Authors: Karen M. McManus
A jolt of energy shoots down my spine.
All right. Maybe lip gloss has its uses.
“Me either,” he says. “I feel like clowns get kind of a bad rap, you know? They just want to entertain.”
“Are you, like, their spokesperson?” I ask, and he grins.
“No. But there’s this clown museum in Solsbury— Well, calling it a museum is kind of a stretch. It’s this old woman’s house that’s crammed full of antique clown stuff. She gives anybody who shows up a giant box of popcorn and she has, like, six dogs that just hang out there in the middle of all the clown memorabilia. And sometimes she plays movies against one of the walls, but they don’t always have clowns in them. Or usually, even. Last time I went the movie was
I laugh. “Sounds delightful.”
“It’s weird,” Malcolm admits. “But I like it. It’s funny and sort of interesting, as long as you’re not afraid of clowns.” His hands tighten on my waist, just a little. “I thought maybe you’d like to go sometime.”
I have a lot of questions, starting with
Only me, or me and my brother plus Mia?
Will it be a date, or is it just a strange thing you like that nobody else will do?
Should we get you one hundred percent cleared of any felonies first?
But I bite them back and respond with, “I’d like that.”
Because I would.
“Okay. Good,” Malcolm says with a crooked smile. Suddenly, whatever rhythm we’ve managed to find vanishes; he steps on my foot, I clock him with my elbow, my hair sticks to my face for reasons I can’t even comprehend. It’s all going to hell very quickly, until he freezes and asks, “Do you see Katrin?”
I look toward the center of the gym where we’d seen her last, but she’s gone. “Theo’s still there,” I say, tilting my chin in his direction. He’s doing a terrible job of trying to look casual while pouring the contents of a flask into his Solo cup. “But I don’t see her.”
The music switches to a fast track and Malcolm motions for me to follow him. We wind our way off the dance floor, weaving in and out of the crowd, and circle the auditorium. I catch a couple of people staring at Malcolm, and before I can think too much about it I grab hold of his hand. We see Mia and Ezra within a bigger group, dancing frenetically. Daisy is off to the side with a couple of chaperones, standing slightly apart from them with a preoccupied expression. It makes me wonder what homecoming was like for her five years ago, watching the boy she loved and her best friend get crowned king and queen. Whether she was jealous—or unconcerned, thinking her turn would come soon enough.
And I wonder what it was like for Sadie more than twenty years ago, there without her sister, dancing with a boy she must have liked at least a little bit. A perfect night turned into a cruel memory.
“She’s not here,” Malcolm says, but just then, I see a flash of bright red where I wasn’t expecting it to be.
The far corner of the gym has an exit next to the bleachers that’s been covered with balloons and streamers in an attempt to make it look inaccessible. Katrin emerges from beneath the stands and, without checking to see whether a chaperone’s in sight, pushes the door open and slips outside.
Malcolm and I exchange glances. The straight path to the door is strewn with dancing classmates and chaperones, so we skirt around the edge of the gym until we come to the opposite side. We slip underneath the bleachers and make our way along the wall toward the door, encountering only one couple making out. When we emerge on the other side, we look around more carefully than Katrin did before following her out the door.
It’s cool and quiet outside, the moon full and bright above us. Katrin’s nowhere in sight. The football field is to our left, the front of the building to our right. By unspoken agreement, we both go right.
When we turn the corner nearest the school entrance, Katrin stands frozen near the Echo Ridge High sign. Malcolm tugs me back into the shadows as she half turns, and I spy a clutch in her hands. My eyes strain and my heart catches as I watch her fumble with the clasp. Even though the sensible part of my brain wonders what she could possibly manage to fit in there other than keys and a tube of lip gloss, I pull out my cell phone and set it to Video.
But before Katrin can take anything out of the bag, she drops it. My phone frames her in almost cinematic moonlight as she freezes, bends at the waist, and vomits loudly into the grass.
Sunday, October 8
Post-homecoming Echo Ridge seems tired on Sunday, as though the entire town is hung over. Church is emptier than usual, and we hardly see anyone while we run errands with Nana after. Even Melanie, who usually jogs past at some point while we’re doing yard work, is nowhere in sight when Ezra and I pull weeds from the side lawn.
“So how did you end things with Malcolm?” Ezra asks.
I yank on a dandelion and accidentally behead it instead of pulling it out by the roots. “I mean, you saw,” I say, annoyed. The dance ended promptly at ten o’clock last night, and we all got herded out of the auditorium like cattle with a strict curfew. Daisy beat Nana’s deadline by fifteen minutes. Nana stayed up unusually late, hovering around both of us, and I ended up texting Ezra an update of my night instead of telling him in person. “We said good-night.”
“Yeah, but you must’ve made plans, right?”
I extract the rest of the dandelion and toss it into the plastic bucket between us. “I think we might go to a clown museum.”
Ezra frowns. “A what now?”
“A clown museum. That’s kind of beside the point, though, isn’t it?” I sit back on my haunches, frustrated. “I really thought something else would happen last night. With Katrin, I mean. But all we did was catch her in the dastardly act of throwing up.”
Ezra shrugs. “It wasn’t a bad idea. She’s pretty central to everything that’s been going on around here, but …” He trails off and wipes his brow, leaving a faint smear of dirt on his forehead. “But maybe we should let the experts handle it. Give the receipt to the police. You don’t have to tell them how you got it. Malcolm could say he found it.”
“But then it doesn’t make any sense. The only reason the receipt is meaningful is because Brooke was trying to get it back.”
The faint roar of a car engine approaches, and I turn to see Officer Rodriguez’s police cruiser pass our house and turn into his driveway a few doors down. “Too bad our local officer is so sketchy,” I mutter.
“Haven’t you given that up yet?” Ezra asks. “Daisy told you last night that Officer Rodriguez didn’t make a scene at Lacey’s funeral. Nana said the same thing. I don’t know why Sadie would say he did if it wasn’t true, but at the very least, whatever she thinks she saw is open to interpretation. Other than that, what has the guy done? Taken a bad yearbook photo? Maybe you should give him a chance.”
I get to my feet and brush off my jeans. “Maybe you’re right. Come on.”
“Huh?” Ezra squints up at me. “I didn’t mean
“Why not? Nana’s been after us to bring over those moving boxes, right? So he can pack up his house before he tries to sell it? Let’s do it now. Maybe we can feel him out about what’s happening with the investigation.”
We leave our yard tools where they are and head inside. Nana is upstairs dusting when we gather a couple dozen flattened cardboard boxes from the basement. When we shout up to her what we’re doing, she doesn’t protest.
Ezra takes the lion’s share of the boxes and I grab the rest, following him outside onto the wide dirt road that leads to the Rodriguezes’ house. It’s a dark-brown Cape, smaller than the rest of the neighborhood homes and set back from the street. I’ve never seen it up close before. The front windows have bright blue flower boxes, but everything inside them looks like it’s been dead for months.
Officer Rodriguez answers within a few seconds of Ezra pressing the bell. He’s out of uniform in a blue T-shirt and sweatpants, and his hair looks overdue for a trim. “Oh, hey,” he says, pulling the door open wide. “Nora mentioned she’d be sending those over. Great timing. I’m taking some things out of the living room now.”
He didn’t invite us in, exactly, but I step into the hallway anyway. “You’re moving?” I ask, hoping to keep the conversation going. Now that I’m inside the Rodriguezes’ house, I’m more curious about him than ever.
Officer Rodriguez takes the boxes from us and props them against the wall. “Eventually. Now that my dad’s gone it’s too much house for one person, you know? But there’s no rush. Gotta figure out where to go, first.” He lifts an arm to scratch the back of his head. “You guys want something to drink? Water, maybe?”
“Do you have any coffee?” Ezra asks.
Officer Rodriguez looks doubtful. “Are you allowed to drink that?”
“We’re, like, five years younger than you,” Ezra points out. “And it’s
I’m not asking you for meth.” I snicker, even as I realize that Ezra must have a decent comfort level with Officer Rodriguez to give him a hard time like that. He doesn’t usually openly challenge authority figures, even as a joke.
Officer Rodriguez smiles sheepishly. “Well, your grandmother’s kind of strict. But yeah, I just made some.” He turns, and we trail him into a kitchen with mustard-colored appliances and old-fashioned flowered wallpaper. Officer Rodriguez pulls a couple of mismatched mugs out of a cabinet and roots around in a drawer for spoons.
I lean against the counter. “We were wondering, um, how things are going with the investigation about Brooke,” I say, feeling a familiar tightening in my chest. Some days, like yesterday, I’m almost busy enough to forget how every passing hour makes it less and less likely that Brooke is going to come home safely. “Any news?”
“Nothing I can share,” Officer Rodriguez says, his tone turning more businesslike. “I’m sorry. I know it’s hard on you guys, having seen her right before she disappeared.”
He looks like he means it. And right now, as he fills a snowman mug with steaming coffee and hands it to me, he seems so nice and normal and decidedly non-murder-y that I wish I’d brought the car repair receipt with me.
Except I still don’t know much about him. Not really.
“How is her family doing?” Ezra asks, making himself at home at the kitchen table. There’s a stray penny on the table, and he starts spinning it across the surface.
“About as you’d expect. They’re worried sick. But they appreciate everything the town is doing,” Officer Rodriguez says. He crosses to the refrigerator and opens it, pushing around the contents. “Do you guys take milk? Or half-and-half?”
“Either,” Ezra says, catching the penny midspin between two fingers.
I peer into the attached living room, where an oversized picture of three little kids hangs over the mantel. “Is that you when you were little?” I ask. Since I have so few of my own, family photos are like catnip to me. I always feel like they must say a lot about the person they belong to, which is probably why Sadie hates them. She doesn’t like giving anything away.
Officer Rodriguez is still looking through the refrigerator, his back toward me. “What?”
“That picture over your fireplace.” I set my mug down on the counter and enter the living room for a closer look. The top of the mantel is crowded with more pictures, and I gravitate toward a triple-frame one with what looks like graduation photos.
“You shouldn’t—” Officer Rodriguez calls, and there’s a crashing noise behind me. As I turn to see him tripping over an ottoman, my gaze skims past a picture of Ezra.
Wait. No. That can’t be right.
My eyes lock on the framed photo of a young man in military fatigues, leaning against a helicopter and smiling into the camera. Everything about him—the dark hair and eyes, the sharp planes of his face, even the slightly lopsided grin—looks exactly like my brother.
I draw in a sharp breath, my fingers closing around the frame seconds before Officer Rodriguez tries to snatch it off the mantel. I stumble backward, both hands gripping the picture as something that feels a lot like panic zips through my bloodstream. My skin is hot and my vision is clouding up. But I can still see that face with perfect clarity in my mind’s eye. It could be my brother dressed up as a soldier for Halloween, but it’s not.
“Who is this?” I ask. My tongue feels thick, like it’s been shot through with Novocain.
Officer Rodriguez’s face is beet red. He looks as though he’d rather do anything other than answer me, but he finally does. “My dad, right after he served in Desert Storm.”
?” The word comes out as a shriek.
“Ellery? What the hell?” Ezra’s puzzled tone sounds miles away.
“Shit.” Officer Rodriguez runs both hands through his hair. “This is … okay. This is not how I wanted things to go. I was going to, I don’t know, talk to your grandmother or something. Except I had no idea what to say, so I just kept putting it off and … I mean, I don’t even know.” I meet his eyes, and he swallows hard. “It might be a coincidence.”
My legs have turned into rubber bands. I drop into an armchair, still clutching the picture frame. “It’s not a coincidence.”
Impatience edges into Ezra’s voice. “What are you talking about?”
Officer Rodriguez doesn’t look anything like his father. If he did, I might’ve been as startled as he was the first time we met. Suddenly it all makes sense—the dropped coffee mug in Nana’s kitchen, the nervous stuttering and bumbling every time he saw us. I’d taken it for ineptitude at first, then guilt about Lacey. Never, not once, did it occur to me that Ryan Rodriguez looked like a deer in perpetual headlights because he was trying to process the fact that we’re probably related.
I scan the photo in my hands. I’ve never looked anything like Sadie except for the hair and dimple. But those near-black, upturned eyes, the sharp chin, the smile—it’s what I see in the mirror every day.
Officer Rodriguez clasps his hands in front of him like he’s getting ready to pray. “Maybe we should get your grandmother.”
I shake my head emphatically. I don’t know much right now, but I
know that Nana’s presence wouldn’t do anything except up the awkward quotient by a thousandfold. Instead, I hold the frame out to Ezra. “You need to see this.”
I feel as though all seventeen years of my life flash in front of me as my brother crosses the room. My brain races at the same pace, trying to come up with some explanation for all the parts that now seem like a lie. Like, maybe Sadie really did meet up with someone named Jorge or José at a nightclub, and genuinely believed everything she’d ever told us about our father. Maybe she didn’t even remember what now seems like a pretty obvious precursor to that—a fling with a married guy while she was in town for her father’s funeral.
I remember her expression when I’d first mentioned Officer Rodriguez’s name—how something uncomfortable and almost shifty crossed her face. When I’d asked her about it, she’d told me that story about him falling apart at Lacey’s funeral. Something that I’d built an entire criminal theory around until two people told me it didn’t happen.
Ezra sucks in a sharp breath. “Holy shit.”
I can’t bring myself to look at his face, so I dart a glance at Officer Rodriguez instead. A muscle twitches in his cheek. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I should have— Well, I don’t know what I should’ve done, to be honest. We could … get a test or something, I guess, to make sure. …” He trails off and crosses his arms. “I don’t think he knew. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think he would’ve said something if he had.”
Past tense. Since his father—and ours, I guess—has been dead for three months.
It’s too much to take in. Voices buzz around me, and I should probably listen because I’m sure they’re saying something important and meaningful, but I can’t hear the words clearly. Everything is white noise. My palms are sweating, my knees shaking. My lungs feel like they’ve shrunk and can only hold spoonfuls of air at a time. I’m getting so dizzy that I’m afraid I’m going to pass out in the middle of the Rodriguezes’ living room.
And maybe the worst thing about it all is this: how horribly, childishly, and desperately I want my mom right now.