Investigating Julius Drake
After arriving at Seattle’s prestigious Clinton Academy, fourteen-year-old Henry Walker realizes he won’t fit in. If he’s going to run with the rich and powerful, he’ll have to hide his modest background, his lack of interest in girls, and most importantly, his fascination with his handsome but troubled classmate Julius Drake.
When Julius draws Henry into the investigation of a classmate’s suicide attempt, Henry can’t resist the case—or Julius. Soon, Henry’s not only facing the truth about his feelings for Julius, but also risking his life to unmask a social media imposter. “The Other Woman” is manipulating his classmates, searching out their vulnerabilities, and driving them to desperate actions. Julius himself is at risk, what with his callous parents threatening to send him away, and his mental health taking a beating both at school and at home.
If Henry’s going to save the day and get the boy of his dreams, he’ll have to stop worrying what everyone thinks and stop pretending to be someone he’s not. Most of all, Henry will have to be honest about who he loves.
"An ideal read for those interested in both suspenseful mysteries and in literature that navigates difficult issues, from coming out to peer pressure." –Foreword
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:emotional abuse, self-harm
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Heat Wave: 2 - Kisses and touches without love scenes
Erotic Frequency: 2 - Not many
Genre: contemporary, mystery, romance, YA (young adult)
Orientation: gay, heterosexual
Pairing: female/male, male/male
Themes: abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), abuse, angst, bullying, child abuse / neglect, coming of age, coming out, family, financial gap / class disparity, first love, fitting in, friends to lovers, illness / injury, mental illness, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, young adult
Settings: city, high school, private school, Seattle, suburbs
“It’s not every day you find out you’re a psychopath.”
That was the first thing Julius Drake said to me. I’d noticed him already—kind of hard not to when he was sitting next to me in Clinton Academy’s reception area. Though I’d seen a few people on my way through the building, he was the only one I’d had a chance to take a good, hard look at.
He was wearing a black button-up shirt with black jeans and his hair was cut into a bob that reached his chin. He’d tucked the left side behind his ear. The curtain of hair on the right fell across his eye and cheek.
“Pretty weird, man.” I put my hand on my knee to stop it from bouncing. “You think this because . . .?” Often I’d wondered if there was something wrong with me too. In my case, it was because my mom had a habit of looking at me sideways when she thought I didn’t notice.
“Life is much simpler if your parents aren’t friends with neurosurgeons,” Julius said in an offhand manner, to nobody in particular. He opened a giant manila folder at his feet and pulled out a grainy picture. “Does this look like the brain of a psychopath to you?”
Blobs of white and gray formed something akin to a brain shape, but it wasn’t like I had any medical training, so I just shrugged. “No?”
“Psychopath is an ill-defined term anyway. Correlations between behavior and brain function are not one-to-one,” he said so quickly I had a hard time keeping up. “They used to believe primarily the amygdala was involved, along with the orbitofrontal cortex. But now—”
“Julius?” A woman came out of an office, clipboard in her arms. She was about two-thirds the height of most women. Pretty, and with a kind face. “The doctor is ready to see you.”
“Dr. Cochow is always five minutes late,” Julius said nervously into the air. “Five to seven minutes, depending on the day. It’s usually longer on Friday.” He might have said this to me, or to the lady with the clipboard. I had no way of knowing.
“Well, bye.” I waved, like an idiot.
Julius walked away.
The woman gave me a quick smile. Maybe she was apologizing for Julius’s awkwardness—if you could call it that. More likely she felt sorry for the poor country hick waiting for his mother to sign him up for the semester.
I checked the knees of my jeans, wishing I could rub out the grass stains. No amount of washing could make them look new. And even if they were fresh from the package from Walmart, I’d seem out of place at Clinton.
It wasn’t like private schools in the movies—no stained glass or spiraling staircases or giant marble sculptures. Like my old school in Killeen, Texas, Clinton’s corridors were wide and flat. But where Killeen Junior High’s walls were dingy and its lockers tagged with graffiti, Clinton shined like it had been built yesterday. The graffiti was confined to little posters advertising after-school activities.
Maybe Clinton Academy was trying to keep it real by allowing these tiny areas of chaos amidst an overwhelming sea of order.
“Sorry, Henry. Took me forever to find the ladies’ room.” Mom bustled through the door, dressed like a homeless person in the same clothes she’d worn to paint our apartment when we first got to town.
My face went hot, and I felt like a traitor. “’S’okay.”
“You have no idea how nice the bathrooms are here. They have these hand-dryer machines that are supposed to be good for the environment. Low-flow toilets and everything.”
The receptionist cracked a smile, and all I could think was, Shoot me now.
“Mom, I’m gonna be late.” Generally, I wasn’t in a rush to get to class, but I didn’t want to be seen with my mother any more than I had to.
“Oh. Yes.” Mom pulled her backpack off her shoulder and dug through it to find my paperwork.
No matter what she was looking for, it would inevitably be at the bottom, under her spare sweatshirt, emergency bag of trail mix, laptop computer, and half ton of assorted stuff. I held my breath, wishing she’d be done sooner.
“Here!” She held up the papers in triumph, and then leaned on the counter with my forms. Her backpack lay open, threatening to drop a tampon or some other humiliating item on the floor.
“Thank you.” The receptionist read the forms. “Henry Walker? Welcome to Clinton Academy.” I wondered if she acted differently around students who paid full tuition. Clinton only offered a few scholarship spots and the military dependents one was the most coveted. My dad had gotten teary over Skype the day Mom and I told him I’d won. I hated making him cry when he was in Afghanistan, even if it was happy crying. I liked it better when we talked about football scores.
“Here’s your class list,” the woman said.
“Thanks.” I read through it, chewing my lip in the hope that the classes wouldn’t be too hard. They had weird names for topics. Instead of “History” like I would have had in Texas, it was “Historical Inquiry.” For my language I had “Spanish Culture, Language, and Interpretation.”
The door at the side of the room opened, and Julius walked out, eyes straight ahead. In the light slanting through the window, he was pale. Not oh-my-God-he’s-a-vampire pale, but maybe too-many-video-games pale. A mirror ran along the room, reflecting the late-summer sunshine outside the window. It picked up highlights in Julius’s hair. God, was I staring? Or worse—doing something weird with my hands?
I guess Julius didn’t register my attention, because he kept walking, head upright and shoulders thrown back. “First period starts at eight fifteen.” He announced it to the room in general.
“Yeah. Uh. Maybe I’ll see you in class?”
He ignored me as he left.
By far the most surprising thing about Clinton was that the teachers wanted to be called by their first names. I’d lived in a couple of places before Killeen: Japan when I was little, though I didn’t remember it. Also Kentucky, which I remembered, but wish I didn’t. So I knew people did things differently depending on where they lived. Still, asking Steve whether he wanted our Shakespeare essays double-spaced made me squirm.
“If you have any questions, feel free to email me,” Steve called out at the end of class. He wore hiking pants, hippie sandals, and an honest-to-God polar fleece vest. Teacher or not, he appeared more ready to go camping than to hand out reading lists. I’d heard about the outdoorsy style of Seattle before I moved here, but it was beyond strange to see it up close.
I didn’t get tripped in the hall between first and second period, which was nice. No taunts about being the new kid, either. Nor teasing about the accent I was doing my best to hide. The people might have been wearing clothes that could have come off a particularly granola fashion runway, but they ignored my generic T-shirt and Wranglers, which for the first day was probably the best I could expect.
One girl took pity on me, looking my way at the end of second period. She had kinky brown hair and a skin tone that pegged her as not quite white, but not necessarily anything else. Her glasses were the kind with thick, hipster frames that always made me regret having 20/20 vision, though I couldn’t have pulled them off as well as she did.
“Hey,” she leaned across the space between desks to whisper. “Welcome to Clinton.”
“Yeah. Thanks.” I glanced around, wondering if she had a boyfriend she was trying to make jealous. Sometimes girls did that, used me to rile some other guy. No one was staring, though.
“I’m Bethany. Let me know if you need help finding anything.”
“Thanks.” I kept my head down, not making eye contact. See, Bethany was being nice, but she was also . . . Well, she was one of those girls who looked older than she was. I couldn’t tell all the details because she was sitting down, but she seemed to have the proportions of a grown woman even though we were only fourteen. Girls like that could go one of two ways, in my experience. They either treated me like their kid or their boyfriend. I didn’t mind the first, but the second always freaked me out.
When our Historical Inquiry teacher Marjory told us we could leave, Bethany hung out by my desk. “So, how are you liking school so far?”
Other people were packing their book bags and furtively checking their cell phones. Those were supposed to be in lockers, per Clinton Academy’s handbook, but Marjory was clearly pretending not to notice.
“Only been here a couple hours.”
“True, I guess.” She followed me to the door. “Marjory said you came from Texas. This must be a change.”
We headed into the hallway, which was painted a faded-moss color.
“Yeah. A bit.” There were too many differences to count. First off, everything in Seattle was green. Wherever Mom drove me, there was a park or a gully full of trees. Even the water was a greenish-gray. Then there was the fact that there was water literally everywhere. Mom and I must have driven over a dozen bridges.
I wasn’t going to list all that for Bethany, though. “So it rains a lot here, huh?”
She cocked her eyebrows. “Yeah. But it’s a dry rain.”
Most likely, she expected me to laugh. So I snorted, hoping to sound cool instead of dorky.
Classes were a lot closer together in this building than they had been in my junior high. We got to the next classroom before I came up with anything else to say. Down the hall, I spotted Julius. Lame as it was, I hung around with Bethany outside the classroom door.
I didn’t know why I cared if he talked to me. He was only one kid, and there were two hundred in the freshman class alone. But there was something about Julius that set him apart. Or maybe it was just that other than Bethany, he was the only person who’d paid attention to me so far.
“Ah. Julius Drake,” Bethany sighed. “He’s hot, huh?”
I cleared my throat, because that was not what I’d been thinking, and I certainly hadn’t been looking. And I really wished Bethany hadn’t noticed. “That guy?” I tried to play it cool. “I guess.”
“Too bad he’s a little . . . off.” Clearing her throat, she touched my arm. “We should get into class.”
I suspected Bethany wouldn’t let me out of her clutches for lunch, and I was right. As soon as Roberto, who was redheaded despite his Spanish-sounding name, told the Spanish class we could go, Bethany was at my side and not-so-subtly steering me out the door. Her shoulder was a couple of inches lower than mine, and she kept jostling me as we walked.
“You have to get to the cafeteria early or the only tables left are by the compost and recycling bins. Where’s your locker? Do you need to get your lunch or are you on the meal plan?”
I sighed with relief, glad to not have to sit alone in the cafeteria. “I’ve got a lunch packed.” I patted my backpack, which weighed a ton since I hadn’t risked leaving anything in my locker. The almond butter and jelly sandwich Mom had made me (because Clinton had a ban on regular peanut butter) was still in the outer pocket.
“Great. You can save us a seat.” She pulled a sleek, white iPhone out of her backpack and texted something. “Me and Thea are on the meal plan. I don’t know about Kevin.”
I hadn’t met those people yet, but I assumed they were Bethany’s friends.
Walking down the hall with my first and only friend at Clinton, I finally dared to make eye contact with other people. The girls sometimes smiled, but the boys who looked up did so with disinterest, like I was a type of sushi they didn’t want passing by on a conveyor belt. I was used to that. I’d always been closer with girls than guys.
“Okay.” Bethany stopped at the doors to the cafeteria. “Let’s see what’s left.”
The lunchroom was smaller than what I was used to, but no quieter. People milled everywhere, but only the ones who’d already found seats were relaxed enough to stand around talking. Between them, those with trays marched, eyes darting from side to side as they searched.
“Want me to nab us spots?” I hitched my backpack higher on my shoulder. I might not be dressed to climb a mountain like some people, but I could speed-walk in my Converse.
“Yeah. But four seats if you can. All together.” Bethany bit at the edge of her fingernail like she didn’t think I was up to the task. Either that, or she was worried some other girl would nab me on my way through the cafeteria and she wouldn’t have anyone to boss around.
“I’ll find something.” I headed into the throng. After all, I’d had enough hand-holding that morning with my mother.
The place was an obstacle course, but I had the advantage, because unlike most people, I didn’t have a tray to balance.
In the corner, I saw an empty table—near the bathrooms, but wide open. The guys in front of it were all standing around their own table, slapping hands and hugging, with girlfriends hanging off their well-developed arms. Upperclassmen, from the look of it, and they had the vibe of a sports team. I swept around them and tossed my backpack onto a chair.
I plopped into a seat, putting my legs up and daring anyone to come and steal my prize. One or two of the sports guys gave me the hairy eyeball—probably annoyed to have to sit next to a freshman.
Not that it mattered. I came, I saw, and I grabbed four seats in a foreign lunchroom. Plus, I’d already spotted Bethany walking in my direction, tray in hand and followed by a couple of people I’d seen in the hallways.
“Hey.” I waved, but I didn’t get up. Why bother when I looked so cool having succeeded in my first independent mission?
“Hi.” Bethany glanced nervously at the sports team but came to sit next to me anyway. “Thanks for getting us a place.”
Bethany’s friends sat across from us, as far from the sports table as the seats would allow.
“This is Thea and Kevin.” Bethany pointed to them.
“Nice to meetcha.” Thea jutted her chin my way, then settled into her plate of brown rice, vegetables, and some blobs I guessed were tofu. Between her no-nonsense blonde braids and her close-fitting soccer jersey, she seemed to be projecting her status as a jock.
Kevin, on the other hand, was mousy. Shorter and skinnier than me, he wore his brown hair slightly longer than Julius. While on Julius, the look was rebellious, Kevin just seemed unkempt.
I pulled my sandwich and Capri Sun out of my backpack. At my old school, bringing your own lunch was a status symbol. Only people who had no choice would want to eat the junk they served in Killeen Junior High’s cafeteria. Clinton clearly didn’t work that way. Very few students carried brown paper bags or lunch bags. The rest must have had parents who could afford the meal plan.
“So, uh, did y’all go to Clinton for junior high?” I asked, my accent kicking up out of nervousness.
“Thea came the last year of elementary.” Bethany managed to get words in around bites of leaves and sprouts. “Kevin came in seventh, but I’ve been here forever. Longer than most of the staff.” Bethany looked past Thea’s shoulder.
I followed her line of sight and noticed Julius walking through the cafeteria. He carried a paper bag on top of a tray.
“Hi, Julius!” Bethany smiled. She seemed unbothered when he didn’t respond.
Julius knocked on the door marked Maintenance. “Hello?”
I expected Bethany or one of the other people to snicker. But the only person to call Julius out was a girl at the table next to us.
“What’re you doing, freak?” She was older, either a junior or a senior, with short hair, almost like a boy’s. Her slender body and pixie features gave her the kind of high-end androgyny you normally saw in fashion models.
To my surprise, Julius sent the girl a narrow-eyed sneer.
The door Julius had been knocking on opened, and a man stuck his head outside. “Hello?” He had a heavy Spanish accent and wore a janitor’s uniform.
“Marcos. I need a favor.” His eyes were focused, almost feverish. Whatever was going on with him seemed different and exciting, and I found myself wishing that I could be part of it.
“You’re staring,” Bethany pointed out.
“Oh. Yeah.” I went back to my sandwich, less enthralled by it by the second. Maybe I was losing my appetite or maybe it was just that I couldn’t quite figure out what Julius was saying.
“Did you get Postcolonial Theory as an elective this semester?” Thea leaned across the table to compare schedules with Bethany.
“Yeah. With Fatima. I hear she’s good,” Bethany rattled.
Torn as I was between pretending to listen to Bethany’s conversation and trying to hear Julius’s, I didn’t notice the tall and disturbingly broad guy in a letterman’s jacket until he was right behind me. He cast a shadow over my lunch.
“Hey. You the kid who nabbed the second senior table?”
I walked my gaze up as slowly as I dared, trying to determine if he was friend or foe. Or maybe more accurately, how bad of a foe.
Short-clipped, dirty-blond hair. Wide-set stance. Jaw like a rhino’s. To make matters worse, his friends the next table over were laughing like Christmas had come early.
“Um . . . yeah?” If those guys were his friends, they could have told me the seats were taken. Heck, Bethany could have tipped me off that I’d sat at an upperclassmen table.
I widened my eyes at her. Bethany’s terrified expression said that she hadn’t tricked me or withheld information to get me picked on. Still, I was going to give her a piece of my mind when we got out of there.
“You don’t seem like the type to rock the boat, kid.” The guy crossed his arms and pasted on a smile like a pit bull trying to be friendly. “But I’ll give you a little lesson for free: this is our table. Get out of here and we’ll call it even.”
I wished the other people at my table weren’t studying their lunches like they thought their kale would grow legs and run away. I could have used a hint as to how to answer. “There are a couple free seats. I said, “You could sit on that side.”
My dad always said it was best to negotiate, rather than give in immediately to an enemy’s demands. I suspected his advice worked better when one had the might of the United States Army behind him, instead of a couple girls and a guy who looked like he’d off himself if he could find the right sound track.
“Out. Now.” The guy jerked his thumb.
Kevin scampered from his seat. One by one, the girls excused themselves. I couldn’t roll like that. Not at a brand-new school. If I was going to have any kind of reputation, now was the time to defend it. Teeth gritted, I held my ground.
“I’m serious. Get up.”
The words, Make me, were on the tip of my tongue, but if I said them, I would overstep some line I wasn’t sure I wanted to cross. I drummed my fingers on the table. “Actually . . .”
Julius appeared out of nowhere, with a spray bottle and paper napkins. He spritzed a section of the table with cleaner and wiped it down with quick, straight strokes. Then he slid into the seat, muttering to no one in particular, “Cafeteria tables are the most germ-infested surfaces in school. Over fifty percent harbor the influenza A virus.”
“Oh, um . . .” I wondered what Julius’s comment had to do with the jerk trying to steal my seat. “That’s nice?”
Julius observed me from across the table, making eye contact for the first time that day. “I didn’t catch your name earlier.” He had a way of talking that was different from other people, formal, like he was from England, though his accent was closer to Canadian.
I blinked. “Walker.”
“I’m Julius Drake.” He dropped his backpack to his side and unpacked his brown-paper-bag lunch. Glancing up, he explained, “I have allergies.”
“Whatever. You’re both losers.” The jock cleared his throat, his face turning pink. “And you need to clear out of my table.”
“This is Hal.” Julius unfolded a sandwich from its wax-paper wrapping. “He and his goon friends are on the swim team.”
“I wasn’t talking to you, freak.” Though the freak comment was clearly directed at Julius, Hal got behind me and grabbed the back of my chair.
Luckily, I caught a handful of the table. When the seat pulled out, I dropped to a crouch instead of falling on my butt.
“Nice reflexes,” Julius commented.
“Er, thanks.” I rose to face Hal. “And you.” I didn’t care that he was a foot taller than me, because I was having what my mom always called a teenage moment and I refused to back down. Julius’s presence only amped my anger higher. “I’m not getting up from this table.”
I shoved him in the arm, glossing over the fact that technically I’d already stood.
From the edge of the room, Roberto eased forward like a ginger secret agent. He didn’t move to step in, but I could tell he was thinking about it.
“Think you’re a badass, huh?” Hal’s smile was slow and mean. He put on a fake Southern accent. “Used to fight a lot where you’re from?”
“You bet I did.” Of course, I’d never been in a fight in my life. But if a little Texas swagger would get this jerk off my back, I’d lay it on extra thick. “Won some, too.”
“He sure did,” Julius piped up. He tossed his hair out of his eyes, smirking. “I’d watch out around him if I were you, Hal.”
“Oh, shut up,” the skinny girl at the next table snapped. “No one was talking to you.”
Julius only shrugged.
“Yeah, freak. No one was talking to you.” Hal started toward Julius.
Struck with a sudden need to protect Julius, I pushed Hal in the side hard enough to get him off course. “We’re sitting here, and that’s final.” I felt rather than saw Julius’s smirk.
Mom was always saying I shouldn’t show off for other kids, but right then, I wanted Julius to think I was the coolest guy he’d ever met.
“Excuse me.” Roberto wove through the room at last. “I need both of you to settle down and finish your lunches. Next period starts in ten minutes, and I’m sure you have things you need to get from your lockers.”
“Fine.” I crossed my arms.
“I’m sorry for worrying you,” Hal said. “We were just kidding around.” He wore a wide and seemingly genuine grin.
“That’s good.” Roberto smiled back, clearly buying Hal’s horse-pucky. “But you know, the sign says no roughhousing. And we mean it.” He pointed to a list of rules on the wall.
“Sure thing, Rob.” Hal bunched his shoulders in the picture of humility. “See you in class.”
“Yes. Fine.” Roberto left, and Hal went to sit down at the table with his friends.
I hovered, pretending to look through my backpack, hoping that Julius would ask me to walk with him to class.
“Hey, Walker,” Hal called from the other table. He still wore that big grin. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought he was going to apologize. But I knew his type all too well.
I kept my distance. “Yeah?”
“You got a bike?”
For a second, I assumed he meant a dirt bike like some of the guys in Texas had, but I doubted any of these city kids rode around in mud on the weekends. “You mean a bicycle? Yeah.”
“Meet me at eight tonight. The top of Madrona Hill. We’ll see how tough you are.”
From behind me, Julius piped up. “You asking him on a date, Hal? I’m jealous.”
“Nobody was talking to you, dork.” Hal waved his hand, dismissing Julius and me in a single gesture.
While I was still ahead of the game, I left. My hands were shaking, but more from giddiness than fear. Honestly, I would have expected Hal to challenge me to a fistfight. A bicycle drag race was nonthreatening enough to be laughable. Maybe kids didn’t fight in Seattle the way they did in Texas. Add that to the growing list of things I didn’t fully understand in my new life.
“Oh my God, what happened?” Bethany appeared at my side as soon as I was in the halls. Her book bag bounced as she took up step next to me.
I took a bite of my sandwich, relaxed enough to eat now that I was away from Hal and Julius. Gloppy and oversweet though it was, my lunch tasted wonderful doused in victory.
“I got asked on a date by a senior,” I said, playing along with Julius’s joke.
Bethany rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right. I mean what happened with Julius? Did he talk to you? He doesn’t talk to anyone.”
I laughed. “What, do you have a crush on him or something?”
“That makes two of us.”
I didn’t know what she was getting at, so I kept my mouth shut the rest of the way to class.
“Nothing else to report?” My dad’s face was grainy, and his lips moved after his words.
“No. Took classes. We don’t have any homework.” I remembered right then that I needed an excuse to get out of the house. “Well, I mean except for this one reading assignment.”
“So, are the classes harder than you expected or easier?”
“I can’t tell yet,” I told the screen. It was hard to think of the image as my father since I hadn’t seen him in person in over a year. “They want our opinions on everything. What do we think of this, what’s our take on that. I guess they’re trying to make us creative?” My old school had been more about learning facts and repeating them. I could already tell from the laundry list of sources my new teachers had provided that at Clinton they were going to want us to show a lot of initiative.
“That sounds pretty cool.” My dad glanced behind him. His day was just beginning. “I miss you, buddy. Wish I was there.”
My eyes prickled. “I should get going. I told some kids we’d meet up to study.”
“Already?” Mom was sitting next to me, but she scooted in front of the computer when I vacated my seat.
“Yeah. I made some friends today.” I gave her a meaningful look. She and I often talked in code. “I’m meeting some kids to study” meant “I’m going out, but won’t get in trouble.”
Tonight that might have been a tad of a lie, but how much damage could I do on a bicycle? The worst I’d get is scraped knees and elbows. I’d even wear a helmet.
“Well, be home by nine.” That was Mom-code for “be home by ten.”
Mom smiled. The 9 p.m. school-night curfew had been my dad’s idea. As was the notion that I could only go out on a school night to study. But the thing about having a parent who didn’t live with you was that even if they made the rules, they weren’t around to enforce them.
“See ya.” I waved past Mom’s shoulder to my dad on screen. Though it took a little bit with the delay, he waved back.
Our apartment was a small one-bedroom. In other words, Mom was on the computer with my dad in the apartment’s only bedroom. In the living room, my twin bed was pushed up against the wall with my dresser that we’d brought from Killeen. Luckily, there was enough space for us to still have a sofa, TV, and coffee table to eat meals on, but not enough room for a dining area.
Back home, I’d had my own room, and my mom had an office. Sure, our neighborhood in Seattle was attractive, and the waterfront nearby was pretty, but it was too bad we had to live like two sardines in a can.
“You sure you’ll be okay?” Mom stuck her head out the door of her bedroom.
“Yeah.” I grabbed my backpack, but removed most of the books so I wouldn’t be carrying a ton while riding. Then I ignored her inquisitive stare as I went through the front door and into the night.
Our apartment complex was actually pretty nice. The grounds were clean and well-kept—which honestly I’d started to think of as a Seattle thing. Killeen had worn its mess on the outside. In Seattle, I suspected that they kept their problems under the surface.
There were dozens of bikes on the rack, most of them fancier than mine. I got my ten-speed loose and mounted it.
From my apartment complex, it was a flat, straight road to Madison Park—an area so high-end I felt weird stepping foot in the Starbucks, but where I had happily gotten ice cream and ridden my skateboard for the last two weeks. From there, it wasn’t far to Clinton Academy, but there was a huge incline between the park and the school.
I huffed, standing on my pedals. Though it was getting dark, it wasn’t fully night yet. A little gray still hovered to the west, a reminder that we were at the very end of the country, and if you traveled too far, you’d fall over the edge.
My couple of weeks riding up this hill had paid off, because I didn’t have to walk up like I had when I first got to Seattle. Whatever fear I’d had at lunch faded into excitement. I was alone and on the wide-open road. Okay, fine, a twisty, windy road behind school, but it was still pretty cool.
I rode to the top of Madrona Hill, and that’s when the trepidation set in. See, moving, you can always imagine you’re getting somewhere. Once you stop, you’re stuck with creepy shadows and trees that make weird creaking sounds when they rustle. A breeze came up from the lake, raising the hair on the back of my neck.
I imagined people would be there already. Either a bunch of seniors who’d chase me until I crashed, or the whole school gathered like some kind of back-to-school party.
I should have realized not too many people lived close enough to witness my humiliation.
An ominous black SUV pulled up behind me, and a guy from Hal’s table at lunch hung out the window. “Hal here yet?”
“No.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to play host to Hal’s friends, but it’s not like I could lie.
“Oh.” They pulled forward and parked. Soon reggae poured from the car’s open windows, along with the sweet, pungent smell I’d come to associate with Seattle parks on sunny days.
I got out my phone and sent a halfhearted message to Bethany. She lived to the south of Columbia City, and I didn’t get the sense she was the kind to go out on a school night anyway. Still, it was nice to have someone to tell that I’d shown up on Madrona Hill and Hal wasn’t there yet.
Bethany even responded with a worried Take care of yourself, which I had to admit was comforting.
Another vehicle rolled along the street; this one was a green Subaru. I’m not sure why but it’s impossible to be intimidated by a Subaru. It parked in front of the SUV. They must have sparked up too, because clouds of smoke billowed from the window.
With no one talking to me, there was nothing to distract me from the night’s cold. The sweat I’d built up riding had dried in a sticky layer. I didn’t want to go home, but I didn’t feel like hanging out much longer, either.
I was about to leave when another vehicle pulled up. The Mercedes G-Class had ominous dialed to eleven. It wasn’t just black, but had a finish that made it glitter in the dark, and chrome accents that reflected the moonlight. With its tall windows and boxy frame, it looked like an armored car that some foreign dignitary might drive.
This couldn’t be Hal’s car. It moved too carefully as it drew to a stop not far from me. When the door opened, Julius Drake stepped down from the passenger seat. He wore a black three-quarter-length coat over the same clothes he’d been in at school.
The girl on the driver’s side was the same skinny upperclassman from the cafeteria. The one who’d told Julius he was a freak. The one who’d been hanging out with Hal.
Now that they’d gotten out of the same car, I realized the resemblance between them. She and Julius shared the same jet-black hair and pale skin. Her eyes were black while his were the palest blue, but otherwise their features were similar enough for them to be twins.
“Hey,” I shouted. “Where’s Hal?”
The girl glanced at the other cars, then over the water as if Hal might appear out of the black. “You haven’t heard from him?” In the lunchroom, her voice had been strident and obnoxious. Now, she sounded much the way Julius sounded when he talked to the air instead of a person.
“I have no idea where he is.”
The girl wandered away, cell phone pressed to her ear.
I turned to Julius. “Y’all related or something?”
“Natasha? Yes, she’s my sister. You didn’t know that?” Julius’s expression was unreadable.
“No. Why would I?”
“People talk.” Julius crossed his arms.
I tensed, struck with the sudden sense that he might be fucking with me. “Did you get me into that fight on purpose to piss her off?”
“With Hal?” Julius scoffed. “You two were arguing before I sat down.”
“Barely.” I couldn’t remember the precise course of events.
“You sat at the swim team’s extra table. I’m surprised none of your so-called friends pointed that out to you.”
I flinched. They weren’t my so-called friends. Bethany and those guys seemed to honestly like me. And who was Julius to judge friendship? At lunch, he’d been alone. “They were being nice.”
“And do you like that?”
I blinked. “What do you mean?”
“You seem smart, compared to most people, that is. I’d think you’d strive for something more interesting than ‘nice.’” Julius glanced past the cars. “God, I’m bored. The least Hal could have done was come around and scare you a little.”
I got the feeling Julius was trying to frighten me in Hal’s place, and I didn’t appreciate it. “Hal and his stoner friends? Yeah, right.” I peered at the grassy area overlooking the lake. The green-on-black landscape was strange, but beautiful. Kind of like Julius himself. No wonder both he and Seattle had me intrigued.
“No.” He sighed melodramatically. “I suppose none of them are terribly frightening.” Julius wore a small smile now. “Every year, they find some freshman to race down to Madrona beach. Frankly, I’d hoped to get the honor this year, but you beat me to it.”
Before I could answer, he spun on his heel and headed in his sister’s direction. “Is your boyfriend coming or not? Silence of the Lambs is on at nine and you know I like to post my comments in real time.”
“He’s not coming.” Natasha stalked from the lookout point. “He left me a voice mail saying he wasn’t feeling well, and he was staying in tonight.” Her words drifted by Julius’s left shoulder.
The black SUV pulled out of the lot, followed by the Subaru.
“So that’s it?” I rubbed my arms, not bothering to pretend that I wasn’t freezing anymore. “We all go home?”
Natasha regarded me like something stuck to her shoe. “You can do whatever you want. I’m leaving.”
“Too bad.” Julius nodded his chin at the road that wound downhill. “Would have been a nice night for it.”
I wished he hadn’t backed up as he said it, slipping through the door of his sister’s SUV. Inside, it was perfectly clean. I wouldn’t have been surprised if classical piano came from the sound system, but when his sister flicked on the radio, it blasted Macklemore.
“Maybe some other time?” I asked before I could stop myself. I probably sounded desperate and pathetic, but Julius obviously lived in the neighborhood.
Julius tilted his head to the side, watching me. Whatever he saw in me couldn’t have impressed him that much, because he closed the door and they drove away.
Tuesdays and Thursdays were math and science mornings. When I got to the Mathematical Concepts in Trigonometry class, everyone was whispering. For a split second, I wondered if it had something to do with me. I quieted the thought, keeping my eyes lowered as I walked. Nothing much had happened the night before. Whatever the topic of gossip, I probably wasn't involved.
Bethany was in my class, and across the room I recognized Thea. To my surprise, Julius was sitting at the front corner desk. He’d donned a black vest over his black dress shirt today. Where yesterday his shoes had been Converse like mine, today he wore slick combat boots.
I wanted to sit near him, especially since he was the only kid in class not muttering to a friend, but I made my way to the opposite corner. I wasn’t sure he and I were friends yet, or even if he wanted to be.
“Hey.” Bethany lifted out of her seat as I passed. She bit the edge of her lip. “How’d it go last night?”
I glanced to Julius like he would give me the right answer. “It was okay. I—”
Knocking sounded at the door, and the short woman from the office stuck her head inside. “Julius?”
All attention snapped to him. Then the lady scanned the room and her gaze landed on me. “Oh, and Henry Walker. You too. Liz wants to see you both.”
It took me a second to realize that by Liz, she meant Liz Cantor-Chang, our principal. I went stiff.
Bethany’s eyes went wide, and she shrank back into her seat. People were looking at me with a mixture of disgust and grudging respect.
Julius, they didn’t seem to notice. Maybe he got called to the principal’s office all the time or maybe they already knew what they thought of him. When I got to the door, he glanced at me with a bit of an eye roll, as if I should have known what was going on. I rubbed my face, looking away. Something was up. The hair was standing up on the back of my neck. But as much as I ran through the events of the past twenty-four hours, I couldn’t imagine what I’d done wrong.
“You’re not in trouble,” the woman said when we’d both reached the door. I wished I remembered her name. She must have introduced herself the day before.
Julius kept quiet all the way to the office, so I followed his lead, walking silently at his side.
“You boys wait here.” The woman pointed to the same two seats we’d been in when we’d met the day before.
“Maureen,” Julius said as he crossed one ankle over the opposite knee.
“What?” I couldn’t stop biting at the edges of my finger. For years I’d worked to get rid of that nervous habit, but though my cuticles weren’t red and raw anymore, I still nibbled like a caffeinated rabbit when stressed.
“Her name. It’s Maureen. I could tell that you don’t remember it.”
“I remember.” I folded my arms, tucking my hands into my armpits.
“There’s no point lying. I can always tell.”
I called bullshit, but not out loud. Mostly I just wished Julius would stop talking.
“Like now. You don’t believe me, but you don’t want to say it.”
I snarled, because I so did not sign on to be analyzed that morning. “No one would believe you know what I’m thinking.”
He shrugged. “Whatever.” He lowered his gaze, tapping his middle fingertip against his thumb. “I also know you have no idea what this is about. If you were being nicer, I might tell you.”
He’d pissed me off, so there was no way I’d ask for his help. Luckily, Maureen came out of a door marked Head of School, so I didn’t have to admit he was right. “Boys. Liz is ready for you.”
For us not being in trouble, Maureen seemed extremely tense. Her lips were tight and her face pale. As Julius and I passed through the door, she leaned over a coworker’s shoulders and whispered, “Do you think they had something to do with it?”
“Stop worrying so loudly,” Julius murmured. “You’re making us look guilty.”
I rubbed my face, wishing I could appear more self-confident.
Julius didn’t have that problem. He walked confidently through the door and strode up to Liz’s desk. “How are you doing this morning? Did you have a nice summer?”
Her face was pinched the way my mom’s got when we couldn’t reach my dad for a few days. She tapped her desk, knuckles white. “Yes, I had a lovely summer. Take a seat.”
Julius and I sat across from her in twin armchairs.
“Julius, Henry, I have to ask you . . . What happened between you two and Hal Stubenmeyer yesterday?”
Like I had a twitch in my neck, I glanced at Julius. His expression was flat and pleasant, his forehead smooth and there was a slight curve to his lips.
He knew the ins and outs of this place, so he should have been the one to answer. That’s why it was so infuriating when he just returned my stare calmly. “I don’t recall, Liz. Henry, do you remember?”
I could have smacked him.
“It seems that you three had a disagreement in the cafeteria.” Liz said. “I wanted to make sure that—”
“We didn’t—” I stopped short when I saw Julius’s quick shake of the head.
What was his problem? One minute he tried to get me to talk, and the next he all but told me to shut up. I gave him a hard look, trying not to glower in front of Liz.
She sighed. “I’m sure that whatever was said, you both feel horrible. I wanted to talk to you about it before the rumors started flying.”
I didn’t dare check Julius’s reaction. “I’m sorry?”
“You don’t know?” Liz tipped her head.
Liz looked at some papers on her desk, lines around her eyes tense and her mouth tight.
Julius leaned toward me and tapped me on the arm. When I glanced at him, he sighed and said, “Hal Stubenmeyer tried to kill himself last night.”
Or, check your local library.
Word Count: 63,300
Page Count: 258
Cover By: Michelle Fairbanks
Release Date: 10/03/2016
Release Date: 10/03/2016