“April!” I grip her by the shoulders, her flesh frighteningly cold and sticky to the touch, and drag her forward, straightening her up. The knife slips from her right hand as my knee jostles a discarded cell phone resting by her left, and her head lolls and swings on her neck, heavy as a sandbag. Frantically, I give her a hard shake. “April!”
“Holy fuck, dude.” Sebastian’s eyes are huge with panic as he prowls Fox’s body, searching for a pulse. “Holy fuck, Rufus, I think he’s dead!”
Willing myself not to lose it, I press my fingers against April’s carotid, holding my breath. When I feel the faint and erratic undulation of blood moving beneath her pallid skin, I emit a primitive noise of relief and squeeze my eyes shut tight. “She’s alive.”
“What the fuck happened here, man?” Sebastian asks me, deathly serious. His face is stricken as he backs away from Fox’s corpse, the Whitneys’ favorite son stretched across the slate floor tiles, his T-shirt so saturated with blood that its true color is impossible to determine. “What the fuck happened?”
He jolts to his feet and stumbles a little, eyes still getting wider. His anxiety is so sincere that, I finally realize, if this is some twisted prank, he is certainly not in on it. I search my sister’s body, looking for wounds or some other sign that she’s been hurt, but I can’t find anything. The blood doesn’t seem to be hers.
“April, wake up,” I command sharply, sweeping her auburn hair out of her face and tilting her chin to the light. She mumbles something unintelligible, and I pry one of her eyes open. Her pupil is a tiny dot in a pool of aquamarine, her gaze glassy and unfocused as it drifts up into her skull. “She’s on something.”
“Shit, man!” Sebastian paces agitatedly, but he can’t stop staring down at Fox’s body. “We have to call someone.”
“Not yet,” I tell him firmly, giving April another hard shake. With a guilty feeling, I swat her lightly across the face. She gives a sharp snort and her eyelids lift unevenly. “April! April, can you hear me?”
“… Rufus?” Her voice is a breathy whisper.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
Fat tears roll down her cheeks as I watch, and then, to my complete surprise, she tosses her arms around me in a flaccid, desperate embrace. Her forehead thuds against my shoulder, and she begins weakly to sob. I let it go on for just a moment before I straighten her back up again, flustered. “April, what happened?”
“I-I don’t…” She starts to look toward Fox’s body, but I take hold of her chin again and force her to face me. I can’t afford to lose her concentration now.
“Focus on me, April. Tell me what happened.”
She licks her lips, her eyes clouding for a moment before she seems to will them clear again, but her voice is a faded, broken whisper as she moans, “I don’t remember. I don’t … there was … all that blood…”
With Sebastian’s help, I haul her to her feet, and the two of us start walking her through the dining room and living room, hip-hop music blasting from speakers I can’t see. She’s like a newborn colt, her legs rubbery and untrustworthy, and her chin keeps dropping to her chest. I ask her what she’s taken, but her answers are unintelligible, and I feel the quick heat of impatience snapping under my skin. I try to quell it, recalling my therapist’s advice: Take a deep breath and step back. Over April’s head, I ask Sebastian, “Do they have a shower? Maybe it’ll wake her up.”
“There’s a bedroom through there,” he answers after a beat, his face alarmingly gray, and gestures to a door set in a small vestibule beside the stone-fronted fireplace. “It’s got a bathroom. I don’t think there’s a tub, but—”
“Let’s get her in there.”
The Whitneys’ master suite is cozy in size and luxurious in appointment—Egyptian cotton sheets, a hand-carved headboard, priceless antique armoires—but an open doorway leads to a surprisingly spare bathroom with a shower stall.
I shove April into Sebastian’s arms while I kick my shoes aside, strip off my tank top, and crank the cold water to full blast. Then I pull my blood-soaked, half-dead half sister under the hard spray with me, holding her upright while she squirms and mumbles, pink water sluicing off her and swirling ominously down the drain. Her bare skin becomes slippery as the drying blood loosens up, and I have to hold her tighter. Eventually, her struggling grows more forceful, her protests more lucid, and I slap the water off at last.
With most of the blood washed away, it’s even more apparent that she’s physically unharmed, her slight, pale frame streaky and textured with goose bumps but otherwise pristine. I sit her down on the lid of the toilet, and she stares at the white tiles of the floor, shivering and blank. Breathing hard from the exertion of holding her up, I ask, “Are you feeling better?”
A long second passes where she just gazes up at me, and then she gives a faint nod. “Yeah.”
“Where are your clothes?”
She raises her arm like it weighs two hundred pounds, and points vaguely into the master bedroom. “In there. Is … is Fox—”
“Get yourself cleaned up, put your clothes back on, and then I’m gonna need you to tell us what happened tonight, okay?” I try to deliver it like a statement, mimicking the way my mom “asks” me to do chores—I need you to mow the lawn, okay?—but my voice is shaking. I clamp down hard against the fear. I cannot lose control. Take a step back. “Can you do that for me?”
April nods again, and mumbles, “Yes.”
As I herd Sebastian back into the chaos of the living room, shutting the bedroom door behind us, I hear the shower turn on again. My ex-boyfriend gives me an incredulous look, his soft, kissable lips scrunching up like a cat’s anus. “You’re letting her take a freaking shower, man? She’s covered in evidence!”
“This whole place is covered in evidence,” I fire back, waving my hand around the connected rooms. We’ve tracked Fox’s blood across the pinewood floors, and streaks of it cling to Sebastian’s clothes, arms, and face. I’m standing there, trying to compartmentalize, fighting to think, when I notice his eyes bob up and down the length of my torso and I finally remember that I’m still shirtless. Even in the midst of all the shock and disorder, I feel a wave of wildly inappropriate satisfaction as my ex-boyfriend gets a look at how toned my chest and abs have become in the weeks since he dumped me.
I had this whole plan to turn into a crazy-hot sex god over the summer, to build muscle like an underwear model and then have Lucy take some “candid” photos of me that I could post on Facebook and Instagram and anywhere else Sebastian might see them and realize how awesome I was doing without him—so he could see the newer, hotter Rufus Holt and eat his heart out. My biology proved unequal to the fantasy, however; my upper body hardened a bit, but after putting on exactly two extra pounds of muscle, my narrow-shouldered physique seems to have just plain given up. No matter what I try, I appear to be stuck permanently on lanky. Still, I look way abs-ier than I did the last time Sebastian saw me without a shirt on, and I guess that’s all that matters.
“We have to call the police,” he insists next.
I shake my head. “Not yet.”
“What the fuck do you mean, not yet?” Sebastian demands, his voice climbing into the realm of hysteria. “Why not? Fox is fucking dead, Rufus!”
“Not until we hear what April has to say! We need to know…” We need to know what we’ve walked into. “We need to know what happened first.”
Something’s not right. On the surface, it sure as hell looks like April killed her boyfriend with a big old knife … but why? And why did she call me for help? At the risk of sounding selfish, this is the real reason I don’t want to involve the police just yet. Instead of her doting parents or her close friends or even our take-charge asshole of a brother, she’s involved me in this thing, and I want to know exactly where I stand before I start getting all reporty with the cops. My recent history with the law is dodgy, anyway, and I can’t exactly afford any misunderstandings.
“Just wait until she’s told us, okay? Just wait.” I try to sound authoritative again as I turn and start for the front door, my brain speeding while I struggle to close off any avenue of thought that doesn’t lead directly forward.
“Where are you going?” Sebastian asks, indignant.
“I just want to have a look around outside. I think— Let’s just know as much about what’s going on here as we can, okay? Before we call anybody?”
Sebastian is silent for a moment, his lips still pursed tightly. He looks more than a little freaked, but he gives me a short nod. “Okay. Okay.”
The second the door closes behind me, I sprint to the porch rail, barely covering the three steps before I start to heave. Nothing comes up but an unearthly retching sound, my stomach convulsing, drool running over my bottom lip as I struggle to breathe and fight my nausea into submission. The air outside is still heavy and warm, but it’s not until I start sucking in great mouthfuls of it that I realize how good it smells. For all its rarified trappings, the lake house reeks inside with the metallic stench of blood.
I will my stomach to settle, my head to clear. When I’m finally breathing evenly again, I step back and begin a methodical circuit of the house, eyes sweeping left to right as I look for something I can’t even begin to anticipate. Nothing special catches my eye, though—just more Solo cups and cigarette butts—and I soon reach the end point of the porch. A set of steps descends to the yard on my right, while on my left, a patio door affords me a full, Technicolor view of the kitchen and Fox’s body—still swimming in a lap pool of his own congealing blood.
With a shudder I quickly reverse course, tugging my phone out of my shorts. It’s damp from the shower but seems to have avoided the worst of the spray, and it still works. I’m definitely not ready to talk to the cops, but I haven’t totally lost my mind, either; I know an adult needs to be involved in this slasher-movie nightmare. But it has to be one that I trust.
My mom answers on the fourth ring, her voice groggy and thick. I can picture her lying on top of her bed, a paperback splayed across her chest, fumbling for her glasses on the nightstand. “Hey, kiddo, what’s up?”
“H-hey, Mom, I—” My voice chokes off, the reality of what I have to say slamming into me like a crosstown bus. April might have murdered her boyfriend.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” She’s immediately alert, her hair-trigger panic tripped by my hesitation. “Did you and Lucy have a fight? Do you need a ride?”
“No, it’s nothing like that,” I assure her in a quiet hurry, feeling my way through my own words. “It’s … actually, it’s, um … April?”
“That girl.” Mom’s tone becomes as hard and sharp as a broken tooth. “What did she do this time? Did she crash your party tonight? Listen, if she said … if she said something about my calling Peter—”
“No, Mom, it wasn’t—” I stop short, her words hitting their target. “Wait, what do you mean, ‘calling Peter?’ Did you talk to him?” She stays silent, and I feel the back of my neck prickle. “Mom?”
“I might have phoned your sperm donor today,” she admits at last in an aggrieved huff. “It was a moment of weakness, and I’m not proud of it.”
“Why?” I ask, surprised to find that it’s actually still possible for my night to get worse. With one possible exception—me—nothing good has ever resulted from any kind of contact between Peter Covington and Genevieve Holt.
Sixteen years ago, my mother was a bright-eyed, twenty-five-year-old interior designer and art consultant, new to the city of Burlington, Vermont, and the proud owner of a small firm bearing her name. She’d done three years of art school, dropping out when an internship with a major decorator in New York turned into a full-time job she couldn’t refuse, and then eventually followed her heart to New England. Thanks to a modest inheritance from my grandparents—a, by all accounts, quirky and lovable couple who ran a country store in a small Maine village, taught their kids to pursue their dreams, and unfortunately died before I could ever meet them—she was able to rent an office, hang out her shingle, and take on private clients.
It wasn’t always easy. Work came in when the economy was up, and vanished when it went down, leaving her scrambling to cover the bills; and so, when a law firm by the name of Pembroke, Landau, and Wells offered her a massive chunk of cash to help them choose a few impressively priceless works of art for their offices, she was overjoyed to accept. When she met their junior partner, a Harvard legacy by the name of Peter Covington II, she was quickly swept off her feet. He was tall and handsome, with blond hair and gray eyes, and he was utterly charmed by the bohemian and unpredictable free spirit that was the young Genevieve. They were a total mismatch, his white-collar starchiness at complete odds with her offbeat joie de vivre, but—in my mom’s mind, at least—the sparks their differences generated were what fueled their romance.
The sparks worked their magic for approximately two weeks before my mom discovered that Peter Covington was in fact married, that he had a toddler at home—a little boy named Hayden—and that most of the things he’d said to her in private were a pack of lies. She ended things immediately, with a fiery speech that she has a tendency to recount verbatim whenever she’s had a little too much white wine, and then spent a few months debating whether or not to rat the man out to his wife. When she learned that she was pregnant, it was merely the icing on the cake.
I was born into the midst of an ugly war that continues to this day, erupting in periodic skirmishes as Peter Covington tries to ruin my mother’s career and life, and she sues him repeatedly for slander and back child support. Peter’s wife, Isabel, amazingly has stuck by him through the whole lengthy ordeal; supposedly, April was born to save their marriage, but I suspect a prenup is the real reason their matrimonial bonds have never been torn asunder.
Peter wouldn’t have anything to do with me; in sixteen years, I’ve never received so much as a birthday card from him. When I was a kid, he fascinated me—my wealthy and elusive father, who lived in a beautiful home and drove a fancy car—but I only made the mistake of calling him Dad once, when I was five years old and he came by our house to deliver some personal message to my mom; his reaction, which was swift, furious, and terrifying, permanently cured me of my misplaced affection. In an emergency, my mother would have turned to the Cloverfield monster for help before asking for a favor from Peter Covington—and if she’d called him now, it could only mean one thing.
“How broke are we?” I ask flatly, when her silence becomes unbearable. My thoughts fragment inside my skull. Fox’s corpse is practically looming over my shoulder, but the poverty my mom and I struggle against is a black hole with its own inescapable gravity; I can’t avoid it, so I might as well dive in instead and give myself a little more time to think about how I’ll bring up the dead body I’ve just discovered.
She takes a hesitant breath. “It’s not for you to worry about, kiddo.”
“I’ve got it under control, Rufus.”
The lie is so threadbare, it’s impossible to let it pass unchallenged. “You said you’d rather take a bath with a lawn mower than ask that ass-butt for money again! You’d never have called him unless it was really serious.” More silence follows, and I bite the inside of my cheek as the bottom drops out of my stomach. How much worse is this night going to get? “How bad is it?”
“Please, Mom, just … tell me.” I’ve made my way to the rear of the cottage now, and I lean tiredly over another porch rail, crickets underscoring the deceptively tranquil view of dark water spreading toward the far shore. The moon glares brightly down at the Whitneys’ cottage like the spotlight from a police helicopter, and I duck my head. “Whatever it is, my imagination’ll only make it worse.”
“We owe the bank about eight grand,” my mother confesses miserably, “and, okay, it’s kind of … urgent.” It’s only the fourth of the month, and she’s already panicked enough to appeal to my father; that means this is an old debt, a compounded one, and she’s starting to get desperate. “I can scrape together about a quarter of it if I can get your uncle Connor to pay back the money I loaned him last Christmas. But…”
She trails off, my stomach heaves again, and just like that I feel the phantom grip of Fox’s cooling fingers at the base of my neck. I called my mom about a murder and now we’re talking about the chance that we might lose our house? The ground seems to tilt sharply under my feet, pressure grips at my chest, and I struggle for air.
My mom’s all I’ve got; my whole life, it’s just been the two of us, holding hands to ride out the storm; and too often, the storm has been me. Somewhere inside me lurks a volatile Mr. Hyde, an alter ego driven by an engine of combustible anger I’ve only recently found any success in mastering. Swept up in the inner hurricane of my rage, I’ve screamed and ranted, broken dishes and bones, terrorized my teachers—and provided my father with ammunition in his agenda against us. How many phone calls has she gotten from school officials over the years because I lost control and broke the glass on a trophy case or attacked someone in class?
And she’s stood by me through all of it. I owe her so much. I owe her everything. How much more can she take? My mouth clicks dryly, my free hand tightening on the wooden rail. “I’ve been working all year, Mom. I can help—”
“No. Absolutely not, no way!” She’s so vehement I can practically hear her hand karate-chopping the air. “I will not let you spend your money on this, Rufus Holt. Do you hear me? These are my mistakes, not yours, and if—if—”
She stops altogether, and I can picture her again: glasses in her lap, fingers pressed hard against her lips, mouth trembling as she tries not to cry. The lake smears in front of me, black and gray and blue all running together, and I blink hard. None of this is fair. “It affects me, too, Mom. It’s my house, too.”
“I’ll take care of it. If I have to sell my organs on the black market, I will handle it. Okay?” She puts some steel in her tone. “Your shithead sperm donor owes us so much by now I would own this fucking place outright if he’d pay up.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” I mumble weakly.
“I’m sorry, kiddo. All that … let’s strike it from the record and start over. What did April do this time?”
Reflexively, I turn around and peer back into the cottage through the broad French doors of the family room. The fixtures of the kitchen gleam menacingly at the front of the house, and Sebastian stands near the fireplace, watching me with brightly nervous eyes and radiating an inarticulate terror of being alone inside with a corpse. I know I should tell her what we’ve found … but how can I? She’s already in a lousy place; the first thing she’d do would be call the police—or, worse, Peter—and there would go any chance for me to take control of my involvement in the situation.
I’m not exactly one of the Bad Kids, but my history of anger-related behavioral issues are well documented, and cops don’t really seem to care much about your GPA when they already remember you from the time you lost your shit in the eighth grade and knocked a bully’s tooth out with the back of a chair. Especially when your own father prosecuted the bully’s subsequent lawsuit against the school district and publicly called you a “dangerous animal.” Thanks to a good therapist and the right medication, my moods have stabilized a lot since then, but the president of the school board is just waiting for the proper excuse to expel me—and having been suspended once this year already, my situation is precarious.
I haven’t thought things out, I realize; once my mom learns what’s happened, there will be no taking it back. I need to know more. I just need a little more time.
“It’s nothing,” I mumble at last. “Don’t worry about it.”
As I disconnect, though, it is with the distinct sensation that—somehow, in some way—the Covingtons have just ruined my life yet again.