This Lie Will Kill You
1. CLASS ACT
Juniper Torres woke with a smile. Today was the day. She knew it, though there was no particular reason to think today would be different. The sun wasn’t shining. The sun was barely even up, but it didn’t matter much. The universe was speaking to Juniper directly, lighting a fire in her veins and making her heartbeat thrum. It whispered to her in a soft, lilting voice:
Today is the day your life is going to change.
She sat up in bed. Kicking away her tangled sheets (and running a hand through her equally tangled hair), she crawled to the window, looking down. And there she was. The blond, bedraggled mailwoman was leaning over the mailbox, stuffing a host of envelopes inside. Juniper couldn’t tell for certain, but she had a sneaking suspicion the envelope was among them.
She raced from her room. Down the hallway she went, past her baby sister’s nursery, and the bedroom where her parents slept, their limbs entwined like the branches of neighboring trees. Soon the family would wake, and she wouldn’t be able to scour the mailbox in secret. But if she was very quiet (avoiding this floorboard, and that creaky step), she could slip outside without anyone noticing.
So she did. Out of the olive Victorian she went, into the white, winter world. Overnight, the yard had been transformed. Icicles dangled from the oaks, threatening to impale Juniper as she passed beneath them. And at the end of the yard, the snow-frosted mailbox stood out like a sore thumb.
Juniper yanked it open. Her fingers danced over advertisements, brushing the edges of a coupon packet, and then she was pulling the envelope out of the darkness. She knew it was the envelope she’d been waiting for, even before she saw it. It was big, and it was fat, and the writing was . . .
Blood red? The envelope leapt from her hand. It fluttered slowly, like the snowflakes falling around her, and by the time it hit the ground, she’d registered two things: This was not the letter she’d been waiting for. It was an invitation.
She scooped it out of the snow. Someone had written, You are cordially invited to a night of murder and mayhem! on the back of the ebony envelope, and Juniper turned it over, confirming that it was addressed to her. It was. Thanks but no thanks, she thought, ripping it in half. She had zero interest in getting wasted with her classmates, and even less interest in pretending death was hilarious. The only reason she was stalking her mailbox was because she was expecting an acceptance letter from Columbia University. Their online system was down, which meant she’d be getting her news the old-fashioned way.
And so it went. Juniper raced to the mailbox on Monday morning, then Tuesday. By Wednesday, her confidence had started to ebb. Why was she so convinced she’d be getting an acceptance letter? Yes, her grades were mostly stellar, but last winter, after that party up in the hills . . .
Juniper shook herself. She’d only fallen off track for a month, and most of her teachers had let her make up the
work. Even if she didn’t get into the college of her choice, she had a couple of safety schools that would take her far away from this town. She’d still go to med school. Cure people. Save lives. Everything would go according to plan.
She was about to return to the house when a black envelope caught her eye, way back in the corner of the mailbox. A shiver skittered up her spine. She already knew what the envelope was. An invitation to “a night of murder and mayhem!”
They’d probably mailed two by mistake, she thought, rolling her eyes. But as she drew the envelope from the darkness, an undertow of guilt started tugging at her limbs. This was how it always happened. She’d be going about her day, not even thinking about Dahlia Kane’s Christmas party, and out of nowhere, her limbs would get heavy. She’d feel herself sinking, the way a body sinks to the bottom of a swimming pool, while people stand by, laughing—
“Junebug!” Mrs. Torres appeared in the doorway, her face flushed from standing over the stove. “Breakfast, mi amor. What is that?”
Crap. Juniper’s reflexes were dulled this early in the morning. Two hours (and three cups of coffee) from now, she’d never have let her mother see this envelope. But now she was trapped, and she couldn’t very well shred the thing in front of her mom. She’d have to play this just right.
Forcing a smile, she jogged up to the doorway. “Just some dork’s idea of a good time,” she said, holding up the invitation. She wasn’t offering it to her mother; she had a very good grip on the envelope. But Mrs. Torres must’ve seen a night of murder and mayhem! scrawled across the back, because she snatched it out of her daughter’s hand.
“Ooh, a party. You should go.”
“What? No.” Juniper scrunched up her face. “It’s probably on Saturday. I’m watching Rudolph with Olive.” Olive was her baby sister, and now that the kid could walk, Juniper was pretty much on permanent call. She chose to think of it as practice for when she was actually on call at the hospital of her choice. Better get used to functioning on two hours of sleep, right?
“Junebug, she’s my kid.” Her mother disappeared into the hallway, and Juniper followed close behind, plotting to retrieve the invitation. “Believe it or not, I like spending time with my kids.”
“And yet, you’re forcing me out of the house.”
“I’m just making a suggestion.” Her mother pulled out a chair at the kitchen table. Olive was in her high chair, giggling and dancing in that I-can-see-invisible-fairies way that babies had. “Don’t you want to have fun with your friends?”
“They aren’t my friends. They probably sent one to every senior at school.”
“All the more reason to go,” her mother said, swooping in with the old, chipped coffeepot. “Just think about it, okay? It wouldn’t kill you to go to a party.”
It might, Juniper thought, her hands starting to shake. She took a gulp of coffee, hoping her mother wouldn’t notice her jumpiness. Luckily, Mrs. Torres was busy fussing with the tostadas on the stove. But somebody did notice, and when coffee sloshed over Juniper’s fingers, her baby sister frowned, reaching for their mother’s purse. Two years old, and she’d already decided makeup was the cure for sadness. Juniper wasn’t sure where she’d learned it. This wasn’t exactly a beauty pageant house. But wherever the lesson had come from, Juniper didn’t mind being her sister’s living dolly. Olive’s eyes got so bright and her mouth got so smiley.
“Tip-sick!” the baby announced, pulling out a vibrant burgundy gloss that would make Juniper look like she’d been eating berries. Or drinking wine. It was kind of pretty, and Juniper was okay with looking kind of pretty, as long as it didn’t eclipse her other accomplishments. She felt a pang as Olive dabbed the gloss on her lips, wishing she could stay in town and teach her sister about making people better, rather than beautiful. But she couldn’t stay after everything that had happened—she couldn’t—and besides, nothing she could say to Olive would be as influential as becoming the doctor she’d always wanted to be. She’d do everything she’d set out to do, and one day, she’d whisk her family out of this creepy little town, away from all of its secrets.
After the lip gloss was on, Olive clapped her hands, squealing, “Pretty!” and Juniper felt the cracks in her heart close.
“You are, baby girl,” she said, as tiny fingers encircled one of her own. Meanwhile, their mother had gone completely silent by the stove. Juniper turned, goose bumps rising on her arms, to find Mrs. Torres leaning against the counter, staring at a single page.
“What? Mama, what?”
Her mother didn’t answer, so Juniper snatched up the invitation. She made no attempt to be sly about it. One second the paper was fluttering in her mother’s fingers, and then it wasn’t. One second the breath was filling Juniper’s lungs, and then it was gone.
Dear Miss Torres,
Due to your achievements in ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE, you are cordially invited to a murder
mystery dinner! Prepare to be challenged as you, and five of your esteemed classmates, fight to unravel the mystery and apprehend a killer!
The world will become a stage!
A friend will become a foe!
Costumes will arrive later this week!
And, of course, the winner will take home the coveted $50,000 Burning Embers Scholarship, to be used at the school of his or her choice.
Your humble benefactor,
“It’s a scam.” The words were out of Juniper’s mouth before she could stop them, and even after she’d spoken them, she felt no desire to take them back. Even after her mother sank into a chair, studying the invitation in shock.
“You were right, it is on Saturday,” Mrs. Torres said. Her voice was breathy, and Juniper hated the thought of disappointing her. “They must’ve had a last-minute opening—”
“Mom, it’s a scam. Real scholarship offers don’t sound like this.” She’d never even heard of the Burning Embers Scholarship. She’d never heard of it, and she didn’t like the sound of it.
“It isn’t an offer,” her mother said calmly. “It’s a contest.”
“Real scholarships don’t make you compete,” Juniper insisted. “Not like this. Not at a murder mystery dinner.”
“Misery dinner!” Olive shouted, and Juniper cringed. She did not want her sister repeating that.
“Calm down, baby girl. Eat your Cheerios.”
But it was an exercise in futility. Juniper’s own breakfast sat, forgotten, on the stove. Even her coffee cup couldn’t entice
her now. “Look, I’ll do some research,” she said, plucking her mother’s phone from the table, “but I’m pretty sure scholarship foundations don’t sign their letters ‘The Ringmaster.’?”
“They’re trying to make it fun.”
“They’re trying to make money off me.” She typed Burning Embers Scholarship into the search engine, waiting for zero hits to come up. “Just wait. The day before the contest, I’ll get a second letter, asking for an entry fee. If there isn’t a website . . .”
Juniper trailed off, clicking the first of several links. Not only did the Burning Embers Foundation have a website, it looked legit. There was an “About” page that highlighted the project’s aims (finding unique and exciting ways to reward students who excel in academics, fine arts, and athletics) and a “Contact” page with a phone number, an email address, and a physical location. Juniper made a vow to contact them in every way possible before Saturday’s event, to prove that real people worked at the foundation.
Or rather, to prove that they didn’t.
She wasn’t certain why she was being contrary at this point. A fifty-thousand-dollar scholarship would change her life. Hadn’t she spent the past six months applying to every scholarship she could find, hoping for one-fifth of that amount?
“I never applied for this,” she mumbled, her last-ditch effort at logic. “I would’ve remembered—”
“Sometimes teachers submit you. Guidance counselors. You’re such a good student, and you were going to be valedictorian.”
Yes, I was going to be valedictorian. Then I went to a party, last December . . .
“Wait, let me see that.” She smoothed out the invitation on the table. It didn’t take long to locate the date of
the event: December 21. One year exactly since Dahlia Kane’s Christmas party.
“This money would be a big deal for us,” her mother broke in softly. “Your father could use the good news.”
“I know.” Juniper glanced at his empty chair. After fifteen years of teaching music at Fallen Oaks Elementary, a recent round of budget cuts had left Mr. Torres jobless. Now Juniper could hear him milling around upstairs, choosing the perfect tie for another set of dehumanizing interviews.
“Are you going to tell him you’re passing up fifty thousand dollars?” Her mother fixed her with a stare. “After everything he’s been through?”
“Of course not.” Juniper swallowed, her chest tightening. “I just don’t understand who would submit me for this sort of thing. I’m the world’s worst actress.”
“Maybe Ruby did it.”
Juniper blinked. She could see her mother staring at her, could see her baby sister bouncing in the periphery, but she felt completely displaced. Like she was floating outside of space and time.
“I’m just saying, she has quite the flair for the dramatic. This sort of thing is right up her alley,” Mrs. Torres explained. “Why don’t you give her a call and ask about it?” Then, almost too quietly for Juniper to hear, she added, “I miss that girl.”
I miss her too. Juniper’s vision blurred as she thought of Ruby’s smile, Ruby’s laugh, Ruby’s touch. She pushed off from the table, her chair screeching behind her. Too bad she doesn’t miss me.
+ + +
Juniper slammed her bedroom door, leaning against it. She knew she was overreacting, but she didn’t know how to stop it. It was like being in one of those dreams where you are yourself, and see yourself from outside your body. Like being God and Jesus at the same time.
She shook her head, crossing the room. If she was any kind of religious, it was casually Catholic with atheistic leanings. She just wasn’t sure she believed in anything anymore. Still, she’d always been fascinated with the idea of being God and Jesus at the same time. Of being inside your body and watching from high above. Maybe that was what it meant to have a body and a soul, to be at one single point, and everywhere, all at once.
Juniper dug her phone out of her purse. She told herself these thoughts were random, the musings of a girl who still desperately needed her morning caffeine, but deep down, she knew the truth. After everything she’d done to Ruby, she wanted to believe in the possibility of redemption.
She wanted to believe she had a soul.
With trembling hands, she typed out the message, Did you submit me for the Burning Embers Scholarship? Ruby’s number was still in her phone. She couldn’t bring herself to erase it, which was definitely ironic, considering the thing she’d erased from Ruby’s life.
She hit send, then dropped the phone onto her bed. She absolutely would not wait by the phone like a sad little girl on prom night, hoping and hoping while her heart sank to her knees. But maybe Ruby had been waiting for her. The phone pinged almost instantly, and she found herself scrabbling to pluck it from the bed, her eyes scanning the message frantically: No.
Juniper started to laugh. It was the cold, brittle kind of laughter, like twigs snapping underfoot. Of course Ruby hadn’t submitted her for the scholarship. Of course Ruby wasn’t looking out for her from behind the scenes. Their friendship was over. It had been over for a long time.
She sank down to her bed. When her phone lit up again, she was surprised to feel her heart leap. How could she still have hope after everything that had happened? Her heart was a bruised and bludgeoned thing. A Pandora’s box filled with grief and regret. But somewhere, hidden in the darkness, hope was glittering. It caused her breath to falter as she read Ruby’s text.
I didn’t submit you, Ruby wrote, but I’m going to the party. Maybe we can solve the mystery together?
Juniper didn’t trust herself with words, so she sent back a smile.