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First pages

Listen.

 

That’s my father’s favorite word. I’m pretty sure that’s why he left my mother and me: we never listened. What does he expect? My mother hides behind a computer sixty hours a week, and I’m only fourteen. It’s not in our nature to listen. Case in point: I think my mother just asked a question I didn’t catch—which is bad—because she hates repeating herself almost as much as I do. My best defense is to keep staring out the window, pretending I didn’t hear.

“Well?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, “I get it. You hate me.”

“Kaylee, I don’t hate you. And we both know you brought this on yourself.”

“Me? How is this my fault? I haven’t done anything—”

“Exactly. It’s been three weeks since we moved here, and in that time you’ve made zero effort to make friends or leave the house. If it wasn’t for Anna, you wouldn’t do anything but come home from school and sulk in your room.”

I slunk down further in the passenger seat. “Yeah, and if it wasn’t for Anna I wouldn’t even be here right now.”

“Well, I think it was very nice of her to invite you here tonight, and it was very generous of this other girl to be okay with it.”

I scowled out my window, knowing it was pointless to argue. Once my mother made up her mind it took an act of God, or an argument with my father, to change it.

“I’ll make you a deal,” I said, scrambling upright. “We’ll go back to the apartment, make popcorn, and watch old, sappy movies the rest of the night. Deal? Okay, deal. Let’s go.”

My mother was shaking her head. “You never get tired of this dance, do you?”

“What are you talking about?”

“How many times have I made you go do something and you end up having a great time? Remember when you didn’t want to take that trip to Colorado and begged to stay with Grandma?”

“No,” I lied.

“You fell in love with the place and had tears in your eyes when it was time to leave. Real tears.”

“This is different. I don’t know any of these kids. You’re abandoning me with strangers.”

“A stranger is just a friend you haven’t yet met.”

I lowered my eyes at my mother. “Did you seriously just say that? You have no idea what junior high is like, do you? Think back a hundred years.”

My mother laughed. “It’s one night. Whatever doesn’t kill you—”

“Bores you to death,” I finished smartly. My mother abused clichés more often than my grandparents clipped coupons. “Why couldn’t you be one of those super overprotective mothers? For all we know these people are serial killers.”

“Anna’s mom spoke to them on the phone and said they were perfectly pleasant. I trust Anna’s mom, and you have to trust me.”

I framed my hands in the air. “I can see the headlines now: 14-year-old’s severed head found on the outskirts of town.”

“I doubt it will come to that.”

“Dad would never do this to me,” I said.

My mother stiffened. I was immediately sorry I said it, but not sorry enough to take it back. A cell phone chirped, and my hand instinctively moved toward my empty back pocket.

“Hello?” my mother answered wearily. There was a long pause, and when she reached for her planner I kicked open my door and slid out. It was just her office—like always—and if I escaped now, I’d at least avoid the inevitable follow-up speech.

I started up the driveway, already dreading the next four hours. It was bad enough being held hostage in school with people I barely knew, but now I was forced to hang out with them on a Saturday night? I told myself I was lucky my mother hadn’t insisted on walking me to the door to meet Jamie’s parents. That would have been the final humiliation.

“Hey!” a shrill voice shouted. “Get down here right now!”

I quickened my step as I rounded the house and saw a girl jabbing the handle side of a rake into a small tree. A black cat was pinned inside the tree’s fork, batting and hissing against every thrust.

“What are you doing?” I cried.

The girl barely glanced my way. “What the F does it look like I’m doing?”

I stared, dumbstruck, as the handle made contact and sent the cat yowling down the opposite side of the tree. For a horrible second I thought she was going to give chase, but she only tossed away the rake and swiveled in my direction. It was like looking into a mirror: shoulder length blonde hair, same height, double-pierced lobes. Her skin was clearer than mine—almost elfish—and she had a small mole above her upper lip.

“You the cat police?” she asked.

“Huh?”

“You ever had a cat throw up on a pair of hundred dollar sandals?”

“Well, no—”

“Then don’t be judging.” She arched an eyebrow and laughed. “You are rockin some serious eyeliner there, girl. How many pencils you go through a week? Twenty?”

I shook my head, completely at a loss.

“Forget it. I’m Jamie. You’re Anna’s baggage, right?”

“I’m just . . . I’m Kaylee.”

She grinned. “Come on, then.”

She drew out her cell phone and shuffled toward the backyard. “I just downloaded this killer app. I ask you questions and it calculates your personality. Ready?”

“Sure,” I mumbled. The night was already off to a great start.

“Favorite brand of tampon?”

I flinched. “I don’t know—”

Pass. Has your dad ever been convicted of a felony?”

“What?”

“A felony. You know: murder, drugs, money laundering—”

“He’s a psychiatrist,” I said, totally caught off guard now. “He listens to people’s problems.”

Jamie raised her eyebrows. “That doesn’t answer the question . . .”

“No,” I answered shortly. “He’s not like that.”

“Uh-huh. Okay, how many hot and heavy make out sessions in the last month—”

“Can we talk about something else?”

Jamie let out a theatrical sigh. “Don’t be such a B, okay? They’re just questions.” She narrowed her eyes. “You’re not a religious nut or something, are you?”

“No. I’m just normal. I’m from Shellsburg.”

Jamie uttered a small laugh. “Sounds turtley.”

“All my best friends are back there.” For some reason I felt this was important to say. “It’s only forty miles, so I get to see them on the weekends.”

“Uh-huh.” She was messing with her phone, not even listening. “Fascinating.”

I bit back my annoyance. “What about you? How’d you end up here?”

“Who knows? Sometimes I’m not sure what state I’m in until I open my eyes in the morning. We never stay in one place very long.”

“Must be rough.”

“Naw, keeps things interesting. Ethan freaks whenever we move, so that gets old. Since we came here he mostly naps and stares out the window.”

“When he’s not under attack,” I said under my breath.

Jamie looked up from her phone. “What was the question?”

I faked a smile. “Have you had him long?”

“Fifteen years and counting.”

“Really? Cats can live that long?”

Jamie laughed. “I’m talking about Ethan, my brother. He goes to our school. I can’t believe you haven’t seen him. He’s a tall, gangly drink of water.”

The first day of school the principal had informed me there were close to six hundred kids in eighth grade. The only people I knew were Anna and my teachers.

“Speak of the devil and the devil appears,” Jamie said.

I lifted my eyes and saw a boy with dark, tousled hair with a spray of freckles across his nose. He was dressed in a green knit shirt, and his sneakers were so white they were almost blinding.

“This is Kaylee,” Jamie said loudly, as if speaking to a child. “She’s a girl.”

“Hey,” he said in a small voice.

“What do you want, Ethan?” Her voice had gone tight. “Come to spy on me and all my friends? Come to watch the girls?”

He diverted his gaze into the ground. “I was looking for Todd. He didn’t leave, did he?”

“Duh, like he’d go without you. Go find him and give us some privacy for two seconds.”

Ethan gave me a glance before scurrying off.

“He’s such a loser,” Jamie said. “I still can’t believe I shared a womb with him for nine months.”

“Womb?”

“Doesn’t Anna tell you anything? We’re twins, but the way Todd and Midge baby him you’d think he was three years younger than me, instead of just three minutes.”

“You call your parents by their first names?”

“Parents is such a strong word.”

“What does that mean?”

“Look, we can spend the whole night passing pointless information, or we can have some fun. This is the first get together I’ve had in this new place, and I have a lot planned. Don’t rain on my parade, okay?”

“Sorry,” I huffed.

We stepped into the backyard. To my surprise there was no pool, but there was plenty of room for one: the lawn rolled out forever before sloping upward toward a massive, brick building that looked like an old school.

“BRB,” said Jamie.

She disappeared into the house leaving me standing there, feeling like an idiot. I looked over my shoulder and debated making a break for it—with any luck my mother would still be chatting away, and I could slip into the backseat of the car unnoticed.

“Be right back,” a new voice spoke up.

I reeled with a start and saw a girl my age parked in a lawn chair by the fire pit. Dark hair curtained one side of her expressionless face as she stared at me without moving.

BRB,” the girl said. “It means ‘be right back.

“Have you been sitting there this whole time?” I asked stupidly.

“Twelve minutes. I lost track of how many seconds.”

She flashed me a dry smile. I didn’t know if she was joking or not.

“You’re Kaylee,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

“How’d you know?”

“You bumped into me last week in the hallway wearing a gray V-neck and jeans with a hole in the left knee. I also remember wondering where your sand dollar bracelet came from. I had one like it years ago, but lost it somewhere.”

“What does that have to do with knowing my name?” I asked, trying to put it together in my head.

“When we bumped, I snatched a notebook from your backpack, checked the inside cover for your name, and slipped it back before you noticed.”

My mouth fell. “Really?”

She pushed out a partial grin. “No. Jamie told me your name earlier. Then she called you a word I won’t repeat and made a comment about riffraff.”

I waited for her to say she was joking again, but she only sat there, watching me shift uncomfortably.

“This is the part where you ask my name,” she said.

“Sorry. Um, what’s—”

“Wren. Like the song bird. Say it in your head five times. It will help you remember.”

I was pretty sure I wouldn’t forget. Her cheeks were long and narrow, and her nose was just a little too big for her face, almost like a beak.

“Are you and Jamie good friends?” I ventured.

“I help her study. She’s not good with math.”

“I don’t really know her,” I said. “I mean, we just met. Anna invited me.”

Wren’s lips lifted into a smile or grimace—I couldn’t tell which. I racked my brain for something else to say as she continued to stare. I was pretty sure she hadn’t blinked since we started talking.

“I should probably check on Jamie,” I said.

“Surely.”

“And I know what BRB means,” I added, sliding open the patio door.

She gave me a mechanical smile. “GFY.”

I told myself that meant ‘good for you’ and not the other thing.

I moved swiftly through the hallway, unsure where I was going, but knowing anywhere was better than awkwardly standing there. The carpet was so thick it was like wading through grass, and the entire house smelled like that horrible canned air freshener my mom always sprayed before having company. I accidentally bumped into a table and quickly steadied an expensive-looking vase before it fell over. There was no question Jamie was rich: the place was a mansion compared to the curiosity we currently called home. My mother had apparently worked her real estate connections to find the smallest, cheapest apartment child support could rent.

“It’s not right,” said a deep voice, “and I’m tired of it.”

I slowed my step and drew closer to the wall. The voices were coming from the room ahead, and I ducked behind the staircase railing for a better look. Through the doorway I could see a large man with a gray-flecked beard staring out the window with one hand on the wall. The woman in the chair beside him had a red blanket thrown across her lap and was working a pair of knitting needles. Her face was thin, heavily lined, and her hair was swept into a bun.

“It can’t go on like this,” he said, shaking his head. “We can’t go on like this.”

“Hush,” the woman said. The needles clicked endlessly in her fingers. “Jamie’s friends might hear you.”

“I don’t care,” he said, but lowered his voice. “In six months we’ll be living somewhere else and she’ll have all new friends. It’s been five years now and nothing has changed. Every new place we go she says it will be the last, but it never is.”

“What else can we do? We agreed to all this years ago.”

“My crazy brother . . . what was he thinking? He made us prisoners when we signed those papers. Can you really stand to do this for another three years? Can you?”

She said, “We agreed—”

“I know we agreed! But I never thought it would happen!”

He pushed away from the window, and I shrank back as he took the chair across from her. The woman set down her needles.

“We could always leave,” she said softly.

“And do what? Go where? And how would we live?”

“Then we stay. We stay another three years and then it will be done. Then we can go and never have to see them again. Is that what you want?”

“Yes,” he grumbled. “No. I don’t know . . .”

A silence fell and I heard a noise behind me. Ethan stood at the end of the hallway, his eyes fixed on mine.

“Are you and Ethan still going into town?” the woman asked.

“So I’m told. And what are we getting again?”

“Materials for the science project.” The needles in her hands began again. “I don’t expect it should take more than an hour or so.”

“If I’m lucky,” he said in a tired voice. “Sometimes, just sometimes, mind you . . .”

She gave a noncommittal grunt as he trailed off.

“You best get going,” she told him. “When you get back we’ll have dinner and retire early.”

My muscles tightened as the man rose from the chair. Ethan still hadn’t moved or spoken, and our eyes stayed locked as I slipped past him in a quick burst. I took the corner at full speed and ran smack into Jamie, knocking her backward a step.

“Watch for traffic,” she barked.

“Bathroom,” I sputtered. It was the first thing that came into my head. “I was looking to go pee and then I ended up here, but it’s okay because I don’t have to go anymore, and then I saw Ethan . . . and then you showed up . . . and . . . uh . . .”

“Wow,” she said, “thanks so much for sharing that great story.” She pushed a blue backpack into my hands. “Now make yourself useful.”

She started down the hallway and I quickly followed. Even if I wanted to try to explain what had just happened—which I didn’t—this wasn’t exactly information to share. The last thing I was going to do was invade her personal life.

“What am I carrying?” I asked.

“Essentials.”

“For what?”

Jamie let out a long, exasperated breath. “Do you always ask so many questions? Take some quiet lessons from Wren already.”

“Yeah, thanks for introducing us. I didn’t even know she was sitting there.”

“Wren-visible,” Jamie said with a chuckle. “I mostly keep her around for her brains. She’s pretty smart. Almost as smart as me.”

I kept my mouth shut as Jamie slid open the patio door. Wren was still sitting with her hands folded across her lap like a pale life-size statue.

“We should get going before Ethan shows up,” Jamie said. “He’ll freak if he knows we’re going to the dead folk’s home.”

“The what?” I asked.

Resthaven,” said Jamie, flapping a hand at the building in the distance. “He’s up there all the time like it’s his own private clubhouse or something. So let’s go, okay?”

She started briskly across the lawn with Wren in tow. I hiked the backpack over my shoulder and hurried to catch up.

“Why do you call it the dead folk’s home?” I asked.

Jamie rolled her eyes. “Old folk’s home, dead folk’s home, whatever. When you reach that age you might as well be dead.”

“It was a retirement home for elderly people,” Wren interjected. “Like a nursing home. My grandparents lived there until it closed three months ago.”

“And why is it part of your backyard?” I asked Jamie.

“The people who owned our house also ran the dead folk’s home. When the dead folk’s home closed, those people moved away and we moved in. It’s a fascinating tale that I never get tired of repeating.”

I ignored her sarcastic smile.

“It’s a shame that it had to close,” said Wren. “The place has tons of historic value. It was originally built as a boarding school back in the 1800s.”

“Borrrrrrrrring,” said Jamie.

Wren shrugged. “I did a report on it last year.”

The grass beneath our feet changed to concrete as we stepped onto the road that led to the building, and my insides shifted when we passed a flattened dead bird. All that remained were a handful of broken bones and a few dingy feathers.

“Shouldn’t we wait for Anna?” I asked.

“She’s already up here with Sidney,” said Jamie. “You’ll love Sid. Life of the party.”

“Are a lot of people coming?” I asked.

“Don’t get me started,” Jamie answered bitterly. “Shea is blowing us off for Stacy Frick’s party, and Cara claims that she has a migraine. Again.”

The road began to widen as the trees thinned out, and I spotted Anna stretched out in the grass. Her mud-brown hair was pulled into a pony like always, and it looked like she was wearing the same blue shirt as yesterday. Her face brightened when she saw me.

“You came!” she shrieked, springing to her feet. I pinned my arms across my chest as she hit me with a running hug. She grinned at me through a mouthful of braces. I was almost happy to see her. Any familiar face was comforting.

“This is awesome,” she said, stroking my hair. The concept of personal space was completely foreign to her. “From the way you were talking, I didn’t think you were going to show up.”

“Thank my mother,” I said tartly.

Her smile dimmed. “Aren’t you excited about tonight?”

“Absolutely,” I said with an exaggerated grin. “This is way better than watching movies and drowning myself in lemonade and popcorn all night.”

“Sorry for trying to have some fun with you,” she snapped and turned away from me. She was like that—if you said the day was hot she’d take it personally, like you were blaming her or something.

Jamie wrestled the backpack from my shoulder. “Where the sushi is Sidney?”

“She saw a squirrel,” Anna said sourly. “She went chasing after it.”

Jamie cupped her hands around her mouth. “Sidney Elisabeth! Get your butt back over here!”

“Chasing a squirrel?” I asked Jamie.

She either didn’t hear or was ignoring me. Before I could ask again, a girl with braided pigtails came galloping around the corner and bounced to a stop in front of me.

“I totally know you,” she squealed in delight.

I lifted my eyebrows, drawing a complete blank. She was at least a foot shorter and barely looked out of elementary school. I turned to Anna for help, but she had abandoned me for Jamie. Wren was watching with an amused half grin.

“Um . . .” I said the first thing that came into my head. “Are you Jamie’s little sister?”

The girl pealed laughter that rivaled nails on a chalkboard. “Ohmygosh, that is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard! I’m Sidney, but my friends call me Sid, and my enemies call me collect.” She leaned into me. “That’s a joke my grandpa always makes when meeting people. He calls it an icebreaker.”

I stared at her, waiting for my mind to catch up. Her voice was like listening to music played in fast forward.

“First period lunch!” she exclaimed, rising on her toes. “I totally see you every day. You always sit like two tables away from me.”

I feigned a smile. I had no clue.

“Jamie always jokes that I know everybody in school, but that’s totally not true. Not yet. What’s your name?”

“Kaylee.”

Her face lit up. “Shut . . . up. That’s totally my grandma’s name! Actually her name is Kay, but it’s almost the same thing. Just so you know I live with my grandpa and grandma, but it’s totally okay to talk about, because my parents died when I was a kid. I don’t even remember them. What about you?”

I blinked. “Um, me . . . what?”

“Tell me everything! Do you like it here? What sports do you play? I do basketball, soccer, and volleyball. Volleyball is my favorite. Funny, huh? You’d think someone as short as me wouldn’t be good at it, but they actually need people like me to play the back row.” She shrugged—a quick, stiff gesture. “So what do you do?”

I opened my mouth but nothing came out. She was watching expectedly, like a small dog waiting for a treat.

“I don’t do anything,” I finally answered.

She broke into a high-pitched laugh. “Of course you do. Everybody does something.”

“I really don’t.”

Jamie snapped her fingers. “Gather up, sheep. Christmas is coming early this year, so don’t forget to thank me.”

She dug into the backpack and pulled out a digital camera. Anna’s eyes widened as she passed it to Wren.

“Are you totally kidding me?” Sidney asked in a near shout.

Jamie held one out to me. When I didn’t take it right away, she shoved it into my hands with an impatient grunt. “They won’t bite. They’re just cheap little things.”

I turned it over in my hands. I had asked for a digital camera my last two birthdays, but my requests had gone unanswered. I didn’t know much about them, but these didn’t look cheap to me.

“How do they work?” Anna asked.

Jamie sighed. “Turn it on, point at something, and press the button. Get with the program already.”

“And what are we taking pictures of?” I asked.

Jamie cocked an eyebrow. “Anyone know what a scavenger hunt is?”

Wren cleared her throat. “The dictionary defines a scavenger hunt as—”

“Just give the short version,” Jamie said peevishly.

“Everyone gets a list of items to find, and the first one to find them all, wins. Scavenger hunts are most commonly found at birthday parties, usually for children under the age of ten.”

Jamie gave Wren a sideways glance but said nothing.

“This is awesome,” Sidney said. She snapped a picture of Anna and turned the camera on me. I looked the other way and pretended to see something interesting in the grass. I hated having my picture taken.

“Easy-peasy,” said Jamie. “Find an item, snap a pic, and move on. And without further ado . . .” She pulled a keychain overflowing with keys from her pocket. “Ta dah.”

Anna’s jaw dropped like an invisible wire had pulled down her chin. “We’re going inside?”

“Duh? Why do you think we came up here?”

“But . . . is it safe in there?”

“Of course it’s safe,” Jamie answered curtly. “I was in there last week when I made the list. Take a pill, Anna.”

“But—”

“Did I mention you get to keep the cameras when you’re done?”

Anna’s forehead smoothed. “We do?”

“And that’s not the best part,” Jamie said, arching an eyebrow. I was starting to wonder if she practiced that in front of a mirror. “Whoever wins gets to be my best friend for a whole week.”

“Really?” Anna asked brightly.

Jamie rolled her eyes. “That was a joke. But I promise you this isn’t.”

She brought a folded hundred dollar bill out from her back pocket.

“No way,” said Sidney. “Is that for real?”

“Real as the paper it’s printed on. Ever seen one before?”

Sidney shook her head. Anna’s eyes followed the bill as Jamie waved it up and down.

“You’re going to give the winner a hundred dollars,” I said. “That doesn’t even make sense.”

“Share the wealth, that’s what I always say. A hundred bucks is pocket change for me. But think what one of you could do with it.”

That really got me. People with money thought they could do anything, and Jamie was obviously no exception. And the money wasn’t even hers; it was her parents.

“And how would we explain coming home with a hundred dollars?” I asked. “My mom would freak if she saw that. She’d think I stole it.”

Anna snorted. “It’s not like she has to know about it. Do you tell your mother everything?”

“No,” I replied warily.

“How about it, Wren?” Jamie asked. “You up for some fun in the sun or you gonna be a wet blanket?”

Wren shrugged. “YOLO.”

“But won’t it be dark inside?” Anna asked uneasily. “All the windows have boards over them.”

“There’s plenty of gap between the boards to let in light,” said Jamie, “but since I knew someone would freak out . . .”

She pulled a flashlight from the backpack and tossed it at Anna, who caught it and promptly dropped it on the ground. I shifted anxiously as Jamie dug out three more flashlights and passed them around.

“And why are all the windows boarded up?” I asked.

“Safety,” Wren answered. “It’s a requirement for abandoned buildings.”

“And it keeps out the bums,” Jamie added.

I frowned. “Why board up the second and third floor windows? It’s not like people can reach those from the ground.”

Sidney’s hand shot into the air. “I know why. Fire escape ladders, right? People could climb up them and get inside.”

Jamie gave a coarse laugh. “Can you imagine a bunch of hundred-year-old geezers trying to climb down a ladder if there was a fire? I mean, come on . . . what genius thought up that idea?”

I held my tongue. It was obvious Jamie and I weren’t going to be best friends after this, but I was starting to worry we weren’t even going to make it through the night.

“I don’t know about this,” Anna said. Her face had lost a shade of color and her knuckles were white from gripping the flashlight. “Can’t we just go back to the house?”

“And do what?” Jamie asked. “Give each other makeovers? Make prank calls? How often do you get to do something like this? This whole place is ours to explore.”

“It’s just . . .” Anna cleared her throat. “I don’t know . . . I brought some movies we could watch.”

“No one here wants to watch your movies, Anna. You do what you want, but the rest of us are doing this.”

Anna slumped her shoulders. “I’m sorry—”

“No,” said Jamie, “I’m sorry. Sorry for inviting you. Go back to the house. I’m tired of listening to you whine. Go miss out on all the fun.”

Jamie dug into the backpack and took out sheets of paper. She passed one to everyone but Anna, whose eyes began to shine.

“Each list is different,” Jamie explained, “otherwise, everyone could just follow everyone else. It doesn’t matter what order.” Jamie looked at Anna. “Well?”

Anna looked sheepishly at the ground.

“Stay and play,” Jamie said crisply, “or go away.”

“Just give me the list.”

“Atta girl.” She pushed the paper into Anna’s hand and tossed the key ring at Sidney. “Let’s open it up, squirt.”

I waited until they were at the door before approaching Anna.

“You okay?” I asked quietly.

“I’m fine,” she snapped. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I was just trying to help—”

“You didn’t even want to come here, so don’t worry about me, okay? Worry about yourself.”

“Sorry,” I said with a scowl. If that was how she wanted to be, that was fine with me. I shot a glare at Wren, who was pretending to study her list. She had it figured out. Mind your own business and only talk when asked a question. I glanced at my own list and saw everything from ‘exit sign’ to ‘mouse trap.’ I could only imagine how long this was going to take.

“Let’s go!” Jamie hollered, waving us in. “Daylight’s a burnin!”

I fell into line behind Anna. The sun was just starting to drop, and I could hear cars in the distance, speeding across the highway just over the hill. I had an image of my father racing back and forth, looking for me, like he had just woken from a bad dream and realized I wasn’t there.

“Look alive,” said Jamie, letting go of the door as I stepped into the entrance. I caught it just before it whacked my arm, and I had to lean into it with both hands to drive it back open. The door frame was made of thick metal, and the glass inside had been replaced by long sheets of wood. A giant chain hung limply from the handle with an open padlock.

“Whoa,” said Sidney. “Check this place out.”

It looked like a mini tornado had blown through the lobby. Chairs were flipped, clocks hung from the wall by wires, and large sections of the floor were covered in sheets of colored paper. I picked one up and saw it was a list of daily activities.

“Listen up,” Jamie told us. “This place is just a big rectangle, so there’s no way you can get lost.” She pointed to the hallway on her left. “Walk that way and eventually you’ll end up right back here. Same with the other direction.”

“I could totally get lost,” Sidney said with a chuckle. “This one time at camp—”

“Three floors,” Jamie said loudly, cutting her off with a glower. “Staircases are in each corner beside the elevators. And for the love of nail polish, please use your flashlights. The last thing I need is one of you idiots falling down the stairs and breaking your neck.”

“I pick Jamie for a teammate,” Anna said.

“No teams. Everyone goes their own way.”

Anna shot me a fretful glance, and I shifted my gaze to the floor. No way was I getting involved—not after the crappy way I was being treated.

“Any other dumb comments or questions?” Jamie asked.

Anna shifted side to side, obviously unsettled. Jamie crossed her arms with an angry sigh. “What, Anna?”

“Don’t you think it would be more fun in pairs?”

“Uh, no. My party, my rules. You know the drill.”

“I’m just sayin—”

“You’re always just sayin,” Jamie sniped, mimicking her.

“Come on, guys,” said Sidney. “Let’s just do this and have some fun.”

I went to the window opposite the counter and tugged on each of the three boards, one at a time. There was no give in any of them. The nail heads sparkled in my flashlight beam as I touched one with the tip of my finger. It felt as cold as everything else in this place.

 


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Erik Therme has thrashed in garage bands, inadvertently harbored runaways, and met Darth Vader. When he’s not at his computer, he can be found cheering for his oldest daughter’s volleyball team, or chilling on the PlayStation 3 with his twelve-year-old. He currently resides in Iowa City, Iowa—one of only seven places in the world UNESCO has certified as a City of Literature.

Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
I’ve always been drawn to Stephen King. He’s a brilliant storyteller and an incredible curator of characters. I’m also a big fan of Alden Bell, author of The Reapers Are the Angels and Exit Kingdom. Both are tasty bits of literary fiction, set in a post-apocalyptic world of zombies.
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
I always struggle with writing action. One of the golden rules for a writer is show—don’t tell, but every time I put action on the page it feels like forced description. It’s not uncommon for me to spend hours on a single paragraph, trying to get the words just right.
Q. When did you decide to become a writer?
A.
I was probably 15 when I churned out my first tale. My parents had purchased a new typewriter, so I thought I’d sit down and see what came out. It was a horrible story with a nonsensical twist, but my folks—God bless ‘em—said they loved it. After that I was hooked.

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