The Truth About Keeping Secrets(4)

And when I pedalled away behind Mom, her trunk full of bouquets that would wilt and food we wouldn’t eat, I swore I saw June Copeland at the curve where the hill met the horizon, her black dress playing between the stones.

That night, I rolled the funeral over in my head once, twice, again.

Dad laid out on the slab. Dad underground.

It all felt so strange. If someone had told me it hadn’t actually happened, I probably would have believed them; when I tried to summon up the memory of it, it felt flimsy, like I couldn’t actually hold on to it, like my brain knew it was something too deleterious to keep.

But June Copeland. She was there.

What the hell had she been doing? National Honor Society president. The likely salutatorian to Heath’s likely valedictorian. I had never even spoken to her. Just admired from afar. Which makes me sound creepy, but we all did it. We were almost expected to. They were paraded around as Pleasant Hills’ golden children, as some sort of goal for us, the common folk, to aspire to. Made even more impressive by the fact that June had only moved to Pleasant Hills freshman year from somewhere in California; originally an outsider, she’d assimilated so successfully that she hadn’t just become an insider, but now ruled over them herself. Actually, Heath was the school president – maybe June was there as some sort of fucked-up first-lady responsibility? But why had she … looked at me like that? Half like I was pathetic, half like I was pitied, as if I’d been an ant she’d accidentally stepped on but at least respected enough to flick off her shoe.

But maybe it was more than that. The strangers, quiet, with their heads down – maybe it was a thank-you.

Most importantly, though: why did I care?

That’s when I got the text.

Them: Hi Sydney.

My nerves stood to attention. There was no name. There wasn’t even a number; it was only listed as ‘restricted’. And it was nearly three in the morning. Who that I didn’t know was texting me at three in the morning?

I typed back with heavy fingers.

Me: Uh hello

Me: Sorry

Me: Who is this?

The ellipses that meant the person was typing appeared below my texts almost instantly. Like the sender had been sitting there. Waiting for my response.

Them: You really think someone killed him?

It was an odd sensation. I still hadn’t processed what exactly was going on – generally, too, but in that exact moment – and it was as though my blood wanted to run cold but wasn’t sure of it, and had instead opted for lukewarm.

You really think someone killed him?

I didn’t know what to say. Wasn’t even sure if I should say anything.

So I didn’t. Turned my phone off, rolled over in bed, willed myself to sleep until the light outside turned pink.

Chapter 2

Sunday morning, I’d convinced myself that everyone on the planet had disappeared. It was agonizingly quiet, just the hiss of my own breath slipping past my lips and the dry rustle of my sheets. Sunday. If everything had been normal, Dad would have been awake by now. Watching the news. Making coffee. I lobbed the thought of him around my mind for a moment, a little bit of self-mutilation, but I felt nothing. I could hear the news. Smell the coffee. Numb, numb, numb.

I smacked my head lightly, as if I were a faulty vending machine, and then harder, then scratched the back of my left hand until the scrapes blossomed and swelled. Breathe. Breathe.

I changed out of the hoodie I’d gone to bed in, put on another, splashed water on my face and left without leaving a note; Mom would see my bike was gone and figure out the rest.

Outside wasn’t much better. Of course it wasn’t – what sort of life did I expect at seven in the morning in Pleasant Hills? There was an eerie, post-apocalyptic pall over the place; most stores in town didn’t open until noon on Sundays, if they opened at all. Comfort came in the form of cars whooshing past and lingering church bells from somewhere in the distance. I am OK. I am not alone.

But every landmark served as a reminder of what I was running from. Past the city library where Dad and I photocopied pages of my bug encyclopaedia (in colour!) for five cents a page; Frankie’s, where he’d take Olivia and me to get ice cream after Little League; the square at the centre of town, all early-twentieth-century lamp posts and hedges and sidewalks where we’d set out linen chairs with pops in the cup holders and watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July. The whole place reeked of Dad. I couldn’t look anywhere without seeing his silhouette; his ghost crawled from the sewer drains. But in a town covered in residue, how could there have been such a lack? Outrage. Sound. Where were the sirens? The panic? Benjamin Whitaker was dead! Dad was dead!

There should have been chaos in the streets. The town should have been engulfed in flames.

It was cold. Freezing. I’d hardly been outside the week before, and in that time, the seasons had changed; it was only the end of September but the maples were already going yellow and orange and crimson, the earliest sacrificial leaves bunched at the side of the road, making way for the inevitable first snowfall of the year. Due any day. Fall didn’t last long here. Since we were so close to Lake Erie, any cold air that arrived just ricocheted off the bank and shot straight at us. You could already smell winter: frozen iron and fireplace smoke and car exhaust. On the long stretches of empty road, I’d ride with one hand clutching the handlebar, the other lapping up heat from my breath. I had never liked the cold, but today, it made me especially angry. I wanted to bite back at it.

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