Authors: Karen M. McManus
A loud, clattering noise makes both of us freeze. Somehow we dislodged the remote and sent it flying across the floor. Ellery sits up just as my mother’s voice, which is much too close for someone who’s supposed to be upstairs, calls, “Malcolm? Is everything all right?”
Crap. She’s in the kitchen. Ellery and I disentangle as I call, “Fine. We just dropped the remote.” We put a foot between us on the couch, both of us red-faced with sheepish grins, waiting for my mother’s response.
“Oh, okay. I’m making hot chocolate, do you want some?”
“No thanks,” I say, as Ellery tries to get her curls under control. My hands are itching to mess them up again.
“What about you, Ellery?” Mom asks.
“I’m all set, thanks.” Ellery says, biting her lip.
“All right.” I wait an endless minute for my mother to go back upstairs, but before it’s up Ellery has scooted all the way to the other end of the couch.
“It’s probably good we were interrupted,” she says, going even redder. “I feel like maybe I should tell you my theory before … anything.”
My brain isn’t working all that well right now. “Tell me your what?”
“My criminal theory.”
“Your— Oh. Yeah, that.” I suck in a breath for composure and adjust my position on the couch. “It’s not about me, though, right?”
“Definitely not,” she says. “But it
about Katrin. And how I think that if we’re right about Mr. Bowman, maybe that was just the beginning of, um, things.” She winds a strand of hair around her finger, which I’m starting to realize is never a good sign. I still can’t wrap my brain around Katrin possibly running over Mr. Bowman; I’m not sure I’m ready for more
But I’ve spent the past five years avoiding conversations about Lacey and Declan, and that never solved anything.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Well. If we go back to the receipt, we’re pretty sure Brooke knew about the accident, right? She was either in the car when it happened, or Katrin told her after.” Ellery releases her hair to start pulling on her necklace. “Katrin must’ve been terrified about people finding out. It’s one thing to have an accident, but to leave afterward without stopping to help … she’d be a pariah at school, plus it’d ruin her dad’s standing in town. Not to mention the criminal charges. So she decided to cover it up. And Brooke agreed to help, but I think she must have regretted that. She always looked so worried and sad. Ever since I met her, which was
after Mr. Bowman died. Unless she was always like that?”
“No,” I say, my stomach twisting as I think of Brooke’s smiling class picture on the MISSING poster. “She wasn’t.”
“And then in the Fright Farm office, she kept saying things like,
I shouldn’t have, I have to tell them, it’s not okay.
Which makes me think she felt guilty.”
Pressure clamps down on my skull. “She asked me if I’d ever made a really bad mistake.”
Ellery’s eyes widen. “She did? When?”
“In the office. While you were looking for Ezra. She said …” I search my memory, but the exact words won’t come. “Something about making a mistake that wasn’t, like, a regular mistake. And that she wished she had different friends.”
Ellery nods seriously. “That fits,” she says.
I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know, but I ask anyway. “With what?”
“Lots of things. Starting with the vandalism,” Ellery says. I blink at her, startled. “The messages didn’t appear until after Katrin repaired her car. She got it back on September second, and Lacey’s fund-raiser was September fourth, right?” I nod, and Ellery continues, “I kept thinking about what it must’ve been like for Katrin then, with the whole town mourning Mr. Bowman and looking for answers. She was probably walking on eggshells, terrified of getting found out or giving herself away. So I thought, what if
was the one who started the vandalism?”
“Why would she do that?” I can’t keep the disbelieving edge out of my voice.
Ellery runs a fingernail along the floral pattern of the couch, refusing to look at me. “As a distraction,” she says quietly. “The whole town started focusing on the threats instead of what happened to Mr. Bowman.”
I feel a stab of nausea, because she’s not wrong. The Homecoming Stalker made Mr. Bowman’s hit-and-run fade into the background a lot faster than should have been possible for such a popular teacher. “But why pull
into it?” I ask. “And herself, and Brooke?”
“Well, Katrin and Brooke make sense because if they’re targets, nobody would think they’re involved. Me, I don’t know.” Ellery keeps tracing the pattern, her eyes trained on her hand like if she loses concentration for even a second, the entire couch will disappear. “Maybe I was just a way to … thicken the intrigue, or something. Because my family is loosely tied to tragic homecomings, too, even though Sadie was the queen and not Sarah.”
“How would Katrin even do it, though? She was in the cultural center when the sign got vandalized,” I point out. “And onstage with the rest of the cheerleaders when the screen started flashing all that stuff at Fright Farm.”
“The screen could’ve been set up beforehand. But for the rest … she’d have needed help, I guess. Brooke was already pulled in, and Viv and Theo would do anything Katrin says, wouldn’t they? Or was there a time at the cultural center when you lost sight of her?”
“I mean … yeah.” I think of Katrin slipping away as soon as all eyes turned toward my mother and me.
Oh, there’s Theo.
How long was she gone? I rub a hand across my temple like that’ll help me remember. It doesn’t. The more Ellery and I talk, the more agitated I feel. “Maybe. But if I’m being honest, it’s kind of a stretch, Ellery. And it still doesn’t explain what happened to Brooke.”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” Ellery says in the same low voice. “I keep thinking that while Katrin was distracting the town, Brooke was working up the courage to tell people what happened. And she wanted to get the proof back. What if Katrin knew that and … did something to keep her quiet?”
A chill settles over me. “Like what?”
“I don’t know. And I really, really hope I’m wrong.” Ellery speaks quickly, in a rush, like she hates what she’s saying but needs to get it out anyway. “But Katrin had motive. She had opportunity. That’s two out of the three things you need to commit a crime.”
My stomach feels like lead. “What’s the third?”
“You have to be the kind of person who would do something like that.” Ellery finally looks up, her expression pensive.
“Katrin wouldn’t.” The words spring out of me without thought.
“Even if she thought she’d lose everything?” I’m not as quick to speak this time, and Ellery presses on, “It might explain why she threw out that random accusation about you and Brooke, right? Anything to deflect.”
“But, Ellery … Christ, what are you even talking about here?” My voice drops to a tense whisper. “Kidnapping? Worse? I can get on board with the rest of it, sort of. The hit-and-run, even planting all those messages around town. That’s extreme, but I can imagine someone doing it under pressure. Making Brooke actually …
is a whole other level.”
“I know,” Ellery says. “Katrin would either have to be so desperate that she lost all sense of right or wrong, or be a cold-blooded criminal.” She’s back to tracing patterns on the sofa again. “You’ve lived with her for a few months. Do you see a possibility for either of those?”
“No way. Katrin leads a charmed life.” But even as I say it, I know it’s not entirely true. Peter might dote on Katrin, but in the four months I’ve lived here I’ve barely heard anything about the first Mrs. Nilsson. Katrin doesn’t just not talk
her mother, she doesn’t talk
her. It’s almost like she has only one parent. It’s one of the few things we have in common. It sucks, but it doesn’t mean you’re warped for life. Probably.
Ellery and I are silent for a few minutes, watching the robotically enhanced Defender mow down his former nemesis. That’s what made this series so popular, I think: that a regular guy who’s constantly beaten down could suddenly become special and powerful. In Hollywood, no plotline is impossible. Maybe Ellery’s spent too much time in that world.
Or maybe I don’t know my stepsister at all.
“If any of it’s true, you’d think she’d make another move with the anonymous threats, wouldn’t you?” I finally ask. “They stopped when Brooke disappeared. If you wanted to distract people, now would be the time.” The TV screen flickers as the Defender extinguishes all the lights on a city block. “
now, actually. At homecoming.”
Ellery sends me a cautious look. “You know, I was thinking that, but … I didn’t want to say anything. I kind of feel like I’ve already said too much.”
“I don’t like hearing it,” I admit. “But … there’s a lot about Katrin lately that doesn’t fit. Maybe we should pay more attention to what she’s up to. And where she is.”
Ellery raises her brows. “Do you think we should go to homecoming?”
“We could.” I glance at the clock on the cable box. “It’s been going on for less than an hour. Still plenty of time for her to make a move, if she’s going to.”
Ellery gestures at her black shirt and jeans. “I’m not exactly dressed for it.”
“Do you have anything at home that could work? We could stop there first.”
“Nothing super formal, but … I guess so.” She looks uncertain. “Are you sure, though? I feel like I kind of sprang a lot on you at once. Maybe you should let it sink in for a while.”
I give her a half grin. “Are you trying to get out of going to homecoming with me?”
She flushes. “No! I just … it’s, um … huh.” I’ve never seen her at a loss for words before. It’s cute. Ellery might be a walking
episode, but there’s still something about her that I can’t stop thinking about. Lots of things.
It’s not just that, though. Earlier today it seemed like a no-brainer to stay home. All I wanted was to keep my head down and avoid conflict. Except now I’m stuck here watching a bad ’90s movie like I have something to be ashamed of, while Katrin—who at the very least has been shady about her car—put on a bright-red dress and went to a party.
I’m tired of watching my life turn into Declan Part Two. And I’m tired of doing nothing while my friends try to figure out how to dig me out of trouble I shouldn’t even be in.
“Then let’s go,” I say.
Saturday, October 5
Nana is, to put it mildly, not pleased with this turn of events.
“You said you were going to watch a movie,” she says from the other side of my closed bedroom door as I yank a dress over my head. It’s black and sleeveless, with a flared A-line skirt that ends just above my knees. The material is casual jersey, but I put on a few long, glittering necklaces to dress it up. With my one and only pair of heels, it can pass for semiformal.
“We changed our minds,” I say, reaching for a bottle of curl enhancer and squeezing a small amount into my palm. I already spent more time than I’d like to admit on my hair before leaving for Malcolm’s, but the battle against frizz never ends.
“I don’t like the idea of you going to this dance, Ellery. Not after everything that’s happened over the past few weeks.”
“You let Ezra go,” I point out, slipping into my shoes.
“Ezra wasn’t targeted like you were. One of the girls who was on the homecoming court with you is
for God’s sake. It could be dangerous.”
“But, Nana, there’s not even a court anymore. Now the whole thing is more of a fund-raiser. There’ll be kids and teachers everywhere. Brooke didn’t disappear when she was in the middle of a crowd like that. She was at home with her parents.” I run my hands through my hair, brush mascara across my lashes, and coat my lips with sheer red gloss. Done.
Nana doesn’t have a good response for that. When I open my door, she’s standing there with her arms folded, and she frowns as she looks me up and down. “Since when do you wear makeup?” she asks.
“It’s a dance.” I wait for her to move, but she doesn’t.
“Is this a date?”
I get full-body butterflies as I think about kissing Malcolm on his couch, but blink at Nana like it’s the first time I’d ever considered her question. “What? No! We’re going as friends, like Mia and Ezra. We got bored and decided to meet up with them. That’s all.”
I can feel my cheeks flame. I do not, as Sadie would put it, have the appropriate emotional connection to this scene. Nana looks entirely unconvinced. We regard one another in silence for a few seconds until she sags against the doorway. “I could forbid you, I suppose, though that never worked with your mother. She’d just go behind my back. But I want you to call when you get there, and I want you to come straight home after. With your
Daisy Kwon is a chaperone. She brought him and Mia, and she can take you home, too.”
“Okay, Nana.” I try to sound grateful, because I know this isn’t easy for her. Plus if I’m going to be annoyed with anyone it should be me, for somehow managing to turn my first kiss with Malcolm into a stakeout. Maybe I need to work out a system with Ezra, so he can text
Nobody wants to hear your murder theories
the next time I get the urge to ruin my own night.
I follow her downstairs, where my seriously cute not-date is waiting. The side benefit to me forcing us off the couch is getting to see Malcolm in a suit again. “Hi, Mrs. Corcoran,” he says, and then his eyes go satisfyingly wide when he catches sight of me. “Wow. You look great.”
“Thanks. So do you,” I say, even though I already told him that at his house. We smile at one another in a way that’s not helping the
we’re just friends
“Ellery needs to be back by ten-thirty,” Nana interjects, throwing out an arbitrary time that we did
agree to upstairs. “She’ll be coming home with Ezra.”
“No problem, Mrs. Corcoran,” Malcolm says before I can reply. “Thanks for letting her come with me.”
I’m not positive, but I think Nana’s expression might soften a little as she opens the door for us. “Have a good time. And a
We cross the lawn to the Volvo, and Malcolm opens the passenger door for me. I tip my head back to look up at him. I’m about to make a joke—something to ease the tension caused by my grandmother’s obvious nerves—but my eyes wander to his lips and the slope of his neck where it meets his crisp white shirt collar, and I forget what I was about to say.
His knuckles brush against my arm, raising goose bumps. “Do you want to get a coat? It’s cold out.”
“No, that’s okay.” I tear my eyes away from his weirdly enticing collar and fold myself into the seat. We veer away from the heavy topics of the night while we drive, talking about a comic-book series we both like and a spin-off movie that neither of us has seen.
The school parking lot is packed, and Malcolm grabs the last spot at the far end. I immediately regret my decision not to bring a coat, but when I start shivering Malcolm pulls his suit jacket off and settles it over my shoulders. It smells like him, a clean mix of shampoo and laundry detergent. I try not to inhale too obviously while we walk.
“Here goes nothing,” he says, opening the front doors.
I pull out my phone and call Nana to let her know we’ve arrived safely, then disconnect as we turn the corner that leads to the auditorium. The first thing we see is a purple-draped table, staffed by a blond woman in a flowered dress. Her bangs are teased higher than average for the decade we’re in. “Oh no,” Malcolm mutters, halting his steps.
“What?” I ask, putting my phone into the pocket of my dress. I slip Malcolm’s jacket off my shoulders and hand it back to him.
Malcolm takes his time putting it back on before he starts moving again. “That’s Liz McNulty. Kyle’s sister. She
me. Looks like she’s a chaperone.”
“That woman?” I peer at her. “The one Declan broke up with for Lacey?” Malcolm nods. “I thought she was your brother’s age.”
“She looks forty!”
I’m whispering, but he still shushes me as we approach the table. “Hi, Liz,” Malcolm says in a resigned tone.
The woman glances up from her phone, and her expression immediately settles into a look of deep dislike. “Tickets,” she growls without returning the greeting.
“We don’t have them yet,” Malcolm says. “Can I get two, please?”
Liz looks positively triumphant when she tells him, “We’re not selling them at the door.”
Malcolm pauses in the act of reaching for his wallet. “That’s kind of a flawed system.”
“You’re supposed to buy them ahead of time,” Liz sniffs.
“Hey, guys,” a melodic voice calls behind us. I turn to see Daisy coming out of the gym, looking pretty in a formfitting blue dress and high heels.
“Hi,” I say, relieved to see a friendly face. “You look nice.”
“Gotta dress up for chaperone duty, right, Liz?” Daisy says. Liz smooths the front of her frumpy dress, and I feel a pang of sympathy for her. Daisy flicks her eyes between Malcolm and me. “I’m surprised to see you two here. Mia said you weren’t coming.”
“We changed our minds. But we didn’t know you needed tickets ahead of time,” I add, giving Liz my most ingratiating smile.
Liz crosses her arms over her chest, ready to argue until Daisy puts a placating hand on her arm. “Oh, I’m sure it’s okay now that the dance is more than half over. Right, Liz?” No response, but Daisy presses on. “Principal Slate wouldn’t want to turn anyone away. Not on a night like this, when the school is trying to bring people together. And we need every penny we can get for the reward fund.” She flashes the kind of sweet, winning smile that probably got her elected to student council all four years at Echo Ridge High. Liz continues to glower, but with less certainty. I guess Daisy’s secret relationship with Declan is still under wraps, or Liz would probably be a lot less charitable.
“We’d really appreciate it,” I say. Malcolm, wisely, keeps his mouth shut.
Liz holds out her palm with an annoyed snort. “Fine. Five dollars.
Malcolm hands over a ten. We walk with Daisy into the gymnasium, which is packed with students and decorated with purple streamers and silver balloons. “Should we look for Mia and Ezra?” Malcolm asks, raising his voice to be heard over the thumping music. I nod and he turns toward the center of the room, but Daisy pulls at my arm before I can follow.
“Can I ask you something?” she shouts.
I hesitate as Malcolm disappears into the crowd without realizing I’m not behind him. “Um, okay,” I say.
Daisy puts her head close to mine so she doesn’t have to yell. “I’ve been thinking about what you said. About Ryan Rodriguez and the bracelet?” I nod. We hadn’t gotten much chance to discuss that on Thursday, once Mia and Daisy’s parents came home and started hyperventilating over Mia’s head injury. She told them she tripped headfirst into the fireplace mantel. “It’s been worrying me. Why do you think he might have given it to Lacey? Do you know something?”
“No,” I admit. I don’t want to catalog all my vague suspicions to Daisy, especially after what she’d said that day:
There’s this whole other layer when you’re one of the only minority families in town.
Sometimes I forget how …
diverse Echo Ridge is. But when I look around at the crowded gym, I remember. And it feels less harmless to toss speculation around about someone whose last name is Rodriguez.
Besides, even though I crossed Daisy off my suspect list after getting to know her better, I still think Declan is sketchy. Malcolm might not talk to him much, but I’m sure Daisy does.
“It’s just because he knew her,” I say instead.
Daisy’s brow creases. “But … it’s not like they were friends.”
“He was so devastated when she died, though.”
She straightens up in surprise, her pretty eyes wide. “Says who?”
“My mother.” Daisy still looks confused, so I add, “She saw him at the funeral. When he got hysterical and had to be carried out?”
did?” Daisy’s tone is incredulous, and she shakes her head decisively. “That didn’t happen.”
“Maybe you missed it?” I suggest.
“No. Our class was small, we were all on one side of the church. I would’ve noticed.” Daisy’s mouth curves in an indulgent smile. “Your mom was probably being dramatic. Hollywood, right?”
I pause. Daisy’s response is almost exactly what Nana said when I brought it up a couple of weeks ago.
That didn’t happen.
Then, I thought Nana was being dismissive. But that was before I’d fully experienced how odd Sadie can be when it comes to talking about Echo Ridge. “Yeah, I guess,” I say slowly.
I don’t think Daisy has any reason to lie about Lacey’s funeral. But does Sadie?
“Sorry, I separated you from your date, didn’t I?” Daisy says as we spy Malcolm emerging from a crowd in the middle of the room. “I better circulate and make myself useful. Have fun.” She waves and heads for the sidelines, pirouetting to avoid a couple of theater kids starting a dramatic waltz as the music slows down.
“What happened to you?” Malcolm asks when he reaches me. He looks more disheveled than he did when he left, like someone who found himself at the edge of a mosh pit but didn’t go all in: jacket unbuttoned, tie loosened, hair mussed.
“Sorry. Daisy wanted to ask me something. Did you find them?”
“No. I got intercepted by Viv.” His shoulders twitch in an irritated shudder. “She’s already lost Kyle and she’s not happy about it. And she’s mad at Theo because he brought a flask and Katrin’s half-drunk.”
My eyes wander across the gym until they spot a bright-red dress. “Speaking of,” I say, nodding toward the dance floor. Katrin and Theo are slow-dancing in the middle of the room, her arms wrapped around his neck like she’s trying to keep from drowning. “There she is.”
Malcolm follows my gaze. “Yep. Doesn’t look much like a killer, does she?”
Something in me deflates. “You think I’m ridiculous, don’t you?”
“What? No,” Malcolm says quickly. “I just meant— Whatever might happen isn’t happening right this second, so … maybe we could dance?” He slides a finger beneath his tie and tugs to loosen it further. “Since we’re here and all.”
My stomach starts doing that fluttering thing again. “Well. We do need to blend,” I say, and accept the hand he holds out to me.
My arms circle his neck and his hands graze my waist. It’s the classic awkward slow-dance position, but after a couple of offbeat sways he pulls me closer and then, suddenly, we fit. I relax against him, my head on his chest. For a few minutes I just enjoy how solid he feels, and the steady beat of his heart beneath my cheek.
Malcolm leans toward my ear. “Can I ask you something?” I lift my head, hoping he’s going to ask if he can kiss me again, and almost say yes preemptively before he adds, “Are you afraid of clowns?”
Huh. That was a letdown.
I lean back and stare into his eyes, which look steely gray instead of green beneath the dim lights. “Um. What?”
“Are you afraid of clowns?” he asks patiently, like it’s a perfectly normal conversation starter.
So I go with it. “No. I’ve never understood the whole clown phobia, to be honest.” I shake my head, and a stray curl heads straight for my lips and sticks to the gloss. Reminding me, once again, why I don’t wear makeup. Before I can figure out a graceful way to extricate it, Malcolm does it for me, tucking the curl behind my ear and letting his hand settle briefly on my neck before it returns to my waist.