It only took a few moments of awkward silence for my parents to start grilling me about my day.
“So, sweetie, how was school?” My father leaned forward as he cut into his filet mignon, tenderly rubbing his bite in béarnaise before consuming it. He regarded me with that same mix of curiosity and concern that had been ever present in my parents’ brown eyes since I’d been expelled from Hareswood Hall, a look I found equal parts frustrating and gratifying.
“Fine,” I lied, my face lapsing into a practiced smile as I kept my eyes on my own food. “I think I’m going to have a lot of fun here.”
“Are you sure about this?” My mother pursed her lips, accentuated by a fancy shade of red I knew to be a favorite of hers. “My old friend Ella Tremaine is dean at a gorgeous school in Jersey. You wouldn’t be too far from us.”
“No, I’m fine.” My heart raced at the thought of returning to the world I’d left behind. “This is better.” Time to change the subject. Time to change the subject. “Besides, I like the new house. What is it? Colonial? Victorian?”
My gambit worked- my mother’s face soured at the mention of the creaking, ancient mansion we were currently sitting in the refurbished dining room of. “That makes one of us.” She scowled at my father. “Dearest, I know your brother recommended the place to us, but I’m not seeing the appeal. There were nicer places in Rochester for half the price. And they were right on the water! We don’t even have a pool.”
“Why do we even need a pool, Margaret?” My father threw down his utensils with exasperation. “You’re the only one who swims anyway.”
I choked on my steak, all too aware of the error my father had just made. Chugging down a glass of water, I kept my eyes on the meal as my mother’s gaze went cold.
“Oh, and my interests are unimportant to the family, I suppose?” she laughed sourly. “In case you forgot, Charles, I’m not your trophy wife. I contribute just as much to the company as you do.”
I served myself some potatoes, well aware of the fact that this argument would not be over anytime soon. They’d been having the same one, or variations of it, as long as I could remember. Their differences had only been exacerbated by our recent losses. They’d even argued at the funeral, and my grandparents had to pull them apart for everyone’s good. I knew they loved each other, and I was sure they would get through this, but unfortunately I was cursed to deal with their constant squabbling for the foreseeable future. I guess it’s true what they say… everyone grieves in their own way.
Some ways are more annoying than others. But anyway, argument:
“This house is an investment in our future,” my father reiterated to his seething wife. “Knowles says old houses will triple in value over the next decade, especially ones in this style. He’s never led us wrong before.”
“Well, there’s a first time for everything,” Mom huffed. “After all, I never thought I’d see my daughter in anything but designer clothes, and yet here we are.”
My face went red. My mother always found a way to bring things back to this. I pretended I hadn’t heard her, finishing with the potatoes and placing them back in the center of the table. My parents turned their gaze to me, remembering I had been the topic of conversation before deflecting. They regarded me with something like concern.
“Uh… you guys okay?” I raised an eyebrow, my mouth still half full of potatoes.
“Sally…” my mother hesitated. “Are you okay? Really?”
“Well, still sort of mad that you named me Sally,” I tried to keep the mood light despite the churning in my stomach. “Everybody expects me to be really old and then they’re just a little disappointed when they see I’m young and beautiful.” I paused.
“You know we can find you another therapist if you need it,” Dad offered.
I shook my head. My last experience hasn’t been ideal… Dr. Rowland refused to keep meeting me after only two appointments, insisting I was lying to her. I mean, I was lying to her, but the experience had still turned me off from therapy.
I wasn’t in the mood to be hospitalized for the things I’d seen, the insane things I knew to be true. I figured I’d save my crazy stories for if I felt like getting out of exams.
“All good here,” I smiled weakly. Well, as good as I could be after losing my best friend, getting expelled from my high school, and moving to a new one where nobody would even talk to me without cringing.
“Mhm.” I could tell by the look they shared that neither of my parents really believed me. My mother sat forward, her pool and meal both forgotten. I could tell she was trying to figure out how to say something without sounding insulting. I doubted she’d have much luck.
“Sally, sweetie…” she tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “You know that your stylist is still available, right? I know you were trying to make some sort of statement when you threw out your old clothes–”
“It’s not throwing out if you donate them,” I muttered, but my mother wasn’t listening.
“—but you’ve made your point,” she continued, folding her hands in an attempt to seem attentive. “Nobody would hold it against you if you started dressing well again.”
“I’m not dressing for anybody else,” I crossed my arms. “I like the way I look. And if anyone has a problem with that, I really don’t care.”
My mother swallowed hard and glanced over at my father for support. He jumped in quickly, taking her across the vast dining table and turning towards me. “We don’t like seeing you so angry, Sally.”
I laughed bitterly despite myself, and my parents exchanged looks. “You guys don’t get it,” I smiled at them, a bit sadly. “I’m not angry. I’m me.”
The rest of dinner went about as well as that conversation allowed, and I was relieved to finally slip away to my room. It wasn’t like I had much to do- I had already finished my homework out of sheer boredom- but it was far enough away from my parents to offer a much needed sense of solitude. When the realtor had first offered us a tour of the house, a few months ago, this room immediately stood out to me- it was smaller than most of the others, tucked far away in the back of the house, but it had a personality to it that I really appreciated. There were huge, tall, beautiful windows which opened up to what had once been a beautiful garden, with a nice view of the woods which surrounded the area. I knew restoring the garden was high on my father’s list- he’d already started looking into some flowers and topiary- but I was just as happy with it as it was. Decaying, sure, but interesting, beautiful in its own way. Like the rest of the house, it had a story.
Despite my protests, our interior designer had made some minor changes to the room. Jacquie had installed a window seat in the corner of the room, jutting out like a tiny gazebo, and had raised the ceiling a bit at the expense of the room above. My loft bed was built into the wall, leaving room for a desk underneath. I’d been allowed to do the rest of the decorating, and I hadn’t changed much. I restored the rose-patterned wallpaper which had been already present, pulled some small pink rugs over the hardwood floor, and brought in some furniture from my old room. I hadn’t lived here long enough for it to feel like home, but I was confident it would get there.
It had to.
Sighing, I moved towards the windowseat and practically collapsed onto it. I closed my eyes, and everything sucky that had happened today seemed to wash over me. I opened my eyes, automatically pulling out my phone and unlocking it in the hopes that I had some game or app that would make me feel better. Instead, I was greeted by my lock screen- a picture from just over a year ago, me and another girl, pale skin and green eyes, smiling as we linked arms. Behind us was my old school, my old life, and with that I realized that this hadn’t really helped me at all.
“I guess a distraction would be too much to hope for?” I said to nobody in particular. I sort of wish that this place was haunted… that would at least give me someone to talk to. This house was creaky, old, big, and maybe a little creepy, but it was still just a house.
Was it sad that this house was probably my only friend?
Suddenly, the quiet evening was split open by sirens. I started, whirling towards the window and craned my head towards the distant road. Just in time, as several police cars whizzed past. I frowned… I had asked for a distraction, but this seemed extreme.
“Whatever,” I muttered to myself, grabbing a nearby jacket and heading for the door. I could totally be home before it got too late- the town wasn’t super far away. Carefully, I snuck out into the empty hallway, glancing around just to make sure there was nobody lurking around. I headed straight for the garage, which I knew my parents wouldn’t be anywhere near. The darkened hallways were only slightly creepy as I jogged quickly through them, focusing more on my destination than on the empty, shadowy rooms. Finally I pushed my way through a heavy door into the garage, grabbed my helmet, and buckled it on as I swung over onto my bicycle.
Here’s hoping I remembered enough about the ride to school to not get deathly lost. Also that I wasn’t about to bike all the way into town to watch somebody get ticketed. That would be a royal waste of time, but something compelled me to keep going, keep pumping at the pedals.
I knew I could fit into Golden Springs somewhere. Maybe this was how I would learn where I belonged.
My house vanished into the distance and I found myself deep in the forest, browning as it prepared for Winter. The sounds of the forest washed over me- the chirping of birds, the whistling of wind, the faraway footsteps of some woodland creatures. I shivered in the brisk air. This forest seemed far larger, far creepier, than it had any right to be. Especially since I knew the town couldn’t be more than two or three miles away.
There had been forests in Virginia, but none like this. It fit with my overall impression of Golden Springs- ordinary enough, with this eerie undertone I couldn’t quite place. It felt like the town was holding its breath, waiting for something. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know what that something was.
Finally, I emerged from the shadows, cycling into the sleepy outskirts of town. There was a bit of a bump as my bike moved from the pavement onto the now-present sidewalk. I breathed in a deep breath as I passed Clara’s Bakery, relishing the smell of the fresh-baked cookies I knew they kept in stock, and I waved to an elderly couple walking towards a small park on my right. I watched as the old, but well kept buildings grew closer together, and tried to pick out as many interesting people and enticing places as I could. I sighted a blue haired boy with his arm around a guy in a football jersey walking out of an indie movie theater, and a frazzled looking mother pushing a large stroller past a bustling tavern. I saw a small bookstore, and a giant pet shop, and this place was just so magical that I almost biked straight into the crowd of people clustered in front of me.
Abruptly, I swerved to a stop, hopping off my bike and kicking out the stand so it stood propped out at the edge of the crowd. A bit hesitantly, I left my helmet by the cycle and prayed it wouldn’t be stolen as I moved away from it. Hey, what good was being rich if I didn’t get to be careless sometimes?
All sorts of people stood in a large clump before me, packed tightly together as they gazed at something I could not see and muttered amongst themselves. I realized abruptly that I’d reached what should have been the center of down, glimpsing an intricate fountain of stone beyond the crowd. I rocked onto my toes, struggling for a better look, but all I could see was police tape, and some officers pacing back and forth with cameras and rubber gloves. My eyes widened.
Here I was.
“Excuse me,” I murmured, pushing into the crowd. I was definitely short enough to deserve being in the front of this mess. An old lady clucked, and a middle aged mom with that kind of haircut glared at me, but I made it to the front mostly without incident.
When I got my first look at the body, I almost regretted coming. Almost.
The man (or at least I assumed he had been a man) was mostly obscured by a white tarp, but his hands and legs peeked out enough for me to identify his general shape. He was sprawled by the fountain, in a puddle of dark liquid I would later identify as blood, and he smelled so strongly of death that I could taste it in the air from where I stood. I swallowed hard, averting my eyes.
Seeing him was hard, but I’d had practice seeing dead bodies.
“Everybody please move along,” a frumpy woman in uniform spoke flatly into a megaphone, attempting to disperse the crowd. “This is a crime scene.”
I didn’t really see how this was going to make people any less interested, but hey, I wasn’t one to tell anybody else how to do their job.
“They’re totally stumped,” a voice next to me said, and I started as I realized they were talking to me. I turned to see a boy my age, dark skin and eyes, his face speckled with freckles. He smiled at me, hands in his green parka.
“You don’t seem to have a lot of faith in the system,” I observed with some amusement, smiling. I brushed some hair out of my eyes, trying not to seem as excited as I was. Somebody was actually talking to me. Bicycling into a crime scene hadn’t been such a crazy idea after all. Who was I kidding, it was still ridiculous but nothing about my life wasn’t.
“My dad’s a detective,” the boy’s face split into a wide grin as he observed my own smile. “I hear him yelling at his partner on the phone all the time. This happened a half hour ago, he had to leave in the middle of dinner. They’ve never seen anything like this before.”
“Well, it’s not exactly a big city,” I pointed out. “I assume Murder isn’t all that common around here.”
“You’d be surprised,” he shrugged. “A woman killed her husband while camping around here just four or five years ago.”
“Um… cool?” I frowned, not sure how to feel about that.
“Anyway, it’s the murder weapon that’s freaking them,” the boy continued, and then as if it was the most natural next sentence in the world he added: “My name’s Forrest, by the way. Forrest Williams.”
“I’m Sally,” I extended a hand and he shook it. His hands were cold and clammy.
“Oh, hey, you’re new at my school, right?” Forrest leaned back, curious. “Thunder Hill?”
“Yup, go Lightning,” I confirmed with a half hearted cheer. This earned a laugh from Forrest.
“I still don’t get why we’re the Lightning if it’s Thunder Hill,” he voiced something which had certainly been bothering me. “I mean, shouldn’t it be the Thunder Hill Thunder?”
“I know, right?” I laughed, harder than I meant to. I briefly wondered if I was starved for human interaction. “Crazy.”
“Well, that’s certainly not a word I’m used to associating with Golden Springs,” Forrest snorted. “Crazy.”
It occurred to me that I liked Forrest Williams, and would not mind at all being his friend.
“Have you lived here your whole life?” I asked, blowing a strand of stray hair from my face as I questioned Forrest. “In Golden Springs, I mean.”
“Unfortunately,” Forrest’s lips turned downward into a sour frown. “Everybody acts like staying in one place is so great but it’s not like on TV, you know? No close knit friend group since kindergarten or anything. Just a class of kids who you’ve learned way too much about over the last 13 years. The people around here would do anything for a change.”
“Yeah, I would argue that,” I bit my lip as I thought of the looks I had gotten from the other kids this morning. They hadn’t exactly been lining up to be my friend. I didn’t want to bum Forrest out, though, so I hurriedly moved the conversation along. “Er, how often do new kids come along? Am I a rarity?”
“More or less,” Forrest shrugged. “You’re the first real exciting addition in a while, that’s for sure. I mean, there was Lilianna, but…” His voice trailed off as though there was nothing more to say. I wasn’t buying it.
“Lilianna?” I raised an eyebrow. “Lilianna who?”
“Lilianna there,” Forrest nudged me, pointing towards a girl sequestered a ways off from the rest of the crowd. She looked shorter than average, with curly brown hair braided neatly and tucked over her shoulder. She dressed simply, in quiet and unassuming shades of blue, brown, and green that encouraged the eye to skate right over her.
So… the opposite of my unconventional ensemble.
“Wow, she seems…” I frowned. “Very interested in the dead body.” Indeed, Lilianna seemed extraordinarily engaged by the crime scene before her, observing it with a stony sort of grimace. “Why isn’t she with the crowd?”
“Not a crowd kinda girl,” Forrest shrugged, a goofy half-smile flitting over his countenance as we watched the stranger. “She, uh… doesn’t really like other people.”
“Hm,” I raised an eyebrow. “But you like her?”
Forrest snapped back to reality, swerving so that his horrified eyes met mine. “What?”
“Admit it,” I chuckled. “You’re sort of into her.”
“I am not,” Forrest sputtered, attempting to regain his composure. “She’s just… interesting, is all.”
“Well, that’s for sure,” I admitted, an elfish grin turning the corner of my lips up into a smile. “Which makes her the perfect addition to our brand new friend group.”
“Wait, what?” My new friend scrambled to follow me as I started towards an oblivious Lilianna. “Sally, what are you doing?”
“Being friendly,” I smirked at the flustered boy, turning back to my intended target. As we became closer, she seemed to notice us for the first time, giving Forrest and I a stony look of uninterested confusion as we came to stand in front of her.
“Er…” she said, looking me up and down with undisguised discomfort. “Do you want something?”
“Maybe,” I raised a hand. “The name’s Sally. I’m new here.”
Lilianna pursed her lips, not moving to meet my gesture. “Why are you dressed like cotton candy dropped on top of a discarded little girl’s doll?”
Ooh, she was forward. I liked that- it was a welcome change from the indirect stares and whispers I’d gotten at school. “Because I want to be,” I met her gaze, unblinking. “You know, I think the three of us go to school together.”
Lilianna’s brown eyes flitted behind me to regard Forrest. “I’ve seen him around.”
“Hi,” Forrest choked.
“You know, a girl told me today that the lunchroom’s been crazy crowded lately,” I crossed my arms. “Right, Forrest?”
“So crazy…” Forrest mumbled.
“We were talking about how we might sit with you at lunch tomorrow,” I continued. “Yours has a little more room.”
Lilianna’s eyes widened. She had clearly not expected that. “Why would you do that?”
“This might come as a shock to you, but I’m not all that popular around school,” I told her honestly. “You haven’t been rude to me.”
“Yes, I have,” Lilianna looked thoroughly confused. “I’m rude to everyone.”
“Exactly!” I clapped my hands together. “You haven’t treated me like I’m diseased just because I’m weird.”
“I can start,” the girl raised an eyebrow.
“Too late,” I clapped her on the shoulder. “We’re already friends. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I don’t know about that,” Lilianna grasped my hand and curtly moved it from her shoulder. “I’m a very busy person.”
“Oh, yeah, investigating the murder,” I glanced back at the crime scene she was so fixated on. Lilianna flinched. “Not all that subtle. That’s fine, Forrest and I are happy to help. You know, his dad’s on the force.”
“He is?” Lilianna’s gaze shifted, and she regarded Forrest with something like curiosity. “Has any evidence been found?”
“Not yet,” Forrest was getting the idea. “But they might have found something by lunch tomorrow.”
Lilianna sighed. “You two are very irritating.”
“Oh, probably,” I nodded, starting to back away as I motioned for Forrest to follow. “See you tomorrow! We can get our Nancy Drew on!”
As Lilianna stared after us, looking conflicted, Forrest shoved his hands into his pockets. “Um, what just happened?”
“Two birds, one stone,” I replied. “We get to befriend your icy outcast, and we get to find out what she knows about the Hunters.”
“The Hunters?” Forrest blinked, and I swore inwardly. This is what happened when I got cocky- things slipped out. “What Hunters? And why are you so sure Lilianna knows anything?”
“Because she was looking at the fountain, not the corpse,” I grimaced. “And because I’ve seen this before.”