I jerk away from the canary yellow sheet of paper thrust at my chest.
“If you still want to bribe me for information, you can start here.” Marion glances at the flyer in my hand—a silent instruction to read.
I skim my gaze over the vague information. “What is this?”
“The next gathering.” She jerks her head toward the admin office down the hall. “They crack down on anything deemed detrimental to their reputation, even if it happens off-campus.”
“And so, you dress parties up to look like…” I skim-read the flyer again. “Abseiling lessons?”
“Needs and musts.” She lifts her eyebrows and then reaches over the sheet to point at the specifics. “You have to mirror the time. So, nine-thirty in the morning is actually nine-thirty at night. And you have to take the location given and rotate two more around the wheel.”
She pre-empts the question, shoving a cardboard color wheel into my hands. “The flyer is yellow this week, so that means you need to shift two clockwise.”
“To red,” I supply.
“Uh-huh. And then match that on the map.”
I lift an eyebrow.
She nods to the wall behind me.
With the paper and card clutched in my hands, I slowly turn and absorb the enormous mural painted on the wall of the university halls. It’s old and faded, but most definitely a map of the town. Classic in its features, the river is depicted with white-capped rapids, the town center marked with an outline of a blue chapel. I glance at the color wheel and then back at the map, twice more before the details make sense.
“See it?” Marion stares up at the top right section.
At the faded red paint. Trees. A stand of redwood trees depicted with ash-red outlines over the burnt orange ground. “Nine-thirty at night, in the forest?”
“Correct.” She nods at the color wheel. “Memorize it and then burn it.”
I huff a laugh. “You’re truly concerned about the faculty, aren’t you?”
“More concerned about the PTA,” she clarifies. “It’s the parents on the board who’re the real issue.”
“And let me guess. Mr. Ambrose happens to reside on that board?”
She snorts. “Hell no. He wouldn’t stoop that low.”
“His wife, however.” She finishes the statement with a bop of her eyebrows. “Anyway. Most of the students will be there, so it’s a great place for you to sweet-talk people into taking part in the show.”
“I thought you didn’t want to force people to do it.”
“I don’t.” She winks. “Just need to remind them of the benefits.”
“Such as?” I fall into step with her when she heads for the exit.
“Pre-show parties, post-show parties, final night send-off.”
“Jesus.” I lift my hand to my throat and rub away a strange lump. “Are people around here really that stereotyped?”
“Honey. It’s a small town with fuck all to do.” She pushes the door open and then holds it for me. “If they aren’t drinking and fucking, they’re fucking drinking.”
I cringe. “And the difference is?”
“One, you have fun doing, and the other you do when you realize that the fun’s stopped.”
Nice. I shrug my backpack higher and squint at the sun hanging low in the sky. “I’ll help on one condition.”
Marion pops a hand to her hip. “Um. Weren’t you already doing this for a favor?”
“I need a lift.”
“Fine.” She gestures to an apple-green Volkswagen Polo parked in the student lot. “That’s me. You’re in the old Bexley manor, right?”
Like I’d know who the fuck lived in our house before us. “On Montclair?”
“Thought so.” She nods to herself before heading toward the parking lot. “You’ve got two days to figure out what to wear.”
“I’m not worried what people think,” I call after her.
She chuckles, hollering back, “You should be. First impressions last.”
“Did you get groceries on your way home?” Mom’s question drifts through from the kitchen to where I stand, bags tucked in the crook of my arms while I boot the door shut behind me.
“I did.” Also heaved a sigh of relief when I completed the shopping trip without another run-in.
“Excellent.” Mom appears in the narrow hallway, arms already out to reach for one of the paper sacks. “I was struggling to figure out what to do for dinner. I forgot how few takeout places there are here.”
“Surely there’s something.” I transfer the lighter of the two to her waiting embrace. “A pizza shop, at least.”
“Nothing that delivers.” She turns and heads back toward the kitchen.
“So, go for a drive. I don’t mind if you don’t want to cook.” After the day I’ve had, all I crave is something gluttonous and gratifying before an early night.
“I don’t want to leave you here on your own.” She unloads cans and packets from the bag without looking my way.
I slide mine onto the island and pointedly stare at her. “You let me go out by myself to the gas station, and I was here alone for the first few days. Remember?”
“Yeah.” She fidgets with boxes of macaroni. “I shouldn’t have.”
“I was fine.”
“What if you hadn’t been, though?” With her back to me, she stretches to shelve the pasta. “We have no family here. Nobody you’d know well enough to call in an emergency.”
“Um, that’s what the police are for.” I unload the vegetables and fruits from my bag, warily watching her as I do. “Don’t tell me you don’t trust them now, too?”
Mom sighs. “I guess I’d chosen to forget a lot about this town.” She stalls, hand on a can of beans before lifting her gaze to mine. “Suppressed some things.”
I scoff. “You? Suppress shit?” She watches me shake my head with a tilt of hers. “Not likely.” My mother is the most open and vulnerable person I know—a hazard of the job. “Like what?”
“How’s school?” Her change of subject doesn’t fool me. “Made any friends yet?”
“Working on it.” The yellow flyer chafes in my pocket. “Why?”
“What are they like?” The airy way she slides cans into an orderly line on the shelf doesn’t wash. “Nice?”
“She’s the drama geek of the school. You’d like her.”
“Huh.” Her fingers swivel the cans to align the labels. “Anyone else?”
“What is this about?” I unload apples into the crisper and then turn to face her. “You know this goes a lot quicker when you cut to the chase, right?”
She sighs, leaning back against the counter with her hands braced on either side. “You’d tell me if anyone bothered you, wouldn’t you?”
“If anyone made you feel inferior.”
“I can handle myself.” I soften my gaze, and drop one hip.
She twists her mouth in a half-smile. “I know. But there are things… people here that you don’t know about.”
“The Ambrose family. Am I right?”
She jerks away from the counter. “So, you have met them.”
“And like I said.” I gather the oranges. “I can take care of myself, Mom. You’ve taught me well.”
“He came to the house, today.”
The hairs on my arms lift. “Who?” I discharge the citrus into a bowl.
“Tristan, I think? Donovan’s oldest son.”
“Donovan’s his dad’s name?”
“Correct.” She stills my hands where I fuss with the alignment of the fruit display in the center of the island. “I went to school with him here. Senior High, and University.”
“You’ve never mentioned him before.”
She lets me continue putting the food away, watching from her spot by the pantry, arms folded. “I didn’t feel the need to if it wasn’t required.”
“And now it is?”
“It is.” She hesitates, her gaze falling to the floor while she slowly toes the grout between the tiles. “The family are heirlooms of this town.”
“So, I’d figured.”
“Prominent figureheads in a lot of places. They have a finger in most pies.”
“Which you’d expect when they’ve been here so long.”
“They’re also always the center of any trouble.”
I glance her way before folding down the empty paper bags. “I suppose you’ll be talking with them about why you’re here, then?”
“Eventually.” She frowns. “I find it curious that his son took it upon himself to come to see me first. I didn’t take them for the sort of people who’d so easily admit guilt.”
“Guilt over what?” I match her stance on the opposite side of the kitchen.
“I shouldn’t say.” Mom pushes off the wall, turning for the door.
“Nuh-uh.” I halt her with my protest. “First off, we haven’t decided on what the hell we’re doing for dinner, and second you don’t get to say that and then walk off.”
“Jesus, Gina.” She coughs, touching her throat. “Relax.”
“What do you think he’s guilty of?”
She rolls her eyes, and then reaches for her phone. “A girl was assaulted last night.”
Her head lifts at the urgency in my tone. “After nine. Why?”
“Nothing.” I fetch a glass to pour some water for the itching dryness in my throat.
“Not nothing. Now it’s your turn to share.” Mom appears in my periphery. “What do you know?”
The tepid liquid does nothing to ease the scratch. “I saw Tristan at the gas station. With his brother.”
“Did they have anyone else with them?”
I’d make a terrible spy. “The cheerleader, Phoebe.” Excellent nark, though.
“Knew it.” Mom spins away, thumb furiously moving over her phone.
She doesn’t reply, already in her office and speaking with someone before the tell-tale thud of the door closing signals that I’m on my own tonight.
“Mac and Cheese it is, then.”
I slide one of the newly stashed boxes back out of the cupboard and retrieve a pot for the burner. The night cloaks the yard in shades of gray and deep blue, a sole streetlight casting a pale glow where it spills between our house and the neighbor. Not a living thing stirs as I reach for the blind and drop the fabric over the window, and yet, as I half-fill the pot with water I can’t shake the feeling that Mom and I weren’t the only two around for that conversation.