Monday, May 29, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 17

City of Secrets

Chapter 17

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

Chapter 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    She didn’t. She had no tears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Password. Cleaning out her office.

    Oh no.

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

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

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

    Why is she shouting? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Why not?”

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

    “Okay. Good idea.”

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


Saturday, May 20, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 16

City of Secrets

Chapter 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, May 18, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 15

City of Secrets

Chapter 15

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

Chapter 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Thanks, Jason.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Cool, sit with us, okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 14

City of Secrets

Chapter 14

Previously: Ms. Miller, the school guidance counselor, was found dead in her car--her throat slit--on the first day of school.
Penny woke in the middle of the night after a realistic nightmare featuring her brother's ghost, a mysterious stranger, and Ms. Miller's body. Just as she was falling back to sleep, Penny heard shouting from downstairs. 

Chapter 14
    As Penny crept down the hall, an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu came over her. This was so much like the dream she’d just woken up from that she wondered if she really had woken up. What if she was still dreaming? She thought about pinching herself, but then wondered if that actually worked. Couldn’t her dream-self just dream that she was feeling pain? She settled for a self-inspection instead, and was relieved to see that she was wearing the over-sized t-shirt with the periodic table of the element symbols for lead and zinc holding guitars and dancing. The shirt read “heavy metals” in fancy letters. Richie had bought it for her because she was always complaining about his music being too loud. He’d said she couldn’t complain because she also liked heavy metal. He hadn’t even called her a dork, though she figured he had to have been thinking it.

    She pushed the memory aside. It was too much. But at least she wasn’t wearing the rainbow pajamas of her middle school days, which meant that she was awake.

    “. . . just to insult me?” Her father’s voice drifted up the stairs.

    The only thing Penny could tell from the muffled response was that it came from a woman. Hope filled Penny’s heart, and she hurried the rest of the way down the stairs. She never thought she’d be happy to hear her parents arguing, but she was. Since Richie’s death, her mother hadn’t raised her voice above the dreamy whisper that was beginning to drive Penny insane. But if Vicky was angry enough to argue with her husband, then it meant she was feeling something again. It meant she was back.

    Knowing she shouldn’t, but unable to resist, Penny crept forward until she reached the kitchen. Staying clear of the dim yellow light that leaked into the hall, she pressed herself against the wall. The scent of coffee drifted to her nose.

    “Help? With what? We’re fine,” Douglas said.

    Penny bit back an exasperated sigh. She was tempted to run into the kitchen and shake the truth into her father. What was wrong with him? They were not fine. They were so far from fine, she wasn’t even sure what that was anymore.

    A harsh laugh drifted out of the kitchen. “Fine? Doug, your son is dead, your wife has checked out, and your daughter is a senior.”

    Penny’s heart sank. The voice didn’t belong to her mother. It sounded like her Aunt Sharon, but that couldn’t be right. Sharon lived in Boulder, which was about a four-hour drive. Penny hadn’t heard anything about Sharon planning a visit. If she’d just gotten there, it meant she’d been driving all night. But why? Wait . . . why was Penny being a senior on Sharon’s list of things that weren’t fine?

    “Don’t you think I know these things?” Douglas asked.

    “I think you have an uncanny ability to lie to yourself. This whole damn town does. It’s a sickness. One of many.”

    A chill went down Penny’s spine. She didn’t have a clue what her aunt was talking about, but the bitterness in her voice was surprising.

    “So you did come to insult me. You could’ve just done that over the phone.”

    “No, that’s not it. Doug, I’m sorry.” A short silence followed. Penny heard the clinking sound of a mug being set on the counter. “Our application was denied again.”

    More silence. Finally, Doug said, “Oh, Share, I’m so sorry. Look, I can’t imagine how hard this must be, but you can’t give up. You can—”

    “Jerry’s leaving me.” Her voice was flat. Hollow. Penny’s heart broke for her aunt. She hadn’t been that close with her Uncle Jerry, but she’d always thought he and Sharon had been good together. When she’d stayed with them over the summer, everything had seemed fine. Had that been an act?

    “Because of that?” A beat later, Douglas continued, “Then he’s an ass. The two of you are in this together. What does he think? That he can find someone—”

    “Who isn’t barren? That’s exactly what he thinks. And he’s right. Then he won’t need to go through the system to have a child.”

    Guilt washed over Penny. She’d had no idea that Sharon couldn’t have children—that she’d even wanted them. This was none of her business. She had no right to be eavesdropping.

    “He’s still an asshole. He should stand by—”

    “I don’t blame Jerry. I blame him.”

    Penny had been backing toward the stairs, when her father said, “Sharon.” Penny froze. She recognized that tone all too well. She was more accustomed to hearing it used on Richie, but it had been used on her a few times over the course of her life. It was her father’s warning tone. It meant, wherever you’re about to take this, don’t go any further. 

    Sharon must not have known about Doug’s warning tone, because she didn’t stop. “You know it’s true. He said I’d be free, and I was stupid enough to believe him. All I had to do was give up my chance at having children, and I could leave. I thought it was worth it. But I thought—I don’t know what I thought. I didn’t know how far he would take it. I didn’t think he could—”

    “Sharon. Shut. Your. Mouth.” Doug’s voice was low. Deadly. Penny had never heard her father like that before. When he was angry, he usually shouted. Penny thought the quiet anger was even more powerful, but she detected a note a fear in her father’s voice as well.

    Silence fell over the kitchen. Penny’s heart pounded, and she knew she needed to get upstairs. If her father caught her now, who knew how much trouble she’d be in. But she couldn’t bring herself to move. What Sharon had said didn’t make sense. Her father’s anger made even less sense. Nothing made sense anymore. Her nightmares, Richie’s death, Josh’s silence, Chase Martindale’s involvement. . . . Penny was tired of things not making sense, so she stayed right where she was. She deserved answers.

    When Douglas spoke again, his tone was calm. “What are you talking about? You haven’t been drinking, have you? While driving? What is wrong with you? You could get yourself killed. Vicky couldn’t handle that. Not after Kyle. After Richie.”

    Kyle? Who was Kyle?

    “Fuck you, Doug. You know I’m not drunk, and you know exactly what I’m talking about. He did this to me. It’s my punishment. I could’ve been Mrs. Conrad Martindale. I could’ve had everything I ever wanted. I could’ve had things I didn’t even know I wanted. But instead I chose freedom. Except I had no idea that I would never really—”

    There was a bang as what Penny assumed was a coffee mug was slammed down on the counter.

    Sharon gasped. “D—Doug.”

    “We. Aren’t. Supposed. To. Talk. About. It.”

    “Oh, come on, Douglas. He can’t hear us. He can’t possibly.”

    Penny rubbed her fingers to her temples, struggling to keep up. Who was the “he” they kept mentioning? Chase’s father? Had he and Sharon had a thing in high school? That was news, but it sounded like they had, or at least, Conrad had wanted them to. Whoever they were talking about, he was powerful, and they were afraid of him. Conrad Martindale easily fit that bill. But why was her dad afraid Conrad could hear them?

    “Sharon, you just accused him of causing your infertility and being responsible for five failed adoptions. Apparently you think he’s akin to God. You want to know what I think? Stress. It’s getting to you. It’s perfectly understandable. First, yet another adoption falls through, and then Jerry. We’re here for you Sharon, but you have to stop talking like this. It’s insane. You’re welcome to stay with us as long as you need.”

    Speaking of insane, how about this entire conversation? Penny thought. She didn’t like the way her dad was talking. One second he was right along with her aunt in Crazy Land, and the next he acted like he had no idea what she was talking about.

    “Like I’d stay here longer than I have to. Look, Douglas, I came here to talk about Penny.”

    Penny inched closer to the kitchen doorway. There was no way she was going upstairs now.

    “What about her?”

    Sharon let out a huff of air that might’ve been a laugh, but she didn’t sound amused. “What about her?” she echoed mockingly. “You really are a piece of work. What happened to you, Douglas?”

    “Back to the insults again, I see. Shall I brew another pot of coffee?”

    “I’m sorry, I just don’t understand,” Sharon said. “Staying here and taking the deal was one thing. A part of me actually gets it. I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t tempted. But having children, knowing what would happen to them?”

    Penny felt like she’d accidentally wandered into a different, yet identical house, and was listening to a conversation between two people who sounded like her aunt and her father, but weren’t.

    “Not would. Could. Come on, Sharon. You think Vicky and I really believed it could happen to them? You think anyone believes it’s going to be their kids?”

    Penny was beginning to wonder if they’d laced the coffee with LSD. That would explain everything.

    “Is that what helps you sleep at night?” There was a pause before Sharon continued. “Look, you know Penny’s in danger. I can help you. I can get—”

    Penny’s stomach somersaulted. Danger? How was she in danger?

    “She’s not. Not anymore. He never—” Doug paused and let out a long sigh. “We shouldn’t even be talking about this. It’s too dangerous. But he never takes two sacrifices from one family. Even he isn’t that cruel.”

    Penny felt sick. Sacrifices? Had she heard that right? Were they talking about Conrad Martindale again? She’d come to the conclusion a long time ago that the entire Martindale family was completely heartless, but sacrifices? Her dad couldn’t possibly have meant that word literally. Except—two from one family. Richie. Chase had killed Richie. But his father—was he in on that? And how did Penny’s father fit into it? There was no way he knew about it. No way. He wouldn’t have let the Martindales—no matter how powerful they were—get away with it.

    “You’re just going to trust that?”

    “What choice do I have?” Doug asked.

    “Get Penny out of here. Let me take her. She can live with me, finish high school in Boulder.”

    What? Sharon hadn’t mentioned that idea when Penny had been there over the summer. Where was this coming from?

    “Are you insane? You know that won’t work. No one just leaves. It never ends well. Or have you forgotten?” Doug’s voice was eerily low, making Penny’s stomach churn.

    “That’s because people plan it. They think about it, they talk about it, they change their mind several times before actually doing it. Worse, they wait until he’s approached them. None of those things have happened to Penny. If I take her in the morning—no planning, no preparing—it will work. Doug, it’s the only way.”

    “God, Sharon, you don’t know had badly I want to say yes. If I thought—if I knew it would work, I would wake her up right now and send her away.”

    “Then do it.”

    Penny didn’t know what to think. Her father didn’t want her there. But why? Was she actually in danger?

    “Sharon, I can’t. It’s not worth the risk. You’ll be discovered. You’ll both be killed.”

    Penny’s stomach churned. Killed? He couldn’t be serious. This was insane. Killed by who? Just for leaving town? That was ridiculous. She’d been gone all summer, and nothing bad had happened.

    “So what are you going to do then? Just wait and see? Hope for the best?” Sharon asked, acid in her voice.

    “I don’t have a choice. None of us do.”

    “Douglas, don’t you get it? All bets are off. Gertie is dead. Gertie. After all these years. What do you think that means?”

    Gertie? Was she talking about Gertrude Miller? And why was she asking him what it meant? A crazy vagrant had killed Ms. Miller at random. It didn’t mean anything.

    “I think it means you’re under too much stress,” Doug said, his tone gentle.

    Sharon laughed harshly. “You once asked if I thought I was better than you. I told you I wasn’t, but I was wrong. I am better than you. I may have made sacrifices just to get out of this hell, but at least I sacrificed things that were mine. What did you do? You sacrificed your own son so you could have a little bit of power. I don’t care what you say. You knew it was a possibility. And now you’re going to sit back and let the same thing happen to your daughter.”

    “Get out.”

    “Doug, I—.”

    “You heard me. Get out.”

    “I—I didn’t mean it,” Sharon said, her voice shaking.

    Glass shattered against the wall. “Get out!”

    Penny gasped and threw her hand over her mouth, but Sharon’s shriek covered up the sound. Without another second’s hesitation, Penny turned and dashed up the stairs as her aunt and father continued to argue. “Damn it, Doug! Have you lost your mind?”

    “Sharon, get out. I’m not going—”

    Penny slammed her bedroom door shut and flung herself on the bed, throwing the blankets over her head.

    Oh god, oh god, oh god. What the hell was that? Heart pounding, she lifted the blankets and listened. The shouting had stopped. Everything was quiet. Eerily quiet.

    Maybe I never got out of bed. Maybe it was all a dream. The conversation she’d just overheard was exactly like something out of a dream. There wasn’t any other explanation. Nothing they’d said added up. Not a single word.

    Except it had felt real, unlike the earlier dream.

    No. No, Penny, it wasn’t real. It couldn’t have been. She lay back and closed her eyes as her breathing returned to normal. It was just a dream, it was just a dream, it was just a dream. She repeated it over and over until she fell back to sleep.

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Saturday, May 13, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 13

City of Secrets

Chapter 13

Previously: Natasha and Chase discovered their guidance counselor, Ms. Miller, dead in her car on the afternoon of the first day of school. 

Chapter 13
     Penny was huddled underneath her blankets, waiting. Any minute now, her alarm would go off. Her stomach flip-flopped in anticipation. She couldn’t believe they were actually going to do it.

    Voices came from down the hall—Richie and Josh getting ready. Her stomach increased its rate of flip-flops per second. Didn’t they know they needed to keep it down? They’d wake up her parents, and then everything would be ruined.

    Penny glanced at the clock and gasped when she saw it was already past midnight. She must’ve set the alarm wrong. The boys were probably wondering if she’d fallen asleep. She was about to climb out of bed and tell them she’d be ready in a minute when it occurred to her that if she didn’t show up, Josh might come in to get her. The thought of Josh in her bedroom turned the flip-flops into Olympic-worthy aerial somersaults.

    Flicking on the bedside lamp, she did a quick scan for anything that would mean the end of the world forever if Josh happened to see it. But she had nothing to worry about. Though obsessive inside her head, she wasn’t the type of girl to write a boy’s name hundreds of times on a piece of paper (what if someone saw it?). She’d cleaned her room before going to bed, so there were no bras lying around, thank goodness. If Josh saw those, she really would have to run away—without him.

    Penny finger-combed her hair, which was full of kinks from being in braids all day. Any minute now, Josh was going to knock on the door. No he isn’t, dummy. You’re supposed to meet him downstairs. Along with your brother! Penny jumped out of bed, feeling like a lovesick dweeb. How could she have forgotten about Richie? She wasn’t having a romantic rendezvous with Josh because the three of them were running away together. Also, Josh didn’t think of her that way. He probably already had a girlfriend anyway. He was thirteen, after all. Didn’t teenagers automatically get girlfriends? Was that what he and Richie were whispering about all the time? Was that why they seemed to want her around less and less? Did they think they couldn’t talk about girls with her around?

    Stop it, it doesn’t matter, she thought, stuffing her feet into her shoes and comforting herself with the fact that at least they’d included her in their most recent plans. She grabbed her backpack and rushed out of her bedroom, telling herself that her anxiety was about running away, not about seeing Josh. As she walked by Richie’s room, she saw that it was dark. He and Josh must already be waiting for her. As she crept downstairs, part of her wondered if the whole thing was just another one of their practical jokes.

    The boys loved playing pranks on her, and the last one had been a bust on their part, which meant they were long overdue for another. Josh had gotten his older brother Ben to dress up as the gravekeeper, but it had gone wrong from the start. Richie and Josh hadn’t been able to come up with a good enough reason to get Penny to walk through the cemetery. She was already suspicious by the time they’d convinced her to do it. Then there was Ben’s costume. It had been a joke in and of itself. The gravekeeper was supposed to be from the late nineteenth century, and Ben had been wearing his grandfather’s suit from the late twentieth century.

     Morons, Penny thought, smiling affectionately.

    Her parents were arguing in the kitchen. She froze, thinking that Richie and Josh had gotten caught. She almost turned and went back upstairs, but realized that the living room light was on, not the kitchen light. That’s weird, she thought. Tiptoeing, she descended the stairs and was almost in the living room when she stopped, looking down at herself in surprise.

    Light shined in from the hall, illuminating her pajamas. The ones with the rainbows on them. Her cheeks burned. She could’ve sworn she’d changed into jeans. She would never in a million years risk Josh seeing her in pajamas, especially not the ones with the rainbows. Even weirder than the pajamas themselves was the fact that they no longer fit. The tight pants didn’t reach her knees, and the shirt barely covered her belly button. Mortified, she started to wrap her arms around her stomach, but stopped when her arms hit—holy crap! Penny stared in awe, suddenly not sure how old she was.

    “Why don’t you talk to me anymore?”

    “It’s none of your business!”

    Penny put her hands over her ears. Her parents’ voices were so loud, it hurt to listen to them. She stepped into the light of the living room, needing to be away from them. The mess brought the truth rushing back to her. She wasn’t twelve years old anymore. She was seventeen, Richie was dead, and Josh had abandoned her.

    No—wait. Richie was there, standing at the far end of the room.

    At least, he looked like Richie. He had the same ash blond curls and pale skin, the same slate gray eyes, but he was missing the classic Richie grin and the dimples in his cheeks. It made his black clothes, the thick silver chain around his neck, and the snake tattoo on his left arm look more sinister. She stared at the dark ink, the colors blurring together as she remembered when he’d first come home with it. She’d thought their father was going to kill him.

    “Richie,” she whispered.

    His eyes met hers. The urgency in his expression frightened her. She didn’t understand what it meant, not at first, but then she recognized his clothes. He wore a Nine Inch Nails shirt, the one that said “help me i am in hell” in red and orange block letters that looked like they were made of flames. It was the one he’d worn the day he died.

    She ran across the room, but stopped before reaching him. She didn’t know why, but she couldn’t go to him. Not yet. She wasn’t allowed, not until she saved him.

    “Richie,” she said, realizing that if he was there, then it wasn’t too late. “Richie, come on. We can still do this. We can still get out of here.” For a moment he only stared at her, and she wondered if he’d even heard. Then he shook his head. “Yes, we can. Come on. Where’s Josh?”

    He shook his head again.

    “He cannot speak. Not yet anyway,” a voice from behind her said.

    Penny gasped and turned around. The gravekeeper—or rather, Josh’s brother Ben dressed as the gravekeeper—stood by the couch. Penny sighed in annoyance. “This isn’t funny, Ben. We have to get out of here. Where’s Josh?”

    Ben didn’t answer, so she turned back to Richie, whose face was twisted in an expression of either sadness or pain. “Come on, Richie. We have to get out of here. We can find Josh later.” It was the only way to save him, to save all of them. Again, Richie just shook his head. Penny wanted to shake him.

    “He is here to warn you, to tell you it is too late.”

    Penny turned around, ready to yell at Ben for butting in, when she realized that it wasn’t Ben at all. Standing in her living room as though he had every right to be there was the real gravekeeper, who did in fact exist, because where else would the legends have come from? His brown suit was filled with tiny, uneven holes, like it was moth-eaten. Now that’s a Nineteenth century suit, she thought. The man didn’t look much older than Richie, but his eyes held years in them—decades. They were deep and dark and made Penny gasp in fear. “Who—who are you?” she asked.

    His lips formed a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “It does not matter anymore. I am no one. I am nothing,” he said softly. “I had a name once, but he has taken it from me. I suppose I truly am the gravekeeper.”  

    Penny had to strain to hear him over the voices from the kitchen. They were growing louder. “I don’t understand.” She looked from the gravekeeper to Richie, who shook his head again. She’d had enough. “Will you stop that?”

    “It is all he can do, for he cannot speak. He is trying to warn you, to tell you it is too late,” the gravekeeper repeated.

    “Then what does it even matter?” she asked, blinking at Richie. Was he moving? No, he wasn’t. He was shimmering, fading. His shirt had a wispy look to it. His gray eyes were cloudy. She could almost see through him to the wall behind him. “No,” she whispered.

    “She tried to help you, you know,” the gravekeeper said. “She failed and now she’s made things so much worse for you.”

    “What? Who is she?” Penny asked, still not looking away from Richie, who was just barely visible now. She reached a hand toward him, but she didn’t dare touch him. What if he disappeared completely?

    “You were nothing but leverage before. Now, he has noticed you. He does not like what he sees.” At this, Richie’s gossamer form shook his head again. Penny thought she saw anger cross his face just before he disappeared.

    “Richie!” She screamed and reached for the space he’d just occupied. There was nothing there. She spun around to face the gravekeeper, whose face was expressionless. “Bring him back!”

    “I did not do this. I control nothing.”

    “Who are you?” she asked again.

    “I am no one.” He vanished. On the couch behind him sat Ms. Miller. Her eyes were wide and vacant. Blood poured from her throat. Penny opened her mouth to scream.

    She sat up in bed, breathing hard. Sweat dripped down her forehead, her neck, her arms. . . . She put her hand to her mouth, wondering if she’d screamed out loud or not. Almost positive that she hadn’t, she fell back onto her pillow, relieved. The last thing she needed was to be waking up her mother in the middle of the night screaming.

    She glanced at the clock and sighed when she saw it was only two in the morning. It was just a dream, she thought. She was drifting back to sleep when she heard a shout from downstairs. She sat up, realizing that the arguing from her dream hadn’t been part of the dream at all.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 12

City of Secrets

Chapter 12

Previously: While visiting her parents' graves, Natasha got caught in a thunderstorm. She ran into Chase, a classmate, who offered to show her a shortcut home. Though unsure whether to trust him, Natasha agreed, and followed him into the woods.

Chapter 12

    Natasha no longer existed.

    Or at least, that was how she felt walking through the overgrown forest with Chase. His large hand swallowed up her smaller one. Even worse, the wild tangle of trees—which were so close together that Chase had been forced to fold the umbrella—devoured the rest of her body. The rain had mostly stopped, but water from the leaves still dripped onto their heads.

    Chase hadn’t been consumed by the forest; he’d become one with it, as though he belonged. Natasha could barely see where to put her feet, yet Chase knew exactly which turns to take and which ones to avoid. It was encouraging and frustrating at the same time. All Natasha could do was keep her eyes glued to his feet to avoid tripping.

    She’d told Chase she could be a mountain girl, but she couldn’t. She didn’t belong there. She belonged on a paved street in front of a Starbucks with the sun shining down on her. Her fingers belonged entwined with Nick’s. She was meant to be laughing with her best friends while fielding texts from her parents, who were supposed to be Steven and Ellen Jameson.

    Supposed to be. Should’ve been.


    That perfect world had shattered when she’d found the piece of paper that her Uncle Steven and her AuntEllen (by marriage only) had never meant for her to find—her birth certificate. Because of them she wasn’t sitting in a world of light with a boyfriend who was so perfect for her it felt like he was half of her whole, and friends she’d once thought she could share anything with. Instead, she was stumbling deeper into a world of darkness with a strangely duplicitous boy and making friends with people who seemed like they’d make better enemies.

    The farther they walked, the more Natasha wished she’d insisted on going through the main gate, but she couldn’t turn back now. She’d never find the way. No one knows you’re with him, she thought again.

    As if he’d read her mind, Chase asked, “You okay?”

    No, this place is creeping me out. You’re creeping me out. “Yeah. Fine. Are you sure you know where you’re going?”

    “Trust me. We’re almost there.” He said it with confidence, but Natasha wasn’t reassured. She’d already learned that Chase said everything with confidence.

    But a few more twists and turns later, Natasha saw light ahead—or at least, less darkness. Space opened up around them. Chase stepped to the side, letting go of her hand. They were in an overgrown field with a scattering of aspens. A dirt path led to a group of houses in the distance. It was her aunt’s neighborhood—just as Chase had promised.

    He gave her an I-told-you-so look. “See? What’d I tell you?”

    “It wasn’t that I didn’t believe you,” she lied. “It’s just that I never would’ve guessed that,” she nodded to the mess of pines behind them, “led anywhere.”

    “So, does this mean I’m worth keeping around?” He grinned, nudging her shoulder lightly with his.

    She pretended to think about it for a minute before returning the gesture. “Yeah, I suppose you could be useful.”

    “Oh, I’m very useful.”

    I’m counting on it. “Come on. I’m exhausted.”

    Natasha looked around as they walked. Caribou Canyon was much larger than one would think based on the population. A lot of the houses took up two or three lots; Natasha was quickly learning that the residents of Caribou Canyon liked their privacy. The houses were not the usual rustic, mountain cabins or ranch-style homes. Many of the older dwellings had had additions built onto them over the years as their owners’ wealth and tastes grew. The newer houses had a more modern look, giving the town a motley, patchwork appearance that Natasha hadn’t seen anywhere else.

    Natasha pointed at a house up ahead. “Hey, Ms. Miller must’ve just gotten home,” she said, noticing the academic advisor’s car in the driveway. The driver door was open.

     “Yeah, looks that way,” Chase said as he reopened the umbrella and held it above their heads. The rain was picking up again.

    “It’s weird, her living so close by. Back home, I had no idea where any of my teachers lived,” Natasha said, feeling a surge of homesickness. She’d told Laurel that Caribou Canyon wasn’t that different from Denver, but that had been a lie, plain and simple.

    Chase shrugged. “She inherited the house from her parents. Lucky for her, the mortgage was already paid off. Otherwise she’d be living in a shack.”

    There was a clear note of distaste in his voice. Natasha wondered if it was really how he felt, or if he’d adopted his parents’ opinions. She couldn’t imagine that a teenager actually cared whether or not someone’s mortgage was paid off.

    “Let’s go say hi,” Natasha said when they reached the end of Ms. Miller’s driveway.

     “Really?” Chase’s tone made it sound like Natasha had just asked him to volunteer to take double the amount of classes.

    She laughed. “Come on, she’s my neighbor. Plus, it looks like she might need help.”  

    “Fine. Teacher’s pet.”

    “Technically, she’s not a teacher,” Natasha said as they walked up the driveway.

    As they neared, rain poured down around them again. The sound echoed in Natasha’s ears. She froze. Despite the droplets of water that bounced up and down on the pavement, there was a feeling of stillness around the car; it didn’t look like anyone was in it. Ms. Miller had probably left the door open by mistake. So why then, did Natasha have a sudden sick feeling in her stomach?

    “Natasha.” Though Chase’s voice was nearly drowned out by the rain, Natasha still heard a note of dread in it. “Let’s just go,” he said.

    “No. We can’t.” She put one foot in front of the other. One step at a time, she moved toward the open car door.

    “Natasha, wait,” Chase said, just before Natasha stepped up to the driver side of the car and looked inside. Ms. Miller was leaning over the passenger seat, head down, as if she were searching for something on the floor.

     “Ms. Miller,” Natasha said. The woman acted as though she hadn’t heard her, so Natasha poked her head in the car. “Ms. Miller?”

    There was still no answer. Natasha reached out to tap her on the shoulder, but froze with her hand in mid-air. Wrong. Ms. Miller wasn’t searching for anything, because her left arm was dangling limply by her legs. Her right arm was out of sight, probably trapped underneath her body. Why hadn’t Natasha noticed that right away?

    “Chase, something’s wrong.” Natasha hardly recognized the sound of her voice; it was as though she wasn’t even speaking. “Call 911.”

    “What? Are you sure?”

    “Just do it!” Natasha didn’t wait to see if he listened. Leaning farther into the car, she stared at Ms. Miller’s chest, looking for movement. It was hard to tell through the brown suit jacket she wore, but Natasha thought the woman was still. Reaching a shaky hand forward, Natasha moved the edge of the woman’s open jacket aside, revealing her blouse.

    At first, Natasha thought the blouse was a strange choice to pair with the conservative jacket. It was multicolored—cream and different shades of red in a tie-dyed design. The splatter pattern blurred in front of her eyes as the truth registered. Natasha was moving without realizing her brain had sent the instructions to her arms.

     “Natasha, don’t.”

    Why isn’t he calling 911? But Natasha was only vaguely aware of this thought, only vaguely aware of Chase telling her not to do the thing she was doing. She gripped Ms. Miller by both shoulders and used all her strength to pull the woman to a sitting position.

     Ms. Miller—no, Ms. Miller’s body—flopped toward Natasha, her head banging against the back of the seat. Wide, empty eyes stared up at her. Blood, thick and dark and unreal in its volume, poured from the wide, gaping wound across Ms. Miller’s neck. It stained her cream-colored blouse—thick and dark in some places, thin and light in others.

     Natasha screamed and stumbled back, bumping into Chase. She kept screaming, as if that might somehow erase the horror, as if it could fix everything.

     “Oh god,” Chase muttered, staring over Natasha’s shoulders. “Oh god. It’s real, it’s real,” he whispered, over and over.

     His words brought Natasha back to reality, and she let her scream fall away. “Call the police!” she shouted. He blinked and looked at her like he had no idea what she was talking about. “911! Now!”

     He nodded, his eyes wide. At some point, he’d dropped the umbrella. It had rolled down the driveway and was now spinning back and forth lazily in the street. It was raining too hard to even consider pulling out a phone, so he dashed up to the front door and ducked underneath the overhang of the roof.

     Natasha stepped away from the car, hugging her arms to her chest. Around her, the world spun out of control. She heard rain and the roar of thunder, which was so strong it made the ground shake. No, that was her body, shaking from cold or fear, or maybe both. Was she crying, or was that the rain on her face?

    “Natasha, get up here!” Chase said. Natasha jumped, realizing he was by her side again. He grabbed her arm and pulled. Dazedly, she let him lead her up the driveway and to the door. “They’re coming,” he said, his voice monotone. Natasha looked up at him and nodded. His face was ashen.

    Natasha stared around her at the quiet, empty street. Wrong, she thought. There was a dead body in the driveway. Natasha had screamed at the top of her lungs for several seconds. Someone should’ve heard her. People should’ve come outside to see what had happened. Except no one had. The street was quiet. Dead quiet. It was all wrong.


Next Chapter:

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Despite popular opinion, needing government assistance sucks

I saw this on a FB friend's wall today:

It really upset me. I hate the line of thinking that people in various government assistance programs are lazy leeches. The majority of us are not.

First of all, there is a great deal of shame that goes with being poor. I'm currently on medicaid, and used to be a food stamp recipient. The process of applying for these programs is draining and humiliating. You are basically asked to provide your life story and all your deepest darkest secrets. You are made to feel like the lowest scum of the planet. Also, you really don't get much. I got $16 a month worth of food stamps. It did help, but it almost wasn't even worth the grueling application process.

I'd like to tell the story of why I'm in need of assistance. I hope it will enlighten some people.

I used to work at a nonprofit organization for adults with developmental disabilities. In addition, I worked in the retirement day program, which meant that the people I served had degenerative disabilities on top of everything else. It was extremely tough, but extremely rewarding work.

Two and a half years ago, I was assisting a man with gait issues to walk. He fell, bumped my knee, and took me down with him. I wound up with a high ankle sprain (less common and more severe than your average ankle sprain) that didn't heal properly. I had surgery, but my tendon had a bad reaction to the suture, so I had a second surgery. Again, the tendons had a bad reaction, and I was left with chronic neuropathy in both legs (it sucks.) After many doctor visits and a fight with WC insurance, two weeks ago I had surgery #3. I have a new, very experienced surgeon, so I'm hopeful that the 3rd time's the charm.

I lost my job because the company I worked for was too small to find an accommodating position for me (no hard feelings there; it is what it is), but I do receive worker's comp benefits.

If it weren't for the Medicaid expansion program, I otherwise wouldn't have had medical care for things other than the worker comp injury. I'm grateful for the program, and those who contribute to it. I don't know what I would have done with out it.
I feel that for people who are posting the above meme, this should be pointed out: I'm also grateful to myself, since, as someone who worked for 18 years prior to this, I contributed to medicaid and SS as well!!!!

Unfortunately, there are indeed bad apples who abuse these programs. It angers me because it makes people like me--the vast majority--look bad. Those bad apples are the minority. The media doesn't report "And today 2 million welfare recipients did not abuse the program" because that's not exciting news. The two people who did abuse it--that's exciting news.
Let me give an analogy to help my point. When you go into a restaurant and receive bad service, you're pretty angry about it. Sometimes, you are so angry that you tell your friends about it, and post a review on Yelp. But when you get good service, how often do you take the time to write a review? Sadly, I rarely do (though recently I've made a point of doing this.) Something good happens, and we move on with our day. It's the same thing with people on assistance programs. There's no need for the media to report on the good recipients, because there is nothing to report.

People often make jokes about how lucky I am that I don't work and don't have to get up to an alarm.
Yeah, that's definitely nice. Not working has it's perks, I won't lie. But the negatives far outweigh the positives. I'm bored. I'm in pain twenty for hours a day. I can't do the things I used to be able to do--like walk, dance, go bowling, etc. I often have the mental motivation to do something, but the physical energy is just not there. I really miss being able to work. I feel useless and depressed, and it is not a good feeling. What I miss even more is working in the human services profession. It was so rewarding.

Before I was injured, I used to look at my pay stub and see the Medicaid and SS deductions and think, "Crap. That's a lot of $ I don't get." But now that one of those programs has helped me so much, I'm grateful, more than I can say (there will probably be a future post coming soon about how this might all be taken away soon, but that wasn't what I wanted to address in this post).

I hope people who share memes like the one pictured above, and those who complain about giving $ to assistance programs, will listen to my story and maybe think about it differently. If it doesn't, just remember that life is ironic. The person complaining about giving $ to medicaid could experience some disaster in the future and then be in need of the very program they complained so adamantly about. Life's a bitch that way.

Comments, thoughts, opinions welcome, so long as they are civilized.

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