Pagina principale One of Us Is Next

One of Us Is Next

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BOOKS BY KAREN M. MCMANUS

One of Us Is Lying

Two Can Keep a Secret

One of Us Is Next





For Mom and Dad





This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Text copyright © 2020 by Karen M. McManus, LLC

Cover photograph (second girl) © 2020 by Nabi Tang/Stocksy; all other photographs used under license from Shutterstock.com

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

Delacorte Press is a registered trademark and the colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

Visit us on the Web! GetUnderlined.com

Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at RHTeachersLibrarians.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: McManus, Karen M., author.

Title: One of us is next / Karen M. McManus.

Description: First edition. | New York : Delacorte Press, [2020] | Summary: “A year after the Bayview four were cleared of Simon Kelleher’s death, a new mystery has cropped up—a game with dangerous consequences that’s targeting students at Bayview again. And if the creator isn’t found soon, dangerous could prove deadly”— Provided by publisher.

Identifiers: LCCN 2019004154 | ISBN 978-0-525-70796-7 (hc) | ISBN 978-0-525-70797-4 (glb) | ISBN 978-0-525-70798-1 (ebook) | ISBN 978-0-593-17547-7 (intl. tr. pbk.)

Subjects: | CYAC: Mystery and detective stories. | Gossip—Fiction. | High schools—Fiction. | Schools—Fiction.

Classification: LCC PZ7.1.M4637 Or 2020 | DDC [Fic]—dc23

Ebook ISBN 9780525707981

Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.

v5.4

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Contents



Cover

Books by Karen M. Mcmanus

Title Page

Dedication

Copyright

Part One

Chapter One





Chapter Two





Chapter Three





Chapter Four; 





Chapter Five





Chapter Six





Chapter Seven





Chapter Eight





Chapter 11





Chapter Nine





Chapter Ten





Chapter Eleven





Chapter Twelve





Chapter Thirteen





Chapter Fourteen





Chapter Fifteen





Part Two

Chapter Sixteen





Chapter Seventeen





Chapter Eighteen





Chapter Nineteen





Chapter Twenty





Chapter Twenty-one





Chapter Twenty-two





Chapter Twenty-three





Chapter Twenty-four





Chapter Twenty-five





Chapter Twenty-six





Chapter Twenty-seven





Chapter Twenty-eight





Chapter Twenty-nine





Chapter Thirty





Chapter Thirty-one





Chapter Thirty-two





Chapter Thirty-three





Chapter Thirty-four





Acknowledgments

About the Author





Friday, March 6

REPORTER (standing at the edge of a winding street with a large white stucco building behind her): Good morning. This is Liz Rosen with Channel Seven News, reporting live from Bayview High, where students are reeling from the loss of one of their classmates yesterday. It’s the second tragic teenage death in the past eighteen months for this small town, and the mood outside the school is one of shocked déjà vu.





(Cut to two girls, one wiping tears, the other stone-faced.)





CRYING GIRL: It’s just…it’s just really sad. Like, sometimes it feels as though Bayview is cursed, you know? First Simon, and now this.





STOIC GIRL: This isn’t anything like what happened with Simon.





REPORTER (angling her microphone toward the crying girl): Were you and the deceased student close?





CRYING GIRL: Not like, close close. Or at all close. I mean, I’m just a freshman.





REPORTER (turning toward the other girl): And how about you?





STOIC GIRL: I don’t think we’re supposed to be talking to you.





Ten Weeks Earlier





Reddit, Vengeance Is Mine subforum





Thread started by Bayview2020





Hey.





Is this the same group Simon Kelleher used to post with?—Bayview2020





Greetings.





One and the same.—Darkestmind





Why’d you move? And why are there hardly any posts?—Bayview2020





Too many gawkers and reporters on the old site.





And we have new security measures. Lesson learned from our friend Simon.





Who I’m guessing you know, based on your user name?—Darkestmind





Everyone knows Simon. Well. Knew him.





It’s not like we were friends, though.—Bayview2020





Okay. So what brings you here?—Darkestmind





I don’t know. Just stumbled across it.—Bayview2020





Bullshit. This is a forum dedicated to revenge, and it’s not easy to find.





You’re here for a reason.





What is it? Or should I say who?—Darkestmind





Who.





Somebody did something horrible.





It wrecked my life and so many others.





Meanwhile NOTHING happened to them.





And I can’t do anything about it.—Bayview2020





Same, same.





We have a lot in common.





It sucks when the person who ruined your life gets to walk around like always.





As if what they did doesn’t matter.





I beg to disagree with your conclusion, though.





There’s always something you can do.—Darkestmind





CHAPTER ONE



Maeve

Monday, February 17

My sister thinks I’m a slacker. She’s not coming right out and saying it—or texting it, technically—but it’s heavily implied:

Did you check out that list of colleges I sent?

Winter of your junior year isn’t too early to start looking. It’s actually kind of late.

We could visit some places when I’m home for Ashton’s bachelorette party if you want.

You should apply somewhere totally out of your comfort zone, too.

What about the University of Hawaii?

I look up from the texts flashing across my phone to meet Knox Myers’s questioning gaze. “Bronwyn thinks I should go to college at the University of Hawaii,” I report, and he almost chokes on his mouthful of empanada.

“She does realize that’s on an island, right?” he asks, reaching for a glass of ice water and draining half of it in one gulp. The empanadas at Café Contigo are legendary in Bayview but they’re a lot to take if you’re not used to spicy food. Knox, who moved here from Kansas in middle school and still counts mushroom-soup-based casseroles among his favorite meals, most definitely is not. “Has she already forgotten that you’re vehemently anti-beach?”



“I’m not anti-beach,” I protest. “I’m just not a proponent of sand. Or too much sun. Or undertow. Or sea creatures.” Knox’s eyebrows climb higher with every sentence. “Look, you’re the one who made me watch Monsters of the Deep,” I remind him. “My ocean phobia is mostly your fault.” Knox was my first-ever boyfriend last summer, both of us too inexperienced to realize we weren’t actually attracted to one another. We spent most of our relationship watching the Science Channel, which should have clued us in quicker that we were better off as friends.

“You’ve convinced me,” Knox says drily. “This is the school for you. I look forward to reading what will undoubtedly be a heartfelt application essay when it’s due.” He leans forward and raises his voice for emphasis. “Next year.”

I sigh, drumming my fingers on the brightly tiled table. Café Contigo is an Argentinean café with deep blue walls and a tin ceiling, the air a fragrant mix of sweet and savory scents. It’s less than a mile from my house and became my favorite place to do homework once Bronwyn left for Yale and my room was suddenly much too quiet. I like the friendly bustle of the café and the fact that nobody minds if I spend three hours here and only order coffee. “Bronwyn thinks I’m behind schedule,” I tell Knox.



“Yeah, well, Bronwyn practically had her Yale application ready in preschool, didn’t she?” he says. “We have plenty of time.” Knox is like me—a seventeen-year-old junior at Bayview High, older than most of our classmates. In his case, it’s because he was small for his age in kindergarten and his parents held him back. In mine, it’s because I was in and out of hospitals with leukemia for half my childhood.

“I guess.” I reach over to grab Knox’s empty plate and stack it on top of mine but knock over the saltshaker instead, sending white crystals scattering across the table. Almost without thinking, I take a pinch between two fingers and throw it over my shoulder. Warding off bad luck, like Ita taught me. My grandmother has dozens of superstitions: some Colombian, and some she’s picked up after living in the United States for thirty years. I used to follow them all when I was little, especially when I was sick. If I wear the beaded bracelet Ita gave me, this test won’t hurt. If I avoid all the cracks in the floor, my white cell count will be normal. If I eat twelve grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve, I won’t die this year.

“Anyway, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t go to college right away,” Knox says. He slouches in his chair, pushing a shock of brown hair off his forehead. Knox is so lean and angular that even after stuffing himself with all of his empanadas and half of mine, he still looks hungry. Every time he’s at our house, one or both of my parents try to feed him. “Lots of people don’t.” His glance flicks around the restaurant before landing on Addy Prentiss pushing through the kitchen doors with a tray balanced in one hand.

I watch Addy wind her way through Café Contigo, dropping off plates of food with practiced ease. Over Thanksgiving, when the true crime show Mikhail Powers Investigates aired its special report “The Bayview Four: Where Are They Now,” Addy agreed to be interviewed for the first time ever. Probably because she could tell that the producers were gearing up to present her as the slacker of the group—my sister made it to Yale, Cooper had a splashy scholarship to Cal State Fullerton, even Nate was taking a few community college classes—and she wasn’t having it. No “Bayview’s Former Beauty Queen Peaks in High School” headline for Adelaide Prentiss.



“If you know what you want to do when you graduate, great,” she’d said, perched on a stool in Café Contigo with the day’s specials written in brightly colored chalk on the blackboard behind her. “If you don’t, why pay a fortune for a degree you might never use? There’s nothing wrong with not having your entire life mapped out when you’re eighteen.”

Or seventeen. I eye my phone warily, waiting for another barrage of Bronwyn texts. I love my sister, but her perfectionism is a hard act to follow.

The evening crowd is starting to arrive, filling the last of the tables as someone turns all the wall-mounted big-screen televisions to Cal State Fullerton’s baseball season opener. Addy pauses when her tray is almost empty and scans the room, smiling when she catches my eye. She makes her way to our corner table and places a small plate of alfajores between Knox and me. The dulce de leche sandwich cookies are a Café Contigo specialty, and they’re the only thing Addy has learned to make during her nine months working here.

Knox and I both reach for them at the same time. “You guys want anything else?” Addy asks, tucking a lock of silvery pink hair behind her ear. She’s tried a few different colors over the past year, but nothing that isn’t pink or purple lasts for very long. “You should get your order in now if you do. Everyone’s taking a break once Cooper starts pitching in”—she glances at the clock on the wall—“five minutes or so.”



I shake my head as Knox stands, brushing crumbs from the front of his favorite gray sweatshirt. “I’m good, but I have to hit the restroom,” he says. “Can you save my seat, Maeve?”

“You got it,” I say, sliding my bag onto his chair.

Addy half turns, then almost drops her tray. “Oh my God! There he is!”

Every screen in the restaurant fills with the same image: Cooper Clay walking to the mound to warm up for his first college baseball game. I just saw Cooper over Christmas, not even two months ago, but he looks bigger than I remember. As square-jawed and handsome as ever, but with a steely glint in his eyes that I’ve never seen before. Then again, until right this second, I’ve always watched Cooper pitch from a distance.

I can’t hear the announcers over the chatter in the café, but I can guess what they’re saying: Cooper’s debut is the talk of college baseball right now, big enough that a local cable sports show is covering the whole game. Part of the buzz is due to lingering Bayview Four notoriety, and the fact that he’s one of the few openly gay players in baseball, but it’s also because he’s been tearing up spring training. Sports analysts are taking bets on whether he’ll jump to the majors before he’s finished a single college season.

“Our superstar is finally going to meet his destiny,” Addy says fondly as Cooper adjusts his cap on screen. “I need to do one last check on my tables, then I’ll join you guys.” She starts moving through the restaurant with her tray tucked under her arm and her order pad in hand, but the attention of the room has already shifted from food to baseball.



My eyes linger on the television, even though the scene has switched from Cooper to an interview with the other team’s coach. If Cooper wins, this year will turn out fine. I try to push the thought out of my head as soon as it pops in, because I won’t be able to enjoy the game if I turn it into yet another bet against fate.

A chair scrapes noisily beside me, and a familiar black leather jacket brushes against my arm. “What’s up, Maeve?” Nate Macauley asks, settling into his chair. His eyes rove across the sodium-spattered tabletop. “Uh-oh. Salt massacre. We’re doomed, aren’t we?”

“Ha and ha,” I say, but my lips twitch. Nate’s become like a brother to me since he and Bronwyn started dating almost a year ago, so I suppose teasing comes with the territory. Even now, when they’re “on a break” for the third time since Bronwyn left for college. After spending last summer angsting over whether a three-thousand-mile long-distance relationship could work, my sister and her boyfriend have settled into a pattern of being inseparable, arguing, breaking up, and getting back together that, oddly, seems to work for both of them.

Nate just grins, and we lapse into a comfortable silence. It’s easy hanging out with him, and Addy, and the rest of Bronwyn’s friends. Our friends, she always says, but it’s not really true. They were hers first, and they wouldn’t be mine without her.



My phone buzzes as if on cue, and I look down to another text from Bronwyn. Has the game started?

Soon, I type. Cooper’s warming up.

I wish it were on ESPN so I could watch!!! Pacific Coast Sports Network does not, sadly, air in New Haven, Connecticut. Or anyplace outside a three-hour radius of San Diego. And they don’t live-stream online, either.

I’m recording it for you, I remind her.

I know, but it’s not the same.

Sorry :(

I swallow the last of my cookie, watching the gray dots linger on my phone screen for so long that I’m positive I know what’s coming next. Bronwyn is a lightning-fast texter. She never hesitates unless she’s about to say something she thinks she shouldn’t, and there’s currently only one topic on her self-imposed Do Not Raise list.

Sure enough: Is Nate there?

My sister may not live one room away from me anymore, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still give her a hard time. Who? I text back, then glance at Nate. “Bronwyn says hi,” I tell him.

His dark-blue eyes flash, but his expression remains impassive. “Hi back.”

I get it, I guess. No matter how much you care about someone, things change when they used to be around all the time and then suddenly, they’re not. I feel it too, in a different way. But Nate and I don’t have the sort of dynamic where we talk about our feelings—neither of us has that with anyone, really, except for Bronwyn—so I just make a face at him. “Repression is unhealthy, you know.”



Before Nate can reply, there’s a sudden flurry of activity around us: Knox returns, Addy pulls a chair over to our table, and a plate of tortilla chips covered with shredded steak, melted cheese, and chimichurri—Café Contigo’s version of nachos—materializes in front of me.

I look up in the direction they came from to meet a pair of deep-brown eyes. “Game snacks,” Luis Santos says, transferring the towel he used to hold the plate from his hand to his shoulder. Luis is Cooper’s best friend from Bayview High, the catcher to Cooper’s pitcher on the baseball team until they both graduated last year. His parents own Café Contigo, and he works here part-time while taking classes at City College. Ever since I made this corner table my second home, I see more of Luis than I did when we went to school together.

Knox lunges for the nachos like he didn’t just polish off two servings of empanadas and a plate of cookies five minutes ago. “Careful, it’s hot,” Luis warns, lowering himself into the chair across from me. I immediately think, Yeah you are, because I have an embarrassing weakness for good-looking jocks that brings out my inner twelve-year-old. You’d think I would have learned after my one-sided crush on a basketball player landed me a humiliating post on Simon Kelleher’s About That gossip blog freshman year, but no.

I’m not really hungry, but I extract a chip from the bottom of the pile anyway. “Thanks, Luis,” I say, sucking the salt from one corner.



Nate smirks. “What were you saying about repression, Maeve?”

My face heats, and I can’t think of a better response than to stuff the entire chip into my mouth and chew aggressively in Nate’s general direction. Sometimes I don’t know what my sister sees in him.

Damn it. My sister. I glance at my phone with a stab of guilt at the string of sad-face emojis from Bronwyn. Just kidding. Nate looks miserable, I reassure her. He doesn’t, because nobody wears the don’t give a crap mask as effortlessly as Nate Macauley, but I’m sure he is.

Phoebe Lawton, another Café Contigo waitress and a junior in our class, hands around glasses of water before taking a seat at the far edge of the table just as the first batter from the opposing team saunters up to home plate. The camera zooms in on Cooper’s face as he brings up his glove and narrows his eyes. “Come on, Coop,” Luis murmurs, his left hand curling instinctively like it’s in a catcher’s mitt. “Play ball.”



* * *



—

Two hours later, the entire café is filled with an excited buzz after Cooper’s near-flawless performance: eight strikeouts, one walk, one hit, and no runs through seven innings. The Cal State Fullerton Titans are winning by three, but nobody in Bayview cares all that much now that a relief pitcher has taken over for Cooper.

“I’m so happy for him,” Addy beams. “He deserves this so much after…you know.” Her smile falters. “After everything.”

Everything. It’s too small a word to cover what happened when Simon Kelleher decided to stage his own death almost eighteen months ago, and frame my sister, Cooper, Addy, and Nate for his murder. The Mikhail Powers Investigates Thanksgiving special rehashed it all in excruciating detail, from Simon’s plot to trap everyone in detention together to the secrets he arranged to leak on About That to make it seem like the other four had reasons for wanting him dead.



I watched the special with Bronwyn while she was home on break. It brought me right back to the year before, when the story became a national obsession and news vans crowded our driveway every day. The entire country learned that Bronwyn stole tests to get an A in chemistry, that Nate sold drugs while on probation for selling drugs, and that Addy cheated on her boyfriend, Jake—who turned out to be such a controlling trash fire that he agreed to be Simon’s accomplice. And Cooper was falsely accused of using steroids, then outed before he was ready to come out to his family and friends.

All of which was a nightmare, but not nearly as bad as being suspected of murder.

The investigation unfolded almost exactly the way Simon planned—except for the part where Bronwyn, Cooper, Addy, and Nate banded together instead of turning on one another. It’s hard to imagine what this night would look like if they hadn’t. I doubt Cooper would’ve almost pitched a no-hitter in his first college game, or that Bronwyn would have made it to Yale. Nate would probably be in jail. And Addy—I don’t like to think about where Addy would be. Mostly because I’m afraid she wouldn’t be here at all.



I shiver, and Luis catches my eye. He raises his glass with the determined look of a guy who’s not about to let his best friend’s triumph turn sour. “Yeah, well, here’s to karma. And to Coop, for kicking ass in his first college game.”

“To Cooper,” everyone echoes.

“We have to plan a road trip to see him!” Addy exclaims. She reaches across the table and taps Nate’s arm as he starts gazing around the room like he’s calculating how soon he can leave. “That includes you. Don’t try to get out of it.”

“The whole baseball team will want to go,” Luis says. Nate grimaces in a resigned sort of way, because Addy is a force of nature when she’s determined to make him socialize.

Phoebe, who shifted closer to Knox and me as the game wore on and other people left, reaches out to pour herself a glass of water. “Bayview is so different without Simon, but it also…isn’t. You know?” she murmurs, so quietly that only Knox and I can hear. “It’s not like people got any nicer once the shock wore off. We just don’t have About That to keep tabs on who’s being horrible from one week to the next.”

“Not from lack of effort,” Knox mutters.

About That copycats were everywhere for a while after Simon died. Most of them fizzled out within days, although one site, Simon Says, stayed up nearly a month last fall before the school got involved and shut it down. But nobody took it seriously, because the site’s creator—one of those quiet kids hardly anyone knows—never posted a single piece of gossip that everyone hadn’t already heard.

That was the thing about Simon Kelleher: he knew secrets most people couldn’t even have guessed. He was patient, willing to wait until he could wring the maximum amount of drama and pain from any given situation. And he was good at hiding how much he hated everyone at Bayview High; the only place he let it out was on the revenge forum I’d found when I was looking for clues to his death. Reading Simon’s posts back then made me sick to my stomach. It still chills me, sometimes, to think how little any of us understood what it meant to go up against a mind like Simon’s.



Everything could have turned out so differently.

“Hey.” Knox nudges me back to the present, and I blink until his face comes into focus. It’s still just the three of us locked into our side conversation; I don’t think last year’s seniors ever let themselves dwell on Simon for too long. “Don’t look so serious. The past is past, right?”

“Right,” I say, then twist in my seat as a loud groan goes up from the Café Contigo crowd. It takes a minute for me to understand what’s going on, and when I do, my heart sinks: Cooper’s replacement loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth inning, got pulled, and the new pitcher just gave up a grand slam. All of a sudden, Cal State’s three-run lead has turned into a walk-off, one-run loss. The other team mobs the hitter at home base, piling on top of him until they collapse in a joyful heap. Cooper, despite pitching like a dream, didn’t get his win.

“Nooooo,” Luis moans, burying his head in his hands. He sounds like he’s in physical pain. “That is bullshit.”

Phoebe winces. “Ooh, tough luck. Not Cooper’s fault, though.”

My eyes find the only person at the table I can always count on for an unfiltered reaction: Nate. He looks from my tense face to the salt still scattered across our table and shakes his head like he knows the superstitious bet I made with myself. I can read the gesture as plainly as if he spoke: It doesn’t mean anything, Maeve. It’s just a game.



I’m sure he’s right. But still. I really wish Cooper had won.





CHAPTER TWO



Phoebe

Tuesday, February 18

The logical part of my brain knows my mother isn’t playing with dolls. But it’s early, I’m tired, and I’m not wearing my contacts yet. So instead of squinting harder, I lean against the kitchen counter and ask, “What’s with the dolls?”

“They’re wedding cake toppers,” Mom says, yanking one away from my twelve-year-old brother, Owen, and handing it to me. I look down to see a white-clad bride with her legs wrapped around the groom’s waist. Some underappreciated artist has managed to pack a lot of lust into their tiny plastic faces.

“Classy,” I say. I should have guessed it was wedding-related. Last week the kitchen table was covered with stationery samples, and before that it was do-it-yourself floral centerpieces.

“That’s the only one like that,” she says with a hint of defensiveness. “I suppose you have to account for all kinds of tastes. Could you put it in the box?” She juts her chin toward a cardboard box half-full of foam peanuts on the counter.



I drop the happy couple inside and pull a glass from the cabinet next to our sink, filling it from the tap and finishing the whole thing in two long, greedy gulps. “Cake toppers, huh?” I ask. “Do people still use those?”

“They’re just samples from Golden Rings,” Mom says. Ever since she joined the local wedding planners’ organization, boxes full of stuff like this show up at our apartment every couple of weeks. Mom takes pictures, makes notes of what she likes, and then packs it back up to send along to the next wedding planner in the group. “Some of them are cute, though.” She holds up one of a bride and groom waltzing in silhouette. “What do you think?”

There’s an open box of Eggo waffles on the counter. I pull out the last two and pop them into the toaster. “I think plastic people on top of a cake isn’t really Ashton and Eli’s style. Aren’t they trying to keep things simple?”

“Sometimes you don’t know what you want until you see it,” Mom says brightly. “Part of my job is opening their eyes to what’s out there.”

Poor Ashton. Addy’s older sister has been a dream neighbor ever since we moved into the apartment across from them last summer—giving takeout recommendations, showing us which washing machines never eat your quarters, and sharing concert tickets from her job as a graphic designer with the California Center for the Arts. She had no idea what she was getting into when she agreed to help Mom launch a side business in wedding planning by coordinating “a few details” of her upcoming wedding to Eli Kleinfelter.



Mom’s gone a little overboard. She wants to make a good impression, especially since Eli is something of a local celebrity. He’s the lawyer who defended Nate Macauley when Nate was framed for killing Simon Kelleher, and now he’s always being interviewed about some big case or another. The press loves the fact that he’s marrying the sister of one of the Bayview Four, so they reference his upcoming wedding a lot. That means free publicity for Mom, including a mention in the San Diego Tribune and an in-depth profile last December in the Bayview Blade. Which has turned into a total gossip rag since covering the Simon story, so of course they took the most dramatic angle possible: “After Heartbreaking Loss, Area Widow Launches a Business Based on Joy.”

We all could’ve done without that reminder.

Still, Mom has put more energy into this wedding than just about anything else over the past few years, so I should be grateful for Ashton and Eli’s endless patience.

“Your waffles are burning,” Owen says placidly, stuffing a forkful of syrup-soaked squares into his mouth.

“Shit!” I yank my Eggos out with a whimper of pain as my fingers graze hot metal. “Mom, can we please buy a new toaster? This one has gotten completely useless. It goes from zero to scalding in thirty seconds.”

Mom’s eyebrows come together with the worried look she always gets when any of us talks about spending money. “I noticed that. But we should probably try cleaning it before we replace it. There must be ten years’ worth of bread crumbs built up in there.”



“I’ll do it,” Owen volunteers, pushing his glasses up on his nose. “And if that doesn’t work, I’ll take it apart. I bet I can fix it.”

I smile absently at him. “No doubt, brainiac. I should’ve thought of that first.”

“I don’t want you playing around with anything electrical, Owen,” Mom objects.

He looks affronted. “It wouldn’t be playing.”

A door clicks as my older sister, Emma, leaves our bedroom and heads for the kitchen. That’s something I’ll never get used to about apartment living—how being on a single floor makes you acutely aware of where everyone is, all the time. There’s nowhere to hide. Nothing like our old house, where not only did we all have our own bedrooms, but we had a family room, an office that eventually turned into a game room for Owen, and Dad’s basement workroom.

Plus, we had Dad.

My throat tightens as Emma runs her eyes over the piles of formally clad plastic people on our kitchen table. “Do people still use cake toppers?”

“Your sister asked the exact same thing,” Mom says. She’s always doing that—pointing out threads of similarity between Emma and me, as though acknowledging them will somehow knit us back into the tight sisterly unit we were as kids.

Emma makes a hmm noise, and I stay focused on my waffle as she steps closer. “Could you move?” she asks politely. “I need the blender.”



I shift to one side as Owen picks up a cake topper featuring a bride with dark red hair. “This one looks like you, Emma,” he says.

All of us Lawton kids are some version of redhead—Emma’s hair is a deep auburn, mine is a coppery bronze, and Owen’s strawberry blond—but it was our father who really stood out in a crowd, with hair so orange that his high school nickname was Cheeto. One time when we were at the Bayview Mall food court, Dad went to the bathroom and came back to see an older couple surreptitiously checking out my dark-haired, olive-skinned mother and her three pale, redheaded kids. Dad plopped down next to Mom and put an arm around her shoulders, flashing a grin at the couple. “See, now we make sense,” he said.

And now, three years after he died? We don’t.



* * *



—

If I had to pinpoint Emma’s least favorite part of the day…I’d be hard-pressed, because there doesn’t seem to be a lot that Emma enjoys lately. But having to pick my friend Jules up on the way to school easily ranks in the top three.

“Oh my God,” Jules says breathlessly when she climbs into the backseat of our ten-year-old Corolla, shoving her backpack ahead of her. I turn in my seat, and she whips off her sunglasses to fasten me with a death stare. “Phoebe. I cannot stand you.”

“What? Why?” I ask, confused. I shift in my seat, smoothing my skirt when it rides up on my thighs. After years of trial and error I’ve finally found the wardrobe that works best for my body type: a short, flouncy skirt, preferably in a bold pattern; a brightly colored V-neck or scoop-neck top; and some kind of stack-heeled bootie.



“Seat belt, please,” Emma says.

Jules clips her belt, still glaring at me. “You know why.”

“I seriously do not,” I protest. Emma pulls away from the curb in front of Jules’s modest split-level house, which is just one street away from where we used to live. Our old neighborhood isn’t Bayview’s wealthiest by a long shot, but the young couple Mom sold our house to was still thrilled to get a starter home here.

Jules’s green eyes, striking against her brown skin and dark hair, pop for dramatic effect. “Nate Macauley was at Café Contigo last night and you didn’t text me!”

“Oh well…” I turn up the radio so my mumbled response will get lost in Taylor Swift’s latest. Jules has always had a thing for Nate—she’s a total sucker for the dark, handsome bad-boy type—but she never considered him boyfriend material until Bronwyn Rojas did. Now she circles like a vulture every time they break up. Which has caused divided loyalties since I started working at Café Contigo and became friendly with Addy, who, obviously, is firmly on Team Bronwyn.

“And he never goes out,” Jules moans. “That was such a missed opportunity. Major friend failure, Phoebe Jeebies. Not cool.” She pulls out a tube of wine-colored lip gloss and leans forward so she can see herself in the rearview mirror as she applies a fresh coat. “How did he seem? Do you think he’s over Bronwyn?”



“I mean. It’s hard to tell,” I say. “He didn’t really talk to anyone except Maeve and Addy. Mostly Addy.”

Jules smacks her lips together, an expression of mild panic crossing her face. “Oh my God. Do you think they’re together now?”

“No. Definitely not. They’re friends. Not everyone finds him irresistible, Jules.”

Jules drops the lip gloss back into her bag and leans her head against the window with a sigh. “Says you. He’s so hot, I could die.”

Emma pauses at a red light and rubs her eyes, then reaches for the volume button on the radio. “I need to turn this down,” she says. “My head is pounding.”

“Are you getting sick?” I ask.

“Just tired. My tutoring session with Sean Murdock went too long last night.”

“No surprise there,” I mutter. If you’re searching for signs of intelligent life in the Bayview High junior class, Sean Murdock isn’t where you’ll find it. But his parents have money, and they’ll happily throw it at Emma for the chance that either her work ethic or her grades might rub off on Sean.

“I should hire you, Emma,” Jules says. “Chemistry is going to be a nightmare this semester unless I get some help. Or pull a Bronwyn Rojas and steal the tests.”

“Bronwyn made up that class,” I remind her, and Jules kicks my seat.

“Don’t defend her,” she says sulkily. “She’s ruining my love life.”



“If you’re serious about tutoring, I have a slot free this weekend,” Emma says.

“Chemistry on the weekend?” Jules sounds scandalized. “No thank you.”

“Okay, then.” My sister exhales a light sigh, like she shouldn’t have expected anything different. “Not serious.”

Emma’s only a year older than Jules and me, but most of the time she seems more Ashton Prentiss’s age than ours. Emma doesn’t act seventeen; she acts like she’s in her midtwenties and stressing her way through graduate school instead of senior AP classes. Even now, when her college applications are all in and she’s just waiting to hear back, she can’t relax.

We drive the rest of the way in silence, until my phone chimes when Emma pulls into the parking lot. I look down to a text. Bleachers?

I shouldn’t. But even as my brain reminds me that I’ve already gotten two late warnings this month, my fingers type OK. I put my phone in my pocket and have the passenger door halfway open before Emma’s even shifted into Park. She raises her eyebrows as I climb out.

“I have to go to the football field real quick,” I say, hiking my backpack over my shoulder and resting my hand on the car door.

“What for? You don’t want to be late again,” Emma says, narrowing her light brown eyes at me. They’re exactly like Dad’s, and—along with the reddish hair—the only trait she and I share. Emma is tall and thin, I’m short and curvy. Her hair is stick-straight and doesn’t quite reach her shoulders, mine is long and curly. She freckles in the sun, and I tan. We’re both February-pale now, though, and I can feel my cheeks redden as I look down at the ground.



“It’s, um, for homework,” I mumble.

Jules grins as she climbs out of the car. “Is that what we’re calling it now?”

I turn on my heel and beat a hasty retreat, but I can still feel the weight of Emma’s disapproval settling over my shoulders like a cloak. Emma has always been the serious one, but when we were younger it didn’t matter. We were so close that we used to have entire conversations without talking. Mom would joke that we must be telepaths, but it wasn’t that. We just knew one another so well that we could read every expression as clearly as a word.

We were close with Owen too, despite the age difference. Dad used to call us the Three Amigos, and every childhood photo shows us posed exactly the same way: Emma and me on either side of Owen, our arms around one another, grinning widely. We look inseparable, and I thought we were. It never occurred to me that Dad was the glue keeping us together.

The pulling apart was so subtle that I didn’t notice it right away. Emma withdrew first, burying herself in schoolwork. “It’s her way of grieving,” Mom said, so I let her be, even though my way of grieving would have been to do it together. I compensated by throwing myself into every social activity I could find—especially once boys started getting interested in me—while Owen retreated into the comforting fantasy world of video games. Before I’d realized it, those had become our lanes, and we stayed in them. Our card last Christmas featured the three of us standing beside the tree, arranged by height, hands clasped in front of us with stiff smiles. Dad would’ve been so disappointed by that picture.



And by me shortly after we took it, for what happened at Jules’s Christmas party. It’s one thing to treat your older sister like a polite stranger, and quite another thing to…do what I did. I used to feel a wistful kind of loneliness when I thought about Emma, but now I just feel guilt. And relief that she can’t read my feelings on my face anymore.

“Hey!” I’m so caught up in my thoughts that I would’ve walked right into a pole under the bleachers if a hand hadn’t reached out and stopped me. Then it pulls me forward so quickly that my phone slides out of my pocket and makes a faint bouncing noise on the grass.

“Shit,” I say, but Brandon Weber’s lips are pressed against mine before I can get anything else out. I shimmy my shoulders until my backpack joins my phone on the ground. Brandon tugs at the hem of my shirt, and since this is one hundred percent what I came for, I help him along by untucking it.

Brandon’s hands move up and across my bare skin, pushing aside the lace of my bra, and he groans against my mouth. “God, you’re so sexy.”

He is, too. Brandon quarterbacks the football team, and the Bayview Blade likes to call him “the next Cooper Clay” because he’s good enough that colleges are already starting to scout him. I don’t think that’s an accurate comparison, though. For one thing, Cooper has next-level talent, and for another, he’s a sweetheart. Brandon, on the other hand, is basically an asshole.



The boy can kiss, though. All the tension flows out of me as he pushes me against the pole behind us, replaced with a heady spark of anticipation. I wrap one arm around his neck, trying to pull him down to my height, while my other hand teases at the waistband of his jeans. Then my foot sends something skidding across the ground, and the sound of my text tone distracts me.

“My phone,” I say, pulling away. “We’re going to smash it if I don’t pick it up.”

“I’ll buy you a new one,” Brandon says, his tongue in my ear. Which I don’t like—why do guys think that’s hot?—so I shove at him until he lets go. His front pocket dings loudly, and I smirk at the bulge there as I retrieve my phone.

“Is that a text, or are you just happy to see me?” I say, brushing off my screen. Then I glance down and catch my breath. “Ugh, are you kidding me? This again?”

“What?” Brandon asks, pulling out his own phone.

“Unknown number, and guess what it says?” I put on an affected voice. “Still missing About That? I know I am. Let’s play a new game. I can’t believe somebody would pull this crap after Principal Gupta’s warning.”

Brandon’s eyes flick over his screen. “I got the same thing. You see the link?”

“Yeah. Don’t click it! It’s probably a virus or—”

“Too late,” Brandon laughs. He squints at his phone while I take him in: over six feet tall with dirty-blond hair, blue-green eyes, and the kind of full lips a girl would kill for. He’s so pretty, he looks like he could fly off with a harp any second. And nobody knows it more than he does. “Jesus, this is a freaking book,” he complains.



“Let me see.” I grab his phone, because no way am I following that link with mine. I angle the screen away from the sun until I can see it clearly. I’m looking at a website with a bad replica of the About That logo, and a big block of text beneath it. “Pay attention, Bayview High. I’m only going to explain the rules once,” I read. “Here’s how we play Truth or Dare. I’ll send a prompt to one person only—and you can’t tell ANYONE if it’s you. Don’t spoil the element of surprise. It makes me cranky, and I’m not nearly as nice when I’m cranky. You get 24 hours to text your choice back. Pick Truth, and I’ll reveal one of your secrets. Pick Dare, and I’ll give you a challenge. Either way, we’ll have a little fun and relieve the monotony of our tedious existence.”

Brandon runs a hand through his thick, tawny hair. “Speak for yourself, loser.”

“Come on, Bayview, you know you’ve missed this.” I scowl when I finish. “Do you think this went to everyone at school? People better not say anything if they want to keep their phones.” Last fall, after Principal Gupta shut down the latest Simon copycat, she told us she was instituting a zero-tolerance policy: if she saw even a hint of another About That, she’d ban phones at school permanently. And expel anyone caught trying to bring one in.

We’ve all been model citizens since then, at least when it comes to online gossip. Nobody can imagine getting through a school day—never mind years—without their phones.

“No one cares. It’s old news,” Brandon says dismissively. He pockets his phone and wraps an arm around my waist, pulling me close. “So where were we?”



I’m still holding my own phone, pressed against his chest now, and it chimes in my hand before I can answer. When I pull my head back to look at the screen, there’s another message from an unknown contact. But this time, there’s no simultaneous text tone from Brandon’s pocket.

Phoebe Lawton, you’re up first! Text back your choice: Should I reveal a Truth, or will you take a Dare?





CHAPTER THREE



Knox

Wednesday, February 19

I scan the half-off clothing rack next to me with a feeling of existential dread. I hate department stores. They’re too bright, too loud, and too crammed full of junk that nobody needs. Whenever I’m forced to spend time in one I start thinking about how consumer culture is just one long, expensive, planet-killing distraction from the fact that we’re all going to die eventually.

Then I suck down the last of my six-dollar iced coffee, because I’m nothing if not a willing participant in the charade.

“That’ll be forty-two sixty, hon,” the woman behind the counter says when it’s my turn. I’m picking up a new wallet for my mother, and I hope I got it right. Even with her detailed written instructions, it still looks like twelve other black wallets. I spent too long debating between them, and now I’m running late for work.



It probably doesn’t matter, since Eli Kleinfelter doesn’t pay me or, most days, even notice I’m there. Still, I pick up my pace after leaving the Bayview Mall, following a sidewalk behind the building until it narrows to nothing but asphalt. Then, after a quick glance over my shoulder to make sure no one’s watching, I approach the flimsy chain-link fence surrounding an empty construction site.

There’s supposed to be a new parking garage going into the hillside behind the mall, but the company building it went bankrupt after they’d started. A bunch of construction companies are bidding to take over, including my dad’s. Until then, the site is cutting off what used to be a path between the mall and Bayview Center. Now you have to walk all the way around the building and down a main road, which takes ten times as long.

Unless you do what I’m about to do.

I duck under a giant gap in the fence and skirt around a half-dozen orange-and-white barrels until I’m overlooking a partially constructed garage and what was supposed to become its roof. The whole thing is covered with thick plastic tarp, except for a wooden landing with a set of metal stairs along one side, leading to part of the hill that hasn’t been dug into yet.

I don’t know who at Bayview High first had the bright idea to jump the five-foot drop onto the landing, but now it’s a well-known shortcut from the mall to downtown. Which, to be clear, my dad would kill me for taking. But he’s not here and even if he were, he pays less attention to me than Eli does. So I brace myself against one of the construction barrels and look down.



There’s just one problem.

It’s not that I’m afraid of heights. It’s more that I have a preference for firm ground. When I played Peter Pan at drama camp last summer, I got so freaked out about getting flown around on a pulley that they had to lower me to barely two feet off the stage. “You’re not flying, Knox,” the production manager grumbled every time I swung past him. “You’re skimming at best.”

All right. I’m afraid of heights. But I’m trying to get over it. I stare down at the wooden planks below me. They look twenty feet away. Did someone lower the roof?

“It’s a great day for someone to die. Just not me,” I mutter like I’m Dax Reaper, the most ruthless bounty hunter in Bounty Wars. Because the only way I can make this nervous hovering even more pathetic is to quote a video game character.

I can’t do it. Not a real jump, anyway. I sit at the edge, squeeze my eyes shut, and push off so that I slither down the last few feet like a cowardly snake. I land awkwardly, wincing on impact and stumbling across the uneven wooden planks. Athletic, I am not.

I manage to regain my balance and limp toward the stairs. The lightweight metal clangs loudly with every step as I make my way down. I heave a sigh of relief once I hit solid ground and follow what’s left of the hillside path to the bottom fence. People used to climb over it until somebody broke the lock. I slip through the gate and into the tree grove at the edge of Bayview Center. The number 11 bus to downtown San Diego is idling at the depot in front of Town Hall, and I jog across the street to the still-open doors.



Made it with a minute to spare. I might get to Until Proven on time after all. I pay my fare, sink into one of the last empty seats, and pull my phone out of my pocket.

There’s a loud sniff beside me. “Those things are practically part of your hand nowadays, aren’t they? My grandson won’t put his down. I suggested he leave it behind the last time I took him out to eat, and you would have thought I’d threatened him with bodily harm.”

I look up to a pair of watery blue eyes behind bifocals. Of course. It never fails: any time I’m out in public and there’s an old woman nearby, she starts up a conversation with me. Maeve calls it the Nice Young Man Factor. “You have one of those faces,” she says. “They can tell you won’t be rude.”

I call it the Knox Myers Curse: irresistible to octogenarians, invisible to girls my own age. During the Cal State Fullerton season opener at Café Contigo, Phoebe Lawton literally tripped over me to get to Brandon Weber when he sauntered in at the end of the night.

I should keep scrolling and pretend I didn’t hear, like Brandon would. What Would Brandon Do is a terrible life mantra, since he’s a soul-sucking waste of space who skates through life on good hair, symmetrical features, and the ability to throw a perfect spiral—but he also gets whatever he wants and is probably never trapped in awkward geriatric bus conversations.

So, yeah. Selective hearing loss for the next fifteen minutes would be the way to go. Instead, I find myself saying, “There’s a word for that. Nomophobia. Fear of being without your phone.”

“Is that right?” she asks, and now I’ve done it. The floodgates are open. By the time we reach downtown I know all about her six grandkids and her hip replacement surgery. It’s not until I get off the bus a block from Eli’s office that I can go back to what I was doing on my phone in the first place—checking to see if there’s another text from whoever sent the Truth or Dare rules yesterday.



I should pretend I never saw it. Everyone at Bayview High should. But we don’t. After what happened with Simon, it’s baked into our collective DNA to be morbidly fascinated with this stuff. Last night, while a bunch of us were supposed to be running lines for the spring play, we kept getting sidetracked by trying to guess who the unknown texter might be.

The whole thing was probably a joke, though. It’s four o’clock when I push through the doors of Until Proven’s office building—well past the twenty-four-hour deadline for whoever’s supposed to be playing the game to respond—and the latest Simon wannabe has gone silent.

I pass the coffee shop in the lobby and take an elevator to the third floor. Until Proven is at the far end of a narrow corridor, next to one of those hair replacement clinics that fills the entire hall with a rank chemical smell. A balding guy comes out of its door, his forehead unevenly dotted with wispy tufts of hair. He lowers his eyes and slinks past me like I just caught him buying porn.

When I crack open Until Proven’s door, I’m immediately hit with the buzzing sound of too many people crammed into too small a space, all of them talking at once.

“How many convictions?”

“Twelve that we know of, but there’s gotta be more.”



“Did anybody call Channel Seven back?”

“Eighteen months, then released, then right back in.”

“Knox!” Sandeep Ghai, a Harvard Law grad who started working for Eli last fall, barrels toward me from behind an armful of red folders stacked up to his nose. “Just the man I was looking for. I need forty employer kits compiled and sent out today. Sample kit’s on top along with all the addresses. Can you get these out for the five o’clock mail run?”

“Forty?” I raise my eyebrows as I take the stack from him. Until Proven doesn’t only defend people who Eli and the other lawyers think are wrongfully accused; it also helps them find jobs after getting out of jail. So every once in a while, I mail out folders full of résumés and a cover letter about why hiring exonerees, as Eli calls them, is good for business. But we’re usually lucky if one local company a week is interested. “Why so many?”

“Publicity from the D’Agostino case,” Sandeep says, like that explains everything. When I still look confused, he adds, “Everyone turns into a concerned corporate citizen when there’s a chance for free PR.”

I should’ve guessed. Eli’s been all over the news after proving that a bunch of people convicted on drug charges had actually been blackmailed and framed by a San Diego police sergeant, Carl D’Agostino, and two of his subordinates. They’re all in jail awaiting trial, and Until Proven is working on getting the phony convictions reversed.

The last time Eli got this much press was for the Simon Kelleher case. Back then, Eli was the lead story on every news show after getting Nate Macauley out of jail. My dad’s company hired Nate a couple of weeks later. He still works there, and now they’re paying for him to take college classes.



After Bronwyn Rojas left for Yale and Until Proven started looking for another high school intern, I figured Maeve would take it. She’s tight with Eli, plus she was a big part of why Simon’s plan unraveled in the first place. Nobody would’ve looked at Simon as anything except a victim if Maeve hadn’t tracked down his secret online persona.

But Maeve didn’t want the job. “That’s Bronwyn’s thing. Not mine,” she’d said, in that voice she uses when she wants to end a conversation.

So I applied. Partly because it’s interesting, but also because I wasn’t exactly fighting off other job opportunities. My father, who tells anybody who’ll listen that Nate Macauley is “one helluva kid,” never bothered asking if I wanted to work at Myers Construction.

To be fair: I suck at anything tool-related. I once wound up in the emergency room after hammering my thumb to a pulp when hanging a picture. But still. He could’ve asked.

“Five o’clock,” Sandeep repeats, cocking finger guns at me as he backs away toward his desk. “I can count on you, right?”

“I got it,” I say, looking around for some empty space. My gaze lands on Eli, who’s the only person at Until Proven who gets an entire desk to himself. It’s stacked so high with folders that when he hunches forward while talking on the phone, all you can see is his mad scientist hair. By some miracle, the table behind him is empty.



I head that way, hoping that maybe I’ll get a chance to talk with him. Eli fascinates me, not only because he’s ridiculously good at his job but because he’s this guy you probably wouldn’t look at twice if you passed him in the street. Yet he’s so confident and, I don’t know, magnetic or something. Now that I’ve worked with him for a few months, it doesn’t surprise me that he has a gorgeous fiancée, or that he manages to get people who are involved in criminal cases to spill all kinds of things they probably shouldn’t. I want him to teach me his ways.

Plus, it would be great if he learned my name.

I haven’t even made it halfway across the room, though, before Sandeep yells out, “Eli! We need you in Winterfell.”

Eli rolls his chair back and peers around the folders. “In what?”

“Winterfell,” Sandeep says expectantly.

When Eli still looks blank, I clear my throat. “It’s the small conference room,” I say. “Remember? Sandeep gave them names so we could tell them apart. The other one is, um, King’s Landing.” Sandeep, like me, is a huge Game of Thrones fan, so he named the rooms after two locations in the story. But Eli’s never read the books or seen an episode of the TV show, and the whole thing confuses the hell out of him.

“Oh. Right. Thank you.” Eli nods distractedly at me, then turns back to Sandeep. “What was wrong with just saying ‘the small conference room’?”

“We need you in Winterfell,” Sandeep repeats, his voice edging into impatience. Eli stands with a sigh, and I get a wry smile as he passes. Progress.



I spread my files across the empty conference table, lay my phone beside them, and start assembling employer packets. As soon as I do my phone starts buzzing with a string of texts from, of course, my sisters. I have four of them, all older than me, all with K names: Kiersten, Katie, Kelsey, and Kara. We’re like the Kardashians, except without any money.

My sisters will start a group conversation about anything. Birthdays, TV shows, current boyfriends or girlfriends, exes. Me, frequently. It’s a nightmare when they all start caring about my love life or my future at once. Knox, what happened with Maeve? She was so nice! Knox, who are you taking to prom? Knox, are you thinking about colleges yet? Next year will be here before you know it!

But this time, they’re talking about Katie’s surprise engagement on Valentine’s Day. She’ll be the first Myers to get married, so there’s a lot to discuss.

They go quiet eventually, and I’m halfway through the packets when another text comes in. I glance down, expecting to see one of my sisters’ names—probably Kiersten, because she has to have the last word on everything—but it’s a private number.

Tsk, no response from our first player. That means you forfeit.

I expected better from you, Phoebe Lawton. No fun at all.

Now I get to reveal one of your secrets in true About That style.

Crap. I guess this is really happening. Though, how bad could it be? Simon never bothered featuring Phoebe on About That, because she’s an open book. She hooks up a lot, but she doesn’t cheat on people or break them up. And she’s one of those girls who flits easily between Bayview High social groups, like the invisible boundaries that keep most of us apart don’t apply to her. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing anyone could say about Phoebe that we don’t already know.



Gray dots linger for a while. The anonymous texter is trying to build suspense, and even though I know I shouldn’t take the bait, my pulse speeds up. Then I kind of hate myself for it, and I’m about to put my phone facedown on the table when a text finally appears.

Phoebe slept with her sister Emma’s boyfriend.

Hold up. What?

I look around the Until Proven office like I’m expecting some kind of group reaction. Sometimes I forget I’m the only high school student here. Everybody ignores me, since they have shit to deal with that actually matters, so I look back at my phone. It’s gone dark, and I press the Home button to reactivate the screen.

Phoebe slept with her sister Emma’s boyfriend.

This can’t be real. First off, does Emma Lawton even have a boyfriend? She’s one of the quietest, least social girls in the senior class. As far as I can tell, she’s in an intimate relationship with her homework and that’s it. Plus, Phoebe wouldn’t do that to her sister. Right? I mean, I don’t know her well, but there are rules. My sisters would draw blood over something like that.

More texts appear, one right after the other.

What’s that, Bayview? You didn’t know?

Shame. You’re behind on your gossip.

Here’s a little advice for the next time we play:

Always take the Dare.





CHAPTER FOUR



Maeve

Thursday, February 20

I should know the protocol for checking in with someone who just got their deepest, darkest secret leaked to the entire school. I’m kind of rusty, though. It’s been a while.

I was at Café Contigo yesterday doing homework when the texts about Phoebe came through. As soon as she took a break from serving tables and checked her phone, I knew the gossip was true. The look on her face was exactly the same as Bronwyn’s eighteen months ago, when the About This copycat site that Jake Riordan kept up after Simon died revealed she’d cheated in chemistry. Not just horror, but guilt.

Emma came barreling through the café door soon after, red-faced and shaking. I almost didn’t recognize her. “Is this true? Is that why you’ve been acting so weird?” she choked out, holding up her phone. Phoebe was at the cash register counter next to Luis’s father, taking her apron off. I’m pretty sure she was about to play sick and get out of there. She froze, eyes round, and didn’t answer. Emma kept coming until she was inches away from Phoebe’s face, and for a second I was afraid she might slap her. “Was it while we were dating?”



“After,” Phoebe said, so quickly and emphatically that I was sure that was true, too. Then Mr. Santos sprang into action, putting an arm around both Phoebe and Emma and shepherding them into the kitchen. That was the last I saw of either of them for the night.

I thought Mr. Santos had been quick enough to keep their fight private until I noticed two sophomores from the Bayview High baseball team approaching the counter. “Takeout for Reynolds,” one of them said to the waiter, who was suddenly covering the entire room plus the cash register. The other boy never looked up from his phone. By the time I got home and checked in with Knox, he’d already heard everything.

“Guess the latest Bayview gossipmonger knows their dirt,” he said.

Last night, I kept wondering if I should text Phoebe: You okay? But the thing is, even though I’ve always liked her, we’re not friends. We’re friendly, mostly because I spend way too much time where she works, and because she’s one of those extroverted people who talks to everyone. She gave me her number once, “just so you’ll have it,” but I’ve never used it before, and it felt like a weird time to start. Like I was curious instead of concerned. Now, heading downstairs for breakfast, I still don’t know if that was the right call.



Mom’s sitting at the table when I enter the kitchen, frowning at her laptop. When Bronwyn was here we used to always eat breakfast at the kitchen island, but something about sitting next to her empty stool makes me lose my appetite. Mom would never say it, because Bronwyn being at Yale is a lifelong dream for both of them, but I think she feels the same way.

She looks up and flashes me a bright smile. “Guess what I got?” Then her eyes narrow as I pull a box of Froot Loops from the cabinet next to the sink. “I don’t remember buying those.”

“You didn’t,” I say. I fill a bowl to the brim with rainbow-hued loops, then grab a carton of milk from the refrigerator and take a seat beside her. My dad comes into the kitchen, straightening his tie, and Mom shoots him the evil eye.

“Really, Javier? I thought we agreed on healthy breakfast foods.”

He only looks guilty for a second. “They’re fortified, though. With essential vitamins and minerals. It says so right on the box.” He grabs a few from my bowl before I add milk and pops them into his mouth.

Mom rolls her eyes. “You’re as bad as she is. Don’t come crying to me when your teeth rot.”

Dad swallows his cereal and kisses her cheek, then the top of my head. “I promise to endure all cavities with the appropriate level of stoicism,” he says. My father moved to the States from Colombia when he was ten, so he doesn’t have an accent, exactly, but there’s a rhythm to the way he speaks that’s a little bit formal and a little bit musical. It’s one of my favorite things about him. Well, that and our mutual appreciation of refined sugar, which is something Mom and Bronwyn don’t share. “Don’t wait on me for dinner, okay? We’ve got that board meeting today. I’m sure it’ll go late.”



“All right, enabler,” Mom says affectionately. He grabs his keys from a hook on the wall and heads out the door.

I swallow a giant mouthful of already-soggy Froot Loops and gesture toward her laptop. “So what’d you get?”

She blinks at the shift in conversation, then beams. “Oh! You’ll love this. Into the Woods tickets, for when Bronwyn is back next week. It’s playing at the Civic. You can see how Bayview High stacks up against the professionals. That’s the play the drama club is doing this spring, right?”

I eat another spoonful of cereal before answering. I need a second to muster the appropriate level of enthusiasm. “Right. Fantastic! That’ll be so fun.”

Too much. I overdid it. Mom frowns. “You don’t want to go?”

“No, I totally do,” I lie.

She’s unconvinced. “What’s wrong? I thought you loved musical theater!”

My mom. You have to give her credit for how tirelessly she champions every single one of my passing interests. Maeve did a play once. Ergo, Maeve loves all plays! I was in the school play last year and it was—fine. But I didn’t try out this year. It felt like one of those things that I’d done once and could now safely put on the shelf of experiences that don’t need to be repeated. Yep, tried it, it was all right but not for me. Which is where I put most things.

“I do,” I say. “But hasn’t Bronwyn already seen Into the Woods?”



Mom’s forehead creases. “She has? When?”

I chase the last of the Froot Loops with my spoon and take my time swallowing them. “Over Christmas, I thought? With, um…Nate.”

Ugh. Bad lie. Nate wouldn’t be caught dead at a musical.

Mom’s frown deepens. She doesn’t dislike Nate, exactly, but she doesn’t make a secret of the fact that she thinks he and Bronwyn come from, as she puts it, “different worlds.” Plus, she keeps insisting that Bronwyn is too young to be in a serious relationship. When I remind her that she met Dad in college, she says, “When we were juniors,” like she’d matured a decade by then. “Well, let me try to catch her and check,” Mom says, reaching for her phone. “I have thirty minutes to return them.”

I smack my forehead. “You know what? Never mind. They didn’t see Into the Woods. They saw The Fast and the Furious part twelve, or whatever. You know. Same thing, pretty much.” Mom looks confused, then exasperated as I tip my bowl to loudly guzzle the pink milk.

“Maeve, stop that. You’re not six anymore.” She turns back to her laptop, brow furrowed. “Oh, for God’s sake, I just checked my email. How can there be so many already?”

I put down my bowl and grab a napkin, because all of a sudden my nose is running. I wipe it without thinking much more than It’s kind of early for allergies, but when I lower my hand—oh.

Oh my God.

I get up without a word, the napkin clutched in my fist, and go to our first-floor bathroom. I can feel wetness continuing to gather beneath my nose, and even before I look in the mirror I know what I’ll see. Pale face, tense mouth, dazed eyes—and a tiny river of bright red blood dripping from each nostril.



The dread hits so hard and so fast that it feels as if someone’s Tasered me: there’s a moment of cold shock and then I’m a trembling, twitching mess, shaking so hard that I can barely keep the napkin pressed to my nose. Red seeps into its cheery pattern as my heart bangs against my rib cage, the frantic beat echoing in my ears. My eyes in the mirror won’t stop blinking, keeping perfect time to the two-word sentence rattling through my brain.

It’s back. It’s back. It’s back.

Every time my leukemia has ever returned, it’s started with a nosebleed.

I imagine walking into the kitchen and showing the bloody napkin to my mother, and all the air leaves my lungs. I can’t watch her face do that thing again—that thing where she’s like a time-lapse movie, aging twenty years in twenty seconds. She’ll call my dad, and when he comes back to the house, all his cheeriness from this morning will be gone. He’ll be wearing that expression that I hate more than anything, because I know the internal prayer that accompanies it. I heard him once after I’d nearly died when I was eight, the words in Spanish barely a whisper as he sat with his head bowed next to my hospital bed. “Por favor, Dios, llévame a mi en su lugar. Yo por ella. Por favor.” Even though I was barely conscious, I thought, No, God, don’t listen, because I reject any prayer that has my dad asking to take my place.

If I show my mother this napkin, we’ll have to climb back on the testing carousel. They’ll start with the least invasive and least painful, but eventually you have to do them all. Then we’ll sit in Dr. Gutierrez’s office, staring at his thin, worried face while he weighs the pros and cons of equally horrible treatment options and reminds us that every time it comes back, it’s harder to treat and we must adjust accordingly. And finally we’ll pick our poison, followed by months of losing weight, losing hair, losing energy, losing time. Losing hope.



I told myself the last time, when I was thirteen, that I would never do it again.

My nose has stopped bleeding. I examine the napkin with my best effort at clinical detachment. There’s not that much blood, really. Maybe it’s just dry air; it’s February, after all. Sometimes a nosebleed is just a nosebleed, and there’s no need to send people into a frenzy about it. My pulse slows as I press my lips together and inhale deeply, hearing nothing but air. I drop the napkin into the toilet and flush quickly so I don’t have to watch thin threads of my blood fan into the water. Then I pull a Kleenex from the box on top of the toilet and wet it, wiping away the last traces of red.

“It’s fine,” I tell my reflection, gripping the sides of the sink. “Everything is fine.”



* * *



—

Bayview High’s new gossip game sent two texts this morning: an alert that the next player would be contacted soon, and a reminder link to the rules post. Now everyone is reading the new About That website en masse at lunch, absently shoving food into their mouths with their eyes glued to their phones. I can’t help but think that Simon would be loving this.



And if I’m being perfectly honest—I don’t mind the distraction right now.

“I’m still mostly surprised that Emma had a boyfriend,” Knox says, glancing at the table where Phoebe is sitting with her friend Jules Crandall and a bunch of other junior girls. Emma is nowhere in sight, but then again, she never is. I’m pretty sure she eats lunch outside with the only friend I’ve ever seen her with, a quiet girl named Gillian. “Do you think he goes here?”

I grab one of the fries we’re sharing and swirl it in ketchup before popping it into my mouth. “I’ve never seen her with anyone.”

Lucy Chen, who’d been deep in another conversation at our table, swings around in her chair. “Are you guys talking about Phoebe and Emma?” she asks, fixing us with a judgmental stare. Because Lucy Chen is that girl: the one who complains about whatever you’re doing while trying to horn in on it. She’s also this year’s literal drama queen, since she has the lead in Into the Woods opposite Knox. “Everybody needs to just ignore that game.”

Her boyfriend, Chase Russo, blinks at her. “Luce, that game is all you’ve been talking about for the past ten minutes.”

“About how dangerous it is,” Lucy says self-righteously. “Bayview High is a high-risk population when it comes to this kind of thing.”

I suppress a sigh. This is what happens when you’re bad at making friends: you end up with ones you don’t particularly like. Most of the time I’m grateful for the easy camaraderie of the drama club group, because they keep me company even when Knox isn’t around. Other times I wonder what school, and life, would be like if I made more of an effort. If I ever actively chose somebody instead of just letting myself get pulled into whatever orbit will have me.



My eyes stray toward Phoebe, who’s chewing with her eyes straight ahead. Today must be rough, but she’s here, facing it head-on. She reminds me of Bronwyn that way. Phoebe is wearing one of her usual bright dresses, her bronze curls tumbling around her shoulders and her makeup perfect. No fading into the background for her.

I wish I’d texted her last night after all.

“Anyway, I’m sure we all know who’s behind this,” Lucy adds, jerking her head toward a corner table where Matthias Schroeder is eating alone, his face barely visible behind a thick book. “Matthias should’ve been expelled after Simon Says. Principal Gupta’s zero-tolerance policy came too late.”

“Really? You think Matthias did this? But Simon Says was so tame,” I say. I can’t bring myself to dislike Matthias, even though my name was all over his short-lived copycat blog last fall. Matthias moved here freshman year, right around the time I started coming to school more, and he never really fit in anywhere. I’d watch him sidle past groups that either mocked or ignored him, and I knew that could easily have been me without Bronwyn.

Chase grins. “That guy had the worst gossip ever.” He puts on a breathless voice. “Maeve Rojas and Knox Myers broke up! Like, yeah, dude. Everybody already knows and nobody cares. Most drama-free breakup ever. Try again.”



“Still,” Lucy sniffs. “I don’t trust him. He has that same disgruntled-loner vibe that Simon had.”

“Simon didn’t have—” I start, but I’m interrupted by a booming voice behind us calling out, “What’s up, Phoebe?” We all turn, and Knox lets out a muted “Ugh,” when we see Sean Murdock leaning back in his chair, his thick torso twisted in the direction of Phoebe’s table. Sean is Brandon Weber’s most assholish friend, which is really saying something. He used to call me Dead Girl Walking freshman year, and I’m pretty sure he still doesn’t know my actual name.

Phoebe doesn’t answer, and Sean pushes his chair away from the table with a loud scraping noise. “I didn’t know you and Emma were so close,” he calls over the chattering buzz of the cafeteria. “If you’re looking for a new guy to share, I volunteer my services.” His friends start snickering, and Sean raises his voice another notch. “You can take turns. Or double-team me. I’m good either way.”

Monica Hill, one of the junior girls who’s always hanging around with Sean and Brandon, gasps loudly and slaps Sean on his arm, but more like she’s trying to egg him on than stop him. As for Brandon, he’s laughing harder than anyone else at his table. “In your dreams, bro,” he says, not even glancing in Phoebe’s direction.

“Don’t get greedy just cause you’re hitting that,” Sean says. “There’s plenty of Lawton love to go around. Right, Phoebe? Twice as nice. Sharing is caring.” He’s cackling now. “Listen to me, Bran. I’m a poet and I know it.”



It’s too quiet, suddenly. The kind of silence that only happens when everyone in a room is focused on the same thing. Phoebe is looking at the ground, her cheeks pale and her mouth pressed into a tight line. I’m half on my feet with the overwhelming need to do something, although I have no clue what, when Phoebe raises her head and looks directly at Sean.

“Thanks but no thanks,” she says in a loud, clear voice. “If I wanted to be bored and disappointed, I’d just watch you play baseball.” Then she takes a large, deliberate bite from a bright green apple.

The hum in the room erupts into full-on hoots and catcalls as Chase says, “Damn, girl.” Sean’s face turns an ugly red, but before he can say anything one of the lunch workers steps out from the kitchen. It’s Robert, who’s built like a linebacker and is the only person at Bayview High with a louder voice than Sean. He cups his hands around his mouth like a megaphone as I sink back into my seat.

“Everyone gonna settle down in here, or you need me to get a teacher?” he calls.

The noise volume cuts in half instantly, but that only makes it easier to hear Sean’s parting words as he turns back toward his table. “Spoken like the slut you are, Lawton.”

Robert doesn’t hesitate. “Principal’s office, Murdock.”

“What?” Sean protests, spreading his hands wide. “She started it! She came on to me and insulted me all at once. That’s a violation of the school bullying policy.”



Resentment surges through my veins. Why am I keeping quiet, exactly? What on earth do I have to lose? “Liar,” I call out, startling Knox so much that he actually jumps. “You provoked her and everyone knows it.”

Sean snorts over the murmur of agreement in the room. “Nobody asked you, Cancer Girl.”

The words make my stomach plunge, but I roll my eyes like it’s an outdated insult. “Ooh, burn,” I snap.

Robert folds his tattooed arms and takes a few steps forward. Rumor has it that he used to work in a prison kitchen, which is pretty solid job training for what he does now. In fact, it’s probably why he was hired. Principal Gupta learned at least a few things from last year. “Principal’s office, Murdock,” he growls. “You can go on your own, or I can take you. I promise you will not like it.”

This time, I can’t hear whatever Sean mutters under his breath as he gets to his feet. He shoots Phoebe a death glare as he passes her table, and she gives it right back. But once he’s gone, her face just sort of—crumples.

“Someone’s getting detention,” Chase calls in a singsong voice. “Try not to die, Murdock.” I suck in a breath, and he grimaces apologetically. “Too soon?”

The bell rings, and we start getting our things together. A few tables over, Jules takes Phoebe’s tray and whispers something in her ear. Phoebe nods and loops her backpack over one shoulder. She heads for the door, pausing beside our table to let a knot of sophomore girls push through the narrow space between chairs. They all look back at her and burst into muted laughter.



I touch Phoebe’s arm. “Are you all right?” I ask. She looks up, but before she can answer I spot Lucy approaching from her other side.

“You shouldn’t have to put up with that, Phoebe,” Lucy says, and for a second I almost like her. Then she gets that self-righteous look on her face again. “Maybe we should tell Principal Gupta what’s going on. I’m beginning to think this school would be better off if nobody had a phone in the first—”

Phoebe whips around in her direction, eyes blazing. Lucy gasps and stumbles backward, because she’s overdramatic like that. Although Phoebe does look poised for an attack, and when she speaks, her voice is ice cold.

“Don’t. You. Dare.”





CHAPTER FIVE



Phoebe

Thursday, February 20

“Bizarre,” I say to Owen.

He leans forward on his stool at the kitchen island, scrunching his face in concentration. “Can you use it in a sentence?”

“Um…” I hesitate, and he lets out a small sigh.

“There’s one the back of the index card.”

“Oh. Right.” I flip the card I’m holding and read, “The bizarre movie was so strange that we left the theater in stunned silence.”

“Bizarre,” Owen says. “B-A-Z-A-A-R.” Then he grins expectantly, like he’s waiting for the same thumbs-up I’ve given for a dozen words straight.

I blink at him, flash card in hand. There aren’t a lot of things that could distract me from the past twenty-four hours, but Owen getting tripped up while practicing for his middle school spelling bee is one of them. He’s usually at high school level with that kind of stuff. “No,” I tell him. “You spelled the wrong word.”



“What?” He blinks, adjusting his glasses. “I spelled the word you gave me.”

“B-A-Z-A-A-R is, like, a marketplace. The word for strange is spelled B-I-Z-A-R-R-E.”

“Can I see?” Owen asks, holding his hand out for the flash card. I don’t usually help him with anything school-related, but guilt over being such a horrible sister to Emma prompted me to offer when I got home. He was so pleasantly surprised that now I feel even worse. I know Owen wants more attention from Emma and me; it’s obvious from how much hovering he does. My brother is nosy by nature and gets worse when we have friends over. He wanders into my room constantly when Jules is around, and he trails Emma to her tutoring sessions at the library sometimes. We both get annoyed with him, even though I know—and I’m sure Emma does, too—that he just wants to be part of things.

It would be so easy to invite him in, but we don’t. We stay in our lanes.

“Of course!” Fresh guilt makes my voice overly sweet, and Owen darts me a confused look as he takes the card.

We’re alone in the apartment, with Mom at her office manager job and Emma—not here. I’ve barely seen her since Mr. Santos pulled us into the Café Contigo kitchen and suggested we go home and talk. Emma agreed, but as soon as we left the restaurant she took off for her friend Gillian’s house and spent the night there instead. She wouldn’t answer any of my texts and avoided me at school.



Which was kind of a relief, except for the part where it’s only postponing the inevitable.

“Huh. I always thought it was the other way around.” Owen drops the flash card onto the counter and blows a raspberry. “That’s embarrassing.”

I resist the urge to ruffle his hair. He’s not a little kid anymore, although he still acts like one. Sometimes I feel like Owen froze in time after Dad died, perpetually nine years old no matter how much taller he gets. Owen is smarter than either Emma or me—he tests at near-genius levels, and he keeps our old laptop running and synced with everyone’s phones in ways that mystify the rest of us. But he’s so emotionally young that Mom has never had him skip a grade, even though he could easily do the work.

Before I can reply a key turns in our front door lock, and my heart starts to pound. It’s too early for Mom to be home, which means Emma is finally making her appearance.

My sister comes through the door with her backpack slung over one shoulder and a duffel bag on the other. She’s dressed in a pale-blue oxford shirt and jeans, her hair pulled back with a navy headband. Her lips are thin and chapped. She stops short when she sees me and lets both bags drop to the ground.

“Hey,” I say. My voice comes out like a squeak, then disappears.

“Hi, Emma!” Owen says cheerfully. “You won’t believe how bad I just messed up a spelling word.” He waits expectantly, but when all she can manage is a strained smile, he adds, “You know the word bizarre? Like when something is really strange?”



“I do,” Emma says, her eyes on me.

“I spelled it B-A-Z-A-A-R. Like the shopping place.”

“Oh well, that’s understandable,” Emma says. She looks like she’s making a massive effort to speak normally. “Are you going to try again?”

“Nah, I got it now,” Owen says, sliding off his stool. “I’m gonna play Bounty Wars for a while.” Neither Emma nor I reply as he shuffles down the hallway to his bedroom. As soon as the door closes with a soft click, Emma folds her arms and turns to me.

“Why?” she asks quietly.

My mouth is desert-dry. I grab for the half-full glass of warm Fanta that Owen left on the counter and drink the whole thing down before answering. “I’m sorry.”

Emma’s face tightens, and I can see her throat move when she swallows. “That’s not a reason.”

“I know. But I am. Sorry, I mean. I never meant…it’s just, there was this party at Jules’s house the night before Christmas Eve, and Derek—” She flinches when I say the name, but I keep going. “Um, it turns out that he knows Jules’s cousin. They went to band camp together. They both play saxophone.” I’m babbling now, and Emma just stares at me with an increasingly pinched expression. “I went to the party to hang out with Jules, and he was…there.”

“He was there,” Emma repeats in a dull monotone. “So that’s your reason? Proximity?”



I open my mouth, then close it. I don’t have a good answer. Not for her, and not for myself. I’ve been trying to figure it out for almost two months.

Because I was drunk. Sure, but that’s just an excuse. Alcohol doesn’t make me do stuff I wouldn’t otherwise do. It just gives me a push to do things I would’ve done anyway.

Because you were broken up. Yeah, for three whole weeks. Emma met Derek at Model UN over the summer, and they dated for five months before he ended things. I don’t know why. She never told me, just like she never talked about their dates. But I saw firsthand, in our uncomfortably close quarters, how much time she always spent getting ready. They might eventually have gotten back together if Derek and I hadn’t smashed that possibility to bits.

Because I liked him. Ugh. That’s the cherry on top of my bad-decision sundae. I didn’t even, much.

Because I wanted to hurt you. Not consciously, but…sometimes I wonder if I’m edging toward an uncomfortable truth with this one. I’ve been trying to get Emma’s attention ever since Dad died, but most of the time she just looks right through me. Maybe some twisted corner of my brain wanted to force her to notice me. In which case: mission accomplished.

Her eyes bore into mine. “He was my first, you know,” she says. “My only.”

I didn’t know, because she never told me. But I’d guessed as much, and I know that Derek holding that place in her life makes all of this even worse. I feel a sharp stab of regret as I say, “I’m sorry, Emma. Truly. I’d do anything to make it up to you. And I swear to God, I didn’t tell anyone, not even Jules. Derek must have—”



“Stop saying his name!” Emma’s shriek is so piercing that it startles me into silence. “I don’t want to hear it. I hate him, and I hate you, and I never want to talk to either one of you again as long as I live!”

Tears start spilling down her cheeks, and for a second I can’t breathe. Emma almost never cries; the last time was at Dad’s funeral. “Emma, can we please—”

“I mean it, Phoebe! Leave me alone!” She stalks past me into our bedroom, slamming the door so hard that it rattles on its hinges. Owen’s door swings slowly open, but before he can pop his head out and start asking questions, I grab my keys and get the hell out of our apartment.

My eyes are starting to swim, and I have to blink a few times before the person waving at me in the hallway comes into focus. “Hi,” Addy Prentiss calls. “I was just going to check if your mom’s home—” She pauses when she gets closer, her pixie features scrunching in concern. “Are you all right?”

“Fine. Allergies,” I say, wiping my eyes. Addy looks unconvinced, so I talk faster. “My mom is still at work, but she should be back in an hour or so. Do you need something before then? I could call her.”

“Oh, there’s no rush,” Addy says. “I’m planning Ashton’s bachelorette party and I wanted to run some restaurant ideas by her. I’ll just text her.”

She smiles, and the knot in my chest loosens a little. Addy gives me hope, because even though her life fell apart when Simon’s blog revealed her worst mistake, she put things back together—better than before. She’s stronger, happier, and much closer to her sister. Addy is the queen of second chances, and right now I really need the reminder that those exist.



“What kind of places are you thinking?” I ask.

“Something low-key.” Addy makes a wry face. “I’m not sure I should even use the term bachelorette party. That conjures a certain image, doesn’t it? It’s just a girls’ night out, really. Someplace where I can get in.”

I have a sudden impulse to invite Addy to come with me, even though I have no idea where I’m going. I was just looking for an escape hatch. But before I can come up with a good reason to hang out, she glances back at her door and says, “I’d better go. I need to order stuff for Ashton’s wedding favors. Maid of honor duties are never done.”

“What kind of favors?”

“Candied almonds in bags. Super original, right? But Ash and Eli both love them.”

“Do you want help putting them together?” I ask. “I’ve become kind of an expert on wedding favors now that my mom’s constantly testing them out.”

Addy beams. “That would be amazing! I’ll let you know when I have them.” She turns back to her apartment with a little wave. “Enjoy wherever you’re headed. It’s beautiful out.”

“I will.” I stuff my keys into my pocket, the boost in mood I got from talking to Addy fading as quickly as it came. Emma’s words keep looping through my brain as I take the elevator down to the lobby: I hate him, and I hate you, and I never want to talk to either one of you again as long as I live. Addy and Ashton might not have gotten along before last year, but I’ll bet they never had that conversation.



When the doors spring open, I cross fake-marble floors and push through the heavy glass door into bright sunshine. I didn’t grab my sunglasses when I left, so I have to shade my eyes as I walk to the park across the street. It’s small, the length of a street block, and popular with hip young Bayview parents because of the toddler-sized climbing gym and nearby Whole Foods. I pass through the arched entrance, skirting around two little boys playing catch, and head for the relative quiet of a shaded corner with an empty bench.

I pull my phone from my pocket with a sinking feeling. I got dozens of texts today, but other than confirming that none were from Emma, I couldn’t stand to look at them. I wish, for about the hundredth time today, that I’d realized this particular Simon copycat was the real thing.

I ignore the texts from people I don’t know well, and zero in on a few from Jules:

You could have told me, you know.

I don’t judge.

I mean, that was shady but we all make mistakes.

My stomach drops. Jules was great today, a shield between me and the rest of school. But I knew she was hurt that she found out about Derek at the same time as the rest of Bayview High. We usually tell each other everything, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her this.

Jules’s last text to me reads, Monica’s giving me a ride home. You need one? I wish I’d read that before walking the two miles from school to my apartment. Except…Monica? Since when do she and Jules hang out? I picture Monica’s gleefully phony outrage toward Sean during lunch and have a feeling that it started as soon as she saw the chance to dig up more dirt.



The next text is from a number I don’t recognize and don’t have programmed into Contacts. Hi, it’s Maeve. Just checking in. You okay? Maeve’s never texted me before. It’s nice that she bothered, I guess, and that she stood up to Sean at lunch today, but I don’t really know what to say back. I’m not okay, but there’s nothing that Maeve—with her perfect parents, her perfect sister, and an ex-boyfriend who’s now her best friend because even the people she dumps don’t get mad at her—can do about it.

Brandon: Come by? Parents are out ;)

My face flames and my temper spikes. “I can’t believe you,” I growl at my screen. Except I can, because I’ve always known that Brandon cares less about me than he would about a new pair of football cleats. Laughing at me during lunch is totally in character, and I should have known better than to hook up with him in the first place.

Unlike Emma, I’ve had a lot of boyfriends. And while I haven’t slept with all of them, I did whenever it felt right. Sex always felt like a positive part of my life until last December, when I slipped into Jules’s laundry room with Derek. Then I ran straight from him to Brandon, despite all the gigantic red flags that should’ve warned me away. Maybe after I’d screwed up so badly with Derek, I didn’t think I deserved any better.

But I do. One mistake shouldn’t condemn anyone to a future filled with Brandon Webers. I delete Brandon’s message, then his number from my phone. That gives me a half second of satisfaction until I see the next text.



Unknown: Well that was fun, wasn’t it? Who’s up for…

I can’t see anything else in the preview. I debate deleting this one, too, without reading any further, but there’s no point. If this twisted little game is talking about me, I’ll hear about it eventually. So I click.

Well, that was fun, wasn’t it? Who’s up for another round? Then there’s, like, fifty responding texts from Bayview students begging for more. Assholes. I scroll through them until I get to the last one from Unknown:

The next player will be contacted soon. Tick-tock.

And then I remember why About That was so popular for so long. Because even though I hate Unknown, and it freaks me out that they revealed a secret I thought would never get out, and the idea of another Simon Kelleher prowling around Bayview High is straight-up nauseating—I can’t help being curious.

What’s going to happen now?





CHAPTER SIX



Knox

Saturday, February 22

I’m about to kill my sister.

“Sorry, Kiersten, but you’re in my way.” With a flick of my thumb on the controller, Kiersten’s Bounty Wars avatar crumples to the ground, blood gushing from her neck. My sister blinks, fruitlessly presses a few buttons, and turns to me with an incredulous scowl.

“Did you just slit my throat?” She glares at the television screen as Dax Reaper steps over her lifeless body. “I thought we were working together!” Our geriatric golden retriever, Fritz, who’d been half-asleep at Kiersten’s feet, lifts his head and lets out a wheezy snort.

“We were,” I say, taking one hand off my controller to scratch between Fritz’s ears. “But you outlived your usefulness.”

Dax agrees with me on-screen. “It’s a good day for someone to die,” he growls, sheathing his knife and flexing his muscles. “Just not me.”



Kiersten makes a face. “This game is vile. And I’m starving.” She’s sitting next to me on our basement sofa and shifts closer to nudge my knee with hers. Kiersten lives an hour away and doesn’t usually spend her Saturdays with us, but her girlfriend is teaching in Japan for six weeks and she’s at loose ends. “Come on, pause your ridiculously buff alter ego and get some lunch with me.”

“You mean my doppelgänger,” I say. “The resemblance is uncanny.” I put down my controller and flex one arm, then instantly wish I hadn’t. What’s the opposite of ridiculously buff? Pathetically spindly? Kiersten and I look the most alike of any of our siblings, down to our spiky short hair, but she has much better muscle tone from rowing crew on the weekends. Usually, I try not to call attention to that fact.

Kiersten ignores my sorry excuse for a joke. “What are you in the mood to eat?” She holds up her hand before I can speak. “Please don’t say fast food. I’m ancient, remember? I need a glass of wine and some vegetables.” Kiersten is thirty, the oldest of my four sisters. They were all born one right after the other, and then my parents thought they were done until I showed up a decade later. My sisters treated me like a living doll for years, carrying me around so much that I didn’t bother learning to walk until I was almost two.

“Wing Zone,” I say instantly. It’s a Bayview institution, famous for its extra-hot wings and a giant inflatable chicken on the roof. Now that Bayview’s getting trendy, new people are starting to grumble that the chicken is tacky and “doesn’t fit the town aesthetic.” Direct quote from a letter to the editor in last week’s Bayview Blade. So the Wing Zone owners are doubling down; on Valentine’s Day, they strung a garland of blinking red neon hearts around its neck that still hasn’t come off. That’s some professional-level petty, and I’m all for it.



“Wing Zone?” Kiersten frowns as we head for the basement stairs, Fritz padding behind us. “Didn’t I just specifically request vegetables?”

“They have celery sticks.”

“Those don’t count. They’re ninety-nine percent water.”

“And coleslaw.”

“One hundred percent mayonnaise.”

“The lemon-pepper wings have…citrus?”

“Here’s a life lesson for you, Knox. Fake fruit flavoring is not, and never will be, a vegetable.” Kiersten looks back at me as she opens the basement door, and I give her the kind of hopeful, ingratiating smile that works on absolutely nobody except my sisters. “Ugh, fine,” she groans. “But you owe me.”

“Sure,” I say. She’s never going to collect, though. That’s the upside of having sisters who think they’re your mom.

Our basement opens into the kitchen, and when we get upstairs my dad’s sitting at the table, hunched over some paperwork. He looks a lot more like Dax Reaper than I do. Now that he owns his own company Dad doesn’t necessarily have to do hands-on construction work, but he still does, which makes him the most in-shape guy in his fifties I know. He glances up, and his eyes flick past me—the boring kid who still lives at home—and twinkle at Kiersten.

“Didn’t know you were still here,” he says. Fritz, who’s always liked my alpha male father better than anybody, leans adoringly against his chair.



She sighs. “Knox roped me into video game hell.”

Dad frowns, because he thinks video games are a waste of time. As opposed to actual sportsball games, which he’d love for me to play. But he just waves the folder he’s holding at me and says, “I’ll leave this for you to take to work on Monday.”

“What is it?” I ask.

“Letter of intent. We’re gonna hire a couple of the D’Agostino exonerees,” he says. “I got a packet in the mail the other day from Until Proven.”

Great, except he didn’t get it in the mail. I brought it home and put it on his desk. With a note. Which, I guess, he never even noticed.

Kiersten beams. “Fantastic, Dad! Way to set an example for local businesses.”

My father and Kiersten are a strangely amicable pair. He’s this conservative, macho, old-school guy who somehow gets along better with my bleeding-heart lesbian sister than he does with anyone else. Maybe because they’re both athletic, take-charge, self-starter types. “Well, it’s worked out well so far,” Dad says, pushing the folder to one corner of the table. “Nate’s a good worker. And you know, he got A’s in both the classes we covered last semester. Kid’s a lot brighter than he gets credit for.”

I mean, he gets plenty of credit in this house. But okay.

“It’s so great that you’re doing that for him,” Kiersten says, and the genuine warmth in her tone makes me feel like a prick. I don’t have anything against Nate, but I can’t shake the feeling that he’s the son my father wishes he had. I grab my sweatshirt from the chair where I dropped it earlier, pulling it on as Kiersten adds, “Want to come to lunch, Dad? We’re getting wings.” She only grimaces a little on the last word.



“No thanks. I need to get back to work and finish up our proposal for the mall parking garage. It’s been sitting empty for much too long and frankly, it’s both an eyesore and a hazard.” He frowns and turns back to me. “One of my guys said he heard a rumor that kids have been cutting through the site. You seen anything like that, Knox?”

“What? No. Definitely not!” I practically yell it, way too loudly and emphatically. God, my father makes me nervous. His frown deepens, and Kiersten tugs on my arm.

“All right, we’re off. See you later!” We’re through the front door and halfway down the driveway before she speaks again. “Work on your poker face, Knox,” she mutters, pulling a set of keys out of her bag and aiming them at her silver Civic. “And stop taking shortcuts through abandoned construction sites.”

It’s a sunny but cool Saturday. I pull the hood of my sweatshirt up as I slide into the passenger seat. “It was just a couple times.”

“Still,” Kiersten says, climbing in beside me. “It’s my duty as your significantly older sibling to remind you how Not Safe that is. Consider yourself warned.” She turns the motor, and we both wince as music blasts through the car at top volume. I always forget how loudly Kiersten plays her radio when she drives alone. “Sorry,” she says, turning it down. She glances into the rearview mirror and starts to back out of our driveway. “So, I barely got to talk to you during that creepy bounty hunter game. It’s still bullshit that you killed me, by the way. Not over it. But what’s new with you? How’s the job, how’s the play, how’s school?”



“It’s all good. Well, pretty good.”

She taps the blinker and prepares to turn out of our road. “Why only pretty good?”

I’m not sure where to start. But I don’t have to, because Kiersten’s phone rings. “Hang on,” she says, her foot still on the brake as she roots through her bag. “It’s Katie,” she says, handing me the phone. “Put her on speaker, would you?” I do, and Kiersten calls, “Hey, Katie. I’m in the car with Knox. What’s up?”

My second-oldest sister’s voice, tinny from the speaker, starts ranting about something that’s pink but was supposed to be peach. Or maybe it’s the other way around. “Katie, stop,” Kiersten says, inching onto the main road that will take us to Bayview Center. “I can’t even understand you. Is this about…flowers? Okay, Bridezilla, let’s take it down a few notches.”

I tune them out, unlocking my own phone with a prickle of anticipation. Like everybody else at Bayview High this weekend, I’ve been waiting for a text from Unknown. But there’s been nothing. I’m guessing whoever their target was decided to take the Dare, and now I don’t know what to expect. It’s new territory. Simon never bothered with that kind of gamesmanship.

Is it wrong that I’m kind of…I don’t know, interested? I shouldn’t be, after what happened to Phoebe. Not to mention last year’s months-long shit show. But there’s a video game quality to all this that has me weirdly hooked. Like, I could just block texts from Unknown and be done with it, but I don’t. Hardly anyone at Bayview High has, as far as I can tell. What did Lucy Chen call us at lunch the other day? A high-risk population. Conditioned to respond to the right kind of prompt like overstimulated lab rats.



Or lemmings. That was Simon’s preferred term.

A text from Maeve pops up while I’m scrolling. Hey, a bunch of us are getting together Friday when Bronwyn’s in town. You in?

Maybe, I reply. Is it spring break?

No, she’s just here for the weekend. Ashton’s bachelorette party. Also, we’re seeing Into the Woods. She adds the grimacing emoji, and I send three of them back. I’m already sick of that play, and we’re still weeks away from performing it. My singing range is microscopic, but I ended up with a lead role anyway because I’m one of the only guys in drama club. Now my throat hurts constantly from all the straining, plus rehearsals are messing with my Until Proven work schedule.

It’s weird, and kind of uncomfortable, to realize you might’ve started outgrowing a thing that used to almost be your whole life. Especially if you’re not sure what else to do with yourself. It’s not like I’m tearing it up at school, or work. My biggest contribution at Until Proven so far is seconding Sandeep’s suggestions for the conference room names. But I like it there. I’d intern more hours if I had the time.

We’re in downtown Bayview before Katie finally hangs up. Kiersten shoots me an apologetic glance as she pulls into a parking lot across the street from Wing Zone. “Sorry we got interrupted by a quote, floral emergency, unquote. Which is not a thing. Who’ve you been texting while I was ignoring you?”



“Maeve,” I say. The battery on my phone is almost dead, so I shut it off and put it back into my pocket.

“Ah, Maeve.” Kiersten sighs nostalgically. “The one that got away.” She pulls into a spot and cuts the engine. “From me, I mean. I was shipping you two hard. I had your couple name picked out and everything. Did I ever tell you that? It was Knaeve.” I groan as I open my door. “But you seem fine. Are you fine? Do you want to talk about it?”

She always asks that, and I never accept. “Of course I’m fine. We broke up a long time ago.”

We exit the car and head for an opening in the parking lot gate. “I know, I know,” Kiersten says. “I just don’t understand why. You guys were perfect for each other!”

It’s times like these that, as great as my sisters are, I kind of wish I had an older brother. Or a close guy friend who liked girls. Maeve and I weren’t perfect, but that’s not a conversation I know how to open up with Kiersten. I don’t know how to open it up with anyone. “We’re better as friends,” I say.

“Well, I think it’s great that…Huh.” Kiersten stops so suddenly that I almost bump into her. “What’s with the crowd? Is it always this busy on a Saturday?”

We’re within sight of the restaurant, and she’s right—the sidewalk is packed. “No, never,” I say, and a guy in front of me turns at my voice. For a second, I don’t recognize him, because I’ve never seen him outside of school. But there’s no mistaking Matthias Schroeder, even out of context. He looks like a scarecrow: tall and thin with baggy clothes, wispy blond hair, and strangely dark eyes. I find myself peering at them too closely, wondering if they’re real or contact lenses. “Hi, Knox,” he says tonelessly. “It’s the chicken.”



“Huh?” I ask. Is he speaking in code? Am I supposed to reply The crow flies at midnight or something? Kiersten waits expectantly, like I’m about to introduce her, but I don’t know what to say. This is Matthias. He got suspended for copycatting Simon Kelleher last fall. We’ve never spoken before. Awkward, right?

Matthias points upward with one long, pale finger. I follow his gaze to Wing Zone’s roof, and then I can’t believe I didn’t notice it sooner.