Saturday, October 23
What’s the best way to ask your boyfriend how he feels about the one-year anniversary of his father’s Halloween murder spree?
-boyfriend, because, oh yeah, you’re forbidden to ever see or speak with him again.
Nash never returned to school after five of our classmates were slaughtered by his dad, a man who made me hot chocolate with a mountain of marshmallows whenever I came over.
Jackson Whitmore was two people: the welcoming dad and the cold-blooded killer. It took a long time to merge them.
The memory of what he did is all over town, haunting the residents with constant reminders wherever you look. The memorial statue for his victims sits proudly in the square, in the center of town, visible from every angle—the same location where some of them were found.
I stare at it now. A bronze phoenix with its large wings splayed toward heaven. Five names are engraved underneath the bird. I trace each one with my finger. Mac Johnson Caitlin Howard Kelsie Allen Brodie Edwards Jia Yang
There’s no getting away from what he did. A reminder is carved into stone.
Jackson’s killing spree lasted a week, but it feels like it never ended. The mayor had flowers planted in every inch of soil in the spring. It still smelled like death to me.
Figuring out what to say to Nash has been plaguing me for the past few weeks. Everything I think of sounds totally stupid. Forgetting him has been impossible, and with Halloween coming up, he’s on my mind even more than usual.
Still, it’s been about five months since we last spoke—on a rainy spring day when we ran into each other outside school. Me leaving late for the day, him going to collect a jacket that had been in the lost and found.
It was a short conversation once we’d asked what the other was doing. Short and super
awkward. I can still remember the way he tried to avoid eye contact, as if looking at me hurt, and how I felt so guilty for writing him off like the rest of the town.
Dark gray clouds, the same color as my eyes, cover the sky, as likely to rain as I am to cry. I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to trap my emotions inside. I’m not supposed to think about Nash. My feelings for him were supposed to disappear along with our contact.
I walk away from the statue and toward Gina’s restaurant to meet Adi for breakfast, still clinging to my phone in case I come up with something good to say. I pass a couple of dressed-up scarecrows, one draped in white like a ghost with smudged black circles for eyes. The other dressed in a tattered black cloak with a distorted face and pointed hood. It’s the more sinister one that I have a hard time looking at. You can tell the ghost was made by the elementary school kids. The creepy thing,
When I step inside the restaurant, everyone turns their head to watch me. A few people whisper, still not over getting a glimpse of the killer’s son’s ex.
I feel like a one-woman show.
The one-woman coward show where I ignore my instincts and pretend that I’m fine not talking to Nash anymore.
I duck my head and take a seat at an empty table. Gina’s is a country-style restaurant, with red-and-white checkered tablecloths. I scroll on my phone to distract myself from the fact that Nash’s name is suddenly on everyone’s lips.
My parents were thrilled when I stopped seeing Nash—after forcing me to—and I need them to believe I’ve given up wanting to. It’s much easier if they don’t know anything. If I send him a message and my parents find out, they will freak. It will be a freak-out of epic proportions. Their straight-A daughter, headed for a great college, fraternizing—a word my dad actually
used—with a Whitmore.
It’s not something I should even be thinking about.
Everyone in our tight-knit community, including my best friends, thinks it’s better if the remaining Whitmores keep to their large property on the outskirts of town.
But what Jackson Whitmore did last year wasn’t Nash’s—or his sister, Grace’s—fault. Not that it matters because apparently everyone here believes they’re guilty by association.
It’s all bullshit.
I think I might be the only one left who cares about Nash and Grace.
But I’m not allowed to do anything about it and it’s slowly eating away at me.
I need to reach out to him, to let him know that he’s not alone, but, yeah, I don’t know what to say. Okay, come on. Think of something . . .
As hard as it is for all of us to deal with the anniversary, it must be ten times harder for them. I can only imagine how it must feel to be blamed for something you didn’t do.
They lost everything because of what their dad did.
i know it’s been a while but i still care about you.
No, that’s absolute crap.
How are you and grace doing? I know everyone else blames you but i don’t.
Please don’t hate me.
I couldn’t make these suck more if I tried.
Can we meet?
Delete. Delete. Delete.
This shouldn’t be so hard! We used to talk about everything.
We’d send messages, from long essays to full conversations using only GIFs—sometimes no words were needed. I don’t think that would be appropriate in this situation. I’m sorry your dad is a killer but here’s a GIF of Tom Hanks waving on a boat.
Yeah, I don’t think so.
So, I end up sending nothing at all. Every time. Which is way worse.
“Penny,” my best friend, Adeline, says, sliding into the booth. “Gina has pumpkin-shaped sprinkles on the ice cream sundaes.”
I place my cell facedown on the table, ignoring the simmering frustration in my gut. I half feel like I’m waiting on Nash to reply . . . to the nothing I sent.
“You ordered us one, right?” I ask, though I’m not hungry. That seems to be a theme recently.
Can’t eat properly because of the big ball of anxiety.
Can’t sleep properly because of the big ball of anxiety.
Can’t focus well at school or piano practice because . . . well, you get it.
I haven’t tried ice cream for breakfast, though.
“Duh,” she says, tying her tight red curls on top of her head.
“Sundae eating is getting serious.”
“You know it is. I ordered us the doubles.” She pauses, taking me in. “What’s going on? You look shady and you’re playing ‘Für Elise’ on your cell.”
I look down and realize I’ve been anxiously tapping on the back of my phone. I curl my fingers into my palm. “Everything’s fine. I’m just always practicing.”
Usually I can convince almost anyone of anything—you’ve just got to say whatever the lie is with conviction—but my most useful talent does not work on Adi this time. Plus, I haven’t played piano in a while.
She raises her brows, her pale green eyes full of suspicion, and leans back against the dark wooden booth. A move that I recognize means she’s ready to kick ass.
Adi doesn’t have any time for pretending when she knows it’s a lie.
“I was thinking about him,” I tell her, sighing.
She doesn’t need a name to know who I mean. Him
is pretty much his name now. Him
is Nash. Her
is Grace. That Man
As if saying their names will release Jackson from federal prison and send him on another spree.
“Don’t go there, Pen,” she warns.
My heart sinks to my toes. It’s not the reaction I was hoping for but it’s pretty much the one I expected. Nash is the one thing we will never agree on, the one thing she doesn’t have my back on.
“It wasn’t his fault.”
“I’m with you on that but you probably weren’t going to marry your high school boyfriend anyway. You’re off to Juilliard and he would rather die than live anywhere near a city. It was never going to work.”
That doesn’t mean I should write him off. Besides, I don’t know if I’ll get into Juilliard, not anymore, or if I even want to pursue music professionally. I’ve let it go in the last year, but I’ll save that little confession for another time. My parents won’t be too excited.
“What’s your costume going to be?” I ask.
“Nice subject change but it wasn’t very smooth. I don’t know yet. I’ll see what Party Town has. You still dressing as a corpse bride?”
“I think so,” I reply. I’ll never tell her that Nash was supposed to be a corpse groom this year.
We’d been together for a year before last Halloween and had our costumes picked out . . . but we never got to wear them because trick-or-treating was canceled, and his dad was arrested. We were going to be prisoners.
Now the only prisoner is Jackson Whitmore. Nash and Grace, too, if you count being ostracized by the town and isolated in your home. Which I do.
Copyright © 2023 by Natasha Preston. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.