by Frances Lucas
When North Anchorage High School student and rising star is found dead at the bottom of the film club staircase, everyone assumes it was an accident. After all, the stairs are poorly lit, and a person in a hurry could easily miss a step and take a tumble. Besides, who would want to kill someone so universally loved? Except, it turns out, the dead girl wasn’t loved at all.
Virginia and Katie, amateur sleuths and former 8th grade sweethearts, are determined to find out what really happened to their classmate, a girl keeping some very dangerous secrets. But first they must work through their own issues, like why did Katie and her parents suddenly leave Alaska, and why does she want nothing to do with Virginia now—three years later?
Can Virginia and Katie find their way back together and trust each other to tell the truth?
|Genre||Young Adult, Mystery|
|Publication Date||June 16, 2022|
|Cover Designer||Heather Honeywell|
Thursday, December 12, 11:30 a.m.
It wasn’t melting snow that caused Marisol Cowsill to fall and break her neck on the film club stairs. Her shoes were dry, and she hadn’t been outside all day, according to the local media. Anchorage police interviewed North High School’s administrative staff, our journalism teacher, Mr. Cooper, the freshman girls who found her, and David Teal, the last person seen with Marisol Tuesday after school. An APD spokesperson has called it a tragic accident, further recommending Principal Foster install better lighting in the stairwell as soon as possible. “The poor girl was in a hurry to get to a meeting. She obviously slipped,” Mrs. Foster was quoted as saying in the Anchorage Daily News.
All this is public information.
But did she really slip? I’m not so sure. It’s true that as editor-in-chief of our school newspaper, senior class valedictorian, NHS president, and varsity volleyball co-captain, Marisol had a lot on her plate. She was always on her way somewhere, but she wasn’t clumsy. Marisol Cowsill was a force.
“I can think of other words to describe her. Petty, vicious, spiteful. Should I keep going?” Matty mutters out of the side of his mouth at lunch a couple of days later.
“Shh.” I press a finger to my lips.
“It was horrible! I still can’t believe it. You should have seen her lying at the bottom of the stairs like a broken doll,” says a blonde with red lowlights, one of the girls who discovered Marisol’s body apparently minutes after she died. She’s sitting at a nearby table.
“You mean a mannequin,” says her friend.
“What? Oh, right. Right.” The first girl tilts her chin as if giving that some thought. “We were discussing her latest list of story ideas for the Gazette so we couldn’t start without her. Mr. Cooper told us to look for her. Naturally, we checked the bathroom first.”
The others at the table lean in, inviting her to go on. Like me, they’ve heard it before, but can’t get enough. No one can. Only my best friend, Matty Brown, is brave enough to say what others are undoubtedly thinking. Good riddance, Marisol Cowsill.
“Don’t look now, isn’t that Katie McRanes?” He gestures to the doorway connecting the cafeteria to the main hall as the freshman conversation lulls.
I twist around, my eyes widening and my heart beating faster, as Katie strolls in with Rocky Dare. She looks twice as stunning as she did in eighth grade. Rocky whispers something in her ear, and she laughs. I inhale a shallow breath, seeking to ignore a familiar ache in my chest.
“Hi, Katie,” I call out as they walk by.
Katie glances in my general direction, looking slightly startled. “Oh. Hey. How’s it going?” And then they’re gone, having moved on to another table.
“Forget about her, girl. She’s not good enough for you.” Matty taps my hand, giving me a sympathetic look. Yoon-hi adds an encouraging nod.
But that isn’t it. Everything’s changed. And I’ve got to figure out a way to change it back.
Three and a half years earlier.
Mom and Dad are fighting again.
Dad: “Fish again? Give me a break.”
Mom: “You want something different, fix it yourself.”
My father hates Alaska’s cold weather and the winter dark. My mother loves it. Cross-country skiing, quilting, baking god-awful carob brownies with our neighbor Mrs. Taylor, all of it. When we first moved from Portland a year and a half ago, it was Dad who embraced life in the frigid north. He’s a chiropractor and tends to be a bit too gleeful when a cyclist takes a spill along the Coastal Trail, or downhill skiers twist their ankles at the Alyeska Resort in nearby Girdwood. I don’t think he expected Mom to like it here so much. He works all the time, and then sulks when he comes home and dinner isn’t hot and ready to eat the second he walks through the door.
I’m sick of listening to them argue. I go outside and immediately wish I hadn’t. Marisol is in the corner of her yard, tossing dog shit into ours.
“Hey, lesbo,” she calls out. “You need to clean up your backyard.”
I flinch, glancing back at the house. You’d think a ninth grader would be more mature. She’s already like some big deal at her school. Virginia says she’s on the JV volleyball team and freshman class president.
“Where’s your dyke girlfriend?” she shouts, when I turn away. I hope Dad can’t hear her. Mom has set salmon bones on the back steps to be tossed in the trashcan after dinner. I know—bad idea, right? I have half a mind to throw them at Marisol, but then what? A fish war?
“Go away,” I tell her, which only makes her laugh.
“Is that the best you can do?”
“Maribel Clarabelle,” Virginia sings out as she opens our back gate. “Please tell me your folks haven’t stopped feeding you?”
With a last name like Cowsill, Marisol is used to being the butt of cow jokes, but she takes one look at the dog turd poised to catapult from the end of her trowel and drops it. Her face turns bright red. Still, she manages, “Oh, burn.”
“Now she gets it.” Virginia laughs, a sound as beautiful as the summer wind chimes on our back porch. Then she picks me up and plants a big kiss on my lips.
Marisol grumbles something under her breath that ends with, “You guys make me sick.”
“Mission accomplished,” Virginia can’t help yelling back. Then, “Wait, don’t you want this?” She reaches for a turd.
“Don’t,” I say. But it’s too late. She wraps a leaf around it and lobs it across the chain-link fence. It doesn’t come anywhere close to Marisol, but I’m appalled. Virginia is tall, strong, and stringy. The most badass girl I’ve ever met, but she also worries me. The girl won’t back down from a challenge. Everyone should have limits, right? You dare her to pull a fire alarm at school, or skate across Westchester Lagoon near the end of May, she’ll do it without any hesitation. She says her older brother Pete is the same. He dated Marisol’s sister, Camila, all through high school. Last spring, when he went into the military and Camila went to college in Seattle, they broke up. Pete says Marisol was always weird, hanging around them when they wanted to be alone.
“Gross.” I let out a breath when Virginia lets the leaf flutter to the ground, which is the dumbest thing I could say because she sticks her tongue out and pretends to lick her hand. “You’re not kissing me after that,” I tell her.
“I’m not?” She assumes a look of innocence and spins me in a circle before laying another smacker on me.
I can’t help myself. I squeal with delight and drag her behind the shed, out of view from the house, and kiss her with everything I’ve got. My heart flutters. These are the moments I most look forward to.
“We’re not lesbians because we only love each other,” I say, drawing back a minute later. I have to admit Marisol’s insults bother me, and if my parents knew we kissed, my father would probably kill me. Mom…I’m not so sure about. We’ve never been close. She’d probably say I need more vegetables. Everything is about healthy eating since she gave up red meat. Like that will solve all her problems with Dad.
A shadow crosses Virginia’s face. “Being gay isn’t a bad thing, you know.”
“I know. I’m just trying to say I love you.”
“Well, I love you. A little.”
“Just a little?”
“This much.” She holds her thumb and forefinger an inch apart, a wicked expression on her face. So, of course I take her by the arms and stick my tongue in her mouth. Her breath tastes like blueberries and honey. I could kiss her all day long.
She draws back breathlessly a minute later. “You’re getting really good at that. Here, I brought you something.” She pulls a packet of OFF mosquito wipes from the pocket of her shorts—a half-second after a mosquito bites my neck.
“Thanks.” I slap my neck and tear the pack open, swabbing my face, neck, hands, every inch of bare skin. Nobody tells you how bad the bugs are here in summer. Mom won’t let me use any repellant with DEET. “You’ll thank me later when you don’t have cancer,” she says. Usually I’m a mass of itchy welts, but lately Virginia’s been supplying me with the good stuff. Soon I’ll have beautiful, clear skin like hers.
“Want to come to my house?” Virginia asks, as I stuff the rest of the packet in the back pocket of my shorts.
“Sure. Why not?” I definitely don’t want to go back inside and listen to my parents snipe at one another. We set off for the mile-long walk through the park at the end of the block for her house. I can’t wait to find out what Virginia’s mom has fixed for dinner.