Authors: Ann Redisch Stampler
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Social Themes, #Physical & Emotional Abuse, #Dating & Relationships, #Thrillers & Suspense
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For Rick, Laura, and Michael, as always
There is a body in the woods.
The flash of an electric yellow blanket in the moonlight, unfurling as it’s dragged along. A glimpse of nylon binding at the edges, sweeping the ground at the corner where the arm has fallen out.
At the end of that limp arm, a hand is trailing through the leaves into the darkness. But I have seen the fingers, curled like talons, the nails all broken, the blue polish chipped away.
Shoes shuffling through the leaves.
And then the digging of the hole.
I’m crouched behind a fallen pine tree, soft leaves and pine needles underfoot, cocooned in darkness. I pause to catch my breath. My heart’s banging so hard that it could crack my ribs.
A walk in the woods, that’s all it was. That’s what I tell myself now, when it’s too late to do anything about it, when it’s done—when the kind of person I am and will ever be is thrown into unanswerable question.
When all I want is to pretend it never happened.
But how do I forget that there were pine needles stuck in the laces of my sneakers, and that they were wet with blood? How do I pretend I never felt the handle of the knife pressed hard against my palm?
I’m not Catherine Davis.
My hair isn’t brown.
And I have never lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I’ve never even seen the state of Oklahoma, despite what this convincing but completely fake ID says.
Or, technically, not fake.
Born in Oklahoma City (where I wasn’t born).
Got so drunk, she didn’t even notice when her license was stolen right out of her bag nineteen years later. At a frat party (where I shouldn’t have been) in Galkey, Texas (where I didn’t want to be).
Stolen by me.
Morally speaking, this wasn’t my most glittering moment. But it definitely answered that Sunday School question of whether I’d steal bread if it would keep me from starving.
The license just seemed like one more untrue thing to stuff between me and my past. A tiny piece of laminated plastic I actually thought of as my ticket out of the obituary column.
One more little thing I needed to make it to the age of seventeen alive.
That, and a different-looking face and a different-shaped body and bulletproof skin.
That, and a heart of stone.
I slide the gun into the trunk of Don’s shitmobile, between the rucksack and the cooler. My gut feels like someone took a Weedwacker to it.
I tell myself,
Man up, the bitch cut Connie Marino—
I have a thing against people who cut other people’s throats. They’ll convict her as an adult anyway. They’ll inject a fatal dose of potassium chloride into her veins if I don’t get to her first. I’m doing her a favor. She won’t know what hit her.
But I’ll know what hit her: me.
I try to think of ways out of it all the time, but I just keep getting pulled in deeper.
Two weeks ago, I was studying for the AP English Lit exam. I was taking notes on the poetry of T. S. Eliot.
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
No, T. S. Eliot,
is how the world ends: with a bang.
• • •
I slide the box of bullets into the compartment where the spare tire goes. The knives are already in there, wrapped in a hand towel, tied with twine.
I can hear my dad’s voice when he found me on the floor of his room when I was little, unpacking a cardboard box of bullets. I was trying to get them to stand up on the carpet.
“Don? What did I tell you?”
But when I turned around and he saw that it was me and not my older brother, Don, he shook his head. And in an ice-cold voice, he said, “Jack, what are you doing? Think about it.
When I remember my dad now, that’s always what I hear: him saying,
Because I was the one with the brain, the one who could analyze, assess, figure out consequences.
I was the one who said no thank you to my dad’s business and his crazy-ass expectations. My career path was not going to be selling secondhand shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, describing tanks as “scrap metal” for the bookkeeper. And the rest of what my dad did for a living—the part of his career that required a silencer, his sideline in ending peoples’ lives—was a nonstarter.
I was the one who got out.
And he was fine with my defection. He stopped saying, “You and me, Jack—the same guy in two bodies.” He got it.
Don, on the other hand, doesn’t get it.
If he had any idea who I am, he wouldn’t have asked me to do this thing in the first place. It would have been like every other prison visit—me nodding through his complaints about the food, the exercise equipment, and the fact that his request for early release got turned down.
• • •
Instead, Don lays out how “this bitch Nicolette Holland” has to fall off the face of the earth.
• • •
At first, I don’t get that I’m the person who’s supposed to get rid of her. When I do understand, I say no.
It’s not as if I’ve never turned him down before. Being Don’s brother is a long string of refusals:
No to being his alibi.
No to being his lowlife friend’s alibi.
No to running errands where nothing could go wrong—unless someone shows up with a drug-sniffing dog.
“You’re not listening,” Don says, leaning toward me in his orange prison jumpsuit, fuming.
Don is always fuming. He’s flunked out of court-ordered anger management half a dozen times. If he’d come to live with me and
Mom instead of choosing Dad when our parents split up, one of us wouldn’t have survived childhood.
He says, “This isn’t optional, Jack.” It’s one of my dad’s lines. The man’s been dead for four years, but I can still hear the way he sounded when he said it. I can still feel the dread.
Don and I are sitting in the visitor’s yard at Yucca Valley Men’s Correctional Center, wedged between a cluster of tan stucco buildings and a fence with concertina wire looped on top. If you go through the visitor’s log, you can see what a dutiful brother I am. I’m the reliable, law-abiding one with the clean record and the El Pueblo High crew team sweatshirt from the preppy school I’ve never been expelled from.
But I’m also the guy with the killer pedigree that scares the shit out of people. I’m the one who’s been trying to live down our last name since the day I figured out what it meant to be named Manx.
I lean back across the metal picnic table. “Don’t try to jerk me around, Don. I’m not in.”
Don says, “Then I’m a dead man.”
did you do?”
I’m slammed with memories of things Don did:
Don pushing me on my two-wheeler without the training wheels. Then he yells, “Die, asshole!” and lets go.
My mom hugging Don, holding on to him in a rib-crushing embrace in the courtroom, the first time he got sentenced to juvie.
My dad slapping him across the face, the ring streaking Don’s cheek with a thin red line.
“Stupid,” my dad said to no one in particular.
Don’s first big fuckup was when he tried to hold up a 7-Eleven that had security cameras and a heavily armed owner behind the counter, his two crime-buster sons mopping the floor. The police gave my mom a security photo of Don, hands up, a hairline fracture in his right wrist from the mop’s wooden handle.
My father asked me, “What did he do wrong, Jack?”
I said, “He tried to hold up a 7-Eleven?”
My dad said, “He didn’t assess his target. Big mistake.”
I was twelve. I was crying because my big brother was going to jail, and even my dad couldn’t fix it.
I’d be better at this than Don
• • •
Now I’m eighteen and I’m supposed to figure out how to murder a blood-crazed girl who disappeared. Because if I don’t, maybe my brother dies—or worse.
Welcome to the family business.
It happened five weeks before I became Cat.
When I ran.
Five weeks and one day before I was Cat, I thought I was Xena, Warrior Princess of Cotter’s Mill, Ohio.
Up for anything.
Taker of dares.
Defender of downtrodden victims of mean girls and authority.
It’s not that hard to be the slightly wild girl everybody likes when the only dire consequence in sight is when your stepfather tells you not to be reckless and impounds your car keys.
Until that next day, there was no reason not to like me.
The smart kids liked me because I was a fellow smart kid who underachieved. No competition, but got all their jokes.
The football guys liked me because, in eighth, I was the only cooperative girl they could find who was small enough to fit through the Jefferson coach’s doggie door and let them into his house so they could hang the traditional
COTTER’S MILL RULES, JEFFERSON SUCKS!
banner in his living room.
The we-hate-football kids (stuck in track as their mandatory team sport) liked me because I led cross-country off-trail to Taco Bell.
The rich kids liked anyone with a big enough house on Green Lake.
And I owned the churchy girls (this would be half our school) because my best friend was the pastor’s foster kid, and it was a (slightly exaggerated) well-known fact that I didn’t go all the way despite a lot of opportunities. Also, I accidently dropped a chocolate shake down Matt Wagner’s crotch when he dumped Jody Nimiroff for saying no.
As for the populars, I was a cheerleader. I was the girl at the top of the pyramid, hurtling headfirst toward the ground with her ponytail whipping around.
The populars were kind of stuck with me.
Until I ran.
Until I rolled out of Ohio, hidden in a cement pipe on the back of a flatbed truck.
I’d spent the night before huddled in Jody Nimiroff’s lakeside tree house under the flannel sleeping bag she’s kept up there since we were eight, eating the dregs of last year’s Girl Scout cookies.
Every cell of me wanted to go home. I wanted to tell Steve, my stepfather, what happened. I wanted him to pull me into a bear hug, slightly pissed off but more than willing to take care of everything for me. Again.
But he already knew.
It felt like I’d been gutted by a dull knife, every idea of who I was and where I fit into the world pouring out of me like a deer’s innards when it gets cut open in hunting season.
I was in wounded-deer survival mode.
When they came looking for me along the narrow strip of gritty sand that rims Green Lake, tracing the ground with beams from their flashlights, I was pressed against the back wall of the tree house, chewing a stale Thin Mint.
Everything was so loud.
The chocolate bits between my teeth.
My pulse thundering in my ears.
Their footsteps as they disappeared past the Nimiroffs’
dock, scanning the lake with their puny globes of light. As if they thought I was paddling a canoe through pitch-black tributaries up to Canada.
If I knew how to find true north by looking at the stars—if I’d paid more attention when Steve tried to teach me—I might have been in a canoe. That’s how desperate and lacking in judgment I was.