Sample text for The merciless / Danielle Vega.

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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

_Copyright © 2014 Alloy Entertainment


C H A P T E R_ S I X


"I still don't understand why it would bleed so much." Mom wraps up the chicken we just had for dinner in tinfoil while I fill the sink with soapy water and start the dishes. I shrug, staring at a folded dishtowel next to the sink. It's red and white with a picture of a rooster on it. "It was a really big zit," I say. I cleaned the blood from my face and covered the piercing with a Band-Aid before my mom saw it, but I've had to change the Band-Aid twice since she's been home. Already the new one is red with blood.

Mom puts the chicken in the fridge, frowning as she closes the door. Our phone rings, and Mom leans over the counter and picks it up. "Flores residence," she answers. A tinny-sounding voice echoes from the other end of the receiver, and Mom smiles. "One moment. It's your friend Riley," she says, handing me the phone. "She says she has a homework question. Just don't take too long."

I slip out the back door with the phone and curl up in the wooden chair on our patio. Our backyard stretches forever, without any streetlights or nearby houses to break it up. It's unnerving, like being walled in on all sides with empty space. Insects buzz restlessly, like white noise. I tuck my legs beneath me.

"Riley?" I say into the phone.

"Sof? I saw you with Brooklyn!" My stomach twists, but Riley continues talking before I can worry about whether she changed her mind about the spying. "Why didn't you tell me? What did you find out?"

"Nothing, really. She took me with her to get a tattoo." I run a finger along the edge of the bandage on my forehead but decide to keep the details of my piercing to myself.

"That's it?" Riley sounds disappointed. I lower my hand, quiet for a second as I try to work out what I want to say.

"What did you expect me to find?" My voice comes out sharper than I intend, but I don't apologize for it. Riley said she was trying to help Brooklyn, but it sounds like she just wanted her to screw up.

"She skinned a cat and left it outside our school." Riley's voice has an edge to it. "Or did you forget?"

I press my lips together to keep myself from arguing. Riley thinks Brooklyn skinned that cat. Tattoos and cigarettes aren't in the same league as animal mutilation.

Riley clears her throat.

"Are you okay, Sof? She didn't hurt you, did she? Or manipulate you in some way?" The concern in Riley's voice is real, and suddenly I feel terrible. Riley's been a real friend to me since I got here, not Brooklyn. I exhale and shake my head, pulling at a piece of loose skin near my fingernail.

"No, it was nothing like that. She was . . ." Cool. The word pops into my head uninvited. "She was weird," I finish instead.

As the word leaves my mouth I realize it's just as true. Brooklyn was cool, but I get what Riley means-- something about her did feel off. I think of her slender fingers on Santos's needles, her wolfish grin, and how she persuaded me so effortlessly to get a piercing. She made it too easy to be bad.

"Maybe I'll find something better tomorrow," I mumble. There's a beat of silence. I clear my throat. "How are things between you and Josh?"

"Oh, didn't you hear? We're all better now," Riley says. "He sent flowers to my class third period. Roses."

"Wow. That's great."

"Listen," Riley says before I can continue. "I just want to say I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable when I asked you to hang out with Brooklyn."

"Riley, you didn't," I insist. "Really."

"It's just that I think she really needs help. I have this feeling like she's standing on the edge of a cliff and she's about to go over. Like she'll fall if we don't help her."

I run my thumb over a cuticle in slow circles. I try to picture Brooklyn at the edge of a cliff, her combat boots sending rocks off the edge, but it just doesn't fit with the girl I hung out with this afternoon. Brooklyn was having fun, not crying out for help. "You really think it's that bad?"

"I really do. Did she tell you she's having a party tomorrow?"

"She didn't mention it."

"Well, I heard some kids talking about it at school. It's supposed to be intense. You should go."

I run my tongue over my lips, which are dry now from the cold creeping over the yard. The last party I went to was in a house in the woods, next to the train tracks that ran through town. A bunch of football players stood just inside the door, loudly rating every girl who walked past, and every time a train rolled through, the whole house shook and everyone took a shot.

When I don't answer right away, Riley starts to plead. "Come on, Sofia! There's a reason I picked you for this. Some people have evil inside them, but that's what God is for, to fix them when they can't fix themselves. We can still fix Brooklyn."

The insects in the yard have gone still, but wind sweeps over the grass and pounds against the windows. I shiver and pull my arms around my chest. Grandmother used to pray for people in her neighborhood when she thought they needed strength. This isn't any different, I guess. Riley's just a little more active with her faith. Grams would probably like her.

"Sof? Are you still there?"

"Yeah," I say. "I'll do it. Promise."

* * *

I shiver as I make my way to Brooklyn's for the party the next night. An owl hoots in a nearby tree. I pull my sweatshirt tighter around my shoulders and lower my face. Wind sweeps through the tree branches, rattling them like bones. A man with a sagging gut and pock-marked face winks at me.

"How you doing, cutie?" he mumbles. His breath smells like whiskey and beef jerky. I hurry past him as he stumbles toward a dimly lit bar.

Brooklyn lives on the first floor of a cheap apartment complex. It's set up to look like a motel. All the apartment doors face an open-air hallway protected only by the cheap, painted aluminum guardrail. Just beyond the edge of the property, I can see the service road that leads to the tattoo parlor.

A sound like a gunshot echoes down the dark alley near her street. I freeze, every muscle in my body tensing to run. Then a car engine sputters on, and an old Buick pulls away from the curb. Not a gunshot--a car backfiring. I exhale and keep moving. The sooner I make it to Brooklyn's place, the better.

Even if she hadn't slipped me the address in English lit class, I wouldn't have trouble finding Brooklyn's party. The music's so loud it vibrates through the parking lot, and the apartment door hangs open. Girls in short skirts and pierced, tattooed guys lounge against the wall, drinking from red Solo cups and smoking cigarettes that smell like pine needles. Green paint bubbles up around where they stubbed the butts out on the walls. Either they're all over twenty-one, or this isn't the kind of neighborhood that calls the cops for underage drinking.

"Hey, little girl!" someone calls, startling me. I turn just as a large bald guy approaches. He towers above me, and he has to weigh at least two hundred pounds. He wears all black, and a white-and-black skull tattoo covers his face and bald head. It looks like he doesn't have any skin.

I start to turn back around, hoping he's not talking to me. He grabs my arm.

"Don't be like that. I'm talking to you," he says. Deep black lines shadow his eyes, and tattoos of teeth stretch down over his lips. "I've got a question."

"Shoot," I say, struggling to keep my voice steady. The man's lips part, but I can't tell if he's smiling at me or grimacing.

"My friends and I are taking a poll." He nods to a group of people standing by the apartment door. They're all pierced and tattooed, but next to Skull Guy they look like members of a church group. "If you could choose how you were going to die, would you rather be beaten to death with a shovel or have your face eaten off?"

I swallow, trying to keep my nerves from showing on my face. The guy might be freaky looking, but he just wants to get a reaction out of me. It's all just part of his game.

"I'd go for the face," I say, meeting his gaze. "I'd want to look my killer in the eye."

This time I'm sure Skull Guy smiles at me. The white-and-black cheekbone tattoos stretch across his face when his lips part. "Solid," he says, bumping my fist.

I nod at a couple more people as I walk past, trying to look like I belong. The music pounds around me, an insistent bomp bomp bomp. Once inside, I push my sweatshirt hood back and glance around the room. It's smoky and dark. Bodies crowd around me, packed so tightly I can't move without bumping someone's arm or back. The floor is sticky, littered with empty beer cans.

I can't believe I worried this would be anything like my last party. It's a completely different world. I've never heard the music before, and I don't think any of the people here actually go to our school. A girl with long, white-blond hair and glassy eyes passes a tiny bag of powder to another girl in a leather jacket, then walks away without glancing at her. I weave through the crowd to a table covered in booze and beer. I grab the single can of off-brand soda sitting next to a case of PBR, just so I have something to do with my hands.

A voice rises above the music, startling me. "Sofia!"

I turn and, through the sea of people pushing in on me, spot Charlie waving his hands above his head like he's signaling planes. If I were a cartoon character, my mouth would drop to the floor and exclamation points would shoot out of my eyes--that's how excited I am to see him standing there, wearing a worn T-shirt with some faded sports logo on it and a dark gray zip-up sweatshirt. He moves around a crowd of guys to stand in front of me and says something I can't hear over the noise. I smile so wide the corners of my mouth threaten to split.

"What?" I shout.

He grins back at me, and even in the dark I notice the dimple in his cheek. Pushing the hair from my neck, he leans in close enough that his breath warms my skin.

"It's loud," he says. "Wanna go outside?"


Charlie takes my hand, and we head for the back of the apartment to a smudged sliding glass door. I crack open my soda as Charlie pushes through the door and we slip outside. Cold air rushes to greet me, and I shiver, almost glad the can is warm, even if the soda tastes terrible.

"You seem to be the only other person here not trying to get completely hammered," Charlie says once we've left the pounding music behind.

"I'm not a big drinker," I say. Charlie nods.

"Me neither." He smiles at me again, that dimple appearing in his cheek. My stomach flips.

"I'm glad you're here. I don't really know anyone else." Charlie glances around at the kids sprawled on lawn chairs and hovering near the apartment door. At first I don't recognize any of them, either, but then I spot Tom wearing a backward baseball cap. He leans forward, passing his cigarette to a cute girl with black dreadlocks and thick glasses. The girl giggles at something he says, then leans in to kiss him. I cringe. Grace would be devastated.

Charlie sees him, too. "I know Tom, I guess. But he's been preoccupied. Josh said he was coming, but I haven't seen him. And now I know you."

"Josh is coming to this party?" I didn't think this was Josh's scene--he seems so preppy, like Riley. Charlie shrugs.

I glance around at the patchy grass and dirty white lawn chairs. Beyond them, I see the outlines of a slide, a swing set, and what I assume is a pool surrounded by high wooden fencing. Despite the cold weather, I hear giggling and splashing.

A smile creeps across my face. I pull on Charlie's sleeve. "Come on. I have a plan."

"Are we going swimming?" Charlie asks when I start to lead him toward the pool.

"It's, like, fifty degrees out!" I pull my sweatshirt tighter around my shoulders. "Besides, I don't have a suit."

"Why should that stop you?"

I groan and push him toward the slide instead. The playground equipment is made of that old steel that isn't used at schools anymore, because people are afraid kids will impale themselves on the sharp metal while playing. I approach the slide hesitantly and test the bottom ladder rung to make sure it'll hold my weight.

"Are you serious?" Charlie says. I raise an eyebrow in challenge.

"It's either the slide with me, or you go back to the party to hang out with people who don't even remember their names. Your choice."

Charlie purses his lips, pretending to think this over. "Which people, exactly?"

I pick up a rock and threaten to throw it at him, and he raises his hands in surrender, laughing. "Kidding, kidding." He jogs to the bottom of the slide and crouches down. "Okay, go. I'll catch you."

"I don't need you to catch me," I say. I set my soda down on the ground and climb up the ladder, perching on top of the slide. Charlie grins.

"Of course you do." He grabs the sides of the slide with both hands and shakes, causing the entire thing to rattle. "This thing is a death trap."

Despite the coolness of the night, the metal is warm beneath my hands. I push myself down, and as I start to gather speed, I shriek. Charlie grabs my shoulders before I hit the dirt and holds me steady.

"You okay?" he asks. He actually looks concerned. "I can't believe they let kids on that thing."

"Your turn," I say, pushing myself back to my feet.

Charlie grins and races around to the ladder. The entire slide rocks as he climbs, the metal creaking so badly I'm convinced it's about to fall apart.

"Shit," Charlie says as he settles at the top. "Now I have so much more respect for you for going first."

"Well, I'm a rebel."

"Here goes nothing." Charlie pushes off and shoots down the slide. Somewhere along the way he goes into warp speed, and then he's not sliding anymore-- he's flying--and I can't move out of the way before he tumbles into me. We both roll backward, hitting the dirt in a tangle of limbs.

"I'm so sorry," he says, pushing himself onto an elbow. He doesn't roll off me right away. "Did I break you?"

"No." I keep my arms still because I don't trust myself not to grab his sweatshirt and pull him even closer. I clear my throat. "You're . . . fine."

Charlie tilts his head, and I wonder if he can tell what I'm thinking. "I'm really glad you're here, Sofia," he says.

"Yeah, well, I did break your fall," I say. He still doesn't move away from me. He brushes a curl off my forehead and shakes his head like I'm missing something.

"It's not just that. I'm glad to see you."

The night instantly grows ten degrees warmer. "Why?"

"You're joking, right?" Charlie eyes lose focus. He's about to kiss me. I inhale, hoping the warm soda hasn't made my mouth taste gross. But he just runs his thumb along my jaw, tracing from my ear to my chin, like he's memorizing my face.

"I like you, okay? You're different from girls around here." He leans toward me again, his eyes closing. This time he hesitates an inch away from me.

"Is this okay?" he asks.

"Yeah." I've barely spoken when he presses his mouth to mine--tentative first, then harder, hungrier. He parts my lips with his tongue and slides his fingers into my hair, pulling me closer, until there's not an inch of his body that isn't pressed against mine. I stop thinking and just react, letting my hips and chest rise and fall with his. One hand is tangled in my hair and another tugging at the waistband of my jeans. He slips his fingers through my curls as he moves his hand down to trace the skin from my neck to my collarbone, sending shivers through my entire body. Decades pass before Charlie pulls away. His hair sticks out from his head in all angles, and I itch to reach for it again, to smooth it back behind his ears. All the blood in his head seems to have rushed to his lips, because they're bright red and swollen from kissing me.

His nose brushes against mine. "You taste minty," he says into my mouth, leaning in to kiss me again.

The giggling in the swimming pool rises in a shriek of laughter and then cuts off abruptly. Charlie hesitates and reluctantly pulls his lips away from mine.

"What do you think they're doing?" I ask. "Should we find out?"

Charlie pushes himself to his feet, then leans over to give me his hand. "Only if it'll help convince you that swimsuits are optional."

"Unlikely," I say, but I follow him toward the pool anyway. There are gaps in the fence, each about one inch wide. I squint into the gaps, but I can't make out entire people--just jumbled shapes. Charlie comes up behind me. Circling my waist with his arms, he starts to kiss my neck.

"I thought we were spying," I whisper.

"Spies do this."

Just beyond the fence a girl says something, but the wind snatches away her words. I lean in closer, pressing my eye against the largest gap.

Brooklyn stands at the top of the plastic staircase leading into a hot tub, holding the stub of a cigarette between two fingers. Black swimsuit bottoms hang low on her hips, and she has a white tank top knotted above her waist. The tank top is wet and pasted to her skin in patches, making it easy to see she's not wearing a bra.

"What are they doing?" Charlie whispers. I shush him, lifting a finger to my mouth. There's a boy in the hot tub, too, his brown hair slicked up in wet spikes. Thin lines of steam rise from the tub, mingling with the smoke from Brooklyn's cigarette.

"Ever done it in a hot tub?" Brooklyn asks, her mouth curling. She's wearing dark red lipstick that smudges across her cigarette. The boy stands, water dripping from his faded navy boxers. He grabs Brooklyn and spins her around.

I immediately recognize the light brown eyes, the cleft chin. Josh. Riley's Josh.

I press my face closer to the fence. Josh sets Brooklyn back down and pulls her to his chest. She drops her cigarette into the water behind her, then lifts her face up to his. They kiss long and deep, and I blush even harder.

Brooklyn looks up, and her eyes find the exact spot in the fence where I'm watching. It's like someone has touched an icy finger to the lowest part of my back and runs it up the length of my spine. She wraps her arms around Josh's neck and kisses him again, possessively, her red-painted mouth mashing against his teeth as she pulls him closer. The whole time, she never takes her eyes away from the fence. From me.

It's like a dare. A challenge. I pull away from the fence and turn back to Charlie, feeling as though I've had the wind knocked out of me.

"Sofia, what's wrong?" Charlie asks. I shake my head.

"I've got to go," I say.

* * *

I make my way to Riley's house, following a long, curved road that dead-ends onto Riley's street. Gnarly trees line the sidewalks. The houses sit back far from the street, their windows dark. Overhanging branches send skeletal shadows over their yards.

A bird squawks above me, rustling the tree branches as it flies away.

"Crap," I mutter, trying to still my rapidly beating heart. I ran most of the way here, not because I wanted to get to Riley, but because I didn't want to spend any more time in Brooklyn's neighborhood. In fact, now that I'm here I wish the trip had taken longer.

I pass a few more towering houses before I locate Riley's. Her house is a mini-mansion. A wide white porch wraps around front, and Greek-style pillars stand on either side of the double doors. I ring the bell, and a tinny ding-dong echoes inside.

A tiny green garden snake slivers across the wooden porch, its body undulating over the concrete. I cringe and cross my arms over my chest. A second later it dis- appears behind a heavy clay flowerpot.

Footsteps sound just inside the house, then the door swings open.

"Sofia?" Riley leans a cheek against the edge of the door, considering me. "Are you okay?"

"I'm sorry, I tried to call." I try to catch my breath. "Can I come in?"

The corner of Riley's mouth twitches upward, and her face grows several degrees warmer. "Of course. You want something to drink?"

"Um, sure."

Riley steps back, opening the door into a foyer with high ceilings and real marble floors. I step inside, momentarily distracted. Beautifully posed photographs of Riley sandwiched between her parents cover the walls, all three wearing matching preppy-chic. I gape at them, amazed at how perfect everyone looks, like they're posing for a catalog.

"Your parents look nice." I stop in front of one of the photographs. Riley's family is dressed entirely in white and they're sitting on a bench in front their lake house. Despite what I saw at Brooklyn's party, I find myself wishing I could step into Riley's life for a day or two, just to see what it's like. It must be nice to have the perfect family, the perfect house, the perfect friends.

Riley stops next to me, staring at the photographs without blinking. "Come on," she says.

"The kitchen's this way."

I follow her down a white-carpeted hallway and into a huge kitchen with stainless steel appliances and cabinets made of deep, dark wood. Gray tile covers the floors, and the only light comes from the window over the sink, where moonlight filters in through gauzy curtains. Riley motions for me to sit on one of the bar stools at an island in the middle of the room.

"Is something wrong?" She opens the fridge and pulls out a pitcher of water. I see just enough of the inside of her fridge to notice most of the shelves are bare. I clear my throat. I spent the entire walk trying to come up with something to say, but every time words formed in my head I was hit by a sudden, overwhelming feeling of guilt--like I'd been the one making out with Josh instead of Brooklyn.

Riley puts the pitcher on the counter, considering me. In the dim light her blue eyes look gray.

"Sweetie, what is it?" Her forehead wrinkles in con- fusion. I look down at my sneakers, unable to meet her eyes. If I'd found Brooklyn as soon as I got to the party instead of rolling around on the ground with Charlie, none of this would have happened.

"I . . ." I shift on my bar stool. Footsteps sound in the other room, cutting me off. Riley's head jerks up as a woman wearing a silky white robe comes into the kitchen. Her glass is empty except for a few ice cubes.

"Hi, girls," she says with a weak smile. She must be Riley's mother--Mrs. Howard--but she looks nothing like the person from the photographs in the hall. Her hair falls above her shoulders; it looks like a trendy cut that's grown out. Her face is strange, too--there's something about her features that don't match up with where I expect them to be. Her cheeks have a hollow look, like they're going to cave in.

She crosses the kitchen, the ice in her glass clinking. She pulls a bottle of something clear out of the freezer, and when she bends over, her robe gapes open and I have to avert my eyes to keep from seeing her bare chest.

"You girls having fun?" Mrs. Howard asks.

"A blast," Riley deadpans. "Come on, Sofia. We'll have more privacy in my room."

"Nice to meet you," I mutter, then follow Riley upstairs, wondering if her father is behind one of the heavy doors lining the hallway. The thickly carpeted floor quiets our footsteps.

Riley pushes open a door at the end of the hallway, revealing a bedroom larger than the master suite at my house. Old-fashioned floral wallpaper covers the walls, and heavy velvet curtains hang over the windows. It's so dark I have to squint to see the edges of the furniture. An ornate wooden cross hangs above her door.

"Make yourself at home." Riley crosses the room to turn on a light and settles herself in the faded pink armchair in front of a vintage vanity table. Glass bottles of makeup cover the table, along with half-burned candles and lacy fabric that looks like a scarf. Alexis's and Grace's pictures crowd the mirror, leaving only a tiny circle in the center uncovered. I stop in front of the vanity, smoothing a dog-eared snapshot. If I weren't here for such an awful reason, I'd make Riley tell me the story behind every photograph. I'd take pictures of the two of us on my phone, hoping I'd make it to the mirror, too.

To the left of the mirror stands an old porcelain doll with a cracked face and brown curls like Riley's. The doll's cloudy glass eyes follow me as I perch on the edge of Riley's bed.

I open my mouth and try to speak, but I can't say the words out loud. Your boyfriend is cheating on you.

"Sof?" Riley leans forward, putting a hand on my knee. "What is it?" Something passes over her eyes, and she leans away, her back ruler-straight. She speaks in a whisper, "Did something happen at the party?"

I take a deep breath. "Riley, you have to break up with Josh," I blurt out.

A crease forms between Riley's eyes. "What?"

"I saw him," I say, quickly so I don't lose my nerve. "With Brooklyn just now."

Understanding passes over Riley's face, and the crease disappears from between her eyes. She opens her mouth, then closes it again.

"You saw them together," she says, her voice steady. She squeezes her eyes shut, and I expect her to start crying, but her eyes are dry when she blinks them open again. "Were they having sex?"

"No. Just kissing." Brooklyn's words echo in my head as soon as I say this. Ever done it in a hot tub?

Riley nods. She pushes herself out of her chair and starts pacing the length of her room. She stops in front of the door and presses a hand against the wood, closing her eyes. I push myself to my feet to give her a hug when her lips start to move silently. She's not crying--she's praying.

"Amen," she whispers, and her eyes flicker open. She stares at her door without saying a word.

"Riley, I'm so sorry." My shoulders tighten, and I stand a little straighter. "I came right here after I saw them. I just thought you should know."

"Sof, it's okay," Riley says. "I prayed, and I think it's obvious what we need to do. Brooklyn is lost. We have to help her."

"You want to help Brooklyn?" I gape at Riley, confused. "But what about Josh? Aren't you pissed?"

"Josh strayed from God," Riley says. "Yeah, it hurts, but I believe he'll find his way back to the Lord. But Brooklyn . . . don't you get it, Sofia? This just proves she needs our help. Brooklyn has to be fixed."

A smile flutters across Riley's face. It reminds me of when I first met her, when her smile never seemed to spread past her lips, leaving her eyes cold and empty. Now, though, her eyes are bright with a kind of manic energy. When she talks again, her words tumble into one another, like they're racing to get out of her mouth.

"We thought Brooklyn was rebelling, but this is worse. Some people have evil inside them, Sofia. Brooklyn needs us."

The word evil still seems too strong to me, but I can't argue with Riley after what I saw. If this is what she needs to get over Josh, I can be there for her. I squeeze her arm. "How do we do that?"

"Don't worry." Riley places her hand over mine and squeezes back. "You don't have to do anything. I have a plan."

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Cliques (Sociology) -- Fiction.
Friendship -- Fiction.
Exorcism -- Fiction.
High schools -- Fiction.
Schools -- Fiction.
Horror tales.
Horror stories.
Cliques (Sociology) -- fast -- (OCoLC)fst00864485
Exorcism. -- fast -- (OCoLC)fst00918244
Friendship. -- fast -- (OCoLC)fst00935174
High schools. -- fast -- (OCoLC)fst00956288
Horror tales. -- fast -- (OCoLC)fst00960387
Schools. -- fast -- (OCoLC)fst01107958