Authors: Karen M. McManus
“Were they friends?” I blurt out. Ezra’s face settles into a
here we go
“I couldn’t say. They knew one another, certainly. Ryan grew up in the neighborhood and they both worked at … Fright Farm.” Her hesitation before the new name is so slight that I almost miss it. “Most kids in town did. Still do.”
“When does it open?” Ezra asks. He glances at me like he’s doing me a favor, but he didn’t have to bother. I looked up the schedule as soon as I learned we were moving to Echo Ridge.
“Next weekend. Right before you two start school,” Nana says. Echo Ridge has the latest start date of any school we’re ever attended, which is one point in its favor. At La Puente, we’d already been in school two weeks by Labor Day. Nana gestures with her spatula toward the kitchen window over the sink, which looks out into the woods behind her house. “You’ll hear it once it does. It’s a ten-minute walk through the woods.”
“It is?” Ezra looks baffled. I am too, but mostly by his utter lack of research. “So the Kilduffs still live right behind the place where their daughter … where somebody, um …” He trails off as Nana turns toward us with two plates, each holding an enormous fluffy omelet, and deposits them in front of us. Ezra and I exchange surprised glances. I can’t remember the last time either of us had anything for breakfast other than coffee. But my mouth waters at the savory scent, and my stomach rumbles. I haven’t eaten anything since the three Kind bars I had for dinner on last night’s flight.
“Well.” Nana sits down between us and pours herself a glass of orange juice from the ceramic pitcher on the table.
Not a carton. I spend a few seconds trying to figure out why you’d bother emptying a carton into a pitcher before taking a sip of mine and realizing it’s freshly squeezed. How are she and Sadie even related? “It’s their home. The two younger girls have lots of friends in the neighborhood.”
“How old are they?” I ask. Melanie wasn’t just Sadie’s favorite babysitter; she was almost a mentor to her in high school—and pretty much the only person from Echo Ridge that my mother ever talked about. But I still know hardly anything about her except that her daughter was murdered.
“Caroline is twelve and Julia is six,” Nana says. “There’s quite a gap between the two of them, and between Lacey and Caroline. Melanie’s always had trouble conceiving. But there’s a silver lining, I suppose. The girls were so young when Lacey died, looking after them might be the only thing that kept Melanie and Dan going during such a terrible time.”
Ezra cuts into the corner of his omelet and releases a small cloud of steam. “The police never had any suspects in Lacey’s murder, huh?” he asks.
“No,” Nana says, at the same time as I say, “The boyfriend.”
Nana takes a long sip of juice. “Plenty of people thought that.
that,” she says. “But Declan Kelly wasn’t an official suspect. Questioned, yes. Multiple times. But never held.”
“Does he still live in Echo Ridge?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “He left town right after graduation. Best for all involved, I’m sure. The situation took an enormous toll on his family. Declan’s father moved away shortly after he did. I thought the mother and brother would be next, but … things worked out differently for them.”
I pause with my fork in midair. “Brother?” I hadn’t known Lacey’s boyfriend had a brother; the news never reported much about his family.
“Declan has a younger brother, Malcolm. Around your age,” Nana says. “I don’t know him well, but he seems a quieter sort. Doesn’t strut around town as if he owns it, at any rate, the way his brother did.”
I watch her take a careful bite of omelet, wishing I could read her better so I’d know whether Lacey and Sarah are as intertwined in her mind as they are in mine. It’s been so long since Sarah disappeared; almost a quarter century with no answers. Lacey’s parents lack a different kind of closure—they know
“Do you think Declan Kelly is guilty?” I ask.
Nana’s brow wrinkles, as though she suddenly finds the entire conversation distasteful. “I didn’t say that. There was never any hard evidence against him.”
I reach for the saltshaker without responding. That might be true, but if years of reading true-crime books and watching
has taught me anything, it’s this: it’s
Wednesday, September 4
My shirt’s stiff with too much starch. It practically crackles when I bend my arms to drape a tie around my neck. I watch my hands in the mirror, trying and failing to get the knot straight, and give up when it’s at least the right size. The mirror looks old and expensive, like everything in the Nilssons’ house. It reflects a bedroom that could fit three of my old one. And at least half of Declan’s apartment.
What’s it like living in that house?
my brother asked last night, scraping the last of his birthday cake off a plate while Mom was in the bathroom. She’d brought a bunch of balloons that looked tiny in the Nilssons’ foyer, but kept batting Declan in the head in the cramped alcove he calls a kitchen.
I said. Which is true. But no more fucked up than the past five years have been. Declan’s spent most of them living four hours away in New Hampshire, renting a basement apartment from our aunt.
A sharp knock sounds at my bedroom door, and hinges squeak as my stepsister pokes her head in without waiting for an answer. “You ready?” she asks.
“Yep,” I say, picking up a blue suit coat from my bed and shrugging it on. Katrin tilts her head and frowns, ice-blond hair spilling over one shoulder. I know that look:
There’s something wrong with you, and I’m about to tell you exactly what it is and how to fix it.
I’ve been seeing it for months now.
“Your tie’s crooked,” she says, heels clicking on the floor as she walks toward me, hands outstretched. A crease appears between her eyes as she tugs at the knot, then disappears when she steps back to view her work. “There,” she says, patting my shoulder with a satisfied expression. “Much better.” Her hand skims down to my chest and she plucks a piece of lint from my suit coat in two pale-pink fingernails and lets it drop to the floor. “You clean up all right, Mal. Who would’ve thought?”
Not her. Katrin Nilsson barely spoke to me until her father started dating my mother last winter. She’s the queen of Echo Ridge High, and I’m the band nerd with the disreputable family. But now that we live under the same roof, Katrin has to acknowledge my existence. She copes by treating me like either a project or a nuisance, depending on her mood.
“Let’s go,” she says, tugging lightly at my arm. Her black dress hugs her curves but stops right above her knees. She’d almost be conservative if she weren’t wearing tall, spiky heels that basically force you to look at her legs. So I do. My new stepsister might be a pain in the ass, but she’s undeniably hot.
I follow Katrin into the hallway to the balcony staircase overlooking the massive foyer downstairs. My mother and Peter are at the bottom waiting for us, and I drop my eyes because whenever they’re standing that close, his hands are usually someplace I don’t want to see. Katrin and her superjock boyfriend commit less PDA than those two.
But Mom’s happy, and I guess that’s good.
Peter looks up and takes a break from manhandling my mom. “Don’t you two look nice!” he calls out. He’s in a suit too, same dark blue as mine, except he gets his tailored so they fit him perfectly. Peter’s like one of those suave
watch ads come to life—square jaw, penetrating gaze, wavy blond hair with just enough gray to be distinguished. Nobody could believe he was interested in my mother when they first started dating. People were even more shocked when he married her.
He saved them.
That’s what the entire town thinks. Peter Nilsson, the rich and charming owner of the only law firm in town, took us from town pariahs to town royalty with one tasteful justice of the peace ceremony at Echo Ridge Lake. And maybe he did. People don’t avoid my mother anymore, or whisper behind her back. She gets invited to the garden club, school committees, tonight’s fund-raiser, and all that other crap.
Doesn’t mean I have to like him, though.
“Nice having you back, Malcolm,” he adds, almost sounding like he means it. Mom and I have been gone a week, visiting family across a few towns in New Hampshire and then finishing up at Declan’s place. Peter and Katrin didn’t come. Partly because he had to work, and partly because neither of them leave Echo Ridge for anyplace without room service and a spa.
“Did you have dinner with Mr. Coates while we were gone?” I ask abruptly.
Peter’s nostrils flare slightly, which is the only sign of annoyance he ever shows. “I did, on Friday. He’s still getting his business up and running, but when the time is right he’d be happy to talk with Declan. I’ll keep checking in with him.”
Ben Coates used to be mayor of Echo Ridge. After that, he left to run a political consulting business in Burlington. Declan is a few—okay, a
—of credits short from finishing his poli-sci degree at community college, but he’s still hoping for an introduction. It’s the only thing he’s ever asked of Peter. Or of Mom, I guess, since Declan and Peter don’t really talk.
Mom beams at Peter, and I let it drop. Katrin steps forward, reaching out a hand to touch the twisted beaded necklace Mom’s wearing. “This is so pretty!” she exclaims. “Very bohemian. Such a nice change from all the pearls we’ll see tonight.”
Mom’s smile fades. “I have pearls,” she says nervously, looking at Peter. “Should I—”
“You’re fine,” he says quickly. “You look beautiful.”
I could kill Katrin. Not literally. I feel like I have to add that disclaimer even in my own thoughts, given our family history. But I don’t understand her constant need to make digs at Mom’s expense. It’s not like Mom broke up Katrin’s parents; she’s Peter’s
wife. Katrin’s mother was long gone to Paris with a new husband before Mom and Peter even went on their first date.
And Katrin has to know that Mom is nervous about tonight. We’ve never been to the Lacey Kilduff Memorial Scholarship fund-raiser before. Mostly because we’ve never been invited.
Peter’s nostrils flare again. “Let’s head out, shall we? It’s getting late.”
He opens the front door, stepping aside to let us through while pressing a button on his key chain. His black Range Rover starts idling in the driveway, and Katrin and I climb into the back. My mother settles herself in the passenger seat and flips the radio from the Top 40 station that Katrin likes to blast to NPR. Peter gets in last, buckling his seat belt before shifting the car into gear.
The Nilssons’ winding driveway is the longest part of the trip. After that, it’s a few quick turns and we’re in downtown Echo Ridge. So to speak. There’s not much to it—a row of white-trimmed redbrick buildings on either side of Manchester Street, lined with old-fashioned, wrought iron streetlights. It’s never crowded here, but it’s especially dead on a Wednesday night before school’s back in session. Half the town is still on vacation, and the other half is attending the fund-raiser in the Echo Ridge Cultural Center. That’s where anything notable at Echo Ridge happens, unless it happens at the Nilssons’ house.
house. Can’t get used to that.
Peter parallel parks on Manchester Street and we spill out of the car and onto the sidewalk. We’re right across the street from O’Neill’s Funeral Home, and Katrin heaves a sigh as we pass the pale-blue Victorian. “It’s too bad you were out of town for Mr. Bowman’s service,” she says. “It was really nice. The show choir sang ‘To Sir with Love’ and everybody lost it.”
My gut twists. Mr. Bowman was my favorite teacher at Echo Ridge High, by a lot. He had this quiet way of noticing what you were good at, and encouraging you to get better. After Declan moved away and my dad took off, when I had a lot of pissed-off energy and nowhere to put it, he was the one who suggested I take up the drums. It makes me sick that somebody mowed him down and left him to die in the middle of the road.
“Why was he even out in a hailstorm?” I ask, because it’s easier to fixate on that than to keep feeling like shit.
“They found a Tupperware container near him,” Peter says. “One of the teachers at the funeral thought he might have been collecting hail for a lesson he was planning on climate change. But I guess we’ll never know for sure.”
And now I feel worse, because I can picture it: Mr. Bowman leaving his house late at night with his umbrella and his plastic container, all enthusiastic because he was going to
make science real.
He said that kind of thing a lot.
After a couple of blocks, a gold-rimmed wooden sign welcomes us to the cultural center. It’s the most impressive of all the redbrick buildings, with a clock tower on top and wide steps leading to a carved wooden door. I reach for the door, but Peter’s faster. Always. You can’t out-gentleman that guy. Mom smiles gratefully at him as she steps through the entrance.
When we get inside, a woman directs us down a hallway to an open room that contains dozens of round tables. Some people are sitting down, but most of the crowd is still milling around and talking. A few turn toward us, and then, like human dominoes, they all do.
It’s the moment everyone in Echo Ridge has been waiting for: for the first time in five years, the Kellys have shown up at a night honoring Lacey Kilduff.
The girl who most people in town still believe my brother killed.
“Oh, there’s Theo,” Katrin murmurs, slipping away into the crowd toward her boyfriend. So much for solidarity. My mother licks her lips nervously. Peter folds her arm under his and pastes on a big, bright smile. For a second, I almost like the guy.
Declan and Lacey had been fighting for weeks before she died. Which wasn’t like them; Declan could be an arrogant ass a lot of the time, but not with his girlfriend. Then all of a sudden they were slamming doors, canceling dates, and sniping at each other over social media. Declan’s last, angry message on Lacey’s Instagram feed was the one that news stations showed over and over in the weeks after her body was found.
I’m so fucking done with you. DONE. You have no idea.
The crowd at the Echo Ridge Cultural Center is too quiet. Even Peter’s smile is getting a little fixed. The Nilsson armor is supposed to be more impenetrable than this. I’m about to say or do something desperate to cut the tension when a warm voice floats our way. “Hello, Peter. And Alicia! Malcolm! It’s good to see you both.”
It’s Lacey’s mom, Melanie Kilduff, coming toward us with a big smile. She hugs my mother first, then me, and when she pulls back nobody’s staring anymore.
“Thanks,” I mutter. I don’t know what Melanie thinks about Declan; she’s never said. But after Lacey died, when it felt like the entire world hated my family, Melanie always made a point to be nice to us.
doesn’t feel like enough, but Melanie brushes my arm like it’s too much before turning toward Mom and Peter.
“Please, have a seat wherever you’d like,” she says, gesturing toward the dining area. “They’re about to start serving dinner.”
She leaves us, heading for a table with her family, her neighbor, and a couple of kids my age I’ve never seen before. Which is unusual enough in this town that I crane my neck for a better look. I can’t get a good glimpse of the guy, but the girl is hard to miss. She’s got wild curly hair that seems almost alive, and she’s wearing a weird flowered dress that looks like it came out of her grandmother’s closet. Maybe it’s retro, I don’t know. Katrin wouldn’t be caught dead in it. The girl meets my eyes, and I immediately look away. One thing I’ve learned from being Declan’s brother over the past five years: nobody likes it when a Kelly boy stares.
Peter starts toward the front of the room, but Katrin returns just then and tugs on his arm. “Can we sit at Theo’s table, Dad? There’s plenty of space.” He hesitates—Peter likes to lead, not follow—and Katrin puts on her most wheedling voice. “Please? I haven’t seen him all week, and his parents want to talk to you about that stoplight ordinance thing.”
She’s good. There’s nothing Peter likes better than in-depth discussions about town council crap that would bore anybody else to tears. He smiles indulgently and changes course.
Katrin’s boyfriend, Theo, and his parents are the only people sitting at the ten-person table when we approach. I’ve gone to school with Theo since kindergarten, but as usual he looks right through me as he waves to someone over my shoulder. “Yo, Kyle! Over here.”
Theo’s best friend, Kyle, takes a seat between him and my mother, and the chair next to me scrapes as a big man with a graying blond buzz cut settles down beside me. Chad McNulty, Kyle’s father and the Echo Ridge police officer who investigated Lacey’s murder. Because this night wasn’t awkward enough already. My mother’s got that deer-in-the-headlights look she always gets around the McNultys, and Peter flares his nostrils at an oblivious Theo.
“Hello, Malcolm.” Officer McNulty unfolds his napkin onto his lap without looking at me. “How’s your summer been?”
“Great,” I manage, taking a long sip of water.
Officer McNulty never liked my brother. Declan dated his daughter, Liz, for three months and dumped her for Lacey, which got Liz so upset that she dropped out of school for a while. In return, Kyle’s always been a dick to me. Standard small-town crap that got a lot worse once Declan became an unofficial murder suspect.