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.