Enjoy A Sneak Peek of: The Stranger Game by Cylin Busby!
When Nico's older sister mysteriously disappears, her parents, family, and friends are devastated. But Nico can never admit what she herself feels: relief at finally being free of Sarah's daily cruelties.
Then the best and worst thing happens: four years later, after dozens of false leads, Sarah is found.
But this girl is much changed from the one Nico knew. Sarah's amnesia has caused her to forget almost everything about her life, even where she's been the last four years and what happened the day she vanished.
The dark details of that day continue to haunt Nico, and it becomes clear that more than one person knows the true story of what happened to Sarah. . . .
I KNEW MY SISTER was dead. I felt it in my body, as if my bones could tell me the truth. They were, after all, her bones too. The same parents had created us, we carried the same DNA, the stuff that makes us who we are. I even looked like her: a little twin, a few years younger. And both of us were images of Mom, or how she was in her high school yearbook, with long blond hair and hazel eyes.
When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t just see my own face but my sister’s too, the one from the Missing posters we had put up all over Mapleview four years ago—the one on the news, in newspapers across the country. Now that my braces were off I could even smile like her, the way she had in our last family photo. The smile of a girl who was head cheerleader. Who had an older boyfriend. Who had secrets.
I wanted so much to believe she was alive, to cling to hope like Mom. I tried. I let myself imagine that Sarah might walk through the door any day. At night, that hope failed me. In my nightmares I saw all the terrible things that happen to girls like Sarah. When I woke, the vivid images still in my mind, my heart racing, I would lie in bed and watch the lights from the occasional car move over my ceiling and walls and think about the people in those cars. Where were they going? Where had they been, out so late? What were their lives like, lives without the giant gaping hole that is left when someone in your family goes missing?
I tried to picture Sarah now, how she might look: older, her hair longer or shorter, her skin tanned golden like it had been the last time I saw her. As the days ticked by, the volume of her absence increased. Weeks turned into months and then into years. I knew the truth, even if I could never speak of it to anyone. I knew the darkened bedroom next to mine would always be empty, the door always shut, because this time Sarah wasn’t coming back.
THE PHONE NEVER REALLY rang at the help line. Instead, a red light lit up on the keypad, and then the incoming number slowly scrolled onto the screen with the approximate location of the caller. All you had to do was push the button next to the red light to accept the call and speak into the headset: “Teen Help Line. Hi, this is Nico, what’s your name?”
We had a script we were supposed to follow, and hours of training before we were allowed to answer incoming calls. Even then, Marcia, the supervisor, paced the room, watching over us and clicking on to calls with her own master headset. She would come and stand behind you and write notes if she had something she thought you should say. If a call got totally out of control, she was there to switch lines and take over.
When I showed up to volunteer, usually one afternoon a week, there was always a volunteer older than me, with more experience. They would take most of the calls and I would just sit and listen. “No better training than this, watching what the other volunteers do, how they react,” Marcia said, probably thinking that I was bummed I didn’t get to take more calls. That wasn’t the case, though—far from it. I was actually relieved. For months, I had been terrified I would take a call and say or do the wrong thing. We had people’s lives in our hands here; so many of them called in ready to do something serious: hurting themselves or someone else. I was happy to sit and listen in, with no responsibility of my own. But sometimes, like tonight, Marcia would ask me to take a call.
“That’s you, Nico, line two,” she said. The two other volunteers, Amber and Kerri, were already on calls, and for some reason, our fourth person hadn’t shown up.
I put down the slice of pizza I was eating and wiped my hands quickly before pressing the button next to the red light. “Teen Help Line.” I barely got the words out before I heard her on the other side. Crying.
“Oh, there’s really someone there?” A small voice sniffled. “A real person?”
“My name is Nico, what’s yours?” I followed the script, Marcia nodding as I spoke. The caller’s name and number came up on the screen. She was on a cell phone outside Denver. She wasn’t lying about her name, like lots of callers did; the phone was registered to her. I listened closely as she talked, about the girls at her school and how they were treating her, about how she had started cutting and wanted to stop but didn’t know how. “Sometimes I think about just running away, like, just starting over somewhere. You know? Just disappearing,” the girl said.
A shiver ran down my spine. “I know, I totally understand. We all feel that way sometimes. . . .” I gave the advice I was supposed to, clicked the resource link next to her location, and gave her the names and numbers of the places closest to her where she could get help. But the whole time, my mind was not really on this crying girl. I was thinking of Sarah. Would I know her if she called? That couldn’t happen—would never happen. Coincidences like that were for the movies, not real life. Still, part of me had to admit the truth about why I had chosen to volunteer at the help line to meet the school community service requirement.
I could have been at the animal hospital, nursing a baby rabbit back to health.
Or at Mapleview Home for Seniors, reading to some nice old blind lady.
But here I was, answering calls from teens who wanted to disappear—and then sometimes did.
By the time I ended the call, the Denver girl had stopped crying. Marcia looked over and gave me a smile and a thumbs-up, even though I could tell she was already listening to another call. I noticed with a start that it was 9:02. I dug my community service form out of my backpack and put it on her desk on my way out.
“Nico,” Marcia called to me as I was almost at the elevators. “Great work tonight, really,” she said. Her eyes were on the form I’d left on her desk. “Where am I supposed to sign this?”
I walked back to her desk and showed her. “But you also have to fill out the evaluation section,” I reminded her. “So I’ll pick it up from you later.”
“Give me a minute and I’ll do it right now.”
I glanced at the backlit clock on the wall. Now it was 9:05. “I can’t, I have to go,” I said.
“Really, it’ll just take a sec,” she insisted.
I stood next to her desk for a moment while she wrote something on the lines. Her black pen moved so slowly. Halfway done. 9:07. I could feel my heart thumping in my chest.
“I’ll get it from you next week,” I said, running out the door. I didn’t give her a chance to answer. I pressed the elevator button hard, over and over, until the doors opened. I did the math in my head. By the time I got to the lobby and out the doors, it would be 9:10. I felt my phone vibrating in my bag before I even made it outside.
There was Mom, her car idling by the curb where she always parked. I could see the bluish light of her cell phone reflected on her face, the lines on her forehead deep and worried. I moved fast over the sidewalk and across the grass, where bits of slushy spring snow soaked my sneakers. I tapped the passenger side window. She looked up at me and for a moment I could see the shock on her face. In the dark, with my long blond hair down under my hood, she thought I was someone else. I knew who.
I pushed the hood back, showing her my face. She smiled and rolled the window down.
“You scared me! Come on, get in, it’s freezing.”
I got into the warm car, smelling leather and Mom’s perfume.
“You’re late, and I tried to call you. Nico—”
“Not my fault. You know we aren’t allowed to even take our phones out in the center. And Marcia was filling out my school forms and taking her time.”
Mom didn’t say anything, just looked into the mirror as she pulled out of the spot. She didn’t have to say anything. I knew how she worried, how unacceptable it was to make her feel like that. Our agreement about always being in touch, no matter what. But sometimes, it was impossible. Impossible to be perfect, to always be on time, to never, ever make Mom and Dad worry about me the way they had about her.
“What’s the homework situation?” Mom finally spoke in a normal tone of voice as she turned left onto the street that led to our neighborhood.
“Almost done. I have a chapter to read for chemistry.”
“And you ate already?” she asked.
“I ate, Mom,” I answered with a sigh. Always the same questions. Always the same answers.
She pulled into our driveway, brightly lit by two floodlights over the double garage doors and lanterns on either side of the front door. As we waited for a garage door to open, Mom turned to me. “You know that I’m so proud of you for working at the help line, don’t you? Your dad is too. I want you to know that.”
I nodded, giving her a weak smile. What wasn’t said, the dark undercurrent of her compliment: You’re not like her. I was that age now, the age she was when the trouble really started. When she ran away the first time. But I was so different, a good girl. Straight-A student. Volunteer. Captain of the tennis team. Mom and Dad didn’t have to worry about me. I wasn’t like Sarah and I never would be.
In Mom’s headlights, I could see the three bikes lined up in the garage: mine, Mom’s, and Dad’s. The police had found Sarah’s bike at the park the day she went missing, and they never gave it back to us. I pictured it in some dark evidence-storage room, a paper tag with Sarah’s name on it dangling from the silver handlebars. Black powder covering the places they had dusted it for fingerprints, the tires now flat and cracked with age, the purple paint peeling and rusted. No one would ride that bike ever again.
THE FIRST NIGHT WASN’T that bad. The room was dark, and I was used to sleeping with the lights on. But I didn’t want to make them mad, so I didn’t say anything, I didn’t complain, I didn’t cry.
I could hear them in the next room talking, the clink of ice in a glass. Much later, the voices got louder, and one said, “A girl! We got a real girl!”
More voices, so loud I couldn’t sleep. Then someone opened the door, unlocked it from outside, and a shaft of light came in, falling on my face. I closed my eyes fast and pretended to be asleep. I had to breathe so slowly, so carefully. They didn’t come into the room, just stood in the doorway and looked at me, whispering. “There she is, I told you!”
“I can’t believe it, and she’s beautiful,” another voice said.
“Like an angel.”
“Let’s hope she acts like one.” Someone laughed.
The door closed and I heard the lock slide into place. I was alone again, in the dark.