“I heard there was barely anything left of her. Seriously, she was like skin and bones.”
“Closed casket; she was real beat up and they couldn’t repair the damage.”
“Do you think it was drugs? I think it was drugs.”
“Her poor parents.”
I stab my fork into the gray blob in front of me, the one trying to fool me into believing it might be edible, and try to block out the not-so-hushed voices around me. There is no doubt that they are whispering about my recently deceased best friend, Mila Walker, but the more they say the more I feel like shouting and I don’t need to be hauled into the guidance counselor’s office again for a ‘mental health check’.
It has been a little over three weeks since her body was found at the base of the river that runs through our town, malnourished and beaten beyond recognition. It the coroner two whole days to identify her, eventually resorting to sorting through the files of our town’s only dentist in order to match her dental records to the ones they had taken when they recovered her body.
Since the news that it was her broke it has been the only thing anyone can talk about.
“At least they have stopped talking about you,” a sweet voice comments as Naomi Graves, my only living friend, slides into the previously empty seat next to me.
I stab angrily at the blob again. “For now.”
Prior to being found dead, Mila had been missing for over a month.
The morning after she went missing the police had shown up at my house with solemn faces and accusing eyes, the text message she had received from me the night before their only lead.
Their questions had been endless.
Why had I texted her at one in the morning? Why was mine the only message on her phone? Did I know where she was? Were there any reasons I could think of why she would have left home? Had she recently mentioned talking to or meeting someone new? Did I know of anyone who might want to hurt her?
After what felt like hours they came to the same conclusion I had even before they stepped foot into my house, that I was completely useless of no help to their investigation.
I had no idea why she would run away and, the more they asked why she might, the more I realized it made no sense. She had received her acceptance letter to Yale four days prior to her disappearance and that meant that, in eight months, she would be far away from this shit-hole town and her overly possessive parents.
Why leave after finding out that she was finally going to escape?
Everything about her disappearance was unsettling.
The alarm her parents set each night was still armed when they woke up that morning, the log showing that it had not been disabled at any point during the night. Her room was in the same pristine condition it always was in, showing no sign of a struggle or that she had taken even one article of her clothing with her.
It was as if she had vanished into thin air.
Naomi drapes what is supposed to be a comforting arm over my shoulder. “How are you feeling?”
I know she means well but the feel of her arm leaves me feeling weighed down and I shift uncomfortably in my seat.
Losing Mila had not sat well with me and, after news of her death became the talk of the town, I pretty much lost my shit. All I could think about was her body laying cold and rotting down by the river, images of her bloated corpse haunting my every dream.
I became scared to close my eyes, knowing that her pale skin and blue lips would be waiting for me when I did.
Days when by and, on my ninth day of no sleep, I did the only thing that made a bit of sense to me and dragged a kitchen knife across my wrists.
My father came home that day to find me passed out on the living room floor in a puddle of my own blood and, once I was stable enough to be released, my father shipped me off to the first mental health center that would take me.
Up until four days ago, I was a resident of Jones-Martin Rehabilitation Center, the finest mental institution that money can buy.
“Still think they had something to do with it?” she lowers her voice, jutting her head in the direction of the mismatched duo that is the Malik boys.
The Malik’s moved into the house at the end of my street three months before Mila went missing, their arrival even more sketchy than they are.
There were no moving trucks and no burly men unloading labeled boxes into the yard. In fact, there were zero hints that anyone had finally purchased the small house that had remained vacant for years. One day there was a ‘For Sale’ sign sticking out of the overgrown grass and, the next, two black Escalades parked in the driveway.
There were three of them in total: Matthew, Colin, and Roman. Rumor had it that their parents had died in a car accident when they were young and leaving Matthew, the oldest of the three, a small fortune in which to use to care for his brothers.
Unfortunately, this is where the rumor mill ran dry and now, other than that their parents are dead and they are brothers, no one seems to know a thing about them.
The day after their arrival my father had taken it upon himself to play the part of ‘Welcoming Committee’, delivering a large basket of steaks and expensive wines to their door. Matthew had welcomed him in and, after a long day of drinking and grilling, the Maliks had his official seal of approval.
That is all it took for the rest of the town to accept them as one our own.
I, however, was still on the fence.
“I don’t know.” I shove the beige cafeteria tray away from me, wishing I had remembered to pack some of last night’s leftover before rushing out the door this morning. “There is just something not right about them.”
“Well, I heard the police questioned them and everything they told them checked out.”
She wasn’t wrong, the police had made a trip to their home. It was actually one of their first stops once Mila’s case changed from a simple runaway to a missing person’s case.
I had watched as the two police cruisers pulled up on the road in front of their yard and all three of them stepped outside to greet them, giving me my first real look at them since they arrived.
It happened again after she turned up dead, only this time they questioned everyone in town about her death before giving up and ruling it an accident.
The official report states that she got lost in an attempt to run away and starved to death. The police suspected that she had probably lost consciousness due to malnutrition and fallen into the river, too weak to fight against the current once she came to.
I don’t believe a word of it.
“Yeah, those same officers also said Mila’s death was accidental. Don’t you find it even a little bit off?” My glare remains focused on the two. “Six people disappeared in Hautin over the past year, which is a little over twenty miles away from here, and then, not even three months after they show up, Mila goes missing. I know the two don’t seem connected but it all seems a bit strange if you ask me. Plus Roman is just so, well, creepy.”
Naomi shrugs. “It doesn’t sound connected, it sounds like bad timing. Besides, where you see creepy, I just see smoking hot.”
Though more than half the female population of our school would beg to differ, Roman Malik is far from what I would consider boyfriend material.
Sure, he possesses the same qualities that some might find attractive. He is tall, standing one or two inches over six feet, with disheveled brown hair and eyes the color of the clouds on a stormy day. When you pair that with his oddly sharp features and affinity for dark clothing, you have the perfect combination of things that someone might look for when seeking a boyfriend of the rebellious nature.
In short, in a town like this where guys don themselves in light jeans and name brand shirts, Roman is the kind of guy you bring home if you’re trying to piss your parents off.
Okay, so maybe I find him a bit more attractive than I care to admit, but that does nothing to overshadow the ere of weirdness that seems to linger around him.
Not to mention the fact that he seems to pride himself on being a major asshole.
His younger brother, Colin, is a completely different story.
He might not share his brother’s height but he more than makes up for it in muscle mass. His hair is a strange shade of pine straw blonde but his eyes, damnit, those eyes are damn near replicas of his brother’s.
From the moment their overpriced cars rolled into the parking lot Stormy Heights High School, all eyes have been on them. Aside from myself, and occasionally Naomi, there is hardly a girl in this place that isn’t fighting for their attention in some way.
When it comes to Roman, however, none of that seems to matter. Naomi has filled me in on everything I missed during my short stay in the hospital and, from the sounds of it, Roman makes it a habit not to associate with anyone who isn’t his younger sibling.
Colin, on the other hand, thrives on the attention. He can usually found chatting it up with students of all kinds in the halls between classes, perched on the bleachers with a new girl sitting in his lap, or wandering around town with the ‘in crowd’. His love of all things women hints that, unless he slows it down a bit, he will have dated almost every girl in our school before the year ends.
“Hot or not, there is something not right about him. Seriously though, he never leaves his house except to come to school and, once he is here, he does everything he can to keep to himself. Have you seen the way he stares at everyone? It’s like he thinks he’s better than all of us. Girls are practically throwing themselves at his feet but he just keeps snubbing them like he can’t be bothered. Tell me you don’t find that weird.”
“I don’t find that weird, I find it hilarious.” Namoi lets out a sigh, resting her head in her hand as she joins me in staring at them. “But do you know what I do find weird? The fact that you spend your free time stalking them instead of using the closeness of their house to yours as an advantage. You guys are practically neighbors! You should be visiting them enough to where, instead of staring at them from across the cafeteria, you are on friendly enough terms that we are sitting with them during lunch.”
I let out a huff. “Correction, you are staring at them from across the cafeteria. Me? I am glaring.”
Much to my dismay, Naomi had recently admitted to how utterly infatuated with Colin she has become. I think it is because they are the first set of newcomers in our small Nebraskan town since the Mauldens showed up right before we all started middle school.
Then again, with the arrival of the Mauldens came the arrival of my long-time foe, Janessa, and that is reason enough to dislike anyone who hasn’t always been a reside of Stormy Heights.
To this day, Janessa makes it a point to harass me whenever possible. We were friends at one point but, back in sixth grade when most girls grew into their and began to sprout chests, I stayed the same sad A-cup I had always been. It was never an issue to me but to Janessa and her overly busty friends, the one who had previously mocked her but now felt the need to crowd around her at all times, it was a sign that I was inferior and in need of mocking.
Mila, who had just the right amount of everything going for her in the looks and intelligence department, managed to avoid Janessa’s wrath. Then again, when you spend most of your time with your nose in a book, it is hard for something as minor as a snide comment from a ‘mean girl’ to get you down.
Then Naomi came along and Janessa found herself a new victim, mainly because of her friendship with me, but that is not the reasons they gave. They mocked the light-skinned for being just that because, in a town like this, if you weren’t the poster child for Caucasian breeding then you were an outsider.
It is archaic and bigoted but that never seemed to bother the empty-headed girls who followed Janessa around, or at least they never stated out loud that it did.
Either way, it made us the perfect pair out outcasts.
I have always believed that outside of her hatred for me, most of Janessa’s mocking of Naomi is because she is secretly jealous of her. Hell, sometimes even I find myself a bit envious of her. Naomi has a killer hourglass figure, skin the color of perfectly made coffee, and dark black hair that billows around her face in the most flattering of ways.
The fact that she is crazy smart is just the icing on the Naomi cake.
“Hate to break it you, but I have zero interest in befriending either of them and, for the love of god, stop staring at Colin like that. Seriously, it is a bit ridiculous. By the way, do you know what my hours of stalking, as you call it, revealed to me? It showed me that your little crush over there has been sneaking the same blonde haired bimbo in and our of his house each night for the past week.”
Her jaw goes slack. “You have got to be kidding me. Janessa? Tell me you’re joking. This is some sort of sick prank, right? Janessa-freaking-Maulden? She’s just so...”
“Racist? Evil? Blonde?” I suggest.
“Ignorant,” Naomi finishes. “How can he even be interested in someone like her? Like, what would they even talk about? How much money it costs to maintain that god awful hair? How many calories she burns puking up her lunch? This is just great. First I barely pass that pop quiz in Bio-Chem and now I find out that Colin is doing the Bitch Queen herself. Why do bad things happen to good people?”
I lean over, snatching a piece of celery off of her plate. “Don’t think of it as a bad thing but as a blessing in disguise. Colin being interested in Janessa is the best thing that could happen to you because now you know what kinda of guy he truly is, which is the kind that goes after brainless bitches. Maybe this is the push you need to end your unnatural obsession with him.”
“No, what is unnatural is your lack of interest in them.” She glares at her plate, shoving another piece of food into her mouth angrily.
I fight back the urge to reply with something childish, but only because it will cause her to launch into a rant about my complete absence of a love life or the fact that I haven’t dated anyone since my sophomore year.
It’s not that I’m not interested in guys, it’s the fact that none of the ones in this town has been able to hold my interest for longer than a few weeks. I don’t mind getting to know someone but, being that most of the guys in this town are more interested in getting wasted and then getting laid, it is damn near impossible for that to happen.
A strange feeling stirs in the pit of my stomach and I turn back towards the table she was staring at, now finding myself locked in a stare down with a pair of pearl grey eyes.
The tips of Roman’s lips turn up in a half smirk and the knots in my stomach twist tighter around themselves. Had I eaten more than a few bites of food today, I might actually be worried about getting sick.
Waves of unease wash over me as his stare intensifies and he cocks his head to the side curiously, a weight now settling on my chest.
After a few seconds, he winks, finally turning away. The weight vanishes and my breathing steadies itself, leaving me to feel as if I might have imagined the whole thing.
“Did Roman just-” Naomi stops mid-sentence to place a hand on my shoulder, startling me so much so that I damn near jump out of my skin. “Makenna, is everything okay?”
I practically launch myself out of my seat, grabbing my book bag off the floor before slinging it over my shoulder. “Yeah, I’m fine. I just, I just forgot I need to turn in my medical papers; I’ll call you later.”
She regards me with a strange look but doesn’t press the issue, nodding in response. I take the opportunity to bolt towards the exit, throwing a glance over my shoulder on the way out. I instantly regret the action, once again finding Roman staring in my direction.
He arches a brow, laughing to himself before turning back towards the conversation he and his brother were having.