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“You look absolutely beautiful, Katrin.”

I turn from the refrigerator at the sound of my mother’s voice, grasping a too-warm seltzer and stepping closer to the foyer so I have a clear view of the staircase. Katrin’s descending it like royalty in a red dress, her hair pulled back in some kind of complicated twist. She looks better than she has all week, but she still doesn’t have her usual sparkle. There’s something brittle about her face.

The neckline on her dress dips low, displaying a lot more cleavage than Katrin usually shows. It should be distracting, but even that doesn’t derail the train of thought that’s been running through my brain since yesterday afternoon.

What do you know? What did you do?

“Whoa.” Katrin’s boyfriend, Theo, doesn’t have the same problem. His eyes zero in on her chest until he remembers that her dad’s in the room. “You look amazing.” I can’t see Peter, but his voice is full of forced heartiness. “Let’s get some pictures of the four of you.” That’s my cue to leave. Katrin and Theo are doubling to homecoming with two of my least favorite people at Echo Ridge High: Kyle McNulty and Viv Cantrell. It’s not a date, Katrin explained to my mother. Just two people who are worried about Brooke, coming together while the town tries to hang on to some kind of normal. From the glimpse I saw of Kyle when they arrived, he looks as though he got talked into it and already regrets saying yes.

All the money raised from selling homecoming tickets is going toward a reward fund for information leading to Brooke’s safe return. Most of the businesses in town are giving matching donations, and Peter’s law firm is doubling theirs.

I retreat into the study while everyone poses. Mia’s still going with Ezra, and she was texting me until an hour ago trying to convince me to ask Ellery. Under different circumstances I probably would have. But I couldn’t get Katrin’s words out of my head: I’d better not see you there. She’s backed off on treating me like a criminal, but I know that’s what everyone at school is thinking. I don’t care enough about a pointless dance to deal with three hours of getting whispered about and judged.

Besides, I’m not sure I can act normal around my stepsister right now.

I haven’t told anyone what we found yesterday. Despite the wild theories, all it really amounts to is a receipt with questionable contact information. Still, it’s been eating at me all day, making it almost impossible to look at Katrin without the words bursting out of me: What do you know? What did you do?

The murmur of voices in the foyer grows louder as Katrin and her friends get ready to leave for the dance. Pretty soon, only Peter and Mom will be home. Suddenly, the last thing in the world I want to do is spend a Saturday night alone with my thoughts. Before I second-guess myself too much, I fire off a text to Ellery. Do you want to hang out tonight? Watch a movie or something?

I don’t know if she’ll be up for it, or if her grandmother will even let her. But Ellery replies within a few minutes, and the vise gripping my chest loosens a little when I read her response.

Yeah, sure.

Turns out, if you invite a girl over on homecoming night, your mother will read into it.

Mom flutters around Ellery with zero chill after her grandmother drops her off at our house. “Do you two want popcorn? I can make some. Are you going to be in the den, or the living room? The den is more comfortable, probably, but I don’t think that television has Netflix. Maybe we could set it up real quick, Peter?” Peter puts a hand on her shoulder, like that’ll stop her from spinning out. “I’m sure Malcolm will let us know if he has any pressing technological requirements.” He gives Ellery the full Peter Nilsson smile experience as she unwinds a scarf from around her neck and stuffs it into her bag. “Very nice to meet you, Ellery. Your mother was one of my favorite people in town while she was here.” He gives a self-deprecating laugh. “I even took her to the movies a couple of times, although I think I bored her to tears. I hope she’s doing well, and that you’re enjoying your time in Echo Ridge, even though …” A shadow passes over his face. “We’re not at our best right now.” I keep my expression neutral to hide how much I wish he’d shut up. Way to remind everyone that half the town thinks I did something to Brooke. Which I guess is the other reason I didn’t ask Ellery to homecoming. I’m not sure she’d say yes.

“I know,” Ellery says. “We moved here at a strange time. Everyone’s been really nice, though.” She smiles at me, and my bad mood lifts. Her hair is long and loose around her shoulders, the way I like it. I didn’t realize till now that I had a preference, but it turns out I do.

“Can I get you something to drink?” Mom asks. “We have seltzer, or juice, or—” She looks ready to document the entire contents of our refrigerator, but Peter starts gently steering her toward the balcony staircase before Ellery can reply. Thank God.

“Malcolm knows where everything is, Alicia. Why don’t we finish up the Burns documentary upstairs?” He favors me with a smile almost as warm as the one he gave Ellery. It doesn’t reach his eyes, but points for trying, I guess. “Give us a shout if you need anything.” “Sorry,” I say when the sound of their footsteps on the stairs has faded. “Mom’s a little rusty at the meeting-new-friends thing. You want some popcorn?” “Sure,” she says, and grins. Her dimple flashes, and I’m happy I texted her.

I lead her into the kitchen, where she hops onto a stool in front of the island. I open the cabinet next to the sink and root around until I find a box of microwave popcorn. “And don’t worry, your mom’s cool. Your stepfather, too.” She sounds surprised as she says it, as if she wasn’t expecting that from Katrin’s dad.

“He’s all right,” I say grudgingly, extracting a bag of popcorn and tossing it into the microwave.

Ellery winds a curl around her finger. “You don’t talk about your dad much. Do you see him, or … ?” She hesitates, like she’s not one hundred percent sure he’s even still alive.

The sound of popping kernels fills the air. “Not really. He lives in southern Vermont now, near Massachusetts. I spent a week there over the summer. Mostly he emails sports-related articles under the mistaken assumption that I’ll find them interesting. Peter tries a little harder than that.” When I say it, it surprises me to realize it’s true. “He talks a lot about college, what I want to do after, stuff like that.” “What do you want to do?” Ellery asks.

The popping sounds slow. I pull the bag from the microwave and tear it open, releasing a cloud of buttery steam. “I don’t have a clue,” I admit. “What about you?” “I’m not sure. I have this idea that I’d like to be a lawyer, but— I don’t know if it’s realistic. I didn’t even think till this year that college was a thing that might happen. Sadie never could have sent us. But my grandmother keeps talking about it like she will.” “Same for me, with Peter,” I say. “You know he’s a lawyer, right? I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to you about it. Fair warning, though—ninety percent of his job sounds really boring. Although maybe that’s just him.” She laughs. “Noted. I might take you up on that.” My back is to her as I hunt in a cabinet for a popcorn bowl, and when she speaks again her voice is much quieter. “It’s weird, but for the longest time I almost couldn’t … see myself in the future,” she says. “I’d think about what happened to my aunt and imagine that one of us, out of me and my brother, might not make it all the way through high school. Like only one Corcoran twin gets to move on. And Ezra’s so much more like my mom than I am, so …” I turn to see her staring out our kitchen window into the darkness, her expression reflective. Then she shivers, and flashes me an apologetic grimace. “Sorry. That got morbid fast.” “We have screwed-up family histories,” I tell her. “Morbidity comes with the territory.” I lead her into the Nilssons’ living room and lower myself into one corner of the sofa, the bowl of popcorn next to me. She curls up beside it and hands me my drink. “What do you want to watch?” I ask, flicking on the remote and scrolling through the channel guide.

“I don’t care,” Ellery says. She plucks a small handful of popcorn from the bowl between us. “I’m just glad to be out of my house for the night.” My channel-hopping lands us on the first Defender movie. It’s past the part where Sadie appears, but I keep it there in her honor anyway. “Yeah, I get it. I keep thinking how it was almost exactly a week ago that I dropped Brooke off.” I unscrew the top of my seltzer. “I’ve been meaning to thank you, by the way. For, you know. Believing me.” Ellery’s liquid dark eyes hold mine. “It’s been an awful week for you, hasn’t it?” “I saw what Declan went through, remember?” Images of a futuristic city with dark, rain-slicked streets flash across the screen in front of us. The hero is on the ground, cowering as a couple of muscle-bound, leather-clad guys loom over him. He’s not half-cyborg yet, so he’s about to get his ass kicked. “This was better.” Ellery shifts beside me. “But he had a whole history with Lacey. It’s not like you were Brooke’s boyfriend, or …” She hesitates briefly. “Her best friend.” We managed to go almost fifteen minutes without poking the elephant in the room. Good for us, I guess.

“Do you think we should show the police what we found?” I ask.

Ellery chews her lip. “I don’t know. I’m kind of worried about how I got it, to be honest. And it might look sketchy to have you involved. Plus I still don’t trust Ryan Rodriguez.” She frowns at the television screen. “Something’s off with that guy.” “There are other police officers,” I say. But Officer McNulty is the lead on this case, and the thought of talking to him again makes my stomach churn.

“The thing is … I’ve been wondering about something.” Ellery picks up the remote like she’s about to change the channel, but juggles it meditatively in her hand instead. “Assuming our leap of logic is right and Katrin actually”—she lowers her voice to a near whisper—“ran over Mr. Bowman. Do you think, um, that’s all she did?” I try to swallow a piece of popcorn, but I can’t. My throat is too dry. I take a deep gulp of my drink before answering Ellery, and while I do, I think about Katrin gliding down our stairs today with that masklike expression. The way she’d thrown me under the bus when I was first questioned. The scared look in her eyes the day of Peter’s search party. “What do you mean?” “Well.” Ellery says the word slowly, reluctantly, like someone’s prying it out of her. “I should probably preface this by saying … I think about crime a lot. Like, an abnormal amount. I get that. It’s sort of a problem. So you have to take what I say with a grain of salt, because I’m just this … naturally suspicious person, I guess.” “You suspected me, right? For a while.” Ellery freezes, eyes wide. Shit, I didn’t mean to come out with that. I almost apologize and change the subject. But I don’t, because now that I’ve said it, I want to hear her response.

“I … I honestly hate that I’m like this, Mal.” I think that might be the first time she’s ever called me by my nickname, but before I can process that momentous occasion, I’m horrified to see her eyes water. “It’s just— I grew up never knowing what happened to my aunt. Nobody would tell me anything, so I’d read terrible crime stories to try to understand. But all that did was make me more confused and paranoid. Now I’m at the point where I feel like I can’t trust anybody who’s not my literal twin.” A tear slips down her cheek. She drops the remote onto the couch to swipe angrily at her cheek, leaving a red mark on her pale skin. “I don’t know how to relate to people. Like, I pretty much only ever had one friend before I moved here. Then I met you and Mia, and you guys were so great, but all this happened and … I’m sorry. I didn’t really think that about you, but I did … think about it. If that makes sense. It probably doesn’t.” A knot releases in my chest. “It does. It’s okay. Look, I get it.” I gesture around the room. “Check out my big homecoming night. Not sure if you noticed, but I have only one friend, too. I said it in the kitchen, right? We have screwed-up family histories. It’s crap most of the time, but it does mean I understand you. And I … like you.” I move the popcorn bowl onto the coffee table and put a tentative arm around her. She sighs and leans into me. I mean it as a friendly hug, mostly, but her hair’s tumbling across one eye, so I push it back, and before I know it both my hands are cupping her cheeks. Which feels really good. Ellery’s eyes are steady on mine, her lips curved in a small, questioning smile. I draw her face closer and before I can overthink it, I kiss her.

Her mouth is soft and warm and just a little bit buttery. Heat spreads through me slowly as she slides her hand up my chest and around the back of my neck. Then she nips lightly at my bottom lip, and the heat turns into an electric jolt. I wrap my arms around her and pull her half on my lap, kissing her lips and the skin between her jaw and her collarbone. She pushes me back against the pillows and molds her body to mine and, holy hell, this night is going a lot better than I expected.

A loud, clattering noise makes both of us freeze. Somehow we dislodged the remote and sent it flying across the floor. Ellery sits up just as my mother’s voice, which is much too close for someone who’s supposed to be upstairs, calls, “Malcolm? Is everything all right?” Crap. She’s in the kitchen. Ellery and I disentangle as I call, “Fine. We just dropped the remote.” We put a foot between us on the couch, both of us red-faced with sheepish grins, waiting for my mother’s response.

“Oh, okay. I’m making hot chocolate, do you want some?”

“No thanks,” I say, as Ellery tries to get her curls under control. My hands are itching to mess them up again.

“What about you, Ellery?” Mom asks.

“I’m all set, thanks.” Ellery says, biting her lip.

“All right.” I wait an endless minute for my mother to go back upstairs, but before it’s up Ellery has scooted all the way to the other end of the couch.

“It’s probably good we were interrupted,” she says, going even redder. “I feel like maybe I should tell you my theory before … anything.” My brain isn’t working all that well right now. “Tell me your what?”

“My criminal theory.”

“Your— Oh. Yeah, that.” I suck in a breath for composure and adjust my position on the couch. “It’s not about me, though, right?” “Definitely not,” she says. “But it is about Katrin. And how I think that if we’re right about Mr. Bowman, maybe that was just the beginning of, um, things.” She winds a strand of hair around her finger, which I’m starting to realize is never a good sign. I still can’t wrap my brain around Katrin possibly running over Mr. Bowman; I’m not sure I’m ready for more things. But I’ve spent the past five years avoiding conversations about Lacey and Declan, and that never solved anything.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Well. If we go back to the receipt, we’re pretty sure Brooke knew about the accident, right? She was either in the car when it happened, or Katrin told her after.” Ellery releases her hair to start pulling on her necklace. “Katrin must’ve been terrified about people finding out. It’s one thing to have an accident, but to leave afterward without stopping to help … she’d be a pariah at school, plus it’d ruin her dad’s standing in town. Not to mention the criminal charges. So she decided to cover it up. And Brooke agreed to help, but I think she must have regretted that. She always looked so worried and sad. Ever since I met her, which was right after Mr. Bowman died. Unless she was always like that?” “No,” I say, my stomach twisting as I think of Brooke’s smiling class picture on the MISSING poster. “She wasn’t.” “And then in the Fright Farm office, she kept saying things like, I shouldn’t have, I have to tell them, it’s not okay. Which makes me think she felt guilty.” Pressure clamps down on my skull. “She asked me if I’d ever made a really bad mistake.” Ellery’s eyes widen. “She did? When?”

“In the office. While you were looking for Ezra. She said …” I search my memory, but the exact words won’t come. “Something about making a mistake that wasn’t, like, a regular mistake. And that she wished she had different friends.” Ellery nods seriously. “That fits,” she says.

I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know, but I ask anyway. “With what?”

“Lots of things. Starting with the vandalism,” Ellery says. I blink at her, startled. “The messages didn’t appear until after Katrin repaired her car. She got it back on September second, and Lacey’s fund-raiser was September fourth, right?” I nod, and Ellery continues, “I kept thinking about what it must’ve been like for Katrin then, with the whole town mourning Mr. Bowman and looking for answers. She was probably walking on eggshells, terrified of getting found out or giving herself away. So I thought, what if Katrin was the one who started the vandalism?” “Why would she do that?” I can’t keep the disbelieving edge out of my voice.

Ellery runs a fingernail along the floral pattern of the couch, refusing to look at me. “As a distraction,” she says quietly. “The whole town started focusing on the threats instead of what happened to Mr. Bowman.” I feel a stab of nausea, because she’s not wrong. The Homecoming Stalker made Mr. Bowman’s hit-and-run fade into the background a lot faster than should have been possible for such a popular teacher. “But why pull you into it?” I ask. “And herself, and Brooke?” “Well, Katrin and Brooke make sense because if they’re targets, nobody would think they’re involved. Me, I don’t know.” Ellery keeps tracing the pattern, her eyes trained on her hand like if she loses concentration for even a second, the entire couch will disappear. “Maybe I was just a way to … thicken the intrigue, or something. Because my family is loosely tied to tragic homecomings, too, even though Sadie was the queen and not Sarah.” “How would Katrin even do it, though? She was in the cultural center when the sign got vandalized,” I point out. “And onstage with the rest of the cheerleaders when the screen started flashing all that stuff at Fright Farm.” “The screen could’ve been set up beforehand. But for the rest … she’d have needed help, I guess. Brooke was already pulled in, and Viv and Theo would do anything Katrin says, wouldn’t they? Or was there a time at the cultural center when you lost sight of her?” “I mean … yeah.” I think of Katrin slipping away as soon as all eyes turned toward my mother and me. Oh, there’s Theo. How long was she gone? I rub a hand across my temple like that’ll help me remember. It doesn’t. The more Ellery and I talk, the more agitated I feel. “Maybe. But if I’m being honest, it’s kind of a stretch, Ellery. And it still doesn’t explain what happened to Brooke.” “That’s what I’m worried about,” Ellery says in the same low voice. “I keep thinking that while Katrin was distracting the town, Brooke was working up the courage to tell people what happened. And she wanted to get the proof back. What if Katrin knew that and … did something to keep her quiet?” A chill settles over me. “Like what?”

“I don’t know. And I really, really hope I’m wrong.” Ellery speaks quickly, in a rush, like she hates what she’s saying but needs to get it out anyway. “But Katrin had motive. She had opportunity. That’s two out of the three things you need to commit a crime.” My stomach feels like lead. “What’s the third?”

“You have to be the kind of person who would do something like that.” Ellery finally looks up, her expression pensive.

“Katrin wouldn’t.” The words spring out of me without thought.

“Even if she thought she’d lose everything?” I’m not as quick to speak this time, and Ellery presses on, “It might explain why she threw out that random accusation about you and Brooke, right? Anything to deflect.” “But, Ellery … Christ, what are you even talking about here?” My voice drops to a tense whisper. “Kidnapping? Worse? I can get on board with the rest of it, sort of. The hit-and-run, even planting all those messages around town. That’s extreme, but I can imagine someone doing it under pressure. Making Brooke actually … go missing is a whole other level.” “I know,” Ellery says. “Katrin would either have to be so desperate that she lost all sense of right or wrong, or be a cold-blooded criminal.” She’s back to tracing patterns on the sofa again. “You’ve lived with her for a few months. Do you see a possibility for either of those?” “No way. Katrin leads a charmed life.” But even as I say it, I know it’s not entirely true. Peter might dote on Katrin, but in the four months I’ve lived here I’ve barely heard anything about the first Mrs. Nilsson. Katrin doesn’t just not talk to her mother, she doesn’t talk about her. It’s almost like she has only one parent. It’s one of the few things we have in common. It sucks, but it doesn’t mean you’re warped for life. Probably.

Ellery and I are silent for a few minutes, watching the robotically enhanced Defender mow down his former nemesis. That’s what made this series so popular, I think: that a regular guy who’s constantly beaten down could suddenly become special and powerful. In Hollywood, no plotline is impossible. Maybe Ellery’s spent too much time in that world.

Or maybe I don’t know my stepsister at all.

“If any of it’s true, you’d think she’d make another move with the anonymous threats, wouldn’t you?” I finally ask. “They stopped when Brooke disappeared. If you wanted to distract people, now would be the time.” The TV screen flickers as the Defender extinguishes all the lights on a city block. “Right now, actually. At homecoming.” Ellery sends me a cautious look. “You know, I was thinking that, but … I didn’t want to say anything. I kind of feel like I’ve already said too much.” “I don’t like hearing it,” I admit. “But … there’s a lot about Katrin lately that doesn’t fit. Maybe we should pay more attention to what she’s up to. And where she is.” Ellery raises her brows. “Do you think we should go to homecoming?”

“We could.” I glance at the clock on the cable box. “It’s been going on for less than an hour. Still plenty of time for her to make a move, if she’s going to.” Ellery gestures at her black shirt and jeans. “I’m not exactly dressed for it.” “Do you have anything at home that could work? We could stop there first.” “Nothing super formal, but … I guess so.” She looks uncertain. “Are you sure, though? I feel like I kind of sprang a lot on you at once. Maybe you should let it sink in for a while.” I give her a half grin. “Are you trying to get out of going to homecoming with me?” She flushes. “No! I just … it’s, um … huh.” I’ve never seen her at a loss for words before. It’s cute. Ellery might be a walking Forensic Files episode, but there’s still something about her that I can’t stop thinking about. Lots of things.

It’s not just that, though. Earlier today it seemed like a no-brainer to stay home. All I wanted was to keep my head down and avoid conflict. Except now I’m stuck here watching a bad ’90s movie like I have something to be ashamed of, while Katrin—who at the very least has been shady about her car—put on a bright-red dress and went to a party.

I’m tired of watching my life turn into Declan Part Two. And I’m tired of doing nothing while my friends try to figure out how to dig me out of trouble I shouldn’t even be in.

“Then let’s go,” I say.

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