I pick up the landline, dial Mom’s cell. It takes too long to connect. There is only the static silence of a dead line, and that’s when I know I’m not alone.
I drop the phone onto its cradle and eye the door, my car keys on the floor in my path. In seconds I calculate how my body will need to scoop the keys as I run from the house. I move just as a metallic snap echoes from under the house.
In the basement.
Someone has thrown the main switch, pitching me and this house and my escape into blackness.
Fear roils in my blood. Becomes me. I kick around for my keys but with each sweep, I am losing time.
I reach for the island, my eyes adjusting, carving light into the shadows. The smell of spearmint bleeds through the air, through my memory, as my senses conjure the last time panic joined me in this space. And how my fingertips reached for the knife set even then. But the block of knives is gone now. The counter cleared. I open a drawer, rifle for utensils, scissors. My fingers meet with the smooth wood of inner drawer and nothing else. I fumble around the sink, but even Mom’s pruning shears are missing.
The phone rings and I freeze from the impossibility of its sound. A second ring sears through silence. I wade across the black, remove the handset, place it at my ear.
I pray that it’s anyone besides him.
Terror climbs the ladder of my spine. My voice, reluctant. “Hello?”
Then the dial tone cries beep beep beep and I hang up, quickly dial 911. But he’s quicker.
The line falls dead again.
He’s in the basement, where the phone line enters the house.
But then, no.
He could be outside. At the junction box.
All at once the woods outside feel too hungry, haunted.
My body tells me I need to flee, protect. My brain tells me to fight, engage. I tuck into the forgotten corner of the laundry room, quiet as my fear, and wrap my hands around the butt of my field hockey stick. I hold it tight against my chest, a weapon.
I try to reverse my breathing. Make it soundless. Make it so I cannot be found. The darkness is a comfort, a cloak. I blend into it. For anonymity. For safety. There was a time when I feared darkness. As a child. Alone.
Darkness doesn’t have fingers that twist into my flesh. Darkness can’t stalk me. It can’t drive me into the shadows because darkness is fleeting. Not like the threat before me.
The Girl Who Fell
Three Months Earlier
I’ve got one foot in this world and one in the next.
Stuck in the limbo of being a high school senior. Here, but dreaming of next year, of college and freedom. Freedom from hall passes, curfews, field hockey pressure, and conjugating French verbs in a gray classroom on the most beautiful day of autumn. I twist a ringlet of my too curly hair and stare at the lone sugar maple in the courtyard outside room 104. It’s early October and most of the leaves have already fired into reds and golds. One mad burst of flame at the end of a growing season. Just like senior year.
A pale yellow finch settles onto a high branch and twitches its head nervously. I watch it scan for what? Predators? Its mate? An early acceptance letter from Boston College? Around me, the room fills with the muffled sounds of students shuffling in. Conversations hush and quicken. The metal legs of a dozen chairs scrape the floor as the teacher writes “Learning Target for Français” in flawless cursive on the whiteboard just as Gregg fills the seat next to me like he’s sliding into home plate. His chair glides a few inches closer and he’s in my face, all shoulders and cologne.
“Bonjeer, Zephyr.” He winks. “Looking good,” he tells me, like he tells every girl on the planet. Even so, a blush pushes onto my cheeks, like always. It’s embarrassing how easily I embarrass.
Gregg Slicer is my oldest friend and a legend at Sudbury High for being the best ice hockey player in the history of our school. And I mean The. History. Colleges from all over the Northeast have been scouting him since our sophomore year. Today he’s wearing his red mesh number 17 hockey jersey and even though I can’t see the back, I know it reads SLICE in oversize white block letters. Everyone in Sudbury, New Hampshire, calls him Slice because the boosters have invested a fortune marketing “The Slice on Ice.” We take our hockey seriously in these parts. So seriously that Gregg’s parents even call him Slice. Me? I’m the sole holdout for refusing to feed his ego.
“Did you—” I start, but he’s talking to someone on his opposite side, someone I don’t recognize.
Mrs. Sarter begins in hitch-pitched French, “Bonjour mes étudiants. Es-vous bien?”
Bien on a Monday? I don’t think so.
Her teacher-speak fades into background noise as I consider the identity of the new student sitting next to Gregg. I lean back and catch a glimpse of the boy’s neatly cropped, golden brown hairline. Huh. I study the collar of his blue oxford shirt, rumpled slightly. But Gregg’s wide frame blocks a clear view. When did Gregg’s head get so big? I lean forward, glimpsing New Boy’s footwear. Faded black Converse. Long legs. His jeans are an Abercrombie shade of worn denim. His fingers drum a tune onto the broad part of his thigh. I fixate on the song he’s tapping. Old-school rock? Black Eyed Peas? Something from the Grease soundtrack?
Next to me, Gregg opens his textbook. The room fills with pages being fanned, the collective hunt for chapitre huit. I flip open my book to a random page, but keep my eyes cut to New Boy. There’s something about the boy’s elongated fingers, the steady, sure rhythm that’s coursing through to his fingertips.
When Gregg drops his pencil and bends to retrieve it, New Boy turns my way, stares at me across the void. His eyes flicker cinnamon brown, like newly minted copper pennies. He shoots me a casual head toss and my breath catches in my throat. Just as Gregg blocks him again.
My head fills with New Boy’s face. Smooth as honey skin. Searing gaze. My cheeks flush, and I’m certain I’m the color of a pomegranate.
“Mademoiselle Doyle?” Mrs. Sarter calls, louder than necessary. My eyes snap to the front of the room.
“Oui, professeur?” My voice crackles over the foreign words.
“Nombre dix, mademoiselle? Quelle est la reponse?” She rattles her throat. Never a good sign.
Number ten? What is the answer to number ten? I search the pages in front of me. There’s a picture of two teenagers at a sidewalk café, each wearing a colorful beret. The word bubbles above their heads tell me they’re chatting about homework.
I scan the page, but can’t find a nombre dix. I’m lost. Totally lost. I look up at Mrs. Sarter and know she’s expecting more from an honors student, even though French is hands-down my worst subject. “U-uh . . . ,” I stutter. The room falls quiet. The clock marks mechanical seconds. Tick. Tick. Tick. I swear I can hear the steady rise and fall of New Boy’s breath, the smile that lifts slightly along the corners of his mouth. Then I hear the admissions board at Boston College, asking me about my goals and aspirations and why I want to attend their institution. Their questions are all in French-that-sounds-more-like-German, unintelligible and alien. My nerves shatter.
My weak voice spills into the still air. “Uh . . . Je suis . . . Je suis . . . stuck.”
The classroom skitters with laughter. In the front of the room, Jeremy Lang repeats my words: “Je suis stuck! Classic!” Mrs. Sarter winces with disappointment and reprimands him. She does this in lowly English, and her scrunched expression makes me think it physically pains her.
Suzanne Sharper’s arm flies into the air, pole straight—the answer practically bubbling off her overeager lips. Mrs. Sarter calls on Suzanne and nods at her correct la reponse. She turns to the whiteboard, writes the answer in measured purple strokes.
Gregg leans over and whispers, “Page eighty-four, genius.”
“Right.” I flip to that section of my book.
“Way to have your head in the game.” He flashes me his press-popular smile, now twisting with a smirk.
“You could have helped me out.”
He cuts his eyes to the front. “Who says I knew the answer?”
“Pa-lease.” Gregg speaks French better than Mrs. Sarter on account of his dad being French Canadian. I straighten in my chair and smooth the pages of my book. Gregg slips me a small rectangle of a note, a makeshift business card. He’s printed FRENCH TUTOR across the front using the red Sharpie marker he carries for autographs. He’s scrawled his cell phone number on the bottom right-hand corner. I snark a glance at him and his self-satisfied grin. Then I can’t help the way my eyes move beyond Gregg to find New Boy’s profile.
I pull my attention away. What am I doing? I tuck Gregg’s fake business card into the pages of my textbook and find number ten. I put my finger on it as if to physically plant my brain in this lesson even as the sentences morph together, indecipherable. My insides collapse into a warm sensation. Can a crush take hold this quickly?
Lizzie likes to say I “crush without the mush,” which is her headline-clever way of reminding me I steer clear of deep commitment in the boyfriend department. Unless you count my two years in a junior high nonrelationship with Matt Sanders, which I don’t. Or going to the senior prom with Zach Plummer when I was a freshman and being embarrassed by his drunk self all night.
But since my dad ditched me and Mom this summer, Lizzie’s worried my inability to commit may have more to do with burgeoning abandonment issues. “Crushing is safe,” she said. “It only involves one person . . . you. And you can be in control.”
I prefer to believe my preference for remaining romantically unattached stems from the fact that I have a carefully mapped-out plan for my future, and there’s no point in hijacking that with unnecessary dating drama now. The best boyfriend in the universe will be at Boston College. With me, next year. See? Perfect. Hooking up with a guy in Sudbury will only anchor me to a place I’ve wanted to escape since I was a freshman. So why can’t I help but wonder . . .
If New Boy smells like oranges . . .
Has a British accent . . .
Plays sports . . .
Has secrets he’ll tell only me?
When the bell rings, I jolt.
“Twitchy much?” Gregg jokes while gathering his books.
I stuff my books into my bag, stand, and force myself not to watch New Boy. I take one last look at the maple tree outside. The finch is gone. A spiral of panic swirls in my stomach. Nothing seems grounded lately.
And then Gregg’s voice: “Zee, this is Alec.” I turn and New Boy appears from behind Gregg like a shadow.
My heart quickens. The classroom goes fuzzy around the edges, as if my brain is only capable of taking in this one boy and nothing else. I try to appear calm. “Hey.”
“Your name is Z?” he asks, with a distinct lack of British accent.
My pride ruffles. “Zephyr, actually.”
His eyes throw an apology. “What does it mean?”
“What does Alec mean?” I counter. I’m aware my reply is obnoxious, but that question has always annoyed me.
“It means ‘gentle breeze,’ ” Gregg says. “But I called her Zipper until we were about seven.”
“Her parents were hippies.” Gregg knows my family story almost as well as I do.
I think of my mother, stuck in her unmovable fierceness, and my father, God knows where right now, and I don’t see a shred of hippie. “They were young,” I clarify. They were only nineteen when I was born. I can’t imagine having a kid next year. Talk about hijacking college plans.
“Well, it’s a cool name,” Alec says. Damn if my blush doesn’t deepen. But something else. Does his face redden too?
“Alec’s transferring from Phillips Exeter,” Gregg tells me.
My eyebrows knit. “To here?”
Alec laughs. “You don’t approve?”
“No. I mean . . . it’s just . . . why would you do that?”
“For Sudbury High’s world-class foreign language program.” A smile plays at the corner of his mouth.
“Sorry, I just meant . . . Exeter is such a better school.”
Gregg laughs. “How long are you gonna dig this hole, Zeph? We’ve got a meeting with Coach.”
Alec’s gaze dips to my chest and I flatten my bag against me like a shield. He lifts his eyes quickly, a blush definitely blooming. “Do you play? Um . . . field hockey.” It’s impossible not to see his feet shift with embarrassment.
That’s when I remember the emblem on my sweatshirt, the two field hockey sticks crossed in an X. Duh. I clear my throat. “Um, yeah. Forward.”
“Zeph’s the captain of our field hockey team,” Gregg says.
“Still, the best Sudbury’s seen,” Gregg adds.
Alec’s eyes widen. “Impressive.”
His acknowledgement sends a shiver racing across my skin, like heat and ice tripping over one another.
“You playing this weekend?” Gregg asks.
“Thursday’s our last game of the regular season.”
“I’ll be there,” Gregg says as if this is news. He’s never missed one of my games. “You coming to Waxman’s kegger on Friday?”
“Probably.” Ronnie Waxman has a kegger every weekend. It’s pretty much the apex of Sudbury’s social scene.
“Come. You can help me show Alec around.”
Alec is cute and new. He won’t need a tour guide. “Sure, but keep in mind, this is Suckbury. You’re likely to be disappointed by local customs.”
Alec draws up the softest of shy smiles. “I don’t know, I thought French would be lame.”
My heart hiccups.
“Look, we gotta see Coach. Let’s roll.” Gregg slaps Alec’s back before he slips out the door. The classroom empties except for me and Alec, and Mrs. Sarter wiping down the board as if it’s an aerobic workout.
Alec takes a step back and motions for me to go ahead. “Ladies first.” He lowers his head as I pass, like I’m royalty. It makes me wonder if chivalry is standard private school curriculum.
Just as I’m through the door, I hear, “Zephyr actually?”
I spin to face Alec. I should respond with something brilliant but my voice betrays me.
“It was nice to meet you.” Alec’s damn shy smile softens his every beautiful feature.
“Thanks.” Thanks? I can only imagine what Lizzie would say if she were here. Not the most memorable first impression, Zee. I manage a nod and dart down the hall thinking Alec’s Zephyr actually was both adorable and clever. A dangerous mix.
When I get outside, Lizzie’s waiting for me in the courtyard, sitting at our picnic table. Her cropped hair looks ice white in the sun as she hunches over the small spiral-bound notebook she clutches with two hands. She flips a page, reviewing the shorthand reporter code I have yet to break. This is her process, the way she decides what story will appear on the front page of the school’s Sudbury Sentinel.
“This seat taken?” I sit, and swipe an impeccably julienned carrot from Lizzie’s lunch bag.
Lizzie lowers her notebook with a sigh. “This place might kill me, Zee.”
“I’m serious. There is exactly nothing going on at this school. Unless I’m expected to use my professional genius to dissect the nutrients in the caf’s tater tots or dig into the bizarre—and might I add—disturbing flirting rituals of some of Sudbury’s faculty.”
“Please spare us that.”
Lizzie smiles, her face softening. “I need to get out of here.”
“You and me both.”
Lizzie and I have wanted to be free of small-town Sudbury since we met in fifth grade. She’s always had plans to be a reporter in a big city. At twelve, she wore a fedora, complete with a tab of paper that screamed PRESS in orange crayon. While other kids played tag, Lizzie taught herself shorthand.
Me? A marine biologist working off the shores of Cape Cod. Or Cape Town.
Lizzie peers over her New York cool black-rimmed glasses. “I hear Sudbury’s snagged itself a transfer student.” She squints, scans the crowd in the quad.
“Alec. He’s in my French class.”
Her mood perks. “You met him? Any scoop there?”
“I’m not trained in human observation the way you are, Lizzie.” I pop the top of my Sprite and it hisses with release.
“Oh come on. There has to be something.”
I take a short sip. “He’s friends with Gregg. Plays hockey. Moved here from a private school.”
Her smile winks. “But you weren’t paying attention, right?”
“I guess some might say he’s cute.”
“ ‘Cute’ does not a headline make, Zee. Rumor has it he got expelled from his posh school for having a girl in his room.”
“I met him for, like, two seconds. It didn’t really come up.”
Lizzie stretches out along the table. I envy the way she’s always seemed so comfortable in her own skin. “But he’s nice?”
“Like I said, our conversation wasn’t deep. He could be a total player for all I know.”
“News flash: All guys are players. It’s called having a Y chromosome.” Lizzie arches her neck toward the sun in a way I never could. Not without feeling everyone’s eyes critiquing me. “Perhaps we should investigate. See if this boy is crush-worthy.”
“In him or any crush?”
“Come on, Lizzie. I’ve got, like, zero time for any of that. All that matters is getting my ass to Boston next year.”
She turns to narrow her eyes, study me. “Maybe. I mean, I get it. But we’re here now and he might be an attractive prospect. He could help keep your mind off some things.”
I shoot her a look, one that warns she’s going too far.
“I’m on your side, Zee.” She throws up her hands. “I just don’t want you to shut out opportunity now because you’re thinking a thousand steps ahead about how your heart might get hurt.”
Lizzie’s been dating Jason since sophomore year. He’s a year older and attends NYU. He comes home a lot, or she goes to New York. Each time they meet up it’s like no time has passed between visits. I can’t imagine getting lucky enough to share that depth of trust with another person. “And how is Alec an opportunity?”
“I’m not talking about Alec, Zee. I’m talking about taking chances. Making this year a little more than doing time.” Her voice softens. “It’s our senior year, our last chance to do whatever we want without consequences. Promise me you’ll at least be open to different. Whatever form it takes.”
I cringe at the thread of pity I hear in Lizzie’s voice.
And her words don’t leave me for the rest of the day. All through the grueling sprints of field hockey practice I can’t wrestle free of Lizzie’s advice: embrace different. But she doesn’t get how hard different has been without Dad. I’ve kind of had my fill of different for a while.
Ugh. Maybe I have turned into a sad abandonment cliché.