Penn Deaton looked three years younger than thirteen. With his thin arms and legs, he was the tiniest out of the four of us, and always picked last during gym class, if picked at all. He was more into bird watching with the telescope his grandfather had given him for Christmas two years ago than he was chasing a ball around.
I didn’t really get the whole bird thing and couldn’t pick out a northern mockingbird to save my life, but I sat with him in the tree house nestled deep in the woods behind his house, my backpack forgotten in the corner, my legs dangling over the edge. One of my flip-flops had fallen to the ground below. The other hung precariously from my toes. The drop was steep, scary high. Falling would probably end with more than a visit to urgent care. I was always surprised that Penn would come up here since he was afraid of heights, but I guessed he was into birds more than he was scared.
There were other things I could be doing instead of sitting here waiting for Penn to see whatever he wanted to see before we made our way over to Gavin’s. Running, for starters. I loved doing that. The feeling of my muscles tensing and releasing, my lungs burning as my sneakers thumped off the pavement, provided such a rush. When I got to high school, I was going to join the cross county team and the track team.
I could’ve already gone to Gavin’s house. He wasn’t allowed out after school right now because he’d set off the bottle rockets he found in his parents’ garage last weekend. He was still grounded for another billion years. But he’d gotten a new game system that hadn’t been taken away from him and we were still allowed to visit. Jensen was probably already over there, waiting on Penn and me. He didn’t have the patience required to sit quietly in a tree house and watch for birds. Jensen was always picked first in gym class, and if a game controller wasn’t in his hands, he’d rather be chasing a ball around.
None of our parents ever tried to keep the four of us apart, even if we were in major trouble. Since elementary school, we had always found a way to be together. We were peas to each other’s pods, as my Grammy would say, and I though that was kind of a weird saying, but we were our own little group and we were best friends.
Things . . . things were starting to change though, and I really didn’t understand why.
Gavin didn’t like spending time in the tree house anymore and sometimes he blushed and acted weird. Everyone wanted to be around Jensen at school, especially the girls.
I bit down on my lip as my stomach tumbled like my flip-flop had.
My mom said Jensen was growing like a weed, and he was, towering over the three of us. I wasn’t growing at all. Glancing down at my T-shirt, I sighed. I was the same as I was last year and the year before and the year before that. Still incredibly flat chested. Still mistaken for a boy if I had my hair up and under a hat. I was convinced I’d never grow boobs like the other girls in my class, which meant Jensen would probably never think of me as anything other than the girl who was often mistaken for ‘one of the boys’ he hung out with.
I don’t even know why I cared if he woke up tomorrow and realized I was a girl. It was stupid, I decided as I picked at my nail instead of chewing on it, a habit my mom was trying to break me of. It didn’t matter if I never changed, because neither had Penn, and even though with each passing month school was getting harder and harder for him, he was still the same old Penn. I sort of loved him more for that.
“There!” Penn whispered excitedly. “Right there, Ella.”
I looked up, frowning and squinting toward the tree he was pointing at. It took me a few seconds to find the bird with black and white wings with a splash of red across its breast.
I shuddered as the bird hopped to the branch below it, shaking the leaves. “I don’t like that kind.”
Penn glanced down at me, clutching the silvery shaft near the eyepiece lens. His dark brown eyes glimmered with excitement. “Why? They’re beautiful.”
“I don’t know.” I pulled my foot up as the bird took flight, disappearing further into the tree, where it found a leafy hidey-hole. I took off my one lonely flip-flop. “It looks like its throat was slit and it bled all over itself.”
His mouth dropped open. “That’s . . . that’s sick.”
I giggled. “It’s true.”
“Never looked at it that way. Huh.” He dipped his head back to the eyepiece and I swallowed a sigh. We weren’t heading to Gavin’s anytime soon. “They’re my favorite species.”
I hadn’t forgotten that.
Cardinals were Penn’s favorite.
Stars blanketed the sky like tiny tiki torches, casting pinpricks of light on the dark field that butted up to the edge of an obsessively manicured backyard. I scratched at the label on the bottle I held and tipped my chin up, closing my eyes as the warm, end-of-summer breeze washed over my face. The dry, rough grass scratched at my bare legs and I was probably sitting on or near a fire-ant hill, about to be devoured alive, but I didn’t care.
In less than forty-eight hours, I’d be starting my senior year, and by this time next year, instead of staring up at stars, I’d be gazing at the twinkling city lights outside the University of Maryland.
I would be so done with this place.
“Ella, what in the hell are you doing?”
I jerked at the sound of Lindsey Roach’s voice and twisted at the waist. She stood behind me, holding two bottles of beer in her hands.
“Double fisting tonight?” I asked, raising my eyebrows. “Hardcore, Linds.”
She laughed as she dropped down beside me, curling long dark legs underneath her. Handing one of the bottles to me, she wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, no. I’m not going to be one of those girls who gets drunk at Brock’s party, takes off their clothes, and jumps into his pool, among other things.”
I opened my mouth.
Linds held up a hand, silencing me. “Not trying to judge, but you know what’s going to go down. It happens every year. One of the giggling chicks back there is going to strip down and show the world, God, and baby Jesus her goodies.”
My lips twitched. Linds and I had been best friends since freshman year, when we’d been paired together to work on a social sciences project. She’d always been a hell of a lot more opinionated than me. Linds really couldn’t be called pretty. Not with her curly black hair that looked perfect whether it was pulled back tight at the crown or cascading down her back. Pretty wasn’t a word I’d use for her near flawless deep brown skin, or cat-shaped eyes and lips ready-made for a makeup ad.
Linds was the kind of beautiful that made you want to kick her in the lady bits when she donned a two-piece bikini. She was gorgeous.
“Remember last year?” She took a drink and rested the bottle on the hem of her denim shorts. “Vee Bartol took off her clothes and danced on the diving board? Like dropped low on the diving board?”
I winced, easily recalling that incident. Not because Vee got up and did that, but because of the fallout that occurred afterward. But it happened every year since we were sophomores. The parties Brock Cochran threw the weekend before school started had become a religion to the student body. They were notorious. His parents were always on the absentee list Saturday night, and his older brother supplied the alcohol in various forms. And someone always did something they’d spend the upcoming school year regretting on an epic level.
My smile faded away like the last days of summer as I stretched out my legs. I glanced over at Linds, and in the silvery moonlight, I could see that she was no longer smiling.
She bit down on her plump lower lip. “I heard that the police still think she ran away.”
Wiggling my toes, I cast my gaze to the sky again. Everyone wants to believe that Vee ran away. I do. The only other options are horrifying and ugly, but when she went missing two weeks ago, her family had appeared on the local TV stations, tearfully begging for her return. It was well known, as all things are in small towns, that none of her personal belongings had disappeared.
Who ran away without money, an ID, or extra clothes?
Or even their cellphone?
It didn’t make sense.
Linds tipped back her beer and I forced my thoughts away from Vee. I’d never been close to her, but her situation, whatever it was, was still difficult to really comprehend.