Authors: Heather Smith Meloche
“I told him a billion times you were trash.” Simone give a bitter laugh. “And you've totally proven me right.”
Her words are cutting, especially with Willow standing next to me.
“But I always knew you weren't going to be anything but a temporary fuck for him.” Simone's lip twitches with anger, rage, jealousy.
I open my mouth to defend myself somehow, but a yell comes from behind the closed door next to us.
Simone, Willow, and I jerk our heads toward the sound.
room,” Simone says.
The voice, female and fearful, rips through the wall.
I press my head to the door to listen, to make sure I actually heard what I heard.
the girl says.
Her voice vibrates through me. I twist the handle and swing the door open.
A slice of light from the hallway cuts into the dark room. Two
bodies are struggling. A guy, his body pressed into a girl. Against a desk. Her bare legs kick out into the air. She wrenches her head enough to yell. “You're hurting me!”
And in the darkness of the room, this girl's words burn into me, my nerves on end. I know I risk this very thing when I crawl into the darkness of coffeehouse basements, drug users' trucks, and the crumpled sheets of strangers' beds. But this girl, no matter what reason she had to walk into this room, doesn't deserve this.
“No!” I grab a trophy off a bookshelfâa smiling, gold cheerleader standing atop a glass pyramidâand hurl the trophy hard at the guy's back. “Stop!”
“Fuck!” The attacker turns toward me.
“Oh my God,” I say. “You.”
“Ty?” Simone seems shocked next to me. The girl behind Ty yanks down her skirt and pushes toward us.
“Baker?” Simone whispers.
Baker's face is red, like Ty's hand had been clamped over her mouth. Strands of her dark hair stick to her sweaty face.
Simone grips her shoulders, looking her over before turning her attention back to Ty. I put my arm around Simone's sister, thinking of her in the convenience store parking lot, tossing her hair, touching Ty's arm, wanting him to notice her. And now he has.
Ty's eyes dart from Simone to Baker to me. Next to me, Simone's eyes turn to slits. She moves to him and whispers in his ear, her hands balling into fists. Ty listens. His face paling as if she's slit his throat.
“I promise you,” she spits, done whispering.
A small drunk and murmuring crowd has gathered behind us in the doorway.
“Someone call the police,” Simone says as she guides Baker out of the room.
Ty's jaw clenches. A circle of blood seeps into his shirt where the trophy hit his shoulder. Now the trophy lies by his feet, the glass pyramid cracked down the center, but the cheerleader is still smiling.
He points at me. “You little bitch.”
“But not yours.” My words come out slow and sure. Then I say to Willow, “We've got to go.” She looks a bit more sober and awake now. Though she falls into me as I put my arm around her and lead her down the stairs.
We move through a wall of people. Simone holds Baker close, telling Seth what happened. Pointing upstairs. Pointing to me.
Seth looks my way, but I don't stop. I need to get Willow out of here and get us both home before the police come. I just want to put this night behind us.
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I settle Willow into my car as the sirens sound in the distance. When I pull away from the curb, my phone rings.
“Tessa?” Jack is breathless when I answer. “Are you home? Are you okay?”
“I'm not at home, but I'm fine.”
He sighs. “Okay. Good. But I'm in town, and I need a ride. I need you, Tessa. I need you.”
Jack's sweating hand holds mine tightly as we drive twenty-five miles over the speed limit. He insisted on driving.
“Jack, you need to talk to me.”
He nods, but doesn't look at me, just keeps driving.
“Seriously, Jack. What is it?”
He glances behind us, to Willow, fallen into a drunken sleep. “I should have told you before now.” His forehead furrows. “Remember I told you my mom has delusions?”
“Yeah?” I say, cautious. “Schizophrenia, you said.”
“Right. So, since we moved next door to you, she's beenÂ .Â .Â . obsessed with your stepdad.”
A wave of fear begins to rise. “What do you mean obsessed?”
“I mean, like, sheâ” An exasperated breath bursts from him. “Shit, this sounds crazy. She thinks he's, like, evil or something.”
I'm getting more anxious as Jack shakes his head, turning down our unlit dirt road. “I mean, like possessed-by-a-demon evil,” he says. “Like super-fucking-natural evil. Like she's-truly-out-of-her-mind evil.”
I put a hand over my mouth, feeling freaked out and confused.
“Lately, it's gotten really bad,” he continues. “And tonight, she texted me.”
He pulls up to the curb between our driveways. My front yard is glowing orange. A huge fire rages in the grass.
“Oh my God!” My heart jams into my throat. “Jack? Whatâ”
“What's going on?” Willow, awake now, stares out her window. “Holy shit! Tessa!”
“I'll go find out what's going on,” Jack says. “Stay here.”
But Willow and I are already out of the car, running down our yard.
The smell hits me first. Gasoline orÂ .Â .Â . lighter fluid. NoÂ .Â .Â . both. The fire in Tessa's yard is in the shape of a cross. The stumps of wood her stepdad had cut and stacked in the backyard laid out on the grass, then set on fire. Chunks of chopped wood have also been stacked in her doorway, blocking any entry or exit. The door is wide open, and through an opening above the stacked wood, I see movement.
Panic sweeps through me. Mom's decided to come over and finally meet her neighbors.
Willow runs toward the door with Tessa right behind her. “Wait,” I say, stopping them. “Just wait. Let me look in first.”
“Our dad's in there.” Tessa's eyes plead. “And maybe our mom.”
“Call the fire department,” I tell her.
Slowly, Tessa nods. Willow folds against her sister. They probably think I want to be the tough guy, see the carnage first and spare them any pain. But really, I want to spare myself. And Mom from others seeing her this way.
I approach the doorway and hear Mom say, “I told you to stay still.”
The stacked wood is wet with gasoline. Mom stands just beyond the doorway holding a long piece of kindling burning at one end. In her other hand, she clutches a large cross, the one that used to hang on the wall in my grandma's house. She waves it at Tessa's stepdad. The floor between them is wet. She's covered it in fuel and trapped him against the far wall.
My fear surges. This is so beyond anything I can handle. I should have called Dr. Surrey. I shouldn't have let it get this far.
I take a deep breath, steady myself so I can try to talk her down. “Mom. Hi. What's going on?”
“Jackie!” Her gaze snaps to me, and I see her eyes aren't glassy. She's sober. Sober and absolutely, clearly insane.
She steps toward me. The burning chunk of wood in her hand get dangerously close to the gasoline-soaked wood in the doorway.
“I thought he took you.” She waves the cross toward Tessa's very tense stepdad.
“Why do you keep saying that?” He sounds exasperated. “Why would I take him?”
“Shut up!” Mom sweeps her flame close to the floor.
Tessa's stepdad looks at me like I need to do something. Right now.
I reach over the wood and put a hand against Mom's shoulder. “Hey, look. I'm safe. See? No one took me.” I shake my head.
I can help her out of this. I can.
I can talk her down and run her out and hide her so that this night ends here. And we can keep going.
She points behind her. “It's all coming from this room.” She nods, certain. “We need to stop it. And we need to stop him.” She jabs her torch toward Tessa's stepdad. “Or he'll take us.”
I grip Mom's elbow. “We can run, you know. We can leave right
now and get out of this town and go far away and be perfectly safe.”
She shakes her head, strands of her hair flapping spastically. “No. He'll find us. He won't ever stop. He'll keep coming after us.”
I tighten my hold on her. “Okay. Then let me stop him. I can stop him. Please, Mom. Come out of there. So you don't get hurt.”
She pulls away from me. “No! Jackie, I'm so close. If this house burns, all of it, then the evil can't escape.”
“Momâ” I thrust both arms through the opening, toppling a layer of the wood wall to reach her. I grab her upper arms, just wanting to pull her out.
But she wrenches free.
“No, Jackie.” And she cracks the cross against my mouth. I fall to the side, stunned. My mind reeling. She hit me.
Without a second of hesitation.
Her love for me no match for how strong her delusions have become.
Jack falls to the ground, blood running from his lip where his mom struck him. I crouch down next to him. “Are you okay?”
He looks at me dazed and hurt beyond the cut on his lip. Headlights streak across his stricken face. Two cars pull up.
Mom jumps out of the first one. “Oh my God, girls, what's going on?”
The police officer who took Jack from Pineville High's lunchroom gets out of the second car, a police cruiser. He rushes up to us, his badge glinting, his hand on his firearm. His eyes dart from the fire in the yard to our barricaded front door to Jack's bloody lip.
“We got a call about a fire and a hostage situation,” he says. “What the hell is going on, Dalton?” But Jack just shakes his head.
The officer steps up to the front door, his fingers tightening on his firearm.
“Fogerty,” Jack blurts, like he wants to stop the officer. But then his face crumples, glowing orange from the firelight.
Officer Fogerty nods. He peers into my living room. “Ms. Dalton? Alice? Looks like you've got a situation here.”
Jack's mom moves toward the door. Her eyes darting in all directions. The angry flame in her hand echoes the one in the yard.
Just like with the chimney fire, I think of how a single spark could take everything, including my stepdad.
“Hell rose here,” Jack's mom says to Officer Fogerty as she points her cross at the living room floor. Then she jabs it toward my stepdad. “He knows. He's a demon. He was going to come after Jackie and me. He knows.”
“She's insane,” my stepdad says.
“I said shut up!” she screams, waving her torch so that sparks float from the tip but go out before they reach the floor.
“I woke up to being covered in gasoline by this bat-shit crazy woman,” my stepdad explains.
“We need to get rid of him. And all the evil coming up into this house. It's the only way.”
“I wonder,” the officer says to her, “if he and that”âhe points to the center of my living room floorâ“had anything to do with Ryan's death.”
With the mention of Ryan's name, Mom looks like someone just threw water in her face. “Do you think?” she asks.
“Might be.” Officer Fogerty digs into Mom's past as he pulls several pieces of chopped wood off the barricade and tosses them aside. “Do you want me to help you?”
She nods, eyeing him. “Do you have a weapon?”
He pats his gun, then pulls down another layer of wood from the wall between them. “I'm coming in.”
My whole body tenses.
“All right. Come in.” Mom lifts her flame higher and pushes it toward Tessa's stepdad. “I'll cover you while you get through the barricade.”
Officer Fogerty topples the rest of the wood from the door frame. “A friend of mine is a priest,” he tells her. “He says that to cage evil, you need to hold the cross up high with both hands and say the Hail Mary.”
Mom looks at him, staring really hard like I've seen her do at witnesses during cross-examination in a trial. Assessing their character. Finding the truth.
And then she nods, raising the large cross with one hand.
“Here,” the officer says. “I'll hold this for you.” His fingers wrap around the burning kindling. Mom raises her other hand above her head, holding the cross straight and strong in front of her.
“Hail Maryâ” Mom begins.
Officer Fogerty whips the lit kindling out the front door and onto grass clean of gasoline.
“âfull of graceâ”
And handcuffs close around Mom's wrists, the cross still hovering above her.
Mom gasps. “No!” she cries.
I keep my eyes closed as Officer Fogerty walks Mom to his police car. I can't watch her scream. Kick. Swear the devil is in all of us. I can't look at her when she tells me I'm doomed.
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Officer Fogerty didn't tell me I did a thing wrong. In fact, he didn't say much of anything. He just listened. Then he set things in motion, calling Mayor Kearns, who scrambled on the weekend to secure Mom one of the best defense attorneys in the county, who agreed to defend her pro bono.
Then Officer Fogerty called Dr. Surrey, who submitted her paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis as evidence so Mom could plead “not guilty by reason of insanity.” And Dr. Surrey told me I could come talk to her anytime. No charge.
When I called Nurse Grishelm at Woodside Manor midweek, she said she'd search for the right group home for Mom. She promised it would be a place both Mom and I would be okay with. “You've had one heavy heart all this time, Jack,” she said. “You know, you got to learn to lean on people more.” She's right.
So when Dad showed up in the middle of the night after Mom
was arrested, I did just that. “Jack,” he said when he met me at the police station. And that was it. I lost it. Just seeing his face made me realize how tired I was, and how relieved I was to see him.
He didn't come down on me for not telling him how bad Mom was. He just hugged me for a long time, and then told me he was going to stay in Pineville until stuff was sorted out. Then we'd both go back to his house and start over.
Now, almost a week after Mom's arrest, I have one more thing to take care of. I knock on Emma Hadley's front door. The curtains in the front window pull back. Her dad peeks out, then disappears. And for a long moment, I think they're ignoring me. I know Officer Fogerty told them Mom was the one who hit Emma, so I don't blame them for not answering.
But eventually, the door opens, and Emma, on crutches and her legs still in casts, balances in the doorway.
“Hey, Em,” I say, happy to see her. “You're looking exceptionally upright.”
She gives a weak smile. Then shakes her head. “My parents are pretty upset, Jack. And I sort of am, too.”
I can barely look her. But I do. Because I need this closure.
“I'm really sorry, Emma. I didn't know it was my mom while you and I were hanging in the hospital. And then when I found outâ” I shrug. Because I really could have handled things better. Told someone.
She readjusts on her crutches. “If you knew your mom might be dangerous, you should have said something.”
All I do is nod, my head bowed.
“Listen. Even though this is a little bit your fault,” she says, “I actually
you. I liked your hospital visits, and it's pretty boring here at home.”
“Wait.” I grab my cell phone from my pocket. “I have something for boredom.”
I pull up Topic Buddy, and the black dude stares at me seriously, raising a long finger, and says, “Things you should avoid at all costs. Go!” He points at me.
“That's easy,” I say. “Not visiting with Emma Hadley at least once a week.”
Her cheeks pull up, flushing pink as she smiles. “Thanks, Jack.”
I shake my head, relieved that we're still friends. “No, Em. Thank