City of Secrets
Previously: Frankie is in charge of her younger brother Tommy while her mother and stepfather are out of town. While playing hide-and-seek during a thunderstorm, Frankie loses sight of Tommy. She discovers the back door is open and searches in the backyard--which overlooks the cemetery--for her brother.
Frankie ran across the field as the rain poured down on her, trying not to think about how close the cemetery was. Jagged streaks of electric blue lightning flashed across the sky.
Thunder roared in response.
Frankie stopped, staring out at the cemetery. The trees swayed violently in the wind. Tommy was seven, goofy, and even a little reckless at times, but still, he was a smart kid. There was no way he would stay out in a storm like this just to win a game of hide and seek. So where was he? Had he gone back inside when Frankie wasn’t looking?
She was about to turn and check the house again, when she realized it wasn’t just the tree branches swaying in the wind. There was a man out there. He was barely visible within the copse of trees he was hiding in. His clothes—old and worn—were the same color as the trunks. The rain blurred the scene, further adding to his camouflage. It took Frankie a moment to realize he was staring directly at her. He was waving, his arm moving in time with the tree branches.
Frankie stumbled backward, staring at him. She tried to scream, but all that came out was a strangled gasp. Even from this distance, she knew it was the same man who’d driven her from the cemetery all those years ago. Her foot caught on a branch and she tripped and fell, landing right on her butt.
“Damn it.” It took her a moment struggle to her feet. Lightning lit up the sky again, illuminating the stranger. He’d lowered his arm, but Frankie could’ve sworn she saw a smile on his face. Run, Frankie. Run. The thunder that bellowed around her seemed to be telling her the same thing, but Frankie stayed still. When the only sounds that remained were the howling wind and the pounding raindrops, she shouted, “Where is my brother?”
He lifted his arm and pointed. From behind her came a swooshing sound, followed by a slam. Frankie turned around to see that the sliding glass door was closed. Without a second’s hesitation, she sprinted to the house, grasped the door handle, and pulled. She’d expected it to open, so when it didn’t, her hand slipped and she nearly fell. She grabbed it and tried again, but the door wouldn’t budge. It was locked.
“Tommy!” She pounded on the door. “Open up! This isn’t funny!” She pressed her face to the glass, but didn’t see Tommy. “Tommy!”
Frankie glanced behind her. The man wasn’t hiding in the cemetery anymore. He was in the field now. He was moving closer.
“Tommy! Tommy!” She screamed so loud her throat was raw. “Let me in! Now!” Her fists banged so hard against the glass she was sure they’d be bruised later.
He was halfway across the field now. He seemed to be gliding through it, the tall grass giving him no trouble. She was so paralyzed with fear that she didn’t hear the click of the lock or the sliding sound of the door opening. One second she was pounding on the door, and the next second her fists met air. She stumbled forward, nearly falling into the house.
“Ahh! Watch it, Frankie!” Tommy jumped out of the way. “Why were you outside?”
“Oh my god, Tommy! Where the he—where were you?” Frankie slammed the door, locked it, and put down the security bar, which they rarely used. Then she pulled the blinds shut.
Tommy was looking at her with wide, bewildered eyes. “Why didn’t you come find me, Frankie? I was waiting for—ev—er.” He dragged out the last word.
Frankie took a moment to catch her breath. Her heart was racing. Now that she was inside, she realized how cold she was. She crossed her arms over her chest, which was useless, because she was completely drenched. “You’re not supposed to hide outside, Tommy. You know that.”
“I didn’t!” he said, his voice going up an octave.
“Yes, you did.” Frankie said slowly, trying to keep her anger under control. “And locking me out wasn’t funny either.”
“I didn’t lock you out. I promise, Frankie,” Tommy said, shaking his head frantically. “I stayed in the foyer the whole time. I wanted to trick you. I was behind the coat rack, just like you were. I thought it’d be the last place you’d look.” Tommy’s blue eyes were wide and filled with tears.
“Tommy, I know you went—” She cut herself off, looking at Tommy. His crisp white shirt was a little wrinkled, but completely dry. His dark hair was still in place, and the only dampness on his face was from the tears that were beginning to fall from his eyes. He couldn’t have gone outside. Frankie took a deep, steady breath. “Okay, I believe you. But how did the door get open?”
“I don’t know. I promise.”
Tommy’s lips were quivering, and Frankie couldn’t take it. She ran her hands over her face, not knowing what to think. “It’s okay, Tommy. Marcella must’ve left it open or something.”
“Frankie, are you scared? You said there’s nothing to be afraid of out there, but you look scared.” He glanced behind him at the door, though there was nothing more to see.
“I’m not, and there isn’t. I’m just tired.”
“Is the game over?” Big, blue eyes. Bottom lip out. It wasn’t often that Frankie could resist that face, but at the moment it was easy.
“Yeah, kid. I’m exhausted. Go to the den and play video games. I have to clean this mess up and fix dinner.”
“Really?” The pout turned into a smile. “But I’m not allowed to play before dinner.”
“I’m in charge this week, remember? I’ll call you when dinner’s ready.”
“Okay,” Tommy said, turning and running out of the kitchen, nearly slipping on the wet floor.
“Slow down! No running in the house, remember?” Frankie shouted. She cringed when she realized she was repeating one of Henry’s rules.
“Sorry!” Tommy’s reply came from the other room, which meant he was still running. It almost brought a smile to Frankie’s face, but she couldn’t get the image of that man out of her head.
She reached for the blinds, but paused just before pulling them back. She knew she shouldn’t look, but she couldn’t not look. She parted the blinds, stepped up to the door, and stared out at the yard. It was hard to see through the rain-splattered glass, but it didn’t look like anyone was in the yard, the field, or in the cemetery. Of course no one’s there, Frankie. You imagined him.
She hadn’t imagined him. She couldn’t have. If she hadn’t imagined him, and if he wasn’t from town, then that left one possibility: he was a ghost. Since that was insane, Frankie didn’t know what to think.
Shutting the blinds, she pushed the incident out of her mind; she had too many things to worry about to waste her time being afraid of ghosts. She paused as she headed out of the kitchen, glancing at a piece of paper on the counter. It was an invoice from Billy the gardener, dated that afternoon. She was clipping it to the refrigerator when she wondered how it had gotten there in the first place. Billy had left after Frankie had gotten home, and neither Henry nor Marcella had gone back into the kitchen before leaving for the airport.
The invoice slipped from Frankie’s fingers as she realized that Billy must’ve done it. Creepy Billy who lurked around the yard pretending to trim the hedges in the rain while asking her odd questions about what she wanted. She spun around and glared at the blinds that hid the back door from sight. Frankie’s thoughts were working overtime as she walked across the kitchen, pulling the canister of pepper spray out of her pocket as she did.
She checked the door to make sure it was still locked, even though she’d just closed it five minutes ago. She was certain that Billy had been the one who’d left it open, maybe even on purpose. He was probably the one who’d locked Frankie out, which meant he could still be in the house at that very moment.
After making sure the door was locked, she checked the window above the kitchen sink. She eyed the knives on the counter, wanting to grab one, but not wanting to scare the crap out of Tommy. The pepper spray would have to do. Heart-pounding in her chest, she held the canister in front of her and went into the garage. Luckily, it wasn’t too full of clutter, so there weren’t many hiding places—it only took Frankie a few minutes to search it.
The mansion was another story. It took nearly an hour to check every room, every hiding place—even the ridiculous ones—for Billy. She double-checked that every door and every window was locked as she went. When Tommy asked her what she was doing and when dinner would be ready, she snapped at him and told him to go back to playing games.
By the time she was finished, she was freezing, her muscles were sore, and she felt stupid. She realized that it was much more likely that Lonnie or one of the other staff members had left the invoice in the kitchen. Tommy had probably opened the door in order to trick her and was just afraid to admit it. He might even have been the one to lock her out; he was only seven—he didn’t understand that it was dangerous to lock someone out in a thunderstorm. She sighed and ran her hands over her face, wanting to cry. What had gotten into her? She was shaking from the cold, starving, and worst of all, she’d upset Tommy.
She was about to head into her room to change out of her wet clothes, when the doorbell rang. She froze, wondering who the hell could be at the door. Maybe her classmates had already found out that Marcella and Henry were out of town, and they were pranking her. It wouldn’t be the first time. She trudged toward the door, just wanting to get whatever it was over with. She was only halfway across the foyer when Tommy came thundering down the stairs and ran right past her with all the energy of a seven-year-old who hadn’t just searched a three-story mansion for a psychotic gardener.
“It’s okay, it’s just Jason.”
“Jason?” Frankie only knew one Jason, which meant it was not okay. “Tommy, hold—”
Tommy flung the door open. Jason Singer—popular boy, football player, Chase’s best friend, and guy who liked to laugh at Frankie’s expense—stood on her doorstep, umbrella in one hand, and a take-n-bake pizza in the other. “Hey, guys,” he said. His tone was friendly, but forced, and his smile—which was probably for Tommy’s benefit only—was strained.
Frankie blinked at him in surprise, taking a few seconds to register the fact that he was actually standing on her doorstep, a place he’d never been before. She joined Tommy at the door. “What are you doing here?”
Jason’s smile disappeared. “You didn’t tell her?” he asked, glancing at Tommy.
"I tried. She wouldn't listen." Tommy waved his arms, gesturing to the pizza Jason was holding. “Pizza, Frankie. He’s here with pizza. Duh.”
“Don’t say ‘duh,’ Tommy, it’s rude.”
Tommy put his hands on his hips. “Fine, but if I have to be nice, then you do too.”
In any other situation, Frankie might’ve laughed, but she was too tired, and too confused. “Kid’s got a point,” Jason said.
“Okay, fine, please tell me why you’re here with pizza,” she said.
“I called him. I was starving, Frankie. You were supposed to make dinner, but you were busy running around the house looking for ghosts!” Tommy burst out, looking like he was going to cry again.
“Ghosts?” Jason asked.
Frankie squeezed her eyes shut, wishing that the entire situation would just go away if she couldn’t see it. Jason’s friends were going to have a field day with this one. Tomorrow it was going to be all over school that Frankie the Freak was starving her little brother because she was busy ghost-hunting. She opened her eyes and was surprised to see that Jason only looked confused, not hostile. “I wasn’t looking for ghosts. I was—”
“What’s that?” Tommy interrupted, noticing the pepper spray she was still holding.
“Uh, it’s just—it’s nothing.” She tucked it into her pocket, but not before Jason caught a glimpse of it. His eyes widened.
“Is everything okay?” The concern in his voice surprised her, because it sounded genuine, but that couldn’t be possible.
She smiled, trying to look reassuring. “Yeah, everything’s fine.”
“Are you sure? I can take a look around, if you want. Or, I don’t know, call someone or something?” He was looking only at her now, his eyes narrowed, as though he could pull the truth out of her eyes if he looked hard enough.
Frankie had never realized how green his eyes were, or how fierce his gaze was. “Yeah, it’s fine. Really. I just thought I heard something. Tommy,” she said, turning away from Jason and feeling heat creep into her cheeks. “You still didn’t say why you called him.”
“Because Daddy said to call Mrs. Singer if we needed anything. And I needed food.” His tone added the word duh.
“Uh, that’s not Mrs. Singer.”
Jason laughed. “Nope, definitely not my mom. She’s not feeling well, so I told Tommy I’d bring something over. It’s cool. She doesn’t have to know there was a problem.”
“There wasn’t,” Frankie said.
He didn’t miss a beat. “Right, but if there was, she wouldn’t have to know.”
Tommy was looking between them impatiently. “Come on, Frankie. I’m so hungry I could eat the house. The entire house.”
“Don’t. It’ll taste terrible.” She took the pizza from Jason and carried it into the kitchen. When she got back, Tommy and Jason were both standing exactly where she’d left them. “Tommy, go upstairs and change. Marcella will flip if you stain that shirt. And pick up your jacket,” she said, pointing to the suit jacket he’d tossed on the floor earlier.
“Yes, mother,” Tommy said mockingly, though he obeyed.
It wasn’t the first time he’d said it, but this time it made her stomach churn. Mother. “Oh, don’t even go there!” Frankie said as he climbed the stairs. She turned back to Jason, who looked like he didn’t know what to do with himself. His free hand was stuffed in the pocket of his jeans, and he was shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He stared at the doorframe, as though afraid to look directly at her. Maybe there was a legend that if you looked too closely at Frankie the Freak, you’d turned to stone.
Frankie wondered why he didn’t just leave. He’d brought the pizza just like he’d promised Tommy, so what more did he want? The longer he stood there, the more nervous he looked. She’d never seem him nervous, not that she spent a lot of time looking at him. She usually went out of her way to avoid his crowd. Maybe that was why she’d never noticed how green his eyes were, or how shiny his dark brown hair was, or the way the sharp angles of his face made his every feature more prominent. She realized that they were nice features. His tan skin looked soft to the touch.Frankie, you’re not checking him out are you? What the hell is wrong with you?
“So. . . .” he said.
“So, you can go now,” she blurted without thinking, because she had been checking him out, and it embarrassed her, because he was Jason Singer of all people.
He let out a breath and shook his head. “You’re unbelievable.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” she asked, feeling defensive and confused at the same time. It wasn’t one of the usual insults her classmates threw at her. Witch, freak, bitch, slut, latrino . . . those were the names she was used to.
“Every time I try to be nice, you just bite my head off. It’s getting old.” He was looking at her with a mixture of anger and sadness on his face, which only confused her more.
“Nice? When have you ever been nice to me?” she asked, wondering if this was some sort of prank. Jason was fake nice, which was part of a long-standing practical joke. He and his friends used to pretend to be nice to her all the time. She’d fallen for it a lot in elementary school. They’d pretend to be her friend, and then humiliate her in front of everyone. She didn’t fall for it anymore, so they’d given up. Jason was the only one who still tried that game.
“You’re kidding, right?” When she didn’t answer, he whistled. His cheeks were reddening, and she realized he was genuinely angry. “Wow, you’re not kidding. Uh, let’s see, how about earlier today, in English?”
She gave a harsh laugh and glared at him. Did he think she was stupid? “Oh, you mean when you ‘warned’ me that Dave was trying to trip me?” She made air quotes.
Jason repeated the gesture, but with one hand, because of the umbrella. “What do you mean ‘warned’ you?’ Frankie, if I wanted you to fall, I wouldn’t have said anything.”
She opened her mouth to argue, but realized she didn’t know what to say. He had a point—a good point—but that didn’t add up. Why would he suddenly start being nice to her after all these years?
“You know what? It doesn’t matter. Enjoy the pizza.” He turned and walked away.
She watched him go, her head spinning. Hadn’t it been Jason who’d gotten Chase to shut up earlier? She’d just assumed that Jason really was sick of listening to Chase brag. Had he actually been defending her, and if so, what strange sickness had made him do that? It was too confusing to think about, but bringing the pizza had been nice. And Frankie hadn’t even said thank you.
Jason was almost at the gate when she caught up to him. “Jason, hold on!”
He turned around. His expression softened when he saw her standing in the rain. “Frankie, it’s pouring.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m already soaked. Um, sorry. It’s been a shitty day,” she said, holding her hands out helplessly and not knowing what else to say. She wasn’t very good at apologies. “Um, so yeah. I didn’t mean to be rude. Sorry.”
He shrugged. She didn’t know if that was a good sign or a bad sign, but at least his cheeks weren’t red with anger anymore. “It’s fine. We’ve all been there.” The sincerity—the kind she hadn’t thought him capable of—was back in his voice.
Her lips started to tremble from the cold and she desperately wanted to go back inside, but she wasn’t done yet. She still had the hard part to get to. Thank yous were worse than apologies. “Um, like I said. Shitty day. I don’t think I would’ve had the energy to fix dinner. So, um, thanks, I guess. I mean, thanks.”
He nodded, giving her a small smile. “No problem.”
She’d intended to leave it at that, but something about that smile made her keep talking. Maybe it was the fact that he looked as guarded as she felt. Had he always been that guarded around her? “Um, the kitchen’s a mess. I have to clean it and change out of these clothes before I can make the pizza. Tommy would probably love it if you’d play video games with him while he waited. And, you know, if you want to eat with us, that’d be cool too.” What the hell, Frankie? You just invited Jason Singer to have dinner with you! Oh yeah, and you invited him to eat the pizza he bought. How nice of you.
“Well, I could do that. Or, I could take care of the kitchen for you and get the pizza in the oven while you change.”
“Oh no, you don’t have to do that,” Frankie said automatically.
“I know, but I don’t mind. Come on, if we don’t hurry, Tommy’s going to eat the house.” When he gave her the guarded smile again, she returned it, having the strange sensation that she was meeting him—this person she’d known her entire life—for the first time.
“Yeah, he might actually try. Come on.” She led him inside, closing and locking the front door behind him, and ignoring the raised eyebrows this elicited. “You can leave your stuff over there.” She pointed to the coatrack. When he’d hung up his coat and taken off his shoes, she led him to the kitchen.
Frankie set the oven to preheat and was about to show him where the mop was when he said, “Okay, kid’s upstairs, so no bullshit, Frankie.” His serious tone shocked her and hot waves of fear washed through her. For a moment she was certain he was going to tell her what a freak she was, and that he would never help someone like her, let alone hang out with her through an entire meal. A second later, she realized he was eyeing the overturned chair with concern on his face. “What’s wrong? And don’t say nothing, because people don’t walk around their own house carrying pepper spray when nothing’s wrong.”
She sighed and ran a hand over her face. “I don’t know. Someone left the sliding door open, and then I couldn’t find Tommy. We were playing hide and seek, but—I don’t know. I thought I saw something, and then the storm—I overreacted. Too many Stephen King books I guess,” she finished lamely.
Jason’s face lit up. His eyes shined like grass wet with morning dew and his smile was free of all its defenses. “Is that even possible?”
Frankie smiled back without even thinking about it. It felt nice, that smile. “I wouldn’t have thought so, but maybe when you start searching the house for non-existent intruders instead of making your kid brother dinner, it is.”
He put his fingers on his chin and pretended to think about it, and Frankie laughed at the exaggerated look on his face. Finally, he shook his head. “Nah, still not possible.” His expression turned serious and he lowered his voice when he said, “Are you sure you don’t want me to look around? I don’t mind.”
“No, it’s fine. I already did. Nobody here but me and Tommy. And now you,” she finished. She pointed out the cleaning supplies, and the oven, which was a clear sign that she was nervous, because it wasn’t hard to miss an oven. “Um, I won’t be long. Thanks again.”
She hurried out of the room, marveling at the fact that a member of the Caribou Canyon High football team was about to mop her kitchen floor. But as she was blow-drying her hair, she found herself wishing she’d just thanked him for the pizza and sent him home. What would they talk about? And could she really trust him? She would probably show up at school the next day to find that he’d told all his friends that Frankie the Freak was not only a witch, but a paranoid, crazy witch. There would be stories about how she’d tried to starve her little brother and was afraid of the very spirits she was raising from the dead. On top of all of that, she had to worry about whether or not he would tell his mom. He’d said he wouldn’t, but that didn’t mean anything. Frankie sighed and turned off the blow-dryer. She couldn’t stall any longer. The only thing she could do now was wait and see what Jason would do.
When she went into the kitchen, Tommy was already there. Frankie couldn’t tell if he was helping Jason or getting in the way, but Jason didn’t seem to mind.
Frankie quickly discovered that as far as conversation went, she’d been worried for nothing: Tommy had it covered. He talked non-stop. Frankie and Jason could barely get a word in, but their eyes met several times as they laughed at Tommy’s jokes, and for a moment Frankie actually felt like they were friends. She knew they weren’t, that Jason was only there as a favor to his mom, or because he felt bad for Tommy, but still, it was nice to pretend.
As Frankie sat laughing with her brother and pretending she was friends with Jason Singer, she heard the sound of sirens.