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دانلود اپلیکیشن «زیبوک»

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My shirt’s stiff with too much starch. It practically crackles when I bend my arms to drape a tie around my neck. I watch my hands in the mirror, trying and failing to get the knot straight, and give up when it’s at least the right size. The mirror looks old and expensive, like everything in the Nilssons’ house. It reflects a bedroom that could fit three of my old one. And at least half of Declan’s apartment.

What’s it like living in that house? my brother asked last night, scraping the last of his birthday cake off a plate while Mom was in the bathroom. She’d brought a bunch of balloons that looked tiny in the Nilssons’ foyer, but kept batting Declan in the head in the cramped alcove he calls a kitchen.

Fucked up, I said. Which is true. But no more fucked up than the past five years have been. Declan’s spent most of them living four hours away in New Hampshire, renting a basement apartment from our aunt.

A sharp knock sounds at my bedroom door, and hinges squeak as my stepsister pokes her head in without waiting for an answer. “You ready?” she asks.

“Yep,” I say, picking up a blue suit coat from my bed and shrugging it on. Katrin tilts her head and frowns, ice-blond hair spilling over one shoulder. I know that look: There’s something wrong with you, and I’m about to tell you exactly what it is and how to fix it. I’ve been seeing it for months now.

“Your tie’s crooked,” she says, heels clicking on the floor as she walks toward me, hands outstretched. A crease appears between her eyes as she tugs at the knot, then disappears when she steps back to view her work. “There,” she says, patting my shoulder with a satisfied expression. “Much better.” Her hand skims down to my chest and she plucks a piece of lint from my suit coat in two pale-pink fingernails and lets it drop to the floor. “You clean up all right, Mal. Who would’ve thought?” Not her. Katrin Nilsson barely spoke to me until her father started dating my mother last winter. She’s the queen of Echo Ridge High, and I’m the band nerd with the disreputable family. But now that we live under the same roof, Katrin has to acknowledge my existence. She copes by treating me like either a project or a nuisance, depending on her mood.

“Let’s go,” she says, tugging lightly at my arm. Her black dress hugs her curves but stops right above her knees. She’d almost be conservative if she weren’t wearing tall, spiky heels that basically force you to look at her legs. So I do. My new stepsister might be a pain in the ass, but she’s undeniably hot.

I follow Katrin into the hallway to the balcony staircase overlooking the massive foyer downstairs. My mother and Peter are at the bottom waiting for us, and I drop my eyes because whenever they’re standing that close, his hands are usually someplace I don’t want to see. Katrin and her superjock boyfriend commit less PDA than those two.

But Mom’s happy, and I guess that’s good.

Peter looks up and takes a break from manhandling my mom. “Don’t you two look nice!” he calls out. He’s in a suit too, same dark blue as mine, except he gets his tailored so they fit him perfectly. Peter’s like one of those suave GQ watch ads come to life—square jaw, penetrating gaze, wavy blond hair with just enough gray to be distinguished. Nobody could believe he was interested in my mother when they first started dating. People were even more shocked when he married her.

He saved them. That’s what the entire town thinks. Peter Nilsson, the rich and charming owner of the only law firm in town, took us from town pariahs to town royalty with one tasteful justice of the peace ceremony at Echo Ridge Lake. And maybe he did. People don’t avoid my mother anymore, or whisper behind her back. She gets invited to the garden club, school committees, tonight’s fund-raiser, and all that other crap.

Doesn’t mean I have to like him, though.

“Nice having you back, Malcolm,” he adds, almost sounding like he means it. Mom and I have been gone a week, visiting family across a few towns in New Hampshire and then finishing up at Declan’s place. Peter and Katrin didn’t come. Partly because he had to work, and partly because neither of them leave Echo Ridge for anyplace without room service and a spa.

“Did you have dinner with Mr. Coates while we were gone?” I ask abruptly.

Peter’s nostrils flare slightly, which is the only sign of annoyance he ever shows. “I did, on Friday. He’s still getting his business up and running, but when the time is right he’d be happy to talk with Declan. I’ll keep checking in with him.” Ben Coates used to be mayor of Echo Ridge. After that, he left to run a political consulting business in Burlington. Declan is a few—okay, a lot—of credits short from finishing his poli-sci degree at community college, but he’s still hoping for an introduction. It’s the only thing he’s ever asked of Peter. Or of Mom, I guess, since Declan and Peter don’t really talk.

Mom beams at Peter, and I let it drop. Katrin steps forward, reaching out a hand to touch the twisted beaded necklace Mom’s wearing. “This is so pretty!” she exclaims. “Very bohemian. Such a nice change from all the pearls we’ll see tonight.” Mom’s smile fades. “I have pearls,” she says nervously, looking at Peter. “Should I—” “You’re fine,” he says quickly. “You look beautiful.”

I could kill Katrin. Not literally. I feel like I have to add that disclaimer even in my own thoughts, given our family history. But I don’t understand her constant need to make digs at Mom’s expense. It’s not like Mom broke up Katrin’s parents; she’s Peter’s third wife. Katrin’s mother was long gone to Paris with a new husband before Mom and Peter even went on their first date.

And Katrin has to know that Mom is nervous about tonight. We’ve never been to the Lacey Kilduff Memorial Scholarship fund-raiser before. Mostly because we’ve never been invited.

Or welcome.

Peter’s nostrils flare again. “Let’s head out, shall we? It’s getting late.” He opens the front door, stepping aside to let us through while pressing a button on his key chain. His black Range Rover starts idling in the driveway, and Katrin and I climb into the back. My mother settles herself in the passenger seat and flips the radio from the Top 40 station that Katrin likes to blast to NPR. Peter gets in last, buckling his seat belt before shifting the car into gear.

The Nilssons’ winding driveway is the longest part of the trip. After that, it’s a few quick turns and we’re in downtown Echo Ridge. So to speak. There’s not much to it—a row of white-trimmed redbrick buildings on either side of Manchester Street, lined with old-fashioned, wrought iron streetlights. It’s never crowded here, but it’s especially dead on a Wednesday night before school’s back in session. Half the town is still on vacation, and the other half is attending the fund-raiser in the Echo Ridge Cultural Center. That’s where anything notable at Echo Ridge happens, unless it happens at the Nilssons’ house.

Our house. Can’t get used to that.

Peter parallel parks on Manchester Street and we spill out of the car and onto the sidewalk. We’re right across the street from O’Neill’s Funeral Home, and Katrin heaves a sigh as we pass the pale-blue Victorian. “It’s too bad you were out of town for Mr. Bowman’s service,” she says. “It was really nice. The show choir sang ‘To Sir with Love’ and everybody lost it.” My gut twists. Mr. Bowman was my favorite teacher at Echo Ridge High, by a lot. He had this quiet way of noticing what you were good at, and encouraging you to get better. After Declan moved away and my dad took off, when I had a lot of pissed-off energy and nowhere to put it, he was the one who suggested I take up the drums. It makes me sick that somebody mowed him down and left him to die in the middle of the road.

“Why was he even out in a hailstorm?” I ask, because it’s easier to fixate on that than to keep feeling like shit.

“They found a Tupperware container near him,” Peter says. “One of the teachers at the funeral thought he might have been collecting hail for a lesson he was planning on climate change. But I guess we’ll never know for sure.” And now I feel worse, because I can picture it: Mr. Bowman leaving his house late at night with his umbrella and his plastic container, all enthusiastic because he was going to make science real. He said that kind of thing a lot.

After a couple of blocks, a gold-rimmed wooden sign welcomes us to the cultural center. It’s the most impressive of all the redbrick buildings, with a clock tower on top and wide steps leading to a carved wooden door. I reach for the door, but Peter’s faster. Always. You can’t out-gentleman that guy. Mom smiles gratefully at him as she steps through the entrance.

When we get inside, a woman directs us down a hallway to an open room that contains dozens of round tables. Some people are sitting down, but most of the crowd is still milling around and talking. A few turn toward us, and then, like human dominoes, they all do.

It’s the moment everyone in Echo Ridge has been waiting for: for the first time in five years, the Kellys have shown up at a night honoring Lacey Kilduff.

The girl who most people in town still believe my brother killed.

“Oh, there’s Theo,” Katrin murmurs, slipping away into the crowd toward her boyfriend. So much for solidarity. My mother licks her lips nervously. Peter folds her arm under his and pastes on a big, bright smile. For a second, I almost like the guy.

Declan and Lacey had been fighting for weeks before she died. Which wasn’t like them; Declan could be an arrogant ass a lot of the time, but not with his girlfriend. Then all of a sudden they were slamming doors, canceling dates, and sniping at each other over social media. Declan’s last, angry message on Lacey’s Instagram feed was the one that news stations showed over and over in the weeks after her body was found.

I’m so fucking done with you. DONE. You have no idea.

The crowd at the Echo Ridge Cultural Center is too quiet. Even Peter’s smile is getting a little fixed. The Nilsson armor is supposed to be more impenetrable than this. I’m about to say or do something desperate to cut the tension when a warm voice floats our way. “Hello, Peter. And Alicia! Malcolm! It’s good to see you both.” It’s Lacey’s mom, Melanie Kilduff, coming toward us with a big smile. She hugs my mother first, then me, and when she pulls back nobody’s staring anymore.

“Thanks,” I mutter. I don’t know what Melanie thinks about Declan; she’s never said. But after Lacey died, when it felt like the entire world hated my family, Melanie always made a point to be nice to us. Thanks doesn’t feel like enough, but Melanie brushes my arm like it’s too much before turning toward Mom and Peter.

“Please, have a seat wherever you’d like,” she says, gesturing toward the dining area. “They’re about to start serving dinner.” She leaves us, heading for a table with her family, her neighbor, and a couple of kids my age I’ve never seen before. Which is unusual enough in this town that I crane my neck for a better look. I can’t get a good glimpse of the guy, but the girl is hard to miss. She’s got wild curly hair that seems almost alive, and she’s wearing a weird flowered dress that looks like it came out of her grandmother’s closet. Maybe it’s retro, I don’t know. Katrin wouldn’t be caught dead in it. The girl meets my eyes, and I immediately look away. One thing I’ve learned from being Declan’s brother over the past five years: nobody likes it when a Kelly boy stares.

Peter starts toward the front of the room, but Katrin returns just then and tugs on his arm. “Can we sit at Theo’s table, Dad? There’s plenty of space.” He hesitates—Peter likes to lead, not follow—and Katrin puts on her most wheedling voice. “Please? I haven’t seen him all week, and his parents want to talk to you about that stoplight ordinance thing.” She’s good. There’s nothing Peter likes better than in-depth discussions about town council crap that would bore anybody else to tears. He smiles indulgently and changes course.

Katrin’s boyfriend, Theo, and his parents are the only people sitting at the ten-person table when we approach. I’ve gone to school with Theo since kindergarten, but as usual he looks right through me as he waves to someone over my shoulder. “Yo, Kyle! Over here.” Oh hell.

Theo’s best friend, Kyle, takes a seat between him and my mother, and the chair next to me scrapes as a big man with a graying blond buzz cut settles down beside me. Chad McNulty, Kyle’s father and the Echo Ridge police officer who investigated Lacey’s murder. Because this night wasn’t awkward enough already. My mother’s got that deer-in-the-headlights look she always gets around the McNultys, and Peter flares his nostrils at an oblivious Theo.

“Hello, Malcolm.” Officer McNulty unfolds his napkin onto his lap without looking at me. “How’s your summer been?” “Great,” I manage, taking a long sip of water.

Officer McNulty never liked my brother. Declan dated his daughter, Liz, for three months and dumped her for Lacey, which got Liz so upset that she dropped out of school for a while. In return, Kyle’s always been a dick to me. Standard small-town crap that got a lot worse once Declan became an unofficial murder suspect.

Waiters start moving around the room, putting plates of salad in front of everyone. Melanie steps behind a podium on the stage in front, and Officer McNulty’s jaw tenses. “That woman is a tower of strength,” he says, like he’s daring me to disagree.

“Thank you so much for coming,” Melanie says, leaning toward the microphone. “It means the world to Dan, Caroline, Julia, and me to see how much the Lacey Kilduff Memorial Scholarship fund has grown.” I tune the rest out. Not because I don’t care, but because it’s too hard to hear. Years of not being invited to these things means I haven’t built up much resistance. After Melanie finishes her speech, she introduces a University of Vermont junior who was the first scholarship recipient. The girl talks about her medical school plans as empty salad plates are replaced with the main course. When she’s done, everyone applauds and turns their attention to the food. I poke half-heartedly at my dry chicken while Peter holds court about stoplights. Is it too soon for a bathroom break?

“The thing is, it’s a delicate balance between maintaining town aesthetics and accommodating changing traffic patterns,” Peter says earnestly.

Nope. Not too soon. I stand, drop my napkin onto my chair, and take off.

When I’ve washed my hands as many times as I can stand, I exit the men’s room and hesitate in the corridor between the banquet hall and the front door. The thought of returning to that table makes my head pound. Nobody’s going to miss me for another few minutes.

I tug at my collar and push open the door, stepping outside into the darkness. It’s still muggy, but less stifling than inside. Nights like this make me feel like I can’t breathe, like everything my brother did, actual and alleged, settled over me when I was twelve years old and still weighs me down. I became Declan Kelly’s brother before I got a chance to be anything else, and sometimes it feels like that’s all I’ll ever be.

I inhale deeply, and pause when a faint chemical smell hits me. It gets stronger as I descend the stairs. I can’t see much, and almost trip over something lying in the grass. I bend down and pick it up. It’s a can of spray paint that’s missing its top.

That’s what I’m smelling: fresh paint. But where is it coming from? I turn back toward the cultural center. Its well-lit exterior looks the same as ever. There isn’t anything else nearby that might have been recently painted, except … The cultural center sign is halfway across the lawn between the building and the street. I’m practically on top of it before I can see clearly in the dim light thrown from the nearest streetlight. Red letters cover the back of the sign from top to bottom, stark against the pale wood: MURDERLAND



I’m not sure how long I stand there, staring, before I realize I’m not alone anymore. The girl from Melanie’s table with the curly hair and the weird dress is standing a few feet away. Her eyes dart between the words on the sign and the can in my hand, which rattles when I drop my arm.

“This isn’t what it looks like,” I say.

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