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Authors: Karen M. McManus

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Brooke lets out an irritated little huff. I don’t know what that’s about, and I’m not tempted to ask. Katrin’s in peak pain-in-the-ass mode right now, but I’m tired of walking. I climb into the backseat, and barely have a chance to close the door before Katrin floors the gas again. “So what’s Declan doing here, anyway?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I say, and then I realize what’s been bothering me about my half-hour conversation with Declan ever since I left Bukowski’s. It’s not just that I didn’t know he was here.

It’s that he avoided every single one of my questions.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Ellery

Monday, September 9

As soon as I close the door behind me in Nana’s hallway, I drop to my knees beside my suitcase and fumble for the zipper. Inside is a jumbled mess of clothes and toiletries, but it’s all so beautifully familiar that I gather as much as I can hold in my arms and hug it to my chest for a few seconds.

Nana appears in the doorway between the kitchen and the hall. “I take it everything’s there?” she asks.

“Looks like it,” I say, holding up my favorite sweater like a trophy.

Nana heads upstairs without another word, and I spy a flash of red against my dark clothes: the small velvet pouch that holds my jewelry. I scatter its contents on the floor, picking a necklace out of the pile. The thin chain holds an intricate silver charm that looks like a flower until you examine it closely enough to realize it’s a dagger. “For my favorite murder addict,” Sadie said when she gave it to me for my birthday two years ago.

I used to wish she’d ask me why I was so drawn to stuff like that, and then maybe we could have a real conversation about Sarah. But I guess it was easier to just accessorize.

I’m fastening the dagger around my neck when Nana comes down the stairs with a shopping tote dangling from one arm. “You can bring your things upstairs later. I want to make a trip to Dalton’s before dinnertime.” At my questioning look, she lifts the bag on her arm. “We may as well return the clothes I bought you last week. It hasn’t escaped my notice that you’ve been borrowing from your brother instead of wearing them.”

My cheeks heat as I scramble to my feet. “Oh. Well. I just hadn’t gotten around to—”

“It’s fine,” Nana says drily, plucking her keys from a board on the wall. “I harbor no illusions about my familiarity with teen fashion. But there’s no reason to let these go to waste when someone else can use them.”

I peer hopefully behind her. “Is Ezra coming with us?”

“He’s out for a walk. Hurry up, I need to get back and make dinner.”

After ten days with my grandmother, there are a few things I know. She’ll drive fifteen miles under the speed limit the entire way to Dalton’s. We’ll get home at least forty minutes before six o’clock, because that’s when we eat and Nana doesn’t like to rush when she cooks. We’ll have a protein, a starch, and a vegetable. And Nana expects us to be in our rooms by ten o’clock. Which we don’t protest, since we have nothing better to do.

It’s weird. I thought I’d chafe under the structure, but there’s something almost soothing about Nana’s routine. Especially in contrast to the past six months with Sadie, after she found a doctor who’d keep refilling her Vicodin prescription and went from distracted and disorganized to full-on erratic. I used to wander around our apartment when she stayed out late, eating microwave mac and cheese and wondering what would happen to us if she didn’t come home.

And then finally one night, she didn’t.

The Subaru crawls at a snail’s pace to Dalton’s, giving me plenty of time to stare out the window at the slender trees lining the road, gold leaves starting to mix with the green. “I didn’t know leaves changed color this early,” I say. It’s September ninth, a week after Labor Day, and the temperature is still warm and almost summery.

“Those are green ash trees,” Nana says in her teacher voice. “They change early. We’re having good weather for peak foliage this year: warm days and cool nights. You’ll see reds and oranges popping up in a few weeks.”

Echo Ridge is by far the prettiest place I’ve ever lived. Nearly every house is spacious and well maintained, with interesting architecture: stately Victorians, gray-shingled Capes, historic Colonials. The lawns are freshly mowed, the flower beds neat and orderly. All the buildings in the town center are red brick and white-windowed, with tasteful signs. There’s not a chain-link fence, a dumpster, or a 7-Eleven in sight. Even the gas station is cute and almost retro-looking.

I can see why Sadie felt hemmed in here, though, and why Mia stalks through school like she’s searching for an escape hatch. Anything different stands out a mile.

My phone buzzes with a text from Lourdes, checking on the luggage situation. When I update her about my newly recovered suitcase, she texts back so many celebratory GIFs that I almost miss my grandmother’s next words. “Your guidance counselor called.”

I stiffen in my seat, trying to imagine what I could’ve done wrong on the first day of school when Nana adds, “She’s been reviewing your transcript and says your grades are excellent, but that there’s no record of you taking the SATs.”

“Oh. Well. That’s because I didn’t.”

“You’ll need to take them this fall, then. Have you prepped?”

“No. I didn’t think … I mean …” I trail off. Sadie doesn’t have a college degree. She’s gotten by on a small inheritance from our grandfather, plus temp work and the occasional acting job. While she’s never discouraged Ezra and me from applying to college, she’s always made it clear that we’d be on our own if we did. Last year I took one look at tuition for the school closest to home, and immediately bounced off their website. I might as well plan a trip to Mars. “I’m not sure I’m going to college.”

Nana brakes well in advance of a stop sign, then inches toward the white line. “No? And here I thought you were a future lawyer.”

Her eyes are fixed firmly on the road, so she doesn’t catch my startled look. Somehow, she managed to land on my one and only career interest—the one I stopped mentioning at home because Sadie would groan
ugh, lawyers
every time I did. “Why would you think that?”

“Well, you’re interested in criminal justice, aren’t you? You’re analytical and well spoken. Seems like a good fit.” Something light and warm starts spreading through my chest, then stops when I glance down at the wallet sticking out of my messenger bag. Empty, just like my bank account. When I don’t answer right away, Nana adds, “I’ll help you and your brother out, of course. With tuition. As long as you keep your grades up.”

“You
will
?” I turn and stare at her, the spark of warmth returning and zipping through my veins.

“Yes. I mentioned it to your mother a few months ago, but—well, she wasn’t in the best frame of mind at the time.”

“No. She wasn’t.” My mood deflates, but only for a second. “You’d really do that? You can, um, afford it?” Nana’s house is nice and all, but it’s not exactly a mansion. And she clips coupons, although I have the feeling it’s more of a game with her than a necessity. She was really pleased with herself over the weekend when she scored six free rolls of paper towels.

“State school,” she says crisply. “But you have to take the SATs first. And you need time to prepare, so you should probably sign up for the December session.”

“All right.” My head’s in a whirl, and it takes a minute for me to finish the sentence properly. “Thank you, Nana. That’s seriously awesome of you.”

“Well. It would be nice to have another college graduate in the family.”

I tug at the silver dagger around my neck. I feel … not
close
to my grandmother, exactly, but like maybe she won’t shoot me down if I ask the question I’ve been holding in since I arrived in Echo Ridge. “Nana,” I say abruptly, before I lose my nerve. “What was Sarah like?”

I can feel my aunt’s absence in this town, even more than my mother’s. When Ezra and I are out running errands with Nana, people have no problem talking to us as though they’ve known us their entire lives. Everyone skirts around Sadie’s rehab, but they have plenty of other things to say; they’ll quote her
Defender
line, joke about how Sadie must not miss Vermont winters, or marvel at how similar my hair is to hers. But they never mention Sarah—not a memory, an anecdote, or even an acknowledgment. Every once in a while I think I see the flicker of an impulse, but they always pause or look away before changing the subject.

Nana is silent for so long that I wish I’d kept my mouth shut. Maybe we can both spend the next four months pretending I did. But when she finally speaks, her tone is calm and even. “Why do you ask?”

“Sa—my mom doesn’t talk about her.” Nana’s never said anything when we call our mother by her first name, but I can tell she doesn’t like it. Now isn’t the time to annoy her. “I’ve always wondered.”

A light rain starts to fall, and Nana switches on windshield wipers that squeak with every pass. “Sarah was my thinker,” she says finally. “She read constantly, and questioned everything. People thought she was quiet, but she had the sort of dry humor that snuck up on you. She loved Rob Reiner movies—you know,
Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride
?” I nod, even though I’ve never seen the first one. I make a mental note to look it up on Netflix when we get home. “Sarah could quote them all by heart. Very smart girl, especially in math and science. She liked astronomy and used to talk about working for NASA when she grew up.”

I absorb the words like a thirsty sponge, amazed that Nana told me so much in one fell swoop. And all I had to do was
ask.
What a concept. “Did she and my mom get along?” I ask. They sound so different, even more so than I’d imagined.

“Oh yes. Thick as thieves. Finished each other’s sentences, like you and your brother do. They were very distinct personalities, but could mimic one another like you wouldn’t believe. Used to fool people all the time.”

“Airport Andy would be jealous,” I say, before forgetting that I never told Nana the absorbed-twin story.

Nana frowns. “What?”

“Nothing. Just a joke.” I swallow the small lump that’s formed in my throat. “Sarah sounds great.”

“She was marvelous.” There’s a warmth to Nana’s voice I’ve never heard before, not even when she talks about her former students.
Definitely
not when she talks about my mother. Maybe that was another thing about Echo Ridge that Sadie couldn’t stand.

“Do you think— Could she still … be somewhere?” I fumble over the words, my fingers twisting the chain at my neck. “I mean, like she ran away or something?” I regret it as soon as I say it, like I’m accusing Nana of something, but she just shakes her head decisively.

“Sarah would never.” Her voice drops a little, like the words hold too much weight.

“I wish I could have met her.”

Nana pulls into a parking spot in front of Dalton’s and shifts the Subaru into park. “So do I.” I sneak a glance at her, afraid I’ll see tears, but her eyes are dry and her face relaxed. She doesn’t seem to mind talking about Sarah at all. Maybe she’s been waiting for someone to ask. “Could you grab the bag from the backseat please, Ellery?”

“Okay,” I say. My thoughts are a tangled whirl, and I nearly drop the plastic bag into the rain-soaked gutter next to the sidewalk when I get out of the car. I wrap the bag’s handles around my wrist to keep it secure, and follow Nana inside Dalton’s Emporium.

The cashier greets Nana like an old friend, and graciously takes the pile of clothes without asking the reason for the return. She’s scanning tags I never removed when a high, sweet voice floats through the store. “I want to see myself in the big window, Mommy!” Seconds later a girl in a gauzy blue dress appears, and I recognize Melanie Kilduff’s daughter. It’s the little one, about six years old, and she stops short when she sees us.

“Hello, Julia,” Nana says. “You look very nice.”

Julia catches the hem of her dress in one hand and fans it out. She’s like a tiny version of Melanie, right down to the gap between her front teeth. “It’s for my dance recital.”

Melanie appears behind her, trailed by a pretty preteen with crossed arms and a sulky expression. “Oh, hi,” Melanie says with a rueful smile as Julia runs for a raised dais surrounded by mirrors near the front of the store. “Julia wants to see herself
onstage,
as she calls it.”

“Well, of course she does,” the clerk says indulgently. “That dress was made to be seen.” A phone rings behind her, and she disappears into a back room to answer it. Nana lifts her purse off the counter as Julia hops onto the dais and spins, the dress’s skirt floating around her.

“I look like a princess!” she crows. “Come look, Caroline!” Melanie follows and fusses with the bow on the back of the dress, but the older daughter hangs behind, her mouth pulling downward.

“A princess,” she mutters under her breath, staring at the rack of homecoming dresses to our right. “What a stupid thing to want to be.”

Maybe Caroline isn’t thinking about Lacey, or the dolls at the cemetery with their red-spattered gowns. Maybe she’s just being a moody almost teenager, annoyed at getting dragged along for her little sister’s shopping expedition. Or maybe it’s more than that.

As Julia twirls again, a bolt of hot, white anger pulses through me. It’s not a normal reaction to such an innocent moment—but the common thread running through this store isn’t normal, either. We’ve all lost our version of a princess, and none of us know why. I’m sick of being tangled up in Echo Ridge’s secrets, and of the questions that never end. I want answers. I want to help this little girl and her sister, and Melanie, and Nana. And my mother.

I want to do
something.
For the missing girls, and the ones left behind.

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