The phone goes dead in my ear. The sudden silence on the line is so total, so ominous, that a cold surge of adrenaline brings goose bumps to my flesh in spite of the thick and sticky heat that lingers in the night air. “Hello?” I say stupidly, hearing the raw agitation in my own voice. “Are you still there?” A quick and pointless glance at the display assures me that the answer is, indeed, no.
“What’s going on?” The boy standing behind me asks, his ancient Chucks scraping against the rough pavement of the street. Sebastian’s “lucky” shoes are so worn out, they’re literally falling apart, his dark socks peeking through frayed holes in the graying canvas. I used to think it was cute. “Who was it?”
I wave him irritably into silence as I dial my cell, calling the number back. It rings repeatedly on the other end, but no one picks up. “Come on,” I urge out loud. “Answer your damn phone!”
“Rufus, who was it?” Sebastian repeats as I give up in frustration, jamming my cell back into my pocket and turning to face him. His wide, dark eyes are filled with obvious concern, and it makes me angry. He has no right to be worried about me—not now, not after everything he’s done—but I’m suddenly too confused and anxious to summon up the righteous fury I’d been feeling just a few minutes earlier.
“It was April,” I report stiffly, feeling a twinge of self-directed anger as I indulge his solicitude. Why am I answering him? My life is none of his business. Not anymore.
“Your sister?” He wrinkles his nose in genuine bewilderment, eyebrows scrunching together. It’s a familiar sight, and another thing about him I used to think was cute—back before he broke my heart.
“She’s the only April I know.”
“Why was she calling you?” He isn’t asking for a summary of our conversation. What has him so perplexed is the simple fact that my sister has called me at all—and I’m just as baffled as he is.
April is only ten months younger than me, fifteen to my sixteen, but we barely know each other. I’m her brother only in the most technical sense, and we’re hardly even what you might call friends; friendship is something our controlling and self-important father, Peter Covington II, would never tolerate between us. And while I do not personally give two flying shits what that hypocritical dickbag will or will not tolerate, neither do I especially want anything to do with any of the Covingtons.
But April has a way of worming into your heart, no matter how many obstacles you set before her. She’s outgoing, fun-loving, and bold, and so far has never met a rule that doesn’t have an April Covington–shaped loophole. There’s a sweetness to her that even her cold-blooded parents have failed to stamp out—and you can bet they’ve given it their best shot. Peter and his wife, Isabel, have succeeded in passing along some of their more dismal qualities, though; and to that end, likable though she may be, April can also be calculating, manipulative, and spoiled. Her company often comes at a price, and I’m pretty sure my account with her has just been called up.
“She’s in trouble,” I hear myself saying to Sebastian, the words sounding surreally technical, my brain already spinning faster and faster as I try to figure out what I’m going to do next. “She—she needs my help.”
“April needs your help.” He tries the words on for size, but they make no more sense to him than they do to me. And yet, not two minutes earlier, it was exactly what she said.
* * *
“Hello?” My voice was testy, my patience threadbare when I answered her call. I was already regretting it—already wishing I’d just continued with the angry speech I’d been about to give Sebastian—even as the greeting left my mouth.
A strange, shuffling silence came back, a susurrant nothingness on the line that was slowly replaced by shallow, labored breathing. Then, just as I was starting to think it was a prank: “Rufus?”
Her voice was quavering, distant, my name sliding around in her mouth like a sliver of ice, and in that instant, I forgot my anger. “Yeah, it’s me. What’s … what is it?”
“Rufus,” she repeated fretfully. There was more breathing—stiff and unnatural—and then her distant voice again. “I need … I need help, Rufus.”
“What are you talking about? What’s going on?”
“I’m at … Fox’s c-cottage,” she said next, the words jerky and disjointed, as if they had taken colossal effort to put together. “Fox’s parents’ cottage. You have to help me. Please.”
“What’s happened?” I demanded, still too innately suspicious about anything to do with the Covingtons to take my half sister’s plea at face value. “Tell me what—”
“You’re the only one I can trust!” She blurted in a kind of high-pitched whimper. “You have to come, Rufus. You have to! Please promise me … promise me.” Garbled words followed, a string of nonsense, like English spoken backward, and then, “I don’t know what to do. I’m so scared. I think I—HELP ME!”
And the line went dead.
* * *
I recount this for Sebastian in broad strokes, not really wanting to share, but too upset not to. We’re standing in front of his car, amber streetlights casting his stupidly gorgeous face in sepia tones, and the heavy, still air that settles around us is redolent of gunpowder. A block away, my best friend, Lucy Kim, is hosting her Fourth of July rager; it’s our pathetic attempt at living up to all those iconic Hollywood teen movies, where no parents and lots of beer is the only formula necessary to create one perfect, life-changing night for a handful of feisty, lovable underdogs—but so far we’ve only succeeded in creating buckets of puke and a few scorch marks on the back of a couch, which Lucy’s going to have a hell of a time explaining to Mr. and Mrs. Kim when they return from Boston on the sixth.
“What are you gonna do?” Sebastian asks worriedly. He moves closer, like he’s going to touch me, and I step back. He registers the rebuff and stops, but his eyes stay on mine, his gaze soulful enough to stir a feeling to life inside me that I long ago drove to its grave with a stake through the heart.
“I don’t know,” I mutter, glancing up toward Lucy’s place to avoid his gaze. I can hear shouts, music, and laughter, fireworks still cracking and booming intermittently from somewhere along the lake. It’s nearly ten … Would anyone at the party even be sober? “I don’t— Maybe I should call Peter.”
“Your dad?” This statement confuses him even more than April’s request for my help. “Is that a good idea?”
“No,” I admit, feeling my face color. “But what else can I do? I don’t have a car, all my friends are shit-faced, and I don’t even know where April is! ‘Fox’s parents’ cottage,’ I mean, where the fuck is that? It could be anywhere!”
“South Hero Island,” Sebastian responds promptly, because of course he knows. “I’ve been there a couple times. It’s only like thirty minutes from here—I’ll drive.”
“No, thanks,” I say in a cold voice, summoning up as much dignity as I can, even though it’s obvious that I’m just cutting off my nose to spite my face—a tacit and embarrassing confession that I’m still hurting. That I still care.
“How’re you gonna get there, then?”
“I’ll figure something out.”
“Yeah?” he challenges, a small spark of irritation at last flickering to life beneath his perennially cool facade. “You gonna walk out to the island? Knock on every cottage door you see until you find her?” He takes a step back and gestures to his Jeep, four feet away. “My car’s right here, and I know exactly where we’re going. You want to yell at me, I can tell, so do it on the way and kill two birds with one stone.”
He concludes his proposition with a rakish grin—the smirky, vulpine look that melts underwear across all four grades at Ethan Allen High—and I will the ice to thicken over my heart against its fearsome power. Even so, with an anxious glance at my phone’s display, I can see that time is already slipping past; I don’t actually know what kind of help April needs, how serious a situation she’s in, and I can’t be sure I have the time it’ll take to go back to Lucy’s and search the party for somebody still clearheaded enough to take me on a half-hour excursion to the middle of Lake Champlain.
Plus, despite my antipathy toward Sebastian Williams, having him along might end up being a good thing. April’s crowd is his crowd, too, and if this does turn out to be some kind of trap, his presence might fuck up their plans a little. Maybe.
Feeling shakier than I care to show, beginning to grow truly worried about my sister in spite of all my misgivings, I give a curt nod and wordlessly start for the passenger-side door. Sebastian’s smile broadens as he blips his locks open, but I pretend not to notice, busying myself with an explanatory text to Lucy. I’ve been out of the house for less than ten minutes, but she’s already written me a (very drunk) message inquiring after my absence: WHERE ARE YOU, RUFUS HOLT?? IT IS TIME FOR TEQUILA SHOTS AND I NEED MY BESTIE!!!
Three years earlier, when I was suffering the slings and arrows of a really shitty coming-out process, Lucy Kim was the first friend to rally to my side, communicating her allegiance via a series of effusive texts. First: JUST FOUND OUT MY BFF IS GAY OMFG SUPERCOOL WOW LET’S GO BUY SHOES! Followed by: jkjkjk u know I love you to death Rufus and I am in your corner 110% no matter what mwah xoxo. And: I will fight a bitch for you if I have to just say the word. Then, finally: Srsly tho I really do need new shoes so how about it?
Lucy is high-energy, high-maintenance, and often just plain high, but I love her to death. As I clamber into Sebastian’s Jeep, I use my thumbs to hammer out, Had to leave. Something’s up with April?!? Call you tomorrow bae. I’ll get at least seventy more messages from her before the night is over.
* * *
The streets of Burlington sweep by in a leafy, starlit blur as we speed north toward Winooski and Malletts Bay, heading eventually for the narrow causeway that connects the shore to the chain of islands in the middle of the serpentine lake separating Vermont and New York. Sebastian was absolutely correct—I really did want to yell at him—but I’m too preoccupied with April’s summons to shift my mental gears back to the recriminations I’ve been stockpiling for the guy who so readily volunteered to be my chauffeur. The guy who, not so long ago, was also my first boyfriend.
Dating Sebastian Williams was both the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. In a lot of ways, being with him made me feel as if maybe I’d never really been alive at all before. I was like a violin—an object that hasn’t much purpose until someone touches it, fills it with resonance, draws things from it that it can never produce on its own. Sebastian had been the one to draw music from me, and it’s why the end was so bad; before him, I’d never actually realized how painful the silence was.
But the hardest part of our breakup was also the hardest part of our entire relationship: having to keep it all a secret from everyone we know.
I cast a glance in his direction as we loop through a traffic circle, light gliding across his face in a way that I’ve tried to capture in photographs a million times without success. He’s so good-looking it still takes my breath away, even when I’m wishing I’d never known him. With dark skin, flirty eyes, and a cocky smile, he’s too handsome for his own damn good—and that’s before you consider his long-legged, slim-hipped, and perfectly toned body.
It’s only been six weeks since he suddenly, and without explanation, stopped answering my texts; five weeks since he officially stomped my heart out like a spent cigarette in the most painful way imaginable; and only one week since I stopped entertaining pointless fantasies that, one day, he would take me back again—or at least give me the chance to tell him to his face exactly what I think of him. Imagine my surprise, then, when he turned up out of the blue at Lucy’s house, saying that he needed to speak to me, that it couldn’t wait. But we’d barely gotten into the subject before my phone began ringing in my pocket, April calling with her baffling emergency, and now here we are, sitting mere feet apart in an uncomfortable silence as the night gets weirder and weirder around us.
Whatever’s on his mind, I know it has to be something big—big enough for him to figure out where Lucy lives, anyway, since he always made an emphatic point of avoiding my friends throughout the four months we dated. Even so, I’m determined to have my say first, to unburden myself of all the poisonous, caustic feelings that have eaten their way down into my marrow over the course of six long weeks. I’ve rehearsed this scene so many times in my head that delivering my righteous rebukes should be simple … only, seven days of training myself not to think about it at all—out of some asinine, self-helpy notion that all the negative emotions were hurting me—has caused my crystal-clear accusations and arguments to become hopelessly tangled together. Answering April’s call had partly been a simple play for time to sort my thoughts.
“It’s gonna be an hour to get out there and back,” Sebastian remarks conversationally, his voice jarring in the silence. “You can’t ignore me the whole time.”
“Challenge accepted,” I return icily, instantly indebted by my own perverse stubbornness to suppress the vengeful words a little longer. It’s so stupid; I really want to tell him off, but if it’s what he wants, too, then I’ll be damned if I give him the satisfaction. I once grudged my way out of tickets to see Death Cab in concert because they were a peace offering from my friend Brent—with whom I was in the midst of a Blood Feud—and I didn’t want him to feel better about whatever it was that he’d done to piss me off.
I can’t fathom what Sebastian has to say to me after all this time, though—what could possibly have compelled him to track me down so late on a night when he should, by all rights, be at a party with all his cool friends—and I admit that I’m more than a little intrigued. Even if I don’t want to be. And neither can I begin to fathom the reason why April called me of all people, said I’m the only one she can trust. None of it makes sense; the whole evening has turned so bizarre so quickly that I actually squeeze my thigh until it hurts, just to remind myself that I’m really awake.
“This isn’t some kind of a trick, is it?” I finally ask, my voice rusty as Sebastian steers the Jeep onto the two-lane causeway. The sky is freckled with stars, and the lake is a sheet of rippling black metal spreading out to either side of us.
“What do you mean?” He wrinkles his nose again.
“I mean, I’m not being lured into some kind of ambush, am I?”
“April wouldn’t do that to you,” Sebastian answers assuredly.
“Yes she would. She has.”
* * *
When I was in the fifth grade, before I knew enough to truly distrust the Covingtons, April approached me outside of school one day following the final bell. I had just unlocked my bike when she appeared at the end of the long metal rack, looking tense but excited.
“Rufus, I need to talk to you!” She hissed urgently, glancing about with her large, robin’s-egg-blue eyes. We weren’t supposed to speak to each other, and I assumed she was nervous we’d be seen. “It’s really important. It’s … it’s about my dad and your mom?”
“Um, okay,” I said, only a little suspiciously. She was acting oddly, the words not sounding entirely natural, but I didn’t know what to make of it. “What about them?”
“Not here—in private!” She started backing away. “Meet me behind the gym, okay? I don’t want anyone else to find out.”
“April, what—” I started, but she was already running across the playground, heading for the large brick extension that housed our elementary school’s gymnasium. After a short inventory of my doubts, I secured my bike again and trotted after her.
Rounding the corner, I walked straight into a trap. April stood against the wall, her blue eyes wide and solemn, and she watched with silent fascination as our older brother, Hayden, and two of his friends spent the next four minutes beating me into a quivering, bloody pulp at her feet.
* * *
“You guys were little kids back then,” Sebastian says, familiar with the story, dismissing the experience as if it were no big deal—as if it weren’t just one small part of a very big hell from which I have literally no escape.
“Some people don’t change,” I reply rigidly. How can I explain to him, for all her winsomeness, how dangerous April really is? How she was raised in such a bubble that she’s simultaneously helpless and ruthless, immured from the consequences of her actions by a family that refuses to see her actions in the first place?
“It would be kind of a shitty trap. I mean, she knows you don’t have a car, so how could she be sure you’d—”
He stops short as he finally catches up to the rest of my insinuation, and his voice takes on a thorny quality that is immeasurably more pleasing than his attempts at friendliness. “You think maybe I’m in on it.” I respond to the charge with silence, and he states gruffly, “I wouldn’t do something like that, Rufe. Not to you. You know I wouldn’t.”
“I don’t know what you’d do,” I shoot back, and six weeks of hurt and doubt and raw anger break the surface like an underwater explosion, venom scorching my throat and pricking my eyelids. Embarrassed, I turn my face to the window.
We leave the causeway and head inland on Route 2, rolling past the apple orchards and farmhouses of South Hero Island, the crack-boom of fireworks still intermittently punctuating the night. Presently, Sebastian turns off the main road and onto a narrow lane, heading toward the western shore through a corridor of lushly overgrown trees. The darkness is total, isolating, and the island suddenly feels terribly remote. My hands drift to my seat belt, worrying the fabric with rhythmic motions as the road turns from pavement to hard-packed dirt beneath the Jeep’s tires. Where the hell are we going?
Eventually, the tree line breaks before us, Sebastian’s headlights stabbing out into the moonlit void of Lake Champlain, and he turns north again to parallel the water. We pass a few cottages—mostly vacation rentals—before we finally reach our destination and the Jeep begins to slow.
On our left, a gravel drive snakes through a copse of aspens and pines, leading to a craftsman-style cabin with peaked gables that form an upper half-story. Massive bushes cluster beneath a wraparound porch, and a detached carport shelters a black Range Rover. A Playboy bunny decal on the imposing vehicle’s tailgate flares under Sebastian’s headlights and, recognizing it, I shift in my seat. The SUV belongs to April’s superdouche boyfriend, Fox Whitney.
Fox is seventeen, a senior-to-be at Ethan Allen, and an absolute prolapsed rectum of a human being. He’s also the youngest of three boys, sons of a corporate attorney and a dermatologist, and is therefore nearly as spoiled as my sister. I blink in confusion at his car, even more ill at ease than before we pulled up; if Fox is here, why does April need me? And, come to that, why me and not the brother she’s allowed to associate with—or one of her many popular friends?
“This is it,” Sebastian says a little uncertainly as he shoves open the door of the Jeep and jumps out. I follow suit, a welcome wagon of mosquitoes instantly gathering around me, and I almost regret my choice to wear a tank top to Lucy’s party. I say “almost” for two simple reasons: 1) my arms and legs are already stuccoed with bites, so what can a few more hurt? and 2) I’ve been working out a lot over the past six weeks, determined to be hot as fuck the next time I crossed paths with Sebastian, and my arms actually look pretty good.
My ex-boyfriend leads the way to a set of wooden steps that ascend to the porch, and I try to ignore how good his arms look—how the muscles in his calves flex before my eyes, how the scent of his dumb cologne still makes me dizzy in a treacherous way after all this time—and concentrate on what I might be walking into. Lights burn in the cottage, every window ablaze, and I can hear music pumping from inside.
Sebastian knocks at the front door and peers through the beveled glass insets, and I feel like telling him not to waste his time; I’ve been calling and texting April repeatedly on the trip over and haven’t gotten any response. If she’s in there, she’s not going to answer. Reaching past him, I try the knob, and the door swings open.
“April?” I call out apprehensively. A pinewood foyer extends into a family room decorated in a style an obscenely wealthy person might call “rustic”—the kind of down-home, country charm that requires raw silk slipcovers and objets d’art imported from Provence—but it hasn’t been treated well; the furniture is out of alignment, red Solo cups and abandoned bottles are everywhere, and fragments of broken glass and ceramic litter the floor like bloodthirsty confetti. My sister is nowhere in sight.
Cautiously, I step over the threshold, my concern mounting. Still, I’m hyperaware of Sebastian’s presence immediately behind me, and I wonder—not for the first time—how he intends to explain what he’s doing here. There’s still a chance this is a ruse, that he’s tricked me into another ambush to prove something to his asshole friends—who, for all I know, have somehow sussed out the truth of our relationship. Maybe he’s about to pass some kind of ruthless social test at my expense. “April, it’s Rufus. Are you here?”
A highly polished staircase rises on my right, climbing to what I suspect is a loft-style bedroom or study, and I cock an ear toward the upper story. The soft noise I then hear, however—a cross between a sigh and a whisper—comes not from above, but from somewhere else on the ground floor.
As I move forward out of the foyer, a dining nook appears to the left off the family room—and then, just to its left, the kitchen. This is where I find April at last, when I round the corner, clearing the central island so I can look down at the floor.
My sister is slumped against the cupboards beneath the sink, her head bowed forward, her skin as white as candle wax against her purple bikini; and Fox lies sprawled across the tiles beside her, half-curled into the fetal position, his face nightmarishly slack.
Both of them are drenched in blood, and the fingers of April’s right hand are loosely wrapped around the hilt of a massive butcher knife.