One of Us Is Next: Part 2 – Chapter 32


Saturday, March 28

Mrs. Lawton greets me at the door, looking like she hasn’t slept in a week. She does her best to rally, though, giving me a wan smile. “Hi, Knox. Don’t you look handsome.”

She doesn’t ask me how the wedding went, and I don’t offer. There are some conversations it’s better not to have when things are this raw. “Thanks.” I can make out the muted sounds of a video game somewhere in the apartment, and I hope Owen doesn’t appear. I can’t pretend to care about Bounty Wars right now. “Is Phoebe around?” I ask.

Mrs. Lawton hesitates. “I’m so sorry, Knox, but Phoebe probably shouldn’t be talking with other witnesses in the Jackson case right now. It’s a delicate time.”

“No, I totally get that. Phoebe already said. I promise I won’t ask. But I thought she could use a friend. Also…” I dig into my pocket and pull out a folded piece of paper. “I wanted to give you this. From Eli. It’s a list of lawyers you could call, if you’re looking for referrals or anything like that. He says they’re good.”

Eli emailed me the list before he left his apartment for the ceremony. Until Proven can’t touch the case, obviously, given our involvement, he wrote. But Emma should get representation as soon as possible. There’s growing precedent for courts coming down hard on kids who are seen as inciting others, both in person and online. Even when they pull back, like Emma did.

If she did. I want to believe Emma, but it’s hard to imagine that Jared would see the Truth or Dare game all the way through without her being involved. Plus, there’s the fact that she must’ve fed this guy gossip not only about Phoebe and Derek—which is seriously messed up—but me and Maeve. Even though neither of us has ever done a thing to her. I actually thought she liked me. So who even knows what Emma is capable of.

You sure she’s telling the truth? I wrote to Eli.

He responded instantly. Whether she is or not, she needs good representation.

One of these days, I hope to be the type of person who worries about a girl who was allegedly part of a revenge-swapping plot to destroy me. I’m not there yet, though. I’m glad the hospital is keeping Emma for observation another day so there’s no chance I’ll run into her now.

“How incredibly kind.” Mrs. Lawton’s eyes get filmy when she takes the paper. “Please give him my thanks.” She rubs her temple and offers a weak smile. “I suppose a few minutes with Phoebe couldn’t hurt. You’re right—she could use a friend. It would cheer her up immensely to see you, I’m sure. She’s on the roof deck.”

“Thanks so—” I was about to step inside, but I pause on the threshold. “Sorry. The what?”

“There’s a new roof deck on the building. They just finished putting the railing up last week. Phoebe’s there. You can take the elevator to the top floor, and there’s a stairwell right next to it that leads to the roof.”

“Oh.” My fear of heights has gotten ten times worse since Brandon died, and a roof is the last place I want to be right now. It’s okay, though. I’ll just stay in the middle, where you can’t see over the edge. Then it’s more like a floor. A floor without walls or a ceiling. Crap. “Okay. So. I’m just going to go on the…roof.” I try to give her a confident wave when I head down the hallway, but I don’t think I pull it off.

The elevator has mirrored doors, which I could do without on the ride to the top floor. My untucked shirt is a wrinkled mess and my half-mast tie is askew. My hair looks like I combed it with a Weedwacker. At least it’s finally growing out, I guess. When the doors open, I find the stairwell and climb two short sets of stairs to a heavy metal door. I push against it, and I’m immediately hit in the face with a gust of wind.

Right. Of course. Because the only thing worse than being on a roof is being on one so windy that you could blow right off.

I tamp down the thought and take a few tentative steps forward, until I spot Phoebe leaning against what looks to be a very flimsy railing. “Hey,” I call, and she turns. “I brought you some cake.”

Phoebe lifts her hand in an anemic wave, but stays where she is, so I guess I’m going over there. I owe her, probably, after thinking for even a nanosecond in Maeve’s car last night that she could’ve been involved in this mess.

“You brought me what?” Phoebe asks when we’re close enough to talk. Her hair is pulled up in a messy bun on the top of her head, tendrils flying everywhere in the wind. She’s wearing what look like pajama bottoms and a tank top. I’d think she’d be freezing, but she doesn’t seem to notice the chill in the air.

“Cake,” I gulp, holding it out when I’m a foot away. That’s the absolute closest I can get to that deathtrap of a railing. “Wedding cake. From the…wedding.” For a second she looks like she’s going to cry, and regret seizes my chest. Was this a dumb thing to do? Then she smiles and takes it from me.

“Thanks. That’s really nice of you.” She breaks off a piece and eats it, then holds out the napkin. “Want some?” she asks through her mouthful.

“Nah, I’m good.” I stuff my hands into my pockets and try to figure out where to look. Cold sweat has started to coat my face. There’s nothing but open sky around us, which is making me dizzy, so I focus on Phoebe’s face. Even when it’s covered in crumbs, that’s hardly a chore. “How are you?”

Phoebe’s stuffing cake into her mouth like she hasn’t eaten in days. Which is possible, I guess. She says something I can’t understand, and I wait for her to swallow. “Shitty,” she says when she does, taking another huge bite of cake.

“I guess, yeah. Sorry.”

She swallows again and brushes crumbs from the corners of her mouth. “But you! I didn’t get a chance to thank you. For figuring things out, first of all, and for saving everybody. Things would be so much worse if…” Her voice wavers. “If anybody besides Brandon…oh God.” She folds the empty napkin in half so the clean side is facing outward and presses it against her eyes. “I’m sorry. Every time I think I’m done crying I start again.” Her shoulders shake as she slumps against the railing, choking out noisy sobs. “I can’t stop. I don’t know when it’s going to stop.”

I’m frozen for a few seconds, torn between her total misery and the terrifying void behind her. Then I step forward, ignoring the way my head spins and my stomach dips when I’m right at the edge, and pull her into an awkward embrace. “Hey. It’s okay.” I pat her back as she cries against my shoulder. “It’s going to be okay.”

“How?” she wails. “Everything is horrible. My dad is dead because of Brandon, and Brandon’s dead because of us!”

“Not you,” I say, but she only sobs harder. I hold her for I don’t know how long, until she’s finally cried out and starts taking deep, uneven breaths. One of her palms is flat against my chest, and she looks up at me through swimming eyes.

“Knox, your heart is beating out of your chest.”

“Yeah.” I blink, trying to get rid of the spots dancing in my line of vision. “The thing is—I’m scared of heights, and this railing is…it does not look safe. Or tall. It’s not really tall enough for my liking.”

“Oh my God.” She lets out a tearful laugh and, to my indescribable relief, pulls me away from the edge until we’re nearly at the center of the roof. “Why didn’t you say something? I could’ve bawled on your shoulder here just as easily.”

“Well, you know.” My dizziness recedes to a manageable level. “I try not to make a big deal out of what a coward I am.”

“Coward?” She stares at me, wiping her cheeks. “Are you kidding me? You’re the bravest person I’ve ever met.” I drop my eyes, embarrassed, and she laughs softly. “Do you know what I thought, back there? I thought your heart was beating so fast because of me.”

“What?” I’m so startled that I practically yelp, and Phoebe makes a face.

“You don’t have to look so horrified.”

“I’m not horrified. At all,” I say quickly. “It’s just—that’s not a thing I would consider, even, because…” I trail off and rub the back of my neck with one hand. “I would have no shot, obviously. You’re way too hot for me. Not that I spend a weird or inappropriate amount of time analyzing how hot you are, but—”

And then I can’t talk anymore, because Phoebe is kissing me.

Her mouth is soft and hard at the same time, colliding with mine, and every nerve ending I didn’t know I had catches fire. She tastes like sugar, and she’s all curves and warm skin. She lifts my shirt, trailing her fingers across my stomach and down toward the waistband of my pants, and my brain almost short-circuits. Not entirely, though, because when I lift my hands to cup her face, I feel the wetness of fresh tears.

“Phoebe.” I pull back reluctantly, already missing the feel of her. She’s breathing as heavily as I am and her eyes are glazed. I swipe a thumb across the tear tracks on her face. “That was amazing, but…I think you’re really sad right now. And worried, and just—probably not in a good place to be doing this.”

She lets out a sound that’s halfway between a whimper and a moan. “God, I’m such a disaster. You must hate me.”

“What? No! Are you kidding? Believe me, I would like nothing more than for you to try that again in, say, a week. Or whenever you’re feeling better. If you want to. But if you don’t, that’s okay, too.”

She exhales a shuddering breath. “Do you have any idea how great you are?”

“Not really, no.” I adjust the front of my pants, which is kind of uncomfortable thanks to the bulge Phoebe’s groping brought on. She catches the motion and smirks a little through her tears. “Let the record show, though, that all systems were go,” I add. “In case there was any doubt, after…you know.”

She starts giggling so hard that I’d be embarrassed if I weren’t relieved to see her mood lift. “Oh my God, you actually made me laugh. I wasn’t sure that was still possible.” She swipes at her eyes with the back of her hand. “Thank you. I needed this. All of it.”

“Good. I’m glad.” I take her hand and pull her toward the stairwell. “Could we please leave this roof now?”

It’s late when I get home. I’ve been walking everywhere tonight: from the reception to Phoebe’s apartment, and then from Phoebe’s apartment back to my house. It’s been hard to breathe since yesterday, and the cool air helps a little.

My lips are still tingling from Phoebe’s kiss as I open our front door. I’ve relived that moment a few hundred times on the walk home. It was a one-time thing, probably, and that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be awkward. If Maeve and I could make it through the entire school knowing about our not–first time, one sad kiss on the roof is nothing.

And who knows, maybe Phoebe meant it. Wouldn’t that be something?

The kitchen and living room lights are on, and I can hear the sound of some sort of ball game on television when I get inside. It’s past my mother’s bedtime so it’s probably just my dad watching, and he doesn’t like to be interrupted in the middle of a game. I drop my house keys on the table and head for the staircase.

“Knox?” Dad’s voice stops me. Footsteps follow until he’s framed in the kitchen doorway, a bottle of Bud Light in one hand. The faint yellowish glow of our light fixture deepens every crease in his face. “How was the wedding?”

“Oh.” I’m blank for a minute. The wedding already feels like it was months ago. “It was…good, I guess. You know. As good as it could be, under the circumstances.”

He nods heavily. “Yeah. Sure.”

“Nate was there,” I add. “He looked good. He was joking around, didn’t seem like he was in too much pain or anything.” I clear my throat. “It’s really great, what you’re doing for him. You know, the disability stuff. Everybody kept saying…how great it was. Is. Will be.”

Jesus. You can stop babbling anytime, Knox.

“Company policy,” Dad says stiffly.

“I know, but, like…you make the policy,” I point out.

To my surprise, his face breaks into a smile. “I guess I do.”

It’s as good a time as any to say what I’ve been meaning to tell him for a while. “Dad, I’m really sorry about cutting through the mall site. I shouldn’t have done that. It’s not that I don’t listen to you, or respect your work. I do, a lot. I was just being thoughtless.”

The lines of his face soften. “Well. You’re seventeen. That’s gonna happen sometimes, I guess.” He takes a gulp of beer and looks at the floor. “I owe you an apology, too. I shouldn’t have said you’re not a hard worker. I know you are.” His voice gets gruff. “And another thing. You were smart last night, and brave, and even though I wish you’d kept yourself a little safer in that situation, I’m so proud of what you did. I’m proud of you, period. Always.”

Oh hell. I made it through the past twenty-four hours without crying and now my dad, of all people, is going to make me do it. Then he’ll probably take everything he just said back because I’m such a wimp. Before I lose it, though, Dad sets his beer down on an accent table, lets out a choked sob of his own, and yanks me into a bone-crushing hug. Which hurts a little, but—all things considered?

Worth it.


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