1 | THROUGH THE WOODS
The hot dressing room made Ramachandra “Rama” Ganeshan sweat, but not because of the temperature.
She and her best friend Myra Hare had been at the mall for hours. Myra had a dozen outfits stuffed into bags on her arm, but Rama hadn’t found a single thing she liked.
She never found anything she liked anymore.
The department-store dressing room pushed on Rama from all sides. Why was it so small? Either the air conditioning had broken, or she’d lost her coping skills. Sweat slicked her face, ran down her neck, and kissed the contour of her spine. She scowled at herself.
Standing in front of the dressing-room mirror, Rama hated her reflection. The too-tight, too-low, too-short dress dug into her thighs.
As she studied her reflection, her stomach clenched. If only the ground would swallow her before Myra asked what was wrong.
There were too many questions. Rama didn’t have the answers.
Myra rapped against the door. “Can I come in?”
“Hang on a second.” Rama smoothed the dress over her stomach. Every bulge resisted the fabric. She’d never ask Myra for the next size up. “I’m changing back into my clothes. Not getting this one either.”
“Rama,” Myra said, “that’s like, the eighteenth outfit.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. Give me a minute to change back.”
Guilt gnawed at Rama. Myra had proposed the shopping trip. They didn’t see much of each other. Myra did cheerleading, and Rama had three AP courses. She seldom left the house. Helping her parents with the restaurant kept her busy most nights. Social life? Forget it.
To make matters worse, so many teenage girls had been murdered in the past year that the mayor of Aldale, West Virginia, established a curfew for minors. No other mayor had ever imposed a curfew, but Mayor Paulson said it was necessary.
Aldale had three stoplights. An hour away Morgantown boasted shops and restaurants and West Virginia University, where Rama hoped to attend medical school someday. Two years ago, at fourteen, she’d joined other gifted students auditing lectures and shadowing residents. She’d pressed her face against the glass above an operating theater, breathless as a surgeon held a heart in his hands.
In that moment, she’d decided to become a surgeon too.
Though it wasn’t far from Morgantown, Aldale might as well have been centuries away. Morgantown wasn’t huge, but it had chain restaurants. It had a mall, a real one, and a Walmart.
Aldale didn’t have anything like that. Their mall didn’t count. If Rama or her parents needed anything, they had to go down to the drugstore. John Lewis Finster had opened Finster’s Drug Shoppe in the 1950s. It housed a dusty, decrepit soda fountain with a lunch counter and everything in the center of the store. If anyone had ever eaten there, Rama didn’t believe it.
Like everything else in town, it had seen better days.
Everyone went to Finster’s to get almost anything—prescriptions, toiletries, gifts, condoms. Once, Rama had seen Jessica Spurlock in the family planning aisle. Jessica hadn’t taken anything, and even if she had, who would believe it?
Jessica epitomized the small-town “good girl” ideal. Imagine if someone caught her buying condoms when she was “waiting for marriage.”
Somehow, she convinced her parents to let her spend nights with her boyfriend.
She got to stay out all night, even with the curfew. Even though girls like Jessica were murdered without explanation.
The dead girls had been Rama’s age, classmates and friends. Girls she saw in town, flitting from store to store, laughing in the park, sitting in her family’s restaurant. Smiling, shining faces. Smooth skin and bright eyes and white, even teeth.
They had been girls Rama envied, ones she would have given anything to look like. All her life, she’d assumed the world was easier for pretty people. All her life, she’d been wrong.
Even in Aldale, violence could happen.
Rama knew better than anyone else.
Myra’s parents didn’t buy it. Danger lurked everywhere. Their children were smart. Sure, they should be careful, but the mayor had gone too far. Nothing like this had ever happened in Aldale. Myra’s parents thumbed their noses at the rules and let their daughter roam. They preferred a lax parenting style, and sent Myra to the mall alone, armed with their credit card. They never asked questions.
“Let’s go to the mall today,” Myra had said after class. “You need to get out.”
For some reason, Rama went along with the plan. Myra was right.
Myra knew best. That truth underscored their whole friendship. Since childhood, she’d “helped” Rama, telling her what to wear, where to shop, and who to spend time with. Myra had more social clout, so Rama trusted her.
Besides, Myra loved her. She wanted the best for Rama—even if Rama didn’t know what that was herself.
In the dressing room then, Rama wasn’t convinced. Myra was wrong. The dress scratched her skin, exposed the scar below her collarbone, and clung to her hips.
She was a pig.
Rama’s fingers brushed her scar. Myra had seen it. Nobody else. They’d never talked about it. Rama hoped they never would.
Months ago, Myra asked Rama why she’d cut her hair. Rama hadn’t said a word. It was past her shoulders now, but still shorter than it had ever been. When she stopped wearing jewelry, Myra said nothing. And when she showed up sans makeup on the first day of school, Myra kept silent.
If she had suspicions, she didn’t say so.
Rama’s parents weren’t so thoughtful.
“Why can’t you dress like you used to?” her mother had asked. “Myra dresses well. Let her take you shopping.”
“Your mother’s right,” her father said. “You should spend more time with Myra.”
In the present, Rama swallowed the lump in her throat. The walls of the dressing room closed in around her—what if the ceiling caved in? She would be crushed or suffocate in the nation’s smallest mall.
No one would miss her—not even Myra, who’d pressured her to go in the first place.
“You all right?” Myra asked.
“Fine,” Rama lied. “I’m hungry is all.”
“It’s making you cranky.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. Look, can we go?” She tugged the hem of the dress. “I don’t want this.”
Myra sighed again. “You said you needed new clothes. We can’t leave until you find some.”
“I hate everything I try on.” Rama pulled the dress off and tossed it on the chair. A plastic hanger clattered to the ground. Rama stooped to pick it up. Her hair fell in her face. “No point staying here if I don’t want to get a dress.”
“I’ll find you something else then. Let me try, okay?”
Rama studied herself in the mirror again. Stretch marks pulled across her hips and thighs, dipping into her ragged waistband. How long had she had those panties? The underwire of her bra poked out on one side. Her hair, disheveled, dull, and tangled, elicited a frown.
If only she could have been anyone else.
Anyone who wasn’t her or anybody like her.
Myra returned with an armful of clothing. She knocked on the door, and Rama paused a minute before opening it. Myra shoved the clothing in. Rama dropped the pile of clothes on the chair. From what she could tell, they all fit too tight, showed too much skin, drew too much attention. What was Myra thinking?
“Well?” Myra asked.
“Close the door.” Rama would never wear any of it. Myra didn’t understand.
No one did.
“Something’s wrong,” Myra said.
“It’s nothing,” Rama answered.
“I wish you’d tell me what’s bothering you.”
“It’s not about the clothes,” Myra said.
“No, it’s not.” Rama squeezed her eyes shut, willed away tears. In her mind’s eye, he loomed—the man with the mustache. Chicken tikka masala. Fear unfurled like a banner.
She opened her eyes.
Myra smiled. “If you don’t love your body, there’s no way you can be happy.”
Myra’s legs and curves were the stuff of magazines. She’d never had a pimple.
Rama sniffed and covered her scar. She could never tell Myra what had happened that day.
Myra took the clothes from Rama. “You win, all right? We’ll go.”
“I appreciate your help.”
“It’s nothing,” Myra said. “We’ll get milkshakes on the way. Grab your bike. I’ll drive you.”
That morning, Rama had biked to school. Myra drove them to the mall.
Rama wanted to be alone.
“I’m biking home. I need the fresh air.”
“It’s all right.”
“With the murders?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“How can you be so sure?”
Rama exhaled. “I’m going straight home, no stops on the way. It’s not dark yet. I need to think. Just let me take my bike.”
Myra didn’t press her. “Suit yourself. Let’s go, girl.”
After Myra and Rama separated, Rama rode her bicycle through the forest behind the mall. She’d chosen the long way home—a half-hour trek—but that was good. She needed to think. Once she got home, she wouldn’t have the time or the silence for that.
Her father had asked her to help with dinner service. She and Myra had spent too much time at the mall—she might not get home before sunset.
At one point in her life, the dark had been scary. But the most dangerous monsters hid in plain sight, attacked in broad daylight. The shadows and the light they worked against were equal threats.
Trees shaded the straight, smooth path through the woods. Soon, they’d drop their colored leaves for Rama to crunch beneath her tires. The air was warm for October, but it was still autumn. Winter wasn’t far off.
Rama liked winter. She could cover up her body without looking out of place. When the temperature dropped, everyone covered up.
If winter never ended, she might not be so miserable.
At one time, she’d appreciated her body. It was nice, as far as bodies went. She could undress and look in the mirror without cringing.
Then he came into the restaurant and took all that away. Now thoughts of summer made her sick. When school let out next May—
Ramachandra. Stop it.
Rama’s bicycle jerked. Shocked, she hit the brakes and skidded to a stop. The bicycle wobbled. She struggled to keep her balance.
What had she run over?
There were no roots on the path.
The bicycle swerved. Rama’s tire ran over something else. She toppled from the seat, handlebars slipping out of her grasp.
Rama landed hard on her knees. The bicycle smacked against the ground.
She’d run over a rock. She’d have to check her tires.
That’s what you get for not paying attention.
Rama scrambled to a seated position. She braced herself against a tree to see what she’d run over—
There was a body on the path.
Rama shook herself.
No. She’d seen it wrong. She scooted forward on her butt, grinding dirt and leaves beneath her shoes. A twig snapped at her heel. Its broken edges scraped her ankle.
She had to get a closer look.
There was a body on the path.
The girl was Rama’s age. She lay on her side, facing Rama, blue eyes glazed. Unseeing. Dirt coated her long blonde hair and blood poured from her caved-in skull.
Drenched in sweat and shaking, Rama fell on all fours and threw up on the ground, retching until her ribs ached.
Her parents lived in town. Rama had ridden her bike past their house.
They’d gone to school together.
She wasn’t coming back.
Emboldened by shock, Rama lifted her gaze—and saw the man beside the body.
She’d missed him at first—his clothes camouflaged him. Blood spattered his green flannel shirt, khaki pants, and brown boots. He held a bloodstained rock. Blood marked his face too.
A flash of recognition.
The man from the restaurant. He lived in town.
Her father’s friend.
The Smiling Man.
Rama heaved again, but there was nothing in her stomach.
She looked once more. It couldn’t be. Her eyes had tricked her.
But what if they hadn’t?
When she scooted closer, he looked up from the body.
He locked eyes with her.
Rama took off running. She couldn’t run before. He’d blocked the door behind him. He was twice her size. The knife—
Pounding heart. Aching thighs. Screaming shins.
She kept running.
If she stopped, he’d catch her. If he caught her, he’d hurt her.
He’d hurt her once before. She couldn’t take her chances.
Her mind shut down. The mustache threatened. The sharp tang of chicken tikka masala—
Rama spun around.
No one there. He hadn’t followed her.
She stopped to catch her breath.
For the moment, she was safe.
What was he doing in the forest? How had he found her again?
Rama hadn’t told anyone about what happened. The less she dwelled on him, the easier it was to pretend it was a nightmare. When she spoke of him, she gave him power.
He was already powerful.
The Smiling Man was her father’s friend. Someone from town. No one to be afraid of. Before the attack, she’d believed he was nice. But what he’d done to her, and how he’d spoken, how he’d touched—
No time for that. Stay present, or he’s going to track you down.
Rama gulped air and focused. What was there, besides the man?
Jessica Spurlock. Seventeen. Pretty, thin, and popular.
Murdered with a rock.
Why had Jessica been in the forest? Why had the man been there too? Above all else, why had the man stood next to the body with a rock, like he’d done it?
And that smile.
Rama shuddered so hard she pulled a muscle in her neck. Wincing at the pain, she processed what she’d seen. If the Smiling Man had killed her, what had he done to her first?
She covered her mouth. She wanted to scream. The man would come after her, given she could testify against him. But could she testify, if she had to? Every time she imagined admitting what had happened, she came close to passing out. Add stumbling upon a crime scene and she wouldn’t make a great witness. Besides, she had no evidence.
Rama took another breath.
Behind her, a branch snapped.
She jumped back against a tree. There was someone on the path, but it wasn’t her attacker.
Whole and unblemished and alive. No signs of assault.
Rama couldn’t breathe. “How did you—?”
“It’s okay. You fell off your bike. You hit your head. Remember?” Jessica touched her hair. “I tried to help. You ran away.”
She spoke like they were friends, but they seldom talked at school.
“Your head,” Jessica repeated.
Rama pressed a hand against her throbbing temple. How long had it done that? She didn’t remember hitting it, only falling off the bicycle, seeing Jessica’s dead body and the Smiling Man.
Jessica’s brow furrowed as she took a step toward Rama.
Rama stepped away but there was nowhere to go. Her back was still against the tree. The bark scratched her elbows. Dizziness swept over her—but was it from a fall, an injury? She touched her temple. No blood. She probed her face. Nothing.
Could she still have hit her head hard enough to hallucinate?
Jessica fiddled with her pendant. In the fading light, Rama couldn’t tell what it was. Dead Jessica hadn’t been wearing a necklace.
But the body on the path might not have been real.
“I don’t know,” Rama said. The air crackled like a storm was coming, and ozone filled her nostrils. The hair rose on the nape of her neck. Jessica unnerved her. If Rama looked at her for too long, Jessica’s form flickered—for a second, and no longer.
“You’re all right?” Rama asked.
“Of course,” Jessica said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Rama’s tongue refused to move.
She’d fallen off her bicycle and hit her head. That induced hallucinations. The Jessica standing in front of her was alive and well and real. She was expressing her concern.
Rama’s fingers jumped to her temple again and searched her hairline. Normal.
Maybe she’d just bumped her brain, like a football player. Didn’t some of them end up in hospitals? Her parents didn’t watch football. Her father preferred soccer, what he called football, like in India. No wonder those players wore helmets.
She should have worn a helmet.
She should have gone with Myra.
“You were dead,” Rama said. “You were lying in the road.”
Jessica’s expression stayed the same. “Come on now. Let’s walk you back and get you on your way.”
She could ask Jessica to check her head, but Jessica wasn’t a doctor, and wasn’t that weird? Other questions nagged her, but she wouldn’t get the answers.
Jessica led her to her bike. Rama struggled to slow her heartbeat. Jessica’s words hadn’t reassured her. They’d made things worse instead. None of it made sense. Her head felt fine. Had she hit it, or did it hurt because Jessica said it should?
Rama stooped beside the bike and ran her hands over the frame. Cold metal. Real.
She checked the ground.
No Smiling Man.
Jessica raised her eyebrows, tapping her foot.
She looked nothing like dead Jessica.
“You’re all right,” Rama said again.
Without speaking, Jessica squatted down. She peered into Rama’s eyes. Rama looked away.
Jessica sighed. “Whatever you think happened—what you think you saw . . . I’m okay. Everything is fine.”
“Everything is fine.” In saying it, Rama hoped to convince herself it was true. Still, there was something amiss.
What if she’d seen neither Jessica’s body nor the Smiling Man?
But what if she’d seen both?
Maybe her detour through the woods had done more harm than good.
Jessica’s fingers brushed Rama’s cheek and Rama jerked away. What the hell was Jessica thinking? Rama hated physical touch.
Jessica recoiled too, and frowned.
“I have to get home,” Rama said. “It’s getting dark. I promised I’d be back by now.” Why had she added that part? When Jessica didn’t respond right away, Rama’s anxiety made her continue. “I shouldn’t have gone this way. I never go this way coming back from the mall—I cut through town. But I don’t ever see anyone going this way and I thought—”
“Sweetheart, it’s okay,” Jessica said.
Sweetheart? That was different.
Rama swallowed. “I’ll see you in Spanish tomorrow. Take it easy.”
“Yeah, I will.” Jessica stood and brushed herself off. “Same to you, all right?”
Rama righted the bicycle and climbed aboard. The whole way home, her stomach churned. When she got back to the restaurant, she still couldn’t get the woods out of her mind. No matter how many times she went through Jessica’s explanation, it didn’t satisfy her.
Rama’s head didn’t hurt. She couldn’t have fallen and hit it, let alone hallucinated. What could she have run over, if not Jessica’s body? No roots on the path. No obstacles.
She thought of the Smiling Man’s teeth, the dread in her stomach. Jessica’s hands on the end of her necklace.
Whatever the pendant was, it must have been important.
So why had Rama never seen her wearing it before?