© Linda Joy Singleton 2011 DEAD GIRL WALKING By Linda Joy Singleton Chapter One “I am so dead!” I groaned when the road ended at a decaying graveyard. Slapping the steering wheel of my mother’s third-hand Toyota stung my palm and solved nothing. This could not be right road. Where were the perfectly mowed, ginormous lawns and elegant homes of Gossamer Estates? Obviously I’d made a wrong turn—which considering the importance of today—could be the most disastrous wrong turn of my life. “Amber, um, are we lost?” asked a timid voice. Trinidad Sylvenski had been so quiet I’d almost forgotten she was in my passenger seat. Her slim shoulders hunched over as she peered out the window then swiveled back to me. She was a new student at Halsey High so I didn’t know her well, but if my career plans worked out we’d soon be better than best friends. “Lost? Absolutely not.” An aspiring entertainment agent could never admit fear in front of a potential client. I flashed a grin that the book, The Cool of Confidence, promised worked in any stressful situation. “Are you sure?” Trinidad bit her peach-shimmered lip. “You hit the steering wheel kind of hard and you seem really tense.” “Me? Not even.” Another book, Positive Persuasion, advised to always put forth a positive attitude. “I know exactly what I’m doing. Could you hand me the map?” “Sure. Here.” Trinidad’s whispery speaking voice was a huge contrast to her powerful singing voice. I’d only heard her sing once, but that’s all it took to be blown away. Finding raw talent in my own school was an amazing stroke of luck. I’d expected to wait years, well at least for college or an internship, to make my mark in the entertainment agency biz. According to my books, an agent’s age wasn’t a factor; preparation and persistence mattered most, along with the ability to jump at an opportunity. Checking the lavender-scented map printed in purple calligraphy, I could find where we wanted to go (Jessica Bradley’s house) but not where we were (creepy graveyard). Like a wicked algebra problem, I knew the mysterious X answer but not the formula to get there. I kept smiling, like I had everything under control.. “Shouldn’t we turn around and look for Jessica’s street?” Trinidad asked. “Excellent idea. But we probably should call to let her know we’ll be late.” And to get directions out of this God-forsaken dead-end. Trying to remember all those confusing turns made my head ache. “Use my cell.” Trinidad fished inside her dainty silver clutch bag and withdrew a rhinestone decorated phone. I tried not to drool as she flipped it open. “Oops.” She frowned. “What’s wrong?” “No power. Guess I forgot to recharge my battery—again. You got a phone?” Don’t I wish! But there was no extra money for frivolities (that’s what Mom called anything I wanted ever since she had the triplets). So I had no phone, no car, no college fund—stuff other kids were handed like candy on Halloween. I started to confess my non-phone status when I remembered Mom always left her phone charging in the Toyota. It was a business phone, only to be used for emergencies. Well, this ranked as an “emergency” to me. Only when I checked the cell, take a guess…. Full battery. But no signal. “Is your phone dead?” Trinidad’s voice quavered. “No, I just can’t get reception inside the car. Not a problem. The signal is sure to be stronger outside. Once I get signal, I’ll call Jessica and we’ll be on our way.” Trinidad stopped biting her lip and smiled in a stunning display of white teeth and dimples. With my guidance, that mega-smile would shine from CD covers someday. Assuming we ever made it out of here. Stepping out of the car, I searched for signs of life or even a street sign. But all I saw was a creepy landscape of headstones guarded by a rusty iron fence that stretched for miles. There wasn’t a breeze, as if the wind couldn’t find its way into this desolate place. I hated roads that ended when they weren’t supposed to, but mostly I hated my sense of direction. It was like a metaphor for my life; even when I thought I knew where I was going, something usually happened to spin me the wrong way. Today was supposed to have been my Big Chance. Invited to a party by the Jessica Bradley. Not the most popular girl at school (that would be Leah Montgomery), but Leah’s best friend—which would give me a toe upward on my career staircase. This was not about becoming popular. I mean, I’m not that shallow. It’s just that my Networking Works! book said making it in Hollywood was all about connections. No fakeness allowed; just enhance your opportunities by getting to know influential people. Jessica and Leah reigned as school glitterati. But even more important, Leah’s father, as part-owner in Stardust Studios, had music industry connections. This is how I wrangled an invite to Miz J’s big party: I was wandering around the halls, my arms wrapped around a huge HHC (Halsey Hospitality Club) gift basket to welcome the school’s newest student: Trinidad Sylvenski When I’d started the club my freshman year, we had three members. I was a senior now, and we still had three members. Everyone loved the baskets, but passed on joining the club. So our trio of membership included my best friends, Dustin Cole (a computer genius) and Alyce Perfetti (Diva of Basket Design), plus me. It was in my role of Official New Student Greeter to give Trinidad her “Hello Halsey!” basket. Lunch period was almost over when I finally found her leaving the cafeteria with Jessica. As I joined them, I overheard Trinidad say she couldn’t go to Jessica’s party on Saturday because her car was in the shop. Be bold and take command of fortuitous opportunities; advice from one of my books. I wouldn’t have had the nerve to say even one word if Leah was around. Blond, beautiful and rich in all definitions of the word, Leah Montgomery was a goddess among mere high school students. Whenever I got near her, all my confidence drained to painful envy. Fortunately, according to rumors, Leah had cut school with her boyfriend. Jessica recognized me—or perhaps my basket—right away. She told me she admired the work I did with the “basket club” and that it was “just so sweet” of me to welcome Trinidad. Then both she and Trinidad oohed over all the goodies inside the glossy wrapped basket: snacks, fruits, coupons for local businesses, a “Welcome to Halsey!” booklet and a cute stuffed toy of our school mascot the Halsey Hippo. Before my fear gene kicked in, I told Trinidad, “You need a ride on Saturday? No prob. I can drive you.” “I couldn’t let you do that--” Trinidad started to say at the same time Jessica said enthusiastically, “Oh, sure! What a great idea. And Amber why don’t you stay for the party? We’ll be making plans to raise funds for a charity food drive and you can help, too. Of course we’ll have plenty of food there, too. Our caterer is totally brilliant. Come to my house this Saturday at noon.” Then she bestowed a map with directions upon me like a queen offering crown jewels to a mere peasant. Here it was Saturday: 12:07 PM. And Trinidad and I were hanging with ghosts in a graveyard. I walked around with Mom’s phone held high above my head, checking for signal. Around the car was a total dead zone but as I neared the tall, wrought-iron cemetery gate, I got one bar. Excited, I lowered my arm—and the bar vanished. “Amber, is the phone working yet?” Trinidad hung her head out the car window, her snaky black braid swaying inches above the ground. “Almost,” I rang out confidently. “I’ll have signal any minute now.” “I hope so. I skipped breakfast so I could pig out at the party and I’m starving.” “I won’t be long,” I assured but with less confidence. Waving the phone, I rushed around, searching for signal. Dead air everywhere except by the cemetery gate. Even there the bar only flashed for a mega-second. Then I slipped my arm through a gap in the gate and two bars flashed. Hmmm…the strongest signal was inside the cemetery. I stretched my arm, the metal fence digging into my skin, and was rewarded by one more bar. Almost full signal! Now if I could press a few buttons, activate the speaker function, I’d be able to call Jessica. If she couldn’t offer directions, I’d try Dustin. He was always at his computer, a click away from Google. My arm ached but I kept stretching, contorting my fingers around the phone. A thumb tap and the screen lit up. All I had to do hit seven digits and-- I dropped the phone. “NO!” I screamed, leaning forward and banging my head on the gate. “What’s wrong?” Trinidad called from the car. “Nothing. Everything is fine!” I rubbed my head. “I’ll just be a bit longer.” “Hurry, okay? This place gives me the creeps.” Me, too. “I have it all under control,” I shouted. Damn, my head hurt. “Why don’t you listen to your iPod? I’ll just be a few minutes.” I looked back to see where the phone had fallen—then slapped my hand over my mouth to muffle my gasp. Instead of falling straight down, the phone must have bounced off a shrub and rolled down a slanted embankment of what was once a paved driveway. I could only see a corner of the phone poking up from a broken concrete slab. Totally out of reach. Oh. Whoops, I thought. Mom is going to kill me. I had to get her phone back. But while the rusty gate appeared dilapidated, the lock was shiny new. I tugged and rattled and whacked, but it wouldn’t budge. There were no breaks in the wrought iron fence. The only way over was to climb. Impossible. The gate was at least ten feet tall, twice my height, and gym was my worst subject. Then I got this horrible flash in my mind. Of Mom’s face when I tried to explain how her phone had gotten into a locked cemetery. That was scary enough to jolt me with a burst of Super-Amber Energy. Sucking in a deep breath, I reached high and grabbed an iron bar. I managed to grasp another bar, then another, until my feet dangled a few inches over the ground. But my arms were already giving out. So I kicked out with my right leg in a pathetic attempt to swing myself up. Clunk! My leg banged against the gate. I cried out in pain and my hands slipped. I landed flat on my butt. Diagnosis: Bruised and a little battered but not giving up. I thought how girls like Trinidad and Jessica, would just shrug off the phone loss. “I’ll buy a new one,” they’d say. Easy for them, I thought. It would be heaven not to worry about money and wave credit cards around like magic wands. My life was almost like that two years ago. I was the adored only child of professional parents and we lived in a condo by a lake. But when my parents decided to have a baby, they sold the condo and moved into boring suburbia. Mom quit her job so money became tight. When I found out my parents had spent my college fund on infertility treatments, I walked with the words “No Future” written in lipstick on my forehead. And kept asking, “Would you like fries with that?” My friend Alyce accused me of being overly dramatic, and I never argued. I couldn’t count on anyone for my future. Except me. So I brushed off my dusty backside and looked around. A ladder would have been nice, but no such luck. I spotted an old board propped against a scraggly oak. Gravel crunched under my open-toed sandals as I carefully pushed aside weeds. The board was filthy with bugs, moss and gross droppings I didn’t even want to think about. I brushed off a corner with leaves then dragged the long board through weeds and propped it against the gate. I half-walked/half-crawled up the makeshift ladder. When I reached the top, I swung up and straddled the curved iron saddle-style with a leg dangling on each side. Holding tight, I huddled there for a moment, breathing hard. When I could breathe normally again, I lifted my head to look around. Not so bad, even kind of cool if you were into old tombstones and monuments shaped like angels, saints and temples. There were no flower vases or other offerings from loved ones. Obviously this cemetery was so old even the loved ones were dust and bones. If Alyce were here, she’d snap pictures for her “Morbidity Collection.” She gathered images of the grim side of life and aspired to be a famous starving artist or get rich from publishing a best-selling photo journal. But morbidity was not my idea of fun--and the ground seemed so very far away. On the cemetery side were sharp chunks of concrete from a crumbling sidewalk. Jumping into the cemetery would be suicide. Mom could save up to buy another phone, but I couldn’t buy a new body at Wal-Mart. Defeated, I prepared to climb back down. But my leg swung too hard and banged into my board-ladder. The board wobbled, slid sideways and landed on the ground with a poof of dust. Now what was I going to do? Stranded high on a gate, I slumped against cold iron. I’d lost my Big Chance. I’d never make it to Jessica’s now and she’d think I was a loser. Trinidad would never accept a ride or anything else from me. Diagnosis: Depressed and ready to give up. I should just jump, end it all now--except I hated messes and really hated the idea of ending up a concrete pancake. I could wait for Trinidad to notice I was in trouble or jump to the softer ground in front of the gate. If I landed on my ample butt, I had a fifty-fifty chance of survival. I had almost worked up the courage to jump, when I heard a sound that would change the direction of my life forever. Mom’s cell phone! Ringing! Startled, I whipped around on my narrow perch toward the sound. Bad move. My hips shifted and swayed. I lost my balance. My leg shot out from under me, my hands slipped then flailed in empty air. I was screaming as I fell toward the concrete.