Saturday, July 15, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 22

City of Secrets

Chapter 22

Previously: When Penny's older brother died, she didn't just lose him. She also lost the friendship of the best friend she shared with her brother. Josh left town when Richie died, without a word of goodbye to Penny. Penny hasn't heard from him all summer.

Chapter 22
    Penny pulled the keys out of the ignition, but didn’t get out of her mother’s Subaru—anger held her rooted in place. “I’m working from home today, so I’ll fix dinner. It’ll be nice to sit down as a family again,” she said, mocking her father’s words from that morning. She didn’t know who she was more angry with: her dad for breaking yet another promise, or herself for trusting him.

    “It’s not like we’d be a family again anyway.” They’d never be a family again—not with one member missing.

    “Darn it,” she muttered, slamming her hands on the steering wheel. She wasn’t doing herself any good, and she wasn’t doing her mom any good either. She needed to hurry and get back home. They never left Vicky alone for longer than twenty or thirty minutes—not since the time she’d left the gas stove on all day.

    Penny grabbed her purse and got out of the car, the misty air hitting her in the face. She glanced up at the darkening sky, wondering if there would be another downpour. That week they’d experienced an unusual number of storms, even for Caribou Canyon. Penny thought it was fitting, considering recent events. She hurried through the parking lot and stepped into Josephina’s Diner, enjoying the rush of warm air.

    She was about to step up to the counter when a familiar laugh rang through the restaurant. The sound travelled straight to her heart and gripped it tightly, even as her pulse sped up in anticipation. He’s back, she thought. How could she have forgotten? She wasn’t ready for this. Not in the slightest. She’d known she would have to face him eventually, but she’d hoped to have time to prepare. Time to talk herself into being strong. She didn’t feel strong. She felt lonely and weak, homesick and lovesick.

    “Whoa. That is seriously nifty. Teach me,” a girl said. Her high-pitched voice was easy to hear in the nearly empty diner.

    “Really?” asked the voice that had haunted Penny’s waking and sleeping thoughts for the past three months.

    “Yes, really. And shut up about it already,” the girl said.

    “Okay. It’s easy. You just rip a small piece off the end, put it in your mouth, and blow.”

    Penny knew she shouldn’t look, knew she didn’t want to see who he was flirting with, but she couldn’t not look. Turning, Penny saw Josh Abbott—she knew it was him even though his back was to her—sitting in the farthest booth. Her heart broke at the sight of him—the best friend she’d needed desperately and the unrequited love she’d longed for. His auburn hair was slightly mussed up, and even in her anger she still wanted to run her fingers through it.

    He was home. He was home and he hadn’t called her. Despite the fact that he’d been freezing her out, she realized that she’d still expected to hear from him when he came home.

    Penny turned her gaze to the girl who sat across from Josh, pain and jealousy coursing through her. The girl was thin, and didn’t look to be older than fourteen. Her hair was light brown and cut close to her head in a style more common on boys than girls; it made her small ears look more prominent, giving her an elfish appearance. Her skin was so pale it was almost white, and Penny figured it had to be makeup, that the girl must be trying to pull off a goth or emo look. The dark circles under her eyes, which were also probably makeup, served to further prove that assumption.

    The girl put a straw in her mouth and blew the wrapper at Josh, who laughed. She let the straw fall from her mouth, a grin spreading across her face. “Holy shit that was fun.” She hopped out of the booth and skipped to the counter. The girl, who was as short as she was thin, was dressed so strangely that Penny couldn’t help but stare. The girl wore a blue knee-length pencil skirt, the kind a business woman—maybe a lawyer—might wear, except the lawyer probably wouldn’t have paired it with black and white striped tights. The lawyer also would’ve left the sparkling red Mary Jane shoes at the store, figuring that an outfit resembling that of the one worn by the Wicked Witch of the East would be frowned upon in court.

    The girl grabbed a handful of straws from the dispenser—her thumbs were hooked through self-made holes in the black hoodie she wore—and skipped back to the booth. Penny watched with growing jealousy as the girl blew another straw wrapper at Josh.

    “I thought this would get old, but nope. It’s great. I feel like I’m giving an alien a tour of Earth,” Josh said.

    “An alien?” she said, her voice full of offense. A wrapper hit her square in the nose, and she grinned. “Yeah, that is I. Alien here. Prithee, Jay, don’t take me to your leader. I suspect authority could be problematic for me.” Proving this, she put another straw in her mouth, this time shooting the wrapper into the booth across from her.

    Jay? She calls him Jay? His name is only one syllable; he doesn’t need a nickname. Jealously flared through Penny as she stared at the elfish looking girl who was utterly fascinated by blowing wrappers off of straws. You’re just jealous because you never gave him a nickname. 

    “Oh my god, did you just say prithee?” Josh said, laughing. “What kind of textbooks did your dad teach you from?”

    “Jay—” the girl began, but cut herself off. Her voice had lowered and her smile disappeared.

    “Shit, Tone, I’m sorry. I wasn’t—”

    “It’s okay.”

    Penny had been in the process of trying to will the girl to stone with her eyes when Josh’s words hit her. The girl wasn’t some random groupie who’d followed him home. Penny realized that she was staring at Antonia Torrance, daughter of the town shut-in, and the new lead guitarist of Hell’s Descendants. Penny had seen the girl’s picture on the band’s website, but hadn’t recognized her in person. Antonia—who, according to the band’s website preferred to be called Toni—had been the talk of the town back in May, when she’d gone from being Caribou Canyon’s second most reclusive resident to touring the United States with the nation’s hottest new band.

    Toni’s father was George Torrance, former mayor of Caribou Canyon. According to Penny’s parents, George was once amicable and warm, and a friend to nearly everyone. He was the most popular mayor the town had ever had. All of that changed when George’s wife died after giving birth to their daughter. George had sold his palatial house in the center of town and moved to a secluded cabin at the top of Riverdale Road, a windy dirt road that led to an old hunting area that was rarely used anymore.

    George Torrance had become a ghost, a shut-in. By association, his daughter became one too. George never enrolled her in public school, opting to teach her at home instead. George took care of all his business online and had his groceries delivered—a service not normally offered at the Stop and Shop. Penny knew that it was George’s former status that influenced the store manager to make an exception for him. Even the delivery people never saw him—they left the groceries in a cooler on the porch, where enough cash to cover the bill and a tip were waiting in an envelope.

    Curiosity temporarily replaced Penny’s jealousy. Penny had been hearing rumors about the Torrances her entire life. One rumor stated that Toni had died years ago, having been killed and cannibalized by her crazy father. Another was that Toni was a demon child who’d killed her mother shortly after entering the world, and kept her father imprisoned in their home. Whispers around town said that Toni would sometimes come out during the full moon, walking around in the woods and howling at the sky. Others insisted that Toni didn’t exist at all—that she’d died along with her mother, and that was the real reason George had shut himself away from the world.

    Toni was Richie’s replacement. As much as Penny hated that someone had stolen Richie’s rightful spot, even she couldn’t deny that Toni was a good guitarist. She was brilliant. She’d learned all of Hell’s Descendants’ songs so quickly that the band hadn’t needed to delay the tour.

    Penny couldn’t take her eyes off Toni. She realized that the girl wasn’t wearing white makeup after all. She really was that pale; Penny wondered if the dark circles under her eyes were real as well. She’d been wrong about the girl’s age. Toni was at least sixteen or seventeen—Penny thought she’d be a junior if she went to public school.

    Richie’s replacement, Penny thought, the jealousy taking over again. Why couldn’t you have just stayed in your cabin? It was a selfish, unfair thought. It wasn’t Toni’s fault that Richie had died. She couldn’t be blamed for taking the opportunity to escape her sheltered world. Penny knew she had no right to be angry with the girl, but she was. That anger—fueled by pain and jealousy—grew as she continued to watch Toni and Josh. If people didn’t know them, they’d think the two had been friends for years. Good friends. Maybe even best friends. He was talking to her like she was Richie. Josh truly had found Richie’s replacement.  

    “Hey there,” a gristly voice said. Penny turned to see Walter Morris, co-owner of Josephina’s, walking out from behind the counter and heading her way. She was grateful for the excuse to turn away from the besties in the back of the restaurant. Penny smiled at Walter, whom she’d known her whole life. Walter and his wife had owned and ran the diner since before Penny was born. Walter and Josephina were two of the nicest people Penny had ever met. She’d always found it endearing that they’d stayed in Caribou Canyon and ran the diner, despite the fact that over two decades ago they’d won twenty-seven million dollars in the biggest lottery jackpot in Colorado history. Other than visiting their home in the Hamptons once a summer, the couple never left Caribou Canyon.

    “Hi, Walter. I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to make you come all the way over here.”

    He smiled back, every crinkle and crevice in his face moving along with his lips. “S’all right, honey. Crazy, idinit?” Walter said. His white apron was stained with what looked like ketchup, and he was staring just as blatantly at Toni as Penny had.

    “What?” Penny asked, feeling guilty for having stared for so long.

     Walter glanced at her and winked before turning his gaze back to the tiny girl who was sure to be the talk of the town once word got around that she was back. “Thought she was a groupie at first, till I membered seeing ‘er picture in the paper. Can’t believe it. Poor thing, locked in that cabin.”

    “Yeah,” Penny whispered, hoping Walter would get the hint and lower his voice.

    It was too late. Toni looked up at them from across the restaurant. Her eyes travelled over Walter dismissively before coming to rest on Penny. She tilted her head and stared at Penny just as curiously as Penny had stared at her. A second later, she leaned across the table and whispered something to Josh.

    Oh no, Penny thought, heart pounding. He’s going to turn around, he’s going to see you. Dread and anticipation warred inside her. She wanted so badly to see him, but she wasn’t sure if that was because she wanted to hug him or slap him. For that reason, she considered turning and running out the door. But she couldn’t. She was frozen.

    Josh turned, lifting himself partly out of the booth and leaning over the back of it. His face was unreadable as he stared at her. Penny’s mouth was dry, and she wasn’t sure she could’ve spoken even if she knew what to say, so she waited for him. He’s going to call you over. He’s going to apologize. Don’t let him off easy. Don’t give in. Penny was still steeling herself to be firm, to let him know how much he’d hurt her, when he smiled and lifted his hand in a wave. A second later, he turned and slid back into the booth.

    Penny gaped. She hadn’t thought it possible for Josh to hurt her more than he already had, but he just did. That wave was a punch in the gut. A wave. Over a decade of friendship, and all he could muster was a wave.

    “You wanna come getch your order, honey?” Walter asked.

    Penny nodded and followed Walter to the counter. “Be right back,” he said, disappearing into the kitchen.

    Penny sat on a stool near the register, her back facing Josh. She tried to focus on The Eagles’ Hotel California that was playing over the speakers, rather than the sounds of Josh and Toni’s conversation.

    She breathed a sigh of relief when Walter came back and set a bag full of to-go boxes on the counter. “That’ll be $17.44.” Handing him a twenty, she waited for what felt like an eternity as he opened the register. Walter paused, bill hovering over the drawer, and glanced at Toni and Josh. “Didn’tch you two have a thing, or something?” Walter asked, in a voice that was loud enough for the entire town to hear.

    Penny’s cheeks burned. Was he trying to embarrass her? “Uh, no. We were just friends.”

    “That don’t mean you didn’t have a thing. What’s he doing, treating you like he don’t know you?”

    Walter’s words were fuel for the anger that was already burning inside her. She took a deep, steady breath, trying to stay calm. “It’s nothing, Walter. Can I just have my change?”

    Walter moved at a pace that would only be slower if he’d simply stopped moving entirely. “What does he think? He too good for us now?” A harsh laugh escaped the man’s mouth. “Well, he better think again.”

    Penny shrugged, not sure what that was supposed to mean. Finally, Walter presented her change. She put a dollar bill in the tip jar—despite his slow speed and humiliating comments—and pocketed the rest.

    “Bless your heart, honey. You wanna know something?”

    No, I want to get out of here. “What’s that?” Penny asked, trying her hardest to keep her voice friendly.

    “You’re one a the good ones, Penny Harper. Too good for us. Don’t be taking this the wrong way, but I hope you get out of here, honey. I really do,” he said, his smile gone and his voice low.

    The strange statement was enough to momentarily distract her from thoughts of Josh. I hope you get out of here. It reminded her of the conversation between her aunt and her father—the one she wasn’t entirely convinced was a dream. “Uh, okay. Well, it’s senior year, and I plan to go to college, so I guess I will.”

    Walter nodded slowly, and Penny was struck by the sadness in his eyes. “Yeah, that sounds good. You have a good night, honey.”

    Penny forced a smile. “You too.” She was halfway to the door when Josh’s loud laughter hit her in the gut. She froze, the anger and hurt washing over her again. The urge to simultaneously slap him and hug him was almost overwhelming.

    Penny was moving before she could think it through. She didn’t know what her plan was—to hit or to hug—but she figured she’d find out when she got there. Penny stopped when she reached their table, standing where a waitress would.

    “Oh,” Toni said, tilting her head at Penny. Penny was caught off guard by the curious expression on the girl’s white face. Toni’s eyes, a deep blue that gleamed in protest to the shadows underneath them, were wide. “Hello. I know who you are. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say something to you or not.”

    Under different circumstances, Penny might’ve had a lot to say to that statement, but she couldn’t think about Toni at the moment. She turned to Josh, and could’ve sworn she’d seen pain in his eyes before he pasted a very cordial and very un-Josh-like smile on his face. “Hey, Penny. What’s up?” he asked, in a tone one would use to speak to an acquaintance.

    “What’s up?” she repeated mockingly. She shook her head. It was like she was nothing to him. Like it didn’t even matter that they’d gone from talking everyday to having spent three months apart. “Too bad she doesn’t have a sister,” Penny said, tilting her head in Toni’s direction. “Then the replacement would be complete.” With each word, her anger increased. She might’ve been able to maintain control if it weren’t for the look of dumbfounded shock on Josh’s face, as if he had no idea why she was mad. It was that expression that pushed her over the edge. She picked up the half-empty glass of soda in front of him, tossed the liquid in his face, slammed the empty glass back on the table and walked away while Josh was still gasping in surprise.

    “Whoa,” Toni said, before bursting out laughing.

    Penny passed Walter, who was coming out from behind the counter, towel in hand. Her heart sank, heavy with guilt. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed at him.

    He winked. “Don’t be, honey. You’re better off.”

    Penny felt like the door was miles away; every step she took toward it, it moved even farther away. She was forced to listen to Walter assuring Josh that he would take care of the mess, and to Toni apologizing profusely for laughing and asking if she could help. Josh was silent. That silence told her everything. When Penny finally reached the door and stepped outside, she knew she had her answer. Josh wasn’t her friend anymore; maybe he never had been. 


Next Chapter: Saturday, July 22nd

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Saturday, July 8, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 21

City of Secrets

Chapter 21

Previously: Natasha left a life behind when she moved to Caribou Canyon. She desperately misses that life, but is afraid that holding on to the past will prevent her from getting the answers she needs. When faced with a phone call from her former boyfriend, Natasha finds herself torn between the past and the present. 

Chapter 21

    Natasha sat on her bed, staring at the phone in her hand, willing herself to take the call. Maybe if she waited long enough, Nick would just hang up. She squeezed her eyes shut, pushing away the pain and guilt that thought elicited. She was being childish, not to mention mean. If she’d just returned even one of his texts, she wouldn’t be in this situation now. She took a deep breath and put the phone to her ear. “Hey.”

    “Hey? Really, Tasha?” Nick said, his irritation obvious. “You even managed to make that sound like you haven’t been ignoring me for the past few weeks.”

    The sound of Nick’s voice—angry or not—sent cracks through the already broken pieces of Natasha’s heart. She said nothing, afraid she would cry if she opened her mouth. The lump in her throat was the size of a boulder.

    “Tasha? Are you there?”

    Tasha. Tears filled her eyes and the boulder in her throat grew to the size of a mountain. Tasha was what everyone back home called her. It was the nickname her fake parents had given her. She hadn’t told anyone in Caribou Canyon it was her preferred name, because she didn’t know who Tasha was anymore. That girl’s life was a lie. “I go by Natasha now,” she said, her voice coming out harsher than she’d intended. But at least it didn’t sound like she was about to cry.

    “Oh, okay. That’s cool, I guess,” Nick said, clearly at a loss. Natasha could picture the look of surprise on his face; she’d always gotten angry when teachers called her Natasha.

    “Yeah, it seemed like a good idea to change it. Tasha was what they called me and—you know. . .” she trailed off, not wanting to burden him with her problems.

    “Yeah, that makes sense.”

    Silence fell, during which Natasha’s mind wandered to places she didn’t want it to. She pictured Nick laying on his bed with the phone to his ear. The weather would be warm there—like it was supposed to be—so he was probably wearing a t-shirt, one that showed off the muscles in his arms. It might even be wrinkled and lifted up slightly, showing his stomach and the trail of light brown hair below his belly button. . . .

    “Do you even know why I called?” he asked, his voice breaking through the image of herself laying next to him, trailing her fingers along his bare stomach.

    She shook her head and wiped the tears from her eyes, but more just formed in their place “Uh, because we haven’t talked in a while?” Ouch, why don’t you dig the knife in deeper, Natasha?  “Look, I know you’re mad, but—”

    “Yeah, I’m mad, Tash—Natasha, but not because of what you did to me. I’m mad because of Meg. She called me crying.”

    “What? She called you? Why?” she asked, momentarily distracted by an unwelcome surge of jealously that she had no right to feel. What was Meg calling Nick for? Meg had never liked Nick; according to her, he was boring and pretentious. Nick thought Meg was irresponsible and untrustworthy. It was only because of their shared connection with Natasha that they behaved civilly to one another.

    “Do you even know what day it is?”

    Yeah, it’s Thursday, she thought, but that couldn’t be what he meant. She grabbed her cell from where she’d stashed it in the nightstand. There were several texts and missed calls from both Nick and Meg. She ignored those, and looked at the date. Her heart sank to her stomach, even heavier with guilt than it had been before. Crap. Meg. She’d forgotten Meg’s birthday. The two of them had spent every birthday together since they were six. And this wasn’t just any birthday; it was Meg’s eighteenth birthday. Natasha had promised that though she couldn’t be there physically for this one, she would still do something special. And she’d completely forgotten.

    I’m a horrible person, a terrible best friend. And she thought Laurel and the other cheerleaders were self-centered. They had nothing on Natasha. She took a deep breath and forced her voice to be steady. “Of course I know what day it is. It’s not over yet. I was just about to call her.”

    Nick scoffed loud enough that the sound sent a tickling sensation through her ear. “Right. You never miss the morning birthday text. I know you, remember?”

    The only thing worse than lying to someone you cared about was having them catch you in that lie. “I just—it’s been hard here.” Her voice cracked, giving away the fact that she was on the verge of tears.

    “I know that, Tasha. Natasha. You know I’m never going to get used to that.”

    Natasha couldn’t bring herself to reply. She wasn’t used to it either. She didn’t think she would get used to anything. Her life had turned into something completely unexpected, and nothing felt real anymore.

    Nick continued, “I know things are hard for you right now.” His voice was softer, understanding, and somehow, that made her feel worse. “But it doesn’t excuse how you’re treating us. I don’t deserve to be punished, and neither does Meg.”

    Natasha immediately went on the defensive. “What? How am I punishing you? I just need time, you know that.”

    “And we’re giving it to you, but there’s a difference between needing space and completely shutting people out. You’re lying to us, breaking promises. Hell, you act like we never even existed. You don’t think that’s punishing us?”

    His words punched her in the stomach, right where her guilty heart was resting. God, he was right. She swallowed again, painfully, because the lump was now the size of the Rocky Mountains. “I’m not trying to,” she said, her voice a whisper. If he hadn’t known she was crying before, he did now.

     “Really? Because it doesn’t seem like that. Tasha—damn it—Natasha, what your par—Steven and Ellen did is messed up, but it’s not our fault. None of us did anything wrong, but you’re acting like we did.”

    “Okay! Okay, Nick, I get it. I know. I’m a horrible person. You don’t—you don’t have to rub it in.” Shit. So much for keeping her cool.

    “I never said you were a horrible person.”

    “But I feel like it,” she admitted. “Nick, I’m sorry. I just—I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore. Everything is so confusing. I don’t know how I’m supposed to think or feel, or, or anything.” It was the most honest thing she’d said to him, to anyone, in weeks.

    “I know. I get it. I—” He stopped, though it was clear that he’d been about to say something else.

    Silence fell. Natasha closed her eyes and leaned back against the headboard. It was an awkward silence. She didn’t know what to do or say. Part of her just wanted to hang up, but there was another part of her that liked feeling connected to him, even if it was painful and awkward. She remembered how easy it used to be, sitting in silence with him. They’d lay on his bed, sometimes touching, sometimes not; sometimes clothed, sometimes not, and just be. No talking. Just being together. Now that silence stretched between them, reminding her of the girl she used to be and the things she used to have.

    Nick finally broke that silence. “How’s your first week been?”

    She almost laughed. He probably thought he was making casual conversation, having no idea how loaded that question was. For a second, she imagined telling him everything. It would be so easy to confide in him. But she couldn’t. She’d kicked him out of her world; it wouldn’t be right to burden him with her problems. “I don’t know. Not bad, but weird. It’s really different here. I made the cheerleading squad.”

    “Cool. Congratulations.”

    More silence. She wanted to ask him how his week was, but stopped herself. She’d broken up with him, would it be rude to ask him how his week was, knowing it was probably bad?

    Again, it was Nick who broke the silence. “When you said you wanted to stay friends, did you mean it, or were you just trying to make dumping me easier?”

    She cringed at the words. She wished he would say break up instead of dump. The latter sounded so much worse. “I—I meant it, Nick. You have to know that,” she said, her voice cracking. She was desperate for him to believe her, to know that she truly hadn’t wanted him out of her life. She still didn’t, but she couldn’t have him in it. He represented the past, and she couldn’t live in the past.

    “Okay, but what about now? Do you still mean it?”

    Crap. He had to go and ask the hard question, didn’t he? The tears were flowing freely now, and she didn’t bother to move the phone away. She wished she could lie, but she couldn’t. Not again. “No. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. It’s not because I don’t want to be. I just can’t right now.”

    “You said that when you dumped me. It still doesn’t make any sense. If you want me—as a friend or a boyfriend—then I’m right here.”

    The pain in his voice was too much. It pulled at her insides. She felt like she was going to break apart. “It’s not that simple. It’s—”

    “Save it. Whatever you say, I won’t understand.”

    “Okay,” she said. There was nothing more she could say. She couldn’t make either of them feel better.

    “If you change your mind, you know where to find me,” he said. She didn’t think he’d intended those words to hurt, but they did, because she knew he meant them. He would be there for her in an instant, despite the fact that she’d hurt him.

    “Thanks,” she said, the word coming out a whisper.

    “Yeah. Bye, Tasha.”

    “Bye, Nick.” There was a click. It was a tiny sound, but the finality of it ripped a hole inside her. 


Thanks for reading! Comments welcome! 

Friday, July 7, 2017

My poor neglected blog

Hello, poor neglected blog. I've really missed you.

Okay, so it hasn't been totally neglected, mainly because I've been posting my YA Paranormal, City of Secrets, on it. But still, as far as my blogging about writing: it's been neglected.

So much has been happening over the past year. The main reason it's been neglected is because last summer I began working on multiple projects, which I swore I would never do. I was trying to keep up regular installments of City of Secrets while working on my Adult Post-Apocalypse vampire novel, New Year's Revolution. Now NYR is on hold while I work on Pieces, my first ever in the Adult literary fiction category (more on the progress of Pieces later). So many projects. I told myself I wouldn't work on multiple projects, but I did. The ideas just started building up and I didn't want to ignore any one of them. So the blog suffered. Big time.

Then I started throwing myself into jewelry making. I am now a seasoned jewelry maker, though I like to say craftivist. Why craftivist? My friend started an organization called Pins With Purpose. Artists volunteer time and supplies to make jewelry to sell for charity. Learn more here:
Yes, that was indeed a shameless plug.
Along with jewelry making, I've thrown myself into the advertising and marketing of PWP, so I'm on the net all the time tweeting. That is not an easy task. So the blog suffered. Big time.

I've also spent the past year dealing with chronic neuropathy and ankle pain and battling with a WC insurance company to get healthcare. The pain makes me very fatigued. I did finally have surgery number three on my ankle. It's hard to say at this point how I'm recovering, but I'm thinking positively. Guess what? That contributed to the suffering of my blog. Big time.

Those are just a few of the things that made me neglect my poor blog. But I worked hard on getting this blog going, and I don't want to lose it. So I'm back. I will be blogging about writing again, and whatever else comes to mind.

Stay tuned . . .  Exciting news (I swear) to come.

Until then, you should check out my YA Paranormal serial, City of Secrets. It's about a small town with plenty of juicy secrets and some ghosts. It's free to read here on my blog. I'd love comments and opinions. Thanks.

Also, I'd love a FB like!
Thanks! You're all awesome!

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 fiancĂ© 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 fiancĂ©, 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.

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.