Dad moved us into a cramped studio apartment on the fifth floor of the Cedar Dove apartment complex when he accepted his newest job opportunity. We’d made the drive, only two states over, packing our measly belongings into three suitcases before hitting the road. But that’s how we lived, out of suitcases, never putting down roots. Dad’s a rep for a pharmaceutical company. He trains hospital staff about new drugs and once he’s done, he’s stationed at a new hospital. He loves it, he calls our life an adventure. People must be jealous of all the places we’ve been, all the things we’ve seen, he’d tell me.
He comes home to find me sprawled on the couch that came with the apartment, flipping through channels on the small t.v. I watch his hands, he holds a small array of post cards. He’s always done this, collecting a post card from each place we visit and tucking it neatly in a small scrapbook. It’s always seemed like some sort of bread crumb trail to me. If we ever go missing, people will know the last place we were. I turn my attention glumly back to the t.v.
I hear the sound papers make when they brush together and know he’s flipping through the cards, picking the right one worthy enough for the scrapbook.
“How’d school go today?” Dad asks.
I shrug, though the movement is hidden by my loose fitting hoodie. “Fine.”
“Your tone says otherwise.” He sets the cards on the table near the door and crosses the room, taking a seat next to me. “Are you having trouble again?”
I chuckle at his phrasing, trouble. “Nothing I haven’t dealt with before.”
Dad clasps his hands together in his lap. “I could make a call…”
I sit up quickly. “Don’t do that, please. I’m fine.” His expression is unappeased, so I continue. “We’ll be gone in a few weeks anyway.”
The concern flickering in his eyes fades before he nods his head. “Alright, then.”
“I’m gunna hit the hay, early day tomorrow,” I say, retreating hastily from the room.
He watches me go, closing my bedroom door and even then I still feel him staring. I pull a bottle off my dresser and shake a couple of pills into my palm before swallowing them down dry. The only good thing about my dad’s job is I get great drugs.
I’m out like a light in two minutes flat.
It had taken the footballers of Cedar High School just half a week to discover the new kid and about fifteen minutes to make him feel welcome. Unfortunately by welcome I mean upend in the nearest dumpster. Did I mention the new kid is me?
Dumpsters smell like sour milk and mothballs and battery acid. The smell mingles in your mouth and stays there, especially when it’s constantly reintroduced. The only way I’ve found to get rid of it is cigarettes. The taste of dirt does wonders.
To say that bullies’ tactics are cliché would be an understatement. At this point, I would find it refreshing for some dumb jock to steal my gym clothes or give me a swirly. But no. Dumpsters are all I get.
It’s usually the footballers who like to upend me, but depending on the school, it could be the lacrosse team, or the basketball team, even the theater kids. I’ll admit, that one was a surprise, but at a school for performing arts, someone’s got to be on top.
I find myself leaning against the cool stone façade of my current high school, popping a cigarette between my lips and lighting it. I blow the smoke out through my nostrils and shrug my satchel into a more comfortable position across my shoulder.
A group of footballers sashay across the front lawn, several of them looking familiar. Sniveling idiots with leather on their shoulders and rocks in their heads. They cast me wry glances before turning toe in my direction. Luckily, the first bell rings and they decide against whatever they were going to do, chuckling as they head inside.
I can’t help the eye roll that happens as I take one last puff and crush the butt beneath my shoe.
Week two has given me enough time to memorize my schedule, my teachers’ names, and my locker combination. I haven’t bothered to make any friends, there’s no point. I spend lunch roaming the hallways, turkey sandwich in hand. A display case catches my eye and I notice it celebrates the Cedar Baron’s winning streak. The football team’s trophies and awards dazzle under the small fluorescent lights above, but those aren’t what concern me. Mounted in the middle of the showcase is a team photo. The name plate beneath gives away my tormenters’ names. Tad Drake, quarterback, Dillion Powell, receiver, Franklin Weal, Line man. I narrow my eyes at Tad Drake’s glowing face in the photo.
A girl trips over my foot and curses at me as she hurries down the hall. I don’t even have time to apologize as she’s fifteen feet away by the time I register what happened. The bell rings and I throw the remaining half of my sandwich into the nearest trashcan before heading to science class.
The remainder of the day goes by without incident. Kids swarm the hallways, slamming lockers and buzzing about homework. I shove textbooks into my satchel and retreat from the building, using the chaos as my own cloak of invisibility from Tad and company. Feeling safe only when I’ve slid into a seat on the bus, I let out a sigh and turn my head to the window.
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I hold the book in my hands as I leave Cassidy’s house. She wasn’t happy about my sudden departure after lunch, and even less happy about my asking to take the book with me. After I explained she wasn’t going to be able to do anything with a fake book anyway, she let me go, though not before casting me yet another clouded glare.
I left her the photo with the message though, it’s of no use to me anyway.
I can’t shake my suspicions of Ashley, no matter how much I try. He’s up to something, but I can’t figure out his connection to Torres. Maybe if I pay him a visit, show him the book, and gage his reaction, I might make some headway.
With the idea in mind, I walk faster, heading towards the nearest bus stop. Then something occurs to me. If I show up at the hotel hours after I just told him I lost what I stole, that would look weird. I should wait a day or two.
What an annoying word. Wait.
I let out a huff and take a seat on the bench at the bus stop as the wind picks up, blowing leaves and garbage around in a little circle on the sidewalk. I guess the only place I can go is home for now.
After lunch my mother finally lets me go up to my room. It was agony trying to eat at a normal pace while I could feel the book pressing against my skin beneath my jacket. I close the door and pull the book from my jeans, holding it with both hands as I cross the room to my bed.
I wonder what it could hold. Maybe government secrets? Details about a drug smuggling operation? Incriminating photos?
My heart races as I crack open the cover. The first page is blank. I flip to the next page. Same thing. In frustration I thumb through the entire book. Every single page is blank. What the hell? I hold the book upside down and shake it. Something flutters out and lands on my covers. Picking it up, I realize it’s a photo of Dal Torres holding up a middle finger to the camera. I turn the photo over and there’s a message scrawled in sloppy writing that reads: “To the idiot who thinks it’s easy to steal from Dal Torres, think again.”
“Why do you have the book?”
I look up startled to find Lionel standing in my doorway. “What are you doing here?” I sputter.
“I came to check on you, I felt bad about what you saw last night,” he says, striding into the room, “But that’s beside the point. Why do you have the book?”
“I found it when we were searching for it. I wanted to know what the big secret was. Surprise, it’s a whole lot of nothing.” I hold up the photo and Lionel snatches it from my hand.
He studies the picture, then flips it over, reading the message. His faces blanches and he tosses the photo down and picks the book up off the bed, flipping through the pages.
“I don’t understand,” Lionel whispers.
“What’s not to understand? You thought you were smart, but Torres was smarter.”
Lionel closes the book, staring down at me. “But if this was just a fake, why did Torres act so upset when he saw us in his room? Why wouldn’t he just let us get away, why start a fight when he saw I had a knife? It doesn’t make any sense.”
I draw my knees up. “I don’t know.”
Lionel sits down beside me, his eyes far away as he contemplates. “Is it possible Ashley was involved…?”
“You keep mentioning Ashley. Why would he want to screw you over? Aren’t you friends?”
“I thought so.” Lionel leans back, resting on his elbows. “If I tell you about Ashley and Dal Torres, will you promise not to freak out? I mean, you’re already involved, more than you should be.”
“You’re regretting bringing me along in the first place, aren’t you?” I guess.
Lionel grimaces. “A little. Why did you agree to come along? I mean, you don’t really seem like the kind of girl who enjoys breaking and entering.”
I laugh. “I’m not. I just needed to do something exciting.”
“Yeah. You thought it would be some elaborate explanation?” I smile, gathering my hair over one shoulder and finger combing the knots out. “Plus my friend needed some help. Anyway, before we get any more sidetracked, you were going to tell me about Ashley and Torres. Spill.”
Lionel casts me a dubious look before staring up at the ceiling. “You are one strange girl, Cass. Okay, where do I start?”
“Cassidy?” my mother asks, popping her head inside my room. “I was wondering if Lionel would like some to eat. There’s still some leftover souvlaki from lunch.”
Lionel perps up, his eyes smiling of their own accord. “I’d love some. I’m starving.”
I give Lionel a dark look. He’s clearly thankful for the interruption. He really doesn’t want to tell me what’s in that book. But I’ll find out one way or another. I smile at my mother. “That’d be great. Thanks, Mom.”
We get up and follow my mother downstairs. I whisper to Lionel on the stairs. “We aren’t done talking about the book.”
Lionel offers me a small grimace and averts his eyes.
The lobby is a moderately sized space, with a tiled floor and small breakfast area to the left. Ashley stands behind the front desk in his beige polo with the hotel’s logo on the front. He looks up from his computer as I approach, his black hair, streaked with purple, falling lazily over one eye. His lips quirk up at the corner.
I cross my arms over the raised counter and play it cool. I don’t want to let him know I suspect him of anything. “Ash.”
He looks around quickly before lowering his voice. “How did things go last night?”
I laugh. “How do you think it went? Torres is dead.”
A couple descends the stairs nearby, talking loudly to each other. They come to a stop at the desk a foot away from me. Tourists have no sense of personal space.
“Yeah, can I get a city map?” The balding man says.
Ashley flashes them his best customer service smile. “Sure thing. Can I get you a popular sites pamphlet as well?”
“Didn’t you hear him?” The wife asks in a nasally voice. “Just get a map.”
“Right away.” Ashley pulls a folded map from a drawer and hands it to the husband. “Have a great day.”
The wife rolls her eyes as the husband grabs the pamphlet and they head out the automatic doors. I wait until the doors close before speaking again.
“Things went badly.”
“Did you at least get what you were looking for?”
I frown. “Well yeah, but then I sort of lost it…”
“You lost something that was important enough to kill for?” Ashley laughs incredulously. “Jesus.”
“Were you working last night?”
Ashley sobers. “I had a morning shift yesterday.”
“So you weren’t here when the cops showed up?”
“Just wondering, in case you had heard anything they said. If they had any leads or anything.”
“Oh,” Ashley nods. “Sorry. But this might help you out.” He reaches under the desk and pulls out my pocket knife, handing it over the counter.
I snatch it from his hand. “Where did you find this?”
“Behind the hotel earlier when I was taking out the trash. I recognized the handle and thought I better get it back to you before someone else found it and put two and two together.”
“So what are you going to do about the lost thing you stole from Torres?” Ashley asks.
“Honestly? I have no idea, but I’ll figure it out.”
“Let me know how it goes.”
“Sure. I’m going to get going though. I don’t want to be seen around here for a few days.”
“I understand. Best of luck.” Ashley dips his chin and grins as I cross the lobby and exit the hotel.
Outside, I flip the knife over and over again in my hands, staring down at the snakeskin pattern printed on the handle. I hadn’t even noticed I’d dropped it. I suppose I should be grateful to Ashley for returning it, but I still can’t shake the feeling he’s crooked. What was he doing loading up Torres’ suitcases? Why didn’t the police collect them as evidence?
But what about Cassidy? I’ve been so caught up in finding that book that I’ve completely forgotten Cass’ feelings. She wasn’t prepared for me killing someone and I haven’t even talked to her about it. She’s got to be freaking out. I should drop by her house and talk to her. That’s what a friend would do.
I tuck the knife into my back pocket and catch the next bus at the stop down the street.