“Keegan Belcastro! Get your ass back in this kitchen and eat some break—”
The front door slammed, cutting off her mother’s shout. Keegan paused on the edge of the porch steps, fixing the tangled strands of her ponytail that had gotten caught in the band of her ball cap. Her new running shoes seemed to balance on springs, ready to push her off in giant strides down the block.
A creak from the house next door had her turning even as her body rocked forward. She made eye contact and barely stopped from wincing at her mistake.
“Your mom still on you about regular meals, huh?” Shane Bitrec hitched his left ass cheek up on the porch rail and braced his foot along it, wrist dangling over his knee. “Should I tell her there’s no point? You don’t need to eat.”
Kee rolled her eyes. “Of course I eat.” She bent over in a quick, toe-touching stretch, then swung one leg back to ease the tightness out of her calf.
“I never see you.”
She switched legs and bit back a desire to argue. Of course he saw her eat. He was just baiting her, and if anyone knew how to do it successfully, it was him. So instead of taking that bait, she only said, “Stop watching me, Shane.” Then she launched herself onto the brick walk and took off before he could answer. Or before she could hear his answer, anyway, which amounted to the same thing. As the road curved, she cast a quick glance over her shoulder, pretending to check for cars before she crossed the street. Shane was still on his porch. Good. She put on a burst of speed and ducked down an alley between rows of garages.
They had lived next to each other their entire lives, she and Shane. He was born a couple of months after she was, and their moms were best friends. They’d given their kids the nicknames Gind and Bend, from GND (girl next door) and BND (boy next door). By the time they were nine they’d managed to put a stop to that ridiculousness. But they’d still spent as much time together as if they were brother and sister, which made them a combo in everyone’s mind and in half of reality. It had gotten to where she didn’t know who she was on her own, and that had been a frightening realization when she started the last year of high school. This fall, she’d be on her own, without any of her friends but especially without Shane.
So she’d spent the past nine months trying to be just that, Keegan -without-Shane, her own person, doing her own things. And it had been fine. Shane had his things, too, and the drifting apart had felt natural, which was a relief. Maybe he’d been thinking the same things. Except now, she thought as she ran down Philpot Street and cut across the grocery store parking lot, Shane had become suddenly way too interested in her business. This wasn’t the first morning he’d been out before she left on her run. Last week, he’d followed her—not as stealthy as he liked to believe—and forced her to follow a predictable route, abandoning her plans not just that day, but all the days since.
Not today. Today was too important. She’d thought she was leaving early enough to avoid him, but it was like he had a sixth sense about when she was doing something. She slowed to a fast walk, hands on her hips, acting like she was in her cool-down and using it to look all around, making sure there was no one nearby. There normally wasn’t. She was now on the outskirts of town, where the main residential sections spread out into bigger lots and less-structured neighborhoods. Her destination was down a short street, the only house on a private, wooded lane, abandoned decades ago. So long ago that the street sign hadn’t been replaced when it got knocked off the pole, long before Keegan had discovered the house.
Orchid Manor was originally the subject of a paper for her AP Human Geography class a couple of months ago, to study the evolution of a property and what it meant to its community over time. Their teacher was big on letting them pick their own subjects, and she’d wanted to do something that wasn’t obvious. Orchid House was perfect. A mansion built not by a rich guy for his wife, but by a single woman who’d aspired to be town mayor a hundred years ago. When she died without descendants, it had been run as a boardinghouse, then a school, then owned by a series of people who wanted to flip it but never managed to fulfill whatever visions they had for it. Now it just sat there, empty, rundown, and ignored.
Her teacher was also big on rejecting proposals, and he’d decided Orchid House didn’t have enough of an impact on the community to qualify. Keegan had done the paper on something else, but that first visit to the manor had changed her life. And today, hopefully, she was going to get to change someone else’s.
Well. Not their actual life. Their existence, maybe.
She stopped on the walkway in front of the house, looking up and remembering the first time she was here. It looked the same. Dingy purple, paint peeling in a few places, some of the wooden porch rail cracked. All the shutters were different colors, each representing a different kind of orchid. One of the souls inside the house had told her so, but she didn’t know if it was true. Her research hadn’t turned up details like that.
With one last glance around, she decided she was alone and jogged around the side of the big house. Vines and grass and weeds grew in an unruly mess at the base of evenly planted oak and maple trees that had grown massive over years of being untended. The foliage made swishing noises against her running tights but muffled her footfalls. She hoped her shoes didn’t get stained. Not that she cared, but her mother would notice, and explaining green marks when she was supposedly jogging on sidewalks would be tricky.
The property sloped toward the back of the house, and latticework covered the foundation, hiding the door she’d found the first time she came. There was no way she should have been able to find it. She hadn’t even been looking for a way in, just circling the house to study the architecture while she thought about points for her proposal. Something whispered in her head to pry at one spot. There were concealed hinges in the lattice, and when she worked the old wood out from the tangle of wild strawberry far enough to see behind it, there was a carved wooden door, grime making the orchid in the center of it hard to decipher. The knob turned easily for something that had obviously not been opened in a long time, and she hadn’t been able to stop herself from going in.
That knob was stiffer now, metal grinding and swollen wood protesting as she slammed her shoulder against it to get it open. But the front door was deadbolted and the back entrance inaccessible, so this was her only way in. She stepped into the dim chamber and shoved the door back in place before pausing to get her phone out of her thigh pocket. The flashlight illuminated the empty, tiled space that could barely be called a room, and she picked her way across the chipped floor to the open arch on the other side. From there, it was an easy run up two flights of stairs to a plain hallway that formed a T with a wider, grander central hall. She didn’t pause but went straight through and turned right, into The Room.
They were all there, waiting for her, smiling.
“Good morning!” she called, scanning them to see who would respond. Usually only one or two did, and the others acted like she wasn’t there, drifting around in faint, faded outlines of their original selves. Today half of them had normal color—so much she could barely see through them. But one was downright glowing.
Adame. She was so bright for someone so small. Keegan looked around herself, making sure no one had drifted close enough to be stepped through, and moved to Adame’s side.
“I have something for you,” she told the young girl.
“You found it?” Her voice shook, vibrated across Keegan’s skin, before her brain translated the waves into words.
“I did!” She slipped the small item from her other thigh pocket, wrapped in a lace-edged handkerchief that had been her great-grandmother’s. It seemed way more suitable for the occasion than a bandanna or rag.
But Adame’s eyes were locked on Keegan’s, deep brown pools full of a sorrow she hadn’t expected.
“Oh.” It came out a whisper, and she understood. “No, Ad, I didn’t see him. I went when no one else was there.”
The girl sank low, arms wrapping around herself. She couldn’t cry, but Keegan sensed her sobs. She held out her arms, wanting to comfort Adame, but she didn’t come closer. She seemed beyond comfort, beyond hope—beyond saving?
For a second, Keegan almost bolted. This was too much. What if she couldn’t help like she wanted to…ever? She had to leave. The responsibility was too much for a seventeen-year-old kid who hadn’t even gotten her driver’s license yet.
But she didn’t go. Even as her mind and the blood rushing through her body urged her out, something stronger kept her in place. The item in her hand seemed to chill her skin through the cloth. She slowly unwrapped it, held it out.
“I got what you were looking for, Adame,” she said softly. “Here.” She held her breath as the girl drifted to her feet and slowly over the rug to Keegan’s side. She reached her hand out. Almost there.
“What the fuck are you doing?” someone yelled from the doorway.
Keegan jumped and turned, the item in her hand falling to the floor. Adame blinked out, followed by all the other people in the room.
Shane stood, one hand gripping the door jamb, the other in a half-raised fist.
And he stared at Keegan as if he’d just seen her murder someone.