Dad bought my safekeeper from the school. The company had some kind of booth at Parent-Teacher Night. He gave me this box tied with a purple ribbon. I opened it and saw the black plastic handcuff, decorated with a row of number keys and a port on the side to charge it.
“Oh. I thought it was going to be one of those tennis bracelets,” I said, trying not to freak. But by the time I got the words out my dad had my wrist wrapped in his big solid hand, and he snapped the safekeeper on and it was too late.
The safekeeper bit like a viper, the teeth on the skin side finding my vein and latching there. The seal was good enough that no blood ran out, but it hurt like a bitch.
“Now, Rebecca,” Dad said. “I programmed it to call my car phone first, and then my office phone. If it doesn’t get a response at either of those numbers, then it will call 9-1-1. So don’t even think about crying wolf, young lady.”
“What about Mom? Won’t it call her?”
“I didn’t give her the combination,” Dad said. “You know how scatterbrained she is.”
I poked my fingertip around the edge of the safekeeper: rounded matte plastic, light and flexible, but so tight I couldn’t even get my nail under it.
“It has adapters for a regular outlet and the cigarette lighter in my car,” Dad said. “You can charge it while I drive you to school.”
“Since when do you drive me to school?”
“Since there’s a killer on the loose,” he said, with one of those looks he usually saved for when Mom had loaded the dishwasher wrong or something, so that was pretty much that, and I never did get a tennis bracelet.
There were still four of us then: Tiffany Baird, me, Lindsay Keller, and Jen Panganiban. We’d planned our class schedules so that we had the same spare, which we usually spent drinking coffee and playing euchre. We all carried decks in our bags, just euchre decks, the rest of the cards confettied on the football field. I kept mine bound up with one of the terry wristbands I wore to camouflage the safekeeper.
“Does it really work?” Tiff said, pushing my wristband up my arm and running her frost-pink nail over the black cuff.
“Try me,” I said, bracing my hands on the edge of the table.
“No way, Becks, I’m not hitting you.”
“No, come on. Someone try me.”
Jen slapped my cheek, way too lightly, and started to giggle.
Lindsay made an impatient snort, dropped her Bic on the table, and smacked me.
The safekeeper crackled. An arc of purplish light shot from it to Lindsay’s hand.
“Whoo! Hot damn,” Lindsay said, shaking it out.
Tiff glared and brushed her fingers over my face where Lindsay had hit me.
“It’s cool. I asked her to,” I said. “It doesn’t hurt.” It did hurt, but I didn’t want to give Tiff any reason to be mad at Lindsay, because once those two got going, they could keep at it for days.
“I wonder how much they cost,” Jen said, oblivious. “And do they come in colours?”
“You want one?” Tiff said. “Seriously?”
“What? It’s cool. If a guy slaps my ass in the hallway, he’ll get zapped.”
“You wish a guy would slap your ass in the hallway,” Tiff said.
Jen looked at the table. She really didn’t get hit on much, even by the guys who had a thing for Asian chicks.
Tiff was shaking her head. “Whatever. It’s not so cool when Becks’ dad gets the call.”
“Shit.” I scooped up my euchre deck and ran for the door, laceless Tretorns flapping.
“Chill, Becks, let him suffer,” Lindsay called after me, but she didn’t know my dad like Tiff did.
I made it across the street to the school attendance office just as the receptionist was answering the phone; she rolled her eyes, and handed it over to me. “These things are making my life hell,” she stage-whispered. “Don’t you girls have anything better to do?”
Dad was already yelling as I put the phone to my ear.
“Dodgeball!” I said. “I was just playing dodgeball, Dad! I didn’t think it would go off.”
“Exactly,” he said. “You didn’t think. What has to happen to make you think? There are girls dying out there, Rebecca. Do you want to be next?”
I tried to cry while I said sorry, because it didn’t count as a real apology if you didn’t show remorse, only the tears were kind of sparse because I really didn’t feel remorseful at all, and I was pretty sure Dad knew it.
I got off easy enough, though: a two-page letter of apology to him, another one to the school for wasting the receptionist’s time, and Dad grounded me for a week of evenings and made me agree to read all of the news about the killer, because I obviously wasn’t taking it seriously enough.
When I gave the receptionist the letter the next day, she skimmed it, looked up at me, and said, “Your Dad is really something.”
Lindsay’s boyfriend Shawn was legal age. On Thursdays we would give him our grocery list: Durangos for Jen, Labatt Genuine Draft for Tiff. Snapple for me, because the safekeeper was set to go off if my blood alcohol level went above 0.02.
The night I’m remembering, we went for a ride in Shawn’s crappy Chevette. It was coated in dust from his garage. You could still see Lindsay’s bare ass-print on the hood with Shawn’s handprints on either side; Tiff and I were making bets on how long he would go without washing it off.
When Shawn came out of the Beer Store we piled in: Lindsay in the front, the rest of us in the back. Lindsay put in a cassette of Meryn Cadell and she and Jen talked along with the lyrics in rapid-fire unison until Shawn groaned, “Enough with this fucking whiny bitch,” and switched over to Classic Rock Q107.
Shawn drove us out to the reservoir overlook; the air smelled of weeds and water. We didn’t talk at first. Just sat on the trunk of the car, or on one of the picnic tables. Soft hiss of caps opening, fizz of carbonation; faint wet sound of Lindsay and Shawn making out; Jen humming as she lay on her back, looking up at the stars through a film of high cloud.
I sipped my fruit juice and it was toothache sweet and my mouth was sticky afterward and I was happy, here, with my own people, in the darkness.
“It’s kind of creepy that those girls were found here,” Tiff whispered. “This should be our place.”
“Other side,” Shawn said. I could see the faint black shape of him disengaging from Lindsay. “Over by Van Veen Road. This side’s fine.”
“Same water,” Tiff said. Rustle of fabric and plastic as she groped in her bag; bright flare of a lighter.
“So don’t drink the water,” Shawn said, and went back to making out with Lindsay.
“Jesus, you guys, get a room,” Tiff said.
They went to a farther-off picnic table. Tiff and Jen sat up close to me, warm shoulders on either side. Tiff drank her beer and Jen drank her cooler and I talked about the hot private-school dropout who’d joined us for the last half of senior year.
“I thought you weren’t allowed to go on dates,” Jen said.
Tiff reached across me to jostle Jen’s knee. “That’s why we’d cover for her. Right?”
As if there was any chance of Mr Private School dating me, a girl stuck with a safekeeper: no sex, no fooling around. Even kissing could set it off, we’d heard. Nothing kills the mood like an electric shock to the tongue.
“I don’t need to go on dates,” I said. “I have you guys.”
“Aww,” Tiff said, rocking her shoulder against mine. “Love you too. But I’d still like to see you get laid sometime before graduation.”
Jen giggled. “Lindsay gets laid enough for everyone.”
“Wish it worked that way,” I said, trying not to hear the noises coming from the other picnic table.
They didn’t take too long, fortunately for me. Shawn drove all of us home and I walked in to find Mom and Dad in the living room together, which was kind of weird: usually Mom would be in bed by now, and Dad would be watching TV.
“They found another girl’s body today,” Mom said, the sheets of the local news section trembling in her hands.
Dad set down his glass of scotch beside the reading lamp with a chilly click. “I’m sure you can understand why we’re no longer allowing you such a lenient curfew.”
Next fall I’d be moving out for good. I’d be old enough to vote. And there I was, home for nine on weeknights and ten on weekends, not allowed to walk anywhere at all by myself. Ever. I had to call Dad from school at the end of every day and tell him whose house I’d be visiting, and how I’d be getting there, and how I’d be getting home.
It wasn’t just my family. Tiff’s dad, who’d given her a car for her sixteenth birthday and a twenty-sixer of rum for her seventeenth, stopped home between business trips long enough to tell her he would appreciate it if she didn’t go around by herself either. He didn’t stick around to make sure she obeyed or anything, but still.
Jen’s parents bought her a safekeeper too, a teal-blue one with a purple stripe: they came in different colours and patterns now, like Swatches. It would’ve looked okay, except that it had also been stamped with the name of Jen’s church, like those cheap desk calendars real estate agents give out.
Lindsay’s mom actually asked her to spend more time with Shawn. Shawn was totally into it, too, waiting for Lindsay outside school every afternoon. Principal Wright walked up to him and said, “Shawn Ryskamp, you barely graduated the first time—do you really want back in?”
Shawn thought that was hilarious, and told us about it as we all waited in line for popcorn at the early showing of Wayne’s World.
“As if they’d let you back in,” Lindsay said.
“Shut up. I was way smarter than any of the dickhead teachers there,” Shawn said, slapping Lindsay on the back of the head.
“Oh, that’s why you’ve got so many job offers,” Lindsay said.
“I’m smarter than you,” Shawn said. “I don’t make wisecracks to the people who care about me.” He looped an arm around her neck and pulled her head in close to his chest. “Without me, you’d already be up there by the reservoir with duct-tape crosses over your eyes, and you know it.”
“Oh, look!” Jen chirped, tugging at Shawn’s arm. “It’s our turn. Anyone else want to get some Twizzlers?”
The next time I looked at Shawn and Lindsay, he was kissing her hair, and if she had her card-player face on, well, she usually did. So that was okay, I guessed.
The school year was winding up, dusk coming later, but the warm evenings felt less friendly than usual. When we walked anywhere, we saw other threesomes and foursomes of girls, and in between them, long bare stretches of sidewalk where no kids played.
People weren’t having many parties. More and more girls had safekeepers, and even some of the guys did, as parents started to figure out you could use them to stop your kid from drinking.
Jen’s church youth group had a dance. Tiff and Lindsay were too cool to go, but I was going to snap if I had to spend another minute listening to Dad lecturing Mom about how much money she spent on groceries. I solved all our problems at once by getting Dad to give me a ride to the church.
Jen was wearing a corsage, on the same wrist as her safekeeper, a little pouf of carnations and baby’s-breath.
“Is this, like, Christian prom?” I said.
“It’s worse than you know,” she said, with an eye-roll worthy of Lindsay. She pointed across to the punch table, where a kid in a tux was filling some cups. “See that guy? That’s Bruce Ocampo. My date.”
He was about five foot nothing, even shorter than Jen, with spiky black hair like the fuzz on a baby bird.
“His parents are from the same neighbourhood of Manila as mine,” Jen explained.
“Wow. Wait until Jared from math team sees his competition,” I said.
Bruce Ocampo came over, smiling wide, handing Jen her punch so he could shake my hand. “Do you go to Merritt too?” he said. “I just transferred from Argyle. I can’t wait to try out for the jazz band.”
The DJ played kitschy crap from the sixties, and Jen danced with Bruce Ocampo to “Teen Angel,” a careful foot between them, hands on each other’s shoulders, stepping in a slow rotation. When Jen came around to face me, she mouthed kill me now.
At the end of the night, though, as we stood just inside the church doors waiting for Jen’s mom to pick us up, Bruce Ocampo kissed Jen on the cheek and she smiled, and kissed him back.
“He’s never going to leave you alone now,” I said as he waved from the parking lot before getting into the back seat of his parents’ Cavalier.
“Yeah, well, Jared from math team hasn’t exactly been tying up my phone line,” Jen said. “And my parents will make me see Bruce again anyway. I might as well be nice to the guy.”
Her mom pulled up just then, and it struck me how much Jen looked like her: round face, full-lidded brown eyes, and that expression that looked like a smile but wasn’t. It was something else, doing the job of a smile. A good job, too, mostly, but you could tell it was just business, and at the end of the day it would turn the lights out and lock up.
The next Saturday night I told my parents I’d be at Jen’s. Jen told her parents she’d be at Lindsay’s. Lindsay probably didn’t have to lie at all because her mom was working. And Tiff’s dad was going to Bologna until next week.
I was early. I saw her dad’s Benz still in the drive; I turned right around and hid behind the nearest mailbox until I saw the Benz round the corner and glide away.
Then I jogged over and Tiff met me at the door and spun me around in a hug, and fifteen minutes after that, Shawn and Lindsay pulled up with the beer.
Jen and I couldn’t drink because of the safekeepers. Tiff and Lindsay went drink for drink with Shawn for the first few, until they got huggy and Shawn wound his hand up in Lindsay’s hair to drag her away from Tiff.
We played Twister for a little while, but it’s really only fun when you have more boys. We watched the last period of a hockey game. We ordered pizza. Meat lovers’ for Shawn, veggie for all of us girls.
Lindsay tried to take a piece from Shawn’s pie, and he scowled. “Hands to yourself. Be good.”
“Oh, I’ll be good,” she said, rolling her eyes upward.
Shawn snatched the pizza box away and we all winced.
It was ironic, if I’m using that word right, because of the four of us, Lindsay was the tough one, the smoker, the one who’d actually been in a fight. When I asked her why she put up with Shawn’s crap, she told me he was an animal in bed.
That night Jen changed the subject and Tiff put on some of Shawn’s favourite music and I went and got another round from the fridge. Eventually Shawn and Lindsay went upstairs while Jen and Tiff and I lay on the floor and watched SNL.
I was happy, with my Snapple and a box of ranch-flavoured crackers and all my gang together. I was happy, but... It was like hitting the snooze button on my alarm, again and again—trying for a few more sweet minutes, just a few. Struggling to keep my eyes tight shut.
I woke up spooned with Tiff under a nubbly burgundy throw with Jen’s hand tangled in my hair. She was lying above us on the sofa, all her limbs dangling down.
I found my hoodie—balled up into a haphazard pillow—and put it on over my tank top and my plaid flannel pants. When I peeked into the bedroom upstairs I saw Lindsay sleeping, hair over her face, and Shawn awake, puffy-eyed, stroking her head. He stopped when he saw me. I mouthed “Coffee” and headed back downstairs.
The doorbell rang just as I passed through the foyer, and like an idiot I went to answer, and there on the doorstep was my father.
Lindsay was grounded for a week. Tiff’s dad threatened to make her stay with her aunt the next time he went away, but he forgot about it later. Jen had her weekend curfew knocked back to nine, and she wasn’t supposed to have lunch with us anymore.
Shawn didn’t get punished, of course.
Me, I was grounded for a month. No TV, no stereo, phone calls limited to five minutes. Lunch hours at Dad’s office under the chilly eye of his receptionist.
I had a lot of time so I read the newspaper. I read all of the latest news about the killer. He was supposed to be a young white man, blond, blue-eyed, hazel-eyed. He was supposed to drive a silver car, a beige car, a white car. He had been hunting here for months, years. He was likely to have no criminal record.
He caught another girl. Her school picture was on the front page. She had the same long hair as the others, bangs hairsprayed into a neat puff, braces on her teeth, a uniform sweater-vest. She’d been on her way to a music lesson, and they found her violin case, empty, tossed into the ravine. No fingerprints.
Dad said, “You’d better be thankful you aren’t out there, walking the streets.”
Toward the end of my time in purgatory, there was a day when Lindsay didn’t show up for homeroom.
I leaned across her empty desk to whisper to Tiff, “Did she call you?”
Tiff shook her head. “You?” Though we both knew Lindsay wouldn’t have bothered calling me, not when my dad would intercept the phone to sternly remind her of my five minute limit.
She hadn’t called Jen, either.
“Oh my God, you don’t think the killer could’ve got her, do you?” Jen said, round-eyed, as we huddled for a few minutes around our lockers at the end of the day. “I mean, she didn’t have a safekeeper or anything.”
“Of course not,” I said, even though I’d thought it too.
“Her mom probably had a day off and took her to the outlet mall,” Tiff said. “I’ll call you when she gets back to me. See you tomorrow.”
But the next day Lindsay had not called any of us, and there was still no answer at her house.
Mom showed up at the school at the end of the day, driving her forest-green Civic, which hardly ever left the garage; usually she got Dad to drive her, or just stayed home.
“What’s the occasion?” I said, sliding in beside her.
“We’re going to the hospital,” she said. Hands on the wheel at exactly ten and two: Dad was always reminding her. “Lindsay’s mom called this afternoon to see if you’d come by.”
“Lindsay... is in the hospital?”
“I don’t think your dad needs to know about this, does he?” Mom said. “Sometimes we girls need to stick together.” And she laughed, nervous and high.
Dad was right: Mom could be totally flaky sometimes. But I was starting to wonder if she really made all the mistakes Dad said she made, or if she was wrong about something else entirely.
When I saw Lindsay lying on the bed, arm in a cast, half of her face swollen, I thought for a second that Jen had been right: that the killer had got to her.
She looked at me, though, up through her lashes, with the kind of frown that dared me to say the wrong thing, and I figured it out. Shawn.
It took me a bit longer to figure out what to say, so I just stood there and handed her the magazines I’d picked out in the gift shop downstairs: Marie Claire and InStyle and Cosmo, all the ones with quizzes and sex tips and how to use liquid eyeliner.
“I’m getting out tomorrow,” she said, a bit slurry because of the split corner of her lip. “They only kept me to make sure my head was okay.”
“It is, right?” I said.
She nodded, carefully. “Hard,” she said, tapping her temple on the side that wasn’t bruised. “Mom always said.”
“I’m glad you’re okay,” I said.
It was a stupid thing to say to someone with a head injury and a broken arm, but she grinned with the unmarked side of her mouth, taking the magazines and patting the bed beside her. “C’mere and look at these with me.”
“I’m going to find him and break his fucking face,” I blurted, and I started crying.
“He went away in a police car,” she said, staring down at a spread of spring’s best scarves. “And it’s not your problem.”
“Of course it’s my problem.”
She tugged her hand out of mine. “Becks,” she said. “Don’t make it worse.”
When Mom and I got home, Dad was sitting on a chair in front of the garage door, waiting.
“You just don’t see it, do you,” he said to Mom. “How you undermine my authority.”
“But,” said Mom, brittle and stumbling, “I thought you’d—I thought we should do what’s expected. What people are supposed to do, when there’s, when someone...”
“That is a slippery slope,” Dad said, his face flushing. “Go see about dinner. We’ll talk after.”
“And you. I should take that damn gadget away from you,” Dad said, squeezing my wrist, pressing the nodule of the safekeeper hard against the bone. “Hasn’t done me any good at all.”
“Fine, then. Take it off me. Get your money back.”
“I don’t give a damn about the money! This is about the principle of the thing. How is it supposed to keep you safe when every time you’re out of my sight you find another way to break the rules?”
“The killer’s not going to get me when I’m visiting my friend in the hospital, Dad. With Mom, too—”
“That,” he said, “is not the point.” I heard his teeth click together.
He clamped his hand harder around my wrist and dragged me up the garage stairs and into his study. He opened the locked drawer to his desk and took out the safekeeper’s key. It looked like one of those things they use in clothing stores, to remove the anti-shoplifting tags.
He was so mad he took three tries to punch in the combination. He slammed my wrist down on the key like he was trying to break it.
The safekeeper shot out a huge purple tongue of lightning.
“God damn it!” Dad said, letting go of me, blowing on his fingers. “Damn it all to hell.” He snatched up my hand and forced my wrist down again, this time closer to the right spot. The safekeeper popped open, leaving behind twin bloody toothmarks next to the reddening bruise where his hand had been.
“I tried with you,” he said, colder now. “But you just won’t listen. Too much like your mother. Now you’ll see what happens to disobedient girls.”
“Those girls who died weren’t bad,” I said. I had this weird feeling, like the words coming out of my mouth weren’t even mine. “They were normal. Just like me and my friends.”
“Ha,” Dad said. “Just like you and your friends. Think about that, young lady. You think about that.”
I thought about it. There was this nasty smell like burnt hair and I thought it might be coming from his hand. I realized it then, something different from what he wanted me to think: Being obedient was never going to make me safe.
“Go clean up for dinner,” Dad said. “I won’t let this incident upset the order of our home.”
Upstairs, I locked myself in the bathroom and cleaned out the little punctures with Bactine: it smelled like mothballs and floor cleaner and it stung like a bitch. My wrist felt light without the weight of the safekeeper.
All of me felt light. He’d finally crossed the line. Made a bruise on me, a real one, where other people could see it. I ran my wrist under hot water until the colour bloomed up dark.
When I came out, the house was quiet. I couldn’t smell any dinner cooking. My parents’ bedroom door was closed.
I went to mine, and started packing.
I rode the bus over to Tiff’s. The route went all around the whole northwest lobe of the city. I rested my head on my arms on my campfire-scented backpack and tried to breathe deep, but I was still buzzing with the tension of creeping down the stairs and past Dad’s study and out through the front door.
Tiff’s house was dark and no one answered the bell. I sat down on her front steps to wait. Sunset lit the western sky, but the east was dim and greenish-blue.
No kids played on the lawns. Ground floor windows flickered with television light. The occasional vehicle cruised past. One, a silver sports car, slowed as it came near, and I thought maybe it was Tiff’s dad in a different ride, but then I saw the Benz rounding the corner, and the silver car sped up again and pulled away.
Tiff and her dad parked, and Tiff ran out to hug me. She could tell right away that something was up, but she just said to her dad, “Is it okay if Becks joins us for dinner?”
Her dad was holding a great big KFC bucket, and he held it up and said, “Plenty to go around.”
He didn’t make me talk about it. He went upstairs while Tiff and I were still eating, and put sheets on the guest bed.
They caught the killer a couple of weeks later, right before the start of exams. I was still staying at Tiff’s. I met Mom for dessert at a place she could get to on foot.
“He turned out to be such a nice-looking man,” she said. “Imagine that. It’s hard to know who you can trust.”
“I know,” I said.
“I was so scared something would happen to you,” Mom said. “Or to one of your friends.”
“Something did,” I said.
Mom stirred more sugar into her coffee, spoon clinking rapidly against the mug. She had her head down between her shoulders the way she did when Dad yelled at her.
I backed off, and asked, “Did they find that last girl? Was she still alive?”
“She’s in the hospital, but she’s going to make it,” Mom said. “She’s one of the lucky ones.”
“Lucky,” I said. “I wonder if she feels lucky.”
I thought of Lindsay, living up north somewhere now, never calling me anymore. Shawn was out of jail already. I’d seen him parking outside the Beer Store on Thursday.
I thought of Jen, going out with Bruce Ocampo, who brought her flowers and chocolates, but didn’t drink coffee or play euchre or listen to alternative music.
Outside the café, a silver sports car drove by. Mom flinched a little when she saw it; I could tell she was still thinking of the killer. But he was put away now, and the driver of that car could have been anyone.