فصل 14کتاب: دو نفر میتوانند رازنگهدار باشند / فصل 14
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SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 28
The text from Declan comes as I’m walking against the departing crowds at Fright Farm Saturday night: In town for a few hours. Don’t freak out.
I almost text back I’m at the scene of your alleged crime. Don’t freak out, but manage to restrain myself to a simple What for? Which he ignores. I stuff the phone back in my pocket. If Declan’s been paying attention to the local news, he knows about last night’s pep rally turned stalker sideshow. I hope he was in New Hampshire surrounded by people when all that went down, or he’s only going to make the speculation worse.
Not my problem. Tonight I’m just the chauffeur, collecting Ellery and Ezra after work. No way is their grandmother letting them walk through the woods after what happened last night. To be honest, I’m a little surprised she agreed to let me pick them up, but Ellery says closing is two hours past Mrs. Corcoran’s usual bedtime.
I expect the House of Horrors to be empty, but music and laughter spill out toward me as I approach the building. The entire park was built around this house, an old Victorian at the edge of what used to be another wooded area. I’ve seen pictures of it before it became a theme park attraction, and it was always stately but worn-looking—as if its turrets were about to crumble, or the steps leading up to the wide porch would collapse if you stepped on them wrong. It still looks like that, but now it’s all part of the atmosphere.
I haven’t been here since I was ten, when Declan and his friends brought me. They took off when we were halfway through, like the assholes they were, and I had to go through the rest of the house on my own. Every single room freaked me out. I had nightmares for weeks about a guy in a bloody bathtub with stumps for legs.
My brother laughed when I finally stumbled out of the House of Horrors, snotty-nosed and terrified. Don’t be such a wuss, Mal. None of it’s real.
The music gets louder as I climb the steps and turn the doorknob. It doesn’t budge, and there’s no bell. I knock a few times, which feels weird, like, who do I expect to answer the door at a haunted house, exactly? Nobody does, so I head back down the stairs and edge around to the back. When I turn the corner, I see concrete steps leading down to a door that’s wedged open with a piece of wood. I descend the stairs and push the door open.
I’m in a basement room that looks like it’s part dressing room, part staff room. The space is large, dimly lit, and cluttered with shelves and clothes racks. A vanity with an oversized bulb mirror is shoved to one side, its surface covered with jars and bottles. Two cracked leather couches line the walls, with a glass-topped end table between them. There’s a closet-sized bathroom to the left, and a half-open door in front of me that leads into a small office.
I’m hovering a few steps inside, searching for a way upstairs, when a hand pushes open a frayed velvet curtain on the opposite end of the room. The sudden movement makes me gasp like a scared kid, and the girl who steps through the curtain laughs. She’s almost as tall as I am, dressed in a tight black tank top that shows off intricate tattoos against brown skin. She looks like she could be a few years older than me. “Boo,” she says, then crosses her arms and cocks her head. “Party crasher?” I blink, confused. “What?”
She tsks. “Don’t play innocent with me. I’m the makeup artist. I know everybody, and you are trespassing.” I half open my mouth to protest, then close it as her stern look dissolves into a wide smile. “I’m just messing with you. Go upstairs, find your friends.” She crosses over to a minifridge next to the vanity and pulls out a couple bottles of water, pointing one toward me like a warning. “But this is a dry party, understand? Whole thing’ll get shut down if we gotta deal with a bunch of drunk teenagers. Especially after what happened last night.” “Sure. Right,” I say, trying to sound like I know what she’s talking about. Ellery and Ezra didn’t say anything about a party. The tall girl sweeps aside the velvet curtain to let me through.
I climb a set of stairs into another hallway that opens into a dungeon-like room. I recognize the room immediately from my last visit inside, with Declan, but it looks a lot less sinister filled with party guests. A few people are still partly in costume, with masks off or pushed up on their foreheads. One guy’s holding a rubber head under his arm while he talks to a girl in a witch’s dress.
A hand tugs at my sleeve. I look down to see short, bright-red nails and follow them up to a face. It’s Viv and she’s talking, but I can’t hear what she’s saying over the music. I cup a hand to my ear, and she raises her voice. “I didn’t know you worked at Fright Farm.” “I don’t,” I say back.
Viv frowns. She’s drenched in some kind of strawberry perfume that doesn’t smell bad, exactly, but reminds me of something a little kid would wear. “Then why did you come to the staff party?” “I didn’t know there was a party,” I answer. “I’m just picking up Ellery and Ezra.” “Well, good timing. I’ve been wanting to talk to you.” I eye her warily. I’ve seen Viv almost every week since I moved into the Nilssons’, but we’ve barely exchanged a dozen words the entire time. Our entire relationship, if you can call it that, is based on not wanting to talk to one another. “Can I interview you for my next article?” she asks.
I don’t know what she’s angling for, but it can’t be good. “Why?”
“I’m doing this ‘Where Are They Now?’ series on Lacey’s murder. I thought it would be interesting to get the perspective of someone who was on the sidelines when it happened, what with your brother being a person of interest and all. We could—” “Are you out of your mind?” I cut her off. “No.”
Viv lifts her chin. “I’m going to write it anyway. Don’t you want to give your side? It might make people more sympathetic to Declan, to hear from his brother.” I turn away without answering. Viv was front and center in the local news coverage of the pep rally stunt, getting interviewed like some kind of Echo Ridge crime expert. She’s been in Katrin’s shadow for so long, there’s no way she’s letting her moment in the spotlight go. But I don’t have to help extend her fifteen minutes of fame.
I shoulder through the crowd and finally spot Ellery. She’s hard to miss—her hair is teased into a black cloud around her head and her eyes are so heavily made up that they seem to take up half her face. She looks like some kind of goth anime character. I’m not sure what it says about me that I’m kind of into it.
She catches my eye and waves me over. She’s standing with a guy a few years older than us with a man-bun, a goatee, and a tight henley shirt with the buttons undone. The whole look screams college guy trolling for high school girls, and I hate him instantly. “Hey,” Ellery says when I reach them. “So apparently there’s a party tonight.” “I noticed,” I say with a glare toward Man Bun.
He’s not fazed. “House of Horrors tradition,” he explains. “It’s always on the Saturday closest to the owner’s birthday. I can’t stay, though. Got a toddler at home that never sleeps. I have to give my wife a break.” He swipes at his face and turns to Ellery. “Is all the blood off?” Ellery peers at him. “Yeah, you’re good.”
“Thanks. See ya later,” the guy says, and starts pushing his way through the crowd.
“So long,” I say, watching him leave with a lot less venom now that I know he wasn’t hitting on Ellery. “The blood he’s referring to is makeup, right?” Ellery laughs. “Yeah. Darren spends all night in a bloody bathtub. Some people don’t bother washing their makeup off till they get home, but he tried that once and terrified his child. Poor kid might be scarred for life.” I shudder. “I was scarred for life going through that room, and I was ten.” Ellery’s giant anime eyes get even wider. “Who brought you here when you were ten?” “My brother,” I say.
“Ah.” Ellery looks thoughtful. Like she can see into the secret corner of my brain that I try not to visit often, because it’s where my questions about what really happened between Declan and Lacey live. That corner makes me equal parts horrified and ashamed, because every once in a while, it imagines my brother losing control of his hair-trigger temper at exactly the wrong moment.
I swallow hard and push the thought aside. “I’m kind of surprised they’d have this after what happened last night.” Ellery gazes around us. “I know, right? But hey, everyone here works in a Halloween theme park. They don’t scare easy.” “Do you want to stay for a while?”
She looks regretful. “Better not. Nana didn’t even want us to work tonight. She’s pretty freaked out.” “Are you?” I ask.
“I …” She hesitates, pulling on a strand of teased hair and winding it around her finger. “I want to say no, because I hate the fact that some anonymous creep can rattle me. But yeah. I am. It’s just too … close, you know?” She shivers as someone squeezes past her in a Scream mask. “I keep having these conversations with my mother where she has no idea what’s going on, and all I can think is—no wonder she never wanted to bring us here. Her twin sister disappears, her favorite babysitter’s daughter is murdered, and now this? It’s enough to make you feel like the whole town is cursed.” “Your mother doesn’t know about—anything?” I ask.
“No. We’re only supposed to have uplifting communication with her.” She releases her hair. “You know she’s in rehab, right? I figured the entire town knows.” “They do,” I admit. She snort-laughs, but the sadness behind it tugs at my chest. “I’m sorry you’re dealing with that. And I’m sorry about your aunt. I’ve been meaning to tell you that. I know it all happened way before we were born, but … that sucks. In a massively stating-the-obvious sort of way.” Ellery drops her eyes. “I’m pretty sure it’s why we wound up here. I don’t think Sadie’s ever dealt with it. No closure, no nothing. I didn’t connect the dots when Lacey died, but that’s when things started going downhill. Must’ve brought bad memories too close to the surface. So it’s sort of ironic that she’s in the dark now, but—what can you do?” She lifts her water bottle in a mock salute. “Three cheers to uplifting communication. Anyway. We should probably find Ezra, huh? He said he was going downstairs to get some water.” We make our way out of the crowded dungeon and take the staircase down to the staff room, but there’s no sign of Ezra there. It’s cooler than it was upstairs, but I’m still overheated and a little thirsty. I cross over to the minifridge and take out two bottles of water, putting one on the vanity and offering the other to Ellery.
“Thanks.” She reaches out a hand, but our timing’s off; I let go before she’s grasped it fully, and it falls to the floor between us. When we both reach for it, we almost knock heads. Ellery laughs and puts a hand on my chest.
“I have it,” she says, and picks it up. She straightens, and even in the dim lighting I can see how red her cheeks are. “We’re so graceful, aren’t we?” “That was my fault,” I say. The whole exchange has left us standing closer than we need to be, but neither of us moves away. “Bad handoff. You can see why I never made it as a football player.” She smiles and tilts her head up and, holy hell, her eyes are pretty.
“Thanks,” she murmurs, getting redder.
Oh. I said that out loud.
She moves a little closer, brushing against my hip, and an electric charge runs through me. Are we … should I … Don’t be such a wuss, Mal.
God. Of all times to hear my brother’s stupid voice.
I reach out a hand and trace my thumb along Ellery’s jaw. Her skin is just as soft as I thought it would be. Her lips part, I swallow hard, and just then there’s a loud scratching noise behind us and somebody says, “Damn it!” in a frustrated tone.
Ellery and I break apart, and she twists to face the office. She’s across the room in a second, easing open the cracked door. Brooke Bennett is slumped on the floor, wedged between the desk and some kind of giant recycling bin. Ellery goes to her and crouches down.
“Brooke? Are you okay?” she asks.
Brooke’s hair hangs in her face, and when she pushes it aside she nearly stabs herself in the eye with something small and silvery. Ellery reaches over and takes it from her. I can see form the doorway that it’s a paper clip, pulled open and unfurled so its edges are exposed. Another one just like it rests on the floor next to her. “This is harder than he said it would be,” Brooke says, her voice slurring.
“Who said?” Ellery asks, setting both paper clips on the desk. “What’s hard?” Brooke snickers. “That’s what she said.”
It looks like nobody gave Brooke the heads-up about tonight being a dry party. “Do you want some water?” I ask, holding out my untouched bottle.
Brooke takes it from me and unscrews the cap. She takes a greedy gulp, spilling some water down her front, before handing it back. “Thanks, Malcolm. You’re so nice. The nicest person in your entire house. By a lot.” She wipes her mouth on her sleeve and focuses on Ellery. “You look different. Are those your real eyes?” Ellery and I glance at each other and we both suppress a laugh. Drunk Brooke is kind of entertaining. “What are you doing down here?” Ellery asks. “Do you want to come upstairs?” “No.” Brooke shakes her head vehemently. “I need to get it back. I shouldn’t have … I just shouldn’t have. I have to show them. It’s not right, it’s not okay.” “Show them what?” I ask. “What happened?”
Sudden tears spring into her eyes. “That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? What happened?” She puts a finger to her lips and shushes loudly. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” “Is this about the pep rally?” Ellery asks.
“No.” Brooke hiccups and holds her stomach. “Ugh. I don’t feel so good.” I grab a nearby wastebasket and hold it out. “Do you need this?”
Brooke takes it, but just stares listlessly at the bottom. “I want to go home.” “Do you want us to find Kyle?”
“Kyle and I are over,” Brooke says, waving her hand as though she just made him disappear. “And he’s not here anyway.” She sighs. “Viv drove me, but I don’t want to see her right now. She’ll just lecture me.” “I can give you a ride,” I offer.
“Thanks,” Brooke slurs.
Ellery stands and plucks at my sleeve. “I’m going to find Ezra. Be right back.” I crouch next to Brooke after Ellery leaves. “You want some more water?” I ask. Brooke waves me away, and for the life of me I can’t think of what to say next. Even after living with Katrin for four months, I’m still not comfortable around girls like Brooke. Too pretty, too popular. Too much like Lacey.
Minutes crawl by, until Brooke draws her knees up to her chest and lifts her eyes toward mine. They’re unfocused and ringed with dark circles. “Have you ever made a really bad mistake?” she asks quietly.
I pause, trying to catalog what’s going on with her so I can frame a good answer. “Well, yeah. Most days.” “No.” She shakes her head, then burrows her face in her arms. “I don’t mean regular stuff,” she says, her voice muffled. “I mean something you can’t take back.” I’m lost. I don’t know how to be helpful. “Like what?”
Her head is still down, and I have to edge closer to hear what she’s saying. “I wish I had different friends. I wish everything was different.” Footsteps approach, and I stand up as Ellery and Ezra poke their heads into the office. “Hey, Mal,” Ezra says, and then his gaze drops to Brooke. “Everything okay in here?” “I want to go home,” Brooke repeats, and I offer a hand to help her to her feet.
She revives a little when we get outside, and only needs occasional steadying as we make our way toward my mother’s Volvo. It’s the nicest car we’ve ever owned, courtesy of Peter, and I really hope Brooke doesn’t throw up in it. She seems to be thinking the same thing, and rolls down the window as soon as Ezra helps her into the passenger seat.
“What’s your address?” I ask as I climb in behind the wheel.
“Seventeen Briar Lane,” Brooke says. The far edge of town.
The twins slam the back doors and I turn to face them as they buckle themselves in. “You guys are right around the corner from here. I’ll drop you off first so your grandmother doesn’t worry.” “That’d be great, thanks,” Ellery says.
I back the Volvo out of its spot and head for the exit. “Sorry you had to leave the party,” Brooke says, scrunching down in her seat. “I shouldn’t have had anything to drink. Can’t hold it. That’s what Katrin always says.” “Yeah, well. Katrin doesn’t know everything.” It seems like the thing to say, even if she was right in this particular case.
“Hope not,” Brooke says in a low tone.
I glance at her before pulling onto the main road, but it’s too dark to read her expression. It sounds like she and Katrin are fighting, which is weird. I’ve never seen them on the outs, maybe because Brooke lets Katrin take the lead in everything. “We weren’t planning on staying anyway,” I reassure her.
It’s a quick trip to the Corcorans’ house, which is dark except for a single light blazing on the front porch.
“Looks like Nana’s asleep,” Ezra says, pulling a set of keys from his pocket. “I was worried she’d be waiting up. Thanks for the ride, Mal.” “Any time.”
Ezra opens the car door and gets out, waiting in the driveway for his sister. “Yeah, thanks Malcolm,” Ellery says, slinging her bag over one shoulder. “Talk to you soon.” “Tomorrow, maybe?” I blurt out, turning to face her. She pauses, her eyes questioning, and I freeze for a second. Did I imagine that I almost kissed her in the basement, or that it seemed like she wanted me to? Then I plow ahead anyway. “I mean—I could call you, or something. If you want to, you know, talk.” God. Real smooth.
But she gives me a full smile, dimple and all. “Yeah, definitely. That sounds good. Let’s talk.” Brooke clears her throat, and Ellery blinks. Like she’d forgotten for a few seconds that Brooke was in the car. I know I did. “Bye, Brooke,” Ellery says, climbing out the door that Ezra just exited.
“Bye,” Brooke says.
Ellery shuts the car door and turns to follow her brother up the drive. She passes Brooke’s open window just as Brooke sighs deeply and rubs a listless hand across her face. Ellery pauses and asks, “Are you going to be okay?” Brooke shifts to face her. She doesn’t speak for so long that Ellery frowns, darting concerned eyes toward me. Then Brooke lifts her shoulders in a shrug.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” she says.
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