Authors: Karen M. McManus
“Huh?” I ask, but Mia replies, “The Smiths.” You can’t stump her on anything music-related.
Vance nods. “Fits this town, doesn’t it? Echo Ridge keeps losing its homecoming queens. Or their sisters.” His eyes roam across the three dolls. “Somebody got creative.”
” Mia says coldly. “It’s horrible.”
“Never said it wasn’t.” Vance sniffs loudly and makes a shooing motion with one hand. “Why are you still here? Run along and tell the powers that be.”
I don’t like getting ordered around by Vance Puckett, but I don’t want to stick around, either. “We were just about to.”
I start toward Katrin’s car with Mia at my side, but Vance’s sharp “Hey!” makes us turn. He points toward me with an unsteady finger. “You might want to tell that sister of yours to lie low for a change. Doesn’t seem like a great year to be homecoming queen, does it?”
Monday, September 9
Children of the Corn
around here,” Ezra mutters, scanning the hallway.
He’s not wrong. We’ve been here only fifteen minutes, but there are already more blond-haired, blue-eyed people than I’ve ever seen gathered in one place. Even the building Echo Ridge High is housed in has a certain Puritan charm—it’s old, with wide pine floors, high arched windows, and dramatic sloped ceilings. We’re heading from the guidance counselor’s office to our new homeroom, and we might as well be leading a parade for all the stares we’re getting. At least I’m in my airplane wardrobe, washed last night in preparation for the first day of school, instead of a Dalton’s special.
We pass a bulletin board covered with colorful flyers, and Ezra pauses. “It’s not too late to join the 4-H Club,” he tells me.
He peers closer. “Agriculture, I think? There seem to be cows involved.”
He sighs, running his eyes over the rest of the board. “Something tells me they don’t have a particularly active LGBTQ-Straight Alliance here. I wonder if there’s even another out kid.”
Normally I’d say there must be, but Echo Ridge is pretty small. There are less than a hundred kids in our grade, and only a few hundred total in the school.
We turn from the board as a cute Asian girl in a Strokes T-shirt and stack-heeled Doc Martens passes by, her hair buzzed short on one side and streaked red on the other. “Hey, Mia, you forgot to cut the other half!” a boy calls out, making the two football-jacketed boys on either side of him snicker. The girl lifts her middle finger and shoves it in their faces without breaking stride.
Ezra gazes after her with rapt attention. “Hello, new friend.”
The crowd in front of us parts suddenly, as three girls stride down the hallway in almost perfect lockstep—one blonde, one brunette, and one redhead. They’re so obviously Somebodies at Echo Ridge High that it takes me a second to realize that one of them is Brooke Bennett from the Fright Farm shooting range. She stops short when she sees us and offers a tentative smile.
“Oh, hi. Did Murph ever call you?”
“Yeah, he did,” I say. “We have interviews this weekend. Thanks a lot.”
The blond girl steps forward with the air of someone who’s used to taking charge. She’s wearing a sexy-preppy outfit: collared shirt under a tight sweater, plaid miniskirt, and high-heeled booties. “Hi. You’re the Corcoran twins, aren’t you?”
Ezra and I nod. We’ve gotten used to our sudden notoriety. Yesterday, while I was grocery shopping with Nana, a cashier I’d never seen before said, “Hello Nora … and Ellery,” when it was our turn to pay. Then she asked me questions about California the entire time she was bagging our groceries.
Now, the blond girl tilts her head at us. “We’ve heard all about you.” She stops there, but the tone of her voice says:
And when I say
I mean the one-night-stand father, the failed acting career, the jewelry store accident, the rehab. All of it.
It’s kind of impressive, how much subtext she manages to pack into one tiny word. “I’m Katrin Nilsson. I guess you’ve met Brooke, and this is Viv.” She points to the red-haired girl on her left.
I should have known. I’ve heard the Nilsson name constantly since I got to Echo Ridge, and this girl has
written all over her. She’s not as pretty as Brooke but somehow she’s much more striking, with crystal-blue eyes that remind me of a Siamese cat’s.
We all murmur hellos, and it feels like some sort of uncomfortable audition. Probably because of the assessing look Katrin keeps giving Ezra and me, as though she’s weighing whether we’re worth her continued time and attention. Most of the hallway is only pretending to be busy with their lockers while they wait for her verdict. Then the bell rings, and she smiles.
“Come find us at lunch. We sit at the back table next to the biggest window.” She turns away without waiting for an answer, blond hair sweeping across her shoulders.
Ezra watches them leave with a bemused expression, then turns to me. “I have a really strong feeling that on Wednesdays, they wear pink.”
Ezra and I have most of the same classes that morning, except for right before lunch when I head to AP calculus and Ezra goes to geometry. Math isn’t his strong suit. So I end up going to the cafeteria on my own. I make my way through the food line assuming that he’ll join me at any minute, but when I exit with a full tray, he’s still nowhere in sight.
I hesitate in front of the rows of rectangular tables, searching the sea of unfamiliar faces, when my name rings out in a clear, commanding voice. “Ellery!” I look up, and spot Katrin with her arm in the air. Her hand makes a beckoning motion.
I’m being summoned.
It feels as though the entire room is watching me make my way to the back of the cafeteria. Probably because they are. There’s a giant poster on the wall beside Katrin’s window table, which I can read when I’m less than halfway there:
SAVE THE DATE
Homecoming is October 5!!!
Vote now for your King and Queen!
When I reach Katrin and her friends, the redheaded girl, Viv, shifts to make room on the bench. I put my tray down and slide in next to her, across from Katrin.
“Hi,” Katrin says, her blue cat’s eyes scanning me up and down. If I have to dress in clothes from Dalton’s tomorrow, she’s definitely going to notice. “Where’s your brother?”
“I seem to have misplaced him,” I say. “But he always turns up eventually.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for him,” Katrin says. She digs one pale-pink nail into an orange and tears off a chunk of the peel, adding, “So, we’re all
curious about you guys. We haven’t had a new kid since …” She scrunches her face. “I don’t know. Seventh grade, maybe?”
Viv straightens her shoulders. She’s small and sharp-featured, wearing bright-red lipstick that goes surprisingly well with her hair. “Yes. That was me.”
“Was it? Oh, right. Such a happy day.” Katrin smiles distractedly, still focused on me. “But moving in middle school is one thing. Senior year is rough. Especially when everything is so … new. How do you like living with your grandmother?”
At least she didn’t ask, like the grocery store cashier yesterday, if I’d left a “Hollywood hottie” behind. The answer to that is no, by the way. I haven’t had a date in eight months. Not that I’m counting. “It’s all right,” I tell Katrin, sliding my eyes toward Brooke. Other than a muted hello, when I sat down, she’s been totally silent. “A little quiet, though. What do you guys do around here for fun?”
I’m hoping to draw Brooke into the conversation, but it’s Katrin who answers. “Well, we’re cheerleaders,” she says, waving a hand between her and Brooke. “That takes up a lot of time in the fall. And our boyfriends play football.” Her eyes drift a few tables away, where a blond boy is setting down his tray. The entire table is a sea of purple-and-white athletic jackets. The boy catches her eye and winks, and Katrin blows him a kiss. “That’s Theo. Brooke’s boyfriend, Kyle, is next to him. They’re cocaptains.”
Of course they are. She doesn’t mention a boyfriend for Viv. I feel a small surge of solidarity—
single girls unite!
—but when I smile at Viv she meets it with a cool stare. I get the feeling, suddenly, that I’ve stumbled onto territory she’d rather not share. “That sounds fun,” I say limply. I’ve never been part of the football-and-cheerleading crowd, although I appreciate the athleticism of both.
Viv narrows her eyes. “Echo Ridge might not be Hollywood, but it’s not
I don’t bother correcting Viv that La Puente is forty miles outside Hollywood. Everyone in Echo Ridge just assumes we lived in the middle of a movie set, and nothing I say will convince them otherwise. Besides, that’s not our main issue right now. “I didn’t say it was,” I protest. “I mean, I can tell already there’s a lot going on around here.”
Viv looks unconvinced, but it’s Brooke who finally speaks up. “None of it good,” she says flatly. Her eyes are shiny as she turns toward me, and she looks like she’s in desperate need of a full night’s sleep. “You—your grandmother found Mr. Bowman, didn’t she?” I nod, and tears begin to spill down her pale cheeks.
Katrin swallows a piece of orange and pats Brooke’s arm. “You have to stop talking about it, Brooke. You keep getting worked up.”
Viv heaves a dramatic sigh. “It’s been an awful week. First Mr. Bowman, then all that vandalism cropping up around town.” Her tone is concerned, but her eyes are almost eager as she adds, “It’s going to be our first feature of the year for the school paper. A summary of what been going on all week, juxtaposed with this year’s seniors talking about where they were five years ago. It’s the kind of story that might even get picked up by the local news.” She looks at me with slightly more warmth. “I should interview you. You found the graffiti at the cultural center, didn’t you? You and Malcolm.”
“Yeah,” I say. “It was awful, but not nearly as awful as the cemetery.” That made me sick when I heard about it, especially when I tried to imagine how the Kilduffs must feel.
“The whole thing is
” Viv agrees, turning toward Katrin and Brooke. “I hope nothing bad happens when you guys are announced next Thursday.”
“Announced?” I ask.
“They’re going to announce the homecoming court at assembly next Thursday morning,” Viv explains, gesturing toward the homecoming poster over Brooke’s shoulder. “Everyone’s voting between now and then. Did you download the Echo Ridge High app? Homecoming votes are on the main menu.”
I shake my head. “No, not yet.”
Viv makes a tsking noise. “Better hurry. Voting closes next Wednesday. Although most of the court is already a done deal. Katrin and Brooke are total shoo-ins.”
“You might get nominated too, Viv,” Katrin says graciously. Even though I just met her, I can tell she doesn’t actually believe there’s a chance in hell of that happening.
Viv shudders delicately. “No thank you. I don’t want to be on the radar of some murderous creep who’s decided to strike again.”
“Do you really think that’s what this is about?” I ask, curious. Viv nods, and I lean forward eagerly. I’ve been thinking about the vandalism almost nonstop for the past couple of days, and I’m dying to share theories. Even with Viv. “Interesting. Maybe. I mean, it’s definitely what the person who’s doing it
us to think. And that’s disturbing on its own. But I keep wondering—even if you were brazen enough to get away with murder and then brag about doing it again five years later, the MO’s are completely different.”
Katrin’s face is a total blank. “MO?” she asks.
“Modus operandi,” I say, warming to the topic. It’s one where I’m perfectly confident. “You know, the method somebody uses to commit a crime? Lacey was strangled. That’s a very personal and violent way to kill someone, and not likely to be premeditated. But these threats are public, and they require planning. Plus they’re much less, well,
To me, it feels more like a copycat. Which isn’t to say that person isn’t dangerous. But maybe they’re dangerous in a different way.”
There’s a moment of silence at the table, until Katrin says, “Huh,” and bites into an orange slice. She chews carefully, her eyes fixed on a spot somewhere over my shoulder.
There it is,
I think. She just mentally dismissed me from the popular crowd. That didn’t take long.
If Ezra’s told me once, he’s told me a hundred times.
Nobody wants to hear your murder theories, Ellery.
Too bad he bailed on me for lunch.
Then a new expression crosses Katrin’s face, one that’s sort of irritated and indulgent at the same time. “You’re going to get kicked out of school one day for wearing that shirt,” she calls to someone.
I turn to see Malcolm Kelly in a faded gray T-shirt with “KCUF” written across the front in block letters. “Hasn’t happened yet,” he replies. In the bright fluorescent lights of the Echo Ridge High cafeteria, I get a much better look at him than I did at the cultural center. He’s wearing a backward baseball cap over unruly brown hair, framing an angular face and wide-set eyes. They meet mine and flicker with recognition. He waves, and the movement jars his tray enough that he almost drops the whole thing. It’s totally awkward and also, weirdly, kind of cute.
“I’m sorry,” Viv says as Malcolm turns away, in the least apologetic tone I’ve ever heard. “But I find it
that the first person to see both threats is Declan Kelly’s weirdo brother.” She shakes her head emphatically. “Uh-uh. Something’s off there.”
“Oh, Viv,” Katrin sighs, like they’ve had some variation on this conversation at least a dozen times before. “Malcolm’s all right. Kind of nerdy, but all right.”
“I don’t think he’s a nerd.” Brooke’s been quiet for so long that her sudden pronouncement startles everyone. “Maybe he used to be, but he’s gotten cute lately. Not as cute as Declan, but still.” Then she drops her head again and starts playing listlessly with her spoon, as if contributing to the conversation sapped whatever small reserves of energy she had.