After Nearly Boswell starts working as an intern at a crime lab, a girl from her trailer park turns up dead. Then the corpse of a missing person is discovered, buried on a golf course, with a message for Nearly etched into the bones. When Nearly finds out the corpse is the father of Eric, a classmate of hers, she starts to worry that the body is connected to her father's disappearance five years ago. Nearly, Reece, and Nearly's classmates--Vince, Jeremy, and Eric--start a dangerous investigation into their fathers' pasts that threatens Nearly's fragile romance with Reece, and puts all them in the killer's path.
- Pages: 384 Pages
- Series: Nearly Boswell Mysteries
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Kathy Dawson Books
- ISBN: 9780698189423
An Excerpt From
“Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the ﬁbers from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the blood or semen he deposits or collects. All of these and more, bear mute witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses are. It is factual evidence. Physical evidence cannot be wrong, it cannot perjure itself, it cannot be wholly absent. Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value.”
—Dr. Edmond Locard
TJ Wiles sat behind me in chemistry class for nine months before I knew he was a killer. If I’d ever bothered to pay attention, I might have known sooner. I could have sensed the bitterness he felt for my father, my family, the rage boiling inside him. Maybe I would have felt what he was becoming, in time to save the people he killed.
But my occasional backward glance wasn’t enough to see him for what he was.
I hadn’t been able to see my father truly either. Once upon a time, he’d been the man who took me to Belle Green Park to play, who held me in his lap and did stupid magic tricks just to make me laugh.
But David Boswell was a thief. A liar and a conman who used his ability to taste emotion—by touching a person’s skin—to prey on his own friends, siphoning their assets to finance his illegal activities, using their clean money to launder his own. Because he could always tell what they were feeling, he was uncannily disarming, easily able to gain their confidence and assuage their fears. He played TJ Wiles’s father like a card, then tossed him aside when the stakes got too high, before disappearing altogether five years ago.
TJ had lived in Belle Green once, in a huge brick house with a manicured lawn as green as the golf course it nestled up to. But after TJ’s father went to prison, TJ’s mother committed suicide and TJ was left to live with his uncle here in Sunny View trailer park. A football scholarship had become his only hope for getting out—the same way the chemistry scholarship had become mine. He’d played hard, like his entire future depended on it, until the day he blew out his knee, and his entire future went with it.
My father hadn’t just hurt TJ and his family. He’d ripped TJ apart, leaving a dark hole inside TJ’s chest where his heart used to be. A space TJ imagined he could only fill by taking from me everything he’d lost. Two months ago, TJ testified that his hatred of my family drove him to kill four of my classmates in an attempt to frame me and exact some kind of twisted retribution against my father. TJ’s victims—kids I’d been tutoring, kids I’d cared about—were gone and they were never coming back. Posie, Teddy, Marcia, and Kylie. They’d still be alive if it hadn’t been for what my father did.
TJ hadn’t succeeded in destroying my life like he’d planned. But he had taken my chance at a scholarship, my two best friends, and my ability to trust people without imagining the worst in them.
I’d spent years looking for messages from my father, scanning newspapers, mapping out the places I thought he might have been since he disappeared. I had so many questions—the kind my mother couldn’t answer because she had no idea what my father and I were capable of—that conman David Boswell and his daughter, Nearly, were both capable of tasting other people’s emotions just by touching their skin. I’d believed that if I found my father, I’d have all the answers and my world would make sense.
But the one person I had more in common with than anyone on the planet had caused so much damage that four people were dead.
Knowing who my father was, how could I keep searching for him? What if the only place left to look for him was somewhere in myself?
I pulled out the red thumbtacks from the map on the wall of my bedroom. One for every city where I suspected my father had been—Jersey City, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Los Angeles. I tried not to wonder how many other lives my father had ruined along the way.
The pins prickled the inside of my fist. I dropped them into the wastebasket, massaging the marks they left in my skin and watching them fade. A scientist named Locard came up with the idea that we leave trace evidence of ourselves in every encounter, and that we in turn take something from everyone we touch, even if we can’t see it.
And those traces of my father—the pain he’d left behind in the people he’d stolen from, the genes I carried that made me just like him—terrified me.
Gravel crunched in front of my trailer and the muted bass of a stereo blew in through the open windows. I licked peanut butter from my fingers and pulled back the curtain. The fabric smelled like smoke, even though my mom had quit smoking two months ago.
Outside, heat waves radiated from the hood of the old black Mercedes that blocked my front porch. Reece Whelan sat in the driver’s seat, wearing aviator sunglasses, his lips moving to lyrics I couldn’t make out.
I threw open the front door as he eased out of the car.
“Where’s your bike?” I asked, letting the screen door slam behind me.
He leaned back, his arms thrown wide to showcase the Benz. “What, don’t you like it?”
I bit my lip, taking in the way his T-shirt stretched across the broad planes of his chest. “Oh, I love it. But doesn’t it belong to Detective Petrenko?”
Reece took the front porch steps two at a time and pulled me into him, looking smug. I still hadn’t quite gotten used to his tightly shorn hair, the soft prickly way it felt against my fingers when I ran my hands through it. His shirt smelled like Armor All and car leather. Different from the worn leather jacket I loved to bury my face in on the back of his bike. But under all that was the familiar citrus and sandalwood smell of his cologne and I drank him in.
He dangled the keys between us. “He probably won’t miss it. Want to take it for a spin? It has air-conditioning,” Reece teased.
He leaned in to kiss me but I held him at arm’s length. “Wait. You stole Alex Petrenko’s car?”
He arched a pierced brow. “I didn’t steal it. I borrowed it. I stopped over at Gena’s place to check in. Petrenko was there. They were . . . otherwise occupied.” Reece let his eyes brush over me in a top-down way that still managed to make my knees watery, even when I wanted to strangle him.
I fought back a smile. “Okay. I get it. And?”
“And his keys were on the kitchen counter. I knocked on the bedroom door, and shouted ‘Can I borrow your car?’ He screamed something that sounded like Yes, yes. Hell, yes. Then Gena hollered something about getting the hell out of their house. So I did. And here I am.” He beamed, still waggling the keys. “With air-conditioning.”
The Benz dripped condensation from its underbelly onto the gravel. With every drop, I counted the number of ways we could get in trouble for this. Gena was an undercover narcotics officer tasked with supervising Reece, who was working as an informant in exchange for being let go after a drug bust last year. She was also engaged to Detective Alex Petrenko.
“Don’t look so freaked out,” Reece said. “Petrenko probably doesn’t care. The police department issued him a freaking Charger with his promotion last month. This thing’s just been parked on the street in front of Gena’s place collecting dust. In a couple months, it’ll be mine anyway. I only owe Alex a few more payments—”
“Wait, you’re buying Alex’s car?” I’d seen what he’d earned during the school year narcing for the Fairfax County Police Department. And I’d seen the checks he brought home all summer working in the kitchen at Nico’s Pizza. He barely made enough money at either job to cover rent on his crappy apartment in Huntington. I didn’t need AP Calculus to do the math. “How?”
He stepped toward me, his eyes fixed on mine, making me take a step back. “I told Nico’s I’d work part-time through the winter.” He took another step into me.
“What about school?” I asked, backing up against the door.
“It’s only a few nights a week. I’ll manage,” he said when there was no space left between us. “But I might need a few extra tutoring sessions to keep up.” He brushed peanut butter from my lip with his thumb, knowing full well that I could taste every sweet and wicked thing he was feeling through his skin. His intentions were decidedly more decadent than sharing sandwiches.
“What about your bike?”
“In a few weeks, it’ll be too cold to ride anyway.” His lips hovered close to mine. “Besides, the bike doesn’t have a backseat,” he whispered.
My mom cleared her throat loudly through the window screen.
“I’ll get the sandwiches.” I sighed, pushing him away.
“No sandwiches. We’re going to Gena’s for a barbeque.”
Reece followed me inside. My mother stood in the kitchen in her bathrobe, cradling a mug of coffee in her hands.
“Hi, Mona.” Reece handed her one of the PB&Js I’d made for us, and then he proceeded to scarf down the other. My mother raised a sleepy eyebrow at him. As much as she liked to lecture me about “taking things slow” and “being careful,” she adored him in her own distant, cautious way. She dipped the crust in her coffee and smiled to herself.
“I’ll get my books.” I snatched a corner of the sandwich from his hand.
“Leigh, it’s Labor Day! Also known as The Day Nobody Does Any Labor Because We’re All Stuffing Our Faces With Pie and Deviled Eggs.” Reece followed me down the hall, as did my mother’s watchful eye, so I left the door open.
“You are aware that school starts tomorrow and we still have two chapters of algebra to cover before your placement tests this week?” Reece had been suspended twice last semester because of me, and I was determined to get him caught up so he wasn’t stuck in remedial classes his senior year.
“No books,” Reece said in a low voice when we were alone in my bedroom. “I don’t plan on studying.” He made a clumsy grab for my waist and groaned when I reached for my backpack.
He wasn’t like anyone I had ever met. He walked into every room—into my life—with a reckless confidence. Like he had nothing to lose.
“Did you get your orientation packet?” I asked.
“Yes.” He plucked the backpack from my hands and dumped it on the floor.
“Can I see it?”
He pulled me in close and nuzzled my ear. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
“Deal.” I pushed him away and handed him the school letter off my nightstand.
He sighed and fished a folded envelope from the back pocket of his jeans. I sat on the edge of my bed and peeled it open. My heart sank at the return address on the envelope.
“You’re going to Spring Run? That’s all the way on the other end of the county.”
Reece shrugged. “It’s my safest option. Too many people know me here, between West River and North Hampton.”
I tried to picture the city bus route from Sunny View trailer park to his school, but gave up after the third transfer.
Reece was thin-lipped as he read my letter from West River. He eased down beside me. “Are you going to be okay? You know, going back there?”
I pasted on a convincing smile. “I’ll be fine.”
He cupped my face and traced a thumb over my cheek. His touch was bittersweet, a mix of compassion and concern. “Are you sure it’s not too soon? I could talk to Nicholson. Maybe he could find a way for you go to Spring Run with me.” As soon as the words left his mouth, I tasted how foolish they sounded to him.
“As much as I love the idea of being in the same school together, I live too far out of the way for you to drive me. And besides, you’ll be working. It’s not like we’d be able to hang out.”
“What if the nightmares start up? You just started sleeping again.” The dreams had plagued me all summer—images of TJ staring at me down the length of a barrel in the moment before he fired the gun, the dead faces of my friends, TJ’s voice telling me I hadn’t been smart enough to save them. The nightmares had only subsided after his conviction. After the news channels and papers had finally stopped showing his face.
“Have you looked at my class schedule? I’m not going to have any time to think about what happened last year, much less sleep. I’ll be fine.” I had to be. College applications would be due in December, which meant I only had a few months left to sharpen my cumulative grades and my test scores.
Reece studied my class schedule, as if committing it to memory: AP Government, Introduction to Spanish, AP Physics II, Computer Science, AP Calculus, and AP English Lit. His gaze lingered on my new locker assignment. It was close to the main office—too close for Reece to risk being caught visiting me on campus. “Guess you’ll have a pretty heavy load this semester.”
“You too.” He’d be juggling two jobs, between the pizzeria and narcing for the police. “I’m not worried,” I said, trying not to sound worried. “We’ll figure something out.”
Reece snatched his school schedule from my hands and tossed both of them over his shoulder. “Screw this. School doesn’t start until tomorrow. Right now, we’ve got more important things to do.”
“More important than school?” I teased. He pulled me in close and fell back against the mattress with a glance toward the door.
“So much better than school.” His rich, low voice tickled my ear. He peeled off my glasses and tossed them aside. Then he gently pulled the ponytail holder out of my hair which fell in disheveled brown waves over my shoulders.
“Aren’t we supposed to be going to Gena’s?”
“I can be quick,” he said, kissing a trail down my neck.
But I didn’t want what was left of our summer to be quick. I wanted it to linger. I wanted to savor it, like the lazy Saturday summer afternoons we’d spent curled up together on a picnic blanket under an old tree in Jones Point Park, Reece’s textbooks abandoned in the grass.
“We don’t have to go to Gena’s,” he said. “We could go to my place.”
“If my mom found out, I’d be grounded for the rest of the year,” I said, wriggling out from under him. I fished around the comforter for my glasses. It was our last day of summer with Gena too, and I didn’t want to let her down. “Besides, you have to return Alex’s car. Maybe he’ll be more forgiving over a burger.”
Reece flopped over on his back. “Fine, we’ll go to Gena’s.”
I pulled him to his feet. I wrapped my arms around his neck and kissed him, reconsidering our options. He kicked the door shut with his heel. My mother cleared her throat again, and he smiled mischievously before wiping his lips and opening it.
“Later, Mona,” he said.
“Not too late.” She glanced up from the newspaper she’d been pretending to read, clearly noticing the absence of my backpack. Her sly expression said “Don’t do anything stupid,” in the same direct-and-yet-totally-indirect way the condoms had when she left them on my nightstand back in June.
My face felt hot when I kissed her good-bye. She tasted faintly amused. And maybe a little nostalgic.
Reece held the passenger door open. The interior of the old Benz had been vacuumed, and the dashboard shone. A “new car” air freshener dangled from the mirror.
I got in and thought about my neighbor Lonny Johnson and his obsession with his Lexus. How it projected an image of what he wanted to be—a rich, successful businessman rather than the neighborhood teenage drug dealer struggling to get out of Sunny View trailer park. Detective Petrenko used to sell drugs alongside Lonny when he was working undercover as a narc. He’d driven the Benz back then. Now Reece would have it. My eyes crossed toward Lonny’s trailer, but there was no sign of him or his car.
Reece drove to the end of my street and pulled in front of the Bui Mart.
“Why are we stopping?” I asked. A white Honda Civic was parked beside us. It belonged to my ex–best friend, Jeremy Fowler.
“I asked Gena what we should bring. She put us in charge of soda and chips.”
“There’s a 7-Eleven up the street.”
“We’re already here,” Reece said, unbuckling his seat belt and getting out.
I sunk lower in my seat. “I’ll wait in the car.”
Reece eased back in. I stared out the window at Jeremy’s Civic. Reece took my hand and gave it a squeeze, infusing me with a little shot of confidence.
“You can’t avoid them forever,” he said. I wished he were wrong. The two people I’d cared about most, besides Reece, treated me like I didn’t exist. Which sucked, because Anh Bui and I would probably end up lab partners, like we had every year. And since Jeremy and Anh were dating, seeing them together at school seemed inevitable.
I followed Reece into the store. The bells on the door announced our arrival and Anh looked up from the register. Her brother, Bao, the store manager, must have had the night off. Jeremy was perched behind the counter. He glanced at me over the rim of his glasses and, clearly finding me unworthy of his time, returned his attention to his magazine. Anh’s face floundered and settled on a non-committal half smile, like she wasn’t sure where her obligation to customer service began, given that our friendship had ended. I saved her the headache of figuring it out and headed for the walk-in cooler at the back of the store. It was probably warmer in there anyway.
I opened the heavy glass door and stepped inside, rubbing the chill from my arms. The walls were lined with shelves of beer and soda on one side, and big glass windows on the other that looked out into the store. I was grateful for the posters Bao had papered over the glass, so I wouldn’t have to feel Jeremy and Anh staring at me. I grabbed a two-liter of Coke and some Diet for Gena, while Reece hit the ATM machine and picked out some chips.
Anh rang up our total. “Nineteen dollars and eighty-three cents. Please,” she added quietly, like she didn’t want Jeremy to hear. Her eyes lifted to mine, then quickly away as she bagged my purchases. Reece dropped a twenty on the counter and Jeremy snapped the page of his magazine.
“Tough crowd,” Reece observed when we were back in the car. The entire summer had gone by and they still hadn’t forgiven me. Anh’s family was still angry that I hadn’t gone to the police when the murders began last spring, before she’d been drugged and abducted by TJ, and almost killed. And Jeremy was still angry about a lot of things, not the least of which that he’d spent the entire summer in outpatient rehab. It was hard to believe we were the same people who used to share twin packs of Ho Hos and sneak into each other’s houses when our parents weren’t home, just to spend time together. That we used to talk every day, about everything.
“I told you, nothing’s changed.” I dug around in the grocery bag for the salt and vinegar chips. My hand closed on something spongy. A Twinkie.
“You didn’t have to buy this just to make me feel better,” I said, peeling the wrapper open.
Reece watched me inhale the first bite. He raised a thoughtful brow and smiled as he pulled out of the lot. “I didn’t.”
My mouth was full of cake and cream. I stopped chewing. Anh must have slipped the Twinkie in the bag with our groceries. I hunted for the receipt. We hadn’t been charged for it.
I ate it slowly, savoring it. It felt like a peace offering, and it tasted like hope.
We rode to Gena’s with our fingers twined, the radio low in the background, Reece belting out familiar song lyrics while he used my hand as the fret board of an air guitar. His contentment filled me. At the next stoplight, I caught him looking at me. Caught my smile reflected in his sunglasses. This was different from holding on to his waist as the wheels on his bike hugged the turns. Sitting side by side, seeing him looking at me with that smile when his contentment turned to longing.
The Benz idled in front of Gena’s row house. “They don’t know we’re here. We can still change our minds and go to my place,” Reece said, leaning in for a kiss. He mumbled something about tasting like Twinkies and kissed me again more deeply.
We both jumped at a loud knock on the window. Alex stood beside the car with his arms folded. He didn’t look happy.
Reece rolled his window down and Alex held his hand out for the keys. “Next time you steal my car, I’ll have you cavity searched.”
“I didn’t steal it. It’s thirty percent mine.”
“Great. I’ll be sure to invoice you for your thirty percent of the insurance, fuel, and maintenance.” Alex grinned tightly, like it was all he could do to keep from smacking Reece’s head. “It’s due for a tune-up and an alignment, by the way.”
Reece rolled his eyes and dropped the keys in his hand.
“And it only takes premium unleaded,” Alex shouted as he walked into the house.
Reece flipped him off, fighting a smile.
We grabbed the chips and sodas and followed Alex.
“In here!” Gena called. The intoxicating smell of grilled onions and biscuits drew us to the kitchen. Gena was pouring apple filling into a piecrust. Her apron said “Kiss the Cook” and Reece obliged with a peck on her cheek. He scraped the bowl with his finger and licked it, and she swatted him with a spoon. His eyes rolled up in his head, euphoric.
“Back off, little man. She’s already spoken for.” Alex handed Reece a cold soda from the fridge and shoved him playfully out of the way. He tossed me a Rubik’s cube from the counter. It was a special cube, smoother than the one I had, with the ability to make faster turns.
“What’s your best time?” he asked me.
“A minute and twenty-seven seconds,” I said. It sounded silly, compared to his ten-second wins, but he’d had a few more years to practice. Alex had given me my own cube in the days just after TJ’s arrest, when the nightmares first started and I hadn’t been able to sleep, as if he knew my brain needed an outlet from the madness—an algorithm of simple solutions to a complex problem. The cube was a puzzle that made sense, a game where no one got hurt. It was a way to measure myself getting better.
He raised an eyebrow. “Not bad.”
Reece planted a proud kiss on my cheek. “Back off, Detective. She’s spoken for.”
Alex wrapped his arms around Gena’s waist and watched her put the finishing touches on the pie. Alex was soft when he was with Gena, all denim and cotton and easy smiles. Nothing like the undercover narc who’d been posing as Lonny Johnson’s lackey when I’d first met him last year at school.
Gena nudged him with her hip and put the pie in the oven. She handed Alex a set of tongs and sent him to the backyard to fire up the grill. I pulled a stool to the counter and watched Gena cook. There were so many facets to her. Some of them shone so brightly—her confidence, her looks, the brash character she portrayed to the world—it took me a while to see the layers underneath. Gena worked undercover in the local high schools. She and I hadn’t liked each other much, back when I’d mistakenly thought she was closer to my age and dating Reece. But over the summer, we’d grown close. She was like an older sister to Reece, the only family he had left after his brother died and his mother disowned him.
Reece leaned back against the sink with a peaceful expression. If I touched him right now, he’d probably taste just like that pie. All sweetness and comfort. Like coming home.
“So, are you ready for your first day back to school?” There was a crinkle of concern in Gena’s smile, and I knew what she was really asking me. Was I ready to go back to the place where the nightmares all began.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I said through a sigh. “How about you? Any chance you’ll be assigned to West River?”
“The department is farming me out to a school in Arlington,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Rush hour on I-395 every morning is going to be hell. I’ll be lucky if I don’t spend the entire fall semester stuck in in-school suspension for tardiness.”
“Too bad. I was hoping we could study together. I’m taking Spanish for my language elective this year.”
She looked up from her deviled eggs with a curious expression. “I thought you were taking Latin?”
I shrugged. “Learning Spanish just seemed more . . .”
“Practical?” she offered.
“No. More important.” I pressed my lips tight. Reece and Alex both knew enough Spanish to understand Gena when she relaxed into a quiet dialog with herself. Or when she exploded in a fiery string of arguments she didn’t expect anyone to answer. I guess I wanted to understand her too.
She smiled, like she knew what I was trying to say. Wiping her hands on a dishrag, she said, “I have something for you.” She reached into her handbag and withdrew a large envelope. “Open it.”
The letterhead inside bore the insignia for the Fairfax County Police Department. Cautiously, I thumbed through the contents: a generic-looking application for an internship position, plus two letters of recommendation—one signed by Officer Gena Delgado, and one by Detective Alexander Petrenko.
“You did it?” I asked, hardly believing the papers in my hand. “You got them to approve a forensics internship?” I had asked Gena if she thought there was a chance I could do my senior internship in the regional crime lab, but when she’d inquired, she discovered that the director of forensics had never approved an internship for a high school student before. I thought for sure I’d be stuck behind a desk all year, shelving books in a university medical library or washing petri dishes for a pharmaceutical company.
“It’s not finalized yet. You need to have your mom sign the permission forms, and you’ll need a copy of your transcripts from the school. Lieutenant Nicholson’s agreed to be your official sponsor. Bring all the signed documents and the application with you tomorrow. He’ll meet with you at the station after school.”
I looked over at Reece. Then at Gena.
“I don’t know what to say.”
Gena tapped her lip and looked at the ceiling. “How about, Estoy muy agradecida. Gena Delgado es la mujer más maravillosa, increíble, y bella en todo el mundo—”
Reece threw a dish towel at her and laughed.
She rested a hand on my cheek. “Just say you’ll work hard and make us proud. You deserve this, Leigh.” Her eyes were shiny with emotion. Pride. It was a bold and effervescent burst of tangerine that never failed to take me by surprise. “Oh, and one more thing!” She reached up to the top of the refrigerator and pulled down a couple of boxes wrapped in confetti-colored paper.
“What’s this?” I pulled carefully at the paper’s edges and opened the first box. Beneath the delicate tissue was a soft white collared blouse and crisp pair of pleated khaki slacks. The prices had been torn from the tags. In the second box was a shiny pair of matching flats, exactly my size.
“For your first day at the forensics lab. My mother always told me to dress the part,” Gena said. “If you want to be a professional, you have to look like one.”
I trailed a finger over the silky buttons of the shirt. I’d never given a moment’s thought to what I would wear to an internship. Part of me wanted to throw my arms around her, if only to remind myself that she really believed I deserved all this. That she believed I could be the person inside these boxes.
“Good,” she said, returning her attention to the bowls on the counter. “You can wear them to the wedding too. We’re going to keep it simple. Just a few close friends and a Justice of the Peace, if we ever get around to setting a date.”
Some of my pride fizzled. Alex and Gena had postponed their original wedding plans because of the trial. The magazines and catalogs were all gone from her living room. The ones with the big poofy gowns and fancy china patterns.
“I thought you wanted a big wedding?”
She dropped a stack of mixing bowls in the sink. “Now that the case is over, I just want to be married. Thank God TJ took that plea bargain back in June. Otherwise, Alex would be so tangled up in court dates, we’d be old and gray before we could take enough time off for a honeymoon.” Gena peeled off her apron and set it on the counter. “It’s over. TJ’s in prison and it’s a new school year, and we can all move on with our lives.”
“Amen!” Alex poked his head through the screen door. “Burgers are almost ready.”
• • •
After dinner, we sat around the patio table, talking until the sun began to set, then we all helped clear the dishes. Alex put on Gena’s apron and started in, while Gena organized the leftovers, singing softly to a song on the radio while she moved about the kitchen. I watched, feeling warm and full and drowsy.
Reece reached for my hand and led me to a patch of grass in the backyard. We lay there, staring at the sunset, my head on his chest and his fingers tangled in mine. He rolled onto his side, wincing from the lingering stiffness in his shoulder. Even though the bullet wound from TJ had healed, it still ached from time to time, and he bore it silently, like a penance.
“Close your eyes,” he said, leaning into me.
“Just do it.” I felt a crisp, peppermint thrill as he pulled me to my knees. Reece was nervous, excited.
“What is it?” I giggled.
I felt his fingers at the nape of my neck, unfastening my pendant . . . his pendant. Its absence felt strange. I hadn’t taken it off since he’d placed the chain holding his brother’s class ring around my neck that night in the hospital back in June. I pushed away the unsettled feeling in my chest and resisted the urge to open my eyes, trusting in the sweetness of his emotions instead. Any doubts I had were overcome by the cool spill of a chain falling against my skin and the press of his lips to my cheek.
Reece’s breath was shaky when he whispered, “Open them.”
I blinked my eyes open. His brother’s pewter ring was gone. In its place was a silver thistle charm, its leaves delicately curled around a flower made from a tiny purple stone. The thistle was a symbol Reece associated with his brother—a kid who wasn’t afraid to do the right thing, even if it meant risking his own future. A reminder of the person Reece was trying so hard to be.
“If you don’t want it, I’ll understand. I mean . . . I don’t want to take the ring from you . . . It’s just . . . I want you to have something from me, but . . .” Reece held his brother’s ring and its heavy chain, like he was waiting for permission to put it on. To put it back where it belonged. I drew it over his head.
The winding thistle tattoo on his arm slid around my waist. He pulled me in close and kissed me. His emotions seemed to mirror the changing colors of the sky, layers of deepening feelings with blurry edges I couldn’t quite define. I slipped my hands under the hem of his shirt, up his stomach and over his chest, my fingers finding the smooth pucker of scar tissue just below his right shoulder. His heartbeat was steady and strong beneath my wrist, but everything inside him tasted uncertain.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him.
I kissed the hard line of his jaw and it relaxed into a smile. “Right this second? Absolutely nothing.”
And I knew exactly what he meant. That everything was completely right, but there was nothing we could do to keep this last day of summer from dissolving away.
My locker made a hollow sound when I snapped it open, and my chest felt tight. The first day of my senior year should have felt great, like a new beginning. New classes, new books, new schedule. And yet, starting a new year without Jeremy and Anh—without Teddy’s laughter and Posie’s smile—felt like starting over alone. But I wasn’t alone, I reminded myself. I had Reece. I had Gena. I had an internship.
I inspected the scratched interior of my locker. A new prepaid cell phone caught my eye on the shelf and a smile pulled at my lips. Reece used to leave prepaid cell phones for me last spring, because I couldn’t afford (and didn’t care enough) to buy one of my own. When we’d first met, I’d resented the idea of being connected to him. And now I couldn’t stand being apart. The knot in my chest loosened as I thumbed through to the inbox.
One new text message.
Knock ’em dead today. I’ll pick you up at your place after school. I miss you. Reece.
I glanced toward the front office, hoping he hadn’t been caught. He must have broken into the school before daybreak to leave it for me. His new school was as far from his last assignment here at West River as Lieutenant Nicholson could put him. My smile flaked away as I touched the thistle pendant, and I tried not to think about the miles between us, or the long day of classes ahead of me.
I organized my notebooks on my locker shelf in order by period. Put my sack lunch on top. Snapped my small magnetic mirror in place inside the door. When I looked into it, a cluster of girls were whispering and pointing in my direction. I slammed the door shut and headed to my first period class.
Computer Science. Mr. Hurley. Computer Lab 269.
I navigated the halls with my head down, ignoring the conversations that seemed to hush as I walked by. My classroom was easy to find and I slipped into an open workstation at the back of the room. But with one glance at the door, I wished I hadn’t picked the seat farthest from it. The whiteboard beside it said “Teacher’s Assistant—Jeremy Fowler,” and for a moment, I considered walking out. I’d never dropped a class before, but there was a first time for everything. Then the bell rang and Jeremy closed the door. He stood by the teacher’s side at the front of the room.
Mr. Hurley prattled on about attendance and bathroom passes and tardy slips, and Jeremy walked up and down the aisles, handing out syllabi. I could feel Jeremy’s gaze brush mine, neither of us looking directly at each other. Anh sat in the front row. I saw Sharissa Winters and Eric Miller from chem class last year. And Vince DiMorello, sitting with a few of his teammates at the other end of my row.
“For the purpose of this class, you will each set up an e-mail account today. You will use this account to submit your homework and to access your weekly assignments and your grades. You may also use these accounts to communicate with your assigned partners. To keep things simple and orderly, you will create your e-mail address using the following format: Your last name. Dot. Your first name. At our school domain.” Mr. Hurley scrawled a sample on the board. “The workstation where you are seated now will be your workstation for the remainder of the semester, and your lab partner will be the person seated beside you, beginning from the left of each row.”
There was a rush of grumbles and whispers. Eric Miller sat to my right, and I cringed inside. He’d been Alex Petrenko’s lab partner last year and neither one of them had done a bang-up job of keeping their collective grade above a C. Eric chewed a fingernail, looking equally dismayed, probably at being stuck with the school pariah for a lab partner. I gave him a small wave. He waved back. I guess it could have been worse. I could have been stuck with Anh.
Mr. Hurley stepped out of the room, leaving Jeremy in charge and instructing us to log on and get started. I studied the syllabus: Computational Thinking, Elements of Programming, Software Engineering. I didn’t have a computer at home. I’d always used Jeremy’s or Anh’s, or reserved a workstation in the library. The other students had already signed on to their machines, pointing and clicking like it was second nature, as if they were completely at home.
“What’s wrong, trailer trash?” Vince teased me as soon as Hurley was gone. “Never seen a computer before?” His friends laughed. Jeremy didn’t intervene. Eric reached over and dropped a slip of paper on my table. A hastily handwritten bullet point cheat sheet for getting started.
“Thanks,” I said quietly, so Vince wouldn’t hear me.
Eric shrugged. “Do you have a computer you can use for our assignments?”
My face felt warm and I looked away. Eric lived in Belle Green. His father had been friends with my dad, but that was a long time ago, and if he didn’t know I lived in Sunny View before Vince’s outburst, then he did now. “I’m doing an internship this year. Maybe I can use one at the lab.”
“Where’d you land an internship?” He actually sounded interested.
“The Joseph Bell Regional Forensic Lab.” I felt myself swell with pride. I wasn’t used to being the weak link in a lab partnership. Maybe that’s why I wanted to impress him.
His eyebrows lifted. They were auburn, like the reddish brown hair that curled over his ears, and the spray of freckles across his cheeks and nose.
“How about you?” I asked. “Are you interning anywhere?”
“Nah. I didn’t finish my community service requirements last year. Still catching up.” Eric shook it off. “I’m just tutoring a couple days a week. It’s not so bad.”
We did that awkward thing when two people with nothing in common are forced to talk—looked at each other and then everywhere else, not knowing what to say.
He took a deep breath, scratched his head, and gestured to the cheat sheet. “Um . . . okay. Let me know if you get stuck on anything.” I nodded, feeling small again as he turned back to his computer.
After a few minutes, I looked over at Eric, but his eyes were glued to his own screen. He was already reviewing the assignment for the week. Maybe having Eric for a lab partner wouldn’t be so bad. After a little trial and error, I managed to set up my e-mail account. I used Eric’s cheat sheet to find the group documents and began skimming the first assignment.
An alert popped up on my screen. Two new e-mails.
One from Mr. Hurley that said “Welcome and Introduction” in the subject line.
The second . . .
A chill raced down my arms. It was from wiles.thomas. TJ. It said “I’m watching you.”
I looked around the class. Everyone was working. A series of quiet giggles escaped a girl from Vince’s corner of the room. I thought about raising my hand, reporting it to Jeremy. Vince and the girl began cackling, curled in on themselves and gossiping in hushed tones. Jeremy didn’t look up. Someone in the class had a messed-up idea of a joke.
“Everything okay?” Eric asked.
I took a deep breath and clicked delete. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
• • •
I threw open the door of my trailer after school, zipping room to room and calling my mother’s name. She’d worked the late shift last night, and I hadn’t had a chance to tell her about the internship. She wasn’t home and her work shoes were gone, so I ran back up Sunny View Drive and crossed Route 1 to find her. Her shifts had been screwy lately and I hoped I would catch her between sets. I banged on the back door to Gentleman Jim’s, waving at the security camera in the alley behind the strip mall. The bar was usually quiet around this time of day, but I never used the front door. Walking in on your mother when she’s naked is awkward enough, but walking in on your mother and waving a permission slip while she’s dancing on a stage would take discomfort to a whole new level. A moment later, Butch, the bar’s bouncer, threw the door open.
“Hey, sweetheart,” Butch said, taking in my breathless state. He scratched the back of his shaved head. “Everything okay?”
“Everything’s great! Is Mom here?” I dug into my backpack for the internship forms, all business. I only had a few minutes before Reece showed up at my trailer to take me to the station.
A curious smile spread across Butch’s face. “Come on. She’s in Jim’s office.”
She was dressed in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Her hair was piled high on her head, and she was wearing her reading glasses. I must have looked surprised.
“I came in early to help Jim with the books. The man is mathematically challenged. We’ll be lucky if he doesn’t run us into the ground.” She smirked. “Don’t look so excited about it. My regular shift starts at eight.” Her gaze drifted to the police insignia letterhead clutched in my hands and her smile fell away. “What’s this?” She reached for it as if it might bite her.
“I got an internship . . . at a forensic science lab.” My mother was silent, her face expressionless as her eyes traveled over the form. “Gena recommended me, and Lieutenant Nicholson said it would be okay, and I really want to do this, but he said I had to get your permission first.” The words came out in a rush, taking all the air in my lungs with them.
“You’ll be working in a crime lab?” I could hear the worry in her voice.
“A science lab.”
“What about school?”
“It won’t interfere with school.”
“But what about your grades?”
“That’s exactly why I need this.” In a few weeks, I’d be filling out college applications, competing against hundreds of students with high GPAs and perfect test scores vying for a handful of coveted academic scholarships. “I lost the chemistry scholarship in June. I can’t afford to lose a chance at another one. This internship is an opportunity for me to stand out. To prove myself.”
Butch handed my mother a pen. She didn’t take it. “We’ll be fine without the scholarship. You have all the money your father left you—the cash, plus the account he set up for you in Butch’s name all those years ago.”
It didn’t matter that the money had filtered through some out-of-state investment banker with fancy credentials, or that it was placed in my account through automated deposits and had probably never touched my father’s hands. As far as I was concerned, that money was dirty. It had been stolen, manipulated by a psychic conman out of people who’d trusted him. “I don’t want Dad’s money.”
“It’s not your father’s money. It’s yours. It should be more than enough for next year’s tuition, and if it’s not, we can apply for financial aid. You should use this year to ease back into your studies. And maybe have a little fun.”
My mother had never used words like ease when discussing my education. She didn’t believe in financial aid. She believed in focus and sacrifice and merit scholarships. She’d always pushed me to do my best. “You don’t think I can handle this?”
Her face fell. “It’s just so soon after everything happened. Going back to school after everything you’ve been through will be stressful enough—”
“I’ll be fine!”
Butch laid a hand on my mother’s shoulder. She sighed, her eyes creased with worry lines.
I took her hands. “Please, Mom. I can do this.” I felt her anxiety melt away around the edges, yielding to something minty and sweet. Despite all her fears, she believed in me. When I finally let go, she took Butch’s pen.
We both held our breath as she signed her name.
• • •
When I got home, Reece was sitting on his motorcycle in front of my trailer, waiting. I hopped on the bike behind him before he could kill the engine, and we rode the entire way in silence. When I’d wrapped my arms around his waist and slipped my hands under his shirt, his emotions felt muddy with a taste that was hard to place.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to come in,” I said as Reece darted glances around the rear parking lot of the police station, pulling his hoodie low over his eyes.
It would be too easy for someone—a student or an acquaintance or a dealer he’d narced on—to recognize him. Only a handful of people knew about Reece’s ties to the police, and the fewer who knew, the safer he was.
He took me by the shoulders and looked at me from under his hood. “I want to come in. This is a big deal.” He pulled me to him, and I took a deep breath, holding my internship papers tight to my chest, ready to get this part of the process over with. Police stations made both of us nervous.
“You know, you don’t have to do this,” he said into my hair. “You have your father’s money. It’s enough for school.”
I pulled away. “You sound like my mom, Reece. This isn’t just about money. I want to do this.”
He brushed the hair back from my eyes. “I know, and that’s what scares me.”
“What do you mean?”
He was quiet for a moment. “I’m proud of you,” he finally said. “I don’t want you to think that I’m not. It’s just . . .” He looked at the sky, like he was searching for the right words. “When I first accepted my deal with Nicholson, I thought working as a narc would make up for the night my brother died. But this job . . . these things I do, and the things I see . . . I relive that night my brother was shot every day.”
“I don’t understand what this has to do with my internship.”
“Just . . . ask yourself why you chose this. If you really want to work in a crime lab, I’m behind you every step of the way. But don’t do it for the same reasons I did. You’re not your father,” he said quietly. “You’re a good person. You don’t have anything to prove.”
But he was wrong. In a lot of ways, I was my father. Every time I touched someone, I was reminded of how much of him I carried inside me.
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