One of Us Is Next: Part 2 – Chapter 33


Wednesday, April 1

I take my time getting out of the car in the school parking lot Wednesday morning. I’ve been gone since Sunday, staying with Owen and my aunt a few towns over. Mom thought we needed a break, and she was probably right. Owen is still there, because he’s a genius and is months ahead on his schoolwork. But I can’t stay away forever.

I’m scared to be here. Scared of what people will think, and say, now that the truth is starting to come out. I’m afraid they’ll hate Emma—and me. I can’t blame them, because most of the time I hate us, too. Emma for starting this mess, and me for giving her a push off the deep end by hooking up with Derek at the worst possible time.

And I hate Brandon for what he did three years ago, but not enough that I’m not sick with regret about what happened to him. I know the thoughtless mistake of a spoiled thirteen-year-old doesn’t deserve this.

Everything hurts, basically. All the time.

My phone chimes in my bag, and I pull it out to a text from Knox. Don’t be nervous. We have your back.

I send a thumbs-up emoji in return, my stomach fluttering. I keep replaying our time on the roof in my head—not just the kiss, which warmed my whole body from the inside out, but the way Knox held me at the railing for so long, even though he was scared out of his mind. And the way he made me laugh when I thought I’d forgotten how. Plus, he looked surprisingly hot with his wrinkled shirt and his messy hair, his face all lean and haunted from the night before.

Maybe I just have a thing for wounded heroes. Or maybe Future Phoebe, who could appreciate someone like Knox, isn’t as far away as I thought.

My phone dings again. Maeve this time. Come inside. Bell’s about to ring.

Argh. Can’t avoid it forever, I guess. I get out of my car, lock the door, and trudge toward the back entrance. My eyes are on the ground, so when I reach the stairs I almost bump into the couple kissing passionately against the railing. “Sorry, my bad,” I mutter, then freeze when they pull apart.

My stomach drops. It’s Sean and Jules. Literally the last two people I wanted to see. I can’t even imagine what Sean is going to say to me—no, I don’t need to imagine it, because he’s opening his big stupid mouth right now and why can’t I move, this is going to be horrible.

“Hey, Phoebe,” he says.

It’s so different from what I expected that I’m struck mute.

Jules disentangles herself and shoves lightly at Sean’s arm. “Go inside,” she tells him. “I’ll meet you at my locker.” To my shock, he does as she says, lumbering up the stairs and disappearing through the door without another word.

“You trained him,” I say. Then I want to sink through the ground because God, that was rude, and neither of them deserves it at this particular moment in time.

But Jules smiles. “Sean has some seriously toxic male role models in his life, but he’s trying. He’s not as bad as you think, Phoebe.”

I guess she’s right. Especially since I thought at one point that he might’ve started the whole texting game in order to kill his best friend. Joke’s on me, I guess, that it was actually my sister who did that. Allegedly.

But there’s still one thing I need to know. Maybe it’s been in the media coverage already, but I’ve been avoiding that like the plague. I lean against the railing, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. “Why did you guys lie, Jules? About why Brandon jumped?”

A pink tinge washes across her cheeks. “It’s just—Sean thought we’d get in trouble, you know? He said it would be better if people thought it was just a shortcut and then we wouldn’t have to explain…everything.” She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “Including what the game said about you and Emma.”

“Sean didn’t care about that,” I say. That might be rude, too, but I know it’s true.

“No,” she admits. “I did, though.” I believe her. “And Sean didn’t mean to hit Knox that hard, honestly. He panicked.”

“So he never thought Knox was running after Brandon,” I say. Just to be sure.

Jules’s mouth twists. “No. He was freaking out, and Knox was…there.”

“Are you going to get into trouble?” I ask. “For lying, I mean?”

She sighs. “The police aren’t happy with us, but we’re so not the main issue right now. They told us that as long as we cooperate going forward, we’ll be okay.” She licks her lips and lowers her eyes. “Is Emma—”

I don’t let her finish. “I can’t really talk about Emma.”

Jules nods quickly, almost like she’s relieved. “I understand.”

She probably doesn’t, though. It’s not only because I’m not allowed to say anything that hasn’t been approved by Emma’s new lawyer—who I’m supposed to meet for the first time later today—but because I don’t know anything the rest of the world hasn’t already heard. I’ve barely seen or spoken to Emma since I left her hospital room Friday night.

I know what she told Detective Mendoza. And I know she spoke up when she could have left me hanging out to dry. But that’s it.

The bell rings. Jules and I both stay put, shifting our backpacks and shuffling our feet. “I wish I’d tried harder to talk to you about all this,” I finally say.

“I wish I had, too,” Jules says. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. I just got so caught up with Sean.”

“I’m glad you’re happy.” It’s a lie, because I can’t imagine any sort of happiness with Sean Murdock that doesn’t end with deep regret and possibly an STD, but I’m going to keep my mouth shut about that for once. There are worse things, I guess, than having an oaf for a boyfriend.

Jules links her arm in mine and pulls me toward the stairs. “Come on, Phoebe Jeebies. Let’s get you back on track.”

“I need you to be one hundred percent honest with me, Emma,” Martin McCoy says, leaning his forearms on our kitchen table. They’re lean and covered with freckles. My sister’s new lawyer has bright orange hair, just like my dad’s, and for some reason that makes me trust him. “Jared Jackson’s actions are caught on video, and there’s no question about his culpability in the Talia’s Restaurant bombing. Furthermore, he admitted to causing Brandon Weber’s death, despite there being no suspicion of his involvement at the time.” Martin rubs his temple, like Jared’s unsolicited confession hurts his lawyerly brain. “As far as I can tell, he did that purely to implicate you. To bring you down with him. And his lawyer has a mountain of chat transcripts”—he gestures to a thick manila folder on his right—“that he alleges were with you, agreeing to a revenge pact and planning the Truth or Dare game.”

Emma looks nervously at the folder. “Have you read them?” she asks.

She showered before Martin got here, so she’s looking more like her usual self. Her dark red hair is still damp, pulled back with a headband, and she’s wearing one of her favorite oxford shirts. She missed the top button, but still. Progress.

“Not yet,” Martin says. “They arrived in my office just before I left to come here. But I’d like to hear your version first, anyway.”

I’m sitting next to Emma, wondering if I’m going to get kicked out of the conversation at some point. I’ve already told Martin everything I know about Jared. Now Mom keeps looking at me uneasily, like she’s wishing I’d stayed at my aunt’s house with Owen. I kind of feel the same way. But if I have to be in this apartment, I’d rather know what’s going on than be stuck in my room alone. So I stay quiet, and stay put.

Emma bites her lip. “I mean. Mom told you, right? I did talk to him a lot. At first.”

Mom shifts in her seat, but before she can answer, Martin says, “Explain to me exactly how you met Jared, what the two of you talked about, and how things ended. Don’t sugarcoat or leave anything out. I can’t help you unless I know the full story.”

My sister takes a deep breath, and I do too. Here we go.

Emma’s voice takes on a mechanical quality, like she’s gearing up for a long speech. “It’s true, what Jared said about how we met online. I was going through a bad time. I’d just found out that Phoebe and my ex-boyfriend hooked up, and I was really upset.” I stare at the faux wood grain of our kitchen table, studiously avoiding Mom’s eyes, because that was a shitty conversation I never want to repeat.

“That was bad enough,” Emma continues. “But then I was looking through Mom’s files, trying to figure out how much money we have set aside for college, and I found the settlement paperwork from Dad’s accident. I was…so angry.” Her eyes are nothing but pupil. “When I read about what Brandon did, I hated him so much that I couldn’t think straight. I wanted—I don’t even know. I wanted to do something. I remembered Simon Kelleher’s old revenge forum, and I went looking for it. It had moved, but I found it eventually. I made up a name and signed on. I met Jared there, and we started talking. We sort of—bonded, I guess. He suggested we talk offline with ChatApp. We used real names then. Well, I used Phoebe’s name.”

She darts a guilty look at me, and I try to keep my expression neutral. It stings that Emma did that, but it’s like Jules said earlier: so not the main issue right now.

“I unloaded about everything to him,” Emma says. “He was a good listener.” She makes a face, as though it pains her to admit that. “Jared said Brandon sounded like the kind of person who’d never had to face a consequence in his life. And that he could help me figure out a way to get even, if I’d help him do the same.”

“But he didn’t tell you his story?” Martin asks. “You weren’t aware of his connection to Eli Kleinfelter?”

“No,” Emma says emphatically. “I didn’t know anything about that until Detective Mendoza told me. He said Jared figured out Mom was Eli’s wedding coordinator and decided to…use me.” She swallows hard. “All Jared told me was that someone had ruined his brother’s life, and his mom killed herself because of it. I felt horrible for him.” Emma flushes and looks down at the table. “Jared said we could start with me. He thought we should do something to…hurt Brandon. So he wouldn’t be able to play football anymore, and then he’d know what it’s like to lose something important.”

“Did you agree to that?” Martin asks evenly.

Emma licks her lips. “Yes,” she says quietly, briefly closing her eyes at the shocked noise my mother can’t hold back. “At the time it seemed…fair.”

My heart is in my throat, threatening to choke me, but Martin’s calm tone doesn’t change. “And who came up with the Truth or Dare game?”

“Jared,” Emma says. “He liked the idea of using Simon’s…legacy, he called it, to create a gossip-based game that Bayview High students wouldn’t be able to resist. The idea was to build the game slowly, until it got to the point that Brandon would take a Dare without question.”

Emma tenses, and I hear her foot start tapping rhythmically on the floor. “Jared said people are easy to figure out. If you’ve ever played Truth or Dare, you know most people will take the Dare. Because they want to seem…daring, I guess. Plus nobody wants to deal with the truth. But first, we had to make sure people paid attention. We needed to launch the game with a real piece of gossip that nobody knew, something juicy and true and ugly. After that, Jared said, we just had to target people who would play along, and the game would be off and running.”

“Okay,” Martin says. “So you needed somebody to not engage in order to kick things off, and you needed a big secret about them. Did you provide that to Jared?”

Emma stills her tapping foot, and the only sound in our kitchen is the faint ticking of the clock above my head. Then she takes a deep breath and says, “Yes.” Mom swallows another strangled sound as Emma continues, “I was pretending to be Phoebe so I said, ‘Well, I slept with my sister’s ex, is that an ugly enough secret for you?’ ” I flinch as though she slapped me as Emma continues. “And Jared was like, ‘You seriously want to use that?’ And I said…” Emma’s voice gets so low that I have to strain my ears to hear her. “I said, ‘Sure, why not? It’s not like I care about my sister. If I did, I wouldn’t’ve done it in the first place.’ ”

I’m going to cry. Or throw up. Probably both. I want Emma to stop talking, but unfortunately Martin doesn’t feel the same way. “Okay,” he says. “And did you provide other names to Jared? People you thought would play along and take Dares?”

Emma nods. “Yes. I tutor Sean and I used to drive Jules to school, so I was pretty sure they’d love the attention.”

“What about Maeve Rojas?” Martin asks.

“That was Jared’s idea,” Emma says. “He wanted Maeve involved, because she was part of everything that happened with Simon. That was a thing with Jared—he thought about Simon a lot. He wanted to be smarter than him, and fool somebody who Simon couldn’t.” Her cheeks redden as she looks down. “Maeve was supposed to take the Dare, like everybody else, but she didn’t play along. And I have no idea how Jared found out about her and Knox. I wouldn’t—I would never have told him that, even if I knew. I like them both.”

It hurts more than I would’ve thought at this point, when I should be getting numb, to hear Emma say that after admitting she’d tossed me under the Jared bus.

“And what happened when the game launched?” Martin asks.

“It was horrible.” Emma’s voice breaks on the word. “People were so awful. All I could think about was this quote—I can’t remember where I read it, but it goes something like Holding on to resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. That’s exactly how I felt. I didn’t want revenge anymore. I just wanted it to stop.” She shoots me an imploring look. “I’m sorry, Phoebe. For all of it.”

I curl my hands into fists on my lap so I won’t say the first thing that springs into my mind, which is: You can shove your apology right up your ass, Emma. Because I know what it’s like when your sister refuses to forgive your worst mistake. “I…it’s okay,” I grit out.

“In your statement to the police, you said you’d asked Jared to end the game and he agreed,” Martin says. “Is that accurate?”

Emma nods. “Yes. He was mad, and we argued. But eventually he said he’d drop it, because it wouldn’t work if I wasn’t all in. I deleted ChatApp from my phone, and I thought that would be that.”

Her voice breaks again. “But the game kept going. Then Brandon died and…” Tears start falling fast, streaming down her face and onto her dry, cracked lips. “I didn’t know what to say or do. I was so scared all the time. I started drinking to try to calm down, and then I couldn’t stop. I broke my phone and threw it away because I thought it might get me in trouble. And I’m sorry, I’m sorry for everything, I’m so sorry.” She crumples against Mom, who holds her gingerly, like she’s not sure how Emma is supposed to fit against her anymore.

I squeeze my eyes shut so I won’t cry, too. It’s all beyond horrible. All I can think is This never would have happened if Emma and I were still close. Emma and I would still be close if Dad hadn’t died. Dad wouldn’t have died if it weren’t for Brandon. It’s the worst kind of vicious circle, and I’m starting to see how it could take over your mind.

Martin lets Emma cry for a few minutes, sifting through his folder until her sobs turn to sniffles. When she finally detaches from Mom and wipes her eyes, he says, “I know that was difficult. Are you all right to continue?” She nods. “Can you tell me exactly when you stopped corresponding with Jared? The date and, ideally, the time?”

Emma takes a shaky breath. “I mean—it was pretty much right after the text about Phoebe went out. I spent the night at my friend Gillian’s house, but I couldn’t sleep. I started messaging Jared, and we argued until he agreed to stop the game. I logged off and went to bed, right before midnight, I think. That’s the last I ever spoke to him.”

Martin’s looking at the papers in front of him. “That would be February nineteenth, then. Is this the conversation you’re referring to?” He hands Emma a sheet of paper, and she nervously licks her lips as she takes it.

“Are these printouts?” she asks. “Of our ChatApp conversations?”

“Yes,” Martin says. “Pulled from the burner phone Jared used. Just skimming them, it looks like they’re consistent with what you told me, right up through February nineteenth. As you stated, you asked him to stop the game and, after some initial dissent, he agreed.” For the first time since I met him, the lines around Martin’s mouth get grim. My skin starts to prickle even before he says, “But after that, we have a problem.”

“What do you mean?” Emma licks her lips again as Martin holds up another sheet of paper.

“This is a transcript from the morning of February twentieth,” he says. “When the conversation between ‘Phoebe’ and Jared started right up again.”


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