Hannah Jayne will be featured as the Kindle Daily Deal on Amazon for TOMORROW Friday, October 4! The book will be offered at a discounted price of $1.99.
Truly Madly Deadly is an edge-of-your-seat thriller about love, obsession and murder. Sawyer Dodd has it all. She’s a star track athlete, choir soloist, and A-student. And her boyfriend is the handsome all-star Kevin Anderson. But behind the medals, prom pictures, and perfect smiles, Sawyer finds herself trapped in a controlling, abusive relationship with Kevin. When he dies in a drunk-driving accident, Sawyer is secretly relieved. She’s free. Until she opens her locker and finds a mysterious letter signed by “an admirer” and printed with two simple words: “You’re welcome.”
“Thank you for coming.”
The words rose and fell on the soft pile carpet, and Sawyer wondered whether she should brush the small ball of fuzz from Kevin’s earlobe. It stuck there, stark and white against the dark navy blue of his suit.
“I couldn’t have gotten through today without you,” Mrs. Anderson said, squeezing Sawyer’s ice-cold hand.
Sawyer knew she should say something comforting, something warm and thoughtful, but all she could focus on was that little bit of fuzz on Kevin’s left ear.
“They said it was immediate,” someone whispered. “They said he was drunk.”
Sawyer had heard those words tumble over and over in her mind every minute for the past forty-eight hours. It was immediate, Kevin was drunk, he didn’t stand a chance. She wasn’t crying—couldn’t anymore—as she stared down at Kevin. His eyes were closed, his lips slightly parted, and his hands were gently crossed against his chest. Sawyer couldn’t help but think from somewhere dark, somewhere deep inside of her, that at least he couldn’t hurt her anymore.
“You must be devastated.”
Sawyer felt Mr. Hanson, her Spanish teacher, lay a gentle hand on her shoulder. She shrunk away, the smell of lilies suddenly overwhelmingly cloying. “I’ll be right back.”
She took the stairs two at a time, her black ballet flats falling soundlessly on the carpet. She paused on the top floor landing when she saw the girl at the end of the hall.
The girl blinked at Sawyer.
She was tall and thin—unfortunately so—with a boyish body that was all edges and angles. Her long brown hair was looped in a herringbone braid that fell over one shoulder, and baby hairs stood up in a static-y halo around her head, shot out from the loose weave of the braid. The girl’s eyes looked like they may have been velvety brown and deeply alive once, but they were sunken and flat now. Her full lips were barely pink and pulled down at the edges. This girl wore her mourning black like a second skin.
Sawyer swallowed; the girl swallowed.
Sawyer paused for a full beat before tugging self-consciously at her braid, then averted her eyes from the mirror that reflected a girl she scarcely recognized. She continued down the hall, moving quickly.
She knew from nights lying to her parents and sneaking, shoeless, past his parents’ room that Kevin’s door was the last one on the left. She slipped in there on a sigh, clicking the door shut softly behind her. A curl-edged painting was scotch taped to the back of Kevin’s door and Sawyer, stunned, fingered it softly. It was a beach scene she had painted the first day Kevin spoke to her. They were in art class and she was lost in her own brush strokes, squinting, leaning close to make the crush of the waves as realistic as possible.
“You’re really good,” he had said, his chin jutting toward the scene. Sawyer could still feel the overwhelming heat in her cheeks as her index finger followed the curl of foam on the forever-still water.
She heard a soft breath in the yellowing light that filtered through the blinds and cracked across the painting. “The recruiter came to see him, you know.”
Mr. Anderson said it without turning around. Kevin’s father was perched on the end of his son’s bed; his head was bowed and his back was toward her, but Sawyer could see that his fingers were working the silky fabric of Kevin’s number twenty-one Hawthorne Hornets football jersey while an army of gold plated football trophies looked on.
“He talked about marrying you.” Mr. Anderson looked over his shoulder then, his watery blue eyes finding Sawyer, a reminiscing half smile on his chapped lips. “He said that he’d get into Cal and you’d get into the Art Institute and that would be it.”
Sawyer tried to smile, tried to remember the moments when she and Kevin would sprawl in the grass, her hand finding his as they talked about a future that was far off and pristine, that sloughed off divorce and jealousy and high school pressures and rivalries. She remembered telling Kevin that she wanted to go to the Art Institute, remembered the far-off look in his eyes when a smile snaked across his lips.
“What?” she said, barely able to keep the grin from her lips.
Kevin shook his head and squeezed Sawyer’s hand gently. “How perfect is that? I’ll go to Cal, be the dashing football star, and you’ll be across the bay at the Art Institute painting portraits of your beloved.”
“Portraits of John Lennon? I think I’d get tired of that.”
Kevin tugged at her arm—gently, softly—and Sawyer slipped into his lap, loving the feeling of his arms wrapped around her. She felt so safe, so warm, and when his lips nuzzled her ear, she felt the spark move low in her belly.
Now the memory caught in her throat. That was when things were good, she told herself.
Mr. Anderson sucked in a sharp breath that brought Sawyer back to the present; she looked up just in time to see Kevin’s father double over himself, heavy hands hugging his sides. There was no sound except the ragged tear of his breath as he cried.
Sawyer felt her bottom lip quiver, and when she pinched her eyes shut, she saw Kevin, cheeks pink and alive, lips pressed up into that half smile he shared with his father. In her mind’s eye, that grin turned into a snarl. She heard the sickening smack of skin against skin in her head. She reeled, feeling the sting again.
“He loved you so much.”
Sawyer felt Kevin’s warm breath, heard the deep rumble of his voice as he told her he loved her for the first time. She remembered the shiver that zinged from the top of her head to the base of her spine, amazed, delighted, enraptured. Kevin—Kevin Anderson, the most popular boy in school—loved her. She was everything in that moment when Kevin’s fingertips brushed against the small of her back, when his lips pressed up against hers. Her life—her family—had splintered. Her mother had moved across the country, her father loved another woman, but Kevin Anderson wanted Sawyer. He wanted Sawyer Dodd, and that made her feel real. She wanted to hold on to that moment, was desperate to hold on to that moment and nothing else—not when he got angry, not when she made him mad, not the tear-racked apologies that followed.
Sawyer nodded, the tears slipping over her cheeks. “I loved him too.”
The mood at school on Monday was somber, and Sawyer was tired of people averting their stares when she walked by. Third-period choir was her favorite escape, and when she slipped into the band room, she couldn’t help but grin when Chloe Coulter, seated on the piano with long legs kicking, caught her eye.
“Sawyer!” Chloe vaulted off the piano, her blond ponytail flailing behind her. She tackled Sawyer in an enthusiastic hug, not caring as students shoved past them.
“How are you?” Chloe’s eyes were a bright, clear blue, and today they were wide and sympathetic, framed by too-dark black lashes and heavy brows. “Are you okay?”
Sawyer nodded slowly, and her best friend squeezed her hand, then blew out a sigh. “Did you just get back in town?”
Chloe waved a pink late pass. “Yeah.” Her eyes searched Sawyer. “I’m so sorry, Sawyer. I wish I could have been there. Was it awful? It was awful, wasn’t it? I should have been there with you. God, I suck.”
Sawyer swallowed hard. “It was your grandmother’s ninetieth birthday. No one expected you to come back.”
“But I would have,” Chloe said, blond ponytail bobbing.
“I can’t believe he’s gone,” Maggie Gaines said, her ski-jump nose a heady red. She was flanked on either side by stricken onlookers who offered condolences and Kleenex as Maggie murmured to them in a voice just loud enough to be overheard. When she caught Sawyer staring, Maggie’s glossy eyes went immediately hard and sharp.
“Look at her,” Chloe spat. “Kevin was your boyfriend, but Maggie needs to be the inconsolable center of attention. That should be you.”
Sawyer shrunk back into her baggy sweatshirt. “Let her have her moment,” she mumbled. “They dated for a while too.”
Chloe snorted. “Like a hundred years ago.”
Mr. Rose kicked open the side door and shoved a costume rack into the choir room. The student chatter died down and kids leaned forward, eyes glued to the new choir uniforms.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Mr. Rose started, “I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath to see what you’re wearing for this year’s regionals.”
The group groaned as a well-tuned whole.
The Hawthorne High Honeybee choir was known for only two things: being four-time back-to-back national champions and having the ugliest uniforms known to man. Sawyer’s freshman year featured an army green taffeta number with balloon sleeves and lace inlays for the girls, and equally unattractive green velvet blazers for the guys. Sophomore year the budget was cut, and the Honeybee choir showed up looking like an exceptionally well-tuned army of white-vested waiters. At the end of last year, the school had taken “pity” on the choir and offered up some leftover graduation gowns onto which the costume department had stitched fighting hornets and musical notes. That was what the group was expecting when Mr. Rose began his excited introduction.
“So, without further ado…” Mr. Rose pulled the black sheet off the costume bar and a collective “ah” sailed through the classroom. Maggie stopped sniffing into her Kleenex, Chloe gasped, and Sawyer sat up straighter.
With one hand, Mr. Rose held up a simple black satin sheath dress, its waist cinched with a thick red satin sash. In the other hand, he offered a black blazer with a red tie. The Honeybees cheered.
Mr. Rose, apple cheeks pushed up into a full-face smile, beamed. “The school board heard your fashion protests and decided—finally—that the Singing Honeybees should look like five-time regional champions!”
Once the students had dropped back into some semblance of order, Mr. Rose handed out the plastic-wrapped garments. When he got to Sawyer he paused, giving her the sympathetic smile she was so quickly growing tired of seeing. He rested a soft hand on her shoulder, cocked his head. “Are you doing okay, Sawyer?”
Sawyer took her dress and offered him a small smile. “Yeah, I am. Thanks Mr. Rose.”
“You know, I’d like for the Honeybees to add a small tribute number to Kevin in our set list. He was such a big part of the Hornet community.”
Sawyer felt a lump growing in her throat and she nodded. “That sounds nice. Kevin would have liked that.”
“I’d like to feature you in a solo for that number.” Mr. Rose’s eyes were kind, his puffy gray eyebrows high, expectant. “Would that be okay with you?”
Sawyer nodded mutely, dread, excitement, sadness, and anxiety welling up inside her all at once. “Thank you, Mr. Rose,” she finally managed.
Mr. Rose passed Sawyer and Chloe, continuing his costume distribution to the other Honeybees. Chloe leaned in, excitement evident on her face.
“A solo?” she asked breathlessly. “Oh my God, that’s awesome! It just sucks that—” Chloe avoided Sawyer’s eyes, looked at her own hands folded in her lap. “It just sucks that Kevin couldn’t be here to hear you.”
Sawyer tried to form a response or a cohesive sentence, but nothing came out.
Mr. Rose took his spot behind the piano, and the Honeybees did their warm-ups. At the last note, he beckoned to Sawyer. She made her way to the front of the class, feeling the heat of all eyes on her. When she turned, it was just Maggie, her eyes narrowed, challenging. Sawyer offered a small noncombative smile that Maggie ignored.
We used to be friends, Sawyer heard herself plead silently.
Maggie’s hate rolled off her in waves.
When the bell rang, Sawyer and Chloe gathered up their backpacks and new uniforms, and headed toward the door. Maggie, arms crossed in front of her chest, stopped Sawyer dead in her tracks.
“A solo?” she said. Her eyes raked over Sawyer, the distaste evident.
“Can you move, please? I need to get to my locker before fourth.” She was too tired to deal with one of Maggie’s jealous rages.
But Maggie remained in Sawyer’s way.
“Do you think I’m going to fall for you and your stupid little ‘woe is me’ act? Doubtful. You don’t deserve this solo, and you didn’t deserve Kevin. A real girlfriend wouldn’t be able to pull herself together, let alone do a solo.”
Sawyer wanted to fight back, but she was exhausted and emotionless. Maybe Maggie was right—she didn’t deserve to be Kevin’s girlfriend—didn’t deserve to be at the blunt end of his anger, a small voice inside her head nagged. Sawyer shook it off and shoved Maggie aside with more force than she meant.
“Lay off, Maggie.”
“Get over yourself,” Sawyer heard Chloe growl. “Sawyer doesn’t need to play the chick who can’t get herself together—you do it too well. It’s just too bad you’ve been doing it ever since Kevin dumped you. When was that exactly? Nine, ten months ago now? Little long to be carrying a flame, don’t you think?” Chloe flicked a lock of Maggie’s long hair, then wrinkled her nose. “It’s probably time to drag your obsessively depressed ass into the shower. It’ll make us all feel better.”
Chloe shoved past Maggie and linked arms with Sawyer, steering her down the hall.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Sawyer said, hiking her backpack over one shoulder. “I can handle Maggie.”
Chloe’s blue eyes went wide and baby-doll innocent. “Oh, honey. I didn’t do it for you.” She blinked, a wry smile spreading across her passion-pink lips. “I did it for me.”
“Hola, señoras.” Mr. Hanson was the school’s sole Spanish teacher, but at barely thirty years old, he looked more like a student than a faculty member. He edged his way between Sawyer and Chloe and grinned, while a hallway full of girls drooled. “Perdon, perdon. Ah, Sawyer! Has estudiado para la prueba? ” he said, looking expectantly at her.
Sawyer felt the redness bloom in her cheeks and shifted her weight. “Um, si, señor.”
“Bueno! ” A wide smile spread across Mr. Hanson’s face, his eyes crinkling with the effort.
“Ohmigod, what did he just say to you?”
Sawyer shrugged. “Honestly, I have no idea. My stock answers are si, no, or the often used ‘how do you say menstrual cramps in Spanish’?”
Chloe wrinkled her nose. “Ew.”
“They never ask you to translate that sombrero thing if they think you’ve got cramps.”
Chloe watched the back of Mr. Hanson’s head as he disappeared into Principal Chappie’s office. “Screw French. I’m transferring into Spanish.”
“You were bound to waste it on some French Canadian anyway.”
“Don’t you love him?”
Sawyer glanced over her shoulder, caught the last of Mr. Hanson’s dark hair as he disappeared into the office. “Don’t you think he’s a little overeager?”
“Please. Half my teachers don’t even know my first name. Hanson’s like, fresh out of teacher school, or whatever, and still hopeful. He still believes in us.” Chloe batted her eyelashes sweetly.
“Besides, I heard he gave Libby a ride home the other day.”
Sawyer unzipped her backpack. “And I’m sure she thanked him appropriately.”
Chloe crossed her arms in front of her chest, bored now. “Are we still on for tomorrow night?”
“You mean our convocation?”
“Ooh, convocation. SAT word?”
Sawyer laughed. “My ticket out of suburban hell. Let me call you about tomorrow, though. Dad and wife number two are finding out the sex-slash-species of The Spawn. I’m sure they’ll want to do something educational and emotionally satisfying out of their Blended Families/Blended Lives book.”
“Ah, another evening rubbing placenta on each other and worshipping the moon?”
Sawyer sighed. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come over and watch your parents’ passive aggression as they avoid each other while showing their extreme disappointment in your choices?”
Chloe folded a stick of gum into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “Hell no. Wednesday is fried chicken and mac-and-cheese-as-vegetable night at the double wide. That dysfunction is all mine. And they’re not my parents—Lois and Dean are my guardians.”
Sawyer cocked her head, her arms crossed in front of her chest. “Not mom and stepdud anymore?”
“Hopefully not. Haven’t seen Dean in over a week. And I’m using the guardian thing so hopefully Lois will finally cave in and admit that I’m adopted.”
Sawyer grinned. “Except that you are the spitting image of your mother.”
“Sawyer Dodd, that is a horrible thing to say.”
“Of course. A thousand apologies. I take it back.”
“Better.” Chloe blew Sawyer an air kiss. “I’ll be waiting by the phone with greasy fingers for your call.”
“I’ll have the ambulance on standby,” Sawyer called over her shoulder.
She grinned, watching her best friend skip down the hall. For the first time in what seemed like forever, things felt normal and light again.
“Excuse me.” Logan Haas smiled shyly at Sawyer and she stepped aside, letting him get into the locker under hers. Logan bore the unlucky high school triumvirate of being slight, short, and nearsighted, but Sawyer liked him.
“Hey, sorry,” she said.
Logan stacked his books, slammed his locker shut, gave Sawyer an awkward salute, and headed down the hall, eyes glued to his shoes. Sawyer spun her combination lock and yanked the door open, her lips forming a little o of surprise when she did so. Amongst her neatly stacked binders and books was a short, fat envelope in a pale mint green. Her name was printed on it in a handwriting font. She took the envelope and looked over both shoulders; no one milled about, red-faced or smiling, indicating that they had slipped the note in her locker.
She tore the envelope open and pulled out a matching mint green folded card, a tiny plain oak leaf embossed on the bottom. When she opened it, a clipped newspaper article slipped out. Sawyer didn’t have to read the headline to know what it said: “Local High School Student Killed In Car Wreck.” She swallowed down a cry and read the note on the card.
It said, simply,
Heat, like a live wire, raced down Sawyer’s spine. The note was signed, “an admirer,” and that word, admirer, clawed at her. Her fingers started to shake, and she flicked the note back into her locker and slammed the door shut, pressing her forehead against the cool metal.
It’s nothing, she told herself. Someone probably sent flowers—everyone sent flowers. Each hour after Kevin’s death was reported a new bouquet seemed to show up—gaudy, pitiful, with drooping spider mums and cheap, glittered ribbons in the Hawthorne High School colors. Each bouquet reminded Sawyer of Kevin—especially when they died.
She suddenly hated flowers.
“I’m sure that’s what it is,” Sawyer mumbled.
“Tick tock, Ms. Dodd.” Principal Chappie tapped his mammoth wristwatch as he strode by, giving students his principal snarl and tick-tock warning.
Sawyer hiked her backpack onto her shoulder and stepped away from her locker, but that meager line—“You’re welcome”—was like an invisible string pulling her back. She spun her combination lock and reached for the note, her fingers hovering tentatively over it as though it would burn her. Finally, she snatched it up and tucked the note into her bag, heading toward her AP biology class.
Chloe appeared in the hallway halfway to Sawyer’s class and fell in step with her. She leaned in. “You look awful,” she whispered.
Sawyer swallowed heavily and licked her lips. “There was something in my locker.”
“Like a dead mouse?” Chloe shuddered.
“Ahem,” Mr. Rhodes said from inside his classroom. “As soon as Ms. Dodd is through with her conversation, we will begin our class.”
Sawyer looked from Mr. Rhodes to Chloe. “Gotta go.”
Chloe peeled off into her own class as Sawyer beelined through the open door and pulled it shut behind her, whispering apologies as she did.
“Nice of you to join us, Sawyer. Take your seat.”
“Sorry.” She ducked into her desk at the back of the room and pulled out her biology book, working to rein in her mind as it shot off in multiple directions. As the day wore on, Sawyer tried to put the note out of her mind, but each time the bell rang, her heart would start to punch against her ribs. She purposely avoided her locker—which was easy to do, since her speech class didn’t require a book and she was planning to buy her lunch anyway—but she couldn’t avoid it at the end of the day. She sat in her last class, doing her best to avoid the clock. But each time another minute ticked off, a hot coil of dread burned through her. When the bell finally rang, she took her time gathering her things.
Chloe poked her head through the doorway from the hall, glaring at Sawyer.
“Oh my God, Sawyer, the glaciers are melting,” she moaned. “Come on already!”
Sawyer slung her last book into her backpack and hitched it over her shoulder. She followed Chloe into the crowded hallway, and as they approached the junior hall, icy fingers of anxiety—or fear—pricked at Sawyer. She tried to shake it off, to remind herself of her well-constructed flower theory, but the note—and its message—hung heavily in the back of her mind.
“Hey, are you okay?” Chloe asked.
Sawyer shook her head, shrugged.
“Didn’t you say you got something?”
Sawyer sucked in a stomach-quivering breath, her eyes focused on her locker. Would there be another note? She fumbled with the lock and tugged it open, letting out a whoosh of air when she saw that her locker was just as she had left it: her neat stack of books, two tubes of Chapstick, a picture of her and Kevin—and no note.
“Earth to Sawyer?”
“Sorry, Chloe. I’m just—I’m just tired, I guess. I’m not sleeping very well.”
“I thought your doctor gave you some sleeping pills or something.”
Sawyer nodded, swapping the books in her locker for the ones in her backpack. “He did, but if I take one of those I’m dead to the world.”
“Sounds like heaven.”
Sawyer rolled her eyes. “Heaven with the teensiest bit of hallucinatory crazy tossed in.”
Chloe bounced on the balls of her feet. “Oh, IPO-paid hallucinogens? Sign me up!”
“And then I run like molasses the next morning.”
“You dropped something.” Chloe bent down and plucked the mint-green envelope from the linoleum. “What’s this?”
Sawyer swallowed. “It’s nothing.” She snatched the envelope back while Chloe cocked an eyebrow.
Sawyer bit her lip, then forced a nonchalant smile. “Call me later?”
Sawyer felt like she was sleepwalking all through track practice—and Coach Carter told her the same. She was glad when he finally let the team leave after their timed trials.
“You okay, S?” Coach Carter asked as students trickled off the field.
“Yeah, I’m sorry, Coach, I was just—” Sawyer bit her bottom lip, suddenly certain that Coach Carter could see right through her, would know that she was lying. “Distracted.”
Coach nodded. “That’s not like you.” He broke into a friendly grin and trotted backward. “You’re going to bring it next time though, right?”
Sawyer smiled back, for once glad that Coach Carter cared about nothing more than her performance on the track.
“Sure,” she mumbled, forcing herself to smile.
Sawyer skipped changing in the locker room and went directly for her car in the school parking lot. She threw her backpack—note safely tucked in the front pocket—on the passenger seat. She drove a brand-new midnight blue Honda Accord with all the extras. Though she was thankful, she wasn’t as wowed by the thing as her friends had been. Where they saw shiny new wheels and imminent freedom, Sawyer saw her parents’ last unified attempt at appeasement—or apology—while her mother moved two thousand miles away to run a corporate office and her father and wife number two moved Sawyer to the outer regions of hell. Her parents had presented the car as a reliable necessity for Sawyer. Her father’s new subdivision and her new, just-like-every-other-house-in-the-tract home were thirty-three miles away from Chloe, Hawthorne High, and every other bit of civilization in Sawyer’s life.
She sunk her key in the ignition, plastic Fighting Hornet keychain dangling, but didn’t start the car. Instead, she bit her lip and listened to her heartbeat speed up, grimacing as hot needles pricked at her spine. She unzipped her pack and pulled out the note, studying the envelope as if some new, revealing clue would suddenly appear. There was nothing. On a sharp breath she plucked the card from its envelope and opened it, reading the handwriting font once again:
She said the words out loud, and they seemed to fill up the whole car, to squeeze the air out of the cab. Sawyer chewed her bottom lip, glancing from the newspaper article back to the note. I’m welcome for what?
She heard the football coach’s whistle blow in the distance, signaling the end of their practice. Football players, muddied and sweaty, began to trickle into the parking lot, their hoots, howls, and general chatter muffled by the Accord’s rolled-up windows. The team girlfriends hung back with the cheerleaders, who walked into the lot in bunches, talking animatedly, ponytails bobbing. A group of band members lugged their instruments, and from behind them Sawyer watched as a group of varsity football players ambled by, all wearing matching shirts—hornet green, the words “We Will Never Forget You” printed above a bright white number twenty-one and the last name Anderson.
Sawyer looked from the jerseys to the note in her hand. Her breath hitched and her fingers—and the note—began to tremble.
A navy blue sedan was blocking Sawyer’s driveway when she came home from track practice. Sawyer parked behind it and stepped out of her car, the dusk already setting, already pushing the estates into a hazy darkness. She blinked when she saw the spark of a cigarette from the side of the house. Sawyer guessed the owner of the sedan was checking out the bones of the houses nearby; it wasn’t unusual for potential buyers to check out the Dodd family’s “model home.”
“Hey, Dad,” Sawyer started, “it looks like someone’s looking at the—” She paused, looking at the three heads that swung to look at her.
Her stomach rolled over on itself as she felt all eyes fixate on her, studying her with a look she was starting to recognize—and loathe—sympathy mixed with curiosity, with just the tiniest hint of frustration.
Sawyer’s dark eyes washed from her stepmother to her father. “What’s going on?”
Andrew Dodd blinked at his wife and cleared his throat. They were perched on the new ecru couch, pillows undisturbed, but their faces were drawn. A man sat on the couch directly across from them, a small leather notepad balanced on his knee.
“Is this your daughter?” the man asked.
“Yes,” Andrew Dodd said, jumping up and going to her. “This is Sawyer.” He put his hand on the small of Sawyer’s back and ushered her into the living room. “Sawyer, this is Detective Frank Biggs.”
Frank Biggs looked exactly like you’d expect a man named Frank Biggs to look—like a mustached fireplug in a short-sleeved, button-down shirt; a stained blue tie; and khakis that could use an iron or a dumpster.
Sawyer shook his hand and he smiled, breathing out a whoosh of overly minted, Nicorette smelling air. “Nice to meet you.”
“Dad, what is this about?”
“Detective Biggs just wants to ask you a few questions about Kevin.” Andrew cleared his throat a second time, avoiding Sawyer’s gaze. “About what happened to Kevin.”
“Just a few routine follow-up questions,” Biggs said, flipping a black ballpoint pen over his hairy knuckles.
Sawyer nodded. “Okay. But I told the other officer everything I knew.”
Biggs nodded and flipped open his notebook. “So did you see Kevin the night of the accident, Sawyer?”
He pronounced her name Saw-yah and fixed her with his flat, brown eyes.
“Yes. I saw him before”—a sob lodged in her throat—“before the accident.”
“Were you in the car with him at any time?”
Andrew let out a hissing sigh. “Is this really necessary? She already said that she had been on a date with Kevin and then walked back to her car.”
Sawyer turned to her father. “It’s okay, Dad.”
“So you were in Kevin’s car. Up until when?”
“I don’t know; nine o’clock, maybe?”
“And that was on the hillside.”
“So you weren’t in the car with Kevin as he went down the hill.”
Sawyer shook her head. “No. No, he’d been drinking. I walked down myself. Can I ask why you’re asking me this? The other officer—I mean, he asked me about pretty much everything.”
Detective Biggs looked up from his notebook. “We found a shoe stuck in the mud near the accident site.”
Biggs nodded and produced a color photograph of a shoe lined up next to a ruler. “It’s a ladies’ size seven and a half. What size shoe do you wear?”
Sawyer cocked an eyebrow. “Seven and a half.”
Tara cleared her throat from her spot on the couch. “I wear a seven and a half, as well, Detective. It’s a pretty common size for women.”
The detective regarded her with a small bob of his head. “We’re not making any accusations here, Mrs. Dodd. Just trying to establish some facts.” He turned back to Sawyer and pressed the photograph toward her. “Do you recognize this shoe?”
Sawyer took the picture. “I have those shoes. But so does pretty much every girl at Hawthorne.”
“May I see them, please?”
She was taken aback. “My shoes?”
“Just what exactly are you getting at, Detective Biggs?” Andrew asked.
“We’re working on a theory—just a theory—that there may have been someone else in the car with Kevin that night.”
Sawyer’s breath hitched. “What?”
“The passenger seat was moved back—just enough for someone to have slipped out the door.”
“But the car—everyone said it was smashed. Wouldn’t a passenger have been killed? Or at least hurt pretty severely? And why would someone not say something? Why wouldn’t they say they were in car?”
Detective Biggs held up his meaty hands. “Right now it’s just a theory. Like I said, we’re just trying to establish the facts, figure out as best we can exactly what happened that night. The seat being in that position could just be a coincidence. And the shoe stuck in the mud—well, it could have been left in the car prior and gotten kicked out on impact, or it could have even just been there on the side of the road. You kids spend a lot of time up there on Hicks. There’s always a lot of junk left behind.”
Sawyer felt strangely ashamed, like the detective had stumbled on her generation’s dirty little secret.
“May I see the shoes, Sawyer?”
Sawyer nodded mutely and climbed the stairs, her mind tumbling over the idea that someone could have been in the car with Kevin. If someone had been there, she mused, why would that person let him drive if they knew he’d been drinking?
She picked through the detritus on her closet floor, shoving past prom shoes and track sneakers. The pair in question—a fairly nondescript pair of mall-issued metallic flats—wasn’t there. Sawyer flopped back onto her butt on the floor, frowning. She did a cursory check under the bed before half-heartedly picking through a bulging cardboard box labeled “Sawyer.”
Twenty minutes later she stepped down the stairs and shrugged. “I can’t find them.” Sawyer gestured toward the photo Detective Biggs laid on the coffee table. “But those can’t be mine.” She licked her lips, forcing the words past her teeth as the images of that night flashed in her mind. “I wasn’t wearing them that night.”
Detective Biggs sucked on his teeth and seemed to consider Sawyer’s statement. Everything in her went on synapse-snapping high alert and suddenly, without knowing why, Sawyer felt guilty. When the detective broke the silence what seemed like eons later, Sawyer finally breathed.
Biggs thrust out a hand to Sawyer’s father and stepmom. “Sorry to have bothered you, Mr. and Mrs. Dodd.” He nodded at Sawyer. “You have a very smart daughter there.”
Sawyer watched her father and Tara shake Biggs’s hand, frustration prickling her spine when no one corrected Biggs, no one reminded him that Tara wasn’t her mother. When the detective offered his hand to Sawyer, she shook it woodenly, saying nothing. Once the door closed and he was gone, Sawyer blinked.
“I’m going to go take a shower.”
“Don’t you want to eat something first?” Tara asked.
Sawyer shook her head, feeling the dead weight of…something…sitting in the pit of her stomach. “No, I’m not very hungry.”
She turned her back on Tara’s and her father’s expectant stares and pulled her backpack over her shoulder. Once she got to her room, she shut the door, dumped the pack, and stashed the note where no one would find it. Then she turned on the shower as hot as she could get it, as if the water could wash away the last year of her life.
Sawyer was in her pajamas, hair wrapped in a towel turban, and stretched out on her bed when there was a knock on her doorframe. She looked up from her Spanish homework and blinked at her father.
“Hey,” he said softly.
He walked in, sitting on the edge of Sawyer’s bed, one hand fanned out on her bedspread. “She’s trying, you know.”
Sawyer didn’t say anything. She kept her pencil moving even though she had ceased conjugating verbs and was now doodling circles on her notebook paper. “I know.”
“It’s not easy for her.”
Sawyer looked up, betrayal flashing in her eyes. “It’s not easy for me, either.”
“I know. And Tara understands that. But this is all new to her. New husband, new house. New teenage daughter. It’s a lot to take in. She just wants to make this work. She wants us all to be a family. Can you give her a break?”
Sawyer felt the tears stinging behind her eyes. She gritted her teeth, digging deep into her molars until her jaw hurt. “It’s a little new for me too. Remember? When she was getting a new husband, I was getting a new stepmom. And a new house.” She swallowed hard, trying to wash down the thick lump in her throat. And losing my real mom, she wanted to say.
Andrew rubbed his palm over his mouth and sighed. “But you’re strong, sweetheart. Tara’s not like you. She needs a little more help.”
Sawyer caught on that word, strong. When her parent’s marriage fell apart, people started calling her strong just because she didn’t start cutting herself or bring a gun to school. But she wasn’t strong. She was weak and small and afraid, and she felt safe when Kevin opened his arms to her, tucked her forehead under his chin. She remembered the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest, the first time they had had sex, the first time in so long that she didn’t have to be strong. Back then, Kevin protected her.
The lines of her binder paper blurred in front of her, but she refused to cry. She sniffed instead and nodded. “Sure, Dad. I’ll try.”
Sawyer flopped down in her bed at half past eleven, her body heavy with exhaustion. But sleep wouldn’t come. The words of the note hung heavy on her periphery, like if she just read a little more into them, gave them a little more thought, they would reveal her mysterious admirer. At close to 1:00 a.m., Sawyer finally kicked off her covers, frustrated, and retrieved the note from her underwear drawer where she had stashed it. She read it, turned it over and over again in her hands, but nothing was shaken loose, no memory or insight. She was smashing the letter back between a pair of boy shorts and a sequined thong Chloe had given her as a gag gift when light flooded the room. It came in a smooth, blue-white arc, pouring over her open bathroom door, her computer desk, her bulletin board, until it shifted over Sawyer. She was paralyzed under the bright light. When it had washed over her, plunging her back into blackness, her eyes burned and the adrenaline rushed through her, working her already aching muscles.
“Oh God.” Sawyer grabbed at her chest, feeling the spastic thud of her heart under her hand. “Now I’m scared of light.”
She felt the giggle twitter through her as she crawled back into her bed, sinking into her pooled covers. When the arc of light came one more time, she talked herself out of her nerves, out of the niggling feeling in the back of her mind that something was wrong.
“Headlights, freakazoid,” Sawyer said out loud, keeping her voice throaty and low. “Nothing weird about—” She sat bolt upright and kicked out of bed, falling to her knees on the carpet. She pressed her palms against the windowsill and sunk down so only her eyes and the top of her head were showing.
She swept the street.
“Who the hell is driving out here now?” she mumbled in the darkness. She had no neighbors, no guests, and civilization—anything other than cows and model homes—was at least a twenty-minute drive from her housing tract.
Sawyer poked her head up another half-inch and craned her neck, trying to see down the connecting streets. But it was dead silent outside. There was no wind rattling what remained of the leaves this autumn, no neighbors with lights still on or TVs blaring. Sawyer hated the empty housing development. During the day, the houses looked cheery and welcoming, like some apron-wearing mom was in the model kitchen baking cookies, her perfect kids ready to spill out of the front door at any moment. But in the dark, the same houses seemed to boast their emptiness, and the windows that looked like they hid the perfect American families by day were gaping, menacing, and black at night. There was no sound and no movement—until Sawyer caught a beady red eye out of the corner of her eye. It was the taillight of a car—the other must have been broken—and it sailed down the street, a leisurely coast. Had it been daylight, a lone car on the street wouldn’t have piqued Sawyer’s interest—people were always cruising through, pretending they were heading to their new homes, she guessed. But tonight was an unusually dark night, starless, and without streetlights, there was nothing to see—unless you knew what you were looking for.
Sawyer shuddered and pulled her curtains closed. She slipped slowly back into bed, pulling the covers to her chin, her eyes wide, focused on the ceiling. She willed them to shut but then her mind kept spinning. She rolled over onto her side. Her eyes—suddenly very used to the darkness—flicked over her nightstand, the stack of books lying there, and settled on the prescription bottle shoved behind this week’s US magazine. Sawyer sighed and rolled over, clamping her eyes shut.
And then she rolled back.
“No, I hate that stuff,” she muttered. “It makes me feel freaking crazy.” She flopped back hard against her pillow and pulled another one over her face.
As her parents leveled their “news”—divorce, split homes, a move for Dad to the outer regions of housing tract hell, the “chance of a lifetime” for Mom that moved her across country, they doted on Sawyer and looked at her with troubled expressions. And when a new car and promises of a “good, new start” didn’t make her smile—or sleep at night—it was Dr. Johnson, one hour a week of “and how does that make you feel?” and finally, the Trazadone.
After tossing and turning for another twenty minutes, Sawyer was in the bathroom, filling up a glass of cold water and popping a dose of the medication.
“Just so I can get some sleep,” she mumbled to her sallow, sunken-eyed reflection. Then she crawled into bed and fell into a restless, heavy slumber.