Hide and Seek
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“We’re totally in the clear,” Lili affirmed. “And we told everyone to park far away so the cars won’t attract attention.”
Charlotte grinned at Emma. “Our own dance, sponsored by the Lying Game!”
“Mm-hmm,” Emma said vaguely. She reached over to pull Sutton’s phone out of her bag, but the whole thing tipped over instead. Books spilled onto the carpet. Her water bottle rolled under the next table. Instantly, two girls sprang up and scooped her books into their arms. A guy she didn’t recognize saved her bottle and gathered Sutton’s makeup. Everything was returned neatly to her purse without Emma having to move a muscle.
“Typical,” Gabby said, rolling her eyes. “We’re back on top, now that everyone knows about the secret dance and wants an invite.”
“Is something distracting you, Sutton?” Charlotte asked, looking concerned.
“Of course not,” Emma said quickly, though she knew it sounded like a lie. She’d been thinking about Mr. Mercer all day, turning the case over and over in her head.
“So I’ve invited the usual people, plus a bunch of kids from the newspaper, student council, the fashion club, the crew team, and yearbook,” Gabby reported, smoothing down her plaid pleated skirt. “Lili sent invites to juniors, sophomores, and a few freshmen. We’re trying to keep it exclusive so we don’t get busted. The Devious Four are going to be so pissed, though—obviously, they weren’t on the list.”
“But we’ll make it easy for them to crash, right?” Charlotte asked.
“Uh-huh.” Lili tapped away on her phone. “And then we’ll nail them.”
Charlotte looked at Emma. “How’s Ethan coming on that video footage? I love your idea about projecting it onto the gym wall.”
“I think he’s getting pretty close,” Emma said. Actually, she wasn’t sure how Ethan was doing with the footage—it hadn’t exactly been at the top of her priority list. They’d spent the rest of last night in silence, looking up at the stars, and holding hands until Emma had to drag herself back to the Mercers’.
Emma shook her head. Mr. Mercer was certainly a good actor—he’d behaved like he had no idea where Sutton’s car was, going along with Emma’s story that it was at Madeline’s. He’d played the loving, if occasionally awkward, father to a T. Was it possible he was used to lying about things, covering up secrets? Was it possible he had a criminal past?
She thought about what Grandma Mercer had said about Mr. Mercer living in California for years before abruptly moving to Tucson shortly after they adopted Sutton. Perhaps he had a criminal record there. People didn’t become murderers out of nowhere, after all. Waiting until Thursday to search Mr. Mercer’s office felt so far off. Maybe if she looked into Mr. Mercer’s past, she could find some previous incidents that would help prove that Mr. Mercer had a violent streak.
A violent streak. I couldn’t stomach it. Had I ever seen my dad be violent before that night? If only I could just remember.
“Earth to Sutton,” Gabby said, waving her hands in front of Emma’s face. “Did you even hear what I said?”
When Emma looked up, Gabby, Lili, and Charlotte were staring at her quizzically. She wondered how long she hadn’t been paying attention. She brushed a lock of hair behind her shoulder and straightened up. “Um, totally,” she fudged.
The shrill blare of the bell startled them. Everyone rose from their seats and headed for the door, chattering excitedly, as this was the last period of the day. Buses idled on the curb outside. A line of cars had already begun to form at the exit.
Madeline was waiting in the hall, her coat on. Charlotte quickly filled them in on the plan to coordinate outfits.
Madeline’s eyes lit up. “Ooh, shopping! Want to go tomorrow when you guys are done with practice?”
Everyone nodded. Charlotte turned to Emma. “I guess we’ll fill Laurel in at practice.”
Madeline made a face. “I don’t know if we should include her—she seems to be a little too busy hanging out with my brother to help us plan. I think someone might need her Lying Game privileges revoked.”
“That might be a tad dramatic, Mads,” Charlotte said in a soothing tone. She shifted her weight. “Right, Sutton?”
Emma nodded quickly. Now that Laurel wasn’t a suspect, she saw the situation for what it was: a girl who had a massive crush on her hot best friend. Laurel wanted to spend as much time as possible with Thayer in order to win him over—or maybe to keep him away from her older sister.
Madeline shrugged, then spun on her heel and marched in the opposite direction. Lili and Gabby followed, still texting. Charlotte touched Emma’s arm and steered her down the hall the other way. “Is something bothering you?” she asked softly.
Emma took out her hair tie and let her long hair spill over her shoulders. “I’m fine,” she said. “Just a little stressed out lately, I guess.” Even if she couldn’t tell Charlotte what was really wrong, it felt good to admit that she was struggling.
“Can I ask you something?” Charlotte said as they skirted around a bunch of girls looking at something on their phones. Emma overheard the words invite and secret dance. “You weren’t really sick with food poisoning at your dad’s party, were you?”
Emma’s head shot up. She opened her mouth, but no sound came out.
“Someone said they saw you outside with Thayer,” Charlotte said out of the corner of her mouth.
Heat rose to Emma’s cheeks as she started up the stairs. “They said you were holding hands,” Charlotte went on. “And that you looked upset.”
Emma glanced over her shoulder. “Who said that?”
Charlotte stopped on the landing, letting kids pass by. She lowered her eyes. “Actually, it was me—I saw you. But I’m worried. Is everything okay? What were you guys talking about?”
Emma glanced at Charlotte. For just a split second, she considered spilling everything. But how? Actually, Char, I’m not really Sutton, but her twin. And I think her dad killed her, and I think he’s forcing me to be her until he gets around to killing me, too. And, oh yeah, I think he hit Thayer with Sutton’s car. No biggie.
“We were just talking about old times,” she said stiffly.
“Are you thinking about getting back together? What about Ethan?”
“Ethan and I are fine,” Emma said. “Like I said, we were just discussing something that happened a long time ago. It’s not a big deal, I swear. Stop worrying, okay?”
“You just haven’t been acting like yourself,” Charlotte protested. “It’s like aliens have come down and swapped out the Sutton I thought I knew with someone else.”
Emma stared at her. It was chilling how close Charlotte had come to the truth. But then she took a deep breath, wrapped her arms around Charlotte’s shoulders, and gave her a big hug. “I assure you, I haven’t been abducted by aliens,” she said. “Now let’s just go to practice and forget about all of this.”
“If you’re sure,” Charlotte said, looking a little more relaxed.
And then they headed out the door, taking a shortcut to the locker rooms. Halfway there, Charlotte stopped and said she forgot her calculus book in her locker—she needed to go back. “I’ll catch up with you,” she said, spinning around.
Emma continued toward the locker room, her head in a fog. Exhaust billowed from the buses. Someone blew a horn on the street. She had to pass a back parking lot to get to the locker rooms, but it was usually quiet this time of day, reserved for teachers and faculty. But today, something caught her eye. Someone was standing just outside a black SUV, staring at her. When she realized who it was, she stopped, her blood running cold.
It was my dad. And he was looking at Emma the same way he’d looked at me the night I died.
Pretend you didn’t see him, Emma thought instantly. She put her head down and shuffled toward the locker room, her heart pounding hard. But then she heard a metallic sound of a hand slapping a car door. “Sutton!” Mr. Mercer’s voice called.
Emma stopped and peeked at him. “Oh, hey, Dad!” she said pleasantly, as if just noticing him for the first time.
Mr. Mercer didn’t look amused. He walked around to the other side and opened the passenger door. “Get in.”
Emma’s fingers shook. “Thanks, but I drove here,” she said, holding up her car keys and trying to sound normal. “I can get home on my own. And anyway, I have tennis practice now.”
“Get. In. The. Car,” Mr. Mercer said sternly. Then, seemingly realizing he was in a school parking lot, his lips formed a small smile, probably for the sake of anyone watching. “We need to talk, okay?” he said in a gentler voice.
The whole scene felt chillingly familiar. Don’t do it, Emma, I urged.
Emma didn’t budge from the square of pavement where she stood. She glanced around, hoping—praying—that someone would come around the corner and see this. Amazingly, there was no one. If only she could reach into her pocket and text Charlotte for help, but Mr. Mercer would see. And anyway, what would Charlotte say when she got here?
“Sutton?” Mr. Mercer said warningly.
Not sure what else to do, Emma walked over to the car and climbed inside. The SUV was chilly, the AC on full blast. The cold metal of the seat belt buckle felt like ice against her thigh.
Sutton’s dad shut his door and rested his hands on top of the steering wheel. He drummed his fingers on the thick leather, seemingly collecting his thoughts. Emma shrunk down in the seat and focused on the chipped beige polish on her fingernails, trying to remain calm. You’re going to be all right, she told herself. We’re in a public place. He can’t do anything to you here.
Yeah, until they drive away, I thought. And then what?
Finally, Mr. Mercer let out a sigh and looked at her. “You and I have needed to talk for a long time now.” His words came out slowly, like he was measuring each one. “We might as well get it out in the open.”
Mr. Mercer took a long breath. “That night in the canyon changed all of our lives. I didn’t plan for it to happen that way….” His voice trailed off. “But I was doing it for you.” His expression was beseeching. “I thought it would make things better. I thought it was what you wanted.”
The air in the car seemed to plummet another ten degrees. Emma could barely keep her jaw from dropping. Was he talking about her life in Nevada, as a foster child? Was he intimating that he’d killed her twin to rescue her from foster care?
Jesus. The horror I’d previously felt had now multiplied exponentially. Was my dad really that insane? Did he hate me that much?
Anger burned in Emma’s chest. “How could you think it would make things better?” she squeaked. Her fingers curled around the door handle.
But Mr. Mercer grabbed her arm before she could get away. When Emma turned, his eyes were blazing again. “Look. We have a good thing going here. Don’t you think? Do you really want to ruin everything? For your mother, for yourself?”