Hide and Seek
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Then Nisha sighed. “But you’re right, it is lonely. Especially now that my mom is…gone. I love my dad, but he’s not exactly great company.”
Emma nodded. She knew that Nisha’s mom had died over the summer, but Nisha had never once mentioned it. Right now, though, it seemed like she wanted to talk about it. Like she wanted someone to listen.
“You guys were really close, huh?” Emma asked.
A cloud passed over the moon. A roadrunner darted across the parking lot. Nisha traced the Nike logo on her water bottle. “We loved to cook together and make these massive Indian feasts. My mom thought I was too thin. She was always trying to fatten me up.”
“That seems to be a mom thing,” Emma said, thinking of Grandma Mercer and her son. “Do you still…talk to her?”
Nisha gave Emma a strange look, her face reddening. “How did you know?”
Emma stared at the white net in the middle of the court. “It was just a guess. I talk to my birth mom.”
Nisha raised an eyebrow. “But you’ve never even met your birth mom.”
“I know,” Emma said quickly. “But I know she’s out there. And I wonder about her all the time. When things get really hard, I talk to her. She always listens.” She smiled wryly. Imaginary Becky was much more attentive than real Becky had ever been.
Nisha rolled the tennis ball under her palm. “I talk to her while I’m in the car,” she said quietly. “Talking to her in my house seems risky—I don’t want my dad to hear. But when I’m driving to school or wherever, I have whole monologues with her. When I pause at stoplights, still talking to myself, I can see people looking. They probably just assume I’m on a Bluetooth or something, not talking to my dead mother.”
Suddenly, she drew back and stared at Emma as though she’d forgotten Emma was there. “You probably think that’s super-freaky, huh? Are you going to tell your friends about this?” she asked, blinking rapidly.
“I won’t!” Emma placed her hand over her heart. “I swear. Your secret is safe with me.” When Nisha still looked worried, she lightly touched the girl’s shoulder. “I’m glad you told me. I think it’s great you talk to her. Honestly? It would be weird if you didn’t.”
Nisha fiddled with the sweatband around her wrist, still looking embarrassed. “Well, I should get going. That English term paper is calling my name.”
“Yeah, I have about ten minutes before my dad calls the police. He’s been running a tight ship these days.” Emma packed up her bag. As the two girls walked off the court toward the street, matching each other step-for-step, Emma realized she’d forgotten all about asking Nisha where Laurel really was the night Sutton died. Instead, she’d been too busy bonding with Sutton’s sworn enemy. And it had been kind of…nice.
I was all for it, as long as Emma kept her head. Nisha had always been a thorn in my side, and I didn’t see her changing now. Still, you know what they say: Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. Especially when that enemy might know the truth about where Emma’s number-one murder suspect was the night I died.
THE UNGIVING TREE
On Tuesday morning, Emma pulled into the lot of Hollier High, which was set in the hills of Tucson. Hundreds of cacti, some spiny, some flowering, served as the landscape. The mountains rose up behind the school, red and majestic. The lot was bustling with students. A Jeep full of jocks drove past, an old Dave Matthews song blaring over the speakers. A group of pretty girls in matching leather jackets swapped lip glosses next to a vintage convertible. School buses huffed around the corner, the track team did a final loop around the field for their morning practice, and a bunch of kids were huddled near the spiny shrubs, trying to hide that they were smoking.
As Emma got out of the car, two girls in miniskirts walked by, gossiping loudly about Thayer. Today was his first day back at school. Rumors about his absence had been swirling for weeks: that he’d spent time in jail, that he’d been working on a major Hollywood movie, that he’d had a sex change. Only the first was true: He’d been in jail for a couple days the other week for trespassing on the Mercers’ property and resisting arrest.
Emma heard a door slam next to her. Sutton’s two closest friends, Madeline and Charlotte, emerged from a black SUV. Madeline, who had sleek, black hair and a heart-shaped face, was in high-heeled boots, and her slim-cut jeans seemed like they were made specifically for her dancer’s body. The inside of her wrist was tattooed with a single red rose bud, and on the back of her iPhone was a sticker that said SWAN LAKE MAFIA. Emma still wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. Charlotte, who was slightly pudgy but had beautiful, creamy skin and thick, red hair, slung an enormous monogrammed Louis Vuitton bag over her shoulder just as a white SUV pulled into the space next to them. The Twitter Twins, Lilianna and Gabriella, whose only matching features were their blond hair and blue eyes, tumbled out. All of the Lying Game is present and accounted for, Emma thought, thinking about Sutton’s pranking clique. Well, almost all of the Lying Game—Laurel had evaded Emma’s offer to take her to school today, saying she had “made other arrangements.”
Lili clicked over to Emma on her black stilettos. “The administration should just reserve these parking spots for us permanently,” she trilled, placing a hand on her punkish chain-link necklace. Lili and Gabby had only become official members of the Lying Game a few weeks ago, and they brought up their newfound status as often as possible.
“I can just see it now,” Gabby jumped in. “‘Reserved for Gabby.’ That would look awesome on a sign.” She pushed a lock of straight blond hair behind her ear. She was Lili’s opposite, wearing a pale pink cashmere shrug, a preppy green polo, skinny jeans, and patent-leather flats with bows on the toes. She looked ready to go to a croquet match.
Madeline’s phone beeped in her cavernous suede bag. She smiled when she pulled it out. “My brother is such a dork,” she said, rolling her eyes happily. Her fingers flew across the keyboard as she crafted a response.
“Where is Thayer?” Gabby looked around, like he might be hiding behind Madeline’s SUV.
“He’s coming in a bit later,” Madeline said. “The principal didn’t want him to create a stir before school. He just texted me that he’s hanging out in his room, bored out of his mind, playing Mario Kart.” She snickered. “He hasn’t played that since he was about nine.”
The first bell rang in the distance, signaling that they had ten minutes before classes started. “Is Laurel with him?” Emma blurted. She hadn’t meant to say it, but where else could Laurel be? She’d disappeared this morning with no explanation.
Madeline looked up sharply. “I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure?” Emma pressed.
“Why do you care?” Charlotte nudged Emma’s side. “I thought you had a new hottie, Sutton.”
“I do,” Emma insisted. “I was just—”
“I wish you would stay away from Thayer,” Madeline interrupted. “I love you, Sutton, but you messed him up big time. I can’t have him running off again.”
“I don’t want to be with Thayer!” Emma protested through her teeth. “I was just wondering where Laurel was.”
I couldn’t help but glare at Madeline. I hadn’t messed Thayer up. If anything, Thayer had messed me up, running off without telling me where he was going, then sneaking back into town to meet me in secluded places like Sabino Canyon. His limp might have been because of me, but I wasn’t the one who caused it.
“Okay, this convo is officially boring me.” Charlotte tossed her red hair over her shoulder. “C’mon, guys. I’m dying for coffee. I barely got any sleep last night. My parents kept me up all night with one of their marathon shout-fests.”
“Lattes on me,” Lili said, adjusting the headband in her hair.
Charlotte and the Twitter Twins headed toward the school’s coffee kiosk. Emma followed, and Madeline fell in step next to her, which Emma figured was an olive branch. She tried not to take it personally that Madeline had basically barred her from speaking to her brother. She was just being protective of him.
They pushed onto the front lawn and took a sharp left, dodging kids carrying instrument cases, a girl with her nose stuck in a book, and a couple making out next to the water fountain. The announcement board was plastered with posters for the Harvest Dance, most of them featuring a white-silhouetted couple dancing together. When they reached the front entrance, they noticed a crowd gathered just outside the doors. Emma’s first thought was that Thayer had returned early, but then Charlotte stopped short in front of her so quickly that she almost bumped into her back.
“Holy shit,” Gabby breathed.
Madeline pushed her tortoiseshell sunglasses to the top of her head. “What the hell?”
A row of mesquite trees stood sentinel in front of the school. Silver streamers were twined through the spindly branches and dozens of lacy bras and blown-up condoms hung from the limbs. Penis balloons bobbled around a trunk, which had been spray-painted black. Strung across the trees was a sign that read BOW DOWN AND WORSHIP US, BITCHES. The whole effect was that of a naughty Christmas tree—or a Vegas bachelorette party gone awry.
“Oh my God,” Clara Hewlitt, a dark-haired sophomore from the tennis team, breathed, her brown eyes wide.
“It has to be them,” whispered a lanky junior with a ratty blond ponytail.
All eyes clapped on Emma and Sutton’s friends. Emma looked around the courtyard, seeing a lot of faces she recognized, but a lot she still didn’t. Sutton’s ex, Garrett Austin, was standing next to his younger sister, Louisa, glaring at Emma with disdain. Lori, a girl from her pottery class, was looking at Emma with awe and respect. Nisha’s cherry-colored lips were pursed as she read over the graffiti. Emma caught her eye but Nisha looked away.
Lili whipped around and looked at Emma, Madeline, and Charlotte. Her face was pinched with hurt. “Did you guys leave us out of a prank?”
Charlotte shook her head slowly. “This wasn’t us.”
“Honest,” Madeline added quickly. “Not unless I did this while sleepwalking.”
“Oh.” Lili brightened. “Well, in that case…” She and Gabby yanked out their iPhones and held it up to the mayhem. “Everyone say Twitpic!”
Madeline grabbed the phone from Lili’s hand before Lili could snap the photo. “This isn’t cool. It’s just lame vandalism.”
Lili clapped her mouth closed, looking cowed. “Who do you think did it?”
Madeline scanned the crowd. Suddenly her eyes widened. “Over there,” she hissed, nodding at something near the lamppost.
Emma followed her gaze. A group of four girls stood in a huddle, their backs to the defaced trees. They all had on dark skinny jeans and Converse sneakers and sported edgy haircuts. Judging by the tough, bossy look on the face of a blond girl with dip-dyed ends, Emma guessed she was the leader. Emma could detect an air of satisfaction from each and every one of them.