6. Truth or Dare
"RISE and shine!"
Ella jumped up in bed as someone shouted joyfully and pounded on her door. She blinked the sleep from her eyes and glanced at the clock: it was eight-thirty. Why was someone waking her up at eight-thirty on a Saturday morning? Footsteps raced down the hallway until they stopped at her bedroom door.
The door flew open. Before she had any time to react, Daphne leapt onto her bed. All the air left Ella's lungs with an oomph. The smile on Daphne's face was a mile wide. Her red hair was not brushed and surrounded her like a frizzy halo.
"What are you still doing in bed?" she asked happily.
"Sleeping. Or at least I was." She pawed at the bed covers, trying to scramble out from under her stepsister.
"No, no, no!" Daphne laughed and swatted her butt as she crawled out of bed. With a squeak, Ella twisted around, covering her backside. "You have to get up. We only have till six-thirty, at the latest."
"You're in a good mood this morning," Ella noted. She walked to her closet, never facing away from Daphne in case the redhead took another playful swat at her.
"Everybody's in a good mood today." Daphne grinned. "Laufia went to get her hair and nails done, and then she was going to drive to Goose Lake to go shopping. She won't be back until dinner!"
"It's just my dad and us girls then?"
Daphne shook her head and bounced lightly on the bed. "Your dad has a play date with Mark Lancaster. We have free rein!"
While that news seemed to make Daphne giddy, all that Ella felt was nervous. She still didn't feel completely at ease in the Darling household unless her dad was nearby. But she also wanted her dad to be happy. This was the first real chance Byron had had to make a male friend in Swallowtail.
"So do you guys have plans for the day?" she asked. Half of her hoped any plans wouldn't include her, but the other half really hoped that the Darling girls wanted to hang out with her.
"Of course," Daphne replied. "Why do you think I woke you up?"
Rhia counted the bags piled high on the living room floor. "We've got, like, five different kinds," she said.
"Excellent." Daphne rubbed her hands together.
"What do we have for movies?" Rhia asked. Daphne sifted through all the DVDs in the cardboard box that Norma had carried downstairs. The redhead grinned.
"Everything under the sun that Laufia won't let us watch." She shook her head in joyful disbelief. "I don't know where you hide these things, Norma, but I've never been more grateful," The eldest Darling sat on the opposite side of the couch from Ella, looking bashful but pleased.
"Is this really what you guys do when you have the house to yourselves?" Ella asked. She couldn't figure out if this was a joke or not. When Daphne told her that she and the other two girls had plans that their stepmom wouldn't approve of, she had expected something more…well, more. "You just watch movies that you're not supposed to watch and eat junk food that you're not supposed to eat?"
All three girls exchanged looks, silently conferring. Daphne shrugged. "Yeah, pretty much." Rhia and Norma bobbed their heads in agreement.
"Do you have any better ideas?" Rhia retorted. Ella scratched the back of her neck, trying to think of a nice way to say what she wanted to say.
"I don't know," she started slowly. "Don't you have friends from school or something?"
"Well sure," Daphne replied. "But most of them live a few towns away. Did you think Swallowtail had a big enough population to fill an entire high school all by itself?"
"And a few towns away in the boondies doesn't mean the same thing as a few towns away in the cities," Rhia put in. "My nearest friend lives an hour and a half away from here. And that's if you're speeding."
"Still," Ella persisted, "I'm sure we can think of more things to do besides watching movies all day." Daphne, Rhia, and Norma spent a moment sending each other looks with latent messages once again. Ella felt slightly envious of their effortless, nonverbal communication.
Finally, Rhia said, "As long as we do something that would piss her off, then I'm happy. Otherwise the day just feels like a waste."
"I'm good with that." Daphne pointed at Ella. "You think of something fun to do. In the meantime, we're watching a movie."
Kerri was never the kind of kid who could pull an all-nighter. It had been four nights in a row that her stomach had kept her awake. Even the thought of eating made her feel queasy now. She didn't believe for a second that Ella was innocent in all this. Somehow, she must have figured out that she and Nat had set her up to be eviscerated by Laufia.
Today was the day, though. Laufia was gone, and Norma, Daphne, and Rhia were keeping Ella busy. Kerri was going to finally get some sleep.
"Truth or dare."
The other girls all turned to look curiously at Ella. She had been thinking about something they could all do together that Laufia wouldn't necessarily approve of, but she also didn't want to do anything too rebellious lest she fall out of her stepmother's good graces. Truth or dare seemed like good middle ground; it was a childish game that would probably irritate Laufia if she was home, but it was basically harmless.
"You want to play truth or dare?" Rhia asked somewhat derisively. Ella shrugged and nodded at the same time. She half expected the other girls to laugh and scoff at her—after all, who played truth or dare unless they were at a slumber party?
When it appeared that Ella was serious, Rhia shrugged. "Why not? It was your idea, so you go first." They all gathered around the mountain of junk food on the floor. Norma was the only one who looked a little apprehensive, so Ella decided not to start with her. She scrutinized the other two and ultimately settled on Daphne.
"Truth or dare?"
"Truth," the redhead said without any hesitation. Ella knew immediately what she wanted to ask, but she was wary of asking it. Her question could put a stop to their game before it even had the chance to begin. Screw it, she decided and blurted out her question.
"Who is Nicholas Darling?"
The room became so silent that she could hear Norma's anxious breathing beside her. The older girl hid behind a curtain of blonde hair and refused to meet Ella's gaze. She could see Norma's hand shaking against her knee, though.
"You said you wanted to do something that would piss Laufia off," she reminded them. "And she obviously doesn't want anyone talking about him."
While Norma wouldn't look at her, Daphne couldn't seem to look away. She resembled a panicked deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle. Finally, Rhia sighed.
"She's right, we did say that." Rhia lightly elbowed Daphne. "Just tell her."
"Fine." Daphne gave in and then pointed sternly at Ella over the junk food pile. "But you didn't hear this from me." Ella nodded solemnly. "What Kerri told you about Laufia not having any sons wasn't entirely true," she said. "Nick is Norma's older brother." The blonde sitting next to Ella suddenly became very interested in a piece of lint stuck in the carpet. "Six year ago," the redhead went on, "when Nick was leaving for college, he and Laufia had a huge fight. So bad he swore he would never speak to her again. At least, that's my understanding; I didn't actually come here until he was already gone. As far as I know, Laufia hasn't seen or heard from him since."
"Yeah," Norma said, dragging herself into the conversation reluctantly. "That's why college is such a sore spot for my mom. I think she assumed when I left that I would run for the hills and never come back."
"That's not the worst idea I've ever heard," Rhia muttered, then quickly added, "No offense."
Norma sighed resignedly. "None taken. I know that my mom can be a…prickly person." It was an apt description, but it gave Ella the mental image of Laufia as a blonde porcupine.
Before the atmosphere in the room could become too serious, Daphne smiled brightly and clapped her hands. "Okay, my turn! Rhia, truth or dare?"
Rhia snorted, an unladylike expression that their stepmom definitely would have frowned upon. "Dare," she said with a mischievous smirk. "Somebody's got to keep this game from turning into a total snooze fest."
Once Kerri found a position that seemed to sooth her unsettled stomach, she was careful not to move. Even when one side of her nose became stuffy, she resisted the urge to roll over in bed.
She couldn't remember precisely when she drifted off to sleep, but at some point she must have. It felt like only seconds later when she was rudely awakened from her restful state. She glared daggers at her alarm clock as it blared obnoxiously from her bedside table. When her vision came back into focus, she slapped her palm against the off button and gaped at the time.
It was only two in the afternoon! Who had set her alarm for two o'clock?
Kerri groaned and buried her face in the pillow, but her momentary peace had vanished. She clutched her unhappy stomach as she gingerly extracted her body from the bed sheets. Perhaps if she could find an empty room with a couch and a television, then she might be able to lull herself back into unconsciousness.
Mountain Dew was the soft drink that was in the shortest supply, and now it was all gone. It was at that moment that Rhia recalled seeing several four-packs of Arizona Tea in the basement. Before Norma could even blink, Daphne and Rhia both touched their noses and shouted "Not it!" Poor Ella just looked confused, but of course she had yet to venture into the basement.
Norma stood up and tried to rub the speckled carpet impressions from her bare knees. "There's no need for that," she said and rolled her eyes. "I'll get them." She left the living room to a chorus of thanks, which she waved away. At least this would excuse her from the next round of truth or dare.
The Darling mansion was old, and the basement was the oldest part of it. It was cold and musty; the only thing it was used for nowadays was storage and a storm shelter whenever the occasional tornado blew through town.
Nobody enjoyed going down to the basement, not even Laufia. The concrete walls were a dank gray color, and all of the junk created eerie shadows. Plus, there was always the off chance of stepping on a mouse trap if you didn't know or forgot where they were set.
Slowly, Norma opened the basement door. A whoosh of cold air blew around her feet and caressed the apple of her cheek. The chill lingered on her skin. Something about the subterranean level of the house resonated with the dark recesses of her mind. It called to her and terrified her all at the same time.
The hinges creaked softly, an indicator of age that refused to completely go away no matter how much WD-40 Laufia ordered Norma to apply. As soon as her bare foot touched the wood step that descended below the house, the Skeleton Man appeared at the bottom of the stairs, materializing out of the shadows. He didn't surprise her this time; in fact, she was half expecting to see him. What better place to see scary hallucinations than in a creepy basement?
Her other foot joined the first on the step, and she stared at him steadily. "You're not real," she said. She braced herself, expecting him to laugh or scream at her. He did neither of those things, though. Instead, he gazed up at her from under his skull mask and smirked.
"Are you sure?" he asked in a low, even voice. Norma frowned. He didn't usually interact with her. Of course he spoke to her, but that was usually to scare or taunt her. She took another step down. The specter stayed where he was.
"You're just in my head," she said. Whether she was trying to convince him or herself, she wasn't certain. Her breath hitched on the last word, causing her voice to quiver. This didn't escape the Skeleton Man's notice. His smile grew wider.
"Technically, everything you see and hear is in your head. What makes me any less real? After all," he took a step forward, "perception is reality."
"You c-can't hurt me." Norma silently cursed her nervous stutter. She tried to slow her racing heart. All she had to do was make it down one more step. She just hoped that he didn't suddenly decide to rush up the stairs.
"An interesting theory," he replied nonchalantly. He purposefully gripped the handrail. "Why don't you come down here, and we'll find out if you're right?" His black eyes glittered with malice. Before she had the chance to wet her pants or run away, Norma forced herself down one more step—the step that finally allowed her to reach the light switch.
The stairwell was instantly bathed in the bright, fluorescent light of an energy-efficient bulb that hung from the ceiling. The Skeleton Man vanished along with the darkness. Norma stood unmoving for a moment, stuck in petrified paralysis. She was prompted to action when she heard Daphne call out to her, asking what was taking so long.
"Just a minute!" she shouted back and jogged down the rest of the stairs. The Arizona Tea was easy to locate; it was with all of the other unrefrigerated goods that were waiting to be shelved in the kitchen. She took two four-packs in each hand and climbed the stairs. She was about to use her elbow to turn the lights off, but an impulse made her pause. Norma looked over her shoulder. There was nothing out of the ordinary. "Guess I was right," she said smugly and then left the basement.
Back in the living room, she carefully arranged the iced tea next to a bag of Cheetos. It wasn't until she sat down again next to Ella and Daphne that she noticed there was someone else in the room.
"I thought you didn't want to hang out with us, Nat."
The younger blonde crossed her arms in a surly manner. She turned her nose up at her older sister, as if even the idea of mingling with these teenagers was distasteful to her. "I said I didn't want to watch movies with you," Nat sniped. "I never said that I didn't want to play truth or dare."
"I figured we could let Nat take a turn since she just joined." Daphne's tone was diplomatic, but Norma could see past the façade; she didn't like the idea of Nat inviting herself to their party.
The circle of girls seated on the living room floor quieted as Nat looked at each of them in turn, contemplating whom she should pick on. Predictably—or at least Norma saw it coming—Nat settled her icy eyes on Ella Kingsley.
"Ella," she smiled and adjusted her pale pink blouse, "truth or dare?" Norma could almost see the internal battle being waged inside Ella's mind. Nat clearly wasn't the brunette's biggest fan, so a dare might go pear-shaped. On the other hand, she probably didn't want to tell Nat any deep, personal secrets either. Knowledge was power—a concept every teenage girl understood.
"Dare," Ella said with finality. Norma nodded. That was what she would have chosen if she was in her stepsister's position, the lesser of two evils.
Nat grinned. "I dare you to break into my mom's private pantry." Daphne's eyes widened, and she whistled.
Ella narrowed her eyes, and Nat just continued to smile prettily. The brunette scowled. "You know what is in there, don't you?"
Nat scoffed. "Are you kidding? You've been here for a month, tops. And my mom already likes you better than her own daughter. There's a snowball's chance in hell that she would tell me a secret and not you. Besides, if anyone knows what's in the pantry, it's Norma."
Norma suddenly found herself under the intense scrutiny of four sets of eyes. She usually felt terribly guilty whenever she had to lie to her sisters because of her mother, but in this case, she was completely honest when she said, "I have no idea what she keeps in there."
"So," Nat said drawing out the word slowly. "Are you going to do it, Ella?"
The brunette shrugged, but by the rigidity of her spine, Norma could tell that she was nervous. "I guess. I'm not entirely sure how to pick a lock, though."
"No need to worry about that." Rhia jumped to her feet excitedly. "Laufia probably has the key hidden somewhere in her office." The others quickly scurried after Rhia, leaving Norma alone in the living room. She stood there, wringing her damp palms together, and wondered if she should stop them—if she even could stop them. It was one thing to play a childish game that Laufia would find distasteful, but it was a whole other thing to go prying into Laufia's private business. Pandora's Box came to mind.
Byron Kingsley sat on Mark Lancaster's front porch. Each man had a can of beer sitting on the porch banister. Bruno happily danced around their chair legs until Mark got fed up with the mutt. Now, Bruno was dashing across the front yard playing an endless game of fetch. No matter how many times Mark threw the ragged tennis ball, the dog never seemed to tire.
"How long have you had him?" Byron asked, nodding to Bruno's retreating figure.
"He was my sister's dog initially. She gave him to me when I retired this last year."
"You seem kind of young to be retired."
Mark chuckled and accepted the slimy tennis ball from Bruno as he came trotting back. "I'm not that young," he said. "Definitely not young enough to snag a pretty wife like yours." He watched Byron carefully to see how he would react to the comment. The other man surprised Mark, though. His easygoing countenance tensed, making him appear slightly ill at ease.
"That's how we met, through work," Byron said. "Her late father was an investor in the company I work for. We met each other at a conference in Boston."
"Did you know much about her then?"
Byron laughed, but there was little humor in the sound. "I wondered when you were going to ask me about that. Believe me, we had a long conversation about our past relationships. It was the most uncomfortable date of my life."
"And you married her anyway." Mark raised his eyebrows at the younger man, impressed.
Byron shrugged. "I did it more for Ella than for myself."
Mark winced. "Hope you didn't say that to your wife."
"It's all right, she knows. That was one of the things we discussed. After Lacey, my first wife, passed, I knew I wouldn't feel that way again with anyone else. Laufia said the same thing about her first husband, but for the sake of our families…" Byron trailed off.
Mark broke the tension filled silence by whistling for Bruno.
"Ella deserves a good mother," Byron finished. He patted the dog on the head, feeling inexplicably sad all of a sudden. The cheerful animal by his feet was a small comfort.
For some reason, Ella had expected the key to Laufia's private pantry to look more ominous. Like one of those large, ornate keys from fairy tales—the kind of key that held the freedom for a princess locked away in a tower. But it was a perfectly ordinary key, attached to an ordinary keychain.
Rhia, Daphne, and Nat were gathered around her in the kitchen. Norma was hanging back by the doorway, on the fringes of the group. She watched apprehensively from a distance.
"Well?" Nat prompted her impatiently. Ella took a deep breath, picked the key labeled with the letter P, and slid it into the lock. She breathed out as the door swung in. The group around her stepped a little bit closer, arching their necks for a glimpse within. There was no big reveal, though; on the contrary, the inside of the pantry was pitch black. Figuring that there must be a light somewhere, Ella slowly moved into the pantry with her arms outstretched, searching.
"Does anybody else smell that?" Rhia's voice was muffled; it sounded like she was pinching her nose. Ella nodded and pulled the collar of her shirt over her mouth and nose. The aroma in the air was a combination of sweet and sour that made her stomach do flip-flops.
"Hey, I think I found the light!" said Daphne. There was a click, and then a single bulb illuminated the small room. Ella braced herself to see something horrible, but once again her expectations were let down. The pantry was filled with shelves, upon which sat containers and baskets holding fruits and vegetables.
"Has anyone figured out where that smell is coming from?" asked Rhia, peering closely at the shelves.
A basket of ripe, red apples caught Ella's eye. They were the same color red as the roses in Laufia's garden. The light from the ceiling made them shine, reminding Ella of the perfect apples that were supposedly on teachers' desks. As if in a trance, Ella saw her own hand reaching out to take one. She probably could have stopped herself, but there was something about those apples that was enticing.
Her fingers closed around one of the red fruits. It seemed to be about the size of a baseball. As she lifted it, Ella felt the apple scrape against the bottom of the basket. Suddenly, a buzzing noise filled the room. Fat, black flies flew from the basket of apples and swarmed the girls. A chorus of shrieking joined the buzzing of the flies. Nat, Rhia, and Daphne fled the room, swatting at flies that were circling their heads.
Disgusted, Ella dropped the apple. It landed by her feet and rolled over, exposing the other side of the fruit, which was black and rotted. She gagged and quickly covered her mouth. A group of flies flew at her eyes and nose. She left the apple where it fell and bolted for the open door. Before any more of the flies could escape, Ella closed the pantry and fumbled with the key. When she heard the click of the lock slid back into place, she slumped against the counter.
All of the girls stood in the kitchen, wide eyed. Everyone but Norma, who was no longer even in the doorway.
"That whole basket of apples must have been rotten," Daphne observed, looking a bit green. "There were too many flies for it to just be the one." They were silent after that. Ella didn't say what she assumed everyone else was thinking. They hadn't even had the chance to look in the other containers. What if more than just the basket of apples was spoiled? And that's where Kerri's food had been coming from for the past few days.
Those apples didn't remind Ella of smiling teachers anymore. Instead they made her think of Snow White naively biting into the Queen's poison apple.