Authors: Karen M. McManus
She looks determined.
Friday, September 27
This time it’s Ezra’s phone that buzzes with the California number.
He holds it up to me. “Sadie?” he asks.
“Probably,” I say, glancing instinctively at the door. We’re in the living room watching Netflix after dinner Friday night, and Nana’s in the basement doing laundry. She irons everything, including our T-shirts, so she’s got at least another half hour down there. Still, Ezra gets to his feet and I follow him to the staircase.
“Hello?” he answers halfway up. “Yeah, hey. We thought it was you. Hang on, we’re in transit.” We get ourselves settled in his room—Ezra at his desk and me in the window seat beside it—before he props up his phone and switches to FaceTime.
“There you are!” Sadie exclaims. Her hair’s pulled back into a low, loose ponytail with tendrils escaping everywhere. It makes her look younger. I search her face for clues for how she’s doing, because our “official” calls over Skype don’t tell me anything. And neither does Nana. But Sadie is wearing the same cheerful, determined expression she’s had every time I’ve glimpsed her over the past few weeks. The one that says,
Everything is fine and I have nothing to explain or apologize for.
“What are you two doing at home on a Friday night?”
“Waiting for our ride,” Ezra says. “We’re going to a pep rally. At Fright Farm.”
Sadie scratches her cheek. “A pep rally
“Fright Farm,” I say. “Apparently they do school stuff there sometimes. We get a bunch of free passes so people can hang out after.”
“Oh, fun! Who are you going with?”
We both pause. “Friends,” Ezra says.
It’s mostly true. We’re meeting Mia and Malcolm there. But our actual ride is Officer Rodriguez, because Nana wasn’t going to let us leave the house until she ran into him downtown and he offered to take us. We can’t tell Sadie that, though, without falling down a rabbit hole of everything we’re
Before we started our weekly Skype calls with Sadie, Hamilton House Rehabilitation Facility sent a three-page
Resident Interactions Guide
that opened with “Positive, uplifting communication between residents and their loved ones is a cornerstone of the recovery process.” In other words:
skim the surface.
Even now, when we’re having a decidedly unofficial call, we play by the rules. Needing a police escort after getting targeted by an anonymous stalker isn’t on the list of rehab-approved topics.
“Anyone special?” Sadie asks, batting her eyelashes.
My temper flares, because Ezra
somebody special back home. She knows perfectly well he’s not the type to move on a month later. “Just people from school,” I say. “It’s getting busy around here. We have the pep rally tonight, and homecoming next Saturday.”
If Sadie notices the coolness in my voice, she doesn’t react. “Oh my gosh, is it homecoming already? Are you two going to the dance?”
“I am,” Ezra says. “With Mia.” His glance shifts toward me, and I read in his eyes what he doesn’t say:
Unless it gets canceled.
“So fun! She sounds great. What about you, El?” Sadie asks.
I pick at a frayed seam on my jeans. When Ezra told me last night that Mia asked him to homecoming, it hit me that I’m a “princess” without a date. Even though I’m positive the votes were a setup, something about that still rankles. Maybe because, until last night, I assumed our new friends weren’t the school-dance types. Now, I guess it’s just Malcolm who isn’t. With me, anyway.
But Sadie doesn’t know about any of that. “Undecided,” I say.
“You should go!” she urges. “Take the cute vandal.” She winks. “I sensed a little attraction the last time we spoke, amirite?”
Ezra turns toward me with a grin. “The what, now? Is she talking about Mal?”
My skin prickles with resentment. Sadie doesn’t get to do this; she doesn’t get to embarrass me about something I haven’t sorted out my own feelings about, when she never tells us anything that matters about herself. I straighten my shoulders and incline my head, like we’re playing chess and I just figured out my next move. “Homecoming is such a big deal around here, isn’t it?” I say. “People are
with the court. They even remember how you were queen, like, twenty years ago.”
Sadie’s smile changes into something that looks fixed, unnatural, and I lean in closer to the phone. She’s uncomfortable, and I’m glad. I want her to be. I’m tired of it always being me. “You’ve never really talked about that,” I add. “Must have been a fun night.”
Her laugh is as light as spun sugar, and just as brittle. “As fun as a small-town dance can be, I guess. I hardly remember it.”
“You don’t remember being homecoming queen?” I press. “That’s weird.” Ezra tenses beside me, and even though I don’t look away from Sadie, I can feel his eyes on me. We don’t do this; we don’t dig for information that Sadie doesn’t want to give. We follow her conversational lead. Always.
Sadie licks her lips. “It wasn’t that big of a deal. Probably more of an event now that kids can document the whole thing on social media.” She shifts her eyes toward Ezra. “Speaking of which, I’m loving your Instagram stories, Ez. You make the town look so pretty, I almost miss living there.”
Ezra opens his mouth, about to answer, but I speak first. “Who did you go to homecoming with?” I ask. My voice is challenging, daring her to try to change the subject again. I can tell she wants to, so badly that I almost backtrack and do it myself. But I can’t stop thinking about what Caroline Kilduff said in Dalton’s Emporium.
A princess. What a stupid thing to want to be.
Sadie was one—my extroverted, attention-loving mother hit the absolute pinnacle of high school popularity—and she never, ever talks about it.
I need her to talk about it.
At first, I don’t think she’ll answer. When the words spring past her lips she looks as surprised as I am. “Vance Puckett,” she says. I’m not prepared for that, and my jaw drops before I can stop it. Ezra inhales sharply beside me. A crease appears between Sadie’s eyes, and her voice pitches upward as she looks between us. “What? Have you met him?”
“Briefly,” Ezra says, at the same time I ask, “Were you serious with him?”
“I wasn’t serious about anyone back then.” Sadie tugs on one of her earrings. It’s her nervous tell. I twist a strand of hair around my finger, which is mine. If Sadie dislikes this line of questioning, she’s going to
the next one.
“Who did Sarah go with?” I ask.
It’s like I took an eraser and wiped the expression right off her face. I haven’t asked about Sarah in years; Sadie trained me not to bother. Ezra cracks his knuckles, which is
nervous tell. We’re all wildly uncomfortable and I can see, all of a sudden, why Hamilton House counsels “uplifting communication.”
“Excuse me?” Sadie asks.
“Who was Sarah’s homecoming date? Was it someone from Echo Ridge?”
“No,” Sadie says, glancing over her shoulder. “What’s that? Oh, okay.” She turns back to the camera with an expression of forced brightness. “Sorry, but I need to go. I wasn’t supposed to use this phone for more than a couple of minutes. Love you both! Have fun tonight! Talk soon!” She makes a kissy face at us and disconnects.
Ezra stares at the newly blank screen. “There wasn’t anybody behind her, was there?”
“Nope,” I say as the doorbell rings.
“What was that about?” he asks quietly.
I don’t answer. I can’t explain it; the urge I had to make Sadie tell us something—
—that was true about her time in Echo Ridge. We sit in silence until Nana’s voice floats up the stairs.
“Ellery, Ezra. Your ride is here.”
Ezra pockets his phone and gets to his feet, and I follow him into the hallway. I feel restless and unanchored, and have a sudden urge to grab my brother’s hand the way I used to when we were little. Sadie likes to say we were born holding hands, and while I’m pretty sure that’s physically impossible, she has dozens of pictures of us clutching one another’s tiny fingers in our crib. I don’t know if Sadie used to do that with Sarah, because—
—she’s never said.
When we get downstairs, Officer Rodriguez is waiting in Nana’s foyer in full uniform, his hands clasped stiffly in front of him. I can see his Adam’s apple rise and fall as he swallows. “How’s it going, guys?”
“Great,” Ezra says. “Thanks for the ride.”
“No problem. I don’t blame your grandmother for being concerned, but we’re working with Fright Farm staff and school administrators to make sure the pep rally is a safe environment for every student.”
He sounds like he’s reading from a script, and I can see the gawky teenager peeking out from beneath his new-cop veneer. I’d mentioned to Nana how Sadie had described him during our first call in Echo Ridge—broken-hearted and falling apart at Lacey’s funeral—but she just made the
noise I’ve come to associate with conversations about Sadie. “I don’t remember that,” Nana huffed. “Your mother is being dramatic.”
It’s her standard response to Sadie, and I guess I can’t blame her. But I keep looking at the photo of Lacey’s junior class picnic that I snapped on my phone. When I zoom in on sixteen-year-old Ryan Rodriguez, I can see it. I can imagine that lovesick-looking boy breaking down over losing her. What I can’t tell, though, is whether he’d do it because he was sad, or because he was angry.
Nana folds her arms and glares at Officer Rodriguez as Ezra and I grab our coats. “Every student, yes. But you need to be especially vigilant about the three girls involved.” Her mouth puckers. “I’d be happier if they canceled homecoming altogether. Why give whoever is behind this more ammunition?”
“Well, the opposite side of that argument is, why give them more power?” Officer Rodriguez says. I blink at him in surprise, because that actually made sense. “If anything, we feel there’s safety in numbers,” he continues. “Fright Farm is always packed on a Friday. Whoever we’re dealing with likes to operate behind the scenes, so I’m optimistic they’ll stay away entirely tonight.” He pulls out his keys and almost drops them, saving them at the last second with an awkward lunge. So much for that brief flash of competence. “You guys ready?”
“As we’ll ever be,” Ezra says.
We follow Officer Rodriguez out the door to his squad car waiting in the driveway, and I take the front seat while Ezra slides into the back. I’m still rattled by my conversation with Sadie, but I don’t want to miss the opportunity to observe Officer Rodriguez at close range. “So this will be in the Bloody Big Top area, right?” I ask as I clip my seat belt.
“Yep. Same stage where they have the Dead Man’s Party show,” Officer Rodriguez says.
I meet Ezra’s eyes in the rearview mirror. For a town so obsessed with its own tragic past, Echo Ridge is strangely laissez-faire about holding a high school pep rally at a murder site. “Would you be going if you weren’t working?” I ask.
Officer Rodriguez backs out of our driveway. “To the pep rally? No,” he says, sounding amused. “These things are for you guys. Not the adults in town.”
“But you didn’t graduate all that long ago,” I say. “I thought maybe it was the sort of thing people would meet up at when they’re back in town? Like, my friend Mia might be bringing her sister.” That’s a total lie. As far as I know, Daisy’s still shut up in her room. “She graduated a while ago. Daisy Kwon? Did you know her?”
“Sure. Everyone knows Daisy.”
Her name didn’t evoke a reaction; his voice is calm and he seems a little preoccupied as he turns onto the main road. So I push a different button. “And Declan Kelly’s back too, huh? Malcolm wasn’t sure if he’d be here tonight.” Ezra kicks lightly at my seat, telegraphing a question with the movement:
What are you up to?
I ignore it and add, “Do you think he will be?”
A muscle in Officer Rodriguez’s jaw twitches. “I wouldn’t know.”
“I’m so curious about Declan,” I say. “Were you friends with him in high school?”
His lips press into a thin line. “Hardly.”
“Were you friends with Lacey Kilduff?” Ezra pipes up from the backseat. He’s finally gotten with the program. Better late than never.
It doesn’t help, though. Officer Rodriguez reaches out an arm and flips a knob on the dashboard, filling the car with static and low voices. “I need to check for updates from the station. Can you keep it down for a sec?”
Ezra shifts in the backseat, leaning forward so he can mutter close to my ear, “Oh-for-two.”
Friday, September 27
Officer Rodriguez walks with us to the far end of the park, past the Demon Rollercoaster with its blood-red waterfall and the entrance to the Dark Witch Maze. Two girls giggle nervously as a masked attendant hands them each a flashlight. “You’ll need these to navigate the pitch-black lair you’re about to experience,” he intones. “But be careful along your journey. Fear awaits the further you go.”
One of the girls examines her flashlight, then shines it on the thatched wall of the maze. “These are going to shut off right when we need them, aren’t they?” she asks.
“Fear awaits the further you go,” the attendant repeats, stepping to one side. A clawed hand shoots out of the wall and makes a grab for the nearest girl, who shrieks and falls back against her friend.
“Gets them every time,” Officer Rodriguez says, lifting the flap to one of the Bloody Big Top tents. “Here’s where I leave you guys. Good luck finding seats.”
The bleachers ringing a circular stage are packed, but as Ezra and I scan the crowd we spot Mia waving energetically. “About time!” she says when we reach her. “It’s been hell holding these seats.” Mia stands, picking her coat up from the bench beside her, and Ezra glances down at a small concession stand set up to the left of the stage.
“I’m going to get a drink. You guys want anything?”
“No, I’m good,” I say, and Mia shakes her head. Ezra thuds down the stairs as I squeeze past Mia in the too-small space. It’s not until I sit down that I notice the flash of red hair beside me.
“You certainly like to cut it close,” Viv says. She’s in a green corduroy jacket and jeans, a gauzy yellow scarf looped around her neck. Two other girls sit beside her, each holding steaming Styrofoam cups.
I look at her and then at the stage, where Katrin, Brooke, and the other cheerleaders are lining up. “I thought you were a cheerleader,” I say, confused.
as Viv stiffens.
“I don’t have time for cheerleading. I run the school paper.” A note of pride creeps into her voice as she gestures toward the aisle in front of the stage, where a man is setting up an oversized camera. “Channel 5 in Burlington is covering the vandalism story based on
article. They’re getting local color.”
I lean forward, intrigued despite myself. “The school’s letting them?”
“You can’t stop the free press,” Viv says smugly. She points toward a striking, dark-haired woman standing next to the camera, microphone dangling from one hand. “That’s Meli Dinglasa. She graduated from Echo Ridge ten years ago and went to Columbia’s journalism school.” She says it almost reverently, twisting her scarf until it’s even more artfully draped. Her outfit would look incredible on TV, which I’m starting to think is the point. “I’m applying there early decision. I’m hoping she’ll give me a reference.”
On my other side, Mia plucks at my sleeve. “Band’s about to start,” she says. Ezra returns just in time, a bottled water in one hand.
I tear my eyes away from the reporter as dozens of students holding instruments file through the back entrance and array themselves across the stage. I’d been expecting traditional marching band uniforms, but they’re all in black athletic pants and purple T-shirts that read “Echo Ridge High” across the front in white lettering. Malcolm’s in the first row, a set of snare drums draped around his neck.
Percy Gilpin jogs onto the stage in the same purple blazer he wore to the assembly last week, and bounds up to a makeshift podium. He adjusts the microphone and raises both hands in the air as people in the stands start to clap. “Good evening, Echo Ridge! You ready for some serious fall fun? We’ve got a big night planned to support the Echo Ridge Eagles, who are
heading into tomorrow’s game against Solsbury High!”
More cheers from the crowd, as Mia executes a slow clap beside me. “Yay.”
“Let’s get this party started!” Percy yells. The cheerleaders take center stage in a V-formation, their purple-and-white pom-poms planted firmly on their hips. A small girl steps out from the band’s brass section, squinting against the bright overhead lights. Percy blows a whistle and the girl brings a trombone to her lips.
When the first few notes of “Paradise City” blare out, Ezra and I lean across Mia to exchange surprised grins. Sadie is a Guns N’ Roses fanatic, and we grew up with this song blasting through whatever apartment we were living in. An LED screen at the back of the stage starts flashing football game highlights, and within seconds the entire crowd is on its feet.
About halfway through, as everything’s building to a crescendo, the other drummers stop and Malcolm launches into this fantastic, frenetic solo. His drumsticks move impossibly fast, the muscles in his arms tense with effort, and my hand half lifts to fan myself before I realize what I’m doing. The cheerleaders are in perfect rhythm with the beat, executing a crisp, high-energy routine that ends with Brooke being tossed into the air, ponytail flying, caught by waiting hands just as the song ends and the entire band takes a bow as one.
I’m clapping so hard my palms hurt as Mia catches my eye and grins. “I know, right?” she says. “I lose all my cynicism when the band performs. It’s Echo Ridge’s uniting force.”
I accidentally knock into Viv when I sit back down, and she shifts away with a grimace. “There’s not enough room on this bench,” she says sharply, turning to her friends. “I think we might see better further down.”
“Bonus,” Mia murmurs as the three of them file out of our row. “We scared Viv away.”
A few minutes later, a shadow falls across Viv’s vacated seat. I glance up to see Malcolm in his purple Echo Ridge High T-shirt, minus the drums. “Hey,” he says. “Room for one more?” His hair is tousled and his cheeks flushed, and he looks really, really cute.
“Yeah, of course.” I shift closer to Mia. “You were great,” I add, and he smiles. One of his front teeth is slightly crooked, and it softens the moody look he usually has. I gesture toward the stage, where Coach Gagnon is talking passionately about tradition and giving your all. Photos are still looping on the LED screen behind him. “Will you play an encore?”
“Nah, we’re done for the night. It’s football talk time.”
We listen for a few minutes to the coach’s speech. It’s getting repetitive. “What happened six years ago?” I ask. “He keeps bringing it up.”
“State championship,” Malcolm says, and then I remember. The yearbook from Lacey’s junior year, filled with pictures of the team’s huge, come-from-behind victory against a much bigger school. And Declan Kelly, being carried on his teammates’ shoulders afterward.
“Oh, that’s right,” I say. “Your brother threw a Hail Mary touchdown with seconds left in the game, didn’t he?” It’s a little weird, maybe, how perfectly I remember a game I never attended, but Malcolm just nods. “That must have been amazing.”
Something like reluctant pride flits across Malcolm’s face. “I guess. Declan was bragging for weeks that he was going to win that game. People laughed, but he backed it up.” He runs a hand through his sweat-dampened hair. It shouldn’t be attractive, the way his hair spikes up afterward in uneven tufts, but it is. “He always did.”
I can’t tell if it’s just my own nagging suspicions of Declan that make Malcolm’s words sound ominous. “Were you guys close?” I ask. As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I realize I’ve made it sound as though Declan is dead. “
you close?” I amend.
“No,” Malcolm says, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. His voice is quiet, his eyes on the stage. “Not then, and not now.”
Every once in a while, it feels like Malcolm and I are having some kind of sub-conversation that we don’t acknowledge. We’re talking about football and his brother, supposedly, but we’re also talking about
before and after.
It’s how I think about Sadie—that she was one way before the kind of loss that rips your world apart, and a different version of herself afterward. Even though I didn’t know her until Sarah was long gone, I’m sure it’s true.
I want to ask Malcolm more, but before I can Mia reaches across me and punches him in the arm. “Hey,” she says. “Did you do the thing?”
“No,” Malcolm says, avoiding Mia’s gaze. She glances between us and smirks, and I get the distinct feeling that I’m missing something.
“And let’s not forget, after we defeat Solsbury tomorrow—and we
—we’ve got our biggest test of the season with the homecoming game next week,” Coach Gagnon says. Between his perfectly bald head and the shadows cast by the Big Top’s stadium lighting, he looks like an exceptionally enthusiastic alien. “We’re up against Lutheran, our only defeat last year. But that’s not going to happen this time around! Because
A loud popping noise fills my ears, making me jump. The bright lights snap off and the LED screen goes black, then flashes to life again. Static fills the screen, followed by a photo of Lacey in her homecoming crown, smiling at the camera. The crowd gasps, and Malcolm goes rigid beside me.
Then Lacey’s picture rips in two, replaced by three others: Brooke, Katrin, and me. Theirs are class photos, but mine is a candid, with my face half-turned from the camera. A chill inches up my spine as I recognize the hoodie I wore yesterday when Ezra and I walked downtown to meet Malcolm and Mia at Bartley’s.
Somebody was watching us.
Horror-movie laughter starts spilling from the speakers, literal
s that echo through the tent as what looks like thick red liquid drips down the screen, followed by jagged white letters: SOON. When it fades away, the Bloody Big Top is utterly silent. Everyone is frozen, with one exception: Meli Dinglasa from Channel 5. She strides purposefully onto the stage toward Coach Gagnon, with her microphone outstretched and a cameraman at her heels.