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Authors: Karen M. McManus

One of Us Is Next (8 page)

BOOK: One of Us Is Next
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“Yup. We’re a big enough crowd now that Pa’s giving us the back room.” Luis glances at a door frame in the rear of the restaurant, where hanging beads separate a small private dining area. “Hope it doesn’t get too busy once people hear Cooper’s gonna be around. The actual table only fits, like, ten.” He starts counting on his fingers. “You, me, Coop, Kris, Addy, Bronwyn, Nate, Keely…who else? Is your boyfriend coming?”

“My what? You mean Knox?” I blink when Luis nods. “He’s not my boyfriend. We broke up ages ago.”

“Really?” Luis’s eyebrows shoot up. God, when you graduate you just fall right out of the gossip loop, apparently. “But he’s always here with you.”

“Yeah, we’re still friends. We’re not going out anymore, though.”

“Huh,” Luis says. His eyes flick over me, and my cheeks heat again. “Interesting.”

“Luis!” Mr. Santos pokes his head out of the kitchen. He’s much shorter and rounder than any of his sons, even the preteen ones. They all get their height from their mom. “Are you working or flirting today?”

I duck my head and pull my laptop back in front of me, hoping that I look busy instead of deflated. I was having such a good time talking to Luis that I almost forgot: this is standard operating procedure for him. He’s great at turning on the charm, which is why half of Café Contigo’s customer base is made up of girls between the ages of fourteen and twenty.

Luis shrugs as he gets to his feet. “I’m multitasking, Pa.”

Mr. Santos’s eyes shift toward me, his eyebrows pulled together in exaggerated concern. “Is he bothering you, mija? Say the word and I’ll throw him out.”

I force a smile. “He’s just doing his job.”

Luis pauses at the edge of the table, shooting me a look I can’t decipher. “You want anything? Coffee or…coffee?”

“I’m good, thanks,” I say. My smile is more of a grimace now, so I let it drop.

“I’ll bring you some cookies,” he says over his shoulder as he heads for the kitchen.

Phoebe’s passing by just then, and she pauses, lowering her empty tray to watch Luis’s retreating back. “Why did that sound dirty?” she asks wonderingly. She kicks at my foot and lowers her voice. “He’s so cute. You should make that happen.”

“In my dreams,” I mutter, returning my eyes to my computer screen. Then I let out a startled yelp of pain when Phoebe kicks me again. Harder. “Ow! What was that for?”

“For being dense,” she says, dropping into the chair across from me. “He’s into you.”

“Are you kidding?” I gesture toward the kitchen door as though Luis were standing there, even though he’s not. “I mean, look at him.”

“Look at
” Phoebe says. “Please don’t tell me you’re one of those pretty girls who insists she’s not pretty. That’s tired. You’re hot, own it. And you like him, right? You should let him know instead of getting all weird and frowny when he flirts with you.”

“I’m not weird and frowny!” I protest. Phoebe just tilts her head, slowly twisting a coppery curl around one finger until I add, “Most of the time. Besides, Luis flirts with everyone. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Phoebe shrugs. “That’s not my impression. And I’m pretty good at reading guys.” It’s a simple statement of fact, but as soon as she says it the whole mess about her and Emma’s boyfriend pops into my head, and I can’t keep my eyes from widening reflexively. Phoebe bites her lip and looks away. “Although I realize I have zero credibility in that department at the moment, so I’ll let you get back to—whatever,” she says, pushing her chair away from the table.

My hand is on her wrist before I realize what I’m doing. “No, wait. Don’t go. I’m sorry,” I say quickly. “I didn’t mean to act judgey but…apparently I’m weird and frowny in lots of situations.” She almost smiles, so I feel brave enough to add, “Look, I know what all this must be like for you. I went through it with Bronwyn last year, so…I’m a good listener if you ever want to talk sometime. Or even, you know, just hang out and set our phones on fire.”

I’m relieved when Phoebe laughs. I don’t have a lot of practice reaching out to people who haven’t sought me out first, and I half expected her to edge away and never talk to me again. “I might take you up on that,” she says. Then her face falls, and she plucks at a stray thread on her apron. “Emma’s so mad at me. I keep trying to apologize, but she won’t listen.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Maybe you just need to give her a little more time.” Phoebe nods gloomily, and I add, “I hope she’s not mad at
you. I mean, you weren’t the only person involved. Her ex was, too.”

Phoebe makes a face. “I don’t know if they’ve even talked since she found out. I don’t dare ask.” She cups her chin in one hand and gazes thoughtfully at the brightly colored mosaic tiles mounted on the wall next to us. “I wish I knew how the whole thing got out in the first place. I mean, obviously Derek must’ve told someone, because I sure as hell didn’t. But he lives in Laguna. He doesn’t know anybody here.”

“How’d you run into him, then? After he and Emma broke up, I mean.”

“Christmas party at Jules’s house,” Phoebe says. I raise my eyebrows, and she adds, “But Jules doesn’t know him. Derek was there with her cousin. I don’t think they even met that night.”

“Okay,” I say, filing that nugget of information away for future reference. If there’s one thing last year taught me, it’s to be wary of coincidences. “Well, here’s something that might interest you. Hang on a sec.” My laptop screen has gone dark, so I hit a key to bring the Reddit forum back. “I was Googling some stuff related to Simon and last year, and…” I refresh the page so it’ll display any newer posts, then trail off in confusion. The short thread I was just looking at has disappeared, and there’s nothing left on my screen except the forum heading. “Wait. What happened?”

“What?” Phoebe asks, moving her chair so she can peer at my laptop. “Vengeance Is Mine? Why does that sound familiar?”

“It’s the name of the revenge forum Simon Kelleher used to post on last year, except this one’s in a different location.” I frown, tapping a finger on my chin. “So weird. I was going to show you a thread that mentioned Simon, but it’s gone.”

“Did you try refreshing?” Phoebe leans across from me to hit the arrow button next to the search bar.

“Yeah, that’s what made it disappear in the first place. It was—”

“Is that it?” Phoebe interrupts when three new posts pop up.

“No,” I say, scanning the short lines. “Those are new.”

True, Jellyfish. He did get caught.

But his inspiration lives on in Bayview.

And he’d fucking love the game I’m playing right now.—Darkestmind.



Friday, February 28

I send the texts to Jules rapid fire on Friday afternoon, one after the other.

You’ve been busy huh?

Feel like doing something tonight?

I have to work but only till 8.

Want to meet me there?

Then I sit on the edge of my bed, gazing around the room I share with Emma. It’s smaller than the bedroom I had to myself in our old house, and crammed with twice as much stuff. Mom got a worker’s comp settlement from Dad’s company when he died, and while she never talked about how much it was, I thought it was
Enough that she wouldn’t have to go back to work unless she wanted to, and we could stay where we were.

Now Mom works at an office manager job she hates, and we live here. When we moved last summer, she told us that downsizing to an apartment was about convenience, not money. But nobody except Owen believed her.

I get up and wander to Emma’s side of the room, which is pristine compared to mine. Her bed is neatly made, every wrinkle smoothed away from the scalloped white coverlet. There’s nothing on her desk except the laptop we share, a coffee mug filled with colored pencils, and a notebook with a Monet print on the cover. I have a sudden urge to open the notebook and scrawl a message in the most apologetic color I can find. Pale pink, maybe.
Emma, I miss you. I’ve been missing you for years. Just tell me how to make this up to you and I’ll do it.

Emma is at the library, and even though we’re barely speaking the emptiness of our room almost tempts me to knock on Owen’s door and offer to play
Bounty Wars.
I’m saved by the chime of my phone and glance down in surprise to a return text from Jules. She’s been cool toward me ever since the Derek reveal, and I wasn’t expecting a quick response.

Is that thing tonight? With Cooper Clay and everybody?

Yeah, around 6. It’ll be packed, though. You probably want to avoid that scene and just come at 8 when I get off.

The pre–Ashton’s bachelorette party get-together at Café Contigo started spiraling out of control once people heard Cooper might be there. Dozens of Bayview students who don’t even know him are saying they’re going now, and I’m not sure the Santoses are ready for that kind of crowd.

Will Nate be there?

I sigh as I text back,
Guess I’ll be seeing her a lot earlier than eight o’clock.

My phone rings, startling me.
Jules wants to FaceTime.
I hit Accept and her face fills the screen, grinning expectantly. “Heyyy,” she says, sounding like her usual self. “Do you have time for a wardrobe consult?”

“Of course.”

“Which of these says,
I’m way more fun than your ex
I live right here?
This…” Jules holds up a plunging sequined tank top and waves it for a few seconds, then drops it and picks up a black ruffled halter. “Or this?”

Ugh. I don’t want to encourage Jules in her Nate Macauley obsession. Even if Bronwyn weren’t still in the picture, I’m pretty sure he and Jules would be a terrible pairing. Jules likes to be joined at the hip with whoever she dates, and I don’t think that’s Nate’s style at all. “They’re both gorgeous,” I say. Jules pouts, so that’s obviously the wrong answer. “But if I had to choose, the black.” It’s a little less revealing, anyway.

“All right, the black it is,” she says breezily. “I’m going to watch some makeup videos and try to nail a smoky eye. See you tonight!” She waves and disconnects.

I toss my phone onto my rumpled comforter—it’s balled up in the middle of my bed because I’m such a restless sleeper, especially lately—and grab an elastic from my end table. I pull my hair into a ponytail as I stand and cross to the bedroom door. When I yank it open, Owen almost tumbles inside.

“Owen!” I pull my ponytail tighter and narrow my eyes at him. “Were you eavesdropping?” Rhetorical question; he totally was. The longer my cold war with Emma goes on, the worse of a snoop Owen becomes. As though he knows something isn’t right, and he’s trying to figure out what it is.

“No,” Owen says unconvincingly. “I was just…” A loud knock sounds on the front door, and he gets a total
saved by the bell
look on his face. “Going to tell you that someone’s at the door.”

you were,” I say, and then I frown when the knock sounds again. “Weird. I didn’t hear the intercom.” I’m assuming it’s some kind of delivery, but normally we have to buzz people through the front door before they can come upstairs. “Did you?”

“No,” Owen says. “Are you going to answer it?”

“Let me see who it is.” I cross the living room and press one eye against the peephole. The face on the other side is distorted, but still irritatingly familiar. “Ugh. You have got to be kidding me.”

Owen hovers beside me. “Who is it?”

“Go to your room, okay?” He doesn’t move, and I give him a gentle shove. “Just for a few minutes, and then I’ll come play
Bounty Wars
with you.”

Owen grins. “All right!” He scoots away, and I wait to hear the click of his bedroom door before undoing the deadbolt.

The door swings open to reveal Brandon Weber in the hallway, a lazy smirk on his face. “Took you long enough,” he says, stepping inside and shutting the door behind him.

I cross my arms tightly over my chest, suddenly all too aware of the fact that I took my bra off when I got home from school. “What are you doing here? Who let you into the building?”

“Some grandma was coming out when I got here.” Of course. That’s how the world works when you’re Brandon Weber; doors just open up whenever you want them to. He looms over me, way too close, and I step back as he asks, “How come you’re not answering my texts?”

“Are you for real?” I scan his pretty, pouty face for a hint of comprehension, but there’s nothing. “You
at me, Brandon. Sean was being a total creep, and you joined right in.”

“Oh come on. It was a joke. Can’t you take a joke?” He moves closer again, putting one hand on my waist. His fingers dig into my thin T-shirt, and his lips curl into a smug smile. “I thought you liked to have fun.”

I push him away, anger buzzing through my veins. I’ve been the bad guy all week: the one who betrayed her sister and deserves whatever she gets in return. It’s almost a relief to be mad at someone besides myself for a change. “Don’t touch me,” I snap. “We’re done.”

“You don’t mean that.” He’s still smiling, clueless as ever. He thinks this is a game, one where he makes all the rules and I’m lucky just to get a chance at playing. “I miss you. Wanna see how much?” He tries to move my hand toward his crotch, and I yank it back.

“Knock it off. I’m not interested.”

His face darkens as he pulls me toward him again, harder than before. “Don’t be a tease.”

For the first time since he arrived, I feel a spark of apprehension. I’ve always liked how strong Brandon is, but right now—I don’t. I’m still angry, though, and use that adrenaline to wrench out of his grasp. “Really? Let me see if I have this straight. If I do what you want, I’m a slut. If I don’t do what you want, I’m a tease. What
want doesn’t count, but you’re the big man at Bayview no matter what. Does that about sum it up?”

Brandon snorts. “What are you, some kind of feminazi now?”

I bite back another angry retort. There’s no point. “Just leave, Brandon.”

Instead, he lunges forward and mashes his lips against mine, sending a wave of horrified shock through my entire body. My hands are up in an instant and I press against his chest with all my strength, but his arms snake around my waist, anchoring me in place. I twist my head and almost spit to get the taste of him out of my mouth. “Stop it! I said no!” My voice comes out as a low hiss because somehow, even though my heart is about to pound out of my chest, I’m still worried about scaring Owen.

Brandon doesn’t listen. His hands and his mouth are everywhere, and I don’t know how to make him stop. I’ve never felt so small, in every possible way.

He forces another kiss on me, moving his body just enough that I can get an arm free. I keep my lips pressed tightly together against his probing tongue, reaching up to grab a fistful of his hair. I pull his head backward, then let go and slap him as hard as I can across the face. He lets out a surprised grunt of pain and loosens his grip. I twist away and shove him with enough force to make him stumble backward. “Get
!” This time I scream, the words scraping raw and rough across my dry throat.

Brandon stares at me, slack-jawed with shock, my handprint seared red across his pale cheek. His mouth twists and I take a step back, poised to run I don’t even know where, when Owen’s door bursts open. “Phoebe?” He pokes his head around the door frame, eyes wide. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” I say, trying to keep my voice steady. “Brandon was just leaving.”

Brandon barks out a bitter laugh, his eyes flicking from me to Owen. “What’s up, little man?” he says, his mouth twisted in a sneer. “Nothing to see here. Just your sister being a whore. But I guess your family knows all about that, right? Especially Emma.” I inhale sharply and clench my fist, my sore palm stinging with an almost overwhelming urge to hit him again. Brandon’s eyes gleam, his parting shot landed. He opens the door and lifts one hand in a jaunty wave. “See you around, Phoebe.” Then he shoves his hands into his pockets and backs down the hallway, his eyes never leaving my face.

I slam the door shut and click the deadbolt. After that I can’t seem to move, my hand frozen on the lock. “Phoebe?” Owen asks, his voice small.

My forehead presses against the closed door. I can’t. I can
have this conversation with my little brother. “Go back to your room.”

“Are you—”

“Go back to your room, Owen.
” I hear footsteps and a soft click. I wait another beat until I let the tears fall.

None of this would be happening if Dad were here. I know it, down to my core, that I’d be a better, smarter, stronger person if he hadn’t died. I remember that day like it was yesterday: me and Emma both home sick with the flu, curled on opposite sides of the couch in our old house, covered in blankets. Mom was in the kitchen getting us Popsicles when her phone rang. I heard her harried
—we were starting to wear her out at that point—and then she went silent. “Is it serious?” she finally asked, in a voice I’d never heard before.

She appeared in the doorway a few minutes later, clutching her phone in one hand and a half-melted Popsicle in the other. “I have to leave you for a little while,” she said in that same robotic tone. Purple liquid dripped down one arm. “There’s been an accident.”

A horrible, impossible, nightmare of a freak accident. My dad used to work as a supervisor at a granite manufacturing plant in Eastland, directing workers as they maneuvered giant slabs of stone to be cut into countertops. A forklift carrying one jammed at exactly the wrong moment—and that was all the detail I ever wanted to know. Nothing else mattered, anyway, except the fact that he was gone.

“I miss you,” I say against the door. My eyes are squeezed shut, my cheeks wet, my breathing ragged. “I miss you, I miss you, I miss you.” The words are a drumbeat in my head, still steady after three years. I don’t think they’ll ever go away. “I miss you.”

It’s a relief to be at work that night, surrounded by people. And I do mean surrounded: I’ve never seen Café Contigo so crowded. Not only is every table full, but Mr. Santos brought out all the extra chairs that are usually stored in the basement and it’s still not enough. People are standing in groups against either side of the wall, shuffling back and forth as I weave through them with a drink-laden tray for Addy and her friends.

I push through the beaded curtain that separates the back room from the main restaurant. There’s only one large table here, more than half-filled with familiar faces: Addy, Maeve, Bronwyn, Luis, and Cooper. A handsome, dark-haired boy gets up from beside Cooper as I approach the table and stretches his hand toward my tray with a questioning look. “Can I help?” he asks. “Will it mess you up if I start taking these off?”

I smile at him. I’ve never met Cooper’s boyfriend, Kris, but I recognize him from press photos, and I like him instantly. He must have waited tables himself at some point, if he knows the importance of a balanced tray. “From the middle is great,” I say.

The room is supposed to be private, but as Kris and I pass drinks around, people keep trickling in and craning their necks at Cooper. Most of them duck right back out, but a group of girls linger beside the entry, whispering to one another behind their hands until they dissolve into near-hysterical giggles.

“Sorry this is so weird,” Cooper murmurs as I hand him a glass of Coke. I haven’t seen Cooper in person since he graduated last year, and I can’t fault the entryway girls for being star-struck. His hair is longer and attractively tousled, he’s very tan, and he fills out his white Cal Fullerton T-shirt impossibly well. Looking straight at him is a little like staring into the sun.

“Well, you’re Bayview’s favorite boy,” Kris says, settling himself back down beside Cooper. Cooper takes his hand, but his expression is preoccupied and a little tense.

maybe,” he says. “We’ll see how long it lasts.”

I don’t blame him for not trusting all the adoration. I remember how some people treated him when they learned he was gay—not just kids at Bayview High, but adults who should’ve known better. Cooper’s been keeping most of the asshole comments at bay since spring training by being almost perfect every time he pitches. The pressure must be unbelievable. Eventually he’s going to have to lose, because nobody can win forever. What happens then?

The boldest girl in the group of gigglers approaches Cooper. “Can I have your autograph?” She hands him a Sharpie, then puts one foot on the bottom rung of Cooper’s chair and turns so her thigh, bare beneath a short skirt, is angled in front of him. “Right there.”

“Um.” Cooper looks completely flummoxed as Addy stifles a laugh. “Could I just…sign a napkin or something?” he asks.

BOOK: One of Us Is Next
5.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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