Chapter One: Friday CHAPTER ONE Friday
Countdown to the Naming Day Cast List Is OVER
If there’s one thing the good people of Horseshoe Bay love, it’s a celebration, and maybe none more than the annual Naming Day Festival! And the jewel in the crown of the two-day celebration? Well, people may debate their own favorites—and do they ever!—but it’s safe to say that the Naming Day live naming reenactment, held on Saturday afternoon, is always a strong contender.
This year, expectations and enthusiasm are at an all-time high, as we all get ready for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the naming of our fair town. After all, what could be more jubilant than a Horseshoe Bay jubilee?
So it’s no wonder, then, that the halls of Keene High have been buzzing with excitement and lots of speculation about who the lucky cast members of this year’s show will be. Fear not, fellow Neptunes! Sources have revealed that the full cast list is set to go up in the quad this afternoon, and will be waiting for all of you dying-to-get-the-deets folks by the chime of final bell today. You heard it here first! Now get thee to the quad and keep those fingers crossed. For a few lucky seniors, this Naming Day Festival is set to be their best yet!
“Wow, Nancy, that’s definitely a … perky piece you have in today’s Masthead. Seriously, I’m exhausted just from skimming it. Did you accidentally inhale some cold medicine this morning?”
I closed my locker door to find Lena Barrow, head cheerleader and one-third of my utterly inseparable high school trio, waiting for me with a bemused grin on her lips and a folded-up copy of the latest issue of the school paper—replete with my own latest byline—in her hands.
“Oh, really?” I rolled my eyes at her. Lena was no stranger to strong opinions—and she wasn’t shy about voicing them, which meant that she sometimes had a tendency to strike terror in the hearts of her fellow classmates. Lucky for me, I understood Lena, “got” that her bark was worse than her bite. Luckier still, I don’t scare easily. “Noted.”
“What are we noting?”
Speaking of “perky,” right on cue, there was Daisy Dewitt, the third in our power trifecta, hovering at Lena’s side and practically thrumming with energy. Her wide, blue eyes sparkled, and even her shiny, sun-streaked blond hair radiated excitement. Lena may have been our head cheerleader, but Daisy was definitely MVP when it came to team spirit. And generally speaking, she was a kinder, softer cool girl than our queen bee. And she was my best friend.
“Only the fact that the festival is officially here!” I squeezed her hand. Daisy was a senior, which meant this was her year to—hopefully—snag top billing in the annual reenactment. Girl was a shoo-in for various reasons; her last name alone conferred on her “founding family” status, which was as close as Horseshoe Bay got to royalty. But, adorably, she still managed to be nervous about the whole thing. And her humility wasn’t even fake. Which made what would have been downright insufferable on anyone else completely charming on her. It’s one of my favorite things about her, and a big part of why we’ve been friends since our preschool days.
“The festival cast list, to be specific,” she said. “As profiled so deftly in your actually rather, uh, enthusiastic Masthead piece.”
Lena waggled an eyebrow, smug. “What did I tell you, Nance? I’m just saying, it was the punctuation.”
“Guys, I get it. I promise, next time I’ll go lighter on the exclamation marks.” To be honest, I’d been iffy on them. Anyway, “perky” isn’t usually my thing.
Daisy linked an arm through each of ours and began leading us down the hall at a rather brisk pace. “It’s okay,” she trilled. “I know you were just excited for Naming Day—meaning, for me. You guys are probably the only two people as excited for me as I am!” She giggled. Sometimes hanging out with Daisy felt like being shaken up inside a giant bottle of soda, bubbling and sweet and threatening at any moment to froth up and totally spill over the rim. But in a good way.
We passed down the hall through the back exit of the school, which led outside to the wide, grassy expanse of the quad. The sky was marbled blue, shot through with milky swirls of cloud, and the quad itself was …
Lena was the first to say it. “Yikes. There will be blood.”
“It’s definitely looking a little Hunger Games out here,” I agreed. A slight exaggeration—but only just. The quad was wall-to-wall Neptunes, seniors clamoring for a peek at the Naming Day cast list while their friends lingered in the background.
“How did all these people get outside before we did?” Daisy moaned. “I came straight to you guys after final bell.”
“That was your first mistake,” Lena said.
“Ugh, I’m going in.” She threw a quick wave at us over her shoulder and dashed off to maneuver her way through the fray, a crush of students clustered around the giant oak tree where announcements were traditionally posted.
I watched, proud, as Daisy hip-checked another senior girl, offering up her best “shy,” apologetic smile. “Well, she definitely did not come to play.” This was a big moment for her, and her enthusiasm was infectious.
“My little girl’s growing up,” Lena said, wiping a mock tear from her cheek, even though Lena was in my grade and therefore younger than Daisy. “Seriously, though, can you blame her? She comes from a founding family. This is, like, the role she was born for. She’s been counting down to this Naming Day since we were still in diapers.”
It was the truth. Daisy came from a long line of Dewitts, aka one of the actual, original founding families that the Naming Day Festival commemorated each year. It was one of her great-great-great- (etc. and so on) grandfathers who’d signed the original Horseshoe Bay town charter. Colonel Chester Dewitt, a war hero, no less—his was one of the most coveted roles in the yearly reenactment, in point of fact. Every year, the ceremony staged a grand reenactment of some of the earliest highlights of life in Horseshoe Bay, culminating in a rendition of the original naming ceremony itself. Of course, Daisy’s family was too genteel to fall back on anything so gauche as nepotism, so when it came to nabbing her own starring role in the reenactment, Daisy had had to wait until senior year just like everyone else to be eligible to audition.
At least, that was my take. The truth was, the Dewitts were a bit … eccentric. And part of their eccentricity meant that they liked to keep down low and out of sight. Sometimes to an extreme length.
Her family was huge, aunts and uncles and cousins flowering in every direction like a family tree gone climbing ivy. But other than Daisy, they preferred to live on the outskirts of town, children being homeschooled and parents preferring each other’s company to that of anyone else in town. “Odd” was how my parents described the Dewitts, generously. “Cultish freaks” was another phrase that came up among less enlightened people in the town.
Their self-imposed seclusion meant none of us knew her family or her parents well, not even those of us who were close to her. Daisy had begged her parents to let her go to the public high school—and waged another battle, freshman year, when she’d negotiated with them to try out for cheerleading—but the Dewitts kept to themselves. Sleepovers were strictly Lena’s or my domain, for example. Just one more reason I was so excited for her to have her shining Naming Day moment—her parents’ protectiveness extended to extracurriculars, and she’d missed a few, over time.
Suddenly, a thought occurred to me. “There’s no chance she won’t get cast, right? And … her parents will let her perform?” I asked Lena. On the one hand, I believed it. On the other hand, if I was wrong? It was going to be ugly. Even if only based on the competition-reality-TV-esque scenario currently playing out on my high school’s quad.
Lena looked at me. “Not possible she wouldn’t get cast. Our girl’s got the pedigree, and you know her audition was rock-solid. No way her parents would take that away from her.”
I appreciated Lena’s faith, but being in my line of work, I knew that people could surprise you.
As for Daisy’s audition, she was right. There was no doubt about that. Daisy was big into Drama Club, and had been the lead in every school play since fifth grade. (One of the few times a year we’d see her extended family was when they’d trundle out to see her perform.) I was sure her Naming Day audition was flawless.
“Even putting aside her acting skills, her family must do their own personal staging of the Naming Ceremony at, like, Thanksgiving dinners, right? At least, that’s how I always pictured their holidays. Daisy has to know the whole script by h—oh, wait, here we go,” Lena said, leaning into me so close our shoulders briefly brushed. “She made it to the front of the mob. She’s at the cast list … she’s looking at the list, searching for her name … searching … searching …”
“It’s like we’re on safari, watching the animals tear one another apart. Except less civilized. People know this is a town play, right?”
I loved Horseshoe Bay, sure, but sometimes it still made me laugh, watching people get so invested in small-town hijinks that they’d practically shiv a classmate to grab the first look at a cast list. The thing about a small town? It is, by definition, small. I could tell you my classmates’ full names and who they were named after, and who had a nut allergy, and who was faking some unnamed physical condition to get out of gym class. I personally had my sights set on bigger things, broader horizons, greener pastures. The stuff of motivational posters in guidance counselors’ offices everywhere.
“Yes, yes, we all know you’ve got one foot out the door, Nancy Drew,” Lena teased. “But I’ll remind you of this moment next year, when we’re both fully tripping each other, sprinting, trying to be the first one to the cast list. It’s easy to be low-key about it when we’re both still juniors. But you and I both know that down deep, you’re as much of a sucker for Horseshoe Bay and all its kitschy, nostalgia-soaked glory as anyone else.”
I opened my mouth to reply—mostly just to agree with her—but before I could say a word, I was tackled by a giant mass of soda-fizz glee and blond hair.
“I got it!” Daisy shrieked. “I got the part! Abigail Dewitt, the settler who fed the town through the coldest winter on record, even after she was partially blinded from scarlet fever.”
“Are you sure that was Abigail Dewitt, and not a scene from the Little House on the Prairie books?” I teased as I hugged her back. “Congratulations, though, really.”
“Abigail Dewitt, huh?” Lena joked. “Feels a little bit like typecasting, TBH.”
Daisy waved her off. “It’s not the biggest part in the reenactment, but it’s definitely the best. It’s a whole new scene they added—”
“—in honor of the jubilee celebration,” Lena and I chimed in, laughing.
“And Coop got Jebediah Dewitt, so …” She trailed off, one eyebrow perfectly arched. Cooper Smith was captain of the football team, which, according to the unflinching rules of adolescent clichés, meant that he was one of the most sought-after guys on campus. But unfortunately for the rest of the school, he only had eyes for Daisy. We knew better than to ask how she’d gotten her parents to let her date. To love Daisy—like we did—was to accept her curious—and curiously secretive—family.
“You guys must be psyched,” Lena said. “Does he get to apply cold compresses to your fevered forehead onstage? Or bandage your gangrene-infected leg?”
“Ew.” Daisy’s tiny mouth puckered in distaste. “I’m ignoring you. Anyway, you don’t need to be jealous. It’s going to be you two next year!”
“The anticipation is killing me,” Lena said, but she was smiling anyway. Even this year, there was plenty for us to get involved in. We were already knee-deep in every volunteer committee. It was just what you did in our town.
Case in point: The throngs of students swarming, clawing their way toward the cast list, had begun to disperse, evolving into triumphant cries as people found their own names. Amanda Reeser, who I’d helped in middle school when she suspected someone was sabotaging her science fair project (they were), was doing a little happy dance that left no room for misinterpretation. Competitive as it was, since the reenactment spots were reserved for seniors, almost everyone who auditioned was given some role, so the energy on the quad was happy and bright. It was infectious; Daisy’s Naming Day was my Naming Day, our Naming Day, and yes, Lena would have rolled her eyes so hard they’d pop out of their sockets if she heard me going all mushy. But regardless: Mushy was how I felt. My friends were happy. I was happy. All was unusually peaceful and well.
Daisy led us back across the quad, now that people were clustering up, exchanging teary, excited hugs and high fives with friends, and chattering about lines, costumes, rehearsals, and other let’s all get ready kinds of things. It was like a minefield, but of shining, grinning teenagers, instead of anything dangerous.
Well, instead of anything truly dangerous, that is. We were an energy drink commercial just waiting to happen.
“I can’t believe this!”
I stopped in my tracks, just a moment before Daisy and Lena caught on to what was going down.
There it was: the land mine.
At the top of the quad, right next to the oak tree with its cast list flapping in the afternoon breeze, stood Caroline Mark. I didn’t know her that well—we’d had AP Bio together for a semester when she moved to Horseshoe Bay; she wasn’t a natural when it came to dissections—but I didn’t have to know her well to read the expression on her face just then.
Though the day was flawless and sunny, her face was a stone-cold thundercloud. Even from where we stood in the middle of the lawn, I could see her brown eyes glittering with outright fury. Her cheeks were red, and I could just make out a slight sheen of sweat on her brow.
I’m an investigative journalist; I notice details.
“Caroline …” It was Anna Gardner, a friend of hers, clearly. Anna was doing her best to calm Caroline, but it was like trying to Scotch tape the window shades down during a hurricane. Totally pointless.
“Don’t tell me to calm down!” she snarled. She ripped the cast list down from the tree and began tearing it into tiny pieces, her movements frantic. Students who’d been clustered around, observing with anxious curiosity, moved back, giving her a wide berth and a lot of cautious side-eye.
Lena inhaled sharply. “Whaaat is happening?” She sounded curious—but still slightly thrilled—at the drama we were watching unravel. If Lena’s favorite thing was causing drama, then her second favorite was standing back to observe as it unfolded. I was less eager to watch this very public breakdown.
Daisy grabbed my arm, tight enough that for a second I worried she’d leave a bruise. “OMG, that’s Caroline Mark—you know her,” she said, her voice low, as though Caroline might actually hear us from halfway across the lawn through the throes of her epic meltdown-in-progress. “She’s in Drama Club, but, like, she’s new.”
“Oh, yeah,” Lena said. “Weird that I barely recognize her. A tantrum like this feels like something I’d remember.”
“I’ve seen her around,” I said. “She’s usually less … scream-y. I think.” Although if memory served, she’d been pretty outspoken about the dissection thing.
“She is,” Daisy confirmed. “But like I said, she’s new enough to Drama Club, and, like, doesn’t get that there’s, you know, a hierarchy to these things. I mean, I think she just expected to march in on the first day of the semester and get picked for the lead in the school musical.”
“There’s a school musical?” Lena joked. As if anyone could forget; we’d been coming to Daisy’s performances since what felt like the dawn of time.
“It’s Little Shop of Horrors this year, remember?!” Daisy snapped hastily. “I’m Audrey, of course. The woman Audrey, not the plant. The plant is technically Audrey Two. But anyway. So Caroline just … like, waltzed in and was all, I took vocal coaching over the summer; you should hear my mezzo soprano … and the drama coach was not impressed.”
“Because there’s a hierarchy,” Lena said.
“Exactly. And she tried out for Naming Day because, you know, she’s a senior, so she has—”
“Seniority—” I put in helpfully.
“Exactly!” she said, happy.
“But I’m guessing she didn’t get cast,” Lena said drily.
Up at the front of the quad, poor Caroline Mark was flinging her thousands of tiny bits of paper into her hapless friend’s face, still shrieking at top volume and flailing very dramatically.
“If she did, she’s taking it really weird,” Daisy said. “It’s so awkward.”
“And yet I can’t look away,” Lena breathed. “God, I do so love petty high school drama.”
That makes one of us. I had to say something. “Okay, you guys, this voyeurism thing is starting to make me feel bad. We don’t need to stick around and watch this.” Caroline’s pain was a little too raw, and I wasn’t Lena; watching it triggered my sympathy bone, big-time. True, I hung with the “cool kids,” but solving mysteries didn’t always win me popularity points. I knew what it felt like to be an outsider. And I only eavesdrop when strictly necessary.
Which still happens to be quite often, but that was beside the point.
“Speak for yourself,” Lena said.
“Anyway, look—she’s going to be fine,” Daisy said, pointing. We followed her gaze to see the English teacher, Mr. Stephenson, who dabbled as the drama teacher, come rushing out the back door to where Caroline was still spinning out. Gently, he rested a hand on her shoulder and leaned in.
He whispered something into her ear, and I watched as, slowly, the fire in her eyes ebbed to a dull spark. She didn’t look less angry, per se—only slightly calmer. She said something to him in return—something impassioned, based on her body language and wild gesticulations. But her shoulders were beginning to slump now, and it was obvious that the edge was beginning to ebb from her fight.
“Show’s over, I guess,” Lena said, sounding disappointed. “What now? There’s been way too much excitement for us to just go home.”
“The Claw?” Daisy suggested. “I think Coop said some of the other seniors are going to stop by to celebrate. But even if they don’t, we still can. I don’t have to be home for a while. I told Mom and Dad I had tutoring after school.” She gave a little excited shimmy with her shoulders.
“An excellent plan,” Lena said. “You know I’m always up for a lobster roll.”
I heard their exchange, but it was distant and muddled, wavering in the background like a soundtrack. I was distracted as I observed Mr. Stephenson shepherd a definitely still-disgruntled Caroline back into the school building, her arms folded defiantly across her chest. He’d slung one arm over her shoulder and was giving her a comforting squeeze. A little more snuggly than most teachers might get with a student, but it did seem to be calming Caroline down.
“Earth to Nancy,” Lena said, her voice breaking into my thoughts at last—though just barely. “Fries? Lobster rolls?”
“Sure,” I murmured, still only half listening.
The truth was, Caroline’s little demonstration had definitely caught my eye. No matter how worked up our town gets over its rituals and celebrations, her response to being left off the cast list of the Naming Day reenactment was … intense. It didn’t strike me as the reaction of a well-balanced person.
And the way that Stephenson’s arm was draped across her shoulders? That, too, got my Spidey Sense tingling.
And the look on Caroline’s face, now, as she moved back into the building? It wasn’t the look of a girl who’d come to terms with some disappointing news. Nor was it the face of someone who’d been placated well enough, cozy half hugs from drama coaches notwithstanding.
No, Caroline Mark stalked into the high school now looking grimly determined, by my estimation. Like someone who wouldn’t easily forget how badly she’d been wronged or slighted.
Like someone who was, maybe, just barely holding her tongue, and biding her time.