Read The After Girls Online

Authors: Leah Konen

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Social Issues, #Suicide, #General, #Mysteries & Detective Stories, #Physical & Emotional Abuse, #Friendship, #Depression & Mental Illness

The After Girls

BOOK: The After Girls
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THE
AFTER
GIRLS

LEAH KONEN

For Kim
and Chrissy

CHAPTER ONE

The rain came down in sheets. That was the thing about North Carolina. It’d be cool and clear one minute, the moon full and bright and just begging you to enjoy the night, and then it would just pour, pour its heart out, and you were fresh out of luck if you happened to be caught in it.

Which they were.

“Come on,” Ella said, dragging Sydney by the arm. Even the canopy of trees couldn’t protect them. Their clothes were getting soaked, the rain dripping from Ella’s hair down her back. It had come on fast, just a few minutes ago, once they were already too far into the woods to turn back.

“Let’s leave,” Sydney said. “This is ridiculous. We can come back tomorrow.”

The wind whipped at them, slapping Ella’s hair against her face, but she just gripped Sydney’s arm tighter.

Her flashlight found a clearing.

She let go of Sydney and pushed the brush away, stepping forward, and she had no cover. The rain pelted at her, and she turned to see if Sydney had followed.

She had.

And there it was.

The cabin was small, hardly more than a few feet wide. It was nestled snugly in the woods; she and Astrid had found it when they were twelve. It had been theirs ever since.

Now she stared at it, surrounded by streams of rain, soggy red clay. Around it, yellow caution tape warded them off, warning them to stay away.

Ella hadn’t been here since Astrid died.

“What are you waiting for?” Sydney yelled above the rain, grabbing her. The two of them ducked under the tape and ran onto the porch. It creaked beneath them, but they had a shelter now, at least.

Sydney shook off. The rain had turned her hair into short little spikes, dyed bright, fire-truck red. “Why did we have to come at night?” she asked.

Ella pointed her flashlight at the tape. “I didn’t think we should be prowling around a
crime scene
in broad daylight.”

Even in the dim moonlight, Ella could feel her friend rolling her eyes. “It’s not a crime scene,” Sydney said. Her voice got quieter for a moment. “There was nothing in her system but the pills.”

“Then why is the tape still here?” Ella asked. “Maybe they’re still looking into it.”

“It’s the Falling Rock police,” Sydney said. “Last time I checked the FRPD wasn’t exactly the beacon of thoroughness. Plus, it’s only been three days.”

Ella felt heavy all of a sudden. She knew what Syd said was true. She’d known it every moment since Astrid died: During the night, when she dreamed about Astrid, seeing her just one more time. In the little things, when she brushed her teeth in the morning. In the quiet spaces of this town, when she stood on her porch and watched the sun go to sleep behind the mountains. She just didn’t want to know it. She didn’t want it to be true.

Sydney put her hands on Ella’s shoulders. “She left us, El. She wanted to.”

Ella nodded, and she felt herself shiver under Sydney’s touch.

“I know,” she said. “But I need to know why.”

• • •

Inside, the cabin was just as it had been before Astrid died. Abandoned and forgotten, it was nothing more than a room; it was probably built when an outhouse and a well were the way people went about things. It definitely wasn’t nice enough to preserve, but it wasn’t worth the effort to tear down. There were a lot of places like it here. Maybe one day, some historical society would come and declare it a Civil War relic — some placard-worthy testament to the rural poverty in the post-Antebellum south. But for the past five years, it had been reserved for the three of them — Ella, Sydney, and Astrid.

Ella heard a crack outside, like a branch breaking, and then the creak of the swaying door. She turned her head, shone her flashlight out into the night. Raindrops trickled in through the door, dancing through the beam of light. There was no one there.

“It’s just the wind,” Sydney said, turning around and shutting the door tight. There was a clap of thunder, and the cabin quaked.

“Wind,” Ella repeated. This place was giving her the creeps. Maybe Sydney was right. Maybe they shouldn’t have come here at night.

Ella shone her light around the room. This had been their stomping ground. It was where she’d first tasted wine, many hiccups and giggles and a headache to follow, and where Sydney had shown them how to practice French kisses on their hands.

The walls were virtually covered with photos of the three of them — ones that they had put up together. School dances, football games, days spent splashing through the rock quarry. Incriminatingly dorky ones from middle school, their backpacks riding too high up on their shoulders, Ella’s jeans flared and stitched with hot pink. The photos were imposing, reminding her of what seemed like another world altogether. Even now, the knowledge of what had passed jolted her, shocked her. It was ruined now. Ella didn’t want it to be, but it was.

Thunder growled around them.

“We don’t have to stay if you don’t want,” Sydney said.

“No,” Ella said. “We’re here now. Let’s get the candles.”

She walked over to an old armoire from who knows when, its wood decayed, molding from moisture and bugs, covered with dust and cobwebs — it was the only piece of furniture in the place. Ella opened the doors and pulled out a tray of candles and a box of long matches.

She lit them, setting the tray down next to her.

“Let’s start here,” she said. And she did. Ella pulled out a stack of books. She grabbed the first one — it was one about séances that they’d found in Sydney’s aunt’s attic. Sydney had dared them to have one, but they’d burst into laughter every single time they’d tried — they’d never gotten that far. Ella flipped her thumb over the pages, then turned it upside-down and shook. Nothing.

“Come on,” Ella said. “Help.” She shoved a book into Sydney’s hands.

Sydney took it, following her lead, while she moved on to the next one. Ella shook it hard, but nothing came out. They worked like that, slowly, meticulously, while the storm ravaged the woods outside and the night got darker and deeper. Wetter. They pulled out every book, every magazine. They shuffled through the blankets they’d tucked around the place to keep them warm while they sat together and downed bottles of wine.

Ella was in the corner, flipping through an old yearbook. It was Sydney’s from freshman year. They kept it around to make fun of people’s awkward pictures, to look at how young they’d looked just a few years ago. She heard Sydney sigh.

“I know you want to do this,” she said. “But what exactly do you think we’re going to find?”

Ella kept her eyes glued to the book in her hand.

“Ella?”

“I don’t know,” she snapped. “There has to be something.”

“The police searched the place. There wasn’t a note.”

“I
know
,” Ella said. “But like you said, it’s the town police. Maybe they missed something.”

“I don’t think she left anything,” Sydney said. Another clap of thunder sent chills down Ella’s spine, and her friend’s words left a weight in her stomach.

“She had to, Syd. This was Astrid. She was always scribbling in that journal. She loved to write. The Astrid I know would have left a note.”

Sydney’s voice was loud, louder than the rain and the wind and creaking of the cabin all put together: “The Astrid you know wouldn’t have
killed
herself.”

The yearbook dropped to the ground with a thud. Ella looked down, realizing she’d let it go.

“I’m sorry,” Sydney said.

Ella looked back up at her friend. The candlelight cast shadows on Sydney’s face that made her look eerie. Gaunt.

“Why do you think she decided to do it here?” Ella asked.

Sydney shrugged, and she looked sad. Defeated. “I don’t know,” she said. “But I don’t think anything in here is going to answer that.”

Ella nodded, and she didn’t object as Sydney’s hand touched her shoulder, turning her towards the door. Away. “Let’s go,” Sydney said. “We’ve had enough for one night.”

But Ella couldn’t help it. She looked back, and her heart beat fast as she glanced at the spot on the ground. Astrid’s spot.

And for a second, a chilling, nauseating second, it was like she could see Astrid. Lying there. Just like she had been.

Dead.

It was morning when she found her; Ella had led Astrid’s mother to the cabin. Sydney wasn’t there. Sydney wouldn’t know ’til later. Ella didn’t know why, but she’d gone in first.

The sight of her friend had frozen her in place. She was stretched out on a blanket, her gorgeous red hair splayed out around her, her blue dress — the same one she’d worn to graduation — crumpled and wrinkled. The key, the one that was always tied around her neck, the one that she never
ever
took off, lay flat on her chest. The cabin smelled like dew and morning. Not death.

It had been like a bad dream. A movie you watched too late at night that stuck with you as your eyes got heavy.

Ella had run, squatting down, her knee knocking over a bottle. A clear orange bottle that didn’t rattle because it was empty. Astrid’s eyes were staring straight into nothing, wide, like they’d just seen something awful. Something that they wouldn’t forget. Her mouth was loose, agape. Her skin was white, way too white. Gray, almost.

Ella didn’t scream ’til she touched her, and her cheek was cold. Cold and stiff. And that’s when Grace came in. And that’s when she heard Grace scream, too.

And that’s when they’d both known that Astrid was gone.

“El,” she felt a hand on her shoulder. “El,” Sydney said again. “What is it?”

Ella shut her eyes tight, praying that all the horrible thoughts would go away. “Nothing,” she said. She opened her eyes and the thoughts were still there, but they were lighter, like they’d been covered with vellum. “Nothing. Let’s get out of here.”

“Good idea,” Sydney said, and she opened the door, quickly walking through. The rain had calmed now. They’d still get wet, but they wouldn’t get soaked.

Ella took a deep breath, grabbed her purse from the corner, and followed Sydney out the door.

And she shut it tight behind her without looking back.

• • •

The wake was the next day.

Ella’s room looked like a war zone. Objects in each corner seemed to creep towards her, ready to attack, to finally take over when they’d built up enough troops. She’d been up half the night looking through everything. Every note. Every photo. Everything at all connected to Astrid.

She wanted an answer, even though she knew it wouldn’t bring Astrid back — or make all the bad thoughts go away. She still wanted to know why. She wanted to know how she could have missed something so huge. How could she have spent week after week with her friend, her best friend, and not known that she wanted to leave? The guilt ripped at her, enveloped her, drowned her. If only she could find what it was that she’d missed. If only she could see how she’d failed her friend.

There was a knock at the door, and her mom poked her head in. Her cheek was smeared with the drippings of wet clay. Her mom was the official town potter. Ella didn’t know her dad — didn’t even know who he was. Her mom had been a bit of a …
free spirit …
in her twenties, and whoever it was had been far out of the picture by the time Ella had come along.

“You awake?” her mom asked softly. She wasn’t so much of a free spirit now. She did her pottery and wore dangly earrings, but she was your typical mom, attending PTA meetings and requesting extra stop signs for their street, always asking how your day was and to call “when you get there.”

Ella pushed the covers back and sat up, nodding. Her mom gave a quick glance around the room. Under any other circumstances, she would have opened the door without knocking, given the room a once-over, and declared the place fit for pigs. Ella would then point out that it was no worse than the pottery studio upstairs, her mom would counter that it was her one place to be free and messy — plus, Ella used it, too — Ella would note that this was hers, and so on and so forth until Ella dragged herself off the bed and began to hang the clothes to quiet her mother.

BOOK: The After Girls
9.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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