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Excerpt

Excerpt

Find Me

FIND MEby Romily Bernard

 

1.

 

I’m halfway through the remote computer’s firewall when Detective Carson parks on the other side of our street. This isn’t usually a time I like to be interrupted—actually, when I’m hacking, I never like to be interrupted—but because he makes my feet hit the floor so I’m ready to run, because he makes my heart thump bass lines in my ears, because it’s him and he’s back and I’m scared, I take a few minutes. I sit in the dark, watch the unmarked police car idle, and tell myself it’ll be okay.

After all, I’m prepared. I wired my foster parents’ security cameras to route the front yard video feed through my computer. I can see everything—the blacked-out sedan, the shadowy streetscape, the neighbors’ darkened houses—without leaving my desk. For a full five minutes, there’s nothing. No movement. No anything. This should be all kinds of uninteresting, but my palms still go slick.

It’s stupid to be scared. He can’t touch me now. Not when I have this shiny new life. My foster parents belong in a Disney movie. My sister and I live with them on the rich side of town. I’m not the same girl Carson turned in to social services.

At least that’s what I tell myself.

And, anyway, there could be plenty of reasons why he stops. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with me. He could stop because he’s been assigned to this area. Or because he lives nearby.

Or because he’s watching you. In my head, I smother the words, but they still squirm.

He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know. I flick my eyes to the lines of computer code running across my monitor but can’t concentrate. I have to keep repeating keystrokes.

My dad’s been gone for ten months and you’d think Carson would take a hint, but he’s told everyone he thinks Lily and I are his last links to tracking down our drug-dealer father. He might actually be right, and that’s what really scares me. Because if my dad does return, if he does see a policeman outside our new house, he’ll think I’ve turned narc. It’ll ruin everything.

Well, everything that’s left.

It’s so damn little I almost laugh. Then I hear the car door slam, and my heart rides up my throat with spurs.

He’s never gotten out before. I jerk around to better face the monitor. It’s definitely Carson. I recognize his lanky build, the way his shoulders crouch underneath his Members Only jacket. He’s killed the sedan’s engine, but it’s okay. Really. He’s just lingering by the curb.

It’s fine.

Until he starts moving toward the house.

I nearly overturn my chair. The wheels screech backward, and my bare feet slap the floor. I’m standing now. Ready.

But I don’t know what I’m ready to do. If I go downstairs, I’ll have to use the windows to track him, and he might see the movement.

But staying here’s no good. The security cameras only watch the front. The rear and side yards are blind, which means I’m blind. I’ll have to wait for his moves, his decisions.

No way that’s going to happen.

I grab my baseball bat—the one I keep next to my bed, the one everyone thinks I have because I just love me some sports—and go to my bedroom door.

And I can’t get my feet to move any farther.

This isn’t how moments like these are supposed to go. My hands shouldn’t be shaking. I shouldn’t be Wick Tate, the girl I am. I should be the sister Lily deserves.

And I’m going to be. But the two feet of space between my body and the door might as well be two miles for all the good it’s doing me. I’m afraid. People like me were meant to stay behind computers. It’s where we belong.

I wrench the door open anyway. In the hallway, there’s only blackened silence, but the curtains drift like they’ve just been brushed, and somewhere downstairs, something creaks.

It ignites static inside my head, like my brain’s been suddenly tuned to a television channel filled with snow.

Adrenaline, I think, forcing one foot in front of the other. I’m kicking into panic mode, but it can be controlled.

And it will be controlled. I hoist the bat onto one shoulder and start for the stairway, making it almost to the top step before I realize I’m not alone. There’s a shadow sliding along the wall, inching up from downstairs. For a heartbeat, I think I might faint.

It’s Carson. He’s already here. I’ve let Lily down. I’ve

The shadow creeps closer, and my sister’s face floats out of the dark. “Wick?”

“Jesus, Lily!”

Lily steps forward, drawing close enough so I can see how she’s eyeing the baseball bat. “What are you doing?”

“We have a visitor.” Weird how my voice sounds flat and confident when my insides are churning and liquid. I push past her, telling myself I’m fine, and maybe I am. Maybe I just needed to see the last person I have left to lose.

I hustle down the stairs, one hand skimming the wall.

“Stay put.”

But, of course, she doesn’t. Lily trails me so closely her toes brush my heels.

“What kind of visitor?”

I can barely hear her, but I know what she’s really getting at. Lily’s hoping it isn’t what I think, that there’s some pleasant explanation to all this. It’s a fantasy I can’t afford. Actually, it’s a fantasy neither of us can afford.

I round on her. “Lil, it’s five thirty in the morning. What do you think Carson’s here for?”

Even though it quivers, Lily’s chin lifts. “Maybe he’s here because he knows about your hacking.”

He couldn’t. “He doesn’t.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because I am.” Mostly.

Below us, a dark shape sweeps past the windows. It hesitates near the front door, and we watch something arch through the air.

It’s an arm. A hand. Carson’s checking the window lock.

Lily grabs me, and for a second, she looks far younger than eleven. “Wick, we have to wake up Bren and Todd.”

No way. No how. Our foster parents would have a flying duck fit. Bren and Todd have no clue any of this is going on, and I prefer it that way. They don’t need to know about my little computer habits. They don’t need to know there’s a hollow-faced policeman coming by only at night. They already know enough—anything more and they might turn me in to the cops, and Lily over to the state.

Not going to happen.

And why would anyone believe me anyway? Todd would want a confrontation with the detective. I’d be dragged out to give my version, and Carson would have some sort of lie to explain everything away—police always do—and then I’m left looking like the lying juvenile delinquent everyone already thinks I am.

“Wick!” Lily’s fingers dig in harder, and I shake her off. “Call them,” she whispers, and there’s a simmering hysteria in her voice I haven’t heard since the day the police came for our dad.

“Go back upstairs.”

“Call them.” Lily repeats the words like a prayer, but they’re really a conjuring spell. My sister wants to summon some mythical parents to protect us, some powerful adults to make all the nightmares vanish. I don’t really blame her. It’s tough to feel safe when all you have is me.

“You don’t have to do this anymore, Wick.”

If I don’t, who will? Bren? Todd? I know Lily wants them to fix everything, but why should they?

Just because someone should protect you doesn’t mean they will. I almost say it, but I swallow the words. That’s notsomething I want Lily to know.

Even if I’m pretty sure she already does.

Lily plucks at my elbow. “He wouldn’t dare break in.”

And my brain agrees with her, but the rest of me . . . the rest of me believes he would dare. Cops don’t have to be careful with people like us. We’re the enemy. Lily and I may have a fancy new life, but maybe he knows what’s still inside us, and that’s what makes me raise my bat. “You know as well as I do that they’re not always the good guys.”

Through the window, we watch Carson twist to the right. He hovers for a moment, like he heard something, and then strides across the front of the house.

Where’s he going now? Confused, I press a little closer to the window, half expecting him to jump into my field of vision, horror-movie-style.

I creep another inch closer and see the last of his shadow as he turns the corner of the house.

What’s he doing? There’s nothing around there except—the back door! I spin on my heel, my chest funneling shut. Did we lock it?

I seize Lily’s hand and drag her down the hallway, dodging Bren’s yoga gear and Todd’s line of penny loafers. I can barely see, but we move pretty quickly in the dark. We’re good at it. We’ve had practice.

We just haven’t practiced enough.

Carson passes the sunroom’s tall windows before we’ve even reached the end of the hall. He’s on the rear steps, under the yellow porch light, by the time my feet hit the kitchen tile. I skid to a halt, and Lily shrinks into my hip. There’s no sound except for our breathing: too loud and too harsh.

Outside, Carson presses one gloved hand to the window, shielding his eyes to look inside, and in the dark, my gasp is strangled.

He won’t be able to see anything. He won’t know we’re here. My brain repeats this, but my body creeps closer to the wall.

Carson’s hand seizes the door handle. The metal click-clicks. He’s testing the lock, and it’s holding. Thank God.

I sag in relief until I hear him laugh. Low and curdled, it sounds like it surfaced from some deep, dark place inside him.

Lily cringes. “Are you sure he’s only looking for Dad?”

“Yes.”

No.

She makes some impossibly small whimper, an animal sound, and I’m afraid he’ll hear it. He can’t. I know he can’t. But when Carson tenses up, when his head tilts so his deep-set eyes slide into blackened hollows, I wrap one arm around my sister’s thin shoulders.

I pull her closer and closer until I feel our bones meet through our skin. We stand in the dark, and we watch him smile.

 

2.

“Wick, police officers are supposed to be good.”

Sure they are, I think. And parents are there when you need them, your teachers care what happens to you, and someday your prince will come. But Lily knows all those lies, so I don’t say a word. My sister is vibrating in the dim light. Anything more and she’ll splinter.

“Well, yeah, usually they are,” I say.

But this one isn’t. The unspoken words hang between us, suspended with strobe lights.

We stand in Bren’s kitchen long after Carson’s left. All around us, shadows are draining down the walls. In my panic, I didn’t realize how close we were to dawn.

“Why was he really here, Wick?”

“I already told you.” I rub my eyes until colors erupt in starbursts. “He wants Dad.”

“But Dad’s not here.”

Yeah, exactly, so where does that leave you? It leaves me with the hacking. He must know about my . . . extracurricular activities. My chest shrinks around the thought. I don’t answer Lily. I could. I even have a ready-made excuse for just such an occasion.

Actually, I have several.

Consider these my top three desert island, can’t-live-without-’em picks: Carson’s here because our dad ran and Carson thinks we’re helping him stay on the run. Carson’s here because our dad ran and we’re now Carson’s last connection to him. Carson’s here because he’s looking for any loose ends he can further unravel.

They’re all very tidy little excuses, but I can’t seem to say any of them because there’s a tiny, nagging sensation eating up my insides. It’s very small, but it has teeth and claws.

Lily’s stiff, like the same thing eating me might be eating her, too. And when she turns to face me, I know it is. There’s accusation in her eyes.

“He must know. You have to stop hacking.”

“He doesn’t know, and I’m not hurting anyone.” Lily glares at me, and I roll my eyes. I refuse to feel guilty about this. The spiky knot blooming in my throat is not regret. The tightening in my gut is not worry.

It’s anger.

“I’m not hurting anyone who doesn’t deserve to be hurt,” I amend.

And I’m pretty sure that’s true. No, I am sure that’s true. I run online investigations. I specialize in cheating husbands. Yes, it’s hacking, but it’s not hacking to crash servers or set loose viruses.

And yeah, sure, I do it for a price. I charge for invading some guy’s privacy, for looking through his bank records or email files. But Lily and I need the money, and these women—my customers—need answers. I make sure they really know who they love. I make sure no one ends up like my mom did. Every single one of my customers begs for help, thanks me when I finish. I’ve said “you’re welcome” so many times, the words taste bitter.

I’m Robin Hood with Kool-Aid-colored hair—a hero—but Lily’s looking at me like I’m some sort of villain, like I would twirl my mustache while tying busty girls to train tracks, like I let her down.

“We have Bren and Todd now, Wick.”

“Oh yeah?” Oddly, analyzing the situation calms me. I look at Lily and feel stronger. “For how long? Dad’s been gone for almost a year and the last three homes didn’t keep us past a couple of months. We have to look out for ourselves.”

“But what about—?” Lily waves one hand at the door, unable to bring herself to say Carson’s name.

“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.” She ought to know I’m full of shit, but Lily relaxes like she believes every word. You’d think it would make me feel proud.

She flings herself into me and we hug. Hard. “Lil, if I get enough money, it won’t matter when they throw us out. We’ll be able to go anywhere. I know you hate the hacking, but the money will keep us safe.”

If we need it.”

When we need it.”

Upstairs, a shower cuts on, and a woman starts singing about how the hills are alive with the sound of music.

For God’s sake, Bren. I run one hand over my face. No one has a right to be that happy without serious meds being involved. It’s just annoying for the rest of us.

Usually, I would get Lily to agree with me, but she’s already gone. I can hear her dashing across the upstairs hallway, making for her bedroom. She knows the game. When Bren comes to wake us up, Lily will need to look like nothing happened. I’ll need to look like nothing happened.

Except I feel so shaky, I know I’ll never pull it off. I’m not in the mood for sunny. In fact, I’m not in the mood for any of this. I need space. So I shove my feet into my battered Converse sneakers—the only things left from my wardrobe Bren didn’t pitch into the garbage—and bang through the front door.

It would be a pretty excellent exit too if I didn’t nearly trip and fall on my face. Something tangled up my feet. I twist and see a small, brown package sitting on the top step.

It’s addressed to me.

It wasn’t here last night.

But Carson was. The idea pops sweat between my shoulder blades. I start to walk away, but that won’t work. Bren will only find it and then there will be questions and I’ll have to come up with answers and I don’t have the energy.

The package is the size of a paperback novel. I could fit it in my messenger bag, throw it away later.

Because I definitely shouldn’t open it.

Because he definitely has to be playing some game with me.

But if I don’t, I’ll look scared. Worse, I’ll know I’m scared.

Scared enough to go back inside? I look at the house, think about explaining it to Lily, think about explaining it to Bren.

Yeah, never mind. I hook two fingers into the wrapping’s edges and rip. The result is a pretty big letdown. Carson’s left me a water-stained book.

Well, okay then. I rub my thumb along the frayed binding, irritation pinching all my insides like mosquitoes are eating me alive. Is Carson trying to make friends? Not freaking likely. So what’s his angle? I can’t figure it out, and instead of feeling relieved, I feel foolish.

And worried.

And even though I know I’m alone, I cut a quick glance up and down the street. Nothing. No one. I’m safe. But I still want to run.

There has to be something I’m missing here. There has to be a point I’m not understanding. I pick at a pear-shaped stain on the book’s corner.

Maybe there’s a message. I open the cover, and amusement temporarily overrides my confusion. This isn’t a book. It’s a diary. Well, whatever.

I didn’t think people did this sort of thing anymore. I’ve never been attracted to the idea myself. I mean, why would you want to publish all your secrets? Why would you want to write down everything that scares you?

It’s like making a map of your weaknesses. It’s not smart. But all that aside, why would someone send it to me? Then I flip to the next page, and my stomach rocks to one side, settles upside down.

I know who owns the diary. The script is a little smoother, but I recognize the fat, curly letters even before I see the name written at the bottom. She used to write it on all my folders. It made my stuff look like it belonged to her. I never minded. I thought it made me look like hers. Like I belonged to her.

But I haven’t spoken to Tessa Waye since sixth grade, and I seriously doubt she’s trying to reconnect now. This doesn’t make any sense, and I don’t know why I turn another page, but I do and there it is: a single yellow Post-it Note pasted across some random Wednesday morning’s entry. It says:

FIND ME.

Find Me
by by Romily Bernard