Of course Zoe Webster didn't like Philip Digby when she first met him. No one does! He's rude and he treats her like a book he's already read and knows the ending to. But Zoe is new in town and her options for friends are . . . limited. And before she knows it, Digbyannoying, brilliant, and somehow attractive?has dragged her into a series of hilarious and dangerous situations all related to the investigation of a missing local teen girl. When it comes to Digby, Zoe just can't say no. But is Digby's manic quest really worth all the trouble he's getting Zoe into?
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Of course I didn’t like Digby when I first met him. No one does. He’s rude, he doesn’t ever take no for an answer, and he treats you like a book he’s already read and knows the ending to even if you yourself didn’t yet. Now, if you’re a normal sixteen-year-old like I am, and you spend half your time obsessing about the future and what you’re supposed to be and spend the other half reading about makeup, diets, and all the ways to change who you already are, then the stuff he hits you with is hard to take. Like Digby himself said: The truth is almost always disappointing.
Not that I need him to tell me about the truth. Or disappointment. In the last six months, I went from living in an almost-good part of Brooklyn to my parents divorcing and Mom and me moving to River Heights, a small city in the armpit of upstate New York. Trust me, it’s an even bigger lifestyle demotion than it sounds like.
Here’s my first confession. I hung out with cool people, sure, but looking back, I think maybe we were friends only because we were in the same classes and our parents all got divorced around the same time. Digby calls them circumstantial friends. Right place, right time—it was easy to be friends, and so we were.
My friendship with Digby, on the other hand, while circumstantially convenient—he just shows up, after all—is not easy. Nothing with that guy ever is. At first, I thought I hung out with him because I was bored and wanted to get back at Mom for moving me here. Then I thought it was because he seemed so lost and alone all the time.
But now I’m standing outside a house wired with enough explosives to blow up our entire block into a pile of matchsticks, trying to figure out the best way to get back in, and I realize that really, I’m the one who’s been lost.
But I’m jumping too far ahead. All this began on the first day of school and we need to go back there for you to understand.
I’d been telling Mom to change the drained batteries in the doorbell since we moved in. The chimes were out of tune and dinging at half their normal speed. They sounded like a robot dying in slow agony. And now some jackass was ringing it over and over. After five minutes of pretending nobody was home, I thought I was going to snap, so I answered the door.
“Nice bell,” he said.
He was my age, wearing a black suit that made him look even taller and skinnier than he already was. It was a hot morning and he was sweating into the collar of his white button-down. He held a black book and I would’ve thought he was a Jehovah’s Witness with a Bible, but I doubted they wore sneakers when they came calling. His messy brown hair had probably once been pop-star shaggy, but now it needed cutting. His sad brown eyes turned down at the corners and he had a bored facial expression that I later realized was one of his main weapons in life.
“Sorry, not interested.” Just to be safe, I yelled, “It’s no one, Mom, just some guy selling something.”
“Why are you pretending your mom’s home? You’re here alone. You guys drove off together, but you’re back and her car isn’t. I’m guessing she dropped you at school and you walked home,” he said. “Next time, fake sick and save her the gas.”
I tried another one. “Dad!”
“You only had the one car in the garage—the tires are squishy, by the way—the grass on your lawn that isn’t brown is a foot tall, recycling isn’t sorted, and you know . . . the doorbell,” he said. “There’s no dad in the picture.”
I was too shocked to deny it.
“What, were you casing the place? Because I gotta tell you, we don’t have anything nice.” The following catalog ran through my head: letter opener in the hall drawer, knives on the kitchen counter, poker by the busted fireplace in the den, and a collection of advice from Sexual Assault Prevention Day, like: “Never let them take you to a second location.”
“Casing the place? No. Well . . . technically, I guess I was casing around your house, but not your actual house,” he said. “Anyway, I’ve watched you photograph yourself every morning—”
“What?! You’re looking in my window—”
“I need to see the photos,” he said. “Although, if you only take them at the same time every day, they probably won’t tell me much because they never do anything interesting in the mornings. Then again, you never know . . .”
“I’m calling the police.”
I slammed the door so hard, the doorbell started ringing on its own.
“Listen, my name’s Digby. Here’s my e-mail address.” He slid a small piece of paper under the door that said: Digby@TheRealDigby.com. “E-mail the photos if that’s less freaky for you.”
Through the glass panel in the door, I saw him start to knock, so I grabbed the letter opener and flashed it in an I’m-gonna-stab-you way. I guess I was convincing, because he said “Whoa” and backed away. When he got to the sidewalk, he looked up to my bedroom window, then stared at the mansion across the street for a long time.
And that wasn’t even the weirdest thing that happened that day. I’d just started as a junior at River Heights High and didn’t know they phoned parents of absent students after first period bell. They called it the Ferris Bueller Rule. Apparently the school board made the new rule after a girl disappeared during summer vacation. Marina Jane Miller (TV news always used all three of her names) had been kidnapped while friends were sleeping over in her room. They hadn’t heard a thing. The whole of River Heights was freaked, especially the rich people, because Marina Miller was rich.
The school called Mom at work and she called me, but when I didn’t pick up, she rushed home only to find me napping. Naturally, she had a mini conniption fit but much worse than that was the fact that cutting school landed me in an early intervention meeting with thirteen other kids who got busted that day.
Which is where I saw Digby again.
The truancy officer was a hard-ass named Musgrave. He was the kind of man about whom Mom would say, “Poor thing wasn’t held enough as a baby.” He sat us in a circle and slowly walked around outside it. When I was first summoned to the meeting, I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, but Musgrave’s black uniform and shiny badge were intimidating.
Meanwhile, our guidance counselor, who introduced himself as “please-call-me-Steve,” stood in the middle of the circle handing out chocolate chip cookies he’d baked for us. He’d also made HELLO, MY NAME IS stickers. Mine had ZOE WEBSTER in swirly red ink like all the girls’. The boys’ were done in blue.
Musgrave scowled when Please-Call-Me-Steve offered him a cookie. Funnily, the two of them looked evil-twin/good-twin alike. Both were short, dumpy men with bad haircuts and red splotchy faces, but where Steve’s was red with sunburn from riding his bike to work, Musgrave’s was red from, I’d guess, drinking and rage.
Musgrave was halfway through his threats about unexcused absences and summer school when Digby arrived. It had taken Musgrave twenty minutes to wind up to this climax, so he was totally derailed when Digby sauntered in.
“You must think you’re a funny guy, almost missing a disciplinary meeting on truancy,” Musgrave said. “Grab your name tag and get your butt over here.”
Digby had to write his own tag, which he did in swirly red letters. Then he sighed and dragged a chair to the circle. The metal legs screamed the entire way. The other truants clapped and laughed. To my horror, Digby parked himself next to me and greeted me like we’d planned to sit together.
I tried to look saintly and refused to acknowledge Digby’s muttered asides. He stage-whispered things like, “It’s nine a.m.—he smells like jerky. Discuss,” and, “Do you think it’s fun to stay at the YMCA in that outfit?”
I sat, frozen, but Musgrave threw me the same evil stare he pointed at Digby. As far as he was concerned, we were in it together. Finally, after repeating the policy on truancy and summer school twice more, Musgrave ended the meeting.
“Okay, everybody,” Please-Call-Me-Steve said. “Please come and leave your information on the sign-up sheet here. Make sure you take a look . . . and help yourself to some snacks. Give pepitas a chance!”
Meanwhile, Musgrave cornered Digby and me.
“How’s it going, Harlan?” Digby said to him.
“Welcome back to River Heights, Mr. Digby,” Musgrave said. “I haven’t gotten your file from your school in Texas. Did they teach you manners there or are you and I gonna have problems?”
“Harlan and I go way back . . . before his demotion, when he was an actual police officer,” Digby said.
“Guess that answers my question about manners,” Musgrave said.
“Don’t be sad, Harlan. You should learn to see the positive in this new job . . . after all, I believe children are our future,” Digby said.
“You will call me Mr. Musgrave,” he said. “And you, Zoe Webster, your fancy Manhattan psychiatrist called.” Everyone in the room was listening. Musgrave checked his clipboard. “Didaskaleinophobia? That’s a mouthful. Fancy way of saying you don’t like school. That’s a thing now? When did that become a valid excuse?”
“That’s confidential student information,” Digby said.
“Excuse me?” Musgrave said.
“I’m pretty sure if she told her parents you read all that to her classmates, they’d call their ‘fancy Manhattan’ lawyer and sue you and the school board for violating her privacy,” Digby said.
“Still a troublemaker,” Musgrave said. “I remember you were fractious and disruptive to our investigation. Nothing’s changed, I see.”
“And might that be more confidential student information you’re revealing?” Digby said.
Musgrave’s left eye twitched but, thank God, Please-Call-Me-Steve called him to the other end of the room.
“What are you doing?” I smacked Digby’s arm.
“You wanted him to announce your private business to the whole room?” Digby said.
“Stop helping and get away from me, please—I don’t want him to think we’re friends.”
“Don’t knock it. Spend some time in River Heights and you’ll know it ain’t easy making friends around here.”
“I’m serious. I can’t get in trouble. I need a clean transcript or I’ll never get out of here.”
“Which makes your decision to skip school super-interesting,” Digby said. “Are you transferring out of this fine establishment?”
“A school in New York. The Prentiss Academy.”
“It’s a feeder school for Princeton.”
“Princeton? You wanna go there?” He was laughing at me.
“Not that I have to explain myself to you, but I have the grades.”
“Your answer to having school phobia is applying to a really hard school so you can get into a really, really hard college?”
“I’m not phobic anymore.”
“Were you ever really?” Digby took a bite of cookie. “Hey, these cookies are good.”
“Yeah, the guidance counselor made them.”
“Wait. He said he physically made them?”
“Yeah . . .”
Digby rifled through the tray of cookies. A few of the kids standing near us groaned in disgust.
“You’re touching all the cookies. That’s gross,” I said.
Across the room, Steve and Musgrave argued loudly.
“Wanna get out of morning classes this semester?” Digby said.
“Think fast—Steve’s losing against Musgrave—are you in? Now or never, Princeton.”
I meant to say no, but as I later found out, something about Digby makes me do the exact opposite of what I know is the right thing. Over and over again.
“I guess . . . I’m in?”
Digby ran over and inserted himself into their argument.
“Steve, I gotta talk to you about our independent project,” Digby said.
Steve looked blank but played along. “Oh?”
“What independent project?” Musgrave said.
“Our approval form’s right here,” Digby said.
“It’s new,” Steve said. “Students work on projects off campus to pursue interests the curriculum doesn’t address.”
“They don’t come to school?” Musgrave said.
“They meet with a faculty advisor, but they work on it outside the classroom. They come to school for the rest of their credits,” Steve said.
“That’s ridiculous! That’s kids schooling themselves. Blue state liberal garbage . . . what’s this project anyway?”
Digby used his extra-bored expression. “We’re calling it ‘Convicted in Absence.’ We’re looking at whether skipping class leads to criminal behavior, or whether being punished like a criminal for skipping class actually causes the criminal behavior. Bet it’s the second one.” It came out fast and shiny, like he’d spent time polishing up his spiel. “We’re talking about securitization . . . schools as an extension of the police state. ‘Convicted in Absence.’ Good title, right?”
“This crap is destroying this country,” Musgrave said.
That sealed it. Anything to annoy Musgrave. Steve signed the form.
I caught up with Digby in the hall. “What just happened? How’d you do that?” I said.
“Manhattan psychiatrist, but downgraded to a falling-down house in a B-grade suburb? Your parents are divorced. C’mon, you never use divide and conquer? It’s a divorce-kid classic.” Digby looked at me hard. “Although . . . no makeup, no piercings, loose jeans.” He looked at my butt a little too hard for my taste. “I don’t see a whale tail . . . good girl who doesn’t play that game? Yeah . . . that’s you. The girl in the music video before the makeover.”
“Half the school’s got divorced parents. You had a fifty-fifty chance,” I said. “What was with the cookies?”
“When Mommy, or Steve in this case, lies about store-bought cookies being homemade, it means the battle for the kids’ affection is not going well for her. I gave Steve a way to win the battle,” he said.
“How’d you know these weren’t homemade?”
“Unless they’re OCD, people don’t use cookie cutters on chocolate chip cookies. Perfect circles.” He held up cookies he’d swiped. All unnaturally round. “Plus, they’re warm, so the guy microwaved them, meaning he really cares.”
“Great, Professor Pillsbury. But now we have to actually write this.”
“Read the room. Steve will give us a good grade no matter what we turn in just to freak out Musgrave,” he said. “What’s with you, anyway?”
“What’s with me?”
“The psychiatrist. Bipolar? Plain vanilla depression? Rainbow sprinkles of phobias and anxieties? What’s your deal?”
“Is it like you can’t get out of bed because you feel like someone’s sitting on your chest, but who cares anyway because what’s the point?” he said. “Or like you can’t be around people because you feel like everyone knows?”
“Fine. I skipped class a bunch when my parents were divorcing, but Dad said it’d look bad on my transcript, so he called his psychiatrist friend and . . . I’m a fake, okay?”
“Just because your psychiatrist’s note’s fake, it doesn’t mean you’re not really depressed.”
I hadn’t considered that.
“But hey,” Digby continued, “your dad’s got a medical professional who’s willing to falsify medical records for you, huh? That’s pretty handy.” He pointed at my earrings, a pair of big diamond studs. I’d wondered if I shouldn’t wear them to school, but when he gave them to me, Dad had insisted that I never take them off. “Is that part of the official uniform of Team Dad?” When I winced, he said, “Just kidding. They’re beautiful, Princeton.” Digby turned and walked away.
“Hey, wait! Now what?” I said.
“I’m gonna check out the cafeteria,” he said. “Zoe Webster, right? You have a school e-mail? I’ll e-mail you.”
Then I didn’t see or hear from him for weeks.
When we first moved to River Heights, everyone was visibly freaked about Marina Jane Miller’s abduction. People didn’t go out after dark. They walked dogs in groups. By mid-September, though, the local news stopped talking about her, and the “Where’s Marina?” posters curled up and fell off the trees after it rained. Soon it sounded more like an urban legend and less like something that could happen to me. Before long, River Heights went back to normal—with normal meaning boring and lonely.
After starting some awkward conversations that went nowhere, I realized Digby was right about it being hard to make friends here. Most people gave me attitude because they expected me to have an attitude about moving to River Heights . . . which I sort of did, but it had nothing to do with them.
When I asked my lab partner how to turn on the Bunsen burners, she said, “Bet your old school had automatic ones, huh?” I said yes and tried to say something quippy about almost burning off my eyebrows once, but it came off as a lame humble-brag. Even I heard it. We spent the rest of the experiment in painful silence.
I told myself that since I was transferring, I didn’t have to sweat the no-friends situation. Prentiss would be my salvation. Of course Mom wasn’t happy about Prentiss. How could she be? She’d fought hard for my custody, and transferring to Prentiss meant I’d move right back to the city and live with Dad and his new wife. Mom accused my dad of doing an end run around the custody judge, but almost as soon as she’d said it, her therapy kicked in. She’d shut herself down, saying over and over, “It’s not about me.” Later, while looking for Band-Aids, I’d found a pile of Post-its in her drawer with mantras like “It’s not about you” and “Transcend to transform.”
I had to admit, my class schedule was sweet. Digby and I were supposedly working on our project for the first two periods, so I slept in every day. Sure, I worried about actually doing the assignment, but from September, December looked far away.
I never saw Digby at school, but with the stress of figuring out where my classes were and how to make friends, I wasn’t looking for him that hard.
One day, I got home to find that Dad had forwarded the application package from Prentiss. Mom hovered by the sink, looking extremely casual while she made dinner. “Baked spaghetti, okay?” She used her best transcending-to-transform voice, as if she hadn’t even noticed the Prentiss envelope sitting on the kitchen table.
Okay. So it was going to be a game of chicken. I slid the Prentiss application to one side and unzipped my backpack. “Ever feel like we should eat more vegetables?”
“I could sprinkle parsley on it . . .” Her eyes were now locked on the thick envelope. “So.”
“So?” I was winning. But I got cocky. I started highlighting the novel I had to read for homework. Big mistake. Never wave a lowbrow book in front of an English professor. It will enrage them, distracting them from everything else.
“O. Henry? That’s not what you’re reading in school, is it?” She grabbed my book and flicked through it. “This is a nightmare. Why don’t they just assign you Reader’s Digest?” When she realized I didn’t know what she was talking about, she said, “You don’t know what Reader’s Digest is? The nightmare deepens.” The game of chicken was ruined. “For decades, it was the only contact some people had with any kind of literature—”
I ripped into the envelope my father sent me. Mom stopped talking and dumped the pasta in an oven dish, pretending to suddenly be totally into her cooking.
Looking through the forms, I realized that he’d already filled out most of them for me, even the parts about my favorite subjects and potential college majors. Economics or pre-law, he’d said.
In a separate pink pamphlet was the essay question: “Virginia Woolf said, ‘Almost any biographer, if he respects facts, can give us much more than another fact to add to our collection. He can give us the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders.’ Be your own biographer, go beyond fact, and tell us about yourself.”
He’d answered it. In fact, he’d answered it well. I even kind of recognized myself in his answers. But reading about this go-getter fantasy daughter who volunteered and read The Economist was . . . confusing. Even I liked that Zoe better than me.
Maybe he’d anticipated the queasy feeling I’d get when I saw that he’d written it for me, because Dad had included a note on a Post-it. “Time to leave the sheeple behind, Zoe. Get ready to run with the wolves,” it said. In the world according to my father, there were only two kinds of people: wolves and the sheeple (people so meek, they were practically sheep) who deserved every bad thing the wolves did to them.
“Are those samples of someone else’s application?” I hadn’t noticed Mom sidle up behind me. I ripped off the note and crumpled it up before she could see it. Mom read aloud from the essay section. “‘I take my citizenship in the classroom seriously’? I smell your father’s aggressive Wall Street bull crap. Are you kidding, Zoe? It’s come to this?”
“He just rewrote a few things, Mom. It’s not a big deal.”
“You want to go to that school so badly, you’d cheat to get in?” Mom said.
“Oh, and you don’t think the other kids get help? Tutors? Interview prep? I’m applying out of public school!” What I didn’t say but she probably heard anyway was the reminder that she was the reason I was in public school in the first place. We were in Nowhere, New York, chasing her dream of being an English professor. “Getting help from a supportive parent is probably just the minimum they expect!”
I shouted the words supportive parent and took advantage of the emotional chaos they created to make my exit.
“Where are you going?” Mom said.
“When will you be back?”
“Why? Are you worried? Safe town, right? It’s what you told the judge.”
And with that, I left.
Olympio’s was a vinyl booth diner with a long counter and a weirdly huge assortment of pies arranged in an old-timey pie display. I heard a tap-tap-tap as I walked past. Digby was in a booth, knocking on the glass and waving. I went inside.
“Hey, Princeton, I was just gonna text you,” he said. “We need to talk.”
“Yeah, we should start our project,” I said.
“Project?” he said.
“‘Convicted in Absence,’ you called it. Remember?”
“Oh, that. Later. There’s something else I wanna talk to you about.”
His took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. A stack of files lay in front of him.
“Those look like police reports,” I said.
“They are police reports,” he said.
“Why do you have police reports?”
“Four weeks ago, Marina Miller disappeared from a slumber party at her house.”
“These files are from the Marina Miller case?”
“No, these are from when another girl disappeared from River Heights eight years ago.”
“Yup. Maybe. Definitely maybe,” Digby said. “Hey, are you hungry? I gotta eat.”
“Not really.” I looked at a menu. “Maybe something small.”
Digby held up two fingers at the waitress, who walked into the kitchen, writing on her pad.
“Uh . . . did you just order for me?”
“Rude much? How do you know what I want?”
“I’ve had everything here. Trust me, you want the cheeseburger.”
“How d’you know I’m not vegetarian?”
“Leather boots, leather bag, leather belt—if you’re a vegetarian, you’re the kind who doesn’t mind being a hypocrite sometimes, in which case, trust me, their cheeseburger’s worth being a hypocrite for,” Digby said.
I looked at the table next to us. The guy’s cheeseburger did look juicy.
“Anyway, the cops arrested a suspect, but they couldn’t make it stick.”
“Wait, the girl who disappeared eight years ago, or Marina Jane Miller?”
“Marina. It doesn’t matter, though, because he’s a dud—no way he did it,” he said. “David Siddle.”
“Oh, you think he’s a dud? Are the police aware of your conclusions?”
“Not yet. I’ll call them when I know a little more.”
“I thought it’d be clear I was being sarcastic.”
“Oh, no, I got that.”
“I seriously doubt they care what you think.”
“We’ll worry about that later.”
“‘We’? I don’t know about ‘we.’”
Digby passed me two photos of middle-aged men. They were probably just normal guys, but who doesn’t look like a murderer when they’re secretly photographed through a telephoto lens?
“I don’t know who these guys are. Is that all you wanted to ask me?”
“I know who they are. This one’s Dr. Leo Schell. He’s a gynecologist,” Digby said. “Specifically, your mother’s gynecologist.”
“How do you know that?”
“I watched her go in his office.”
“You’re kind of a shady guy, you know that?”
“Schell is one of my two favorites for who took Marina.”
The cheeseburgers came and Digby poured ketchup all over the bun, the fries, the coleslaw. All over.
“Can you even taste the cheeseburger under all that?”
“I can’t taste. Not much, anyway.”
“You can’t taste? Is that, like, a genetic thing?”
“Doctors say it’s the Celexa, but I think it’s the Paxil. It started with the Prozac I used to be on,” he said. “I usually take Adderall to get decent, but I don’t use it too much because it’s, you know . . .”
“Expensive,” he said. “I need my stash to last.”
“Ah.” It’s not like the kids back home didn’t take meds, but Digby seemed to be on all the meds I’d ever heard of.
He bit into his burger. “My other favorite suspect is a retired principal named Kenneth Dale. But this guy, Dr. Schell, he’s a better bet.”
Digby pulled out a marked-up map of River Heights. “This red cross is Marina’s house, the green ones are Schell’s and Dale’s houses, and the red lines are possible ways they might’ve driven away. Now, we could ask people who live in the area if they saw anything that night . . .”
“Please stop saying ‘we.’ I’m not knocking on random people’s doors. I’m already tired just thinking about it,” I said. “Besides, haven’t the police already checked?”
“Yup. The police canvassed the neighborhood. Plus Marina’s street is crescent-shaped, with a bank, convenience store, gas station, and library at the top of the crescent. They all have cameras. But since no photos or sketches were released, we can assume the cameras and the people didn’t see anything . . . which works in our favor.”
“How d’you figure?”
“Because now the cops need to get creative. And most cops are miserable paperwork drones who suck at being creative,” Digby said. “They’re probably just treading water, hoping Marina’s parents’ investigators find something.”
“Let me guess—you think you’re gonna swoop in and solve the case for them,” I said. “Superman complex?”
“Wouldn’t this be a more interesting topic for our project?”
“I don’t think anyone’s gonna give us any grade for a detailed record of how we stalked and harassed random people . . . much less a good one.”
“It doesn’t have to be about the abduction itself. It could be a report on police procedure, say.”
“That sounds even harder than the other fake project you made up.”
“I’m telling you, it doesn’t have to be as good as you’re imagining. Steve will barely read it. Seriously.”
I wiped off the ketchup blobs and looked at the map.
“What makes you think one of these guys kidnapped Marina?” I said.
“Kenneth Dale’s a possibility because his house backs onto Marina Miller’s. He’d fought with her dad about cutting down some trees and didn’t have a confirmable alibi for that night,” Digby said. “He was also forced into early retirement for sexually harassing a student.”
“And Schell’s a better bet than that? This Dale guy sounds like a total creep.”
“Schell lives three blocks away, but neighbors said his car was parked outside the Millers’ that night and was gone by morning. He claimed his car was leaking oil, he didn’t want it staining his driveway, and that the space in front of the Miller house was the only one for blocks,” Digby said. “He also doesn’t have a confirmable alibi for that night.”
“Sounds like a coincidence . . .”
“Another coincidence is that Marina’s parents didn’t know she was Schell’s patient.”
“How do you know?”
“Let’s just say that the way I found out was less wrong than his not telling the police she was his patient,” he said. “But what interests me is that no alien fingerprints were found in the bedroom except for a whole lot of blurred ones.”
“How’s that a clue?”
“Eight years ago, just like Marina, a little girl was taken from her bedroom in the middle of the night while the rest of the house slept. No one heard or saw anything. No one knew she was gone until morning.” He passed me a fingerprint analysis report and pointed at the notes. “All they found were the family’s prints and the blurred prints on the windowsill.”
“Blurred prints aren’t clues . . . they’re the absence of clues.”
“But these aren’t prints that got smudged. Look, they’re perfectly finger-shaped. The prints are blurred on the fingers themselves.”
“Like that one serial killer who burned off his fingerprints with acid.” He had me going now—I couldn’t believe I was getting sucked in. “Okay . . . so this is all interesting and Nancy Drew–ish, but I still don’t see—”
“Some medical conditions cause blurry fingerprints, but those conditions rarely affect all the fingers,” he said. “Some people get it from their jobs. Guitarists who don’t use picks, people working in laundries that use phosphates, housepainters who don’t wear gloves, or . . . medical professionals who wash their hands so much, they smooth out the ridges of their fingerprints.”
“Schell . . .” I said. “Mom’s gynecologist might be a murderer?”
“Well, technically, we don’t know for sure that Marina’s dead. Not yet, anyway.”
It sounded big-league. “I don’t think we should . . .”
But Digby wasn’t paying attention to me anymore. He was looking at a table of five boys. They were a weird-looking bunch. The youngest kid’s feet didn’t touch the floor, and the eldest had stubble. None of them looked alike enough to be related. It didn’t make sense that they were together. In their prairie folk plaid shirts and high-waisted flannel pants, they looked like an agricultural glee club.
Digby cocked his chin at them. “They live in the mansion across from you.”
The eldest wore red plaid and the others were in blue plaid. Red Plaid looked about twenty years old and was actually kind of a tall, dark, and handsome dude if you overlooked the creepy high and tight haircut he and the other kids all had. His shirt was a size too small and his sleeves looked like a bubbling bratwurst on the grill.
At that moment, the older boys were bullying the youngest to eat his pancakes faster. The little guy’s face was covered in syrup.
“You’re telling me you’ve never noticed them walking around in their little outfits?” he said. “Supposedly, they’re a rapture cult, but they don’t recruit in town or even online . . . which is weird. You really never noticed them before?”
“We just moved here.”
“When there’s an end-of-the-world cult living next door to you, make it your business to find out what they’re up to,” he said. “That’s, like, a basic life rule.”
“Well, I do see girls in prairie dresses constantly cleaning and scrubbing. And the place reeks of chemicals.”
“Okay, so you did notice. Ever notice that the girls cleaning aren’t always the same ones? They go, they come back . . . the boys do too. The kids are cycling through that house.”
“Are they prisoners or something?”
“Who don’t run away when they’re unsupervised? Nah, it’s something else.”
The older boys ate the little guy’s pancakes to clear his plate faster, but all that did was make him cry. The eldest in red plaid, clearly their leader, slid out of the booth and dragged the little guy out behind him.
“Oh . . . I get it,” Digby said.
Digby took my soda and grabbed a mop from a bucket by a wait station, leaving a sudsy streak behind him as he dragged it outside the diner.
On the other side of the door, Digby slid the mop across the handles so when the boys in plaid tried to leave, the door wouldn’t open. They piled up against the glass and pushed and pulled to rock the mop loose. No joy. It was stuck and so were they. Digby sipped my soda and watched the trapped boys get more and more frustrated. He had that bored expression again and it drove those boys crazy.
The diner’s manager came out to see what the racket was all about. He grabbed two boys by the collar and steered them back to their table. Red Plaid pointed at Digby, mouthed the word you, and punched the glass door before following the manager.
Digby slid out the mop and walked back in behind them.
“That was nice,” I said. “That poor waitress would’ve had to pay if they’d skipped out on their bill.”
But Digby wasn’t even looking at the angry waitress hawk-eyeing the boys.
“But I get the feeling you don’t really care about her,” I said. “So why did you do that?”
“Who knows? Fun?” Digby saluted Red Plaid.
The manager said something about calling the police and went into the back.
Red Plaid walked to our table. I slipped my butter knife onto my lap.
“Think you’re smart, huh?” Red Plaid said.
“Smarter than you, at least,” Digby said.
Red Plaid kicked over a chair behind him. “Someone oughta teach you to mind your own business.”
He lifted Digby by the shirtfront and would’ve smashed Digby in the mouth, but another, even bigger hand clapped itself around Red Plaid’s fist.
Digby’s savior was a tall, muscle-bound, Disney Prince Eric type I’d usually consider lame, but this guy had it working. He was hero handsome.
“Hey, Henry. Great timing as usual,” Digby said.
“Digby. I heard you were back from Texas.” Henry pushed Red Plaid away. “Pay your bill, never come back. Got me, dude?”
“Next time . . . it’ll just be you and me,” Red Plaid said to Digby. As he left, he slapped a glass of water off our table. It smashed into smithereens.
“He has a point. Aren’t you worried he’ll jump you on your way home?” I said.
“Not today—I’ll wait until the cops come before I take off,” Digby said.
“And after today?” Henry said.
“I’ll worry about it after today,” Digby said.
Clearly, Digby wasn’t going to introduce us.
“I’m Henry Petropoulos.” Petropoulos. Like an actual Greek god. “My parents own this diner.” This explained his apron and soapy elbows.
“I’m Zoe Webster. Digby and I are partners on a school project.”
“She wouldn’t want you to think we were on a date or anything,” Digby said.
“I wouldn’t want anybody to think we were on a date.” I was surprised I had that answer lined up. Bonus: Henry laughed.
Henry saw the file folders on the table. “Damn. You’re doing this again, Digby?”
“It’s not ‘again’ if I never stopped,” Digby said.
“And now you’re dragging her into it?” Henry said.
“No one’s dragging me into anything—”But I might as well have been a piece of furniture.
“I never dragged you into anything, Henry,” Digby said.
“No, you just made it impossible to be around you if I didn’t do what you wanted me to,” Henry said.
“Tell your mom the cheeseburgers are even better than before. I don’t know about shoestring fries, though, I liked the crinkle cuts,” Digby said. “But then, I’m a classic kind of guy.”
Henry knew he was being dismissed. “Whatever, dude.” To me, he said, “Digby’s a good guy and he doesn’t mean to do it. He never means to do it. But if you’re gonna hang with him, look out for yourself, because he won’t remember to look out for you. Nice meeting you, Zoe.”
Digby didn’t look up at Henry waving and walking away.
“So—medical professional, parked outside her house on the night she disappeared . . . my money’s on Schell,” Digby said. “Speaking of money . . . you got any?”
“Not enough to cover both of us.”
“Know what? That’s okay—in fact, keep it. Catching a dine-and-ditch has gotta be good for a free meal.”
“Wait. You sat down to eat knowing you couldn’t pay? That’s crazy.”
“I knew something would turn up. Lookit, you came along.”
“But I can’t pay for both of us.”
“And you don’t have to because this came along.”
Later, when I knew him better, I realized there was no point having this kind of conversation with Digby. We lived in different universes. What-if scenarios that bothered normal people never rattled him because for Digby, there were too many close calls to worry about.
“What’s the deal with Henry?” I said.
“You’re not his type. He’s a typical varsity QB . . . he likes them blond and top-shelf generic,” Digby said. “And he probably has a girlfriend—he always does. Even in kindergarten he had one. Henry brings the girls to the yard. Know what I mean?”
“What? I didn’t mean that. I meant, what’s the deal with you and Henry.”
“Oh, that.” Digby looked sad. “We used to be friends. A long time ago.”
“Now I don’t bother with friends. Better to travel light.”
I wasn’t sure if I minded that he didn’t think I was friend enough to be considered baggage.
A few days later, he messaged. “Meet 4pm parking lot ur moms gyn.” Rude. I didn’t answer even though I knew he could see I’d read his message. I didn’t intend on meeting him. I’d just microwaved popcorn and I had a stack of magazines.
Then I realized that although he took up so much mindspace, I didn’t know anything about Digby. I hadn’t even googled him, which was weird because I google everything.
I’d typed in Digby before I discovered I didn’t know his first name. Digby and River Heights was the best I could do. I thought I’d get a million random hits, but instead, I got these: “Sally Digby: Abducted!” “River Heights Girl Vanishes in the Night,” and “Day 54, No Ransom, No Clues: Sally Digby Feared Dead.”
Whoa. Not what I’d expected. I read the articles in order. This is how it went down.
In the middle of the night eight years ago, four-year-old Sally disappeared from the bedroom she shared with her older brother, Philip Digby. The police had problems gathering evidence because she’d had her fourth birthday party earlier and there were prints and footprints all over the house and yard. A change of clothes had been taken from her dresser. No one in the house, including Digby in the bunk above her, had awakened. No signs of forced entry. Neighbors and party guests were questioned but eventually, the police focused their investigation on the family.
It was revealed that the father had gambling debts and a mistress. Then the police shifted focus to the mother, who had lapsed in taking medication for her bipolar disorder. One expert suggested seven-year-old Digby might have killed his own sister, accidentally or maybe because he was jealous after the party, and his parents were covering it up. That theory had been good for a few headlines, but the newspapers eventually dropped Sally’s story entirely.
The photos in the papers were a slide show of Digby’s family falling into hell. It started with the party in the sunny backyard and ended with Digby’s mother on a gurney after she’d collapsed. After seeing that, ignoring his message felt mean.
It took three tries to write Mom a note that wasn’t as much pants-on-fire lying as it was just devoid of any real information about where I was going.
When I arrived, Digby was on a bench outside the doctor’s building, eating a sloppy meatball sub. Even though I hadn’t answered his message, he seemed unsurprised to see me.
“I got you cookies,” he said.
“I’m not a cookie fan.”
“You ate, what, seven of Steve’s.”
“But I’m not hungry now.”
“You’re in luck, Aldo. She’s not hungry.” Digby threw the bag of cookies at a homeless guy standing near us. “You remember what to do?”
Aldo nodded and dug into the cookies.
Digby pointed at a billboard looming over us that said: RIVER HEIGHTS—WE’RE A FAMILY PLACE. It showed a poster-perfect nuclear family with a boy and a daddy playing catch and a girl and her mommy setting the picnic table.
“‘Family place’ is 1930s lingo for no Jews, no gays, and no black people. Tells you everything you need to know about the people running this town that they kept it even though it’s eighty years old and River Heights is, like, thirty percent not white now,” Digby said. “Makes me wanna burn this whole place down.”
“Uh . . . speaking of arson and other crimes, just to be clear, I’m not doing anything dangerous . . . or illegal.”
“I’m not stealing anything, or using any kind of weapon or making threats—”
“Relax, you won’t have to do any of that. You’ll still get into your prissy-priss academy.”
“Prentiss. The Prentiss Academy,” I said. “You promise?”
“I promise you won’t have to do anything more than just come with me.”
“But I don’t understand what you want from me.”
“I need a look at this Schell guy, and since I clearly have the wrong plumbing . . .” he said. “How good are your improv skills?”
Digby marched up to the receptionist. “Hello. My girlfriend and I are gonna have sex and we need to ask Dr. Schell about birth control.”
I almost died. The look the receptionist gave us reminded me of when Grandma called her neighbor a dirty bird for peeing in the hydrangeas. Actually, the entire waiting room of women was giving us that look.
“Well, there’s been a cancelation and I can squeeze you in for a fifteen-minute consultation. But only a consultation—no procedures,” the receptionist said.
“We won’t take long,” Digby said. “We got the basics in Health. Just wanna confirm some details with an expert . . . can’t believe everything on the interwebs, amiright?”
The receptionist frowned at me. Why me?
“Tips . . . techniques . . . whatnot,” Digby said.
Why was everyone staring at me? The words were coming out of Digby’s mouth.
“Yes, yes, all right,” the receptionist said. “Sit down, fill in these forms, and I’ll call you when it’s your turn.”
I took the forms and we sat down. For some reason, Digby was humming loudly.
“Should I use our real names?” I said.
“Doesn’t matter, nerd. Leave it.” Digby’s feet stomped a beat and his hands slapped his armrests. Pretty soon, he was half singing and full-body-bopping an elaborate rhythm.
The receptionist sighed loudly to make it clear she was annoyed.
“Song in my head,” Digby said. “Don’t you hate that? It’s stuck. Dad-dad-dad-da-dee-dee-dee-dee . . . it’s SO obnoxious!”
He was shouting and the receptionist had to work hard not to listen to what she was hearing. The other women in the waiting room did likewise to avoid encouraging Digby’s crazy. Digby got up and danced across the back of the room. Because everyone was refusing to make eye contact, no one saw him hit the PANIC button on the security alarm keypad.
The alarm was like a million harpies screeching out of sync. The place exploded. Everyone jumped to their feet. I knew where the sound was coming from and even I thought my heart was going to blow out of my chest.
Schell ran in yelling. He and the receptionist fought as she punched in the alarm code. They were so angry with each other that neither wondered what triggered it in the first place.
“What the hell, Digby?” I said.
Digby whispered, “One-two-one-three-one-zero. One-two-one-three-one-zero.”
Before I could process that, the receptionist said Schell was ready for us.
Despite all the sex talk in my house in the last year while the divorce proceedings were in full swing, my own experience with sex was nonexistent. I hadn’t even been to a gynecologist’s office before.