“Do you want something to drink?” she asked, walking toward the kitchen. “I just made some coffee a little bit ago.”
“Coffee would be great.”
Daniel followed her into the kitchen. Harper grabbed two mugs from the cupboard and filled them both with coffee. When she gave Daniel his, he sat down at the kitchen table, but she stayed standing, preferring to lean against the counter and drink her coffee.
“This is really good coffee,” Daniel said after taking a sip.
“Thank you. It’s Folgers.”
“So.” He set his mug down on the table. “You never did tell me how you were doing.”
“Yeah, I did. I said I was fine.”
“Yeah, but that was a lie.” He tilted his head, watching her. “How are you really doing?”
Harper scoffed and looked away from him, smiling nervously. “How do you know that’s a lie? And why would I lie?” She shook her head. “Why would I not be okay? I mean, I only knew one of them, and I didn’t even really know the guy.”
“You are a horrible liar. Honestly. You’re one of the worst I’ve ever seen. Every time you say something that’s not true, you ramble and avoid eye contact.”
“I…” She started to protest, then sighed.
“Why don’t you want to admit how you really feel?” Daniel asked.
“It’s not that I don’t want to.” She stared down at the coffee in her hands. “It’s that … I don’t feel like I have a right to feel bad.”
“How do you not have a right to feel bad? You’re entitled to feel however you feel.”
“No, I’m not.” She suddenly wanted to cry. “Luke was … I barely knew him. His parents lost a son. Alex lost a friend. They loved him. They lost something. They get to feel terrible about it.”
She shook her head, as if that wasn’t what she wanted to say at all. “We exchanged a few really awkward, sloppy kisses last fall, and then I kinda blew him off.” She chewed her lip, trying not to cry. “I mean, he was a nice guy. I just didn’t feel that way about him.”
“Because you dated, and it ended, you don’t get to feel bad?” Daniel asked.
“Maybe.” She shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“Okay, let’s try this. Let’s forget how you should feel or shouldn’t feel. Why don’t you just tell me exactly what you’re feeling and thinking right now?”
“It’s not…” Harper swallowed hard, planning to dismiss Daniel’s question, but then she changed her mind. “I can’t stop thinking about his face when we found him. He had a maggot crawling on his lip.” Unconsciously, she ran a finger over her own lips. “Those were lips that I’d kissed.
“And I can’t get the way the bodies smelled out of my nose. No matter how much I shower or how much perfume I spray, I can’t stop smelling it.” Her voice got thick, and her eyes welled with tears.
“It’s his lips and face I keep picturing, but his body was all torn up.” She gestured to her own torso. “He’d been ripped open and … I just keep thinking how scared he had to be.” Tears slid down her cheeks. “He had to be terrified when that happened. They all did.”
Daniel got up from the table and walked over to her. He stood in front of her and put his hands on her arms, but she wouldn’t look at him. She stared off at a point on the floor, crying.
“We saw him that day,” Harper went on. “The day he disappeared, at the picnic. And I just keep thinking, if I’d invited him to hang out with us, he’d still be alive. When I saw him, I was upset because everything was so awkward between us now. And he was a nice guy! If I’d just…”
She started sobbing then, her words getting drowned out by her tears. Daniel took the coffee mug from her hands and set it on the counter behind her. Then he reached out, and, almost tentatively, pulled her into his arms, hugging her.
“It’s not your fault,” Daniel told her as she cried into his shoulder. “You can’t save everybody, Harper.”
“Why not?” she asked, her words muffled.
“It’s just the way the world works.”
Harper allowed herself to cry for a little bit longer, feeling both grateful and ashamed at having Daniel’s arms around her. When she’d calmed down enough, she pulled away from him and wiped her eyes. He retracted his arms, but he stayed right in front of her, in case she needed him.
“Sorry,” she said, pressing her palms to her cheeks to dry the tears.
“Don’t be. I’m not.”
“Well, you have no reason to be sorry. You’re not being a total freak.”
“Neither are you.” He brushed a lock back from her forehead, and she let him, but she wouldn’t look up at him.
“And I know you’re right. I mean, that it’s not my fault.” She sniffled. “But I just can’t stop thinking about that day at the picnic. I mean, we saw him that afternoon, and he went missing that night. If I’d just said, Hey, why don’t you hang out with us? instead of letting him go off with that girl…”
“You can’t beat yourself up like that. There’s no way you could’ve known.”
“Yes, I should’ve.” Her eyes widened as she realized something, and she looked up at him. “The last time I saw Luke alive, he was going off with Lexi.”
“Who’s Lexi?” Daniel asked.
“One of those really pretty, creepy girls.”
“So he left the picnic with this Lexi girl, and then disappeared?” Daniel asked. “Did you tell the cops that?”
“No, I mean, yes.” She shook her head. “I told them what I knew, but that didn’t seem very important. He went home after the picnic and had supper with his parents. It’s after that that he left, then went missing. But he did go off with Lexi, for a little while.”
“You think that Lexi and Penn and that other girl are somehow involved with the murders? That’s what you’re suggesting?”
“I don’t know,” Harper said, then changed her mind. “Yes. I do. I think they’re connected.”
“At the risk of being accused of being a sexist pig, I’m going to say something—they’re just girls.” He took a small step back from Harper, as if he expected her to hit him, but she didn’t. “I get that it’s the new millennium and equal rights and girls can be serial killers just as well as boys. But those three girls don’t really look like they have the upper body strength to, you know, eviscerate somebody.”