The Vanishing Stair (Truly Devious, #2)(5)

“Let me guess,” Stevie said, on answering. “You’re writing.”

Nate Fisher was a writer. At least, he was supposed to be.

When he was fourteen, he wrote a book called The Moonbeam Chronicles. It started out as a hobby. Then, as he published parts of it online, it grew more and more popular until it had a robust fandom and Nate wound up as a published author. He had even gone on a book tour and appeared on some morning shows. He had gotten into Ellingham on the back of this achievement. Stevie got the impression that he liked it there for some of the same reasons she did—it was remote and people left him alone. At home, he was that writer kid. He didn’t like publicity. His social anxiety made every event a nightmare. Ellingham was a retreat in the mountains where he could be among people who also did weird things. The only problem was, he was supposed to be writing book two, and book two did not want to be written. Nate’s entire existence was avoiding the writing of book two of the Moonbeam Chronicles.

Which is why, Stevie surmised, Nate was calling her.

“Not going well?” she asked.

“You don’t know my life.”

“It’s that bad?”

“Do books have to have a middle?” he said.

“I think whatever happens in the middle is probably the middle,” Stevie said.

“What if there’s just a beginning where I tell you everything that happened in book one in a series of contrivances, like found scrolls and speeches and drunk bards at the tavern who tell the story to some traveler and then it’s like two hundred pages of question marks and then I explain where the dragon is?”

“Is there kissing?” she asked.

“I hate you.”

“You can’t write anything?”

“Let’s just say that I needed to have Moonbeam fight something and the only thing I could come up with was called the Pulsating Norb. It’s like a wall that jiggles. The best thing I came up with this week is a wall that jiggles called the Pulsating Norb. I need you to come back here and kill me.”

“Wish I could,” Stevie said, hitting the button to cross the intersection. “I’d like to meet a Pulsating Norb.”

“How is it there?” he said.

“The same. My parents are still my parents. School is still school. I didn’t realize how much the place stinks like cafeteria and hot dishwater before. Ellingham is all . . . woody.”

When she called up the sense memory, Stevie felt a pain run through her. Like a punch in the gut.

“So how’s everyone else?” she said quickly.

“Uh . . . Janelle is all in love and power tools. And David, I guess . . .”

And David, he guessed. Nate paused long enough for Stevie to know that there was a there there. Only Janelle knew most of the facts—that Stevie and David Eastman were some kind of thing. David was an annoying rich boy, scruffy and difficult. Whatever ability he had—and apparently he had considerable ability in computer programming—he hid from the school and others. His likes were video games, not going to class, not talking about his past . . .

And Stevie.

Janelle knew that David and Stevie had made out several times. Nate likely guessed; he did not want to know details, but it would have been evident. There was something neither Janelle nor Nate knew about David. Something Stevie was holding on to. Something that could not be said.

“David what?” Stevie said, trying not to sound too interested.

“Nothing. I should go, I guess. . . .”

Stevie suspected that Nate wasn’t going because he was going to write; he was going because this was probably the longest phone conversation he had ever had, at least voluntarily.

“My parents have a sign hanging in the bathroom that I think sums it up,” Stevie said. “It says: ‘Believe in yourself.’ Have you considered believing in yourself? I can send you that quote on top of a pic of a sunset. Would that help?”

“Good-bye,” he said. “You’re the worst.”

Stevie smiled and pocketed her phone. It always hurt, but now it hurt a tiny bit less. She picked up her chin and took firm, decisive steps. She’d read somewhere that the way you move could influence your inner state—take on the shape of the thing you wanted to be. FBI agents walked decisively. Detectives kept their heads up, their eyes moving around. She fastened her hands on her backpack straps to pull herself to a straighter stance. She would not be broken. She quickened her steps and almost bounded up the crumbling concrete path to her front door, turning away, as she always did, from the weathered KING FOR SENATE sign that was still on their lawn a year after the election was over.

“Hey,” she said, knocking the headphones down to her neck and pulling off her coat. “I decided to walk. . . .”

It seemed they had a visitor.


SOMETIMES THE DEVIL COMES TO PEOPLE IN STORIES—THE UNEXPECTED visitor with the pleasing voice. The devil is not supposed to show up in life. The devil is not supposed to be in living rooms in Pittsburgh in the autumn twilight, sitting on the green sofa from Martin’s Big Discount Furniture, in a room magnetically pointed at the television. And yet, there he was.

Edward King was in his fifties, but still looked a bit younger. His hair was dark with a waving curl, forced flat. He wore an impeccable gray suit, one of those suits that stand out because they do not shine or bag. His unlined face was a mask of affability, his smile a gentle, who me? twist. He sat back deep into the sofa, his legs widely crossed, as if this was where he spent every evening. Stevie’s parents sat in the matching recliners on either side of the sofa, looking attentive and wide-eyed, and frankly, confused.

Maureen Johnson's Books