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Authors: Karen M. McManus

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BOOK: One of Us Is Next
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The second text comes with a photo of the Wildcat-slash-chicken. Up close, like it was taken by somebody standing right next to it. Everything around it is dark, which makes me think the head-swapping happened last night, but attention didn’t reach critical mass till the Wing Zone lunchtime crowd appeared.

More texts start piling up, from Bayview High kids responding to Unknown.

Nailed it!!!

Bahahaha I can’t stop laughing

Epic af Sean

Lmaooooooo

Disappointment claws at my gut. As soon as I moved to Bayview in seventh grade, Sean—along with Brandon Weber—made my life hell with hilarious games like
How Many of Knox’s Books Can We Fit into One Toilet?
Even now, Sean likes to ask me how my “fag hag” sister is doing, because he’s a Neanderthal who doesn’t know what his crap insults mean. If there’s anyone at Bayview I would’ve liked to see taken down a peg by this game, it’s him. But all this is going to do is swell Sean’s meathead even bigger.

There are no consequences for guys like him and Brandon. Ever.

“Your phone is going nuts,” Kiersten says. “What are your friends talking about?”

I turn it off and shove it into my pocket, wishing I could shut down all my useless rage that easily. “It’s just a stupid group text getting out of control,” I say. “They’re not my friends.”

And neither is Unknown. Which I should’ve known from the start, obviously, but now I
really
know it.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Maeve

Thursday, February 27

I can’t stop grinning at Bronwyn. “It’s so weird that you’re here.”

“I was here less than two months ago,” she reminds me.

“You look different,” I say, even though she doesn’t. I mean, the side braid is a cute style I haven’t seen before, but other than that she hasn’t changed a bit. She’s even wearing her favorite ancient cashmere sweater, so old that she has to roll up its sleeves to hide how frayed the cuffs are. It’s the rest of the world that seems brighter when she’s around, I guess. Even the chalk-scrawled specials on Café Contigo’s blackboard wall look extra vibrant. “You need to come home for grad school, okay? This distance thing isn’t working for me.”

“Me either,” Bronwyn sighs. “Turns out I’m a California girl at heart. Who knew?” She dunks a spoon into her latte to redistribute the foam in a thin layer. “But you might not even be here then if you go to school in Hawaii.”

“Bronwyn, come on. We both know I’m not going to the University of Hawaii,” I say, chasing my last bite of alfajore with a sip of water. My voice is light, casual. The kind of tone that says
I won’t go there because I’m not an island person
and not
I won’t go there because I had another nosebleed this morning.
It was minor, though. Stopped within a few minutes. I don’t have any joint pain, fever, or weird bruises, so it’s fine.

Everything’s fine.

Bronwyn puts down her spoon and folds her hands, giving me one of her serious looks. “If you could be anywhere in five years, doing anything at all, what would you pick?”

Nope. We are absolutely not discussing this. If I start talking five years in the future with my sister, all my careful compartmentalizing will vanish and I’ll crack open like an egg. Spoiling her visit, her semester, and a million other things. “You can’t analyze my future right now,” I say, grabbing another cookie. “It’s bad luck.”

“What?” Bronwyn’s brow creases. “Why?”

I point to the clock on the wall, which has been reading ten o’clock since the batteries died a week ago. “Because that’s broken. Time is literally standing still.”

“Oh my God, Maeve.” Bronwyn rolls her eyes. “That’s not even an actual superstition. That’s just something you and Ita made up. She says hi, by the way.” Now that Bronwyn lives in Connecticut, she gets to see our grandparents regularly. Our grandfather, Ito, is still a visiting lecturer at Yale. “Also that you’re perfect and her favorite.”

“She did not say that.”

“It was implied. It’s
always
implied. Sunday dinners with Ito and Ita are basically Maeve Appreciation Night.” Bronwyn sips her coffee, suddenly looking pensive. “So…if today is already bad luck, does that mean we can talk about me and Nate maybe being broken up for good this time?”

“Bronwyn. What is
with
you guys?” I shake my head as her mouth droops. “Why can’t you figure this out? Your entire relationship started from talking on the phone, for crying out loud! Just do that for like, three months at a time and you’ll be fine.”

“I don’t know,” she says unhappily. She takes off her glasses and rubs her eyes. I brought her here straight from the airport, and she’s obviously a little jet-lagged after her cross-country flight. She’s missing some classes to be here, which Dad isn’t wild about, but Mom can’t resist bringing Bronwyn home for an extra day when she visits. “We’re just never in sync anymore,” she says. “When I’m feeling good about things, he’s feeling like he’s
holding me back.
” She puts up finger quotes with a grimace. “When he starts talking about what we should do over spring break, I wonder if I made a mistake not signing up for that volunteer trip I was interested in. Then I think about him living in that house with all those roommates, and girls in and out all the time, and I get so jealous that it makes me irrational. Which is
not
like me.”

“No, it’s not,” I agree. “Plus, you live in a dorm, so. Same thing.”

“I know,” she sighs. “It’s just so much harder than I thought it would be. Everything I do or say feels wrong with him.”

I don’t bother asking if she still loves Nate. I know she does. “You’re overthinking it,” I tell her, and she snorts out a laugh.

“Oh, you
think
? That’d be a first.” Her phone vibrates on the table, and she makes a face at it. “Is it four already? Evan’s outside.”

“What? Evan
Neiman
?” My voice ticks up on the last name. “What’s he doing here?”

“Giving me a ride to Yumiko’s,” Bronwyn says, draining the last of her latte. “She’s having a bunch of people from our old Mathlete team over to watch something Avengers-related. Don’t ask me what. You know I don’t care.” She stuffs her phone in her bag and peers into its depths. “Ugh, did I forget my prescription sunglasses? I’m so bad at keeping track of those. I hardly ever need them in Connecticut.”

“Why is Evan taking you? Isn’t he at Caltech?”

Bronwyn is still rooting around in her bag. “Yeah, but he and Yumiko hang out sometimes. And he was at Yale last month for a Debate Club Smackdown, so…aha! Here they are.” I clear my throat loudly and she finally glances up, her bright blue glasses case in one hand. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Evan?”

She shifts in her chair. “It’s not a big deal.”

“You getting a ride from your ex, after you just finished angsting about how you can’t make things work with your
other
ex, is not a big deal?” I fold my arms. For someone so smart, my sister can be ridiculously naïve. “Come on. I spent half my life in a cancer ward and even I know that’s a bad idea.”

“Evan and I are just friends who happened to date a long time ago. Like you and Knox.”

“No, it’s not at all like me and Knox. That was mutual. You dumped Evan for Nate and Evan moped about it for the rest of senior year. He wrote
poetry.
Have you forgotten ‘Kilns of Despair’? Because I have not. And now he’s driving two and a half hours on a Thursday to watch
Iron Man
with you?”

“I don’t think it’s
Iron Man
,” Bronwyn says doubtfully.

“Focus, Bronwyn. That’s not the point. Evan is carrying a torch, and everybody knows it except you.” I brandish the saltshaker at her like it’s covered in flames, but I end up spilling it, and then I have to do the whole over-the-shoulder ritual. Bronwyn takes advantage of my distraction to get to her feet and corral me in a one-armed hug. She’s starting to look worried, but her ride is outside, and I can practically see the wheels turning in her head as she calculates the awkwardness quotient of backing out now. Too high.

“I have to go. See you at home,” she says. “I’ll be back before dinner.” She loops her messenger bag over one shoulder and heads for the door.

“Make good choices,” I call after her.

I glance around the café as the door shuts behind her. Phoebe is working today, her brow knitted in concentration as she jots down an order from two beanie-wearing hipsters. Ever since Sean Murdock’s infuriating Wing Zone triumph, people have been acting like Bayview High Truth or Dare is a hilarious new game. A text went out yesterday from Unknown—
The next player has been contacted. Tick-tock
—and now everyone is taking bets on who it is and what they’ll choose. Given how the first two rounds have gone, odds favor the Dare.

It’s like everyone at Bayview High has forgotten that Simon was a real person who ended up suffering more than anyone from the way he used gossip as a weapon. But all you have to do is look at Phoebe’s sad eyes and hollow cheeks to know there’s nothing funny about any of this.

I pull my laptop out of my bag and open the new About That website, where Sean’s Wing Zone chicken photo is prominently displayed. There’s a comment section below, and when people aren’t congratulating Sean, they’re speculating about the identity of Unknown.

It’s Janae Vargas, guys. Finishing what Simon started.
I don’t buy that one for a second. Simon’s former best friend couldn’t get out of Bayview fast enough when she graduated. She goes to college in Seattle now, and I don’t think she’s been back once.

Madman Matthias Schroeder, obvs.

Simon himself. He’s not dead, he just wanted us to think he is.

I open another browser tab and type AnarchiSK—Simon’s old user name—into the search bar. I used to Google that name all the time, back when I was trying to figure out who might have it in for Simon. There are thousands of results, mostly from old news articles, so I narrow the search to the past twenty-four hours. One link remains, to a Reddit subforum with the words
Vengeance Is Mine
in the URL.

The skin on the back of my neck starts to prickle. Simon used to post his revenge rants on a forum called Vengeance Is Mine, but that was on 4chan. I should know; I spent hours reading through them before I sent a link to the
Mikhail Powers Investigates
show. Mikhail ran a spotlight series on Simon’s death, and as soon as he covered the revenge forum it got overrun with fake posts and rubberneckers. Eventually, the whole thing shut down.

At least, that’s what I thought. In the half second before I click the link, the words
He’s not dead, he just wanted us to think he is
don’t seem as far-fetched as they should.

But the page is nearly blank except for a handful of posts:

My teacher needs to btfo or I will kill him for real.—Jellyfish

I almost pounded his face in today lol.
—J
ellyfish

Well now you can’t kill him. What did AnarchiSK always tell us? “Don’t be so obvious.”—Darkestmind

Fuck that guy. He got caught.—Jellyfish

The café door opens and Luis steps inside, wearing a faded San Diego City College T-shirt and a backward baseball cap over his dark hair. He spots me and does one of those chin-jut things he and Cooper are always doing—jock-speak for
Yeah, I see you, but I’m too cool to actually wave.
Then, to my surprise, he shifts course and heads my way, dropping into Bronwyn’s recently vacated seat. “What’s up, Maeve?”

My white blood cell count, probably.
God, I’m fun.

“Not much,” I say, pushing my laptop to one side. “You coming from class?”

“Yup. Accounting.” Luis makes a wry face. “Not my favorite. But we can’t spend every day in the kitchen. Unfortunately.” Luis is getting a hospitality degree so he can run his own restaurant one day, which is the kind of thing I never would have guessed when he was a big man on campus at Bayview.

“You just missed Bronwyn,” I say, because I assume that’s why he stopped at my table. The two of them aren’t close, exactly, but they hang out occasionally because of Cooper. “She’s at Yumiko’s if you…” And then I trail off, because the Venn diagram of Luis’s and Bronwyn’s social overlap starts and ends with Cooper. I’m pretty sure Luis isn’t planning to attend the Bayview Mathlete movie night.

“Cool.” Luis flashes a smile and stretches his legs out under the table. I’m so used to Knox sitting with me that Luis’s presence is a little disconcerting. He takes up more space, both physically and…confidence-wise, I guess. Knox always looks as though he’s not sure he’s supposed to be wherever he is. Luis sprawls out like he owns the place. Well, in this particular case his parents do, so maybe that’s part of it. But still. There’s an ease to him that, I think, comes from being athletic and popular his entire life. Luis has spent years at the center of one team or another. He’s always belonged. “I had a question for you, actually.”

I can feel my face getting red, and cup my chin in both hands to hide it. I wish I weren’t constantly attracted to the kind of guys who either ignore me or treat me like their little sister, but here we are. I have no defense against the cute jock demographic. “Oh?”

“Do you live here now?” he asks.

I blink, not sure if I’m disappointed or caught off guard. Probably both. “What?”

“You’re in this restaurant more than I am, and I get paid for it.”

His dark eyes twinkle, and my stomach drops. Oh God. Does he think I’m here for
him
? I mean, yes, catching sight of Luis in one of those well-fitting T-shirts he always wears is typically a highlight of my day, but I didn’t think I was being obvious about it.

I narrow my eyes at him and aim for a detached tone. “Your customer appreciation skills need work.”

Luis grins. “It’s not that. I’m just wondering if you’re familiar with this thing called
outside
? It has sun and fresh air, or so I’ve heard.”

“Pure rumor and speculation,” I say. “Doesn’t exist. Besides, I’m doing my part for the Bayview economy. Supporting local business.” Then I drink the rest of my water to force myself to shut up. This is the longest conversation I’ve ever had alone with Luis, and I’m working so hard at playing it cool that I barely know what I’m saying.

“That would be a better argument if you ever got anything besides coffee,” Luis points out, and I laugh in spite of myself.

“I see those accounting classes are paying off,” I say. He laughs too, and I finally relax enough that my face returns to a normal temperature. “Do you think you’ll take over from your parents someday? Run Café Contigo, I mean?”

“Probably not,” Luis says. “This is their place, you know? I want something of my own. Plus I’m more interested in the fine dining scene. Pa thinks I’m full of it, though.” He mimics his dad’s deep tone. “Tienes el ego por las nubes, Luis.”

I smile. Luis’s ego
is
in the clouds, but at least he knows it. “He must be happy you’re interested in the family business, though.”

“I think so,” Luis says. “Especially since Manny can’t make toast without burning it.” Luis’s older brother, the one named after their dad, has always been more into cars than kitchens. But he’s been working at the restaurant since he got laid off from an auto repair shop. “He’s helping out tomorrow night and Pa is all,
Please don’t touch anything. Just wash dishes.
” Luis takes his cap off, runs a hand through his hair, and puts it back on. “You’ll be here, right? I think Cooper might make it after all.”

“He will?” I ask, genuinely happy. All of Bronwyn’s and Addy’s friends are getting together at Café Contigo before Ashton’s bachelorette party tomorrow night, but last I’d heard Cooper’s schedule was still up in the air.

BOOK: One of Us Is Next
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