Haunted by Monica Alexander by Monica Alexander - Read Online

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Haunted - Monica Alexander

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Prologue

Murder Rocks Small New Hampshire Town

Early Sunday morning, two Laurel High School students were found in Lakeside Park, having been stabbed multiple times. The female died at the scene, but the male is reportedly in stable condition. Due to the ages of the victims, no names are being released at this time.

The police have no leads, but based on the description of the attacker that the male victim provided, they feel confident they will be able to hone in on the identity of the six-foot male between the ages of sixteen and twenty. According to the victim, the attacker was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and kept his face hidden, but was decidedly male.

He came at us from the trees and attacked my girlfriend first. I tried to stop him, but it was too late. He left us for dead. Everything happened so fast, and then he was gone.

More information will be provided as the families of the victims are notified and police continue their investigation. For now they are asking all citizens of Laurel and the surrounding areas to heed caution when out alone at night.

Until we find the man who did this, no one is safe, Police Chief King said in a statement early this morning. And we will find him.

Chapter One

Avery

Three Months Before the Murder

I had to get away. I seriously could not stand being in that house a second longer. My parents had been fighting since my dad had walked in the door, and if it was anything like their fights had been all summer, I knew it would continue until my mom finally had enough, stormed away in tears and slammed their bedroom door. My father’s booming voice would tell her that they weren’t finished talking. Then he’d stalk to their bedroom, and they’d yell through the door some more.

After a period of time they’d finally get frustrated enough that they’d go to their corners – my mom in their room, since she never came back out once she slammed the door shut, and my dad in the guest room. It was a pattern that had irritatingly started repeating itself every few days.

The first few times it had happened, I’d put my ear buds in and did what I could to drown out the shouting, but I still knew it was happening. My ear buds weren’t noise-cancelling, so I could still hear the vague sounds of their fighting. After enduring two months of the same thing night after night, I was so done.

When it had started, I was fearful that they were going to get divorced. I’d heard the things they were yelling at each other and was so afraid they were going to sit me down and tell me that they were separating. By now I was so tired of their constant bickering and dirty looks and accusations that I was practically begging them to just call it a day already. They hated each other. I didn’t want them to be together anymore. Living with them had become a completely miserable experience. Even if it meant my dad moving out, I’d take it over the constant feeling of anxiety that seemed to hover over our house.

More and more lately I’d been escaping to the pond at the back of our property. No one was ever there, and it was completely secluded with trees on all sides. I used to escape to my room when I needed a break. I’d sit in front of the easel I had set up in the corner and paint for hours, losing myself in the image I was creating, but painting wasn’t really an escape when the shouting coming from down the hall could be heard through my closed door and invaded my every thought.

So I found myself whiling away the long summer days, stretched out on a blanket, music in my ears and my sketchpad in front of me. I’d been sketching more than anything lately since I couldn’t exactly strap my easel, canvas and paints to the back of my four-wheeler, and the pond was too far away to walk with it all. But I’d take what I could get. Being alone at the pond was really the only place where I felt I could salvage some sort of peace of mind in a world that had been turned on its head seven months earlier and really hadn’t ever fully righted itself.

Before then we’d been a typical happy family. Sure, sometimes we argued. We weren’t perfect, but I loved my parents, and I’d enjoyed being around them. We had fun most of the time. Then everything changed when my brother Mason was killed in action in Afghanistan.

It was one of those things that I knew could happen when he joined the Army two years earlier. It was a risk that was ever-present when the United States was in the middle of a war. We all knew it, but it was also one of those things that you think will never happen to you – to your family, to your brother.

But it had.

When we first found out, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that it was true. I was numb and completely in denial that what the uniformed Army representatives had said as they sat stiffly in our living room with somber expressions on their faces was real and that I wasn’t dreaming. A picture of Mason dressed in his fatigues sat almost eerily behind them on the antique washstand as they said the words we already knew were coming when we opened the door to see them standing on our front porch. I mean, why else does the Army come knocking on your door?

But I just couldn’t process that he was gone. My goofy, protective older brother who I’d adored growing up was dead. He couldn’t be dead.

But he was.

It was an IED. It had been buried in a pile of trash that had been tossed against the side of a building. He and two other guys in his unit had gotten too close, and it had gone off, killing all three of them instantly.

I couldn’t help imaging the scene in my mind, even though it was the last thing I wanted to do because it ended up giving me nightmares for weeks, but the vivid description painted itself in my head just like most things did. I was an artist. I was a visual person. I saw words in pictures, so of course my brother’s gruesome death played out like a movie for me to watch again and again.

I remember hoping it was over quick, that he hadn’t felt any pain, and I imagined it had been. He might have had two seconds of clarity, but that had probably been it. That gave me an infinitesimal amount of peace. But even that was short lived.

The reality that he wouldn’t be back to visit, that I’d never talk to him or see him again, overshadowed everything else. And it took a really long time to sink in because he hadn’t been home for months. He wasn’t able to come home for Christmas, but we’d talked to him for ten minutes via video chat. Thanksgiving had been the same. He’d been deployed to the Middle East for the second time in two years back in September. That had been the last time I’d seen him.

He wasn’t planning on coming back to New Hampshire until May when he had a month off. He would have had leave in February, but it was just two weeks. He’d told me in a letter that he and some of his buddies were going to bum around Europe, but he’d see me in May and we’d made plans to go on a road trip to look at colleges.

My plan had always been to go to Boston University and major in business, because it was safe and smart, but Mason wanted me to keep my options open. He wanted me to be adventurous and take risks. He wanted me to study art. He said it would make my life fuller than a nine-to-five job that would suck the creativity out of me. But art had always been my outlet. I’d never seen it as a career. It didn’t seem like a viable way to make a living.

Mason thought about things differently, though. He had to. Even though he was smart, Dyslexia had hindered his ability to excel in school. School was tough for him, and college would be an even tougher battle, so he was always looking for an alternative career where a college degree wasn’t a necessity. It was why he’d loved being in the military so much. The day he told me he’d finally found something he was good at, he’d sounded so proud. I hadn’t ever heard pride in his voice like that before, and I couldn’t have been happier for him. Of course if I’d known the one thing he loved would take him from us, I’d have fought with everything in me to keep him home.

You’d have thought that Mason’s death would have brought our family closer together, but death has a funny way of affecting people. Instead of clinging to each other when we were all so distraught, we pulled away. His death literally tore us apart.

My mother was angry with my father for supporting Mason’s decision to join the Army. My father was harboring enormous amounts of guilt for encouraging Mason to join in the first place when he saw that college probably wasn’t going to be an option for him. And I just felt this sense of loss that no one could fill. My brother had been a part of me and he was gone. I felt his death down to my core.

And because my parents were so withdrawn, I couldn’t turn to them. They were too busy pushing each other away and mourning the loss of their son that they forgot about their daughter who was still alive and also in pain. I tried to turn to my friends, but it’s hard to find solace in people who don’t know what you’re going through. And everything changed for me the instant I learned about Mason’s fate. I was normal, bubbly, and playful when I’d left school on Friday afternoon, and when I went back on Monday, I felt like a different person. I was a different person.

School was strange. I was suddenly the focus of eyes in the hallway and whispers in class. Sympathy was thrown my way, but it was always awkward and forced. I knew my friends meant well and they were trying, but a part of me felt like telling them it wasn’t helping. There wasn’t anything they could say or do that would bring my brother back, so they should just stop trying.

I didn’t say that, though, because they were my friends. Instead I just tried to force myself to go back to being who I was before. It was easier to pretend everything was normal since the last thing I wanted to do was talk to anyone about Mason’s death. It consumed my thoughts and my dreams. I didn’t want to invite the nightmares into my daily life. In truth, I think my friends appreciated that.

At home, as time went on, things never really got any better, so being there was always hard. My parents were barely speaking to each other, my dad was spending as much time as he could at the outdoor sporting goods store that he owned in town, and my mom was burying herself in her work and wasting away to practically nothing since she barely ate. It wasn’t good.

But then things got worse.

My dad cheated on my mom. He hadn’t slept with the woman, but he’d done enough for it to be considered cheating and to piss my mom off.

Quite honestly the fact that he’d been unfaithful actually got them speaking again, but it wasn’t a good thing. They went from barely acknowledging each other to fighting constantly.

My dad came home from a conference in Boston, and while my mother had been doing his laundry, she found a lipstick stain on his shirt collar. It was so incredibly clichéd I couldn’t believe it. Isn’t that always how men got caught? Shouldn’t he have noticed the stain at some point, either while taking the shirt off or at the very least folding it and putting it in his suitcase? Wouldn’t throwing it away have been a smarter move?

Not that I condoned my father cheating. I didn’t. But he was a smart man. He should have realized if he returned home with the evidence of his infidelities, he’d get caught. He should have realized my mother would never forgive him. She just wasn’t that kind of woman.

I hated to think it after everything she’d been through, but in all honesty, I was like my dad. And although I loved her, my mom was emotional and dramatic and had been turning little things into bigger deals my whole life. She couldn’t help it. She thrived on drama.

Mason and I used to make fun of her for it all the time, hiding our laughter so she couldn’t see us doing it when she’d start to go off on some melodramatic tangent. In truth, we found it endearing, but that was before. After Mason died everything seemed to get a little darker. My mom’s mood swings were one of them.

When Mason left for boot camp, and I was left alone at home with my parents, I’d started to watch our mom more critically. I remember distinctly writing to him in a letter about why I thought she was the way she was. I told him I honestly thought it was because she suffered from extreme boredom and possibly depression. We lived in a small town in northern New Hampshire where nothing ever happened. And to make things more daunting, my mom was a CPA, which I was fairly certain was the most boring job on the planet. So I had a feeling she created ways to make her life more exciting.

I can remember joking about it to Mason in countless letters, imaging him reading what I’d written, thinking he’d definitely laugh out loud and then write back that he was throwing sympathy vibes my way. But after he died, I didn’t have him to write to anymore. In fact, I felt his loss more than ever the day after my mother found the lipstick stain on my dad’s shirt. I felt this overwhelming urge to write to my brother, but reality struck me hard when I realized I couldn’t. It was like my outlet for stress and angst and pain had been lost.

That was a tough moment to get through. It was also the first time I’d hopped on my four-wheeler and drove back to the pond, seeking solace in the quiet, isolated place where I could cry over my brother’s death, feel his loss, and try to find some semblance of peace.

I needed it after what I’d overheard from my parents, because when my mother had found the lipstick stain on my father’s shirt, World War Three had broken out the second he’d walked in the door. She stood there holding his shirt with her fingertips, touching as little fabric as possible while glaring at him. All hell broke loose after that. Household goods were slammed, angry words were exchanged, and my father had pleaded with my mother to just calm down and listen to him while I huddled in my room wondering what the hell had happened to my family. We’d fallen so far in just a few months.

I listened to my father tell my mother that a woman had come on to him. He’d been drinking, he’d kissed her in an elevator, they’d done a little making out in the elevator and the hallway outside of her room, and then he’d come to his senses. That was it. Again, not that I supported that kind of behavior, because I still thought it was a crappy thing to do to my mom, but in my honest opinion, my dad wasn’t happy in his marriage. Instead of being an adult and just telling my mom, he’d gone off the rails and potentially created more heartache for himself than was necessary.

Our family was already damaged, but he’d made things so much worse.

I wasn’t sure if Mason’s death had brought to light something that was already brewing beneath the surface of my parents’ marriage, but I had a feeling it had. They didn’t maintain a united front for a reason, and that had pushed them farther from each other. And in all honestly, maybe my father did what he had because he wanted to get caught. He just didn’t know how to come out and say he was unhappy.

My mother was unhappy too, but it seemed neither of my parents wanted to man up and make the call. So they fought tirelessly with no resolution – ever. And I kept escaping. I couldn’t help those who didn’t want to be helped, so I helped myself.

That’s what I was doing in the waning hours of daylight on a cool evening in late July. I was on my back with my ear buds in, The Fray was flooding my ears, and I was tuning out. I was lying still on a blanket as the sun filtered through the trees and over my face, warming my skin.

My hand was on my cell phone since my best friend Whitney had been texting me earlier. She was a camp counselor in Maine for the summer, and she only could use her phone a few times a day, so she filled me in on all the camp merriment she was enjoying whenever she could, in between having gooey ‘I love you’ filled conversations with Xander, her boyfriend since middle school. He got the calls. I got text messages.

Which was fine. I could be aloof in text messages, which was good, since I hadn’t even told Whit about my parents and all the things going on in my house over the summer. It wasn’t something I could just bring up without going into massive detail, so I figured it could wait until she got home. Besides, why ruin her summer? Mine had already been ruined, but I didn’t have to drag anyone else down with me.

In fact I’d been pretty much avoiding most of my friends since school had gotten out. I’d faked how okay I was until summer started and Whitney left. Then I finally let myself admit that it was exhausting to keep pretending everything was fine. It wasn’t. My mindset was shit. I blamed it on living in a house that had a haunted feel to it. Mason’s death and my parents’ melodrama had seeped into the walls and infected me too. I felt it was better for me to just avoid other people if at all possible, lest I spread my melancholic mood to them.

Whitney kept telling me to stop being so lame and to go out with our friends. She figured I just needed to have some fun and stop moping around. She didn’t get how I was feeling at all. If she had, she wouldn’t have kept trying to push Xander’s best friend, Dodge, on me. She should have known that the prospect of making out with Dodge was just about the last thing that would make me jump up and run to my car so I could join my friends for drinking at the lake.

I didn’t even really like Dodge. He was a big hulking football player who didn’t have much of a neck. He was also loud and brazen and cocky as hell. Just because Whit thought it would be ‘so amazing!’ if we dated best friends, did not mean I’d ever be attracted to him. She just couldn’t seem to understand that.

I honestly wasn’t interested in anyone. I’d gone to school with the same people for years. None of them appealed to me in the least. Besides, I was headed to Boston after graduation, so why get wrapped up in dating someone I’d just have to say goodbye to.

I’d never made the college trips Mason and I had talked about, and at the start of the summer I made the decision to go to BU like I’d always planned. It was safe, and after I’d seen what taking a risk had done to my brother, safe seemed like the only option I was comfortable with.

In my mind, college couldn’t come fast enough. I was ready to leave. I figured things would have to be easier if I didn’t have to walk by my brother’s old room each day and feel the ache in my chest as I realized again and again that he’d never be back. It was just too hard.

I dreamed of living in a high rise and walking the streets of Boston where I didn’t know a soul that I passed. I wanted to get lost in the galleries. I wanted to sit by the Charles River and sketch what I saw, knowing there were a million scenes that could pass by me on any given day.

I knew moving wouldn’t solve all my problems. I wasn’t delusional, but I hoped that going away to college would at least be a way for me to move forward.

And I was going do it. I just had to get through my senior year. I figured it would be a relative breeze. And it wouldn’t be all that bad. The summer had been hard because I was home most days, and it was oppressive. Once school started I’d have classes and homework and cheerleading. It would be alright. The fall would bring football games and parties and the excitement of the holidays, although I wasn’t so sure the holidays would be very merry at our house. It would be the first Christmas we’d spend without Mason, and I knew we’d all be thinking about him.

But I could go over to Whitney’s house. Her parents were just about perfect, and I loved them. They’d been there for my family a lot over the years, but more so after Mason’s death. Her dad was the mayor of our town, and he’d held a memorial service that had brought everyone in attendance to tears. My brother would have loved it.

Actually, he probably would have mocked it, making jokes to me under his breath because he hated pomp and circumstance, but more than anything he would have said he didn’t deserve it. He died doing his job. But he would have also understood that because he died fighting for his country, people wanted to honor him. Just hearing Whit’s dad and other people who knew Mason talk about what an amazing man he’d been had made my chest ache that day, and I wished my brother had been there to hold my hand and tell me it would all be okay. In reality, I wasn’t sure it ever would be.

As the music I was listening to paused between songs, I heard a rustling in the woods nearby and turned my head to see a baby deer grazing just between two trees. It wasn’t rare to see wildlife at the back of our property. My parents owned ten acres, and most of it was unmaintained woods. Years ago my dad and Mason had made a four-wheeler path through the woods, and that was how I got around so easily. It went right by the pond.

I watched the baby deer with a small smile on my face. She seemed so innocent, and I appreciated that. She had no idea how cruel the world could really be. Her mother was behind her watching for danger, ready to protect her at a moments’ notice. I knew they had nothing to worry about, though. No one ever came as far back into the woods as I was.

The pond technically wasn’t on my parents’ land, but the couple who lived adjacent to us, the Kellers, were older and never ventured to the back of their property. I’d essentially had free run of the place since they’d moved from just outside of Boston nine years earlier.

My hand itched to reach for my sketchpad that lay nearby so I could capture the deer, but I knew if I moved they’d hear me and get spooked, so I laid still and watched, appreciating the simplicity of their lives. Too many things had been swirling through my mind for the past few months that I longed to tune out of my life sometimes.

Music was pulsing in my ears again, so I didn’t see what scared the deer, but suddenly they bolted away from the clearing, disappearing into the thick trees. A sense of fear washed over me, because predatory animals weren’t common, but we saw them sometimes. As I sat up, I glanced over at the four-wheeler, making a mental game plan of how fast I could get to it if I needed to. Then I dared a glance in the other direction to see what I might be up against.

I started when I saw a guy around my age burst through the trees and stop when he saw the pond. A hard glare was fixed on his face, making his dark features look menacing. He was dressed in torn jeans, a gray t-shirt and a black leather jacket, adding to his look of intimidation. His right ear sported at least two piercings, including a bar through the top, and his nearly dark hair fell over his right eye, shielding me from his vision.

I watched him glance behind him, and then he slumped against a nearby tree and fished what looked like a joint from his pocket. He lifted it to his lips, cupped his hand around it to shield the wind and flicked a lighter as he inhaled. Only when he pulled the joint away from his mouth with his thumb and forefinger did the irritated expression on his face shift to one of calmness. I watched him hold the smoke in his lungs for several moments before he released it slowly, blowing it up in the air. It was then that I saw the ring in his lip.

I was only fifteen feet from him, but if he’d seen me when he’d come bursting into the clearing, he wasn’t acknowledging it. I kept my eyes on him, but I didn’t say anything.

Who was he? Where had he come from? I wondered if he was a stranded traveler, but he would have had to drive pretty far out of the way to end up in my backyard. Even still, I imagined him on the back of a motorcycle, the wind in his dark hair, the world rushing by. I found myself envious of him – a guy I didn’t know, who I’d concocted a story about – because in my mind he had a way to get out. He wasn’t trapped in a small town like I was for another year.

I realized I was still staring when his gaze shifted to mine. As soon as we made eye contact, I looked away, my face flushing in embarrassment.

Crap.

I started scrambling to grab up my stuff, wanting to make a hasty exit. As I did, one of my earbuds fell out of my ear. I turned and looked at him once more as he watched me expectantly. I figured he was waiting for me to respond to something he’d said that I hadn’t heard.

Excuse me? I said, because I had no idea what he’d asked me.

I didn’t say anything, he said passively as he took another hit off his joint.

Oh, sorry.

He shrugged. No sweat, he said as he blew the smoke out.

Then his lip curved up into a smirk. I looked away as I finished gathering up my blanket.

Don’t leave on my account, he said after several seconds. I could feel his eyes on me.

I’m sorry?

You don’t have to leave, he said, his words slower and more pronounced. I just needed a place to smoke. My Gran doesn’t like it, so I came out here. I won’t be long.

Your Gran? Are you talking about Mrs. Keller?

He shrugged. If that’s what you call her, then sure.

What the hell did that mean?

You’re her grandson? I asked, not sure I even knew the Kellers had grandkids.

As far as I knew they were estranged from their son – at least that’s what I’d heard my father telling my mother a few years back. And I’d never seen this guy around town before. It was odd that he was visiting out of the blue. Was he telling the truth?

He looked at me like I was slow. Well, yes, that would be why I call her Gran, he said sarcastically.

Okay, fine, I said tersely, because he was kind of being a jerk.

I also wasn’t sure I believed him. Maybe I’d spent too much time alone with my thoughts, reading too many books with farfetched plots, but in my head I was imagining this angry looking guy storming into the Keller’s house with a gun and demanding they give him the house or he’d shoot them. I knew it was wrong to do that, but my brain was on overdrive and something about him wasn’t sitting right with me.

What’s your name? I asked him.

Dylan, he said after hesitating for a few seconds.

What’s your last name? I asked him with narrowed eyes.

Keller, he said, as if it should have been obvious as he pinched the tip of his joint and shoved it into the pocket of his jacket.

I narrowed my eyes further at him.

What? You don’t believe me? he asked with a slight chuckle in his tone.

No, I believe you, I said, but even I could hear the skepticism in my voice.

He smirked at me. I can show you my drivers’ license if you want.

I believe you, I repeated firmly as I started to fold up my blanket. I just wanted to get out of there. Even if this guy was harmless, he was kind of obnoxious. I heard him laugh then, and my head snapped up to glare at him. What’s your problem?

His laughter died out as his eyebrows rose and a delighted look passed over his face. You’re feisty. I like that.

Screw you, I said to him and stormed toward my four-wheeler.

I could hear him laughing as I started it up, but I refused to look in his direction. As I started to drive away, I thought I heard him say something about skinny dipping in the pond. In my head I called him a pervert, hoping his visit with his grandparents would be a short one.

As I drove back toward our house and circled around the side to the driveway, I noticed my dad’s car was gone. I wondered if he’d gone to sleep in the apartment above the store. Usually he rented it out for extra income, but the girl who’d been living there for the past year had moved out the week before, so it was vacant. It was also vacant of furniture, so if he was staying there, he’d be sleeping on the floor. He’d have to be pretty desperate to do that. Maybe he’d just gone out to get a drink and would be back later.

When I walked into the house, my mom was sitting at the kitchen table drinking a glass of wine and reading a magazine. Her eyes were red and puffy as she glanced up at me, almost expectantly. I knew instantly that she wanted me to ask her where my dad was. I figured I’d play her game. Better to get it over with.

Where’s Dad?

Gone, she said dramatically.

I sighed. Gone where?

The store. He said he wanted to do inventory.

I worked at the store three days a week and had done inventory the week before, but I didn’t tell her that. It would only fuel the fire if she knew he’d lied to her.

Oh. Okay, I said instead. So what were you thinking for dinner?

I’m not hungry, she said softly.

That was the response she usually gave me.

Okay. I guess I’ll go get a pizza then.

I figured I’d eat a few slices and put the rest in the refrigerator. Then when she decided she was hungry, she’d have something to eat. If I didn’t do that, she’d likely starve to death. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone grocery shopping, and most everything in the fridge was expired. I’d been subsisting on granola bars, peanut butter sandwiches and take-out, and I figured if my mom didn’t remedy this food situation soon, I was going to take her credit card and go shopping myself. Her sadness-induced anorexia shouldn’t hinder my stomach.

That’s fine. I’m not hungry, she said softly.

Yeah, I heard you. But I am, so I’m going to eat.

Avery, don’t be a brat. You know I’m going through something terrible with your father, and I would appreciate your support. This year has been hard enough without everything he’s done layered on top of it.

I am being supportive, I told her. I’m providing sustenance for you so you don’t wither away to nothing. You need to eat, Mom. Wine isn’t a food group.

She narrowed her eyes at me. I just can’t stomach food right now. When I think about what your father did. She shook her head.

Yeah, I know, I said softly, knowing that what she was feeling had more do to with Mason than my father, but she’d never admit it.

She shook her head again. No woman should ever have to go through this.

I know.

I wanted to tell her that maybe if she hadn’t pushed him away and blamed him for Mason’s death, my father wouldn’t have looked elsewhere, but I bit my tongue, not wanting to get any further into their business than I already was by default from living under the same roof as them. They’d both made mistakes, and at the end of the day, Mason’s death had been a tragic accident. No one was to blame except for the terrorists we were fighting. But my mom would never listen if I tried to tell her that. She wanted someone to blame, so she blamed my dad – the guy who loved his son so much he would have taken his place if he could have. He never wanted Mason to be put in harm’s way.

Okay, so, I’ll be in my room, I told my mom when she didn’t say anything else. I wanted to escape before she dragged me into a conversation about what had caused my father to leave.

I’d heard the start of their fight and knew it had something to do with advice my mother’s best friend had given her. She was trying to enlighten my father, and he didn’t want to hear it. I’d gotten out of the house before I could hear much more.

Had stupid Dylan Keller not interrupted me, I would have stayed outside until after dark. Neither of my parents paid much attention to where I went these days, so I could usually stay out as late as I wanted and not catch much flack. They were generally too wrapped up in their own problems to focus on me.

As soon as I got to my room, my cell phone beeped.

Should I break up with Xan?

My eyebrows rose as I read Whitney’s words.

Are you serious? I texted back.

There’s this other counselor – Collin – he’s sooooo cute. I keep thinking about doing really bad things with him behind the canoe shed.

I sighed as I responded to her, not sure what she was thinking. She loved Xander. This Collin guy might be cute, but she’d regret breaking up with Xan when school started in a month. I was sure it seemed appealing now, but she’d feel differently when Collin wasn’t around anymore.

No. No slutting around behind the canoe shed with Camp Counselor Collin. Bad Whitney.

Ha, ha . . . I wouldn’t be slutting. I’d be experimenting, spreading my wings, tasting life with someone new. And he’s so hot!

I sighed and shook my head. Where does Collin live?

New Jersey.

Bad. Very bad. You’ll hook up with him and never see him again – and then you’ll be sad.

But what if it’s meant to be? What if he’s the one. We could do long distance next year, and then go to college together? He said he could see himself going to college in Boston.

Oh no, she was way too naïve for this. Whit had only ever been with Xander, so she had no idea how conniving guys could be. I had a feeling Collin was a sweet-talking, sexy, never-going-to-call-again jerk like most other seventeen year-old guys. He’d break Whit’s heart, and I’d be left to pick up the pieces. She just couldn’t see it since she’d been with Xander since the dawn of time, and he treated her like a princess.

Don’t do it, Whit. You’ll regret it. Think of Xander in his football uniform, running out onto the field and looking back at you with that smile you love. Think of Homecoming.

I figured calling out the one thing she loved the most and the thing she’d been dreaming about for years would do the trick. All she’d ever wanted was to be crowned Homecoming Queen and have Xander be crowned Homecoming King next to her. It would happen. They were the most beloved couple in our high school. No one was going to vote against them.

*Sigh* You’re right. Thanks BF.

No prob. It’s part of my job to keep your head on straight, I told her.

That’s why I love you.

Yeah. Yeah. Aren’t you late for dinner or something?

Sadly I’d memorized her daily camp schedule to know when she’d be available. Right before dinner I could usually catch her for a few texts if I timed it right.

Yes! Shoot! Gotta go.

Then she was gone. I settled back onto my bed to watch some mindless TV for an hour until I could justifiably leave to get my pizza. I needed to zone out. I felt like my life was way too full of craziness. Even when I tried escape, I couldn’t get away from it.

Chapter Two

Dylan

Were you smoking pot? Gran asked the second I walked into the house.

No, I said quickly, averting my eyes and hoping she wouldn’t check my pockets.

I wasn’t used to hiding my habit since my parents had been okay with me smoking from time to time. They’d done it at my age, and they’d dabbled in it as adults. They weren’t hypocritical enough to tell me I shouldn’t do it.

I just wasn’t sure what Gran’s stance was on smoking since I actually didn’t know her all that well. My father had some sort of falling out with my grandfather when I was six or seven, and he’d refused to see or speak to him since. I knew he talked to Gran occasionally, but it wasn’t often, and they hadn’t seen each other in ten years, which meant I hadn’t seen my grandparents in ten years. They were kind of like strangers to me.

I had no idea what had really happened between my dad and my grandfather, but I knew it was so big that he’d never gotten past it. The only interaction I’d had with my grandparents since I was a kid was on my birthday and Christmas. Every year on those holidays they sent me a card with fifty dollars in it that my mother would hide from my father. Then she made me call and thank them for it while he was at work. I took turns talking to them and telling them what was going on in my life – in the most general sense, of course.

I wasn’t ever very keen on getting into deep conversations with two people I didn’t feel like I knew. My birthday was in July, so every six months we had a brief conversation. But I didn’t know them. I’d never been to their house in New Hampshire, they’d never visited us in L.A., and I could only remember brief moments of time we’d spent with them when I was little.

But I’d been living under the same roof as them for a week.

My parents were killed in a car accident a few weeks before my birthday, and my sister Zoe and I were sent to live with our grandparents, since surprisingly, they were the people my parents named as our guardians in their will. Zoe and I hadn’t really had a choice in the matter.

My mom’s best friend Jess had come to stay with us right after the accident, and