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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