Chapter Excerpt

Tell me who

Tell me who

For Daw,
the best
“who”

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Many many thanks to…
Sarah Shumway, Stephanie Lurie,
Deborah Kaplan, Abby Kuperstock,
and the entire team at Dutton for
all of their hard work and terrific insights.
Richard Abate for his support (and sale!);
Matt and Jen Kraft for the great title;
Caroline Wallace for the fab photo.
And, of course, my family and friends
for putting up with all of my
“can’t talk, gotta write” nonsense.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

“QUIT MOVING IT.”

“I’m not!”

The indicator on my brand-new Ouija board is freaking out, slipping and sliding all over the place. In less than five minutes, I’ve heard from both sets of great grandparents and a spirit named “Irene,” who promises that my hair will naturally straighten on my sixteenth birthday.

I roll back on my heels and glance across the board, where my best friend, Tanna Walker, sits cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom.

“I can feel your fingers pushing,” I tell her.

“Molly, has it ever occurred to you that the board might actually work?”

I shake my head.

“Why not?”

“Because we bought it at Toys “” Us. And it’s made by some weirdo named Psychic Steve.” I point to the bottom left corner of the board, where the Psychic Steve logo is printed. It’s a picture of Steve himself—or at least his super-round, super-red face. His hair’s gray and wiry and his cheeks are puffy, like a chipmunk’s, except not at all cute looking. It’s too bad Psychic Steve didn’t ask around before he slapped his face on all those Ouija boards. Calling on spirits is spooky enough without his big old moon head staring up at you.

Tanna flips her straight blond hair off of her face. She does this a lot, because she says her hair is her best feature and it’s important to draw attention to your best feature. According to Tanna, my skin is my best feature, but I’m not really sure why. Or how I can draw any more attention to it other than by walking around naked, which is so not happening.

Tanna sighs. “Okay, fine. Maybe I did give it a little tap. You know, just to warm it up.”

We look at each other for a couple more seconds and then burst out laughing.

“Who’s Irene?” I ask, when we finally come up for air.

She shrugs. “I just wanted to give you some good news about the Frizz.”

Tanna calls my hair the Frizz because she swears it has no idea it’s actually attached to the rest of my body. No matter how many times I brush it, the curls just frizz up and do whatever they want. And I have to wear it army short, because if I wait too long between haircuts, I end up looking like I’ve got a bright red LEGO sitting on top of my head. I don’t really mind so much, but Tanna thinks the Frizz is such a big problem I should have my own reality TV show: Curls Gone Wild.

The Frizz is definitely not my best feature.

Tanna clasps her hands behind her back and leans forward, stretching. “So now what? Wanna try Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board again?”

“It’s really not a two-person game,” I point out.

“It’s not a game, Molly, it’s a psychic exercise,” Tanna says. She reaches up to dim the lights, then scoots toward me. “And the number of people doesn’t matter. You just have to do it right.”

I groan but stretch out on the floor and lay my head in her lap. I learned a long time ago that it’s stupid to argue with Tanna when she fixes her mind on something. She’s just way too good at getting what she wants.

Tanna and I have been best friends since the first grade, when I walked into the bathroom and Chloe Janes took one look at me and shrieked, “You’re not allowed in here. This is the girls’ room.” I just stood there, wishing my hair would sprout down to my knees and trying really hard not to cry. And then Tanna stepped out of the stall and grabbed my hand. Just like that. “She is too a girl,” she told Chloe. “And you’re just dumb.”

“Okay, now relax,” Tanna instructs, placing her hands on either side of my face. Her fingers draw soft circles around my temples as she whispers, “Light as a feather, stiff as a board. Light as a feather, stiff as a board.”

I close my eyes and let my arms and legs sink in to the carpet, which is actually a lot itchier than it looks. The stiff little hairs keep poking me in the back and I wiggle around, trying to get more comfortable.

“Quit moving,” she orders. “You have to focus or this won’t work.”

“Quit telling me what to do,” I shoot back.

Tanna sighs but goes back to chanting, “Light as a feather, stiff as a board.” I keep my eyes closed and listen to the sound of her voice and the wind whipping against the window. A cozy little shiver runs down my spine as I think about how nice it is to be inside. Even if I am lying on the floor.

“Light as a feather, stiff as a board,” Tanna repeats. Her voice sounds sort of fuzzy now, and really far away. My back drops deeper into the rug, which suddenly feels a lot softer. Almost slippery. Everything feels soft and slippery.

And then it doesn’t.

“Ow!” I yelp as Tanna’s hands grip under my arm, jerking me up. The top half of my body lifts slightly, then flops back against the carpet with a loud thud. I press my hand to my head, which really, really hurts.

Tanna’s standing over me, looking worried but also a little excited. “Are you okay? Do you need ice?”

“What were you doing?” I ask, sitting up. My mouth feels all prickly.

“I think it really worked this time,” Tanna gushes. Her cheeks are flushed and her eyes jackrabbit around the room. “I mean, you definitely went…somewhere. I could sense it. So I tried to lift you and that’s when the trance or whatever must have broken…”

“It wasn’t a trance,” I tell her. “I was sleeping.”

“Are you sure?” Tanna insists. “Maybe you just don’t know what psychic vibrations feel like.”

“I know what sleeping feels like,” I point out. “I do that every night.”

Tanna toys with a brown crystal dangling from her neck. She wears three on the same chain, since crystals represent a positive future. “But my tigereye was totally flashing—which makes sense since it’s, like, a spiritual protector.”

I raise my eyebrows. “A what?”

“I swear there was a presence,” she insists, shooting me a hopeful look. “Did you feel anything?”

I shake my head. “Nope. Just tired.” Tanna’s eyes snap back to normal and I can tell she’s disappointed. I wish we could just forget the whole thing, but I do feel sort of bad about falling asleep when I was supposed to be making all kinds of psychic connections. So after a few seconds I add, “We could check the tarot cards, I guess.”

“Good idea,” Tanna says, perking up as she reaches into her bag. “If there were any spirits hanging around they’ll be, like, supercharged. We’ll get a really good reading.”

“What’s that for?” I ask, pointing at the deck. It’s wrapped in a red silk scarf I’ve never seen before.

“It protects their aura,” Tanna explains as she starts to shuffle. She places the pack on the carpet and taps them with her crystals. “This should help, too.”

I rest my chin in my hand and try really hard to look interested, even though I have no idea what aura she’s talking about and sort of wish we were baking brownies or watching TV instead.

Ever since her Aunt Liza gave her the cards for her birthday, Tanna’s been on a huge fortune-telling kick. It’s all she wants to do anymore. She even visited a psychic, the Amazing Maureen, but it didn’t really work out. Maureen’s booth is in the food court at Montgomery Mall, right next to the Hamburger Connection, and Tanna’s a strict vegetarian. She said the smell of frying cows made her sick.

“Okay,” Tanna says importantly, cutting the deck into three separate piles. “Does Molly have a secret admirer?”

I shoot her a look. “Hey, I thought we were gonna ask about Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board?”

“We have to do a warm-up reading first.” Tanna draws seven cards from the middle pile and places them faceup on the rug. She stares down at the pictures, chewing her lip in a worried sort of way.

“What?” I ask. I’ve sat through a ton of readings over the past few months but still feel a little nervous. It would probably help if I learned how to read the cards myself, but I can’t. I’ve tried. All the symbols run together and I get them all mixed up. Besides, the pictures make absolutely no sense. I mean, what does a guy balancing seven swords have to do with being responsible? It’s not like he’s polishing the swords or color-coding them or anything.

“We-ell,” Tanna says slowly, pointing at an image of a hand holding some sort of crystal ball with a star in the middle. “That’s the seven of pentacles. It means you’re gonna get rich. Really rich.”

“Oh,” I say, feeling relieved. “That’s good.”

“And there’s your secret admirer.” She points at a card with a naked man and woman standing in front of a swirly background. “The lovers card. That’s great.”

My stomach tightens. I shift my eyes away from the naked people and try not to think about the word lover. Or my secret admirer.

“But here’s what’s sort of weird,” Tanna continues, waving her hand over three cards. “That’s the ace of wands, the empress, and the princess of disks.”

“So what?”

“Well, alone, they’re sort of cool,” she says, running her fingers through her hair. “The ace of wands means, like, a new beginning. The empress represents abundance, and the princess of disks tells me you’re trustworthy and reliable. But the thing is, together…” She trails off, shaking her head sadly.

I swallow. “What? What do they mean?”

Tanna bites her lip and her eyes start to dance. “Pregnancy.”

I glare at her. “What? You’re kidding, right?”

“No, I swear!” Tanna’s mouth is all pinched up and I can tell she’s trying really hard not to laugh.

“It’s not funny,” I say, folding my arms across my chest. “Oh relax, Molly. It’s not like it’s gonna happen now, but—”

“Hello!” I shout, cutting her off. “I’m only twelve. It’s impossible.”

“Don’t get mad at me. It’s not my fault,” Tanna says, still smirking. “I don’t control the cards. I’m just the messenger.”

I slump back against the bed, feeling frustrated and annoyed. It’s not that I don’t want to read the future. It’d be great to know when my next Algebra quiz is or if I’ll finally be invited to one of Sophie Kravitz’s pool parties. She had one right around Halloween and asked almost every girl in my grade except me. If I’d known about it ahead of time maybe it wouldn’t have hurt so much.

So yes, I definitely can see how the whole future-telling thing would come in handy. But lately Tanna’s gone a little overboard. She’s definitely obsessed.

“It’s not my fault,” she repeats, twisting the chunky topaz ring around her index finger. It’s pretty ugly—the color sort of reminds me of flat Coke—but it’s Tanna’s birthstone and she refuses to take it off. According to Tanna, she’s a classic Scorpio: passionate and highly emotional with very deep feelings and intense interests. Out of respect for the sign, she only wears approved Scorpio colors: red, black, blue, or green.

I’m a Libra and that means I’m supposed to be very chic and elegant, which is a total joke. I never think about what I wear and I hate shopping. Seriously. The mall makes me sleepy. Plus, I’m a total klutz. I’m the only person I know who needs a tutor for PE. No matter what sport we’re playing, my teacher, Mrs. Sixsmith, makes me stay behind for extra help. And I always get a C. Always.

Tanna thinks I’m not a typical Libra, because my mom died when I was seven. She says that traumatic events can stunt your spiritual development. Plus, most girls learn style and grace from their mothers, but I got cheated since mine died when I was too little for that stuff.

I guess I did get cheated. But I don’t really care about the style or grace thing. Or even about being a Libra.

“Forget it,” I tell her. “Let’s just do something else.”

Tanna rolls her eyes in a whatever sort of way and gathers up the cards. “Fine. Like what?”

I’m about to suggest we play Businesswoman, which is a pretend game we haven’t played in months and is actually sort of fun, when the Claw pushes my bedroom door open. I know it’s the Claw even before I see her. My dad always knocks.

The Claw is my dad’s girlfriend. Oops, I mean fiancée. Her real name is Phyllis, but Tanna and I call her the Claw because of her fingernails. They’re long and Wolverine sharp; we’re pretty sure they can slice cans. The Claw paints them pink, red, or white. She says she chooses the color depending on her mood, but I don’t believe her. The Claw really only has one mood: nightmare.

I think you can learn a lot about a person by just looking at their nails. Mine are short and color-free, plain but very kidlike. Tanna likes to paint each of her nails a different Scorpio color, which is cool and original. The Claw, on the other hand, has sharp, mean-looking nails, like weapons. They fit her perfectly.

“Hi, girls,” she says. “Everything okay up here? Just thought I’d check in.” Whenever the Claw talks to Tanna and me, her voice gets really high, like someone’s poking her in the back. She also speaks way too slowly and over-enunciates all of her words. I mentioned this to my dad once and he said that the Claw isn’t used to spending time with kids, and that I need to be patient with her.

That was over a year ago.

Tanna and I exchange a look. The Claw’s always hassling us about our after-school activities. She thinks we spend way too much time up in my room when we could be playing outside, exercising in the fresh air (her words, not mine).

I’ve tried to explain that there’s a big difference between being in the sixth grade and being six years old, but the Claw just doesn’t get it.

Besides, Tanna and I know the truth. She just wants us out of the house so she can have the place to herself.

“We’re good,” I say as the Ouija catches my eye. For some reason, I know that this is something the Claw shouldn’t see. Slowly, I nudge it under the bed with my foot.

Big mistake. The movement just draws her attention to the board.

“What’s that?” she asks. She tries to step closer, but her pencil-thin heels are so sharp they sink into the carpet like it’s grass.

Tanna leans forward and snaps the board shut.

“School project,” she says.

I send her a telepathic thank-you.

The Claw straightens and folds her arms across her chest. I can tell she’s debating whether or not to demand an explanation. After a few more seconds tick by her mouth twists into a smile so fake she might as well not have bothered.

“I was just wondering about your homework,” she says.

Tanna points to the closed Ouija board. “We’re on it.”

The Claw straightens and pats her dark brown hair. “Well, then I guess I don’t need to wonder, do I?”

Tanna and I shake our heads and watch as the Claw leaves the room. We wait until she clicks down the stairs. (You know what I said about people and their nails? Well, ditto for shoes.) Then we start to giggle.

The sound of the garage door opening makes me straighten.

“Think she’ll tell my dad?” I ask.

Tanna holds out the tarot cards. “There’s really only one way to know for sure.”

I groan and flop backward onto the floor, hitting the bruise on my head.

Chapter 2

AT DINNER, MY father places a bottle of champagne in the middle of the table. “Well, Molly,” he says, smiling. “Phyllis and I have a big announcement.”

“What?” I ask, studying the champagne. It looks sort of weird just sitting there, between the hamburger buns and a jar of pickles. Way too fancy. It’s like wearing a prom dress to go sledding.

“We set a date,” the Claw says, roping her arm around my father’s and sinking her nails into the sleeve of his shirt.

They’re smiling these really stupid smiles and staring at me, like I’m supposed to start cheering or something.

I pick up my turkey burger and look at them. “A what?”

“A date,” the Claw repeats in her I-know-English-is-such-a-difficult-language-to-learn voice.

I shake my head and pretend to take a bite out of my burger but really only eat the bun and some lettuce. I can’t stand the Claw’s cooking. She pours these really weird sauces over everything. She says they’re gourmet, but I don’t care. They’re disgusting.

My father and I used to order Chinese food every night. The paper takeout bag was our napkin and tablecloth. Then, about two years ago, his law firm hired the Claw to redecorate their office. She liked the job so much, she decided to redecorate my dad, too. Now he wears these matching ties and shirts that are so bright, they look like Skittles. And we haven’t had Chinese food in almost a year and a half.

My father fiddles with the wire basket thing at the top of the champagne bottle. “Molly, Phyllis and I have set a date for our wedding.” When he pulls out the cork, the pop is so loud I drop my burger and jump out of my chair. The sound rings in my ears as I lean over to scrape the food off the floor.

“We’re getting married in October,” he says. “In the backyard.”

The backyard? How boring can you get? I thought weddings were supposed to be special, held in cool places. Like on a cruise. Or in Hawaii. Or on a cruise to Hawaii.

I picture the backyard, with my rusty old swing set and the huge, drooping crab apple tree that sheds smelly fruit all over the place. Maybe the Claw will get bonked on the head with an apple during the ceremony.

I straighten slowly and sit back down, wiping my mouth with a napkin. I’m stalling. My dad and the Claw are waiting for me to congratulate them. Or smile. Or something.

But I can’t. The best I can come up with is, “October’s really far away. That’s like ten months, right?”

My dad raises his eyebrows. “It’s sooner than you think, Mol.”

The Claw places her fingertips lightly on the sides of her forehead. Her bright red nails look like kebab skewers. “Don’t remind me. I’ve got so much to do.” She clears her throat and turns, looking straight at me. “You know, I’ll be gone a lot more now.”

I smile. Now that’s something to get excited about.

But the Claw’s still staring at me.

“I’m not going to be around to babysit,” she says.

“I don’t need a babysitter,” I point out. “I’ve been staying by myself since I was ten.”

“Mitch, please.”

This is outrageously annoying for two reasons: One, the Claw is ignoring me completely, like I haven’t said a word. And two: She’s calling my father Mitch. His real name is Mitchell. As in M-I-T-C-H-E-L-L. Nobody calls him Mitch. He used to hate it when people called him Mitch. He’d make this really sour face and say, “Did you hear that, Molly? The guy Mitched me!” and then we’d laugh about it for an hour.

Okay, maybe not for an hour. But we’d laugh. And now my father’s getting Mitched by his own fiancée—she Mitches him all the time—and he doesn’t even blink. Instead of looking at her with his sour face, he’s looking at me—his own flesh and blood—with this weird frown.

“Phyllis has a point, Molly,” he says. “Her plate is kind of full.”

The Claw pouts. “Planning a wedding is a full-time job. Plus, I’ve got my business to run.”

Last fall, the Claw quit her job with the interior design firm to become an antiques dealer. But as far as I can tell, she hasn’t done any dealing. She’s great at buying, though. Our basement is stuffed with all sorts of cobwebby lamps and grimy chairs.

“Well, I’m busy, too,” I say. “Tanna and I have lots of things going on.”

The Claw scrunches up her eyebrows and her face turns redder than her nail polish.

“Are any of these activities organized?” she asks.

The Claw’s big on organized activities, even for adults. She and my dad belong to a book group, a supper club, some sort of ballroom dance troupe, and a weekly “go green” discussion group. I think that group’s sort of fallen apart though, since at the last meeting one of the couples admitted they don’t recycle.

Even so, the Claw’s got my dad pretty “organized.”

Before the Claw, I didn’t even know that adults could sign up for clubs like that. It makes sense, I guess. I just never really thought about it. Why would I have? My dad used to come home from work every night and watch Hardball and ESPN.

Maybe this is bad, but I’m not that interested in organized activities. I took ballet until the second grade, but then my dad forgot to sign me up for third grade, so I stopped going. I didn’t even notice until around Christmas, when our housekeeper used one of my slippers as a potholder.

I sometimes help Mr. Schopper, the drama teacher, paint scenery for school plays. But that’s not because I like drama or even art. I just like Mr. Schopper. He and my mom and dad all went to college together and he still keeps a picture of her up in his house. He told me that once, even though I haven’t seen it. I’ve never been to his house before.

The only other thing I do on a regular basis—besides my homework—is help Tanna try to read the future.

But since I don’t think the Claw would count that as an organized activity, I settle for a nod instead.

The Claw smiles sweetly and lifts her champagne. “Cheers!” she says. She clinks with my dad, then knocks my water glass lightly.

I lean back in my chair, surprised to have won the argument so easily. Maybe the Claw’s suffering from that Bridezilla syndrome Tanna warned me about. She learned about it from this TV show where all these brides-to-be go crazy planning their weddings. They have really awful mood swings and the littlest problem—the wrong tablecloth or a bad hairstyle—can totally set them off. Whoa. If the Claw’s a Bridezilla now, she’ll probably have scales and breathe fire by October.

On the other hand, October is really far away.

Chapter 3

IF THERE’S ANYTHING more disgusting than a boy eating lunch, I don’t want to know about it. Seriously. If you ask me, a sixth-grade boy eating a simple sandwich is way scarier than Saw and Hostel combined.

For instance, right now I’m sitting in the cafeteria listening to Max Dreyfuss burp his way through the Simpsons theme song.



Excerpted from Tell Me Who by Jessica Wollman
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