Read an Excerpt
The Secrets Within
I felt different today, and I didn’t know why.
Was it that I was wrapped in a little girl’s princess comforter and matching pink sheets? Was it the always-present warmth that filled Lily’s house? For some reason, I felt younger. Watched over. Part of my best friend’s family.
I liked the feeling.
I snuggled under Lily’s little sister’s comforter, as the morning sun poked through the eyelet-lace curtains and formed kaleidoscope patterns on the walls. Every window in the Randazzos’ huge Victorian house was draped with the same curtains. Lily hated them. Too frilly. Not cool. But I liked how the curtains were all alike. They made the big house cozy.
So unlike my own house.
My house creaked with strange noises. The air hung damp and chilly, and, although Dad and Lady Azura were always there with me, it never felt cozy, because we were never alone. There were others. Some came and went, while others lingered. Not everyone could see them, but I always knew they were there.
You might be wondering who they were.
“Do you know what I’m thinking?” Lily asked, her long, dark hair falling in a tangle around her face. Her big brown eyes glinted mischievously at me from across the room.
“No.” I stifled a yawn. We’d stayed up really late talking. Mostly about Jayden, my sort of, kind of first boyfriend, who had moved back to Atlanta. Did that make him my ex-boyfriend? I had wondered. But according to Lily, since Jayden and I were never officially going out, we never officially broke up when he moved. We just sort of said good-bye and promised to keep in touch. We’d been texting off and on, but it wasn’t the same. Lily was convinced I’d meet a new boy in no time . . . she managed to change her crushes practically weekly . . . but I wasn’t so sure. It had taken me twelve years to meet one Jayden. What were the odds I’d meet another one anytime soon?
I pushed myself up and faced Lily, who was stretching in her bed. Lily’s four-year-old sister, Cammie, gave me her bed whenever I slept over. She always made a big drama of it, but I knew Cammie was secretly thrilled. My bed takeover was the perfect excuse to spend the night tucked between her parents.
“Come on,” Lily scoffed. “You so know what I’m thinking, Sara.” She raised her thick eyebrows and gave me a knowing stare.
I gulped. I’d thought we were done with that. “I don’t know.”
“Try harder,” Lily coaxed. “Focus.”
“I can’t do that anymore,” I protested. “The mind reading was a one-time thing. Really,” I insisted. “I hate talking about this.”
“Whoa!” Lily raised her arms in protest. “I was totally not going there. I was just thinking how we should challenge my lame little brothers to a pancake-eating contest. That’s all.”
“Oh.” Color flamed my cheeks. I felt heat rise around my ears.
Lily swung her legs onto the floor. “You should trust me. I mean, I promised to never mention the mind reading, right?”
“I’m sorry,” I said lamely. And I was. Truly. Lily had been my best friend ever since I’d moved to Stellamar last year. She’d stuck by me through a lot of weird stuff and never questioned me. I knew she was the real deal. Lily was loyal and never judged me. “You always keep promises,” I told her. “I’m just really tired. And hungry. I bet I can down more pancakes than you.”
“You’re on!” Lily hurried out the door with me at her heels. And like that, my weirdness was forgotten. As always.
Recently, right before my birthday, she’d figured out I could read people’s minds. She’d seen it happen, right before her eyes. I avoided talking about it, hoping and praying she hadn’t put it all together . . . but she had, of course. When she finally asked me about it, I was sure she would flip out. Not want to be my friend anymore. But when I explained that the mind reading was a borrowed power—a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-happen-again strange thing—she vowed to keep it between us. And she did. She never told Miranda or Avery or Tamara or any of the other girls at our lunch table, girls she’d known years before I showed up. She kept my secret because we were best friends.
Sometimes I wonder if I should’ve trusted her with the whole truth about me.
The whole truth is, I can do other things. Other supernatural things. Lots of other supernatural things. I can still read minds, too, if I wanted to, but I’ve learned how to block that power because believe me, it’s way more trouble than it’s worth. The other stuff I can’t block. I’m not sure anymore that I’d even want to.
I think a lot about telling her, but I’m pretty positive that even she would be weirded out by what I can do. After all, my powers weird me out.
“Good morning, sleepyheads!” Mr. Randazzo boomed as we entered the kitchen. He stood at the stove. His wife’s frilly floral apron tied haphazardly around his waist was a stark contrast to his torn jeans and Bruce Springsteen concert T-shirt. “A tall or short stack?”
“Tall, for sure!” Lily answered for both of us. Cammie was coloring at the large oak table, and her mother, already dressed for the day in a blue shirtdress, typed on a laptop next to her. The thump of a ball hitting a baseball glove floated through the open window. “The little beasts?” Lily asked.
“Yes, your three brothers are already outside causing chaos,” her dad replied as he furiously whisked pancake batter in a white ceramic bowl.
“Sam! It’s getting everywhere!” Mrs. Randazzo cried.
Mr. Randazzo glanced at the batter-splattered counter and shrugged. “That’s what the sponge is for. You see, girls, the secret to great pancakes is the wrist motion. Quick flicks.” He demonstrated and the batter erupted, dripping over the edge of the bowl onto the already dirty counter.
Lily’s mom started to stand.
“No!” her dad cried. “Lily, make her stay put. It’s her day, after all.”
Lily’s eyes grew wide with sudden realization. She leaped forward and wrapped her mother in a massive hug. “Happy Mother’s Day to you!” she sang to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” Lily loved holidays. She made a big deal out of even Groundhog Day and Arbor Day. Lily sang her song all the way through, and Cammie joined in.
I stood awkwardly by the table. Mrs. Randazzo wasn’t my mother. I stayed silent and watched. I’d forgotten it was Mother’s Day. It wasn’t a holiday I ever circled on the calendar.
Lily gently guided her mom back into her chair. “Dad has it under control.”
“So he says.” She glanced dubiously at the batter dotting her husband’s wavy black hair, then at the dishes stacked precariously in the sink. She fingered the sticky table where earlier the boys had dripped syrup. “Maybe I’ll just—”
“Just relax,” Mr. Randazzo ordered. “I’ve got this. It’s Mother’s Day. Lily and Sara, entertain her. Distract her. Anything. Please.”
“Are you working on the fund-raiser?” Lily slid into the chair next to her mother and purposely blocked the view of Mr. Randazzo’s backhanded pancake flip.
“I’m making a chart of all the donations.” Mrs. Randazzo and Lily shared the same thick dark hair, olive skin, and high cheekbones. I often thought Lily looked like a mini version of her mom. Everyone says I look like my mom too, with our blond hair and light-blue eyes. Lily’s mom turned to me as if noticing I was there for the first time. “Cammie, scoot down and make room for Sara.”
“I should just go.” I took a tentative step backward. I didn’t want to leave, but it was Mother’s Day, after all. I didn’t belong here. “It’s a family holiday and . . .”
“Oh, get over here, silly.” Mrs. Randazzo patted the place next to her. “You are so a part of this family, Sara. Believe me, I need some more girl power to balance out the boy egos in this house.”
“Ego? What ego?” Mr. Randazzo called. “I am only the best pancake maker in all of the Jersey shore.”
“You are needed here, Sara. Badly,” Lily’s mom said, smiling widely at me.
If I couldn’t be with my own mom this morning, Lily’s mom was definitely next best. I squeezed a chair between her and Cammie. “Hey, Camsters. I like that you’re coloring the tree purple. Trees should definitely be purple.”
Cammie handed me a darker shade of violet from her enormous box of crayons, and I shaded in a pine tree. Cammie’s full cheeks and broad forehead resembled her dad’s, but she had the same magnetic sparkle in her eyes that made everyone at school hover about Lily, like moths attracted to light.
“Ohhh, is the shoe lady coming again?” Lily asked. She raised her voice to be heard over her dad’s off-key singing. “Born to run . . . baby, we were born to run . . .” He was forever singing Springsteen songs.
“She is.” Mrs. Randazzo tapped the screen. “She promised to bring twice as many as she did last year.”
“Coming where?” I asked.
“Wow, that’s right, you don’t know about Bargain on the Boardwalk!” Lily exclaimed.
“Bargain on the Boardwalk is a fund-raiser for the local schools that happens every year. It’s next weekend, in fact,” Mrs. Randazzo explained. “It’s a big Stellamar tradition—kind of the unofficial kickoff to summer for the locals before the tourists descend.”
“It’s the most amazing flea market, but not with junky stuff,” Lily added. “Well, okay, there is some junky stuff that’s donated, but there’s also lots of really cool crafts and accessory vendors and people selling jewelry. Last year, this lady who works for some shoe company in New York brought all these amazing shoes. You know those cute aqua sandals I have with the chunky heels that make me almost tall? I got those for only fifteen dollars. Fifteen! Don’t they look like they cost a lot more?”
“They do,” I agreed as Lily’s dad set down a mountain of pancakes dripping with butter. I attempted a sincere smile as Mr. Randazzo sang, “Hungry heart . . . ,” but I was the only one. His Springsteen soundtrack had become background noise to his family.
“We have ten different jewelry vendors this year. This one guy, a new vendor this year, weaves together the thinnest silver wire into stunning necklaces. I know he’s going to be a big hit.” Mrs. Randazzo squinted at her list. “We need more stuff to be donated, though. We make the most money on the high-end rummage sale items. I do hope we get enough—”
“Don’t worry about it today,” Mr. Randazzo scolded. He plopped into a chair and sipped a mug of coffee, the mess by the stove and the promise of using a sponge temporarily forgotten. “Your mother needs to be stopped before she completely heads up Bargain on the Boardwalk again.” She started to protest, and he gently cut her off. “It’s a lot of work, honey. You can’t do it all by yourself!”
“I’m going to help,” Lily said, already finishing her second pancake.
“Me too,” I offered. “What should I do?”
“See what you have to donate in your house. We’ll take anything as long as it’s clean and working,” Mrs. Randazzo said.
“Sure.” That sounded easy. “Hey, I bet Lady Azura has some really great stuff to donate.”
“Seriously! Can you even imagine what she has? It’s like opening some old-fashioned movie star’s closet.” Lily loved Lady Azura’s style.
“Lady Azura does have classy clothes,” Lily’s mom said. “But for some reason, she’s never given anything to the sale before.”
“Really?” I was surprised. Lady Azura was quirky and more than a little odd, but she was one of the most generous people I’d ever met. “I’m sure she will if I ask her.”
“I bet so too,” Mrs. Randazzo agreed. “Especially today.”
“Wow, yeah. I kind of forgot to . . . Should I make her a card or something?” I fumbled my words. I’d never had a great-grandmother before. I’d just found out this past Christmas that Lady Azura, the fortune-teller who lived and worked on the first floor of our house, was actually my great-grandmother. How did the Mother’s Day thing work with great-grandmothers? I wondered. Was there some other special day for them or did you celebrate today?
“Lady Azura would love a card.” Lily’s mom glanced around her sticky, splattered kitchen. “Or take her out.”
“Ahh, I’m wounded.” Her husband clutched his chest playfully.
Lily snorted, then turned to me. “Let’s go help sort the donations down at the community center.”
“Not now,” Mrs. Randazzo said. “We’re expected at Aunt Angela’s for Mother’s Day lunch.”
“Lunch?” Lily eyed the demolished stack of pancakes. “Can’t I skip it?”
“No chance. Great-Aunt Ro and Aunt Dani’s family are going to be there. And your cousin Lauren Grace.” Lily had more relatives in our little town than Cammie had crayons in her big box. “Sara, you should come too,” her mom offered.
“Thanks”—I pushed back my chair and cleared my plate—“but I’m going to go home and make a card or present or something for Lady Azura.”
At that moment, the back door at the far end of the kitchen slammed open, letting in a whirlwind of yelling and pounding feet. Sammy, Joey, and Jake pushed forward, all talking at once.
“What’s happened?” Mr. Randazzo sounded alarmed as his sons noisily surrounded him.
The barking answered his question.
For a moment, everyone grew silent. A small dog with filthy matted fur scampered excitedly at the boys’ heels. The dog panted and yapped insistently.
“Doggie!” Cammie exclaimed, setting everyone back into action.
Lily immediately fell to her knees and gathered the dirty creature in her arms. “Oh, you poor little thing.”
“Lily,” Mrs. Randazzo cautioned. “You have no idea where that dog came from, if it’s vicious, if—”
“He’s friendly, Mom,” ten-year-old Sammy interrupted. “He ran up to us in the yard and started playing ball.”
“Hold on a second.” Mr. Randazzo knelt beside Lily. “Somebody must’ve lost this dog.”
“There’s a collar, but no tags,” Lily pointed out, rubbing the dog behind its pointy ears. “Hi, sweetie,” she cooed as the dog licked her hand, then licked her father’s elbow. Sammy was right. He was friendly.
“That’s odd.” Mr. Randazzo inspected the dog. “No name or phone number anywhere. Other than being filthy, he doesn’t look like a stray. He’s well fed.”
“That stinky dog needs a bath,” Mrs. Randazzo declared, pulling Cammie away.
I eyed the dog cautiously. His walnut-brown fur was tangled with tiny burrs. His black eyes skittered from face to face, and his stub of a tail wagged furiously.
“Can we wash him?” Lily asked. “I’ll do it outside with the hose.” She hadn’t stopped petting the dog. Lily loved dogs. She planned to have three when she grew up. She’d even picked out the names—Kiwi, Cupid, and Coco, I think. She was forever begging her parents for a dog, but her mother always put her off, saying, “Someday.” I didn’t need to read Lily’s mind to know what she was thinking.
“Can we keep him?” Six-year-old Jake blurted the question Lily had been trying delicately to frame.
“No, honey, this is someone’s dog. We need to call the police and the shelter. Some sad person is missing him,” his mom said gently.
“What if nobody claims him?” Lily asked. “Maybe he was abandoned.”
All the kids chimed in, begging to keep the scruffy little dog.
Mrs. Randazzo sighed and shot her husband a look that said, Back me up here.
He ran a hand through his hair. “Here’s the plan. Boys, get a towel and let some water sit in the tub in the sun for a bit to warm it up. Lily, go grab some shampoo and towels and supervise giving this dog a bath while I call around. We will find his owner and return him nice and clean.”
“But what if there’s no owner—”
Lily’s dad cut her off. “We need to look. He’s not our dog.”
Lily nodded, but I could tell that she had already adopted him in her heart. The boys and Cammie ran outside. Mrs. Randazzo began to load the dishwasher, while Mr. Randazzo disappeared into the other room to make the phone calls.
“Sara, you have to pet him.” Lily waved me over. “Isn’t he the sweetest? Look at his little black nose!”
I knelt beside Lily. The stench of dirty dog was overpowering, but I reached out my hand to rub his back. His body felt warm. “He is cute,” I admitted. My fingers rested on the green woven collar around his neck, and suddenly I saw the children.
Not Lily’s brothers or sister. These kids were blond, their straight hair even lighter than mine. A boy and a girl with similar features. Brother and sister. Maybe twins. They looked to be about six.
I inhaled the perfume of lilacs and freshly cut grass. Birds chirped from a nearby tree heavy with pink cherry blossoms. I stared in amazement as the boy and girl sprawled on a lush lawn, their bare toes poking out from their jeans, and hugged the dog.
The dog’s green collar gleamed against its groomed brown fur. Clean. The dog was suddenly clean. I glanced around for Lily. Where was she? Who were these little kids? How did we get outside?
The kids giggled as the dog licked their faces. An older boy raced toward them, his white-blond hair cut into a spiky crew cut. I sucked in my breath.
He was really cute. As cute as Jayden, I think, though he looked nothing at all like Jayden. He had the most incredible, piercing green eyes. Eyes that appeared mischievous and playful, and then, for the briefest flash, I saw the glimmer of something else. Something I recognized. This boy had secrets.
“Go fetch, Buddy!” the boy called as he tossed a red Frisbee across the lawn. The little dog sprinted and—
“Grab him, Sara!”
Lily’s voice. I blinked, unable to move as the dog wriggled free and raced about the kitchen.
The batter-splattered kitchen.
Inside the Randazzos’ house.
No blond twins on the grass. No cute boy with a Frisbee. Just Lily and her mother chasing the filthy stray dog across the tile floor.
What had just happened?