AFTER SCHOOL, I FOUND DANIEL WAITING for me at the back gate. He shifted his overloaded backpack to his other shoulder.
“Well, well. If it isn’t the talk of the town.” “News travels fast ‘round these parts?” I asked, but as I did, I noticed quite a bit of staring from other Croyden students as we made our way to his car.
“On the contrary, dear sister. I didn’t hear about the showdown at Tiki Corral until a half an hour after it ended,” he said as we reached the car. “Are we going to talk about it?”
I barked out a laugh as I pulled my car door open and ducked inside. “No.”
Daniel followed in less than a second. “Noah Shaw, huh?”
“I said no.”
“When did that happen?”
“No means no.”
“You don’t actually think you’re going to be allowed out of the house with this guy without my help, do you?”
Daniel pulled out of the parking lot. “Something tells me you’ll come around,” he said, and smiled at the road in front of us the whole way home. So annoying. When he pulled into the driveway, I shot out of the passenger seat, almost missing the fact that our younger brother was crouched over the bushes that separated our house from the neighboring property. Daniel was already inside.
I made my way over to Joseph. As of yesterday, he’d seemed fine. Like the hospital never happened. I wanted to make sure it stayed that way.
“Hey,” I said as I walked up to him. “What’s—”
A black cat he’d been petting slit its yellow eyes and hissed at me. I took a step back.
Joseph withdrew his hand and turned, still crouched. “You’re scaring her.”
I raised my hands defensively. “Sorry. You coming inside?”
The cat issued a low meow and then darted away. My brother stood and wiped his hands on his shirt.
“I am now.”
Once in the house, I dropped my bag by the front table, ignoring the crunch of some unidentifiable object inside the canvas, and strolled into the kitchen. The phone rang. Joseph darted to pick it up.
“Dyer residence,” he answered formally.
“Hold please,” he said as he covered the mouthpiece. He really was hilarious. “It’s for you, Mara,” he said. “And it’s a booooy,” he sing-songed.
I rolled my eyes but wondered who it could be. “I’m taking it in my room,” I said as Joseph erupted in giggles. Horrible.
Out of his field of vision, I jogged the rest of the way and lifted my phone. “Hello?”
“Hello,” Noah answered, mimicking my American accent. But I’d know that voice anywhere.
“How did you get my phone number?” I blurted, before I could stop myself.
“It’s called research.” I could hear him smirking over the phone.
Noah chuckled. “You’re adorable when you’re bitchy.”
“You’re not,” I said, but smiled despite myself.
“What time shall I pick you up on Sunday? And where exactly do you live?”
Noah meeting my family could not happen. I would never hear the end of it. “You don’t have to pick me up,” I said in a rush.
“Considering you have no idea where we’re going and I have no intention of telling you, I’m quite sure that I do.”
“I can meet you somewhere centrally located.”
Noah sounded amused. “I promise to press my trousers before meeting your family. I’ll even bring flowers for the occasion.”
“Oh, God. Please don’t,” I said. Maybe honesty would be the best policy. “My family is going to screw with my life if you come over.” I knew them far too well.
“Congratulations—you just made the prospect all the more enticing. What’s your address?”
“I hate you more than you can know.”
“Give it up, Mara. You know I’ll find it anyway.”
I sighed, defeated, and gave it to him.
“I’ll be there at ten.”
“Oh,” I said, surprised. “For some reason I thought this was a day thing.”
“Hilarious. Ten in the morning, darling.”
“Can’t a girl sleep in on the weekend?”
“You don’t sleep. See you Sunday, and don’t wear stupid shoes.” Noah said, and hung up before I could reply.
I stood, staring at the phone. He was so aggravating. But a nervous thrill traveled through my stomach. Me and Noah. Sunday. Just us.
My mother poked her head into my room and spoke, startling me. “Dad’s going to be home for dinner tonight. Can you help set the table? Or does your arm hurt too much?”
My arm. My mother. Would she still let me go?
“Be right there,” I said, putting down the phone. Seems I’d need Daniel’s help after all.
I walked down the hallway and slipped into his room. He was on his bed, reading a book.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi.” He didn’t look up.
“So, I need your help.”
“With what, pray tell?”
He was going to make this as difficult as possible. Awesome. “I’m supposed to go out with Noah on Sunday.”
“Glad I amuse you.”
“I’m sorry, I’m just—I’m impressed.”
“God, Daniel, am I really that hideous?”
“Oh, come on. That’s not what I meant. I’m impressed that you actually agreed to go out. That’s all.”
I sulked, and raised my arm. “I don’t think Mom is ever going to let me out of her sight again.”
At this, Daniel finally looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “She was supremely pissed Wednesday night, but now that you’re, you know, talking to someone, I could work some magic, I think.” His grin spread. “If you spilled the proverbial beans, that is.”
If anyone could work our mother, it was Daniel. “Fine. What?”
“Did you know it was coming?”
“My sketchbook went missing on Wednesday.”
“Nice try. How about the part where Shaw declared to practically the entire school that you’d been using him to practice your nudes?”
I sighed. “Complete surprise.”
“That’s what I thought when I heard it. I mean, really. You’ve barely left the house….” He trailed off, but I heard the things he didn’t say—you’ve barely left the house except to run away from a party, to visit the emergency room, to visit a psychiatrist.
I interrupted the awkward silence. “So are you going to help me or not?”
Daniel tilted his head sideways and smiled. “You like him?”
This was unbearable. “You know what, forget it.” I turned to leave.
Daniel sat up. “All right, all right. I’ll help you. But only out of guilt.” He made his way over to me. “I should have told you about Dad’s case.”
“Well, consider us even, then,” I said, then smiled. “If you help me set the table.”
“So what’s the special occasion?” I asked my father at dinner that night. He gave me a questioning look. “It’s, like, the third time you’ve been home this early since we moved.”
“Ah,” he said, and smiled. “Well, it was a good day at the office.” He took a bite of curried chicken, then swallowed. “Turns out my client’s the real deal. The so-called eyewitness is a hundred years old. She is not going to hold up on cross.”
My mother stood to retrieve more food from the kitchen. “That’s lovely, Marcus,” she said, watching me. I kept my face carefully composed.
“Well, what do you want me to say? Lassiter has an alibi. He has roots in the community. He’s one of the most well-respected land developers in south Florida, he’s given hundreds of thousands of dollars to conservancy groups—”
“Isn’t that, like, oxymoronic?” Joseph chimed in.
Daniel grinned at our little brother, and then piped up. “I think Joseph’s right. Maybe that’s all just a pretense. I mean, he’s a developer and he’s donating to the groups who hate him? It’s obviously just for show—probably bought him good will at his bail hearing.”
I decided to join in, to keep up appearances. “I agree. Sounds like he has something to hide.” I sounded suitably jovial. My mother even gave me a thumbs-up from the kitchen. Mission accomplished.
“All right,” my father said, “I know when I’m being ganged up on. But it’s not very funny, guys. The man’s on trial for murder, and the evidence doesn’t add up.”
“But Dad, isn’t it your job to say that?”
“Knock it off, Joseph. You tell him, Dad,” Daniel said to our father. When my dad’s back was turned, Daniel winked at our little brother.
“What I’d like to know,” my mother said as my father opened his mouth to retort, “is where my eldest son will be attending college next year.”
And then Daniel was in the spotlight. He reported on the college acceptances he expected, and I tuned him out while shoveling some basmati rice onto my plate. I’d already taken a bite when I noticed something fall through the prongs of my fork. Something small. Something pale.
I froze mid-chew as my gaze slid over my plate. White maggots writhed on the porcelain, half-drowned in curry. I covered my mouth.
“You okay?” Daniel asked, then ate a forkful of rice.
I looked at him wide-eyed with my mouth still full, and then back down at my food. No maggots. Just rice. But I couldn’t bring myself to swallow.
I got up from the table and walked slowly to the hallway. Once I turned the corner, I raced to the guest bathroom, and spit out the food. My knees trembled and my body felt clammy. I splashed cold water over my pale, sweaty face and looked in the mirror out of habit.
Jude stood behind me, wearing the same clothes he had on the night I last saw him and a smile that was completely devoid of warmth. I couldn’t breathe.
“You need to take your mind off this place,” he said, before I turned to the toilet and threw up.