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Dead End Girls
By Wendy Heard
Formats and Prices
- Trade Paperback $11.99 $15.99 CAD
- ebook $8.99 $11.99 CAD
- Hardcover $17.99 $22.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 16, 2023. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Determined to escape suffocating expectations and menacing families, two desperate teens fake their own deaths in this queer contemporary thriller perfect for fans of The Twin and Five Survive.
In one week, Maude will be dead. At least, that’s what she wants everyone to think. After years of research, Maude has decided to fake her own death. She’s figured out the how, the when, the where, and who will help her unsuspectingly. The why is complex: revenge, partly. Her terrible parents deserve this. But there’s also 'l’appel du vide,' the call of the void, that beckons her toward a new life where she will be tied to no one, free and adrift. Then Frankie, a step-cousin she barely knows, figures out what she’s plotting, and the plan seems like it’s ruined. Except Frankie doesn’t want to rat her out. Frankie wants in.
The girls vault into the unknown, risking everything for a new and limitless life. But there are some things you can never run away from. What if the poison is not in the soil, but in the roots? This pulse-pounding thriller offers a nuanced exploration of identity, freedom, and falling in love while your world falls apart.
"A clever page-turner that I couldn’t put down."—Natasha Preston, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author
A Rainbow Book List Selection
A YALSA Amazing Audiobook for Young Adults
A YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers
They tried to be too clever—
and that was their undoing.
—Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles
I RING THE DOORBELL. IT LIGHTS UP BLUE, AND A FAINT CHIME echoes inside the house.
I wait on the porch with my suitcase, scanning the dark suburban neighborhood with tired eyes. It’s been a long day.
The faux-Mediterranean houses are almost identical. It’s like that here: every tree the same height, probably planted on the same day, watered on synchronized timers, any misbehaving too-big or too-small trees torn up by the roots. The night air smells like jasmine, but I don’t see flowers anywhere. The city of Irvine probably has air fresheners hidden in the hedges.
The door opens. My chest tightens.
She looks tired. Her long auburn hair is a little tangled, her makeup faded.
“Hey, Mom,” I say.
She backs up to let me in. “It’s late.”
“Academic Decathlon.” I bump my suitcase up over the threshold.
She wrinkles her nose at it. “Would you put that in your room?”
My room. I laugh bitterly under my breath and cross the white-tiled foyer to the carpeted stairs. As I climb, the twins come thundering down. “Maude!” yells Caden, who’s in the lead.
“Maude!” echoes Andrew, chasing Caden down the stairs, through the foyer, and around the corner to the kitchen.
I shake my head at the miscreants and resume my trudging up the stairs. The heavy suitcase thunk-thunk-thunks behind me.
On the landing, I am confronted with Todd. My stomach sinks. He’s six feet away, but I can smell his cologne. He’s broad-shouldered and polo-shirted, his light brown hair parted on the side, a walking advertisement for tennis rackets.
He forces a smile. Here we go. We’re having an interaction.
“Maude,” he says.
“Todd,” I reply. It rhymes. He grins. It’s tight, almost a grimace. My skin crawls with discomfort. “I’m excited about next week,” I say, just to say something. “It was nice of your family to invite me again.”
This makes him beam with self-satisfaction. They’re so charitable, the Maxwells, willing to bestow their riches upon us lowly plebes. “Aw, that’s fine, Maude! Glad you’re coming along.”
Mm-hmm. “Well, I’m gonna get cleaned up.” I point to the guest room.
He steps aside. “Go to it, kid!” He trots down the stairs jauntily. What a guy.
I rush along the hall with my rolling suitcase, let myself into the bedroom, and breathe out in a huge whoosh. I shut the door behind me and stand there in the dark, relishing the silence and privacy.
I wasn’t lying; I am excited about next week. I’m exhausted and stressed, with so many details crowding my brain it’s like living inside an ant farm, but…
Wow. Next week. Is this real? Am I finally here?
I flip on the light.
It’s like a hotel room. They bought this house when my mom was pregnant with the twins, and the decor is completely impersonal to me, picked out by the interior designer so as to double as a guest room when I’m not here.
This house has four bedrooms. You’d think the twins could share, leaving me with my own room, but my mom and Todd feel it’s unhealthy for them not to have their individuality. I haven’t unpacked since I was eleven, but no one wonders whether it’s healthy for me to have all my possessions in this suitcase.
Speaking of which, I roll it to its usual spot by the dresser, squat beside it, and flip it open. I dig out my pajamas and bathroom bag, and then I reach into an almost-invisible slit in the lining and pull out a manila envelope. I open it and make sure everything is still inside. It’s become a nervous compulsion to check on it daily.
Usually I’m at my mom’s for seven days. On day seven, I do exactly one load of laundry, repack my suitcase, go to my dad’s house (which is twenty minutes away), and repeat the whole thing. When my parents got divorced, they split everything neatly in half, including me.
But this week is different. When I left my dad’s house this morning, I was doing it for the last time. We fly to Hawaii on Saturday, and a few days later I’ll be dead. It will be a tragic accident.
I seriously cannot wait.
I make sure everyone is in bed before I venture downstairs for something to eat. I rummage around in the fridge, annoyed that there’s kid food, stuff to make kale smoothies, and nothing else. What am I supposed to eat?
“Caden has a fever.”
I jump out of my skin and whip around. My mom’s behind me, looking tired, a bottle of children’s Tylenol in her hand.
“Oh,” I say, not sure how I’m supposed to respond. I wasn’t mentally prepared for a conversation.
“Can I get the ice pack out of the freezer?” she asks, annoyed.
“Oh,” I repeat, understanding now. I’m in her way. I step aside. The fridge is one of those stainless-steel-with-glass-doors things. It brings back memories of the ancient honker of a fridge we had when I was a kid in our old apartment in Santa Ana. I remember her and my dad moving it up the outdoor stairs on a dolly because they couldn’t afford movers. I try to imagine Todd, whom I sometimes call Toddbercrombie, attempting to move a refrigerator up a rickety concrete staircase and smile faintly.
She gets the ice pack and goes to a drawer for a hand towel. I return to searching for something to eat.
“Make a smoothie,” she recommends, about to leave the kitchen.
Her smoothie comment feels passive-aggressive. As always.
My eyes flick down to her hip, where her pajama tank leaves a couple of inches of flat stomach bare. “I can still see the cherries,” I say meanly, for revenge.
She whips around, trying to see the back of her hip, where two red cherries are half-blurred out. “I have five more laser treatments,” she replies, defensive. “They’ll come off.”
“Is it going to be mom-kinis on the cruise again so Morticia doesn’t see your tat?” I’m referring to her mother-in-law, the matriarch of Todd’s family and a woman my mom is terrified of. Morticia inherited her husband’s commercial real estate development business when he died, and apparently she runs it ten times better than he ever did. Todd has some job in her office dealing with clients, which pays suspiciously well.
Mom breathes at me for a second, clutching the towel. “Don’t call her that.”
“Worried she’ll hear?” I look up at the ceiling. “Think she has cameras in here? You could be right. She has to keep an eye on her baby boy.”
Mom shoots me a last glare and storms silently from the room. All this mental energy just to measure up to a family that builds tract housing.
I watch her go, vengefully satisfied. The slightly trashy tattoo is a remnant from her youth, when she was poor and lived in crappy apartments with my dad and me, back in the days when they were working toward the college degrees that would ultimately buy them a better life while I was going to Head Start preschool. She was curvier then, when she and I were both young, before she knew how to count every calorie and shove hours of Pilates into a jam-packed schedule. She looked a lot like me, actually, when she was my age, but from her attitude you’d think she’d been born a size 2.
Fuck your smoothie, I think, and decide to eat the boys’ chicken nuggets.
As the dino nuggies warm up in the microwave, I picture my mom’s face when I go missing. Will she be frantic? Will she be distracted by the need to shelter her smaller children from what’s happened? I hope not. I hope she really feels it.
I eat the chicken without tasting it. I usually have dinner at one of my secret part-time jobs, but tonight I was in LA arranging a secret bank account, which is why I didn’t get here till nine; the 5 freeway between Orange County and LA is no joke. I should have eaten in LA, though. I could have had tacos, and no one would have noticed my big ass while I ate except people who appreciated it.
School is a distraction. It has to be done, though. Like social media and texting with friends and taking selfies while doing stupid, mundane things that never needed to be documented—it’s all part of the game.
Lucas meets me at my car, and as always I feel pangs of guilt. He’s exactly what I needed: sweet, a little shy, a bit nerdy, but with a solid family and a loyal group of friends.
“Hey, Maudie.” He trots toward me, backpack bouncing, and envelops me in a soft hoodie-and-aftershave hug. I return the embrace, aware we’re being watched by a group that includes Deanna, a girl I made out with at fat camp (disguised as basketball camp) last summer.
“Hey, Lukie.” I kiss him, which is soft and warm but not my thing. At all.
We make our way through the bright, shimmering Irvine morning. Irvine High School is something out of Mean Girls. The mascot is a vaquero, which is… not representative.
As Lucas and I walk to class, he tells me about a video game thing I can’t quite understand. I’m distracted. All the time I was planning, I hadn’t considered how difficult this last week would be. It’s crunch time now and crucial for me to act completely normal. Not one thing can go wrong. All it would take is Lucas telling the cops, “She seemed distracted, like something was eating at her,” to get them looking where I don’t want them looking. With this in mind, I pay careful attention to his story, laughing in the right places. At the door of his first-period class, I kiss him on the cheek and tell him I’ll see him at lunch.
I exhale heavily as I walk toward my own class. Lucas is kind, and he doesn’t deserve to be used like this. Compartmentalize, I command myself.
Deanna is in my first period, AP Government, and I can feel her eyes on me as I take my seat a few rows in front of her. I don’t meet her eyes. I can’t change the fact that she exists, that in dark, whispered moments with our shirts off, I confessed my total and complete gayness to her, that she is someone who could poke all kinds of holes in my veneer of perfection with Lucas. I’m riding on the hope that she won’t do that to a dead girl.
I make sure every upcoming test is entered into my calendar. I take copious notes in Google Docs on my MacBook. I spend all day planning for the week after spring break, which is midterms, groaning with classmates about how I’ll have to study on my trip, kissing Lucas at lunch in front of his friends, posting selfies and videos. I do these things because I am a funnel spider, and I am building my web.
LAX IS A HOT MESS, AS ALWAYS, A TANGLE OF CONSTRUCTION AND crowds. Having made the harrowing journey at six a.m. despite the twins’ best efforts, we finally reach the security line, carry-on bags in hand. Todd and my mom are as coiffed as always, but they’re strained and exhausted; the twins are whining, and I’m not as helpful as I usually am. I’m busy second-guessing each step of my plan and mentally cataloging every item in my suitcase.
A TSA agent is examining the security line critically. She looks Todd and my mom up and down. Her eyes travel to the boys, who are trying desperately to escape, and then to me. I attempt to appear calm. What does calm look like? Suddenly I don’t know. A rictus grin is stretching across my face. That’s not right. That’s not how normal people smile at the crack of dawn.
“Good morning, Maude,” a quiet, singsong voice says behind me.
I whip around. It’s Frankie, Todd’s niece—my step-cousin. She’s my age, and we’ve run into each other over the years at family events. The last time I saw her was at Christmas dinner. She has wavy, dark hair in a shaggy, collar-length cut I could never pull off. She’s always wearing baggy, nondescript clothes, which is interesting; she’s the oldest grandchild in this family, heir to the throne, and she slouches around, face averted, looking like she’s hoping to bum a cigarette. I was honestly shocked the first time I met her, having expected a cheerleader or a Harvard-bound valedictorian, someone buttoned up and Pelotoned. It’s not that she isn’t pretty. She’s got huge dark eyes, smooth, tanned skin, and almost-black hair she inherited from her mother, who my mom says used to be an Italian fashion model. It’s just that she’s so different from the rest of her family.
Over Frankie’s shoulder, I see her dad, Todd’s brother Chris, arrive with his arm around a woman I don’t recognize. The adults spot each other, and a flurry of loud “Hey, mans” and “Nice to see yous” ensues.
“Does your dad have a new girlfriend?” I ask Frankie.
“New wife. Leah.” She has a low, husky voice.
“I didn’t know he got married. Was there a wedding?”
“Nope. An elopement.” Her mouth tweaks into a little smile. “Grandma freaked out. Calls her the ‘little gold digger.’ Won’t even say her name.”
“Oh, wow. That’s amazing.” I give the woman—Leah—another once-over. She’s a good deal younger than Frankie’s dad, who looks exactly like Todd but two inches shorter. She has black hair that cascades down her back and an olive complexion that’s been helped along by spray tanning. With glee, I imagine my mom’s discomfort; this woman is thinner and fitter than she is, not to mention younger.
“Do we hate her?” I ask Frankie. “Or do we love how much she pisses off your grandma?”
She grins, mischievous, and a dimple appears in her left cheek. “We love it. She’s nice, actually.”
“Get in line,” the TSA agent yells at the Todds. “You need to be in line or step away.”
My mom shoots her an angry-Karen look as she and Leah step sideways to continue their conversation within the confines of the line. I retreat into a nervous silence.
We inch forward, and I sneak looks at Frankie, who is quiet behind me. Stepfamilies are weird. Your parent remarries, and you’re supposed to feel instantly close with this group of complete strangers. And everyone keeps up the farce; no one ever calls bullshit. Why does the fact that my mom made empty promises to Todd mean I should develop some sort of immediate, mushy connection to his golf-douche brother?
The line starts moving faster. I gnaw on the inside of my lip, repacking my suitcase over and over again in my head, reminding myself that there’s no reason for TSA to search it. They’ll send it through the X-ray and be done. It’s going to be fine.
“What’s your deal?” Frankie murmurs, snapping me out of it. “You seem stressed.”
I stare at her blankly, shocked. If she can tell I’m nervous, so will the security personnel. I scramble for a response. “I’m frustrated with my mom,” I reply. She cocks her head like she’s considering that. I need to get my act together.
At last we’re approaching the TSA ticket agent, who looks at our IDs. Beyond him loom the shining X-ray machines and conveyor belts. My stomach is twisting around inside me, my heart pounding like I’m running a marathon.
Todd gets called up, leaving my mom to deal with the boys. Then Chris goes through, and Leah, and then my mom with the twins—she shoots me dirty looks for not helping her, even though I don’t think I’m legally allowed to escort them through security—and at last it’s my turn.
I take a breath to steady myself. I roll my suitcase toward the TSA agent, handing over my driver’s license. As I place my boarding pass under his little scanning machine, he examines my ID. “Maude? How old are you?”
He looks at his computer monitor. “Hawaii! Nice!” He grins at me. “Lucky girl. Have fun.”
The smile I give him is weak as I take my ID back and get in line for the conveyor belts. I can barely hear the din of the airport over the pounding of blood in my head. I slip out of my sneakers, set them inside a gray bin, and lift my carry-on bag onto the rolling metal casters.
Frankie appears beside me and flings down her black duffel bag. She hops around, unlacing her high-top Vans. I offer my arm, and she grips it, saying, “I always wear the wrong shoes to the airport.”
Her socks become visible. One has kittens on it, and the other has sugar skulls. She shoves her shoes into a bin and catches me studying her socks. She lifts a foot to wiggle the toes at me. “You like?”
“It’s a look.” I push my belongings onto the belt. It’s time now. Pass or fail. I need an antacid.
As I walk toward the human scanner, I try to ignore my carry-on bag. I wait in line behind a family who seem happy to be on vacation together. It’s a mom, a dad, and a girl who’s maybe five years old. She looks tired, and her mom is quietly stroking her hair.
The mom’s gentle fingers sift through the girl’s curly locks, and I all at once feel deeply sad and completely alone.
The girl is afraid to walk into the scanner, so the mom goes first, then squats down with open arms, and the daughter walks right into her embrace.
The cloud of grief fills me up. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know those people. Why am I—
“Miss?” The TSA agent beckons me impatiently.
Here I go, walking into the scanner. I put my hands on my head and spread my feet apart. It revolves around me, and then I’m done. The agent lets me out, and I step aside to look for my bag.
It’s still in the X-ray machine. Two agents are looking at the screen together, pointing to something.
Suddenly beside me, Frankie says, “You didn’t pack your shotgun, right?” I don’t answer her. I can’t breathe. The edges of my vision are going dark.
And then they send my bag through the conveyor, out onto the pickup platform. I suck in huge gulps of air and step forward to grab the bag.
Nothing else stands in my way. The world is wide open in front of me.
THE BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE. THE SOFT, SALTY air tickles my bare arms, and the resort carries a second set of smells—chlorine from the fake river winding through it; spa lotions from the endlessly massaged and manicured visitors; eucalyptus from the diffusers hidden all over the common areas. We come here every year, and it never fails to amaze me that Morticia spends god knows how much to travel from South Orange County to Hawaii, only to surround herself with the same types of people in the same types of buildings. As long as I live, I don’t think I’ll ever understand rich people, even after spending so much time around them.
The thought cheers me up because I’m not going to spend the rest of my life dealing with the likes of Morticia and Toddbercrombie. Only a few more days.
We’re on the patio of the resort’s most upscale restaurant, Morticia at the head of the table, Chris and Todd on either side—her eternal simpering butlers. She’s a petite woman, everything about her tight and controlled. Her chin-length, ash-blond hair seems fixed, like you could poke it and discover it was a helmet, and even in this humidity, her blue linen suit is somehow wrinkle-free.
The waitress arrives with cold glasses of white wine for the adults. I study her with interest. She’s in her early twenties, a pretty, tanned blond. I wonder if she lives around here.
Frankie and I are at the far end of the table, seated by the twins so the adults can talk. I’m keeping the kids quiet with a steady stream of chips and salsa. As I take a sip of my water, Caden flicks a tortilla chip across the table at Andrew, who prepares to retaliate until Frankie shoots him a look that makes him think twice.
Today she’s wearing a pair of loose cutoff shorts and a green tank top. She’s got a great tan going; we spent the day at the beach. She read a book on a towel, wearing a bikini I worked hard not to look at—like, we are not related in any way, but I still feel puritanically guilty checking her out—and I chased the twins around until I was exhausted while my mom schmoozed with the Todds under I’m a tourist umbrellas.
Frankie has interesting features. Her nose has a petite roundness to it; her thick eyebrows and eyelashes are a deep shade of brown. I never looked closely at her before, probably because she has a queer vibe and I’m afraid of setting off her gaydar. I wonder what it’s like for her, growing up in this family. I know her mom abandoned her; my mother wickedly recounted the history to me last Thanksgiving, with cutting little remarks about Frankie’s mom returning home to Italy to party with her fancy friends. Truly the worst family.
I keep catching myself staring at people, almost like I’m trying to memorize them. I did it on Friday at school, too. Am I being sentimental? I’m doing it again now, memorizing the way my mom looks against the backdrop of the bright blue ocean, trying to feel something that might make me change my mind.
When I look away from my mother, I realize Frankie is watching me, unruly hair tumbling down over one eye.
“What?” I ask, defensive like I’ve been busted doing something wrong.
“There’s something different about you on this trip.” She shoves her dark waves away from her face and leans her elbows on the table. “Are you going through something right now?”
“No. Why?” I look into her brown eyes, willing myself to seem truthful.
“You’re still with that boyfriend? Everything’s okay at school?”
I have this answer at the ready; it’s the same one I’ve been giving for weeks. “Everything is great. We have big plans for junior prom. We’re, you know, in love and stuff.” My cheeks feel warm. Selling a hot queer girl this story about being in love with my boyfriend is maybe one of the more humiliating moments in the preparing-for-death routine.
She leans back in her chair and folds her arms across her chest. “I mean, you look good. Put together. Everything looks fine. But something’s off.”
I’m wearing exactly what I should be wearing: a sundress, sandals, my hair in neat auburn waves just like my mom’s. None of it is what I would pick out. All of it is meant to support the story after I die: Maude was so happy, the very image of a successful, upwardly mobile teenager. I’ve been creating this Maude persona for so long, I don’t know what it will feel like when I can just… be. I don’t know what I will pick out when I’m shopping for me and not the appearance of me.
“Francesca,” Morticia calls imperiously. “Come here.”
Frankie groans almost inaudibly, gets up, and walks around the table to the head, where Morticia pulls her to her side and wraps an arm around her waist. Her dad has to scoot his chair over a little to make room, which squishes Leah. They hiss at each other.
“Tell us about school,” Morticia says.
Frankie looks uncomfortable. “It’s fine.”
“Are you doing any extracurriculars?”
“Not really.” Frankie is directing her words to the fork sitting on Morticia’s plate. Her shoulders are slumped inward, and her right hand is gripping her left wrist. Leah leans over to murmur something in Chris’s ear, a frown on her face. I wonder if she’s trying to get his mom to leave Frankie alone.
Morticia continues. “You should be doing as many extracurriculars as possible! It’s very important for college applications that you show yourself to be well rounded. Chris, why isn’t she in any sports, any clubs? This is your responsibility.”
He stammers about having thought she was in some clubs, which is clearly bullshit, and then he makes his usual “I’m on my own, Mom—it isn’t easy” comment, referring to his martyrdom as a single father. That is also bullshit, since I get the impression that Frankie was raised by nannies and he’s never worked a full day in his life.
My mom leans over and whispers to me, “Tell her about Academic Decathlon.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Just tell her!” She makes an encouraging hand gesture.
I realize she wants me to compete with Frankie and come out on top. “You’re pathetic sometimes. It’s sad, Mom.”
She looks wounded. The words are mean and I know it. But I want to leave her with something to remember me by.
Praise for Dead End Girls:
"What a wild runaway ride! Maude’s sharp mind and intricate death plan was brilliant. I was rooting for her and Frankie the whole time. A clever page-turner that I couldn’t put down."—Natasha Preston, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author
“This fun, dark, fully queer thriller embraces its premise without pulling any punches. A romantic thriller that takes “Be Gay, Do Crime” to heart.”
- "There is no shortage of drama but the characters’ complexities build given time. Readers will need to block out the whole day for this one because they won’t put it down until it’s done."—BCCB
- “Wendy Heard writes smart, edgy thrillers that often explore LGBTQ and coming-of-age themes, and Dead End Girls promises to continue that reputation. In what feels like the lesbian version of Cruel Intentions I always wanted (I mean, who even remembers Ryan Phillippe these days), two stepcousins become obsessed with each other—and with faking their own deaths.”—Crime Reads
- “Utterly addictive. Dead End Girls is a riveting, holds-no-punches thriller with the deeply relatable adolescent hunger for escape and reinvention at its core.”—Kit Frick, author of I Killed Zoe Spanos and Very Bad People
"Both Maude and Frankie are quick-witted heroines whose respective quests for autonomy and internal struggles regarding sexuality and gender identity provide depth. Culminating in a suspenseful ending, Heard’s alluring novel is an invigorating ride."
- "An atmospheric, heart-jolting thriller. The book alternates between Maude's and Frankie’s perspective as they explore their relationship, identities, and what it means to be truly free from people who don’t want you to be yourself or pursue happiness." —Booklist
- "An action-packed LGBTQIAIA+ thriller. Compulsively readable."—School Library Journal
- "Freedom, identity, and unexpected love collide in a pulse-pounding thrill ride."—Mindy McGinnis, Edgar Award-winning author of The Female of the Species
- On Sale
- May 16, 2023
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Christy Ottaviano Books