The Stranger Game is a dark, suspenseful, and twisty YA novel about fifteen-year-old Nico Walker, who questions whether the girl who has returned home after a three-year disappearance is really her sister.
I knew my sister was dead. I felt it in my body, as if my bones could tell me the truth. They were, after all, her bones too. The same parents had created us, we carried the same DNA, the stuff that makes us who we are. I even looked like her: a little twin, a few years younger. And both of us were images of Mom, or how she was in her high school yearbook, with long blond hair and hazel eyes.
When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t just see my own face but my sister’s too, the one from the Missing posters we had put up all over Mapleview four years ago—the one on the news, in news-papers across the country. Now that my braces were off I could even smile like her, the way she had in our last family photo. The smile of a girl who was head cheerleader. Who had an older boyfriend. Who had secrets.
I wanted so much to believe she was alive, to cling to hope like Mom. I tried. I let myself imagine that Sarah might walk through the door any day. At night, that hope failed me. In my nightmares I saw all the terrible things that happen to girls like Sarah. When I woke, the vivid images still in my mind, my heart racing, I would lie in bed and watch the lights from the occasional car move over my ceiling and walls and think about the people in those cars. Where were they going? Where had they been, out so late? What were their lives like, lives without the giant gaping hole that is left when someone in your family goes missing?
I tried to picture Sarah now, how she might look: older, her hair longer or shorter, her skin tanned golden like it had been the last time I saw her. As the days ticked by, the volume of her absence increased. Weeks turned into months and then into years. I knew the truth, even if I could never speak of it to anyone. I knew the darkened bedroom next to mine would always be empty, the door always shut, because this time Sarah wasn’t coming back.
The phone never really rang at the help line. Instead, a red light lit up on the keypad, and then the incoming number slowly scrolled onto the screen with the approximate location of the caller. All you had to do was push the button next to the red light to accept the call and speak into the headset: “Teen Help Line. Hi, this is Nico, what’s your name?”
We had a script we were supposed to follow, and hours of training before we were allowed to answer incoming calls. Even then, Marcia, the supervisor, paced the room, watching over us and clicking on to calls with her own master headset. She would come and stand behind you and write notes if she had something she thought you should say. If a call got totally out of control, she was there to switch lines and take over.
When I showed up to volunteer, usually one afternoon a week, there was always a volunteer older than me, with more experience. They would take most of the calls and I would just sit and listen. “No better training than this, watching what the other volunteers do, how they react,” Marcia said, probably thinking that I was bummed I didn’t get to take more calls. That wasn’t the case, though—far from it. I was actually relieved. For months, I had been terrified I would take a call and say or do the wrong thing. We had people’s lives in our hands here; so many of them called in ready to do something serious: hurting themselves or someone else. I was happy to sit and listen in, with no responsibility of my own. But sometimes, like tonight, Marcia would ask me to take a call.
“That’s you, Nico, line two,” she said. The two other volunteers, Amber and Kerri, were already on calls, and for some reason, our fourth person hadn’t shown up.
I put down the slice of pizza I was eating and wiped my hands quickly before pressing the button next to the red light. “Teen Help Line.” I barely got the words out before I heard her on the other side. Crying.
“Oh, there’s really someone there?” A small voice sniffled. “A real person?”
“My name is Nico, what’s yours?” I followed the script, Marcia nodding as I spoke. The caller’s name and number came up on the screen. She was on a cell phone outside Denver. She wasn’t lying about her name, like lots of callers did; the phone was registered to her. I listened closely as she talked, about the girls at her school and how they were treating her, about how she had started cutting and wanted to stop but didn’t know how. “Sometimes I think about just running away, like, just starting over somewhere. You know? Just disappearing,” the girl said.
A shiver ran down my spine. “I know, I totally understand. We all feel that way sometimes. . . .” I gave the advice I was supposed to, clicked the resource link next to her location, and gave her the names and numbers of the places closest to her where she could get help. But the whole time, my mind was not really on this crying girl. I was thinking of Sarah. Would I know her if she called? That couldn’t happen—would never happen. Coincidences like that were for the movies, not real life. Still, part of me had to admit the truth about why I had chosen to volunteer at the help line to meet the school community service requirement.
I could have been at the animal hospital, nursing a baby rabbit back to health.
Or at Mapleview Home for Seniors, reading to some nice old blind lady.
But here I was, answering calls from teens who wanted to
disappear—and then sometimes did.
By the time I ended the call, the Denver girl had stopped crying. Marcia looked over and gave me a smile and a thumbs-up, even though I could tell she was already listening to another call. I noticed with a start that it was 9:02. I dug my community service form out of my backpack and put it on her desk on my way out.
“Nico,” Marcia called to me as I was almost at the elevators. “Great work tonight, really,” she said. Her eyes were on the form I’d left on her desk. “Where am I supposed to sign this?”
I walked back to her desk and showed her. “But you also have to fill out the evaluation section,” I reminded her. “So I’ll pick it up from you later.”
“Give me a minute and I’ll do it right now.”
I glanced at the backlit clock on the wall. Now it was 9:05. “I can’t, I have to go,” I said.
“Really, it’ll just take a sec,” she insisted.
I stood next to her desk for a moment while she wrote something on the lines. Her black pen moved so slowly. Halfway done. 9:07. I could feel my heart thumping in my chest.
“I’ll get it from you next week,” I said, running out the door. I didn’t give her a chance to answer. I pressed the elevator button hard, over and over, until the doors opened. I did the math in my head. By the time I got to the lobby and out the doors, it would be 9:10. I felt my phone vibrating in my bag before I even made it outside.
There was Mom, her car idling by the curb where she always parked. I could see the bluish light of her cell phone reflected on her face, the lines on her forehead deep and worried. I moved fast over the sidewalk and across the grass, where bits of slushy spring snow soaked my sneakers. I tapped the passenger side window. She looked up at me and for a moment I could see the shock on her face. In the dark, with my long blond hair down under my hood, she thought I was someone else. I knew who.
I pushed the hood back, showing her my face. She smiled and rolled the window down.
“You scared me! Come on, get in, it’s freezing.”
I got into the warm car, smelling leather and Mom’s perfume.
“You’re late, and I tried to call you. Nico—”
“Not my fault. You know we aren’t allowed to even take our phones out in the center. And Marcia was filling out my school forms and taking her time.”
Mom didn’t say anything, just looked into the mirror as she pulled out of the spot. She didn’t have to say anything. I knew how she worried, how unacceptable it was to make her feel like that. Our agreement about always being in touch, no matter what. But sometimes, it was impossible. Impossible to be perfect, to always be on time, to never, ever make Mom and Dad worry about me the way they had about her.
“What’s the homework situation?” Mom finally spoke in a normal tone of voice as she turned left onto the street that led to our neighborhood.
“Almost done. I have a chapter to read for chemistry.”
“And you ate already?” she asked.
“I ate, Mom,” I answered with a sigh. Always the same questions. Always the same answers.
She pulled into our driveway, brightly lit by two floodlights over the double garage doors and lanterns on either side of the front door. As we waited for a garage door to open, Mom turned to me. “You know that I’m so proud of you for working at the help line, don’t you? Your dad is too. I want you to know that.”
I nodded, giving her a weak smile. What wasn’t said, the dark undercurrent of her compliment: You’re not like her. I was that age now, the age she was when the trouble really started. When she ran away the first time. But I was so different, a good girl. Straight-A student. Volunteer. Captain of the tennis team. Mom and Dad didn’t have to worry about me. I wasn’t like Sarah and I never would be.
In Mom’s headlights, I could see the three bikes lined up in the garage: mine, Mom’s, and Dad’s. The police had found Sarah’s bike at the park the day she went missing, and they never gave it back to us. I pictured it in some dark evidence-storage room, a paper tag with Sarah’s name on it dangling from the silver handlebars. Black powder covering the places they had dusted it for fingerprints, the tires now flat and cracked with age, the purple paint peeling and rusted. No one would ride that bike ever again.
The first night wasn’t that bad. The room was dark, and I was used to sleeping with the lights on. But I didn’t want to make them mad, so I didn’t say anything, I didn’t complain, I didn’t cry.
I could hear them in the next room talking, the clink of ice in a glass. Much later, the voices got louder, and one said, “A girl! We got a real girl!”
More voices, so loud I couldn’t sleep. Then someone opened the door, unlocked it from outside, and a shaft of light came in, falling on my face. I closed my eyes fast and pretended to be asleep. I had to breathe so slowly, so carefully. They didn’t come into the room, just stood in the doorway and looked at me, whispering. “There she is, I told you!”
“I can’t believe it, and she’s beautiful,” another voice said.
“Like an angel.”
“Let’s hope she acts like one.” Someone laughed.
The door closed and I heard the lock slide into place. I was alone again, in the dark.
Right after Sarah went missing, people everywhere thought they saw her. In the shampoo aisle of a Target in Missouri. Sitting in a parked car at a gas station just outside Las Vegas. At a fall pumpkin festival in Ohio. Walking with an older woman at a Best Buy in Florida.
They called the number printed on the Missing poster and gave all the information. She was the right height, had long blond hair (or, in one case, her hair had been cut short and dyed black, to disguise her—but the person was still sure it was Sarah). She was wearing jeans and a dusty pink tank top, just like in the photo. Sometimes she was wearing sunglasses or a hat. Or the tank was white, not pink. Or her shirt had changed. And her jeans. Maybe it was a dress or shorts. Maybe it was the outfit she was wearing that day: a white sleeveless dress that came to the knee, a thin gray cardigan, and brown suede boots. But everyone was sure they had found Sarah—the beautiful, blond fifteen-year-old girl who had disappeared. Who had gone to meet her boyfriend at the park and never come home.
The police and later the Center for Missing Children followed up on every lead. They had officers question people at stores, review surveillance tapes, interview local convicts—and, perhaps worst of all, interrogate convicted rapists and child molesters—in every town where someone thought they had seen Sarah.
The first time we got a call, just four days after Sarah disappeared, my parents were sure they had found her. As if it would be that easy. Mom jumped every time the phone rang. And on that afternoon, she could see on caller ID that it was the police station. She took a deep breath, swallowed, ran her palms down the front of her pants, then picked up the phone.
It was a sighting at a Target store in Missouri, where Sarah had been reportedly browsing in the shampoo aisle. My sister was vain about her blond hair and wouldn’t use anything but a salon shampoo. It just didn’t make sense. But there she was, shopping for shampoo and wearing, it seemed, an identical outfit to what she had on in the Missing poster.
The detectives told Mom and Dad they would call again in an hour with more information. The moment Mom put the phone down, she turned to me. “It’s her, they found her. Thank God.” She sat down beside me on the couch and we stayed like that for the whole hour, waiting for them to call again, while Dad paced in the kitchen. I had this weird feeling that if I moved, if I stood up and went to the bathroom or into the kitchen for a drink, somehow the spell would be broken and Sarah would vanish again. When the phone finally rang, Dad snatched it, his face growing ashen as he listened, nodding and saying “uh-huh” every few seconds.
“What is it? What is he saying? Is she okay?” Mom whispered. Dad only shook his head. Mom covered her mouth and quietly sobbed.
“It’s not her,” Dad said, then took the phone into the kitchen to talk about next steps in the investigation. And with those three little words their hopes were crushed. Mom followed him, asking things like “Are they sure?” and “How do they know?” I stayed on the couch in the living room alone for what felt like hours, listening to Mom weep. No one reminded me to brush my teeth. No one told me to go to bed. Finally I went upstairs on my own, down the dark hallway, past Sarah’s bedroom. I reached in and pulled her door shut before I went into my own room.
The calls came almost every day after that—from all over, fast and furious. And with each false alarm, I watched Mom turn in on herself, her hair sprouting white-gray roots among the honey blond, tiny lines appearing around her eyes and lips as her weight plummeted. She had always been a thin woman, but now, even without her twice-weekly Pilates classes, she grew bony and fragile. Dad became sullen and quiet, finally returning to work two weeks after Sarah disappeared, and then quickly throwing himself into a new merger. His hours got longer: he left at dawn and came home long after we had eaten dinner. It was as if he couldn’t bear to be around us, the blond girls, the constant reminder that his favorite was gone. Mom would practically attack him from the moment he arrived home, weary and stooped, carrying his briefcase like a heavy weight, and tell him all the updates about the search for Sarah in a quick rush, following him into the den, where he would pour himself a Scotch.
Mom never went back to her part-time job at the law firm, instead taking on the full-time job of running the search for Sarah. The home office turned into a command post, with a huge poster of the United States taped to one wall, red pushpins at every location where someone thought they had seen Sarah. By the end of the first month, it looked like most of the United States had chicken pox.
I went back to school, even though I had missed the first couple of weeks of seventh grade. Every morning, I would wake, barely rested, a gritty feeling under my eyelids, and just for a moment forget that Sarah was gone. Sometimes I wouldn’t remember until I’d stumbled to the bathroom or heard Mom telling me it was time for school. Then it would come back to me all in a rush, that sick feeling of dread, of emptiness. It wasn’t a bad dream. It wasn’t a book I had read, a movie we had watched. It was real.
At first, school was no escape. I was known as “Sarah’s little sister” or “that girl.” People always asked—they had to ask: Was there any news? How are your parents? But after a couple of weeks the worried looks from teachers and visits to the counselor’s office were less frequent. Sarah had gone missing in August, and as we tumbled into October and then November, the holidays loomed like the mouth of a dark cave that no one wanted to enter. I had been walking around in a daze, taking the pills that Mom’s doctor gave her, not really connecting with anyone at school. I hadn’t noticed the new girl who started at our school that fall. A girl who had never known Sarah, who didn’t know anything about me. Except one thing.
“You lost a lot of weight, huh?” she said, joining me at my locker after English class one day. I hadn’t been trying to, but she was right. A growth spurt and lack of appetite over the past few months had led me to thin out. I thought no one had noticed.
“Me too, or I’m trying to,” she whispered, leaning in close as she walked with me to my next class. “I wanted to make a new start at this school, and I didn’t want to be known as the fat girl, you know, so I went on a cleanse. . . .” She smiled and I noticed that just the ends of her dark curls were dyed a light purple hue. “You’re Nico, right? I love your name. I’m Tessa.” The bell rang and cut her off. “Well, see you at lunch.”
Because of our last names, Morris and Montford, Tessa was seated near me in almost every class. She also played tennis—not well, but it was enough to join the team. And while Mom still insisted on driving me to school every day and walking me through the gates, watching until I was inside the building, she slowly came around to the idea of letting Tessa’s mom drive us home after tennis practice some days. It was so freeing to be in someone else’s car for a change, to go out for fro-yo and talk about boys and school—anything but my missing sister.
With Tessa it was easy to forget—and I did—until there would be a Sarah sighting, and then it would all come crashing down, especially if my parents took the report seriously enough to pull me out of school. The first time it happened was only about six months after Sarah went missing.
I knew something was wrong when I heard the announcement over the loudspeaker that I should report to the office and collect my things, as I would be leaving for the day. I knew at once it had to do with Sarah—and so did everyone else. Their eyes were on me as I stuffed my notebooks into my backpack and made my way from the classroom. I heard whispers, or imagined I did. Tessa bravely stood up and told our English teacher that she would be walking me to the office. I liked how she didn’t ask.
We walked the hallway in silence, the sound of footsteps echoing. Without a word, Tessa took my hand in hers and squeezed hard.
In the school office, Mom waited for me, pale and red-eyed. “They think they’ve found her,” she started to say, but that was nothing new. When I pulled a face, she added, “It’s a body.” She broke down, sobbing. I didn’t know what to do so I patted her shoulder, knowing that everyone who worked in the school office was watching us. I wanted to say It won’t be her, Mom, but I couldn’t form the words.
I walked behind her to the car, where Dad waited for us. I slipped into the backseat and pulled on my seat belt almost robotically. A body. I felt my stomach roll over at the word.
“We should have left her at school,” Dad said, as if I wasn’t there.
“I want her with us.” Mom turned to him. “Where is she supposed to go after, if . . .”
“She could have gone home with someone. That girl with the purple hair, whoever. Christ,” Dad mumbled, pulling out of the parking lot.
Mom said nothing for a moment, then she turned and her eyes locked on mine. There was no way she was letting me out of her sight for any longer than she had to. “We’ll have a police escort,” she explained to me calmly, “or it would take two hours to get there.”
We sped along the highway, doing close to ninety miles an hour, a police cruiser with lights swirling leading the way. Mom was calm enough to fill me in on the basics: the body was that of a young blond woman, too decomposed for easy identification. They needed us to come and have a look, to see if we recognized the clothing, the shoes . . . what was left. No one spoke for the rest of the drive, although Mom continued to cry quietly on and off.
My memories of that afternoon are so vivid: the sound of gravel under the car tires as we pulled off the paved road, the clearing in the trees, water glittering dark and blue in the distance, a rusted chain drawn across the end of the path, a No Trespassing sign. A man in a dark suit, glasses pushed up on his head, his hands covered in surgical gloves, walking toward the car as we pulled in. Mom opening the door before we had stopped, dust from the gravel on her black boots. The man holding up his hands, then the words: “It’s not her.”
It’s not her.
This time, our hopes were not dashed—they were raised. We were elated. Mom collapsed to the ground, sobbing as the man explained quietly how sure they were. How it couldn’t be her. The girl had a scar where her appendix had been removed. Dad crouched next to Mom, his arms around her, his face unreadable.
“I knew it wasn’t her, I knew it. She’s still alive, I know it, I know it, I can feel it, I’m her mother. . . .” Mom couldn’t stop talking. The man in the gloves just nodded and the other cops stood around uncomfortably.
I climbed from the car and looked out over the dusty quarry to where a body was covered with a white sheet. Other cops and detectives were poking around the tall grass with long poles, putting evidence into plastic bags.
That wasn’t my sister under that sheet. But it was still someone. Some blond girl, who had once been living and now was dead. Someone’s daughter. Someone’s sister.
I wish that I could say that was the last time my parents had to look at a body, but it wasn’t. After that first time at the quarry, there were others: in the morgue of a town a half hour away; in photos shown by detectives; and once more, a year after Sarah disappeared, at a location far from our home—and that was body parts, found stuffed in a suitcase and left in a dump up north. Thankfully they didn’t take me along for that excruciating ride, for that horrifying misidentification. I was thirteen, old enough to be left at home. Of course, I wasn’t left alone. My parents would never do that. They had a detective sit in a cruiser outside the house while they went to look at the hands and clothing of the dead girl in the suitcase. So many dead girls, so many blond girls—but none of them were Sarah.
About two years after Sarah disappeared, there were no more bodies, no more calls. Mom was pretty desperate, phoning the detectives every week, asking for new information or leads. She was always met with the same reply: there was nothing. I knew she had reached a new level of desperation when I came home one day after tennis practice to find someone named Madame Azul sitting at our kitchen table—frizzy gray hair, several mismatched cheap necklaces of wooden beads strung around her wrinkled neck, a flowing purple printed polyester dress. I knew at first sight what she was—I had seen women like her at the carnival every summer: get your palm read, know your future, only five dollars. Women like this would usually be sitting at a folding table, swathed in polyester scarves, a cheap crystal ball propped in front of them.
Once, when we were younger, I remember Sarah having her palm read by a mystic at the summer fair. “See this line here,” the woman said, pointing to a crease in her palm. “You will have a long and happy life. This line says your husband will be handsome. Oh! I think you’re going to be blessed with twins—little girls!”
Sarah had grinned at Mom and Dad, and then it was my turn. But I clenched my fist tight and shook my head. I didn’t want to know what the lines on my hand had to tell me.
“Nico, this is Azul. She’s here to talk to us about Sarah.” Mom pulled out a chair, motioning for me to sit down.
I stood next to the table, my tennis bag still slung over one shoulder. “Azul?” I said like it was a question. I saw Mom’s face tighten.
“After I had my Reiki training, I adopted a new name for myself,” the old lady said. She turned to Mom and added quietly, “My given name was weighed down with past lives and karma that I needed to release. You understand.”
Mom nodded as if this made total sense. “Nico, please, join us. Azul had a dream about Sarah and she just wanted to come by and tell us about it.” I dropped my tennis bag on the floor and took a seat.
Azul went on to tell Mom that she had seen Sarah’s face on the news and on the posters around town years ago—of course, everyone had. But more recently, she had a dream—a vision, really—of my sister. I almost spoke up then—there had been a newspaper article a week ago revisiting the case. The headline had read: Where Is Sarah Morris? The reporter had spoken to my parents and interviewed both Max and Paula, Sarah’s boyfriend and best friend. The article was full of loose ends, leads to nowhere. And, to be honest, it made Paula and Max look somewhat awful, featuring a photo of them sitting together, a big smile on Paula’s face. I wondered if Azul’s “dream” might have been inspired not by divine intervention but by the Sunday paper.
“I see water.” Azul started to speak, with her eyes closed. “It’s a happy vision, peaceful.” She opened her eyes. “Did you ever go on a vacation to a lake or near a stream or river?”
Mom shook her head. “Not that I can think of. Could there be snow? The mountains?”
I knew Mom was thinking of Max’s family cabin. It was near a lake. “This is a wooded area, very peaceful. . . .” Azul closed her eyes again and reached for Mom’s hand. “That’s all I’m getting for now, but if I meditate on it, I know I’ll see more.”
Mom let out a sigh with a small smile—a body of water in a wooded area didn’t give us any new information. Everyone knew that Sarah had disappeared at MacArthur Park, where there were woods and a reservoir. Of course Azul would “see” that.
“So, how much does this cost—your meditation, your vision?” I asked bluntly.
Azul shook her head. “I just wanted to share it with you,” she said, standing. “If the information is helpful, then blessed be.” The metal bracelets on her wrists clanged together as she leaned in to embrace Mom. “Here’s my card if you ever want to talk.”
I knew that Mom would want to talk. And she did. Not long after Azul’s unscheduled visit, Mom made an actual appointment with her and made sure Dad was home too. I could tell he believed in Azul about as much as I did, but what could we do? The detectives had come up with nothing. In fact, they hadn’t even called in months. Even after the big article, there were no new leads, just renewed speculation about Paula and Max. Everyone else seemed to have forgotten about Sarah, except for us . . . and Azul.
She came by one evening after dinner, and Mom cleared the dining room table and dimmed the lights, laughing at herself. “I don’t really know how to host a séance!” she joked. I didn’t point out that a séance was used to contact the dead. Is that what we were doing?
Azul showed up smelling strongly of pine incense. As she moved through our house, touching various objects and photos, her purple caftan wafted behind her, leaving a scent of stale Christmas trees. Once we were all seated at the table, Azul asked that we hold hands. I reached awkwardly across the table to take Dad’s hand, embarrassed that my palms were sweating. I tried to remember the last time my hand had been in his—years ago, maybe crossing a street?
Azul said some sort of incantation and bowed her head, so we all did the same. “I’ll need something of Sarah’s, something she wore or kept close to her,” Azul said, raising her head. Mom glanced over at me, thinking.
“I can get something,” I said, and pushed back my chair to go upstairs. I turned the knob of Sarah’s door slowly, reaching in to flip the switch while my feet were still firmly in the hallway. Something about having a psychic downstairs had me spooked—like I would look into the mirror and see Sarah looking back at me, her hair dripping with seaweed. But her room was the same, quiet and pink, unchanged. I looked around and grabbed the first thing I saw—a little white teddy bear that sat on her bed. The bear was wearing a black beret and had been a gift from when Gram went to Paris years ago. I had one too, but my bear’s beret was yellow.
I went downstairs, handing the bear to Azul as if it were made of glass. She turned it over in her hands, her clunky rings banging against the wooden table. Finally, she held it to her chest, her bracelets clanging down her arm, and started humming. Dad caught my eye, raising his brows. Mom was looking only at Azul, her eyes huge.
“I have a message,” Azul said, putting the white bear down on the table. I looked at it, with its stupid beret. What were we doing?
“Your daughter has left this plane of existence,” Azul went on. I felt a rushing sound in my ears as Mom let out a gasp and swallowed back a sob. Dad moved closer to her, putting an arm around her back.
“What do you mean?” Mom asked. “You said you saw her by a lake, some peaceful vision.”
Azul nodded, reaching over to take Mom’s hand. “Yes, she is at peace. I still see trees, so many trees, and water. . . .”
Mom pulled her hand back from Azul. “Where is she?” she demanded.
“It’s a place she knows, she’s been there many times before. She loves this place, it’s peaceful to her.” Azul spoke with her eyes closed.
“The park—the reservoir?” Dad finally asked. He hadn’t been there for Azul’s first visit, where I figured out her scam. But he looked like he was starting to get it now.
“Is it the park?” Mom asked. I felt a cold sweat racing over my scalp with a thousand prickles.
“I’m not sure where it is,” Azul answered. “But . . . someone knows, someone close to her. There is someone who isn’t telling you everything.”
Oh really, I thought. But looking at Mom, I could see her leaning in, holding on to Azul’s hand now. “Who knows?” she asked.
Azul’s eyes opened and she looked around the table. “It’s someone you would never expect.” She rubbed her hands together and her bracelets clanged in an annoyingly loud way in the quiet room.
“Is that all?” Dad asked. I could tell from his tone he was over this whole thing.
Azul sighed dramatically and closed her eyes. She started humming again. Then suddenly, she stopped. I could hear myself breathing, waiting for what she might say. “That’s all my spirits are showing me right now,” she said, shaking her head.
. . .
Later, after she was gone, I heard Mom and Dad in the kitchen, arguing. Well, mostly Dad arguing. “So we had to pay two hundred and fifty dollars for her to tell us nothing—because that’s what her ‘spirits’ had for us?” he yelled. Mom was talking more quietly, and I tried to hear, but whatever she said to him calmed him down. Still, when they came up to bed I heard him say, “For another five hundred, maybe she can tell us what Sarah was wearing in those photos on the Missing poster!”
Mom knocked quietly on my door and came into my room, knowing that I would still be up. “Kind of lame, huh?” I smiled, trying to make light of the visit from Azul. She sat down on my bed, moving over the notebooks near my feet.
“I don’t know what to believe anymore.” She sighed. “I thought she might really have had a vision, or something.” She looked down at my bedspread, picking off a piece of lint. “I’m sorry to put you and your father through that.”
I shrugged. “You had to try, right?” I asked. I hoped that she would just forget about the whole thing and say good night, but instead she glanced up at me, looking hard into my eyes.
“What do you think she meant—that someone knows something they aren’t saying?”
I felt my throat tighten, but I managed a casual shrug. “What I’d like to know is what her real name was, before she changed it to a color.” I tried for a light laugh, opening my history book.
She smiled. “Oh, is that what Azul means? Blue, right? I guess I didn’t put that together.” I saw her shoulders slump and she shook her head, as if trying to forget the whole night. She stood up and walked to my dresser, picking up Sarah’s bear that I had left there.
“I was going to put it back,” I started to say, hearing my voice take on a defensive tone. And I had meant to. I just didn’t want to go into Sarah’s room, in the dark—not after what Azul had said.
“That’s okay, I’ll do it,” Mom said, holding the white bear delicately. She pulled it into her chest and hugged it tightly. “Good night, sweetie. Don’t stay up too late, okay?”
With all the false alarms my parents had to weather, all the bodies they had to identify, and the so-called psychic visions, Mom was decidedly unenthusiastic when the call came in that afternoon. It was almost four years after Sarah’s disappearance and two years after our visits from Azul, and every day had brought nothing but more disappointments.
The phone rang in Mom’s office, a special line specifically set up for tips about Sarah or for Mom’s assistance in other cases of missing kids. I wouldn’t even have heard it except for the fact that Tessa was over and we were microwaving some popcorn in the kitchen. “Mom, your phone is ringing,” I yelled to her upstairs. Dad and I always called that line Mom’s phone—it was easier than having to say “the Sarah line” or mentioning Sarah’s name at all, something we all tried to avoid whenever possible. Besides, most of the calls had nothing to do with Sarah at this point—she had been gone so many years. The calls Mom got now were mostly invitations to speak at conferences or consultations with the parents of other missing kids. Mom was so good at it, she was in demand, but unless they were somewhat local, she turned them down—she didn’t want to leave her family, specifically me, for any length of time.
Tessa opened the fridge and scowled. “Yogurt, more yogurt, and . . . Greek yogurt. Oh, I see some celery. Awesome, so glad I came over.”
I poured the popcorn from the bag into a bowl and offered it to her. “What’s wrong with this?”
She half smiled and took a handful. “Not as satisfying as chocolate brownie ice cream, which we actually have at my house. Besides, we just played tennis for an hour and a half, I’ve earned it.”
“I played tennis, you sort of ran around and chased balls, then sat down and had a Gatorade.”
Tessa grabbed the popcorn bowl from my hands in mock anger and stomped away with it to the den, spilling kernels along the way. As we walked by Mom’s office, I could hear her talking quietly on the phone, something about how long had she been there? Another missing kid, I thought to myself, and had to push the emotions that threatened to overwhelm me to the back of my mind, where I stored all the memories of Sarah, of the hurt our family had been through.
Tessa cozied in on the couch and I grabbed the remote. We were watching a Mexican soap opera for school and trying our best to translate the Spanish, with somewhat disastrous results, mostly because we couldn’t stop giggling and repeating phrases to each other in mock sexy voices. Actually, the show was pretty good and, while neither of us probably wanted to admit it, we were digging the story line about the handsome stepson and his father’s new young bride.
We were arguing about a slang verb conjugation when Mom came and stood in the doorway of the den. I muted the TV and looked up, expecting her to ask us what we wanted for dinner. She had a curious look on her face. “I’ve just had the oddest call,” she began, then hesitated, looking over at Tessa, “from a children’s shelter in Florida.”
“Cómo?” I joked. Tessa shoved my shoulder. “What did they say?”
“Well, they have a girl there. She says her name is Sarah Morris.”
When Mom said Sarah’s whole name, I felt a shiver run through my body. “Children’s shelter?” I repeated. “Sarah would be nineteen now, hardly a child.” I aimed the remote at the TV and turned the sound back on, wishing Mom would leave. I didn’t want to talk about Sarah, not now.
Mom shrugged and disappeared back into her office, and I heard the printer running a few minutes later. She came back into the den and sat next to me, showing me a printed photo without a word. The image was in color, of a girl with light eyes and blond hair. Her hair was lank and hung on either side of her face, her eyes looked tired, her skin was broken out, her lips chapped and thin. There was beauty there, though weathered, older than the Sarah we’d known. I clicked the TV off and sat up, my hands shaking as I took the photo from Mom.
“Nico, you okay?” Tessa asked, moving closer and looking over my shoulder. “Who is that?”
Mom let out a little laugh. “She says she’s Sarah Morris.”
We all sat silently for a moment, just looking at the photo. The girl was the right age. She looked about twenty, maybe older. I stared into the eyes in the photo, but they were flat, unreadable. Cold.
“Should I call your father?”
Mom knew that Dad hated to be bothered at work with every lead. I took another look at the image . . . something about her eyes. They were so blank, so empty. More brown than green now. What could do that to a person?
“Yeah, you should call him,” I finally managed to mumble. “Because I think this is her.”
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