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Fade out, p.12

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  Jackson stands there, waiting.

  I do the brave thing, the thing one of us has to do to get out of this: I eat some popcorn. Then I go, “It’s different.” My voice rises a few notches as I say that. The word different is really all I can manage for the roadkill I just put in my mouth.

  Austin’s eyes bug out. Then he takes some too. And puts it in his mouth. Chews it. Turns paler than a turnip. Seems about to choke. But, to his credit, does not.

  “It looks disgusting,” Jackson says cheerfully. Then he heads out of the lobby.

  As soon as Jackson’s out of sight, Austin starts spitting.

  I cry out for water.

  We’re in great agony over what we’ve just swallowed for a good five minutes before we can even speak to each other.

  “I heard you guys talking,” I say at last.

  “I figured,” he says.

  “Why’d you lie?”

  He shrugs.

  “So what did he say about Bella? I got there too late, and I didn’t hear everything.”

  “I can’t say.”

  I stop. Step back. Go, Huh?

  “He made me promise not to say.” Austin mumbles these words while staring with deep concentration at the black-painted floorboards, unable to look up and meet my eyes.

  “Did he blackmail you or something?” I ask. At first I’m joking. I’ve got noir movies on the brain, that’s all. Except now I see Austin twitch, see his eyes hop and jitter across the black expanse of the floor to get away from me.

  So it is true. I push him to say more. “What will happen if you tell me? Will Jackson like… do something to you?”

  My mind reels out possibilities: baseball bat to the knee, pee in the soup, snake in the bed. No, Jackson wouldn’t do any of those things, not to his own cousin (except, maybe, the snake). More likely Jackson has something on Austin, a deep, dark, dirty secret. They’re family—they’ve got to know things about each other that others don’t. Like, does Austin suck his thumb when he sleeps? Was he born with a tail and the doctors chopped it off before his parents brought him home? It could be anything.

  Instead of answering, Austin pretends to be very interested in housecleaning. He bends down to pick up a lone popcorn kernel from off the floor. Who knows how long it’s been there, maybe since last summer, the summer of slapstick comedy. A funnier, happier time, I’ve heard.

  “Well?” I say.

  “Well, what?” he says back.

  We’ve come to a roadblock. I’m getting nothing out of Austin today.

  “I should go,” I say. Before I make it out the door, a hand grabs me.

  “Listen, just don’t tell him you know, okay?” Panic in his face, a grip stronger than expected on my arm.

  “Okay…” I say, snatching my arm back.

  It’s clear Jackson does have a secret on Austin… but what? Something that would land him in juvie, maybe, like those eighth-graders who defaced the school auditorium and were never seen again and I can’t even remember their names now. It could be something just as shocking but without the shaving cream or Silly String. Or it could be even worse. Wow, maybe Austin did something really bad, like ran someone over with his bike.

  “What happened, Austin? What does he know? You can tell me.”

  There’s a beat as he considers how much to say. A long, gaping, auditorium-wide beat. But then he just shakes his head.

  “Fine, don’t tell me. And don’t freak out—I won’t tell Jackson.”

  “Thanks,” he mumbles. He seems about to say something else. It’s about the hit-and-run, I’m thinking, it’s about the cover-up. But all he says is, “I didn’t see you come in. Did you buy a ticket today?”

  I give the door a great big slam as I stomp out to the street.

  I’m on the sidewalk, heading back for the newspaper office, when my cell phone decides to start working again. I swear, the thing’s possessed. Now I get the following text message:


  The text is from a number I don’t recognize. No name shows up in my Caller ID. But it’s this area code, so it’s someone from the county, it could be someone from this very town. And if that someone knows I didn’t get juice, they’re nearby. Watching…

  I look around wildly.

  Then my eyes shoot up—straight into the windows of the newspaper office. I catch sight of Taylor, her shadow looking down on me, almost ominous. I guess she saw me go into the Little Art instead of the Corner Cupboard. I guess she knows I had other, more important things to do than write that review with her.

  Last we were friends, she didn’t have a cell phone. I guess I never programmed in her new number.

  I text back: K THNX

  Let’s pretend she’s not mad at me, that she was just sending me a helpful reminder. I wave to her and run over to the Corner Cupboard to get some juice, an orange for me, and for my mom a cranberry. At the last second, I grab one for Taylor, too: a cranberry-raspberry twist.


  Seeing Spots

  It’s a new day and today’s plan is to confront Jackson at long last, to trap and tangle him in his own lies. I can do it without even having to tell him what I saw.

  A good detective, one trained in the art of catching criminals, is like a walking, talking lie detector. The way to get a confession is to be tough—hard as nails, they call it. Just an hour alone in a room with the perp, lightbulb aimed square at his face, and all will be revealed.

  Thirsty? No water for you—not till you tell me everything.

  Sleepy? You’ll stay awake till you tell me what I want to hear.

  I know you did it. We have witnesses. You can’t hide it from me, so spill.

  At least, that’s the kind of junk they say in the movies. And when your perp looks like he’s about to crack, you just keep throwing questions at him, blinding him with the hot, bright light until he can barely remember his own name.

  Where were you on the night of July thirtieth?

  At home, you say? No alibi, you say? What size shoe do you wear, an eight-and-a-half? Aha! Gotcha.

  Soon enough, the perp starts talking. You don’t even need to match his shoeprint. Soon, he’s signing the confession, and you’re walking out saying you saved the day.

  I guess.

  I mean, maybe all that would work if the crime were something more obvious, something that would send you to jail. With a thing as delicate as this, when someone’s heart is on the line, and she’s someone you know and like, such as your old babysitter, a girl who’s calmed you after you had a coat-zombie-in-the-closet nightmare (yes, again), who’s bandaged up your scraped knee, then you have to be more careful.

  Besides, Jackson might not respond to me shoving a table lamp in his face.

  Just imagine if my mom had someone who cared this much about digging up the truth back when my dad was sneaking around. It might not have been too late. Things could have been fixed, and turned good again, and my parents might still be married today.

  I’m not deluding myself. It’s possible. Admit it’s possible.

  So the plan is simple: Wait for Jackson to come downstairs, tackle him at the door, and then pull out, strand by incriminating strand, the truth. All I need is a little help from Austin.

  And for Taylor to look the other way when I skip out on the internship again. And for my mom not to ask where I am. And for it not to be raining because I forgot an umbrella and I’m getting soaked.

  Let me set the scene:

  Back behind the Little Art movie theater, I’m tucked beneath the exterior stairwell leading up to the second-floor apartment where Ms. Greenway, Austin, and Jackson live. Rain’s coming down, but the sun’s still out somewhere, if you bother searching around in the sky for it. The mountains are dead gray. The puddles are getting wider, threatening to reach my toes. Jackson’s red bike is locked up to the railing, so I know he’s not out riding it. I’m hiding here, waiting for him to come down.

  I think Jackson is the first person in the hi
story of Shanosha to use a padlock to secure his bike in his own backyard. It’s like the city people who drive through here on the way to their resort cabins, the ones who think the Catskills are pretty, not agonizingly dull. They stop for ten minutes to get a cone at Taco Juan’s and actually lock their car doors while they do it, like they think we mountain people are all robbers and carjackers. Jackson’s just like them.

  That’s the interesting thing about liars: Not only can they not be trusted, they don’t trust anyone else.

  So I’m waiting here under the stairs. Jackson doesn’t start work until four in the afternoon, so I guess he’s not up yet. I stand here, dripping. I stand here for a long time.

  Meanwhile, Austin’s upstairs in the apartment, poised to give me a signal any minute now. The mission I talked him into was simple: Keep an eye on Jackson’s whereabouts and report back when he gets his lazy butt out of bed.

  No sign of movement and it’s, like, two in the afternoon. My cell phone’s blinking in and out, so I keep losing track of time, but if I need to be contacted I have the walkie-talkie as a backup—Austin’s idea, obviously.

  The minutes tick past. The rain falls on the stairwell, pattering over my head. The sky has gone dim, tricking me into thinking it’s later than it is. Jackson sure sleeps late….

  Suddenly the walkie chirps. “Home base to Eagle Three,” the thing squawks. “Do you copy? Over.”

  I push the button to talk: “What did you just call me?”

  “You didn’t tell me a code name so I made one up. Over.”

  “Stop saying over.”

  “You’re supposed to say over. Over.”

  “Austin, do you have something to tell me or what?”

  No response.


  A shower of static almost as loud as the rain.

  Fine. I say it: “Over.”

  Having now heard what he wanted, he says, “Jackson’s not here. I don’t know what happened, but he left. Sorry, Dani.”

  I give up on the walkie-talkie nonsense and stomp up the stairs. I pound on the door until Austin answers.

  “What do you mean he’s not here!” I shout to be heard over the rain. Next I expect thunder to crash, lightning to strobe out the sky. How did he lose Jackson while they live in the same place? I don’t know how that’s even possible.

  I should’ve been paying more attention, because my question is answered by what Austin’s wearing. A bathrobe. Plus a towel wrapped like a turban over his thick head.

  “Please tell me you weren’t just in the shower,” I say.

  “Not the shower,” he says, “the bath.” He shrugs. “Look—you’re getting rained on. Do you want to come in?”

  “You were supposed to be watching out for Jackson and you took a bath?”

  “You really should come in.”

  But I can’t get over it. This is what I’m working with, someone who thinks it’s perfectly okay to bathe during a stakeout. A bath, while on duty. A bath, in the middle of the day.

  A bath!

  My disgust must be visible on my face because Austin starts going off on me. “What do you want me to do, Dani? I said I’d help because you wouldn’t take no for an answer. You never do. You always want everyone to be there when you want them there, and you’re never there for anyone else. Ask Taylor. You’re the most selfish person I’ve ever met in my whole life.”

  I stand there, the rain—heavier now than before—running down my face.

  “Aren’t you going to say something?” he says. “Like make fun of me because I have a towel on my head? Get it over with already.”

  I sigh. “I am not,” I insist.

  He doesn’t argue, but he doesn’t take back what he said either. “I’m going to lend you an umbrella, and you’re going to take it, okay?”

  Now I’m the one not to argue. I take the umbrella that’s offered and spread it open over my dripping head.

  “I don’t know where he went,” Austin says. “He was sleeping in his room when I got in the bath and when I got out he was gone.”

  “But I was down here the whole time. There’s no way he came out this door.”

  “He could’ve gone downstairs the other way—straight into the theater.”

  “There’s another way down?”

  “Yeah,” he says. Then, almost sheepishly, “Didn’t you know that?”

  “No!” I shriek.

  So you know, I’m blocking out what he said before. I pretended I didn’t hear what he said while he said it, and I’ll continue to pretend until I can figure out why he’d think such a thing. Me… selfish?

  Jackson is selfish. My dad is selfish. Cheryl is selfish. Nichole is selfish. Casey is selfish. Maya is selfish. Even Taylor is selfish because she wants me up there in the boring newspaper office when I have better things to do. And Austin is the most selfish of all, for thinking this was the time to take a bath.

  Selfish? Me? Not on your life.

  I could say all this to Austin now. I could defend myself. But that’s when I see it: a flash of something dark pink down in the street. Dark pink—with polka dots.

  I fly off the stairs, not even bothering to say bye to Austin, though I should thank him later for the umbrella because it helps me sail to the ground without breaking a foot.

  I might have been looking for Jackson, and he may have slipped out of sight before I could find out where he was headed, but I now have what’s called a lead. I’ve got to follow it.

  The last time I saw polka dots, they happened to be attached to the legs of that girl, Bella. She must be here in town to meet Jackson.

  But when I reach the sidewalk, the polka dots are gone, lost in the rain. She must have went that way… or this way… or this other. She must’ve gone south, or west, or east. She could be anywhere, in any part of town.

  Then I see the spots again. They’re definitely dark pink polka dots. Magenta, you’d call them. And they’re attached to what appears to be an umbrella.

  It almost does look like a movie—for real, this time.

  In the distance, through the falling rain, it’s hard to see the girl who’s holding the umbrella, but I do see where she’s taking it. I spy the flight of the umbrella veer off the sidewalk and down along the bike path to the river. So I follow.

  As I hustle quietly through the rain I see flashes of what could happen once I catch her—and I don’t think that’s lightning. Flash: I race up to her and reach out an arm under the umbrella, grabbing her by the shoulder.

  Flash: She stops, knowing she’s caught.

  Flash: Slowly she turns and I see her face up close for the first time. She’s not as pretty as Elissa, and even if she is I would never say so. She says, What do you want from me? I say, For you to leave Jackson alone. She says, Okay. And then, Aren’t you Dani? He talks about you all the time, you know. I didn’t know, but now I do. Then she says, I’m so sorry I tried to take him from you. Wait. No. Elissa. She says Elissa. And then she vanishes forever, leaving town in a flurry of polka dots that get washed away in the rain.

  Flash. Actually, maybe that is lightning.

  I’m down on the path, trying to be as stealthy as possible, which is difficult when your sneakers have no treads and are slippery to walk in when it rains and send you sliding almost three whole feet down the muddy slope and as you go you make a tiny sound like, “Eeeeeeee!” And when you look up, you see two people staring.

  Jackson and the girl with the umbrella. Only, the girl with the umbrella is a girl you already know, a girl you’ve seen hundreds of times before, a girl who’s known you for so long she may or may not have witnessed you wet the bed.

  “Oh, hi, Elissa,” I say. “Hi, Jackson.”

  “Dani, what are you doing down here?” Elissa says.

  “I…” Nothing comes.

  “Are you following us?” Jackson says.

  “Where are you going?” It’s not an admission of guilt, just a simple question.

  “The gazebo,” E
lissa says, pointing at the wooden gazebo on the shore. It’s a little covered shelter out of the rain. But she doesn’t ask me to go with them even though if I stand out here for much longer I could get struck by lightning and electrocuted.

  The Elissa I know is missing from under that umbrella. She’s not smiling her usual smile. She’s not happy to see me. I hate to say it, but she mostly looks annoyed.

  “We’re gonna go,” she says, taking Jackson’s hand. “See you later?”

  “Later,” Jackson says. His umbrella is plain black, forming a dark shadow over his eyes, which is very convenient for him, don’t you think?

  “Wait!” I shout, once Elissa and Jackson are halfway to the gazebo. “I was following you,” I admit. “Elissa, I really need to talk to you.”

  “What about?” she says. She is still holding his hand.

  “It’s personal,” I say, eyeing Jackson. I wait and she’s still standing there holding on to his hand. “Girl stuff,” I add.

  Now, Elissa may have the day off and want to spend it hanging out in a mildewy gazebo with her boyfriend, but deep down she’s more than a girl with a day off and a boyfriend to spend it with. At heart, where she can’t ever deny it, she is still my babysitter. That is a bond you just cannot break.

  “Wait for me inside,” she tells Jackson, pointing at the gazebo. “I’ll be right there.” When he’s out of earshot, she says, “What happened? Did you just get your, um…” She looks uncomfortable.

  “No! That was like a whole year ago!” I can’t believe she thinks I’d chase her down to talk about something like that.

  “Then what?”

  “Where’d you get that umbrella? I’ve never seen you with it before.”

  She shrugs. “I dunno… the mall?”

  “Oh,” I say. I’m having a hard time finding the right way to say this.

  She heaves a breath and lets it out, loud. “Dani, what are you doing here? I mean, for real. Is this how you’re spending the summer, stalking people? It’s creepy.”

  I take a step back, careful not to slip in the mud. “I’m not trying to be creepy,” I say. “I’m trying to make sure you don’t get hurt. Besides, I didn’t think I was stalking you—I thought it was someone else. Like I said, I’ve never seen you with that umbrella.”

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