City of Secrets
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.
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.”
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.