True Lies: A Lying Game Novella

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1

BIG GIRLS DON’T CRY

It’s a bright Saturday morning in June, and I’m lounging in my terry-cloth yoga pants in my family’s large kitchen. On the table sits a carafe of coffee, just-baked lemon-poppy muffins, and a pitcher of freshly squeezed orange juice from our orange tree in the front yard. Out the window, the Arizona sky is a postcard-perfect robin’s-egg blue, and a hummingbird flits to the feeder hanging over the back patio. It would be an idyllic, peaceful moment—if it wasn’t for my little sister, Laurel, being such a pain.

“Pleeeeease, Sutton?” Laurel flutters her long eyelashes at me. Her voice is grating. “You told me I could ride with you to the Vegas’. I’m failing Spanish, and Thayer is my only hope! You promised!”

I pour myself a glass of juice. “I never promised anything like that.”

“Yes, you did.” Laurel pouts. “You’re going over there anyway to see Mads. What’s the big deal?”

I stare at Laurel, taking in her long blonde hair, big blue eyes, and pink, pouty lips. We couldn’t look more different—I have dark hair and am tall and thin compared to her short, curvy frame. Then again, I’m adopted, while she’s our parents’ biological daughter. We’re not even in the same gene pool.

Laurel’s bottom lip trembles like she’s about to cry.

“You’re being overdramatic,” I snap.

“So are you,” Laurel shoots back, giving me a pointed look.

I stand up from the table and walk over to the fridge. I don’t need anything from it, but I want to hide my surprised expression. Something in Laurel’s voice puts me on high alert.
Does she know?

It’s true that I’m going over to see my best friend, Madeline Vega, soon—she and I have plans to give each other mani-pedis. And yeah, it normally wouldn’t be a big deal to bring Laurel along so she could hang out with her best friend, Thayer, who is also Madeline’s little brother. And it’s annoying that I sometimes feel like Laurel’s personal chauffeur, but whatever.

The thing is, I just don’t want to take Laurel with me today. I don’t want my little sister staring at me the whole ride over. I don’t want her asking questions, getting in my business. I don’t want her guessing at what’s wrong. And I definitely, definitely don’t want to hear about “Thayer this, Thayer that.”

Like I said, Thayer’s her best friend. Their relationship is totally public—it’s Laurel-and-Thayer, bound at the hip. Everyone always asks if they’re dating, and even though the answer is no, it’s obvious Laurel has it bad for him. Thayer gave her this gold Kate Spade charm bracelet for her birthday, and she’s constantly touching it, staring at it, making sure it’s still on her wrist—and making sure that everyone knows it’s from him.

But to me, Thayer is something very different: my secret boyfriend. Or, at least, I hope he still is.

Laurel smirks. “I heard about your fight with Thayer yesterday, you know,” she says. “Everyone did. Not that I’m surprised or anything that you bit Thayer’s head off for no reason at all. That’s kind of your MO. Sutton Mercer, Queen Bee-yotch.”

I glare at my adoptive sister. Once upon a time, we were really close. I’m talking identical twins close—we’d sleep in the same bed every night to stay safe from monsters, wear the same outfits when the family went out to dinner, and spend hours making up synchronized swimming routines in the backyard pool. But then something happened. I became me, maybe, and Laurel became Laurel. And now we rarely speak.

“Watch who you call a bitch, Laurel,” I say evenly, my voice taut with warning.

Laurel places her hands on her hips. “Like you being a bitch is a huge secret?” She narrows her eyes. “Why were you so mean to Thayer, anyway? What did he ever do to you?”

I fiddle with my favorite locket around my neck, trying to remain impassive.
A lot,
I think.

Thayer and I have been secretly together since last summer. It’s hard to keep up a secret relationship, though, even more difficult than maintaining one everyone knows about.

But just because we’re covert boyfriend-and-girlfriend doesn’t mean the rules of a relationship don’t apply. So when Thayer started slacking off on texting me back, I got annoyed. I would have to wait whole class periods sometimes for a reply—and two days ago, Thayer didn’t respond to a text for six whole hours, going dark for a whole chunk of time after school. I am Sutton Mercer, resident queen bee, and no one, especially not the boy I love, gets to treat me like an afterthought.

I figured Thayer needed a little talking-to.

So yesterday, between fifth and sixth periods, I pulled him aside at my locker. This was the first time we’d really talked in public, and Thayer looked uncomfortable, like he was the one who’d lose popularity points if he was seen talking to me. “What’s up with the radio silence?” I asked in a quiet voice as kids streamed past us. “Six hours between notes is not acceptable.”

Thayer’s brow furrowed. “Yesterday? I was busy,” he said after a moment.

“Too busy to text ‘I’m busy’?”

He shifted on his feet. “I’m sorry.”

“Well, where were you?” I pasted a smile on my face so everyone passing would think we were just having a silly, on-the-surface conversation. “Were you with Laurel?”

Thayer tilted his chin. “No, I wasn’t, but would it be so bad if I was with Laurel?”

I turned away, steeling my jaw.
Yeah,
I wanted to tell him. His friendship with Laurel annoyed the hell out of me. I knew I was the prettier sister, the one he wanted, but still. As hard as it was for me to admit, I was kind of jealous.

Thayer sighed. “You should be nicer to Laurel, Sutton. She looks up to you.”

“Me, nicer to her?” Rage boiled in my blood. “Whose side are you on?”

“Yours, but . . . forget it.” Thayer suddenly looked exasperated. He put his hands on his hips. “And you know, I thought you weren’t that kind of girl.”

“What type?”

“The obsessive type. The type that needs to know where I am at all times.”

All sound fell away. No one calls me obsessive. And seriously, who was Thayer to question me? He was supposed to say he was sorry, he’d text sooner, he’d do anything to keep me in his life. I didn’t need this crap.

I barked out an ugly-sounding laugh. “Look who’s calling who obsessive.” An evil smile spread across my face. “Mads told me about the picture you keep of me in your bedroom. My eighth-grade class portrait? How long have you been carrying that around?”

Honestly, I don’t know what made me blurt that out—and so loudly. People stopped in the hall, stared at Thayer, and started to snicker. Guys nudged each other and rolled their eyes. Girls made sad faces at Thayer, pitying him. It was a scene that had been played out many, many times before: Sutton Mercer putting a boy with a puppy-dog crush on her in his place. Thayer was just another one of my victims.

Thayer’s cheeks bloomed strawberry red. His eyes narrowed with anger, but there was a look of hurt on his face, too. Without another word, he wheeled around and stormed down the hall. I brushed my hair over my shoulder and turned back to my locker, pretending to be unruffled, but inside, my heart was pounding. Thayer and I had never fought before. Was he actually mad?

We haven’t spoken since then, either—no good-night texts, no smiley-face IMs, not even a “like” on Facebook. Now there’s a nagging pit in my stomach that I can’t shake.

Laurel stares at me, expecting me to answer her question. She might not know what my fight with Thayer was about, but sometimes I wonder if she suspects something is going on between us. Thayer is her best friend, after all—could he really keep that from her?

There are footsteps in the hall, and our father walks into the kitchen. “Dad!” Laurel lunges toward him. “I really need Thayer’s help to study for Spanish, but Sutton won’t drive me even though she’s going to see Mads! Tell her it’s not fair!”

Dad gives me a look. “You should take her, Sutton. What’s the big deal?”

I squeeze my orange juice hard, wanting to break the glass. Of course he takes her side. Doesn’t ask me what’s going on in my life, doesn’t ask me why I might not want to—nope, it’s whatever Laurel wants, Laurel gets.

Perfect Laurel. Straight-A Laurel. Never-gets-in-trouble Laurel. Basically, in my parents’ eyes, the complete opposite of me. Sometimes I wonder if my parents would have even adopted me if they’d had Laurel first. I mean, she and my parents share actual blood. How can I compete with that?

“Fine,” I grumble, slamming my glass on the counter. “But give me twenty minutes, okay?”

“Thank you!” Laurel trills.

I storm out of the room without answering, hating that she’s won again. But at least I get twenty minutes. And I’m going to use it wisely. With some distance, my fight with Thayer feels petty and ridiculous. I shouldn’t have hauled out that eighth-grade-photo reference. Then again, he also shouldn’t have called me obsessive.

But if he wants an apology, I’ll be the bigger person and give him one. It’s not like I could bear to lose him. Because that’s the thing: Deep down, Thayer has a hold on me. It’s something I can’t explain. Something I’m a little embarrassed about—he’s my best friend’s younger brother, after all. But when he looks at me, I melt. When he kisses me, fireworks explode in my head. When he doesn’t call, I worry.

I shut the door to my bedroom, plop on my bed, and pick up my iPhone, scanning yet again to see if Thayer has texted. Nope. But as I’m about to dial Thayer’s cell, my screen lights up. It’s the Vegas’ landline. My heart leaps. Maybe Thayer has come to his senses. Maybe he’s calling me.

I slide the unlock function. “Hello?” I say in an unaffected voice as though I haven’t been stressing about this for the past day.

“Sutton?” It’s Madeline, though, not Thayer. Her voice is high-pitched. “Can you come over now?”

I frown. “Um, I need a few minutes, actually. Why?”

“No, I need you here now.”

Concern floods over me. Madeline’s voice cracks and wobbles—it sounds serious. “Are you okay?” I ask cautiously. Her home life isn’t exactly awesome; Mr. Vega has a terrible temper.

“It’s . . .” she falters, then clears her throat. When she speaks again, her voice is steady. “It’s Thayer. He’s . . . gone.”

2

THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF A WALK IN THE PARK

Two days later, Madeline, my other best friend Charlotte Chamberlain, and I stand in the craggy shadows of Sabino Canyon, a set of mountains, canyons, and hiking trails near my house in northern Tucson. The majestic, earth-toned outlines of the Santa Catalina Mountains loom in the distance. Cacti jut as far as the eye can see, and from somewhere close comes the skunky odor of a herd of javelina boars.

“Okay, everyone!” a voice calls. “One search party up this ridge, another up the one to the east!”

Yep, a nature hike this isn’t. The three of us—and about a hundred others—are on a hunt. For Thayer.

Thayer. It still hasn’t sunk in. Apparently, Thayer didn’t come home Friday night, the day of our argument. Nor has he answered his phone since. Or been seen by anyone—his soccer buddies, kids he knew from his various after-school jobs, girls who crushed on him.

Now it’s Sunday, and the Vegas’ concern has turned to abject panic. There are plenty of stories of kids getting lost in the desert. Thieves beating kids up on remote trails and leaving them for dead. Kids crashing their bikes or cars on desolate stretches of road and not being found for days. Sabino is one of Thayer’s favorite places to hang out—he and I have come here plenty—so this is where the family decided to start their search for him.

Madeline, who looks polished in Paige Denim cutoffs and a sky-blue tank top that shows off her smooth, alabaster shoulders, sniffs loudly next to me as she watches the first group hike up the west trail. I put a hand on her shoulder. “Are you going to be able to do this?”

She dabs at her eyes. “I just can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe no one has heard from him. You’re sure you haven’t?”

My shoulders stiffen and sweat trickles down the back of my white T-shirt.
Does Mads know something?
But when I check her expression, she just looks desperate, eager for any kind of clue. “No,” I admit. “I’d tell you if I did.”

Just saying it breaks my heart. Thayer disappeared without telling me, too. I don’t know whether to be frantic or furious, or feel straight-up guilty. What if what I said to him at school drove him away? What if he was really hurt and embarrassed? Where could he have gone? Why didn’t he tell a soul?

Madeline’s father, a tall, imposing man, waves a hand to indicate that everyone follow him up the east ridge. A group of people trail after him, including my mom and dad. Mads holds us back for a beat. “I don’t want to be too close to my dad right now. Things have been really bad since Thayer left, if you know what I mean.”

I give her shoulder a quick squeeze. Charlotte, who’s got on khaki Bermuda shorts, blue Converse, and a pink tee that accents her red hair, clucks her tongue. Mads has never gone into detail about the situation with her dad, but it’s no secret that he’s got a temper. Once, when he thought Thayer had scraped the paint on his Mercedes, he slammed a door in their house so hard it splintered from its hinges.

We wait as most of the searchers start up the mountain, their sneakers crunching over the rocks on the hard desert ground. It’s amazing how many people have come out to look for Thayer—not just adults but tons of kids from Hollier High, including a lot of popular seniors. I wonder what he would think if he knew so many people were here for him. Popularity doesn’t faze Thayer. Even though he came back from soccer camp last summer as a huge star, he’ll still talk to anyone, even the biggest loser in the school. Nor does he care whose party he’s invited to, whether he’s wearing the “it” jeans of the year, or if he’s totally out of the loop about the newest, hottest music everyone’s talking about. By disappearing, though, Thayer has become infamous, an even bigger star.

We’re about to start climbing when Mads lets out a whimper. Sooty smudges of mascara ring her eyes. I reach out gently, and she sighs. “This is just so pointless,” she protests. “The whole search is useless. It doesn’t matter whether we comb the trails now, or three hours from now, or even three days from now. If Thayer went anywhere, he left town. He’s not wandering in the wilderness. I know my brother.”

I blink rapidly. “So you think he just ran away?”

“Yeah.” Madeline kicks at the dusty ground. “He’s been talking about it for a while.”

“Because of your dad?” If Mr. Vega was rough with Mads, he was ten times worse with Thayer.

“Basically,” Mads says.

“Where do you think he went?” I ask.

Before Mads can answer, Laurel appears, having come back from somewhere at the front of the group. She’s decked out with hiking poles, Merrill hiking shoes, and cargo shorts with a zillion pockets. There are even binoculars slung around her neck. She’s playing this “my best friend is missing” thing to the hilt, crying at the drop of a hat, nervously checking her phone, getting all my parents’ sympathy. Meanwhile, I’m the one really suffering. And I have to do it in silence.

“The rangers have maps marked up with the search-area radius,” she says, pointing toward the mouth of the canyon. Clusters of uniformed rangers in tinted aviators hover by an information board, which is covered with an enormous map of the park dotted with a constellation of bright pins. “Let’s go talk to them and see what they say.”

I straighten up. “Mads thinks Thayer just ran away. He isn’t out here.”

Laurel shrugs. “It can’t hurt, right?”

She looks at Mads, and Mads raises a shoulder and lets Laurel lead her over to the park rangers’ makeshift base station. Charlotte follows, and I lope behind, annoyed. I don’t like Laurel’s insta-bond with Mads just because they’re both close to Thayer. She’s tried to infiltrate my group before, but she’s not one of us and she knows it.

Laurel glances at me over her shoulder. “Maybe you could grab Mads some water from the cooler, Sutton? Thanks!”

I glare at Laurel’s back. Who does she think she is, bossing me around? But to my horror, Madeline nods at me. “Water would be awesome, Sutton.”

Madeline then links her arms with Laurel and lets my sister lead her toward the rangers. Charlotte follows like the good little sheep she always is. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. But not getting water will make me look like even more of a bitch, so I spin and retreat to the coolers that have been set up on one of the flat parts of the trails. I shoulder past a group of whispering kids from school to fish a small water bottle out of a nearby cooler packed with rapidly melting ice and bottled drinks.

“Hey, Sutton. How are you doing?”

I look up to find Garrett Austin, Charlotte’s ex, idling hesitantly next to me.

“I’m, uh, okay,” I answer.

Garrett’s gaze remains on me, like he wants to say something else. I glance over his broad shoulders to be sure Charlotte is off with Laurel and Madeline, oblivious to us. Garrett and Charlotte didn’t exactly part on great terms, and she might be pissed to see me talking to him. More than that, he has no reason to think Thayer’s disappearance has any special impact on me . . . unless he heard about our fight. Laurel said that it was all over school.

Finally, Garrett grabs a cup of water of his own. “Good. The whole thing is pretty messed up, huh?”

I shrug. “Yeah.”

As I move to head back to my friends, Garrett touches my hand. A flush creeps up his neck. “Um, I was wondering,” he begins, trying a little too hard to sound casual, “do you want to hang out sometime?”

My eyes widen.

“Bad timing, I know,” Garrett says quickly, waving around us at the other searchers. “It’s just that I’ve been meaning to ask you, and—”

A small chime sounds, cutting him off. Saved by the bell. I dig into my back pocket and whip my phone out. The area code flashing across the screen is unfamiliar, but right now, I want anything to get out of answering Garrett. I shrug at him apologetically. “Um, I have to take this.”

Garrett looks disappointed but nods. I crunch a few paces away. “Hello?” I say into the phone.

“Hi, Sutton.”

Thayer.

It’s like all of the oxygen is immediately sucked out of the atmosphere. I feel dizzy and hot. I peer cautiously around and, satisfied that no one is paying any attention to me, duck behind a chipped, brown pickup truck.

“Where the hell are you?” I demand, feeling both furious and relieved at the same time. At least he isn’t dead somewhere. At least he isn’t at the bottom of one of these ravines. “I’ve been so worried!”

His voice crackles with static. “I can’t tell you.”

I lean into the receiver. “Look. If this is about what happened at my locker the other day, I’m sorry. You’re overreacting, though. You don’t have to leave town just because we had a fight.”

“Sutton, it’s not because of that.” There’s something almost light to his tone, as if he thinks it’s funny that I assumed he left because of me.

It infuriates me. I turn and face the hikers up the ridge. “Do you know what I’m doing right now? I’m at a search party—for you! People think you died.” My voice cracks slightly, and I will myself not to cry.
I thought you died,
I want to say, but pride keeps me from it.

Thayer sighs. “I wish I could explain what’s going on, but it’s really hard.”

“Try me,” I insist.

He breathes out. “Just know that I’m safe, okay? But you can’t tell anyone else you talked to me.”

My brain feels like it’s about to explode. “Thayer, didn’t you hear me? Half the town is looking for you! They’re combing the canyon right now! They’re talking about making ‘missing’ posters, putting you on a milk carton! Can I at least tell Madeline?”

“Not yet. I’ll get in touch with her in my own way. She knows I needed to get away, too. For now, please keep this quiet—from everyone. I just need my space right now, okay? I’ll come home when I’m ready.”

“But . . .” I protest, my head spinning.
Space? What does he mean—space from me?

“Seriously, Sutton. I mean it,” Thayer warns. “Can you do that?”

I pause. In the silence, I listen as hard as I can to the sounds on his end, trying to see if I can make out a highway, or music, or anything indicating where he might be. A giggle sounds in the background. A girl’s giggle. Then, another voice chimes in. “What’s up, Mary?”

Mary?
“Who’s Mary?” I growl, furious. I’m at a search party looking for Thayer’s body, and he’s hanging out with some girl named Mary?

“Just a friend,” Thayer says, his voice hurried. “Look, I’m sorry, Sutton, but I have to go.”

“Wait!” I call. That same giggle sounds again. Then the phone makes a blipping sound, and when I glance down at it, the screen reads
call ended
. I stare, dumbfounded. He hung up on me!

I bite my lip and stare into space for a few long moments. What. The. Hell?

The hikers continue up the ridge, their silhouettes black against the brilliant blue sky. Mr. Vega is shouting for everyone to walk faster. Madeline is talking earnestly to the ranger, Laurel’s hand resting protectively on her shoulder. Part of me wants to shout to Mads that it’s a huge sham—Thayer is fine. But then I look at Laurel again, and a ribbon of jealousy courses through me. I don’t want her to know my news. I don’t want her to know anything. I’ll tell Mads later.

And then I think of that girl’s giggle. If Thayer wants his space, he can have it. But if he thinks I’m going to sit around, waiting for him to come back—if he comes back—he’s got another think coming.

I shove my phone back in my pocket and return to the hikers on the trail. Just as I hoped, Garrett is still standing by the cooler, practically in the same place I left him, like I pressed pause in our conversation when I answered Thayer’s phone call. When he sees me, his face perks up. It instantly makes me feel better. This is how a guy should treat me. With respect. With admiration.

I pull my hair from its bun and shake it out so it tumbles down my shoulders. “Sorry about that,” I say, offering my most conciliatory smile. It takes a little effort to get the corners of my mouth turned up, but I manage. Then I take a deep breath and hope that Charlotte will understand what I’m about to do. “To answer your question,” I say, slinking closer to Garrett, “I’d love to hang out. How about tomorrow?”

And naturally, Garrett says yes.

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