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