Unforgiven: Chapters 1 – 5

-1-

North Jersey State Prison

Elizabeth, New Jersey

One year ago

Celia Brown massaged her left pinky finger, but it had been years since she’d conceded any chance of bringing relief to the mangled digit. She’d now adopted the act as a nervous tick. No one copped to anxiety behind bars, and even after seventeen years in North Jersey State Prison, there was rarely a day when calm ruled her mind. North Jersey State saw to that. The decades-old prison prevented some of the worst New Jersey had to offer from expanding upon their prolific rap sheets. She brought her hand close to her face and eyeballed the finger’s crooked path, which somewhat resembled a lightning bolt rendered by a kindergartner. It ached to the bone, serving as a constant reminder of her last day as a nurse—the only job she ever loved. After countless hours of comforting and tending to those in need at Mountainside Hospital, she’d been condemned to live out her remaining years in a place where the vulnerable were swallowed whole, without mercy or remorse.

She had been under constant surveillance from the moment she had first set foot in the prison. The press coverage had subsided within a few weeks of her sentencing. The suicide watch had lasted another several weeks, until they worked her into the general population under the watchful eyes of guards who despised paperwork and internal investigations only marginally more than they despised her. Her first year had been the toughest, par for the course for any mother who would take the life of her own daughter, but then again, Celia couldn’t recall a year of her life that hadn’t been tough. She’d faced the shanks and born the scars. Done a couple of stints in solitary after her verbal powers of persuasion failed. When she wasn’t begging the Lord to let her trade places with her dead daughter, she was fighting to stay alive. It didn’t take long to convince herself that He was unmoved by her pleas. And why shouldn’t He be unmoved? She had strangled the life from one of His children—from her own flesh and blood—as surely as she’d tried, but failed to suffocate it from Amy Forsythe. Deep down, she knew she deserved this life of confinement and loneliness and despair and pain. Her visitor’s log, save for one name, attested to that.

Not a day had passed that she didn’t relive that fateful day. She’d been seeing Ross for six months, after six months of vying for his attention along with every other woman on Earth. At six and a half feet tall, he towered over her, which was a huge draw. Ever since she was a little girl—or rather a young girl, but never a little girl—that had been her fantasy. To look up to a man in more than just the metaphorical sense. His baritone voice turned heads and buckled knees. His head, bald and shiny and beautiful, with its flawless skin. He was no Denzel Washington, but when he looked at you with those deep brown eyes and whispered in that voice, your clothes unbuttoned themselves.

Unfortunately, her daughter Iris had fallen under his spell, too. She had always been a wild child, just like the daddy who’d sired her and fled at the first sign of a pregnancy test. Iris had been tall and buxom like her mom, but lean and flirtatious like her daddy. The boys took notice at an early age, and despite Celia’s impassioned pleas, Iris reveled in it. Celia’s own teenage years had been marked by being passed over for the “prettier” girls. She was ill equipped to deal with the challenges that her daughter presented. Celia was loathe to admit it, but a part of her resented Iris for having it and flaunting it, and it caused a constant undercurrent of tension between them.

That tension reached an all-time high the first time Iris and Ross laid eyes on each other. They’d tried to downplay it, but their mutual attraction was undeniable. Celia had waited to introduce Ross to her daughter until she’d felt secure in her relationship with him, but it hadn’t mattered a lick. That night, having sensed the undeniable spark that was firing between them, she’d pleaded her case between the sheets. Ross fell asleep spooning her, his arm curled around her waist while she stared out the window wondering whether she had set her hook deep enough. Three weeks later, on a hunch, she hugged Iris, left “for work,” waited an hour, and dropped by Ross’s place to find them in bed. Celia stormed in, though only to force them to stop. They were already dead to her. Iris bawled, Ross stammered, and both begged for forgiveness. Celia glared at them, shook her head, and left for work. Distraught beyond words, she’d taken matters into her bare hands. Twenty-four hours later, Iris was dead. Forty-eight hours later, Celia Brown was under arrest for murder and attempted murder.

Celia remembered Iris’s terrified, bulging eyes, growing vacant as she choked the life out of her, like it had happened just seconds ago. She recalled the adrenaline surge that had sent chills through her body when Amy had spoken Iris’s name that day in the hospital. At first, Celia had chalked up Amy’s “vision” of a dead waitress to crazy talk from a traumatized patient. Just a coincidence. Hearing her utter Iris’s name was the game changer. Celia realized that the vision was no coincidence, and Amy was as vulnerable emotionally as she was physically, and thus a liability. Besides her distinct physical advantage, Celia had reasoned, she’d also have the element of surprise. She had pressed the pillow into Amy’s face, desperate to end it quickly, to avoid watching the life leave her eyes, and most importantly, to avoid detection. She could still feel the grips of her frantic colleagues peeling her off of Amy and prying her pinky finger from Amy’s death grip. She’d heard the snap, then felt it, then felt it more as Amy had twisted it, ratcheting up an agony unlike anything she’d experienced before or since. She wondered whether Amy remembered it like she did. She’d thought a lot about Amy over the years. Her feelings ranged from resenting her to hating her to the shame of losing a fight in which victory had seemed so certain. Only in recent years had she come to acknowledge that she had given the young girl no choice and had underestimated her. From time to time, she fantasized that Amy came to visit her, giving her the chance to gain some closure—payback. She’d picked up a few moves during her extended stay and was confident about the rematch. She shook her head, returning from her fantasy world, and glanced in the mirror.

Gray streaked her hair like a comet brightens an evening sky. Bags sagged beneath her haunted brown eyes. She was ten pounds lighter than when she’d been sentenced, but she’d stopped caring about her appearance long before the handcuffs had been removed. She’d had only one care left in the world once freedom turned its back on her. She’d get the letters and read them until she’d committed them to memory. This was a minor feat, as she’d committed patients’ charts to memory for years. The difference was, she destroyed the letters once committed. Simple math, really. In the wrong hands, they were tempting targets for desecration or leverage for blackmail. Bottom line, they exposed vulnerabilities.

Five months ago, she had been devastated to learn she’d received the last of them. Her last connection to the outside world had been severed. That outside connection was now inside.

Celia turned and peered out of her cell. The prison had several floors, though she had never set foot on any besides this one. Most walls were bathed in muted beiges or grays. Any splashes of real color were found in areas that most prisoners did their best to avoid—the infirmary and the chaplain’s office. All of the cells opened onto a wide corridor, though the sense of space varied depending on the number of your enemies present at any given time. The block of cells almost directly across from hers caught her eye.

Tara, Elise, and Collette had congregated outside Tara’s cell. Though they said little to each other, Celia had seen them in action enough to know something was up. Tara was the eldest of the three, and by far the meanest. She’d arrived six years after Celia, and they’d taken an instant dislike to each other. Tara was a machine operator before she went on a killing spree with a tire iron during a road-rage incident. Like Celia, she was a lifer. She’d shaved her head down to the stubble, and her otherwise flawless mocha skin bore a crow’s foot-shaped scar above her left ear. She and Celia had tussled a few times over the years, and though Celia had three inches and twenty pounds on her, Tara had matched her physical strength. Elise had been on the block for four years thanks to a vehicular homicide while high on crack. She was about as wide as she was tall and had a face that resembled a boxer of the four-legged variety. Collette Frye was considered the new kid on the block, having arrived just after the New Year, but she was no stranger to the penal system. A perennial “also-ran” on the pageant circuit in her younger days, she’d served time in Alabama and Georgia for prostitution and felony assault on an undercover officer before migrating north to start a new life. Two months into that new life, she impaled an amorous drunk’s thigh with a four-inch knife on the subway. Her once-beautiful auburn hair was a tangle of knots and split ends wrapped in a tight ponytail. Celia watched the three survey the corridor and wondered who they had in their cross hairs this time. Elise made eye contact with her before looking away and muttering to Tara. They started across the corridor, avoiding eye contact with anyone, but Celia knew this drill.

They were coming for her.

They moved with a nonchalance that belied their intentions, but everyone in their path sensed it and gave them a wide berth. A few couldn’t resist stealing a glance in Celia’s general direction. Some more subtle than others. Some of the looks were grave, others more anticipatory.

Celia started toward the three, hoping such a bold move would intimidate Elise and Collette. There was no intimidating Tara. Celia stared at Elise and Collette until they made eye contact. They hesitated just enough for her to know it was all about safety in numbers for them. It would come down to her exchange with Tara.

They stopped a few feet from Celia. Close enough to speak without being overheard and just far enough away to see an attack coming. Tara and Celia stared each other down like prizefighters.

“You pick the place,” Tara said.

“I just did.”

“You know what this is about?”

“It’s about me and Vernon.”

Tara took a step toward her, her jaw clenched. Celia’s heart pounded in her chest.

“It’s about no more of you and Vernon. It ends, or you end. Got it?”

###

Jaden Brown glistened with a thin sheen of sweat, the trembling in her arms traveling through the rest of her athletic frame as she punctuated her final push up with a grunt. She regained her feet and shook the burn out of her lean but powerful arms. She wore a black sleeveless tee shirt and blue jeans, her broad shoulders as imposing as her five-foot, eleven-inch frame. She approached her tiny sink, splashing water on her face before running her hands through her close-cropped, coarse brown hair. Another couple of handfuls went to her neck and shoulders, then she grabbed the small towel from her bunk and dried herself. This quick rinse would do until she hit the showers later. She didn’t want to be late for work. Pocket change per hour added up to more pocket change.

She stared at her reflection in the mirror—olive skin and androgynous features, with her full lips and flawless complexion tipping the scales to female—and tried to remember the last time she’d worn any makeup. She’d been in and out of jail most of her adult life and had only been at North Jersey State for five months, but time stood still in this place like no other. Perhaps it was having her Aunt Celia—she called her Celie, rhyming with really—to worry about that made the minutes seem like hours. When she was wandering the East Coast and Deep South, writing letters to her aunt, it was easier to distract herself, to lie to herself about how her aunt was faring behind bars. She was tough, she’d reasoned, and she was imposing. Then Jaden joined her aunt in prison, this being her fifth time, and realized that prisons were chock full of tough women like Aunt Celie.

She glanced out of her cell and down the corridor at an inmate mopping the floor. It seemed like easy work until you faced your first puddle of puke or pile of feces. Most times, the piles of feces had nothing to do with explosive bowels and everything to do with making life miserable for the mop jockey. It made her appreciate the hundred-and-twenty-degree heat that accompanied working in the kitchen. She lifted her blue prison-issued shirt from the bed frame and slipped into it.

Shouts and jeers rose from across the corridor—another fight. They always drew a crowd when they broke out in the common areas, and the heavy guard presence meant they tended to end quickly. Jaden bolted for the corridor, but not because she feared the fight would end before she arrived.

The fight had broken out very close to Aunt Celie’s cell.

A swarm of blue-clad females had formed a ring around the combatants. Jaden could see at least two heads above the heads of the crowd.

Aunt Celie and Collette. From what Jaden knew about Collette, a stiff breeze could knock her over. Collette seemed to know it, keeping out of range and looking hesitant.

The crowd parted in rapid fashion to avoid getting nailed in the crossfire, and Jaden got a bird’s eye view: Collette, Elise, and Tara Price. Tara alone was bad enough news. Tara and Celie grappled while Elise and Collette fired shots from a distance. Elise got too close, and Celie backhanded her, dropping her to the floor.

Jaden snarled and rushed them. Collette saw her coming, and her eyes widened with fear. She threw a haymaker that Jaden ducked and countered with an uppercut to the abdomen. Collette grunted and crumbled in a heap at her feet. Elise plowed into Jaden and sent her stumbling into the crowd. Her elbow caught someone’s jaw and drew return fire from her and two others. With deft precision, Jaden deflected many of the blows, took a couple, and landed enough of her own to prompt their retreat. She stole a glance back at Celie, who looked gassed as she and Tara tumbled to the floor.

“Celie!” Jaden called, a blow struck her right ear lobe and drew her attention back to the unfinished business close at hand. She spun with a back kick, catching her assailant in the solar plexus and lifting her off her feet, taking two onlookers to the floor with her descent. The other two assailants charged together. Jaden sidestepped the closer of the two and drove a side kick to the outside of her knee. The woman bellowed and collapsed, clutching the joint and giving Jaden a clear shot at the other woman. She froze and Jaden didn’t hesitate, driving a side kick to her chin. Down she went.

Jaden whirled and rushed toward the scrum on the floor. Tara straddled Celie, holding her right arm in an arm bar. Celie grimaced in pain. A Hispanic guard rushed Tara, who flailed with one arm to keep him at bay.

Jaden pushed through the crowd, and a riot shield slammed into her right side with bone-rattling force, launching her. When her feet found the floor again, she collided with a thud against something hard. The musky scent of Polo cologne told her the something hard was Temur Robinson, one of the guards. Temur was a strapping young man of African American and Iranian descent. He was also a fairly gifted mixed martial artist who gave Jaden private lessons in exchange for private sessions. Payment in advance, of course. He gripped her around the waist from behind, pinning her arms at her sides. She glared back at him.

“Temur, that’s my aunt!”

Two more guards pushed past Temur and ambled toward the scrum with no sense of urgency. Jaden recognized Hastings and Dickinson. Hastings was five nine in shoes, stocky, and a legend in his own mind. He spent his working hours admiring his image in reflective surfaces and regaling new guards with tales of conquests, both sexual and physical. Dickinson was a six-foot-two police academy washout who let his baton do most of the talking. The cons referred to them as Mutt and Jeff behind their backs, though Popeye and Olive had gained popularity in recent years.

Hastings cast a weary glance at Dickinson and drew his baton.

“Which one you want?”

“Neither,” Dickinson said, already wielding his.

“Get in there!” Temur barked, Jaden thrashing in his grip. Hastings and Dickinson scowled back at him before joining the fray.

Garcia was losing his grip on Tara, who was driving Celie’s skull into the floor with her boot. Celie’s face—terror, shock, and resignation—told Jaden she wouldn’t last much longer.

“Temur, she’s killing her!” she said, now flailing to break free. He spun her around and shoved her away. She turned to him, snarling.

“Wait here,” he said, pointing to her in a warning fashion before bolting to Celia’s aid.

Jaden took a few steps to her left for a clearer view. Hastings, Dickinson, and Garcia had succeeded in wrestling Tara to the floor, but Celie remained motionless. Jaden rushed toward her.

Dickinson’s baton saw to it that she never made it.

###

Jaden ran her fingertips over the egg-shaped knot that had risen on the back of her head. She wasn’t certain whose baton had felled her, but Dickinson was usually a safe bet where the use of excessive force was concerned. She was the latest in a long line of inmates who’d felt the wrath of Dickinson’s “little friend,” as he liked to refer to it. She figured the baton helped him forget his shortcomings in key areas.

Though solitary confinement was nothing new to her, this was, by far, her most unbearable stint. On previous occasions, her only concern was herself. One two occasions, she privately looked forward to her stay in solitary, viewing it as a temporary reprieve from a toxic cellblock. Solitary was still solitary, exacting its toll on mind and body, but that toll had grown less expensive with each stint.

Until this time.

Celie was in dire straits when Jaden last saw her, her eyes wide with the terror that comes from believing that you’re about to die. Jaden held out hope that the guards had separated Celie and Tara in time, that Celie had received proper medical attention, and that Jaden would be visiting her in the infirmary once they let her out of the hole.

The cell was pitch dark, but that couldn’t hide the smell, a mixture of decades-old sweat, blood, and Lord only knew what other bodily fluids that had seeped into its concrete floor.

The window on the solid steel door slid open with a thack, piercing the silence. Light from the corridor entered through the window before suffocating in the darkness in a matter of a few feet. Jaden approached the window, striking a balance between her sense of urgency and a pace that wouldn’t alarm the guard.

A tray appeared on a shelf with a plated sandwich and a beverage.

“You alive in there, Brown?”

Hastings.

“As unpopular as that may be. Celia okay?”

He shrugged. “Couldn’t tell you.”

“Sure you could.”

“That’s not what solitary’s about. I’m not your proxy pen-pal.”

She stole glances up and down the corridor.

“You don’t have to say anything. You could just nod,” she whispered.

He leaned closer. “What would you be offering in exchange for this nod?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake.”

“That’s rich coming from you. Tell you what, lose the jeans and back that beautiful ass up to this window while I reconsider.”

“Do me a favor. Don’t tell me a goddamn thing.”

“Hey, if you’re not hungry enough to work for it… ”

He slowly withdrew the tray.

“Dickinson, maybe,” she taunted.

The tray came hurtling back through the opening with cannon-shot force, hitting her in the thighs before crashing to the floor. She glanced down, then leveled her gaze at him before retreating into the darkness.

“You know how they treat child killers in the infirmary, Brown? They treat ’em with a vengeance.”

Hastings slammed the window shut and stormed off, returning Jaden to darkness. Goose bumps rose all over her body as she pictured what might be happening to Celie. She shoved the thought from her mind. She considered calling out to Hastings and…

She shoved that thought even harder.

The scent of the food at her feet coaxed a rabid growl from her stomach. Only it wasn’t a plea for sustenance.

It was a warning.

Whatever went in would be guaranteed a round trip ticket.

Temur hadn’t stopped by to check on her since she’d been sent to solitary, and that worried her. He was either avoiding her because it was over between them or because Celie wasn’t doing well. None of the guards who brought her meals would give her the time of day. Hastings taunted her with ominous but vague comments about Celie. It’s not good. She cries out for you. Dickinson offered information in exchange for anal sex. Payment up front, of course.

Not in this or any other lifetime. She’d settle for memories if she had to.

She lay down on the rickety cot, and it swayed and creaked. The cot in her cell was no sleep number bed, but the cots in solitary were as third-world as it got. Her thoughts drifted back to her reunion with Celie. After years of visitation where contact had been frowned upon, where visits ended with brisk hugs and swallowed tears, she found herself face to face with the woman she’d come to recognize as her real mother.

When Jaden had been a young girl, her biological mother had wandered in and out of her life, brought to her knees, literally and figuratively, by a heroin addiction. Celie hadn’t wanted Jaden exposed to that “nastiness,” as she described it, so she’d taken Jaden in and raised her as her own, despite Iris’s objections. Pampered little Iris hated her mother for that, and as Celie’s affection for Jaden grew, Iris’s hatred of Jaden grew with it. Then Celie killed the little slut and ended up in prison, thanks to the testimony of some hotshot detective and a privileged white bitch who wouldn’t last a day in this world. Jaden had been left to find her own way, but she was eighteen then, so she was able to find work. She also found trouble from time to time, despite promises made to Celie to the contrary. Having an incarcerated aunt didn’t “scare her straight” as they’d both hoped. Still, Jaden visited Celie when she could, and wrote when she couldn’t. Five months ago, a trumped up battery charge—the other woman had thrown the first punch—earned her three hots and a cot in North Jersey State. And the kind of reunion they don’t show on the network news.

Celia had led her into an empty broom closet. First there’d been a hug, the kind of hug only someone who loves you can give you. The kind of hug that makes you feel like things will be okay, that flickering of optimism despite the impossible odds or plain facts.

Then came the slap. Celia’s meaty palm had struck Jaden’s cheek with great force, the thud ringing inside her skull and snapping her head to the right. Celia had never struck Jaden before, and Jaden glared at her, stunned and wounded.

“You stupid bitch,” Celia said. “What I tell you? Keep your act together and don’t end up like Aunt Celie.”

Jaden ran her tongue along the inside of her cheek and tasted blood.

“Great to see you, too.”

“Got nothin’ to do with that, and you know it.”

“Wasn’t like I planned this.”

“No, but you sure asked for it. You’ve got a criminal record, girl. When you’re on the outside, you swallow your fool pride and walk away. Ain’t enough I have to watch my back in here. Now I have to watch yours, too.”

“It’s been years since you or anyone else had to watch my back,” Jaden said, an edge to her voice.

Celia softened. “I know. I still regret that and a whole lot more.”

“I still regret not tracking that college bitch down and finishing what you started.”

“And you will continue to regret it for as long as you live. Anything happens to her, you’ll be high on the list of people they want to talk to.”

Jaden shook her head. “Crazy, hearing you defend her.”

“I’m not defending her. I’m defending you.”

Jaden sighed. “Whatever.”

“Let’s head back to my cell. I’ll give you the lay of the land,” Celia said as she started for the door.

“Celie.”

Celia turned to her.

“Don’t ever put your hands on me again.”

Celia’s nostrils flared. She stepped forward until they were eye to eye.

“You’re never too old or too big for me to slap you upside your head when you need it.”

“You might want to rethink that. ’Cause if there’s a next time, it won’t be an easy time.”

“Nothing comes easy in here.”

“Least of all, me.”

Celia had grinned, then turned and headed out.

The steel door opening jarred Jaden from her shallow sleep. She sat up and rubbed her eyes.

“I can stop back in a few more weeks, Brown,” Dickinson taunted from the open doorway.

“Right with you, boss,” she said, staggering to her feet.

“Let’s make it today, then.”

She wobbled past him into the hallway and squinted against the florescent lightning overhead. She found her gait and headed toward the door for the general population.

“Before you go back to gen pop, you’re having a chat with Warden Michaels.”

Her blood ran cold. This had to be a bad sign. She glanced back to find Dickinson close behind her.

“Celie doin’ okay?”

“The warden will explain everything and answer any questions you may have.”

Jaden tried to take a deep breath, but her lungs and chest were in lock-down mode.

Dickinson proved right about one thing. The warden had an explanation for Celia’s death: respiratory failure brought on by coronary heart disease and complications from a crushed windpipe. The fight hadn’t helped her condition, but it hadn’t caused her untimely demise, either. Just a coincidence. The two weeks Tara, Elise, and Collette would spend in solitary were punishment for their role in the fight, but not for Celia’s death. He asked if Jaden had any questions. She wondered how long it would be before Warden Michaels found himself fitted in blue. She shook her head and replied, “No, sir.”

The time for talk had long since passed.

Jaden waited two long months before confronting Tara. Jaws had wagged along the cellblock for weeks before the gossip withered on the vine. They gave each other a wide berth, but Tara knew better than to believe her business with Jaden had been finished. It was a question of when, not if.

Tara wasn’t the type to live in fear. She’d grown up on the streets of Newark, fighting her own battles whether her nemesis was female or not. If you bled, you bled. If you broke, you went to the hospital. She’d only been once, when a former boyfriend accused her of flirting and slapped her in a fit of rage. They were still fighting when the cops arrived, with Tara giving as much punishment as she was getting. That was one of the few times in her life she’d cried, sitting in the emergency room and recounting the story of a knock-down, drag-out with a man she’d loved while her arms trembled from the adrenaline coursing through her. He wouldn’t even look at her after that, much less come near her, and that hurt her more than any blow he’d landed.

When Jaden came calling, Tara had no qualms about answering the bell. She’d been answering bells back when Jaden was still in diapers. Sure, that meant her prime was behind her, but it also spoke to her guile. She knew she wasn’t quite as fast and as strong as she’d been in her twenties, yet she still retained enough of both to endure for decades. Promising new challengers came and went. Some went harder than others, but they went.

Since Jaden had arrived, Tara had wondered what she had in her. What she could take. She’d seen Jaden in action a couple of times and knew she had skills, but what was her threshold for pain? How much punishment could she withstand and still maintain that ferocity?

Tara thought she might be just the person to pressure test her.

Jaden had her by eight inches and their body weights were about even, but Tara was well accustomed to using her low center of gravity and thick legs to her advantage in these situations. She figured Jaden would keep the fight on the perimeter, taking advantage of her reach to do some damage before drawing close to finish it.

Tara hoped she’d think she could do just that. She was ready, having fought the fight countless times in her mind. She ran through different scenarios with varying degrees of aggressiveness.

She liked how she saw it playing out.

Tara showered alone one Sunday, as she had over a thousand times before. She rinsed the soap from her hair and opened her eyes. Immediately, she sensed something was amiss.

She glanced over her shoulder to find Jaden watching her from the shower perimeter. Jaden glistened with sweat and looked pumped in her tank top, jeans, and sneakers. Tara spied her clothes bunched in Jaden’s left hand.

Tara turned and walked to the center of the shower, then stopped and pivoted to face Jaden. Jaden tossed the clothes toward Tara. They landed at her feet, the boots making a quiet splosh on impact.

Tara shoved them aside with her foot.

“Ready to die, bitch?” Jaden asked.

Tara shifted into a fighting stance, her leg muscles bulging with coiled fury, poised to spring, to retreat, to do whatever the battle called for. She brought her hands up, her arms and shoulders showing muscles forged from chin-ups and pull-ups.

Bring it.

Jaden stepped into the shower and settled well within Tara’s range. So much for the perimeter strategy. This girl wanted Tara’s best.

Tara gave Jaden she everything she had, including a couple of moves she hadn’t seen before.

Seven minutes later, Jaden showered to rinse off the blood and sweat, then left the water running, watching it pool around Tara’s lifeless body, her blood tinting the water as it drifted toward the drain.

Grabbing her bloodstained clothes, Jaden glared at Tara one last time, then spat at her before slipping out in silence.

###

Once again, Jaden found herself following Hastings, having again been summoned to Warden Michaels’ office. Since the solitary incident, he’d had as little to do with her as possible.

“Wait here,” he barked, then ducked his head in the warden’s office. “Warden, Brown’s here when you’re ready.”

“Thank you. Send her in.”

Hastings ducked back out and gave Jaden a glare. “Move.”

Jaden stepped inside and Hastings shut the door behind her. This was her third time in his office. The first was for a fight shortly after she arrived, and the second was after her release from solitary, when he gave her the “terrible and tragic” news of Celie’s untimely death. The office was a good size, with wood furnishings that looked expensive and gave off a faint scent of molasses. Warden Michaels was a mountain of a man in his fifties with short, silver-blond hair, a radio announcer’s silky-smooth voice and a pleasant face. He offered Jaden a thin smile, circling to the big chair behind his desk and gesturing to the smaller one in front of it.

“Please. Have a seat.”

“Thank you.”

They settled into their chairs. Michaels tipped back in his and propped his elbows on its arms, interlocking his fingers.

“What can you tell me about Tara Mercer’s death that I don’t already know?”

“I doubt I could tell you anything about her death you don’t already know.”

“Try me.”

“I wasn’t surprised to hear about it.”

“Try harder.”

Jaden paused to consider the question.

“Many people hated her, myself included.”

“You must have hated her more than anyone, after your aunt—”

“I wished her dead.”

“And did you fulfill your own wish?”

Jaden took a deep breath.

“They wouldn’t have recognized her if I had.”

Michaels raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“That, I didn’t know.”

Careful here.

“I know how it must look to you, given the history, and I’d be asking the same questions if I were in your position. Celie was…”

Jaden’s eyes glistened with tears.

Michaels nodded and rose from his chair. He circled to the front of his desk and sat on it, looking down at Jaden.

“Tara’s death was ruled inconclusive,” he said, shaking his head. “She’d always been more trouble than she was worth, but in her final moments, the system saw to it that she was no trouble at all. Ask me why.”

She knew she’d hate the answer, but…

“Why?”

“No eyewitnesses or physical evidence tying you or anyone else to the scene. Of course, that doesn’t mean there was no crime committed. You see, my days on the force made me a big believer in motive. And no one within these walls had a stronger motive than you.”

Jaden held still in her chair. The urge to squirm was overwhelming. Word on the block was that Tara looked good in red and had never smelled better. Ding dong, the bitch is dead.

“Wouldn’t that be the perfect time for someone else to kill her, knowing I’d be the primary suspect?”

“I’d considered that, too. So I’m going to leave it to you to make me a believer. Tara’s case is closed and will remain closed, provided the remainder of your sentence is served without incident. Of course, there’s always the possibility that new evidence surfaces or an eyewitness comes forward…”

“I understand, Warden.”

She’d been careful about choosing the place, the time, and the method. The toughest part had been dialing it back, because there was nothing inconclusive about what she would have liked to do to Tara. Still, dead was dead, and keeping her nose clean meant she could be released within a year. Settling scores, new and old. For Celie.

Watching those responsible die at her own hand, saving Amy Dylan for last.

-2-

Frost had given way to dew atop the soccer field’s grass, and the slick surface made for tentative play by most, but Liv was not one of them. She raced down the sideline, dribbling the ball with the inside edges of her feet just as their gym teacher Mr. Wyatt had demonstrated. She and her classmates had spent weeks practicing dribbling, passing, and the fundamentals of soccer, all of which were abandoned with this first scrimmage. Liv was one of a precious few who stuck with proper technique in the heat of competition, liking the control it gave her over the ball.

Mr. Wyatt was also the girls’ soccer team coach, and he’d been impressed enough by Liv’s natural abilities to encourage her to try out for the team next season. With the benefit of a few off-season soccer camps to sharpen her skills, he reasoned, she could be a starter in her senior year. The thought held some appeal. As much as she felt in control on the soccer field, the last few months at Wallkill Valley Regional High School had been anything but controlled. Soccer had become a refuge, and Liv had become someone who needed a refuge.

Kelly Porter came racing up from her left, but Liv knew from Kelly’s speed on approach that a change of direction would lose her. Liv slowed just enough to allow Kelly to blow past, which Kelly did, grinning at her miscalculation and Liv’s skill. Liv regained top speed within a few steps and bolted downfield to where double trouble, Melanie Fox and Christine Decker, awaited from the halfback positions. They were the closest of friends, and by general consensus, the biggest of bitches. Melanie was tall and lean, her long, dark hair in a trendy haircut. She habitually swept her bangs back from her face with a supermodel-inspired shake of the head. Christine was shorter, stockier, and the unofficial goon on the girls’ field hockey team. Her dirty blonde hair just about reached a jaw line carved from stone. Liv expected a full-court press but didn’t slow a bit. Christine lunged forward, making no pretense of attacking the ball. Liv took a step to the right, and Christine moved to intercept. Liv juked back to the left with surprising speed, guiding the ball past her.

Christine, more nimble and more cunning than Kelly, only half-bit on the juke. She shot back to her right and angled toward Liv, sliding at her right leg for an attempted tackle. Liv hopped over her coiling leg, her right heel clipping Christine’s chin with only enough force to bruise her ego. Christine flushed with anger and barked at Melanie.

“Get her!”

Melanie crouched like a wrestler waiting for a charging opponent. She shot for Liv just as Liv passed the ball to a wide-open teammate. An enraged Melanie shoved her, driving her back a step. Liv glared at her and shoved back. Christine rushed up from Liv’s right side and grabbed her tee shirt. Liv returned the favor.

“You want some, head case?” Christine hissed.

“Almost as bad as you do.”

“Hey!”

The young ladies turned to find Mr. Wyatt beating a path toward them. He was a strapping, six-foot-three Irishman with unkempt black hair and a baritone voice. It was the first time Liv had seen a scowl on his bearded face. He leveled his gaze at Melanie and Christine.

“You’re both begging for detention.”

“She clipped me in the chin!” Christine objected.

“Try going for the ball next time.”

“I—” Christine started, before thinking better of it. She stared into the distance and shook her head.

“You know it and I know it,” he said, then directed his attention to Melanie. “You do everything she tells you to do?” he said, gesturing to Christine.

Melanie’s gaze fell to the ground.

“Apologize to Dylan. Now.”

She looked at him as if he’d asked her to lick a turd.

“It was in the heat of competition.”

“Competition. Tell you what, the three of us will discuss competition before school tomorrow.”

“What?!” they chorused.

“Morning detention, ladies.”

“That’s not fair!”

“Perhaps Saturday morning works better?”

Melanie and Christine seethed.

“Tomorrow morning is fine,” Melanie said, giving Liv the best evil eye she could manage with her peripheral vision.

Mr. Wyatt glanced at Christine.

“It’s fine,” she said with a huff.

“Keep your hands to yourselves. Now hit the showers and cool off.”

They started on their way. Mr. Wyatt watched their retreating backs as he spoke to Liv.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine.”

Just keep telling yourself that.

“I’m proud of you for standing up to them.”

“Thank you.”

“How many classes do you have with them?”

“Four.”

He stifled a grimace, but she still caught a glimpse.

“Which teachers?”

“Reilly, Cantor… Herrera.”

“I’ll clue them in, have them keep an eye out.”

They can’t be everywhere.

“I appreciate it, Mr. Wyatt.”

The bell rang. End of the period.

“I’ll have Mrs. Kileman pass through the locker room.”

“Thanks.”

She started for the locker room.

When she slipped inside, she found the tension palpable. More girls than usual cast glances in her direction as they dressed, many doing so with the grim expression one would expect from a prison inmate watching a fellow convict being led to her execution. The rattling and closing of locker doors echoed off the cinderblock walls. No one spoke. The inside of Liv’s mouth had gone dry, and she could feel her heart thudding in her chest. The bad blood had been simmering between her and those girls ever since Liv had returned to school on the heels of her mom playing superhero. They’d had a ton of questions, many of which were intrusive, and more than a few of which were downright callous. Liv hadn’t been in a talking mood, but even if she had, no good would’ve come from sharing anything with Melanie Fox and Christine Decker. She had been polite but firm, though to Melanie and Christine, anything other than compliant and fawning was at best, an insult and at worst, a challenge.

Liv took a deep breath approaching the third row of lockers and rounded the corner. Melanie and Christine were dressed and awaiting her arrival. Liv met their hostile glares with an expression as non-confrontational as she could muster before continuing to her locker. Melanie and Christine glanced at each other. Liv dialed her lock’s combination.

“I haven’t heard an apology yet,” Christine said.

Liv pulled down on the lock, and it opened with a click. She turned to face Christine.

“I’m sorry. It was unintentional.”

“You expect me to believe that?”

I don’t care what you believe.

“It’s the truth.”

“No, here’s a little truth for ya,” Christine said, stepping forward to invade Liv’s personal space. “You got away with one today. I guess Mr. Wyatt’s hard-on for you knows no bounds.”

“Guess not.”

Liv turned back to her locker. Christine stormed up on her left, snarling, laying her arm across the locker to block Liv’s access.

“I’m not finished with you.”

Melanie came up behind her.

“Guess again,” called a commanding female voice.

Melanie and Christine whirled to face Mrs. Kileman, one of the school’s two female gym teachers, wide-eyed. Mrs. Kileman was a tall, decorated Army veteran. She glanced back and forth between the two and shook her head with weary resignation.

“In my office. Now.”

The word “now” was spoken barely above a whisper, but Melanie and Christine hustled toward it without so much as a peripheral glance in Liv’s direction. Mrs. Kileman waited for the gentle thump of the locker room door shutting, then glanced at Liv.

“Stop by my office after you change, Dylan.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mrs. Kileman disappeared. Liv took a deep breath. A couple of girls made a point of passing by and offering reassuring smiles. Liv nodded, but she knew better than to think this was over.

###

Liv stood with her back against the wall in the hallway outside Mrs. Kileman’s office, wishing she was a fly on the wall inside. Mrs. Kileman had a reputation for pulling no punches, while Melanie and Christine were overdue for some tough love. Judging from the din of their voices, Mrs. Kileman was in rare form. Liv heard the doorknob turn and the door open. Melanie and Christine stepped into the hallway and glared at Liv. Mrs. Kileman called out from within, loud and clear.

“Dylan, front and center.”

Liv started inside. As Melanie and Christine passed her, Christine slowed, leered at her with disgust, and whispered, “I can see why your mom would rather be dead.”

Somewhere deep and forbidden inside Liv, a switch was flipped.

She acted on pure instinct, pivoting and thrusting her left elbow into Christine’s left temple. The impact echoed and sent Christine staggering backward, moaning. Melanie’s eyes bugged with shock. She charged Liv, driving her into the wall. A grunt escaped Liv with the impact, but she grabbed Melanie’s hair and bulldogged her to the floor. Melanie cried out, seizing Liv’s grip, her right cheek striking the floor, anyway. Christine regained her balance and lunged with a right, but Liv dodged the blow, released Melanie, and tackled Christine. They rolled around on the floor.

A furious Mrs. Kileman bolted from her office to restore order.

###

In her dream, a flying insect the size of a small bird menaced her despite her desperate and persistent swipes at it. She managed contact a few times, and it frightened her—its exoskeleton was thick and firm. Her eyes were riveted to its stinger, which was a few inches in length and resembled the hypodermic needle from hell. A glancing swipe forced the tiny beast onto her forehead.

In desperation, she gripped it with both hands, desperate to remove it as its stinger burrowed, coaxing pain—

She opened her eyes to the distant din of her cell phone’s alarm.

She rubbed her forehead to assure herself it was all just a dream. The prehistoric insect, at least. That was “just in her head,” a figment of her imagination. The headache, however, was literally in her head. It had taken up residence four months ago, coming and going as it pleased. Mostly coming and overstaying.

She reached toward the end table and silenced the alarm. It was after eight, but her bedroom was still cloaked in shadow, thanks to the blinds.

Her cell phone sounded again. It wasn’t the alarm this time. It was her ring tone.

She answered.

“Hello? Yes, it is.”

She listened intently for a few seconds before sitting up. Alert now, not necessarily awake, her head throbbing.

“Is she okay?”

Back in listening mode. She palmed the top of her head and remained still while she let the caller finish.

“Absolutely. I’ll be there in thirty minutes… You’re welcome.”

The call disconnected.

Amy took a deep breath and sighed. She set down her phone and rubbed her temples, then grabbed the top of her head again, this time with both hands.

“You can do this,” she muttered.

She rose from the bed and headed for the closet. Her footwork wasn’t quite there, but she could get by, and getting by was a good day, of late.

###

Chase Holden leaned forward in his chair. He was in his thirties and fit, the polished appearance and no-nonsense demeanor from his National Guard Reserve days still firmly intact. They served him well as the school resource officer.

Most of his perpetrators did not cop to their crimes, and the precious few who did expressed remorse in hopes of his reciprocating with leniency. Hell, when he was a kid, schools didn’t even have school resource officers to restore order and mete out justice after fights. Times may have changed, but kids settling their affairs with fists was still very much in vogue. Usually, it was a guy thing. Today was an unusual day.

He asked again to be sure.

“So she whispered that comment about your mom and you hit her?”

“Yes.”

“You had to know that wouldn’t go over well with Mrs. Kileman in her office.”

Liv shook her head.

“I wasn’t… I just reacted.”

Holden nodded once, then folded his hands on his desk.

“Any regrets, Liv?”

“I regret that it came to this.”

Holden pursed his lips at her response.

“Why didn’t you come to me?”

Liv shrugged and let out a sigh.

“I thought I was dealing with it.”

“Dealing with fists is not dealing well. Especially when you strike first.”

“I know.”

“You’ll probably face suspension.”

Liv furrowed her brow.

“But this is my first offense.”

He held up fingers to tally as he spoke.

“Number one, an ambulance is due here any minute to treat your fellow students. Number two, if Christine Decker’s parents press charges for assault, ‘first offense’ won’t matter.”

“This has been brewing for months.”

“You have to come to me, or to somebody, in those situations. I know I can’t control what happens outside or even inside these walls,” he said, gesturing around the room, “but given the opportunity, I stand a pretty good chance of influencing it.”

He looked beyond her into the lobby and rose from his chair.

Liv turned, craning her neck for a view of the paramedics entering the office lobby. One male and one female quickly zeroed in on Christine holding an ice pack to her left eye. Her glare with her right eye was every bit as icy as the pack on her left. She lowered the ice pack to allow the medics to examine the wounded orb. Despite the icing, the eye was swollen shut and as angry red as the rest of Christine’s face.

###

Amy pulled into a visitor’s parking spot at Wallkill Valley Regional High School and headed toward the front door. Despite the assurances that Liv was okay, Amy was reserving judgment until she saw and spoke to her daughter. Administrators tended to downplay incidents at school, even those involving injuries. Just a scrape. Just a bruise. Just a fight. Typical teen behavior. Only, as a parent, there was nothing “just” about it.

Though the parking lot was quite wide, the school’s width exceeded it. The building was only one level, with a red brick exterior that hemmed in windows that ran from near the roofline to the middle of its walls. Tennis courts occupied the left flank while baseball diamonds and a football field took up the rear flank. It was the only high school in the valley and a place those who attended would come to remember as marking their youth.

Maybe that’s why walking into a school makes you feel so much older. It’s not your show any more.

She was a few feet from the front door, tracing her path to the principal’s office in her mind, when her phone rang. She dug it out of her pocket and checked the caller ID.

Mike Lansing. She answered.

“Hi, Mike. So nice to hear from you.”

“Hi, Amy. Just wanted to see how you’re doing.”

“I’m okay. Still dealing with the headaches, but I manage. How are you?”

“Me? What can I say. Life is good. I was wondering if you were free for lunch? Kate and I wanted to have you over.”

“That’s very kind of you two. I wish I could, but I’m heading into Liv’s school for a meeting with the principal.”

She regretted letting it slip as soon as she said it.

“Is Liv okay?”

“That’s what I’ve been told. She got into a fight with a couple of classmates, so I’ll feel better once I see her.”

“Well, I won’t hold you up. Would you mind calling me in the next day or two? Let me know she’s okay?”

“Sure, Mike. Thanks for calling.”

“Take care.”

She pocketed her phone and entered the building. She’d visited the high school a number of times for school functions over the past few years. Despite having attended school in a different system, the vibe was similar. You remember how it felt, how you felt, when it was you roaming a high school’s halls. You sense the years that have passed since high school was the center of your universe, when the people that traveled its hallways and occupied its classrooms were capable of seismically shifting how you perceived yourself and how you were perceived by others. Amy was glad to have long since outgrown it, but she empathized with those enduring that rite of passage now.

And one in particular.

The paramedics tended to Christine’s eye as Melanie looked on, stewing at the spectacle of their ill-fated encounter with Liv. Liv watched from Mr. Holden’s office, knowing her troubles with the two were anything but over.

The lobby door opened, and Melanie turned to stare daggers at the latest onlooker. Instead, she gasped.

Amy surveyed the room, starting from her right and panning left. Her gaze settled on Melanie, who shuffled in her seat and forced a shallow swallow as her face drained of color. Christine cheated her head to the right and stiffened at the sight of Amy.

Their body language told Amy everything she needed to know about what went down. She was disgusted. She shifted her gaze to Mr. Wyatt, who rose from his seat.

“Mrs. Dylan,” he said, shaking her hand. He gestured to the office where Liv sat. “They’re in Mr. Holden’s office.”

“Thank you,” she said, and proceeded toward the door. Within steps of it, she peered through the vertical glass pane to the right of its jamb and caught Liv’s eye as she leaned against the wall with her arms folded. The look on her face was one Amy had become very familiar with recently.

Defiance.

Amy knocked and the door opened. She stepped inside to find Mr. Holden holding the door and welcoming her in. They exchanged pleasantries and shook hands, with Mrs. Kileman looking Amy in the eye and offering a firm grip. Amy’s sense that Liv had allies among the teachers at Wallkill Valley Regional High was strengthened. She glanced Liv’s way.

“You okay?”

Liv nodded somberly.

A knock on the door drew their attention. Amy turned to see the principal, Mr. Woodruff, entering the office. He was in his fifties and had been with the school for over fifteen years. He offered Amy his hand and she shook it.

“Thanks for coming so soon, Mrs. Dylan,” he said.

“Not a problem. I appreciate the call.”

“Would you like to have a seat?” Mr. Holden asked, gesturing to the empty chair opposite his.

“Thank you.” She sat in the seat opposite his. Mr. Woodruff shut the door and settled into the seat beside her. He spoke first.

“I’ve come to know Liv to be a model student. It disappointments me to acknowledge that she didn’t behave like one today. As it’s been recounted to me, two of her classmates goaded her into a physical confrontation. It’s rare to have both sides of the story in agreement, but that’s the case here. Her classmates have admitted to taunting her, and Liv has admitted that she struck first.”

Amy turned to Liv.

“Is this true?”

“Yes.”

“Why, Liv?”

“It’s a long story.”

“I’m into long stories. Especially when they involve you.”

“I felt the same way, and look where that got me.”

Amy raised her eyebrows, shocked by the disrespect. Liv averted her gaze. Mr. Woodruff intervened.

“While I don’t condone the use of violence to settle differences, I couldn’t fault Liv for defending herself if she felt threatened. However, Liv has acknowledged that she didn’t feel threatened at the moment she chose to act out in a violent manner.”

“What provoked the fight?” Amy asked.

Mr. Woodruff glanced at Liv. Liv stared at her feet and spoke softly.

“Christine said, ‘I can see why your mom would rather be dead.’”

Amy closed her eyes and bit her lip.

Will it ever end?

She opened her eyes and addressed Mr. Woodruff.

“Liv’s been through a lot because of what happened… because of my actions. I’ve been dealing with some medical issues as a result of it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Mr. Woodruff said, a mix of surprise and empathy in his voice.

“Thank you. Where do we go from here?”

“We’re suspending Liv for two weeks.”

“And the other young ladies involved?”

Mr. Woodruff’s silence spoke volumes.

“You’re not serious?”

“I have one student with an eye the size of a racquetball and another with a knee the size of a grapefruit.”

“It was two on one?”

Mr. Woodruff looked at Liv.

“As a man with grown daughters, I’m proud of you for taking a stand. In the heat of the moment, some people wilt while others are forged. As an administrator, their bullying ways will be addressed just as your fighting ways will be.”

He turned to Amy.

“To give you the complete picture, I have upset parents on their way who are considering pressing charges against Liv.”

“Trust me, they’re not the only ones who are upset.”

“Those young ladies required medical attention, Mrs. Dylan. Liv doesn’t have a mark on her.”

“And you know that how? Has Liv been examined?”

“Liv insisted she was fine and refused medical attention.”

“Liv?”

“I’m fine, Mom. Please let it go.”

“We’ll keep you informed, Mrs. Dylan.”

“I appreciate that. And I can’t imagine how far Liv had to be pushed before she retaliated, so I’d like to be clear about this: the Decker and Fox show needs to end now.”

“It’s sky high on my priority list,” he said and turned to Liv. “We’ll see you in two weeks, Liv. Chin up.”

Liv nodded.

“Any questions?” he asked.

“Can I get homework assignments?”

“I’ll see to it.”

“Thank you.”

Amy rose from her chair, and Mr. Woodruff followed suit. She offered her hand.

“Thanks for your time.”

“You’re welcome, Mrs. Dylan. We’ll get through this.”

Amy nodded.

I wish I shared your confidence.

She thanked Mr. Holden and led Liv out.

-3-

The throbbing had begun behind Amy’s temples before she’d set foot on the high school’s grounds. The headaches were a parting gift from Mitchell Burnham, one of several lingering concussion symptoms she’d been experiencing. The irritability and trouble sleeping ran a distant second and third. The winter’s cold wasn’t doing her any favors, either, so she had maintained a state of hibernation rather than face the wrath of the elements. No such luck today.

The wrath of the angry daughter was a dicier prospect.

They were halfway home before Amy broke the silence in the car.

“There’s no truth to what Christine said, Liv. I was trying to save a life, not risk my own. I hope you know that. They were being cruel and hoping to provoke you.”

“Yeah, well… mission accomplished.”

“Was this the first time it got physical?”

“Can we not talk about it right now?”

“Isn’t that what led us to this point?”

Liv shot her a look.

“So this is my fault?”

“It’s unlike you.”

“I guess when you’re pushed far enough, there’s no telling what you’ll do.”

“It all comes back to me again. Is that the idea?”

“I stood up for myself. I don’t regret it. She’s been a bitch from day one, and she’s only gotten worse. Can. We. Stop. Talking. Now?”

“Sure.”

Liv looked out of her window, and Amy wondered when their conversations might be civil again. A thought came to mind. She’d found a loophole in their agreement.

“I don’t regret your standing up for yourself, either. I’m proud of you,” Amy said, drawing a look from Liv. “I agreed we could stop talking. Not me.”

Liv looked straight ahead and shook her head.

“I’m here for you. Whatever’s on your mind, whatever’s troubling you, I’m always ready to listen.” She glanced at Liv, who stared straight ahead. “I miss us, Liv.”

No reaction.

The remainder of the ride home was in silence.

Amy turned the corner and entered their cul-de-sac to find a black Ford Taurus parked in front of their house. The driver’s door opened as Amy entered the driveway, and a well-dressed woman in her late forties stepped out, holding a covered dish and flashing a smile. Amy pulled to the front of the driveway. Liv glanced in the side-view mirror at the woman closing in fast from behind. There would be no out-hustling her to the door. Amy stepped out to run interference.

“Can I help you?” Amy asked. The woman beamed.

“Hello, Amy Dylan. I could pinch myself,” she said in a sing-song voice, extending her right hand. Amy shook it. “Danielle Phillips. I’m from Butler, and I guess you could consider me a major fan. I listened to your show religiously, and I hope you return soon. How are you, after everything you went through?”

Liv exited the sedan and lingered.

“I’m fine, ma’am. If you’ll excuse me…”

“Oh, of course, of course!” she said, glancing down at her own hands with surprise. In her excitement, she’d forgotten about her gift. “I just wanted to say thank you with an apple pie. I made it from scratch, and I hope you like it.”

“That’s very kind of you, Mrs. Phillips.”

“Please, it’s Danielle,” she said, quickly adding, “Anyway, what you did for Jared Chambers was nothing short of amazing. You’re a heroine and an inspiration. Your daughter must be—”

Liv slammed her door shut, startling Danielle. Danielle stole a glance back at Liv storming toward the front door.

“I’m sorry, did I say something… ?”

“Now is not a good time, Danielle, but I appreciate your kind words and your gesture.”

Danielle handed her the pie, a hint of her smile returning.

“Seemed like a great idea at the time,” she said with a shrug.

“It was very thoughtful. We’re just… trying to be normal again.”

“Of course. And I’ve taken enough of your time. Godspeed, Amy.”

“Thank you.”

Danielle returned to her car, leaving a smile and a wave in her wake. Amy had lost track of how many times in the last few months she’d turned someone away. Gifts, offers to help, pleas for help, it ran the gamut. She’d changed her cell phone number about a month after the story broke and that helped, but a change of address held little appeal for her. Family, friends, and neighbors were terrific. Keeping the rest of the world at bay was the challenge.

She stepped inside and shut the front door. She glanced left and spied Liv chewing on a protein bar.

“Let me make you lunch,” Amy said.

Liv took her time chewing and swallowed the last bite before she spoke.

“That was lunch.”

“That filled you up?”

“I’ve had enough.”

Amy opted not to take the bait.

“I want you close to home for the rest of the day.”

“Why? Am I being punished?”

“Stay in the cul de sac, please,” Amy said, starting away.

“So I am being punished,” Liv called after her.

“Thank you,” Amy called back.

After two hours of reading Internet articles about how other parents had stopped the bullying of their children, Amy folded her laptop shut, sat back in her chair at the kitchen table, and stretched. She glanced at her cell phone, and remembering a promise, made a phone call.

“Mike Lansing.”

“Mike, it’s Amy. Just wanted you to know that Liv was okay.”

“Glad to hear that. If you don’t mind my asking, what happened?”

Amy rose from her chair and strolled as she spoke.

“Two girls at school have been taunting her. It escalated and she lashed out.”

“Self-defense, or…”

“Unfortunately not. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be suspended.”

“Oh boy. Sorry to hear that, Amy.”

“They had to summon an ambulance to the school. One girl’s eye was swollen shut, and the other’s going to limp for a few days.”

“And Liv?”

“Not a scratch.”

“Happy to hear it. Sorry for the others. How does Liv feel about it?”

“She’s still angry at them, angry at me…”

“At you?”

“Long story.”

“Burnham.”

“Okay, short story.”

Mike laughed. “Have you considered counseling? For both of you, I mean.”

“She doesn’t want to go.”

“And you?”

“I’m managing.”

Mike paused, then said, “I’ll just throw this out there… I’ve seen a few careers, even a few marriages, ruined by PTSD. Good cops. Tough cops. Nothing to lose by talking to a professional. They’ll either support your notion or open your eyes. Give it some thought.”

“I will. I appreciate the insight.”

“And if the professional route just isn’t your style, I always have at least one ear to bend.”

Amy smiled. “I remember it well. Thanks, Mike.”

“You’re welcome. Take care, Amy.”

“You, too. Bye.”

She disconnected the call and pocketed her phone on her way back to the kitchen. Before she had settled back into her chair, the doorbell rang. She made her way to the front door and peered through the peephole. A big smile spread across her face.

She opened the door to a beaming Heather Mattingly clutching a bottle of chardonnay.

“Room service!” Heather said.

“Mind reader!” Amy said, embracing her. “Good to see you. A wonderful surprise.”

Amy ushered her inside.

“One of the pros of being a journalist—you make your own hours when they aren’t making you.”

“I’ll get a couple of glasses,” Amy said and started toward the kitchen. “Living room is straight ahead. Make yourself comfortable.”

“Thank you. Hey, I heard about the dust-up at school. Is Liv okay?” she called.

“She’s fine. How’d you hear about that?” Amy called back from the kitchen.

“Sources, my dear. It piques the interest of a reporter when an ambulance is summoned to a high school.”

“Yeah, that. Liv caught her in the eye with an elbow. I hope it felt better than it looked.”

“There were two of them, right? What happened to the other?”

“Swollen knee.”

“You taught her well.”

“Apparently, I taught her to get suspended.”

A cork popped in the kitchen to underscore her point.

“For self-defense?”

“She was on offense at the time.”

“Best defense is a good offense.”

“The principal commended her for sticking up for herself.”

“That’s why I like Mr. Woodruff. His hands are tied in a Gordian knot, but at the end of the day, he’s a parent, too.”

“Can’t say I’m happy, can’t say I’m too unhappy, either.”

“Are you going to fight the suspension?”

“No,” Amy said as she rounded the corner and entered the living room with two glasses of Chardonnay. “A few days off will help Liv decompress.”

Amy handed Heather a glass.

“Thank you,” Heather said, raising it. “To Liv.”

“To Liv.”

They knocked glasses, and Amy swallowed a pang of regret with her sip. Her terse exchange with Liv wasn’t one of her prouder moments. The last four months had been a study in contrasts: accolades from neighbors and strangers, reckoning at home.

Mike’s comments echoed in her head. She might just bend his ear.

But first, she’d kick back, bend her elbow, and enjoy the company of a friend.

Their breathless laughter subsided, and Amy wiped tears from the corners of her eyes.

“That had to be so awkward,” Amy said, the word “awkward” snuffed by another fit of laughter.

“That was two years ago. He still can’t look me in the eye.”

“I’d wonder about anyone who could.”

“You’d be surprised.”

Heather drained the last of the bottle topping their glasses off and glanced at Amy.

“Do you miss your gift?”

Amy grinned. “This on the record or off the record?”

Heather smiled and sighed. “A bottle of chardonnay says off the record, but I thought that was obvious,” she said, the grin fading. “I came here as a friend, Amy.”

Amy waved her off. “I’m sorry. I meant it in jest.”

“You sure about that?”

Amy leaned on the table as she answered. The alcohol was taking the edge off the headache, and she was enjoying it.

“When I had the gift, there was no turning it off. I see a lot of that in you, by the way.”

“It’s just the alcohol. It’ll wear off.”

“No, it won’t.”

“If I could do what you do and what I do, perennial Pulitzer.”

“You’re good enough without it.”

“Thank you. I aspire, anyway.”

“You know how you can see people tensing as you approach them, bracing themselves, because they’re afraid of what you’re going to ask them?”

Heather flashed a wicked grin. “Sure do. You were one of them.”

Amy smiled. “Yes, I was. Somehow I knew who I was dealing with.”

“That makes one of us. Learning about you was breaking new ground for me. There are the so-called mediums, and those stories are framed with the skepticism they warrant. Then there’s you. I did my homework. You checked out. No red flags.”

“I could show you where those flags are buried.”

Heather laughed. “I prefer to remain in denial.”

“I’ll respect those boundaries,” Amy said, but the grin faded. “You asked if I miss my gift. The easy answer is, I don’t know. Sometimes, I can sense the discomfort in total strangers. Like they’re afraid I’ll learn their deepest, darkest secrets and share them with the world.”

“I would think there are far more who would love to hear what you have to tell them.”

“There are too many.”

“Since the incident?”

“Too many more.”

“What do you tell them?”

“I tell them why I can’t help them.”

“How does that go?”

Amy sighed. “It ranges from understanding to upset to accusing me of lying.”

“Are you serious?”

“They’ve seen it on TV…” she said with a shrug.

“Damned reporters.”

Heather took a sip. Amy looked at her, gears turning.

“Would you like to interview me? Help me set the record straight?” she asked, raising her glass to her mouth.

Heather paused. “No.”

Amy raised her eyebrows in surprise. “No?”

“No. But I would put you in touch with someone who’d ask the right questions.”

“What if I insisted on you? And the wrong questions?”

Heather shook her head. “I’d insist on knowing the whole story. The origins of your abilities. I know enough to know there’s a damned good reason for your silence about that.”

“What if I chose to break the silence?”

“That’s the alcohol talking.”

“What if it wasn’t?”

“I think you’d come to regret it. I don’t want that coming between us.”

Amy sat back in her chair. “Just what do you think you know?”

“You sure you want to do this?”

“If we’re going to be friends—good friends—then I don’t see a way around it.”

“All righty then,” Heather said, taking a sip and setting her glass on the table. “I must preface what I’m going to say, for your sake and mine.”

“Preface away.”

“My source is dead.”

“I’m… sorry?”

“I am, too, though I barely knew her. Just wanted to be clear that your secret is safe.”

“Good. Now out with it.”

“Celia Brown. Mountainside Hospital. The night from hell.”

Hearing Celia’s name spoken brought the memory back, made it visceral again.

“Nice work, Detective.”

She took a sip. Heather studied her face.

“You okay?”

“I am. Hearing her name always brings it front and center.”

“I can only imagine.”

“Thanks for drawing the line, putting friendship first.”

“You’re welcome,” Heather said, then shook her head. “Sucks having a conscience.”

They laughed hard and knocked glasses.

-4-

Amy woke up late the next morning to find Liv seated at the kitchen table and texting with a vengeance.

“Good morning.”

“Morning,” Liv said, sounding as distracted as she was.

Why not just call them?”

Liv shrugged, then came up with a response. “This is quieter.”

“Those thumbs have any fingerprints left on them?”

Liv stole a “blink and you’ll miss it” glance up at her.

“Callouses, too.”

“You hungry?”

“Already ate.”

Amy looked around the kitchen. Not a trace of breakfast. Liv placed her phone on the table as Amy approached the fridge.

“Granola bar, cereal, and orange juice. Long since cleaned up. You slept in.”

“Guilty as charged,” Amy said as she opened the fridge and retrieved the plastic orange juice bottle. “I have an idea.”

Liv’s cell phone chimed. Incoming text. She picked it up and read.

“Grandpa’s heading over soon. I thought we could do something together today.”

“Maybe later.”

“No, when Grandpa gets here.”

“Just give me an hour.”

“A little time off the grid would do you a world of good.”

“I have to deal with this.”

“Deal with what?”

“I’m preventing a character assassination.”

“Whose?”

“Mine.”

“Christine?”

Liv nodded. “She’s telling people I jumped her.”

“Your friends know the truth.”

“She’s also telling them I’m involved with Mr. Wyatt, and that’s why he defended me with Mr. Woodruff.”

Amy found herself offended and pissed. “Forward me the texts, and I’ll make some phone calls.”

“I can handle it, Mom.”

“It isn’t just about you.” She knew how testy she sounded, but she was starting not to care.

“But none of it’s true.”

“If the word spreads, Mr. Wyatt could be questioned. He could lose his job.”

That’s what I’m trying to stop—”

“Having a war of words online with someone you assaulted in school is not the best way to handle this.”

“It was in self-defense.”

“Liv. If she’d hit you first, you’d still be in class today.”

Liv glared at her, wounded. “Next time, I’ll be sure to take a few punches first.”

“You know what I meant.”

“And you know physical abuse isn’t the only kind.”

And now I feel like an idiot.

“You’re right. I should’ve expressed myself better.”

Liv rose from her chair. “Finally, we agree on something.”

She stormed out the kitchen. Amy pursued.

“I’m calling Mr. Woodruff before this gets out of hand.”

“Do what you want.”

“I wasn’t asking for permission, Liv. I was telling you as a courtesy.”

Liv reached her doorway and whirled. “I’d like to be alone.”

“You’ve got your hour. Promise me online silence until further notice. For Mr. Wyatt’s sake.”

“I promise.”

“Thank you.”

Liv backed into her room and shut the door.

Fifteen minutes later, there was a knock on the front door. Amy answered it and gave Graham a hug.

“Hey, Dad.”

“I’ve seen that look before. Don’t worry, they’re only teenagers for seven years.”

“Is that all?” Amy said, bewildered.

“If you let them live, yes.”

Amy smiled and led him into the living room.

“What’s on the agenda for today?” he asked.

“I thought you might take her to the mall for some shopping and lunch.”

“Why won’t you be joining us?”

Amy glanced in the direction of Liv’s closed door and spoke softly. “We haven’t been getting along.”

“She’s still upset with you?”

“More along the lines of livid.”

“I’ll talk to her.”

“Please don’t. She’s barely talking to me, as it is.”

“Then you’ve got little to lose, right?”

“I’m losing her,” Amy whispered through tears.

Graham rested his hands on her shoulders. “Not on my watch.”

Amy hugged him. “Thanks, Dad.”

“My pleasure. Now, tell me what happened at school?”

“A couple of classmates have been taunting her for a while. She said she was handling it, but…”

“The pressure cooker gave.”

“One little… young lady told Liv that I preferred death to parenting her.”

“Wow. They still go right for the jugular in high school. Anyway, Liv knows better than that.”

“That didn’t stop her from taking a swing.”

“Liv’s okay?”

“Not a scratch.”

“The other guy? Gal?”

“Two of them,” she said, and Graham raised his eyebrows in surprise. “The one with the choice comment, by now, a black eye and a mild concussion. The other, a swollen knee, a few days on crutches, and sympathy from those who don’t know her any better.”

It was Graham’s turn to glance in the direction of Liv’s room. “She’s a warrior like her mother.”

“I’ve never felt further from it.”

“You’ll be in fighting shape again before you know it.”

Amy tried to imagine what that might feel like. It felt a long way off.

“I had to call the school this morning,” she said, “because the young lady Liv hit was spreading a rumor that Liv was involved with her teacher.”

“I hope the school and her parents come down hard on her for that.”

“Something went down. The flurry of texts stopped.”

Graham shook his head.

“I can’t imagine raising a teenager today, let alone being one.”

Amy grinned. “I’ll bet your dad said the same thing to you.”

Graham shrugged, couldn’t hide his grin. “He might’ve mentioned it in passing. Of course, he wasn’t home as much as Mom. Speaking of home, I noticed the home next door sold. Have you met your new—”

The doorbell’s ring interrupted him.

“Could be anyone. I’ve been getting a lot of traffic lately,” Amy said. She headed toward the door with her dad right behind her.

“I’ll get it, honey. You go relax.”

“This is as relaxed as I get lately.”

She opened the door. A handsome, dark-haired gentleman in his forties smiled at her and took her breath away.

“Hi, I’m Logan Shepherd, your new neighbor,” he said as he offered his hand. Amy shook it. “Very nice to meet you.”

“Hi. Amy Dylan. And this is my father, Graham.”

“Nice to meet you, sir.”

Logan sidestepped Amy and reached for Graham’s hand. They shook.

“You, as well.”

Amy flushed but ignored it as best she could. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”

“Thank you. I’m sorry for the interruption, but my movers are due any minute, and I didn’t want you to get blocked in.”

“That’s my cue,” Graham said, and they stepped aside to let him pass.

“So, you and your Dad live here?”

“Me and my daughter. Dad’s a frequent visitor.”

Again with the blushing?!

“There you are,” a female voice called. Amy turned toward it and her spirits wilted. A beautiful brunette was looking at Logan, then shifted her gaze to Amy and smiled.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hello.”

“Amy, this is my sister Megan.”

Even better than Sister Megan.

Amy offered her hand.

“Nice to meet you, Megan.”

“Nice to meet you, too,” she said as they shook.

“Megan’s helping me get settled. She’s the organized one in the family,” Logan said.

“Trust me, that’s not saying much,” Megan said with a grin. “Movers just called again. We should hear that truck rumbling down the street any minute.”

“Thanks. I’ll be right over.”

Amy spied Megan glancing back and forth between them, a glimmer of recognition in her eyes. Chemistry, check. Megan started back toward the house.

“No rush. I can deal with the movers. Bye, Amy.”

“Bye.”

A distant rumbling from up the street drew their glances. The moving truck.

“Looks like I’m back on the clock,” Logan said. “Maybe we can all do dinner sometime?”

“Sounds like fun.”

“Have a great day, Amy.”

“You too, Logan.”

He crossed the lawn to his house and called out his goodbyes to Graham as he made his way back up the front walkway. Graham smiled and waved, then led Amy inside.

“What’s the verdict?”

“Verdict?”

“Lunch? Dinner? Drinks?”

“Dinner. All of us.”

“I like his style already.”

“Well, I’ll reserve judgment for now.”

“That’s my girl. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have plans with my granddaughter.”

###

Graham hadn’t visited the Rockaway Townsquare Mall in years. He studied the directory upon entering, noting that many of the stores had changed, but the layout remained the same. JCPenney and Sears still anchored the ends, top and bottom, with Lord & Taylor and Macy’s on the left and right flanks. Parts of the upper mall were open to the lower level, with a four-foot retaining wall topped by a railing surrounding the open areas. The food court was still tucked on the far left near Macy’s with offerings from newcomers—to him—Hawaiian Grill and Non Sushi. What had been the Inner Six movie theaters was now a trendy clothing store, and the arcade opposite the theaters was long gone. Though the landmarks had succumbed to the passage of time, the memories remained. The long lines for blockbuster movies. The anticipation and mindless chatter that accompanied the wait to enter the theater. Biding the time by enjoying a conversation with Susan. He glanced at Liv, who was looking around with what he perceived as a mix of curiosity and detachment. He wished Liv could’ve met Susan. They would’ve adored each other, and he’d told her so on a number of occasions.

“Are you hungry?” he asked.

“I’m getting there. You?”

“Ready when you are. No rush.”

There was a brief silence before he spoke again.

“I used to come here from time to time with your mother and grandmother. This place has changed quite a bit since then.”

“You still feel Grandma’s presence?”

Graham smiled.

“For sure. I think if you share a life with someone, especially if it’s the right person, you always sense their presence. Just thinking about them draws them closer.”

Liv smiled.

“You brought me here to talk about me and Mom, didn’t you?”

“It’s on the agenda, but it’s not the agenda. I love spending time with you, Liv. I see a lot of your mother and grandmother in you, and I’m proud of all three of you. You’re all interesting and fun to be with.”

“Thanks. So are you.”

“Glad to hear that. Always trying.”

There was a brief silence before Liv spoke.

“I’m trying to stop being mad at her.”

“What exactly are you mad about?”

“She could’ve died.”

“No question. It was a tough call. The toughest of calls.”

“But it doesn’t bother you?”

“You might find this hard to believe—make that impossible to believe—but the toughest decisions in your life lay ahead of you.”

“I know.”

Graham grinned. “Ready to hear something you don’t want to hear?”

Liv laughed. “Sure.”

“You’re an intelligent and thoughtful young lady, so this is a tough sell for me, but here goes. You think you know, but you’ve only scratched the surface. Your life’s only begun to get complicated, so you suspect it’s true, but some of life’s lessons are far more brutal than you could imagine.”

“Do you think Mom should’ve gone in?”

“Yes. But if she’d called me before she went in, I would’ve tried to talk her out of it for my own selfish reasons. That’s a dad’s prerogative. Your girls are always your girls.”

“I don’t think she should’ve gone in.”

“I understand. And she’s still suffering, physically and emotionally, for her choice that day. So you might consider cutting her some slack.”

“I’m trying.”

“You’ll come through. You always do.”

They reached the center of the mall. Thirty feet to their left was the escalator to and from the mall’s lower level. Liv paused.

“Haagen Daz is downstairs. Want to check out their selection?”

“How about after lunch?”

“How about a sneak preview?”

“Sure. Race you to the escalator?”

Liv gave him a crooked smile. “Seriously?”

Graham broke for it, and Liv giggled with surprise, taking up pursuit. A handful of galloping strides later, they reached the escalator in a dead heat. Graham pulled up to let her step on safely.

“You let me win,” she said, her back against the right side.

“I conceded defeat,” he said, ever the diplomat. He clutched the rubber rail with his left hand.

“I didn’t expect you to be so fast.”

“I was thinking the same thing.”

“Yeah, right!” Liv said, giggling. She glanced down at the approaching lower level and her smile gave way to a game face.

“Something wrong, honey?”

She turned to him and gave a look he hadn’t seen before. Except on Amy’s face.

“The girls I fought with at school are here.”

He fought the urge to glance their way.

“We can eat somewhere else.”

“I don’t want to leave. Let them leave.”

“They’re not worth it, Liv.”

“Lunch and we go. I’m not running.”

Graham nodded and surveyed the lower level. The girls looked at each other when he glanced in their direction. He leaned close to Liv and whispered.

“We’re leaving now.”

She looked him in the eye, defiant.

“I can’t leave school, too.”

He sighed. Forced a smile. He didn’t like it, but there was no denying the truth. At least he was here to act as a deterrent.

“Lunch and we go.”

-5-

They dumped their trash and stacked their empty trays atop the trash bins. Graham had made a point of sitting facing the main thoroughfare and keeping his eye out for trouble. The first few minutes had him on edge, but he quickly settled into a light conversation with Liv about soccer. She had remained very calm and engaging, and he found himself admiring her poise in what had to be a trying situation.

Now it was time to re-enter the fray.

Graham stole a long look at the main thoroughfare as they headed for it. If those girls were in the vicinity, he wasn’t seeing them, and he hoped they’d found better ways to pass their time.

He was grateful for the brisk strides Liv was taking. He suspected her adrenaline was flowing, and he had no desire to see it put to use other than making a brisk exit from the mall. In what couldn’t have been much more than a minute, they’d reached the escalator bank in the middle of the mall. With as much nonchalance as he could muster, Graham surveyed their surroundings. He saw no one he had seen before, and even if their faces had faded from memory, no one seemed to be tracking their movement. He wondered what the world was coming to when their quality time had devolved into avoiding a confrontation with two young ladies.

JCPenney stood straight ahead. Liv veered left toward New York & Company and approached the staircase to the upper level. Graham looked beyond her and ahead of her, spying nothing out of the norm. With his peripheral vision, he stole a glance back over his shoulder, and that’s when he heard it.

A crack and a splash, followed by gasps from onlookers. Graham glanced at Liv.

She was frozen in place and doused in ice and pink liquid, her shoulders raised to steel against the cold. Her mouth was open to catch her breath. The pounding of footfalls on the upper level drew their glares.

The two girls, running in the other direction.

Graham started for Liv, who took three careful steps until she cleared the mess at her feet.

“You okay, honey?”

She gripped the staircase railing and bolted up the stairs.

“Liv, no!”

He took off after her, running harder than he had in as long as he could remember.

The rumbling of her footfalls prompted passersby to give her a wide berth as she flew past them. Twenty yards ahead of her, Christine and Melanie broke left and pulled up just enough to board the descending escalator. Liv heard the tink tink tink of their footfalls as they ran down the metal steps. Liv reached the top as they neared the bottom. Once they cleared the landing, they turned to look back at her and caught their breath.

Liv was halfway down when she realized they’d decided to stand their ground. She continued her accelerated descent. Christine and Melanie glared at her, looking anxious and ready for battle. Christine was wearing concealer around her left eye, but Liv could still see some of the swelling and she intended to add to it.

“Liv!” Graham called from the upper level. Christine’s and Melanie’s glares shift to Graham, then returned to her.

Mom wouldn’t back down.

Liv lunged off of the escalator and rushed them. They began flailing before she even reached them, but she kicked with her right leg and caught Christine near the groin. Christine groaned in pain and cupped the area. Melanie threw an open-handed hay maker that glanced off Liv’s chin, and Liv countered with a punch, catching her on the cheek so hard that it echoed. Melanie staggered back and Liv shoved her to the floor. Teenage boys on the upper level shouted “Fight!” and rushed to the escalator to get closer to the action.

Christine charged Liv, and the punches flew from both sides. Liv had worked with her mom a bit, and her punches were finding their target, but Christine was fairly skilled, too, and hit hard. She caught Liv low on the cheek, and Liv returned fire to the injured eye. Christine cried out and brought her hand to her eye. Liv punched Christine’s hand and snapped her head to the right, staggering her. A shot to the back of the head drove Liv’s head forward. She brought her hands up and whirled, blocking Melanie’s next punch and just missing with one of her own. Liv was tasting blood, literally and figuratively, when two security guards in their twenties separated them.

“Get off of her!”

A hand gripped her arm and pulled her backward. She whirled and shoved Christine hard.

Only it wasn’t Christine. Graham held fast and scowled at her.

“Enough!”

The security guards got to Christine and Melanie before they could regroup. Two more guards reached the scene, a portly man in his thirties and a rail thin young man in his late teens. Order was quickly restored.

“Sorry, Grandpa,” Liv whispered.

“Are you hurt?”

She shrugged and fought back tears. He noticed her trembling and leaned close, whispering to her.

“Deep breathing will calm you and stop the trembling. We’ve got some trouble to deal with now, but I’ll be with you the whole time.”

“Okay.”

The portly guard reached them and addressed Liv.

“Are you in need of medical attention, miss?”

Liv shook her head.

“Just a cut inside my mouth.”

“I’m glad it wasn’t worse. You’ll need to come with us so we can take your statements.”

Liv nodded. The guard started for the security office and they followed.

“Want me to take a look at that cut?” Graham whispered.

“No, thanks.”

He understood. Appearances.

“I’ll call your mom.”

“Do you have to?”

“Would you want to be me if I didn’t?”

He dug into his pocket for his cell phone.

“We should get you checked out just to be safe,” he added.

Liv dabbed at her mouth with the back of her hand. Just a spot of blood.

“This is the best I’ve felt in a long time.”

###

Amy opened the door to the security office to find three Rockaway Township police officers and two mall security officers inside. One police officer was in the room with Liv and Graham, and another with Christine and Melanie. Christine caught a glimpse of Amy and averted her gaze. Amy wanted to duck her head inside to ask how the eye was healing.

The third police officer stepped toward her from the narrow hallway between the two rooms.

“May I help you, ma’am?”

“My father and daughter are in that room,” she said, pointing to it.

“Right this way, please.”

She followed him to the left door and he opened it, stepping aside to let her in. She entered, and Graham gave her a sheepish look while Liv seemed defiant. Amy could see the angry knot rising on Liv’s left cheek.

“Everyone okay?” Amy asked, glancing back and forth between them.

Graham looked at Liv.

“We’re fine,” Liv said.

“Mrs. Dylan, I’m Officer Ryan Porter with the Rockaway Township Police Department. Olivia was involved in a physical altercation with two young ladies who are classmates of hers. Punches were thrown and all parties have sustained injuries. All have also refused medical treatment. Do you wish to press charges?”

“Yes,” Amy said.

“Mom!”

“This needs to end, Liv.”

“It won’t end anything. It’ll look like I’m afraid of them.”

“You’re not the one pressing charges.”

“When word gets around, it won’t matter who pressed charges.”

“Olivia,” Officer Porter said, “those young ladies are bad news. You said this was your second altercation with them. In a situation like this, the right call is pretty clear.”

“You don’t understand,” Liv said. “Last time, I threw the first punch.”

“So this was payback? Evening the score?” Porter asked, staring intently.

“Yes.”

Officer Porter turned to Amy, who nodded.

“I admire your candor, Olivia. I’m going to tell you what my partner and I told your classmates. We recommend that the three of you give each other a wide berth. We’ll be contacting the school resource officer at Wallkill Valley Regional to apprise him of today’s event.”

Liv grimaced and rubbed her face with her hands.

“Do you have to?”

“Yes, ma’am. And even if I didn’t have to, I would as a courtesy to the school’s administration.”

Liv sighed.

“What took place out there is what the law defines as battery,” Porter continued, pointing to the battleground. “In a matter of months, all of you can be tried as adults in situations like this. That means spending, at a minimum, a few hours in a cell until your mom can secure your release. Does that sound appealing to you?”

“No, Officer,” she said.

“Good, because it’s not, Olivia. It’s a waste of your time and the system’s time. You seem like a good person. You’re here with your granddad, and your mom was here in a heartbeat, without any contact from us. Those two young ladies are not worth a criminal record, and I’m sure they feel the same about you. If each of you act like the young adults you are, the problem is solved.”

He turned to Amy.

“Mrs. Dylan, a discussion with your school’s principal at your earliest convenience would go a long way toward de-escalating this situation.”

“As soon as I get home,” Amy said with a nod.

“We’ll get you out of here as soon as we can.”

He exited the room and pulled the door shut behind him. Amy glanced at Graham.

“You okay, Dad?”

He shook his head.

“Never thought I’d see the day…”

“I’m sorry, Grandpa.”

“I know, honey. It’s just… seeing you in harm’s way…”

“I’m fine,” Liv said, rising from her chair to hug him hard.

“How about staying over tonight, Dad?”

He nodded, grateful for the invitation.

“Of course.”

The door opened and Officer Porter held it wide open.

“If all of you could follow me, please.”

###

Amy paced her bedroom floor while she wrapped up her call to Mr. Woodruff.

“I will. Thanks again.”

She pressed the off button to disconnect and made her way to the living room where Graham and Liv waited. Liv was channel surfing, and Graham glanced up at Amy, searching her face for an indication of how her conversation with the principal had gone. Amy nodded to him and laid the phone on the coffee table. Liv caught a glimpse of her and muted the television.

“Mr. Woodruff will be meeting with the parents, then the three of you separately and together before your return to class.”

“Did they get suspended?” Liv asked.

“No, you’re all going back on Monday.”

Liv perked up at the news.

“Really?”

“Really. Mr. Woodruff wants to address it at school sooner rather than later. Christine’s and Melanie’s parents agreed, as do I. Everyone gets a few days to cool off, but come Monday, it’s time to be young adults. Think apologies and avoidance.”

“Apology?”

“The first punch was yours, remember?”

“But this started long before the first—”

“I know. And we all know better than to expect the apologies to be heartfelt. Emotions are running high now. If each of you had an outsider’s view of your behavior, you’d regret it.”

“Have you ever regretted your behavior?”

“Sure.”

“Recently?”

Amy sighed. Before she could answer, Graham intervened.

“Get some fresh air, honey. I’d like a word with Liv.”

Amy nodded, grabbed her purse and left without a word.

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