Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Seven Minutes in Heaven

Sara Shepard

Page 1


  The walk-in closet would be any girl’s dream. A thick pink rug lay on the hardwood floor, perfect for bare toes first thing in the morning. Shelves and cubbies lined the walls, filled with designer purses and jewelry and dozens of shoes. Luxurious clothes in every color of the rainbow hung in careful rows: blouses and skirts in silk, cashmere, cotton.

  For most girls, this closet would be heaven. For me, it was just another reminder that heaven was exactly where I wasn’t.

  Next to me in the narrow space, my twin sister, Emma Paxton, ran her fingers through the rich fabrics of my clothes, her heart clenched in a knot of grief. She has my exact chestnut hair and long legs, the same marine-blue eyes lined by dark lashes. She is my identical twin, after all. But even though I stood right next to her, hers was the only reflection in the three-way mirror at the end of the closet.

  Ever since I died, I’d been invisible. But somehow I still lingered among the living, attached through forces I don’t understand to the long-lost sister I never had a chance to meet. The sister who’d been forced by my killer to take over my life. Since my death, Emma had fooled all my friends and family into thinking she was me, Sutton Mercer. She’d been fighting tooth and nail to find out what happened the night I died, and she’d managed to eliminate my family and my best friends as suspects. But the leads were quickly dwindling, the clues drying up. And the killer was still watching, somewhere in the shadows, making sure she didn’t step out of line.

  Now Emma stood in socks and underwear, a dazed expression on her face as she stared up at my wardrobe. It seemed ridiculous that after everything that had happened—the losses she’d suffered, the terror she’d lived in—the simple act of getting dressed could feel so overwhelming. But maybe it was because of her losses, because of her terror, that the simplest choices had turned complicated in her agitated mind. Emma had never had this kind of closet in her old life. Placed in the foster system of Las Vegas after our mother, Becky, abandoned her, Emma moved from home to home with her secondhand T-shirts packed in a duffel bag. I had so many clothes, so many dresses: short and tight or long and flowing, in bright wild prints or plain blocked color, with sequins or ruching or lace trim. There were, of course, more than a half dozen in black to choose from.

  Suddenly, Emma began to tremble. She sank to the plush rug, hugging her arms around her knees as tears rolled down her cheeks.

  “What happened to you, Nisha?” she whispered. “What were you trying to tell me?”

  It’d been nearly two weeks since Nisha Banerjee, my old rival, was discovered floating facedown in her pool. The announcement sent shock waves through the school. Nisha was involved in dozens of activities, and while she wasn’t quite the queen bee I’d been, everyone knew her. The rumor mill started up almost immediately. Nisha was athletic and a strong swimmer—half the school had been to a pool party at her house at one time or another. How could she have drowned? Was it just a freak accident? Or could it have been something darker—a drug overdose? Suicide?

  But Emma and I knew better. The day of her death, Nisha had been desperately trying to reach Emma, calling her over and over. Emma hadn’t called back at first because she’d been so distracted by my secret boyfriend, Thayer Vega, insisting that there was something different about her and that he was going to find out what it was. By the time Emma did call her, Nisha was already dead, and Emma had a feeling that it wasn’t a coincidence.

  If Emma was right, if Nisha stumbled on some kind of information about my death, then she was the latest victim in my murderer’s deadly game. Whoever killed me was still out there—and was willing to kill again to keep his or her secret buried.

  Emma finally got to her feet, rubbing the tears away impatiently. Grieving for Nisha was a luxury she couldn’t afford. She needed to figure out what happened the night I died, before someone else she cared about paid the price—and before the killer eliminated her, too.



  “It was almost two weeks ago that this local girl was found dead in her family’s pool,” the newscaster’s voice intoned as an image of Nisha filled the screen on a Saturday in late November. Emma stood in front of Sutton’s desk, streaming the local news coverage about Nisha while she got dressed for Nisha’s funeral. She wasn’t sure why she was watching; she knew the details already. Maybe hearing them repeated often enough would make her finally believe it was true: Nisha was really gone.

  The newscaster, a slender Latina in a mauve blazer, stood in front of a contemporary ranch house that Emma knew well. Nisha’s home was the first place she went as Sutton, the night Madeline Vega and the Twitter Twins, Lilianna and Gabriella Fiorello, “kidnapped” her from the park bench where she’d been waiting to meet her twin for the very first time. Emma remembered how irritated Nisha had seemed when Emma walked into the party—Nisha and Sutton had been rivals for years. But over the past month, Emma had started to form a tentative friendship with the tennis team cocaptain.

  “The girl was discovered by her father just after eight P. M. last Monday. In an official statement, the Tucson Police have determined that there is no evidence of foul play and are treating the death as an accident. But many questions remain. ”

  The camera cut to Clara, a girl Emma knew from the varsity tennis team. Her eyes were wide and shocked, her face pale. NISHA’S CLASSMATE appeared at the bottom third of the screen below her. “A lot of people are saying it might have been . . . it might have been intentional. Because Nisha was so driven, you know? How much can one person do before they . . . they crack?” Tears filled Clara’s eyes.

  The camera cut away again, replacing Clara with a teenage boy. Emma did a double take. It was her boyfriend, Ethan Landry. NISHA’S NEIGHBOR, said the caption below his face. He wore a black button-down shirt and a black tie and was obviously leaving his house for the funeral. Emma’s knees weakened at the sight of him. “I didn’t know her that well,” Ethan said. His dark blue eyes were serious. “She always seemed really together to me. But I guess you never know what secrets people are hiding. ”

  The camera returned to the newscaster. “Services will be held this afternoon at All Faiths Memorial Park. The family has requested that donations be made to the University of Arizona Hospital in lieu of flowers. This is Tricia Melendez, signing off. ” Emma snapped the laptop closed and walked back into the closet. The silence left in the wake of the chattering newscaster felt deep and sepulchral.

  She’d never been to a funeral before. Unlike most kids her age, who had lost grandparents or family friends, Emma had never had anyone to lose. She took a deep breath and started to flip through Sutton’s black dresses, trying to decide which one would be appropriate.

  I couldn’t remember if I’d ever had reason to wear mourning black. My dead-girl memory was frustratingly spotty. I could remember vague, general attachments—to my house, to my parents—but very few concrete moments. Every now and then a memory would come back to me in a flash of sudden details, but I hadn’t figured out how to predict them, let alone trigger them. I tried to remember my grandfather’s funeral, when Laurel and I were six or seven. Had we held hands as we approached the casket?

  Emma finally decided on a cashmere sweater-dress, taking it gently from its hanger and pulling it over her head. The fit was a little clingy, but the cut was simple. As she smoothed the delicate knit down over her hips, Clara’s words echoed in her ears. It might have been . . . intentional.

  Thursday had been Thanksgiving, and even though the holiday had been cheerless, Emma was at least grateful for a few days away from school and the wild speculation about Nisha. The gossip didn’t sit right with Emma. She’d spe
nt the weekend before with Nisha, and she hadn’t seemed at all sad. Whatever insecurities had kept her and Sutton at odds seemed to have finally evaporated, with a little help from Emma’s kindness. Nisha had even helped Emma break into the hospital mental health records to find out the truth about Becky’s past. For two awful weeks, Emma had believed Becky to be Sutton’s killer—she’d wanted to check her mother’s file to find out if her behavior had ever been violent.

  Now Emma picked up Sutton’s iPhone, scrolling through the messages. The day Nisha died, she’d called Emma about a dozen times over the course of the morning, then finally sent her a single text: CALL ME ASAP. I HAVE SOMETHING TO TELL YOU. She hadn’t left a voicemail, and there was no other explanation. Hours later, she’d drowned.

  It could be a coincidence, Emma thought, tucking the phone into a black-and-white clutch with her wallet. There’s no proof that anyone killed Nisha, or that her death had anything to do with me.

  But even as she thought the words, a grim conviction settled over the doubt and grief that occupied her heart. She couldn’t afford to believe in coincidences anymore. After all, how many long shots had brought her here? Travis, her pothead foster brother, had just happened to stumble upon a fake snuff video of Sutton that he’d thought was Emma. She’d conveniently arrived in Tucson the day after her sister’s death, after spending eighteen years without even knowing she had a sister. And now Nisha had died the very same day she urgently had to talk to Emma? No, not all of that could be chance. She felt like a pawn under an invisible hand, being moved without volition across a chessboard in a game she barely understood.

  And she couldn’t help but feel that Nisha had just been sacrificed in the same game.

  I watched as my sister fumbled with a handful of bobby pins, trying to sweep her hair up into a French twist. Emma was hopeless at updos—at anything but a simple ponytail, really. I wished I could stand behind her and help. I wished that we could get ready together and that I could hold her hand during the funeral. I wished I could tell her I was right there when Emma felt so very alone.

  A soft knock sounded at the door. Emma spit out a bobby pin and looked up. “Come in. ”

  Mr. Mercer pushed the door open, wearing a tailored black suit and a blue-and-burgundy tie. The gray in his hair seemed more pronounced than usual; he’d had a lot of secrets to keep lately. Emma had recently learned from him that Becky was the Mercers’ daughter—making Emma their biological granddaughter. Now that she knew it, she could see the resemblance. She had Mr. Mercer’s straight nose and bow-shaped lips. But Mr. Mercer had kept Becky’s reappearance from his wife and Sutton’s sister, Laurel.

  “Hey, kiddo,” he said, giving her a tentative smile. “How are you doing up here?”

  Emma opened her mouth to say fine, but after a moment she closed it and shrugged. She didn’t know how to answer that question, but she certainly wasn’t fine.

  Mr. Mercer nodded, then let out a heavy breath. “You’ve been through so much. ” He was talking about more than Nisha. As if her friend’s death weren’t enough, Emma had recently seen Becky, her own mother, for the first time in thirteen years.

  Emma had managed to prove that Becky was innocent of Sutton’s murder, but the image of Becky strapped to a hospital bed, frothing at the mouth, still haunted her dreams. She’d spent so many years wondering what had happened to her mom, but she’d never realized how ill Becky was. How unstable.