September, ten years earlier
“…and I do solemnly swear that I will never ever tell another living soul what happened here tonight.”
“And I do solemnly swear that I will never ever tell another living soul what happened here tonight,” the female voices echo dutifully, none without a quaver.
Brynn’s is the most tremulous of all, barely audible even to her own ears. She prays Tildy won’t notice and single her out to repeat the pledge solo. If that happens…
What will I do?
What can I do?
She’ll just have to go along with it, the way she’s gone along with all of this, right from the start. Against her better judgment, against her conscience, and ultimately…
Against the law?
Tildy says no. Adamantly. She insists that they haven’t broken any laws.
“It’s not like we’ve murdered someone,” she hissed when Brynn balked at the proposed plan. “Anyone in our situation would do the exact same thing.”
Brynn highly doubts that, but she can’t bring herself to say it.
There was a time when Brynn Costello—apple of her daddy’s eye, valedictorian of her high school class, dean’s list candidate for her four semesters at Stonebridge College, Zeta Delta Kappa pledge—would have stood up to all of them. Even Matilda Harrington.
So why didn’t you?
Why are you standing here in the woods in the middle of the night being sworn to secrecy?
This really can’t be happening. If anyone ever found out…
But nobody will find out.
They’re not going to tell.
Anyway, Tildy was right when she pointed out that what happened isn’t their fault.
I just want to get out of here, go back to the sorority house, and forget this ever happened.
Or, better yet, just go home.
Swept by a wave of nostalgia, Brynn swallows hard over a lump in her throat. She longs for worn oak floors, oval braided rugs, chintz slipcovers. The savory aroma of fresh-brewed coffee, and onions frying in olive oil. The radio in the background, sock-hop standards and sixties’ anthems of the local oldies station. Clutter, and laundry, and people coming and going…
But the seaside blue-colllar household on Cape Cod is two hundred miles and a world away from the campus nestled in the Berkshires, the mountains of western Massachusetts.
And there’s no going back—not the way Brynn yearns to do.
Before her thoughts can meander down the fateful path that ultimately led to Stonebridge College, she’s dragged back to the present.
Tildy, apparently deciding their oath needs something more to make it official, solemnly declares, “So help me God.”
“So help me God,” the others obediently intone.
Not Brynn. She just moves her lips, refusing to invoke God. Not under these circumstances.
“Now we’ll sing the sorority song,” Tildy commands, lifting her hand to push her blonde hair back from her face. Her sorority bracelet, a silver rope of clasped rosebuds, glints in the moonlight. They’re all wearing them—including Rachel—and each is personalized with dangling silver initial charms.
Brynn manages to join the others in singing. The ingrained lyrics she secretly always considered embarrassingly hokey now seem bittersweet as she forces them past the lump in her throat.
We’ll always remember
That fateful September
We’ll never forget
The new sisters we met
We’ll face tomorrow together
In all kinds of weather
ZDK girls, now side by side
May travel far and wide
But wherever we roam
Sweet ZDK will be our home.
The sisters’ voices give way to the hushed nocturnal woodland descant: chirping crickets, a rushing creek, and the September breeze that gently rushes the maple boughs high above the clearing.
Then another sound reaches Brynn’s ears…
The faint, yet resonant crack of a branch splintering underfoot.
She clutches her friend Fiona’s arm, asking in a high-pitched whisper, “Did anyone hear that?”
“Hear what?” Tildy’s tone is sharp.
“Shhh!” Standing absolutely still, afraid to breathe, Brynn listens intently.
They all do.
There is nothing.
Nothing but the crickets, the creek, a gust stirring the leaves overhead. Just like before.
After a long, tense moment, Cassie says, “I don’t hear anything, Brynn.”
Brynn doesn’t either. Not now.
But someone is there.
She can feel it.
Someone is lurking in the shadows among the trees, listening.
Perhaps even watching…
Just minutes ago, Brynn was lamenting the fact that Thursday is Garth’s late night on campus; he has a class until nine o’clock and often stays on campus for hours afterward, doing research in the library and his office there.
A sociology professor whose concentration is the study of death and dying, he’s been working for a few years on a book. The den at home was littered with macabre research materials until recently. Brynn asked him to move it all to his campus office after she caught Caleb browsing through a gruesome book on the forensics of death.
The downside of having Garth move most of his research away from home is that it takes him away, too.
Too bad, Brynn was thinking just now, that her husband couldn’t be here to hear Caleb’s happy kindergarten chatter. As he plowed through his favorite meal of macaroni and cheese with ketchup, her older son regaled her with breathless details about snack time, potty time, lunchtime, nap time, construction-paper art time…
Waiting to share a more adult meal with her husband later, Brynn sat with her children at the table in her pretty blue and yellow kitchen. She was multitasking as usual: listening to Caleb’s ongoing account of his first day, overseeing Jeremy in his booster seat, and opening the day’s mail.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY…TO ME.
She actually gasped aloud when she read it, dropping the card on the table like a red-hot coal. Then she snatched it up again…as if it mattered. Even if the boys could read cursive, they wouldn’t understand the seemingly innocuous message.
Nor would Garth, if he stumbles across the card—which he won’t, because she plans to hide it, just as she’s hidden the dark truth about Rachel all these years.
“Mommy, what’s wrong?” Caleb asks as she reaches for the phone.
She stammers some kind of reply, her thoughts reeling.
Her hands shaking so badly she can barely hit the right buttons on the dial, she can only think thank God, thank God, thank God Garth isn’t here.
Her husband doesn’t know what happened that night.
Nobody but her three sorority sisters who were there.
Or so Brynn always tried to convince herself, despite the nagging memory of that twig snapping in the forest.
Was somebody really spying on them?
The Zeta Delta Kappa house is brightly lit on this September night. Several windows are cracked open and music spills through the screens to mingle with the spirited chatter from the group of girls hanging out on the front steps.
They’re talking about courses they’re taking and guys they’re dating and the upcoming rush. Every trite word they’ve said for the past hour and a half has been clearly audible from this shadowy bench in the deserted park across the street.
The Zeta sisters have no idea that someone is eavesdropping tonight.
Really, all that has changed in ten years are the names, the faces and the voices.
Flash back ten years and a day, and Rachel could easily have been among the girls on the steps, gossiping, laughing.
Flash back just ten years, though—ten years ago this night and…
No more Rachel.
Across the street, the screen door creaks open.
“Come on, girls, let’s call it a night.”
That’s the housemother’s voice. Sara “Puffy” Trovato, still sounding exactly the same after all this time.
Still bantering, the girls gradually disperse into the house. Finally, the door closes behind the last pair. The porch lamps are turned off.
All is still.
It’s easy to picture the girls retreating to their rooms now to finish course assignments, read magazines, watch TV, or check e-mail. Eventually, one by one, they’ll change into their pajamas, turn out the lights, climb into bed.
Chances are, they’ve all heard of Rachel Lorent. They might be aware that this is the tenth anniversary of her disappearance.
Maybe, as they lie in the dark, the current Zeta sisters are even secretly worried that something will happen to one of them.
Maybe they should be.
Excerpted from DON’T SCREAM © Copyright 2012 by Wendy Corsi Staub. Reprinted with permission by Zebra. All rights reserved.