Authors: Heather Smith Meloche
“I was at work, remember? I work on weekend nights until midnight.”
She shakes her head. “After that. Where were you after that?”
Committing a felony.
The guilt strikes me. And before I know it, I'm cocking my head, offering her a confused expression. “I came home. I was right here.”
Now she looks confused. She thinks about the last couple hours.
My guilt increases tenfold. I'm using her delusional state to cover my tracks, hoping she'll second-guess what she knows is true. But if Fogerty 2 or any other cop comes by to find out if I was here during the moment that mailbox exploded, I need her to say I was.
“Did you take your medicine tonight?” I ask.
She nods, but doesn't look at me. She's still trying to piece the night together.
“Okay, then.” I smile. “Get some rest. Tomorrow morning, I'll go out and get us some doughnuts and coffee, okay?”
She gives me a half smile, but her forehead is still crinkled with confusion.
I close her door, put the knives away, and put the hammer and bat back in the closet. My hand itches to call Dr. Surrey, because this whole “checking in on her with phone calls” thing she promised me is clearly not working. But it's 2:00 a.m., and the group home option for Mom cuts into my brain againâall those mentally ill people walking around like zombies. I've read the stories. I Googled them. Even if Mom gets into a group home that takes good care of her, taking her away from everything she knows, from me, would kill her quickly. Mom is not going there. Ever.
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My ringing cell phone wakes me. With my eyes still closed, I press the phone to my ear. “Too early,” I say, not even caring who it is.
“Jack, buddy, it's Dad.”
I roll onto my back and pry my eyes open. Last night was rough. I can feel a bruise on my hip, probably from where I fell on that kid, and every muscle is sore.
“You woke me.”
“Sorry, kid. Hey, listen. I bought a new queen-size bed yesterday and stuck it in one of the spare rooms here in my place. The room would be a perfect space for you.”
I suppress a groan. “I'm happy here, Dad.”
He sighs. “I know. You've told me. It'sÂ .Â .Â . I miss you, Jack. I don't see you.”
I smile. “I miss you, too,” I tell him. “Work and school are killing me lately.”
“You always were a hard worker. You saving a lot for college?” he asks. “I've got those support payments going into an account, but every little bit will help when it's time.”
I close my eyes again. I would love to tell him to send that child support money straight to us. But then he'll know how financially screwed we are. And I can't let him know I'm basically babysitting Mom and that college isn't even something I can think about now.
“How about if, before you go off to college,” Dad says, “you come stay with me for a couple weeks in the summer. We'll go camping, or maybe mountain climbing somewhere.”
“Yeah, maybe.” I keep my tone steady, upbeat. “That sounds fun.”
“All right. Good. That's good.” I hear the smile in my dad's voice. “Well, I love you, son. I'll let you get back to sleep.”
But when we hang up, I'm far from sleep. It sucks that I'm lying to Dad. And how long can I avoid going to college without him being disappointed or suspicious? I could take classes at the local community college, but he's always hoped I'd be more. And I guess if I had the chance, I could be.
But instead, I think of the bomb and the mailbox. The knives on Mom's bed and the whispers in her head. I think of all the demands from VP Barnes and Fogerty 2. I have way too much to think about. College is the absolute last thing on my list.
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My car smells so goodâlike sugar and coffee. Four dozen doughnuts and ten large coffees in Styrofoam cups sit on the floor of my backseat. But the breakfast-y deliciousness is overtaken by instant nausea as I make my way down Main Street and pass the sight of
last night's felony. See the jagged, blackened form of what used to be the mailbox. Police tape and orange cones surround it. An investigation has already started. Pictures taken. Evidence collected. I take a deep breath, but it does nothing to calm me.
Just before I pull the Dart onto the short road off Main leading to the Pineville police station, the kid I pulled to safety last night skateboards up to my car. He knocks against my hood. A gust of anxiety whips through me with him so close to the police station. What's he doing here? Who's he talked to?
I roll my window down.
“Hey,” the kid says. “You're that guy from last night, aren't you?”
I feign ignorance, give him a confused look.
He ignores it and pulls his board out from under his feet. “I came out early to get my ride.” He holds it up. Dark spots where the embers fell decorate the wood, but otherwise, the board is in decent shape.
I feel that sweep of relief again. This kid could have been seriously toast. If I'd hurt him, I never would have been able to live with myself.
He leans against my car. His reddish-brown hair looks in need of washing, and between his freckles is a smattering of tiny zits. I'd peg him as eleven or twelve. He smiles. “I just want to say thank you. I mean, you know, for pushing me out of the way.”
I keep my tone even, casual, like I save kids from exploding mailboxes all the time while sauntering down the street in the middle of the night. “You're welcome.”
His head cocks. “How did you know?”
“What?” I ask.
“How did you know it was going to blow?”
“Oh.” I look past him at the road to the police station. “I saw the smoke coming out of the box as I was walking by.”
“Wow.” The kid's in genuine awe. “Seriously, dude. Thanks. I'd snuck out, and if my parents ever knew I was out that late, I'd be grounded for, like, ever.”
“No worries, kid. Your secret's safe with me.”
He looks at me, skeptical. “Promise?”
“Absolutely. I won't tell anyone I saw you.”
He grins. “Thanks.”
Then he's rolling away, leaving me smiling in total disbelief. My only witness has become my ally.
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In the police station lot, I stack the four doughnut boxes and balance one tray of coffee on top. I spent my hard-earned, very precious cash on all this sugar and caffeine, but I used to do this a lot back in Hallend to create that special love/hate balance between the cops and me. It's more than past time for me to make it a Pineville tradition. And walking in bearing treats and friendliness just six hours after the mailbox blew might confuse them enough that they consider other suspects before me.
Inside, the station is even smaller than Hallend's. Six desks scatter around a main area behind the massive front counter. Several closed-in offices line the left wall. Off to the right is a large hallway leading to, I assume, more offices and a jail cell. My goal is to not end up behind those bars.
I've got this,
I tell myself. I paste on a smile and set my offerings on the counter.
A female officer gets up from her desk. “What can I do for you, son?”
“No, no, OfficerÂ .Â .Â .” I read her name tag. “Weinhart. It's
more like what I've done for you.” I wave my hands at the boxes. “Breakfast.”
She raises one silvery-blond eyebrow. “Why?”
I shrug. “I'm new to town. Thought I'd get to know the people protecting me.”
She smiles, exposing yellowing teeth. She's either a smoker or she loves her coffee. My bet is it's both.
She grabs a coffee. I open one of the boxes.
“That's really kind of you, kid.” She takes a jelly doughnut.
And this is how it's supposed to work. It's how it always worked with the Hallend Police. Endear them to me so some of them can't even believe Original Formula Fogerty or Fogerty 2 could ever accuse me of doing anything malicious. And even if they think I might be culpable, at least they also think I'm one hell of a nice guy.
“I mostly brought these to thank Officer Fogerty.”
Her suspicion returns. She gives me the once-over. “He's not too popular with teenagers. Did you poison these?” She holds up her doughnut.
I laugh. “I guess that's a fair question. I mean, I know Officer Fogerty is a ball-breaker.”
“So does that mean you didn't poison these?” Her doughnut still hovers in the air.
“Poisoning is not my style.”
She nods, takes a bite. “Do you want to leave a message for Officer Fogerty? He's in the conference room.” She nods toward the hallway. “If you drove through town, you may have noticed the police tape. We had a little incident last night.”
“Didn't see it.” I plaster on a concerned face.
“Officer Fogerty's just waiting for someone from D.C. to contact him.”
My skin pricks with panic, but I don't react. Someone from D.C.? That's authority way beyond what I'm used to.
“Well,” I say, “can you tell Officer Fogerty thank you for everything he's done for me? My job at the hospital kicks butt. Any time he wants to stop by, I can get him a discount on the blandest hospital food around.”
She smiles wide. “I'd love to tell him all that, but I don't know who you are.”
“I'm Jack Dalton.”
Both her eyebrows shoot up to her hairline. “
Jack Dalton. Officer Fogerty has already let us know we should be keeping an eye out for you.”
I shake my head. “I'm just some punk kid who used to have a lot of time on his hands. But now Officer Fogerty has helped me change my ways.”
“Don't listen to a damn thing he says.” Fogerty 2's voice rumbles from the hallway. He steps out into the main office, his glare pure stone. He looks at me like he knows my hands were all over that bomb last night. Like I've already been tried and convicted. He looks at me like prison is definitely in my future.
“Hey, I brought you a little treat,” I tell Fogerty 2, pointing at the doughnuts.
“Are they poisoned?” he asks.
“Officer Weinhart, your official food taster, seems to be surviving them.”
His colleague holds up her doughnut as confirmation.
“What are you doing here, Dalton?” Fogerty 2 asks.
“This is a tradition I started with your brother. Just want to keep it all equal between the siblings.”
“I don't really want your doughnuts,” he says, “but I do want to know where you were last night around one a.m.”
“Technically, one a.m. is not last night. It's this morning.”
“Answer the question.”
“I was home with my mom until I felt the need to do a sugary deed.” I tap a finger against the doughnut boxes.
“In all seriousness”âI pretend to be seriousâ“I did want to thank you for letting Vice Principal Barnes assign me to the hospital and the tutoring gigs. Although the volunteering aspect makes it harder to pay my doughnut bills. Which reminds me, I'll be back. I have one more tray of coffee in my car.”
I start to head to my car, but before I get to the station entrance, Fogerty 2 is there, holding the doors open for me.
“I'll help you carry it.” He scans me up and down, searching for clues, his sunken eyes much more intense and probing than his brother's.
We walk to my car in silence. Neither of us looks in the direction of the mailbox, but we both know it's there.
I open my Dart door and lift the tray to Fogerty 2. He's checking out my car, peering inside for evidence.
“These are getting cold,” I tell him.
He looks at me over his bulbous nose and takes the tray. “Thanks for the coffee.”
“Just being a good citizen.”
He sticks his face in mine. The faint scent of old coffee on his breath wafts to me as he says, “Please be telling the truth, Jack. It's what I want. Because if you or any of your friends are involved
with this mailbox stunt, you'll be tried as an adult. And that means prison. Not jail. Prison.”
His words beat against me. Finally, he starts to move away.
“You know, Officer,” I call out, “I have been lying.”
He whips around. The coffees he's holding slosh in their Styrofoam cups.
“I'm going to confess.” My expression settles into guilty. I take a deep breath. “That coffee is decaf. Not regular.”
Fogerty 2 looks at me, confused.
“It's true. I was going to wait until you all passed out asleep around three o'clock today and then come in and replace all the mug shots on the walls with pictures of my ass.”
Fogerty 2's teeth clench. Then he marches back to the station. “Keep it clean, Dalton,” he yells.
Clean is relative,
At my locker on Monday morning, Jack is nowhere. And yesterday, even though I saw his car was in the driveway, I didn't see him. But he was so mad at me when I found Emma's hat in his mom's car, I'm sure he's avoiding me.
Jack being upset with me is for sure a dark spot, but on the bright side, my birthday Sunday was actually good. With the charity gala Grandma Leighton had to attend, we weren't scheduled for anything fancy or uptight. It was just my parents, my sister, and me. We took a hike at the state park. Then my stepdad lit a fire in our stove with its new chimney pipe. And we ate a birthday cake my mom baked while we all sat cross-legged by the fire. It may sound totally lame, but it was simple and exactly the way I wanted it. We didn't fight. My mom stopped working for a couple hours. My stepdad didn't even drink. Perfect.
Seth saunters up to me wearing his varsity jacket. His class books are tucked under one arm. “Hey,” he says, giving me a crooked smile. “Did you get my voice mail last night?”
“Oh, no. I'm sorry.” I toss him a look of regret. “I didn't check
my phone.” He leans his broad shoulder against Jack's locker. “It was my birthday, and I went out with my family until late.”
“It was your birthday?” He blinks, stands straight, surprised.
I freeze, feeling caught and surprised that I didn't tell my own boyfriend it was my birthday. What does that say about my feelings for him? I really should break up with him. Maybe right now. But just with the thought, panic rises.
Being without Seth, who I know will always be there, ready to fill me with pretty words and coat me with kissesâI don't know. The absence of that is terrifying. Occasional hookups can't replace it. And for whatever reason, I don't know how to be okay without it.
Seth's smile is gone. He clutches his textbooks tighter, slides his other hand into his jeans pocket, then quickly brushes off whatever confusion he feels. “Well, let me celebrate with you next weekend. At homecoming. That's what my message was about. I've got dinner reservations for us at Belle's Steakhouse downtown, and the limo is all set to take us wherever we want to go.”
I scan his face, for an instant see him how my grandmother doesâthe handsome, symmetrical features, the chin-up confidence. He's like a plaster cast of positivity and potential for success. How can I stop being around that?
“What do you think, Tessa? We'll have fun, right?” Seth raises a blond eyebrow.
“We'll have a great time.” I nod, pushing away any uncertainty.
“Did you get a dress?” he asks. “I can't wait to see you in it.”
I picture me buying the fancy red dress like a piece of film going backward. The thrill of the purchase. The excitement of trying it on. My stepdad's large, rough hand pushing his hard-earned cash
into mine. That dress stands for so much, and I'll wear it proudly next weekend.
Seth closes the gap between us, presses his lips to mine for a quick moment. “I'll see you after class.” He winks and walks down the hall.
As my gaze follows him, I see Jack, in a corner watching me, just as pissed as the night he kicked me out of his mom's car. Maybe he's still mad for how I accused his mom. Or maybe he hates that Seth just kissed me like we're the happiest couple ever.
I head toward him so he can tell me what he's thinking. But Jack turns and stalks away.
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At my evening shift at the diner on Thursday night, I think how Ty seems to be leaving me alone now that I've done a second drug drop for him. He doesn't even acknowledge me in class. I'm hoping he's decided he's done with me.
When it comes to Jack, except for him catching Seth and me on Monday, I haven't seen him all week. He's totally MIA at school. Several times I've gone to the storage room door, wishing I'd paid more attention to how he'd broken in so I could go up and see if he's there. I even thought for a minute about grabbing Mo, having him use his new breaking-and-entering skills to get me up there.
I haven't seen him at home either. His car is rarely there. I've heard his violin, though. A couple nights this week, I could hear the skilled rhythms floating from his house after the sun went down. And I'd opened my window, pressed my face to the screen to catch the cool air streaming in, and listened to the emotion and passion in each note until it hurt too much.
I'm worried for Jack, and for his mom. Her hitting Emma and
then driving off is so intense, and I wonder how he's handling it. If he'll turn her in. If he wonders if I will.
But I won't. Just like he's kept my secrets because they are mine to deal with, I'll keep silent for him. Let him figure out what's best for him and his mom.
Tired from being on my feet for three hours, I walk through the door after work and find my mom on the phone, smiling widely. She waves me over while saying, “That's amazing,” and “We're so grateful.”
“What?” I mouth when I'm inches away.
She holds up a finger. “Spence, what would we do without you?” she says into the phone.
Avoid ulcers and future therapy bills,
I almost say out loud.
“Okay. Let me put her on.” Mom hands me the phone. Her whole face is lit up.
I take the phone, hesitant. “Hi, Grandma.”
“Tessa, dear. I was just telling your mom that I gave the Pineville School District a wonderful recommendation for her tenure application.”
I wince, wonder what the hell Leighton family money has to do with my mom being a good teacher. Mom deserves tenure without my grandmother's pull. But Mom looks happy right now, so I say, “That's wonderful.”
“Yes. But before I did that, I placed a call to the admissions office at the University of Michigan. I let them know to be looking for your application to reach them very soon.”
“Oh,” I say.
“They assured me they would be excited to receive it. They were thrilled another Leighton family member plans to attend.”
“Great,” I squeak.
Mom gives me an exasperated look, like I'm not gushing enough.
“Thank you so much,” I say. But my voice sounds stiff and monotone.
Mom grabs the phone. “She's very happy, Spence. We really appreciate your efforts.”
I walk away, dazed and a little queasy. Up until now, there was this tiny hope in my brain that I could still go to art school. I'd definitely try hard to get into U of M. I'd study more, pick up those extracurriculars Juliette threw my way, but if I didn't get in, at least I had done everything I could. But what if I just walk right into the University of Michigan because of Grandma Leighton's connections? What if it has nothing to do with my efforts at all? I hate the idea of so many strings being pulled without me knowing, my future being tailored for me by everyone but
I wander to my room and pull out the unfinished self-portrait. The globs of paint covering my face, the dark, shadowy hands that blanket my pelvis, torso, and chest. Somewhere under there is a photo of Tessa Leighton that I actually liked.
I riffle through my cardboard portfolio to find another eleven-by-fourteen copy of the black-and-white image I'd taken myself. I'm giving this in-the-know smile, like I have a major secret to tell. I'm standing with my hands open, my arms cast down and slightly out. It was last year right around this time. Trees, leaves, and branches surround me. And I remember on that day, things seemed so much less complicated than now.
I think of my favorite photographer, Vivian Maier, this street photog from the end of last century, whose work was weirdly discovered during some auction. Some young guy bought a couple
boxes of her slides and realized this woman, a nanny for most of her life, was one of the most talented photographers of our time. She had a great sense of lighting, an amazing ability for composition, and she caught people in the middle of a story every time she hit the shutter button. But she died never being recognized, never showing people her work or knowing what her potential could have been.
I don't want it to be that wayâliving my whole life hiding my artwork, one of the best parts of myself, in dark, secret places.
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After school on Friday, Juliette and I walk to the grocery store across the street from Pineville High for chips, diet soda, and the perfect nail polish to go with our homecoming dresses. In the cosmetics/feminine hygiene aisle, Juliette holds up blue polish, the same color as her dress.
“Too matchy-matchy,” I tell her.
“Right.” She sighs, taking in the slew of colors.
I nudge her. “You'll have a great time.”
She offers up a look of pure worry.
I laugh. “It's just a date. And a truce date, remember?”
“Right. The Geneva Convention of dates.” She lets out another sigh. “I would actually feel more confident as a representative at the Geneva Convention.”
“Stop it. You're smart and interesting as hell.” I turn her to a hanging hand mirror and pull her thick black hair away from her face. “And you're drop-dead gorgeous. We'll put your hair up so he won't stop looking at how your eyes are greener than any other human's, and he won't have a chance to do anything but drool over you.”
She checks out her reflection in the mirror.
I press my cheek to hers, stare at our image. “I'd kill to be you.”
She throws her arms around me. “I love you. I wish you were going out with us after the dance.”
I wish I were going with her, too, but Seth wants to go to Simone's house for an after-homecoming party. “I'm sorry the party's at her house, Tessa,” he'd said. “But the whole team will be there, so I should make an appearance.” Um, yay. I'll be as comfortable there as a deer in a lion's den.
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Juliette and I head through the store parking lot, toward our cars across the street.
“So, is Jack âShake Up the World' Dalton still being a pain in your locker sides?” She laughs at her own joke. “Get it?”
I roll my eyes. “I get it. And Jack and I haven't really talked much this past week.”
“So, you two were talking a lot before?” she asks, curious.
“No, well, I mean, we talked a little.” I don't want Juliette to know I've confided in Jack more than her.
“Okay,” she says.
I shrug, looking away from her so she can't tell I'm lying. “Jack likes excitement, and I'm not exactly that thrilling. He probably just got bored with me.”
“No way. I saw the way he looked at you the day he took over the lockers next to yours. I don't think he'd stop crushing on you that easily. Did you guys fight about something?”
“I, no, uh-uh.” I stare straight ahead.
She stops me at the crosswalk even though the “Walk” sign flashes for us. “What aren't you telling me?” She gives me a piercing look.
I want to spill the whole ugly truthâabout the random hookups,
Ty Blevens, Seth. But mostly, I want to tell her how, lately, Jack is the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing I think about before I pass out at night. But it makes me sound so weak. And she's so strong. So I am as honest as I can handle right now.
I take a breath. “Listen, I love you, Jules. And I trust you more than, well,
. I just have to deal with some things, I guess, on my own. And maybe, if I can get myself to a better place, then I can tell you about them.”
She looks at me for a second like she's going to go all debate team on me. But instead, she says, “All right. Just know that whatever you might have said or done, I'm sure I'll understand. It's kind of hard to surprise me.”
Something over my shoulder distracts her. “Um, is that Willow?” She sounds completely surprised.
I wheel around. Across the street, my sister and Baker Channing lean against a souped-up Corvette in the convenience store parking lot. But middle school hasn't gotten out yet. She's supposed to be in class, not standing in a parking lot with high school guys.
The door to the store opens, and Ty comes out, a case of beer in his arms, his thick lips stretched into a smile. He swaggers to Willow and Baker and makes some kind of joke. Everyone laughs.
Baker tosses her long black hair over her shoulder, all flirty, and touches Ty's arm. Ty leans in, past Baker, hands the case of beer to Willow.
“Holy crap!” Juliette says, but she sounds far behind me. Because I'm already bolting toward Willow, the anger bubbling in my gut, frothy and thick.
“Willow.” My voice is as sharp as a spear. Willow and everyone around her look up. “What are you doing?”
“Oh, God.” Willow rolls her eyes. “It's the Be-a-Priss Police.”
“Hey, Tessa,” Ty says, cocky as hell.
“What the hell are you doing?” I turn on Ty. He backs away toward his friends.
“Stay out of my business, Tessa,” Willow says.
“Your business is my business, Will. You're my little sister, and I'm worried about you.”
Willow looks struck, and then, I swear, a little flicker of remorse crosses her face as she holds the beer in front of her.
“You shouldn't be having anyone, especially a prick like Ty, buy you beer.”
I glance at Ty and his friends ogling some twentysomething girls strutting into the party store.
“Just leave us alone,” Willow spits.
“Are you serious, Will?” I say. “You're thirteen. Don't you think it's a little early to be downing a twenty-four-pack?”
“God!” Willow says. “Stop trying to run my life.”
“Yes. You are.” She gives me a burn-in-hell look.
“It's just beer,” Baker says, all casual. She leans close to Willowâan act of solidarity.
I blink at Baker. I bet her bloodline is as pure as snow. No slurring relatives at all. To her and Simone, it totally