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Nothing exciting ever happens in Ridgeview, Missouri. Nothing.
Well…nothing has for a very long time, anyway.
Years ago, waste from the Manford Chemical Company leeched into the ground and into Rocky Ridge Lake at the edge of town. The plant shut down and to avoid spending years in court, Manford bought up all the houses in the nearby neighborhood. People who lived in the Rocky Ridge subdivision either moved to other parts of Ridgeview or left town.
The “Rocky Ridge Incident” is, without a doubt, the biggest thing to ever happen in Ridgeview—it even made the national news. But Ridgeview eventually settled back into being the kind of place where a high school football game on Friday night counts as the height of excitement and a water main break flooding the cafeteria at the middle school is the talk of the town for days.
Then Janey Douchette, Dani Maguire, and I all disappeared on the same day in the middle of our senior year.
And things got a whole lot more interesting in Ridgeview, Missouri.
Wednesday, January 26
I’ve known Ellie Stengel for twelve years, which is a good thing because she’s so bundled up against the cold I can only tell who she is by her wide hazel eyes and the few wisps of purple hair peeking out from underneath her knit hat. After I gather the last of my first and second period books from the bottom of my locker, I turn to her and pull her rainbow scarf down to her neck so it’s no longer covering her mouth.
“And how are you this morning?” I ask, my cheery tone a definite contrast to her grumpy face.
“I despise winter. Remind me again why we didn’t apply to colleges in Florida?”
“Because Florida’s gross and humid and we don’t have the money to go to school out of state?”
Ellie points at me with a gloved index finger. “Oh, yeah. That’s it.”
I clasp my books to my chest as we shift our conversation over to Ellie’s locker. The planets aligned this year and the administration finally assigned us to the same homeroom, so our lockers are close together.
“Have you heard from Janey this morning?” I ask as Ellie peels off layers and hangs them up. Eventually, she’s down to a black wool sweater and blue jeans. I happened to wear my gray wool sweater today with jeans, so my outfit resembles a faded copy of hers.
“Nope.” Ellie bends down and retrieves some books and folders from the bottom of her locker, placing them in the crook of her arm. “What’s up?”
I shake my head and some of my always-uncontrollable brown hair gets stuck in my lip gloss. “Nothing,” I say, brushing the errant strands away. “It’s just weird is all. I texted her last night before I went to bed and I never heard back from her. She almost always texts back right away. And I didn’t hear from her this morning, either. I thought I’d ask if she wanted a ride since the weather sucks but she didn’t answer.”
Ellie stands up, places her guitar case gently inside her locker—she plays three musical instruments and has been in both marching band and jazz band for the past four years—and slams the door. “Well, you know you’re never going to hear from her in the morning,” she points out as we make our way down the hall to our homeroom. To say our friend Janey Douchette isn’t a morning person would be the understatement of a lifetime. Most mornings, Janey rushes into homeroom and takes her seat with only seconds to spare.
“Yeah. But, I mean, she always gets back to me if I text her at night. Always. Same with you, right?”
“Yup,” Ellie says, her stub nose turning up a bit with concern before she tries to set my mind at ease. “She probably just fell asleep or got caught up doing homework or something. You’re too paranoid.”
“Probably,” I say as we enter our homeroom. Mrs. Markham, who has been teaching business classes here since the dawn of time, peers over her bifocals and nods at us from the desk in the front of the room.
“Rachel. Ellie. How are you both this morning?”
“Good, thanks,” I say.
“Good. Cold,” Ellie grumbles, which elicits a tinkly giggle from Mrs. Markham.
“Well, it is January, as you may recall.”
“Yeah. But why does January have to be so…January?” Ellie says, and Mrs. Markham laughs even harder as we take our usual seats in the back of the room. I’m about to ask Ellie if she finished reading our history assignment last night, but before I can, the Perfects enter the room.
Lexi Grayson. Alissa Lofton. Dani Maguire. They’re the Perfects—Ridgeview High School’s ruling triumvirate. As always, they’re joined by Luke Nostrand, Dani’s boyfriend and quarterback of the football team, who follows behind them as if he’s their private security. Lexi and Alissa also have boyfriends, of course, but their boyfriends—football players like Luke—are in different homerooms and so we’re not currently blessed with their presence.
On this morning, as on every other morning, conversations become a little quieter when the Perfects walk in. The room and everyone in it appear to fade to black-and-white as if to magnify the vibrant colors of their clothes, the highlights in their hair, the lipstick on their lips. The Perfects give off the impression that they’re a little taller than everyone else, but I know for a fact Dani Maguire and I are the same height. Maybe the illusion is thanks to the shoes. While everyone else wears big-box store hiking boot knockoffs or discount store plastic boots lined with synthetic fur, the Perfects sport matching faux leather, high-heeled lace-up boots with real-looking fur peeking out the top.
Every day, I half expect the three of them to strut across the front of the room in slow motion, a breeze coming from…somewhere…to blow their locks out behind them into a perfect hair-halo like something out of a bad movie. But since this is real life, they instead glide toward their seats quickly with some sort of unstated purpose as if they own the room.
Which—figuratively, anyway—they do. The Perfects basically run Ridgeview High, wielding only slightly less power than the faculty and administration. Lexi, Alissa, and Dani hold three seats on the Ridgeview High Student Council, with Lexi being president. They’re always princesses on the royal courts, and each of them has been queen of something at least once. Alissa is captain of the dance team, Dani is captain of the cheerleading squad and president of the senior class, and Lexi is president of the school’s spirit organization. Anyone who wants anything done around here knows they’ll need to go through the Perfects, one way or another.
After surveying the room as if to ensure everything and everyone are up to their high standards, the Perfects and Luke sit in their usual seats, Lexi and Alissa in the front row near the windows and Dani and Luke right behind. I wait for Janey to rush into the classroom as she normally does after the Perfects make their grand entrance.
But Janey doesn’t show up. Ellie notices the concern on my face and whispers, “I’ll text her,” as the bell goes off. We’re treated to several minutes of announcements over the school’s public address system, and then we’re left with five minutes to move around and talk before the first period bell. Ellie checks her phone and announces, “Nothing from Janey yet, but it hasn’t been very long” as Dani slinks to the back of the room and takes the empty seat next to me.
“Hey, guys,” she says, smiling as she tosses a few of her honey blonde curls.
Ellie leans forward in her desk so she can see around me. “What?” she huffs.
Dani ignores her and keeps her pale blue eyes trained on me. “That calculus homework last night was a bitch, huh?”
“Here it comes,” Ellie mutters loudly enough only I can hear her. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Lexi and Alissa sitting sideways in their desks, mouths covered as they whisper and giggle to each other while keeping a close eye on Dani.
“Yeah. It was kind of tough, I guess,” I say with a shrug.
It wasn’t tough—not for me, anyway. I like math and always have. And Dani knows it.
“Yeah…” Dani fidgets in her seat and examines the blush-colored nail polish that perfectly suits her tanning bed-kissed skin tone. “Can you help me with the last few problems? The ones after number five really got me.”
“Sure. We’ll talk in study hall, okay?”
Dani clasps her hands together and stands up, smoothing down her blue plaid skirt. “You. Are. A. Lifesaver. I’ll hit you up then.” She glides back to her seat as the bell rings, and Ellie groans.
“What?” I ask, gathering up my books and folders.
“You know what. We’ve been through this, Rachel. Dani’s not coming back. We’re seniors now. If she didn’t grow out of this whole ‘Perfects’ stage years ago, she’s not going to no matter how much you let her use you.”
Ellie and I walk down the aisle toward the front of the room. “She’s not using me. She’s asking me for help,” I say.
“She doesn’t need help. She’s as smart as you are.” Ellie steps aside to allow me to pass into the bustling hallway ahead of her. “Or, at least, she used to be smart before she started hanging out with the dipshit twins. Maybe her IQ’s dropped by association.”
“You’re being too hard on her,” I say, but I don’t sound too convincing, even to myself.
“I tend to be hard on people who turn their backs on me. She ignores Janey and me just because Lexi and Alissa do. The only reason she doesn’t ignore you is because she needs your calc homework. You shouldn’t put up with it.”
I’m grateful Ellie mentions Janey because it gives me the opportunity to change the subject. “Hey, has Janey texted you back?” I ask.
Ellie reaches into her messenger bag for her phone. “Not yet.” Her forehead wrinkles. “She must be sick or something.”
“Or maybe she’s late and she’s checking in at the office,” I offer, taking up Ellie’s positive stance of a little while ago. “I’ll text her again before second period. If we don’t hear from her, we can try to call her at lunch.”
“Sounds like a plan.” We’re outside Ellie’s Spanish classroom, so she waves and says “Later,” before leaving me alone for the trek to my English classroom at the end of the hall. But as I attempt to ease back into the flow of student traffic—the student population at Ridgeview long ago outgrew the main building—I plow into Luke Nostrand, the force of our collision sending my books, notebooks, and folders to the ground.
“Oh, wow. I am sooo sorry,” I say to the floor tiles and not to Luke as I drop to my knees and shove some papers back into one of my folders. At the edge of my vision, Luke’s hands scoop up my books. He’s obviously kneeling next to me but I’m too embarrassed to look.
“You’re fine,” he says, his voice deep and soothing. “Don’t worry about it. The hall’s sort of a zoo during class change.”
I turn my face toward his and smile. Like most people my age in Ridgeview, I’ve known Luke since grade school, and he’s always been a nice guy. And it’s his nice guy demeanor that makes his status as Dani Maguire’s boyfriend perplexing to me. If I’d plowed into Dani, she would have helped me pick up my stuff because of our history, but she probably would have sighed and rolled her eyes the whole time while doing it. And if I were Ellie or Janey or anyone else, she would have laughed, said “Watch it, loser” or something similar, and continued on her merry way down the hall.
But Luke’s still the same easy-going Luke he’s been forever, despite dating Dani and her superior attitude for nearly two years. I suspect Dani’s with him mostly because of his status as one of the most popular guys in school. Dani’s been all about status and not much else the last few years.
I get to my feet and Luke hands me the textbooks and folders he’s retrieved from the floor. We’re in the same English class, so we walk down the hall together toward our classroom, something we never do because I’m usually with Janey and he’s with his friends.
“I’m surprised you’re not with Janey,” Luke points out as if he can read my thoughts. “You guys are always together.”
I’m surprised he would have noticed Janey and me at all, but I don’t let on. “She must be sick or something. I haven’t talked to her since after school yesterday.”
“Well, I hope she’s okay,” Luke says, slowing a bit so I can walk ahead of him into the classroom.
“Ellie and I are going to try to call her at lunch. I’ll tell her you said so.”
And if Janey isn’t already sick, she’ll fall over dead at the news Luke Nostrand, of all people, hopes she’s okay.
Luke pushes some of his dark blond hair out of his blue eyes and nods at me before walking to his usual seat across the room. Maybe Luke stays with Dani because he’s hoping one day they’ll make impossibly beautiful children—blond, blue-eyed, athletically-trim children with round faces and dazzling smiles. Somehow, some way, the genetic sweepstakes winners of the world always manage to find each other.
I push any thoughts of Dani and Luke—and Janey, for that matter—out of my head so I can focus on my morning classes, although I keep checking my phone as I walk from classroom to classroom between periods to see if Janey has gotten back to me.
She hasn’t. The text I send her after second period goes unanswered, just like all the ones I’ve sent since last night. And when I meet up with Ellie at our lockers before lunch, she shakes her head to indicate she hasn’t heard from Janey, either.
“This is weird. She must be really sick,” I say.
Ellie finishes gathering up her books for her afternoon classes and slams her locker. “Let’s go to the lobby. It’ll be quieter.”
We rush down the hall toward the school’s main entrance, which is near the cafeteria but far enough away we won’t be forced to yell at Janey over the noise. Ellie leans up against the trophy case just inside the front doors and hits a button on her phone to dial Janey’s number, but after a few seconds, she mouths “voice mail.”
“Hey, girlfriend,” Ellie says. “It’s Ellie. Rachel and I are worried. It’s not like you to miss an exciting day at Ridgeview High School.”
I snort at Ellie’s sarcasm.
“So, hit one of us up, okay? And tell us if you want us to get your homework or anything. We can stop by after school to check on you if you want.”
Ellie raises her eyebrows at me as she makes her last statement since I’m her ride home today—she usually catches a ride with me in the afternoon if she doesn’t have to stay after school for anything. I nod to indicate going by Janey’s house is fine by me.
“So, we’ll talk to you later, okay? ‘Bye.”
“I’m trying not to be freaked out about this, but I’m getting kind of freaked out about this. Is that weird?” I say as Ellie drops her phone back in her bag.
“No,” she says, and my worried reflection stares back at me from the glass shielding the trophy case, “because I’m kind of freaked out, too.”
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