If Eloise Whittaker had to narrow down the worst things ever in her life to a list, the top three would go as follows:
3) Uncooked chicken. When it’s all, like, pink in the middle? Gross.
2) Her father dying. Which was really tied for number one with…
1) Moving because her dad died.
She’d honestly rather eat a thousand raw chickens than be stuck in the front of a stupid U-Haul, driving for a million miles with her mom from Fresno to Texas. Texas. It was like moving to Jupiter. She was going from having a life that involved sun and easy access to Starbucks, to living in a town called Poisonfoot.
Seriously, what kind of name was that? It sure sounded like a red-carpet, welcome-wagon kind of place. Welcome to Poisonfoot, Texas. Get out.
Lou propped her bare feet up on the dash of the car and pushed her pink Wayfarer sunglasses onto the top of her head. She’d been struggling for hours to find a comfortable position but was finding it impossible to get into a groove. The seat of the rental moving truck was lumpy, and the air conditioning didn’t work, making her sweaty and miserable.
More miserable than the move alone.
They were barely halfway through Nevada, and already she was missing things. Their house, her used RAV4 they’d had to sell before the move, and all the friends she’d grown up with who would be moving on to their junior year next week without her.
Who was going to veto Priss’s texts when she wanted to tell Bobby Fletcher his hair smelled good? Who would Kel and Anthony turn to for insight into the female mind? And who would Parker Davenport take to junior prom now that she wouldn’t be there?
Everyone promised to keep in touch with texts and Facebook, but Lou knew the reality of her situation. Out of sight, out of mind. Soon enough they’d be saying, “Remember Lou?” and not long after that, “Lou who?”
She sighed, bumping her head against the seat.
“You okay, sweetie?” her mom asked, not looking away from the dusty highway in front of them.
“Real answer or smiley answer?”
“Real answer, of course.”
Her mother frowned and tightened her grip on the wheel. “Eloise, we’ve talked about this.”
“I know, but you said real answer.”
“I suppose I did. But you know we had to do this. We couldn’t afford that house, not without your dad’s income, and especially not after the hospital bills.”
Lou didn’t know all the details. She was only sixteen, which was old enough to drive but not old enough to decide if she got to keep her car. From what she’d gathered listening to her mother’s tense phone conversations with lawyers, her father’s six-month stay in the hospital had very nearly bankrupted them. At least badly enough they’d had to sell the house and didn’t make enough money from it to buy another one.
It wasn’t bad enough her dad had died, she’d had to lose her home and everyone she knew, too.
She was grateful to still have her mom, but sometimes she resented everyone involved with this stupid move. Why didn’t her mom have a real job? Why didn’t they have better insurance—wasn’t that the whole point of insurance? And more than anything, why had some stupid, idiotic, pointless higher power decided to give her dad cancer and not provide him the strength to beat it?
The world sucked.
And now they were moving to Poisonfoot to live with Lou’s grandmother—her father’s mother—who had been “kind enough” to invite Lou and her mother to live with her. “Kind enough” was her mom’s phrase for it.
Sounded more like perpetual punishment to Lou.
She hadn’t been to Poisonfoot since she was six. Ten years was a long enough absence she had only the foggiest memories of the place. She recalled sweet tea with lemon and her grandmother making grits—not a fond memory, that one—and the dark, musty staircase she hadn’t been allowed to explore. Everything else was snippets—blue-and-white china wallpaper in the dining room and a stuffed owl over the fireplace—things that didn’t paint a whole picture.
Lou had better memories of Granny Elle—the Eloise she’d been named after—from the visits she’d made out to Fresno. But Granny Elle, like Lou’s memories of Texas, sometimes felt more like a dream than a real thing.
She wasn’t the kind of warm and cuddly grandmother who snuck candies and dollar bills into Lou’s hands while no one was looking. That’s how Grandma J—her mom’s mom—had been before she got Alzheimer’s.
Both her grandfathers had died long before she had a chance to remember anything about them, even fragments. She had a picture of Grandpa Chuck—her mom’s dad—holding her as a baby, but that was it. Granny Elle’s husband, Ronald, was rarely discussed and usually in hushed tones.
Sure, all families were supposed to be crazy in their own way, but Lou got the feeling her dad’s family had been extra nuts. Why else would he have bailed after high school?
Oh, right. Because he’d lived in Poisonfoot.
Lou adjusted again, sitting in a cross-legged yoga pose on the seat, and pulled the elastic out of her hair, untangling the messy bun she’d made that morning. Her hair was getting long—maybe a bit too long now that it fell halfway down her back—and not for the first time she debated the merits of chopping it all off for some bold, edgy pixie cut. Maybe she’d dye it blue or something.
But her father had loved her hair, always doing it in long braids for her as a child and telling her it made her look like an elf from Lord of the Rings. Whenever she considered cutting it, she thought of his last attempts to braid it, when he was so weak he could barely lift his hands off the hospital mattress, and she chickened out.
Like cutting it off would strip away those memories.
Her hair was still damp—both from the morning’s shower and the sweat beading on the back of her neck—so she finger combed it then pulled a Dodgers baseball cap out of her bag and plopped it on her head, cramming a messy ponytail through the hole at the back.
The hat was another link to her father. He’d been a big baseball fan, which was how she wound up with her slightly too boyish nickname. Lou Whittaker had apparently been some impressive, famous baseball player a thousand years earlier, and her father had taken to calling her Lou as a kid. It stuck, and she liked it better than Eloise, so she began using it on herself, and after sixteen years the only people who regularly called her Eloise were her mother and her grandparents.
“Can we stop? I’m dying for a Coke.”
Her mother started to sigh, then stopped mid-breath, perhaps thinking better of it. “I saw a sign for a rest stop. We can pull in there for a break and to check the GPS, make sure we’re on track.”
Ten minutes later they pulled into a dusty gas station on the side of the road with honest-to-God tumbleweeds bumping up against a rusted old truck.
“I feel like we’re about to drive into a bad sequel for The Hills Have Eyes,” Lou muttered, kicking her feet into well-worn flip-flops before climbing out of the U-Haul.
“Which one was that?”
“Mutants who kidnapped tourists to make them into, like, baby-making machines.”
“Eloise. Who let you watch that?”
“Auntie Roan.” Lou smiled, knowing her mother shouldn’t be shocked. Auntie Roan was Lou’s only aunt and her mother’s younger sister. She had a bad habit of treating Lou more like a buddy than a child, so it should have come as no surprise she’d let teenage Lou watch horror movies.
The stuff she watched by herself on Netflix was ten times worse, but she didn’t bother pointing that out to her mom, lest the parental controls be enabled.
“I need to pee, I’ll be right back.”
“Don’t go too far,” her mother warned. “I’ll gas up and get us some drinks. Coke?”
“Diet Coke. And Twizzlers. Oh, and maybe a magazine?” Lou was already halfway around the back of the building, so she didn’t hear any of her mother’s protests.
Blessedly, the women’s washroom was unlocked, but the space within was the most dismal, disgusting restroom she’d encountered yet on their trip. Discarded wads of toilet paper stuck to the filthy floor tiles, and the two sinks were stained reddish brown with rust from the leaky faucets. An overhead fluorescent bulb flickered on and off like a strobe light, swinging faintly from two chains on the ceiling.
At times like this she was jealous of boys and their ability to pee standing up. If the outer area was any indication, the toilets weren’t going to be terribly inviting to sit on.
She tiptoed over the mess, her feet sticking to the floor in places, causing loud squelching noises when she tried to move forward.
Pee fast and get out, she told herself, angling into one of the stalls. As expected it was disgusting, with broken white tiles on the back wall and a large dent on the inside of the metal door like someone had kicked it with a lot of force.
Lou did her business in a hurry and got out of the stall, touching as few things as possible. As she was washing her hands, the overhead light began to flicker more erratically before shutting off completely. Lou froze, the water in her sink still running, and wasn’t sure if she should keep washing or just get the hell out.
The metallic shriek of the stall door swinging settled it for her. There was no breeze or air conditioning in the bathroom, so the only thing that could set the doors swinging was someone else.
Since she’d been alone the whole time, she didn’t want to know who—or what—could have snuck in without her noticing.
Lou pivoted to grab the outside door, but when her hand touched the metal knob, the overhead fluorescents snapped back on, flooding the room with light. This time they were brighter than ever, painting the walls in a sickly green hue.
Unable to resist the pull of her curiosity, Lou looked back.
“You’re being ridiculous,” she scolded herself.
She stepped back to the sink to finish washing her hands, making a mental promise she’d run like hell if the lights went off again, and splashed some cold water on her face.
Maybe she’d been stuck in the car too long and was starting to get a bit stir crazy. That was a thing, right?
She looked up and screamed.
Her father—her very, very dead father—was standing right behind her.