Two Can Keep a Secret(9)

Theo’s best friend, Kyle, takes a seat between him and my mother, and the chair next to me scrapes as a big man with a graying blond buzz cut settles down beside me. Chad McNulty, Kyle’s father and the Echo Ridge police officer who investigated Lacey’s murder. Because this night wasn’t awkward enough already. My mother’s got that deer-in-the-headlights look she always gets around the McNultys, and Peter flares his nostrils at an oblivious Theo.

“Hello, Malcolm.” Officer McNulty unfolds his napkin onto his lap without looking at me. “How’s your summer been?”

“Great,” I manage, taking a long sip of water.

Officer McNulty never liked my brother. Declan dated his daughter, Liz, for three months and dumped her for Lacey, which got Liz so upset that she dropped out of school for a while. In return, Kyle’s always been a dick to me. Standard small-town crap that got a lot worse once Declan became an unofficial murder suspect.

Waiters start moving around the room, putting plates of salad in front of everyone. Melanie steps behind a podium on the stage in front, and Officer McNulty’s jaw tenses. “That woman is a tower of strength,” he says, like he’s daring me to disagree.

“Thank you so much for coming,” Melanie says, leaning toward the microphone. “It means the world to Dan, Caroline, Julia, and me to see how much the Lacey Kilduff Memorial Scholarship fund has grown.”

I tune the rest out. Not because I don’t care, but because it’s too hard to hear. Years of not being invited to these things means I haven’t built up much resistance. After Melanie finishes her speech, she introduces a University of Vermont junior who was the first scholarship recipient. The girl talks about her medical school plans as empty salad plates are replaced with the main course. When she’s done, everyone applauds and turns their attention to the food. I poke half-heartedly at my dry chicken while Peter holds court about stoplights. Is it too soon for a bathroom break?

“The thing is, it’s a delicate balance between maintaining town aesthetics and accommodating changing traffic patterns,” Peter says earnestly.

Nope. Not too soon. I stand, drop my napkin onto my chair, and take off.

When I’ve washed my hands as many times as I can stand, I exit the men’s room and hesitate in the corridor between the banquet hall and the front door. The thought of returning to that table makes my head pound. Nobody’s going to miss me for another few minutes.

I tug at my collar and push open the door, stepping outside into the darkness. It’s still muggy, but less stifling than inside. Nights like this make me feel like I can’t breathe, like everything my brother did, actual and alleged, settled over me when I was twelve years old and still weighs me down. I became Declan Kelly’s brother before I got a chance to be anything else, and sometimes it feels like that’s all I’ll ever be.

I inhale deeply, and pause when a faint chemical smell hits me. It gets stronger as I descend the stairs. I can’t see much, and almost trip over something lying in the grass. I bend down and pick it up. It’s a can of spray paint that’s missing its top.

That’s what I’m smelling: fresh paint. But where is it coming from? I turn back toward the cultural center. Its well-lit exterior looks the same as ever. There isn’t anything else nearby that might have been recently painted, except …

The cultural center sign is halfway across the lawn between the building and the street. I’m practically on top of it before I can see clearly in the dim light thrown from the nearest streetlight. Red letters cover the back of the sign from top to bottom, stark against the pale wood:




I’m not sure how long I stand there, staring, before I realize I’m not alone anymore. The girl from Melanie’s table with the curly hair and the weird dress is standing a few feet away. Her eyes dart between the words on the sign and the can in my hand, which rattles when I drop my arm.

“This isn’t what it looks like,” I say.



Saturday, September 7

How’s everything going?

I consider the text from my friend Lourdes. She’s in California, but not La Puente. I met her in sixth grade, which was three towns before we moved there. Or maybe four. Unlike Ezra, who jumps easily into the social scene every time we switch schools, I hang on to my virtual best friend and keep the in-person stuff surface level. It’s easier to move on that way. It requires fewer emo playlists, anyway.

Let’s see. We’ve been here a week and so far the highlight is yard work.

Lourdes sends a few sad-face emoji, then adds, It’ll pick up when school starts. Have you met any cute preppy New England guys yet?

Just one. But not preppy. And possibly a vandal.

Do tell.

I pause, not sure how to explain my run-in with the boy at Lacey Kilduff’s fund-raiser, when my phone buzzes with a call from a number with a California area code. I don’t recognize it, but my heart leaps and I fire off a quick text to Lourdes: Hang on, getting a call about my luggage I hope. I’ve been in Vermont a full week, and my suitcase is still missing. If it doesn’t show up within the next two days, I’m going to have to start school in the clothes my grandmother bought at Echo Ridge’s one and only clothing store. It’s called Dalton’s Emporium and also sells kitchen goods and hardware, which should tell you everything you need to know about its fashion cred. No one who’s older than six or younger than sixty should shop there, ever.

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