Our Queen of Thrillers, Kara Thomas, is back with an all-new edge-of-your-seat mystery that bestselling author Riley Sager called, “a little bit Riverdale and a little bit Veronica Mars.” How awesome does that sound?!
In the small town of Sunnybrook there are no more cheerleaders. First there was the car accident–two girls dead after hitting a tree on a rainy night. Not long after, the murders happened. Those two girls were killed by the man next door. The police shot him, so no one will ever know his reasons. Monica’s sister was the last cheerleader to die. After her suicide, Sunnybrook High disbanded the cheer squad. No one wanted to be reminded of the girls they’d lost.
That was five years ago. And now, Monica’s world is unraveling as she start to realize that some people in town know more than they’re saying. There might not be any more cheerleaders in Sunnybrook, but that doesn’t mean anyone else is safe.
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This house was made for someone without a soul. So I guess it makes sense that my mother wanted it so badly. I can imagine how her eyes lit up when she walked through the five-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath new construction. I’ll bet she thinks this house is the answer to what’s wrong with us.
When Tom, my stepfather, showed me the bathroom attached to my room with its own Jacuzzi tub, he said, Bet you feel like Cinderella, because he’s an idiot.
I should be happy for my mother and Tom, because the old house took so long to sell that it nearly destroyed their marriage. I should be thrilled I don’t have to hear the words terrible real estate market and bad location ever again. Neither they nor the listing agent had the balls to come out and say that no one wanted to buy a home on the street of horrors.
The worst thing about the new house is that there’s no way to sneak into my room. The dining room is right off the front hall, so when I get home from dance team tryouts, I can see my mother at the table eating Chinese takeout with Tom and Petey, their “oops baby.”
Petey is ten now. Mom married Tom when I was five. When I was a kid, I overheard her telling my grandmother that she and Tom both were done with children. Mom had Jen and me, and Tom had a college-aged daughter with his ex-wife. Four months later, Mom was pregnant with Petey.
So, totally an oops baby.
“Monica,” my mother calls. “We’re eating dinner.”
In other words, Don’t you try to disappear upstairs.
I plod into the dining room, the smell of the takeout souring my stomach. Everything hurts: standing, walking, sitting.
At the table, Petey is sucking up lo mein noodles. One slips from between his lips and falls on the screen of his iPad, because God forbid he perform a basic function such as eating without playing Clan Wars.
“Petey,” Mom says, “please put the game down.”
“But I have to harvest my crops.”
“Do you want the iPad to go in the garbage?”
“You wouldn’t throw an iPad in the garbage.”
Petey’s eyes go wide, because Mom only uses his full name when she’s really about to lose her shit. I almost want to tell the poor kid it’s not his fault that Mom is acting like a psycho.
“Monica.” Tom looks up from his phone, finally noticing me. He takes off his reading glasses and breathes on the lenses. Wipes them on his shirt. “How were tryouts?”
“The new Chinese place gave us extra fortune cookies!”
Petey says, and I say, “Cool,” which pretty much sums up the depth of my interactions with my half brother.
Mom’s eyes are on me. I keep my own eyes on a carton of white rice. I grab a plate and spoon some onto it.
“What’s wrong?” Petey asks. It takes a second for it to sink in that he’s speaking to me. Tom is watching me now too. My mother makes a face as if she just swallowed down vomit.
“Can I go lie down?” I ask.
“Go ahead,” she says.
When I get to the hall, I hear Petey whine, “How come she gets to do what she wants?”
I practically have to crawl up the stairs to my room. The over-the-counter painkillers my mom picked up for me are seriously garbage. I would call Matt, my ex-boyfriend, because even though he denies it, he’s friends with people who can get the strong stuff. But Matt graduated and he’s not in Sunnybrook anymore and we haven’t spoken since July.
My heating pad is still packed in one of the storage tubs Mom and I bought from Bed Bath & Beyond before the move. I dig it out, biting my lip. The nurse at Dr. Bob’s office said it would be like bad period cramps. But it hurts so much I want to die.
I break into a sweat from plugging in the heating pad and flop onto my brand-new bed. King-sized, like my mom and Tom’s. She insisted—a queen would have looked too small for the room.
They say you’re not supposed to put the pad directly on your skin, but I do it anyway and curl up on my side. I’d gladly take my flesh melting off over the pain in my gut.
A knock at the door. I grunt and Mom pushes her way in, holding a bottle of naproxen and a glass of water. “When was the last time you took painkillers?”
“Lunch,” I lie. I popped four before tryouts.
“You can have two more, then.” Mom perches at the edge of my bed. She might as well be a mile away. It’s really obscene, how big the bed is.
I groan and pull my legs up tight to my body, into the fetal position.
“I told you that you should have stayed home today.” My mother taps the naproxen bottle to her palm, shakes two pills out.
“Coach would have cut me from the team.” I accept the pills. Swallow them greedily.
Mom is quiet. She drums her fingers—the nails rounded and coated with clear polish—on my comforter. Her anxious tic. Finally: “Have you told Matt?”
I can’t tell what she’s thinking—whether she actually wants me to call Matt at college and tell him.
“He could support you,” Mom says, after a beat. “You don’t have to go through this alone.”
“It wasn’t his anyway.”
I stare straight ahead so I don’t have to see the look on her face.
When she stands up, her profile comes into focus. She looks sad for a moment before she catches herself. “I hope you learn something from this pain.”
My mother shuts the light off on her way out—or at least, she tries to. She can’t find the switch at first, because it’s opposite where it used to be in my old room. Finally, she gives up, leaving me under the glow of the top-of- the-line energy-efficient LED bulbs.
She’s wrong, I think. Pain isn’t supposed to teach you anything. It only exists to hurt you. And she should know that better than anyone.
I’m camped on the porch, rain plinking on the overhang, staring at the house across the street when Rachel pulls up in her cherry-red Volkswagen Beetle the next morning. No one lives there. The contractors had to abandon construction inside the house because the people who bought it ran out of money. Since we moved in, the empty house has been the subject of my mother’s bitching. All the house is doing is existing, not bothering anyone. It’s exactly the type of thing that offends my mother.
Rach and I have been best friends since we were kids. She turned seventeen in July, which means she got her license over six months before I will. Rachel had to repeat kindergarten, and kids used to make fun of her, because what kind of moron can’t pass kindergarten? Then in the eighth grade she got her braces taken off, discovered a hair straightener, and grew B-cups, and everyone shut up.
Rachel lowers her sunglasses to look at me as I duck into the passenger seat.
“Do you feel okay?”
“I’m fine,” I lie. “I woke up too late to do my makeup.”
“I hope the list is up,” Rach says, putting the car into reverse to back out of my driveway. She actually sounds nervous.
Of course we’ll be on the list. Rachel, our friend Alexa, and I were the only freshmen to make the dance team two years ago. Rach’s mom drove us all to school that morning so we could look at the list together. Arms linked, knees knocking under our new jean skirts for our first week of high school.
Seeing our names on that list made us feel unstoppable. I was naïve and thought being one of the dance team girls meant I wouldn’t be known as the sister of one of the cheerleaders. But our particular tragedy isn’t the type people forget easily; being Jennifer Rayburn’s sister is like having an enormous scar I have to dress every morning to hide.
A shot of nerves twists my stomach. Or maybe it’s the naproxen. My sloppy performance at tryouts yesterday is reason enough for our coach to drop me, if she felt like it. Coach is not known for doling out second chances. Forget your dance shoes? Go home, and don’t bother coming to practice tomorrow.
I wonder if I’ll even care if my name isn’t on that list. I tilt my head against the window. Rachel rolls to a stop at the sign at the end of my street. She looks both ways, counts silently to herself, ever the perfect, cautious driver, always looking twice at my house to see if Tom is watching.
Tom is the sergeant of the local police department. Having him for a stepdad is a really easy way to figure out how many people you know have a deep-rooted fear of law enforcement.
Rachel pulls into Alexa’s driveway, and of course she isn’t ready; she never is. I’m about to text her, ask why she has to make us late every damn morning. But her front door swings open, and she flounces down the driveway, wearing her Sunnybrook Warriors hoodie with skinny jeans.
Alexa pours herself into the backseat and immediately whips out her compact. She starts applying her Merlot-red lip stain.
“Seat belt!” Rachel yells.
I catch Alexa’s eyes in the side mirror. “What do you even do all morning,” I ask crabbily, “if you always have to do your lipstick in the car?”
Alexa rakes a hand through her hair, shaking out her freshly ironed waves. “Well, Monica’s obviously getting her period.”
I almost make Rachel pull over so I can walk.
We get to school with a few minutes to spare before the first bell. The side doors by the gym are propped open and we step into the hall and right into chaos. There are buckets scattered on the floor, catching steady drips of water leaking from the ceiling. A custodian is on a ladder, attempting to tape a trash bag over a hole in the ceiling. I hear him mutter something about all the goddamn rain this year so far.
“This place is so ghetto,” Alexa announces, and I want to hit her, because she has no idea what the word actually means. Besides, we’re one of the wealthiest school districts in the county.
A bunch of trophy cases outside the locker room have been moved into the center of the hall. We sidestep them, but not before I see her. My sister.
She smiles at me from the largest photo in the biggest trophy case. She’s posing for the camera with four of her friends. Their mouths are painted cherry; their cheer pleats are blue and yellow. The photo is from the first home game of the season, five years ago when there was still a cheerleading squad.
A wave of nausea ripples through me. Every day after gym, after dance team practice, I go out of my way to avoid this picture.
I knew all the girls in it, some of them better than others. Juliana Ruiz and Susan Berry were Jen’s best friends and fixtures in our house for as long as I could remember. When they made the cheerleading squad their freshman year, they became friends with two sophomores: Colleen Coughlin and Bethany Steiger.
They all smile at me: Jen, Juliana, Susan, Colleen, and Bethany. It really is a beautiful picture.
By the end of the season, everyone in it was dead.
Text copyright © 2018 by Kara Thomas. Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.