“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” Mary Shelley

Chapter 1

When I eased open the accordion door to the bedroomette, the sky outside our porthole-shaped window was still dark, the silhouettes of the redwoods just a shade blacker. I tiptoed into the hallway and a river of cold air whooshed over me. The Airstream rocked in the storm and I stretched my hands out, touching both walls to steady myself.

“Ivy?” I said softly.

Whack, whack.

There it was again: the knocking that had woken me up at quarter to five. Seeing that my older sister wasn’t in her bed, I figured she must have snuck out and forgotten her key. I needed to let her in fast. Our mom was a heavy sleeper—especially if she’d smoked a “medicinal” joint before bed—but there were limits to what she could tune out.

I hurried to the front of the trailer, but the door was wide open, the screen banging in the wind. I stepped out onto the top cinderblock stair, straining to see through the rain. “Ivy?” I called into the darkness, but no one answered. The icy wind cut through my pajamas and I shuddered, wrapping my arms around myself.

Someone must have left the door unlocked, and the storm had blown it open. Still, it creeped me out to think that anyone could’ve walked in from the woods while we were asleep. I wasn’t used to living in a tin can on the edge of civilization. Our new property bumped up against the state park. We had no neighbors for miles, but hikers, tramps and the occasional poacher liked to use our land as their playground. Mom said that we were safer out here than if we lived in some apartment in town.

Statistically, there were fewer weirdos in the vicinity.

But all it took was one.

Get a grip, I told myself. No way could anyone have dragged Ivy out of the trailer in the middle of the night. Our beds were like two inches apart. Besides, this was the third time since school started this fall that I’d woken up before dawn to find her stuffed lion strategically tucked under her quilt, its yellow mane arranged on the pillow as a decoy.

I closed the door, leaving it unlocked in case she really had forgotten her key. It was unlike her to be so careless—but this was just another item to add to a growing list of ways that she’d been acting out of character lately.

I was too worked up to go back to sleep. Besides, I hated being in the bedroomette by myself. It would’ve been cramped for one person, but somehow, when Ivy was there, she made it feel bigger. I couldn’t risk waking Mom by turning on a light, but the sky was fading to a steely gray, and I thought I could see well enough to write while I waited for Ivy to get home, so I grabbed my notebook and sat down at our red Formica dining table. If I didn’t look around, I could almost pretend that I was still in the house where we’d lived until last summer.

I uncapped my gel tip pen and flipped open my notebook to the first blank page, but my hand froze and I couldn’t write a word. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a novelist. I have a whole row of marbled composition books, filled with poems and stories that I used to stay up half the night writing. But ever since I started sophomore English, my new teacher had been making it her personal mission to let me know that I had no talent whatsoever. Ivy said she was an idiot, and that anyone could see I was a born writer, but she was my sister so she pretty much had to say that.

The clock on the stove read 6:14. The last time Ivy snuck out, she’d crept back in around 3:30, waking me up. Since the move, my ears were on hyper-alert, especially at dawn, when the underbrush rustled constantly, owls screeched in the trees, and wild dogs howled back and forth across the park. Ivy always laughed when I complained about the spooky noises, reassuring me that I had nothing to worry about—just like she used to when I was younger and I’d wake up from a nightmare after binge-reading horror novels. I imagined her walking through the door now and reassuring me in just the same way now, teasing but affectionate.

Feeling a little better, I decided to make some coffee. After staying out all night, she was going to need it. As I held the carafe under the tap, I realized I had no idea what the ratio of coffee grounds to water was supposed to be. Ivy was the coffee maker in our family, always groaning at the amount of milk and sugar I dumped in mine. I filled the carafe to the three-cup mark and set it to perk, hoping for the best.

As the water burbled and splurted, I decided: Ivy will be back by the time this coffee is ready. I used to play these same games when we were little and our Mom left us alone while she cleaned houses. But when the coffee had filled the pot, there was still no sign ofIvy. I ran water on the dishes that Mom and her gross boyfriend, Bryan, had left in the sink. She’ll be back by the time these are cleaned. I scrubbed each one slowly and thoroughly.

Nope again.

Rain pelted the trailer and I shivered. I hated to think of her driving in this storm. What if she’d gotten in an accident? I wished I could just call her, but no—that would’ve been too easy. People in the African bush had cell phones, but not us. Mom claimed that cell phones were part of a corporate scheme to zap brain cells, which was convenient, since we couldn’t afford them.

From outside, I could’ve sworn I heard gravel crackle. I shoved my bare feet into my boots and ran around to the other side of the trailer, where we always parked “Spud,” our beat-up VW van. But she wasn’t at the wheel. The key was in the ignition as usual, and the tires were submerged in troughs of rainwater. The hood felt cold, and I didn’t smell the usual scent of French-fry grease coming off the engine.

No one had driven it for hours.

A sour taste rose in the back of my throat as I stared into the trees, which stretched for miles in every direction.

If she hadn’t driven anywhere, where was she?

“Mom, get up!” I burst into her room. She grunted, pulling the Indian bedspread over her face. “Ivy’s missing!”

“What are you talking about?” she mumbled. “Where is she?”

“I don’t know, but the front door was wide open when I got up, so anyone could’ve come in during the night!”

She threw on her robe and followed me to our room, squinting at Ivy’s empty bed.

“I woke up before five and she wasn’t here,” I said, noticing that the quilt Ivy had sewn from scraps of our grandma’s old dresses had been flung aside.

Mom pushed her fingers through the snarls of her blonde hair, her face pale. “She must have snuck out again.” She narrowed her eyes as if daring me to contradict her. “Yes, I know she’s been going out at night. I didn’t say anything because things have been so tense recently, I wanted to give her some space.”

“But she’s never stayed out this late before. And why is the van still here?”

“Someone must have picked her up.” Mom tried to push a frizzy red curl out of

my face, but I ducked.

“But she never forgets to lock the door!”

“That could have been Bryan.” Mom shut her eyes and massaged the bridge of her nose like she felt a migraine coming. “He left last night because he was so upset.”

I sighed. Her sleazy boyfriend had practically moved in with us, frequently coming over during the afternoons, when he knew Mom was at work. Apparently he was allergic to clothes. He’d take these random showers and then strut around in a towel, showing off his hairy ape chest. Needless to say, Ivy and I weren’t too thrilled about this. Last night, she and Mom had a huge fight, and Ivy had snapped and called him a pervert. He’d been in the other room, listening to every word.

Mom frowned. “I told her to leave if she didn’t like it here, remember? She must have called a friend to pick her up. Do you know if she has a boyfriend?”

I shook my head. “Ivy’s not interested in any of the guys at school. They’re all completely lame.”

“Then maybe she met someone at Ritual Roasters.”

“She would have told me,” I argued. But I couldn’t help remembering how Ivy had looked away when I’d asked where she went in the middle of the night. “I just drive around,” she’d answered. But drive around where? Maybe she had been sneaking out to meet some guy. But why hadn’t she told me?

Mom tugged back the tie-dyed curtain at the window and peered out. “She’ll be back any minute, sweetheart, I know it.”

“You don’t know anything! What if she got in some guy’s car, and she thought she could trust him, but she was completely wrong?” Suddenly, I was sure that this was what must have happened. Ivy was a good judge of character, but I’d heard that true psychopaths could be incredibly charming. The scenario rapidly quickly took shape in my head: this guy had chatted her up at Ritual—the coffee shop where she worked on weekends—and she’d sneaked out for a couple of midnight dates. He’d spent just enough time with her to win her trust, so that she would run out and get into his car, no question. By now, he could have taken her anywhere, and who knew what he was going to do to her? The trailer seemed to lurch under my feet. “We should be calling the police,” I said. “Some total psycho could be torturing her!”

“You’re torturing me. Ivy is seventeen. She’ll be moving out in the summer, and she’s been coming and going as she pleases for months. When she gets home, I’ll have a big talk with her. But right now, I need you to lay off.” Mom’s hand shook as she poured herself a mug of the coffee I’d made for Ivy. “She really was way out of line last night.”

I took a deep breath, trying to calm down. After their fight, Ivy had been seething about how Mom should put us first, and asking what it would take for her to wake up.

Maybe she was trying to teach her a lesson.

Mom sat down heavily at the table and took a sip of coffee. Her nose wrinkled.

“It tastes like dirty socks, doesn’t it?” I said, sitting down too.

She gulped down half the mug and forced a smile. “It’s great.”

Jiggling my foot, I caught the busted table leg. Coffee splashed onto Mom’s robe and she jumped up. I apologized as I wedged the phone book back under the table, but she had already turned away.

“Why don’t you get ready for school?” she said.

I took a shower, lingering under the lukewarm dribble. She’ll be back when I finish getting dressed. But when I came out of the bedroomette, Mom was still alone, pulling eggs out of the fridge. The clock said 7:21.

“Mom, where is she? We have to leave for school in ten minutes!”

She cracked an egg against the side of the pan, smashing it so hard that she crushed it. Refusing to look at me, she concentrated on picking out the bits of shell. “She must have gone straight there,” she said. “If she wanted to give me a scare, it’s working. You tell her that when you see her.”

“But how am I supposed to get there?”

“I guess you’ll have to take the van this once. Ivy’s been giving you lessons and you have your permit. It’s basically the same thing.”

“Not in the eyes of the law,” I mumbled, but she wasn’t listening. “You could drive me,” I suggested.

Mom fingered her Eye-of-Ra pendant. She stroked it whenever she was stressed, convinced that its “ancient wisdom” would rub off, even though she’d found it downtown on Miner Street, at a store called Forbeaddin’, in a bin with dozens exactly like it. “If I got caught driving with a suspended license, it would be a misdemeanor,” she said. “I might even get sent to jail, if I couldn’t pay the fine.”

“But what if I get caught?”

“Just be extra careful and don’t get pulled over.”

“Great, thanks for the helpful tip.” I wanted to roll my eyes, but without Ivy there, what was the point? I felt like crying. Ivy knew I was utterly terrified to drive alone. How could she leave me without a ride?

Mom insisted that I would feel better with something in my stomach, so I let her fix me “eggs scallopini.” This was practically the only thing she ever cooked—just eggs scrambled with whatever wilted vegetables happened to be lying around—but she always pronounced it with a flourish, like it was something special. I had zero appetite, but I managed to choke down a few bites.

I tried to tell myself Mom was right, and Ivy would be at school. After all, she never skipped class unless she was seriously sick. But when I went to grab my coat from our tiny closet, Ivy’s black denim jacket—the one she’d been given by her favorite counselor at camp, and wore every single day without fail—was hanging there. I knew Mom would say this didn’t prove a thing, but I bit my lip so hard I tasted blood. I suddenly had the thought that this is how it feels when the worst happens: you can’t believe it, and yet some part of you has been expecting it all along.

Next Chapter: Chapter Two