Tuesday, April 11, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 1

Chapter 1

     “How is your first day going, Penny?” Gertrude Miller asked, settling into her chair.

    Penny didn’t register the sound of her name. She was lost in her thoughts as she stared out the window, watching the other students as they milled about the courtyard of Caribou Canyon High. Their wide smiles and brightly colored clothes gave the illusion that the sun was shining, but it wasn’t. It was trapped behind the clouds, like it always was in Caribou Canyon, Colorado.


    The warning bell rang, but the shrill sound wasn’t enough to snap Penny from her reverie. She watched as everyone rushed inside for the final period of the day, but she wasn’t seeing them at all. She was seeing a different first day: one from three years ago. A smaller version of herself walked onto the lawn, her ash blond hair in two braids instead of one. Next to her was her older—and cooler—brother Richie, who wasn’t at all embarrassed to be tasked with showing his sister around the high school.

    “Penny!” Ms. Miller shouted at the same time as the final bell rang.

    Penny jumped. She turned away from the window and focused on Ms. Miller, the academic advisor and guidance counselor. Ms. Miller’s eyes were kind. Too kind. Penny feared that kindness would soon turn to pity, and she’d had enough pity for one day. “I’m sorry. I was just—thinking.”

    Wrinkles formed around Ms. Miller’s eyes as the concern deepened. “Penny, I can’t imagine that today is easy for you. How are you holding up?”

    Penny sat up straight and pasted a smile on her face. “I’m fine. It helps to have school to focus on.” It was the same thing she’d said to the principal, assistant principal, secretary, seven teachers, and janitor who’d all asked her the same question. She was getting tired of saying it.

    “You don’t have to pretend. I know how close you and Richie were.”

    Penny had been about to say she wasn’t pretending, but at the sound of her brother’s name, an unexpected wave of grief hit her. The feeling was like a gust of wind; it pushed her back in the chair. She swallowed the lump in her throat. Ms. Miller was the first person to say Richie’s name all day. In fact, she was the first person to say Richie’s name in weeks; even her parents wouldn’t say it. It was as though people were afraid that if they said his name they might remind her that he was dead. As if that were something she could forget.

    “W—we were,” Penny said, her voice cracking.

    Ms. Miller leaned forward, and for a second Penny found herself locked on the woman’s eyes—they were filled with a sorrow that ran so deep Penny was afraid she would be sucked down into a place so painful she could never return. “You know, Penny, I was your age when my sister died.”

    “Rosalind.” Penny felt like a jerk for not making the connection sooner. That was why there was no pity in Ms. Miller’s eyes. Only sympathy.

    Penny knew the story, though it had happened nearly twenty years ago. Rosalind Miller was camping in Fairview Woods. She hadn’t secured her food and was attacked and killed by a bear. People said her ghost could be seen wandering the trails at night. (Penny assumed the rumors had been started to attract tourists who ate up stories like that.) Rosalind’s ghost was so mangled that she was given the nickname Bloody Rosie. Kids called out her name in the mirror at slumber parties instead of Bloody Mary. Guilt washed over Penny as she thought of these stories; it had never occurred to her that Bloody Rosie had once been someone’s sister.

    Ms. Miller smiled. “Rose. She hated it when people called her Rosalind.”

    Penny was surprised when her own lips formed a smile. It was an unfamiliar sensation. “Richie hated his name too. Douglas Richard Harper Junior. Dad tried to make Junior stick, but Richie wouldn’t have it.”

    “I remember.” Ms. Miller laughed, but her expression quickly turned serious. “Penny, how are you really doing?”

    For a second, Penny was tempted to tell the truth: she was breaking. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could hold on. Her own house was choking the life out of her. Being there, knowing that Richie would never walk through the front door again, was torture. Her parents only made it worse. Her mom barely spoke, and when she did, she made no sense. Her dad was always at work. But she said none of these things. If she did, she would cry. If she cried now, she might never stop. She smiled. “I’m fine.”

    It was clear from the expression on Ms. Miller’s face that she wasn’t buying it, but Penny didn’t care. She didn’t want to talk anymore. “Can I go? Eighth period’s already ten minutes in.”

    “Not yet. I didn’t call you here just to talk about Richie. I never got the chance to congratulate you on your summer internship.”

    Penny felt warmth enter her cheeks. “Oh, thanks.” She’d done a six-week science internship at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder over the summer.

    “The PRECIP program is nothing to scoff over.”

    The warmth stretched to her ears. “Well, yeah, but they were looking for more girls to give spots to.”

    “Stop playing it down, especially considering everything you’ve been through. Not to mention how you got in. Or should I say, how you didn’t get in?”

    Uh-oh. “What are you talking about?”

    “You used your aunt’s last name and address on the application. I’m assuming you didn’t want your parents’ status to influence the decision.”

    Penny shook her head so hard that her braid flew back and forth. “No, that was just a mix-up. The program doesn’t provide housing, so I needed to stay at my aunt’s house. They got our last names and addresses confused was all. I straightened it out once I got there,” Penny said, feeling the heat creep down her neck. She hated lying, even when it was for a good reason.

    There was the faintest of smiles on Ms. Miller’s face. “Penny, I know you. You’ve always hated getting special privileges because of your mother’s fame and your father’s power.”

    Penny sighed; she knew she was caught. “Okay, I do, but so what? What’s wrong with wanting to earn something, rather than have it handed to me?”

    “Nothing. I think it’s admirable.”

    Penny had been prepared to defend herself, so this comment left her speechless. “You do?” she asked after a pause.

    Ms. Miller laughed. “Yes, I do. I think more people around here should adopt your attitude, but I also think having a little bit of their attitude wouldn’t hurt from time to time.”

    Ah, here comes the catch, Penny thought. “What do you mean?”

    All traces of Ms. Miller’s smile had vanished. “I just don’t want you to sabotage your future. I know you have your heart set on an Ivy—”

    “I’d settle for Stanford or Berkeley. Sorry,” Penny added at the silencing look Ms. Miller gave her.

    “You are likely to need your parents' money and influence for that.”

     “I was hoping for an academic scholarship,” Penny said, but she knew the odds of that were slim. They were so competitive.

     “I know, and I want to help you with that.” Ms. Miller began rifling through the papers on her desk. “Colleges look at more than just academics.”

    “Yeah, I know. They like it when you help out the community, so I stayed with my aunt after the internship was over and volunteered with The Birds of Prey organization. Oh, and they also want extracurriculars, but the school keeps dropping mine. Sophomore year it was the science club, and last year it was the girl’s softball team.”

    Ms. Miller smiled. “I know. That’s why I’m offering you another one. Tutoring.”

    “The school doesn’t have a tutoring program.”

    “This would be private tutoring. I’ve set it up myself.” She pointed to a stack of papers in front of her. “If you and the student I have in mind agree, come to my office, sign the papers, and it’s a done deal. You’ll have one more thing to put on your college applications.”

    Ms. Miller was no longer meeting her eyes, which gave Penny a sinking feeling in her stomach. “Who did you have in mind?”

    “Francesca Moreno.”

    Penny gaped. “Are you kidding?”

    “Is that a problem?”

    “Not for me, but I’m thinking Frankie might have a problem opening a book, or even going to class in the first place. Ms. Miller, I don’t think it’s tutoring that she needs. She needs to get her act together.”

    Ms. Miller gave Penny a stern expression. “I’m well aware of that. I believe tutoring is a step in the right direction. Think of the influence you could have on her.” When Penny was speechless, Ms. Miller added, “I never said this was going to be easy.”

    That’s an understatement, Penny thought. She nodded. “Okay. If Frankie’s willing, then I’ll give it a try.”

    “That’s all you can do. If she agrees, come to my office to sign the paperwork and I’ll get you a copy of her course schedule as well as a list of the classes she needs to make up from last year.”

    “Last year? She has classes to make up from last year?” Penny asked, wondering what she was getting herself into.

    “Yes. Are you changing your mind already?”

    “No. It’s fine. Thanks,” Penny said, though she didn’t really feel the sentiment.

    “You’re welcome.” Ms. Miller tore a slip of paper off a pink pad and scribbled something on it. “Here, there’s no use going to eighth period now. Just give this to the teacher tomorrow.”

    Penny took the slip. “Okay.” She gathered her things and stood. She was almost to the door when Ms. Miller called her back. Penny turned around.

    “Penny, if this isn’t enough to get you a scholarship, don’t be too stubborn, okay? Let your parents help you,” Ms. Miller said.

    Penny was taken aback at the direct statement. It wasn’t as though they didn’t have months to talk about it. Penny hadn’t even applied to colleges yet, let alone scholarships. “Um, yeah. Thanks,” she muttered before heading out the door.

    She walked through the empty corridor, grateful that the day was over. When she reached her locker she quickly gathered the things she’d need.

    Footsteps echoed in the empty hall. Assuming it was a teacher on hall duty, Penny pulled the slip Ms. Miller had given her out of her pocket, preparing to hand it over if needed.

    “Hey, Penny.”

    It wasn't a teacher. It was Chase Martindale. She just barely managed to hold in her gasp of surprise. Chase would get far too much pleasure from seeing her jump. Her heart pounded harder in her chest, and she had the irrational fear that he could hear it. She busied herself at her locker for a few more seconds, not ready to face him. She’d been dreading this moment all day, but she should’ve known she wouldn’t make it without running into him.

    She couldn’t stall any longer. She slammed her locker shut and turned around to face her brother’s killer. 


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