“Oh, you look so, so surprised. Come on, you can’t be that dumb. Why would Shaw do this if it wasn’t for me?” He lowered his head until our faces were an inch apart. “Shaw has always been a bit of a loose cannon, but he cared about his family—about me, more than I ever knew. Didn’t know until I was thirteen actually.”
I dug my fingers into his hand, trying to dislodge it, but there was no moving him. All I could think about was what Shaw had said right before he fell to his death.
You think this is over?
It had been a warning—a warning that I hadn’t even noticed. And it made sense now—the mask in my locker, my bedroom window—things that Shaw couldn’t have known or done. The footsteps we’d heard upstairs at Jensen’s house. That was Gavin.
He chuckled low in his throat. “Ah, I see you’re putting it together. You’ve always been a smart one. It was cute how you defended me right up until you swung at my head. But it worked out in a way. Shaw got you, but it didn’t end the way I wanted. He was supposed to be the one to take you out,” he said, dark eyes locked on to mine. “Because I thought it would be too hard for me to do it, but you know what? It’s really not that hard.”
Oh God . . .
“I started planning at the beginning of summer. We tried it with Vee, and when that worked out perfectly, we tried to grab you. But damn, Ella, you’ve got nine lives or something.” He drew back as I swung my arms at him. He caught one and pinned it down beside my hip. “And it was so much fun messing with you. The night with the mask in your bedroom? That was me. The dummy hanging in your house? All me, baby.”
The smugness in his voice chilled me to my very core. I fought back, trying to catch him, but he kept out of my reach. The blows I landed bounced off his arm and chest to no avail.
“I watched you.” He paused. “I watched you and Jensen. You wouldn’t give it to me after all the time we spent together, but all Jensen had to do was smile in your direction and you opened your legs right up. Yeah, so this is actually a lot easier than I thought it would be.”
His lip curled in disgust. “And this whole time, you never saw what was right in front of your face. I think Jensen was beginning to see it, but not you. For all those years after Penn, I hated all of them—even you at times. But I still loved you.”
My eyes widened further.
“But I have to do this. I had to do all of this. Shaw understood. It’s the only way for me to make amends.” His hand moved off my mouth and then circled my neck, cutting off my air and ability to scream. Panic roared through me, surging like an out of control storm. I couldn’t breathe.
“Don’t worry. When I’m finished with you, I’ll take care of him. Or maybe I won’t. Seems fitting he’ll have to live the rest of his life without you.” One shoulder shrugged like he was discussing the difference between salt and pepper.
My eyes darted around the room frenziedly, landing on the heavy ceramic water pitcher. Could I reach it?
“Do you want to know why?” he asked, his lips brushing my bruised cheek, startling me. “Why now? Why four years later?” Then he leaned down again, his fingers loosening around my neck, allowing some air in. His mouth then brushed my ear as he whispered, “Penn didn’t kill himself.”
He waited until my wide eyes found his. “Penn wanted to go look at birds and he didn’t want to wait until you and Jensen got there. So I went with him. I was still pissed about you and Jensen skipping his party for Brock’s. Hell, I was more pissed that Penn let it slide. He never stood up for himself. Never. And I was so sick of him being a doormat for everyone. I told him that. I told him that you two couldn’t really be his friends after bailing on him, and he started to cry. To cry, Ella.” His eyes took on an unfocused, manic look. “I don’t even know how it happened. I told him to stop crying. But then he said—he said that he trusted you two. That he knew you were really sorry and that I was the bad friend for even bringing it up. Me. And that was such bullshit, because I didn’t bail on him. But he never trusted me. It was always you. It was always Jensen.”
Oh my God.
“I pushed him,” Gavin said, closing his eyes. “I pushed him, not that hard, but he lost his balance. He fell, Ella. He fell, and I panicked. I didn’t mean to hurt him. I just wanted him to stand up for himself. I wanted him to see that I was the better friend. It was an accident. I didn’t know what to do. I ran home and I . . . I called Shaw. He came right over. He knew that I was in trouble. That no one would believe it was an accident. He helped me cover it up, got the belt and rope, planted the note in Penn’s bedroom. And he helped me now, too. He knew it wasn’t my fault.”
Cleaning up the mess. Shaw had said that.
“It wasn’t my fault.” Gavin’s fingers tightened on my throat again. “None of this would have happened if they didn’t bully Penn. If you and Jensen hadn’t chosen them over Penn. You all forced me to do this, because I had to somehow make it right. You all made me do this. So I created a list—a dead list.”
My thoughts whirled with the reveal. Penn never killed himself. It had been Gavin—Penn had been his first victim. All that guilt . . . none of it mattered now.
Self-preservation consumed me.
I stretched out my arm as I fought to get him to let go of my other, hoping that would distract him. The tips of my fingers brushed the handle of the pitcher as the edges of my vision started to turn black. Blood rushed into my ears, drowning out whatever crazy crap Gavin was spewing. My fingers wrapped around the handle.
“And I think you know this already,” Gavin said. “You’re on it.”
I swung the pitcher at his head, the impact shattering the ceramic. Bits of sharp pieces flew in my face and across the room. His hands loosened immediately, and I sucked in air as he rolled off the bed, hitting the floor.
Scrambling from the bed, I hit the call button as I backed up. The IV in my hand caught and then ripped free, but I barely felt the pain.
Gavin climbed to his feet as I edged away, through the curtains. He charged forward, blood running in rivulets down his face.
“That’s the second time you’ve hit me in the head, Ella. That’s not very nice.”
“You’re trying to kill me,” I gasped out.
His eyes narrowed. “Good point.”
And then he leaped forward.
I didn’t think as I raised the part of the pitcher that had remained intact, the handle and its ragged, wickedly sharp edges. Gavin smacked into me—into the broken handle. Red gushed everywhere.
He stumbled a step, his arms rising to his slashed throat. He looked at me with eyes wide, as if he couldn’t believe what I’d done. Then his mouth opened like he was trying to speak, but nothing but blood came out.
Gavin smiled as his legs buckled and his knees hit the floor.
I backed up until I hit the wall behind me. My legs gave out and I slid down the wall, clutching the jagged piece of ceramic in my trembling hand, shaking all over as I watched the puddle of dark blood under Gavin spread further.
The four of us lay side by side on the floor of the tree house, staring up at the bright and dewy green leaves. I was sandwiched between Penn and Jensen, and Gavin was on Penn’s other side. I really had no idea what any of us were doing, but I was happy and I was smiling.
“What do you guys want to do when you grow up?” Penn asked, tapping his fingers off his belly.
Gavin made a choking laughing sound. “Not clean offices, that’s for sure.”
I didn’t think cleaning offices and houses was that bad. His parents seemed to enjoy doing it.
“Then what?” Penn persisted.
“I don’t know,” he grumbled. “It’s a stupid question.”
Jensen elbowed me in the side as he said, “It’s not a stupid question. I want to be a coach or maybe a teacher. I could be both.”
“Oh man, that really is lame. A teacher?” Gavin laughed again. “You’d be stuck in school forever.”
“So what?” Jensen tilted his head, and I could tell that he was grinning. “You get summers off.”