Guilty … That single word unraveled my entire life. From the time of my father’s arrest until his verdict was delivered, nothing else mattered to me. Not school. Not my friends. Nothing. I was consumed by the trial—the lies and scandal surrounding it. There was no doubt in my mind that he was innocent, but the evidence said otherwise. And there was plenty of that. The prosecution had paraded witness after witness up to take the stand and testify against my father. Colleagues. Friends. No one was off-limits. Even me. I’d cried that morning, knowing that I had no choice but to stand before the court and swear on a Bible that I had seen my father, FBI detective Bruce Danners, on the night in question. The night when his alleged criminal activities came to a head.
I was the one who placed him with the victim. I was the nail in his judicial coffin. I knew I’d never forget the look on his face as he stared at me while I sat on the witness stand. There was pride in his eyes when I told the truth. There was also relief. I’d said I’d lie under oath if it meant keeping him out of prison. I mean, what juror wouldn’t believe a sob story from a poor seventeen-year-old girl who had been coerced and leveraged into testifying against her own father? If I’d poured on the tears and played my cards right, surely at least one of them would have found my story plausible. And if they did, the jury would have been split and unable to convict him. That whole “beyond a shadow of a doubt” thing would have gotten in the way. My father would have been home free.
But I couldn’t do it. The integrity that I’d inherited from my father was the reason why. And that integrity was also the reason I knew my father couldn’t possibly have done what he was accused of. The sound of a gavel echoed through the room, branding my father a cop killer. That slap of reality yanked me from my mind’s downward spiral. I looked up through bleary eyes to see my father being led away by the bailiff. My heart pounded wildly in my chest. “Daddy!” I screamed before realizing the word had left my mouth. He looked back over his shoulder to me and forced a sad smile. “It’ll be okay, Kylene.
The truth can’t stay buried forever.” Tears fell freely down my cheeks. The commotion surrounding me died off not long after my father disappeared. The reporters scattered to interview the winning team. The witnesses dispersed to go on with their daily lives. The jury was taken back to their private area to undoubtedly be thanked for fulfilling their civic duty. I, however, sat and pondered my father’s final words as they ran over and over again through my mind. By the time the courtroom was empty, two things were abundantly clear: my father would never stop proclaiming his innocence. And I would never stop trying to prove it. TWO FOUR WEEKS LATER … I stood outside the massive red brick building, eyeing it as if it were an enemy.
As far as I was concerned, it was. Almost two and a half years ago, the end of my freshman year at Jasperville High, had been torture. I didn’t think I’d survive the next. So, the day my father came home and told me he’d been promoted and we’d be moving to Columbus, I was elated. I squealed so loudly he actually had to cover his ears. But that elation was short-lived. Fast-forward to my senior year, and I once again found myself standing just outside the gates of hell, knowing exactly what that spiteful place had in store for me. This time, however, I was ready for it. Nobody within those walls could make my life any worse than it already was. My father’s conviction had made certain of that.
With that unwelcome thought in mind, I took a deep breath and climbed the wide concrete steps that led to the main doors. On the pole to my right, the American flag flew high and proud above me— our country’s symbol of freedom. “‘Liberty and justice for all,’ my ass.” A group of younger girls—probably freshmen—overheard me talking to myself and giggled, whispering conspiratorially to one another as I passed. I sighed heavily. It was going to be a long day. I hadn’t wanted to move back to Jasperville. In fact, I might have died a little inside the day my mother announced that she was getting a divorce and moving out west to live with her new boyfriend. I could either go with her or move into her childhood home with her father. Though I loved Gramps with a passion, I loathed where he lived—or at least which school district his home fell within.
The only positive I could see at the time was that Logan Hill Prison was only thirty minutes from his house. And that was my father’s new home for the next twenty-five to life. Through the entire move, I did my best not to let Gramps see just how dismayed I was by my homecoming. With no other outlet for my anxiety—no one to turn to—in the quiet of the night, I’d lie on the cot Gramps had set up in his tiny den, and let the pent-up tears roll down my cheeks. Tears full of hurt and betrayal. Tears fueled not only by my father’s incarceration and my mother’s all but abandoning him and me both, but also by the wrong I had escaped when we moved to Columbus. A wrong I had wanted to keep in my past. One I would now be constantly reminded of. I stopped at the top of the school stairs to stare down the cluster of would-be mean girls, to let them know I didn’t care about what they thought. That their ridicule didn’t bother me.
It was amazing how well a glare could silence others, especially when paired with a raging case of resting bitch face. It took only seven seconds to do just that—a personal record. That particular group of wannabes was going to have to find some other poor kid to gang up on. My skin was far too thick for their low level of skill. Once inside the building, I made my way up the half flight of stairs to the front office to pick up my class schedule. Mrs. Baber sat behind her wall of aged dark wood, as always, assuming her post as the gatekeeper to the principal and all other high-level administrative staff. With her glasses perched near the end of her nose, she looked up at me and exhaled heavily. “Ms. Danners.
” “Mrs. Baber. You look lovely this morning. Did you get a new hairdo?” I asked, knowing full well that her helmet of silver curls hadn’t seen a new style in at least a decade. Maybe two. Ignoring my obvious attempt at sucking up, she slapped a piece of paper down on the counter between us and slid it toward me. “You’re late for first period. Not the best way to make a good impression. You have physics with Mr. Callahan.
I suggest you get up there as fast as those skinny legs will carry you. He’s not known for being gracious about tardiness.” “An excellent and helpful observation, Mrs. Baber. Consider it duly noted.” I threw her an exaggerated wink before snatching the class schedule off the counter and turning to leave. In my hurry to escape, I slammed into someone entering Mrs. Baber’s chamber of doom. “I’m so sorry!” I exclaimed, staggering back from the wall of distressed black clothing I’d just collided with. As my eyes scanned up toward his face, Mrs.
Baber started in. “Mr. Higgins. Don’t you have somewhere to be right now?” It was then that my gaze reached his face. It was a welcome sight indeed. “Garrett?” “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said, the distinct curl at the corner of his mouth upturning. “Language, young man!” Mrs. Baber shouted. “Sorry, ma’am. I just thought I saw a ghost.
” “Shut up,” I said with a smile. “Kylene Danners, what in the hell are you doing here?” “Long story, and since I’m late for physics, not one I can share at the moment.” “Callahan?” “Yep.” His smile spread wider. “Then allow me to show you the way. We can be delinquent together.” “Some things never change,” Mrs. Baber mumbled to herself. Garrett made a sweeping gesture with his arm, complete with a bow, and I curtsied in return before heading out of the office. He followed right behind me.
Whatever he’d come down to the office for was no longer a priority. I seemed to have taken its place. “You sure are all grown up now, Ky. They put something in the water up there in the big city? Because, damn, girl…” I shook my head. Garrett had always been incorrigible. Even after my absence, it appeared that hadn’t changed. “Hey, eyes up here, big guy.” I pointed to my face, which earned me a hardy laugh from the boy I’d grown up with. The best friend I’d left behind. “And since you feel it necessary to comment on my appearance, I think it’s only fair for me to inquire about this rather interesting new look you have going.
Burglar chic or daddy-never-loved-me bad boy? I can’t decide.” He frowned at me, his big brown eyes covered by a mess of black hair that slipped out from behind his ear. “You don’t like it? It doesn’t scream, ‘Bring me home to meet your parents’?” I laughed. “It screams something, all right.” My sarcastic tone was hardly lost on him. Garrett and I had known each other since we were four. There was little to nothing he didn’t know about me. At least until my family left. I hadn’t really spoken to him since then, but he knew why. By the look of things, he didn’t hold that against me.
Maybe he was just being nice. Maybe he knew that coming back to Jasperville High couldn’t be easy for me. Or maybe there were some people in your life that you would always just be friends with regardless of what happened between you. I hoped that was true. I really needed an ally. We crested the final stairs to the third floor and made our way to room 333. The hallway was empty, affording the two of us as much privacy as we were likely to get in that building. Garrett stopped me right before I could reach the doorknob to the physics room. “Ky,” he started, giving me his super-serious Garrett stare. The one that reminded me of his father, the sheriff.
“About your dad … I just wanted to tell you—” “Please,” I interrupted him, putting my palm up to deflect his pity. “The entire state of Ohio and the better part of the country know all about what my father was convicted of. I can’t rehash this right now. It’s all I can do not to run from here screaming. I wanted to homeschool myself instead of come back here, but Mom—before she bailed on me—wouldn’t sign off on it. She said it was unhealthy for me to hole up in the house all day—and she’d know a thing or two about that.” “Listen, I wasn’t trying to pry, I was just—” The door to room 333 swung open, revealing a rather perturbed-looking Mr. Callahan in all his middle-aged glory, complete with pleated khaki pants and coffee-stained oxford shirt. “Mr. Higgins, I thought I—” He stopped short and his eyes fell on me.
It seemed to take a second for him to realize who I was, but once he did, that realization was written all over his face. “Ms. Danners. How nice of you to join us this morning.” “It’s nice to be here, sir,” I replied with a hundred-watt smile plastered on my face. “Perhaps you two will find it easier to learn about Newton if you actually enter the classroom.” “I was just telling Garrett that, Mr. Callahan, but you know how those cops’ kids are. They think the rules don’t apply to them.” “Says the daughter of an imprisoned ex–FBI detective,” Mr.
Callahan muttered under his breath, though he did little to hide the contempt for my father’s crime from his expression. A jolt of hurt and surprise shot through me. I’d mentally prepared for snide remarks from the student body at JHS, but not from the staff. I felt my expression fall for a second, before a spark ignited within me. I narrowed my eyes at him and did my best to rein in the anger that raged inside. “Detectives’ kids are an entirely different breed.” “I’m sure they are, Ms. Danners.” He stepped back from the doorway to allow us to enter. Garrett went first, casting a sympathetic glance back at me.
He knew that Callahan’s remark was only the first of many that would be thrown my way that day. He also knew that I wouldn’t take any of them lightly. I was a pit bull when people came after someone I loved. If they crossed me, they didn’t just burn a bridge—they doused that thing in gasoline, laced it with TNT, lit a match, and blew that bitch sky-high. Garrett knew that Mr. Callahan had just made himself an enemy. I wondered how many more Jasperville Fighting Badgers would find themselves on my shit list by the end of the week. THREE Because of the move and the different school calendar Jasperville had, my peers were two weeks into the first semester when I started my senior year. The bad news was I had two weeks’ worth of crap to get caught up on—starting with physics. The good news was that would keep me busy during my second period study hall.
Busy enough to ignore the stares and pithy comments that always echoed through the room no matter how quiet you thought you were being. I knew all too well about that. Garrett had English next, so that left me alone to brave second period. I’d forgotten how amazing he had been amid all the chaos surrounding both my departure from town and settling into a new life. A pang of guilt tugged at my heart. He didn’t deserve the way I had shut him out. I needed to right that wrong. With that in mind, I sat down at a vacant table, sprawling my books out everywhere to deter anyone from taking up residence near me—not that anyone was dying for that privilege. I quickly slipped my earbuds in and turned up my music in an attempt to drown out the gossiping around me. I had high hopes that I could make it through the period.
But those hopes were crapped on in a hurry. I dared to look up from my textbook just long enough to see a gazelle walking amid lions. A tall, lanky, freckle-faced ginger came striding into the room, her books clutched to her chest. I didn’t recognize her. And judging by the uncomfortable look on her face, I could tell she was new enough to the school to still have the expected amount of uncertainty when it came to where to sit. I could see her scanning the tables, none of which were empty any longer. My best guess was that she got derailed on her way here, something she’d made a point before that day never to do, but was now stuck in “Where do I go?” hell. Her gaze darted over to a nearby kid, who was clearly talking to her. Her nose scrunched up like she’d just smelled something awful, and she walked away from him in a hurry. I pulled my earbuds out.
“Aw, c’mon, Tabby. I just want to know if the carpet matches the drapes.” Her faced flushed so red that it almost blended in with her curly chin-length-bob haircut. Captain Curious laughed with all his asshat friends, thinking they were clearly the shit for picking on the new girl. If they wanted a new girl to pick on, I’d give them one. “So, you’re interested in interior decorating?” I shouted across the room at him. He and his group of jackasses turned to face me. “I’m going to let you in on a little secret.” I leaned forward over the table as if I were going to tell them something juicy. The new girl hovered nearby, her eyes darting back and forth between me and the guys.
“You know what she is? She’s the room in your parents’ house that you’re not allowed in. The one with the nice couches and fancy tables and knickknacks and crap that you’re too clumsy to be around because God knows you’d break them.” He looked at me with confusion that quickly bled to anger. “It doesn’t matter if the drapes and carpet match in that room,” I said. “You know why? Because you’re never going in there. Understand?” He scoffed at me, looking to his friends for support. “Shouldn’t you be trying to get your dad out of jail or something?” “Or dying of embarrassment?” his unhelpful friend added. “But if I died, I wouldn’t get to enjoy this special time with you fine gentlemen.” “That’s okay, A-cup. I’ve seen your goods.
We all have. We don’t need to spend any special time with you.” They all laughed heartily. I could feel the blood leave my face even when I tried to force it to stay. I was used to people saying things about my father. I was less prepared to have the internet scandal of my past thrown in my face. While I tried to collect myself and throw something back his way, the new girl stepped in. “Hey,” she snapped, drawing their attention.”Yes, my curtains match the drapes, you idiot. And from what I’ve heard in the few weeks I’ve been here, the only thing I’d get if I let you near either is a healthy case of crabs.
” She placed her hands on my table and leaned forward at them like a CEO talking to her minions. “Those are lice that live down there,” she whispered, pointing down toward their nether regions. “Shut up, you stupid immigrant! Why don’t you go back to your third-world country? Stop mooching off our tax dollars.” “I’m from Canada, you moron. And I’m here legally. My dad runs the plant that your dad works for. We pay taxes.” She shot me a bewildered expression. “Are all Americans this ignorant?” I looked up at her, wondering where in the hell this burst of confidence had come from, then realized it didn’t matter. It was funny as hell, so I laughed.
Hard. The target of her insults and his befuddled companions were stumped for the first time since class started, and they chose to tuck tail and run rather than tangle with the spirited redhead. She, however, just smiled down at me before joining in with my hysterics. With an inelegant motion, she flopped down at my table two seats over and laughed until tears formed in the corners of her eyes. And that was how the new girl and I became outcast allies. * * * It turned out that the new girl, Tabby, was a whiz at school—one of those book-smart, socially awkward types. Apparently wherever she’d attended before moving to the United States was way ahead of Jasperville’s curriculum, so she’d already learned everything we had planned for the year. By the end of study hall, I was already halfway caught up on physics. Sticking up for Tabby was going to give me a stellar GPA. The bell rang, and I started shoving my books into my bag.
When I got up to leave, Tabby stood beside me smiling, her books once again clutched to her chest. “What class do you have now?” “Gym.” The way I groaned my reply let her know just how excited I was. “Great! Me too. Let’s go. Ms. Davies can get pissy if you aren’t dressed and in the gym in a timely fashion.” “Yeah. Seems everyone around here is a stickler for punctuality. It’s like they’re trying not to let the patients run the asylum.
So weird…” She looked at me strangely for a second, then laughed. “You’re funny. Are you always this funny? Are you actively trying to be? Or do things just come out that way?” “It’s a reflex. I can’t control it. I’ve been afflicted with a terrible case of sarcasm for which there is no cure.” I sighed in my most put-upon way. “It is my burden to bear, but bear it I shall.” “With grace, no doubt,” she replied with a smile. “Is there any other way?” “I’m sure if there was, you’d have found it by now.” I looked up at her, feigning awe.
“It’s like you truly know me.” “You know, I feel like I already do. Is that weird?” She shied away, looking uncomfortable that she’d just told me that. There was an innocent charm to Tabby that couldn’t be denied. A childlike quality that was endearing, and coming from me, that said a lot. I didn’t usually find anything endearing, especially not people. “Is your dad really in jail?” she asked before her eyes went wide and she slapped her hand over her mouth. “Sorry! I shouldn’t have asked that. I don’t have much of a filter. It’s just that … once I’m comfortable around someone, ideas just pop into my head, and then, whoa … there they go out of my mouth.
It gets me in trouble sometimes.” “Don’t I know what that’s like. I’d trade mine for yours any day of the week.” We walked in silence for a beat before I decided there was no point in evading her question. She was going to find out sooner or later. It was probably for the best that it came from me. “Yes, my dad is in prison. His name is Bruce Danners. Google will happily answer all your other questions. It’s not my favorite topic of discussion.
” “I’m sorry,” she said. Whether she was sorry for his situation or for asking the question, I didn’t know. “Not your fault.” Tabby pushed the heavy wooden door open, and I followed her into the changing room. It was already filled with the other girls in our gym class. I always thought too many girls in one place was a special kind of hell. The inherent pack mentality in them was undeniable. The second they smelled blood, these seemingly lovely high school seniors would turn feral, jumping on their prey and tearing it to shreds, all without even breaking a sweat—or a nail. With a sigh, I opened a locker at the end of the center row and threw my bag in. Tabby took the one next to me and started to get changed.
Her pale, freckled skin was washed out by the white T-shirt she slipped on, and the black gym shorts she stepped into did little to flatter her lanky legs. She was gawky at best. Her saving grace was her huge boobs. It seemed unfair for someone so skinny to have a rack like that. I looked down at my modest chest—the girls just chilling in my bra—and frowned. “They look great,” she said, glancing down at them. “And they’re clearly not As. Bs, right?” “Are you like a bra-size savant or something?” She shrugged. “We all have gifts.” “It’s uncanny.
…” I pulled my white T on and unbuttoned my jeans while Tabby leaned against her locker waiting for me. Until then, she’d proved a welcome distraction from the others in the room, but I suddenly became all too aware of them, as was their intention. I looked over to find a group of them huddled together just beyond Tabby. “You know, there’s a much easier way to get a good look at Ky’s tits,” one girl said before breaking out into mocking laughter. “Looks like yours finally came in,” I replied without skipping a beat. I did little to hide the bitchiness in my voice. Why bother? She wasn’t exactly hiding hers. Meet fire with fire, Dad always said. “I only suggested it since you two seemed to be having such a great time checking each other out.” “She has nice boobs,” Tabby said with a shrug, as if that were going to settle the matter—or be helpful in any way.
The new girl was right about her lack of filter. We were going to have to work on that. “Yeah, well, try that with me, new kid, and I’ll slam your face in a locker.” Tabby’s expression went slack for a moment. I don’t think she was expecting such a violent response. It was clear she wasn’t from Jasperville. Adults seemed to think it was always the boys who resolved matters with their fists, but in this school, you were far more likely to find two girls going at it in the hallways or the bathrooms. On any given day, you could find tufts of ripped-out hair blowing down the hall like tumbleweeds. It was lowbrow at best, Neanderthalish at worst, but any way you sliced it, it was reality. Plain and simple.
“Girls!” a gruff, disembodied voice shouted at us. Seconds later, Ms. Davies, in all her clichéd female-gym-teacher glory, rounded the corner and pounded her fist on the lockers. “Let’s go! Don’t make me start handing out extra laps to run this early in the school year, even though some of you look like you could use them.” Without replying, we all filed out into the gym. The mean girl walked past Tabby and me, glaring the whole way. I just smiled and waved. Tabby looked rattled. The two of us were the last to leave, followed by Ms. Davies, who pulled me gently aside before entering the gym.
“Kylene,” she started, her voice quiet, “I know what happened with your father. I just wanted to tell you that I knew him. I’d worked with him on two different occasions—projects for the community —and I just don’t believe he is capable of doing what they accused him of.” I forced a tight smile in return while I choked back my rising emotions. “Thanks, Ms. Davies.” “And if anyone is giving you crap about him, you come to me. Understand? I know how things are in this school. But not in my class.” My smile softened into a genuine one.
“I appreciate that. Really.” “Good. Now get your ass in there. You’re doing a lap for being the last one to class.” She shot me a mischievous look before pushing the gym door open and walking in, blowing her whistle to announce her entrance. Note to self: Ms. Davies is all right.