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Authors: Karen M. McManus

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BOOK: One of Us Is Next
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Monica Hill, one of the junior girls who’s always hanging around with Sean and Brandon, gasps loudly and slaps Sean on his arm, but more like she’s trying to egg him on than stop him. As for Brandon, he’s laughing harder than anyone else at his table. “In your dreams, bro,” he says, not even glancing in Phoebe’s direction.

“Don’t get greedy just cause you’re hitting that,” Sean says. “There’s plenty of Lawton love to go around. Right, Phoebe? Twice as nice. Sharing is caring.” He’s cackling now. “Listen to me, Bran. I’m a poet and I know it.”

It’s too quiet, suddenly. The kind of silence that only happens when everyone in a room is focused on the same thing. Phoebe is looking at the ground, her cheeks pale and her mouth pressed into a tight line. I’m half on my feet with the overwhelming need to do
something,
although I have no clue what, when Phoebe raises her head and looks directly at Sean.

“Thanks but no thanks,” she says in a loud, clear voice. “If I wanted to be bored and disappointed, I’d just watch you play baseball.” Then she takes a large, deliberate bite from a bright green apple.

The hum in the room erupts into full-on hoots and catcalls as Chase says, “
Damn,
girl.” Sean’s face turns an ugly red, but before he can say anything one of the lunch workers steps out from the kitchen. It’s Robert, who’s built like a linebacker and is the only person at Bayview High with a louder voice than Sean. He cups his hands around his mouth like a megaphone as I sink back into my seat.

“Everyone gonna settle down in here, or you need me to get a teacher?” he calls.

The noise volume cuts in half instantly, but that only makes it easier to hear Sean’s parting words as he turns back toward his table. “Spoken like the slut you are, Lawton.”

Robert doesn’t hesitate. “Principal’s office, Murdock.”

“What?” Sean protests, spreading his hands wide. “She started it! She came on to me and insulted me all at once. That’s a violation of the school bullying policy.”

Resentment surges through my veins. Why am I keeping quiet, exactly? What on earth do I have to lose? “Liar,” I call out, startling Knox so much that he actually jumps. “You provoked her and everyone knows it.”

Sean snorts over the murmur of agreement in the room. “Nobody asked you, Cancer Girl.”

The words make my stomach plunge, but I roll my eyes like it’s an outdated insult. “Ooh, burn,” I snap.

Robert folds his tattooed arms and takes a few steps forward. Rumor has it that he used to work in a prison kitchen, which is pretty solid job training for what he does now. In fact, it’s probably why he was hired. Principal Gupta learned at least a few things from last year. “Principal’s office, Murdock,” he growls. “You can go on your own, or I can take you. I promise you will not like it.”

This time, I can’t hear whatever Sean mutters under his breath as he gets to his feet. He shoots Phoebe a death glare as he passes her table, and she gives it right back. But once he’s gone, her face just sort of—crumples.

“Someone’s getting detention,” Chase calls in a singsong voice. “Try not to die, Murdock.” I suck in a breath, and he grimaces apologetically. “Too soon?”

The bell rings, and we start getting our things together. A few tables over, Jules takes Phoebe’s tray and whispers something in her ear. Phoebe nods and loops her backpack over one shoulder. She heads for the door, pausing beside our table to let a knot of sophomore girls push through the narrow space between chairs. They all look back at her and burst into muted laughter.

I touch Phoebe’s arm. “Are you all right?” I ask. She looks up, but before she can answer I spot Lucy approaching from her other side.

“You shouldn’t have to put up with that, Phoebe,” Lucy says, and for a second I almost like her. Then she gets that self-righteous look on her face again. “Maybe we should tell Principal Gupta what’s going on. I’m beginning to think this school would be better off if nobody had a phone in the first—”

Phoebe whips around in her direction, eyes blazing. Lucy gasps and stumbles backward, because she’s overdramatic like that. Although Phoebe
does
look poised for an attack, and when she speaks, her voice is ice cold.

“Don’t. You.
Dare.

CHAPTER FIVE

Phoebe

Thursday, February 20

“Bizarre,”
I say to Owen.

He leans forward on his stool at the kitchen island, scrunching his face in concentration. “Can you use it in a sentence?”

“Um…” I hesitate, and he lets out a small sigh.

“There’s one the back of the index card.”

“Oh. Right.” I flip the card I’m holding and read,
“The bizarre movie was so strange that we left the theater in stunned silence.”

“Bizarre,”
Owen says.
“B-A-Z-A-A-R.”
Then he grins expectantly, like he’s waiting for the same thumbs-up I’ve given for a dozen words straight.

I blink at him, flash card in hand. There aren’t a lot of things that could distract me from the past twenty-four hours, but Owen getting tripped up while practicing for his middle school spelling bee is one of them. He’s usually at high school level with that kind of stuff. “No,” I tell him. “You spelled the wrong word.”

“What?” He blinks, adjusting his glasses. “I spelled the word you gave me.”


B-A-Z-A-A-R
is, like, a marketplace. The word for
strange
is spelled
B-I-Z-A-R-R-E.

“Can I see?” Owen asks, holding his hand out for the flash card. I don’t usually help him with anything school-related, but guilt over being such a horrible sister to Emma prompted me to offer when I got home. He was so pleasantly surprised that now I feel even worse. I know Owen wants more attention from Emma and me; it’s obvious from how much hovering he does. My brother is nosy by nature and gets worse when we have friends over. He wanders into my room constantly when Jules is around, and he trails Emma to her tutoring sessions at the library sometimes. We both get annoyed with him, even though I know—and I’m sure Emma does, too—that he just wants to be part of things.

It would be so easy to invite him in, but we don’t. We stay in our lanes.

“Of course!” Fresh guilt makes my voice overly sweet, and Owen darts me a confused look as he takes the card.

We’re alone in the apartment, with Mom at her office manager job and Emma—not here. I’ve barely seen her since Mr. Santos pulled us into the Café Contigo kitchen and suggested we go home and talk. Emma agreed, but as soon as we left the restaurant she took off for her friend Gillian’s house and spent the night there instead. She wouldn’t answer any of my texts and avoided me at school.

Which was kind of a relief, except for the part where it’s only postponing the inevitable.

“Huh. I always thought it was the other way around.” Owen drops the flash card onto the counter and blows a raspberry. “That’s embarrassing.”

I resist the urge to ruffle his hair. He’s not a little kid anymore, although he still acts like one. Sometimes I feel like Owen froze in time after Dad died, perpetually nine years old no matter how much taller he gets. Owen is smarter than either Emma or me—he tests at near-genius levels, and he keeps our old laptop running and synced with everyone’s phones in ways that mystify the rest of us. But he’s so emotionally young that Mom has never had him skip a grade, even though he could easily do the work.

Before I can reply a key turns in our front door lock, and my heart starts to pound. It’s too early for Mom to be home, which means Emma is finally making her appearance.

My sister comes through the door with her backpack slung over one shoulder and a duffel bag on the other. She’s dressed in a pale-blue oxford shirt and jeans, her hair pulled back with a navy headband. Her lips are thin and chapped. She stops short when she sees me and lets both bags drop to the ground.

“Hey,” I say. My voice comes out like a squeak, then disappears.

“Hi, Emma!” Owen says cheerfully. “You won’t believe how bad I just messed up a spelling word.” He waits expectantly, but when all she can manage is a strained smile, he adds, “You know the word
bizarre
? Like when something is really strange?”

“I do,” Emma says, her eyes on me.

“I spelled it
B-A-Z-A-A-R.
Like the shopping place.”

“Oh well, that’s understandable,” Emma says. She looks like she’s making a massive effort to speak normally. “Are you going to try again?”

“Nah, I got it now,” Owen says, sliding off his stool. “I’m gonna play
Bounty Wars
for a while.” Neither Emma nor I reply as he shuffles down the hallway to his bedroom. As soon as the door closes with a soft click, Emma folds her arms and turns to me.

“Why?” she asks quietly.

My mouth is desert-dry. I grab for the half-full glass of warm Fanta that Owen left on the counter and drink the whole thing down before answering. “I’m sorry.”

Emma’s face tightens, and I can see her throat move when she swallows. “That’s not a reason.”

“I know. But I am. Sorry, I mean. I never meant…it’s just, there was this party at Jules’s house the night before Christmas Eve, and Derek—” She flinches when I say the name, but I keep going. “Um, it turns out that he knows Jules’s cousin. They went to band camp together. They both play saxophone.” I’m babbling now, and Emma just stares at me with an increasingly pinched expression. “I went to the party to hang out with Jules, and he was…there.”

“He was there,” Emma repeats in a dull monotone. “So that’s your reason? Proximity?”

I open my mouth, then close it. I don’t have a good answer. Not for her, and not for myself. I’ve been trying to figure it out for almost two months.

Because I was drunk.
Sure, but that’s just an excuse. Alcohol doesn’t make me do stuff I wouldn’t otherwise do. It just gives me a push to do things I would’ve done anyway.

Because you were broken up.
Yeah, for three whole weeks. Emma met Derek at Model UN over the summer, and they dated for five months before he ended things. I don’t know why. She never told me, just like she never talked about their dates. But I saw firsthand, in our uncomfortably close quarters, how much time she always spent getting ready. They might eventually have gotten back together if Derek and I hadn’t smashed that possibility to bits.

Because I liked him.
Ugh. That’s the cherry on top of my bad-decision sundae. I didn’t even, much.

Because I wanted to hurt you.
Not consciously, but…sometimes I wonder if I’m edging toward an uncomfortable truth with this one. I’ve been trying to get Emma’s attention ever since Dad died, but most of the time she just looks right through me. Maybe some twisted corner of my brain wanted to
force
her to notice me. In which case: mission accomplished.

Her eyes bore into mine. “He was my first, you know,” she says. “My
only.

I didn’t know, because she never told me. But I’d guessed as much, and I know that Derek holding that place in her life makes all of this even worse. I feel a sharp stab of regret as I say, “I’m sorry, Emma. Truly. I’d do anything to make it up to you. And I swear to God, I didn’t tell anyone, not even Jules. Derek must have—”

“Stop saying his name!”
Emma’s shriek is so piercing that it startles me into silence. “I don’t want to hear it. I hate him, and I hate you, and I never want to talk to either one of you again as long as I live!”

Tears start spilling down her cheeks, and for a second I can’t breathe. Emma almost never cries; the last time was at Dad’s funeral. “Emma, can we please—”

“I mean it, Phoebe! Leave me alone!” She stalks past me into our bedroom, slamming the door so hard that it rattles on its hinges. Owen’s door swings slowly open, but before he can pop his head out and start asking questions, I grab my keys and get the hell out of our apartment.

My eyes are starting to swim, and I have to blink a few times before the person waving at me in the hallway comes into focus. “Hi,” Addy Prentiss calls. “I was just going to check if your mom’s home—” She pauses when she gets closer, her pixie features scrunching in concern. “Are you all right?”

“Fine. Allergies,” I say, wiping my eyes. Addy looks unconvinced, so I talk faster. “My mom is still at work, but she should be back in an hour or so. Do you need something before then? I could call her.”

“Oh, there’s no rush,” Addy says. “I’m planning Ashton’s bachelorette party and I wanted to run some restaurant ideas by her. I’ll just text her.”

She smiles, and the knot in my chest loosens a little. Addy gives me hope, because even though her life fell apart when Simon’s blog revealed her worst mistake, she put things back together—better than before. She’s stronger, happier, and much closer to her sister. Addy is the queen of second chances, and right now I really need the reminder that those exist.

“What kind of places are you thinking?” I ask.

“Something low-key.” Addy makes a wry face. “I’m not sure I should even use the term
bachelorette party.
That conjures a certain image, doesn’t it? It’s just a girls’ night out, really. Someplace where I can get in.”

I have a sudden impulse to invite Addy to come with me, even though I have no idea where I’m going. I was just looking for an escape hatch. But before I can come up with a good reason to hang out, she glances back at her door and says, “I’d better go. I need to order stuff for Ashton’s wedding favors. Maid of honor duties are never done.”

“What kind of favors?”

“Candied almonds in bags. Super original, right? But Ash and Eli both love them.”

“Do you want help putting them together?” I ask. “I’ve become kind of an expert on wedding favors now that my mom’s constantly testing them out.”

Addy beams. “That would be amazing! I’ll let you know when I have them.” She turns back to her apartment with a little wave. “Enjoy wherever you’re headed. It’s beautiful out.”

“I will.” I stuff my keys into my pocket, the boost in mood I got from talking to Addy fading as quickly as it came. Emma’s words keep looping through my brain as I take the elevator down to the lobby:
I hate him, and I hate you, and I never want to talk to either one of you again as long as I live.
Addy and Ashton might not have gotten along before last year, but I’ll bet they never had
that
conversation.

When the doors spring open, I cross fake-marble floors and push through the heavy glass door into bright sunshine. I didn’t grab my sunglasses when I left, so I have to shade my eyes as I walk to the park across the street. It’s small, the length of a street block, and popular with hip young Bayview parents because of the toddler-sized climbing gym and nearby Whole Foods. I pass through the arched entrance, skirting around two little boys playing catch, and head for the relative quiet of a shaded corner with an empty bench.

I pull my phone from my pocket with a sinking feeling. I got dozens of texts today, but other than confirming that none were from Emma, I couldn’t stand to look at them. I wish, for about the hundredth time today, that I’d realized this particular Simon copycat was the real thing.

I ignore the texts from people I don’t know well, and zero in on a few from Jules:

You could have told me, you know.

I don’t judge.

I mean, that was shady but we all make mistakes.

My stomach drops. Jules was great today, a shield between me and the rest of school. But I knew she was hurt that she found out about Derek at the same time as the rest of Bayview High. We usually tell each other everything, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her this.

Jules’s last text to me reads,
Monica’s giving me a ride home. You need one?
I wish I’d read that before walking the two miles from school to my apartment. Except…Monica? Since when do she and Jules hang out? I picture Monica’s gleefully phony outrage toward Sean during lunch and have a feeling that it started as soon as she saw the chance to dig up more dirt.

The next text is from a number I don’t recognize and don’t have programmed into Contacts.
Hi, it’s Maeve. Just checking in. You okay?
Maeve’s never texted me before. It’s nice that she bothered, I guess, and that she stood up to Sean at lunch today, but I don’t really know what to say back. I’m not okay, but there’s nothing that Maeve—with her perfect parents, her perfect sister, and an ex-boyfriend who’s now her best friend because even the people she dumps don’t get mad at her—can do about it.

Brandon:
Come by? Parents are out ;)

My face flames and my temper spikes. “I can’t
believe
you,” I growl at my screen. Except I can, because I’ve always known that Brandon cares less about me than he would about a new pair of football cleats. Laughing at me during lunch is totally in character, and I should have known better than to hook up with him in the first place.

Unlike Emma, I’ve had a lot of boyfriends. And while I haven’t slept with all of them, I did whenever it felt right. Sex always felt like a positive part of my life until last December, when I slipped into Jules’s laundry room with Derek. Then I ran straight from him to Brandon, despite all the gigantic red flags that should’ve warned me away. Maybe after I’d screwed up so badly with Derek, I didn’t think I deserved any better.

But I do. One mistake shouldn’t condemn anyone to a future filled with Brandon Webers. I delete Brandon’s message, then his number from my phone. That gives me a half second of satisfaction until I see the next text.

Unknown:
Well that was fun, wasn’t it? Who’s up for…

I can’t see anything else in the preview. I debate deleting this one, too, without reading any further, but there’s no point. If this twisted little game is talking about me, I’ll hear about it eventually. So I click.

Well, that was fun, wasn’t it? Who’s up for another round?
Then there’s, like, fifty responding texts from Bayview students begging for more. Assholes. I scroll through them until I get to the last one from Unknown:

The next player will be contacted soon. Tick-tock.

And then I remember why About That was so popular for so long. Because even though I hate Unknown, and it freaks me out that they revealed a secret I thought would never get out, and the idea of another Simon Kelleher prowling around Bayview High is straight-up nauseating—I can’t help being curious.

BOOK: One of Us Is Next
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