Envy (Empty Coffin Series #1)by Gregg Olsen
Murder is such a dirty word…
New York Times bestselling adult true crime author Gregg Olsen makes his YA debut with Empty Coffin, a gripping new fiction series for teens based on ripped-from-the-headlines stories…with a paranormal touch.
Crime lives--and dies--in the deceptively picture-perfect town of Port Gamble (aka/i>/i>/b>/i>… See more details below
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Murder is such a dirty word…
New York Times bestselling adult true crime author Gregg Olsen makes his YA debut with Empty Coffin, a gripping new fiction series for teens based on ripped-from-the-headlines stories…with a paranormal touch.
Crime lives--and dies--in the deceptively picture-perfect town of Port Gamble (aka “Empty Coffin”), Washington. Evil lurks and strange things happen--and 15-year-olds Hayley and Taylor Ryan secretly use their wits and their telepathic “twin-sense” to uncover the truth about the town's victims and culprits.
Envy, the series debut, involves the mysterious death of the twins' old friend, Katelyn. Was it murder? Suicide? An accident? Hayley and Taylor are determined to find out--and as they investigate, they stumble upon a dark truth that is far more disturbing than they ever could have imagined.
Based on the shocking true crime about cyber-bullying, Envy will take you to the edge--and push you right over.
Praise for Gregg Olsen:
“Olsen will have you on the edge of your seat.”--Lee Child
“Searing and brilliant.” -- Ann Rule
“Gripping…Olsen is a top notch writer.” -- Michael Connelly
“Olsen…brings complex mystery and crackling authenticity to bear on a cold case police procedural…. his bizarre, many-layered mystery will keep fans of crime fiction hooked.” --Publishers Weekly (for his novel, A Wicked Snow)
Read an Excerpt
WATER GUSHED OUT of THE CORRODED FAUCET into the chipped, porcelain tub, pooling at the bottom with a few tangled strands of long, brown hair. The water was easily 120 degreesso hot that Katelyn Berkley could hardly stand to dip her painted green toenails into it. The scalding water instantly turned her pale skin mottled shades of crimson. Perched on the edge of the tub with her right leg dangling in the water, Katelyn smiled. It was a hurt that felt good.
At fifteen, Katelyn knew something about hurt.
Promises had been made . . . and broken. Things change. People let you downeven those closest to you. Promises, she realized, were very, very hard to keep.
As a blast of icy air blew in from her open bedroom window, the silver razor blade next to the half-empty bottle of Tea Tree shampoo glinted, beckoning her. Katelyn fantasized about taking control of the situationof her pitiful excuse for a lifethe only way she could.
She looked in the full-length mirror across the room. The glass was starting to fog as the steam billowed from the tub's rippling surface, but she could see that her eyes were red. There wasn't enough Smashbox on earth to cover the splotches that came with her tears.
"Merry Christmas, loser," she said.
She pulled inside of herself, into that place where there was only a little relief.
The bathtub was nearly full. Steaming. Just waiting.
Katelyn had no idea that, not far away, someone else was doing the exact same thingjust waiting for the right time to make a move.
As fresh tears rolled down her cheeks, Katelyn took off the rest of her clothes, threw them on the floor, and plunged herself into the tub.
downstairs, her mother, sandra, stood in the kitchen and poked at the congealing remains of a prime rib roast. She yanked at her blue sweater as she pulled it tighter on her shoulders and fumed. She was cold and mad. Mad and cold. She searched her kitchen counters for the espresso maker.
Where is it?
Sandra had a bottle of Bacardi spiced rum at the ready and a small pitcher of eggnog that she wanted to foam. It would be the last time she took a drink for the rest of the year. The promise was a feeble one, like many of Sandra's. There was only a week left until the New Year. All night Sandra had been watching the bottle's amber liquid drop like the thermometer outside the frost-etched windowsingle paned because the Berkleys ' was a historic home and could not be altered.
Last drink. Promise. Where is that machine?
Her parents, Nancy and Paul, had finally left after their holiday visit, and Sandra needed the calming effect of the alcohol. They always dropped a bomb at every social occasion, and the one they had offered up earlier that evening was a doozy , even by their standards. They'd rescinded their promise to fund Katelyn's college expenses, a promise made when their granddaughter was born. That night at dinner, Nancy had let it slip that they were no longer in the position to do so.
"Sandra, my kitchen counters were Corian , for goodness sake. I deserved granite. And, well, one thing led to another. A $10,000 remodel, you know, kind of ballooned into that $100,000 new wing. I really do love it. I know you will too."
Katelyn, suddenly in need of better grades, stellar athleticism, or richer parents, had left the table in tears and mouthed to her mother behind her grandmother's back, "I hate her."
"Me too, Katie," Sandra had said.
"What?" Nancy asked.
"Just telling Katelyn I love her too."
Sandra had acted as though everything was fine, the way that moms sometimes do. But inside she seethed. Her husband, Harper, had left just after dinner to check on a faulty freezer at the Timberline restaurant they owned next door.
Every single day, even on Christmas, Harper has to find a reason to go to work.
"Katelyn?" she called up the narrow wooden staircase that led to the second-floor bedrooms. "Have you seen the espresso machine?"
There was no answer.
Sandra returned to her outdated, worn-out kitchen and downed two fingers of spiced rum from a Disneyland shot glass. She screwed on the bottle cap, pretending she hadn't had a drink. After all, it was almost like medicine.
To steady my nerves. Yes, that's it.
Katelyn had been taking the espresso machine upstairs to make Americanos the week before Christmas. Sandra had scolded her for that.
"It isn't sanitary, Katie. We don't bring food upstairs."
Katelyn had rolled her eyes at her mother. "Only a restaurant owner would call milk and sugar 'food,' Mom."
"That isn't the point."
"Yeah. I get it," Katelyn said, feeling it unnecessary to point out that she'd been forced to have a food worker's permit since she was nine and could recite safe temperatures for meat, poultry, milk, and vegetables in her sleep.
The lights flickered and the breakers in the kitchen popped.
Another reason to hate this old house, even if it does have an extra upstairs bathroom.
Sandra started up the darkened stairs and made her way down the hallway. She could hear the sound of water running.
She called out to Katelyn and knocked on her bedroom door.
Sandra twisted the knob and, at once, a wall of icy air blasted her face. Katelyn had left the window open. The lights were out too. Sandra flipped the switch up and down more times than she needed to, to prove the obvious. The room stayed dark.
Lights from the neighbor's house next door spilled onto the wooden floor.
Sandra gripped the sill and pulled the window closed, shaking her head at her daughter's escalating carelessness. It had to be forty degrees in that room. It would take all night to warm it up. She wondered how any teenager managed to survive to adulthood.
"Katelyn Melissa, you're going to catch a cold!"
Sandra walked past the unmade bedthe one that looked good only on Sundays when she changed the sheets. Katelyn's jeans and black Penney's topa Marc Jacobs knockoffwere heaped on the floor.
What a colossal mess.
The bathroom door was open a sliver and Sandra, still freezing, pushed it aside. Aromatherapy candles flickered.
"What are you thinking?" she asked, her tone harsh and demanding.
Katelyn wasn't thinking at all.
The fifteen-year-old was slumped over the edge of the old claw-foot tub, her eyes tiny shards of broken glass, her expression void of anything. Her long, wet hair dripped onto the floor.
Instinct took over and Sandra lunged in the direction of her daughter, slipping on the wet floor and falling. As she reached for the rim of the tub, she yelled, "I could have broken my neck! What's going on
No answer, to a very stupid question.
Sandra, her heart racing and the rum now gnawing at the walls of her stomach, tried to steady herself in the candlelight. She tasted blood. Her own. She'd cut her lip when she'd fallen, and several red drops trickled to the floor. She felt tears, fear, and panic as she looked at Katelyn in the faint candlelight. Her lifeless daughter. It was so very hard to see with the lights out. Katelyn's dark-brown hair, highlighted by a home kit, hung limp, curling over the edge of the tub. One arm was askew, as if flailing at something unseen.
The other was hidden in the sudsy water.
"Katie. Katie. Katie!" With each repetition of her daughter's name, Sandra's voice grew louder. By the third utterance, it was a scream that probably could be heard all over Port Gamble.
Katelyn Melissa Berkley, just fifteen, was dead.
"It can't be," Sandra said, tears now streaming down her face. She was woozy. Sick. Scared. She wanted to call for Harper, but she knew he was gone. She was alone in the house where the unthinkable had occurred. She slipped again as she pulled at Katelyn's shoulders, white where the cold air had cooled them, pinkish in the still hot bathwater. Two-tone. Like a strawberry dipped in white chocolate.
Katelyn had loved white chocolate. Even though Sandra had insisted it wasn't really chocolate at all.
"Baby, what happened?" Instinctively, Sandra turned off the slowly rising water. "Tell me you're going to be all right!"
At first, Sandra only heard dead silence. Then the quiet drip, drip, drip of the tub's leaky faucet. There was no answer to her question. There never could be. Never again.
Sandra shook her daughter violently, a reflex that she hadn't had since Katelyn was a little girl and had lied about something so inconsequential that the terrified mother couldn't retrieve the full memory of what had made her so angry.
As she spun around to go for a phone, Sandra Berkley noticed there was something else in the tub. It was hard to see. It was so dark in that bathroom. Through her thickening veil of tears, she leaned over and scooted the suds away.
The mini espresso machine.
Her eyes followed the electrical cord. Like a cobra that had recoiled in to strike, the plug sat upright, still firmly snug in the wall outlet at the side of the tub.
In small towns like Port Gamble, Washington, news travels fast. 4G fast. Within moments of the reverberating echoes of Sandra Berkley's anguished screams, residents had begun to gather outside the tidy red house with white trim and pineapple shutters. Christmas lights of white, green, and red sparkled in the icy night air. A passerby might have mistaken the gathering for a large group of carolers.
Port Gamble was that kind of place. At least, it tried to be.
An ambulance siren wailed down the highway from Kingston, growing louder with each second.
That the teenager had died was known by everyone. What exactly happened, no one was certain.
Someone in the crowd whispered that Katelyn had fallen in the tub and split her head open. Another suggested that the girl had "issues" of some sort and had taken her own life.
"Maybe she offed herself? Kids do that a lot these days. You know, one final grasp for attention."
"I dunno . She didn't seem the type."
"Kids are hard to read."
"True enough, but even so, I don't think she was the kind of girl who would hurt herself."
Scenes of sudden tragedy have their macabre pecking order when it comes to who stands where. Closest to the doorway were those who knew and loved the dead girl: her mother, father, a cousin or two. In the next wave were the friends, the church pastor, and a police deputy, who was there to make sure that the scene stayed orderly. Beyond that were casual acquaintances, neighbors, even the occasional lookie loo who was on the scene because it was better than a rerun of one of the various incarnations of Real Housewives .
There was a time when Hayley and Taylor Ryan might have been in the grouping closest to the Berkleys ' front door. Though they were no longer that close, the twins had grown up with Katelyn. As it often seems to be, middle school became the great divider. What had once been a deep bond shared by three girls had been shattered by jealousy and the petty gossip that predictably turns friends into enemies.
What happened among the trio was nothing that couldn't have faded by the end of high school. The girls could have reclaimed the friendship they'd had back in the days when they used to joke about Colton James's stupid sports T-shirts, which he wore every single day in fifth grade.
"Only a loser would support the Mariners," Katelyn had once said, looking over at Colton as he stood in defiance, his scrawny arms wrapped around his small chest, nodding as if he were defending his team.
But that was then. A million years ago, it seemed. Since then, Port Gamble's youths had grown into pubescent teenagers. Taylor and Hayley, still mirror images of each other, had blonde hair, blue eyes, and the occasional pimple. Colton had traded in sports T-shirts for '80s relic rock bands' insignias and was dating Hayley. And Katelyn was dead.
"When was the last time you actually talked to her?" Hayley asked, already trying to piece together what had happened.
Taylor brushed aside her annoying bangs, which she was growing out, and shook her head.
"Not sure." A puff of white vapor came with Taylor's warm breath. "Last month, I guess."
"Do you think she was depressed? I read somewhere that suicide rates are highest at Christmas."
Taylor shook her head. "Depressed? How would I know?"
"You have a better pulse on the social scene than I do," Hayley said matter-of-factly. "They're saying she killed herself because she was upset about something."
"Was Katelyn still cutting?"
Hayley looked surprised. "You knew about that too?"
"Duh," Taylor said, wishing that she'd brought gloves like her sister had. Taylor's fingertips were numb. "Everyone knew. Dylan, that sophomore with a shaved head and earlobes he's been gouging since Halloween, called her Cut- lin last week."
Hayley looked down at the icy pavement and said quietly, " Oh . . . I was under the impression she had stopped."
Taylor shook her head, then shrugged her shoulders. "I remember her telling people that she liked cutting. Liked how it made her feel in control."
"That doesn't make sense. Cutting made her feel in control of what?"
"She never said."
The crowd contracted to make room for a gurney. Covered from head to toe was the figure of the dead girl. Some people could scarcely bear the sight and they turned away. It felt invasive. Sad. Wrong to even look.
The ambulance, its lights rotating red flashes over the bystanders, pulled away. There was no real urgency in its departure. No sirens. Nothing. Just the quiet slinking away like the tide.
A few moments later, the crowd surged a little as the door opened and Port Gamble Police Chief Annie Garnett's imposing frame loomed in the doorway. She wore a dark wool skirt and jacket, with a knitted scarf around her thick neck. She had long, dark hair that was pulled back. In a voice that cracked a little, Chief Garnett told everyone they should go home.
"Tragedy here tonight," she said, her voice unable to entirely mask her emotions. Annie was a big woman, with baseball-mitt hands, a deep, resonant voice, and a soft spot for troubled young girls. Katelyn's death would be hard on her, especially if it turned out to be a suicide.
Hayley nudged her sister, who had started to cry. "We probably should go home, Tay ," she said gently.
In that instant, shock had turned to anguish. Hayley's eyes also welled up, and she ignored a text from her boyfriend, Colton, who was out of town and missing the biggest thing to happen in Port Gamble since the devastating bus crash. The twins looked over the crowd to see the faces of their friends and neighbors.
Hayley jammed her hands inside her coat pockets. No Kleenex. She dried her eyes with a soggy gloved fingertip. It could not have been colder just then. The air was ice. She hugged her sister.
"I feel sick," Taylor said.
"Me too," Hayley agreed. Curiosity piercing through her emotions, she added, "I want to know what happened to her and why."
"Why do you think she did it?" Taylor asked.
"Did what?" Hayley argued levelly. "We don't know what happened."
"I'm just saying what they're saying." Taylor indicated those in the outer ring of grief, just beyond their own.
"I'd rather know how . I mean, really, an espresso machine in the bathtub? That's got to be a first ever."
Taylor nodded, brushing away her tears. She could see the absurdity of it all. "Some snarky blogger is going to say this is proof that coffee isn't good for you."
"And write a headline like ' port gamble girl meets bitter end ,'" Hayley added.
The spaces in the crowd began to shrink as people pushed forward. All were completely unaware that someone was watching them. All of them. Someone in their midst was enjoying the tragic scene that had enveloped Port Gamble as its residents shivered in the frigid air off the bay.
Loving the sad moment to the very last drop.
some say Port Gamble was cursed from the moment they came. The S'Klallam Indian tribe had made its home on the bay's shores for hundreds of years, finding food from the sea, shelter from storms, and the tranquility that eluded other isolated locations along the Pacific's rugged coastlines.
The place, the earth, the universe was in perfect harmony.
The way it was always supposed to be.
And then the early explorers arrived at the jagged edge of Hood Canal, an offshoot of the Pacific Ocean that pokes into Washington with the force of an ice pick.
That was a century and a half ago, a very long time by West Coast standards. The sawmill , located below the bluff on which the town was built, was still the source of most of Port Gamble's jobs and its pungent clouds of smoke. Green hats (those who actually worked in the mill) and white hats (those who told the greenies what to do) coexisted happily in the town's company-owned neighborhoods of centuries-old homes.
Homes were known by number.
Taylor and Hayley Ryan lived in number 19, the last house in Port Gamble before the highway's march along the bay toward Kingston, the nearest town of any size. A two-story chocolate brown and white structure built in 1859 that had been added on to at least four times, number 19 was the oldest house in Washington State to be continually inhabited. It was drafty, quirky, and certainly loved more than most rentals.
The conversation in that particular house was likely the same as others were having throughout Port Gamble that fateful night.
Maybe not exactly.
The Ryan family gathered around the old pine kitchen table. And despite the fact that it was Christmas night, the subject that held their attention wasn't the gifts they'd received (a Bobbi Brown makeup collection for Taylor and a forensics book, The Science & History of the Dead , for Hayley) All they could think about was Katelyn Berkley and how it was that she had come to die that night in the bathtub.
Kevin Ryan, the twins' father, was about to celebrate his thirty-eighth birthday and had taken to doing sit-ups every night and half-hour jogs around town. The girls had never known a time when their dad, a true-crime writer, wasn't poking around an evidence box, hanging out with cops or prosecutors, or, best of all, visiting some lowlife killer in prison. Every year at Christmas time, their mailbox was filled with cards from baby killers, stranglers, and arsonists.
Have a Merry Christmas!
Don't do anything I wouldn't do!
Their mother, Valerie, worked as a psychiatric nurse at a state mental hospital near Seattle. Hayley thought her parents had a symbiotic relationship since her dad seemed to rely on her mom as a human wiki when he was trying to figure out the psychos he was writing about.
Valerie was a stunning blonde with brown eyes and delicate features. In elementary school, Taylor always thought her mom was the prettiest one in Port Gamble. Over time, she learned that her mother was also smart and accomplishedand that a person's true character is more important than how she or he looks.
Except on TV, of course.
Valerie blew on her hot chocolatemade with real milk, sugar, and cocoa powderscooting the froth to one side so she could drink it without getting a chocolate moustache. "What did Chief Garnett say?"
"Not much," Kevin answered. "I mean, just that it was probably an accident."
Valerie raised an eyebrow and passed out some candy canes. "I don't see how. Honestly, Kevin, small kitchen appliances don't get into a bathtub all by themselves."
Kevin nodded in agreement and looked across the table at the girls, who'd endured a blizzard of text messages from friends about their suspicions of what happened to Katelyn. "Was she upset about something? Do you guys know anything?"
Taylor hated cocoa but loved her mom too much to say anything. She stirred the steamy liquid with her candy cane. The only thing that could make homemade hot chocolate worse was a candy cane.
"Nah. Katie is"
" Was ," Hayley corrected, always precise.
Taylor looked at her sister. "Right. Was . Anyways, Katie was super mad about something."
"She allegedly had a boyfriend. I mean"Hayley quickly corrected herself when Taylor shot her an exasperated look"that's what I heard. But I never met him. We didn't really talk to each other in school."
Kevin sipped his cocoa. "This has nonfat milk in it, right, Val?"
She nodded, turning to the girls and winking. "Yes, honey. Nonfat."
The Ryans rinsed their mugs, and Kevin turned off the oversize multicolored lights that decorated the large, airy Douglas fir that filled the front window of the living room.
"Sure doesn't feel like Christmas around Port Gamble," he said, looking out the window at the street and the bay beyond it.
"I couldn't imagine being without you girls," Valerie said.
That was a little bit of a lie. There was a time when she had come very close to knowing exactly how Sandra Berkley was feeling right then. Hayley and Taylor had come within a breath of dying, an event that no one in the family ever really talked about. It was too painful and too fragile, like a crackly scab that had never fully healed.
No one knew it right then, but someone was about to pick at that scab, and when they did, many who lived in Port Gamble would face fears and consequences they'd never imagined.
HAYLEY AND tAYLOR HAD SHARED A BEDROOM in house number 19 all through elementary school. It was big enough to accommodate two cribs, then later twin beds with matching sheets and identical duvets. Theirs was the larger of two upstairs bedrooms in the place they'd lived in since their parents brought them home from Harrison Medical Center in nearby Bremerton.
Their father had used the second, smaller bedroom as his office to decent effect. Kevin Ryan's most successful crime book at that time, Gorgeous and Deadly the true story of a beauty queen who'd murdered six of her rivals by poisoning them with strawberries dipped in chocolate and laced with rat poisonhad been written there.
He always told his girls, "If only these walls could talk . . . the world would know just how hard it is to tell the truth in a story in which everyone's a liar."
But the walls didn't talk.
One afternoon when the twins were in seventh grade, their best friend, Beth Lee, goaded them into asking for their own rooms. She sipped from a sports bottlethough she didn't play any sportsas the trio sat in the Ryans ' family room watching a plastic surgery show on the Discovery Channel.
"People at school think you're weird for sharing a room," Beth said before the girl on TV went under the knife for a nose job.
"How could anyone at school possibly know?" Hayley asked.
Beth shrugged her knobby shoulders. "I might have mentioned it."
Taylor rolled her eyes. "'Course you did."
"I'm just looking out for you, Hay- Tay ," Beth said, refusing to call the girls by their individual names.
"The other room is ridiculously small. Besides, it's Dad's office," Hayley concluded.
"Take turns. Who cares? It is almost Siamese-twin creepy that you two can't be apart."
Taylor's face went red. "Can too."
"Someone's upset," Beth provoked. "Wonder why that is? Maybe because someone else is right? As usual."
The twins didn't argue, but that night they convinced their dad to move his work station downstairs. Then they flipped a coin and Taylor got the little room. They hated being apart, but they despised the idea of Beth Lee blabbing at school that they were weird.
Weren't twins supposed to be close, after all?
They moved their bedsheadboard to headboardto the inside wall, where an old power outlet had been plated over on either side. The single screw that held each plate in place was nearly threadbare. It took only the slightest touch to swivel it aside. It wasn't an intercom system, but it functioned like one. At night when their parents were downstairs, the sisters would talk about the things that troubled them: boys, Beth Lee, the weirdos their dad wrote about, the pasta dish that their mother didn't know they absolutely hated, and the odd feelings and visions that came to them at inexplicable times. Those were harder to discuss because putting the unthinkable, the unbelievable, into words was extremely difficult.
How does one really describe a feeling? Or how can one know something with absolute certainty that one shouldn't, couldn't, possibly know?
There were differences In THE TWINS, of course. They might have come from a split egg, but that didn't mean they were identical beyond their carbon-copy genetics. Physical similarities aside, the girls were distinct and unwavering in their likes and dislikes.
Hayley leaned toward alternative music. She loved homegrown northwest bands like Modest Mouse, Fleet Foxes, and old-school Sleater -Kinney anything off the beaten path, out of the mainstream. While their friend Beth gravitated toward whatever music was hot and trendy, Hayley was more interested in finding meaning and real, genuine voices.
If Taylor measured things in emotion, Hayley looked at ways to quantify life. Analytical in nature, her head almost always overruled her heart. Love it? Hate it? She wanted to know it. Her drive to know something at its very root was likely the reason the boy next door, Colton James, fell for her.
Taylor's intelligence wasn't as logic-based; it was more intuitive. She liked a color because it made her feel good, not because it made her eyes look pretty. She prided herself on being outspoken and socially consciousoften flip-flopping with vegetarianism, risking ridicule from Hayley. Words came easily to her, as opposed to her shier, more introspective twin.
But despite their differences, something more than mere twinship always bonded them together.
From her bed, TAYLOR WATCHED A BOAT decorated with a Christmas tree on the bow glide across Port Gamble Bay toward the mill. It being Christmas night, the scene was deathly quiet. A faint plume of steam rose above the sprawling site with its rusty, tin-roofed shacks, a near-empty parking lot, and logs stacked everywhere like Jenga on ' roids . Taylor may have had the smallest room, but it offered the best view in the house. The boat, an old tug, left a trail of foam in its wake. It curled and undulated on the glassy black surface of the water. She sat up and stared at it more intently, her heart starting to beat a little faster.
On the water were the letters:
Knowing this was one of those inexplicable moments, she turned, lifted the outlet plate, and called to her sister. "Hayley, come here! You gotta see something."
"I'm tired," Hayley said. "I've already seen that hideous scarf Aunt Jolene got you."
Taylor spiked an exasperated sigh with a sense of urgency. "Nope, not it. Come. Now. "
A beat later, Hayley stood in the doorway and Taylor pointed out the window.
"Yeah, so it's a boat with a pretty Christmas tree." Hayley narrowed her brow and shot an impatient look at her twin.
"Check out the water behind the tug."
"Can't you just tell me what I'm looking for, Taylor?"
Hayley glanced at her sister and then back at the bay. She looked more closely and nodded. The word on the water had morphed a little, but it was as clear as if a child had scrawled it on a tar-soaked pavement with a fat piece of chalk.
"What do you think it means?" Hayley asked.
Taylor drew back the curtain to widen the view, and then turned to face her sister. "It's about Katelyn. I feel it."
Hayley's blue eyes, identical to her sister's down to the golden flecks that speckled her irises, stared hard, searching. "What about her? Where are we supposed to look? And at what?"
Taylor shook her head. "Don't know."
They stood there a moment as the December wind kicked up and erased the message on the water.
"That scarf is pretty atrocious, Taylor."
"Yeah, it is majorly fugly . I'll wear it once for Aunt Jolene. Then I'll ditch it on the bus. I'm just saying . . ."
Neither girl knew it right then, but the night Katelyn Berkley died was the beginning of something that would change everything.
Every. Single. Thing.
The day after Christmas In pORT GAMBLE was completely out of whack. Certainly, some things seemed the same on the surface. Plastic bags of gift-wrapping and ribbon were stuffed in alleyways or burned on the sly in backyard fire pits. Children re-examined their haul with an eye toward who'd given them the best gift and who'd screwed them over with something that wasn't even worth returning. A few shoppers descended on the town to make the most difficult of returns: handcrafted items. It was hard to say a pair of mittens was the wrong size or the painted jacquard stemware was something one already had.
As the artist accepted the returns, the lies were told. On both sides.
"I love them, but I have six pairs already."
"I have a matching hat that you might like to go with it."
"I wish I had known. I just bought one yesterday."
Nothing was open on Christmas Day. Another lie.
The mittens were, indeed, ugly.
Lies on both sides. That happened in shops and households all
Sandra and Harper Berkley had a Christmas holiday that not a soul on earth would want. Their daughter was dead. Gone. She was in the chiller at the Kitsap County morgue in Port Orchard waiting for the indignity of a knife tip down her skin, a saw through her skull, and the cool voice of the county's forensic pathologist as she gently picked through the flesh and bone of what had once been a beautiful girl.
And while it was the end of Katelyn's life, it was the start of something else.
Katelyn was Sandra's last great hope. And a kitchen appliance in the bathtub had stolen it from her. She surveyed her situation and dealt with her disappointment and heartache the best way she could.
She threw a poison-tipped dart at Harper.
"You know, if we didn't have that stupid restaurant, you'd have been around more."
He shook his head. He'd expected her attack. "Everyone works, Sandy. Are you really going to blame me for Katelyn's death?"
"Daughters need their fathers."
Harper stared hard at his wife, weighing a rebuttal that would drive the point home without setting her off. "They also need a sober mother."
It was the wrong response.
Sandra balled up her fist and jabbed at Harper. He stepped back, his wobbly wife no match for his still-agile reflexes. When the emotion of the moment cooled enough for her to realize what she'd done, Sandra started to cry.
Harper put his arms around her and cried too.
They'd been bonded by the joy of the birth of their daughter. She'd been the glue that held them together when their marriage was at its most fragile.
As they lay in bed in the early morning hours after their daughter had died, Sandra cried quietly into her pillow. Her eyes were red, a color borne of agonizing grief and too much alcohol. She wondered how Harper could find enough solace to actually sleep.
Yet, Harper was far from asleep. He was only pretending to avoid talking to Sandra. Everything out of her mouth was tinged with anger and blame. Sandra was that kind of person: bitter, jealous, and completely unsatisfied with her lot in life. Where some might have found pleasure from seeing the joy on others' faces, Sandra merely wondered why God hadn't given her whatever it was that they had.
A new car.
A bigger house.
Diamonds instead of CZs.
The happiness that came with relationships.
A daughter who would lift her out of Port Gamble.
Side by side in silence, both wondered if the death of their daughter would bring them closer.
Or would it be the excuse they'd sought to end their marriage?
All over Port Gamble, the young, the old, and those close and distant to Katelyn thought about her. As she lay on her bed and typed on her laptop, Taylor Ryan could see the inky water of Port Gamble Bay. She had been overcome by emotion in a way that seemed more painful than cathartic. Her eyes finally stopped raining.
She IM'd Beth:
I FEEL SELFISH. 4COL! SEMZ RONG 2 GRIEVE 4 K & B GR8FUL 4 MY LYF & MY SISTER'S LYF. I KNOW ACDNTS HPN EVRY DY. I ALSO KNW DAT K WZ L .
On the other hand, Hayley didn't fight her thoughts about Katelyn. She let them tumble from her, texting her ponderings to Colton about what could possibly have led to this very moment.
KATELYN WAS IMPLODING OVER STARLA. SEEMS SO UNFAIR. INSTEAD OF GETTING HELP, SHE WAS SHOVED ASIDE LIKE TRASH. PEOPLE AREN'T TRASH. NO ONE DESERVES TO BE DISSED LIKE THAT. KATELYN JUST WANTED STARLA TO LIKE HER AGAIN. I KNOW SOME PEOPLE THINK THAT KATELYN HAD SOME KIND OF GIRL CRUSH ON STARLA, BUT THAT'S NOT TRUE. THAT'S JUST THE KIND OF THING MEAN GIRLS SAY TO MAKE EVERYONE LAUGH .
Night owls Beth Lee and her mother, Kim, were still very much awake in house number 25 on Olympian Avenue. While they watched late-evening TV together (something that Kim said provided mother-daughter bonding time), Beth got out her phone and started texting. She was a facile texter , easily keeping an eye glued to the movie and the other on the task at hand. Every once in a while, Kim would chuckle and pat her daughter on the leg, and Beth would pause her texting to make eye contact. The minute Kim looked over at the screen, Beth would start up again.
MIGHT NOT ACT L BUT I AM. DON'T DO L WELL. MAKS MY IZ PUFF ^ N L%K EVN SMALR THN THYRE. COUNSELOR AMY : -p! SAID I MASK MY FEELINGS W/SARCASM. SAW K'S MOM CRYING. THINK WE ALL LET K DOWN.
As her husband buzz saw-snored next to her, Valerie Ryan said a silent prayer. She wanted to send something out into the universe that would provide some healing. She was a believer in the power of a positive message.
Katelyn, stay close to your mom and dad. They need you and they will never stop loving you. Where we are living now is not the end of things. You aren't dust. You aren't alive only in a memory.
Almost two hundred miles away in Portland, Colton James felt sick to his stomach about what had transpired just a few doors down from his house in Port Gamble. He wasn't stunned about it, like his mother and father were. Colton had seen Katelyn over the past few months as she declined from a reasonably upbeat, moody teenager to a more sullen and distracted person. He read the text message from Hayley and texted back. Usually he was a brief texter , just a few words or even a solitary letter to convey what he wanted to say. This time he wrote out his thoughts more fully. He wanted to share. He needed to make a point.
I'M BUMMED ABOUT HER 2. SHE WZ WEIRD LATELY, BUT ALW NICE 2 ME & MY MOM. SHE 1CE GOT MY MOM'S PAMPERED CHEF PIZZA CRAP @ HER HOUSE. SHE MADE 4 KINDS OF PIZZA W/MY MOM. SHE REALLY LYKD KATELYN. SAID SHE WZ SPECIAL. WISH WE CUD TURN BACK TYM & CHNG THE 1 LIL THING
THAT WUD CHNG EVRYTING. DUM, RIGHT? THINGS LYK THAT CAN'T HPN.
Next door to the Berkleys , Starla Larsen picked up her phone and touched the Facebook icon. There were lots of messages posted about Katelyn on her wall, as well as just about every other wall belonging to anyone who attended Kingston High. She went over to Katelyn's wall. Starla hadn't been there in a while.
Katelyn's profile picture was of the two of them together, taken when they were Girl Scout Daisies. Both little girls were smiling widely to show off their missing front teeth. Starla hated that photograph for the longest time, but just then it brought a sad smile to her face. She decided she should weigh in with a post on Katelyn's wall too. She liked to post snarky things about people and then add a smiley face to act like she was joking when she really wasn't. She knew she did that because other kids expected her to be sharp, funny, and a little caustic; it was because of the way she lookedshe was better than just pretty.
SO L ABOUT KATIE. DON'T KNOW HOW I WILL SLEEP 2NIGHT. THE WORLD WAS NEVER VERY KIND 2 HER. HUGS 2U, KATIE.
Starla reached for the nail-polish remover while she sat there for a while watching the "Likes" come one after another. Several kids posted comments too.
WE'RE THINKING OF U, STARLA.
KATIE SEEMED SWEET. WISH I KNEW HER BTR.
WORLD SUX BIG TIME.
LUV U, STAR! BE STRONG!
Starla looked over at her cache of Sephora nail lacquers set up like a ten-pin bowling alley. In the back she saw the green polish that she and Katelyn had used in eighth grade when they each bought bottles and decided to glam up for St. Patrick's Day. The color was more evergreen than kelly . The memory brought a genuine smile to her face as she turned the Rimmel London bottle in her hands. The color was called Envy.
Tears came to Starla's crystal-blue eyes, brought on by a mix of regret, sorrow, and guilt.
I'm so sorry, Katie , she said to herself. I wish you knew that.
And finally, not far away, one person got online and started deleting the contents of a file folder marked katelyn . Inside were copies of e-mails, messages, and photographs that had meant to trap and hurt the girl. Each item had been designed as payback.
It was the destiny OF A PLACE LIKE PORT GAMBLE. It snowed hard after Christmas. The land management company that kept the town in pristine and marketable form would have offered up a virgin (if there was one handy, that is) to have a little snow sprinkle the town the week before the holidays when it had its annual old-fashioned Christmas celebration, "In the St. Nick of Time." But no such luck. It had been cold, wet, and rainy. When the snow finally came, it dumped five inchesa blizzard by western Washington standards. If school had been in session, it easily would have been canceled.
Kids in the area were annoyed about the timing of it all as well. Snow was no good to them if it didn't mean a snow day or two. They were already on vacation. It was an utter waste of an arctic blast.
Hayley and Taylor trudged through the snow to hang out with Beth Lee for the afternoon. Beth and her boyfriend, Zander Tomlinson, had broken up the day before Christmas and, with Katelyn Berkley's unexpected death, the topic outside of rampant text messages had been tabled.
"I had no choice but to drop him," Beth told them, elaborating on her text message: Dumped Z. Deets L8r .
Hayley was the first to pounce. "What did you mean you dumped him? Clearly, you had a choice."
Beth, who seemed fixated on a zit on her chin, didn't look at the twins as she spoke. She sat on the floor in front of the fireplace with a mirror in her hand and a pair of tweezers in the other. "I found a really cute dress and I had to have it."
"Yeah?" Taylor said, taking a seat on the Lees' way-too-big-for-the-room brown velvet sectional in house number 25. "Go on."
Beth tightened her chin and picked at her pimple. "I didn't have any money left over. I knew he was going to get me something for Christmas and I didn't have a thing to give him. So I dumped him. Called him from the mall and said I wasn't feeling it anymore."
Taylor shook her head. "You're so not kidding? You dumped him because you spent your Christmas cash?"
Beth looked up. "Yeah. So what? I'd rather hurt him than look stupid or cheap."
"Right," Taylor said. "Looking cheap or selfish is way worse than hurting someone. He really liked you!"
Beth ignored the sarcasm and Hayley spoke up. "I hate to say it, but you're acting like Starla , Beth."
"I'll take that as kind of a compliment," she said.
"It wasn't meant to be a positive reflection on you or the situation."
"Whatever. Anyway, I heard something about her," Beth said, changing the subject like she was baiting a hook.
Of course Starla Larsen-centric gossip was always good. She was the Port Gamble girl everyone love-hated.
Taylor leaned forward expectantly. "Are you gonna tell us or what? Just pop that disgusting zit already and spill it!"
"That's so gross," Beth said. "And kind of mean." She waited a beat, watching the twins, measuring their interest in all she had to say. The hook had been set.
" Starla and Katelyn had a major falling out," she finally said.
"How major?" Taylor asked.
"Big time. Before she died, Katelyn told her mother that she hated Starla and that she wished Starla was dead or something."
This time Hayley pressed for more. Her father would have been proud. "How do you know she said that?"
Beth rotated the hand mirror to get a better look at herself . "I heard Mrs. Larsen and Mrs. Berkley talking a few weeks ago. They were in the store buying coffee or hairspray or whatever it is women of their age need to get through the day. Mrs. Larsen was defending Starla , saying that it had been a big misunderstanding. But Mrs. Berkley wasn't having any of it."
Beth stopped talking. Her face beamed with a satisfied grin. "Got it," she said, as she held out her tweezers. "Popped and no nasty hole. Who wants something to eat?"
Hayley and Taylor, thoroughly grossed out by what they'd seen, shook their heads in unison.
"That's it? Was there more?" Taylor asked, pushing.
"I really didn't listen, Taylor," Beth said, clearly ready to move on from the Starla /Katelyn drama. "I saw that new kid Eli there, and I was trying to get him to notice me."
Taylor smiled to herself and looked at her sister. Despite Beth's constant need to be aloof, pretending indifference all the time, she knew who was who. "Hay- Tay " had always been her way of pretending to put up a wall. So what if Beth was completely self-absorbed? She was also an astute judge of what was worth passing along and when. They liked her.
Besides, in Port Gamble there weren't a lot of choices for the mantle of best friend.
"But, Beth, didn't you really like Zander ?" Hayley asked. "Of all your boyfriends, he seemed to stay in your good graces the longest."
"And that's no easy feat," Taylor added.
Beth curled up on the couch. "Is this pick-on-me time or what?"
"No, not at all," Hayley said.
Beth shrugged a little. "Too bad. I like it when you tease me a little. Makes me feel kind of like I'm the third twin," she said, pausing a beat. "The smart one. The pretty one."
Both twins knew there was some truth to that. Not that Beth was prettier or smarter, but that Beth was sometimes lonely being an only child. They'd never known a moment when they hadn't had each other.
"You can be whatever you want to be, Beth. But please, promise that next time you'll pay attention when you're in the vicinity of some good info."
Beth smiled. "All right. And I'll make sure that you're two of the top ten people I'll tell first."
Hayley's and Taylor's phones buzzed.
"That must be Mom," Hayley said. "She's spamming us with mass texts."
Taylor looked at the message from their mother and closed the phone. She looked a little upset, but she tried to hide it as she slid the phone back into her pocket.
"What's up?" Beth asked, watching Hayley as she shut her phone with the same kind of reaction.
"A reporter found out that Katelyn was in the crash," Hayley explained. "She's writing a story about Katelyn, her death, and the crash."
Again, the crash.
"Freak! Haven't they milked that one for all it's worth by now?" Beth asked.
"Not from this angle," Taylor said. "Katelyn surviving the crash only to die now makes her death even sadder."
Inside, she could feel her heart rate escalate. The idea of reliving the crash, talking about it, and having others talk about it again made her feel sick to her stomach too. It was funny how the word crash could have that strange effect on her. It didn't have to be the crash. Just any crash. It wasn't because the memories of what happened were so awful to relive.
It was because neither she nor her sister had any recollections whatsoever of what happened that rainy afternoon all those years ago.
Not a single one.
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