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Chapter 1 Excerpt

Chapter 1

     “I’m awake.” With a jerk of my head and giggles from my classmates, I lifted a blurry-eyed gaze from my government textbook to focus on Miss Pickett. I didn’t think she’d accused me of sleeping, but it was entirely probable that I had snoozed with my eyes open.
     The teacher pushed her hair back, again, and tapped on her tablet. Honestly, get a hair tie and stop provoking the hormonal minds of the boys in class. I glanced around with irritation at whoever caught me eyes-wide-napping and giggled at me, but everyone had redirected their sights on Miss Pickett.
     “Principal Nielsen wants to see you.”
     Ah great, what now?
     A round of ooooo’s went up from the students in class.
     “Shut up,” I hissed as I turned to glare at them.
     “Miss Stewart!” Miss Pickett raised her girlish voice. “Principal’s office. Now.” The woman was only a few years older than us. Fresh out of college and, in my opinion, being an extra hard ass to prove she could make it as a teacher in a private school. The boys loved it.
     “Okay,” I said, slinging my book and notebook into my bag. “Freaking awesome.”
     It was only the second week of my senior year, which was determined to be the death of me, and something was already sending me to the office. Would this year be like the last? It was shaping up that way.
     All eyes were on me as I made my way across the rows of desks, including my best friend’s. She lifted her hands, thumbs rapidly moving over her curved fingers, and mouthed, Text me.
     As if I wouldn’t? Michelle was one of the few things that kept me grounded. She and I had known each other since the seventh grade. When my mom passed away at the end of our sophomore year, I clung to her like a lifeline. She never minded. My other friends couldn’t handle it. They stared at me with pity. They said stupid words like, “I’m so sorry,” “I can’t imagine,” and “You’re so brave.” Michelle was the only one that did nothing, said nothing. She was just there, always. When I cried, when I had some crazy ideas, when I tried to scratch out the pain, she watched over me.
     One by one, my friends fell away. Their words of sympathy changed to words of insanity. “Ruby, seek help,” “Mania was so five years ago,” and the worst, “So she died, get over it.” Then even that stopped. At the end of our junior year, I realized there was only Michelle left. I didn’t care. She was the only one I needed anyway.
     Just as I stepped out of the classroom, the end of period bell rang.
     “Ugh,” I groaned. Fate hated me.
     The halls of Parker Academy were swarmed with students in seconds. It was amazing how quickly they flooded into the halls and how slowly they drained back into their next class. I was just as guilty, though. I used to do really well in school, earned straight As, played sports, and tried out the yearbook when I was a freshman. Even before Mom left me, something changed. She and my stepdad blamed puberty. I blamed life.
     My active body turned into an active mind. I thought too much about everything. Probably typical for teenagers, I never paid it too much attention. Sometimes I’d lie awake at night and conjure up different end of the world scenarios. I wasn’t sure if that was typical. When I confided to Michelle about them, she just laughed, said I was special, and moved on.
     Speak of the devil …
     “What did you not do this time?” Michelle asked as she rushed up to my side.
     Compared to everyone else in the hall, I was moving in slow motion. Each step I took tried to outdo the one before it. “Think I know? Blew up the chemistry lab? Padlocked the cafeteria refrigerators? Rewired the electrical circuits in the gym maybe?” The opening strains of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain played through my head. Was I walking into detention? I formulated several excuses and alibis for whatever I was being accused of this time.
     “Don’t look now but prom king and queen coming up on your right.”
     “Too late. I saw them.”
     Prom, of course, was months away, but that didn’t stop anyone from speculating who would win since day one of the school year. The king and queen, a.k.a. Josh Troyer and Autumn Hiltwell, stared at me, whispering close as we neared. They knew, the jerks. They knew what was going on, and I didn’t.
     “I’m still confused why she hates you so much.”
     “It’s rather simple, really. She covets my car.”
     Michelle laughed. “Ruby, hate to break it to you but no one covets that beast.”
     Beast? Ooo, I liked that. “I know.” I heaved a bored-with-the-drama sigh. “I think she has some stupid idea that I’m trying to take Josh away from her, which is more than absurd.”
     “You and Josh were pretty close.”
     “No. We weren’t. Unless you mean bodily close. I tutored him in math, that was all. And that was also tenth grade. Ugh, why can’t Fate help me out just once?” I lifted my head and hands to the ceiling. “Please, anything. Get me out of high school.”
     Did Fate help me out? Why yes, she did. She helped me slip on the freshly washed area in front of the boy’s restroom and bust my butt. A loud crack sounded as pain burst through one elbow.
     “Ruby!” Michelle gasped and knelt down to help me up.
     Not really what I wanted, Fate. Instead of getting me out of school, I got everyone’s attention. The students in the hall didn’t even try to hide their laughter and snickers. I thought I even heard one person say, “Attention whore, just like her mother.”
     Why did everyone hate my mom so much? They had no clue; they never knew her. So maybe she picked me up from school every day in her Daisy Dukes, flying through the parking lot in her mustang like a bat out of hell. Whore? As if! The students only regurgitated the lies and slander their parents spewed. Anger seethed under my skin at the remark, but to my surprise, I kept it contained. I was already on my way to the office for something I didn’t do. Let’s get through one meeting with the principal, Ruby, before we start lining them up and shooting them down.
     With Michelle’s help, I got to my feet and reached for my bag. Of course, my bottomless pit of a backpack had not only fallen but dumped its contents before hitting the floor. I growled at the injustice of it all, which only made everyone watching laugh harder.
     “Shut up!”
     “Ignore them,” Michelle said.
     Together, we rounded up all my junk in between feet as others walked by, or through us, clearly trying to do something on the floor.
     “Don’t get detention, okay? I need a ride after school.”
     She knew me so well. It was just like me to make the surprise call to the office worse by mouthing off to authority. “No promises.”
     Michelle kissed my cheek and walked off giggling, with me not at me.
     With a final growl to the students around me and a mouthed fuck you to Autumn, I turned on my heels and speed walked the rest of the way to the office. Forget dragging it out any longer, I was too mad to feel trepidation over the unknown. The weight of a life that never seemed to go my way was enough to send steam jetting out of my ears.
     I snatched open the office door and slammed it shut behind me. Back against the heavy wood, I forced myself to slow my breathing. Sometimes I got myself so worked up it seemed my heart would explode—just detonate. As if, instead of an organ, I really had a bomb in my chest that wanted to blow up and destroy everything around me.
     The sudden creak of an old chair and the voice of the even older school administrative assistant told me I was not alone. I snorted. No time to regroup and no time to cut the red wire.
     “Listen here, Ruby Diane Stewart, I’ll not have you disrespect this office by slamming doors!”
     No detention. Eye on the goal. After one more calming breath, I said, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Johnson. For some reason, I thought that door was a lot heavier the last time I was in here.” Last week.
     Mrs. Johnson was tall and thin, with dark gray hair and glasses that nearly took over her entire face. She had sat in this same office for at least the last eleven years, probably that same chair for the last twenty. I was sure she was well past retirement but for some reason still found enjoyment in bossing around students.
     She held up a bony hand to stop me from continuing my defense. “I’m sure whatever the excuse, it is complete fabrication, and I will not give it the time of day. Mr. Nielsen has been waiting for you.”
     I knew exactly where to go. I plastered on a pleasant smile and left without another word.
     No detention, I chanted as the open door to the principal’s office loomed ahead of me. As much as I willed the hallway to turn into one of those nightmares where the end just got farther and farther away, it didn’t.
     “Ah, Miss Stewart,” he said as I walked in.
     Mr. Nielsen’s office had always felt so out of place with the modern style of the school. As if it were its own dimension in the world. Dark brown, heavy wood furnishings sat atop a burgundy rug. The dark tan walls were lined with several book-laden shelves. It had the appearance of some old person’s library, and I was always amazed that I never found Mr. Nielsen with a pipe and slippers, reading some dusty tome when I came for my obligatory visits.
     “Hi, Mr. Nielsen. You wanted to see me?” I asked as I sank into one of the chairs in front of his desk.
     “Yes, I did, Miss Stewart. It has been brought to my attention there was an altercation between you and someone earlier today.”
     As he spoke, I started to rack my brain. What had I done? The day had gone well, I thought. I hadn’t spoken to anyone except maybe a teacher and Michelle. Oh, my gosh! Had I insulted a teacher and didn’t even know it? Had I finally gone insane like everyone believed? Was it multiple personality disorder? There were occasions when I would swear someone else was behind the wheel. Just spit it out and let’s get this over with. I readied several defenses in my brain.
     “And so, Miss Hiltwell claims you threatened her before school, physically assaulted her between classes, then hid all of her textbooks from her.”
     Don’t you dare laugh, Ruby. I stared at Mr. Nielsen with a blank expression. The lies my classmates thought of were actually entertaining on occasion. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Autumn probably had her gang of followers recount a dramatic story where I, the villain, pushed her, the princess, down while laughing in her face. They gave me far too much credit.
     “Miss Stewart, are you still with me?”
     Oh, uh right. “Did you say Miss Hiltwell, as in Autumn Hiltwell?”
     “Yes, I did.”
     “As much as I’d like to take credit for that, her hulk of a boyfriend would never let me get away with it. And I certainly didn’t hide her books. That’s totally not my style.”
     “Ruby,” Mr. Nielsen sighed with the patience born out of decades of practice while dealing with students.
     “Yes, Mr. Nielsen?”
     He sat forward in his desk and straightened the pens he had lying at the edge. Only then did I notice I had moved them all, almost as soon as I sat down. When he finished, he sat back, fingers steepled in front of him, tips bouncing on his lips as if he might be lost in thought—or calming himself.
     To keep from reaching for the pens again, I played with my fingertips. Nails scratching nails, pushing cuticles, rubbing, rubbing, rubbing.
     I winced when I refocused on the pens. The image of each one, lying perfectly in line, labels facing the same way, hurt my soul. The need did that, made me go bananas. I wasn’t sure what it was, really, and only called it the need because when it hit me I needed to do something, anything. Most often it was a destructive need, on occasion just messing stuff up made me feel better. If I tried to ignore it, bad things happened, things I didn’t always remember.
     Spookie ended up dyed orange once, so did my fingertips. Strange symbols were salted into the backyard; the empty bag of rock salt was found in my room. One of our horses had half his mane trimmed down to inches; the horse never let me near him afterward. The football field had figure eights carved into it by someone’s car tires; I had to wash the mud off my car before school that Monday.
     My stepdad wanted to get me tested for ADHD, but Mom said no, said it was a phase I’d grow out of. Still waiting, Mom.
     “Ruby, please don’t tell me you have thought about hurting a fellow student and the only thing keeping you from it is retaliation. That’s going to take this conversation in a completely different direction that I’d rather not get into during the second week of school.”
     “My point exactly, Mr. Nielsen. Why would I do anything this soon? The best plans take patience and planning.”
     I lowered my eyes, gaze raking those perfect pens. “I’m just kidding, of course.” It was way easier to lie to my lap than to his face.
     “Ruby, look at me, please.”
     Ugh, why was he so smart? I raised my head, full concentration devoted to keeping my eyes from rolling.
     “What happened between you and Autumn today?”
     “She already—”
     “I’m asking you.”
     “Honestly, Mr. Nielsen. I haven’t said a word to her, haven’t touched her, or made any plans to this school year.” Yet.
     “What is it with the two of you? I thought at one point you were friends.”
     “So did I.”
     “You know, I taught you mother when she was here.”
     What? News to me. I stared at the man across from me. He was old but that old?
     “You may not look much like her, but I see her spirit in you every day.”
     I couldn’t help the smile that lit up my face, not that I wanted to. With just a few words my hatred of life eased up a little. Mom and I had been polar opposites. She had blonde curls with bright blue eyes, tall, leggy, lived in the sun. How I came out pale, short, with brown waves and hazel eyes was a wonder.
     “We’re a small school. I know I don’t have to tell you that, but every relationship here counts. This is your last year. How about you try to mend the fence with Autumn, whatever the cause? When you get my age, you only regret the things you didn’t do. Even if it doesn’t work out, later in life you can feel good about trying.”
     Hard pass. “I’ll try.”
     “Good. Now about today, I’ll circle back with Miss Hiltwell, but we do need to search your locker for her books.”
     Of course they did. Guilty until proven innocent? I was just at my locker before government and pretty confident they wouldn’t find anything.
     As Mr. Nielsen searched around his desk for something, lifting books, shuffling papers, I took the moment of his distraction and pulled every other pen out of placement, and separated two sticky note pads into six. Deep breath in, out. Better.
     “Here.” Mr. Nielsen signed a small slip of paper then handed it over to me. “Take this up to Mrs. Johnson. She’ll go with you to search your locker.”
     Mrs. Johnson? Nooooo. I reached for the slip. “Can’t you and I go do it?”
     “I wish.” He lifted his glasses off his nose and rubbed the bridge. “The school board has changed some rules recently. I need a female faculty member to search a female student’s locker.”
     “That sounds stupid.”
     “Your word, but yes, it is.” Mr. Nielsen stood. “All right then, back to class when she’s done.”
     I stood as well and rushed from the room as he leaned forward to once again straighten the mess I had made.
     As I rounded the corner back into the office reception area, the strap of my bag snagged on the door handle leading behind the counter where Mrs. Johnson sat. “Holy crap!” I huffed as my shoulder jerked back.
     “Watch your language, missy.” Mrs. Johnson snapped as she stood and took the form from my outstretched fingertips. She peered at the missive for a moment then somehow managed to glare over her huge glasses at me. “My, my. Let’s see what we find. Follow me, Ruby.”
     The halls had cleared of students by the time we got to the one with my locker. Though I had been there not long ago, I wouldn’t put it past Autumn to have framed me for her books. She was going to get her way and get me in trouble. Maybe not this time but determination was one of her better qualities. If I didn’t hate her so much, I’d admire it.
     Though the area was deserted, I glanced down one way and the other before I spun the combination to the lock. Fully expecting an exploding dye pack or maybe live snakes, I eased the metal door open and—nothing. Just my crap.
     I turned my face heavenward and whispered, “Thank you.”
     Mrs. Johnson shouldered me out of the way. It took all of one second to see I wasn’t hiding any books in there, but still she rummaged through everything. She stared down at me as if angry that I hadn’t been found guilty. “Lock this up and get to class.” She stomped off.
     Of all my classes, English was the least fun and the one I was late for. I took a detour and went to the restroom, then strolled past the windows down the wrong hall, dragging it out. The only good thing English had going for it was no Autumn and no Josh. There was also no anyone I knew too well. Instead of the advanced English that Michelle chose, I went with the basic course.
     I opened the door to a quiet class. Everyone’s head was bent, working on some assignment. Even the teacher didn’t notice as I slipped in. Could I be dreaming? Tucking my school-issued plaid skirt under me, I sat down without a sound and got out a notebook to doodle on. I had no artistic ability but thankfully, doodles didn’t require it. My mind blissfully blanked as I scribbled for the last thirty minutes of the day.
     At the three o’clock bell, my sleepy class turned into a riot of activity. Talking and laughing, friends reunited from the long silence and made after school plans. I didn’t even bother putting my notebook away first. I slid from the desk and was the first one out the door.
     Michelle met me at my locker, and I explained what Autumn accused me of and my chat with Mr. Nielsen.
     “That little … I swear, I’m replacing her conditioner with Nair.” Michelle’s anger on my behalf made me feel better.
     “It’s not that serious. Wait till she does something really bad.”
     “I shudder to think what your idea of ‘really bad’ is. She could have gotten you expelled.”
     “Mr. Nielsen is too smart for her lies. Besides, I’m not putting her intentions out in the universe for Fate to hear. Just saying, I’m over this one.”
     “Can you take me by work? I want to pick up my paycheck.”
     I tossed books in my locker and cleared my bag of everything but homework stuff. “Yeah, sure. Your Volvo broken?”
     “Again. You have to add again whenever you speak about her. ‘Is your Volvo broken, again?’ ‘Does your Volvo need gas, again?’ ‘Is that paint peeling on your Volvo, again?’ But yes, she’s broken.”
     “Again,” we both said and laughed.
     “Yeah, I can take you. You working or just need a drive by?”
     “Just a drive by. Can you take me home too?”
     “Pushing it.” I forced a laugh then closed my locker and leaned back against it. My head hit with a bit too much force. The noise made Michelle stare a little harder at me.
     “Talk to me, Stewart. What’s going on?”
     I fought the urge to say my thoughts out loud. There were only a few students left in the halls; everyone high-tailed it at three. They may not go home, but they didn’t linger at school. Still, even if no one was around, saying the crazy things in my head would make them real. I had never told her about the need. I couldn’t understand it myself and knew I’d sound like a total nutter. But some of the other things, the dark things I imagined … No, she didn’t need to know all that.
     Michelle leaned her shoulder into the next locker over. “Out with it.”
     I shrugged. “I’m just going a little stir crazy. I need this year to be over, like, yesterday. I want out of Alabama so bad it’s eating me up.” I gave her a little, hoping it would pacify her.
     “What’s wrong with Alabama?”
     “You can’t be serious.”
     “What? We got good food, fun outdoor stuff, football, snow sometimes.”
     “Yeah, War Eagle.” Our college football allegiance was one of the few things we didn’t see eye to eye on.
     “Roll Tide, bitch.”
     “Miss Bergeron, tell me I did not hear that dirty language out of your mouth.”
     Michelle and I turned with a gasp to see our homeroom teacher, Mrs. Chapman, marching our way. Her cheeks were bright red from the journey, not her act of surprise. She’d heard Michelle say a lot worse.
     Michelle turned back to me to hide a giggle. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Chapman. It was only said in fun.”
     Mrs. Chapman was a short round woman but sniffed the air and glared down her nose at us. “Ladies of breeding should not foul themselves with such colorful words.”
     Afraid to move, my eyes darted to Michelle who had done the same to me, then we both glanced back at Mrs. Chapman.
     “Shouldn’t you both be on your way home by now? Or is it detention for the language?”
     “Uh, no, no. We were just on our way out,” Michelle grabbed me, and we fled.
     Arm in arm, we skipped our way out of school. Autumn was thwarted once again, and for a few moments, my afternoon was a tad brighter.

Chapter 2

My green 1968 Mustang Fastback came into view in the student parking lot, and the afternoon improved even more. The very car Mom used to tear up the town with had been given to me when she passed. I cherished her. Just seeing the car I felt Mom’s presence. Even though she had a feisty spirit, it was a calm that settled into me.
     The doors were always unlocked, and Michelle didn’t hesitate. She opened the passenger door and hopped in. “It’s an oven. Beware.”
     Oh, I knew that. The black interior cooked the insides in late summer. Michelle already had the windows rolled down when I jumped in. The car had old, faded paint and towels on the seat, not only to keep the heat from the back of my legs but also to cover the worn, leather edges. The car roared to life with a turn of the key—but she was a beast, my Beast.
     “Your car is so much cooler than mine.”
     “Thought you said no one covets her.”
     Michelle sniffed and turned to stare at the school buildings as I drove off. “It was only said to prove a point. I like the Mustang.”
     I smiled then adjusted in my seat. Old car also meant no air conditioning. The sweat on my forehead dried with the breeze, and I leaned forward to let the air flow to my back. If we stayed moving, it wasn’t so bad.
     A right at the end of the road took me home; I turned left. The hardware store where Michelle worked part-time wasn’t on my way, but I didn’t mind the extra drive. I didn’t mind driving at all: the speed, the vibrations in the car, the memories.
     Some days it was hard to accept she was mine. The disbelief when my stepdad gave me the news still lingered after all this time. Mom loved the car and she wanted me to have it? I smiled as thoughts of Mom drifted through my mind, hearing her coming from a mile away as she broke speed limit after speed limit just for fun.
     I down shifted then revved back up when a traffic light changed to green before I stopped. Total pro at the gears now but I wasn’t so much in the beginning. After I got over the shock of Mom’s last gift to me, learning to drive a manual transmission had been a daunting task.
     My stepdad was no help and only said, “You know the fundamentals. When you figure out you know how to drive it, then you will be ready to drive it.”
     Uh, okay. So I began my training at the school of hard knocks. But as it worked out, sometimes parents knew best. After many days of crying in the front seat of the car, telling myself I’d never figure it out, I gave it a try late one night—three in the morning to be exact—half asleep and still in my pajamas. I wasn’t sure what woke me, but something got me out of bed and into the car. I put her in reverse and backed out of the driveway with ease. Once on the road, I started cruising. When I stopped white knuckling the steering wheel, the ride was a lot smoother. The answer had been simple. I just needed to relax. That was always the case with me. My natural inclination was to make things harder than they should be. But something about driving calmed me when almost every other thing did the opposite.
     That night, I’d made it about thirty minutes on my own before I got pulled over by a sheriff. Anyone out at that time could only be up to no good. Me on the side of the road in my pajamas arguing with the local authority on why I should sue the town for pulling me over without provocation sure made a pretty picture.
     Luckily, I didn’t get a ticket for being a brat or driving without a license. I was only one week from sixteen at the time, jeez. They did call my stepdad though, and I was grounded with extra yard chores for two weeks. So started my love/hate relationship with the local sheriff’s station.
     I glared at the small brick building housing the barneys when it appeared ahead of us. Downtown had a speed limit of twenty-five. Stupid, and one of many reasons why I steered clear of the area. Brat status fully in place, I gunned Beast past the station, nearly red lining second gear before I shifted and coasted the rest of the way to the hardware store. I turned a broad smile at Michelle who giggled and rolled her eyes.
     “Oh no, Marcus is here. Go in with me.”
     “This is why you don’t date the people you work with,” I said.
     “Now you tell me. Please, go in with me. If you’re there, maybe he won’t try to talk to me.”
     I turned off the car and got out, not committing to it, but there was no way I wanted to sit in the hot sun and wait.
     Michelle snagged my hand and pulled me to the door. A bell tinkled to announce us.
     The mom-and-pop store had a few customers, most talking away their daily constitutional. Some small-town stereotypes were actually pretty accurate. The customers spent more time in there catching up on gossip than actually shopping.
     A few people turned our way, never stopping their chat, then went back to their business. The sight of Michelle and I together was pretty common. With our dark brown hair, hers much shorter than mine, and the school’s uniform still on, we passed for sisters from a distance. She was taller by a few inches, and her smile was real where mine was forced.
     “I’ll be right back,” she said as she headed to the back of the store.
     “Yeah, right.” We would be there a good ten minutes, at least. If Marcus didn’t stop her, one of the old fogies would.
     I tried to force a better mood on myself and walked the aisles. The store was dark, most of the light came from the front windows, but it was better than sitting out in the car. I turned down the row full of nails. Hooks held a hundred little boxes of them, but I headed for the bins that housed the loose ones. Buckets and buckets of nails sat at an angle, and I sank my hands in deep. It was an odd feeling but one I enjoyed. Something akin to digging my hands through sand, I lifted fistfuls of the cool metal and let them fall back out. Once empty, I dug back in.
     “I’m not sure that’s their intended use but if it makes you happy …”
     Most of my body froze in place, but I turned my head at the unknown voice, hating that my secret, odd pleasure was interrupted. Several witty remarks came to mind but were forgotten when I spied the smirking guy leaning against the end cap.
     Arms crossed over his chest, he was built, not obnoxiously so, but definitely cut and young. He was my age, maybe, but over six feet because he was taller than my stepdad.
     I straightened, the movement pulling my hands from the nail buckets. “Uh, hi.” Heat rushed into my cheeks. From getting caught doing something weird or because it was by a totally hot guy? Hmm, not sure. I nodded at the buckets. “Ever tried it?”

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