SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 2017
I swore to myself I wouldn’t die that day.
Up and down.
Come at me, you bastard. Sweaty-palmed as I gripped a battered Louisville Slugger, eyes glued to my bedroom door.
He was already inside the trailer—early this time, as the first slanting rays of sunshine began peeking over the mountains. While Mom was still away at work. I’d heard the front stoop creak, and instantly knew who had come.
That I was trapped.
Right here. In my own home.
Another unpleasant first.
I wasn’t scared. Not of him. Of this. That’s just not how it worked anymore.
But my anger simmered near the edge of control.
A floorboard groaned.
I took a calming breath. Narrowed my focus to audible noises beyond the door, a flimsy piece of sliding metal that couldn’t stop a toddler. All that separated me from a monster who’d come to snatch my life away.
Silence stretched, then another muffled step. I tensed, prepping for battle.
There’s no sneaking quietly across my crappy, not-so-mobile home, a fact I’d established many times during my sixteen years of life. I knew exactly where he was standing. How his weight was aligned. What the man was seeing as he peered across our shabby single-wide, eyes glued to the only other place I could be.
So why the delay?
I thought furiously, cycling through possibilities. Was he waiting me out? Could he possibly believe I didn’t know he was there?
The first shot exploded through the door. High and left, but I panicked just the same.
A gun this time.
I dropped into a crouch, options rapidly dwindling.
I darted toward a grimy, dirt-streaked square of glass overlooking my single bed.
Too quick. I never sensed the trap.
The second bullet punched through the closet, slicing into my right shoulder and spinning me like a top. I gasped in pain. Fell against the bedside table.
The third shot tore into my chest.
My legs faltered. I tumbled to the floor, struggling to breathe, blood bubbling on my lips as I stared up at the drab fluorescent lights on the ceiling. Pain tinged everything red.
He’d been waiting for me to flee. I’d accommodated him. Checkmate.
The door slid open. I barely flinched.
A man entered, tall and thin, with coal-black hair cut short. High cheekbones. Narrow, elegant nose. He wore the same unadorned black suit as always. Silver sunglasses. Shiny black boots. His work clothes, I supposed.
Behind the opaque lenses, his face was utterly expressionless.
That always got to me. What kind of human could do such horrible things, yet show zero reflection of them in his features?
A psychopath. That’s who.
The black-suited man stood over my punctured, broken body. Squaring his shoulders, he pulled the slide on his weapon, a gleaming black handgun that fit snugly into his palm. The barrel rose.
“Why?” I croaked, as my heartbeat lost its rhythm.
We’d been through this before.
Same question. Always the same question.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, taking aim directly between my eyes.
Same reply. He always apologized.
I wasn’t going to scream. I’d done it before, and refused to give him the satisfaction. I wasn’t going to beg either. I’d learned that didn’t get me anywhere.
But I wanted an answer.
“Why?” More gurgle than words. Liquid was filling my mouth, hot and wet. The hole in my chest burned like a sliver of the sun.
I knew a response wasn’t coming. So, ever so slowly, marshaling my last remaining strength, I lifted my left arm. Hand shaking like a storm-tossed willow, I crooked my elbow, turned my palm inward, and carefully extended my middle finger, thrusting it at his blank, stone-carved face.
“Go to hell,” I whispered, choking on my own blood.
“I’m already there.”
A thunderous bang, followed immediately by another.
Agony. Then, nothing.
Hello, death. Long time no see.
Darkness enveloped me.
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 2017
My eyes slid open.
Blink blink blink.
Birds zipped by overhead, squabbling as they rode the updrafts. Inhaling deeply, I smelled huckleberry and red cedar, mixed with the indescribable sharpness of evergreen trees. Pine straw was jabbing me in the back.
A sour tang filled my mouth, like I’d been sucking on pocket change.
No pain. No lingering hurt. Or sadness. Or rage.
I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. Just a tenderness to the scar on my left shoulder.
Exactly like last time. And the time before that. And the ones before those.
I was lying in the center of a forest clearing. The clearing, of course, tucked inside a stand of longleaf pines, on a jagged slope to the north of my tiny Idaho hometown. A glance at the sky told me it was early morning, but not the same day as before.
Though I knew it was pointless, I tried to remember how I’d gotten there. But I was grasping at smoke. There was nothing. No hazy impression. No magic flash. No blast of white light, or sensation of weightlessness, of flying, of rising through the clouds to my continually denied eternal rest.
That’s not how it worked. I simply felt pain, died, and then woke up again.
Here. Always here. In this place.
“I’m not crazy. I am not.”
I liked saying it out loud, as if challenging the universe to argue the point.
I bumped a fist against my forehead, then rose, pawing twigs and leaves from my short black hair. Unsnarled my necklace. No iPhone to check—I’d find it charging on my nightstand, right where I left it—so I smoothed my jeans and crumpled Boise State tee, the same clothes I’d been wearing during the attack.
No blood. No singed holes. No acrid stench of panic sweat. Not a misplaced thread to evidence the .45 caliber slugs that had ripped through my body. The faded garments looked and felt the same as always.
I shivered, and not from the temperature. Though it was chilly. My breath misted in the gusts swirling down the mountainside. Fall mornings at this altitude are no joke. It’s a wonder I hadn’t frozen to death while lying there exposed.
I snorted in a most unladylike fashion, then hugged myself close.
Yeah, it’d be a shame if I died, right?
I’m not immortal. At least I don’t think so, anyway. I age normally, even though I have this curious habit of dying and coming back to life. I’m not like a ghost or vampire, either. Those guys are un-dead, or so I’ve been told.
No. I just . . . reset. Open my eyes. Get up. Start walking home.
• • •
If there’s ever a zombie apocalypse, head for my town.
Tucked high in the Bitterroot Mountains, Fire Lake might not be the most isolated place in the United States, but it’s close. Go any farther north and you’re in Canada. There’s only one way in or out of the valley—a slender, two-lane bridge spanning a three-hundred-foot drop into Gullet Chasm, some of the toughest river country in Idaho.
People make the trip, however, since the town is surrounded by national parkland. The lake itself is a tourist pull in summer months, balancing out winter ski-bum traffic and keeping the valley stocked with visitors nearly year-round. A few magazines have named Fire Lake the most beautiful vacation spot in America. I can’t disagree.
Not that I cared that morning as I crept down the mountainside. I had one goal in mind: to slip back home without being noticed.
It took ten minutes to reach the first houses. There I paused to tighten my sneakers—had I been wearing them when shot?—before slinking into a park area north of town. I scurried along back roads, skirting the neighborhoods above the main village.
I had no intention of telling anyone what had happened. Not after my experiences as a child. I was cold, hungry, and demoralized. Desperate for a shower. An emergency sit-down with my psychiatrist would qualify as torture.
I already had a little blue pill. Mandatory counseling. There was nothing I enjoyed less than my sessions with Doctor Warm Smiles, the two of us fencing while pretending not to be. For fifty minutes every seven days, I fought to protect my secrets while he pried at them with all his shrewd kindness. Exhausting.
Dr. Lowell hadn’t believed me when I was little. No one had, not even Mom. My horrifying memories were “the product of a troubled mind.”
So forget it. I wasn’t saying a word.
Reaching the business district, I hurried west, toward the rougher end of the valley. The typically vibrant neighborhood felt deserted. I passed small-but-charming hotels with no signs of guests. Most of the vacation houses had their shutters locked up tight. The streets had an almost ghost-town feel. Strange, even that early.
Then, with a wince, I remembered what day it was.
The Announcement is tonight, genius. Think that could be it?
September 18, 2017. The most anticipated press conference in history. That evening, just after sunset in the Rockies, Asteroid 152660-GR4 would clear Jupiter’s gravitational field, allowing its path to be definitively calculated.
We find out if the Anvil will kill us all.
Fear gripped me. It was a measure of my own problems that I’d forgotten the one tormenting everyone else.
I crossed a footbridge, then turned right onto Quarry Road, heading back upslope. Almost home. I knew time was short—I was pretty sure it was Monday, which meant school, which meant I had to hurry. The road dropped behind the ridge, and I turned left onto a gravel driveway plunging out of sight.
Fire Lake may be romanticized for its beauty, but the brochures aren’t discussing my neighborhood. I hurried through the gates of Rocky Ridge Trailer Park, a sloppy collection of run-down mobile homes wedged conveniently out of sight from the rest of the valley. My mother and I shared a depressing tan-and-peach unit slumped in the far corner.
A few heads turned as I slunk along the dusty rows— dodging clotheslines, stepping over Fred and Joe Wilson, who were passed out in the mud beside their fire pit, Fred’s lawn chair overturned and resting on his face. Early risers were puttering about, watering plants or coaxing dogs to do their business. But no one spared more than a passing glance. It wasn’t that kind of place.
The gazes I did meet carried an unspoken anxiety. People moved stiffly, almost robotically, frowning to themselves, as if even mundane tasks were nearly more than they could bear. I bristled at the tension.
Yes, humanity was in danger of extinction. I knew the awful truth. If the Anvil struck the planet—at any angle—almost nothing would survive. Doomsday might be at hand, and we’d find out in just a few hours. But I couldn’t deal with both things at once. Not then. Not after what had happened in my bedroom.
Sorry, world. I’ve got my own problems.
My steps slowed as I drew close to home. I’d been gone nearly twenty-four hours this time. In all the deaths before, I’d never missed an entire night. My mother had grown used to my unexpected comings and goings—a pattern I’d cultivated to cover this very situation—but I was definitely pushing it this time.
She might not even be here.
Mom had been working the graveyard shift for three weeks, pouring coffee for the glory of minimum wage. It was possible I’d beaten her home, but there wasn’t a car to tip me off. We didn’t own or need one. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d left the valley. Mom walked into town every day, same as me.
I studied the stoop for signs. A smudged handle. Wet footprints on our grubby welcome mat. But nothing outside the trailer caught my attention.
Then a shudder passed through me.
The black-suited man was here. He came right through to end my life.
Anything I detected could be his doing.
My pulse accelerated. It took me several moments to calm down. Then, disgusted with everything, I lurched forward and pulled the screen door wide.
She was home.
Keys on the counter. Her iPod was connected to a pair of desk speakers—our redneck stereo—and Adele was crooning softly in the gloom. The TV was off. Our router blinked at me from across the room. I’d demanded Wi-Fi to live, and had finally gotten my wish the day I turned thirteen. An odd-numbered birthday, so safe, and not unlucky at all. One of the few that had actually been pleasant.
Not that we paid for Internet service. There were dozens of tourist businesses in the valley. Nobody noticed a little stolen bandwidth. Mom and I usually swiped ours from the ski resort straight east. Even our cable was hooked up under-the-table, thanks to a friend.
Her door was closed. I imagined her crawling into bed a few minutes ago, worried sick about me but worn out after another backbreaking twelve-hour shift.
My room was at the opposite end. I crept across the living room, wincing with every creak. The irony wasn’t lost on me. Reaching my door, I paused to examine it. No bullet hole. The metal slats looked exactly as they always had.
I slid the door open. The track failed to squeak for the first time I could recall.
My heart skipped a beat. I rarely discovered mistakes.
Inside, my room was in perfect order. Bed made. Clothes neatly folded. Shoes in a haphazard pile under my desk. The carpet was clean. No damage to the closet, walls, or floor.
My fifth murder, erased.
Like it never happened.
A thump carried across the trailer. Crap. I shed my clothes and ruffled the covers, hoping Mom might think I was just getting up rather than just getting home.
I waited a minute, then yawned theatrically, opening my door and trudging to our shared bathroom. It didn’t take long—the living room stretches only twenty feet. A seedy couch, a beanbag chair, and Mom’s ancient rocker surrounded a coffee table where we ate every meal. Bookshelf. Floor lamp. Battered desk. We could pack up everything and move inside of an hour, though we’d probably just leave the stuff.
Her door stayed shut as I scrubbed my teeth while showering, washed my face, then ran a brush through straight black hair that barely reached my chin. I paused a moment, staring into the mirror. Saw the ghost of my mother, thirty years ago.
I looked away. Some things you don’t want to see.
Crossing back to my room, I hurriedly got dressed—fresh jeans, Walking Dead tee, socks, sneaks, and a black zip-front hoodie. No one’s ever accused me of being a fashion maven. I shoved books into a backpack and arrowed for the front door. The town had decided that school would remain open this week, and first bell was in thirty.
The knob was turning in my hand when my mother’s door screeched open. Her head poked through the gap. One look, and I knew she wasn’t fooled. Questions burned in her watery gray eyes, but she held them back.
“Promise me you’ll be home for the Announcement.”
Mom was short and slim like me, with long, stringy hair going white at the roots. Pale skin, pulled tight over birdlike features and a thin-lipped, frowning mouth. Everything about her seemed fragile and overused, like a wildflower that never got enough water.
I silently cursed the deadbeat father I’d never even met—a daily tradition upon seeing my mother’s weathered face. Then I cursed myself. Because I just wanted out of there.
Try as I might, at moments like this I felt nothing more strongly than . . . distaste.
Disappointment. That my mother had allowed her life to reach this point. That the same could happen to me.
Shame blossomed inside me. Unfolded. Spread.
“I’ll be home.”
Mom’s stare was unrelenting. “Promise me, Min. I don’t know where you . . . and on your birthday, again . . . but . . .” She trailed off. Neither of us wanted to go there.
Her voice firmed like it used to years ago. “I’d like for us to be together, come what may. Please, Melinda.”
“I’ll be home,” I repeated. “I promise.” One foot over the threshold.
She nodded gravely, retreating back into her elevator-sized bedroom.
The screen door slammed as I hurried down the lane.
It’s my birthday.
I’m wearing a pink taffeta dress with purple bows, the most beautiful piece of clothing I’ve ever owned. I love it. I want to dance around in front of our bathroom mirror, but Mom has a surprise for me. So we take a seemingly endless walk to the fairgrounds, at the edge of town, near the canyon.
My feet begin to hurt, but when we finally get there, it’s so worth it.
A party. For ME. I squeal with excitement.
Mom leads me to a picnic table with a Mylar number eight balloon tied to one end. Thomas is there, and some other kids from school. Not all of them are my friends, but that’s not her fault. I never tell Mom things like that. Only Thomas.
Big Things are going on across the field. Mom planned my party alongside a carnival that just pulled into town. I see rides. Games. A pony. Oh my God, a pony!
This is quickly becoming the best day of my life.
Mom is smiling, laughing as she passes out cups of juice and paper plates stacked with fruit. I love seeing her happy. Even as a brand-new eight-year-old, I know she normally isn’t. I can tell by looking, just like I know Principal Myers doesn’t like people staring at his leg, and that Thomas doesn’t want to talk about his bruises.
Cake. Presents. A ride on the Tea Cups. Then I wait with Thomas while he barfs behind the Ring Toss tent. We both find it pretty funny. He hurries back to the picnic table to get a new shirt, but I don’t follow.
Because the pony. It’s RIGHT. THERE.
I race over to a bearded man who smells like leather. The pony’s name is Princess, and I’m in love with her forever. I wish Mom was there to get a picture, but I’ll tell her all about it when I’m done. When I ask her to buy Princess and keep her behind our trailer.
Too soon, my ride is over. I slip off the pony’s back, hug her to death, and then skip back toward the picnic table.
A man appears and walks beside me. I look up, curious. Is he one of Mom’s friends?
The man looks down at me. He’s wearing a black suit, shiny black boots, and sunglasses.
Yes, he’s a friend of my mother’s. She’s been looking for me.
And out of nowhere, cotton candy!
I take it with a squeal and chomp a mouthful, my free hand grabbing his automatically. The man misses a step, stumbling on nothing but flattened grass, but I don’t tease him for clumsiness. In the fading light, he leads me across the field, toward a knot of trees overlooking the canyon.
I ask where we’re going, sugar coating my lips and glazing my eyes.
To meet my mother. She has another surprise.
We reach the trees and weave through their round trunks, coming to the edge of the ravine. I stare down at the rapids, way far below. I’ve never been so close to the edge before.
The man breathes extra deep, then goes still. I can tell he’s tense and wonder why.
“Is something wrong?” I ask.
He releases his grip. “I’m sorry.”
I barely feel the push. Don’t know what’s happening.
I fall, not making a sound.
Not until the moment I hit the rocks.
• • •
I wake up in the woods. It’s dark, and I’m alone.
The man. The push. The jagged boulders. I begin to cry. Tears streak down my cheeks as I run my hands over my arms and legs.
I’m not hurt. My dress isn’t even dirty.
I scream for anyone who might hear me, racing down the mountainside toward the distant glow of town. I find a path, a road, then a man walking a Yorkshire terrier. His eyes widen as he shouts for someone named Gail.
A blanket enfolds me. Flashing lights. A warm drink with marshmallows.
I get to ride in a police car! All the way home to the trailer park. Mom is there. She’s been crying, hugs me so hard I can’t breathe.
Everyone has questions. Mom. Neighbors. A police officer. Then a hefty man with a mustache appears, and everyone else moves aside. It’s Sheriff Watson, here at our trailer, which means this is a Big Deal. He asks me to tell him what happened, real slow.
I tell about the man in the suit. Cotton candy by the canyon’s rim.
Gasps, quickly covered. I see frightened glances among the adults, but I’m not supposed to notice, so I don’t say anything. Instead I tell them about the fall. How the man pushed me over the edge, the rocks rushing up, and how everything went black.
Silence. Then Sheriff Watson asks me to repeat the last part.
So I tell it again. I keep going, adding details, even though I know my story is making the adults upset. I tell them about waking up alone in the forest. Running toward the lights.
Sheriff Watson turns his back and whispers something to the others. Heads begin to nod. My mother swoops in, crushing me to her chest, telling everyone I need rest. I’ve been traumatized, whatever that means. More nods. I’m hustled off to bed.
As Mom tucks me under the covers, I ask her the question that’s been bugging me.
Who was the black-suited man? Did she see him? Does she know him?
The flinch is slight, but I catch it. She says no. Of course not. My imagination has gotten the best of me. Then she kisses me fiercely, fat tears leaking from her eyes.
Mom tells me not to be afraid. That I’m safe. That I need to sleep more than anything.
The light flicks off. She closes the door.
But I don’t sleep.
I’m only eight, but I know lies when I hear them.
“Hey, Sleeping Beauty!”
My head jerked, and I nearly fell over sideways. I grabbed the post I’d been leaning against. Impossibly, I’d drifted off while waiting. Or maybe not so impossibly. Had I slept at all in the last twenty-four hours?
Thomas “Tack” Russo was marching toward me, a slight kid with unruly black hair and penetrating blue eyes. He wore a Kickpuncher sweatshirt and beige cargo pants, his camouflage backpack hooked over both shoulders.
“Out cold by the gate is not a good look.” Tack shook his head. “You should’ve grabbed a spot by the Wilson fire. Looks like those guys had a killer campout.”
“We’re going to be late,” I grumbled, stifling a yawn.
“No one’ll care.” His smirk slipped a fraction as he rubbed his arms, chasing away the morning chill. I spotted bags under his eyes as well. “Honestly, I wonder how many kids will even show up.”
Pushing off the post. “Nobody actually knows anything. Not yet. And I doubt Principal Myers will suddenly learn to relax.”
“Wait wait wait!” Tack swung his backpack around and unzipped it, pulling out a lumpy parcel wrapped in Sunday comics. Dropping to a knee, he held the ugly bundle aloft, head bowed like a knight swearing service. “Please accept this token as a symbol of my undying pleasure at your continuing to be alive for another year.”
I blanched, my stomach abruptly churning.
Alive another year. Am I really?
Tack glanced up. Registered my discomfort, if not the cause. He rose quickly, cheeks reddening as he thrust the package into my hands. “Sorry. I tried to find you yesterday, but . . .” He trailed off with a wince.
Tack knew I hated birthdays. That I spent them alone when I could.
He just didn’t know why.
Tack was my best friend, and utterly irreplaceable. One of the few things I liked about Fire Lake, other than the scenery. I couldn’t risk our friendship by telling him the truth. Couldn’t stand for him to think I was crazy, too.
“You shouldn’t have bought me anything,” I scolded. Every year I told him not to. And every year he did anyway.
Tack’s grin returned. “If it makes you feel better, I didn’t. I stole it.”
My eyes rolled as I tore into the newsprint. After I’d ripped through a near-seamless ball of tape, a small cardboard box fell into my hands. Inside was a pair of vintage Ray-Ban sunglasses. Silver frame. Reflective lenses.
I slipped them on. They fit perfectly.
I shoved that aside. Wouldn’t let the evil bastard’s shadow darken every moment of my life. Who cared if they were similar? I liked these damn glasses.
“See there!” Tack crowed triumphantly, slapping his hands together. “Perfect! Who’s the dopest Bella now? Melinda Juilliard Wilder, that’s who!”
“Shut it, dork. And don’t triple name me today, or my mom’ll get jealous.”
Plus, I hated my middle name. It was the sole legacy of my father—being named after a prestigious performing arts conservatory on the other side of the country. Yet I couldn’t dance. Or act. Or sing. I didn’t even play an instrument. Another letdown courtesy of a man I never knew.
“What’s Virginia worked up about this time?” Tack snatched the sunglasses from my nose and slipped them on. “Something from yesterday? Did you offend Jeebus at your private birthday shindig?”
“It was nothing.” I began walking up the drive. I hated lying to Tack, but the conversation had strayed into dangerous territory. I wished I still had the shades to cover my eyes.
Tack fell in beside me. “You’re right, we need to get moving.” He handed back the glasses and hitched his pants. “Our classmates wouldn’t know what to do if the prom king and queen were late on Announcement Day. They’d probably crap themselves.”
I snorted. We hiked up to Quarry Road, then started into town. A light breeze was rippling the lake, which gleamed like a sapphire in the heart of the valley. We crossed a handful of quiet blocks before hanging a left onto Library Avenue. Street names in Fire Lake are pretty straightforward. The place never got big enough to require creativity.
“NASA really torpedoed business this month,” Tack said, pointing to a cluster of vacant condos near the marina. “My dad’s had zero work. No tourists clogging their toilets.”
“People are staying home, I guess. Waiting. A trip to Fire Lake just isn’t in the cards.”
Tack raised both palms, rounding his eyes dramatically. “But Outdoor Weekly named us the best weekend getaway in the Rockies! What better place to spend your last days on Earth?”
“People can be so dumb, right?”
The hike to school usually takes twenty minutes, unless the weather is crappy. But that morning it was all sunshine and blue skies, with the temperature hovering around fifty-five degrees. A gorgeous day in the northern Idaho mountains. It felt like a prank.
As we moved deeper into town, unusual signs of neglect cropped up. A busted streetlight. Trash in the gutter. An Explorer was parked with its front two wheels on the curb, soaped letters on its windshield saying, “You can have it, Sheriff.”
I was born in Fire Lake, knew it heart and soul. I’d never seen anything like it before. The disarray felt fundamentally wrong.
A tricked-out Wrangler rounded the corner, music thumping, a chrome gun rack welded to its rear. The top was down, and three shirtless boys were hanging over its sides.
“Oh, shucks.” Tack sighed dejectedly as they tore up the block. “We missed our ride! I really wanted to flash the guns today, too.”
“I’d rather crawl on my stomach than hitch a ride with Ethan. New car or not.”
Tack shook his head. “Lay off my dudes. We’re going camping next week, gonna really bro-down. Probably get wasted. Kill something and eat it. It’s gonna be lit.”
“Lovely. I’ll be at the spa with Jessica and the squad.”
Ethan Fletcher is the one who gave Tack his nickname, though it didn’t work out like he’d planned. During sixth grade, as a prank, Ethan and the Nolan twins fastened Thomas Russo to a bulletin board by his clothes using thumbtacks. They left him hanging there, miserable and humiliated, until he was found by Mr. Hardy. In the halls the next morning, the other boys began calling him Thumbtack.
When Thomas heard, he immediately adopted the name as his own, refusing to respond to anything but Tack. Adults. Teachers. Classmates. Not even when called on in class. He was Tack, and that was final. After a while Ethan even tried to get him to stop, and Tack took a beating for refusing. A boulder could take lessons in stubbornness from that kid.
“Man, talk about depressing.” Tack paused beneath the awning of Valley Grounds, our favorite coffee shop. A hand-scrawled sign was taped to its front door.
CLOSED UNTIL . . . GOD BLESS
His shoulders hunched. “This end-of-the-world stuff is cramping my style. We might all be about to die, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need caffeine. They better reopen eventually, or it’s gonna be a long wait until the big boom.”
Forget next month. God, what will tomorrow be like if the news is bad?
“You’re probably rooting for a direct strike,” I said, trying to play it off. “No exams.”
“But what of us, then?” Tack’s eyes twinkled as he snatched my hand in his. “If the Anvil is destined to flatten Idaho, I want to spend my last moments with you, rolling down hills like we did as carefree children. Such precious memories! Like happy raindrops, double rainbows of—”
“Oh, shut up.” I shouldered him lightly, pulling my fingers free. The bump triggered a dull ache in my shoulder. I rubbed the half-moon scar under my sleeve. It always stung after one of my “special” birthdays.
My thoughts darkened, snapshots of the attack I’d suffered strobing inside my head.
The world might be about to end, but what did I care?
My world ended all the time.
I stayed silent as we passed the library, reaching the school zone at the end of the street. Fire Lake has one large campus for all three divisions. The two lower schools flank the road, which dead-ends into the high school parking lot.
The spaces were mostly empty.
“Told you.” Tack absently stroked a bruise on his chin. I knew where he got them from, and we didn’t talk about that, either. “Half this stupid town is probably hiding under their beds right now.” His expression darkened as he scuffed a ratty sneaker on the blacktop. “Maybe they’re not so dumb. Why go to school if you’re about to be sentenced to death?”
“Why don’t we meet up after school?” His searching glance was thwarted by my new sunglasses. “We can watch the Announcement at Bedfellow’s. If the news is thumbs-up, we can probably score some free drinks.”
I shook my head. “I promised Mom I’d be home. She’s been carrying around her mother’s old Bible all week. You know how she gets. Virginia is dead certain the Anvil will smash directly through our roof.”
“This is prime asteroid country,” Tack said lightly as we cut through the parking lot. “Space rocks probably feel right at home in the Gem State. Our incinerated remains will provide a warm welcome.”
I couldn’t help but shudder. “There’s a giant headline on CNN calling it a planet killer. They even made a freaking GIF of the world getting crushed. Who the hell wants to see that? If it strikes anywhere on Earth—”
“THE AGE OF HUMANS SHALL BE NO MORE!” Tack spread his arms wide, a thin smile curling his lips. But I noticed that his hands shook slightly. Even Tack Russo struggled to mock the legitimate prospect of annihilation. He was as scared as everyone else.
Everyone except me.
I’d tried to make the asteroid feel real. I knew the Anvil came from outside our solar system, a deadly ball of carbon, nickel, and iron twelve miles in diameter and traveling at an insane speed of 300 kilometers per second, and that an impact from such an object would deliver the kinetic force of more than a billion hydrogen bombs. First spotted three weeks ago, it was just now passing the outer planets. It would strike or slide by in just over a month.
Initial odds had been given as one-in-seven. A week later, that was revised negatively to two-out-of-five. In the last few days, some independent scientists online had moved to fifty-fifty, ratcheting global tension to a boiling point. Thus, the Announcement that evening—an official answer to the are-we-all-going-to-die question. Less than twelve hours, and counting.
Yet our little town had decided everything would go on like normal. School. Business. Public services. The leaders of Fire Lake had planted their heads firmly in the sand, and were inviting all citizens down there with them. Surprisingly, most were going along with it, even me. I guess pretending everything’s okay is more comfortable than admitting things really, truly might not be.
Personally, I felt almost nothing. The concept of a worlddestroying super-boulder was simply too abstract for me. Twenty-fours hours ago, a man had broken into my mobile home at dawn. He shot me through the shoulder and chest, then twice more in the head.
That was real. That was something to fear.
Wayward space rocks? I couldn’t get there. Maybe I was in denial.
“How about we get together afterward?” Tack was refusing to take no for an answer. We’d reached the walkway to the courtyard, and would hit a crowd in moments. “Rain or shine. Come on! If it’s bad news, we can hike out to the old miner’s hut and discuss what to wear for ‘death by interstellar debris.’ Work on our hoarding strategies.”
“It’s a date!” Tack shouted, then charged up the walkway, arms thrust skyward as he continued yelling, “A date! A date! An end-of-the-world date!”
“Not a date, you moron!” But I laughed.
At least one resident of Fire Lake had something to cheer about.
I hurried to my locker before the bell rang.
Head down, I strode quickly down the hall with my arms crossed tightly over my chest. I’d never be described as outgoing, but that morning I was aiming for invisible.
One thing about me: I don’t make friends easily. Ability to Trust seems to be a prerequisite for lasting relationships, and I’m usually short on that count. I rarely share things about myself, and that self-imposed isolation has consequences.
Being honest, it’s probably more than just the murders. I know I see the world differently than others. I can be aloof. And at Fire Lake High School—where acceptance of quirks is always in short supply—that lands you on the outside looking in.
I’d become comfortable as an outcast. Relished it, almost.
So, of course, that morning I got cornered by the people I least wanted to see.
“Hey, Melinda!” Ethan called out, strolling down the hall in his letterman’s jacket. He had close-cut blond hair and a sharp-nosed face that was gorgeous until you realized what a prick he was. His small mouth was bent in a smile. He loved using my full name, because I hated it. A handful of kids followed on his heels.
My gaze flicked from face to face. Ethan. Sarah Harden, and her cheerleading BFF Jessica Cale. The Nolan twins, with their flaming red hair. Noah Livingston. Charlie Bell, acne scars and all. Toby Albertsson.
A group I would charitably describe as Worst-Case Scenario.
I’d known Ethan since third grade, and we’d never gotten along. The others were okay individually—like it or not, we’d grown up in a giant puppy pile our whole lives—but they could be ugly when forming a mob. Which they were doing right now.
Ethan leaned against the locker next to mine. The others fanned out with varying degrees of interest. Sarah and Jessica barely spared me a glance, chattering nervously about the latest Announcement predictions. A school-wide beauty contest would rank them one and two, though they’d knife each other over who got top billing.
Noah hung back, scrolling his phone. A handsome boy with light brown hair and green eyes, he rarely spoke around me, or much at all. His father owned the ski resort on the northern slopes and was the richest man in town. The other four boys, however—Chris and Mike Nolan, Charlie, and Toby—gave me their undivided attention.
“Can I help you, Ethan?” In as neutral a tone as I could manage.
“I was just wondering about your disaster preparedness.” His ice-blue eyes attempted an earnest look. “Is the trailer park ready for an Anvil strike?”
At mention of the asteroid, a wave of apprehension swept through the group—a subtle, dancing poltergeist of fear. I noticed little signs, things that most people might not pick up on but to me were practically shouts. Chris Nolan’s eyelids tightened, while his brother shuffled his feet. Charlie’s knuckles whitened on the textbook he was carrying. Sarah faltered in her gossiping, a hand shooting up to rake her strawberry-blond hair.
“Ready as anywhere,” I replied dully, closing my locker. “Since it doesn’t matter where the thing hits.”
Toby snorted. Chris nodded, as if I’d scored a point.
“Mobile homes aren’t really built for sturdiness,” Ethan said matter-of-factly, toying with a nearby lock. “One good thing is, you won’t lose much if it gets compacted.”
Heat rose to my face. I glanced at Noah, who was frowning at his Apple Watch. Not joining in, but not lifting a finger to help me, either.
My gaze dropped. Why look to him? Noah was good-looking— tall and wiry, with the build of a swimmer, and sporting the best car, clothes, and lifestyle of anyone in Fire Lake—but he never took a side on anything. Or even much interest, as far as I could tell.
Yet something about him always stuck in my brain. Maybe it was sharing a birthday. All those times we were forced to stand side by side in elementary school, listening to the other kids mumble that lame song. Celebrating a day I’d come to dread.
Fire Lake High was the only upper school in town, with just 220 students. The fault lines were mostly about money and sports. Pretty girls could cheerlead a path to popularity, of course. A quarter of the school’s parents employed the rest, a fact no one ever forgot. The fissures began appearing in middle school and never healed.
“Thanks for your concern,” I said calmly, pushing through the circle. “It never occurred to me that trailers aren’t built to survive asteroid impacts.”
Ethan smiled as I retreated. “On the other hand, you could tow your place inside a cave or something. For safekeeping.”
His joke drew a few chuckles, but I wasn’t worth the trouble. Ethan allowed me to escape down the hall and turned away.
Then a voice rang out. “Of course, your place is probably much safer.”
Tack was standing beside the door to first period. Ethan shot him an annoyed look. “Obviously, Thumbtack.” Ethan’s father owned the town’s only grocery store, and they lived in swanky Hillside Gardens.
“Tack!” I tugged him toward the safety of class. “Don’t sta—”
“No, no! That’s not it.” Tack pulled free of my grasp, his voice carrying so that others stopped to listen. “You see, God always favors the drunk and stupid. And your dad is blessed on both counts. So the Fletcher home is practically a safe haven.”
Ethan blinked, his neck and cheeks flushing red. Then his face went still.
Sarah rolled her eyes. Jessica giggled, covering her mouth.
The bell rang, startling everyone.
“Catch ya later, E-Dawg.” Tack slipped through the door. Ethan stared at the empty space, then looked at me, as if I were guilty by association. His smirk returned. “Tell your friend he made a mistake.”
Inside the room, I scurried to where Tack was calmly arranging his things on the table we shared. The Nolan twins entered a beat later—Chris with a shoulder-length ponytail, Mike’s red hair cut short and spiked with gel. Chris was a chatterbox who loved stirring the pot, although he wasn’t a disaster by himself. Mike rarely spoke.
Chris chuckled, shaking his head as he sat. “You’re ballsy, kid. I’ll give you that much. But if I were you, I’d find a new route home after school.”
“Thanks, Mike,” Tack replied, knowing full well he was speaking to the other twin.
Chris snorted, unzipping his backpack. “Freaking death wish,” I heard him mutter.
I wheeled on Tack. “Why’d you do that? Ethan’s not gonna let it go.”
Tack was digging through his bag, seemingly unperturbed. “Because I felt like it. And screw Ethan, he’s a jackass. Maybe next time he’ll think before he yaps.”
“What he’s going to do is beat the crap out of you.”
Tack shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time. I’ve taken worse.” Unconsciously, his hand rose to the bruise on his face. We both fell silent. Maybe Tack did have a death wish.
Then I couldn’t help but laugh. “You called his dad a stupid drunk.”
“I sure did.” Tack shot me an exhilarated glance. “He looked really mad, didn’t he? Chris is right, I’d better dig a tunnel out of here this afternoon.”
English passed uneventfully. At the bell, Tack fired out the door at warp speed. Our next class was directly across the hall, but no sense taking chances. I was following on his heels when my name boomed down the corridor.
“Wonderful.” Under my breath, as our school’s fearless leader made his way toward me, his right knee locked and unbending, the result of a shrapnel wound he’d suffered in the first Iraq War. I would’ve hurried down to shorten the distance, but every student in Fire Lake knew you didn’t acknowledge the principal’s disability. Not unless you wanted a twenty-minute lecture on how little the injury affected him.
“Yes, Mr. Myers?”
“You have an appointment with Dr. Lowell today,” he said sternly, a burly, broad-shouldered man in his mid-sixties, with thinning gray hair framing a round face. He wore pleated gray pants and a plaid button-down every single day. Leaning on his cane, Myers scrutinized me over the rims of bronze-framed bifocals.
“Yes, I know, sir.”
He gave me a severe look. “Your special session is not canceled, despite all this Announcement hubbub and . . . and . . . whatnot. I was told to inform you of this specifically.”
A sigh escaped before I could stifle it. “Yes, Mr. Myers.”
“You had a birthday over the weekend, did you not?”
I stiffened in surprise. “I did.” Cautious. Why are you keeping track?
Myers eyed me closely, as if expecting me to say more. I had zero intention of doing so. “Well,” he said finally, his non-cane hand rising to scratch a wrinkled ear. “Okay, then. See to it you’re on time.”
“I will.” Dismissed, I beat a hasty retreat into second period.
Tack was sitting at his desk, twirling a pen in his fingers. “That looked fun. What’d the Big Man want?”
“Just a friendly reminder to visit my psychiatrist.” I collapsed into the seat beside him. We stuck together in our classes whenever possible.
“From our freaking principal. I hate this inbred town.”
I nodded, more disturbed than I was letting on. Myers often seemed interested in my therapy sessions, and this wasn’t the first time he’d delivered a message from Dr. Lowell. The connection didn’t feel right. And why did he ask about my birthday?
“You think he’ll try to go to college with us?” Tack asked.
An old joke, but I snorted anyway. Andrew E. Myers had been our principal-for-life, moving up through the system in lockstep with my class. The uncanny timing of his promotions meant I’d never had another administrator, despite attending three different schools.
Biology. Spanish. Then lunch. Tack wisely avoided the cafeteria, leaving me to eat by myself. Students bunched together in knots, whispering about the Announcement, each striving to outdo the last with how little they pretended to care.
But their laughter rang hollow, betrayed by tapping feet and dry-washed hands.
The afternoon proved more painful than the morning.
In Algebra II, Mr. Fumo assigned a worksheet we’d completed the week before, then spent the whole period refreshing his phone and glancing at the clock. In seventh period, Mrs. Cameron kept losing her place and repeating herself. After her third attempt to explain the siege of Acre, she gave up, blessed us all, and dismissed class.
I packed up quickly, hoping for a stealth sprint through the parking lot. I hadn’t seen Tack since math—our schedules had Gym and Health flip-flopped, and Tack couldn’t care less about European History, electing to take Home Economics instead.
But my hopes for a clean getaway were dashed. Exiting the main building, I heard laughter reverberate across the courtyard. A crowd was forming in the corner near the parking lot. Crap.
I sprinted over and wormed through the ring of onlookers. Ethan had levered one of Tack’s arms behind his back and was forcing his face down toward the concrete. Flailing, my friend fought to free himself, but he was giving up at least fifty pounds. Toby and Chris were grinning, egging Ethan on, while Jessica and other members of the cheerleading squad pretended to protest. Sarah watched impassively, seemed bored. Beyond the circle, Noah was leaning against a walkway post, eyes drifting. The more Tack struggled, the more the mob swelled.
“Ethan, let him go!”
He glanced at me and smiled. “Oh, hey, Melinda. Glad you’re here. Tack’s about to sing ‘Bad Blood’ for us, and you shouldn’t miss it.”
Seeing me watching, Tack thrashed twice as hard, his eyes narrowing to slits in a way I’d seen many times before. “Let me go, you douchebag! I’m warning you!”
“Or what?” Ethan asked with a lilt. “You said some nasty things about my family, so now we’re in a feud. I want you to sing about it. We all do, right?” Laughter erupted all around. Faces bore hungry expressions, as if seeking a violent release to the day’s unbearable tension. This was getting ugly fast.
Ethan yanked Tack’s arm higher, eliciting a painful yelp. “Have any more funny jokes, Thomas? I’d love to hear them. Or maybe you’re all tapped out for now.”
“That’s not what your mother said!” Tack kicked out a foot. Missed.
A low ooh rose from the spectators. Chris Nolan giggled. Toby danced and hooted.
Ethan’s eyes went flat.
Damn it, Tack.
I seized Ethan’s arm. Felt his muscles ripple. He looked down at my hand, then back up, blinking rapidly. For a split second, I wasn’t sure he recognized me.
“Take it easy! Tack’s just running his mouth, like always.”
Ethan shook his head, shrugging off my hand. He spun Tack around and grabbed him by the shirt, pulling him close. “You can’t talk to me like that, Thomas. Not ever.”
“Kiss my ass!” Tack’s head rocketed forward, catching Ethan across the nose.
Ethan’s hold loosened and Tack wriggled free.
But he didn’t run, the idiot. To everyone’s astonishment, Tack leapt at Ethan and swung.
Damn it, Tack.
Ethan blocked instinctively, then slugged Tack full in the face.
A second, louder ooh rose from the crowd.
Tack dropped to the ground like a boneless chicken breast.
“Stop!” I jumped to stand between Ethan and my friend. “That’s enough!”
Voices yelled for me to move. Chris and Toby were laughing, encouraging Ethan with cries of “Finish him!” and “There can only be one!”
Tack had pulled himself up against a post, hacking and spitting. “That all you got?” he wheezed, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, then calmly regarding a red smear on his wrist. “You hit like a bitch.”
“Don’t!” I shouted at Ethan, arms shooting wide. “He’s down! You won, okay?”
Ethan looked me in the eye. Blinked. Then he stepped around me and stomped on Tack’s hand. My friend howled as Ethan squatted down to eye level. “Ready to channel Taylor Swift, Thomas? Warm up that pretty voice.”
Hands balling into fists, I was about to do something stupid when a voice carried from beyond the circle. “Yo, Ethan!”
Ethan looked up, annoyed. He spotted Noah, who tapped his watch and pointed toward the parking lot. “Let’s get out of here, man. I’m starving.”
“But Tack hasn’t sung yet.”
Across the courtyard, a door swung open.
Principal Myers stepped outside. “What’s going on out here?”
The crowd dissolved like smoke, Ethan and his friends hustling away with the others. In moments, the only people left were me, Tack, and our principal.
Myers trudged over and stared down at Tack, frown lines creasing his forehead. “Bit off more than you could chew again, didn’t you, son?”
“Inner ear infection.” Tack rose unsteadily to his feet. “I fall down a lot.”
“Who did this?” Myers asked sharply.
Tack remained silent, eyes on his sneakers.
Myers grunted, then turned to me. “Ms. Wilder? Care to share who just pummeled Mr. Russo? Although I bet I can guess.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it. This was Tack’s call.
“I see.” Myers removed his glasses, began cleaning them with a handkerchief. “Well, normally we’d all go to my office until I had this sorted out, but today is not a normal day. If things go well tonight . . . assuming we get good news . . .” He shook his head testily, as if unsure how to continue. “We’ll discuss it tomorrow.”
Myers pierced me with the glare of a disappointed father. “Can you see that Mr. Russo’s injuries are properly attended to? Without missing your appointment?”
“Of course.” I scooped up our packs. Tack straightened his clothes with exaggerated dignity and began limping toward the parking lot. Myers watched us for a long moment before heading back inside.
I caught up with Tack by the curb. “Hey!”
He halted with his back to me. I put a hand on his shoulder. Felt him tense. Ignoring the reaction, I gently but firmly spun him around. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“That I was going to get my ass kicked anyway, so I might as well take the first shot.”
“Well, mission accomplished. How’s the hand?”
He flexed his fingers painfully. “I don’t think anything broke. Hurts like hell, though. Got any Advil?”
I dug some from my bag, along with a package of tissues. As Tack downed three pills, I began dabbing his right eye, which was already swollen. His hand was a puffy mess.
Ethan had met my eye before delivering the stomp. That one was for me.
Ethan’s smirk. His casual violence.
Or maybe yesterday had been one murder too many.
Releasing Tack, I spotted Ethan’s Wrangler at the back of the parking lot, a dozen spots from the next closest vehicle. Everyone had fled on foot, probably down to the cafés on Main Street, intending to return for their cars after the smoke cleared.
We were all alone.
“Come on.” I hurried toward the Wrangler.
Tack followed, confusion plain on his face. “What? Why?”
After checking to make sure the coast was clear, I reached inside and pulled the gas tank release. Circling to the passenger side, I spotted an oily rag and a can of WD-40 on the floor of the backseat.
“What are you doing?” Tack whispered. “Ethan loves this Jeep, maybe physically.”
“He shouldn’t have stomped your hand.” I ripped the rag in two and doused the larger piece with oil. Then I unscrewed the gas cap and shoved it inside.
Tack’s eyes nearly popped from his skull. He ducked behind the hood, eyes darting with new intensity. “Holy crap, Min! This may be a little out of proportion.”
“So was crushing your fingers.” I tapped my lips, stymied, ignoring the voice of reason screaming inside my head. Then I spotted a book of matches in Ethan’s ashtray. It’s almost like he wants me to do it.
Beads of sweat rolled down my back. I lit a match, used it to ignite the smaller rag. The oil-soaked cloth caught easily, orange tendrils curling and twisting like greedy fingers. Pivoting carefully, I held the flames under the larger rag hanging from the gas tank.
Tack was bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Come on! We gotta bail!”
“Not too fast, though.” I rose, walked casually down the aisle. “Don’t attract attention.”
“Attention. Right.” He could barely keep from sprinting. “Wouldn’t want that.”
Thirty paces to the sidewalk. Ten more out of the parking lot. Roughly thirty seconds had passed, with no effect. As we crossed the street, I worried that my plan had failed and we’d have to go back and ditch the evidence.
A jarring boom. The ground shook. Glancing over my shoulder, I spotted a black plume billowing above the trees, angry shadows dancing just beneath.
Tack swallowed audibly. “Oh, man. We really did it this time. If Ethan ever finds out—”
“I almost hope he does.” Then I turned my back on the mounting inferno.
Here’s another thing about me.
I’m not afraid of much. Not after what I’ve been through.
And I forgive as little as I forget.
Hitching both our packs, I led Tack away down the street, my blood pumping mile-a-minute. Somewhere far off, a siren began to wail.