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“The author twists and turns at all the right moments. Even the keenest mystery buffs will be hard-pressed to predict the book's finale, which packs quite the emotional and physical punch. Captivating to the very end.”
READ THE BEGINNING
--Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“This thriller has plenty of appeal for teens looking for a book that will keep them guessing…this is one exciting ride.”
“This thriller has plenty of appeal for teens looking for a book that will keep them guessing…this is one exciting ride.”
“Throughout the book Stokes continues to masterfully plant crumbs and red herrings on the road to solving the mystery. The action is nonstop in this dark, psychological thriller. Readers will be on edge until the satisfying conclusion.”
“Throughout the book Stokes continues to masterfully plant crumbs and red herrings on the road to solving the mystery. The action is nonstop in this dark, psychological thriller. Readers will be on edge until the satisfying conclusion.”
--VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates)
"Whatever you do, do NOT get a manicure right before reading LIARS, INC. because you will ruin it chomping your fingernails down to the nub. This story twists and turns and screeches around every corner, but still manages to be a thriller with a big heart.”
--Kristen Lippert-Martin, author of Tabula Rasa
"This high school mystery provides a believable viewpoint from a not-so conventional character and heartwarming relationships. What else could you want from a YA thriller such as this?"
READ THE BEGINNING
THE MIDDLE IS THE BEGINNING OF THE END
I don’t make to-do lists, but if I did, today’s would have gone something like this: 1. get drunk, 2. get laid, 3. go surfing (not necessarily in that order). Noticeably absent from the list: get arrested. And yet here I am, spending my eighteenth birthday with my back against the wall of the Colonel’s hunting cabin, two FBI agents prowling the dark with their guns drawn, both trying to get me to confess to the murder of my friend Preston DeWitt.
“It’s all right, Max,” one of them says. “We just want to talk.” It’s the nice agent, McGhee.
“How’d you guys find me?” I ask, stalling for time. I push my long bangs out of my eyes with the hand that isn’t clutching a gun. To my left, I can just barely make out a razor-thin beam of gray light creeping in under the back door. I debate making a run for it, but it’s too far away. By the time I get there and undo the bolt, both agents will be on top of me.
“Colonel Amos tipped us off,” Gonzalez says. That’s the other agent. He’s kind of a dick. “Your little girlfriend ain’t as smart as she thinks she is.”
My girlfriend, Parvati. The Colonel’s daughter. I knew hiding out here was a bad idea.
“Where’s Preston?” McGhee again.
“I don’t know.”
“Did you kill him?” Gonzalez sounds like he’s already made up his mind.
“No. Of course not.”
The blackness ripples in front of me. One of the agents is moving. I can hear him inching his way across the floor. Slowly, methodically, like I’m a rabid raccoon and he’s a guy from animal control.
“Don’t come any closer.” I wave the handgun back and forth in front of me. “I don’t want to shoot anybody.”
They probably don’t think I’ll do it. They’re right. I’ve never shot a gun before. I’m not even sure if I know how. But if there’s one thing I learned from spending a year on the streets, it’s that people are afraid of weapons.
“Everything is going to be okay, Max.” Soothing voice. Another quiet scuff. They’re closing in. I have to do something. I point the gun at the ceiling and pull the trigger. Nothing happens. Apparently I don’t know how. I swear under my breath. Then I remember what Parvati told me. You just slide the lever and pull the trigger. I fumble with the little lever on the side of the gun and feel the bullet enter the chamber. I shoot at the ceiling again. Fire erupts from the muzzle. The light fixture explodes and glittering shards of glass rain down on my shoulders. The gun shudders violently, but I manage not to drop it.
The agents mutter four-letter words as they duck and cover. It’s all the distraction I need. With my ears still ringing, I lunge for the back door. As soon as I open it they’ll be able to see me, but all I have to do is make it to the woods. I can lose them in the trees.
As I throw open the door, I hear shouts. Hoping the feds won’t shoot me in the back, I cover the distance between the cabin and the edge of the tree line in just a few strides. It’s as black in the forest as it was in the house, but I’m not afraid of the dark or what hides within its shadows. To me, Mother Nature isn’t nearly as scary as human nature.
I plunge through the shrubbery, branches clawing at my face and arms. I hear McGhee and Gonzalez behind me, crashing through the brush like angry bears. Lengthening my stride, I propel myself forward. I know these woods. I know where I’m going. The river. These guys aren’t superhero TV FBI agents. They won’t go over the cliff.
But I will.
I’ve done it loads of times. Never while being chased, but still, it’s easy. Run. Push off. Fall. Sink. Emerge.
The moon shucks off a veil of clouds, illuminating the widening path in front of me. I can see where the trail dead-ends at a sheer drop-off. Water roars, just out of sight. My tennis shoes crunch gravel as I accelerate. Blood pounds in my ears. Where’s Preston DeWitt? I don’t know. That’s the truth. Not the whole truth, because it’s too late for that. Even if I told the feds everything, they wouldn’t believe me.
My left foot lands at the edge of the cliff. I push off with all my might, rocketing my body out toward the middle of the river, far away from the jagged rocks below. As I plummet through the crisp night air, I think about whether things might have been different if I had just told the truth from the beginning.
About six weeks earlier . . .
The truth is, it all started the day I tried to get detention. I tended to be late a lot and occasionally fell asleep in class, so I usually got it without much effort. Not that week, though. It was Friday, fourth period, when my girlfriend, Parvati Amos, strutted by my desk in a shiny black-and-red dress that looked like a sexy superhero costume.
“I didn’t see your name on the list for tomorrow,” she murmured, just loud enough for me to hear. Parvati was an office assistant during third period. Between that and writing for the school newspaper, the girl knew everything about everyone.
“Working on it.” I had already tried being late to Algebra and swearing in Spanish class. For some reason, all my teachers were in a charitable mood that week. Or else they were just too lazy to fill out the paperwork for a detention.
Parvati leaned in as she slid into the chair behind me, just close enough for me to catch a whiff of her vanilla perfume. “Work harder.” She was wearing a scarf made out of a bright orange-and-red fabric with gold embroidery. I wondered if she’d taken scissors to one of her fancy saris. She liked pushing the limits with her parents.
I glanced around the room, as if the solution to my problem might lie between the row of pastel file cabinets and the bulletin board featuring cartoon drawings of famous figures from American literature. If I didn’t get assigned Saturday hours, my parents would assign me an even crueler punishment—babysitting my three younger sisters. Not only would I end up covered in glitter pen and strained peas, I’d miss my weekly rendezvous with Parvati.
Her dad had forbidden her to see me, but we quickly figured out a way around that. Every Saturday I went to detention and she went to newspaper club. What our parents didn’t know was that these activities only took two hours, instead of four. That gave Parvati and me two uninterrupted hours of alone time every weekend. Two hours that I didn’t want to miss.
The tinny chorus of Boyz Be Bad’s unfortunate hit, “Doll Baby,” interrupted my train of thought.
My English teacher, Ms. Erickson, glared at the class over the tops of her pointy glasses. “Whose cell phone is that? Please bring it to my desk.”
“It’s mine,” I blurted out. Around the room, I heard snickers and giggles. There was no way I, Max Cantrell, boy voted most likely to drop out of school and become a roadie for the all-girl hardcore band Kittens of Mass Destruction, had a Boyz Be Bad ringtone. But Ms. Erickson didn’t know that.
I slid out of my seat and started making my way to the front. My eyes skimmed across the rows of students, trying to figure out who it was that owed me big time.
“Max. Now.” Erickson gave me the evil eye. She held out her hand, wiggled her crimson fingernails.
“Coming,” I muttered, shuffling the rest of the way up to her desk. I slipped my cell phone out of the center pocket of my hoodie, double-checked to make sure it was turned off, and slid it in the general direction of Erickson’s outstretched talons.
She grabbed my phone and made a big show of depositing it into the top drawer of her desk. “You can come get it after school,” she said. “You can pick up your detention slip then as well.”
Score. I gave her what I hoped was a look of apathy tinged with frustration and then headed back to my desk.
Parvati tapped me on the shoulder. “Smooth,” she whispered.
I peeked back at her. “You have no idea.”
She winked. “Oh, but I do.”
Resting my head on my desk, I let Erickson’s nasal voice fade into the background. I played with the shark’s tooth pendant I wore on a leather cord around my neck, poking the sharp point into the fleshy pad of my fingertip. The necklace was a gift from my real dad. It wasn’t exactly my style, but it was all I had left from him and I only took it off to shower and surf. He had been an oceanography professor at UCLA and found the tooth when he was scuba diving during a research trip.
Hands went up around me—Erickson must have asked a question. I focused my eyes on the sleeve of my shirt. She called on Parvati, who rattled off the definition of irony. What was ironic was that I had to get in trouble to have the thing I wanted most in the world—time with my girlfriend.
I didn’t blame her parents for wanting her to stay away from me. She was smart and rich and pretty, and I was none of those things. We both joked that she had only started dating me to piss them off, but sometimes I wondered if it was true. I knew I was decent-looking, tall and thin, with messy brown hair that managed to look cool even right when I rolled out of bed, but I wasn’t the kind of guy that girls drew hearts around in the yearbook.
Parvati was gorgeous, though, with skin the color of almonds and eyes so dark that her irises receded into her pupils. She had hacked her waist-length, inky black hair to just above her shoulders at the end of the summer. Sometimes I pretended to miss it—I mean, long hair is totally hot—but the shorter cut fit her feisty personality. She refused to be the half-Indian Barbie her mother wanted her to be.
I imagined burying my face in what was left of her hair, tracing her pillowy lips with my fingers, inhaling the scent of her vanilla perfume. My brain wanted to take things further. Parvati and I hadn’t had sex in almost a month, since the Colonel caught us in the family hot tub, called me a despicable little shit, and told me if I ever came back he would kill me. Slowly.
The bell rang and I sat up with a start. Lunch. Parvati was deep in conversation with the girl sitting next to her. “Newspaper stuff,” she mouthed, scribbling something in the sticker-covered mini-notebook she carried everywhere with her.
“I’ll save you a chair,” I said. It was our little joke. Half the school would have killed for our seats in the cafeteria, but no one ever took them. You needed an invitation to sit with the Vista Palisades All-Stars, at the long table right in the middle of the caf. We sat there because we were friends with the school MVP, the football team’s star running back—Preston DeWitt.
I grabbed my books and headed for the hallway. I had barely made it out the door when I felt a hand clamp down on my arm. I looked down. Red fingernails. I turned, expecting to see Ms. Erickson, thinking maybe somehow she had figured out I lied about my phone. But it was Cassie Rhodes, first-team all-American breast stroke champion. (At least that’s what her T-shirt said.)
I pulled loose from Cassie’s formidable grip and gave her a look. I didn’t think she’d ever spoken to me before.
“Max, right?” she said.
“Yeah. So?” I looked down at her arm again. She had the muscles of a marine. I knew swimming was good exercise, but damn.
“How much do you want?”
I glanced up, thinking maybe I could figure out what she was talking about by her expression. No luck. “What do you mean?”
“For taking my detention.”
Oh. That. I imagined Parvati and me parked at the beach overlook, our hands all over each other. If Cassie only knew.
She pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of her purse and slipped it into my fingers. “I would have missed our semi-final meet. You totally saved us. I never would have guessed you were a girls’ swimming fan.”
“Yeah, well, go team, you know?” I slid the folded bill into the pocket of my hoodie. “Thanks.” I hadn’t given a surfing lesson since September, so money was tight. Besides, Cassie could afford it.
She leaned over and gave me a half-hug. She smelled like a whole freaking garden of flowers. I hoped Parvati wasn’t lingering nearby watching this. She could be a little jealous sometimes.
“Talk to you later.” I sneezed. Pretty sure I’m allergic to flowers.
“For sure.” Cassie flashed a smile that could’ve been the “after” picture in a tooth whitening commercial. The fluorescent lights reflected off her shiny lip gloss, the whole effect nearly blinding me.
I turned away and strolled down to the cafeteria, thinking about the best way to spend twenty bucks. Grabbing the least toxic-looking things from the hot lunch line—a chicken sandwich, a basket of limp french fries, and a chocolate chip cookie—I headed toward my seat.
Parvati and Preston were already at the table. So were a few guys from the football team, some guy from the tennis team who’d won a couple matches at Junior Wimbledon, and pom-pom captain Astrid Covington and her friends. None of them even looked up when I sat down. They were used to having me there, Preston’s outcast playmate. They probably thought I was his drug dealer or something.
I actually met him the way I meet most people—through surfing. He’d signed up for a lesson at my parents’ boardwalk shop. When he showed up on the beach, wearing high-end surfing clothes and carrying a thousand-dollar board, I planned on hating him. Obviously he was just another rich kid padding his extracurricular résumé. He’d take one lesson, check surfing off of his badass to-do list, and then run back to the country club.
But Preston was legit. We stayed out for five hours on our first day. He went from struggling to pop up on his board to going after his own waves. A few lessons later, Pres was almost as good as me, and we’d hung out together ever since.
“So you and Swimfan. What was that about?” Parvati’s voice was light, but her eyes were slitty. She had obviously seen me with Cassie.
Preston sat at the head of the table where he could see everyone and be part of the All-Stars’ conversations when he so desired. “Yeah, what was that about, Maximus?” He swiped at his phone with one finger and then angled it in my direction. Pres had an obsession with recording people. At school. At parties. In the football locker room. He definitely had some boundary issues. “The lovers are fighting,” he intoned. “Let’s hear what the guilty party has to say.”
“Get that thing out of my face.” I grabbed for Preston’s phone. He didn’t even know what had happened. He was just trying to stir up shit as usual. With his shiny blond hair and green V-neck sweater, he looked more like a golf pro than a shit-disturber, but looks could be deceiving.
“Is this your first fight?” He turned the phone toward Parvati. “You guys might want this moment captured for posterity.”
Parvati faked like she was going to karate chop Pres in the throat. Still grinning, he slipped his phone back into his pocket.
She turned back to me. “Let me guess. That was Cassie’s phone playing Boyz Be Crap.”
“Yep. Apparently the fate of the Vista Palisades girls’ swim team has now been secured, since yours truly took her detention.”
“Ah,” Parvati said, nodding. “What’s the opposite of collateral damage?”
“Collateral benefits?” Preston suggested. He was half-listening to us and half-listening to one of the football players talk about next week’s game.
I pulled the twenty out of my pocket and snapped it open in front of them. “Speaking of benefits.”
“No way. She paid you?” Parvati’s eyes widened. “Who knew lying could be so lucrative?”
“Lawyers,” Preston said.
Parvati smirked. Her mom was a defense attorney. “And politicians,” she shot back. Preston’s dad was a U.S. senator.
Sometimes hanging out with them felt like being miscast in a primetime teen drama—one where everyone else was rich. My parents, Darla and Ben, owned a souvenir shop called The Triple S. Sun, sand, and surf. Mostly we sold hermit crabs and five-dollar T-shirts.
I peeled the bun from the top of my chicken sandwich and squirted a couple packets of mayonnaise on top of a translucent tomato slice that had seen better days. Even smothered in goo, the sandwich still managed to be dry enough to make me gag.
Parvati’s eyes scanned the caf, a pen poised over the mini-notebook balanced on her lap. She wrote a gossip column for the Vista Palisades High Gazette and was always jotting down seemingly random observations.
“Maybe you should join the twenty-first century,” Preston said. “Use a tablet or a laptop like a legit reporter.”
“I have a laptop,” she said, “but the battery is fried.” She scribbled something down and then looked up, her gaze locking on to something over my shoulder. Before I could even ask what she was looking at, I felt fingers tap me on the arm.
I craned my neck to see who was talking. Amy Westerfield stood behind me in her silver and blue cheerleading uniform, awkwardly transferring her weight from one foot to the other.
Parvati stared at Amy like she was an endangered species that wanted to eat out of my hand.
“Yeah?” I said, expecting another grateful “thank you” for preventing a swimming catastrophe of epic proportions.
Amy leaned over close to me, resting her forearms on the table. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “I have a proposition for you.”
The day was turning more surreal by the minute. On a normal day, no girl besides Parvati even spoke to me, and now I’d been approached by school royalty twice in an hour. “Oh?” I said, taking extra care not to let my gaze drop below the neckline of Amy’s cheerleading outfit.
She fished around in her purse, pulled out a permission slip for the senior Civics field trip to Coronado Naval Base, and slapped it down in front of me. “My parents wouldn’t sign this. I’m grounded and they don’t want me to have a whole day away from school with Quinn. Ten bucks if you help me out.”
Quinn was Amy’s meathead jock boyfriend. Even though I had nothing in common with either of them, I knew how bad it sucked to be banned from your significant other.
“Why not just sign it yourself?” I asked.
“Because I’d get caught. And suspended. And kicked off the squad. And grounded for a jillion years.” She pulled a pen from her purse.
“What makes you think I can do a better job than you?” My eyes flicked across the table at Parvati. She was chewing on one of my french fries, watching the proceedings with what seemed like mild interest.
Amy shrugged. “Because you don’t write in big, bubbly letters?”
“Fine.” I grabbed the pen from her hand. “What’s your dad’s name?”
Parvati slapped her hand on top of mine. “Twenty bucks,” she said.
“Fifty bucks,” Preston said with a languid smile.
“Preston!” Amy looked a little offended.
“What?” He adjusted the gold band of a watch that cost more than my car. “I’m a businessman.”
A mass of wrinkles formed across Amy’s normally smooth bronze forehead. “I don’t have that kind of cash on me.”
“No worries. Max here’ll take an IOU,” Preston said. “If you don’t pay he’ll just have an attack of conscience and confess his little deed.”
“I will?” I looked back and forth between Preston and Parvati.
“You will,” Parvati assured me. She arched a thick black eyebrow at Amy. “Name?”
“Tom. Tom Westerfield.” Amy’s tan skin was starting to turn blotchy and red in places. I wondered if she was that nervous about forging a permission slip or if she was just mad at being taken for fifty bucks.
She coached me on the signature and I practiced a couple times on a napkin. When she nodded her approval I scrawled the name on the form and handed it back to her.
“Thanks, Max,” she chirped, slipping the permission slip back inside her purse. “It’ll totally be worth it.” A couple of other girls in blue and silver waved at her from across the cafeteria, and she practically skipped over to their table.
The bell rang, and most of the guys from the football team got up as a group. They all had fifth period gym. “You coming?” Our center, a guy named Nate, looked straight through me to Preston.
“Catch up with you guys in a minute,” Pres said.
Nate grunted and turned to follow the others. They lumbered off like a herd of buffalo.
“Let me know if any of your football buddies need their permission slips signed,” I told him. “I’m seeing serious business opportunities here.”
“Sounds fun. Almost like old times, eh Parv?” Preston said. “Like our shenanigans at Bristol Academy. Too bad you weren’t there too, Max. Parvati and I ruled that school.” He smiled to himself. “Good times, good times.”
Parvati gave him a dark look. “Yeah, except those ‘good times’ got us expelled, and these little fibs have the potential to make us cold, hard cash. She gestured around the table with one hand. “Liars, Inc. All of your duplicitous needs serviced by Max et al.”
“Et al.?” I glanced back and forth between the two of them.
“Us, obviously.” Parvati’s skin was glowing the way it did after a major hookup session.
“You two are both loaded,” I protested. “And college-bound. Why would you want to help with an unethical and possibly illegal business?”
“My parents have been stingy lately,” Preston said. “And as you know, I have expensive vices.”
He was referring to his gambling habit. He bet on everything: online poker, college basketball, women’s tennis. Once he told me he won fifty bucks on the outcome of a minor military skirmish in the Middle East.
“It’d be a good training exercise for me,” Parvati added.
I snorted. Her main goal in life was to work for the CIA, and if there was one thing she did not need any training in, it was how to lie. When the Colonel caught us in the hot tub, she turned on the tears in five seconds, telling her dad that nothing had happened, that we were just kissing. And the hilarious thing is, he seemed to believe it, even though our clothes were strewn across the deck.
“Fine,” I said. “If you two want in, then you’re in charge of drumming up more clientele.”
“Word of mouth seems to be working so far,” Parvati said. “What is that? Seventy bucks in an hour? Not bad.”
“I’ll spread the word a little,” Preston added. “Liars, Inc., huh? Could be just what we need to liven up our senior year.” He slid his chair back from the table. Parvati and I followed his lead. The three of us dumped our trays.
Pres thumped his right fist twice against his chest. “Be good, you two.” He headed toward the gym.
Parvati and I turned down the main hallway where all of the seniors had their lockers. “So I’ll see you tomorrow around ten,” she said with a wink.
“Meet you by my car. Same as usual.”
“We’ll talk more about our new business venture.” Her voice lowered to a growl and her eyes practically smoldered, like the idea of running a mini crime empire with Preston and me really turned her on.
“Okay.” I wasn’t convinced that anything was really going to come of it, but I’d talk about the new Boyz Be Bad album or the vegan-friendly cafeteria choices if it was going to make her keep looking at me like that.
Parvati was leaning up against the side of my beat-up Ford Escort by the time I got out of detention. Her wheels were a lot nicer, an almost-new VW Jetta with air conditioning that actually worked, but it was too conspicuous. For some reason—probably just to see if her parents would do it—she had requested a purple paint job for her last birthday. Now the whole school referred to her car as the Grape.
“Max time.” She glanced around to see if anyone was watching before giving me a peck on the cheek. “My favorite time in the whole world.”
I unlocked the door for her and we both tossed our backpacks into the backseat.
“So,” she started, as I pulled away from the curb, “Preston and I had a little brainstorming session last night about what other services we could offer our fellow classmates.”
The muscles in my neck tightened. “You went over to Preston’s house?”
“No, on the phone, silly,” Parvati said. “Don’t be jealous. I’m all yours.”
I believed her, but I was still jealous. Pres and Parvati were friends before I knew either one of them. They had both attended the same ritzy private school until they managed to get expelled together as juniors. Neither of them ever told me exactly what they did to get kicked out. Pres claimed substance-induced amnesia, and Parvati vaguely explained it as “stealing a bunch of stupid stuff from different classrooms, rare books from English, chemicals from chem lab, that sort of thing.” Apparently this was a dare game they played with their friends: one group would steal a bunch of crazy shit, and another group would have to put it back without getting caught.
Each time I asked her about the story, the details got more vague, and part of me always imagined this string of thefts culminating with Parvati and Preston having wild sex on the headmaster’s desk. Both of them assured me this was not the case, but I still couldn’t shake the idea completely.
I pulled my car out into the street and headed toward the beach. “What’d you two come up with?”
Parvati ticked things off on the pads of her fingers. “Lying. Forging permission slips. Calling in sick for people. Switching tests. Creating alibis.”
“Alibis?” I raised an eyebrow. “Wow, we really are starting a life of crime.”
“Not for crimes,” she said. “More like cover stories. Maybe someone is grounded but wants to sneak out to a party, or maybe a guy wants to take his girlfriend to that crappy Seabreeze Motel for the night. We can pretend to have group projects to work on or make up overnight field trips, that kind of thing.”
I nodded. “I guess the next question is, what are we going to do with all the money we’re going to make?”
“Nights at the Seabreeze?” She laughed, but I knew she’d be down for it if I was, even though it was way below her standards.
“Is there any chance we could sneak up to your dad’s cabin?” I asked. The Colonel’s cabin was on the outskirts of the Angeles National Forest, a remote wooded area an hour north of here. Parvati and I had driven up there occasionally this past summer so we could be alone, but her dad loaned the place out to his military buddies during hunting season, so it was only safe at certain times of the year.
“It’s still deer season.” Slouching down, she rested her head on my shoulder and sighed. “Trust me. You’re not the only one going crazy.” She reached across the center console and curled her hand around my thigh, her fingers toying with one of the fraying strands of my jeans. Her light touch was all it took to get me excited. The car swerved slightly as the wheel twisted a little in my hands. I swallowed hard.
Right on cue, we arrived at the Ravens’ Cliff Overlook parking area. The lot was empty except for a pea green Volkswagen bus covered in rainbow dancing bears and surf stickers. It belonged to the Jacobsen brothers, Vista P’s resident clan of surfing demi-gods. Pres and I liked to surf, but the Jacobsens were surfers: shoeless, sand-covered, hand-wiggling, “chaka brah” surfers. If the ocean was right, you never saw them at school before lunchtime.
I shut off the engine and looked toward the water. In the distance, the dark blue of the Pacific met the lighter blue of the sky. A seagull swooped low, dive-bombing the waves in search of a fish. I turned toward Parvati. It was always a little awkward, those few seconds before we started hooking up. “How was newspaper?” I asked, not caring remotely about the answer.
“Scintillating,” she said, wiggling her way out of a black cardigan sweater. Underneath, she was wearing a form-fitting T-shirt with the word “Succubus” printed across her chest and a pair of gray leggings.
My eyes followed the curve of her thighs. Skintight pants had a way of burning through the awkwardness. I leaned over and nuzzled my lips against her collarbone. “I find you pretty scintillating.”
“Oh yeah?” She reached down with one hand and reclined her seat, extending her neck to give me better access. “Any particular parts?”
I tugged at the collar of her T-shirt. “Maybe.” My hand inched the shirt downward, my lips trailing after it.
She squirmed as if I was tickling her. “You’re bad.” She lifted my mouth to hers, biting my lower lip softly as she snaked her arms around the back of my neck. My fingers reached up under her T-shirt, fumbling with the clasp of her bra. She kissed me harder. The windows got foggy. An hour and a half passed in an instant and my phone alarm chimed.
I sighed. “It’s time to go back.” We couldn’t be late. If we were, Colonel Dad would probably scramble a squadron of recon jets to find her. Her parents had threatened to send her to Blue Pointe Prep, a military school on the East Coast, if she got in trouble again. Being caught with me would be enough for them to make the call.
Parvati nodded, raising her seat back up. She reached beneath her shirt to hook her bra. “I know this sucks, Max. I’ll work on my parents, all right? Worst-case scenario, Mom and Dad said they’d shell out for a private room at USC if I behave until then and declare myself pre-law.”
“Great, so ten months from now you and I might get to be alone together.” I started the car and backed out of the parking place. “I thought you were going to major in Arabic or something.”
She leaned over to check her reflection in the rear-view mirror. She finger-combed her shiny hair. “You can be pre-law and major in Arabic,” she said. “I’ll play along for a while.”
I turned onto the road that led toward school. “More playing along,” I muttered.
Like the way she had convinced her parents that she and I were over by going to homecoming with Preston. Pres had called to make sure I was okay with the idea. He didn’t actually want to go to the dance any more than I did, but as the Vista Palisades football captain he was expected to show up. Parvati had actually wanted to go, which surprised me, but I guess even the coolest chicks get sucked in by stupid shit like high school dances. It had turned out to be no big deal and we all got drunk later on at Preston’s after-party, but she set up her “date” without even telling me, and I still got pissed when I thought about it. She never even apologized. “Sorry” wasn’t part of her vocabulary. She thought apologies were for the weak.
Parvati ruffled my messy brown hair, pushing my bangs back from my eyes. “Speaking of playing along, my parents said I could go to Preston’s party next week.” She blinked her long eyelashes innocently.
Of course they would say that—they loved Preston. Colonel Dad had no idea Pres and Parvati got expelled together from Bristol Academy. Senator DeWitt had donated a truckload of cash so his son could finish out the semester and then announced that Pres was switching to Vista P for his senior year to play for a bigger football district. Parvati’s dad would probably shit a hand grenade if he knew the truth.
“What party?” I asked. “I thought he couldn’t have parties anymore.” Senator DeWitt apparently had a shot at being appointed to the Presidential Cabinet next year, and he’d started cracking down on any activities that might be detrimental to his political career. He didn’t want any scandals.
“The one I made up so we can hang out.” Parvati winked. “I told my parents it was a Halloween party. Maybe Pres will let us haunt one of the spare bedrooms for an hour.”
“Yeah, maybe.” It wasn’t like Parvati and I would be the first high school kids to get it on at Pres’s house, but it felt a little sketchy. What was he supposed to do while we got naked?
“Oh come on, Max.” Parvati forced the corners of my mouth upward with her spangly blue fingernails. She leaned over and ran her teeth along my earlobe, sending a shot of chills down my spine and into my lap. “I promise to make it worth your while.”
“Well, when you put it like that,” I said, my face relaxing, “how can I refuse?”
Preston opened the door wearing ripped jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with a pot-smoking zombie. A half-empty bottle of Irish whiskey dangled from his left hand. “Welcome to the party,” he said in a slightly slurred voice. He made air quotes around the word “party.”
“Nice hair,” I replied. From the neck up, he looked like he was ready for basic training. He must have spent the time between football practice and now at the salon, getting what I jokingly referred to as his weekly trim.
“Fuck you, Max Factor. My helmet wouldn’t fit right if I let my hair get all long and girlie like yours.”
He disappeared into the cavernous living room, and I followed him through it and down to the basement, where a movie was playing on the big screen TV. Parvati was stretched out on the sofa in a black dress and knee-high socks patterned with glow-in-the-dark skulls. She sat up when she saw me. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she purred, but her voiced hitched slightly and the words sounded forced.
“Me too. Now she’ll quit talking so much.” Pres took a slug from the bottle of whiskey and then started fooling around on his computer. I flopped down on the sofa and started fooling around with Parvati.
As she crawled into my lap, I smelled alcohol on her breath. I wondered how long she’d been here, how long she and Pres had been drinking together. She glued her lips to the place where my neck met my shoulder and proceeded to suck hard enough to leave a mark. She pulled her head back for a second and admired her handiwork. Then she pressed her mouth to my skin again.
“I should be charging you for this,” Preston said. “You can be Liars, Inc.’s first official customer.”
“My parents aren’t the ones threatening to send me to military school,” I said. “It’s her alibi. Charge her.”
Parvati came up for air long enough to mumble something about putting it on her tab.
Preston picked up a yellow squirt gun and managed to hit the back of her head from across the room. “Seriously. Cool off, Pervy. I sit on that sofa sometimes. At least wait until the maid goes home so you can use a guest bedroom.”
Parvati wiped away a spray of water that was trickling down her neck. “What kind of weirdo just happens to have a loaded squirt gun lying around the house?”
“A weirdo with badly behaved pets,” Preston said, aiming the gun at his mom’s Himalayan cat, who was curled up on an empty bookshelf and minding its own business. The cat jumped when the spray hit it, hissing, nearly falling to the floor. It gave Preston a baleful look with its smooshed-in face before abandoning the shelf and padding its way up the stairs.
A girl screamed at us from the big screen TV. We all turned to watch as a man wearing a black sweatshirt with the hood pulled low swung at her with an axe. The silvery tip lodged in her forehead and blood spattered onto the camera lens. The scene cut away to another room in the house where the dead girl’s friends were giggling and doing each other’s hair.
“That’s what she gets for saying Woody in the Hoodie three times while looking in the mirror,” Parvati said. “If you’re going to be stupid, you deserve what you get.” Her voice sounded off again. Preston gave her a look but didn’t say anything. He took a long drink from the bottle of whiskey and then turned back to his computer.
I glanced back and forth between him and Parvati. “Are you two all right? You’re acting weird.”
They both started to speak at the same time, but then the maid yelled from the top of the stairs. “Preston. Enchiladas in fridge, okay? You just heat. You need more help before I go?”
“No. We’re good, Esmeralda. Gracias,” he hollered back, without looking away from the computer screen.
“Man, you’d starve if it wasn’t for her,” I said.
He grunted in agreement. “I know. You should invite me over to your house to eat. I want to kick back around the kitchen table and have a nice family dinner.”
I snorted. “If you call Hamburger Helper a nice family dinner.” I never invited Pres or Parvati over. I wasn’t embarrassed by where I lived, but I figured they’d rather hang out in their own bigger, quieter houses.
“At least your parents make an effort.” Preston tipped back the bottle of whiskey back again.
Parvati yanked me up from the overstuffed sofa. “I believe I owe you a life-changing time.”
“What’s your hurry?” I lowered my voice. “I just got here.” I wasn’t sure if I felt bad about taking advantage of Pres or if I was going into panic mode at the thought of getting to be with Parvati again. I hadn’t found the time to take precautionary measures today and didn’t like the thought of lasting only five seconds, especially in Preston’s house.
She turned to Preston and fluttered her thick black eyelashes in his direction. “We’ll be back, all right?”
“Can I record you guys?” He turned toward us and held up his phone.
Parvati threw a yellow sofa pillow in his direction, and he took aim with the squirt gun again. “You’re a freak,” she said, using a second pillow as a shield.
He rolled his eyes and turned his phone around so that he was filming himself. “Sadly, it appears there will be no footage of this epic union.” He pocketed his phone and fiddled with the gold band of his watch. “Go on. I wouldn’t want to be the guy who stands in the way of true lust.”
Parvati’s eyes narrowed. “For all you know, it could be true love.”
I coughed. Even though we’d been dating for four months, I didn’t think Parvati and I were anywhere near the L word. Not that I wasn’t crazy about her. Love just always seemed like something for people who were older. Stable. People who had their shit together.
Preston grabbed the TV remote off a glass end table. “You’re not capable of love, Pervy.”
“You wish you knew what I was capable of.” She scoffed.
I couldn’t help but feel like a second conversation was taking place in the dead space between their words. I looked back and forth again, wondering if they’d had a fight.
Pres flicked a button and axe-wielding Woodie became pulsing music videos. He punched the volume up a few notches, and his features melted into his usual relaxed grin. “Use the guest room on the main floor. And don’t say I never gave you anything.”
Parvati practically skipped up the stairs and down the hall. I followed behind her, creeping around each corner as if I might run into Senator DeWitt or Esmeralda at any moment. The guest bedroom was at the back corner of the house, its wooden door pulled tightly shut. I froze up for a moment, half-convinced Parvati’s father would be hiding in the bedroom with a squadron of Air Force commandos.
“Come on.” She pushed the door open. The room wasn’t much bigger than the rooms at the Seabreeze, but it was nicer, with muted blue walls and pastel paintings of flowers and lakes. The bed was wide, with a fluffy gray comforter. Parvati collapsed backward into the center of the mattress, pulling me down with her. Threading her fingers through the belt loops of my jeans, she pulled my body up against hers, her mouth finding the tender spot she’d been sucking on earlier. “Max time,” she murmured. “My favorite time in the whole world.”
I rolled her over so that she was on top of me. Her skin glowed. Her eyes were dark tunnels, made even deeper by the thick eyeliner goo she was wearing. “Are you guys fighting?” I asked. “Things seemed kind of tense downstairs.”
“It’s fine.” She brushed her lips against mine. “I think he’s pissed about something online. Probably lost more money.”
“Are you sure? Because I always felt like he was into you—”
“Preston is only into Preston,” she said. “And I’m only into you.”
I loved the way she said it. So matter-of-fact. But I didn’t want Pres to be pissed at us. I didn’t exactly have a lot of friends. “I don’t know, Parv—” My voice cracked in the middle of her name.
“Oh that’s so cute. You’re nervous.” Her fingertips expertly undid the button of my jeans and whatever I’d been planning to say died on my lips. “I’ll relax you,” she said. Pushing my shirt up to my armpits, she kissed her way downward from my chest.
My muscles went weak. I sank deep into the soft mattress, like it was an ocean and the current was pulling me under. My breath caught in my throat. I was drowning, in a good way. Nerve cells sparked across my body, little fireworks that made my arms and legs twitch. Parvati slowly worked her way back up, landing soft kisses on my abs and chest until we were eye to eye and I was staring into those dark hollows again. She tugged her slippery dress over her head, and the heat of her body made my heart stutter. Blood pulsed hot in my veins. I muttered something, a combination of words that didn’t make sense together.
She laughed her tinkly little laugh. I grabbed a condom from my wallet, and we quickly lost the rest of our clothes.
Parvati took the foil package from my hand and opened it. “I got this.” I watched her for a moment, my eyes taking in every inch of her bare skin. Then I pulled her tight against me and we started having sex. Her thick hair fell around my face like a tiny cave. The room disappeared.
Time passed. Slowly. Quickly. I had no idea. Wave after wave crashed down on me. I just kept moving. Faster and faster until everything blinked hot. I exhaled forcefully and Parvati collapsed on top of me a few seconds later, her body slick with sweat.
We lay there, motionless, for several minutes. “God, you are so amazing.” I buried my face in her hair.
“You too,” she said, lifting up so that I could see her face. Her eyes were shining; her mouth curled into a wild smile. “Still feel tense?”
“Maybe a little.” I grinned. “Why? Are you up for a replay?”
She dragged one fingernail down the middle of my breastbone. “Pres said his mom won’t be home until after midnight.”
“Oh yeah?” Fake or not, this was going down on the books as Preston’s best party ever.
About twenty minutes later, Parvati and I got dressed and then laughed at our failed attempt to remake the bed. The comforter hung crookedly over one side and was lumpy where I had tried to tuck it underneath the row of feather pillows.
She shook her head. “I hope Pres has Esmeralda on speed dial. It’ll take someone trained in the fine art of bed-making to fix this.”
“I know, right?” I said. “Let’s go find him and see if he’ll share those enchiladas. I’ve kind of worked up an appetite.”
Preston was still downstairs, the television now muted. He was typing out an email, his fingers rattling the keys with machinegun-like ferocity. When he saw us, he minimized the screen. “I trust you guys didn’t break anything?” He scanned both of us up and down. “Nobody needs medical attention?”
“The pillows might need a little fluffing,” Parvati said.
Preston snickered. He slouched back in his chair, relaxed, like he’d fixed whatever was bothering him. Or maybe he was just drunk enough not to care anymore.
“I owe you one, Pres,” I mumbled, slicking my still-damp bangs back behind one ear.
He smirked. “Wait until you get the bill.”
It made me think about Liars, Inc. again. About alibis. I wasn’t the only guy in school who struggled to be alone with his girlfriend. Would I have paid for the opportunity Preston just gave us? Hell yeah. Suddenly the idea of coming up with cover stories for classmates in the same situation made a whole lot of sense.
After all, it wasn’t like we’d be hurting anybody.