Chapter 1: Sera
By Daphne Benedis-Grab,
Author of The Girl in the Wall
By Daphne Benedis-Grab,
Author of The Girl in the Wall
What do you wear to the birthday party of your ex-best friend? The one who dumped you flat in the middle of junior year, turn- ing the entire student body against you in the process, and who has made your life hell for the nine months and four days since?
I debate calling my dad and asking yet again if I really have to go to Ariel's seventeenth party, the first one we didn't plan together since she turned eight. But that would be a waste of time, I know what he'll say. He'll talk about his friendship with Simon Barett, my dad being the only person in the world who calls Mr. Barett by his first name, about how they were best friends in college, about how my dad's investments in Barett Pharmaceuticals helped make it the thriving, billion dollar business it is today. About how friendships have ups and downs but some things, like the Barett and French family bond, are forever. Which means that "small tiff" (his words) or not, I need to be there for Ariel's big day.
With a slight crackle the intercom in my room comes to life. "Honey, the car will be ready to take you in ten minutes," my mom says.
Yes, our house is big, all the houses in our town of New Canaan, Connecticut are. But my mom could walk the distance from her bedroom down the hall to tell me this. She, however, is avoiding me. She knows that the thought of going to this party has made me "difficult" (her word) and she'd rather not deal with me face to face. In fairness I have picked an awful lot of fights with her in the past nine months and four days.
Ten minutes to select the outfit that will be ridiculed all night by the senior class of New Canaan Country Day School, along with my hairstyle, shoes and the way I breath. The school is small with an elite group of hand-selected students, each of whom treats me like a total pariah.
I lose no matter what choices I make, so I opt for comfortable: jeans that show off my yoga body (lots of time for working out when you have no social life), black cami, and silky black cashmere sweater. It's October and the nip of fall is in the air. I slide my feet into comfortable black flats, pull my hair up in a loose ponytail with a few wispy curls floating around my face. I grab my little black purse that I've already stuffed with my wallet, house keys, and cell phone, plus the Swiss Army knife my dad insists I carry with me at all times, and my overnight bag. Because, of course, this is no ordinary party, not with Mr. Barett funding it. It's a full weekend of celebration, starting with a private concert with Hudson Winters.
Okay, I have to admit that that is the one thing I'm excited about. I love Hudson's music. Not the few pop songs that made him famous but the ones that are more like folk rock with a dash of something almost like bluegrass thrown in. The ones with the lyrics that are so honest they resonate somewhere deep inside each time I listen to them. Which is pretty much daily since I'm not going out a lot these days and I need something to keep me company.
My phone chirps, a sound I used to hear hundreds of times a day. Now it makes me jump. I pick it up and see the text from my sister Samantha.
Good luck 2nite
She remembered. It's like drinking a hot cup of cocoa after being out in the sleet.
Think it may kill me I write back.
Hi-school sucks. Remember in 11 months you will be here
Sam is a sophomore at Brown and she loves it. I still have to get in but it's a pretty sure thing. My grades are stellar, my extracurriculars pitch perfect, and the huge donations my alumni dad gives every year don't hurt.
Love u she writes.
My sister is probably the only reason I've survived these past months.
I type and send a heart icon, and then slip my phone back in my purse.
There's no avoiding it: I'm ready. I go down the huge curving staircase to our foyer that is filled with orchids, my mother's passion. I complain that it smells like a perfume shop every time I open the front door but really I love the rich, gentle scent of the velvety pink, lavender and white blooms. The car driving me was waiting. I take a last, longing look at my house, then slide onto the buttery leather seats and accept the fate that awaits me.
It's impossible not to be impressed as the car drives through the carefully cultivated woods guarding the Barett estate from the road and you see the mansion for the first time. New Canaan houses are big but none are as big and elegant as this. Its cream-colored wings and turrets and towers make it seem more like a plantation from the Old South than the modern-day suburbs of New York City. Ariel and I went through a brief Gone with the Wind phase back when we were eleven and it truly felt like we were at Tara.
That was also when we discovered the secret passages that twine through the walls of the house. We had a great time spying from inside the walls until the terrible Saturday night when we peeked through the grate into her father's bedroom. Mr. Barett was in there with Stella, the woman who became his second wife two months later, and it was possibly the night that Abby, Ariel's baby sister was conceived. That image of the two of them, which is unfortunately seared into my brain forever, still makes me feel like I ate a rotten clam.
The rolling green of the lawns are broken up by gardens and artfully placed trees. I see a few of the gardeners lurking about, which is unusual on a Saturday evening. I guess Mr. Barett is making sure everything is perfect.
My car rounds the circular drive and stops at the front door which is flanked by columns.
"We're here, Sera," Evan, the driver, says.
We don't have a regular driver but the car company we use often sends Evan and he's really nice. For a moment I play with the idea of asking him to drive me away, into town, into the city, anywhere, really, that isn't here. But I'm sure he's under strict orders from my dad.
"Thanks," I say. "Have a good night."
He smiles and I step out onto the smooth stone path that leads up to the house. The door opens before I knock but it's not James, the head of household who usually opens the door at the Barett's. Something else that's changed I guess.
The man who opened the door has blond hair and a tight smile, and he seems awkward as he ushers me into the huge foyer of the Barett home. James definitely had better social graces. I wonder what happened to him.
The huge marble staircase sweeps up to the second floor, famous paintings placed along the way. The huge black-and-white marble foyer has two actual trees in it, bonsais with dark, twisted trunks and artfully shaped branches. There is a large white chest where I realize I am to put my overnight bag. I hesitate. What are the chances it will mysteriously disappear if I leave it with the others?
Over the past nine months and four days I have gotten a hard lesson in what it means to be a pariah and I know the chances are high, so the bag stays with me. I smile at the blond guy and keep my backpack on. He starts to say something but the doorbell rings again. He goes to answer it and I slip off toward the west wing of the house. The east wing has the fancy living room, dining room, glassed-in sun room and library. Around back, in the newest wing, is Mr. Barett's home office suite.
I go into the west wing, through the living room, my chest tight as I try to ignore the fact that this used to be my second home. It smells exactly the same, like a mix of grapefruit-scented cleaner, fresh roses and burning wood from the fireplace. One wall is all windows and I take a second to slow my breathing, looking out on the French garden. The sun is low in the sky and the two gardeners out on the lawn are bathed in shadow. A third joins them holding some kind of weird lawn equipment. Or is it a gun? For a moment my insides clench and then the obvious hits me: They aren't gardeners, they're security. Hudson Winters is here and Mr. Barett must have hired top-notch security.
As I get closer to the game room I hear voices, laughter, the sound of glasses clinking, and my stomach is suddenly twists tight. I close my eyes for a moment. I can survive this.
Everyone looks toward the door when I walk in and then looks away, in that way you avert your eyes when you see a homeless man peeing on the sidewalk. I hear whispers, the word "backstabber" hissed just loud enough to make it to my ears. But I am invisible, vapor, a reaction that still makes me feel like garbage.
I try to walk normally, not slink in like a beaten dog, but it's hard, especially when my legs are shaky and I don't have quite enough air in my lungs. I avoid looking at anyone, especially the group sitting on the sofa and chairs around the unlit fireplace. That's where the inner circle, Ariel's circle, will be. I don't want to see Mike, state-ranked soccer player who I used to let cheat off my geometry tests; Ravi who kissed me at the eighth-grade dance, my first ever kiss; Cassidy, queen of slicing gossip who I thought was hysterical until I was the source of the gossip.
And then there's Bianca, my replacement as Ariel's best friend, who is flaunting the necklace Ariel gave her a few weeks ago, the one that matches her own solid white-gold heart necklace from Tiffany. You could actually call Bianca Ariel's twin because aside from the matching necklaces, Bianca started dying her hair at Vivian's the exact same shade of buttery blond Ariel was born with, and they go together for weekly bangs maintenance and to pick up the French lavender hair products Vivian imports from France. I sat behind Bianca in English and the first time she came in with her new hair, smelling just like Ariel with her wafting lavender, I had to go to the nurse with a crushing headache and eyes that wouldn't stop tearing.
But of course the person I most want to avoid is Ariel herself. I know how she will glance past me like I am invisible, her features hardening just the tiniest bit. I wonder if her new best friend recognizes her sign for pure hatred.
I stuff my purse in my bag and stow it behind the sofa in the back corner of the room and walk over to the bar that has every non-alcoholic drink under the sun and two bartenders ready to serve it. The alcohol is hidden in another room, I'm guessing the study because people seem to be slipping in and out. I won't be welcome in there but that's okay. I'm better off staying sober and alert. Less chance of getting beer "accidently" poured on me if my reflexes are sharp.
I am given a sparkling seltzer fruit punch that is probably delicious but I can't really tell. My taste buds, like the rest of me, go numb when I am near anyone from school.
I drift off to an unoccupied corner of the room. The game room is massive, with leather sofas and arm chairs, a pool table, and a huge TV with every video game console sold. Usually small stuffed stools and tables are scattered around but now they, along with the pool table, have been pushed aside to make room for the concert setup.
I feel a tiny shiver of delight when I see the amplifier, guitar, stool, and single mic, with rows of chairs set arranged in front. I'm going to see Hudson Winters live like this. In the few interviews he's done he comes off as a snob but it's hard to care when his music is so awesome. A big guy lurking nearby, probably Hudson's private bodyguard or something.
"Sera," a commanding voice calls.
I straighten up as Mr. Barett approaches. In his wake is John Avery, his top assistant and Ariel's godfather. He's more like a father to her than Mr. Barett.
"How's your father?" Mr. Barett asks, giving me a solid shoulder slap that nearly topples me.
"Well, thanks," I say. I've known Mr. Barett since I was seven but he still makes me nervous. "He sends his best."
"Trying to get out of that money he owes me on our last round of golf," he says. He reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulls out his sleek phone, a model that hasn't even been released on the market yet, checks a text, and tucks it back in.
Mr. Avery smiles and leans over to kiss my cheek. He smells like the lemon lozenges he sucks to soothe his smoker's throat. Mr. Avery sometimes read us bedtime stories when I had sleepovers here, and from the sympathy in his eyes, I'm guessing he realizes me not being over here for the past nine months and four days means bad things for me. That and the fact I've been totally ignored by my classmates.
"Is Abby here?" I ask, glancing around for signs of Abby who was five the last time I saw her but would be six now. Mr. Barett and his second wife Stella had a nasty divorce and he rarely gets visits with Abby, but Ariel adores her sister so I'm guessing she'll make a birthday appearance at some point.
"Not until tomorrow morning," Mr. Barett says.
It'll be nice to see Abby, if she even remembers me. We used to include her in our games whenever she was over and it made her so happy. Ariel said Stella neglected Abby and that made Ariel really protective of her, probably since she'd been pretty neglected herself.
"So are you looking forward to the concert?" Mr. Barett asks in a proprietary way.
"Yes," I say. "I once read that Hudson Winters doesn't do private shows so this is really cool."
Mr. Barett smiles. "He does if the price is right," he says. Then he frowns as he glances outside.
"Though he does seem to require an extraordinary amount of security. Who'd have thought a singer needed that many guards with machine guns?"
I follow his gaze and see several figures standing in the yard, machine guns resting over their shoulders. At least I assume they're machine guns since that's what Mr. Barett said.
"That's what his people said he needed," Mr. Avery says. He would know since he's usually the one to handle details like that for the Barett family.
"And whatever he needs, he gets," Mr. Barett says dryly. "I should have been a rock star."
It's hard not to laugh at that.
"The concert is about to start," Mr. Barett says, apparently having received some kind of signal from somewhere. "Come up front with Ariel. I know she'll want you next to her."
Yeah, she wants that like she wants to give up a kidney.
"Um, actually my ears are kind of sensitive so I think I'll stay back here," I say.
Mr. Barett is about to insist when there is a commotion, raised voices, a few shrieks. Hudson Winters has arrived. He's wearing beat-up jeans and a black T-shirt and he's even cuter than he is in his videos, with his piercing hazel eyes, messy brown curls, and the perfect planes of his face. He's muscular and wide, like a jock, but he moves with a feline grace that makes him even sexier as he picks up his guitar from the stand and settles on the stool, not really looking at anyone. His bodyguard guy lurks near the front of the stage but he mostly looks bored.
Mr. Barett rushes across the huge room, almost tripping over the edge of the hundred-year-old Oriental carpet to get to the mic.
"It's my great pleasure to present Hunter Winters," he says grandly.
I wince at the mistake. Of course Mr. Barett has no idea who Hudson is; he just asked around for the name of the hottest, most exclusive singer and decided that was who needed to headline this party. Ariel's preferences played no part in the choice, not that I feel sorry for her. She is sitting primly in the center of the first row, Bianca on one side of her and her dad now settling in on her other side. John Avery slips out, probably to the upstairs office suite. This kind of music isn't usually popular with old guys who crunch numbers for a living.
The lights overhead are just giving off a soft golden glow but it's mostly dark, with the last bit of day light coming in through the huge windows that line the west side of the room. The right side has the oversized fireplace, the one that's not yet lit. There are paintings along that wall, one is even an actual Van Gogh, but right now they are just black squares melting into the scenery. The focus is all on Hudson as he strums his guitar lightly and pauses to tune one of the strings.
By now everyone has a seat and I feel safe sitting. Pariahs need to choose seats with care, something I learned the hard way when I went to the end-of-sophomore-year picnic (my mom acted like she might suffer a spontaneous brain aneurysm if I skipped). That night when we were watching the class movie and people were sneaking off to get beer from a keg AJ Green hid in the woods that morning, I was sitting toward the back when a cup of beer got dumped over my head. Sneaking home with beer-soaked clothes and dripping hair was no easy feat and not something I'd like to repeat.
"Hey, I'm Hunter Winters," Hudson says.
I laugh but no one else does. Hudson glances back at me, as do most of my classmates, and I am mortified that I didn't just nod coolly at the joke. I stare down at my hands, my cheeks hot.
"I'm going to start with -- " Hudson continues.
Mr. Barett coughs loudly and Hudson stops.
"Right, yeah, happy birthday Ariel," he says, his voice flat. "Sorry I don't do birthday songs." As he launches into his break-out song, "Wanting You," I notice Ariel and Bianca switching seats, their identical blond hair shimmering in the dim light as they resettle. And then I forget Ariel and her followers, that I'm stuck in this terrible place for the entire weekend, and I just sink into the music.
But just as Hudson begins the chorus, the room goes pitch black, the shades falling silently over the windows as the lights are switched off.
Hudson's voice and guitar trail off into an eerie quiet. A girl giggles and for a moment I think it must be some kind of weird joke. It is dark for about thirty seconds and then I hear a sharp popping sound and the lights flare back on.
I see the body first, a crumpled form by the front of the stage, a growing pool of blood coming from underneath it. It's Hudson's body guard. In that moment Hudson leaps off the stool and goes to him.
"Everyone on the floor, now," someone barks.
The room is chaos as people dive off their chairs to lie flat on the floor.
I stretch out on my belly, my heart thumping violently in the compressed space between my chest and the floor. I lift my head the tiniest bit to look around, trying to make sense of this thing that makes no sense. The room is filled with the men I thought were Hudson's security team, the ones wearing cargo pants and T-shirts, the ones who now have stocking caps pulled low over their faces. The ones who are carrying guns.
Two of them stride over to where Mr. Barett and Ariel lie prone and pull them up. They expertly fold Mr. Barett and Ariel's arms behind their backs with one hand while holding guns to their temples with the other. I can't see their faces, just Ariel's long hair swishing as she is jerked toward the door of the living room.
For a moment everyone else is frozen, but then Ella Kim screams and the person holding Mr. Barett flinches. In that millisecond Mr. Barett shakes free and grabs for the gun. I see his fingers wrap around the barrel just as more shots ring out. I instinctively scrunch down squeezing my eyes shut. I expect to hear more screaming but now silence pulsates like a living thing.
I don't want to see what has happened, but not knowing is even worse so I slowly raise my head. My classmates are where they were, still plastered to the floor. For a moment I think everything is okay, or at least the same, but then I look up toward the front of the room.
Two more people are lying on the floor, both at odd angles. Each has blood running from a head wound, so fast and thick it's like a faucet has been turned on. My breath is stuck in my chest and for a moment the lack of oxygen makes me light-headed, like I will faint, but still I can't look away from the bodies on the floor. The bodies that are most surely dead.
The bodies that are Mr. Barett and Ariel.
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