Ashley’s sweet perfume had been crammed into my nostrils: warm, vanilla something, probably. I took a deep breath, blinking and remembering Darius in the flashlight Friday night. I checked over at Lauren, Erin, Grant and Chris.
They were watching us, nibbling on their lunches in awe of the mystical royalty who was whispering in my ear. The explosive sound of the cafeteria was colliding into one blob of noise around us. The one hundred other students in the room didn’t seem to mind us.
I straightened instantly, hopping from my seat and gesturing Ashley to follow me out of the cafeteria and into the vacant lobby outside that only contained a teacher on hall duty. I cut past lingering students and around long tables, watching every one of my steps, careful not to trip forward next to the second-most graceful girl in school. Random faces of kids older and more sociable than me flickered in front me to greet Ashley, curious and excited to find out where she was so determined to go.
I was strangely surprised that she never stopped.
The afternoon sun was high out the window, allowing light to glisten in the lobby. Ashley spun around to face me and locked her feet in place, her eyeshadow flicking sparkles on her eyelashes. “Dana Farr...she was Violet’s little sister.”
Behind her, I recognized the goggle-eyed hall motor, Mrs. Redsmith, a teaching assistant from the beginning of the year when I would go to the library after school under Tyler’s order to study. I forced my eyes to detach from her.
“That doesn’t even make sense.” It was like she’d spoken another language. I peered on the ground, afraid to look Ashley in the eye.
I barely recognized the name Dana Farr. When it was blown up all over the news, I was too oblivious to care about that kind of stuff. Thirteen years old. My biggest problem was my Taylor Swift fanpage on Instagram and having a higher IQ than Tyler. And now all the sudden, the name mattered.
And so did Samara Galen’s. And Violet Wren’s. All within less than a week.
“Yes, it does!” Ashley exclaimed, throwing her head over her shoulder to Mrs. Redsmith, who was making an outstanding effort to make sure we noticed her scowl. Ashley snatched my wrists from my sides, side-stepping further into the lobby and pulling her iPhone out of her pocket.
Mrs. Redsmith tightened her ash-colored ponytail from behind us. She marched forward, highlighting her authority. “Excuse me. Do you girls have a pass to go somewhere? Or do you need to go to the guidance office to talk to a counselor? If not, I advise you two to make your way back into the cafeteria.”
I tore my wrists out of Ashley’s sharp death grip, rolling my eyes. “No, we just--”
Before I could cough up two more words, Ashley whirled around and pasted a charming smirk on her face that was almost as convincing as Violet’s. “My friend Hayden here has been having a rough couple of days.” She turned back to me, a patient grin crossing her face, then back to Mrs. Redsmith, whose stern, ready-to-get-some-stuck-up-girls-in-trouble face had quickly faded into dumbfoundedness. “I just took her out here to convince her to let me take her to guidance. I think she really needs to talk to someone she could look up to and trust, an adult. You understand, Mrs. Redsmith, don’t you?”
I bet she learned that smooth talk from Violet. Didn’t everyone?
Mrs. Redsmith was sympathetic, carefully reaching past Ashley for my hand. She grasped it and I shivered, feeling the dry creases on her skin. “Of course,” she agreed softly, gazing at me again. “Hayden, you know you can talk to any of us. I understand putting up a front, but you don’t need to do that here. We all lost Samara.”
I attempted to relax; I’d puke if didn’t. Mrs. Redsmith’s glassy grey eyes cut through me as I gave her a quick nod, scraping up two generic words. “Thank you.”
I yanked my wrist back to my side, turning to Ashley, bullying myself to follow her lead. “Well, uh, I guess we’d better go to guidance then.” I offered Mrs. Redsmith one last appreciative, healthy beam of assurance, shifting up the stairs of the school lobby with Ashley at a comforting distance behind. Upstairs, the second door down would be the guidance office.
The absolute last place I needed to be.
Sauntering cautiously up the empty staircase, I added a few melancholy sniffles just to be sure Redsmith was certain I was on the verge of sobbing.
Climbing up the stairs so we were no longer visible to Redsmith, I peeked over my shoulder and watched Ashley’s face transform into a devilish smirk. My face remained straight. “You’re a good liar,” I complimented her awkwardly, shuffling faster up the stairs.
She said nothing until we made it to the vacant second floor. She stepped in front of me and I gladly let her take the lead, watching her shoulder-length caramel brown hair swing with her sure steps. I sped up to keep up with her when she hissed, “We’re going to the science wing. There’s a classroom there that never gets used, it’s basically an abandoned storage space with useless chem stuff. Most freshmen don’t know about it. Gav and I...hang out there a lot during free periods.”
I pursed my lips..
Her heels clacked on the floor like a constant door-knock, shooting down the hall with my footsteps tensely echoing hers.
When we reached the last door in the science hallway, Ashley effortlessly shoved the door ajar and gestured me in. Startled, I hustled forward in the dark classroom as she flicked the lights on. The room brightened instantly, irritating my eyes. In the back of the room stood dusty lab tables, surrounded by overflowing cardboard boxes of test tubes and balances, chemistry reference tables stacked above them.
I swallowed, reminding myself that even though Ashley miraculously managed to join the world of Violet Wren, she was human, not a brilliant wizard. I blinked, driving my eyes into hers. “Last week, you wouldn’t be caught dead talking to me. And two months ago, the case was the same with my brother. What do you guys want from us? What did we ever do to catch your eye?” I wasn’t sure why one of the only times I decided to speak to Violet’s crowd, I chose to interrogate Ashley instead of Violet or even Blake. When we went on our little journey to Darius Blecker’s shed, she and Gavin seemed to want nothing to do with me.
Well, for one thing, I didn’t exactly want to comb the school to find Violet, who was beginning to look like the female version of Dr. Jekyll.
Ashley rolled her eyes, her bracelets jiggling as she pushed her hair behind her ear. “Look, I can’t tell you exactly why Violet was ever interested in you. But I do know she used Tyler as an excuse to get to you. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what she was doing. And I think--I think somehow she knew that Samara Galen was going to die, by suicide or by homicide. She’d never admit it, but she knew. I don’t know how.”
I glared at her, relaxed enough to straighten my back, my eyes flicking to the chemistry junk surrounding us. “So...what about Dana? What makes you think she’s her sister?”
Ashley’s stare perfectly matched to how I stared at her. I wondered if I would ever catch her falling behind.
Sighing, she exposed her phone again. She eyed the glowing screen, groaning. “You should never use the school’s WiFi, FYI. They start stalking you like complete creeps. Kylie Swanson got caught ranting to her boyfriend about what an idiot her English teacher is over Kik because she was connected to the WiFi of the school, almost got suspended for it. They find ways to read our text messages, which, if you ask me, makes them stalkers, since they’re not, like, cops.” She slapped the screen of her phone. “Which is why I need to use my data to show you this. My parents are idiots and make me use 3g for two weeks out of the month, which is why this thing acts like a freaking grandmother. They say it’ll help me get into the habit of ‘using my phone less.’” After resting her finger-quotations, she groaned again and rolled her eyes.
I only nodded.
After a few seconds, she hurried to my side and smiled in satisfaction at her cell. “Ah. Here it is. Okay, so when I was hanging out with Gav on Saturday, we found this, since Violet was acting so weird. You were the only person I thought to tell first, but I didn’t have your number.” She shoved the phone in my face, and when I took it from her, and she added, “It was published by the newspaper of the elementary school Vi went to, Kennedy, in Baltimore, at the end of 2009. Vi was ten then, but it was hard to find. Usually, when you search “Dana Farr” the only thing that shows up is the trial, but I just knew that Violet wants him dead for a more...legit reason, so we started testing key words. I found this. And look.”
I narrowed my eyes at the screen, which displayed an iPhone-shaped article. The title swam across the top of the screen reading “November” in alternating fall colors of browns, greens, yellows and oranges. Next to it was a beaming animated turkey. The first column was titled, “Congratulations to Fifth Grader Violet Farr for Winning the Citywide Elementary Spelling Bee!”
Below a brief paragraph was a photo of a small girl holding a certificate of achievement, a huge grin plastered onto her face. Her long blonde hair was wavy but smooth, reaching a few inches past her shoulders.
It was ten-year-old Violet Wren.
I peered at the picture a moment more, catching a glimpse at the paragraph.
Violet Farr is the only student in Kennedy Elementary School to be selected to be participate in the Baltimore K-5 Spelling Bee! She was a first-place winner with the word “bibliophage” (\BIB-uh-fayj\) (noun). Meaning: one who often reads books and enjoys it very much, or a “bookworm.” This word is a high school level word! Wow!
I handed the phone back to Ashley, swallowing. “We don’t know for sure if that’s the Violet,” I prevaricated stupidly, leaning against a lab table. It felt like my weight was too much for my feet to handle. “There could be...another one.”
Ashley glanced at the picture and rolled her eyes. “No, it’s Violet! I’m telling you, I know my best friend. I’ve known her since I fell into this hellhole called high school.”
I closed my eyes. “So what are you saying? You think she changed her last name? Why wouldn’t she want people to know she was related to Dana Farr?”
She scrolled through her phone, waiting for something else to load. “Her parents are dead. According to her, her mother died of a brain tumor while she was really young, and her dad later had a heart attack. She lives with her grandparents, just like Dana did at the time she was killed. But Dana’s parents died in a fire, the papers say. Violet probably lied. I bet her parents died in a fire, too.” She exhaled dramatically at her phone once more. “I swear to God, this phone….”
“She didn’t want anyone to know she was related to Dana Farr because she never wanted anyone to figure out a motive she’d have to want Darius dead.”
I tapped my fingers on the lab table impatiently. “Possible. But you don’t think she’d actually...do anything, do you?”
Ashley raised her perfectly-plucked eyebrows. “Did you see her Friday night?” She passed me her phone again, her voice almost a whisper. “And a lot changes when you stop googling ‘Dana Farr’ and ‘Violet Wren’ and just enter ’Violet Farr.’”
On the screen was a different article, a bit more mature than Violet’s elementary spelling bee paragraph, one written by The Baltimore Sun, with a picture at the top of what looked like a Christmas card. And elderly couple were squinting at the camera, sharp yellow teeth happily beaming. The man, white hair gelled back with his smile showing off the creases by his eyes, had a small--maybe thirteen-year-old--girl on his lap who looked like the Violet Wren I was familiar with, except she had hazelnut-colored hair instead of blonde. She was wearing a Santa hat that matched the girl smiling beside the old woman: a fifteen-year-old Violet.
The picture was captioned: “Thirteen-year-old Dana Farr (right) and older sister, fifteen-year-old Violet Farr (left) cozy with their grandparents, Thomas and Rose Wren in their Christmas card from last year.”
“Violet took her mother’s maiden name,” I realized out loud.
Ashley nodded, satisfied. “Yes, she did, after Dana was killed.”
I stared at the photo, seeing Violet in both herself and Dana.
Snapping me out of my daze, the warning bell stabbed through my ears and I practically threw the phone back to Ashley. Within seconds, a voice was audible in the loudspeaker. “Hello students, this is Secretary Kramer speaking. I have been told to tell you that Samara Galen’s wake will be this Friday at four p.m to seven, and her funeral will be the following day at eleven a.m.”
My eyes flicked to Ashley’s frantically, but she only sighed and tucked her phone into her book bag. “See you tomorrow?”
I bobbed my head breathlessly, watching her switch the lights off and wander gracefully out the door as students started to file through the hallway.