We’ve been spotlighting some of our favorite reads by Latinx authors in honor of Latinx Heritage Month, and today we’re sharing an excerpt of Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson!
Meet teenage Wiccan Mila Flores, who truly could not care less what you think about her Doc Martens, her attitude, or her weight because she knows that, no matter what, her BFF Riley is right by her side. So when Riley and Fairmont Academy mean girls June Phelan-Park and Dayton Nesseth die under suspicious circumstances, Mila refuses to believe everyone’s explanation that her BFF was involved in a suicide pact. Instead, armed with a tube of lip gloss and an ancient grimoire, Mila does the unthinkable to uncover the truth: she brings the girls back to life.
Scroll down to read an excerpt!
The problem with your best friend dying is that there’s no one to sit with you at funerals.
It’s not the number one problem. Obviously, my best friend’s bloated, waterlogged corpse being lowered into the earth for the rest of eternity is currently at the top of my list of Emotionally Debilitating Things That Will Take the Rest of My Life to Recover From.
But sharing my pew with strangers while Ms. Chu, the principal of Fairmont Academy, drones on and on definitely ranks high on the list of reasons why my friend being murdered is the pits.
Everyone is crying. It’s standing room only for a sea of red-eyed, sniffling Fairmont Falcons. Their bodies are pressed to the familiar floral yellow wallpaper of the Greenway Funeral Home’s reception room, their hair ruffled by the dusty air the heater is pushing through the ceiling vents.
The girl who slut-shamed Riley for dating a senior last year.
The guy who punted Riley’s lunch across the quad just to prove he could.
The girl who slapped Riley in the face for cutting in line for class schedules.
The Nouns clique.
The principal’s stepson.
The sole reporter for the Fairmont Academy newspaper.
All crying. Wailing. Stifling sobs into each other’s shoulders. Eyes puffy to the point of closing. Snot ropes trailing from noses to sleeves. Mouths twisted into grotesque gargoyle shapes. The video montage of Riley from birth to sixteen really broke them, despite the fact that none of them were in the pictures. None of them were her friends.
To be fair, they did have a pretty long dress rehearsal for this the day before yesterday.
I hug my jacket closer to my chest, pressing my cheek to the denim collar. I’ve cried so much in the last forty-eight hours I think my organs have started to shrivel. My face is numb. I’m sure people have noticed. The people sitting nearest me—Riley’s second or third cousins and some members of her parents’ church—must be wondering why the fat girl is glaring at the front of the room instead of weeping prettily with everyone else. They’ll think I’m an asshole, not understanding that I’ve spent two days screaming myself hoarse. That my eyes ache from use.
Two days is a long time when you can’t sleep or eat because remembering that your best friend is gone slams into you whenever you think you’re safe from it.
“Now more than ever, the community of Cross Creek must look to its young people,” says Ms. Chu, the words leaden with politician-like fake gravitas. She even gives a soft, wagging fist with it, her thumb pointing toward the front row of mourners. “We must do more than see their struggle. We must hear them with open ears. Fairmont Academy will lead by example. The Fairmont family will not allow harm to come to another of our own. We will do everything we can to preserve the memory of Riley Greenway . . .”
Open ears are not a thing. Neither is the “Fairmont family,” come to think of it. Fairmont is about as bloodthirsty as an artsy charter school can be.
But that’s problem number three—behind Riley being dead and me sitting alone. No one believes that my best friend was murdered.
Despite our town being named after its twin bodies of water, no one in Cross Creek actually goes near the creeks. They’re disgusting pits of algae and giardia. So when Riley’s body was discovered floating and bloodied at the right fork of the creek, I knew something shady happened to her. If nothing else, Riley would never risk her dye job with creek water. She lived in fear of her bleached-blond locks turning even kind of greenish and avoided all non-shower water as a result. She wouldn’t even use conditioner that wasn’t opaque.
More importantly, Riley and I had already squished together in the back pew of the funeral home this week. June Phelan-Park and Dayton Nesseth, two of Fairmont Academy’s most notable and obnoxious, hanged themselves in the park on Saturday night. Since Riley’s dad is the town funeral director and June was Riley’s brother’s ex, we got guilted into going to their service. Double suicide, double funeral. Tragic as fuck.
But also kind of a scene-stealer if you were Riley and planning an outdoor suicide of your own.
I’m not trying to be glib or heartless about it, but really: Why would Riley let herself get lumped in with June and Dayton’s honor society suicide pact? Riley was a lot of things, but copycat was not one of them.
“And now,” Ms. Chu wraps up, inclining her head, “Riley’s brother, Alexander Greenway, would like to say a few words.”
Mr. and Mrs. Greenway did not invite me to speak at today’s memorial. I’m pretty sure that my mom warned them about my “feelings” about Riley’s death—i.e., the murder thing. It’s easier for everyone to blame Fairmont Academy, to put the weight of tragedy on academic pressures and stress, the uptick in anti-anxiety prescriptions in the student body. And maybe that’s why June and Dayton decided that they couldn’t hack it on this plane of existence anymore—they were both involved in way too many extracurriculars, and all their friends were trash people. They were on the fast track to peaking in high school.
But that wasn’t Riley. Riley breezed through Fairmont. Last year, she literally slept through twenty minutes of her history final, woke up, and jotted down an A-plus paper.
She didn’t need a way out. She would have told me if she did.
I’m sure of it.
My parents and my sisters—who came to show support for the Greenway family in their time of need—made it very clear upon arrival that they didn’t want to “encourage” me to “continue acting out.” Which is what they call not believing that the Cross Creek police did any sort of investigation before they told everyone that Riley died by suicide.
They’re sitting right behind the Greenways. Izzy looks over her shoulder at me as Xander stands and makes his way to the pew. Even in times of absolute tragedy, you can’t stop an annoying little sister from making a face when your crush is around.
Xander spoke at June and Dayton’s service, too. He was blindingly beautiful in a crisp black suit that made him look like an actor pretending to be eighteen rather than an actual high school senior. Today, he’s in a formal black sweater and slacks that crease along the lines of his calves. The son of the town funeral director never wants for black clothing. Normally he’d call them work clothes. This week has been different.
As he sets his hands on either side of the podium, the crowd shifts. The sobs tone down. The sniffling mutes. People lean forward, waiting. Even the picture of Riley frozen on the flat screen above Xander’s head seems to dim its light. This is what most people came for, to hear the most popular boy in school grieve aloud. The room is packed with rubberneckers. And I’m literally no better than them.
I imagine what it would feel like to comfort him, to run my nails through his thick brown hair, following the arch of his part. To have his head rest on my shoulder, his breath on my neck. Is his sweater as soft as it looks? The Greenway kids inherited expensive taste from their mother, so there’s a chance that’s real cashmere. It could slide under my palms, slippery soft . . .
Focus, Flores. Don’t be a letch right now.
“My sister,” Xandersays, his voice wrung tight, “was the best person I’ve ever known. She was so funny and so smart and . . . There’s so much she never had a chance to do. She never went to a school dance. She never owned her own car. She never beat me at Uno.”
People laugh nervously, unsure if they’re allowed to be even kind of happy on such a sad day. Xander pauses with a wince, cheeks flushing. He’s doubting the joke, too. His cool blue eyes flutter closed. He has two sets of eyelashes, the same genetic mutation that Elizabeth Taylor had. Tears slide between them now.
My crush on Xander predates his painfully handsome phase. When we first met, he wasn’t much taller than me and his knees and elbows stuck out like doorknobs from his pale skin. But it was unrequited love at first sight. Mortification stabs my guts as I remember talking endlessly about him over dinner back in middle school. My sisters have never let me forget this. I had to start paying Izzy five bucks any time Riley was over just so she wouldn’t start blabbing about it in front of her.
Should I have told Riley about my crush? It wouldn’t have saved her life, but it’s weird to have secrets from her now. I always figured I would tell her about it someday—when it was funny instead of pathetic. But I always figured that someday was coming, and, God, it sucks to be wrong.
“The world sucks without Riley,” Xander finishes heavily, echoing my thoughts. My heart beats faster. “The world is darker without her. My life will be worse off for not having my little sister to share it with. And I’ll never—” His voice breaks. He was so poised when he spoke at June and Dayton’s service. Sad, but recognizably himself. But today he’s unraveling. His spine curves and his shoulders pitch forward as his sobs echo around the room. One of his graceful hands comes up to his face, and he presses the heel of his palm to his wet eye. Even from the back of the room, I can see his fingers shaking. “I don’t know why she’s gone. I’ll never understand why . . .”
He turns away from the microphone, almost boneless. His father appears beside him, wrapping his son in a steadying hug as they weep on each other. I wonder when the last time was that Mr. Greenway cried at one of his own funerals. He’s usually so unflappable, full of dad jokes and rarely seen without a can of sparkling water in his hand. But he can’t even lead the service. He steers Xander back to their seats. Mrs. Greenway joins their group hug as Ms. Chu reappears at the podium, reclaiming her position as the emcee.
“And now,” Ms. Chu says, firmly redirecting the audience’s focus to her steady voice, “Fairmont Academy’s award-winning show choir will perform a final tribute to Riley’s memory.”
I scramble a little, looking for the program I shoved under my butt when I sat down. The picture of Riley on the front is less than a week old. The last picture she’ll ever post to Instagram. And it’s a bathroom selfie, heaven help us all. I flip open the paper, scanning down the itinerary. Sure enough, the Fairmont show choir is scheduled as the penultimate presentation. They performed at June and Dayton’s service, too, but at least Dayton had been in the show choir. Riley didn’t give a shit about their a cappella shenanigans.
Out of the standing mourners, the members of the show choir file toward the front of the room. I should have recognized them in the crowd. They’re noticeably less upset than everyone else, their shoulders squared, their eyes shining with the thrill of performing. Soulless freaks.
As they shuffle themselves into rows in front of the podium, I flip over the program. On the back, there’s a quote from the Bible— nice try, Greenways, but Riley was pagan—and a poem that Aniyah Dorsey wrote about her feelings. Riley would laugh until she cried if she could read this poem. It rhymes. Riley. Shyly. Wryly.
The show choir warms up, a series of menacing oohs. The soloist standing at the center of the group aggressively taps out a four count on her leg. There’s a collective intake of breath, and they start the same damn song they sang at June and Dayton’s funeral. “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.” They must be competing with it this year. They should rethink that. It’s terrible. A public domain rip-off of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that’s somehow even more of a bummer. The soloist—a senior girl who is rail-thin and short-haired—starts the song.
“I’m always chasing rainbows. Watching clouds drifting by. My schemes are just like all my dreams. Ending in the sky.”
God. So nasal. It’s physically painful to my ears.
I won’t give them the satisfaction of looking at them. I turn back to the program. Riley smirks up at me, blond and effortless, with the kind of athletic build that everyone subconsciously registers as healthy. She should have been the queen of Fairmont. Considering she was Xander’s sister, she could have been. But she was happy—seemed happy—to hide in the background with me. In the picture on the program, she’s wearing a beanie with round bear ears on top pulled down almost to her dark eyebrows. Her roots were growing out. It was only just starting to feel like real autumn, but she swore she was going to hide her hair under a hat until she got a chance to buy a box of bleach this weekend. And now she’ll never have the chance. She’ll have half an inch of dark brown growth on display until it decomposes from her scalp. If she knew, she’d be pissed.
Fuck a duck, she’d say in her raspy voice. She didn’t smoke, but she always sounded like she was getting over bronchitis. I can hear it so clearly in my head, it’s like she’s with me, making commentary in my ear.
Where she should be.
Where she never will be again.
My head spins. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t be here. My body is too exhausted to cry, but if I stay I might start screaming over the show choir. And while I don’t care if I ruin this garbage performance, I don’t think it’ll disprove my parents’ theory that I’ve lost my mind.
“Some fellows look and find the sunshine.”
I stagger to my feet, turning my back to the performance and the crowd. It’s not like I can blend in. I can’t pretend like my body doesn’t take up space. The only thing to do is lean into it, to do what Riley would do and not give a fuck that people can see me leaving. The sounds of my boots are muffled against the carpet as I stride down the aisle. I keep my head up, letting everyone I pass see my makeup untouched by tears, letting it confirm their worst fears about the fat witch of the junior class.
I see Aniyah Dorsey, amateur poet and school newspaper reporter, standing near the door. She’s in plus-size leggings and a black flannel. Tears fog the silver glasses perched on her dark brown nose. She whispers after me, “Mila?”
“Your poem fucking sucks,” I growl at her.
Her chin snaps back. I can’t tell if she’s offended or indignant, and I honestly couldn’t give half a shit to stick around long enough to find out. I don’t need fat-girl solidarity right now. I don’t need anyone’s solidarity. Ever.
“I always look and find the rain.”
I pop the collar of my jacket, stuff my hands into the pockets, and step out into the friendless world.
I’m not ready to be back at school, but here I am, balanced on a stool at the center table in third-period chemistry while Mr. Cavanagh wipes last period’s notes from the whiteboard. People filter into the room, their voices like mosquitos buzzing. I can’t seem to stop myself from flinching when they pass too close to me.
According to the internet, only 20 percent of homicides are committed by strangers. Which means there is an 80 percent chance that the last thing Riley saw was the face of someone she knew, staring down at her through the murky water of the creek. There is an 80 percent chance that it was someone like Dawn Mathy of the Nouns clique, who is sitting daintily in front of me, smoothing her short bangs. She gets belligerent whenever someone questions the need for a speech and debate team. Or Dan Calalang, a senior stuck in junior-level chem. His forearms are scary beefy from CrossFit, the better to drag you to your death with.
It could be one of the janitors or Ms. Chu or someone whose name I’ve never bothered to learn. Someone who took my best friend from me and is still going to class and taking notes and looking forward to cafeteria chicken nuggets.
I feel sick to my stomach. I’m not ready to be here. Everyone seems so normal, but they can’t all be—normal people don’t drown girls in the creek.
I look up and immediately wish that I had a bushel of bay leaves. (They’re good for banishing—although Riley’s mom kept them in the spice cabinet to use in her spaghetti sauce.)
Caleb Treadwell, Ms. Chu’s stepson and my lab partner, is climbing onto the stool next to mine, wobbling a little as he tucks a silver chain into the collar of his T-shirt. I should have smelled him coming. He starts every morning by drowning himself in cologne that smells like leather and moss, but it can’t quite smother the tang of clinical-strength face wash. He stinks like a chemical fire.
On the surface, he’s almost painfully nondescript. His hair is too khaki-colored to be considered brown or blond, and it’s cut into the same short-on-the-sides, long-on-top style that every other guy in school has. His chapped, mauve lips are so puffy that he has a near constant pout.
“It is Mila, right?” he asks, even though there’s no chance he doesn’t know my name. We’ve been lab partners for almost two months. He just wants me to feel bad for not immediately saying hello. He smiles when he’s angry. The insincerity makes his eyes look dead. His teeth are as big as my thumbnails.
“Hi,” I say shortly. I plant the sole of my boot on the bottom rung of my stool for balance and lean a little farther from him.
“I saw you leave the funeral.”
“Oh yeah?” I say, digging through my backpack and retrieving my chem notebook and slapping it down on the counter. “Which one?”
He wheezes a laugh. The sound slides over my skin, making the hairs on my arm stand on end. There’s no one thing that makes Caleb creepy. It’s not that he licks his lips until the skin shreds or that he talks incessantly about being “one of the nice guys” or even his habitual sweatpants boners. Rather, it is all of these things as a whole that lends to his overall air of Total Fucking Creep. An aura of Men’s Rights Activist. Eau de Internet Troll. Musk of Mansplainer.
And his mouth looks a lot like a vagina. That doesn’t help.
Knowing Caleb means that my respect for Ms. Chu is lessened at all times, since I believe she is at least partially responsible for not buying him pants that would curb his public erections.
Huh. Maybe there’s a spell for that. Why didn’t Riley and I ever investigate this? Forced impotence would make the world a much safer place.
“I saw you at both funerals,” Caleb says, undeterred by my lack of interest or eye contact. “You’re hard to miss, ha ha.”
Caleb loves to slip mentions of my weight into conversation to see if I’ll snap. If I do, he’ll throw his hands up and say he’s just kidding loud enough for everyone around us to hear, so that it sounds like I have no sense of humor and he’s hilarious. Fatphobic asshole. “It’s a shame about all this,” he continues. He flexes his hands against the edge of the table. His fingers are long and tapered and so solidly white it’s like they’re made of yeasty dough. I expect them to engorge to bursting. Or sprout powdery green mold. “June and Dayton. They were both in the honor society with me, you know. Dayton never seemed like she should be—God, she was a flake, just so, so stupid—but her grades were good. And they were neck and neck for the Rausch Scholarship, too. Whoops. Bad choice of words. Neck and neck.” He mimes a noose around his own neck, pulling the imaginary knot sharply to the right. “Hanging’s a rough way to go out. Big rope burns cut into their skin, their necks distended . . . They’d have to drop pretty far for the force to knock off one of Dayton’s shoes. Did you hear that they never found it? It could still be stuck in a bush in Aldridge Park.”
I shudder. June and Dayton’s caskets were both closed at their funeral. I didn’t give any thought to why. Now images of their mangled bodies swim in front of my eyes as Caleb continues to talk about postmortem bloating of the corpses.
“What do you think the last thing they saw was?” he asks abruptly. “I’ve heard that people shit themselves when they’re hanged, but that’s probably just a myth. I mean, anyone could shit themselves when they die. The muscles loosen and . . .” He trails off. The spit in his cheeks makes a burbling fart noise. What is it with dudes and sound effects?
“After June and Dayton, Riley Greenway probably would have been next in line for the Rausch Scholarship,” he says, reaching down to scratch his leg. I make a fist, ready to punch him in the temple if his hand starts to stray crotchward. “Even though she didn’t belong to any clubs. Xander said that she was going to write her essay on working in their funeral home. That’s how he won last year. The committee really eats up the humanitarian angle.”
I wish I could scrape Riley’s name out of his mouth with my fingernails. I hate that people like Caleb Treadwell feel like they can talk about her like they knew her. Riley wouldn’t have cared if she’d won the Rausch Scholarship. She would have entered just to take the prize away from people like Caleb and June Phelan-Park. “But she’s gone, too,” he says with a shrug and a giggle. “So the road to the Rausch Scholarship is clear for me.”
“Excuse me?” Aniyah Dorsey stops next to our table, her books hugged to her chest and her eyes staring over the tops of her round glasses. Her hair shines like lacquered paint, the natural curl pressed flat and straight. “Are you implying that your life is better off after the suicides of three of your classmates? Can I quote you on that? I’m writing an article about the impact of grief on the school, and your lack thereof would make a great lede.”
“Move along, Rita Skeeter,” Caleb says, waving her off. His rage-smile stretches so wide that it wrinkles the corners of his eyes. “No one gives a shit about your newspaper.”
He’s not wrong. Fairmont Academy only has a newspaper because Aniyah won’t let it die. I don’t know anyone who reads it. But I don’t think she cares. It’ll look good on a college application regardless of how many people read it when it’s passed out on Fridays.
Or is it Mondays?
I picture Aniyah down at the creek, her hair pulled up high to avoid being splashed. In a boring town like Cross Creek, it must be hard to find newsworthy happenings. Would it be worth it to her to make her own story? She’s about my size, more than strong enough to hold Riley’s narrow shoulders underwater.
“You’re not next in line for the Rausch Scholarship anyway. It’s given to students who embody the Fairmont mission statement, and there’s nothing in there about being a fuckwit,” Aniyah says, glaring down at Caleb. “Besides, it’s an alumni-awarded scholarship. If they gave it to the principal’s son, it’d look shady as hell.”
“Stepson,” Caleb corrects loudly. People wandering to their seats pause and look over at our table. The attention feels predatory. More eyes, more suspects. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure that there’s a moment in my acceptance speech that commemorates the three girls who couldn’t keep up anymore. Or maybe I won’t. Everyone will have forgotten about them by the end of the school year anyway.”
He starts to laugh again, looking around at the other tables for people to join him.
I know he’s mostly talking about June and Dayton. They weren’t nice when they were alive. They used to make fun of Riley for living above a funeral home. And they made fun of me for being fat and Mexican. They found the things about other people that made them different and highlighted how that made them shitty. It was like they learned how to be popular from TV and didn’t understand that being known didn’t have to be synonymous with being a dick. Last week, I probably would have sat back and made a note to try a new curse to see if I could make Caleb fail all his classes so that he’d never get the stupid Rausch Scholarship.
But my fuse is shorter than it was last week, and Caleb said three dead girls, which, by my count, makes this more personal. My boot shoots out, connecting with the bottom rung of Caleb’s stool with enough force to knock it out from under him. Arms waving in panic, he topples over into Aniyah and some people who were walking behind her. Textbooks clatter to the floor with gunshot-loud bangs. Aniyah’s legs waggle in the air, her backpack holding her to the ground like a felled turtle. Caleb is holding his face and screaming curse words into his palms. There’s no blood. For a second, that bums me out. At least he’s stopped smiling.
I turn and see Mr. Cavanagh hanging up the phone on the wall. He jerks his head toward the door. “Not okay, Mila. They’re expecting you in the office.”
I leave the classroom picturing Cavanagh’s disapproving frown lines filtered through creek water. Riley had him for fifth-period chem.
“Miss Flores?” The secretary stops me as I reach for Ms. Chu’s doorknob. “You’re here to see Dr. Miller.”
I pause, turning around. There’s a second door in the office that I’ve never paid any attention to. It’s not as fancy as Ms. Chu’s frosted glass with her name etched into it. The one on the other side of the room is the same metal door as the ones leading to the classrooms, painted institutional cream. The sign to the right of it says: Dr. Miller, school psychologist.
I bite my lip hard and dig my nails into my palms. I should have seen this coming.
I look back at the secretary. Her eyes are pitying and liquidy.
Oh God. She knows.
Part of me is really tired of being pitied. But part of me doesn’t feel like I’ve been pitied enough. I mean, my mom has been accusing me of being psychotic this week because I haven’t been able to instantly bounce back after my best friend died. The secretary—Ms. Pine, if her nameplate is to be believed—is close to my mom’s age, but her brown skin is papery and her curls are starting to fade to gray. She looks like she’s going to be someone’s super-loving grandma someday. I bet if she wouldn’t be immediately fired for inappropriate conduct, she would totally give me a hug right now.
No one has hugged me since Riley died.
But Ms. Pine doesn’t know that I’m supposed to be hard as nails. When you earn a reputation as a grumpy witch, there are no tender hugs coming your way, no matter how sorry people feel for you. You don’t suddenly get to be squishy when bad shit happens. “Go on in, sweetheart,” Ms. Pine says. She sounds so sincere that I can’t even be mad at her for being part of this nightmare.
I step into Dr. Miller’s office. One step is about all I can take because it’s a glorified closet. Actually, it might have been a real closet. It has no windows.
All four walls are painted lavender. Directly across from me is a giant vinyl sticker that reads: Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to DANCE IN THE RAIN!
The font is very aggressive.
Dr. Miller is a thin white woman with fluffy blond hair like goose feathers. There’s a pad of paper, a plain red folder, and a cup of steaming tea in front of her. Her computer is turned off.
Was she just sitting here, staring at the door, waiting for me to show up? That is terrifying.
“Camila Flores?” she asks with a slight tilt to her head. She has a neck like an ostrich.
“I go by Mila,” I say. I realize she’s waiting for me to close the door behind me. I do, and it thunks into place. The walls reverberate, making the vinyl words wiggle.
“Please have a seat.” She points at the only other chair in the room, which happens to be directly next to my leg. It’s a standard school chair—maroon plastic, the same as in most of the classrooms. It doesn’t go with the lavender walls at all. I’m starting to think that Fairmont doesn’t spend a lot on the school psychologist. Does Ms. Chu even know that this isn’t a broom closet?
“I’m Dr. Miller,” says Dr. Miller. “I’m so glad you could take the time to meet with me today.”
“Uh huh,” I say, hooking my boots around my chair legs. The metal is cool through the fabric of my jeans. “I’m sixteen. I pretty much go wherever they tell me to.”
She smiles at me tightly. I recognize the look. It’s very similar to the way Mrs. Greenway looks at me. It’s the “Oh no, you think you’re funny and I’m a humorless old snatch” look. There goes any chance I had at making a new middle-aged psychologist friend.
“I’ve been wanting to speak with you for a few days now,” she says, possibly also sensing that we aren’t going to be bosom friends. “I understand that you were very close to Riley Greenway. This must be an awfully hard time for you.”
I wonder what it would be like if I said no. Like “Nah, dog, my bff is dead but otherwise it’s been a super-chill week.” That seems needlessly combative, so instead I say, “Yes. It’s hard.”
She glances inside her red folder. I spy last year’s yearbook picture—the one with the uneven eyeliner and bulky Disneyland sweatshirt—paper-clipped to the corner of what I can only assume is my permanent record. Shouldn’t that be digital? Is Dr. Miller a Luddite?
“You only took two days off from school?” She gives me an exaggerated frowny face as though doing her best to actually become an emoji. “That’s not long at all. Do you feel ready to be back?”
“Again,” I say, slowly because I’m starting to think this woman might be even dumber than Dayton Nesseth, God rest her soul, “I’m sixteen? My parents told me to come back today, so I’m back. Kind of like ‘Ready or not, here I am.’”
I’m actually here because my walking out of the memorial service did not go unnoticed by my mom. She decided that disrespecting the dead—her words—was a sign that I was healed enough to learn. I think she’s actually punishing me for telling Izzy and Nora that if they kept trying to talk to me, I’d curse their tongues to rot out of their skulls.
“Right,” she says, in a way that makes me think she’s not listening. She’s peeking inside the folder again. I wonder if my life is really so complicated that she needs a cheat sheet. “Do you still believe that you’re a witch?”
People say witch the same way they’d say fairy princess. Like it’s a game that Riley and I should have outgrown. But to Riley it was a religion. And to me . . . well, I don’t know. Maybe it was make-believe?
Wicca came to me through Riley’s excited whispers shortly after I moved to Cross Creek. Choosing a new religion seemed so grown up, so definitive. I was eleven and had never realized that you could choose to be different from your family. We could be different and powerful. Which does sound a little like make- believe now, but Riley made me believe it in one sentence: “We’re gonna do great things together.”
So I went from elementary school on the coast, where I was mostly known for reading in class and making Post-it origami, to middle school in Cross Creek, where I was Riley’s friend and a witch. I don’t know if I’m ready to be either.
Is it possible to be a pagan agnostic? I’m open to the idea that there are more things in heaven and earth than I’ve dreamed of and all. I just don’t know if I’ll do magic now that Riley’s gone. The whole witch thing was her deal. She’s the one who started reading books on Wicca and making supply lists for spells. I was kind of along for the ride, mostly for the incense and crafting part of things. Riley never had the patience to join me in making jewelry, so we switched to spells.
Plus, when people know you spend your free time hanging out at Lucky Thirteen, the Wiccan store downtown, they tend to leave you alone. And I like anything that encourages people to give me a wide berth.
We’d mostly done spells for minor acts of vengeance—bumps to test scores, zits on the chins of people who talked shit in the halls, making sure that show choir never won a single competition, not that they needed our help there. Sometimes, we messed around with love charms—talismans that Toby, the owner of Lucky Thirteen, swore increased attractiveness or lust. We spent most of sophomore year trying to get crushes to reveal themselves, which worked in that Riley had a series of boyfriends and I quietly pined for Xander, the same way I had been doing since seventh grade, when I moved to Cross Creek.
I’ve never seen magic really work. But, as Riley would point out, I’ve never seen it not work. She was always vocally against my confirmation bias.
I don’t feel like I owe this explanation to Dr. Miller, especially since someone has fed her private information about me. I don’t think that’s how therapy is supposed to work. I wonder who spilled my secrets to her. My parents? Xander? I guess it was common knowledge that Riley and I hung out at Lucky Thirteen. Anyone could have mentioned this to the school psych.
“Witch is the word for a follower of Wicca,” I say airily. “Although, if you were going to be politically correct, you’d say wix. It’s gender-neutral.”
She picks up a pen and makes a note on her pad. Oh my God, she literally writes down wix and nothing else. When she’s done, she looks up at me again, her long neck stretched threateningly forward. “Do you believe that you’re capable of magic?”
“That question infringes on my religious freedom.”
“Mila.” She flattens my name like it’s a bug under her shoe. She doesn’t want to play with me anymore.
“I’m serious. You can’t legally try to talk me out of my religion. Church and state. The state is your employer, right? Technically that’s where your salary comes from?”
Her mouth snaps shut. She’s trapped, not that she’ll admit it. I watch her brain switch tactics. “Your best friend killed herself.”
“She’s dead, yes.”
Dr. Miller clasps her hands on top of the Red Folder of Mila. “She killed herself. Your parents seem concerned that you haven’t come to terms with this. It’s understandable. Denial is the first stage of grief, and there’s no rushing—”
My parents. Of course. Additional retribution for me threatening Izzy and Nora. Additional distance between them and me. This week I’ve finally tipped into feelings so big that all they can do is deny them entirely. Feelings so big that they’ve made my parents scared of me. Who knew that you could be so sad that no one would even be able to look at you out of fear of contracting your feels?
“Either way, Riley’s dead,” I say. “Why does it matter how it happened?”
“Are you familiar with the concept of a paranoid delusion?”
I suck the spit off my teeth. Now she’s pissing me off. “Do you talk to everyone you counsel like this or just the grieving ones?”
She ignores me. “Your belief that Riley didn’t take her own life is understandable. As her friend, you might feel responsible, like you could have done something to save her—”
“I probably could have saved her from being murdered, yeah—”
“—or that maybe something you said or did caused her to—”
I slam my hands down on her desk. A small wave of tea splashes over the side of her mug and starts to seep into a corner of the notepad that’s blank except for the word wix. The smell of spicy ginger—as biting and hot as my temper—fills the small space.
“I didn’t do anything to her. We went to a funeral, split up to do homework, and then someone drowned her in the creek. She had no history of self-harm, she wasn’t a depressive, her grades were fine, and she wasn’t even PMSing! All she did was cross the wrong person. And no one is doing anything about it. There’s a fucking murderer walking around and no one cares!”
“Language,” Dr. Miller chastises as she opens a desk drawer and retrieves a box of Kleenex. She whips out a tissue and blots the tea spill on her desk. “Riley’s death was ruled a suicide by the Cross Creek Police Department. Why do you think that you would know better than the professionals what happened to her?”
“Because I did the research.” I don’t tell her that I did the research at four in the morning because I haven’t been sleeping. Because every time I close my eyes, I can taste the creek filling my nose and throat, pulling me down with Riley. “Thirteen percent of teen deaths are homicides. Only eleven percent are suicides. It’s statistically more likely that she was murdered.”
She pitches the tea-stained tissue into the trash can under her desk. It lands with a hollow thud. “Except we were told that she wasn’t. Unfortunately, the likeliest solution isn’t always the correct one.”
A thought lights up my brain. “Then what about June Phelan- Park and Dayton Nesseth?”
Her eyes stray back to the red folder in a flash of panic. “Were you friends with June and Dayton, too?”
I snort at the idea. Me, friends with Nouns. “No. They were awful. But the police said they were suicides, too. What makes more sense? Three unrelated suicides or three connected murders? Have three people ever committed suicide within a week in Cross Creek before?”
“I don’t have those statistics for you.” Her upper lip twitches. She’s getting worse at hiding her disdain for me. “But I can tell you that Cross Creek has never had a serial killer before either. It’s not as common as movies make it look. I understand that this is a traumatic time for you. And it’s not unusual for someone to create a scenario that would be more palatable to them when faced with something awful. But your friends and family are worried about you.”
I lean back in my chair, flexing my shoulder blades into the hard plastic. “I don’t have friends. My only friend was fucking murdered.”
“The truth is that Riley took her life, and we may never understand why.”
I think of Xander at the memorial service: I’ll never understand why . . .
Xander is the only person who knew Riley as well as I did. Neither of us understands because it literally doesn’t make sense. She wouldn’t do this. She wouldn’t leave us. She’d stay, she’d rail against the system. If she were here instead of me, she’d get justice even if she had to burn the world down around her to do it.
She’d do a spell to find the killer.