The windows are shut and the blinds drawn. A space heater warms my bedroom to a balmy eighty degrees. As I stand in the middle of the room, a cold draft blows past me, raising the hair on my arms and neck.
Someone is watching me.
Will it be my time soon? Will I be the next one taken?
“That creepy frown on your face is going to cause premature wrinkles,” Larkin says.
My cousin lies across my bed, her black combat boots dangling off the edge as she scrolls through her phone without pausing long enough to read anything. She chews gum and blows a bubble that pops, covering her mouth. Larkin doesn’t seem to mind that strands of her long, raven-black hair brush the gum she pries from her face.
“I’m fifteen and too young for wrinkles,” I reply, moving to the window and opening the blinds. From the third floor, I can see everything and everyone in front of the house. The driveway and yard are empty. Not a soul to be seen anywhere.
“You turn sixteen in like five hours.” Larkin’s only a little bitter I’m the oldest grandchild.
Even though I can’t see anyone, there’s someone watching me. I feel it.
“Ugh, stop with the paranoia. No one’s out there.” She waves her hand, motioning me away from the window. “Step away and put the weirdo back in the box.”
“I’m not paranoid or weird. I’m just . . .”
I’m just scared to death my sixteenth birthday will be my last. It’s not a fear that’s based in reason It’s just a nagging suspicion that won’t leave me alone. Releasing the blinds, I make my way to the floor-length mirror near my closet.
Larkin snaps her gum. “Paranoia is the first sign of madness.”
I study my reflection. My long blonde hair annoys me. I’m one-eighth Japanese, but you can’t tell by this mane. Dyeing it might help, but Grandmother would kill me. She nearly had a heart attack when Larkin put a temporary blue streak through hers. “Seriously?”
She groans loudly. “No, but you’re obviously nuts the way you’re always worried about being taken.”
Our very polite alternative to kidnap.
“You’re right. I shouldn’t worry. It’s been at least twenty years since a McGregor was taken,” I say.
“At least.” Larkin sits up and sighs. “If you’re really worried, let’s call Branson to come get us.”
“The butler? Why would you call Grandmother’s butler?”
Larkin chuckles. “You don’t really think a guy like that is just the butler?”
Branson is tall, muscular, and frequently gets mistaken for being a bodyguard.
“Well . . .” I grind my back teeth.
Larkin rolls her eyes. “He’s not a butler any more than McGregors get taken because we’re rich.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on, in every generation at least one McGregor goes missing, and we’re supposed to believe they were ransomed because we’re rich?” She stares down her nose at me.
I shrug. “Why else—”
My cousin stands up and folds her arms. “If it were really about money, don’t you think we’d all have bodyguards?”
I turn away from the mirror. “Well, we have gotten martial arts training and boxing lessons. Obviously, Grandmother’s concerned about our safety. It’s not like we’re allowed to go beyond this town.”
I’ve never seen the ocean, a big city, or set foot outside of Sequim Falls. Meanwhile, my father is a world traveler who’s never around.
“Candy, I love you, but you shouldn’t believe everything Grandmother and our parents say. You’re too trusting, cuz.”
“I am not,” I retort, heading for my closet.
She leans her head to the left, raising her right eyebrow. And just like that, Larkin has won the argument.
Facing the mirror again, I study my outfit. McGregors are expected to dress for family dinner. Well, everyone but Larkin anyway. Running my fingers through my stick-straight hair, I agonize over my look. Will Grandmother approve? Should I curl my impossibly straight hair? She hates it when my hair gets in my face. Curling might help. Or maybe I should just change.
Larkin gets up from the bed and goes to my desk in the corner on the opposite side of the room. She picks up the small wooden box I meant to hide. Using a chipped, black fingernail, she traces the ornate circle carved in the top. “Did you go vintage shopping without me?”
Crossing the room, I take the box from her. I scan the room, looking for a place to hide it and settle for placing it under my pillow. I don’t know why I’m compelled to hide the thing. It’s not like I stole it.
“I found it in the basement.”
Larkin frowns. “But you never go down there. You’re afraid of spiders.”
Sitting on my bed, I straighten the pillows covering the box. “I know. It’s just I had this feeling I should go down there and go through her stuff again.”
“Your mom’s stuff? Is your dad is still holding onto all that?” She flips her hair back. “My therapist would say he lacks closure. Personally, I think he lacks a life. We should get him an online dating profile. Uncle Dartmouth needs to process and move on.”
It’s my turn to raise an eyebrow. “New shrink?”
“Yep. Daddy is still looking for a miracle cure for my anxiety. But back to the box. What’s in it?”
“I don’t know. I can’t get it open.”
“Oh.” She blows another bubble. “How come we never found it before? I mean we must have gone through those boxes at least twenty times.”
I shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe magic made it suddenly appear.”
Larkin laughs. “Right. Like there’s anything magical about the McGregors. We could not be more boring.” She glances around my room. “How about we get a screwdriver and pry it open?”
I jump off my bed. “No, we can’t.”
“Because it was my mom’s, Lark. I remember seeing her with it once right before she left. I asked her if I could look inside. She said that someday when the time was right, the box would open for me.”
She gives me a slow nod. “Okay.”
My cousin doesn’t pretend to understand how it feels to be abandoned by my mother, a fact I greatly appreciate. Resting a hand on the pillow, I long for a connection to the woman who gave me life because my mother doesn’t seem real anymore. I was only five-years-old when she left. With each passing year, I wonder if she ever really existed at all. Pushing thoughts of her aside, I head for my closet. I can’t disappoint Grandmother. Bad things happen when I disappoint people.
“What’re you doing?” Larkin asks.
“Changing my outfit!”
“No, you’re not. You’ve changed it five times already. You aren’t chairwoman of the board just yet, so how about you pull on a pair of leggings, and we head to dinner?”
“Chairman,” I reply.
“Uh, not in my world,” she answers giving me both a shake of her head and wag of her index finger.
Larkin’s cooler than me. I’ll admit it. Half Puerto-Rican and a hundred-percent passionate, she’s vibrant in living color while I’m milk toast—bland inside and out.
My cousin eyes my clothes. “Let me dress you.”
“Because I’m still not over the time you cut my bangs off, painted my nails black, and posted my profile online.”
“You needed a date for the school dance.”
“We were nine!”
I face my closet, thumbing through my wardrobe for something less business-like but still formal enough to please my grandmother. “There’s nothing. This is literally the best thing I have to wear.” I tug on my cream color blouse and eye my navy blue skirt. I turn around with my hands on my hips.
Larkin gives an exaggerated yawn. “And it’s boring.” She checks the massive oversized watch that I’m pretty sure she stole from her dad.
“What time is it?” I ask.
“Time for you to put crazy aside and hurry up. Grandmother hates it when the golden child is late.” She chews bubblegum with her mouth open. “Now I could skip family dinner altogether, and she wouldn’t even notice.”
“She would notice, and I am not the golden child,” I say, twisting my pencil skirt so the seams run in a straight line down my hips.
“Yes, you are. Bennett’s the jock. Jasper is the computer genius, and I’m the rebel for no reason. We all have our parts to play in this family.”
A sigh escapes my lips. I could easily pass for a school secretary, or maybe a librarian. My blouse, a silk import from some place I could never pronounce, is a gift from our grandmother. Sweat forms beads across my upper lip. I fan my face with my hands, panicked at the thought of sweating in silk. “Yeah, well, it’s not like I have a choice in what I’m wearing.”
My cousin sighs. “You always have a choice, Candy. You’re just too set on making the right one.”
She’s not wrong.
I never asked to be singled out or shown any preferential treatment. Being the first-born grandchild wasn’t something I had a say in. But I am, and with that come responsibilities.
“Go put on the blazer that matches the skirt and let’s go,” she says, tapping her watch with a fingertip.
I turn around, take two steps toward my closet, and abruptly stop as a hand lands on my shoulder.
Larkin throws a punch at the back of my head. I don’t see it coming, but I feel it, ducking and spinning around. Throwing my right leg out, I connect with the back of her knees, knocking her feet out from under her. She lands on her back, brown eyes filled with annoyance.
“How did you do that?” she asks, flipping up from the ground and landing on her feet.
My right leg is forward, my fingers balled into fists. “I don’t know.”
“Did you hear my swing?”
“No, but I knew it was coming.”
“I sensed it.”
Larkin’s thick, brown eyebrows shoot up. “I don’t know if that’s really cool or just weird.” She exhales. “My mom would have landed the punch.”
“Your mom is a cop.”
“Retired cop but whatever.”
A dull ache forms between my eyes. There isn’t room in my head for both Larkin’s mommy issues and mine.
She switches gears. “Imagine how bad-A you’d be if you spent less time painting and more time training. You might even be a black belt by now.”
I shoot a glare at Larkin. We don’t talk about my paintings or the fact that I won’t allow anyone in my studio.
“Relax, I’m just saying you shouldn’t worry so much. It’s not like you’re going to die young.”
Except I dream at least once of week that I’m burned alive before I make it to my seventeenth birthday.
I walk back into my closet, and grab the matching blue blazer. My cousin doesn’t need to know that dying isn’t just a fear—it haunts my every dream and painting is the only thing that keeps me from cracking. Putting on the blazer, I muster the McGregor smile—no teeth showing, but cheeks pulled back far enough to fake happiness.
Larkin’s eyebrows are matching arches that remind me of a black cat stretching into downward dog. “That is one scary smile.”
“Only if you know it’s not real.”
“Fair enough. Clearly, it’s a real burden being Grams’s favorite.”
“She hates it when you call her that.”
“Well, yeah. That’s why I do it.” My cousin grins, twisting hot pink bubble gum around her finger.
“Have you ever considered just being nice to Grandmother?” I ask.
“Nope. Why bother being nice when she barely knows I’m alive?”
“That is not true. She totally noticed when you showed up last month with a nose piercing,” I say, pulling the delicate strand of pearls from my jewelry box that my father gave me as an early birthday present. Chances are they’re a guilt gift as I doubt he’ll be around to wish me happy birthday.
“That was sick. I thought for sure she was headed for cardiac arrest.” Larkin’s mouth turns upward with glee. “That look on your face is not happiness. I say we ditch dinner and head to the new pizza place in town. I hear Ryan hangs out there.”
Ryan Connelly, new boy and all-around magnificent hotness. Every time I pass him in the hall at school, I can’t shake the feeling we’ve met before. I’ve never actually spoken to him, but he seems so familiar.
My hand goes to my mouth, which is dry. “You’re mean.”
“Yes, but appropriately so. Since we don’t have siblings, it’s the responsibility of cousins to fill in. Now, let’s get you into something cute and find Ryan.”
“You know the rules. No dating until we’re eighteen.”
“That’s Grandmother’s rule. My parents are much more liberal. They’re willing to look the other way and feign ignorance if word gets back to Grams I’m dating.” Larkin moves to my desk. I spilled a cup of pens and pencils not bothering to reorganize them. She sorts them by function and then by color.
“Sequim Falls is a small town, Lark. Everything gets back to her.” My right eyebrow twitches.
“Alright, if you are going to ignore the new hottie who I hear has been asking about you,” Larkin places the pens in the holder and sweeps the pencils into a drawer, “then you really should at least change your outfit. Rebel before you lose your mind.”
A dull pain stabs me between the eyes again. “Because I have to wear it.”
Not wearing it would disappoint my grandmother.
Larkin throws her hands upward. “No, you don’t. You’re turning sixteen. Exercise your right to personal freedom and stand up to the queen! What’s the worst that could happen, princess?”
“You know I hate it when you call me that.”
The stabbing pain becomes a full-blown headache. My head morphs into a fifty-pound weight resting on my neck.
“I just can’t say no to her,” I mutter, clutching my skull. “She’s the closest thing I have to a mother.”
“At some point, Candy, you’re going to have to,” Larkin says, shaking her head.
The pain searing through my cranium blinds me. Something wet seeps onto my upper lip. My fingers touch the sticky, coppery-smelling fluid.
“Candy, you’re bleeding!”
“Not again,” I mutter, stumbling into my bathroom adjunct to my closet.
Larkin’s boots clomp behind me as I reach the bathroom sink.
Blood spills from my nose, splattering crimson drops across the pristine white sink. The pain makes it hard to think.
“You have got to see a doctor,” she says, pulling my long hair back and turning on the faucet.
My mind is lost in darkness. Combing through the void, I search for a comforting thought to push back the agony. “What were the words Grandmother used to say when we were little and got hurt?”
“I don’t know. Should I call an ambulance?” She presses a cold washcloth into my hand.
I hold my head over the sink, pinching the bridge of my nose. “No. My dad’s out of town again. Oksana would freak if we called an ambulance.” I hold the cloth over my nose. I’m not entirely sure my housekeeper is in the country legally. I remember the words. “One. Two. Three. Let this pain leave me,” I whisper.
“That’s it! That is exactly what I used to hear Grams mutter every time my father screwed up at the company,” Larkin says. Her eyes are wide.
“What?” I ask.
“You went from pale-as-death to normal-colored when you said that. I think the bleeding even stopped.”
The pain in my head is gone. Leaning closer to the mirror, I study my nose and find the blood gush has ended. “That’s weird. Maybe the bloody nose was brought on by stress.”
“Well . . .” Larkin folds her arms across her chest. “You are pretty uptight with the whole need to be perfect.”
“I don’t need to be perfect,” I say.
“Really?” Larkin stares without blinking. “I’ve got a red leather jumpsuit at home. How about you wear that instead? ”
“Well . . .” I rinse the cloth and wring it out. She’s right and we both know it. “I can’t,” I mumble, tossing the dirty washcloth into the hamper.
“Are you sure? Cause there’s blood on your shirt, Candy.”
My gaze goes to my new silk blouse. A crimson spot has spread across my chest, staining the delicate fabric. “Oh, no!” I push past Larkin and into my bedroom.
“Come on, it’s not that big of a deal. I’m sure Oksana can get it out.” Larkin lingers in the bathroom doorway.
“The car is supposed to be here in five minutes. Not even the best housekeeper in the world can wash, dry, and iron a blouse in five minutes,” I snap.
“There goes the crazy again. What you should be freaking out about are the headaches and nosebleeds you’ve been having for the last month. We should skip family dinner and go to the hospital for a CT scan.” Larkin lives for the Discovery channel and all medical-related television. Once when we were little, she tried to talk me into letting her remove my tonsils.
“No, I can’t go to the hospital.”
I don’t want to go to the hospital. My mother went there and never came home.
I turn away from my cousin, combing my room for a solution. Covering the blouse might work, but the wet spot is clinging to my skin. No, the shirt has to come off and be laundered. Do I have another white blouse? Even if I did, it would pale in comparison to the designer piece I’ve destroyed. I hurry to my closet.
“Let’s go to my house. Let me dress you in something age-appropriate,” Larkin says, flopping onto my bed.
I shudder at the offer. “What am I going to do? I have nothing to wear!”
“Calm down or you’re going to have an aneurysm,” Larkin says. “Or possibly a pulmonary embolism.” She nudges me aside. Standing in front of my clothes, she takes deep breaths through her nose and exhales from her mouth.
There’s no organization to my closet. Skirts are mixed with sweaters. Pants are hung with dresses. Shirts are scattered throughout. Larkin won’t say it, but just the sight of it all makes her want to run screaming out of the house.
“Okay, I can do this,” she mutters. Her hands sift through the clothes. She picks up a skirt and shifts it to the end of the closet. Everything she touches, she sorts into the category that her brain dictates. “It’s better if they’re organized.”
“Why?” I ask.
“It just is,” she whispers.
Larkin doesn’t have a closet in her bedroom. One nightmare about a giant evil dog bursting from her closet and Uncle Daig found himself walling it off and installing several dressers in its place.
“Here. Wear this.” She hands me a pale pink dress. “How come you’ve never worn that dress?”
Because I hate pink. It’s the only color I absolutely refuse to wear. Not only because it’s more girly than I want to be, but it also washes me out given that I’m the color of off-white wallpaper. “It’s new. I just haven’t had the chance.” I take the dress and move to the mirror. “Grandmother is still going to be disappointed.”
“She’ll get over it! We know for a fact you are not the first McGregor to disappoint Maureen the Great.” Larkin makes a sweeping gesture with her hands and bows.
She shrugs. “This is what cousins are for, right?”
I shake my head. “I guess, though I don’t think most families are like ours.”
“Um, no one has a family like ours. First of all, we could be our own football team, and secondly, we have more money than . . .” She pauses, her eyebrows coming together. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“It’s rude to talk about money,” we say in unison.
I swallow hard. Grandmother’s driver should be pulling up to the house any minute. “How about you wait for the car and I’ll throw this on?”
Larkin nods. Her dark leggings are strategically torn and match the oversized black sweater that reveals a shoulder, bare save a bright red bra strap. Grandmother never requests my cousin be anything other than what she already is.
Larkin moves to my door. Her fingers hover above the knob as she studies the light switch on the wall.
“Oh, just do it. I won’t make fun of you like Bennett does,” I say.
My cousin lets out a sound of relief. Silently, she flips my light switch up and down twenty times. When she’s finished, her shoulders relax. “Twenty times and the boogeyman dies,” she whispers.
I nod, not having a clue what it must be like to be Larkin. “There are Oreos in the freezer,” I say.
“I’ll grab some just in case it’s lamb again for dinner.”
“It’s always lamb,” I mutter as the door closes behind her.
The dress is rayon with a polyester blend. I slip it over my head and the fabric slides down my body. Larkin and the rest of the cousins can wear whatever they want to family dinner, but as the oldest grandchild of the oldest son, I have to come formally dressed. I shake my head; my blonde hair is messy—unkempt even. Grabbing a hair band off my dresser, I slip on a pair of white flats. I should wear heels, but I have a tendency to trip in them. My stained white shirt in hand, I run out of the bedroom and down the hall to the laundry room, where Oksana spends her free time watching talk shows and pretending to be busy. There are only two of us: my dad and me. He generally dry-cleans most of his stuff.
A woman speaks in a casual but serious tone. “The police are warning residents of Sequim Falls to stay indoors tonight. More on that when we return from this brief commercial break.”
I turn the corner into the laundry room to find Oksana glued to the newscast playing on a black-and-white television she found at a secondhand store.
“You know you could watch the news on that laptop I gave you for Christmas,” I say.
Oksana stands up, straightens her black-and-white uniform, and pats the graying bun on top of her head. “You scare me, Candy,” she says.
“Sorry. I was hoping you could soak my blouse for me.” I hold out the shirt, my eyes drifting to the television. A picture of a full moon flashes across the screen behind the male and female co-anchors. The man—a middle-aged gent with a fake tan and teeth white enough to launch a signal to Mars—clears his throat.
“Folks, the local police are warning us that it’s a full moon again, and that can mean only one thing,” he says, glancing at the female anchor on his left.
“That’s right. A full moon in Sequim Falls means that residents should take extra precautions to avoid the Full Moon Killer, a serial killer who’s haunted our town for more than thirty years.” The female anchor clenches her jaw briefly before breaking into a smile. “Now time to check in with Sally on what kind of weather we can expect this spring.”
“I thought I leave all monsters in Ukraine when I come here,” Oksana says, adjusting her knee-high pantyhose.
“How can a person in a small town like this get away with killing people for thirty years?” I shake my head. “We must have the worst police force ever.”
“Maybe it not a person.”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe it a monster.”
“Monsters aren’t real.” Tiny hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. A tingling sensation runs down my arms. Oksana and her superstitions.
“Oh, sweet child. You bright, kind, and fun to be with, but you not wise. There a great many things you know nothing.” Oksana pats my arm.
She’s been my nanny, nurse, and caretaker for years, but she might as well be a stranger. I don’t know a single personal thing about her, and rarely do I understand her subtext. “What’re you talking about, Oksana?”
“No matter what I say.” She waves her thick arms and motions at the clock on the wall. “Car must be waiting. You no keep grandmother waiting. She fire me.”
“All right, I’ll go.”
“You take care with that cousin of yours. Don’t need no more disappearing members of this family.” Oksana takes my shirt and studies it. She scratches her head; her thin lips fade into an unhappy mouth.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
The McGregors don’t talk about the family members that have gone missing. We’re taught from birth not to.
She shrugs. “Nothing. I am an old woman losing her mind and it coming out of her mouth.” Holding up my stained blouse, she shakes a finger at me. “This no good. You bleed again.”
“It’s nothing,” I say, turning around. “I’ll bring you a plate of leftovers.”
“No, I no need. Tonight I have date with nice man I find online.”
“Wait, you what?”
“I have date.”
“Yes. Don’t act so surprised. I woman. Hear me roar.” Oksana’s large hands rest on my shoulders. Gently, she turns me around and gives me a nudge toward the door. “You be safe. Don’t let cousin convince you to go to park like last month.”
“Don’t go out tonight, Oksana. You heard what the newscasters said.”
“I no fear. Boogeyman not want me. I be more than he can chew.” She laughs from her belly, tickled at her own humor.
Gritting my teeth, I wave and walk out of the room. There’s no point in arguing with her. Oksana does what Oksana wants.
“Candy! Car!” Larkin shouts from the first floor.
“Coming!” I yell back. My voice echoes down the empty hall of our mansion. The shoes on my flat feet gape open at the sides, making them difficult to wear across the slippery marble floor. Removing the flats, I tuck them under my arm and pad across the floor barefoot. The staircase that winds down to the first floor is tiled in alternating black and white colors. Larkin only steps on the black ones, meaning she skips every other stair. It’s a relief to see her standing at the bottom of the staircase, twisting her hair and blowing bubbles. I’m always so afraid she’ll slip and fall.
“We’re late,” she says.
“I know.” I tuck my hair behind my ears, still toying with the idea of putting it up. “Have you ever noticed that our family dinners always coincide with a full moon?”
“Um, no.” My cousin tilts her head to the side and lifts her nose. “You sure?”
“Yes. Our family dinners and warnings to be on the lookout for the Full Moon Killer always come on the same day.”
A car honks outside. I open the front door and we exchange a groan. Harold, Grandmother’s eighty-year-old driver, has arrived.
“Do we really have to go?” Larkin asks.
“You know how much these family dinners mean to Grandmother.”
She turns her mouth downward. “Right. Family is everything.”
“That’s what she says.”
“Think we’ll get there alive?”
I roll my shoulders and sigh. “It’s a toss-up what will kill us first: Harold’s driving or the Full Moon Killer.”
“Either way, let’s just get it over with.”
I nod and open the front door. Harold waves a crooked hand from the front seat of the limo.
Here’s to hoping we make it to Grandmother’s alive . . .