'The Cheerleaders' By Kara Thomas Is The High School-Set Murder Thriller You Need This Summer — & You Can Start Reading Now
Summer is the perfect time to sink your teeth into a twisted tale about high school drama and murder. Luckily, The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas delivers on both. The book won't be available until July 31, but Bustle has an exclusive sneak peek below.
Here's what you need to know: Sunnybrook seems like the idyllic New York town — except for one, tiny thing: five years ago, five cheerleaders all died over the course of a few weeks. First, there were the two girls that died in the mysterious, tragic car accident. Then, two more cheerleaders were brutally murdered during a sleepover. Finally, the squad's golden girl, Jen Rayburn, died by suicide.
No one wants to be reminded of everything the town lost all those years ago — especially not Monica Rayburn, Jen's little sister. But when she starts digging into her sister's past for clues about why she did it, she discovers that maybe her death — and the death of the other cheerleaders — isn't as straightforward as she originally thought.
Want to hear something even more horrifying? The book is actually loosely inspired by a true story. "As a true crime addict, my books are often inspired by real-life cases," author Kara Thomas tells Bustle. "The idea for The Cheerleaders came to me when I read E. Jean Carroll’s piece about the town of Dryden, New York, which for years was plagued by a series of mysteries deaths and devastating crimes. I was struck not only by the horror that the cheerleaders of Dryden endured, but by their spirit of survival and refusal to let the terrible crimes define them."
In the exclusive excerpt below, Monica follows a gut instinct to explore the office of her stepdad, Tom, and discovers something truly shocking:
The locked drawer in Tom’s desk has been haunting my thoughts.
My brother has soccer on Wednesday evenings, so the house is empty when Rachel drops me off after practice.
I close and lock the front door behind me. Mango runs circles around my feet. I sidestep him and make my way into the kitchen. He gets on his hind legs and scratches my calves until I relent and dig a Milk-Bone out of the pantry for him.
Mango loved Jen more than he loved any of us. He slept in her bed every night, and every afternoon, he would sit on the back of the couch, looking out the bay window, waiting for her to get home from cheer practice.
While the dog spreads out on the kitchen floor and crunches his treat, I eye the dark hallway leading to Tom’s office.
Petey’s practice started at five, so he and my mom won’t be home for at least another hour, and Tom’s shift ends at seven. I head up to my room and peel off my sweaty dance tights, replacing them with cotton pajama bottoms.
Back downstairs, Mango is scratching at the back door. I let him into the yard, leaving the door open so he can come back in when he’s done, and pad down the hall to Tom’s office.
Like always, his door isn’t locked. I push it open and head straight for the desk. I pull on the second drawer again before revisiting the top drawer. No key. The pull- out tray under Tom’s keyboard is empty, save for a pen and a few stray rubber bands and paper clips.
I’ve seen Alexa pick the lock on her parents’ liquor cabinet with fewer tools. I grab a paper clip and bend it into a hook shape. Bite my lip and feed the paper clip into the lock.
"Like always, his door isn’t locked. I push it open and head straight for the desk. I pull on the second drawer again before revisiting the top drawer. No key."
I can feel where the bolt meets the desk. I just need to wedge something between them. The house phone rings; I ignore it and wipe away the sweat forming at my hairline. Somewhere around my hundredth attempt, Mango wanders into the office and scratches my knee, asking to come onto my lap. I nudge him away. “No. Bad dog.”
Another paper clip. I untwist the second paper clip so it’s straight as a needle. While that’s wedged between the bolt and the lock, I stick the hooked clip in and twist, nearly jumping out of Tom’s chair when the lock clicks.
Inside the drawer looks innocent enough. There are several file folders; I thumb through them—pages of account information for the power company, the mortgage on the house.
I replace the folders; something at the back of the drawer glints, catching my eye. The screen of a cell phone.
A foul taste comes into my mouth. I’ve seen the movies about cheaters. I know what a second phone means.
It’s an older model—the kind I used to have a few years ago. Smaller than the version my whole family owns now. I pick it up and turn it over.
Juliana’s, Susan’s, and my sister’s faces smile up at me. My fingers go numb. Juliana had this case made as a Christmas gift for my sister; the photo was taken at their first football game. The girls are huddled together, arms draped over each other’s shoulders. Hair partless, slicked back and shiny, blue ribbons tied around their ponytails. I hold down the power button, but nothing happens.
Of course it’s not charged—my sister has been dead for almost five years.
So why the hell does Tom have her cell phone?
In the hall, Mango is going berserk. Barking, nails sliding on the hardwood floor. I shut the drawer at the same moment a car door slams in the driveway.
"Of course it’s not charged—my sister has been dead for almost five years.
So why the hell does Tom have her cell phone?"
My foot snags on the carpet as I stand up. The drawer. I don’t have the key to lock it back up. I survey the office, panicked, as Tom’s voice calls out.
I step out of the office and shut his door, quietly, my pulse pounding in my ears. I round the corner of the hallway at the same time Tom steps into it.
“You’re home early,” I say.
Tom frowns. “Guy who’s supposed to fix the AC unit is running early. Mom said she called you to let you know I was on my way.”
“My phone is upstairs.” Jen’s phone weighs down the thin material of my pajama pocket. I put my hand over it. If Tom knows that my mother called the house line as well, he doesn’t say anything.
He gives me a curious look before eyeballing his office door. My pulse stills; Tom’s gaze sweeps over it, and seeing nothing of interest, he heads back toward the kitchen. “I’m gonna throw in some pizza rolls, if you’re hungry.”
I’m the opposite of hungry. The thought of Jen’s phone locked away in Tom’s desk drawer all these years has me deeply unsettled.
“I’m okay. I have homework to start.” I head upstairs without looking back at him.
I don’t like doubting Tom. He’s always been more of a father to me than my real dad, who I hear from only on Christmas and my birthday. I was three when he moved out and then in with the professor from his university he’d been having an affair with. They bought a house in Iowa when he accepted a teaching position at a college there, and not long after, my mom met Tom.
For as long as I can remember, Tom has been there. Installed in his armchair from nine p.m. on, watching those shows my mom hates about people treasure hunting in abandoned storage lockers. Tom is the one in the family photos from trips to Disney World, the one who showed up to my dance recitals with an armful of roses. Around the time Jen died, Tom was teaching her how to drive.
Even though she wasn’t his real daughter, Tom was as devastated by Jen’s death as the rest of us. Sometimes I think it’s possible it was worse for him than for the rest of us. He saw Colleen’s and Bethany’s bodies at the crash site, Juliana’s and Susan’s at the murder scene; when the cleaning lady arrived at our house the morning Jen died and found her bedroom door locked, Tom was the one who had to break it down.
Tom loved my sister like a daughter. It makes sense that he’d want to go through her phone after her death; Jen didn’t leave a note. When a child kills herself, isn’t every parent desperate to know why?
"Even though she wasn’t his real daughter, Tom was as devastated by Jen’s death as the rest of us. Sometimes I think it’s possible it was worse for him than for the rest of us."
But I can’t think of a single good reason why he’d hang on to her phone all these years.
I pick my way through the storage tubs in my room, Jen’s phone jangling in my pocket. Somewhere in this mess is a box of crap from my old nightstand. I know an outdated phone charger that will fit Jen’s phone is buried among it.
I lift a box of my winter clothes; in the tub below it, I can see a charger, coiled and fraying. I dig it out and sit back, my heart pounding like a jackrabbit’s.
I know it wasn’t him. Connect the dots.
Is that why Tom has her phone? Did he try to connect the dots? The alternate scenario sends a chill through me. Tom was the responding officer to the scene of Bethany and Colleen’s accident. He shot Juliana and Susan’s killer.
Tom found Jen’s body.
Tom is what connects the dots.
I scoot over to my nightstand and plug the charger into the outlet behind it. Plop onto my bed and sit cross- legged, the phone on my lap. When I stick the charger into the phone’s port, the screen stays black, and I think maybe the phone is actually dead dead.
Then, movement. A lightning bolt icon pops up on the screen.
I wait for what feels like an eternity, but when the screen flickers to life, the time shows that only two minutes have passed. Jen’s wallpaper loads; it’s a photo of her cradling Mango, his heinous underbite on full display as he accepts a belly rub.
Something isn’t right. I shouldn’t be able to see Jen’s home screen. My sister kept her phone locked; I know because I was a little snoop, and whenever she left her phone within reach, I would try to guess her passcode.
Tom must have found a way around the passcode and disabled it. I take in a breath that’s sharp in my nose and open Jen’s text messages.
There’s nothing there.
Did she delete all her texts? Did Tom?
I switch to her call log and exhale. It’s intact. The calls end the morning of November 7.
My mother called her every hour from work that morning to see if she was okay. I still remember she was only working a half day. Jen had woken up nauseous and my mom let her stay home.
Sandwiched between two of those calls is a number I don’t recognize.
It’s not stored in her phone under a name. The skin on the back of my neck prickles. I scroll through the rest of the call log.
The number isn’t there. Whoever the number belongs to only called Jen once, the day she died. The conversation was seventeen minutes—too long to be a spam call or a wrong number.
"Sandwiched between two of those calls is a number I don’t recognize."
The conversation ended around 10:20 a.m. Not long after, my mother called Jen three times. She must have sent Tom to the house to check on her after that.
This room is too hot. I strip off my sweatshirt, panting in my dance tank top.
I copy the number into my phone and address a text to it. Stare at the screen, thumbs hovering over my keyboard.
This is absurd. There’s nothing I can say to the owner of this number that won’t sound totally absurd:
Hello, I found your number in my sister's phone and I was wondering — did you know she was about to die when she talked to you that morning?
I hit send and swallow and type out:
Who are you?
My whole body tenses as I press send again. I stare at my screen, palms sweating. The delivery message flashes to read. An ellipsis appears. A few seconds later, a text pops up:
Uh... who are YOU?
My pulse ticks in my ears. I respond:
Jen Rayburn's sister.
The read receipt appears. I stare at the screen, waiting for the ellipsis to appear, to signal that he or she is typing. My stomach sinks lower with every moment that goes by and the screen is still blank.
I reach over to my nightstand. The second I set my phone down, the screen lights up:
How did you get this number?
Her phone. Who are you?
My fingers are flying over the keyboard so quickly I screw up the message twice and have to retype it:
You were the last one to talk to her.
I hit send. Lean back into my headboard, holding out the phone in front of me with one hand and covering my mouth with the other.
Five minutes go by without a response. I blink, warding off tears of frustration, and text him or her again:
Please just tell me. Who are you?
I watch the screen, desperate, but this time an answer comes quickly:
That doesn't matter.
Text copyright © 2018 by Kara Thomas. Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.