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Authors: Alexandra Sirowy

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BOOK: The Creeping
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The campfire is as tall as several stacked cars and as wide as the length of one. “Crazeballs,” Cole whispers in awe. Its heat warms my face from a hundred feet away. All around it stand girls and boys in little more than their underwear.

“Ha,” Zoey scoffs. “Amateurs. That's exactly why I wore my swimsuit under my dress.” She pulls her sundress up and over her head.

The fire rages on the rocky shore; the sky is open and empty above the massive tower of flames. The surrounding trees are frosted with white lanterns, hooked along their boughs, glowing like mammoth fireflies. The iron fence of the cemetery runs the length of the gravel lot to the left of us, and candles speckle the gravestones and tombs. Cole's mouth flops open as she absorbs the spectacle. I can just make out some kids wearing Halloween masks. Monster-type stuff with messily stitched scars, ghoulish grins, and oozing blisters. Maybe I feel it all more—the heat of the fire on my cheeks, the snap of the cold where it doesn't touch, and the masquerade—because Cole is experiencing it for the first time.

A drunken sophomore staggers past us with fangs in his mouth and fake blood painted down the corners of his lips. Zoey tosses her hair from her eyes and glowers. “Vampire loser. What do these freaks think this is? Effing Halloween?” There are a few plastic corpses hung from the trees, nooses knotted around their necks. Leave it to my twisted classmates at Weirdowood to go above and beyond the disturbing. We're only a couple of yards away when Janey Bear, who is the biggest loose-lipped gossip at school, spots me.

“She's here!” Her shrill cry slices through the thudding music. I freeze as face after face turns expectantly toward me. Their mouths are agape, grinning, muffling giddy laughter, practically salivating like hungry beasts who crave drama. A pack of sadists, really. All high on the mystery of what happened to someone else; of what twisted our little town into knots; of what they get to retell to kids who aren't from here, claiming a little corner of the horror for themselves.

You'd think I'd be used to it by now. The last three years of high school have played out identically. Since my freshman year, my infamy as “the one who got away” has earned me an epic amount of popularity. I guess it could have turned out differently. If I'd been all morbid and gone goth in steel-toed boots and a safety pin through my eyebrow, then it would have turned me into a social pariah. Given that I'm more skinny jeans and ballet flats, am pretty with bright-green eyes, and have a monopoly on the whole survivor thing, my past has only added legend to my social status. It's like those castles and forts you learn about in history that are glimmering museums full of tourists now but used to be leper colonies. That's me, former leper colony.

But this time when the crowd turns, lifting their red plastic cups full of beer and toasting me, actually cheering me for being the one to survive, I see six-year-old Jeanie directly in front of the fire. Her cheeks are filthy and striped with tears; her dress is torn at the collar. It's a blue gingham jumper that I recognize immediately as what she was wearing the day she was taken. This isn't earth-shattering, since that detail was splashed all over the news.

What is strange is that she has a trickle of blood oozing down from her scalp, slithering over the skin between her eyes. And all at once I know that this is not my imagination. I've pulled this from the depths of my charred memory. She's upright in front of me, but by the way her hair is pooled around her head, defying gravity, I get the impression that I'm looking down at her, lying on her back. For the first time, I can remember smelling Jeanie's fear as she wet her pants, while I reached to hold her bloodstained hand.

Chapter Three

hundred pairs of eyes crawl over me. After the image disappears I'm swallowed by the memory, capable only of staring at the empty patch of dirt where Jeanie was. Zoey shouts something bitchy and sarcastic at the crowd. They laugh like she's kidding. She jabs her elbow into my forearm. Her skin on my skin jolts me aware, and I try to recover with a toothy smile and a wink. Everyone is either as observant as a wall or too drunk to notice my nutso behavior, because they cheer in response. Zoey turns to me, concerned, but before she can say anything, Taylor separates from the crowd, his duo of jock scum as one seething mass of testosterone and cinnamon-flavored whiskey in his shadow.

“Hey, Stella, Zoey,” he says. He carries an extra red cup and offers me the beer. I try to get ahold of myself, but it feels like gluing one of Mom's cobalt-blue vases back together after smashing it into a million pieces on the floor. I remembered something. Should I be jumping for joy or sobbing in fear? I don't do either. Instead I take
the plastic cup from Taylor, and without saying a word, I pound its contents. Definitely not
Liquid heat sears my throat.

“What's up?” Zoey takes control. “Hey, guys,” she adds, nodding to Taylor's two buddies. Zoey has hooked up in various degrees with both of them. Drew and Dean play lacrosse with Taylor, and for some reason I always have trouble telling them apart. Maybe Zoey does too, which could explain why she's made out with both at random. I'd feel bad for them if it wasn't for how infamous lacrosse players are at Wildwood for being players on and off the field. I suspect that this is why Michaela steered Cole toward less chartered male territory in the direction of the kegs, once the boys sauntered over to us. Taylor is more decent than most: He dates in our grade, his exes never say anything bad about him, and he always opens doors for girls—even the unpopular ones. There's also the issue of that irresistible smile.

“You know, just knocking back some beers and shots,” Taylor states the obvious. Okay, so he's not exactly Ivy material, but even through my conflicted haze, he's hot. Over Taylor's chiseled shoulder, Michaela and Cole melt into the crowd. Cole is a social butterfly, and since she spent only two weeks of our junior year with us at Wildwood, she's eager to mingle. Flickering light from the fire dances on the tree trunks. It makes it look like the whole world is moving, swaying and spinning to the music's rhythm. The liquid I chugged spreads fire up my spine from my stomach, and I swear I can feel it seizing my brain, screwing with my equilibrium.

Taylor leans forward, looking at me expectantly. Zoey's blue eyes widen as she realizes I haven't been listening. “Sorry, what?” I ask,
shaking my head. Taylor's cocky grin fades. I try to steady myself with a deep breath, but smoke fills my lungs. I sputter as my throat thickens. I'm standing too close to the fire, and Jeanie's face and its curling trickle of blood keep flashing before me.

“I'll—I'll be right back, sorry,” I stammer, turning before Zoey can grab hold of me. With the blaze at my back, its dancing flames behind me, I'm better, more solid. I move away from the crowd and let the yips and shouts fade behind me. I veer straight for the wrought-iron gate of the cemetery. If I can just catch my breath, sit down on a bench, I'll be alone with my thoughts. All of this is doable. It's only that I haven't had a moment to process that I'm losing it.

Zoey calls my name once but doesn't follow. I reach the cemetery gate and duck under the scalloped archway. Out of habit I reach above my head and tap the iron heart that marks its apex. Zoey told me once that it would keep unsettled spirits away. Otherwise those that aren't in heaven or hell haunt anyone who enters the cemetery. I know, I know. I'm positive Zoey made it up. But whatever . . . better safe than sorry. Stuff like that really makes my skin crawl.

Anyway, the cemetery is spooky enough without tempting ghosts. It's one of the oldest in the country, with gravestones hundreds of years old. No one's been buried here for over sixty. Zoey said she heard it was originally a Native American burial ground that was dug up by settlers. She could have been full of nonsense, but I don't feel bad repeating it. Weren't settlers always digging up sacred stuff? Distant giggling and a moaned, “Oh nooo,” make me focus. I swerve in the opposite direction.

I swat boughs from the low-hanging willows brushing my face. The candles are everywhere to guide me. I pass my favorite marble statue of a weeping angel and caress its broken wing. There's a smooth granite bench rooted to the ground across from the statue and a small, enclosed family plot. I lie down on it. The cold seeps from the stone into my back. I shiver. Blackdog State Park is far enough from the city that the stars blaze like tiny lightbulbs illuminating the sky's blackness. The candles speckling the cemetery have the look of fallen stars nestled in nooks and crannies.

I close my eyes for a moment, but Jeanie's bloodied face is there, like an indelible memory I've always had and not one that just reared its warty face. I open them and stifle a scream. Two brown eyes hover above me.

I bolt upright. “Sam!” I shout. “Jeez, you scared the crap out of me.”

He takes a backward step, flicks his hair off his forehead, and shoves his hands deep into his pockets. “Hey, sorry. I saw you take off and wanted to make sure you were okay,” he says, ending with an uncertain smile.

I take a deep breath and shrug. “You know . . . it always feels weird to be here . . . on this day.” What's
is that Sam—not Zoey, not Taylor, not Michaela, not Cole—cared enough to follow me. “What's with the vest?” I point to the bright-red atrocity he's wearing over his T-shirt. If Zoey were here to see this, she'd roll her eyes and say
I told you so
. Sam Worth used to be one of our best friends. We were inseparable as kids, right up until Zoey decided we wanted to be popular and that Sam was destined to be the King of Loserdom.
Although Sam isn't a Cyclops, he isn't the kind of guy that most girls date. At least not girls I know.

Sam looks down and practically turns green. “Oh crap, it's my uniform,” he says, ripping the vest off his shoulders so quickly I think it might tear. “I'm always forgetting I have it on.” He wads the polyester nightmare up in a ball and tries stuffing it in his jeans pocket. Half of it sticks out.

The Star Wars T-shirt he's rocking underneath isn't much better. I try not to laugh. “Uniform for what?” I ask, scooting over so there's room for Sam on the bench. Zoey would flip if she saw this, but I'm just off balance enough to flirt with disaster.

“I work at BigBox,” he says, plopping down next to me, springy and eager like a puppy.

BigBox is one of those giant you-can-buy-everything-under-the-sun stores. “Since when?”

“Every summer for the last four years,” he says, a hint of a laugh in his voice. “It's okay, though, there's no reason you'd know.”

I blink at him through the darkness. Is he being sarcastic or is he
that nice? I mean, I do the best I can. Zoey erased Sam from her social radar, but when I see him in the halls, I always say hey. No, I'm not twelve years old, sporting a feathered headdress and playing cowboys and Indians in the woods with him anymore. And I probably wouldn't ever in a million years follow him into a spooky cemetery to make sure he was okay. But I keep Zoey off his back.

It's not like I can invite him to eat lunch with us. That's not how high school works. Even my popularity couldn't take the hit
of me being seen hanging out with science-fiction-loving, secondhand-clothing-wearing, BigBox-working Sam Worth.

It's kind of a shame, because if Sam ever tried, he could be vaguely hot. In the pale light I can just make out the cluster of tiny freckles on the bridge of his nose—they make me think of sunny days. He has muddy-brown eyes that make it hard to look away. Tousled bed-head hair. That whole I'll-listen-to-everything-you-have-to-say-and-then-write-you-a-love-letter thing. Girls eat that stuff up. Instead he's tragically committed to achieving new astronomical levels of bizzaro-ness. I can't be sure, but I think I glimpse a shoelace as his belt tonight.

“Hella Stella, I said, ‘Are you okay?' ” Sam repeats himself for what's likely the millionth time.

I bristle at my old nickname. The word “hella” was sooo middle school and plus, I don't need to give people any more reason to talk about me. I scan the cemetery around us nervously. I can see a small group of stoners lighting up twenty feet away. Definitely not worried about them overhearing. But Janey Bear and her bestie, Kate Lucey, are staggering down the path toward us, arms locked, red cups in their hands, jaws clacking. Fan-freaking-tastic. I bet they're only out here prowling for sordid hookups to gossip about. Janey couldn't keep a secret if her life depended on it. Me sharing a romantic moment with Sam Worth in this gloomy cemetery will be the scandal that she's dreamed of her whole life. Before the night is over, rumors will be spreading that we were hooking up between the tombs, Sam calling out my childhood nickname between thrusts, me confessing my
eternal love.
Gag me.
And of course, if that happens, I can kiss ever kissing Taylor Martinson good-bye.

I turn back to him and mouth, “Don't call me that.”

His eyes widen, and he reminds me of this owl stuffed toy I used to have. “Call you what? Hella Stella? Why?” he says so loudly I know Janey must hear.

I take a shaky breath and glance toward the girls. Janey's staring back at me with narrow-set blue eyes that don't miss a thing. “Sam, just don't,” I murmur urgently. “Please shut up.” I try to scare him with a nasty glare, but he starts to chuckle.

“What's up with you tonight, Hella Stella?” he asks right as Janey and Kate stop in front of us.

“Hi, Stella,” Kate says, her pitch swinging with joy over discovering us. Even she knows they've caught me red-handed. Janey just stares, the mole on her wormy upper lip twitching. We're not exactly friends. Zoey calls Janey and Kate leeches behind their backs. She says they're really nice to the actually popular people so that they can latch on and get invited to parties. I dislike them for different reasons. They're always looking to knock you down a peg. Like they think of being popular as being on a varsity team. Someone should tell them that making other people less popular doesn't guarantee that they'll be called off the bench. It just makes them bitches. I'd like to tell them that this very moment. Instead I take the easy way out.

BOOK: The Creeping
2.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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