The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer Page 2

I couldn’t speak. Of course I knew. When my father moved home to Rhode Island after law school, he’d represented the family of a boy who had been trapped inside the building. A boy who died. Daniel was forbidden from going there, not that my perfect older brother ever would. Not that I ever would.

But for some reason, I had. With Rachel, Claire, and Jude.

With Rachel. Rachel.

I had a sudden image of Rachel walking boldly into kindergarten, holding my hand. Of Rachel turning out the lights in her bedroom and telling me her secrets, after she had listened to mine. There was no time to even process the words “Claire and Jude, too,” because the word “Rachel” filled my mind. I felt a hot tear slide down my cheek.

“What if—what if she was just trapped, too?” I asked.

“Honey, no. They searched. They found—” My mother stopped.

“What?” I demanded, my voice shrill. “What did they find?”

She considered me. Studied me. She said nothing.

“Tell me,” I said, a knife’s edge in my voice. “I want to know.”

“They found…remains,” she said vaguely. “They’re gone, Mara. They didn’t make it.”

Remains. Pieces, she meant. A wave of nausea rocked my stomach. I wanted to gag. I stared hard at the yellow roses from Rachel’s mother instead, then squeezed my eyes shut and searched for a memory, any memory, of that night. Why we went. What we were doing there. What killed them.

“I want to know everything that happened.”

“Mara—”

I recognized her placating tone and my fingers curled into fists around my sheets. She was trying to protect me but she was torturing me instead.

“You have to tell me,” I begged, my throat filled with ash.

My mother looked at me with glassy eyes and a heart-broken face. “I would if I could, Mara. But you’re the only one who knows.”

3

Laurelton Memorial Cemetery, Rhode Island

THE SUN REFLECTED OFF THE POLISHED mahogany of Rachel’s coffin, blinding me. I stared, letting the light sear my corneas, hoping the tears would come. I should cry. But I couldn’t.

Everyone else could, though, and did. People she never even spoke to, people she didn’t even like. Everyone from school was there, claiming a piece of her. Everyone except Claire and Jude. Their memorial service was that afternoon.

It was a gray and white day, a biting New England winter day. One of my last.

The wind blew, lashing my curls against my cheeks. A handful of mourners separated me from my parents, silhouettes of black against the colorless, unbroken sky. I hunched into my coat and wrapped it tighter around my body, shielding myself from my mother’s unblinking stare. She’d been watching my reactions since they released me from the hospital; she was the first to reach me that night when my screaming woke the neighbors, and she was the one who caught me crying in my closet the next day. But it was only after she found me two days later, dazed and blinking and clutching a shard of a broken mirror in my bloody hand, that she insisted on getting me help.

What I got was a diagnosis. Post-traumatic stress disorder, the psychologist said. Nightmares and visual hallucinations were my new normal, apparently, and something about my behavior in the psychologist’s office made him recommend a long-term care facility.

I couldn’t let that happen. I recommended moving instead.

I remembered the way my mother’s eyes narrowed when I brought it up a few days after the disastrous appointment. So wary. So cautious, like I was a bomb under her bed.

“I really think it will help,” I said, not believing that at all. But I had been nightmare-free for two nights, and the mirror episode I didn’t remember was apparently the only one. The psychologist was overreacting, just like my mother.

“Why do you think so?” My mother’s voice was casual and even, but her nails were still bitten down to the beds.

I tried to recall the mostly one-sided conversation I’d had with the psychologist.

“She was always in this house—I can’t look at anything without thinking about her. And if I go back to school, I’ll see her there, too. But I want to go back to school. I need to. I need to think about something else.”

“I’ll talk to your father about it,” she said, her eyes searching my face. I could see in every crease of her forehead, every tilt of her chin, that she didn’t understand how her daughter could have gotten here—how I could have snuck out of the house and ended up in the last place I should. She had asked me as much, but of course I had no answer.

I heard my brother’s voice out of nowhere. “I think it’s almost over,” Daniel said.

My heartbeat slowed as I looked up at my older brother. And as he predicted, the priest then asked us all to bow our heads and pray.

I shifted uncomfortably, the brittle grass crunching under my boots, and glanced at my mother. We weren’t religious and frankly, I wasn’t sure what to do. If there was some protocol for how to behave at your best friend’s funeral, I didn’t get the memo. But my mother tilted her head, her short black hair falling against her perfect skin as she appraised me, examined me, to see what I’d choose. I looked away.

After an eternity of seconds, heads lifted as if eager for it to be over, and the crowd dissolved. Daniel stood beside me while my classmates took turns telling me how sorry they were, promising to stay in touch after the move. I hadn’t been in school since the day of the accident, but some of them had come to visit me in the hospital. Probably just out of curiosity. No one asked me how it happened, and I was glad because I couldn’t tell them. I still didn’t know.

Squawking pierced the funeral’s hushed atmosphere as hundreds of black birds flew overhead in a rush of beating wings. They settled on a cluster of leafless trees that overlooked the parking lot. Even the trees were wearing black.

I faced my brother. “Didn’t you park under those crows?”

He nodded, and started walking to his car.

“Fabulous,” I said as I followed him. “Now we’re going to have to dodge crap from the whole flock.”

“Murder.”

I stopped. “What?”

Daniel turned around. “It’s called a murder of crows. Not a flock. And yes, we’re going to dodge avian fecal matter, unless you want to go with Mom and Dad?”

I smiled, relieved without knowing why. “Pass.”

“Thought so.”

Daniel waited for me and I was grateful for the escape. I glanced back to make sure my mother wasn’t watching. But she was busy talking to Rachel’s family, whom we’d known for years. It was too easy to forget that my parents were leaving everything behind too; my father’s law practice, my mother’s patients. And Joseph, though only twelve, accepted without much explanation that we were moving and agreed to leave his friends without complaint. When I thought about it, I knew I had won the family lottery. I made a mental note to behave more charitably toward my mother. After all, it wasn’t her fault we were leaving.

It was mine.

EIGHT WEEKS LATER

Miami, Florida

YOU’RE KILLING ME, MARA.”

“Give me a minute.” I squinted at the spider that stood between me and my breakfast banana. She and I were working out an arrangement. “Let me do it, then. We’re going to be late.” Daniel was getting his panties in a bunch at the thought. Mr. Perfect was always punctual.

“No. You’ll kill it.”

“And?”

“And then it will be dead.”

“And?”

“Just imagine it,” I spoke, my eyes never leaving my arachnid opponent. “The spider family bereft of their matriarch. Her spider children waiting in their web, watching for Mother for days on end before they realize she’s been murdered.”

“She?”

“Yes.” I tilted my head at the spider. “Her name is Roxanne.” “Of course it is. Take Roxanne outside before she meets the Op-Ed section of Joseph’s Wall Street Journal.”

I paused. “Why is our brother getting the Wall Street Journal?”

“He thinks it’s funny.”

I smiled. It was. I turned to stare at Roxanne, who had sidestepped an inch or two in response to Daniel’s threat. I held out the paper towel and reached for her, but recoiled involuntarily. For the past ten minutes, I’d been repeating this motion: reaching and withdrawing. I wanted to shepherd Roxanne to freedom, to deliver her from our kitchen and lead her to a land flowing with the blood of myriad flying insects. A land otherwise known as our backyard.

But it seemed I was not up to the task. I was still hungry, though, and wanted my banana. I reached for her again, my hand stuck in midair.

Daniel heaved a melodramatic sigh and stuck a cup in the microwave. He pressed a few buttons and the tray began revolving.

“You shouldn’t stand in front of the microwave.”

Daniel ignored me.

“You could get a brain tumor.”

“Is that a fact?” he asked.

“Do you want to find out?”

Daniel examined my hand, still suspended between my body and Roxanne’s, paralyzed. “Your level of neuroses will only find love in a made-for-TV movie.”

“Perhaps, but I’ll be tumorless. Don’t you want to be tumorless, Daniel?”

He reached into the pantry and withdrew a cereal bar. “Here,” he said, and tossed it at me, but lately I was useless before noon. It fell with a thud on the countertop beside me. Roxanne scurried away, and I lost track of her.

Daniel grabbed his keys and sauntered toward the front door. I followed him into the blinding sunlight, breakfastless.

“C’mon,” he said with false cheer. “Don’t tell me you aren’t psyched beyond belief for our first day of school.” He dodged the tiny lizards that scurried across the slate walkway of our new house. “Again.”

“I wonder if it’s snowing in Laurelton right now?”

“Probably. That, I won’t miss.”

Just when I thought it wasn’t possible to get any hotter, the interior of Daniel’s Civic proved me wrong. I choked on the heat and motioned for Daniel to open the window while I sputtered.

He looked at me strangely.

“What?”

“It’s not that hot.”

“I’m dying. You’re not dying?”

“No … it’s like seventy-two degrees.”

“Guess I’m not used to it yet,” I said. We’d moved to Florida only a few weeks ago, but I wouldn’t recognize my old life in a lineup. I hated this place.

Daniel’s eyebrows were still lifted, but he changed the subject. “You know, Mom was planning to drive you to school separately today.”

I groaned. I didn’t want to play the patient this morning. Or any morning, actually. I contemplated buying her knitting needles, or a watercolor set. She needed a hobby that didn’t involve hovering over me.

“Thanks for taking me instead.” I met Daniel’s eyes. “I mean it.”

“No problemo,” he said, and flashed a goofy smile before turning onto I-95 and into traffic.

My brother spent a large portion of the agonizingly slow drive to school banging his forehead on the steering wheel. We were late, and as we pulled into the full parking lot, there wasn’t a single student among the glossy luxury cars.

I reached behind me for Daniel’s neat and tidy backpack, which was positioned in the backseat like a passenger. I grabbed it for him and launched myself out of the car. We approached the elaborately scrolled iron gate of the Croyden Academy of the Arts and Sciences, our new institution of higher learning. A giant crest was wrought into the gate—a shield in the center with a thick band extending from the top right to the bottom left, separating it into halves. There was a knight’s helmet crowning the shield, and two lions on either side. The school looked oddly out of place, considering the run-down neighborhood.

“So, what I didn’t tell you is that Mom’s picking you up this afternoon,” Daniel said.

“Traitor,” I mumbled.

“I know. But I need to meet with one of the guidance counselors about my college applications and she’s only free after school today.”

“What’s the point? You know you’re going to get in everywhere.” “That is far from certain,” he said.

I squinted one of my eyes at Daniel.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“This is me, giving you the side eye.” I continued to squint.

“Well, you look like you’re having a stroke. Anyway, Mom’s going to pick you up over there,” my brother said, pointing to a cul-de-sac on the other side of the campus. “Try to behave.”

I stifled a yawn. “It’s too early to be such an asshat, Daniel.”

“And watch your language. It’s unbecoming.”

“Who cares?” I lolled my head back as we walked, reading the names of illustrious Croyden alumni inscribed in the brick archway above our heads. Most were along the lines of Heathcliff Rotterdam III, Parker Preston XXVI, Annalise Bennet Von—

“I heard Joseph call someone that the other day. He’s picking it up from you.”

I laughed.

“It’s not funny,” Daniel said.

“Please. It’s just a word.”

He opened his mouth to respond when I heard Chopin emerge from his pocket. The sound of Chopin, not the actual Chopin, thank God.

Daniel picked up his phone and mouthed Mom to me, then pointed at the glass wall that housed the administration office of Croyden Academy.

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