“I’m not going anywhere by myself,” she had said, stepping inside, and the door would’ve smacked Heidi in the face if she hadn’t caught it. “I am not getting kiddie-napped.”
“Like anyone would kidnap her,” Heidi had muttered under her breath. “They’d return her after a minute.”
Now Linds plopped down in the old, worn recliner. “This is really scary,” she repeated. “Why would someone do this?”
“Question of the week.” I twisted a section of my hair around my finger. “After talking to the deputy, I really don’t think they have any idea.”
“The thing is, there’s no evidence.” Heidi pulled a plastic bag out of her purse and opened it, picking out chunks of granola. Glancing at Linds, I saw her wrinkle her nose as Heidi popped one into her mouth. I grinned. She offered the bag to me. “Want some?”
I shook my head. “No thanks.”
Heidi shrugged. “Anyway, there’s no evidence, right? And if there is something, they might be keeping it quiet, because the person responsible for all of this is the only one who knows.”
Linds hooked one knee over the other. “Did you learn that on Forensic Files?”
“Yep.” Heidi grinned. “And from watching the ID Channel.”
“Monica could’ve run off with her parents’ landscaper,” Linds suggested. “I mean, have you seen him? He’s hot.”
Despite the seriousness of everything, I laughed. “Well, I hope that’s what’s happening. I just don’t want it to be what we fear.”
“I don’t want it to involve you,” Heidi corrected, her hazel eyes more green than brown as she looked at me, a giant piece of granola between her fingers.
“I second that,” Linds said.
“But you know the thing I don’t get?” Heidi popped the granola in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully as we waited for her to continue. “Let’s say these things are connected. I know, that’s a terrible thought to consider, but what do you have in common with Vee and Heidi? I haven’t lived here my whole life, but I don’t think you guys were ever friends, right?”
“Ella has never been friends with Vee or Monica,” Linds answered.
Heidi frowned as she rolled up her baggie. “So that’s what I don’t get. If it’s connected, it has to be totally random then, right? It has to be completely random.”
My gaze fell to the coffee table as I nodded absently. Yes, totally completely random. Except it would make much more sense if a clown mask hadn’t ended up in my locker and then on my bed. And it would make sense if I didn’t have anything in common with Monica and Vee.
But in a way, I did.
EVERYONE WAS BUZZING about Monica Graham at school on Friday, especially when the police arrived in the afternoon to talk to a few more students. No one had heard from her, and I couldn’t imagine what her family and those close to her had to be going through.
It was the same thing that Vee’s parents must be experiencing.
What was sad about it is that no one had really mentioned Vee the whole first week of school. After her fallout with the cool crowd last year, no one really seemed to care what was up with her, but now?
She was the topic of conversation, right along with Monica.
I was exhausted by the end of the day, skipping out on Smoothie Fridays with Linds and Heidi, a ritual we’d started at the beginning of our junior year. When I got home, I climbed the stairs and found myself standing in front of my closet after dropping my bag on the bed.
I opened the door and dropped down to my knees, pushing the piles of jeans out of the way until I found the unopened shoebox, pieces of Christmas wrapping paper still clinging to the sides. Mom had taped the lid shut, as if it would pop open, I’d rip the wrapping paper off, and ruin the surprise.
But there was no real surprise to what was in the box. Mom got me the same gift every year and she would come into my bedroom after every Christmas and throw away the unopened box from the previous year.
I had no idea why I was doing what I was doing, but I rocked back on my heels. Drawing in a deep breath, I exhaled slowly then slipped my finger under the tape. Once the lid was off, I was staring at a pair of pristine black and pink sneakers.
And the good kind with arch support, too. They had to cost a pretty penny, and these were like the fourth new pair I’d never worn, but Mom . . . she kept buying them.
The desire to slip those shoes on and lace them up kindled deep within my chest. Just the idea of heading outside and going for a run—running anywhere—and allowing myself to get lost in that burn was hard to resist.
But I didn’t put them on. I closed the lid and placed them back in the closet, setting them down carefully, almost reverently.
Running was not going to happen anyway. At least not with a possible psychopath roaming around out there. Besides that, I hadn’t slept more than three hours the night before and all I wanted to do was crash.
And that’s what I ended up doing.
Curled up on the corner of the couch, I watched a marathon of Ghost Adventures with Mom, who had to have heard about Monica’s disappearance, but didn’t bring it up, and for that I was grateful. I didn’t want to think about any of it. My brain needed a break.
I ended up falling asleep on the couch in the early morning hours and then waking up with cramped muscles. Glancing at the clock on the wall, I noticed I had about two hours before I was supposed to meet with Dad.
Throwing off the quilt, I swung my feet off the couch, stood, and then stretched out the tightness in my muscles. I could hear Mom moving around upstairs and smiled. On Saturdays, she’d recently taken to knitting as a hobby, holing up in her room with her needles and yarn.
I grabbed a glass of OJ and then climbed the stairs. Stopping at Mom’s door, I knocked softly.
“Come in,” she called.
Nudging the door open with my hip, I peered in. Mom sat on her bed, cross-legged. Holding two needles in one hand, she was trying to untangle threads of bright pink yarn.
“Morning,” I said.
She smiled brightly. “You getting ready to meet with your father?”
“Good.” She held up a swath of bright pink and green material. “What do you think of this?”
I forced my expression to remain blank. I had no idea what it was that she was holding. One end was uneven and it was about a foot wide. “It’s very . . . colorful.”
“Isn’t it?” She lowered her hands, eyes narrowing at her needles. “I’m making scarves for the girls at the bank. I think it will make a great Christmas present.”
Taking a drink, I spun around and closed the door behind me before I had to admit that a five-year-old could probably knit something better than that.
I hesitated at my door for a second and then I forced myself to turn the knob. The room was how I’d left it yesterday, when I’d returned home from school, had stared at my running shoes, and then changed into my lazy, lounging clothes.
It was slightly cooler than the rest of the house. Placing my drink on the table next to my laptop, I walked over to the window and opened the curtains, letting the morning sunlight in.
I took a quick shower and walked back into my bedroom. It was strange, because I moved around like I was visiting a stranger’s house. With time to kill, I found myself standing in front of my narrow bookshelf, the glass of OJ all but forgotten on my desk.
I don’t know what made me grab what I did from the shelf, but my fingers skimmed over the thick spines, landing on a thin smooth one. I slid it out, not looking at what I held until I sat on the edge of the bed. Then I shifted my gaze to the blue and white yearbook—my middle school yearbook.
My fingers trembled as I cracked it open. Without skimming, I opened it right up to that section. Not the part where I looked like a little doofus. My eyes scanned down the list of names.
An ache pierced my chest, forming a ball of remorse, sadness, shame, and guilt. It nearly closed off my throat, and I exhaled harshly as my gaze drifted down the row of colored photos, stopping on the fourth one from the left.