I’m halfway through the remote computer’s firewall when Detective Carson parks on the other side of our street. This isn’t usually a time I like to be interrupted—actually, when I’m hacking, I never like to be interrupted, but because he makes my feet hit the floor so I’m ready to run, because he makes my heart thump bass lines in my ears, because it’s him and he’s back and I’m scared, I take a few minutes. I sit in the dark, watch the unmarked police car idle, and tell myself it’ll be okay.
After all, I’m prepared. I wired my foster parents’ security cameras to route the front yard video feed through my computer. I can see everything—the blacked-out sedan, the shadowy streetscape, the neighbors’ darkened houses—without leaving my desk. For a full five minutes, there’s nothing. No movement. No anything. This should be all kinds of uninteresting, but my palms still go slick.
It’s stupid to be scared. He can’t touch me now. Not when I have this shiny new life. My foster parents belong in a Disney movie. My sister and I live with them on the rich side of town. I’m not the same girl Carson turned in to social services.
Well, at least, that’s what I tell myself.
And, anyway, there could be plenty of reasons why he stops. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with me. He could stop because he’s been assigned to this area. Or because he lives nearby.
Or because he’s watching you. In my head, I smother the words, but they still squirm.
He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know. I flick my eyes back to the lines of computer code running across my monitor, but I can’t keep my concentration. I have to keep repeating keystrokes.
Carson’s told everyone he thinks Lily and I are his last links to tracking down our drug-dealer father. He might actually be right and that’s what really scares me. Because if my dad does come back, if he does see a policeman outside our new house, he’ll think I’ve turned into a narc. It’ll ruin everything.
Well, everything that’s left.
It’s so damn little I almost laugh out loud. Then I hear the car door slam and my heart rides up my throat with spurs.
He’s never gotten out before. I jerk my chair back to better face my monitor. It’s definitely Carson. I recognize his lanky build, the way his shoulders crouch underneath his Members’ Only jacket. He’s killed the sedan’s engine and gotten out, but it’s okay. Really. He’s just lingering by the curb.
Until he starts moving toward the house.
I nearly overturn my chair. The wheels screech backward and my bare feet slap the floor. I’m standing now. I’m ready.
But I don’t know what I’m ready to do. If I go downstairs, I’ll have to use the windows to track him and he might see the movement.
But staying here’s no good. The security cameras only watch the front. The back and side yards are blind, which means I’m blind. I’ll have to wait for his moves, his decisions.
Yeah, there’s no way that’s going to happen.
I grab my baseball bat—the one I keep next to my bed, the one everyone thinks I have because I just love me some sports—and I go to my bedroom door.
And I can’t get my feet to move any further.
This isn’t how moments like these are supposed to go. My hands shouldn’t be shaking. I shouldn’t be Wick Tate, the girl I am. I should be the sister Lily deserves.
And I’m going to be. But the two feet of space between my body and the door might as well be two miles for all the good it’s doing me. I’m afraid. People like me were meant to stay behind computers. It’s where we belong.
I wrench the door open anyway. In the hallway, there’s only blackened silence, but the curtains drift like they’ve just been brushed and, somewhere downstairs, something creaks.
It ignites static inside my head, like my brain’s been suddenly tuned to a television channel filled with snow.
Adrenaline, I think, forcing one foot in front of the other. I’m kicking into panic mode, but it can be controlled.
And it will be controlled. I hoist the bat over one shoulder and start for the stairway. I make it almost to the top step before I realize I’m not alone. There’s a shadow sliding along the wall, inching up from downstairs. For a heartbeat, I think I might pass out.
It’s Carson. He’s already here. I’ve let Lily down. I’ve—the shadow creeps closer and I recognize the small, blonde person. She’s staring at me like I’ve lost my mind.
Lily’s face, pale as a moon emerging from behind clouds, floats out of the dark. “Wick? What are you doing?”
“Jesus, Lily! You scared the shit out of me!”
Lily steps forward, drawing close enough so I can see how she’s eyeing the baseball bat.
“What are you doing?” she repeats.
“We have a visitor.” Weird how my voice sounds flat and confident when my insides are churning and liquid. I push past her, telling myself I’m fine, and maybe I am. Maybe I just needed to see the last person I have left to lose.
I hustle down the stairs, one hand skimming the wall. “Stay put.”
But, of course, she doesn’t. Lily trails me so closely her toes brush my heels.
“What kind of visitor?”
I can barely hear her, but I know what’s she’s really getting at. Lily’s hoping it isn’t what I think, that there’s some pleasant explanation to all of this. It’s a fantasy I can’t afford. Actually, it’s a fantasy neither of us can afford.
I round on her. “Lil, it’s five-thirty in the morning. What do you think he’s here for?”
Even though it quivers, Lily’s chin lifts. “Maybe he’s here because he knows about your hacking.”
He couldn’t. “He doesn’t.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because I am.” Mostly.
Below us, a dark shape sweeps past the windows. It hesitates near the front door and we watch something arch through the air.
It’s an arm. A hand. Carson’s checking the window lock.
Lily grabs for me and, for a beat, she looks far younger than eleven. “Wick, we have to wake up Bren and Todd.”
No way. No how. Our foster parents would have a flying duck fit. Bren and Todd have no clue any of this is going on and I prefer it that way actually. They don’t need to know about my little computer habits. They don’t need to know there’s a hollow-faced policeman coming by only at night. They already know enough—anything more and they might turn me in to the cops, and Lily back over to the state.
I’m not going to let that happen.
And why would anyone believe me anyway? Todd would probably insist on going out there. Words would be traded. I’d be dragged out there to give my version. Carson would have some sort of lie to explain everything away. The police always do. Then there would just be me left, looking exactly like the lying juvenile delinquent everyone already thinks I am.
“Wick!” Lily’s fingers dig in harder and I shake her off. “Call them,” she whispers and there’s a simmering hysteria in her voice I haven’t heard since the day the police came for our dad.
“Go back upstairs.”
“Call them.” Lily repeats it like a prayer, but it’s really a conjuring spell. My sister wants to summon some mythical parents to protect us, some powerful adults to make all the nightmares vanish. I don’t really blame her. It’s tough to feel safe when all you have is me.
“You don’t have to do this anymore,” she breathes, reaching for the bat.
I don’t have to do this? Well, isn’t that just the funniest joke I’ve ever not laughed at? If I don’t, then who will? Bren? Todd? I know Lily wants them to fix everything, but why should they?
Just because someone should protect you doesn’t mean they will. I almost say it, but I swallow the words. That’s not something I want Lily to know.
Even if I’m pretty sure she already does.
Lily plucks at my elbow. “He wouldn’t dare break in.”
And my brain agrees with her, but the rest of me…the rest of me believes he would dare. Cops don’t have to be careful with people like us. We’re the enemy. Lily and I may have a fancy new life, but maybe he knows what’s still inside us and that’s what makes me raise my bat. “You know as well as I do that they’re not always the good guys.”
Through the window, we watch Carson twist to the right. He hovers for a moment, like he heard something or thought of something, and then strides across the front of the house.
Where’s he going now? Confused, I press a little closer to the window, half-expecting him to jump back into my field of vision, horror movie style. If he does, I’ll scream like a total girl. I just know it.
I creep another inch closer and see the last of his shadow as he turns the corner of the house.
What’s he doing? There’s nothing around there except—the back door! I spin on my heel, my chest funneling shut. Did we lock the back door? Did we?
I seize Lily’s hand and drag her down the hallway, dodging Bren’s yoga gear and Todd’s line of penny loafers. You can barely see, but we move pretty quickly in the dark. We’re good at it. We’ve had practice.
We just haven’t practiced enough.
I see Carson pass the sunroom’s tall windows before we’ve even reached the end of the hall. He’s on the back steps, under the yellow porch light, by the time my feet hit the kitchen tile. I skid to a halt and Lily shrinks into my hip. There’s no sound except for our breathing: too loud and too harsh.
Outside, Carson presses one gloved hand to the window, shielding his eyes to look inside and, in the dark, my gasp is strangled.
He won’t be able to see anything. He won’t know we’re here. My brain repeats this, but my body creeps closer to the wall.
Carson’s hand seizes the door handle. The metal click clicks. He’s testing the lock and it’s holding. It’s holding. Thank God.
I almost sag in relief until I hear him laugh. Low and curdled, it sounds like it surfaced from some deep, dark place inside him.
Lily cringes. “Are you sure he’s only looking for Dad?”
She makes some impossibly small whimper, an animal sound, and I’m afraid he’ll hear it. He can’t. I know he can’t. But, when Carson tenses up, when his head tilts so his deep set eyes slide into blackened hollows, I wrap one arm around my sister’s thin shoulders.
I pull her closer and closer until I feel our bones meet through our skin. We stand in the dark and we watch him smile.
“Wick, police officers are supposed to be good.”
Sure, they are, I think. And parents are there when you need them, your teachers care what happens to you, and someday your prince will come. But Lily knows all of this so I don’t say a word. My sister is vibrating in the dim light. Anything more and she’ll splinter.
“Well, yeah, usually they are,” I say.
But this one isn’t. The unspoken words hang between us, suspended with strobe lights.
We stand in Bren’s kitchen long after Carson’s left. All around us, shadows are draining down the walls. In my panic, I didn’t realize how close we were to dawn.
“Why was he really here, Wick?”
“I already told you.” I rub my eyes until colors erupt in starbursts. “He wants Dad.”
“But Dad’s not here.”
Yeah, exactly, so where does that leave you? It leaves me with the hacking. He must know about my…extracurricular activities. My chest shrinks around the thought. I don’t answer Lily. I could. I even have a ready-made excuse just for such an occasion.
Actually, I have several.
Consider these my top three desert island, can’t live without ‘em, picks: Carson’s here because our dad ran and Carson thinks we’re helping him stay on the run. Carson’s here because our dad ran and we’re now Carson’s last connection with him. Carson’s here because he’s looking for any loose ends he can further unravel.
They’re all very pretty little excuses, but I can’t seem to say any of them because there’s a tiny, nagging sensation eating up my insides. It’s very small, but it has teeth and claws.
Lily’s stiff like the same thing eating me might be eating her too. And, when she turns to face me, I know it is. There’s accusation living in her eyes.
“He must know. You have to stop hacking.”
“He doesn’t know and I’m not hurting anyone.” Lily glares at me and I roll my eyes. I refuse to feel guilty about this. The spiky knot blooming in my throat is not regret. The tightening in my stomach is not worry.
“I’m not hurting anyone who doesn’t deserve to be hurt,” I amend.
And I’m pretty sure that’s true. No, I am sure that’s true. I run online investigations. I specialize in cheating husbands. Yes, it’s hacking, but it’s not hacking to crash servers or set loose viruses.
And yeah, sure, I do it for a price. I charge for invading some guy’s privacy, for looking through his bank records or email files. But Lily and I need the money and these women—my customers—need answers. I make sure they really know who they love. I make sure no one ends up like my mom did. Every single one of my customers begs for help, thanks me when I finish. I’ve said ‘you’re welcome’ so many times, the words taste bitter.
I’m the hero here, but Lily’s looking at me like I’m some sort of villain, like I would twirl my moustache while tying busty girls to train tracks, like I let her down.
“We have Bren and Todd now, Wick.”
“Oh, yeah?” Oddly, analyzing the situation calms me. I look at Lily and feel stronger. “For how long? Last three homes didn’t keep us past a couple of months. We have to look out for ourselves.”
“But what about—?” Lily waves one hand at the door, unable to bring herself to say Carson’s name.
“Don’t worry about him. I’ll take care of it.” She ought to know I’m full of shit, but Lily relaxes like she believes every word. You’d think it’d make me feel proud. “Lil, if I get enough money, it won’t matter that they’re going to throw us out. We’ll be able to go anywhere. And, like it or not, hacking is what will give us that freedom. I know you hate it, but the money’s our ticket out.”
“If we need it.”
“When we need it.”
Upstairs, a shower cuts on and a woman starts singing about how the hills are alive with the sound of music.
For God’s sake, Bren. I run one hand over my face. No one has a right to be that happy without serious meds being involved. It’s just annoying for the rest of us.
Usually, I would get Lily to agree with me, but she’s already gone. I can hear her dashing across the upstairs hallway, making for her bedroom. She knows the game. When Bren comes out, Lily will need to look like nothing happened. I’ll need to look like nothing happened.
Except I feel so shaky, I know I’ll never pull it off. I’m not in the mood for sunny. In fact, I’m not in the mood for any of this. I want out. So I shove my feet into my battered Converse sneakers—they’re the only things left from my wardrobe Bren didn’t throw out—and bang through the front door.
It would be a pretty excellent exit too if I didn’t nearly trip and fall on my face. Something has tangled up my feet. I twist and see a small, brown package sitting on the top step.
It’s addressed to me.
It wasn’t here last night.
But Carson was. The idea hurls my stomach down around my feet. I start to walk away, but that won’t work. Bren will only find it and then there will be questions and I’ll have to come up with answers and I don’t have the energy.
The package is pretty small—about the size of a paperback novel. I could fit it in my messenger bag, throw it away later.
Because I definitely shouldn’t open it.
Because he definitely has to be playing some game with me.
But if I don’t, I’ll look scared. Worse, I’ll know I’m scared.
Scared enough to go back inside? I slant a quick look back at the house. I think about explaining it to Lily. I think about explaining it to Bren.
Yeah, never mind. I hook two fingers into the wrapping’s edges and rip. The result is a pretty big letdown. Carson’s left me a water-stained book.
Well, okay then. I rub my thumb over the frayed binding, irritation pinching all my insides like I’ve got mosquitoes eating their way out. Is Carson trying to make friends? Not freaking likely. So what’s his angle? I don’t know. I can’t figure it out and, instead of feeling relieved, I feel foolish.
And even though I know I’m alone, I cut a quick glance up and down the street. Nothing. No one. The road is empty. I’m safe. But I still want to run.
I look back down at my unwanted gift. There has to be something I’m missing here. There has to be a point. I pick at a pear-shaped stain on the book’s corner.
Maybe there’s a message. I open the cover and amusement temporarily overrides my confusion. This isn’t a book. It’s a diary. Well, whatever, I guess.
I didn’t think people did this sort of thing anymore. I’ve never been attracted to the idea myself. I mean why would you want to put all your secrets out in the world? Why would you want to write down everything that scares you?
It’s like making a map to your weaknesses. It’s not smart. But, all that aside, there’s no reason why someone would send it to me. I flip over another page and my stomach rocks to one side, settles upside down.
I know who owns the diary. The script is a little smoother, but I recognize the fat, curly letters even before I see the name written at the bottom. She used to write it all over my folders. It made all my stuff look like hers. Back then, I never minded. I thought it made me look like hers.
But I haven’t spoken to Tessa Waye since sixth grade and I seriously doubt she’s trying to reconnect now. This doesn’t make any sense and I don’t know why I pull back another page, but I do and there it is: a single yellow Post-It-Note pasted across some random Wednesday morning’s entry. It says:
He said if I told anyone, he’d kill me. I believe him.
Page 49 of Tessa Waye’s diary
Find Me? There’s a flickering under my scalp, a tingling across the back of my neck. My annoying mosquitoes have grown into spiders. They’re crawling all over my skin. What the hell is this?
I turn the Post-It-Note over like there’s going to be some better explanation on the other side and, naturally, there isn’t. There’s just Find Me in slanting, black letters. The handwriting doesn’t match Tessa’s. The two words are stabbed across the paper.
The voice makes my feet stutter against the sidewalk. I almost shriek, which is totally embarrassing and totally unnecessary. It’s just another jogger and, no matter how perky his greeting, the dude looks miserable. He slogs down our street, his tennis shoes trailing heavily along the asphalt.
“Morning!” It’s a half-assed response. My voice sounds scraped, scared. That won’t work. A tone like that could draw attention, a round of “Are you okay, little girl?” So I summon up a lightning-bright smile, but it doesn’t matter. The guy’s halfway up the hill now. He’s gone.
I glare at his back, hating him for noticing me. It happens a lot now. I blame Bren. In my old clothes and my old life, no one noticed me. Now I’m on the rich side of town, wearing Abercrombie. I’m all…approachable.
Damn it all.
Above me, the pink sky is marbled with clouds. It’s going to be another gorgeous day. Lots of sunshine. Probably a breeze. Other than the diary, there’s no sign of Detective Carson and, even better than that, there’s no sign of my dad coming back for us.
It ought to make me feel loads better. But I don’t. Find Me clings to me with spider web strings. I can’t wipe it away. I start to close the diary and a dirty fifty-dollar bill falls out. It drifts onto my sneakers, staring limply up at me as my heartbeats start to come in jerks.
I usually take a small payment up front before beginning a job, but that’s via an online wire transfer. I don’t take personal deliveries on any of my work and I sure as hell don’t find people out in the real world. I do cyberspace. I’m kind of specific.
I’m also supposed to be a secret.
There are only three people in the whole world who are meant to know about me and none of them would contact me like this. That means someone else knows.
Someone else knows.
Any other student might look weird showing up at school at seven in the morning, but I’ve been taking computer courses every semester since freshman year so I don’t look any weirder than usual when I edge through the gym’s side door. Home Room doesn’t start for another hour and a half so I have plenty of time and minimal witnesses, which is exactly the way life should be.
I stop by my locker, trading out my history book for my math notes, before heading to the computer lab. Mrs. Lowe leaves the classroom open in case we need to use the equipment for our projects. She should know better. Really. I mean, anyone could walk in here and start using the computers for their own purposes.
People like me for instance.
I push open the classroom door, anticipating a stretch of quiet isolation and realize it’s so not going to happen. I’m not alone. In my haze, I missed seeing Griff. He glances up and his eyes do a quick flicker thing. They don’t quite widen or blink. I don’t know how to describe it, but I know he’s surprised.
Maybe it’s my hair. I’m a natural blonde—the kind of pale yellow that belongs to princesses in fairy tales, Barbie dolls, and my dad. So I dye it. Frequently. I changed the color to dark red yesterday afternoon, picked out the shade because it would make me look like a graphic novel character. I thought the superhero red looked awesome. I guess Griff thinks differently.
I don’t care—I don’t—but my ears still go all hot. I hate how stupid I feel sometimes. Okay, most of the time. These days, I keep wishing I were someone else. Maybe my mom felt like that too. Maybe that’s why she jumped. Makes me wonder if she had the right idea.
She didn’t of course—I’d never leave Lily like she left us—but the running away part I get. She was escaping my dad. It was her salvation, but it made our lives worse.
“You’re here early.” Griff’s smile feels like a kick to my stomach. He straightens—shoulders tensing up underneath his faded polo—so he can see me better and I have to fight the urge to squirm. I don’t know why he pays attention to me. It makes me nervous.
“Yeah, pretty early.” I start to say more, mention something about my upcoming English project, anything that won’t keep me standing here like a total dork with my mouth hanging open, but I don’t. This is kind of a problem I have with Griff. He has the weirdest bottle green eyes. They’re very clear and they make me feel very…muddy.
I clear my throat. “I actually got out of bed on time.”
“Me too.” Griff nods and goes back to concentrating on his notepad. He’s drawing again—actually he’s always drawing and I want to ask about it, but I chicken out.
You’d think we would be friends. Until I went into the foster system, I lived two streets away from him, but we’re nothing alike. Griff moves pretty easily through school. He gets along with everyone and has even been known to save bullied nerds. If I stood up to one of Matthew Bradford’s ‘roid rages, I’d be a smear on the gym floor. Griff never hesitated. Part of me really admires him for it…part of me is jealous he can pull it off.
I weave through the scattered chairs, heading for the computer workstation closest to the back. Lauren Connor, my best friend, would say it’s my favorite, and she’s probably right. There’s a little more room for my stuff and I can keep my shoulders pressed against the concrete walls. If anyone asks, I say it’s because I like to sleep through the lectures. But, honestly, I just like it better back here. It’s almost as good as being invisible.
I have a few things for my Biology class I should do, but I’m not in the mood to mess with any of them. Carson is branded on my brain.
He’s after our dad. And I say have at it, buddy. Knock yourself out. Unless…unless he knows about me. Could I have made a mistake? Could Carson have found out?
I don’t think he left me Tessa’s diary—I don’t think he even noticed it was there. Doesn’t mean Carson isn’t keeping tabs though and, if he wants a closer look at me, I should get a closer look at him. Email would be a good starting point. I don’t remember if he had a Blackberry, but they’re easy enough to break into if he did.
In fact, I’d give almost anything to start now. The want is bad enough to make my teeth ache, but I don’t dare start something here at school. The availability of hardware is attractive, but not enough to dare the administration’s spyware. I’m not at that point.
A few Google searches never hurt anyone though, and I spend almost forty minutes scrolling through online newspaper articles that mention Carson. His picture is up on the police department’s website and there’s a blurb commending him for his superior level of community involvement.
Community involvement, my ass. Is that what we’re calling it now? Carson’s grinning like a jackass and I’m sure it’s supposed to be charming, but all I see is the skull behind the smile.
Outside the classroom, the noise level is swelling. Windows line the front half of the computer lab and I can see more students dragging in from the parking lot. Their voices are unusually low, humming like bees and wasps.
Well, except for one.
Jenna Maxwell is crying.
This is unusual for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is because Jenna is never unhappy. She has the proportions of a Barbie doll and the temperament of a pit viper. She’s president of our class, heads up the Beta Club, and enjoys watching nerds get tossed into dumpsters.
As one of those nerds, I’m pretty interested in anything that would make Jenna cry. Part of me really hopes her convertible’s been keyed, but I would also settle for an STD.
Jenna briefly disappears into a pack of girls and I slide my eyes back to the computer screen. Something’s definitely up. There’s too much hugging going on.
“Amazing,” Griff says, stretching his arms behind his head. “I didn’t think she was programmed to cry.”
“Yeah, it makes her look almost life-like.” The words shoot out of my mouth before they can be swallowed and I envision them writhing around on the table in front of me, squirming and scratching themselves.
Shit. I cut my gaze to Griff. He’ll look at me the same disappointed way Bren and Todd do. The same way everyone does.
Except he doesn’t.
Our eyes touch and one side of his mouth slants up in what might very well be a smile. It makes my stomach grow two pounds heavier and, suddenly, I don’t know what to say. I know I really should look away, but I don’t.
Actually, I don’t think I can.
Griff glances away, staring at the cluster of girls. “I always thought they were frenemies. I guess she really was close to Tessa.”
Was? I sit up a little, pressing my back into the plastic chair. “What do you mean?”
Griff takes so long to answer I don’t think he’s going to respond, but, when he finally does, the question sounds like a running leap, like it was flung far out to reach me: “You don’t know?”
“Tessa jumped off a building.”
The room narrows and narrows until it’s sleek and long. I focus on Griff who looks embarrassed; like he’s afraid I’ll cry.
Most people get that way when they’re talking to me about jumpers. They stare at me, but can only think about my mom.
“Tessa jumped off a building?” I have to repeat it carefully because the words in my head are so loud I worry they’ll spew out my mouth: Find me. Find me. Find. Me.
“Yeah, it was early yesterday.” Griff passes one ink-stained hand over his face. It does nothing to loosen the gritted expression. He shakes his head like Tessa is a bone he’s choking on.
I concentrate on the keys beneath my fingers, but all I can think of is the diary curled up against my leg. You can barely see the bulge, but the edges are blooming razor blades.
“There has to be some sort of mistake.”
“That’s not what Jenna’s saying.” Griff reaches into his pocket, pulls out his cell. After briefly fiddling with the keypad, he shows me the screen. It’s Jenna Maxwell’s Facebook page and the words on her wall make my stomach knot. “She says Tessa committed suicide.”