CHAPTER 1: OLIVIA
My dad used to tell me there are people inside of marbles. They were always talking to him. Whenever I wanted to play a game, he would pick the one with marbles. Only we wouldn’t actually move the marbles. My dad would just stare at them. Finally I stopped asking to play games. But that didn’t matter. My dad would still get out the game with the marbles, and he’d put the marbles in their little resting spots and watch them. And listen.
At Samantha’s house, her three-year-old sister, Cara, is playing a marble game with one of her friends. They’re off in a corner by themselves, probably wondering why all these people are stuffed inside the house, wearing dark clothes, crying randomly, and talking in hushed voices. Cara wasn’t at Samantha’s funeral. Does she understand that her sister is never coming home?
I move away from Cara and fill a plate with cubes of cheese, triangles of salami, and round crackers. I chew, swallow, and make small talk. But mostly I just stare out the window at the pool and remember the last time I was here. Sixth grade. A pool party for Samantha’s birthday. She and I were friends then. We stopped being friends sometime in seventh grade. I think it had something to do with green slime, a ham sandwich, and a guy we both liked, though I’m not really sure anymore. It all seems pretty stupid now, which gives me a lumpy ache in my throat, and makes me feel like a fraud for being here. But the whole junior class was at the funeral, all ninety-eight of us.
Make that ninety-seven.
Plus a good part of the rest of the high school. And although not everyone made their way here after the funeral, the house is still packed, with people spilled out onto the lawn, hovering by the pool, and clutching their paper plates as if they’re life preservers.
My best friend, Julia, slides up next to me. Her chestnut brown hair is arranged in its usual French braid, except a lot of strands that she missed are poking out today. She takes a loose bit and wraps it around her finger.
“Brings back memories, huh?” she says, following my gaze to the pool. “Remember that sleepover in sixth grade?”
“Yeah, that was fun.” Except now my brain jumps right from sleepover to sweet dreams. The Sweet Dreams Strangler.
I shake my head, trying to blot out the images seared into my mind by the news media. Images of Samantha, lying in a field wearing a beautiful dress, her head on a pillow, hair neatly arranged, hands folded.
Beautiful. But dead. Strangled. I don’t know what to say, even to Julia. I look back out the window. A cardinal is perched on the feeder, picking through seeds, scattering debris on the ground.
“It sure is stuffy in here,” Julia says.
I’m about to agree when a wall of cold air hits me. “Mrs. Young must have read your mind. Wow. That feels good.”
Julia scrunches up her face. “What are you talking about?”
“The air. She turned on the air. Don’t you feel it?”
“No. Are you under a vent or something?” Julia peers up at the ceiling.
“Here, switch places with me.”
“It’s just as hot here—”
“It’s just as cold—”
We say it at the same time. “I guess it’s just your wishful thinking.” Julia pats my shoulder. “Enjoy. I’m going to get some more to drink.”
I nod and head across the room, by the TV, where hopefully it’s warmer.
Goose bumps pop up on my arms. I rub them, but it doesn’t help.
Next to me Josh Wallace tosses a cube of cheese into his mouth. Is that sweat dripping off his forehead? Why am I the only one shivering?
I spot a decorative blanket on the couch. Should I? I tap Marcus on the shoulder. “Sorry, could you lean forward? I just need to get something behind you.” I tug at the blanket and drape it over my shoulders.
Julia is back with a drink in her hand. “Why do you have a blanket wrapped around you? Are you feeling okay?”
“Not really,” I answer. “What’s that noise?”
“That buzzing sound. Is that the TV? Maybe someone turned it on without switching on the cable box.” I fumble with the buttons on the TV. An image flashes across the screen, and a voice blares.
Funeral services were held today for Samantha Young, the fourth victim of the Sweet Dreams Strangler.
Mrs. Young hovers in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. All the color drains from her face.
I can’t seem to move. Julia turns off the TV. The buzzing grows louder, and then I realize that it’s voices I’m hearing, lots of them, all blending together into one big buzzing sound.
And then the buzzing fades away until I hear only one voice.
It’s not real. I know it’s not real.
It’s not real because the voice is Samantha’s, and Samantha is dead.
It’s not real because the voice is not coming from a person. It’s coming from a fricking figurine on the mantel. From a yellow bird with black wings and a black head. I pick up the figurine, and I hold it in my hands. This is what my dad meant when he said there were people living in marbles. And then it speaks again.
Olivia! Stop him!
Even though I’m kind of expecting it, Samantha’s voice scares me all the same. It makes me jump and my hands open up and that figurine smashes on the floor and breaks. And I’m a little glad because maybe now the voice will stop. But suddenly I’m burning up, the salami and cheese rumbles around in my stomach, and before I can sit, the room spins all around me and darkness sets in.