Authors: Karen M. McManus
“September fourth,” Malcolm says. “The day of Lacey’s fund-raiser.”
“So you wouldn’t have known the car was gone,” Mia says. “But wouldn’t Mr. Nilsson have said something?”
“Maybe not. Katrin spent days at a time at Brooke’s house over the summer.” Malcolm taps an unconscious beat on his knee with one fist, his expression thoughtful. “So maybe that’s why Brooke got involved. She was Katrin’s cover while the car was getting fixed. Peter’s always telling her she needs to drive more carefully. She was probably afraid he’d take it away if he knew.”
“Okay,” Ezra says. “That all makes sense, I guess. The fake name is kind of dumb—I mean, all anybody would have to do is look up the license plate number to know who the car really belongs to. But they probably figured it wouldn’t come to that.” He pauses, frowning. “The only thing I don’t understand is, if that’s what happened, why was Brooke so desperate to get the receipt back? Assuming this is what she was looking for, but”—he gestures at the pile of invoices we’ve already discarded—“nothing else seems relevant. If you’ve gone through the trouble of having an undercover car repair and disposing of the evidence, wouldn’t you just leave it to be shredded? Mission accomplished, right?”
I think back to Brooke’s words in the Fright Farm office.
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? What happened? Wouldn’t you like to know?
My heart rate starts rising. “Mia,” I say, turning toward her. “What date was the car brought in, again?”
“August thirty-first,” she says.
“August thirty-first.” I repeat. My skin prickles, every nerve twitching.
Ezra tilts his head. “Why do you look like you just swallowed a grenade?”
“Because we came in from LA the night before that. August thirtieth, remember? The hailstorm. The night Mr. Bowman was killed in a hit-and-run.” Nobody says anything for a second, and I tap the paper Mia is holding.
“Front of vehicle damage due to unknown impact?”
Mia’s entire body goes rigid. Ezra says “Holy shit,” at the same time Malcolm says, “No.” He turns toward me, his eyes pained. “Mr. Bowman? Katrin wouldn’t …” He trails off when Mia drops the repair receipt in his lap.
“I hate to say it,” she says with surprising gentleness. “But it’s starting to look an awful lot like she did.”
Saturday, October 5
“You look absolutely beautiful, Katrin.”
I turn from the refrigerator at the sound of my mother’s voice, grasping a too-warm seltzer and stepping closer to the foyer so I have a clear view of the staircase. Katrin’s descending it like royalty in a red dress, her hair pulled back in some kind of complicated twist. She looks better than she has all week, but she still doesn’t have her usual sparkle. There’s something brittle about her face.
The neckline on her dress dips low, displaying a lot more cleavage than Katrin usually shows. It should be distracting, but even that doesn’t derail the train of thought that’s been running through my brain since yesterday afternoon.
What do you know? What did you do?
“Whoa.” Katrin’s boyfriend, Theo, doesn’t have the same problem. His eyes zero in on her chest until he remembers that her dad’s in the room. “You look amazing.”
I can’t see Peter, but his voice is full of forced heartiness. “Let’s get some pictures of the four of you.”
That’s my cue to leave. Katrin and Theo are doubling to homecoming with two of my least favorite people at Echo Ridge High: Kyle McNulty and Viv Cantrell. It’s not a date, Katrin explained to my mother. Just two people who are worried about Brooke, coming together while the town tries to hang on to some kind of normal. From the glimpse I saw of Kyle when they arrived, he looks as though he got talked into it and already regrets saying yes.
All the money raised from selling homecoming tickets is going toward a reward fund for information leading to Brooke’s safe return. Most of the businesses in town are giving matching donations, and Peter’s law firm is doubling theirs.
I retreat into the study while everyone poses. Mia’s still going with Ezra, and she was texting me until an hour ago trying to convince me to ask Ellery. Under different circumstances I probably would have. But I couldn’t get Katrin’s words out of my head:
I’d better not see you there.
She’s backed off on treating me like a criminal, but I know that’s what everyone at school is thinking. I don’t care enough about a pointless dance to deal with three hours of getting whispered about and judged.
Besides, I’m not sure I can act normal around my stepsister right now.
I haven’t told anyone what we found yesterday. Despite the wild theories, all it really amounts to is a receipt with questionable contact information. Still, it’s been eating at me all day, making it almost impossible to look at Katrin without the words bursting out of me:
What do you know? What did you do?
The murmur of voices in the foyer grows louder as Katrin and her friends get ready to leave for the dance. Pretty soon, only Peter and Mom will be home. Suddenly, the last thing in the world I want to do is spend a Saturday night alone with my thoughts. Before I second-guess myself too much, I fire off a text to Ellery.
Do you want to hang out tonight? Watch a movie or something?
I don’t know if she’ll be up for it, or if her grandmother will even let her. But Ellery replies within a few minutes, and the vise gripping my chest loosens a little when I read her response.
Turns out, if you invite a girl over on homecoming night, your mother
read into it.
Mom flutters around Ellery with zero chill after her grandmother drops her off at our house. “Do you two want popcorn? I can make some. Are you going to be in the den, or the living room? The den is more comfortable, probably, but I don’t think that television has Netflix. Maybe we could set it up real quick, Peter?”
Peter puts a hand on her shoulder, like that’ll stop her from spinning out. “I’m sure Malcolm will let us know if he has any pressing technological requirements.” He gives Ellery the full Peter Nilsson smile experience as she unwinds a scarf from around her neck and stuffs it into her bag. “Very nice to meet you, Ellery. Your mother was one of my favorite people in town while she was here.” He gives a self-deprecating laugh. “I even took her to the movies a couple of times, although I think I bored her to tears. I hope she’s doing well, and that you’re enjoying your time in Echo Ridge, even though …” A shadow passes over his face. “We’re not at our best right now.”
I keep my expression neutral to hide how much I wish he’d shut up. Way to remind everyone that half the town thinks I did something to Brooke. Which I guess is the other reason I didn’t ask Ellery to homecoming. I’m not sure she’d say yes.
“I know,” Ellery says. “We moved here at a strange time. Everyone’s been really nice, though.” She smiles at me, and my bad mood lifts. Her hair is long and loose around her shoulders, the way I like it. I didn’t realize till now that I had a preference, but it turns out I do.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Mom asks. “We have seltzer, or juice, or—” She looks ready to document the entire contents of our refrigerator, but Peter starts gently steering her toward the balcony staircase before Ellery can reply. Thank God.
“Malcolm knows where everything is, Alicia. Why don’t we finish up the Burns documentary upstairs?” He favors me with a smile almost as warm as the one he gave Ellery. It doesn’t reach his eyes, but points for trying, I guess. “Give us a shout if you need anything.”
“Sorry,” I say when the sound of their footsteps on the stairs has faded. “Mom’s a little rusty at the meeting-new-friends thing. You want some popcorn?”
“Sure,” she says, and grins. Her dimple flashes, and I’m happy I texted her.
I lead her into the kitchen, where she hops onto a stool in front of the island. I open the cabinet next to the sink and root around until I find a box of microwave popcorn. “And don’t worry, your mom’s cool. Your stepfather, too.” She sounds surprised as she says it, as if she wasn’t expecting that from Katrin’s dad.
“He’s all right,” I say grudgingly, extracting a bag of popcorn and tossing it into the microwave.
Ellery winds a curl around her finger. “You don’t talk about your dad much. Do you see him, or … ?” She hesitates, like she’s not one hundred percent sure he’s even still alive.
The sound of popping kernels fills the air. “Not really. He lives in southern Vermont now, near Massachusetts. I spent a week there over the summer. Mostly he emails sports-related articles under the mistaken assumption that I’ll find them interesting. Peter tries a little harder than that.” When I say it, it surprises me to realize it’s true. “He talks a lot about college, what I want to do after, stuff like that.”
you want to do?” Ellery asks.
The popping sounds slow. I pull the bag from the microwave and tear it open, releasing a cloud of buttery steam. “I don’t have a clue,” I admit. “What about you?”
“I’m not sure. I have this idea that I’d like to be a lawyer, but— I don’t know if it’s realistic. I didn’t even think till this year that college was a thing that might happen. Sadie never could have sent us. But my grandmother keeps talking about it like she will.”
“Same for me, with Peter,” I say. “You know he’s a lawyer, right? I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to you about it. Fair warning, though—ninety percent of his job sounds really boring. Although maybe that’s just him.”
She laughs. “Noted. I might take you up on that.” My back is to her as I hunt in a cabinet for a popcorn bowl, and when she speaks again her voice is much quieter. “It’s weird, but for the longest time I almost couldn’t …
myself in the future,” she says. “I’d think about what happened to my aunt and imagine that one of us, out of me and my brother, might not make it all the way through high school. Like only one Corcoran twin gets to move on. And Ezra’s so much more like my mom than I am, so …” I turn to see her staring out our kitchen window into the darkness, her expression reflective. Then she shivers, and flashes me an apologetic grimace. “Sorry. That got morbid fast.”
“We have screwed-up family histories,” I tell her. “Morbidity comes with the territory.”
I lead her into the Nilssons’ living room and lower myself into one corner of the sofa, the bowl of popcorn next to me. She curls up beside it and hands me my drink. “What do you want to watch?” I ask, flicking on the remote and scrolling through the channel guide.
“I don’t care,” Ellery says. She plucks a small handful of popcorn from the bowl between us. “I’m just glad to be out of my house for the night.”
My channel-hopping lands us on the first
movie. It’s past the part where Sadie appears, but I keep it there in her honor anyway. “Yeah, I get it. I keep thinking how it was almost exactly a week ago that I dropped Brooke off.” I unscrew the top of my seltzer. “I’ve been meaning to thank you, by the way. For, you know. Believing me.”
Ellery’s liquid dark eyes hold mine. “It’s been an awful week for you, hasn’t it?”
“I saw what Declan went through, remember?” Images of a futuristic city with dark, rain-slicked streets flash across the screen in front of us. The hero is on the ground, cowering as a couple of muscle-bound, leather-clad guys loom over him. He’s not half-cyborg yet, so he’s about to get his ass kicked. “This was better.”
Ellery shifts beside me. “But he had a whole history with Lacey. It’s not like you were Brooke’s boyfriend, or …” She hesitates briefly. “Her best friend.”
We managed to go almost fifteen minutes without poking the elephant in the room. Good for us, I guess.
“Do you think we should show the police what we found?” I ask.
Ellery chews her lip. “I don’t know. I’m kind of worried about how I got it, to be honest. And it might look sketchy to have you involved. Plus I still don’t trust Ryan Rodriguez.” She frowns at the television screen. “Something’s off with that guy.”
“There are other police officers,” I say. But Officer McNulty is the lead on this case, and the thought of talking to him again makes my stomach churn.
“The thing is … I’ve been wondering about something.” Ellery picks up the remote like she’s about to change the channel, but juggles it meditatively in her hand instead. “Assuming our leap of logic is right and Katrin actually”—she lowers her voice to a near whisper—“ran over Mr. Bowman. Do you think, um, that’s
I try to swallow a piece of popcorn, but I can’t. My throat is too dry. I take a deep gulp of my drink before answering Ellery, and while I do, I think about Katrin gliding down our stairs today with that masklike expression. The way she’d thrown me under the bus when I was first questioned. The scared look in her eyes the day of Peter’s search party. “What do you mean?”
“Well.” Ellery says the word slowly, reluctantly, like someone’s prying it out of her. “I should probably preface this by saying … I think about crime a lot. Like, an abnormal amount. I get that. It’s sort of a problem. So you have to take what I say with a grain of salt, because I’m just this … naturally suspicious person, I guess.”
“You suspected me, right? For a while.” Ellery freezes, eyes wide. Shit, I didn’t mean to come out with that. I almost apologize and change the subject. But I don’t, because now that I’ve said it, I want to hear her response.
“I … I honestly hate that I’m like this, Mal.” I think that might be the first time she’s ever called me by my nickname, but before I can process that momentous occasion, I’m horrified to see her eyes water. “It’s just— I grew up never knowing what happened to my aunt. Nobody would tell me anything, so I’d read terrible crime stories to try to understand. But all that did was make me more confused and paranoid. Now I’m at the point where I feel like I can’t trust anybody who’s not my literal twin.” A tear slips down her cheek. She drops the remote onto the couch to swipe angrily at her cheek, leaving a red mark on her pale skin. “I don’t know how to relate to people. Like, I pretty much only ever had one friend before I moved here. Then I met you and Mia, and you guys were so great, but all this happened and … I’m sorry. I didn’t really think
about you, but I did … think about it. If that makes sense. It probably doesn’t.”
A knot releases in my chest. “It does. It’s okay. Look, I get it.” I gesture around the room. “Check out my big homecoming night. Not sure if you noticed, but I have only one friend, too. I said it in the kitchen, right? We have screwed-up family histories. It’s crap most of the time, but it does mean I understand you. And I … like you.”
I move the popcorn bowl onto the coffee table and put a tentative arm around her. She sighs and leans into me. I mean it as a friendly hug, mostly, but her hair’s tumbling across one eye, so I push it back, and before I know it both my hands are cupping her cheeks. Which feels really good. Ellery’s eyes are steady on mine, her lips curved in a small, questioning smile. I draw her face closer and before I can overthink it, I kiss her.
Her mouth is soft and warm and just a little bit buttery. Heat spreads through me slowly as she slides her hand up my chest and around the back of my neck. Then she nips lightly at my bottom lip, and the heat turns into an electric jolt. I wrap my arms around her and pull her half on my lap, kissing her lips and the skin between her jaw and her collarbone. She pushes me back against the pillows and molds her body to mine and, holy hell, this night is going a
better than I expected.