Authors: Karen M. McManus
Waiters start moving around the room, putting plates of salad in front of everyone. Melanie steps behind a podium on the stage in front, and Officer McNulty’s jaw tenses. “That woman is a tower of strength,” he says, like he’s daring me to disagree.
“Thank you so much for coming,” Melanie says, leaning toward the microphone. “It means the world to Dan, Caroline, Julia, and me to see how much the Lacey Kilduff Memorial Scholarship fund has grown.”
I tune the rest out. Not because I don’t care, but because it’s too hard to hear. Years of not being invited to these things means I haven’t built up much resistance. After Melanie finishes her speech, she introduces a University of Vermont junior who was the first scholarship recipient. The girl talks about her medical school plans as empty salad plates are replaced with the main course. When she’s done, everyone applauds and turns their attention to the food. I poke half-heartedly at my dry chicken while Peter holds court about stoplights. Is it too soon for a bathroom break?
“The thing is, it’s a delicate balance between maintaining town aesthetics and accommodating changing traffic patterns,” Peter says earnestly.
Nope. Not too soon. I stand, drop my napkin onto my chair, and take off.
When I’ve washed my hands as many times as I can stand, I exit the men’s room and hesitate in the corridor between the banquet hall and the front door. The thought of returning to that table makes my head pound. Nobody’s going to miss me for another few minutes.
I tug at my collar and push open the door, stepping outside into the darkness. It’s still muggy, but less stifling than inside. Nights like this make me feel like I can’t breathe, like everything my brother did, actual and alleged, settled over me when I was twelve years old and still weighs me down. I became
Declan Kelly’s brother
before I got a chance to be anything else, and sometimes it feels like that’s all I’ll ever be.
I inhale deeply, and pause when a faint chemical smell hits me. It gets stronger as I descend the stairs. I can’t see much, and almost trip over something lying in the grass. I bend down and pick it up. It’s a can of spray paint that’s missing its top.
what I’m smelling: fresh paint. But where is it coming from? I turn back toward the cultural center. Its well-lit exterior looks the same as ever. There isn’t anything else nearby that might have been recently painted, except …
The cultural center sign is halfway across the lawn between the building and the street. I’m practically on top of it before I can see clearly in the dim light thrown from the nearest streetlight. Red letters cover the back of the sign from top to bottom, stark against the pale wood:
I’m not sure how long I stand there, staring, before I realize I’m not alone anymore. The girl from Melanie’s table with the curly hair and the weird dress is standing a few feet away. Her eyes dart between the words on the sign and the can in my hand, which rattles when I drop my arm.
“This isn’t what it looks like,” I say.
Saturday, September 7
How’s everything going?
I consider the text from my friend Lourdes. She’s in California, but not La Puente. I met her in sixth grade, which was three towns before we moved there. Or maybe four. Unlike Ezra, who jumps easily into the social scene every time we switch schools, I hang on to my virtual best friend and keep the in-person stuff surface level. It’s easier to move on that way. It requires fewer emo playlists, anyway.
Let’s see. We’ve been here a week and so far the highlight is yard work.
Lourdes sends a few sad-face emoji, then adds,
It’ll pick up when school starts. Have you met any cute preppy New England guys yet?
Just one. But not preppy. And possibly a vandal.
I pause, not sure how to explain my run-in with the boy at Lacey Kilduff’s fund-raiser, when my phone buzzes with a call from a number with a California area code. I don’t recognize it, but my heart leaps and I fire off a quick text to Lourdes:
Hang on, getting a call about my luggage I hope.
I’ve been in Vermont a full week, and my suitcase is still missing. If it doesn’t show up within the next two days, I’m going to have to start school in the clothes my grandmother bought at Echo Ridge’s one and only clothing store. It’s called Dalton’s Emporium and also sells kitchen goods and hardware, which should tell you everything you need to know about its fashion cred. No one who’s older than six or younger than sixty should shop there, ever.
“Ellery, hi!” I almost drop my phone, and when I don’t answer the voice doubles down on its cheerful urgency. “It’s me!”
“Yeah, I know.” I lower myself stiffly onto my bed, gripping the phone in my suddenly sweaty palm. “How are you calling me?”
Sadie’s tone turns reproachful. “You don’t sound very happy to hear from me.”
“It’s just— I thought we were supposed to start talking next Thursday.” Those were the rules of rehab, according to Nana: Fifteen-minute Skype sessions once a week after two full weeks of treatment had been completed. Not random calls from an unknown number.
“The rules here are ridiculous,” Sadie says. I can practically hear the eye roll in her voice. “One of the aides is letting me use her phone. She’s a
fan.” The only speaking role Sadie ever had was in the first installment of what turned out to be a huge action series in the ’90s,
about a down-on-his-luck soldier turned avenging cyborg. She played a sexy robot named Zeta Voltes, and even though she had only one line—
That does not compute
—there are still fan websites dedicated to the character. “I’m dying to see you, love. Let’s switch to FaceTime.”
I pause before hitting Accept, because I’m not ready for this. At all. But what am I going to do, hang up on my mother? Within seconds Sadie’s face fills the screen, bright with anticipation. She looks the same as ever—nothing like me except for the hair. Sadie’s eyes are bright blue, while mine are so dark they almost look black. She’s sweet-faced with soft, open features, and I’m all angles and straight lines. There’s only one other trait we share, and when I see the dimple in her right cheek flash with a smile, I force myself to mirror it back. “There you are!” she crows. Then a frown creases her forehead. “What’s going on with your hair?”
My chest constricts. “Is that seriously the first thing you have to say to me?”
I haven’t talked to Sadie since she checked into Hamilton House, the pricey rehab center Nana’s paying for. Considering she demolished an entire storefront, Sadie lucked out: she didn’t hurt herself or anyone else, and she wound up in front of a judge who believes in treatment instead of jail time. But she’s never been particularly grateful. Everyone and everything else is at fault: the doctor who gave her too strong of a prescription, bad lighting on the street, our car’s ancient brakes. It didn’t fully hit me until just now—sitting in a bedroom that belongs to a grandmother I barely know, listening to Sadie criticize my hair through a phone that someone could probably get fired for giving her—how
it all is.
“Oh, El, of course not. I’m just teasing. You look beautiful. How are you?”
How am I supposed to answer that? “I’m fine.”
“What’s happened in your first week? Tell me everything.”
I could refuse to play along, I guess. But as my eye catches the photo of her and her sister on my bookcase, I already feel myself wanting to please her. To smooth things over and make her smile. I’ve been doing it my entire life; it’s impossible to stop now. “Things are just as weird as you’ve always said. I’ve already been questioned twice by the police.”
Her eyes pop. “What?”
I tell her about the hit-and-run, and the graffiti at Lacey’s fund-raiser three days ago. “Declan Kelly’s
wrote that?” Sadie asks, looking outraged.
“He said he just found the paint canister.”
She snorts. “Likely story.”
“I don’t know. He looked pretty shocked when I saw him.”
“God, poor Melanie and Dan. That’s the last thing they need.”
“The police officer I talked to at the fund-raiser said he knew you. Officer McNulty? I forget his first name.”
Sadie grins. “Chad McNulty! Yeah, we dated sophomore year. God, you’re going to meet all my exes, aren’t you? Was Vance Puckett there, by any chance? He used to be
” I shake my head. “Ben Coates? Peter Nilsson?”
None of those names are familiar except the last one. I met him at the fund-raiser, right after his stepson and I reported the sign vandalism. “You dated that guy?” I ask. “Doesn’t he own, like, half the town?”
“I guess so. Cute, but kind of a tight-ass. We went out twice when I was a senior, but he was in college then and we didn’t really click.”
“He’s Malcolm’s stepfather now,” I tell her.
Sadie’s face scrunches in confusion. “Who?”
“Malcolm Kelly. Declan Kelly’s brother? The one with the spray paint?”
“Good Lord,” Sadie mutters. “I cannot keep up with that place.”
Some of the tenseness that’s been keeping me rigid ebbs away, and I laugh as I settle back against my pillow. Sadie’s superpower is making you feel as though everything’s going to be fine, even when it’s mostly disastrous. “Officer McNulty said his son’s in our class,” I tell her. “I guess he was at the fund-raiser, but I didn’t meet him.”
“Ugh, we’re all so
now. Did you talk to him about the hit-and-run, too?”
“No, that officer was really young. Ryan Rodriguez?” I don’t expect Sadie to recognize the name, but an odd expression flits across her face. “What? Do you know him?” I ask.
“No. How would I?” Sadie asks, a little too quickly. When she catches my dubious squint, she adds. “Well. It’s just … now, don’t go making too much of this, Ellery, because I
the way you think. But he fell apart at Lacey’s funeral. Way more than her boyfriend did. It caught my attention, so I remembered it. That’s all.”
“Fell apart how?”
Sadie heaves a theatrical sigh. “I knew you’d ask that.”
“You brought it up!”
“Oh, just … you know. He cried a lot. Almost collapsed. His friends had to carry him out of the church. And I said to Melanie, ‘Wow, they must have been really close.’ But she said they barely knew one another.” Sadie lifts a shoulder in a half shrug. “He probably had a crush, that’s all. Lacey was a beauty. What’s that?” She glances off to one side, and I hear the murmur of another voice. “Oh, okay. Sorry, El, but I have to go. Tell Ezra I’ll call him soon, okay? I love you, and …” She pauses, something like regret crossing her face for the first time. “And … I’m glad you’re meeting people.”
No apology. Saying she’s sorry would mean acknowledging that something’s wrong, and even when she’s calling me cross-country from rehab on a contraband phone, Sadie can’t do it. I don’t answer, and she adds, “I hope you’re doing something fun for your Saturday afternoon!”
I’m not sure if
is the right word, but it’s something I’ve been planning since I learned I was going to Echo Ridge. “Fright Farm opens for the season today, and I’m going.”
Sadie shakes her head with exasperated fondness. “Of course you are,” she says, and blows me a kiss before she disconnects.
Hours later, Ezra and I are walking through the woods behind Nana’s house toward Fright Farm, leaves crunching beneath our feet. I’m wearing some of my new Dalton’s clothes, which Ezra has been snickering at since we left the house.
“I mean,” he says as we step over a fallen branch, “what would you even call those? Leisure pants?”
“Shut up,” I grumble. The pants, which are some kind of synthetic stretchy material, were the most inoffensive piece of clothing I could find. At least they’re black, and sort of fitted. My gray-and-white checked T-shirt is short and boxy, and has such a high neck that it’s almost choking me. I’m pretty sure I’ve never looked worse. “First Sadie with the hair, now you with the clothes.”
Ezra’s smile is bright and hopeful. “She looked good, though?” he asks. He and Sadie are so similar sometimes, so blissfully optimistic, that it’s impossible to say what you really think around them. When I used to try, Sadie would sigh and say,
Don’t be such an Eeyore, Ellery.
Once—only once—she’d added under her breath,
You’re just like Sarah.
Then pretended not to hear me when I asked her to repeat what she’d said.
“She looked great,” I tell Ezra.
We hear noise from the park before we see it. Once we emerge from the woods it’s impossible to miss: the entrance looms across the road in the shape of a huge, monstrous head with glowing green eyes and a mouth, wide open in a scream, that serves as the door. It looks exactly like it did in pictures from the news coverage about Lacey’s murder, except for the arched sign that reads
in spiky red letters.
Ezra shades his eyes against the sun. “I’m just gonna say it: Fright Farm is a crap name. Murderland was better.”
“Agreed,” I say.
There’s a road running between the woods and the Fright Farm entrance, and we wait for a few cars to pass before crossing it. A tall, black spire fence circles the park, enclosing clusters of tents and rides. Fright Farm opened less than an hour ago, but it’s already packed. Screams fill the air as a salt-and-pepper-shaker ride flips back and forth. When we get closer to the entrance, I see that the face is covered with mottled and red-specked grayish paint so it looks like a decaying corpse. There’s a row of four booths directly inside, with one cashier to a booth, and at least two dozen people waiting. Ezra and I get in line, but I break away after a few minutes to check out the information board and grab a bunch of papers stacked up beneath it.
“Maps,” I tell Ezra. I hand him one, plus another sheet of paper. “And job applications.”
His brow furrows. “You want to
“We’re broke, remember? And where else would we work? I don’t think there’s anyplace in walking distance.” Neither of us have our driver’s license, and I can tell already Nana’s not the chauffeuring type.
Ezra shrugs. “All right. Hand it over.”
I fish a couple of pens out of my messenger bag, and we almost complete the applications before it’s our turn to buy tickets. I fold Ezra’s and mine together and stuff them both in the front pocket of my bag as we leave the booths. “We can drop them off before we go home.”
“Where should we go first?” Ezra asks.
I unfold my map and study it. “It looks like we’re in the kids’ section right now,” I report. “Dark Matters is to the left. That’s an evil science laboratory. Bloody Big Top to the right. Probably self-explanatory. And the House of Horrors is straight ahead. That doesn’t open till seven, though.”
Ezra leans over my shoulder and lowers his voice. “Where did Lacey die?”
I point to a tiny picture of a Ferris wheel. “Under there. Well, that’s where they found her body, anyway. Police thought she was probably meeting someone. Echo Ridge kids used to sneak into the park after hours all the time, I guess. It didn’t have any security cameras back then.” We both glance up at the nearest building, where a red light blinks from one corner. “Does now, obviously.”
“Do you want to start there?” Ezra asks.
My throat gets dry. A group of masked kids dressed in black swoop past us, one of them knocking into my shoulder so hard that I stumble. “Maybe we should check out the games,” I say, refolding the map. It was a lot easier to take ghoulish pleasure at visiting a crime scene before I met the victim’s family.
We walk past snack stands and carnival games, pausing to watch a boy our age sink enough baskets in a row to win a stuffed black cat for his girlfriend. The next station has the kind of shooting gallery game where two players each try to knock over twelve targets in a box. A guy wearing a ratty hunting jacket who looks like he’s forty or so pumps his fist in the air and lets out a loud guffaw. “Beat ya!” he says, punching the shoulder of the kid next to him. The man stumbles a little with the movement, and the boy recoils and backs away.