Dave asked.

    Frankie had been sitting up, notebook in hand, when he’d said it, which meant that she saw his head tilt in her direction. Her eyes narrowed. She opened her mouth, comeback on her tongue.

    Chase looked directly at her, raising his eyebrows. He smirked before taking a seat in front of Jason.

    The words died on her lips. She lowered her head, opened the notebook with shaking hands, and stared at the blank page, humiliation and hatred washing over her.

     “Do you have to be a dick one hundred percent of the time?” Jason asked. Dave’s only response was a laugh.

    “I don’t know, man. He’s right. You better watch out with that slut,” Chase said. “Can’t go anywhere good. Bitch is a succubus.”

    “You would know,” Dave said.

    Frankie bit the inside of her lip. She wanted to scream. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t stand sitting back and taking their insults. Sitting in a classroom with Chase for an entire year was going to be pure hell.

    She felt nauseous. Her vision blurred.

    “—learn from my mistakes,” Chase was saying. His words were a taunt. He was pushing her. You don’t get to threaten me. You don’t get to talk back. Not anymore. Hell, you don’t even get to exist unless I keep letting you.The words echoed in her mind, and Frankie bit harder, trying to forget them. She tasted blood, but the memory of Chase’s threats wouldn’t go away.

    “If I were you, Chase, I’d be thinking about this afternoon,” Jason said.

    “What’s that supposed to mean?”

    “Dave’s been practicing. That starting QB position may not be yours after all.”

    “Oh, no fucking way. Now you’re dreaming,” Chase said.

    “Hey, doesn’t matter to me who’s throwing the passes,” Jason said. “I’ll be catching them either way.”

    Chase and Dave launched into a discussion about who had the best spiral, whatever that was. All Frankie cared about was that it had nothing to do with her. Her jaw slowly unclenched and she began to relax, at least as much as she could with Chase around.

    The classroom began to fill with chattering students, and Chase and Dave continued their argument until Mrs. Orona entered the room and told the class to quiet down. Chase didn’t look in Frankie’s direction again, and she allowed herself to hope that maybe he would get bored with taunting her.

    Frankie’s eyes fell on the back of Jason’s head. Did you do it again? she silently asked. She was almost certain that he’d changed the subject intentionally, which made twice in one week that he’d stood up for her. She didn’t know what to make of it.

    When her gaze turned to Chase, she realized it didn’t matter that Jason had helped her. It didn’t matter that he was being nice to her, it didn’t matter that she liked his smile and enjoyed laughing with him. Because of Chase, they could never be friends.


Thursday, June 1, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 18

City of Secrets

Chapter 18

Previously: Natasha saw Penny sneaking into Ms. Miller's office. When Penny was about to be busted by the principal, Natasha created a distraction, giving Penny time to get out without being seen. Natasha later cornered Penny, demanding answers. 

Chapter 18

    What am I doing? Do I even have a plan? Natasha wondered, following Penny into the bathroom. The door swung shut behind them, the sound echoing in the small space. Penny turned and crossed her arms, giving Natasha an expectant look.

    Crap. I really don’t have a plan. She wished she hadn’t been so confrontational. The stress of the past few days had gotten the better of her, but now she was stuck. She was about to go back to her original plan of asking Penny for help with her classes, when Penny said, “You’re not going to turn me in, are you?”

    “No. I already covered for you. If I turn you in now, it’ll be my ass too.”

    “Why’d you help me?”

    “I don’t know. It was a snap decision.” She tried to make her voice casual, like it was no big deal, but Penny’s eyes were narrowed suspiciously. The next thing Natasha knew, she was telling the truth. “I think it was because of Richie.”

    Several emotions fell across Penny’s pale face: first surprise, then sadness, and finally curiosity. “You didn’t know him, did you?”

    Natasha shook her head. “No. I mean, I knew of him. From Hell’s Descendants. Well, to be honest, it wasn’t my thing, but a bunch of people from my old school were really into them. My friend Meg thought Richie was some sort of dark god or something. She even cried when—oh god.” Natasha’s hand flew to her mouth when she realized what she was saying and who she was saying it to. “I’m sorry. That was—”

    “It’s okay,” Penny said, a sad smile on her face. “I think I prefer nervous babbling to people pretending everything’s normal. At least it’s honest.”

    “I’m sorry I insulted his music,” Natasha said, still feeling like a bitch.

    “You’re allowed to have an opinion. I’m actually not that into it either. But that doesn’t explain why you bailed me out back there.”

    Oh yeah, that. I guess it’s the truth then. “I know this might sound stupid, but I felt like I was supposed to help you. Because of Richie. And my parents. They died on Lumber Baron Road too.”

    Recognition came over Penny’s face. “Oh. I—I’m sorry.”

    “I’m sorry about Richie. I can’t imagine. It’s—it’s awful.”

    “Yeah,” Penny said, her voice barely audible.

    Natasha looked away; the pain in Penny’s eyes ran so deep that it seemed intrusive to stare. Though Natasha had lost her parents, she hadn’t even known them. What would it be like to lose someone you were used to seeing everyday?

    After a long silence, Natasha said, “A lot of cars go off that road.” She watched Penny’s face for a reaction, but she showed none.

    “Yeah. Have you been up it?”

    “No, but I’ve seen pictures.”

    “Pictures don’t do it justice. It’s a death trap. It’s really windy—every turn is sharp. I used to get motion-sick whenever we’d go up there. People drive way too fast on it, especially in the winter. It gets really icy. I think they should close it, but they don’t.”

    “My dad wasn’t speeding.” Natasha’s voice was harsh, though she actually didn’t know whether or not he’d been speeding. She’d just felt the need to defend him because Penny had sounded dismissive, and this wasn’t a subject Natasha was ready to dismiss.

    “I never said he was, but a lot of the accidents on that road were caused by speeding. Richie’s wasn’t. Deputy Cameron wasn’t speeding. It was brake failure.” Penny was looking past Natasha as she spoke, her eyes faraway, her words hollow.

    She doesn’t believe that, Natasha realized. She couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was in Penny’s voice or facial expression that gave it away, but Natasha was almost sure of it. Penny didn’t believe the accident was caused by brake failure; something else was going on.Don’t push her. If you come right out and ask, she’ll deny it. 

    Natasha turned around and peered closely in the mirror, hoping she looked casual. Pulling her makeup kit from her purse, she applied foundation underneath her eyes. “So, why’d you sneak into Ms. Miller’s office?” she asked, hoping that reminding Penny that she’d helped her, would gain her trust sooner.

    “I just needed something from in there.”

    “I figured it was something like that. So what was it?” Natasha put powder on her face, pretending to be much more focused on that than Penny. She added, “Come on. You might as well tell me. It’s not like I’m going to rat you out now.”

    Penny ran her hands over her face, looking tired. “I don’t even know what made me do it. I never do stuff like that, I swear. I wasn’t thinking.”

    “Okay, this is starting to sound juicy. Come on, you have to tell me.” Natasha turned around and gave Penny the same conspiratorial smile she always gave Meg whenever Meg started dating a new boy, which was often.

    “It’s not a big deal. Just some paperwork she started the other day. For tutoring.”

    “That’s it?” Natasha asked, disappointed.

    “That’s it. It seems dumb now.”

    “No, it has to be more than that,” Natasha said, frustrated. She didn’t know where the feeling came from, but it threatened to take over.

    Penny gave Natasha a confused look. “It wasn’t.”

    Natasha sighed as her frustration and disappointment fully sank in. Of course it’s school-related, what did you think it was? Ms. Miller’s face flashed into Natasha’s mind, and she realized that she’d wanted answers. Not about Caribou Canyon, but about Ms. Miller and why she’d died. But there were no more answers to be had. It had been a random act of violence—nothing more. There was no logic behind it. Natasha squeezed her eyes shut, trying to will the image of Ms. Miller out of her head.

    “Are you okay?”

    “No. What the hell is wrong with everyone?” Natasha blurted, unable to stop herself.

    “What do you mean?”

    “Why is everyone acting so normal two days after Ms. Miller was murdered? It’s like no one even cares.”

    Penny gave her a sympathetic look. “It’s not that they don’t care. That’s just the way people act when they don’t know what else to do. They pretend nothing’s wrong. It was like that after Richie died too.”

     Natasha shook her head—the answer wasn’t good enough. “Even Chase is acting like nothing happened, and he was there. He should be as upset as I am.”

    Penny’s eyes narrowed at the mention of Chase’s name, and Natasha realized that she’d hit a nerve. “What?”

    Penny shook her head, her braid falling over her shoulder as she did. “Nothing, it’s just—”

    The whooshing sound of a toilet flushing filled the room. Natasha jumped. Please let it be coming from the boys’ room, she thought, but the sound was too loud, too close. Natasha slowly peered around the corner, eyeing the stalls. The door to the second-to-last stall was closed, and a pair of black boots could be seen. Natasha could’ve kicked herself. She couldn’t believe she’d forgotten to make sure the bathroom was empty, but it had been so quiet, she’d just assumed it was. Whoever was in there hadn’t made a sound—they’d intentionally eavesdropped.

    Natasha turned back to Penny. Her eyes were wide, and she’d pressed herself up against the wall, as if hoping to become a part of it.

    “Act normal,” Natasha mouthed. She turned to the mirror and started fixing the part in her hair. Penny took the cue; she moved to the sink and began washing her hands.

    Don’t look. Just stay cool, Natasha told herself when the toilet finished flushing and the sound of footsteps echoed through the bathroom. She kept her eyes focused on her own reflection, trying to ignore the girl who stepped into view. All Natasha could see from the corner of her eye was that the girl had chosen black as the color of the day. Black, and purple.

    Oh no, Natasha thought. Unable to resist, she flicked her eyes to the girl in the mirror, recognizing the purple-haired girl. Natasha had learned that morning that the girl’s name was Frankie, though most people referred to her as The Freak, as though it were a title that belonged to her and her alone.

    Frankie either had a resting bitch face, or she was perpetually angry. Given that Frankie tossed almost as many insults at the other students as they threw at her, Natasha figured it was the latter. It was unclear who’d started the war—Frankie or the rest of the school—but regardless, Natasha didn’t think the girl knew how to be friendly. Right now, she was glaring at Natasha’s reflection in the mirror as though Natasha had done her some great wrong. Natasha was wondering if the girl had ever smiled in her life, when she suddenly burst out laughing.

     “What?” Natasha asked, trying to hide the nervousness from her voice.

    Frankie was laughing so hard that it took her a moment to answer. “Oh my god. This is too good.” She clutched at her stomach. “You two should see yourselves. Seriously, look in the mirror. You guys couldn’t be more obvious if you were carrying a sign. Even if I didn’t hear everything you just said, I’d still know you were up to something.”

    Crap. Keep cool. Natasha shrugged. “So what if you did?” she asked when Frankie had finally finished laughing.

    “So, nothing,” Frankie said, echoing Natasha’s challenging tone. She stepped up to the sink and washed her hands. “Next time, don’t forget to check to make sure the bathroom’s actually empty.”

    “When I care, I will,” Natasha said.

    Frankie rolled her eyes at Natasha before shutting off the water and moving to grab a paper towel.

    “Natasha, you’re not helping. I just—I didn’t think anyone used this bathroom at lunchtime,” Penny said, looking at Frankie nervously.

    “They don’t. That’s why I use it.”

    “You’re not going to say anything, are you?” Penny asked.

    “Who would I tell?” Frankie snapped. She balled up the paper towel and tossed it in the trash. When she looked up at Penny, her angry expression fell away so fast that Natasha had a hard time believing it had been there at all. “No, it’s cool. No worries.”

    “Thanks,” Penny said, though she was still looking at Frankie uncertainly.

    “Well, you did it for us right?”

    “Well yeah, but—I don’t know.”

    Frankie grinned. “Actually, I think it’s kind of awesome.”

    Hey, she can be nice, Natasha thought, her eyes flicking back and forth between Penny and Frankie.


     “Really.” Frankie’s smile widened and her eyes sparkled as they looked Penny up and down. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”

    “Oh, well, I do. When it’s important.” Penny smiled nervously, her cheeks going from pink to red. “Uh, that was a compliment, right?”

    Natasha was beginning to wonder if she’d turned invisible. Penny and Frankie were staring at each other as though they were the only two people in the room.

    “Yeah, it was. I don’t give them very often, so you should treasure it.” Frankie’s voice had grown softer, and her eyes had an intense look in them. Frankie suddenly looked away, tugging at her black leather studded bracelet on her arm. “So, this means we’re on then?”

    Oh my god, is she flirting? Natasha wondered. Frankie had taken a half-step closer to Penny, and there was a nervousness to her smile.

    “Yeah, we can give the papers to Principal Cazin after school tomorrow, since you probably have to make up yesterday’s detention today, right?”

    “Ugh, yeah. With Rosen. Fun.” Frankie scrunched up her nose.

    “At least you’ll get it over with?” Penny offered.

    “Yeah. So, tomorrow then. Sounds like a plan. You’ll make me into a regular school girl,” Frankie said, winking at Penny.

    Oh crap, she is flirting. Not that Natasha cared that Frankie liked girls, she’d just never seen a girl flirt with another girl before. She felt awkward watching them and wondered if she should just leave, when Frankie walked back to the sinks. She pulled a tube of lipstick from her pocket and began turning her pink lips black. When she was finished, she flicked her gaze to Natasha’s reflection and said, “I’m guessing that the reason Chase is acting like he doesn’t care about Ms. Miller, is because he doesn’t. He’s a piece of shit.”

    “Oh,” Natasha said, too surprised by Frankie’s bluntness to know what else to say.

    “Also, your new friends suck, in case you haven’t noticed,” Frankie said, glaring at Natasha
as though it were Natasha who’d been insulting her all morning, and not Natasha’s friends.

    Natasha said the first thing that came to mind. “Yeah, but you seem like loads of fun to be around.”

    Frankie’s smile didn’t touch her dark eyes. “Ooh, you’re good. Keep that up. For a second there I was afraid you were going to be nice to me. That’s not allowed around here. Especially considering who your new friends are.” Frankie turned and headed to the door. She nodded at Penny and said, “See you later.” She was out the door before anyone could reply.

    “What was that about?” Natasha asked when the door swung shut behind Frankie. She wasn’t sure whether she should be angry, offended, or just plain confused.

    Penny shrugged. “That’s Frankie. Most people aren’t very nice to her, so I guess she figures she’s returning the favor.”

    “No kidding.”

    “I really don’t know her that well. I only started talking to her this year. Because of the tutoring.” The warning bell rang, announcing that lunch would be over in five minutes. Penny said, “Look, I have to get to my locker, but Frankie’s right. About Chase, I mean. I figured you should know. Thanks again for bailing me out.”

    Natasha watched in exasperation as Penny turned and walked out the door. She ran her hands over her face. Did I just get shunned for hanging out with the popular crowd? That made three warnings about her new friends, and she didn’t know what to make of the whole thing. You didn’t come here to make friends. You came here for answers. 

    Right. She had. The stress of finding Ms. Miller had made her forget that, but she wasn’t going to forget again. By the time she left the bathroom, she had an excuse for why she hadn’t returned to the cafeteria, and was ready to face her new friends—Chase included—with a smile on her face. 


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Monday, May 29, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 17

City of Secrets

Chapter 17

Previously: Natasha saw Penny sneaking into Ms. Miller's classroom. Curious, Natasha stuck around to find out why. When the principal was about to go into the office and catch Penny in the act, Natasha distracted him so Penny could leave undetected. 

Chapter 17

    “I feel the need to remind some of you that this is an AP course, meaning it is college level. I expect your work and your attitudes to reflect that, which means you all should’ve completed the summer reading assignment required for your first . . .” Mr. Rosen’s voice faded into the background and instead, Penny heard her dad’s voice: You’ll both be killed.

    The strange, cryptic conversation she’d overheard (dreamt?) between her aunt and her dad had been replaying in her head all morning. The only time she’d been able to forget about it was when she’d walked passed Ms. Miller’s office. That was when the horrifying dream-image of Ms. Miller had come back to her.

    She couldn’t believe any of this was real. Gerty is dead. Gerty, Sharon had said. Penny shook her head to clear it. She needed to pay attention. This was her senior year; there was no time for messing around.

    “We’ll spend the next couple of class periods going over the various approaches . . .”

    Penny had woken up that morning mostly convinced that the conversation she’d overheard had been a part of her earlier dream—that she’d never woken up in the first place. There was no other explanation for it. Her inspection of the kitchen had helped further prove the point. The coffee pot was dry and there was no lingering smell of coffee. Remembering the sound of glass shattering against the wall, Penny had searched the garbage, but found no broken glass. She’d considered counting the mugs—assuming it was a mug that had broken—but realized she didn’t know how many they were supposed to have. Richie had had a habit of keeping dirty dishes in his room, and they hadn’t cleaned it out yet. No one had gone into Richie’s room since the day he’d died. Just the thought of going in there and seeing all of Richie’s things and no Richie made the gaping hole inside her widen.

    “. . . to collaborate with those who’ve chosen the same reading assignment, but that does not mean you are writing this essay together. I expect to see your own individual voices shine through.”

    Penny blinked at Mr. Rosen, who stood only feet from her desk. She always sat in the front row; it helped her pay attention. Usually, at least, but she had no idea what the class had been about, and it was almost over. She’d had the same problem in all of her classes that morning. When the bell rang, she sighed in relief. At least it was lunchtime. She wasn’t hungry, but maybe the break from classes would give her the chance to clear her head.

    She wandered through the empty halls, the conversation (dream?) replaying in her head once again. She’d considered asking her father if Sharon had been there, but had chickened out at the last second. If it had been a dream, then her dad would think she was crazy for asking if Sharon had randomly shown up in the middle of the night. But if Sharon had been there, then her dad would freak out if he knew Penny had heard them.

    Penny stopped walking, feeling a familiar ache in her heart. She hadn’t realized where she was going until she found herself standing in front of Ms. Miller’s door. Just two days ago she’d sat in that office with Ms. Miller, and now she was gone. Dead. It was a hard concept to grasp.

    It was hard to grasp that Richie wasn’t on tour with the rest of the band—he was never coming home again.

    Penny laughed—a sharp, bitter sound. She should be getting good at death. She should be starting to understand the concept of gone forever and never coming back. One second someone was there, and the next they weren’t. It was as simple as that.

    “Thanks for trying,” Penny whispered before turning and walking away. Ms. Miller had tried to help her by setting up private tutoring with Frankie, but that wasn’t going to happen now. If only they’d already signed the paperwork. Penny had thought about trying to get the new counselor to set it up, but she had no idea how long it would be until they filled the position, or if whoever it was would be open to it. How far behind would Frankie be by then?

    “The daycare called. Renee’s sick. Yes, I’m—she threw up,” a frazzled voice from around the corner said. Penny recognized it as Mrs. Zimmerman, the math teacher. “No, Mark. We have to pick her up. You know that.”

    Penny didn’t want to interrupt a private conversation, so she leaned against the wall and pulled out her phone, pretending to check her email. She could’ve checked it for real, but she didn’t want to go through the familiar disappointment of finding it empty.

    “I have classes.” A pause. “This is bullshit, Mark. You’re never there—Fine. She can sit in the nurse's office. It’s lunch. I can probably make it back by fifth.” There was a sigh, followed by the clicking of heels on linoleum as Mrs. Zimmerman hurried down the hall.

    The idea hit Penny so fast that it felt as though it wasn’t her idea at all. It certainly wasn’t like her to do what she was about to do, but still, she was doing it anyway. Wait, was she really? Her legs—which were moving purposefully in the direction of the administrative office— seemed to think so.

    But when reached the door, the idea—and its consequences—caught up to her. You can’t do this! What if you get caught? She remembered when she’d decided to use Sharon’s last name and address on her summer internship application. She’d nearly chickened out at the last second. Though it had been her idea, it was Josh who’d convinced her to go through with it. Come on, Penny. This is your future. You want to earn it, so earn it. Don’t play by their rules, he’d said.

    Don’t play by their rules, she thought. Caribou Canyon’s rules, her parents’ rules, the school's rules . . . Those rules had never felt quite right.

    This is your future. You want to earn it, so earn it. She took a deep breath and stepped into the office. Act normal. You’re not doing anything you’re not supposed to be doing. Penny smiled and stepped up to the receptionist’s desk. “Hi, Mrs. Locke. How are you today?”

    The woman—a grandmotherly type with long sliver-gray hair—looked up from the book she was holding. The cover was red and gold and featured a muscular, shirtless man holding a woman whose long hair was perpetually windblown. Penny had long ago learned that books like these were practically a part of Mrs. Locke’s wardrobe. Penny had once overhead Principal Cazin trying to convince the woman to get an e-reader so the students didn’t have to see the covers of her novels, but she’d told him he could shove his fancy new technology where the sun didn’t shine.

    “Penelope, my dear, aren’t you sweet? I’m fine.” She smiled, showing perfectly white dentures—Penny had caught her cleaning them after lunch one day.

    Penny cringed at her full name. Only Mrs. Locke and her parents—when they were angry—used it.

    “How are you holding up?” Mrs. Locke asked.

    “I’m fine, thank you. But, um, actually, I’m kind of in a bind.”

    “Oh?” Mrs. Locke raised her thin, gray eyebrows, as though this weren’t possible.

    Penny gave an embarrassed smile, which wasn’t hard to fake. Inside, she couldn’t believe what she was doing. “Well, you see, I promised Mrs. Zimmerman that I’d help her grade the freshman placement quizzes during lunch today, but she had to run out to pick up Renee. I guess she got sick at daycare.”

    “Oh dear, that poor thing,” Mrs. Locke said. She narrowed her eyes. “I’m guessing Mark didn’t even offer to pick her up himself.”

    It didn’t sound like it, Penny thought. She shrugged. “Um, I don’t know. But she left me in her classroom with the quizzes, except I forgot my lunch in my locker. When I went to get it, I shut the door behind me, and—”

    “You locked yourself out?” Mrs. Locke guessed.

    “How’d you know?” Penny asked, genuinely surprised and wondering if she was busted, though she wasn’t sure how she’d slipped.

    Mrs. Locke smiled. “It’s happened to me a few times. I swear, some of the doors in this building lock themselves. Or maybe the ghosts do it,” she whispered with a wink.

    Penny tried to muster a smile, but she couldn’t do it after the dream she’d had. Just a few too many ghosts had visited her in her sleep for those kinds of jokes to be funny. “Yeah, maybe.”

    “Don’t worry about it.” Mrs. Locke set her book aside, opened a drawer, and rummaged inside. She handed Penny a small ring with three keys on it. “Here. It’s this one.” She pointed to the largest of the three keys. “Mrs. Zimmerman doesn’t even have to know.”

    Penny’s stomach churned with guilt. “Thanks, Mrs. Locke. I’ll bring it right back.”

    Penny shoved the key ring in her pocket and forced herself to walk at normal speed out of the office and down the hall. Though she doubted Mrs. Locke was watching, she turned in the direction of Mrs. Zimmerman’s classroom, taking the long way to Ms. Miller’s room.

    She argued with herself the entire way there. This is selfish and thoughtless. You’re taking advantage of Mrs. Locke’s trust in you! And it’s creepy! It was all of those things, but she had to do it. Ms. Miller had given Penny hope, and Frankie too. Should they really have to lose their chance just because—she didn’t finish the thought. She was horrible. Her mouth was dry and her legs felt heavy.

    Come on, Penny. You’ll never get out of this place if you don’t go after what you want. Besides, it’s what Ms. Miller wanted too. It was that thought that carried her to Ms. Miller’s door. She paused in front of it, still at war with herself. Just do it, already! She pulled the key out of her pocket, but hesitated as she held it over the lock. She’d assumed that most of the doors in the building had the same lock, but what if she’d been wrong? What if this was all for nothing? Not going to know until you try. She glanced to her left—the coast was clear. A soft shuffling sound came from the other end of the hall. Penny turned around—a variety of excuses swirling in her head—but no one was there. You’re just being paranoid. 

    The key Mrs. Locke had pointed out wasn’t the right one. Heart pounding, Penny tried one of the smaller keys. To her relief, the knob turned. With one last glance at the empty hallway, Penny entered Ms. Miller’s office, shutting the door behind her.

    She’d intended to get in and out quickly, but the moment she was inside, she froze. A heavy weight descended on her chest. The air was thick, though it had to be her imagination—the door had only been closed for a couple days. The office looked exactly as it had two days ago, except the kind, understanding-yet-firm woman was no longer sitting in the worn leather chair behind the desk. She would never sit there again. The realization hit Penny so hard that her knees shook and she almost fell over. The lump was back in her throat and that strange sensation was in her eyes again—the one that said she needed to cry but couldn’t.

    She didn’t. She had no tears.

    Penny could almost see Ms. Miller as she’d been the other day. Their conversation replayed in her head. Ms. Miller had confided in Penny about Rose, and for the first time since Richie’s death, Penny had felt like someone understood. Now that person was gone. Penny bit back a bitter laugh. Of course she was gone. Penny was losing everyone she cared about.

    Come on, Penny. You have to hurry. Taking a deep breath, she walked around Ms. Miller’s desk. Ms. Miller had pointed to the forms that Penny and Frankie would need to sign if they agreed to the tutoring. Penny hoped it wouldn’t be too hard to find them. The hard part was going to be getting Ms. Miller’s signature. Penny was going to have to find something with her signature already on it, study it, and copy it. Penny had never forged a signature before, and she wasn’t looking forward to it. Lying was one thing. Breaking and entering was another thing, and new territory for her, but at least she’d found a way to do it without actually breaking in. But forgery? You’ve come this far. No turning back now.

    There was a stack of papers next to the computer. Penny breathed a sigh of relief when she realized that the application for independent tutoring was right on top. Ms. Miller had already filled everything out. Underneath the form was a copy of Frankie’s current schedule, along with a list of the classes she’d failed last year. Ms. Miller must have had a lot of faith in Penny’s ability to convince Frankie. Penny flipped through the form. When she got to the last page, she gasped in surprise, nearly dropping it.

    Ms. Miller had already signed it. Penny stared at it, half-expecting the signature to disappear. Why would Ms. Miller have signed the form, not knowing whether Frankie would agree? Was she just being thorough? It didn’t make sense. Don’t question it. This means you don’t have to commit forgery. 

    Penny slipped the forms into her backpack. She was zipping it up when she remembered Ms. Miller’s last words to her, “Penny, if this isn’t enough to get you a scholarship, don’t be too stubborn, okay? Let your parents help you.”

    A shudder went through her, and suddenly she was cold, despite the stuffiness of the room. She’d thought the comment was strange, considering how early in the year it was. Now, in light of the fact that Ms. Miller was no longer around to talk to her about it, and the fact that she’d signed the tutoring form in advance made it even stranger. It was almost as though Ms. Miller had known she was going to die.

    Don’t be ridiculous. Penny dismissed the thought as quickly as it came. There was no way Ms. Miller could’ve known what was going to happen.

    Penny zipped up her backpack the rest of the way and headed for the door. She was about to open it when she heard voices on the other side.

    “—cleaning out her office—hard for you, what with your history and all.”

    Penny pulled her hand back and stepped away from the door. There was no mistaking the authoritative voice of Principal Cazin. Penny held her breath, trying to make out the muffled reply of his companion, but it was too quiet. Let them keep going, let them keep going. 

    The principal said, “You’re very loyal. I don’t understand—never mind. Well, I’ll set you up with the password—”

    Password. Cleaning out her office.

    Oh no.

    They were coming into the office. Penny was momentarily frozen. Any second now the door was going to open and she would be caught. She wondered if she could just tell them she’d left her backpack in there on the first day of school, but what if they talked to Mrs. Locke? Why hadn’t she just told Mrs. Locke that in the first place? It seemed much more logical than the round-a-bout lie she’d spun instead. She was terrible at this breaking and entering thing. If she made it through this without being suspended and expelled and arrested she was never going to lie, cheat, or break-and-enter again.

    Penny was about to settle for the first-rate plan of hiding under the desk, when someone started shouting. It came as such a surprise that Penny jumped.

    “Mr. Rosen! Principal Cazin! Can you help me? Over here! Help!”

    Why is she shouting? 

    “Uh, Ms. James—hear you,” Mr. Rosen said.

    “Jameson. Natasha Jameson. I’m the new girl. Claudia Ainsworth’s niece. Hi, Principal Cazin! It’s nice to meet you!”

    Natasha Jameson. The new girl. Penny had two classes with her, and the girl hadn’t seemed crazy. She’d seemed completely normal. So why was she acting crazy now?

    “Ahh, yes, Natasha. I apologize for not having introduced myself sooner. Welcome to Caribou Canyon High. But, could you please stop shouting? You’ll disturb, uh, well, there are no classes in session right now, but still, there really is no need to shout. We might be past our prime, but neither of us is deaf.”

    Penny had to hold back a laugh, despite the situation she was in. She had no idea what the new girl was up to, but she would’ve loved to see the expressions on the two men’s faces, especially Mr. Rosen’s.

    “Oh, okay. Sorry, sir. Sirs. It’s just that I’m trying out for cheerleading this afternoon, and I really want to make the squad! It’s not just about gymnastics you know. You have to have pep. Could you guys help me? Please? The drinking fountain’s broken. I think it’s broken. No water’s coming out. Everyone said that I should drink a lot of water. Well, my aunt did, and so did Sheriff Beaumont’s assistant, and maybe the sheriff did too, I can’t remember. What’s her name? Not the sheriff, his assistant. Oh yeah, Ms. Nelson. She was really nice.” Natasha’s voice got louder with each word.

    “Why are you supposed to drink a lot of water?”

    “I need both of you! I think it’s really broken! It’s the trauma! You know, because I’m the one who—” the last part was too quiet for Penny to hear, but she didn’t need to. She squeezed her eyes shut briefly as a feeling of sickness welled up in her. The new girl had found Ms. Miller’s body. So maybe she had gone temporarily insane.

    “Oh, oh my. Yes, dear, we’ll take a look at it—” Penny couldn’t hear the rest of the principal’s reply. She assumed he was moving away from the door. She hoped he was, anyway.

     “I kept pressing the button, but no water came out. Shouldn’t you both look? It could be really complicated.” Natasha was shouting again, though not quite as loudly as before. “Thanks for looking. I’m really thirsty. I guess it’s true, that trauma . . .”

    Penny stopped listening. She thought she knew what the girl was up to. Penny had been certain that she’d heard a noise just before going into Ms. Miller’s office, but when she turned, no one was there. That was because Natasha—if she had in fact been there—had ducked into the alcove that housed the drinking fountain. Was Natasha helping Penny? Is so, why? They didn’t even know each other.

    Who cares why? This is your only chance. “I imagine it was,” Principal Cazin was saying. Penny took a deep breath and held it. Willing her hand to stop shaking, she slowly turned the knob and eased the door open. “—someone you can talk to about this?”

    Penny only opened the door wide enough to slip through it. “Hey! You’re the new guidance counselor! I heard you guys when you walked by. I can talk to you if I need to!” Natasha shouted, raising her voice again. Penny glanced down the hall. Sure enough, Natasha stood at the drinking fountain with Principal Cazin and Mr. Rosen. The two men were nearest to the fountain, and only partially visible. Natasha’s back was to Penny. She appeared to be trying to block the view of Ms. Miller’s door.

    “Ahh, well, yes, but not officially until tomorrow. Feel free to make an appointment.”

    Mr. Rosen’s the new guidance counselor? Does Principal Cazin hate us? Penny thought, then realized it didn’t matter at the moment. She needed to get out of there. Slowly, she eased the door shut.

     “Okay, I will. Thanks!” Natasha shouted.

    “All right, let’s see what the problem is.”

    Penny had to bite back a laugh when she heard water shooting out of the fountain. She could only imagine the looks on the teacher’s faces. She was just grateful that the water covered up her footsteps. When Penny turned the corner, she sped up. When she turned the next corner she leaned against the wall and ran her hands over her face. Never again! You are never doing anything like that again!

    But she wasn’t in the clear yet. She still had to turn in the key and figure out why a girl she’d never met had chosen to bail her out. Maybe Natasha hadn’t known Penny was in the office, and it had just been dumb luck. Maybe if Penny ignored Natasha, the situation would just go away. One step at a time, Penny.

    “Everything work out, dear?” Mrs. Locke asked when Penny walked back into the office.

    Penny smiled, hoping she didn’t look too flushed. “Yeah, everything’s fine. I made sure to put the doorstop in this time. Thanks.” She handed the keys back to the woman, hoping she never had to see them again.

    “Anytime, dear. You take care,” Mrs. Locke said.

    “You too.” Penny stepped out of the office, turned the corner, and nearly bumped right into Natasha.

    Natasha smiled widely. “Hi! I thought I might find you here. I figured you had to have gotten those keys from somewhere. I bet they came in handy.”

    Penny stepped wide and started walking away. “Yeah, they did. I left my backpack in there the other day.”

    Natasha, unfazed, had followed and was keeping pace with her. “Right. Is that why you looked so hesitant before going in? And why you were hiding in there until I got the big, bad principal out of the way? Why you crept out so quietly? I don’t think so. You owe me, and we both know it.”

    Penny sighed. She was busted, but at least it wasn’t by a teacher. “Okay, I do. Thanks. I don’t know what I would’ve done if they walked in.”

    Natasha grinned. “That was some of my best work, by the way. It was actually kind of fun. But I want more than a thank-you. I want answers.” Her grin had faded. She stopped and pointed to the bathroom they’d just passed.

    Penny studied the girl for a moment, wondering what her game was. She was tempted to walk away, but what if Natasha just turned her in? “I don’t know what answers you think I have, but if you want to talk, we can’t do it in there.”

    “Why not?”

    “That bathroom’s way too close to the cafeteria. We’ll get interrupted. We’ll have to go to the one in the back, by the classrooms. No one will be down that way right now.”

    “Okay. Good idea.”

    Penny led the way, wondering just what she’d gotten herself into. 


Saturday, May 20, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 16

City of Secrets

Chapter 16

Previously: Natasha--still shaken over discovering Ms. Miller's body--is appalled that none of the other students seem to care. After getting into an argument about it with Chase, she walks off to be alone.

Chapter 16
    Natasha—too upset after her argument with Chase—didn’t go back to the cafeteria. Instead, she walked around the school, lost in her thoughts. It was strange, how quiet the halls were. She wasn’t used to the whole school taking lunch at the same time. At her old school, lunch was worked into the class periods. Every year she and her friends had to find excuses to change their schedules around so they could have the same lunch period. She wondered what excuse she would’ve come up with this year. She swallowed a lump in her throat. She still hadn’t texted or called any of them. Not even Meg, her best friend. Not even Nick, though they’d promised to stay friends. Her hand ached to reach into her purse and grab her phone.

    She didn’t. She couldn’t, because she was beginning to wonder if coming to Caribou Canyon had been a mistake. If she talked to Nick or Meg now, she might lose her nerve and hop on a bus back to Denver right at that very moment.

    The thing that bothered her most was that—though stated in the most callous way possible—Chase had a point. Life went on. What else were they supposed to do? But that made her feel like the most selfish person on the planet. She was supposed to go on, while Ms. Miller couldn't?

    She turned another corner, going in circles now, and paused at the sight of a girl with a blond braid tossed over her shoulder. She must not have heard Natasha, because she didn’t turn around. Is that Penny Harper?Natasha hadn’t officially met Penny, but almost all of her teachers had pointed Penny out to her as the person to go to in case she felt behind on any of the material. Natasha had been intending to introduce herself, but not because she was behind on the material. She wanted to talk to Penny because of her brother. Richie Harper had died on the same road that Natasha’s parents had died on sixteen years ago. For some reason, Natasha felt compelled to talk to the girl.

    This was the perfect chance, but she hesitated. What in the world was she supposed to say? “Hi, did you know that your brother died the same way my parents did? Isn’t that funny? Let’s be friends. By the way, your hometown is seriously screwed up. Anything you want to share on that note?” That wouldn’t go over well at all. It would probably be better if she pretended to need help with one of her classes after all.

    Natasha was about to call out, when Penny stopped in front of a door. This wouldn’t have been a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that it was Ms. Miller’s office. What was Penny doing going into Ms. Miller’s office? Or at least, trying to go into Ms. Miller’s office. It had to be locked. But Penny, living up to her reputation as the girl who was always prepared, pulled a key out of her pocket. Maybe she’s helping clean it out, Natasha thought. But that didn’t seem right, not without a teacher present. And then there was the fact that Penny hesitated, her hand hovering over the knob, her body rigid. Penny turned her head, glancing in the direction opposite Natasha. Guessing what Penny was about to do next, Natasha quickly ducked into the alcove that housed the drinking fountain, grateful it was there. A couple seconds later, she heard the quiet clicks of a door opening and closing again.

    Natasha stepped forward. The hallway was deserted.What are you up to, Penny Harper? Whatever it was, Natasha was going to stick around to find out. Part of her was tempted to barge right into the office and ask, but she quickly pushed that idea down. It would be better if she waited, let Penny do what she needed to do, and then confronted her afterward. That way, she could earn Penny’s trust, and maybe learn some things in the process.

    “I’m just sorry that it had to be you,” a man's voice boomed from around the corner. It was loud and authoritative and one Natasha didn’t recognize. It was headed in her direction, so she ducked back into the alcove.

    “Don’t be. The responsibility is an honor,” another man replied. He didn’t sound honored. He sounded bored. Natasha recognized Mr. Rosen’s dry, insurance-salesman voice right away, even though she’d only attended two classes with him so far. She’d nearly fallen asleep on the first day.

    “That’s one way to put it. I suppose it’s more of a burden,” the first man said. His voice grew louder, and Natasha assumed they’d turned the corner. “Can you handle that, guidance counseling duties, and teaching? I can place an ad for an English teacher, if you’d like. I don’t know if we’ll find anyone, now that the year has started, but it’s worth a try.”

    “No, it’s fine. I’m sure I can manage,” Mr. Rosen said.

    Mr. Rosen is replacing Ms. Miller? Natasha had only been there a couple of days, but even she knew he was the worst possible candidate. Natasha was pretty sure that he hated students. Passionately.

    “I’m happy to take care of cleaning out her office. I know it must be hard for you, what with your history and all.”

    Their history? He couldn’t possibly mean a romantic history, could he? Mr. Rosen and Ms. Miller? Natasha heard footsteps and bent over the drinking fountain, but didn’t turn it on. She held her breath. Please don’t look over, please don’t look over. She watched as two pairs of feet walked past. When they were gone, she risked a peek around the corner. She recognized the broad shoulders and bald head of Principal Cazin standing next to Mr. Rosen.

    “That was a long time ago, sir. It is what it is,” Mr. Rosen said, in the same monotone voice he said everything in.

    Principal Cazin nodded. “You’re very loyal. I don’t understand—never mind. Well, I’ll set you up with the password and then—”

    Natasha realized that they were about to enter Ms. Miller’s office. Penny was still in there, and Natasha was almost positive that she wasn’t supposed to be. Not entirely sure what she was doing, Natasha ran out of her hiding place. “Mr. Rosen! Principal Cazin! Can you help me?” Natasha waved her arms at them. “Over here! Help!” she shouted, as loudly as if the two men were standing at the opposite end of a football field.

    They turned in surprise, staring at her with identical wide-eyed expressions of alarm that were truly comical. Natasha wished she could snap a picture to show Penny later. It might serve as the start of a beautiful friendship.

    “Uh, Ms. James, we can hear you,” Mr. Rosen said. His lips twitched, as though he were trying not to smile.

    Now Natasha really wished she could take a picture. She wondered if any student had ever made Mr. Rosen smile. She might’ve just broken a world record. “Jameson,” she corrected, lowering her voice half an octave. “Natasha Jameson. I’m the new girl. Claudia Ainsworth’s niece. Hi, Principal Cazin! It’s nice to meet you!”

    Principal Cazin blinked, looking completely bewildered. “Ahh, yes, Natasha. I apologize for not having introduced myself sooner. Welcome to Caribou Canyon High. But, could you please stop shouting? You’ll disturb, uh, well, there are no classes in session right now, but still, there really is no need to shout. We might be past our prime, but neither of us is deaf.”

    “Oh, okay. Sorry, sir. Sirs. It’s just that I’m trying out for cheerleading this afternoon, and I really want to make the squad! It’s not just about gymnastics you know. You have to have pep,” Natasha said, not quite shouting, but not talking at a normal volume either. She waved her arms again, showing off her pep. “Could you guys help me? Please? The drinking fountain’s broken. I think it’s broken. No water’s coming out. Everyone said that I should drink a lot of water. Well, my aunt did, and so did Sheriff Beaumont’s assistant, and maybe the sheriff did too, I can’t remember. What’s her name? Not the sheriff, his assistant. Oh yeah, Ms. Nelson. She was really nice.” Natasha’s voice gradually grew louder with each word.

    Principal Cazin started heading toward her. “Why are you supposed to drink a lot of water?”

    “I need both of you! I think it’s really broken! It’s the trauma! You know, because I’m the one who,” she dropped her voice to a very loud whisper, “found her.” She pointed in the direction of Ms. Miller’s office.

    Principal Cazin’s eyes widened. “Oh, oh my. Yes, dear, we’ll take a look at it, but please, enough with the shouting. You seem to have quite a lot of pep. I’m sure you’ll make the squad.” He looked helplessly at Mr. Rosen, who shrugged. They walked away from the office, toward Natasha, who was ready to give herself a high five. Don’t get cocky yet, the hard part’s still coming. 

    When they reached her, Natasha stepped back and moved to the side, so that she was closest to Ms. Miller’s door. “I kept pressing the button, but no water came out,” she said, now talking as though the teachers were standing at the fifty-yard line. Mr. Rosen moved forward, but Natasha said, “Shouldn’t you both look? It could be really complicated.”

    They exchanged a glance, but Principal Cazin stepped into the other side of the small alcove. “Thanks for looking. I’m really thirsty. I guess it’s true, that trauma dehydrates you. That’s what Ms. Nelson said. Did I mention that she was nice? She’s so nice. God, it was awful.” Come on, Penny. Prove that you’re as smart as they say you are.

    Principal Cazin had been about to press the button on the fountain, but looked up at the comment. “I imagine it was. Do you have someone you can talk to about it?”

    “Well, my aunt.” Natasha thought she heard a clicking sound, so she raised her voice. “Hey! You’re the new guidance counselor! I heard you guys when you walked by. I can talk to you if I need to.” She had to bite back the laugh that wanted to escape at the look of wide-eyed horror on Mr. Rosen’s face. He definitely was not cut out to be a counselor. So why was he? One thing at a time, Natasha.

    “Ahh, well, yes, but not officially until tomorrow. Feel free to make an appointment.”

    An appointment? I just saw a dead body and the new guidance counselor wants me to make an appointment?“Okay, I will. Thanks!” she shouted, to cover up the second click that she was hoping and praying was the door closing behind Penny.

    “All right, let’s see what the problem is.” The principal pressed the button on the fountain, and water came shooting out in a perfect arc. Both men looked at Natasha with raised eyebrows.

    “Ohhhh! So that’s how it works! I thought you were supposed to press up here!” Natasha touched the nozzle where the water came out. “That’s how the fountains at my old school worked. Wow, I feel really stupid. You guys won’t say anything, will you? Oh my god, you can't. I’d never live this down.”

    Both men looked skeptical, but they shook their heads. “Of course we won’t say anything,” the principal said. “Is there anything else you need?”

    “No, that’s all. Thank you so much,” she said, smiling sweetly.

    “Of course,” Principal Cazin said. “Good luck with tryouts.” Mr. Rosen only gave a curt nod.

    Natasha took a long drink from the fountain as they walked away. When she heard the door to Ms. Miller’s office close, she straightened. It was time to find Penny. Natasha was going to get answers about Caribou Canyon, and those answers were going to start with why Penny Harper had just snuck into the guidance counselor’s office. 


Thursday, May 18, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 15

City of Secrets

Chapter 15

Previously: New girl Natasha befriended popular boy Chase Martindale in the hopes of uncovering the secrets of Caribou Canyon. Her plans were derailed when she and Chase discovered the body of their guidance counselor, Gertrude Miller. 

Chapter 15

    Since finding Ms. Miller’s body, Natasha had gone through the motions of her life as though in a trance. She’d answered the Sheriff’s questions automatically, as if it were everyday that you discovered your guidance counselor dead in her driveway.

    Natasha had stayed up late that night with her Aunt Claudia, but she found she couldn’t remember a word of their conversation. Tuesday had been torture. School was cancelled, and Claudia and her fiancé had both had to work, so Natasha had sat alone with nothing to do but let her thoughts return to the sight of Ms. Miller’s body—her vacant eyes, the gaping wound across her neck, the way the bloodstains on her shirt had given it a tie-dyed appearance. . . .

    Natasha tried to take comfort in the fact that the police already had a suspect in custody, but it brought only a small measure of relief. A few hours after Ms. Miller’s body was discovered, the police had received a call from a traveler about a hitchhiker who appeared to be drunk, stumbling around the side of Highway 66, trying to get a ride out of town. He might’ve had better luck had he not been covered in blood. When the deputies arrived on the scene, they found a bloody knife hidden in his boot.

     The man’s name was Patterson Croke, a vagrant with a colorful history of misdemeanor charges, including disturbing the peace, vandalism, and petty theft. He was currently being detained in the Caribou County Jail.

     What struck Natasha as strange was that none of it was front-page news—not even in the Caribou Canyon Gazette. None of the online articles had many hits. The headlines were poorly written, and many were misspelled.

    Natasha had been looking forward to going back to school on Wednesday. She welcomed the distraction classes would provide, and the chance to talk to Chase. He’d been there. He would understand.

    She couldn’t have been more wrong. When the other students weren’t talking about cheerleading and football tryouts, they talked about how the band Hell’s Descendants would soon be back from their first tour. No one seemed to care about Ms. Miller. Other than comments about how they couldn’t make changes to their class schedules until her replacement was found, and how homeless people shouldn’t be allowed to wander the streets, no one said anything. The morning had been so normal that it was one of the weirdest of Natasha’s life. Even Chase acted as though nothing had happened. When Natasha had asked him how he was doing, he’d looked at her as though she’d spoken Latin.

    By lunchtime, Natasha was fighting the urge to scream. She entered the cafeteria, though she wasn’t hungry. “Hey, Natasha! Over here!” Amber called, waving at her from the lunch line.

    Natasha forced a smile on her face and made her way over. “Hey.”

    “Hey, you look miserable. Those circles under your eyes are something else,” Emma said, staring closely at her. “You should put tea bags under them. They work better than cucumbers.”

    Amber laughed. “Ew, you put cucumbers under your eyes?”

     “Not anymore. Now I use teabags. Don’t knock it. It beats walking around like that,” Emma said, looking at Natasha disapprovingly.

    Madison, who was carrying two lunch trays in addition to a backpack that looked like it was about to explode, gave Natasha a sympathetic smile. Natasha ignored her and smiled gratefully at Emma. “Thanks for the tip. I just didn’t sleep much last night.”

    “Nervous about tryouts? You are trying out, right?” Emma asked.

    “I haven’t decided yet,” she lied. Her plan was to leave them hanging till the last second, just like they’d done with her on the first day, though her heart was no longer in it.

    “If she doesn’t, it’ll be her loss,” a girl said, as if Natasha wasn’t standing right there.

    “Ignore her. She’s an idiot,” Amber said to Natasha. “Come on. Don’t let those bitches from your old school hold you back. They’re just jealous.”

    Natasha bit back the urge to defend her old friends, knowing that she had to stay on her new friends’ good side, or else her entire plan would be ruined. But Caribou Canyon’s popular crowd was starting to get on her nerves, and she’d only known them for a couple of days. How was she supposed to put up with this?

    A boy—he and Amber had their arms around each other’s waists—said, “Those are her friends you’re talking about. It has to be hard, leaving right before your senior year.”

    “It was,” Natasha said. At least they’re not all heartless, she thought, smiling gratefully at him. If only she could remember his name. She thought it might be Jake. Or maybe it was Jay?

    “Hey, I meant to ask you earlier, how are you doing? I mean, after the other day? I can’t even imagine,” he said, his green eyes sincere.

    A small measure of relief washed through her. Finally, someone was acknowledging that something had happened. “I’m okay, I guess. It’s just, I don’t know, weird. Thanks, um . . . ” she trailed off, embarrassed.

    He grinned. “It’s okay. It’s Jason.”

    “Thanks, Jason.”

    Amber rolled her eyes and tightened her grip around Jason’s waist. “See, Jason? She’s fine.”

    He sighed and pulled away from her. “So now I’m not allowed to talk to people?”

    “Not when you’re ignoring me, you’re not.” Her head moved in time with her words, red curls bobbing up and down.

    “How am I ignoring you when my arm is around you?”

    “The fact that I have to explain it to you, says it all.” She sounded like she was talking to a ten-year-old.

    Jason shook his head. “Why do we always have to do this?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but instead stepped out of line and sat down at a nearby table with a group of guys. Amber turned on her heels and left the cafeteria.

    “Um, should I go after her?” Natasha asked, though she didn’t think that neither she nor Jason had done anything wrong.

    Emma rolled her eyes. “No. Those two are a train wreck. Amber’s crazy jealous all the time, and Jason doesn’t even seem to care anymore. It’s great entertainment though.”

    Another girl laughed. “Yeah, we have a pool going on when they’ll break up. Want in? It’s ten bucks to start, and twenty if you want bonus dates. It’s up to a hundred and fifty.”

    Natasha gaped for a moment, trying to figure out if the girl was serious. Finally she muttered, “Um, no thanks.” She couldn’t take much more of this. Something was seriously wrong with these people. She rummaged in her purse. “Crap. I think I left my wallet in my locker. I’ll be right back.”

    “Okay. Hey, you should put some foundation under your eyes!” Emma called after her.

    “Right, good idea!” Natasha was almost out of the cafeteria when she nearly ran right into Chase and Laurel, who were walking in. They were turned toward each other whispering, their bodies so close that their shoulders were touching.

    Laurel stepped away from Chase and smiled broadly when she saw Natasha. “Hey, girl. Where you headed?”

    “Left my wallet,” Natasha said, forcing a smile and moving past them. She couldn’t bring herself to look at Chase.

    “Cool, sit with us, okay?”

    “Yeah, sure,” she said, though she had no plans to return. She’d think up an excuse later.

    She was headed down the hall when Chase called, “Natasha, wait up.”

    She wasn’t in the mood to talk to him, not after the way he’d acted that morning, but she already knew him well enough to know that he wouldn’t give up if she ignored him. She turned around and watched as he trotted toward her. “I thought you were having lunch," she said.

    He shrugged. “I will in a few. I came to see what was wrong.”

    “Nothing,” she said, her tone annoyed, because not only should he know what was wrong, but he should’ve been just as upset.

    “I know you didn’t forget your wallet,” he said, giving her a “gotcha!” look.


    “You have a look on your face. Half-angry, half-upset. That, and your locker’s in the opposite direction.” He grinned, which sent her anger to the breaking point.

    She crossed her arms and glared at him, watching in satisfaction as his grin disappeared. “Okay, I didn’t forget my wallet. I just can’t stand another second with you people. What the hell is wrong with you guys? It’s like you have no hearts, or they’re made of stone or something. A woman was murdered, and no one seems to care. You’re all talking about cheerleading tryouts and teasing each other about makeup and breakup pools like everything is normal, but it’s not.”

    “It’s not like that.” He reached for her arm, but she took a step back.

    “You’re even worse! You were there, Chase. You saw her. I can’t get her face out of my mind. How can you be walking around smiling?” She was trembling, breathing hard, on the verge of tears. She hated that she was losing it, but it had been building up all morning.

    Chase sighed and ran a hand through his messy hair. Just as Natasha had thought, the strands that he’d pressed down bounced right back up again. “Natasha, I’m really sorry. I feel like a jerk. The thing is, we have been talking about it. It’s the only thing we did yesterday. The whole group of us. We talked, texted, emailed. . . .  Shit. We would’ve looped you in, but nobody has your number yet.”

    She stared blankly at him, at a loss for what to say.

    “I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to leave you out. I should’ve gone to your house or something.” He gave her an apologetic look. “Here,” he said, reaching into his pocket and handing her his phone. “Put it in now, so I don’t forget.”

    She took it and put her number in, mainly to stall having to respond. When she handed it back to him, he began tapping at the display. Apparently, he needed time to stall too. “I’m sending it out to everyone, so we’ll all have it.” When he slipped it back into his pocket, he looked at her with a half-smile on his face. "So, will you have lunch with us now?"

    Natasha had been about to let him off the hook, but there was something in his question that implied that the subject was over. She wanted to let it go, but when she remembered what it had felt like to stand in the rain waiting for the police to come, she knew she couldn't. Something wasn't right. “So, what, it only takes you a day to recover from finding your guidance counselor dead?” she asked.

    He held his hands out in exasperation. “What the hell do you want me to say?”

    The sudden anger in his voice reminded her of his size, and of the threatening look he’d given the purple-haired girl. She almost took a step back, but held her ground. “I don’t know. I just didn’t expect everyone to act like nothing happened. Especially you.”

    “How else am I supposed to act? Life is short, Natasha. It's short, but it goes on. What happened sucks, but walking around crying like a little bitch isn’t going to do anyone any good.”

    For a second she was too stunned to do anything. A moment later she shook her head, turned, and walked away.

    “Natasha, wait,” he said, his voice quieter, almost tired sounding.

    “Life is short, Chase. You better go grab lunch before it’s over,” she called. She cringed when the words echoed back in her mind. She'd meant that he better go get lunch before the hour was over, but realized that it sounded like she'd meant that he better go get lunch before his life was over. He must've thought the same thing, because he didn't go after her.