One of Us Is Next: Part 2 – Chapter 34


Wednesday, April 1

My stomach drops as Mom says, “Emma,” in a low, warning tone. Emma turns to her, wide-eyed, and Mom adds, “You need to tell Martin everything.”

“But I did,” Emma insists, looking shocked. “That’s not possible. Let me see.”

Martin hands her the paper, and I edge closer so I can read it, too.

Phoebe: Sorry about what I said earlier. I didn’t mean it.

Jared: Didn’t mean what? That I’m “too extreme” and you’re out?

Phoebe: Yeah. I freaked for a sec but I’m on board now.

Phoebe: Let’s do this.

“No, no, no!” Emma drops the paper like it’s on fire, staring at it with what seems like genuine confusion. “That’s not me. I never communicated with Jared again after the night at Gillian’s.” She looks beseechingly between Mom and Martin, like she can get them to believe her through sheer force of will. “I swear to God. I swear on Dad’s grave. Can’t you…I don’t know, check the IP address or something?”

Martin looks grim again. “I’ll see how trackable the technology is, but messaging apps are tricky. Now, if we had your phone, we could possibly work with that. Is your device entirely unsalvageable?”

Emma flushes and drops her eyes. “Yeah. I smashed it with a hammer and threw it into a dumpster. I don’t even know where it is anymore.”

“I see.” Martin’s tone is calm, but he can’t be happy about that.

Mom leans forward, her voice tense. “Isn’t it possible this young man wrote all those chat messages to himself once Emma stopped talking to him?” she asks. “He’s obviously disturbed.”

“It’s possible,” Martin says. “Jared was certainly under an enormous amount of mental strain from his brother’s arrest, his father’s illness, and his mother’s suicide. That may be a theory worth advancing, particularly if the later correspondence shows a marked difference in speech patterns.”

Emma stretches out her hand like a drowning person who just spotted a life preserver. “Can I see more of them?”

“Of course.” Martin hands her a sheaf of papers and a pencil. “Here’s the rest of the February twentieth conversation. If you see anything that strikes you as dissonant, make a note.”

Emma starts reading, and I do the same. After “Phoebe” returns and promises to keep the game going, Jared spends a good half page patting himself on the back for his brilliance. “Phoebe” agrees—and as I read those responses, a tiny spark of hope takes hold of me. This truly doesn’t seem like Emma’s messaging style. “Phoebe” is using way too many lols and question marks, for one thing. And the flattery toward Jared seems excessive. Could Mom’s Hail Mary theory actually be right?

Then I read to the bottom of the page.

Jared: This game is genius. You can make people do whatever you want.

Jared: Doesn’t matter how strange it is, people will do it.

Phoebe: The more bazaar the better right? lol

I swallow my gasp just in time. My heart starts pounding, so hard that it’s physically painful, as I read the last sentence again. Not bizarre. Bazaar. I glance at Emma, whose face has gone red and splotchy. When her eyes meet mine, I know she’s seen it too.

I’m frozen in my chair. I have absolutely no idea what to say or do. I just keep thinking about all the little things that meant nothing until now:

My sneaky brother always listening at our doors.

My tech-savvy brother networking all our devices.

My lonely brother hanging out at Café Contigo, where Maeve told Bronwyn what happened between her and Knox.

My scared brother watching Brandon insult me.

My sad brother saying Our family is ruined after Emma and I fought about Brandon.

And, oh yeah. My spelling bee champion brother making a rare yet memorable error. The reunion between “Phoebe” and Jared happened before I’d had the chance to correct him.

I’m starting to feel light-headed and take a deep, steadying breath as I mentally slot my brother into the events of the past few weeks. He fits. Owen could have been monitoring Emma’s conversations with Jared all along—everything from our father’s accident, to plans for the Truth or Dare game, to Emma’s decision to pull out. And when she did, he could’ve easily stepped in. He probably would have been a lot more careful about covering his tracks than Emma was, too. The whole thing must have seemed like a video game to him: the ultimate Bounty Wars challenge, planning one move after the other.

Right up until Brandon died.

Emma lays the sheet of paper on the table so carefully that you’d have to be watching closely to see her hand tremble. “Can I see the last page, please?” she asks. “The very end of the transcripts?”

Martin thumbs through the sheaf he’s holding and hands it to her. “Correspondence stops the day Brandon Weber died,” he says.

I force myself not to look at Emma as we both start to read:

Phoebe: That wasn’t supposed to happen.

Jared: Sure it was. It’s what you wanted.

Phoebe: I…don’t think I did.

Jared: He deserved it. It’s done. You’re welcome.

Jared: But we’re only half finished. Now it’s my turn.

Jared: Hello?????

Jared: Say something.

Jared: Don’t you dare fucking ghost me.

Then it ends. I don’t move except to shift my gaze toward Emma, waiting for her reaction. She meets my eyes again, and for the first time in years, we have a conversation with no words. Just like we used to when we were kids, reading the thoughts written across one another’s faces. Invisible to anyone else, but perfectly clear to us.

Emma glances down, notices the undone button on her oxford shirt, and neatly fastens it. Then she looks up, pale now but composed, and pushes the transcript toward Martin. “I think my mother is right,” she says. “Jared is delusional. This is nothing more than him talking to himself once I stopped speaking to him. And nobody can prove differently, can they?”


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