By Barry Lyga
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 28, 2021. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
A young-adult thriller ricocheting between the bigotry of the past and present as teens unravel their parents’ secrets. Perfect for fans of One of Us is Lying — now in paperback!
Four teens have dug up the time capsule that their parents buried in 1986 and never bothered to recover. But in addition to the expected ephemera of mixtapes, Walkmans, photographs, letters, toys, and assorted junk, Elayah, Liam, Marcie, and Jorja discover something sinister: a hunting knife stained with blood and wrapped with a note. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to kill anyone."
As the action dramatically alternates between the present day and 1986, the mystery unfolds and the sins of the past echo into today. The teens haven't just unearthed a time capsule: they've also dug up pain and secrets that someone–maybe one of their own parents–is willing to kill for.
THE PRESENT: ELAYAH
Bearing shovels and a pickax, they made their way up the hill that morning. Liam started whining about the climb halfway up, pleading exhaustion already, to the annoyance of the others. Elayah rolled her eyes.
Marcie did more than roll her eyes—she turned to Liam and held out her shovel, stopping him in his tracks.
“Are you in or are you out?”
“I only had a grande this morning,” Liam said with a wretched pout.
“Grow up,” Marcie told him, tossing her hair back. “Stop being a pussy.”
“Microaggression!” Liam cried. “Hashtag me too!”
The last of their foursome, Jorja, snorted. She had the pickax, which somehow imbued her with additional gravitas. Everyone turned to look at her.
“Girls are allowed to say pussy,” she informed Liam. “We’re reclaiming it from the patriarchy.”
“Sucks to be you,” Marcie added with a healthy dose of snark.
“Wait, wait!” Liam made an almost mechanical sound deep in his chest. “I think… I think I know what the problem is.” He gagged up a wad of something thick and yellowish, then spat it into the grass at his feet.
Elayah was the only one to react. “Gross!” she exclaimed.
Liam chuckled under his breath. Tall and dirty blond and crinkly-grinned, he was pretty much every aftershave and men’s deodorant commercial come to life. He had a face made for YouTube and a body made for making girls swoon. Straight girls, at least. Elayah had done her fair share of swooning, and even knowing that he was playing her for the reaction to his phlegmy, male raunch, she was still frozen by those blue eyes and that saucy quirk of his lips.
“You’re disgusting,” she said just a moment too late. Liam laughed. He took a bizarre pleasure in tricking her, then pulling back the curtain. Always had.
“It’s up there.” Jorja pointed to a spot just atop the hill.
“The lady hath spoken!” Liam shouldered his shovel and—grande or not—dashed up the hill at a pace that made Elayah feel like a slug. “First one up is ruler of the world!”
Jorja reacted instantly, her long legs carrying her up the hill only a foot or two behind Liam. “No fair!” she screamed, racing.
Just then, Liam crested the hill. He spun around and lofted his shovel like a medieval knight’s sword, striking a legs-akimbo pose. “I have conquered the mountain!” he bellowed.
“Not a mountain!” Jorja yelled back, just a few feet from him.
Marcie sighed and shook her head, adjusting her glasses. She raised an eyebrow at Elayah. “Are we going to race like those idiots?”
Marcie laughed. “I’m glad.”
Together they made a steady but unhurried trek up the hill. The incline rolled over into a broad, wide expanse of grass and trees. It would have been a mesa if it had been higher and drier. And in the Southwest. From here, they could see the dinky “sprawl” of town to the north, the Wantzler factory—still chugging along, barely—to the west, and the high school to the south, down the slope. Elayah allowed herself a moment to enjoy the view, then hustled over to where the others had gathered.
“I think it’s this tree,” Liam said, now all serious. “It is, right?”
Everyone glanced over at Elayah, who had already dug into her pocket for her phone. She consulted a document, pinching it wider. It was a scan of the yellowing sheet of paper she’d found in one of the old yearbooks in the school library. There was a map of sorts there, with a scraggle of lines to indicate the copse of trees they faced right now, then a hasty circle to indicate the sun. Some ruled lines formed a right triangle between the sun, one tree in particular, and a spot on the ground.
The tree on the map had a callout to it, showing a capital B. The tree Liam had indicated had a rough, scraggly B carved into its bark, nearly overgrown but still distinct enough to identify.
“Looks right,” Elayah said. It had been more than thirty years since the makeshift map was drawn. They were damn lucky the tree was still there. Hell, they were lucky the hill was still there.
When she’d told her dad about the “treasure hunt,” he’d laughed and said, “Honey, are you sure there’s even a place to look anymore?”
Fortunately, there was. The hill and the trees were older, slightly eroded, more than a little weary-looking, but still in the same places they’d occupied in 1986.
“Time to measure,” she told them.
The lines forming the right angle had foot demarcations on them, meaning that figuring out the location of the spot on the ground should have been as simple as facing the right direction, watching the shadow of the tree, and judiciously applying old man Pythagoras’s theorem about a2 and b2 equaling c2. But the tree had grown over the past few decades, so they had to fake it, using the measurement on the old paper to calculate where the shadow would have fallen back in 1986 and then going from there.
Elayah had aced trig, so she got to do the math while Liam and Marcie used their shovels to measure off the appropriate distances.
“Why didn’t they just write down the longitude and latitude?” Liam grumbled.
“Because no one had GPS back then,” Jorja told him gently. Physically, Liam was almost always a step ahead of the three women; mentally, he was almost always a step behind.
It was simple enough to find the spot. Now they just had to hope that, for example, the tree hadn’t shifted because of erosion or ground movement in the preceding thirty-plus years. Or that the slope of the ground hadn’t changed too much. Or any of a million other little things that could throw them off.
She kept those fears to herself. No point stressing anyone out. This was supposed to be fun. A lark, Jorja had called it when Elayah first suggested they dig the damn thing up.
“How far down do you think they buried it?” Marcie asked as the four of them clustered around the spot.
Elayah shrugged. “I don’t know. They didn’t write that down.”
“Six feet?” Liam said with a mix of confidence and inquisitiveness.
“That’s dead bodies,” Jorja informed him.
“Just how many dead bodies have you dug up?” Liam asked.
“Only the three,” Jorja deadpanned, then shoved Liam lightly. He nudged her back with his shoulder.
They could have been brother and sister. Both of them tall, both of them blondish—though it was tough to tell with Jorja, ever since she’d started buzzing her hair. Their easy repartee infuriated Elayah, which she never let show; she didn’t want Liam to know she cared.
But… damn, sometimes she wished she were Jorja instead of herself. To be so relaxed and at ease around Liam…
“So, six feet, right?” Liam said, jostling Elayah from a world in which she, not Jorja, lived next door to Liam and got to joke around with him and even touch him on occasion.
“Not technically,” she said, going on autopilot. “That used to be the law for graves, but that was hundreds of years ago, in Europe, when they had to bury victims of the plague deep enough that the bodies couldn’t contaminate the living. In the US, the only relevant law is that there has to be eighteen inches of dirt between the body and the open air.”
There was a moment of silence during which they all regarded her. Jorja seemed to be absorbing this information, filing it away in her personal data vault. Marcie just grinned.
“Geek Girl rides again!” Liam sang out. Elayah pursed her lips in mock anger. It was the easiest way to keep herself from blushing. Why did she crave his attention, even when it was negative?
Oh, right, because she was madly—
“For definitions of geek meaning anyone smarter than you,” Marcie snapped at him.
“So… everyone, then,” Jorja chimed in brightly, ignoring Liam’s look of feigned outrage. “Let’s get started.”
Liam was a bit taller and stronger, but Jorja had an almost poetic sense of movement. She briefly struck a Rosie the Riveter “We can do it!” pose before applying the pickax to the ground, breaking up the turf so that the shovels could find easier purchase.
She leaned back, slid the pickax’s handle through her threaded fingers almost to its end, and then skip-stepped forward, bringing the ax up and around and then down in a perfect arc, biting the earth with its steel tooth.
A devotee of a brutally exhausting form of yoga and a regular in the school’s weight lifting room, Jorja had the lithe shape of a dancer, wedded to a swimmer’s muscles. She seemed to enjoy attacking the innocent turf.
She and Liam swapped pickax duty until there was a wide, ragged oval of broken earth. Then the foursome took turns with the shovels, one of them digging the hole, one keeping its edges from collapsing, while the other two rested. It was deeper than eighteen inches, but fortunately nothing like six feet—an hour later Liam’s shovel sang a sour, metallic note and shivered so strongly in his hands that he nearly dropped it.
“Rock?” he said, arming sweat off his forehead.
“Didn’t sound like it,” Jorja replied, and crouched to peer into the hole. She’d stripped off her overshirt, and sweat soaked through her ribbed white sleeveless tee. “Looks shiny. Step back.”
For once, Liam obeyed, scrambling out of the hole. Sunlight glimmered off something that was most definitely not made of stone.
“Hells yeah,” Liam whispered. “Time capsule, baby.”
“Time capsule…” Mr. Hindon, the high school’s long-serving media specialist, had drawn out the words as though remembering the lyrics to a song, then executed a very brief series of eye spasms. He had Tourette syndrome (not Tourette’s, he’d been explaining to generations of students; there was no possessive), and when he focused hard, sometimes his eye muscles did a little involuntary dance.
“Time capsule,” he’d said again, musing over the yellowing sheet of paper they’d handed him. “Yeah, I remember that now that you mention it. Some kids from the class of eighty-seven buried a time capsule.”
“But I found this in the yearbook from 1984,” Elayah told him.
He shrugged almost extravagantly. “Who knows? It’s a mystery!”
Turned out it wasn’t the only one.
Liam and Jorja were slick with sweat, their bare arms streaked with dirt, their faces smeared. They’d been in the hole for only ten minutes, trying to wrestle the thing out, but it was proving difficult.
“This thing feels like a greased pig.”
“Really, Farmer Brown?” Jorja asked, chuckling. “Have a lot of experience with greased pigs, do you?”
“You don’t know everything about me,” Liam told her.
“Oh yeah, you’re large. You contain multitudes.”
Liam stared blankly. Walt Whitman was not his forte. In fact, anything before, say, the year 2000 might as well be dinosaurs.
“We’ll explain it later,” Marcie promised him.
Elayah couldn’t help it—her brain flashed pieces of the poem, whether she wanted it to or not.
The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
After some more bickering, Liam and Jorja finally set themselves up in new positions, but to no avail. The thing didn’t budge. “What were they thinking?” Liam demanded.
“It lasted all this time,” Marcie said. “So I guess they were thinking right.”
“Let me try this myself,” Liam said.
“Ooh,” Jorja said, deepening her voice and slackening her jaw. “Me big man. Me lift heavy thing for dainty ladies.”
“I’m just thinking, y’know, too many cooks—”
“Can you guys work together for once?” Elayah’s exasperation finally overcame her attraction.
Jorja and Liam pulled wounded expressions and looked at each other. “Wow, that hurt.”
“No need to go all Mom on us,” Jorja added. “We’re working through it.”
“Just… do something!” Elayah erupted. The damn thing was right there!
“Who died and made her boss?” Jorja asked.
Liam shrugged. “I don’t know, but I guess we better get serious before she, like, gives us demerits or something.”
Jorja crouched and worked her hands under the time capsule. “I’ll try to tilt it toward you,” she said to Liam. “See if you can get it into your arms.”
“And then what? Use my superpowers to fly out of here?”
Elayah nudged Marcie with her elbow and gestured. They took up a position just behind Liam at the edge of the hole. “Try to shift it toward us and we’ll roll it out.”
Liam considered, shrugged, nodded. He whipped off his shirt and dabbed his forehead before tossing the garment a few feet away. Elayah took in his crisp shoulder blades and the hard ridges of muscle in his back. She exchanged a look with Marcie, who mouthed, Keep it in your pants.
Elayah shot back a death glare. Her lust for Liam was a secret between just the two of them.
Marcie shrugged as though to say, He’s not even looking this way.
True. But Jorja was facing them. And Jorja and Liam were tight. Tell-you-everything-I-see tight.
“Let’s do this shizz,” Liam said. “My dad said we’d never find this thing, and I really want to prove him wrong.”
He hunched down. Sweat gleamed on his skin. For the moment, Elayah had nothing to do, so she watched the beads meander.
Jorja groaned with effort. The time capsule was much bigger than they’d expected. The sheet of paper they’d found in the old yearbook was titled Contents of Time Capsule and had listed maybe two dozen things, most of which were small. Elayah had figured that the entire thing would be the size of two or three shoeboxes.
What they’d unearthed was more like the size of a small filing cabinet. Cylindrical and made of stainless steel, it had the words PRESERVATION INC. stamped in an arc on one end, with STORAGE VAULT rounding out the other arc. It lay diagonal in the dirt, so they’d had to dig a deeper, wider hole than they’d anticipated to reveal the entirety of its length.
“I hate our parents!” Jorja cried in anguish as she strained with all her might. Miraculously, the thing moved, shifting enough that it collided with Liam, who was ready for it. He backed up against the side of the hole for stability and flexed, managing to lift the capsule by rolling it up his body. Elayah and Marcie leaned over the rim of the hole and stabilized the cylinder until Jorja could come over and help push it out onto the higher ground. Somewhere during all this, Elayah’s hands ended up on Liam’s back and shoulders, but she was too focused to realize it and wasn’t even embarrassed until they had the capsule out of the hole and Liam mock-shouted, “El’s copping a feel!”
“You should be so lucky.” Marcie always had Elayah’s back.
Liam climbed out of the hole. “How does it open?” he asked, nudging the time capsule with his toe.
The cylinder was about three feet long and a foot in diameter. Elayah crouched and wiped dirt away from both ends, figuring one of them would unscrew like a jar lid. Sure enough, there was a seam at one end, with an inset groove where her hand fit perfectly. She twisted and turned, eventually grunting with effort, but the thing wouldn’t budge.
Liam slid up behind her, put his arms around, and captured her hand with his own. “Let me help,” he said, and winked when she glanced over her shoulder at him.
Liam knew how she felt. He had to know. And here he was, practically hugging her—
“On three,” he said, almost softly, into her ear.
They twisted at the same time. For a too-long moment, nothing happened. Her fingers tightened and strained, and then she felt Liam’s hand press with a near-crushing force on her own and the lid slowly ground to the right.
There was a slight popping sound, like a Coke bottle that’s been opened too suddenly. Air pressure stabilizing, Elayah knew. Gases finding equilibrium between the hermetically sealed cylinder and the outside world. There were formulas and equations that explained it, but she was too lost in the twin thrills of the opening time capsule and the nearness of Liam, the tang of his sweat in the air, the husk of his breath at her ear.
“Nice,” he murmured.
She cleared her throat, suddenly highly aware of his closeness, of Jorja’s and Marcie’s attention. With a shimmy of her shoulders, she shook him off and applied herself to the lid, twisting it farther until it came off entirely in her hand.
With Marcie, she spread out a blanket they’d brought along, and then—before she could react—Liam upended the canister.
“Welcome to prehistory,” he joked.
Elayah suppressed a yelp of horror and outrage. She’d hoped for a little pause, a moment to reflect. It had been more than thirty years since the air in the canister had mingled with the air of the world. Decades since these things had been touched or even seen. She’d wanted to pull each one out, compare it with the list, maybe record the moment.…
“We were supposed to take it slow!” Jorja admonished him.
“It’s not an unboxing video,” Liam told her, then began pawing through the spilled contents. “I mean, look at this crap.”
“It’s the ultimate unboxing video,” Jorja fumed. “Or would have been.”
There was nothing for it, though. Liam had already dumped everything out, so Elayah settled for shooting some video for Insta as Jorja and Marcie got down on their knees with him and raked through the stuff.
“Look at this.” Jorja held up a rectangular plastic box. It was transparent, with a paper insert tucked into the front, on which some words were scribbled in black ink. She opened it and clucked her tongue. “My dad has a box of these in the garage.”
“It’s a mixtape,” Elayah said. “It’s like a playlist.” In preparation for the dig, she’d done a ton of research on the 1980s. She spied a Walkman in the sprawl of artifacts and picked it up. “We can play it later.”
Jorja shrugged and moved on. Elayah surrendered her fantasy of doing this in an orderly fashion and instead started looking for one specific item. The one her dad had mentioned when she’d first told him about the time capsule.
At first, he’d had no reaction at all… and then his eyes lit up, as though remembering a long-forgotten dream. “The time capsule! Oh my God, I forgot all about that!”
Elayah had been surprised that her father remembered it at all. What were the odds that she and her friends would stumble upon this thing and that her own father would remember it?
“We came up with it in a social studies class,” he recalled, closing his eyes, straining to revisit the past. “Mr. Ormond? Mr. Almond? I can’t remember his name. There was a project we did where he gave us a bunch of old junk and we were supposed to try to figure out what kind of society had made it.
“So then one of us had the idea of burying our own time capsule and then digging it up.…” He trailed off, eyes now open, staring up at nothing. “Oh, right…”
His voice had gone soft.
“What?” Elayah asked.
“We buried it in the fall of eighty-six, before the ground got too hard. We figured we’d dig it up fifteen years later,” he told her. “We agreed to meet again on September twelfth.”
He spoke as through the date had significance. She did the math. “Oh.”
“Yeah, we had other things on our minds. We all forgot about it, I guess.” He grinned at her. “If you guys are really going to dig it up, make sure you grab something for me, okay?”
She spied it quickly. Her father’s description had been spot-on. Long time ago or not, he remembered.
She snatched it up. It was a small rectangle lined with a faded burgundy felt, hinged on one side. When she opened it, it revealed a set of glassed-in photographs, still as bright and crisp as though printed yesterday.
On the left side were two teen boys, not much older than her. Wisps of mustache. One in Jheri curl, the other a high-top fade. Otherwise identical in their blue-and-green Canterstown High varsity jackets.
It was the last photo taken of her father and his twin brother. Before Uncle Antoine, whom she’d never met, ran off to Mexico and other points south. He’d sent a few postcards early on, then nothing. Her father’s eyes, usually so wide and joyous, always narrowed when he spoke or thought of his brother. In this photo, they looked both boisterous and radiant, in that way teen boys apparently always had. The smiles killed her. Her father was generally a happy man, but she knew his joy had a corroded center.
The other photo was the Jheri-curled boy (the twin whom she now knew to be her dad… and he would definitely get some ribbing about that hair) and a beautiful girl about Elayah’s age. She wore a floor-length lavender gown with matching lipstick and heels, her shoulders bare, her hair a slick cap of finger waves. He was decked out in a shiny monstrosity of a tuxedo that looked to have been made out of stamped tin, his tie and cummerbund matching the dress.
Her parents. At homecoming. Wow.
She was lost in the moment. Why had her father chosen this item for the time capsule? It was significant to no one but her and her family. It had nothing to do with the state of the world in 1986.
“Hey, El, is this on the list we found?” Marcie was holding up a raggedy old doll, its fabric a tattered mess. The vinyl head lolled atop the body, which was partly rotted away. “And shouldn’t it have been better preserved?”
Elayah contemplated. “Maybe it was already in bad shape when it went in,” she said.
Marcie nodded, looking at the thing quizzically. Elayah called up the contents document again and skimmed it. “Nope. Nothing about a doll.”
“Huh,” said Marcie.
Elayah scanned over the cluster of items again. There seemed to be too many.
She took charge. Liam was goofing around with a couple of action figures he’d found (M.A.S.K. toys, according to the inventory list). She stopped him and had him join her, Jorja, and Marcie in dividing the items into categories—paper, plastic, cloth, metal, other.
At her direction (and with only minimal “Buzzkill” grumbling from Liam), they started out by identifying the thirty-one items on the inventory. A Time magazine cover sporting a portrait of a reader delving into Stephen King’s It. A vinyl record sleeve that looked like a smear of colors abutting a severe black-and-white portrait. True Colors, it said. Cyndi Lauper.
More. Another cassette, this one with an insert as blank as the day it’d been bought. Three plastic squares that looked vaguely familiar. She read their labels: 400k floppy diskette. Oh, right—they looked like the Save icon in Word. Floppy disks. They were like old-fashioned USB keys.
There were more pictures. Newspaper clippings. All of which were on the list.
But after they separated out the stuff on the list, there was still more. A lot more.
There were several pins. One read, We’ll get along fine as soon as you realize I’m God. The rest were along the same allegedly humorous lines. There was a US Mint proof set of coins from 1985, the dime, nickel, penny, quarter, half-dollar, and dollar still gleaming. A stack of comic books bound together in a plastic sleeve, titled Camelot 3000. A stapler…
A stapler! What on earth?
“This makes no sense,” Jorja said, running a hand over her fuzzy head. “It’s like they used it as a trash can.”
“What’s the point of the inventory if you’re just gonna throw in a bunch of old junk?” Marcie asked, fanning herself with one of the floppy disks.
“There might be interesting data on that disk,” Elayah said. Why did she feel so defensive about the contents of the time capsule? Why was she so invested in it? It had been her idea to dig it up, yeah, but only because Liam had…
Yeah. Because basically Liam had brought it up to his dad and his dad had laughed and said, “That old thing? You’ll never find it.” And then Liam had wanted to prove his dad wrong, so of course Elayah just had to make it happen for him.
*"Lyga (I Hunt Killers) grips readers at every turn in this layered and provoking mystery that tackles sexual assault, mental illness, bullying, homophobia, and racism. When Elayah (who is Black and known as El), Liam, Marcie, and Jorja (who default to white) open their parents’ 1986 high school time capsule, they find analog-age relics along with a note wrapped around a bloodied knife that reads, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to kill anyone.” Convinced that the knife may be connected to her uncle Antoine, who disappeared just after homecoming that year, El is determined to investigate, even after being wounded by an unknown attacker. As they enter new relationships and engage in dangerous acts of kidnapping and subterfuge, the Maryland foursome come to question everything they know about their parents. Switching perspectives between the present-day and 1986, Lyga’s novel is packed with unexpected twists and red herrings. Though the introduction of a podcaster brings unrealistic advantages to the case, razor-sharp descriptions engage throughout as Lyga demonstrates the tragic way that past actions can affect future generations."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
Four teens try to piece together a 35-year-old mystery.
In Canterstown in the present day, four close friends—Liam, Elayah, Marcie, and Jorja—dig up a time capsule that their parents buried decades ago and find, among a few harmless keepsakes, a bloodied knife and a note that reads, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to kill anyone.” Not long after, Elayah is attacked in her own home and almost dies. Though Liam’s dad is the sheriff and he says he’s on the case, the four friends begin harboring suspicions against their own parents when their excuses and backstories just don’t add up. Meanwhile, in 1986, the stories of Dean, Jay, and twins Marcus and Antoine unfurl, chronicling the lead-up to the burial of the capsule (and its murder weapon). As the contemporary amateur sleuths try to find answers, they risk endangering themselves further for a truth they might not want to hear. Though the novel is a bit bloated with its long list of characters and hefty page count, the central mystery and various twists will keep readers turning pages. Lyga does an excellent job of portraying a racially and sexually diverse cast, not shying away from the realities of having a marginalized identity but rather braiding those elements into the plot itself.
A twisty thriller that asks: How much do you really know about your parents?
"A combination of romance and mystery will grip readers in this thrilling mystery."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Sep 28, 2021
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers