No good deed goes unpunished when freshman Steffie Brenner offers to give the awkward new neighbor girl a ride home after her first day at school. When her older sister Ali stops at a local park to apply for a job, Steffie and Madison slip out of the car for a walk—and Madison vanishes.
Already in trouble for a speeding ticket, Ali insists that Steffie say nothing about Madison’s disappearance. Even when Madison’s mother comes looking for her. Even when the police question them.
Some secrets are hard to hide, though—especially with Madison’s life on the line. As she struggles between coming clean or going along with her manipulative sister’s plan, Steffie begins to question whether she or anyone else is really who she thought they were. After all, the Steffie she used to know would never lie about being the last person to see Madison alive—nor would she abandon someone in the woods: alone, cold, injured, or even worse.
But when Steffie learns an even deeper secret about her own past, a missing person seems like the least of her worries…
My sister is hogging the shower again, so I sit on my bed with the window open and wait. Even though it’s May, it’s still chilly, so I pull the covers over my legs and lean on the windowsill. I almost hear the crickets chirping. Almost feel cool grass under bare toes. I imagine the twinkling fireflies looking just like the stars fell to earth. But the sun rises on a cool dew, and I have to admit that it’s not summer yet. Unfortunately, there are still many days of school to go. Many more alarm clocks. Many mornings waiting for Ali to finish her shower.
Thirty-five more, to be exact.
So I close the window and trace the back of my cell phone case, where my initials, “SWB,” are spelled in blue rhinestones on a black background. Underneath it is the blue paw print of the Wachipauka Huskies. Ali gave me the case for my thirteenth birthday last year, in honor of me joining her at Wachipauka High. “SWB” is Stefanie Wolf Brenner. Steffie, for short.
“Wolf” is a strange middle name. It’s Mom’s maiden name, and I guess my family wanted to keep it around. Of course they couldn’t be bothered to give such a strange name to Ali, could they? Or maybe they thought of it too late, after they’d already named her. I guess there has to be something abnormal about me, though. “Wolf” is the weirdest thing about me. But ordinary is what I like. Stay low. Don’t get noticed. It’s an easy way to live.
Now my sister is a different story. She’s not ordinary at all—and in a good way. She’s a junior, and she’s gorgeous. She’s got nine piercings in her ears, and she has a tattoo on her back that even Mom and Dad don’t know about. The tattoo is a picture of a leafy seadragon.
Ali showed me a leafy seadragon last summer when we went to the aquarium. It’s just about the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. It looks like a cross between a seahorse and a piece of seaweed. In fact, if you don’t look carefully enough, you’d mistake it for a leafy plant. But it’s not—it’s actually an animal. Ali’s obsessed with them. They live in the ocean near Australia, which is why she wants to go there for college. My parents are still trying to talk her out of that one. They want her to stay closer to home. But I think Ali would be glad living half a globe away from parental supervision. Then she’d be able to get all the tattoos and piercings she felt like!
Ali’s piercings are just one of the ways we’re opposites. Just like Mom, Ali is tall and blonde with beautiful skin that naturally bronzes in the sun. I’m shorter and not as thin—Mom says I have an “athletic build.” Maybe I’m good at running, but square and muscular isn’t exactly attractive these days. My hair is red and frizzy, and three seconds of sunlight causes millions of freckles to pop up all over my skin like a rash. Then, three more seconds in the sun, and I’m red as a tomato. My sister has perfect vision, but I need glasses or contacts to see the board at school. I sometimes feel like I must have been adopted, or maybe Ali just won the gene-pool lottery.
Besides her good looks, Ali has always been popular. I’ve never been. And, of course, she gets to have a normal middle name—Alison Jennifer Brenner—but then again, she always seems to get the better end of the deal. She gets new clothes, and I get her hand-me-downs. She gets to go out with her friends while I stay home and get roped into helping Mom around the house.
Ali’s even got an awesome car. Dad won it in a radio contest and gave it to her for her sixteenth birthday. It’s a Volkswagen Beetle. She got a custom paint job—a shimmery purple-blue with a green leafy seadragon painted on the hood. Because of her car, she’s popular at school. Everyone has heard of her, at least. Which is more than I can say about me. Me and Ali have practically nothing in common.
Except for Ryan.
I grip my phone tighter as I think of him, and I can’t help but smile. Ryan is Ali’s best friend. They’re both on the swim team. He’s a better swimmer than she is, but that’s beside the point. The point is, Ryan has had a crush on my sister for about two years now, but all Ali wants is to be friends. She’s got it in her mind that she’s going to college in Australia, where she’s going to find the man of her dreams—someone with a sexy Australian accent—get married, and study leafy seadragons for the rest of her life.
Me, on the other hand? In all my years of young adulthood, I can count on one hand the number of boys who have ever had a crush on me—a whopping zero! Boys just don’t know I exist. I look young for my age, and I can never dress the way some of the other girls do. Plus, I’m pretty good in school. I don’t get straight A’s or anything (because I’m a big procrastinator), but I always know the answers—so many students think I’m nerdy. It doesn’t do much for my popularity.
And there’s one other thing. I never told Ali this, but I’ve had a crush on Ryan for about as long as he’s had a crush on her.
But Ali’s finally out of the shower. I better hurry, or we’ll both be late. As usual, Ali doesn’t leave me enough time to wash my hair, so I take the world’s quickest shower and then get dressed. Jeans, T-shirt, and a Huskies sweatshirt. I’m hurrying to the kitchen, still brushing my hair, when Ali sneers in my direction from the kitchen table. But she’s not sneering at me—she’s sneering at whatever Dad has been saying.
Dad is sitting at the table in goofy pajamas. He hasn’t shaved yet, so dark stubble spots his face. Even so, his bronzed skin looks much nicer than my pale, pasty complexion. His dark hair sticks up in messy spikes while he sips his coffee and continues.
“Just imagine if it was your first day—at the very end of the school year, too.”
Ali rolls her eyes. “If we have to.”
“If we have to what?” I ask. I grab a banana, and Mom looks at me sideways.
“Is that all you’re eating?” she asks.
“I don’t want you looking like a toothpick or anything.”
I raise an eyebrow and look at Ali, who is much closer to looking like a toothpick than I am, but I shrug. “I’ll have a granola bar on the way,” I say.
“Good. Because we’re gonna need to rush,” Ali says.
Ali points to Dad with her eyes. But Dad is in the middle of sipping more coffee, so Mom answers instead.
“The new neighbors moved in yesterday.”
I know this already, so I just keep eating my banana. I don’t want another tardy, or I’m liable to get detention.
Mom continues. “Dad and I talked to them last evening while you girls were inside. It’s a small family, the McAlisters, just Madison and her mother.”
“She’s your age, dear. Starting her freshman year at Wachipauka just today. We thought it would be nice if you all rode to school together. Then maybe you could show Madison around.”
“Imagine how tough it would be if you were starting school today.”
I shrug again. If I were starting school in May, I’d find a way to get sick for the last month of school. Then I wouldn’t have to start until September, and in September, everyone’s kind of new.
Dad slurps down the rest of his coffee and smiles. “And imagine how cool she’ll feel when she pulls up to school in the Seadragon.”
“Da-ad,” Ali whines. The Seadragon is what she calls her Beetle, but she hates when Mom or Dad calls it by its nickname. “It’s too cool for parents,” she always says—even though Dad got her the thing!
I finish my banana and drop the peel in the trash. If it were up to me, I’d take the bus to school rather than deal with my sister. I’ve ridden to school in the Seadragon plenty of times, and it hasn’t done squat for my social life. Besides, thanks to Ali’s morning beauty routine, I’ve been late to school three times in two months. One more tardy and I’ll be assigned Saturday detention.
But every time I mention taking the bus, Mom goes a little crazy. She prefers that Ali and I ride together. I guess every parent has at least one thing they freak out about, one pet peeve they insist on to ruin their kids’ lives. Mom has always been nuts about me and Ali being sisters.
“Sisters are important,” she insists. “You’ll be friends for life, and you should always stay together.”
It always feels like Mom is trying to force the two of us to get along. She makes us sit next to each other, or compromise on what movie to see, or eat breakfast together…the list goes on. She even has this song she used to sing us when we were little, especially if we would start fighting:
Friends and sisters
Not just sisters, but also friends…
Sometimes she still sings it, like on birthdays and holidays, and it drives me and Ali crazy. I guess it’s something else we have in common, at least.
“Go get Madison, and meet me at the Seadragon,” Ali says. She’s eating a waffle. She eats waffles like this: she has to get the perfect amount of butter and syrup on each square, and she eats it two squares at a time. It takes her a while, though, because she has to cut it so that the syrup stays in the squares and doesn’t run out onto the plate. She’s always been dainty like that. Must be nice to eat in such a leisurely manner. No wonder we’re always so close to being late.
I grab a granola bar. Mom jumps up from the table and hugs me goodbye, which is weird, because half the time she’s too busy to notice I’m leaving.
“Guess I’ll go get Madison,” I mumble. I wish Ali were going with me. I’m not looking forward to meeting a complete stranger first thing in the morning.
Dad smiles over his empty coffee mug. “There’s no time like the present,” he says. It’s his nice way of telling me to go do something.
Before long, I’m standing on the McAlister’s porch. A short, stocky, frazzled-looking woman answers the door. She looks disheveled, and I feel like I’m intruding. But I’m here for a reason, so I ask if Madison is home.
“She’s getting ready for school,” Mrs. McAlister says. She wears a bathrobe that isn’t even tied. Underneath, she has on a football jersey and a pair of neon pink shorts. Her curly hair is sticking up like someone has rubbed it with a balloon. I think maybe she’s had less time than me to get ready this morning. “It’s very hard to find anything,” she explains.
I peek over her shoulder, and indeed the entire house is a mess. Everything is still packed in boxes. There is a couch—I think—covered in a dinosaur-print bedsheet. Aside from that, dozens of cardboard boxes are arranged and stacked so that there are two pathways—one leading to the kitchen and the other to the dining room. It looks like a maze, and Mrs. McAlister—in her disheveled hair—looks like a mouse that has been lost inside it. Like the one we studied in Mr. Moffett’s biology unit last year, the mouse tormented trying to find the cheese. Poor thing never did.
I clear my throat. “I thought Madison might want to ride to school with me and my sister, Alison. Ali’s a junior, and she drives to school.”
Mrs. McAlister almost smiles. “Madison would like that. She’s been so worried about making friends. It’s hard to start at a new school toward the end of freshman year.” She puts her hand on my arm, and I fight the urge to pull away. I look down at it and can’t help noticing how plump her hand is. I’m used to Mom’s hand being thin as a model’s, just like Ali’s. “You’re like a guardian angel,” Mrs. McAlister tells me. I look up to see her eyes are smiling and sad all at once.
“A guardian angel?”
She nods. “I was so worried about Madison taking the bus by herself on her first day of school. See, I’m having car trouble.”
We both turn to look at the old jalopy in the driveway. It looks like it belongs in a dump, not on the road. I realize that the McAlisters must not have much money. I feel a little guilty about mentally critiquing Mrs. McAlister’s outfit. And then Mrs. McAlister does something that makes me feel even worse. Her plump hand is still resting on my arm, and she looks over her shoulder to make sure Madison isn’t within hearing range. Then she squeezes my arm and whispers, “Madison has become so shy since her brother went away to college. Will you look after her? It’d be so nice for her to have a genuine friend. Please promise me you’ll look after her?”
The guilt I’d been feeling turns to anger, and I want to snatch my arm back. I’m always asked to do things. Let Ali get the bathroom first. Drive to school with Ali so that we can be “friends and sisters” or whatever. Be late to school on account of Ali. I have my own life to worry about, and here’s this woman I don’t even know asking me to make a promise about a girl I haven’t met.
But just before I answer, I look over at my house. Dad has come out onto the driveway to get the newspaper. He looks as goofy as ever in his reindeer flannel pants—in the middle of May. I don’t laugh, though, because of how angry I am at Mrs. McAlister. But then Dad turns around and waves in that goofy way he has. Dad is always the calm one. He’s always the one cracking jokes or keeping things light. He’s much less serious than Mom, and he hardly ever says no to someone who needs help. How can I possibly be mean to Mrs. McAlister—even if she is being annoyingly pushy—with Dad standing right there waving?
I know I have no choice.
I turn back to Mrs. McAlister and mumble, “I promise.” Then she looks right into my eyes. Her eyes twinkle, and it’s like she’s trying to peer right down into my soul.
“Promise,” she says again.
I feel like I’m under a spell. Like Mrs. McAlister’s eyes are a witch’s, sparkling with fairy dust and enchanting me to answer again and to obey whatever she asks.
“I promise,” I say louder.
Mrs. McAlister smiles. She squeezes my hand again before letting it go. Then she turns and calls into the house: “Madison!”
There is no response.
“Hold on.” Mrs. McAlister turns back to me. “Madison’s been trying to find her box of school clothes. I told her to find it last night, but she was too busy exploring the stream in the field out back.” Mrs. McAlister’s eyes stare off into the distance. They have a sad, dreamy look. She speaks again, but she’s speaking into the distance. “Madison loves scouting. Scouting was such a big part of her life before we moved. Her father simply lov—” She finally turns back to me, like she remembers I’m there. “I hope we can find her a troop around here. It’s so hard to find a good troop in high school. It seems too many girls lose interest. With makeup and fashion and sports and boys and all that, who wants to explore the wilderness anymore? Madison, that’s who. She would spend her entire life outdoors if I let her.”
I nod. I know the stream she’s talking about.
There’s an old field behind both of our houses. I spent many summer days there as a kid. Sometimes I pretended I was a pioneer traveling out West. Other times I pretended I lived in medieval times in Europe and was a bandit, hiding out near the stream with my stash. Sometimes I even pretended it was the end of the world—that all of civilization was gone—and the stream and that wilderness held the key to my survival.
Just thinking about the hours and hours I spent out there…I hardly go back there anymore, though.
Mrs. McAlister’s eyes penetrate mine. “I wish she’d spend more time with people her age.”
I don’t know what to say. Mrs. McAlister frowns abruptly and turns back inside. “Madison will be right out,” she says over her shoulder. She seems embarrassed either about her messy house or what she had said—or maybe about her outfit—and shuts the door on me.
I pretend not to be insulted while I look at the flowers in their front garden. Most of them are brown. The house had been empty for a few months, and no one had been watering them. I remember the old lady who used to live there. She never really talked to anyone else in the neighborhood, but she always made sure to water those flowers—every day. It was just something everyone took for granted until she passed away. And then no one watered the flowers.
It just goes to show—sometimes you don’t realize things until they’re gone.
Anyway, a few minutes later, Mrs. McAlister pops her head back out. It looks like she’s run a comb through her hair, and her bathrobe is tied. “Madison will be out in a minute. Normally I would invite you in, but the place is such a mess. We don’t even have our phone hooked up. Why don’t I send Madison over?”
Before I can respond, the door closes again. What great hospitality after the promise I’ve been forced to make!
Back in my driveway, I wait by my sister’s car. She always keeps it locked, and there’s no way she’ll ever let me have the key. So I lean against the hood. I’m used to waiting for Ali. She’s probably finishing the last of her waffle squares. “Get off my car, stupid,” Ali says as soon as she sees me.
“It’s just a car,” I mumble. But she doesn’t care. She’s already inspecting the hood to make sure I haven’t scratched her precious paint job.
“I worked so many hours at the ice cream shop to pay for this paint,” she whines. She flexes her “ice cream muscle,” the one on her right forearm that she developed from scooping frozen ice cream. “You have no idea how many milkshakes I had to make just to pay for the upgrade for sparkly paint. If you’ve scratched it, I’ll take the money out of your bank account.”
“What bank account?” I ask. I have about fifty dollars in my bank account. Barely enough to cover a scratch.
Her face turns red. “Never mind,” she says.
I squint at her. “Ali, what are you talking about?”
“What account?” I repeat.
“Never mind. Just get in the car,” she snarls.
I cross my arms and slide into the front seat. When Ali finishes pouting over her car’s paint job, she joins me. We listen to the radio for a while, and I watch the clock while Ali sends about a million text messages. I hardly ever send texts. I mean, who in the world would I text?
“If your friend isn’t out in two minutes, we’re leaving,” Ali says between texts.
I check the clock and shrug. “She’s not my friend.” I’m not trying to be mean, but I don’t want another tardy slip—and Saturday detention—on account of some girl I barely even know. I can’t sweet-talk my way out of everything the way Ali can. Besides, I resent the fact that Mrs. McAlister made me promise to look after Madison. As if I have nothing better to do at school! As if even Mrs. McAlister knows I’m not popular.
“She can always take the bus,” I groan.
Ali shrugs. “Fine by me.” She turns the ignition and puts the car in reverse. Just as we’re about to pull away, the McAlisters’ door opens, and Madison rushes out.
She’s a waifish girl wearing cargo pants that are way too big for her. They look like a parachute. She’s wearing a ribbed tank top and a lined, plaid flannel shirt much too warm for May, even with the chilly dew. The little backpack she carries makes her look like she’s ready to go hiking. Her skin looks pale against her long, black hair, which flows behind her as she runs to the car.
I thought I was small for my age—but little Madison can probably shop in the girls’ section of a clothing store. Seriously. She’s like a sliver of a person, thin and pale and small. If not for the bright sunlight illuminating her hair, I’d say that she even looks like a baby vampire. I realize immediately that keeping my promise to Mrs. McAlister will be a threat to my already-suffering social life.
“Sorry I’m late,” she says, squeezing into the back seat.
Ali barely waits for the door to close before she revs the engine and guns it down the street. She always drives like that when Mom and Dad aren’t watching. Even though I should be used to it, I grip the door handle just the same as the wind whips my hair through Ali’s open window.
“I couldn’t find the box with my clothes in it,” Madison explains. Her voice is really soft—it matches her tiny frame perfectly. The way it flows reminds me of the way the stream flows behind our house. Calm and serene and soft.
Ali studies Madison’s reflection in the rear-view mirror, and I peek back at her.
Madison’s green eyes sparkle as she tries to explain. “These are my camping clothes. They’re hand-me-downs from my older brother. He’s in college now. I usually just wear them for camping, but they’re all I could find. Our house is full of boxes.”
In the front seat Ali snickers. “You’ll certainly be noticed on your first day,” Ali says. “I don’t know of a single student at school who dresses like you. And I’ve never seen anyone with that kind of backpack.”
“It’s a camping pack,” Madison explains. “A lumbar pack. It was in the same box as my camping clothes. It’s used for camping so that your shoulders are left free to—”
But Ali isn’t listening. “If I were you, I would have just stayed home today,” she sneers. “And used the day to do some shopping.” Madison averts her eyes, hiding a blush.
We drive in silence for a few minutes. I keep my eye on the clock, and it looks like we might actually get to school on time. That is, until we turn down Pine Run Road. There is only one reason to turn down Pine Run Road, and it’s bad news for my plan to be there on time.
The reason is named Ryan Harney.
To be honest, I don’t know what Ryan sees in my sister. She’s turned down invitations for dates more often than I can count, and yet he keeps trying. Most days, she drives him to school so he can leave his swim bag or baseball gear in her trunk for afternoon practice. The lockers at school are really old and disgusting. They get stuck if you look at them the wrong way, and they can’t fit more than a book or two. And while that’s true, I’m sure the real reason Ryan leaves his bag in her trunk is so he’ll have one more excuse to talk to her during the day.
While Ali and Ryan waste precious seconds joking around each morning, I usually gaze longingly at Ryan from the back seat. He has a swimmer’s body. Broad shoulders. Rippling muscles. Chiseled features. He’s got really cool hair that he kind of spikes up. But best of all is his smile. He smiles with his eyes, and it sends chills down my spine. And his deep, deep voice…I guess you could say he’s pretty cute—okay, I guess you could say I’m as close to madly in love with him as you can get.
I still don’t know what he sees in my sister.
Anyway, he’s waiting at the end of his driveway when my sister pulls up, bouncing a tennis ball against the pavement. He’s wearing a Huskies T-shirt that looks like my sweatshirt, and I can’t help noticing his rippling muscles each time he grabs the ball. Ali doesn’t see him check his cell phone, but I can tell he’s trying to see what time it is. If Ryan gets too many tardy slips, his baseball coach makes him run extra laps after practice.
“Excuse the munchkins,” Ali tells Ryan.
I roll my eyes, get out of the front seat, and shuffle in the back next to Madison.
Madison turns to me and stares. I mean, stares! It creeps me out. She has the biggest eyes of anyone I’ve ever met. She reminds me of the freaky girls from those horror movies that Ali and I watch when Mom and Dad aren’t home. The ones with big, dark eyes, ghostly-pale skin, and jet-black hair. Like the one in The Ring.
“Oh, hello,” Ryan says when he sees Madison in the back seat with me. The way he says it, I can tell he’s pretty shocked at her appearance, too.
Ali smirks. “She thinks we’re going camping.”
“No, she doesn’t,” I say. I feel defensive of Madison. Maybe it’s the promise I made to her mother. Or maybe it’s the fact that I know what it’s like being on the receiving end of Ali’s bad attitude. Maybe it’s that I know what it’s like to be a lowly freshman in the presence of upperclassmen. But it doesn’t matter. Ali and Ryan are already busy talking about something else, anyway.
By the time we get to school, most of the parking spaces have been taken. That means we have to park all the way at the end of the parking lot, right next to the sign that says Welcome to WACHIPAUKA HIGH SCHOOL, Home of the Huskies.
Parking that far away at this hour only means one thing: a tardy slip. I beg Ali to drop me off at the front entrance, but she refuses. So we park and hurry to the building as fast as we can. I think we might actually make it in on time, but the late bell rings while we’re still yards from the main entrance.
I really don’t want Saturday detention. I consider turning around, walking off school property, and calling home. I think about demanding that Mom or Dad drive to school and write me a tardy excuse. But I know they would never go for that. They’d probably ground me from my phone, too. Worse than that, they’d be mad at Ali for taking so long to get to school—and any time they get mad at Ali, she takes it out on me. Besides, Madison is right there, and she has no clue where to go.
That gives me an idea.
“Madison,” I suggest, “why don’t I take you to the guidance office? Then we can get your schedule, and I can show you around.”
Madison smiles. “I’d like that.” Her voice is so soft that I can barely hear her over the engines of the last few school buses pulling away. Her smile is wide, and her eyes sparkle like emerald gems. I can tell she appreciates my attempt at friendship, and I feel bad that Ali and I almost left her behind. Sometimes when I’m worried about myself—like getting a tardy slip, for instance—I forget to think about anyone else. I forget that the way I was thinking about treating Madison is the same way many of the cool kids treat me. I guess that’s just how people are sometimes.
Anyway, we hurry to the guidance office. I hope my plan works. If guidance gives me a pass to first period, I can avoid another tardy slip—and detention.