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Authors: Karen M. McManus

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BOOK: One of Us Is Next
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The boy can kiss, though. All the tension flows out of me as he pushes me against the pole behind us, replaced with a heady spark of anticipation. I wrap one arm around his neck, trying to pull him down to my height, while my other hand teases at the waistband of his jeans. Then my foot sends something skidding across the ground, and the sound of my text tone distracts me.

“My phone,” I say, pulling away. “We’re going to smash it if I don’t pick it up.”

“I’ll buy you a new one,” Brandon says, his tongue in my ear. Which I don’t like—
why
do guys think that’s hot?—so I shove at him until he lets go. His front pocket dings loudly, and I smirk at the bulge there as I retrieve my phone.

“Is that a text, or are you just happy to see me?” I say, brushing off my screen. Then I glance down and catch my breath. “Ugh, are you kidding me? This again?”

“What?” Brandon asks, pulling out his own phone.

“Unknown number, and guess what it says?” I put on an affected voice. “
Still missing About That? I know I am. Let’s play a new game.
I can’t believe somebody would pull this crap after Principal Gupta’s warning.”

Brandon’s eyes flick over his screen. “I got the same thing. You see the link?”

“Yeah. Don’t click it! It’s probably a virus or—”

“Too late,” Brandon laughs. He squints at his phone while I take him in: over six feet tall with dirty-blond hair, blue-green eyes, and the kind of full lips a girl would kill for. He’s so pretty, he looks like he could fly off with a harp any second. And nobody knows it more than he does. “Jesus, this is a freaking book,” he complains.

“Let me see.” I grab his phone, because no way am I following that link with mine. I angle the screen away from the sun until I can see it clearly. I’m looking at a website with a bad replica of the About That logo, and a big block of text beneath it.
“Pay attention, Bayview High. I’m only going to explain the rules once,”
I read.
“Here’s how we play Truth or Dare. I’ll send a prompt to one person only—and you can’t tell ANYONE if it’s you. Don’t spoil the element of surprise. It makes me cranky, and I’m not nearly as nice when I’m cranky. You get 24 hours to text your choice back. Pick Truth, and I’ll reveal one of your secrets. Pick Dare, and I’ll give you a challenge. Either way, we’ll have a little fun and relieve the monotony of our tedious existence.”

Brandon runs a hand through his thick, tawny hair. “Speak for yourself, loser.”

“Come on, Bayview, you know you’ve missed this.”
I scowl when I finish. “Do you think this went to everyone at school? People better not say anything if they want to keep their phones.” Last fall, after Principal Gupta shut down the latest Simon copycat, she told us she was instituting a zero-tolerance policy: if she saw even a hint of another About That, she’d ban phones at school permanently. And expel anyone caught trying to bring one in.

We’ve all been model citizens since then, at least when it comes to online gossip. Nobody can imagine getting through a school day—never mind
years
—without their phones.

“No one cares. It’s old news,” Brandon says dismissively. He pockets his phone and wraps an arm around my waist, pulling me close. “So where were we?”

I’m still holding my own phone, pressed against his chest now, and it chimes in my hand before I can answer. When I pull my head back to look at the screen, there’s another message from an unknown contact. But this time, there’s no simultaneous text tone from Brandon’s pocket.

Phoebe Lawton, you’re up first! Text back your choice: Should I reveal a Truth, or will you take a Dare?

CHAPTER THREE

Knox

Wednesday, February 19

I scan the half-off clothing rack next to me with a feeling of existential dread. I hate department stores. They’re too bright, too loud, and too crammed full of junk that nobody needs. Whenever I’m forced to spend time in one I start thinking about how consumer culture is just one long, expensive, planet-killing distraction from the fact that we’re all going to die eventually.

Then I suck down the last of my six-dollar iced coffee, because I’m nothing if not a willing participant in the charade.

“That’ll be forty-two sixty, hon,” the woman behind the counter says when it’s my turn. I’m picking up a new wallet for my mother, and I hope I got it right. Even with her detailed written instructions, it still looks like twelve other black wallets. I spent too long debating between them, and now I’m running late for work.

It probably doesn’t matter, since Eli Kleinfelter doesn’t pay me or, most days, even notice I’m there. Still, I pick up my pace after leaving the Bayview Mall, following a sidewalk behind the building until it narrows to nothing but asphalt. Then, after a quick glance over my shoulder to make sure no one’s watching, I approach the flimsy chain-link fence surrounding an empty construction site.

There’s supposed to be a new parking garage going into the hillside behind the mall, but the company building it went bankrupt after they’d started. A bunch of construction companies are bidding to take over, including my dad’s. Until then, the site is cutting off what used to be a path between the mall and Bayview Center. Now you have to walk all the way around the building and down a main road, which takes ten times as long.

Unless you do what I’m about to do.

I duck under a giant gap in the fence and skirt around a half-dozen orange-and-white barrels until I’m overlooking a partially constructed garage and what was supposed to become its roof. The whole thing is covered with thick plastic tarp, except for a wooden landing with a set of metal stairs along one side, leading to part of the hill that hasn’t been dug into yet.

I don’t know who at Bayview High first had the bright idea to jump the five-foot drop onto the landing, but now it’s a well-known shortcut from the mall to downtown. Which, to be clear, my dad would
kill
me for taking. But he’s not here and even if he were, he pays less attention to me than Eli does. So I brace myself against one of the construction barrels and look down.

There’s just one problem.

It’s not that I’m afraid of heights. It’s more that I have a preference for firm ground. When I played Peter Pan at drama camp last summer, I got so freaked out about getting flown around on a pulley that they had to lower me to barely two feet off the stage. “You’re not flying, Knox,” the production manager grumbled every time I swung past him. “You’re skimming at best.”

All right. I’m afraid of heights. But I’m trying to get over it. I stare down at the wooden planks below me. They look twenty feet away. Did someone lower the roof?

“It’s a great day for someone to die. Just not me,” I mutter like I’m Dax Reaper, the most ruthless bounty hunter in
Bounty Wars.
Because the only way I can make this nervous hovering even more pathetic is to quote a video game character.

I can’t do it. Not a real jump, anyway. I sit at the edge, squeeze my eyes shut, and push off so that I slither down the last few feet like a cowardly snake. I land awkwardly, wincing on impact and stumbling across the uneven wooden planks. Athletic, I am not.

I manage to regain my balance and limp toward the stairs. The lightweight metal clangs loudly with every step as I make my way down. I heave a sigh of relief once I hit solid ground and follow what’s left of the hillside path to the bottom fence. People used to climb over it until somebody broke the lock. I slip through the gate and into the tree grove at the edge of Bayview Center. The number 11 bus to downtown San Diego is idling at the depot in front of Town Hall, and I jog across the street to the still-open doors.

Made it with a minute to spare. I might get to Until Proven on time after all. I pay my fare, sink into one of the last empty seats, and pull my phone out of my pocket.

There’s a loud sniff beside me. “Those things are practically part of your hand nowadays, aren’t they? My grandson won’t put his down. I suggested he leave it behind the last time I took him out to eat, and you would have thought I’d threatened him with bodily harm.”

I look up to a pair of watery blue eyes behind bifocals. Of course. It never fails: any time I’m out in public and there’s an old woman nearby, she starts up a conversation with me. Maeve calls it the Nice Young Man Factor. “You have one of those faces,” she says. “They can tell you won’t be rude.”

I call it the Knox Myers Curse: irresistible to octogenarians, invisible to girls my own age. During the Cal State Fullerton season opener at Café Contigo, Phoebe Lawton literally tripped over me to get to Brandon Weber when he sauntered in at the end of the night.

I should keep scrolling and pretend I didn’t hear, like Brandon would.
What Would Brandon Do
is a terrible life mantra, since he’s a soul-sucking waste of space who skates through life on good hair, symmetrical features, and the ability to throw a perfect spiral—but he also gets whatever he wants and is probably never trapped in awkward geriatric bus conversations.

So, yeah. Selective hearing loss for the next fifteen minutes would be the way to go. Instead, I find myself saying, “There’s a word for that. Nomophobia. Fear of being without your phone.”

“Is that right?” she asks, and now I’ve done it. The floodgates are open. By the time we reach downtown I know all about her six grandkids and her hip replacement surgery. It’s not until I get off the bus a block from Eli’s office that I can go back to what I was doing on my phone in the first place—checking to see if there’s another text from whoever sent the Truth or Dare rules yesterday.

I should pretend I never saw it. Everyone at Bayview High should. But we don’t. After what happened with Simon, it’s baked into our collective DNA to be morbidly fascinated with this stuff. Last night, while a bunch of us were supposed to be running lines for the spring play, we kept getting sidetracked by trying to guess who the unknown texter might be.

The whole thing was probably a joke, though. It’s four o’clock when I push through the doors of Until Proven’s office building—well past the twenty-four-hour deadline for whoever’s supposed to be playing the game to respond—and the latest Simon wannabe has gone silent.

I pass the coffee shop in the lobby and take an elevator to the third floor. Until Proven is at the far end of a narrow corridor, next to one of those hair replacement clinics that fills the entire hall with a rank chemical smell. A balding guy comes out of its door, his forehead unevenly dotted with wispy tufts of hair. He lowers his eyes and slinks past me like I just caught him buying porn.

When I crack open Until Proven’s door, I’m immediately hit with the buzzing sound of too many people crammed into too small a space, all of them talking at once.

“How many convictions?”

“Twelve that we know of, but there’s gotta be more.”

“Did anybody call Channel Seven back?”

“Eighteen months, then released, then right back in.”

“Knox!” Sandeep Ghai, a Harvard Law grad who started working for Eli last fall, barrels toward me from behind an armful of red folders stacked up to his nose. “Just the man I was looking for. I need forty employer kits compiled and sent out today. Sample kit’s on top along with all the addresses. Can you get these out for the five o’clock mail run?”

“Forty?” I raise my eyebrows as I take the stack from him. Until Proven doesn’t only defend people who Eli and the other lawyers think are wrongfully accused; it also helps them find jobs after getting out of jail. So every once in a while, I mail out folders full of résumés and a cover letter about why hiring
exonerees,
as Eli calls them, is good for business. But we’re usually lucky if one local company a week is interested. “Why so many?”

“Publicity from the D’Agostino case,” Sandeep says, like that explains everything. When I still look confused, he adds, “Everyone turns into a concerned corporate citizen when there’s a chance for free PR.”

I should’ve guessed. Eli’s been all over the news after proving that a bunch of people convicted on drug charges had actually been blackmailed and framed by a San Diego police sergeant, Carl D’Agostino, and two of his subordinates. They’re all in jail awaiting trial, and Until Proven is working on getting the phony convictions reversed.

The last time Eli got this much press was for the Simon Kelleher case. Back then, Eli was the lead story on every news show after getting Nate Macauley out of jail. My dad’s company hired Nate a couple of weeks later. He still works there, and now they’re paying for him to take college classes.

After Bronwyn Rojas left for Yale and Until Proven started looking for another high school intern, I figured Maeve would take it. She’s tight with Eli, plus she was a big part of why Simon’s plan unraveled in the first place. Nobody would’ve looked at Simon as anything except a victim if Maeve hadn’t tracked down his secret online persona.

But Maeve didn’t want the job. “That’s Bronwyn’s thing. Not mine,” she’d said, in that voice she uses when she wants to end a conversation.

So I applied. Partly because it’s interesting, but also because I wasn’t exactly fighting off other job opportunities. My father, who tells anybody who’ll listen that Nate Macauley is “one helluva kid,” never bothered asking if I wanted to work at Myers Construction.

To be fair: I suck at anything tool-related. I once wound up in the emergency room after hammering my thumb to a pulp when hanging a picture. But still. He could’ve asked.

“Five o’clock,” Sandeep repeats, cocking finger guns at me as he backs away toward his desk. “I can count on you, right?”

“I got it,” I say, looking around for some empty space. My gaze lands on Eli, who’s the only person at Until Proven who gets an entire desk to himself. It’s stacked so high with folders that when he hunches forward while talking on the phone, all you can see is his mad scientist hair. By some miracle, the table behind him is empty.

I head that way, hoping that maybe I’ll get a chance to talk with him. Eli fascinates me, not only because he’s ridiculously good at his job but because he’s this guy you probably wouldn’t look at twice if you passed him in the street. Yet he’s so confident and, I don’t know,
magnetic
or something. Now that I’ve worked with him for a few months, it doesn’t surprise me that he has a gorgeous fiancée, or that he manages to get people who are involved in criminal cases to spill all kinds of things they probably shouldn’t. I want him to teach me his ways.

Plus, it would be great if he learned my name.

I haven’t even made it halfway across the room, though, before Sandeep yells out, “Eli! We need you in Winterfell.”

Eli rolls his chair back and peers around the folders. “In what?”

“Winterfell,” Sandeep says expectantly.

When Eli still looks blank, I clear my throat. “It’s the small conference room,” I say. “Remember? Sandeep gave them names so we could tell them apart. The other one is, um, King’s Landing.” Sandeep, like me, is a huge
Game of Thrones
fan, so he named the rooms after two locations in the story. But Eli’s never read the books or seen an episode of the TV show, and the whole thing confuses the hell out of him.

“Oh. Right. Thank you.” Eli nods distractedly at me, then turns back to Sandeep. “What was wrong with just saying ‘the small conference room’?”

“We need you in Winterfell,” Sandeep repeats, his voice edging into impatience. Eli stands with a sigh, and I get a wry smile as he passes. Progress.

I spread my files across the empty conference table, lay my phone beside them, and start assembling employer packets. As soon as I do my phone starts buzzing with a string of texts from, of course, my sisters. I have four of them, all older than me, all with
K
names: Kiersten, Katie, Kelsey, and Kara. We’re like the Kardashians, except without any money.

My sisters will start a group conversation about anything. Birthdays, TV shows, current boyfriends or girlfriends, exes. Me, frequently. It’s a nightmare when they all start caring about my love life or my future at once.
Knox, what happened with Maeve? She was so nice! Knox, who are you taking to prom? Knox, are you thinking about colleges yet? Next year will be here before you know it!

But this time, they’re talking about Katie’s surprise engagement on Valentine’s Day. She’ll be the first Myers to get married, so there’s a
lot
to discuss.

They go quiet eventually, and I’m halfway through the packets when another text comes in. I glance down, expecting to see one of my sisters’ names—probably Kiersten, because she has to have the last word on everything—but it’s a private number.

Tsk, no response from our first player. That means you forfeit.

I expected better from you, Phoebe Lawton. No fun at all.

Now I get to reveal one of your secrets in true About That style.

Crap.
I guess this is really happening. Though, how bad could it be? Simon never bothered featuring Phoebe on About That, because she’s an open book. She hooks up a lot, but she doesn’t cheat on people or break them up. And she’s one of those girls who flits easily between Bayview High social groups, like the invisible boundaries that keep most of us apart don’t apply to her. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing anyone could say about Phoebe that we don’t already know.

Gray dots linger for a while. The anonymous texter is trying to build suspense, and even though I know I shouldn’t take the bait, my pulse speeds up. Then I kind of hate myself for it, and I’m about to put my phone facedown on the table when a text finally appears.

Phoebe slept with her sister Emma’s boyfriend.

Hold up. What?

I look around the Until Proven office like I’m expecting some kind of group reaction. Sometimes I forget I’m the only high school student here. Everybody ignores me, since they have shit to deal with that actually matters, so I look back at my phone. It’s gone dark, and I press the Home button to reactivate the screen.

BOOK: One of Us Is Next
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