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Authors: Karen M. McManus

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BOOK: One of Us Is Next
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All of which was a nightmare, but not nearly as bad as being suspected of murder.

The investigation unfolded almost exactly the way Simon planned—except for the part where Bronwyn, Cooper, Addy, and Nate banded together instead of turning on one another. It’s hard to imagine what this night would look like if they hadn’t. I doubt Cooper would’ve almost pitched a no-hitter in his first college game, or that Bronwyn would have made it to Yale. Nate would probably be in jail. And Addy—I don’t like to think about where Addy would be. Mostly because I’m afraid she wouldn’t be here at all.

I shiver, and Luis catches my eye. He raises his glass with the determined look of a guy who’s not about to let his best friend’s triumph turn sour. “Yeah, well, here’s to karma. And to Coop, for kicking ass in his first college game.”

“To Cooper,” everyone echoes.

“We have to plan a road trip to see him!” Addy exclaims. She reaches across the table and taps Nate’s arm as he starts gazing around the room like he’s calculating how soon he can leave. “That includes you. Don’t try to get out of it.”

“The whole baseball team will want to go,” Luis says. Nate grimaces in a resigned sort of way, because Addy is a force of nature when she’s determined to make him socialize.

Phoebe, who shifted closer to Knox and me as the game wore on and other people left, reaches out to pour herself a glass of water. “Bayview is so different without Simon, but it also…
isn’t.
You know?” she murmurs, so quietly that only Knox and I can hear. “It’s not like people got any nicer once the shock wore off. We just don’t have About That to keep tabs on who’s being horrible from one week to the next.”

“Not from lack of effort,” Knox mutters.

About That copycats were everywhere for a while after Simon died. Most of them fizzled out within days, although one site, Simon Says, stayed up nearly a month last fall before the school got involved and shut it down. But nobody took it seriously, because the site’s creator—one of those quiet kids hardly anyone knows—never posted a single piece of gossip that everyone hadn’t already heard.

That was the thing about Simon Kelleher: he knew secrets most people couldn’t even have guessed. He was patient, willing to wait until he could wring the maximum amount of drama and pain from any given situation. And he was good at hiding how much he hated everyone at Bayview High; the only place he let it out was on the revenge forum I’d found when I was looking for clues to his death. Reading Simon’s posts back then made me sick to my stomach. It still chills me, sometimes, to think how little any of us understood what it meant to go up against a mind like Simon’s.

Everything could have turned out so differently.

“Hey.” Knox nudges me back to the present, and I blink until his face comes into focus. It’s still just the three of us locked into our side conversation; I don’t think last year’s seniors ever let themselves dwell on Simon for too long. “Don’t look so serious. The past is past, right?”

“Right,” I say, then twist in my seat as a loud groan goes up from the Café Contigo crowd. It takes a minute for me to understand what’s going on, and when I do, my heart sinks: Cooper’s replacement loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth inning, got pulled, and the new pitcher just gave up a grand slam. All of a sudden, Cal State’s three-run lead has turned into a walk-off, one-run loss. The other team mobs the hitter at home base, piling on top of him until they collapse in a joyful heap. Cooper, despite pitching like a dream, didn’t get his win.

“Nooooo,” Luis moans, burying his head in his hands. He sounds like he’s in physical pain. “That is
bullshit.

Phoebe winces. “Ooh, tough luck. Not Cooper’s fault, though.”

My eyes find the only person at the table I can always count on for an unfiltered reaction: Nate. He looks from my tense face to the salt still scattered across our table and shakes his head like he knows the superstitious bet I made with myself. I can read the gesture as plainly as if he spoke:
It doesn’t mean anything, Maeve. It’s just a game.

I’m sure he’s right. But still. I really wish Cooper had won.

CHAPTER TWO

Phoebe

Tuesday, February 18

The logical part of my brain knows my mother isn’t playing with dolls. But it’s early, I’m tired, and I’m not wearing my contacts yet. So instead of squinting harder, I lean against the kitchen counter and ask, “What’s with the dolls?”

“They’re wedding cake toppers,” Mom says, yanking one away from my twelve-year-old brother, Owen, and handing it to me. I look down to see a white-clad bride with her legs wrapped around the groom’s waist. Some underappreciated artist has managed to pack a lot of lust into their tiny plastic faces.

“Classy,” I say. I should have guessed it was wedding-related. Last week the kitchen table was covered with stationery samples, and before that it was do-it-yourself floral centerpieces.

“That’s the only one like that,” she says with a hint of defensiveness. “I suppose you have to account for all kinds of tastes. Could you put it in the box?” She juts her chin toward a cardboard box half-full of foam peanuts on the counter.

I drop the happy couple inside and pull a glass from the cabinet next to our sink, filling it from the tap and finishing the whole thing in two long, greedy gulps. “Cake toppers, huh?” I ask. “Do people still use those?”

“They’re just samples from Golden Rings,” Mom says. Ever since she joined the local wedding planners’ organization, boxes full of stuff like this show up at our apartment every couple of weeks. Mom takes pictures, makes notes of what she likes, and then packs it back up to send along to the next wedding planner in the group. “Some of them are cute, though.” She holds up one of a bride and groom waltzing in silhouette. “What do you think?”

There’s an open box of Eggo waffles on the counter. I pull out the last two and pop them into the toaster. “I think plastic people on top of a cake isn’t really Ashton and Eli’s style. Aren’t they trying to keep things simple?”

“Sometimes you don’t know what you want until you see it,” Mom says brightly. “Part of my job is opening their eyes to what’s out there.”

Poor Ashton. Addy’s older sister has been a dream neighbor ever since we moved into the apartment across from them last summer—giving takeout recommendations, showing us which washing machines never eat your quarters, and sharing concert tickets from her job as a graphic designer with the California Center for the Arts. She had no idea what she was getting into when she agreed to help Mom launch a side business in wedding planning by coordinating “a few details” of her upcoming wedding to Eli Kleinfelter.

Mom’s gone a little overboard. She wants to make a good impression, especially since Eli is something of a local celebrity. He’s the lawyer who defended Nate Macauley when Nate was framed for killing Simon Kelleher, and now he’s always being interviewed about some big case or another. The press loves the fact that he’s marrying the sister of one of the Bayview Four, so they reference his upcoming wedding a lot. That means free publicity for Mom, including a mention in the
San Diego Tribune
and an in-depth profile last December in the
Bayview Blade.
Which has turned into a total gossip rag since covering the Simon story, so of course they took the most dramatic angle possible: “After Heartbreaking Loss, Area Widow Launches a Business Based on Joy.”

We all could’ve done without
that
reminder.

Still, Mom has put more energy into this wedding than just about anything else over the past few years, so I should be grateful for Ashton and Eli’s endless patience.

“Your waffles are burning,” Owen says placidly, stuffing a forkful of syrup-soaked squares into his mouth.

“Shit!” I yank my Eggos out with a whimper of pain as my fingers graze hot metal. “Mom, can we please buy a new toaster? This one has gotten completely useless. It goes from zero to scalding in thirty seconds.”

Mom’s eyebrows come together with the worried look she always gets when any of us talks about spending money. “I noticed that. But we should probably try cleaning it before we replace it. There must be ten years’ worth of bread crumbs built up in there.”

“I’ll do it,” Owen volunteers, pushing his glasses up on his nose. “And if that doesn’t work, I’ll take it apart. I bet I can fix it.”

I smile absently at him. “No doubt, brainiac. I should’ve thought of that first.”

“I don’t want you playing around with anything electrical, Owen,” Mom objects.

He looks affronted. “It wouldn’t be
playing.

A door clicks as my older sister, Emma, leaves our bedroom and heads for the kitchen. That’s something I’ll never get used to about apartment living—how being on a single floor makes you acutely aware of where everyone is, all the time. There’s nowhere to hide. Nothing like our old house, where not only did we all have our own bedrooms, but we had a family room, an office that eventually turned into a game room for Owen, and Dad’s basement workroom.

Plus, we had Dad.

My throat tightens as Emma runs her eyes over the piles of formally clad plastic people on our kitchen table. “Do people still use cake toppers?”

“Your sister asked the exact same thing,” Mom says. She’s always doing that—pointing out threads of similarity between Emma and me, as though acknowledging them will somehow knit us back into the tight sisterly unit we were as kids.

Emma makes a
hmm
noise, and I stay focused on my waffle as she steps closer. “Could you move?” she asks politely. “I need the blender.”

I shift to one side as Owen picks up a cake topper featuring a bride with dark red hair. “This one looks like you, Emma,” he says.

All of us Lawton kids are some version of redhead—Emma’s hair is a deep auburn, mine is a coppery bronze, and Owen’s strawberry blond—but it was our father who really stood out in a crowd, with hair so orange that his high school nickname was Cheeto. One time when we were at the Bayview Mall food court, Dad went to the bathroom and came back to see an older couple surreptitiously checking out my dark-haired, olive-skinned mother and her three pale, redheaded kids. Dad plopped down next to Mom and put an arm around her shoulders, flashing a grin at the couple. “See,
now
we make sense,” he said.

And now, three years after he died? We don’t.


If I had to pinpoint Emma’s least favorite part of the day…I’d be hard-pressed, because there doesn’t seem to be a lot that Emma enjoys lately. But having to pick my friend Jules up on the way to school easily ranks in the top three.

“Oh my God,” Jules says breathlessly when she climbs into the backseat of our ten-year-old Corolla, shoving her backpack ahead of her. I turn in my seat, and she whips off her sunglasses to fasten me with a death stare. “Phoebe. I cannot
stand
you.”

“What? Why?” I ask, confused. I shift in my seat, smoothing my skirt when it rides up on my thighs. After years of trial and error I’ve finally found the wardrobe that works best for my body type: a short, flouncy skirt, preferably in a bold pattern; a brightly colored V-neck or scoop-neck top; and some kind of stack-heeled bootie.

“Seat belt, please,” Emma says.

Jules clips her belt, still glaring at me. “You know why.”

“I seriously do not,” I protest. Emma pulls away from the curb in front of Jules’s modest split-level house, which is just one street away from where we used to live. Our old neighborhood isn’t Bayview’s wealthiest by a long shot, but the young couple Mom sold our house to was still thrilled to get a starter home here.

Jules’s green eyes, striking against her brown skin and dark hair, pop for dramatic effect. “Nate Macauley was at Café Contigo last night and you didn’t text me!”

“Oh well…” I turn up the radio so my mumbled response will get lost in Taylor Swift’s latest. Jules has always had a thing for Nate—she’s a total sucker for the dark, handsome bad-boy type—but she never considered him boyfriend material until Bronwyn Rojas did. Now she circles like a vulture every time they break up. Which has caused divided loyalties since I started working at Café Contigo and became friendly with Addy, who, obviously, is firmly on Team Bronwyn.

“And he
never
goes out,” Jules moans. “That was such a missed opportunity. Major friend failure, Phoebe Jeebies. Not cool.” She pulls out a tube of wine-colored lip gloss and leans forward so she can see herself in the rearview mirror as she applies a fresh coat. “How did he seem? Do you think he’s over Bronwyn?”

“I mean. It’s hard to tell,” I say. “He didn’t really talk to anyone except Maeve and Addy. Mostly Addy.”

Jules smacks her lips together, an expression of mild panic crossing her face. “Oh my God. Do you think
they’re
together now?”

“No. Definitely not. They’re friends. Not everyone finds him irresistible, Jules.”

Jules drops the lip gloss back into her bag and leans her head against the window with a sigh. “Says you. He’s so hot, I could die.”

Emma pauses at a red light and rubs her eyes, then reaches for the volume button on the radio. “I need to turn this down,” she says. “My head is pounding.”

“Are you getting sick?” I ask.

“Just tired. My tutoring session with Sean Murdock went too long last night.”

“No surprise there,” I mutter. If you’re searching for signs of intelligent life in the Bayview High junior class, Sean Murdock isn’t where you’ll find it. But his parents have money, and they’ll happily throw it at Emma for the chance that either her work ethic or her grades might rub off on Sean.

“I should hire you, Emma,” Jules says. “Chemistry is going to be a nightmare this semester unless I get some help. Or pull a Bronwyn Rojas and steal the tests.”

“Bronwyn made up that class,” I remind her, and Jules kicks my seat.

“Don’t defend her,” she says sulkily. “She’s ruining my love life.”

“If you’re serious about tutoring, I have a slot free this weekend,” Emma says.

“Chemistry on the
weekend
?” Jules sounds scandalized. “No thank you.”

“Okay, then.” My sister exhales a light sigh, like she shouldn’t have expected anything different. “Not serious.”

Emma’s only a year older than Jules and me, but most of the time she seems more Ashton Prentiss’s age than ours. Emma doesn’t act seventeen; she acts like she’s in her midtwenties and stressing her way through graduate school instead of senior AP classes. Even now, when her college applications are all in and she’s just waiting to hear back, she can’t relax.

We drive the rest of the way in silence, until my phone chimes when Emma pulls into the parking lot. I look down to a text.
Bleachers?

I shouldn’t. But even as my brain reminds me that I’ve already gotten two late warnings this month, my fingers type
OK.
I put my phone in my pocket and have the passenger door halfway open before Emma’s even shifted into Park. She raises her eyebrows as I climb out.

“I have to go to the football field real quick,” I say, hiking my backpack over my shoulder and resting my hand on the car door.

“What for? You don’t want to be late again,” Emma says, narrowing her light brown eyes at me. They’re exactly like Dad’s, and—along with the reddish hair—the only trait she and I share. Emma is tall and thin, I’m short and curvy. Her hair is stick-straight and doesn’t quite reach her shoulders, mine is long and curly. She freckles in the sun, and I tan. We’re both February-pale now, though, and I can feel my cheeks redden as I look down at the ground.

“It’s, um, for homework,” I mumble.

Jules grins as she climbs out of the car. “Is that what we’re calling it now?”

I turn on my heel and beat a hasty retreat, but I can still feel the weight of Emma’s disapproval settling over my shoulders like a cloak. Emma has always been the serious one, but when we were younger it didn’t matter. We were so close that we used to have entire conversations without talking. Mom would joke that we must be telepaths, but it wasn’t that. We just knew one another so well that we could read every expression as clearly as a word.

We were close with Owen too, despite the age difference. Dad used to call us the Three Amigos, and every childhood photo shows us posed exactly the same way: Emma and me on either side of Owen, our arms around one another, grinning widely. We look inseparable, and I thought we were. It never occurred to me that Dad was the glue keeping us together.

The pulling apart was so subtle that I didn’t notice it right away. Emma withdrew first, burying herself in schoolwork. “It’s her way of grieving,” Mom said, so I let her be, even though
my
way of grieving would have been to do it together. I compensated by throwing myself into every social activity I could find—especially once boys started getting interested in me—while Owen retreated into the comforting fantasy world of video games. Before I’d realized it, those had become our lanes, and we stayed in them. Our card last Christmas featured the three of us standing beside the tree, arranged by height, hands clasped in front of us with stiff smiles. Dad would’ve been so disappointed by that picture.

And by me shortly after we took it, for what happened at Jules’s Christmas party. It’s one thing to treat your older sister like a polite stranger, and quite another thing to…do what I did. I used to feel a wistful kind of loneliness when I thought about Emma, but now I just feel guilt. And relief that she can’t read my feelings on my face anymore.

“Hey!” I’m so caught up in my thoughts that I would’ve walked right into a pole under the bleachers if a hand hadn’t reached out and stopped me. Then it pulls me forward so quickly that my phone slides out of my pocket and makes a faint bouncing noise on the grass.

“Shit,” I say, but Brandon Weber’s lips are pressed against mine before I can get anything else out. I shimmy my shoulders until my backpack joins my phone on the ground. Brandon tugs at the hem of my shirt, and since this is one hundred percent what I came for, I help him along by untucking it.

Brandon’s hands move up and across my bare skin, pushing aside the lace of my bra, and he groans against my mouth. “God, you’re so sexy.”

He is, too. Brandon quarterbacks the football team, and the
Bayview Blade
likes to call him “the next Cooper Clay” because he’s good enough that colleges are already starting to scout him. I don’t think that’s an accurate comparison, though. For one thing, Cooper has next-level talent, and for another, he’s a sweetheart. Brandon, on the other hand, is basically an asshole.

BOOK: One of Us Is Next
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