“A smart, suspenseful, and unpredictable thriller that will keep readers turning pages until every last lie is revealed.”—Karen M. McManus, New York Times bestselling author of One of Us Is Lying
For fans of The Darkest Corners and Pretty Little Liars, Amanda Searcy’s debut novel will have readers both disturbed and entranced by one girl’s present-day horrors and another’s haunting past.
All Kayla Asher wants to do is run. Run from the government housing complex she calls home. Run from her unstable mother. Run from a desperate job at No Limits Food. Run to a better, cleaner, safer life. Every day is one day closer to leaving.
All Betsy Hopewell wants to do is survive. Survive the burner phone hidden under her bed. Survive her new rules. Survive a new school with new classmates. Survive being watched. Every minute grants her another moment of life.
When fate brings Kayla and Betsy together, only one girl will survive.
An Excerpt fromThe Truth Beneath the Lies
I can’t see it, but I know it’s there.
Beat. Beat. Flash.
Beat. Beat. Flash.
One persistent pulse of the red message light for every two beats of my heart.
Beat. Beat. Flash.
Under the bed, in the arms of a stuffed bear, wrapped in a sweatshirt, zipped in a duffel bag, the flash cuts through my brain. You self-centered little bitch, it screams. It’s all your fault.
The heavy curtains printed with unicorns and rainbows block out some of the sun, but not enough to keep me from suffocating in this oven.
Above my head, a stream of tepid air spills out of the ceiling vent and deposits a thin layer of sand over everything. Whenever I blow it off, it comes back.
It’s a sick joke.
All of it. The sand, the sun, the unicorns. This place I’m supposed to call home.
Five months ago, the shuttle driver from the El Paso airport deserted us here. Somewhere near the Mexican border. Nowhere near anywhere else.
It was spring, and it was already hot.
Beat. Beat. Flash.
I’ve left it for twenty-three and a half hours this time. If I don’t call back before it hits twenty-four, the black burner phone will stop blinking. Then he’ll send someone to kill me.
It’s my choice.
Whatever that means.
There’s a timid knock on my door. “Betsy?” the voice asks, hopeful, as if somehow after entering the room, Betsy has turned into someone else. A happy girl with long, shiny hair and a big, bright smile. Not a sad, pale girl with a dark and crooked cropped mop, wearing only a grungy white bra and too-big shorts that sag around the waist.
No such luck, Mom.
She tries again. “Betsy, I don’t want you to be late for your first day of school.”
I pull the corner of the sheet over my exposed chest. I’m the mouse. The cat has my tail. My legs spin and slide and scrabble, but there’s no getting away.
Your debt will be paid in blood.
I grunt at the door. It’s enough to send her away. I can’t go to school. I don’t remember how to act in the company of other human beings.
At twenty-three hours and fifty-eight minutes, Mom comes back.
“Betsy? Teddy’s going to take you to school. Isn’t that nice?”
Teddy. I’ve avoided him all summer. Every time he drove down from El Paso, I stayed in my room. He and Mom talked and laughed in the living room, but I didn’t come out.
I’ve been a good girl.
I grab a shirt off the floor and stumble to the door. My fingers rattle the lock until it pops open. Mom shrinks back when she sees me.
“No,” I say. Her forehead wrinkles. My mouth twitches and jerks as it tries to remember what a smile feels like. “I can walk to school.”
“Don’t be silly,” she says. “Teddy will take you. He wants to.” Her face lights up every time she says his name. He’s not her boyfriend. But you would never guess that from the way she acts.
I look at her hard. She’s happy. She has a good job. Her cheeks have color. Her clothes fit, like she tried them on before she bought them.
I am a selfish little bitch.
I slam the door and fall to my knees. I have to make the call before it’s too late. I have to make it for her.
The carpet burns, but I dig my nails in and pull myself inch by inch to the bed. I rip open the bag and shake the phone onto the floor.
He picks up after two rings. “Good morning, sweetheart,” he sings. “Cutting it a little close today, aren’t we?” Hearing his voice brings it all back. The reason Mom and I left. The reason I’m far away in the middle of nowhere. The reason I’m alive. For now.
“You aren’t going to be late for school, are you?”
“No.” My voice sounds as dry and crusty as the desert outside.
“Well, I hope you have a lovely day.” It’s a lie. The happy tone, everything he says. All lies. “Just remember that there are lots of eyes out there. Lots of eyes that would love to get a look at you.” He laughs. “After all that time in your room, do you need a reminder of what can happen in the big, bad world?” It’s a rhetorical question. I don’t answer.
I will never, ever forget.
The pain that constantly gnaws at my stomach, floats tears behind my eyes, and makes my teeth bite into my lip won’t let me.
“I’ll talk to you later.” He chuckles and then hangs up. I want to throw the phone against the wall and watch it smash into a thousand pieces. But I can’t. He’ll call again. Whenever he feels like it.
I wrap the phone in the sweatshirt, place it in the arms of the bear, and shove the bag back under my bed.
Mom laid out clothes for me, like I’m a small child incapable of dressing myself. A white button‑up blouse and a flowered skirt that comes to just above the knee flop over my desk chair. I hold the skirt up. A different person would probably like it. Think it was cute.
The blouse is too see-through. I can make out the hint of my bra through it. I pull on a tight, opaque tank top and button the blouse up to my neck over it. Better.
The trip down the hallway makes me sweat.
“Don’t you look pretty,” Mom says when I turn the corner into the kitchen. She’s a liar. The hack job that is my hair sticks out at odd angles. I’m not wearing any makeup. The double shirts make me feel bulky. My knobby, pasty knees haven’t seen the sun in months. She should just say it. I look like walking death. I am walking death.
Teddy sits at the table and shovels a forkful of pancakes into his mouth. The pool of syrup on his plate assaults my nose and makes me want to throw up. Teddy’s tall, thin figure is all cowboy boots and Wranglers. Perched over his mouth of yellow teeth and stuck to his leathery skin is a neatly trimmed thick brown mustache. It twitches as he chews.
“Teddy came over for breakfast,” Mom says, as if the man sitting at our table isn’t enough proof of that. She rushes a plate of pancakes to me. My stomach won’t acknowledge it. It’s focused on the other thing on the table. Halfway between my plate and Teddy’s is a cell phone.
It’s girly. Pink. Sparkly case with a cartoon character. Nothing like the black monster that lives under my bed.
Looks can be deceiving.
Teddy nudges it toward me. “For you.”
“Teddy says every teenager should have a phone.” Mom fluffs flowers in a vase on the counter. She’s been practicing for her job at the flower shop. She just had her three-month anniversary. They gave her a raise.
Teddy nudges the phone again until it touches the edge of my plate. He laughs, showing that mouth of yellow teeth and sending microscopic drops of spit and pancake into his mustache.
“How else are we going to keep track of you?”
“Get the cops. My baby’s missing!” the woman screams into a borrowed phone.
I step back from my register. My checkout line in No Limit Foods is frozen, their eyes locked on her. They won’t remember I’m here until the spectacle is over.
My manager, Albert, rushes over and tries to soothe the woman. Natalie on register three rolls her eyes.
This is our fifth missing child.
Like every other time this summer, Albert will get the woman on her feet, walk her back to the stupid “castle” he made from six-packs of cherry cream soda, point to the child-sized doorway, and magically produce her missing little one.
Paper crinkles in my ear. I turn around.
A guy a couple of years older than me holds a bag of peanut M&M’s. He wears a gray hoodie--and a smug grin.
I look away.
“The mom’s totally a tweaker,” he whispers, and pops an M&M in his mouth. He moves forward until he’s so close behind me that I feel the heat radiating off his body. He smells like sugar and the slightest hint of masculine soap.
“She does meth,” he clarifies.
“Ah,” I say. He probably thinks he has enlightened me with his retro-grunge-boy knowledge of the seedy. I know the carefully created illusion he sees when he looks at me. Dark blond hair pulled back in a ponytail with the curled ends flowing out over my shoulder blades. Bright brown eyes surrounded by the perfect amount of liner and shadow to make them pop. Jeans that hug a toned body. In other words, someone who doesn’t belong in this part of town.
Albert can’t get the woman up on her feet. She’s too hysterical to follow his instructions. The automatic doors swish, and two cops enter.
They approach the woman and peer down at her dirty, stringy hair; rotting teeth; and stained clothes. One pulls out a notebook and asks a question I can’t hear. An anguished howl leaves the woman’s mouth. The second cop mumbles codes into her shoulder radio.
A customer walks from the back of the store holding the hand of a tiny crying girl. Albert rushes forward.
“Found her!” he announces, and straightens his manager’s vest.
Albert’s a dick.
The hysterical woman leaps up and pushes past the cops to reach her child. Her cheeks redden, and her eyes dart from face to face as she grabs the girl by the shoulders. “Where were you? You’re going to get me in trouble.”
M&M’s guy’s breath tickles the back of my neck. “No way are the cops going to let her take the girl home.” He chomps down on more candies.
The social worker is already waiting outside. The cops wave her in, and she enters holding a gently used teddy bear.
“No!” the woman yells. “You can’t take her. You can’t . . .” She dissolves into a heap on the floor again.
The girl accepts the bear but doesn’t cuddle it close to her chest. She reaches out for the social worker’s hand.
This isn’t her first time.
“Poor thing.” The candy wrapper crinkles in my ear as he shakes out the last of the M&M’s. “I bet she cries all night.”
I nod. But it’s a lie. She won’t cry. She’ll sleep soundly in a strange house in a strange bed, the teddy bear cast off onto the floor. I know because the second time I was taken away, I didn’t feel sad. I felt relieved.
“My name’s Jordan,” M&M’s guy says. I take two steps forward so that I can turn around without running my face into his. He’s medium height, with brown hair that curls and frizzes in the cold summer humidity. Muddy-brown eyes. He’s kind of good-looking, I guess, in a boy-next-door way. But that arrogance is enough to turn anyone off.
The cops haul the woman to her feet and move the whole scene outside. My customers rise up onto their toes to watch.
“Do you want to get coffee or something on your break?” He crumples the empty wrapper in his hand.
“Sorry, I don’t have any more breaks.” Lie. I’ve just started my shift. He doesn’t move. “I have to get back to work.” I point to the line of scowling people who are coming down from their misery contact high.
As I ring up the next customer, I glance over my shoulder. He’s gone. Like he melted into the walls.
Home is a fifteen-minute walk from No Limit Foods. In the daylight, you can see who lurks behind the trees. You can see the trash and syringes discarded in the wild grass along the sidewalk. In the dark, only broken glass glitters under the weak streetlights.
My shift ends at ten p.m. I wear a long, oversized black raincoat with the hood up to disguise my hair and figure. A cold, wet breeze carrying the heavy scent of rotting vegetation brushes over my exposed face. I keep my head down, eyes locked on the cement. Out here, I’m just another junkie looking for a score. I get left alone. Mostly.
Ahead of me, a black sports car tears around the corner. Its headlights bounce over my face as it hits potholes and debris in the road. I look away as it passes.
At the end of the street sits Bluebird Estates, a prisonlike, three-story chunk of battered brick and cement, where the government sticks those of us it takes pity on. Tonight, its dim, buzzing lighting is joined by flashes of red and blue. Masses of them. I break into a run.
Fire trucks, ambulances, and cop cars pack the cramped parking lot. The door to the side staircase is open and surrounded by flapping, yellow police tape. I sprint for the front entrance.
Before I make it, a pair of meaty arms grabs me around the shoulders and forces my head into a powdered, pillowy bosom.
“Kayla, honey, thank God. I thought that was you in there.”
Mrs. Lacey releases me.
She raises one hand to the top of her head. The other rests on her hip. “I was going out the side”--she motions at Tippy, her little rat dog--“and, honey, I saw the blood. That girl’s clothes were torn right off her. Left her lying there on the stairs.” She peers up and shakes her head at the heavens.
At hearing the news, my breathing doesn’t speed up. My heart doesn’t race. My stomach doesn’t roll over. I should feel shocked. I should feel grateful that I’m standing in the parking lot with Mrs. Lacey and Tippy, yipping at my feet. I should feel something.
A team of paramedics crashes out the side door with a stretcher. She’s strapped down. Most of her body is covered with a blanket. An oxygen mask obscures her face. Mrs. Lacey cries out. Tippy barks.
A lock of her dark hair falls over the side. On impulse, I step forward to tuck it up neatly under her head, but Mrs. Lacey pulls me back.
I recognize the girl. We’ve waited at the bus stop together before school. She wore a navy-blue Northside High School sweatshirt. A silent understanding had passed between us. We weren’t meant to be friends. Her bus went one way. Mine, the other.
I know what happened to her. Dark stairwell, drunk guy, throwaway girl. I don’t feel anything because I’ve always known this would happen. I just expected it to happen to me.
The ambulance pulls away. Mrs. Lacey grabs me again and squeezes hard before leading Tippy off for his nightly potty break. In her eyes, I’m a nice girl. Quick with a smile. Keeps my nose clean. Helps an old lady with her groceries. Pets her horrible little dog. The other girl, the one who may or may not live, had to be broken and bloody on the stairs to get noticed.