Julie cleared her throat. “I used to wear this really big hat when I was younger. It belonged to my mom. We—you and I—thought it was the coolest thing ever, but that was a long time ago.”
Back before I turned into an überbitch or one who had an entire table enthralled for all the wrong reasons. I shoved a piece of pizza in my mouth.
Carson shook his head. “You’re right, Scott. This is really bizarre.”
I pressed my lips together and glanced around the jammed cafeteria. I will not break down. I will not break down. The lump was almost in my mouth, stuck around the pizza. Del strolled in through the double doors, talking to a boy in a neon-green polo.
Del’s gaze drifted over me and then shot back. His eyes widened. The look on his face was almost comical. He said something to his friend and then started toward me.
“Great,” muttered Carson, screwing the lid back on his drink. “I can tolerate her sitting here, but not Del the Dick.”
My laugh bubbled up before I could stop it, and I started to turn toward Carson when something red caught my attention.
At once, everything froze around me. A second later, the lunchroom crumbled away, flaking off in chunks of ash and broken stone. The sounds of people talking, laughing, and eating vanished. A film settled over my eyes, fading everything to a lifeless gray with the exception of one color.
The only color in the whole room was the red ripped dress hanging from her body.
Cassie stood at the end of our table.
She stared at me, eyes narrowed and fists clenched at her sides. Her hair was all over the place, darker at the top of her head, plastered there. A dark stain spread over her hairline, leaking down her face like a ghoulish, insidious river.
“You think you’re so perfect,” she said, her voice eerily flat as blood ran into her unblinking eyes. “You’re not! You have no idea! Your life is so messed up, and you have no idea.”
I jerked back. “Cassie?”
A warm hand wrapped around mine, and Cassie vanished. Dazed, I met Scott’s worried stare. “What did you say?” he asked.
“You didn’t see…”
“See what?” Scott’s grip tightened.
“Nothing.” I pulled my hand free, heart racing.
“You said Cassie’s name,” Julie said, pale and visibly shaken. “God, Sam, you look like you saw a ghost.”
I was beginning to think I had. Or I was certifiable. All of them were staring at me. Carson’s eyes were wide and had that dilated look again. There wasn’t enough air coming into my lungs. They were contracting painfully. Legs trembling, I stood and grabbed my bag. “I have to go,” I rasped.
“Sam.” Scott stood.
I hurried away from the table. A confused Del reached for me, but I dodged him. Out in the hallway, I started running and I didn’t stop as I pushed open the doors leading outside. My feet slapped off the concrete and then the asphalt. Reaching my brother’s car, I dropped down beside it and pulled my knees up to my chest, dragging in air in painful gulps.
Now I understood what everyone had warned me about—it was all too much.
Mom picked me up from school early. The ride home was tense, and I kept getting the impression that she wanted to say something but didn’t know what. And honestly, what could she say? Something like this couldn’t be fixed with a few simple words.
“Honey,” she said when we pulled into the driveway. “There’s a doctor your father knows—”
“What kind of doctor?” I twisted toward her, clutching my bag.
She grimaced as she killed the engine. “He’s a psychologist.”
Anger and embarrassment warred inside me. I should’ve never told her what had happened over the phone. “I’m not crazy.”
“Honey, I’m not saying you’re…crazy.” She looked at me, her smile pained. “But you said you saw Cassie in the lunchroom and—”
“That doesn’t mean I have to see a therapist. You already have me seeing the guidance counselor.” I climbed out of the car, slamming the door. “I don’t want to see a therapist.”
“You might not have a choice,” she said quietly.
I whipped around, and the next words came from a place hidden deep inside me. “What would your friends think, Mom? Having a daughter who needs to see a therapist?”
Mom blanched. “The same thing they thought when my daughter got drunk and drove her brand-new car into a tree. Or when my daughter was in those pictures for everyone to see! Or when—”
“Wait. What pictures?”
She gave me a pointed look, one that said she wouldn’t disgrace herself by repeating what those pictures were.
“What pictures?” I screamed.
Mom didn’t answer.
The moment we stepped inside the house, she went straight to the liquor cabinet and poured herself bourbon. She downed it in one gulp and then poured another. “Honey, I want you to get better. Not because of what my friends think, but because you are my daughter. Seeing a therapist isn’t—”
“No,” I cut her off. “I’m not going to a therapist.”
She looked away, taking a healthy drink of the bourbon. I left the room, having nothing else to say.
I spent a couple of hours in my bedroom, pacing back and forth. Every so often, I stopped and looked at the music box and then at Cassie’s picture. When I heard the garage door open, I panicked. I didn’t want to be in the same house with the woman I was driving to drink and the brother who surely thought I was crazy. Slipping out the back door, I started walking beyond the pool and the little bungalow surrounded by trees. A man was working on them, carrying thick branches to the back of a pickup truck. Sweat glistened off his dark skin.
He didn’t even look up. I was invisible to him, and I liked that.
Moving toward the end of the property, I climbed over a stone wall surrounding the yard. There was a path carved through the grass and rocky soil, splitting between trees. Up ahead was a tree house built into a large maple.
I stopped under it, wondering if my subconscious had led me here. There had to be a reason why I found this.
There wasn’t anything special about the tree house. It was more like a hut in a tree, with an open side that allowed you to look out over the grounds. It took several tries to get into the main part. From there, I crawled through a small opening and into a space big enough for me to lie down in but not stand. I seriously hoped the wood wasn’t rotten.