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  Why am I being so nice to him?

  “Yeah, sure,” he says, scooping up a handful.

  Why am I not confronting him when he’s standing right here?

  “So tigers, huh?” Oh, great. Now he’s making fun of the shirt.

  “Don’t say it.”

  “It’s very retro,” he says. “I like it.” There is no way to know if he’s lying.

  The credits roll off into nothingness. The movie’s undeniably over. The sound goes quiet so all I can hear are his teeth, chewing that popcorn to bits. If I’m going to say something, right now would be the time. Only, I begin to wonder. Like, if he knows. Like, if he’s aware I was listening in on his phone call. If he does know, he’ll blackmail me into not telling. It’ll be just like in The Big Sleep except I don’t know what will happen because I didn’t see the end.

  “That’s strange,” he says as he chews.

  “What?” I say, too quickly, too loudly. “What’s strange?”

  “There aren’t any toppings on this popcorn. It’s totally plain. That’s not like you.”

  He’s right. When’s the last time I got a bag of popcorn at the Little Art with absolutely nothing on it? Never, that’s when.

  “Sometimes people can surprise you,” I say.

  And then, just to prove it, I take a handful of plain nonbuttered, nonsalted, noncinnamoned or -paprika’d or -anything’d popcorn, and shove it in my mouth. I mash it up and swallow like this is the way I wanted it and how could he think otherwise. Like yum.

  Taylor drifts up the aisle, hovering. I’d forgotten she was here. She waves a reporter’s notebook at me that’s filled up with scribbles. “Did you like the movie, Dani? I took notes so we can do the review.”

  “Yeah, Dani,” Jackson says, “so The Big Sleep, what’d you think?”

  Did I like the movie, did I like the movie, did I like the movie… ?

  I’m thinking.

  Then I remember an important detail: the playground where he said he’d meet Bella tonight… it’s the one with a castle in it.

  There aren’t too many playgrounds in Shanosha. What do we need playgrounds for when we have the woods? There’s the playground at the rec field. It has a set of swings and a pit of sand to dig around in, no castle I can think of. There’s the playground in the park by the river, if you’d call a basketball court with one hoop and a rusted jungle gym a playground. And then—jackpot—there’s the playground at Shanosha Elementary School.

  Why didn’t I think of it sooner? I went to that school from kindergarten through sixth grade. In it, there’s a wooden replica of a castle that forms a tunnel maze of slides. I haven’t played on that thing in years. Only the little kids use it—or so I thought.

  If only I could get to that playground tonight…

  You do realize the solution is standing right here, waving a stack of scribbles in my face. Someone I know lives just down the road from Shanosha Elementary.

  “Dani,” Taylor says, “did you like the movie or not?”

  They’re both standing here, waiting for my answer.

  “Definitely,” I say, with feeling. “I can’t wait to go to your house tonight and write that review.”

  12

  Secret at the Seesaws

  Taylor’s halfway through her movie review, the one I’m supposed to be writing with her, when she looks up, sees me sprawled out on her beanbag chair staring up at her bedroom ceiling, and asks, “Why are you even here?”

  I hear the question, but I don’t exactly hear it. Just like I’m staring up at her ceiling, but I’m not seeing her actual ceiling.

  My mind is racing. In a movie, we’d be reaching the part where the audience is reminded of everything that came before. Important clues will flash on-screen to make sure no one’s forgotten.

  So what I’m seeing on Taylor’s ceiling is a conveyer belt of things. This thing. And that thing. And the next thing. Revolving all around me.

  Elissa. Jackson. Polka dots. Pepperoni. Ice cream, ice cream, more ice cream.

  A girl by the name of Bella. A wall with a hole in it. A phone that’s ringing. A walkie-talkie with Austin talking into it. (Wait, get Austin off my conveyor belt!)

  “Dani! I thought you wanted to do this with me.”

  I tear my eyes away from my movie-on-the-ceiling to find her, elbows out and back straight, sitting at her computer like school’s already started and this is homework.

  “You don’t really want to write that review now, do you?” I ask her.

  “Yeah,” she says, “sort of. But you don’t.”

  “We should take a break,” I say. “Maybe go for a walk?”

  Taylor pinches up her mouth. I know that look. Just because you haven’t been friends with someone in a while doesn’t mean you don’t recognize all their faces from back when you hung out. People change, faces not so much. I know Taylor’s mad face. Her tired face. Her excited face. Her leave-me-alone face.

  This face here—pinchy mouth, flinchy eyes—means she wants to say something she’s not sure she should. Chances are she won’t say it. She’ll say something else instead. Watch:

  “Okay,” she says. “We can take a walk, if you want.” I wonder what she really wanted to tell me.

  But it doesn’t matter, because it’s nearing nine o’clock and it’s super important we leave her bedroom, like, right away and head out for the school playground. She doesn’t need to know exactly where the walk will take us.

  She gets up and puts her computer to sleep. “It’s getting dark out,” she says. “We can take a walk in the backyard, if that’s what you mean.”

  “Your parents will let us go down the road and back,” I say. “If we ask.” She knows this is true. It’s not like we haven’t done it before.

  Her house is at the end of the road in a cul-de-sac—if you want to pretend this is the suburbs and call it that, but this is upstate and there are barely any other houses around, so we should just call it what it is and say dead end.

  You could be out on Taylor’s road all night and see no one. If you spot a car, it’s like a shooting star. You point at it and follow its light until it streaks away.

  There’s no reason why we can’t take a walk down her road and back (with a detour to the elementary school, shh), and she knows it. It’s not like we’re babies who don’t know the way home.

  So she sighs, and the pinched look fades, and without any more argument she agrees to it. The Taylor I remember used to have more of an opinion about things, but for some reason, tonight, she’s letting me have my way.

  I follow her out of her room and down the stairs so she can ask her parents. Her mom and dad are in the living room, sitting close together on the couch, watching some movie. Taylor’s dad works at the elementary school. He’s a bit on the short side, his beard a little scruffy. Taylor’s mom owns the jewelry store in town. She’s a tad glamorous and a lot tall, like someone from the city and not here. I have no clue why they’re so happy together. But look at them:

  Taylor’s mom leans her head on Taylor’s dad’s shoulder.

  Taylor’s dad has his hand on Taylor’s mom’s knee.

  They’re sharing a bag of chips, and when we walk in, both their hands are in there together, mingling at the greasy bottom of the bag, like they don’t care whose fingers belong to who.

  Taylor also has a little sister, practically a baby, who’s asleep upstairs. When they’re all together, eating dinner at the dining room table, talking and chewing and stuff, they’re exactly what you’d expect a family to be.

  “Could we take a walk?” Taylor asks her parents. “Just down the road and back?”

  “You can if you bring your cell phone,” Taylor’s mom says.

  “Of course,” Taylor says. To add to the perfect world where her family exists, they somehow live on this patch of mountainside that miraculously gets cell-phone reception. Seriously. I’m standing in her living room and I get all five bars.

  “And bring flashlights,”
her dad says. “It’s getting dark.”

  “Sure!” Taylor says.

  “And please take out the trash,” her mom adds.

  “No problem!” says Taylor, like she loves doing her chores all the time.

  “Come here,” her mom says. And this is where they hug, the three of them, so this is where I turn around and stare at the wall.

  It ends quickly and Taylor and I head toward the mudroom to grab flashlights. Just as I leave the room, I hear Taylor’s dad calling my name so I step back in.

  “Good to see you here, Dani,” he says. “It’s been a while.” He’s looking hard at me, taking in everything and anything that has changed in the year seventh grade came and went. I guess my hair’s different, to my chin now instead of long. Oh, and I have the bangs. If that says something about the new me, I’m not sure what it is.

  They seem to be waiting for some kind of response, so I say, “Yeah.”

  “We missed having you around,” her dad says.

  “So did Taylor,” her mom says.

  “Thanks,” I say, and I leave the room quickly, before the conversation can continue, before they ask me why. Because sometimes I have no idea why.

  Taylor and I take out the trash and then walk down her road, flashlights in hand. We follow her dead end to where it stops and stand there, idling. Her flashlight beam wobbles all over the pavement. I keep mine still.

  “So I guess we go back now?” Taylor says.

  “I have an idea,” I say, like it just came to me. I peek at the time on my cell phone—8:53 p.m. Sweet. “Let’s go on the swings. At the school.”

  The face she gives me is the one where she suspects something isn’t right, but I head off before she can ask what that might be.

  We reach the school from the north side, looking down a low hill at the back of the playground. I lead Taylor to a shaded area beside a jungle gym and duck down, take a look around. Then I see them, at the seesaws. Jackson’s standing in the dim light, leaning on his bike. The girl—Bella—is on the bottom of the seesaw, but she can’t make it go, because there’s no one at the top.

  “I thought you wanted to go on the swings,” Taylor says. And then she sees what I see and adds, “Hey, isn’t that Jackson from the movie theater?”

  “Yup,” I say. “Shhh.”

  She turns very quiet and doesn’t protest when we sneak over to hide behind a slide. The castle built up over the slide—big enough to fit more than a few kids inside—casts a deep, dark shadow. When we’re covered by that shadow, plastered up against the castle wall, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to see us. This is the ideal place from which to spy.

  From here, we have a clear view of the seesaws. We’re too far away to hear anything, but I’m not sure if we should move any closer. Between the slides and the seesaws is a wide-open expanse of sandboxes, no good cover, nothing to hide us.

  Bella has her back to me. In the night, I can’t tell if she’s wearing polka dots, but I’m positive it’s the same girl I saw sneaking out the fire door. It couldn’t be anyone else.

  Taylor tugs on my arm. I whisper, “What?”

  “That’s not Elissa.”

  “Yeah, I know.”

  “Oh,” she says, eyes widening. “Oh.”

  I nod.

  “Wow,” she says. “Who is she?”

  “Her name’s Bella.”

  “Okay, but who is she?”

  “I don’t know yet. That’s why I’m here.” I’m not going to say she’s Jackson’s girlfriend. In my mind, Jackson can have only one girlfriend and that title falls to Elissa. So I don’t know what to call Bella. She’s the other woman. The femme fatale. The one we have to hate—I think.

  I point toward the last slide before the sandboxes, the one farthest away. Under it is a triangle of deep black shadow. Once there, we’d be golden. There’s no way anyone could see us in there, and yet we’d be able to hear absolutely everything.

  I’m trying to indicate this to Taylor with just my eyes and a few hand gestures, but she’s not getting it.

  “What?” she whispers.

  I point, I sign the concept of running with two swirling fingers in the palm of my hand, but then I stop with a jolt. I hear something. And it’s not coming from the seesaws—it’s coming from the other side of the playground, behind us.

  I can tell Taylor heard it too, because she freezes. Her eyes go wide. “What’s that?” she hisses.

  “Someone must’ve followed us.”

  “Who?”

  “Your mom? Your dad?”

  She shakes her head.

  “One of your neighbors?”

  “I don’t have neighbors, you know that.”

  All this takes place in whispers. We’re afraid to move, but we do, slowly, in the smallest of increments, turning our heads toward the sound.

  We hear:

  Absolutely nothing. Whatever it was, it stopped.

  We see only the dark night, which is suddenly so much darker than it was five minutes ago. It’s like the sky is playing tricks on us, luring us out here and getting us caught in something we shouldn’t have been in. We’re out alone. We’re being followed. Taylor’s parents don’t know where we are. Hey, what kind of movie is this anyway?

  The noise starts up again—shuffling, whirring, tap-tap-tapping—heading straight for us. Taylor looks even more freaked out than I feel. Whatever’s pounding in my chest is pounding five times faster in her chest, I can see it. And even though I push my panic down, even though I tell myself it’s probably just a raccoon, I guess Taylor can’t do that. Or else she’s really scared of raccoons. Because she hisses, “Run!” And then she takes off, flinging herself into the darkness, before I can stop her.

  13

  The Big Chase

  Taylor’s off. She’s running for the swings. I take one last look at the seesaws, figuring Jackson and Bella must’ve heard us, but apparently they’re far too busy to pay us any attention. They’re doing things I don’t even want to see, don’t even want to know. I find myself looking, blushing, then I pull my eyes away.

  I have to go after Taylor.

  And I can’t forget that we’re not alone. Whoever’s followed us here weighs way too much to be a raccoon. And I don’t want to think about bears.

  It’s officially dark now, too dark to see. I don’t want to call attention to myself by switching on my flashlight, so when I hear another crunch of approaching steps, that same low whirring noise, that same faint tap-tap-tap, I lose control and start in the direction of the swings too.

  First, I walk fast to the jungle gym. Whirs and taps and crunches of gravel follow.

  I cross through the jungle gym and speed to a nearby tree.

  A pause. Then a tap. Then a whir. It’s coming closer.

  I take a deep breath and make a run for it. At the monkey bars, the whirring turns to hissing, but I don’t go back. I dive into the deep, dark chasm of night that stands between the monkey bars and the first set of swings where I think Taylor must be.

  Those few moments I’m running through the dark last longer than can even be possible. I feel like I could run forever, never stop, that I could leap over that swing set, hit the road and whatever’s beyond the road, bound up the mountain and over to whatever small nothing of a town can be found on the other side.

  What really happens is I reach the swing set in barely a heartbeat. Taylor’s here. I bend over, heaving, trying to catch my breath.

  Out there in the dark, the hissing is louder now. Something that sounds a lot like spinning wheels runs over gravel. A scream bubbles up in my throat—I just might blow our cover and let it out—when, clear as can be, I hear someone whisper: “Dani… ? Taylor… ? Where are you?”

  I realize Taylor is holding my hand. Or else I’m holding Taylor’s hand. It’s not clear who grabbed whose hand first.

  She speaks up, braver than I am, I guess. “Who’s there?” She doesn’t sound scared any longer, she sounds fierce. Protective. I’m glad she
s here.

  “It’s me,” says the voice. And it comes closer, and the whirs whir faster, and the taps tap louder, and then here he is, right in front of us, Austin, wandering around in the dark with his dirt bike. “Why’d you guys run?” he says. “It’s just me.”

  I let out a breath. I don’t want him to know how scared I was—for just that one second, just the one—but I can’t speak at first.

  Austin’s laughing. “Who’d you think it was?”

  Now Taylor’s laughing. “We didn’t know!” she says.

  And me? No way, no how am I laughing.

  I swear, I can’t go anywhere without running into Austin. He won’t leave me in peace at the movie theater. He won’t let me be when I’m walking down the street. Now he’s following me to sleepovers? Chasing me through the night?

  “What are you doing here?” I snap.

  He stops laughing. “I rode here,” he says. “On my bike.”

  “I didn’t ask how you got here. I asked what you’re doing here.”

  My eyes are starting to adjust and I can see Austin now, so obviously and completely Austin I should have known it couldn’t have been anyone else.

  He waves in the far-off direction of the seesaws. “Jackson snuck out,” he says. “He rode his bike, so I followed on mine.”

  “That’s far,” Taylor says.

  “Yeah, and now it’s dark. So I don’t know how I’ll get back.”

  “Listen,” I tell Austin, “we’re here on a mission. There’s something we’ve got to do. So just leave us be, okay?”

  “I’m not here on a mission,” Taylor says. “I didn’t even know we were coming here. She tricked me, if you want to know the truth.”

  “She does things like that,” Austin says. I feel them in the dark, judging me.

  “Fine,” I say. “You guys stay here, I’m going in for a picture.”

  “A picture of what?” Austin says.

  “Of them,” I say. I point to the two figures by the seesaws. They’re still there, doing whatever it is they’re doing. But if we wait any longer, they won’t be. And then I won’t have any proof.

 
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