Chapter One ONE
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 3
Everyone needs a “bury a dead body in the woods” best friend. I mean, it’s the highest level of friendship possible. Someone you can trust, without question, to cover your ass when life goes sideways.
For me, that person is Kacey Hodge. Loyal to her core, my exact opposite in almost every way. If I ever had to bury a dead body in the woods? Kacey would be right beside me, shovel in hand, wiping sweat off her brow. She’s my ride or die. However, I’d rather bury a dead body than help Kacey clean out her bedroom, which is how I’m spending my afternoon. Because I’ve never met someone who owns more clothing and random shit than my best friend.
“I can’t believe my mom is making me do this,” Kacey mutters from the depths of her closet, where she’s pulling out her lesser worn items and tossing them into the cardboard box in the center of her bedroom. “I swear, Florie, she’s using college as an excuse to finally purge my room. She’s wanted this for years. It’s so unnecessary.”
I’d argue that it’s very, very necessary. Rosemary also said that if Kacey doesn’t clean her room, she can’t go on the Hodges’ family vacation next week. Since that trip is the last remotely exciting thing we’re doing together before Kacey leaves for college, this cleaning spree isn’t optional.
I hold up a Russian nesting doll from her knickknack shelf. “Really? Because there’s literally no reason for you to bring a Russian nesting doll to college. None. Whatsoever.”
“It’s vintage,” Kacey says, but, after a hesitation, nods. I place the doll into the box. “Hey, can you turn the speaker up?”
I grab the Bluetooth speaker, shaped like a retro radio, off Kacey’s dresser and nudge the volume button on the side. We’re listening to our favorite podcast hosts, Eleanor and Trish, cover the murder of Joan Dawley.
“The guy, this asshole,” Trish is saying through the speaker, “hired two felons to kill his wife—”
“What a dick,” Eleanor responds dryly, like she’s not the least bit surprised.
Trish snorts. “You want to hear the worst part? The plan fell through—one of the hired men was arrested for parole violations—but someone still bludgeoned the wife to death.”
Episodes drop every Wednesday, so Kacey and I get together at her house for our weekly dose of Eleanor and Trish. Murder Me Later is more than a podcast to me—it’s held a special place in my anxious heart for the last two years. Because their podcast is about murder, sure, but it’s also about mental health and listening to your gut—one thing I’m often ashamed of, and the other I almost always ignore. Plus, it’s the whole reason Kacey and I are even friends.
Even if they hadn’t brought me together with my best friend, I’d still be a huge fan.
Maybe it’s weird, but I love true crime. Learning about all the worst-case scenarios, the survival stories, the tragedies, is almost calming. Probably because my obsessive-compulsive disorder feeds off all the unknown bad in the world. For me, the monster you know is always better than the one you don’t.
I’ve composed emails to Eleanor and Trish, trying to tell them how much their podcast means to me, but I never hit send. That fear, that doubt, always creeps up. I’ll check the time and realize I’ve spent two hours writing one paragraph. I have dozens and dozens of emails I’ll never send gathering electronic dust in my drafts folder.
I’m a coward—even on the internet.
“Okay,” Kacey announces fifteen minutes later. She’s surveying the pile of clothes and random crap inside the cardboard box. Her thick, dark brown curls escape wildly from a sloppy bun, and her brown eyes are scrutinizing. “Do you think my mom will notice if I don’t go through my shoes?”
“Definitely.” I join Kacey on the floor by her bed, beneath which she’s stored dozens of shoeboxes. Even though I love a good cleaning session, the whole afternoon has left me feeling off balance. Messes are a part of who Kacey is, and this is another reminder that she won’t be around for much longer.
When the podcast ends (the husband did it, but his mistress helped), Kacey groans and stretches out on her back. Despite the constant mess, I love Kacey’s bedroom. The hexagonal green wallpaper, the four-poster bed and gauzy canopy. The small window overlooking the backyard. There’s just something so joyful about her room. I stretch my legs out and lie down between the many piles of clothes.
“Do you have to be home for family dinner?” she asks, bundling a cable-knit sweater beneath her head like a pillow.
I stare at the vaulted ceiling. “Yep. My dad got home from Seattle a few hours ago.”
“But you’re still coming over tomorrow night for the live-stream?” She tosses a pair of socks into the air and catches them.
“Wouldn’t miss it.” Eleanor and Trish are hosting their very first live Q&A tomorrow. I smack the socks out of the air when she throws them again, and they land on her dresser. “Seven, right?”
“Seven,” Kacey confirms, then stretches her arms overhead with a sigh. After a moment, she says, “How have we done nothing this summer?”
“We’ve done… stuff,” I say defensively, but she’s right. All we’ve done the last two months is binge all fourteen seasons of the original Unsolved Mysteries, learn how to read tarot, and get sunburns at the lake on weekends.
Now summer’s almost over. Soon Kacey’s trading small-town life for Portland and college. And I’m staying in Barmouth, whether I want to or not. Turns out, when you have a mental health disorder, what you want doesn’t matter anymore. No, what matters is what everyone else—parents, therapists, counselors—thinks you’re ready for.
When the guidance counselor, provided by my homeschooling program, chatted with my mom at the start of senior year, he suggested I take a gap year. Put college on hold until things—aka my OCD—were more settled and under control. Mom agreed with him, and last year, I agreed too. But it’s hard to feel good about that decision when I’m helping my best friend pack her life away so she can leave me behind.
Kacey shifts onto her side, her hands folded beneath her cheek. “We’re pathetic. This summer was totally unmemorable.”
“Hey, it’s not over yet. We still have the beach house next week,” I point out, though I know the Hodges’ annual family beach trip isn’t what Kacey had in mind.
“I’m still pissed that Sam stayed in Idaho,” she says with a pout.
“Um. Same,” I say, even though I’m actually relieved that Sam, Kacey’s older brother, decided to stay at his vocational school for the summer, where he’s studying carpentry.
Before I found out that Sam had decided to stay in Idaho for a summer workshop, I spent weeks panicking over his return to Barmouth. Like, I gave myself actual stomachaches thinking about it. Worrying over what to do when I came face-to-face with him for the first time in eight months. Turns out, all that worrying was for nothing, and to say I’m relieved that Sam’s in another state is the understatement of the century.
If only his lack of physical presence could erase him from my brain.
I shove aside all Sam-related thoughts and stare across the floor at my best friend. “You sure you have to go to college?” I joke. “What does Portland have that Barmouth doesn’t, anyway?”
Kacey rolls her eyes. “Everything.”
“Everything but my best friend,” she says with a small smile.
I try to smile back, but it’s hard. Because what will happen when Kacey’s in Portland? Our friendship might be solid, but it’s still new. What if we grow apart? What if she finds way cooler, city friends to hang out with? I’m not saying the thought keeps me up at night, but…
My phone dings in my sundress pocket.
MOM: Dinner’s at six. Do you need me to pick you up?
ME: Nope! See you in a bit
“I gotta head home.” I stand up, trying not to cringe at how much messier we made Kacey’s bedroom. But we successfully cleared out her closet, bookshelf, and shoes. Goodwill is going to be very pleased. Or horrified.
Kacey sits up. “Wanna sleep over after the livestream tomorrow?”
I step gingerly around the piles and grab my purse off her bed. “Yeah, for sure.”
“Wait, don’t forget the pictures.” Kacey points to an envelope partially hidden beneath a jean jacket on her bed. She came across a stash of photos Rosemary printed out for her graduation party in June and wanted me to have the extras.
“Thanks.” I stuff the envelope into my purse. “I’ll see you later.”
Kacey gives me a mock salute. “Bye, babe.”
I wave before shutting her bedroom door behind me, and I head downstairs.
The walk from the Hodges’ to my house takes ten minutes, tops. Handy, considering I don’t drive. Our small town of Barmouth, Washington, is about an hour northeast of Seattle and two hours south of the Canadian border. To put it simply: the middle of nowhere. As a tourist town, Barmouth is usually pretty busy during summer and winter, but there’s jack shit to do here if you’re a local.
The upside to small towns, though, is most things are within walking or biking distance, and it’s been great being able to walk to Kacey’s whenever I feel like it. The Hodges are always welcoming; I even know where their Hide-A-Key is.
Kacey and I didn’t become friends until the start of junior year, during those brief months before Mom decided homeschooling was the Answer. Junior year was a shit show. Back-to-back obsessions and panic attacks in bathroom stalls between classes. But at least one good thing came of it: befriending Kacey Hodge.
I was packing up after homeroom on the second day of school when I hit play on an old episode of Murder Me Later—and loudly broadcast Trish explaining how Lizzie Borden axed-up her dad. (Did you know Lizzie Borden was acquitted? Yeah, me neither.) My earbuds weren’t plugged in like I thought, and everyone turned to stare at me. Mortifying. That is, until a girl with wild curls and a mischievous smile walked over to me and said, “I love Eleanor and Trish. Did you listen to this week’s episode yet?”
While I’ve had friends—casual friends, people to hang out with at school—I never had a best friend before Kacey Hodge. I never knew friends like Kacey existed. People who love you fiercely, who understand you, and stick by your side. Even though I was homeschooled for the second half of junior year and all of senior year due to my OCD, I still saw Kacey every day. The fact that she’s leaving so soon feels like another one of the universe’s cruel jokes.
I have no idea what our friendship will look like when she no longer lives down the street, just a ten-minute walk away.
Three weeks. I have Kacey for three more weeks, and I need to make every single moment count.
When things were really bad with my mental health, the only place I felt comfortable was my house. Not surprising because I was struggling with mild agoraphobia at the time, but it’s always familiar, always comforting, and above all else: always the same. Tidy rooms, carpets with vacuum lines indented into the fibers, and vanilla-scented candles. A soundtrack of jazz humming in the background. Schedules, routines, and color-coded calendars.
Kacey thinks it’s weird as hell, but I don’t mind it.
For a few months after winter break, I went to this OCD group therapy Lauren, my therapist, runs. So many of those kids had parents who’d dismissed their diagnosis or outright didn’t care. My mom doesn’t work, and she devotes a lot of her free time to me. She cooks all my meals, picks up medications, and always prints out new articles she’s found about exercise methods and breathing techniques for stress reduction. And even though my dad’s only home a few times a month—he quit his local accounting gig when I was in elementary school and works at a tech startup in Seattle—he cares too.
Maybe my parents are a little much. But it’s better than having parents who don’t care.
After dumping my keys and shoes in my bedroom, I wander back downstairs to the dining room. Papers are strewn across the table, covering the lace-edged place mats, and Dad’s laptop is open, the screen pulled up to some spreadsheets.
He looks up as I enter, and a wide smile breaks across his face. “There’s my girl!” I lean down and loop my arms around his neck as he hugs me. “Did you just get back from Kacey’s?”
I step out of the hug and claim the dining chair beside him. “Yup.”
Mom bustles out of the kitchen and sets a big bowl of butternut squash pasta in the center of the table, and a smaller salad bowl beside it. “Hey, honey,” she says, and sits across from me.
“So.” Dad slides all the loose papers and his laptop into his briefcase before serving himself some pasta. “How’s Kacey doing? She must be nervous about college, huh?”
I spear a ravioli with my fork and pop it into my mouth. “More excited than nervous, I think.”
Last year, the thought of starting college made me want to curl up in a constant anxiety ball on my bedroom floor. That’s why I agreed with my mom and the counselor about putting college on hold—until my mental health got better. But when I least expected it, I started to feel that itch for change. For something more and different and all my own.
And that itch keeps cropping up more and more lately.
“Maybe I should start looking at some schools,” I say. “You know, for when I apply.”
Dad’s brow raises slightly, and he glances across the table at Mom. “That sounds—”
“You’ll have plenty of time to research colleges later,” Mom interrupts, sipping her seltzer. “One thing at a time, okay?”
I pop more raviolis in my mouth so I don’t have to answer right away. Swallowing, I say, “You’re right,” and flash Mom a tight smile. “One thing at a time.”
Except, I don’t know what’s next. What that next thing would be, if not college.
I barely touch the rest of my pasta, my stomach sour. Instead, I smush my food around with my fork and wonder what Dad was going to say. Did he think it was a good idea? But for the rest of dinner, we don’t approach the topic of college or Kacey again.
As much as I love my parents, sometimes I wish I had parents like Kacey’s. Every time Kacey has wanted to do or try something new or scary, Rosemary has never, ever doubted her. When Kacey decided to pursue 3D sculpture at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, Rosemary and Alec beamed with pride. Even when Sam decided to forgo the traditional route and went to vocational school, they were nothing short of supportive.
And sometimes I want that. The support and warmth and hugs and late-night cups of hot cocoa. Parents who believe their kids can do anything—be anything—and never doubt their dreams.
“Are you feeling okay?” Mom asks after dinner as I help carry the dirty dishes into the kitchen.
I set the plates in the sink. “Yeah, just… thinking about Kacey leaving.”
Mom’s expression softens as she slides on her pink kitchen gloves and fills the sink with hot, soapy water. Even though my mom isn’t Kacey’s biggest fan—she thinks she’s too “wild”—she understands how much she means to me. “You still have the beach house next week. And maybe in the fall or winter, we can take the train into Portland. Do some shopping and visit her?”
I glance from the dinner plate in my hand to my mom. “Really?” My mom and I aren’t close like Rosemary and Kacey, but when I was younger, we spent a lot of time together. Probably because I relied on her for, well, everything. But we’ve spent less and less time together since I befriended Kacey. Hopefully my mom’s happy about that, but sometimes it makes me feel guilty.
“Sure! It’ll be fun.” Mom smiles, and all those fatigue lines on her face ease. She should smile more often—and I don’t want to think why she doesn’t. Part of me worries it’s because of me and my constant battle with my brain chemistry.
I turn my attention back to the dirty dishes. “It’s a date.”
After the dishes are clean, I retreat to my bedroom. My room is small and tidy, the opposite of Kacey’s. The walls are painted an ugly yellow that Mom promised we’d paint over when I brought it up a few years ago—but we never did. There are shoes lined up against one baseboard, stacks of books, and some custom true crime Funko Pop collectibles Kacey gave me for my eighteenth birthday in May. Nothing special, but it’s my safe haven.
I swap my sundress for pajamas and a baggy sweater—it’s still early, but I’m not going out again—and sit on my bed. I grab the envelope of photos Kacey gave me from my purse and slide them out. Leaning against my headboard, I flip through the thick stack. Even if Kacey and I have only been friends for two years, it’s been the most important and defining relationship in my life. And the most photographed. There are dozens upon dozens of them.
We’re not alone in all the pictures, though. Some feature our friends from school.
And a lot feature Sam.
Sam at the lake, captured mid-push as he topples Kacey off the dock and into the water. Sam in the Hodges’ backyard by his workbench wearing safety goggles and a huge smile while Kacey and I pretend to fight in the background holding two-by-fours like swords. Sam on the Cherry Creek Falls trail last summer with Kacey and their parents straggling behind. Sam, Kacey, and me—plus our dates—at prom last year.
The photos chronicle my friendship with Kacey, but they also chronicle my crush on Sam. Ever since our instant connection in homeroom, Kacey’s considered me like a sister. But Sam’s never been like a brother to me. Not even close. It would’ve been way easier if he had.
Sam was always way out of my league, but he was also off limits as Kacey’s brother. Not like it mattered. Sam never expressed any interest in me and used his fruit-fly attention span to date his way through the female population of Barmouth High. But then the holiday party happened last December, and I thought, maybe, Sam realized I wasn’t just his little sister’s best friend. But now I know better. I made an epic mess that night, and if I never have to see Samson Hodge again, it’ll be too soon.
After gathering up all the Sam photos, I walk over to my desk. The trash can is right there, tucked beside my chair, but I shove the photos into the very back of my junk drawer instead and slam it shut.
Maybe, if I’m being really honest with myself, I was sad when I found out Sam was staying in Idaho all summer. But it’s what I need. My feelings for Samson Hodge have become ingrained in me, like a bad habit. One I’m finally on my way to quitting. Because of Kacey. Because of me. Because I don’t get the guy or the happy ending.
I don’t even get a love story.
At bedtime, I try to stop the cycle. Like I do every night.
After checking that the front door is locked, I climb into bed, beneath my comforter and weighted blanket. I force my eyes shut, even though my mind is spiraling. I know the door is locked. I jiggled the handle; I checked the latch. But… what if it’s not?
What if I’m wrong? What if it’s not locked and I fall asleep, and someone sneaks in and stabs me? Or my parents? What if something too terrible to even fathom happens, and it’s all my fault? The panic grips, tightening my chest while heat burns between my shoulder blades.
Tears pushing at my eyelids, I throw the blankets off my body and, careful not to wake my parents, sneak into the front hall. Stare at the front door. Visually, I can see that it’s locked, the dead bolt thrown. That should be enough. But who am I kidding? It never is.
I twist and pull on the knob nine times. Something about three sets of three makes sense, but there’s no logic behind it. Nothing about OCD is logical, and after the ninth tug, a wash of calm rolls over me. Relief.
I’m too tired to feel ashamed of caving yet again, so I crawl back into bed and finally fall asleep.