Tuesday, June 20, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 20

City of Secrets

Chapter 20

Previously: Natasha's first week in Caribou Canyon isn't going as planned. Not only was her guidance counselor murdered, but Natasha was the one who discovered the body. Still shaken from the experience, Natasha is confused and upset that most of the other students don't seem to care. Natasha's plan to get in with the popular crowd was a success, but three different students warned her to be careful around them. Natasha doesn't know what to think of her new school, or the town. 

Chapter 20

    “I bet it’s nice to be you. Life must be so simple,” Natasha said as she scratched Surya, her aunt’s cat, behind the ears. Surya, a giant orange ball of fluff, rubbed her head against Natasha’s stomach and purred.

    “She likes you,” Claudia said as she walked into the living room, carrying a mug in each hand.

    “She’s been my little shadow since I got here. Shadow. Maybe that should be her new name.”

    Claudia gave the cat a scrutinizing look. “I’m not sure she looks like a Shadow. She’s more like a sun.”

    “Good point.” Natasha had never had a pet. When she was a kid she’d always wanted a dog, but Ellen and Steven had never agreed to it. Natasha remembered that not so long ago, she thought not being allowed a pet was the greatest injustice ever done to her. If only, she thought.

    Claudia set the mugs on the coffee table and took a seat next to Natasha. “She doesn’t like most people. In fact, she hates Liam.”

    “I noticed. Poor Liam.” Natasha thought the overly dramatic way Surya reacted to Claudia’s fiancĂ© was funny.

    “He’s tough. He can take it.”

    When Natasha turned to look at her aunt, she still felt the same jolt to her system she’d felt the first time she’d laid eyes on Claudia. It was just too weird, seeing a woman who looked like an older version of yourself, considering that until recently, you didn’t even know that person existed. That shock was followed by an ever-ripening anger. That anger wasn’t directed at Claudia, nor was it brought on by her. It was the fact that, every time Natasha looked at her, she was reminded of the lie she’d lived for seventeen years. She felt like the world’s biggest fool that it had never occurred to her that she looked nothing like Steven or Ellen.

    Claudia let out a large, prolonged yawn. There were dark circles under her eyes, and her face was paler than usual.

    “Still tired?”

    “It seems to be my permanent state lately.”

    Natasha fidgeted with the sleeve of her sweater, trying to decide whether to ask her next question. One more glance at her aunt’s weary appearance made up her mind. “Claudia, do you think you should see a doctor?”

    “I have. He checked everything. I’m in perfect health. He says it’s probably just stress. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. This vacation is coming at just the right time.”

    “Yeah, it is.” Natasha was relieved there was nothing wrong with her aunt, but the reminder of Claudia’s upcoming vacation irritated her. She’d just connected with her aunt, and in three days she would be taking a two-week vacation. It wasn’t fair. The trip had been planned months before Natasha had come into the picture, so there was nothing she could say about it. She just hoped the time would go by quickly, but it was going to be awkward staying alone in the house with Claudia’s fiancĂ©, a strangely quiet man who rarely smiled.

    Not wanting her aunt to notice her discomfort, Natasha turned her attention to the mug on the table. When she leaned forward to take it, Surya jumped off her lap. After sitting on the floor for a few seconds looking thoroughly affronted, the cat jumped onto the recliner and curled up. Natasha glanced into the mug. “Marshmallows? I haven’t had marshmallows in my hot chocolate since I was a kid.”

    Claudia smiled. “I thought you could use the extra comfort.”

    “Yeah. Thanks.” Right, because marshmallows are going to bring my parents back. Natasha immediately felt guilty. Claudia was trying, at least. Natasha sipped the cocoa, but it didn’t give her comfort; drinking hot chocolate in early September wasn’t something she’d ever done. It just wasn’t right, despite the fact that the weather called for it.

    “How are you doing?” Claudia asked.

    “I don’t know. Okay, I guess. It’s just—weird still.”

    Claudia patted her on the knee. “I can’t imagine. I’m sorry your first week turned out like this.”

    “Claudia, why haven’t my pa—Steven and Ellen called?” She cringed at her slip up, anger and pain warring in her heart. Despite the fact that she knew Ellen and Steven were her aunt and uncle, it was hard not to still think of them as her parents. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they haven’t, but I don’t get why. It’s been three days. I was sure they’d have freaked and dragged me back home by now.”

    “First of all, Natasha, I wouldn’t let them just take you back home if it’s not what you wanted. You’ve been left without a choice your whole life. You’re almost eighteen, it’s about time you got one.”

    “Thanks. At least someone’s on my side.” Though Natasha wasn’t completely sure of that statement. She wanted to believe everything Claudia said was true, but her story didn’t completely add up.

    “I am.” Claudia gave her another reassuring pat on the leg. “And second of all, the reason they haven’t called is because they don’t know there’s a reason to call.”

    It took a second for the meaning of that statement to register. “Wait, you mean they don’t know about Ms. Miller?”

    “I doubt it. If they did, I’m sure they would’ve ‘freaked and dragged you home’ as you put it. Or at least, they would’ve tried.”

    “But why don’t they know? A murder in a small town like this?” Natasha felt her frustration rise as the same nagging feeling that she’d had for the past few days popped up: something wasn’t right.

    “They don’t know for the same reason they don’t know about most things that happen here. No one does. We—the residents, I mean—don’t want publicity. We like our privacy. Right now, it’s Douglas Harper we have to thank for preserving it.”

    “Douglas Harper? I don’t get it,” Natasha said, Penny Harper’s face flashing into her mind.

    “Doug is one of the top executives at First Digital News Group. They’re based in Denver, and own a number of newspapers in—I think it’s ten different states. Not to mention all the Internet magazines.”

    Natasha was silent for a few seconds, letting Claudia’s words sink in. “So, you’re saying that Douglas Harper covers up stories? Is that legal?” As the pieces came together in her mind, she felt like an idiot for not making the connection sooner. The world hadn’t known about Richie’s death, not at first. The news of his accident wasn’t in any papers or any Internet news or gossip sites. Richie’s fans found out about his death only after the band had announced Toni Torrance as the new lead guitarist. That was almost a week later.

    “He doesn’t cover up stories.” There was a clear note of defensiveness in Claudia’s voice that Natasha made a point to remember later. “He just makes sure things up here don’t get too much attention. Nothing ever makes the front page, the articles don’t get pictures or catchy headlines. That sort of thing. He’s doing the town a favor.”

    Natasha took a drink of cocoa to give herself time to reply without sounding angry. She didn’t want her aunt to know how suspicious she found the whole thing. She kept her voice neutral when she asked, “How is that?”

     “Think about it. The people here are high profile. They’re wealthy and they hold important positions. Doug’s own wife is an actress—small time—but still. And here we all are, in one town. This place could easily be a circus, but it’s not, because we keep things quiet. We’re here for a reason: privacy. Peace and quiet. If we wanted publicity, we’d move to the city.”

    “Yeah, I guess that makes sense,” Natasha said, though it didn’t, not completely. It wasn’t as though people had gotten famous and moved up there for the quiet. Most of the residents were natives of Caribou Canyon, or married to natives. Most people hadn’t chosen to move there—they’d chosen to stay. The question, was why?

    “It has its benefits. For instance, you don’t have to deal with your aunt and uncle overreacting and trying to make you come home.” Claudia smiled when she said it, but Natasha couldn’t help but wonder if she hadn’t brought it up for a reason.

    “You’re not going to tell them, are you?” she asked, mainly to make her aunt think that the subject of Douglas Harper and his sketchy media coverage was forgotten.

    Claudia shook her head. “Not if you don’t want me to. I’m on your side, Natasha. I hate that they lied to you. Now, I only want to do whatever I can to make it right.”

    Claudia sounded sincere, and Natasha wanted to believe her, but something told her not to trust Claudia—not completely. Natasha bit her lip, wondering if she should ask Claudia the thing that had been bothering her from the beginning. Since Claudia seemed to be in a talkative mood, she decided to go for it. “Why didn’t you try harder? Write more letters, come to see me, something.” Though she tried to stop it, her voice rose in pitch, giving away the hurt she felt that her aunt had given up on her so easily.

    This was what didn’t add up. According to Claudia, she hadn’t known that Steven and Ellen never told Natasha about her real parents. Claudia said she’d spent the past fifteen years thinking Natasha didn’t want anything to do with her. Claudia had written Natasha letters, but she’d never seen a single one of them. Steven and Ellen had hidden them from her. Just the thought of it made the anger that was now always simmering inside her heat to a boil.

    “I’m sorry, Natasha. I should’ve tried harder. I wish I had. But I truly thought you had no interest in getting to know me. I didn’t want to pressure you, so I stopped writing when it became clear you weren’t going to respond. I figured you knew I was here if you wanted to reach out. In retrospect, I should’ve known something wasn’t right,” Claudia said, her voice full of regret. It was almost enough to make Natasha believe her. Almost. “I’m truly sorry, Natasha,” Claudia repeated. “I want to make it up to you.”

    “I know, and you are. You’re letting me live here. I really appreciate it.” Natasha meant it. She was genuinely grateful for her aunt’s hospitality, despite the things that made her spidey sense tingle.

    “Not as much as I appreciate having you here. I’m so glad to finally get to know you. I just wish—” Claudia paused, her forehead wrinkling. After a few seconds, she shook her head swiftly, as though clearing it. “I just wish things had been different.”

    Natasha was about to ask if something was wrong, but her aunt continued before she got the chance. “It’s too bad I’ll be missing you for these next two weeks. If I’d known you were coming, I wouldn’t have planned the trip.”

    “It’s okay,” Natasha lied, because what else could she say?

    “You’re sure you’ll be okay here with Liam?”

    It’s like she’s reading my mind. But she couldn’t tell her aunt the truth. Natasha had no real reason to dislike Liam. It was just that she didn’t know him. “I told you, it’s fine. Go and enjoy yourself.”

    “I keep telling her the same thing. She worries too much,” Liam said, walking into the room.

    Natasha jumped, causing lukewarm liquid to slosh out of the mug onto her hand. Where the heck did he come from? She hadn’t heard a sound; she hadn’t even known Liam was home.

    “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Here.” Liam’s voice was soft, like it always was, and he moved with graceful steps into the room. He reached for a box of tissues on the end table, which just happened to be next to the chair Surya was curled up on. The cat lifted her head and fixed her gaze on Liam. When he leaned forward to hand Natasha the box, a low growl emanated from her throat. Natasha hadn’t even known cats were capable of growling.

    She set the mug on the table and took the tissues from Liam. “It’s okay. Surya’s got my back,” she said, trying to make light of the situation.

    “That she does.” Liam said, his voice even and calm, and without amusement. Natasha would’ve thought he was angry, if his voice weren’t so soft.

    Natasha wiped up the spilled cocoa, wondering what her aunt saw in Liam. The two of them seemed to have nothing in common. Claudia was perky and friendly, whereas Liam was quiet, mysterious, and didn’t know how to make—or take—a joke. Then there was the age difference. Claudia was thirty-nine, and though Natasha didn’t know Liam’s age, he didn’t look older than twenty-five.

    “Hey, you. How long have you been home?” Claudia asked, affection in her voice.

    Liam moved to stand behind Claudia. He put his hands on her shoulders, gently massaging them, and Surya’s growling grew louder. “Just a few minutes.”

    “Claudia, do my pa—aunt and uncle know you’re going on a cruise?” Natasha asked.
    “Not unless you told them.”

    Natasha shook her head. “No. Um, do you think we could keep it that way?” Natasha knew there was no way Steven and Ellen would be okay with her being alone for two weeks in a house with a man they didn’t know.

    “Natasha, I’ll only tell them what you want me to. I hope you know that. I’m on your side,” she said, smiling.

    “Thanks.” Natasha smiled back at Claudia, trying to pretend she didn’t notice the way Liam’s eyes were fixed on her. He did that a lot. His eyes were a watery dark brown, like black coffee. They were set deep into his smooth, pale face. His hair was thick and wavy, and almost as dark as his eyes. The contrast between his face and his hair added to the mysterious vibe he carried with him. Natasha thought he might be attractive if he ever smiled, but there was always a look of intensity on his face, as though he were solving some intricate math problem, or possibly plotting a murder. It was unnerving, and it sometimes gave Natasha the impression he could pull every thought from her head just by looking into her eyes.

    Natasha wasn’t the only one who hated the way Liam looked at her. Surya was growling so loud that she sounded like a vacuum cleaner. She was now standing on the chair, back arched, fur standing up, and head stretched toward Liam, ready to attack.

    “You cut that out,” Claudia said. Surya hissed in Liam’s direction before jumping off the chair and bounding out of the room. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why she does that with you.”

    “It’s okay. At least you’re not one of those women who judges men based on how her cat feels about them.” Liam’s voice was as soft and even as always, but it was a statement that was meant to be accompanied by a smile, a laugh, something. The fact that it wasn’t made it seem hostile, at least to Natasha.

    Claudia tilted her head back, looking at Liam with a serious expression. “I don’t know, honey, she may have a point.”

    Eek, mushy teasing: my cue to leave. Natasha stood, grabbing her mug and the dirty tissues. She nodded at Claudia’s mostly empty mug. “Are you done?”

    “Yeah, thanks.”

    Natasha took the mugs into the kitchen. She was rinsing them out when the landline telephone rang. She thought nothing of it until Liam came into the kitchen. “Natasha, it’s for you.”

    “Me?” she asked in surprise. Liam nodded.

    Natasha’s stomach fluttered nervously. There was only one person she’d given that number to, and she wasn’t prepared to talk to him. She whispered, “Tell him I’m not here.”

    Liam raised his eyebrows, but the effect was more accusatory than questioning, and it only increased the sick feeling in Natasha’s stomach. At least Liam had the sense to cover the receiver with his hand when he said, “I already told him you were home.”

    She sighed in annoyance, but moved to take the phone from Liam.

    “Why is he calling the landline?” he asked, staring at her with that intense gaze again, the one that told her he knew exactly what she was thinking.

    Because I’ve been ignoring his texts. “Uh, my cell died. It’s upstairs charging.” It was a lie. She’d just left her phone upstairs so she wouldn’t have to hear Nick’s calls and texts, and therefore wouldn’t have to think about it. She’d forgotten that she’d given him Claudia’s home number.

    Liam nodded, though it was clear from his expression that he didn’t believe her. Natasha took the phone and carried it upstairs to her bedroom, her legs heavy and her heart sick.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 19

City of Secrets

Chapter 19

Previously: On the first day of school, popular boy Jason helped out school outcast Frankie by bringing Frankie and her brother dinner. Though mistrustful of Jason's motives, Frankie invited him to stay for dinner, and they talked like friends.
At school, Natasha caught Penny breaking into the guidance counselor's office, and bailed her out just before the principal caught her. While Natasha and Penny were in the bathroom talking about it, Frankie overheard, but promised not to bust them. Frankie and Penny confirmed their plans for Penny to tutor Frankie. Frankie warned Natasha about Chase and the rest of her new friends. 



     Frankie stood at the front of her fifth period class, deciding whether she wanted to sit down or not. The room was empty; she was ten minutes early. Sitting down for class that early was wrong on principle, but she didn’t have anywhere else to go. She wished she hadn’t quit smoking—that would at least give her something to do.

    Ugh, I really am turning into a nerd. Nervous excitement coursed through her body when she remembered what she’d said to Penny. She didn’t know what had come over her; she hadn’t meant to be so bold. Flirtatious. You were flirtatious. Standing with Penny in the bathroom had felt both familiar and new. Frankie was comforted by the familiar, and struck by the idea that she wanted to explore the new feeling, whatever it was.

    She reminds you of Richie. That’s all it is, Frankie told herself. It was true, but Frankie didn’t think it was the whole reason behind her feelings. There was so much more to Penny than the quiet, shy girl who liked school and followed the rules. Richie had said as much. He’d said that he thought Frankie and Penny would get along.

    Frankie braced herself against the teacher’s desk as a flood of aching loneliness threatened to overwhelm her. Why does everything have to be so confusing? She didn’t know if getting to know Penny was a good idea. How would Richie feel if he knew Frankie was taking the time to get to know Penny after she’d refused his pleas for her to do just that?

    If only she could talk to him. She tried to picture his face, but instead it was Penny’s face she saw: her pale skin, the slight flush to her cheeks, the depth of emotion in her eyes. . . . Frankie’s stomach somersaulted. Stop it, Frankie! You do not like her like that! That’s way too messed up. It was, and it was one of the reasons Frankie had left the bathroom when she had.

    The new girl was the other reason. Frankie felt guilty for having been so rude to her, but Natasha was already friends with Laurel and her gang of minions, which meant she’d be joining the “let’s torment Frankie” mission any day now. Frankie had simply been firing a preemptive strike. But still, she couldn’t help but think that the new girl didn’t seem like the others, and that brought on the guilt. Who cares? You warned her about Chase, that’s all you needed to do. 

    “Can’t decide where to sit?” a voice asked. Frankie turned. Jason stood in the doorway, a small smile on his face.

    That smile was infectious, because Frankie found herself returning it on reflex. “Oh, it’s no contest. I always sit in the back, it’s just that I’m never this early.”

    “Yeah, I’m not either actually.” Jason glanced at the sea of empty desks, his smile fading.

    Frankie thought he looked upset and almost asked him what was wrong, but stopped herself. It was none of her business. Instead she said, “It seems weird to sit down so early. Last year I would’ve gone out to smoke, but I quit.”

    “Oh yeah?” There was a note of interest in his voice.

    “Yeah, over the summer.”

    “That’s great. My dad’s been trying to quit forever.”

    He should get pregnant. It’s a good motivator. When Frankie had decided to quit, she’d told herself she would start again after the baby was born. The reassurance hadn’t worked, because thinking about the baby being born was so terrifying that she had a hard time even imagining it. As far as she was concerned, the baby was better off staying right where it was. “Yeah, it kind of sucks.”

    “But you did it. You should be proud.” He gave her another smile before moving to take a seat. That smile sent a surge of warmth to her insides, but it wasn’t his smile she was thinking about as she watched him walk to a desk in the middle of the room. When he sat down and glanced up at her, she realized how stupid she must look standing at the front of the room staring at him.

    She tore her gaze away and headed to the back of the room, trying to pretend she hadn’t just been checking him out. What was she doing? She wasn’t into jocks, not that Jason had the traditional “jock” look. He was the smallest guy on the football team, which meant he still towered over her, but he was leaner than the other guys. Wait—was she still checking him out? She decided to blame it on out of control hormones and convinced herself that was actually a thing. So why was she disappointed that the conversation was over?

    It didn’t have to be over, did it? “Hey, thanks for not saying anything. About the other night,” she said, unable to think of a better exchange.

    He turned to face her, his expression unreadable. “I said I wouldn’t.”

    I know. I didn’t believe you. “Yeah, I know—just—thanks again.”

    He nodded. “No problem.”

    Frankie thought that was it—the end of whatever it was between them that was beginning to feel like friendship. There was nothing left to say. Except Jason hadn’t turned back around. He was looking in her direction, his eyes focused behind her, as though he were reading the posters on the wall. Frankie racked her brain for something else to say, but she couldn’t think of a thing.

    “So, how’s it going?” he asked after a few seconds of silence.

    What? How’s it going? What does that mean? Frankie blinked, unsure how to handle what sounded like casual conversation. After staring at him for a few more seconds, she realized he was waiting for an answer. “Oh, not bad, I guess. I’m trying this new thing where I go to all my classes. It’s not as horrible as I thought it would be.”

    He laughed. “Yeah, it’s not all bad.”

    “How’s it going with you?” she asked.

    He shrugged. “Not bad.” His facial expression didn’t agree with his words.

    “Is everything okay?”

    He didn’t answer right away, but instead looked at her thoughtfully. He was probably deciding whether or not to answer. Frankie was wondering if she’d been out of line to ask when he said, “I don’t know. It’s just—”

     “No way, man. You’re yanking my chain,” Dave Colton said as he walked into the room. So much for that, Frankie thought. She automatically fixed Dave with a scowl, but it disappeared when Chase entered behind him. She looked down at her desk, fear washing over her. What is he doing here? He wasn’t in this class the first day. She’d thought that she’d gotten lucky enough not to have any classes with Chase. Apparently, she’d been wrong. She resisted the almost overpowering urge to get up and walk out, but she wouldn’t give Chase that pleasure.

    “Fine. Believe what you want,” Chase said, laughing. It was a friendly, joking sound, but Frankie didn’t hear it that way. To her it was loud and harsh; it filled the entire classroom until she didn’t see the classroom anymore. Instead, she saw the gray morning sky and the tops of the trees reaching upward. She felt the rock that had become a pillow for her throbbing head and the branches that were digging into her back.

    Don’t. Come on, Frankie. You can handle this. She wasn’t sure she could. She felt dizzy as she leaned over and reached into her backpack.

    “Dude, you weren’t talking to it, were you?” Dave asked.

    Frankie had been sitting up, notebook in hand, when he’d said it, which meant that she saw his head tilt in her direction. Her eyes narrowed. She opened her mouth, comeback on her tongue.

    Chase looked directly at her, raising his eyebrows. He smirked before taking a seat in front of Jason.

    The words died on her lips. She lowered her head, opened the notebook with shaking hands, and stared at the blank page, humiliation and hatred washing over her.

     “Do you have to be a dick one hundred percent of the time?” Jason asked. Dave’s only response was a laugh.

    “I don’t know, man. He’s right. You better watch out with that slut,” Chase said. “Can’t go anywhere good. Bitch is a succubus.”

    “You would know,” Dave said.

    Frankie bit the inside of her lip. She wanted to scream. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t stand sitting back and taking their insults. Sitting in a classroom with Chase for an entire year was going to be pure hell.

    She felt nauseous. Her vision blurred.

    “—learn from my mistakes,” Chase was saying. His words were a taunt. He was pushing her. You don’t get to threaten me. You don’t get to talk back. Not anymore. Hell, you don’t even get to exist unless I keep letting you.The words echoed in her mind, and Frankie bit harder, trying to forget them. She tasted blood, but the memory of Chase’s threats wouldn’t go away.

    “If I were you, Chase, I’d be thinking about this afternoon,” Jason said.

    “What’s that supposed to mean?”

    “Dave’s been practicing. That starting QB position may not be yours after all.”

    “Oh, no fucking way. Now you’re dreaming,” Chase said.

    “Hey, doesn’t matter to me who’s throwing the passes,” Jason said. “I’ll be catching them either way.”

    Chase and Dave launched into a discussion about who had the best spiral, whatever that was. All Frankie cared about was that it had nothing to do with her. Her jaw slowly unclenched and she began to relax, at least as much as she could with Chase around.

    The classroom began to fill with chattering students, and Chase and Dave continued their argument until Mrs. Orona entered the room and told the class to quiet down. Chase didn’t look in Frankie’s direction again, and she allowed herself to hope that maybe he would get bored with taunting her.

    Frankie’s eyes fell on the back of Jason’s head. Did you do it again? she silently asked. She was almost certain that he’d changed the subject intentionally, which made twice in one week that he’d stood up for her. She didn’t know what to make of it.

    When her gaze turned to Chase, she realized it didn’t matter that Jason had helped her. It didn’t matter that he was being nice to her, it didn’t matter that she liked his smile and enjoyed laughing with him. Because of Chase, they could never be friends.


Thursday, June 1, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 18

City of Secrets

Chapter 18

Previously: Natasha saw Penny sneaking into Ms. Miller's office. When Penny was about to be busted by the principal, Natasha created a distraction, giving Penny time to get out without being seen. Natasha later cornered Penny, demanding answers. 

Chapter 18

    What am I doing? Do I even have a plan? Natasha wondered, following Penny into the bathroom. The door swung shut behind them, the sound echoing in the small space. Penny turned and crossed her arms, giving Natasha an expectant look.

    Crap. I really don’t have a plan. She wished she hadn’t been so confrontational. The stress of the past few days had gotten the better of her, but now she was stuck. She was about to go back to her original plan of asking Penny for help with her classes, when Penny said, “You’re not going to turn me in, are you?”

    “No. I already covered for you. If I turn you in now, it’ll be my ass too.”

    “Why’d you help me?”

    “I don’t know. It was a snap decision.” She tried to make her voice casual, like it was no big deal, but Penny’s eyes were narrowed suspiciously. The next thing Natasha knew, she was telling the truth. “I think it was because of Richie.”

    Several emotions fell across Penny’s pale face: first surprise, then sadness, and finally curiosity. “You didn’t know him, did you?”

    Natasha shook her head. “No. I mean, I knew of him. From Hell’s Descendants. Well, to be honest, it wasn’t my thing, but a bunch of people from my old school were really into them. My friend Meg thought Richie was some sort of dark god or something. She even cried when—oh god.” Natasha’s hand flew to her mouth when she realized what she was saying and who she was saying it to. “I’m sorry. That was—”

    “It’s okay,” Penny said, a sad smile on her face. “I think I prefer nervous babbling to people pretending everything’s normal. At least it’s honest.”

    “I’m sorry I insulted his music,” Natasha said, still feeling like a bitch.

    “You’re allowed to have an opinion. I’m actually not that into it either. But that doesn’t explain why you bailed me out back there.”

    Oh yeah, that. I guess it’s the truth then. “I know this might sound stupid, but I felt like I was supposed to help you. Because of Richie. And my parents. They died on Lumber Baron Road too.”

    Recognition came over Penny’s face. “Oh. I—I’m sorry.”

    “I’m sorry about Richie. I can’t imagine. It’s—it’s awful.”

    “Yeah,” Penny said, her voice barely audible.

    Natasha looked away; the pain in Penny’s eyes ran so deep that it seemed intrusive to stare. Though Natasha had lost her parents, she hadn’t even known them. What would it be like to lose someone you were used to seeing everyday?

    After a long silence, Natasha said, “A lot of cars go off that road.” She watched Penny’s face for a reaction, but she showed none.

    “Yeah. Have you been up it?”

    “No, but I’ve seen pictures.”

    “Pictures don’t do it justice. It’s a death trap. It’s really windy—every turn is sharp. I used to get motion-sick whenever we’d go up there. People drive way too fast on it, especially in the winter. It gets really icy. I think they should close it, but they don’t.”

    “My dad wasn’t speeding.” Natasha’s voice was harsh, though she actually didn’t know whether or not he’d been speeding. She’d just felt the need to defend him because Penny had sounded dismissive, and this wasn’t a subject Natasha was ready to dismiss.

    “I never said he was, but a lot of the accidents on that road were caused by speeding. Richie’s wasn’t. Deputy Cameron wasn’t speeding. It was brake failure.” Penny was looking past Natasha as she spoke, her eyes faraway, her words hollow.

    She doesn’t believe that, Natasha realized. She couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was in Penny’s voice or facial expression that gave it away, but Natasha was almost sure of it. Penny didn’t believe the accident was caused by brake failure; something else was going on.Don’t push her. If you come right out and ask, she’ll deny it. 

    Natasha turned around and peered closely in the mirror, hoping she looked casual. Pulling her makeup kit from her purse, she applied foundation underneath her eyes. “So, why’d you sneak into Ms. Miller’s office?” she asked, hoping that reminding Penny that she’d helped her, would gain her trust sooner.

    “I just needed something from in there.”

    “I figured it was something like that. So what was it?” Natasha put powder on her face, pretending to be much more focused on that than Penny. She added, “Come on. You might as well tell me. It’s not like I’m going to rat you out now.”

    Penny ran her hands over her face, looking tired. “I don’t even know what made me do it. I never do stuff like that, I swear. I wasn’t thinking.”

    “Okay, this is starting to sound juicy. Come on, you have to tell me.” Natasha turned around and gave Penny the same conspiratorial smile she always gave Meg whenever Meg started dating a new boy, which was often.

    “It’s not a big deal. Just some paperwork she started the other day. For tutoring.”

    “That’s it?” Natasha asked, disappointed.

    “That’s it. It seems dumb now.”

    “No, it has to be more than that,” Natasha said, frustrated. She didn’t know where the feeling came from, but it threatened to take over.

    Penny gave Natasha a confused look. “It wasn’t.”

    Natasha sighed as her frustration and disappointment fully sank in. Of course it’s school-related, what did you think it was? Ms. Miller’s face flashed into Natasha’s mind, and she realized that she’d wanted answers. Not about Caribou Canyon, but about Ms. Miller and why she’d died. But there were no more answers to be had. It had been a random act of violence—nothing more. There was no logic behind it. Natasha squeezed her eyes shut, trying to will the image of Ms. Miller out of her head.

    “Are you okay?”

    “No. What the hell is wrong with everyone?” Natasha blurted, unable to stop herself.

    “What do you mean?”

    “Why is everyone acting so normal two days after Ms. Miller was murdered? It’s like no one even cares.”

    Penny gave her a sympathetic look. “It’s not that they don’t care. That’s just the way people act when they don’t know what else to do. They pretend nothing’s wrong. It was like that after Richie died too.”

     Natasha shook her head—the answer wasn’t good enough. “Even Chase is acting like nothing happened, and he was there. He should be as upset as I am.”

    Penny’s eyes narrowed at the mention of Chase’s name, and Natasha realized that she’d hit a nerve. “What?”

    Penny shook her head, her braid falling over her shoulder as she did. “Nothing, it’s just—”

    The whooshing sound of a toilet flushing filled the room. Natasha jumped. Please let it be coming from the boys’ room, she thought, but the sound was too loud, too close. Natasha slowly peered around the corner, eyeing the stalls. The door to the second-to-last stall was closed, and a pair of black boots could be seen. Natasha could’ve kicked herself. She couldn’t believe she’d forgotten to make sure the bathroom was empty, but it had been so quiet, she’d just assumed it was. Whoever was in there hadn’t made a sound—they’d intentionally eavesdropped.

    Natasha turned back to Penny. Her eyes were wide, and she’d pressed herself up against the wall, as if hoping to become a part of it.

    “Act normal,” Natasha mouthed. She turned to the mirror and started fixing the part in her hair. Penny took the cue; she moved to the sink and began washing her hands.

    Don’t look. Just stay cool, Natasha told herself when the toilet finished flushing and the sound of footsteps echoed through the bathroom. She kept her eyes focused on her own reflection, trying to ignore the girl who stepped into view. All Natasha could see from the corner of her eye was that the girl had chosen black as the color of the day. Black, and purple.

    Oh no, Natasha thought. Unable to resist, she flicked her eyes to the girl in the mirror, recognizing the purple-haired girl. Natasha had learned that morning that the girl’s name was Frankie, though most people referred to her as The Freak, as though it were a title that belonged to her and her alone.

    Frankie either had a resting bitch face, or she was perpetually angry. Given that Frankie tossed almost as many insults at the other students as they threw at her, Natasha figured it was the latter. It was unclear who’d started the war—Frankie or the rest of the school—but regardless, Natasha didn’t think the girl knew how to be friendly. Right now, she was glaring at Natasha’s reflection in the mirror as though Natasha had done her some great wrong. Natasha was wondering if the girl had ever smiled in her life, when she suddenly burst out laughing.

     “What?” Natasha asked, trying to hide the nervousness from her voice.

    Frankie was laughing so hard that it took her a moment to answer. “Oh my god. This is too good.” She clutched at her stomach. “You two should see yourselves. Seriously, look in the mirror. You guys couldn’t be more obvious if you were carrying a sign. Even if I didn’t hear everything you just said, I’d still know you were up to something.”

    Crap. Keep cool. Natasha shrugged. “So what if you did?” she asked when Frankie had finally finished laughing.

    “So, nothing,” Frankie said, echoing Natasha’s challenging tone. She stepped up to the sink and washed her hands. “Next time, don’t forget to check to make sure the bathroom’s actually empty.”

    “When I care, I will,” Natasha said.

    Frankie rolled her eyes at Natasha before shutting off the water and moving to grab a paper towel.

    “Natasha, you’re not helping. I just—I didn’t think anyone used this bathroom at lunchtime,” Penny said, looking at Frankie nervously.

    “They don’t. That’s why I use it.”

    “You’re not going to say anything, are you?” Penny asked.

    “Who would I tell?” Frankie snapped. She balled up the paper towel and tossed it in the trash. When she looked up at Penny, her angry expression fell away so fast that Natasha had a hard time believing it had been there at all. “No, it’s cool. No worries.”

    “Thanks,” Penny said, though she was still looking at Frankie uncertainly.

    “Well, you did it for us right?”

    “Well yeah, but—I don’t know.”

    Frankie grinned. “Actually, I think it’s kind of awesome.”

    Hey, she can be nice, Natasha thought, her eyes flicking back and forth between Penny and Frankie.


     “Really.” Frankie’s smile widened and her eyes sparkled as they looked Penny up and down. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”

    “Oh, well, I do. When it’s important.” Penny smiled nervously, her cheeks going from pink to red. “Uh, that was a compliment, right?”

    Natasha was beginning to wonder if she’d turned invisible. Penny and Frankie were staring at each other as though they were the only two people in the room.

    “Yeah, it was. I don’t give them very often, so you should treasure it.” Frankie’s voice had grown softer, and her eyes had an intense look in them. Frankie suddenly looked away, tugging at her black leather studded bracelet on her arm. “So, this means we’re on then?”

    Oh my god, is she flirting? Natasha wondered. Frankie had taken a half-step closer to Penny, and there was a nervousness to her smile.

    “Yeah, we can give the papers to Principal Cazin after school tomorrow, since you probably have to make up yesterday’s detention today, right?”

    “Ugh, yeah. With Rosen. Fun.” Frankie scrunched up her nose.

    “At least you’ll get it over with?” Penny offered.

    “Yeah. So, tomorrow then. Sounds like a plan. You’ll make me into a regular school girl,” Frankie said, winking at Penny.

    Oh crap, she is flirting. Not that Natasha cared that Frankie liked girls, she’d just never seen a girl flirt with another girl before. She felt awkward watching them and wondered if she should just leave, when Frankie walked back to the sinks. She pulled a tube of lipstick from her pocket and began turning her pink lips black. When she was finished, she flicked her gaze to Natasha’s reflection and said, “I’m guessing that the reason Chase is acting like he doesn’t care about Ms. Miller, is because he doesn’t. He’s a piece of shit.”

    “Oh,” Natasha said, too surprised by Frankie’s bluntness to know what else to say.

    “Also, your new friends suck, in case you haven’t noticed,” Frankie said, glaring at Natasha
as though it were Natasha who’d been insulting her all morning, and not Natasha’s friends.

    Natasha said the first thing that came to mind. “Yeah, but you seem like loads of fun to be around.”

    Frankie’s smile didn’t touch her dark eyes. “Ooh, you’re good. Keep that up. For a second there I was afraid you were going to be nice to me. That’s not allowed around here. Especially considering who your new friends are.” Frankie turned and headed to the door. She nodded at Penny and said, “See you later.” She was out the door before anyone could reply.

    “What was that about?” Natasha asked when the door swung shut behind Frankie. She wasn’t sure whether she should be angry, offended, or just plain confused.

    Penny shrugged. “That’s Frankie. Most people aren’t very nice to her, so I guess she figures she’s returning the favor.”

    “No kidding.”

    “I really don’t know her that well. I only started talking to her this year. Because of the tutoring.” The warning bell rang, announcing that lunch would be over in five minutes. Penny said, “Look, I have to get to my locker, but Frankie’s right. About Chase, I mean. I figured you should know. Thanks again for bailing me out.”

    Natasha watched in exasperation as Penny turned and walked out the door. She ran her hands over her face. Did I just get shunned for hanging out with the popular crowd? That made three warnings about her new friends, and she didn’t know what to make of the whole thing. You didn’t come here to make friends. You came here for answers. 

    Right. She had. The stress of finding Ms. Miller had made her forget that, but she wasn’t going to forget again. By the time she left the bathroom, she had an excuse for why she hadn’t returned to the cafeteria, and was ready to face her new friends—Chase included—with a smile on her face. 


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