Pieces of Me
A police officer shines a blinding light in my eyes. “Do you know why I pulled you over?”
To ruin what’s left of my miserable life?
“Was I speeding?” I have no idea, but the swerving is probably the reason.
He knocks on the roof of the car. “I’m going to need you to step out of the car and show me your license and registration.”
Red and blue lights flash in my rearview mirror, and the dull haze that kept me from falling apart earlier tonight begins to fade.
I don’t want to feel anything. Most of all, I don’t want to remember.
“Have you been drinking?” he asks when I get out. I consider lying, but what’s the point? There is nothing he can do to me that’s worse than what I’ve already been through.
“Miss? I asked if you’ve been drinking,” he repeats.
I look him in the eye. “Yes.”
Riding in the back of a police car sobers me up fast, but not enough to pass a Breathalyzer test at the precinct.
“Your blood alcohol concentration is point one.” Officer Tanner, the cop who pulled me over, writes it down on a form attached to his clipboard. “That’s two points over the legal limit in the state of Maryland.”
I stop listening and watch the second hand on the wall clock click past the numbers. It’s 10:20 on a Tuesday night.
The old Frankie Devereux would be kissing her boyfriend good night in front of her house right now, or slaving over her Stanford University application. She didn’t have the personal essay nailed down yet. But she wasn’t worried. With a 4.0 grade point average, eight years of classical piano training, and two summers’ worth of volunteer work at Children’s Hospital, Stanford was well within her reach.
But the old Frankie died with Noah.
The girl I am now is sitting in a windowless interrogation room, staring at grayish-white walls the color of turkey lunch meat after it spoils. Not exactly how I thought the first day of senior year would end. Considering how badly it started, I should have known.
Of course Woodley Prep chose today to hold a memorial gathering in Noah’s honor. I begged Mom to let me stay home, but she was more concerned about her reputation than my sanity. “How will it look to people if you aren’t there?” It only sounded like a question.
So after fifth period, our teacher marched us outside, where the rest of the senior class was already assembled in front of the English building.
Noah hated English.
They talked about Noah Wells. Captain of the lacrosse team. Blue eyes the color of the sky. The boy everyone loved, including me.
Dead at seventeen.
I watched students who barely knew Noah plant a stupid tree for my dead boyfriend—a guy who didn’t even recycle.
With a Sour Patch Kids addiction like Noah’s, he would have preferred a vending machine.
When the lopsided tree was finally in the ground, Noah’s lacrosse coach said a few words and invited us all to his house that evening for another get-together in Noah’s honor.
Noah died three months ago, and I still couldn’t sleep at night. The wounds hadn’t stopped bleeding, and my school was already tearing off the bandages.
It’s almost over, I’d told myself. Or so I thought. The poem was what sent me over the edge.
Student body president Katherine Calder had written it herself, and she read the poem in front of the entire senior class while her mother videotaped the performance. The little bitch finally had a meaningful personal experience to write about for the college Common App essay.
Everything went downhill from there.
After spending an hour at Coach’s house, which included an encore of Katherine’s heartfelt poem, I swiped a bottle of wine and drank it in the bathroom. By the time I left, the combination of anger, alcohol, and sleep deprivation had turned me into an emotional hand grenade with a set of car keys.
Mom won’t see it that way. She’ll be pissed. I actually feel sorry for the cop who got stuck calling her.
The doorknob turns, and I sit up straighter. Officer Tanner comes in and hands me a cup of burnt-smelling coffee. “Your mother is here.”
This will be fun.
Mom is waiting in the lobby. Even at midnight, she looks perfectly pulled together, dressed in fitted black pants and a beige cashmere wrap. With only a hint of blush and her blond hair gathered in a low ponytail, she could pass for my older sister. When my parents were still married, her hair was the same shade of light brown that mine is now. I ditched the high- lights months ago, along with any trace of the old Frankie.
Holding the white foam cup, I walk toward her. My eyes are swollen, and my face streaked with mascara. I don’t care about getting in trouble. Listening to one of her guilt trips is a hundred times worse.
Mom storms past Officer Tanner without giving him so much as a look. Cops only interest her if the alarm system at our house goes off. “What were you thinking, Frankie? You could’ve killed someone—or yourself.”
“I’d never want to hurt anyone else.”
It’s me I don’t care about.
“Even if that’s true, your behavior over the last few months proves you’re out of control.” Her voice rises with every word. “You’ve been on a downhill slide since Noah died, but this”—she gestures to our surroundings—“crosses the line.” I’ve never seen Mom this angry, and I know she’s holding back. She hates making a scene in public. I stare down at my black Adidas Sambas, the beat-up pair of indoor-soccer shoes I salvaged from the basement. The old Frankie never would’ve been caught dead wearing them outside the gym. But I wear them everywhere.
“Mrs. Devereux?” Officer Tanner uses his cop tone. Bad move.
“My last name is Rutherford, not Devereux.” Mom closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, regaining her composure and trust-fund-baby charm. “I apologize, Officer . . . ?”
“Tanner,” he finishes for her, even though his name is engraved on the pin above his pocket.
“The last few months have been difficult for all of us. Francesca suffers from PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder,” she explains, as if he isn’t smart enough to recognize the acronym. “It’s certainly no excuse, but she’s never been in any trouble before. If you don’t press charges—”
Officer Tanner holds up his hand. “Let me stop you right there, ma’am. I know this situation is upsetting, and I’d like to extend your husband a professional courtesy. But we’re not talking about a speeding ticket.”
Mom bristles when he refers to Dad as her husband, but she doesn’t correct him. “Francesca attends Woodley Prep, and if the headmaster finds out about this, she’ll be expelled.” Mom lowers her voice. “She’s already been through so much. We still don’t know what she saw that night.”
I saw everything.
I try not to think about it, but Mom’s voice fades as other sounds cut in and out.
Don’t panic. Breathe.
Isn’t that what the last shrink told me to do? Or am I supposed to picture my safe place? I can’t remember. A switch flips in my brain, and fragmented memories from the night Noah died hit me in rapid bursts—
Strobe lights flash.
A mass of bodies swells on the dance floor—arms raised. House music blaring and bass pumping.
My head pounds along with it.
Noah told me to wait inside while he got the car. But it’s too loud.
Black velvet curtains part at the main entrance, and cool air hits me.
Dim streetlights glitter against the wet asphalt. I walk around the side of the building to the parking lot. Where did he park? I didn’t pay attention. Noah always remembers.
The Sugar Factory’s pink marquee glows above me.
Noah’s voice, low and muffled. A glimpse of his baby-blue polo shirt. A guy standing in front of him, his face obscured by black shadows—as if it were erased.
But I see Noah clearly, and I can tell he sees me. He shakes his head slowly, the movements almost imperceptible. I recognize that look, and it sends pinpricks up my arms. I’ve seen it after lacrosse games when a player from the opposing team came up to Noah off the field, looking for a fight.
The look means: Don’t come over here, Frankie. . . . “Frankie?” Mom’s voice scrambles the images, and Noah’s face disappears.
I open my eyes and blink hard, battling double vision.
“Are you still drunk?” My mother doesn’t recognize when I’m having a flashback, which only proves how wrong things are between us.
“I’m just tired.” And completely screwed up.
The glass door to the precinct swings open, and Dad charges in like he owns the place. From his faded green Indian Motorcycles T-shirt and five-o’clock shadow to his scarred knuckles and crooked nose, he looks more like a middle-aged boxer or construction worker than an undercover cop. I guess that’s the point. He flashes his Maryland State Police badge at the county cop sitting behind the counter. Did Mom call him? Or one of the officers here?
It doesn’t matter. He knows.
“Why don’t you go sit down while I talk to your parents?” Officer Tanner nods at a row of red seats bolted to the wall. He doesn’t have to tell me twice. He meets Dad in the middle of the hallway. “I’m sorry, Jimmy. I’d like to make this go away, but—”
Dad cuts him off. “You know I don’t walk that line and I would never ask another cop to walk it, either.”
I’ve heard my father talk about the line between right and wrong so many times. It defines every aspect of his life, and tonight I crossed it.
I slouch against the molded plastic seat and count the black rubber marks on the floor. My long hair falls over my shoulder and hides my face. I want to disappear, especially when the precinct door opens again.
“What the hell is going on?” King Richard, my pathetic excuse for a stepfather, bursts into the lobby.
“Why don’t you take it down a notch, Richard? This isn’t your office,” Dad says. “Nobody here works for you.”
“James.” Only Mom calls my father by his given name. “You could at least try to be civil.”
Dad crosses his arms. “I could do a lot of things. . . .”
Nobody pisses my mother off more than Dad. At least he gives her another target.
“That’s enough, Elise.” My stepfather shoots her a warning look.
Mom’s heels click against the floor as she scurries over to her place beside King Richard. He rests his hand on the small of her back in case he needs to pull her invisible puppet strings.
Within seconds, they’re arguing. It’s nothing new, and I don’t worry until the shouting dissolves into sharp whispers. Never a good sign.
Snippets of the conversation drift through the hallway, and I strain to listen.
“—ruined her chances of getting into Stanford.” Mom.
“If she keeps this up—” King Richard.
“Ever since Noah died—” Dad.
“It’s a shame she can’t ID her boyfriend’s killer.” Officer Tanner doesn’t bother whispering. “That son of a bitch should be locked up.”
My stomach lurches like someone kicked me. He’s right, but it’s not a shame.
My mind is damaged—shrink code for too weak to handle what I saw that night. Now I’m a hostage to the flashbacks that hit without warning and the insomnia that keeps me from sleeping more than three hours a night.
Mom and Dad walk toward me shoulder to shoulder. A united front. They divorced when I was three, and they get along about as well as two rabid dogs locked in a closet. If they managed to agree on anything, they must think I’m a few weeks away from hooking on a street corner.
For the first time tonight, I’m scared.
Mom looks at me like I’m a stranger. “I’ve tried to be under- standing, Frankie. But you’re out of control. Avoiding your friends, sneaking out of the house, drinking with the lifeguards from the club.” Maybe she has been paying attention between tennis matches.
“That was one night,” I argue. At least that she knows about. “I hoped you would snap out of this and go back to being the girl you were before.”
Before I watched someone beat my boyfriend to death in a beer-stained parking lot. Before I realized that doing all the right things doesn’t matter. Noah was an honor student, a star athlete with offer letters from three Ivy League universities, and a good person.
And he’s still dead.
“I just want you to feel like yourself again, sweetheart,” Mom says.
She doesn’t realize that girl doesn’t exist anymore.
“Your father and I think it’s time for him to get more involved.”
Based on how involved he is now, that’s a pretty low bar. I spend two weekends a month with Dad, if he isn’t too busy working undercover in RATTF—Regional Auto Theft Task Force—a supercop unit. When I do see him, it’s not exactly quality time. I usually end up eating leftover pizza until he gets home from pretending to be a car thief. On his days off, we practice what Dad calls Critical Life Skills—and what I call Ways to Dodge a Serial Killer. Fun stuff . . . like how to escape from the trunk of a car if it doesn’t have an automatic-release handle inside.
“Maybe your father will be able to help you get back on track,” Mom adds.
“How is that supposed to work when we barely see each other?” I ask, ignoring my dad, even though he’s standing right next to her.
Dad steps between us. “You’re moving in with me.”
When I open my eyes, the first thing I see are sunny yellow walls—at least that’s the way they looked to me as a kid. Now they make me feel like I’m trapped inside a stick of butter.
Reality hits me, like it has every morning for the last seven days.
I’m living with Dad.
And this butter stick is my bedroom.
I’ve spent the night here plenty of times, but this is different. I won’t be standing by the window on Sunday afternoon waiting for Mom to pick me up. I’m staying here until at least the end of the school year.
For now, this is home.
I dig through a dresser drawer, searching for an outfit the old Frankie would hate. Frayed white button-down or black tee? Tough call, but I go with the button-down. The loose threads would drive the old Frankie crazy. I pull on a pair of skinny jeans, and my elbow whacks against the dresser.
This room is the size of my walk-in closet at Mom’s house, and it’s decorated like it belongs to a ten-year-old: a dresser and matching nightstand covered with hand-painted flowers and green vines, a twin bed with ruffled sheets—and let’s not forget the yellow walls.
Unfortunately, I have bigger things to worry about today.
In the hall, Cujo, Dad’s huge gray-black-and-white Akita, sits next to my door.
“Hey, buddy.” I scratch the dog’s big, square head, and he follows me. The apartment has a simple and borderline- claustrophobic layout—two bedrooms and bathrooms at one end of a narrow hallway lined with mismatched frames, and a living room–dining room combo and a galley kitchen at the other end.
In the kitchen, Dad surveys rows of cereal boxes in the pantry. There are at least a dozen different kinds.
“You’re not making me a real breakfast?” I ask sarcastically, walking past him on my way to the fridge.
Dad swears under his breath. “Sorry. I’m not used to—”
“It was a joke.” I scan the shelves stocked with Dad’s staples: Diet Pepsi (Coke isn’t sweet enough), whole milk (for his cereal), white bread and American cheese slices (in case he gets sick of cereal and switches to grilled cheese), and a gallon of 2 percent milk (store brand).
“I bought extra Diet Pepsi and the milk you like,” he offers. “I drink Diet Coke.” And I stopped drinking 2 percent milk when I was ten, a fact I don’t bother mentioning anymore.
My father memorizes dozens of car makes, models, and license plates so he can bust car thieves and the chop shops that sell stolen parts, but he can’t remember what kind of milk I drink? Skim. I should make him a list of my food preferences and stop torturing us both.
“I’ve got cereal.” He shakes a box of Froot Loops. “No, thanks.” I close the refrigerator empty-handed. Cujo’s ears perk up and he bounds for the front door. “Did you hear something, partner?” Dad asks.
The dog barks, and a split second later, the doorbell rings. “It’s probably Lex.” I give Cujo a quick scratch behind the
ears and start unlocking the deadbolt.
“Frankie!” Dad shouts as if I’m a child about to run out into traffic.
I turn around, searching for a sign of danger. Nothing looks out of place. “What’s wrong?”
Dad points at the front door with a fierce look in his eyes. “Never open a door without checking to see who is on the other side.”
It’s official. My father has crossed over from paranoid to crazy. “That’s the reason you yelled at me like I was about to set off a bomb?”
“Depending on who is on the other side, you could’ve been.” I gesture at Cujo sitting next to me calmly, with his head cocked to the side. “Cujo isn’t growling. He always growls if there’s a stranger at the door.” A retired K-9 handler trained Cujo as a protection dog. He’s the definition of an intruder’s worst nightmare.
“You can’t let anything lull you into a false sense of security.
Letting your guard down one time is all it takes.”
Does he think he’s telling me something I don’t know? I stifle a bitter laugh.
“This isn’t funny, Frankie.”
No, it’s painful and pathetic, and I live with it every day.
Parents are supposed to understand their kids, or at least make an effort. Mine are clueless.
The doorbell rings again.
Crap. Lex is still standing in the hallway.
I make a dramatic show of peering through the eyehole and turn to Dad. “Happy?”
“These are critical life skills. As in, one day they might save your life,” he says as I open the door.
Lex stands on the other side, smoothing a section of her choppy hair between her fingers. It’s dyed a lighter shade than her usual honey blond, except for an inch of brown roots where her natural color is growing in. The inch is deliberate, like the smudged charcoal eye liner that looks slept in and makes her blue eyes pop against her copper skin.
Her eyes remind me of Noah’s.
Thinking about him feels like standing in the ocean with my back to the waves. I never know when it’s coming or how hard it will hit me.
“I was starting to wonder if you left without me.” Lex breezes past me. “Ready for your first day in the public school system, or, as my mom calls it, ‘the place where every child is left behind’?”
We haven’t seen each other since the beginning of the summer, but Lex makes it feel like it’s only been days. I spent the last three months trying to leave the old Frankie behind, avoiding Lex and Abel, my closest friends, in the process.
“How’s it going, Lex?” Dad asks.
“Pretty good.” She yawns. “Please tell me you have coffee, Frankie. The line at Starbucks was insane.”
“There’s a pot in the kitchen,” Dad offers.
“Thanks, Mr. Devereux.” If she keeps acting this cheerful, Dad will think she’s high. We’ve known each other forever, but when Lex developed a gross crush on my dad in seventh grade, it almost resulted in best friend excommunication.
“Don’t thank him yet,” I whisper. “His signature blend is burnt Maxwell House.”
“I’d rather go without food for a week than caffeine for a day.” Lex pours herself a cup of liquid coffee grounds.
Dad fishes a Velcro wallet out of his back pocket and lays two twenties on the table next to me. “Swing by the store after school and pick up some Diet Coke and anything else you want.” I leave the crumpled bills on the table. “I won’t have time.
Community service starts at three thirty, right after classes let out.” Thanks to King Richard, I already have a probation officer and a community service assignment. He called in a favor at the district attorney’s office, and my case was bumped to the top of the pile. “Lex is dropping me off at the rec center and picking me up when I’m done.”
I told Dad all this last night.
“You don’t mind?” he asks Lex. “You’re already driving Frankie to school in the mornings. I would take her myself—”
“But you can’t blow your cover. I totally get it.” She takes a sip of her coffee and cringes, but Dad doesn’t notice.
“You can’t slip and make a comment like that at school.” Dad gives us his serious cop look. “You both understand that, right?”
I ignore the question.
“Absolutely,” Lex says. “I mean . . . I absolutely won’t say anything.”
“Good.” Dad nods and looks over at me. “I would never send you to Monroe if I thought it would be an issue. The high school and the rec center are in the Third District—the nicer part of the Downs. It’s nothing like the war zone where I work in the First District.”
It’s weird to hear him describe any part of the Downs as nice. I guess it seems that way if you compare the run-down projects, abandoned buildings, and streets lined with liquor stores in Dad’s district with the neighborhoods near Monroe.
“People in one-D think I’m a car thief. If anyone finds out I’m a cop, I’ll have to walk away from my open cases and transfer to a district outside the Downs.”
Most people hear the word undercover and automatically think of DEA agents in movies—the ones who have to disappear without telling anyone where they’re going and move into crappy apartments so they can infiltrate the mob or the Hells Angels. But that’s not the way it works for regular undercover cops like Dad.
Obviously, he doesn’t wear a T-shirt that says I’M A COP. But he also doesn’t have to lie to the whole world about his job—just people who hang out in, or near, his district.
“Frankie? You understand, too, right?” He sounds irritated.
That’s what I get for ignoring his question the first time.
“I’ve never told anyone about your job except Lex, Abel, and Noah. Why would I start now? Maybe you should lecture Mom. She still bitches about your job to all her friends.”
Dad sighs. “I’m not trying to give you a hard time, Frankie.
I’m just reminding you to be careful what you say.”
“Consider me reminded.” I glare at him, and Dad turns to Lex.
“Your parents don’t mind you driving Frankie to the rec center?”
“They’re fine with it.” They probably have no idea. Lex’s parents are never around unless they need her to pose for press photos.
“Does your father still have family in the Downs?” Dad asks.
“Nope. The Senator moved everyone out as soon as he could afford it.” Lex refuses to call her father Dad. Instead, she calls him the Senator because she says he cares more about being the first Puerto Rican–American senator in the United States than about being a father.
“I don’t blame him,” Dad says in his cop tone. “There’s a lot of crime. It’s a tough place for honest people to live. Make sure to keep the car doors locked while you’re driving.”
“We know, Dad.”
He continues issuing instructions. “Remember to leave your purse in the car when you get to the rec center. Just take your phone and some money. And I got you something.” Dad opens the hall closet and fishes around in the pocket of his jacket. He returns with something pink in his hand. A flashlight? And two pieces of orange plastic?
Dad hands me the pink thing.
I take a closer look at the canister. “Pink pepper spray?” “I think it’s cute,” Lex says.
“Then you can have it.”
“It’s pepper gel,” Dad explains. “The spray can blow back at you, but this stuff shoots wherever you aim the nozzle. And the gel really sticks.”
“I’m not carrying that around.” I try to hand the canister back to him, but he won’t take it. “What if I set it off accidentally? I’m sure there’s a rule against bringing tear-inducing toxins to school.”
“It has a safety, so it won’t go off unless you want it to. Keep it in your bag.” Dad points at the small black shoulder bag that already feels like the wrong choice.
I shove the pepper gel inside. Otherwise, he’ll never leave me alone.
“And you both need one of these.” Dad offers us each an orange piece of plastic.
Lex grabs one.
“It’s a rape whistle,” Dad says proudly. I saw that coming.
She scrunches up her nose. “Umm . . . thanks.”
I take mine and toss it in my army-green backpack.
He scratches his head as if he’s forgetting something. “Wait inside the building until Lex gets there to pick you up.”
And I won’t take any candy from strangers.
“I’ll be on time, even if I have to speed,” Lex teases.
Dad misses the joke. “Do you have a clean driving record?” “Except for a few parking tickets, but everyone has some of those, right?” She flashes him the perfect smile that you only end up with after four years of braces.
“I don’t.” Dad walks over to the sliding glass door that leads to the balcony, and he looks down at the parking lot. “Is your Fiat a stick shift?”
“Automatic,” Lex says. “Frankie is the only person I know who can drive a stick.”
Because my dad suffers from undercover-cop paranoia and he forced me to learn in case of emergency.
“One day you might need to drive a vehicle that isn’t an automatic,” he says.
I know exactly where this conversation is going. “Enough, Dad.”
“What if you’re alone and some lunatic grabs you off the street, and he drives a stick shift?” Dad asks, like it’s a perfectly normal question. “If there’s an opportunity to get away, you won’t be able to take advantage of it.”
Lex stares at my father, dumbfounded. She has heard me recount enough of these stories to know he’s serious. Usually, he saves these questions for me.
“You should learn,” Dad says. “If Frankie’s license wasn’t suspended, she could teach you.”
My shoulders tense. I’m not letting him play his passive-aggressive games with me. “Is there something you want to say, Dad?”
“Just stating a fact.” He stands his ground.
“Why? So I won’t forget how badly I messed up my life?” Dad sighs. “I’m trying to help you, Frankie.” He isn’t apologizing or admitting he’s wrong.
“I don’t want your help.” I push Lex toward the apartment door. Before I follow her out, I turn back to look him in the eye. “I’m sorry you lost your perfect daughter. But I’m the one you’re stuck with now.”
Lex waves at Dad as she pulls out of the parking lot. “I know we’re angry at your father, but can I just say that he is still off-the-charts gorgeous?”
“Are you serious right now?” I scrunch up my nose. “Because you’re one comment away from making me throw up in your car.”
“What are best friends for if they don’t crush on your dad?” “Actually, I think your dad is pretty—”
She pretends to gag. “Stop. New rule. Referring to the Senator as anything other than old and boring is a violation of BFC.”
I’m surprised at how easily I fall back into my old routines with Lex. There’s something about knowing a person for most of your life that makes it impossible to un-know them. “You can’t pull Best Friend Code when you’re the one who brought up hot dads.”
“Hot dad . . . singular. As in yours.” She flashes a mischievous smile. “Remind me again why your mom left him?”
“Who knows why my mother does anything?”
“I still can’t believe she went through with it and made you move in with your dad. She’s usually so full of crap.”
Mom has always reigned supreme as the queen of empty threats . . . until now.
I prop my feet on the glove compartment and hug my knees. “She even carried my bags up to Dad’s apartment. And Mom hates carrying things almost as much as she hates him.” I packed my stuff in black trash bags instead of suitcases to make her feel guilty, or at least to force my mother to haul around what looked like garbage. But it didn’t faze her. I’m not sure she noticed.
I leave out that part of the story, and the lull in the conversation lasts too long.
“Enough with the silence. I get plenty of that at home,” Lex says. “Back to your mom. How did she pull this off so fast? It’s only been a week since your DUI. Even the Senator would be impressed.”
Fast is an understatement.
It’s Wednesday morning. Seven days after I walked out of the police station with my parents and King Richard. The minute we got home, Mom told me to pack, like she couldn’t wait to get rid of me, while my piece-of-crap stepfather hovered in the hallway.
Don’t get me wrong—I was happy to go. The Heights reminds me of Noah and my screwed-up memory.
But Mom doesn’t know I feel that way. That would require an actual conversation—something she left to the army of doc- tors, shrinks, and hypnotists she hired to bring back the old Frankie. Recovering my memories so I could identify Noah’s killer and move on was never the real goal. Once I figured that out, I stopped talking to the shrinks. I’ll find a way to remember without her help.
The next day, Mom drove me out of the Heights—our exclusive community in the Maryland suburbs outside Washington, DC—to Dad’s two-bedroom apartment in Westridge, a neighborhood full of townhouses and garden apartments, less than six miles away. But six miles feels like a hundred when a five- minute car ride can mean the difference between living in the Heights or in Section 8 housing.
Mom left me on his doorstep with the garbage bags full of my stuff—like she had finally taken out the trash.
“Frankie?” Lex sounds worried.
I force a smile. “Sorry, I spaced. Dad is all over Project Reform Frankie, and it’s stressing me out. If things had worked out the way he planned, I would’ve started school yesterday. But according to Dad, a Dolly Parton look-alike in the office at Monroe refused to call Woodley for my immunization records. She told him to drive over there and get them himself.”
“That’s Mrs. Lane. She doesn’t take crap from anybody.
Couldn’t your dad get you out of community service?”
If hell froze over.
“In Dad’s universe, rules don’t bend. Everything is black or white. There is no gray.”
Lex glances at my hands locked tight around my legs. “Nervous about your first day?”
Anything is better than going back to Woodley. Not that it was an option. Mom met with the headmaster and begged him not to expel me and ruin my chance at getting into Stanford. But she wasn’t persuasive enough. Knowing Mom, she’s probably devastated.
The Stanford dream belonged to the old Frankie—a girl who learned how to spin the straw she was given into the gold everyone else wanted.
The old Frankie played up her cute features with makeup tricks, hunted for jeans that made her boyish figure appear curvier, and adopted the style of her favorite fashion bloggers because she didn’t trust her own. At parties, lots of fake giggling and bathroom trips to flush vodka shots down the toilet allowed her to act cool without doing anything that could jeopardize the Plan. A nothing-special-but-cute-enough girl who landed the captain of the lacrosse team because he’d had a crush on her since they were kids.
It’s hard to believe I was ever that girl.
I lean against the headrest. “Monroe has to be an improvement.”
“Was the first day at Woodley really that bad?”
“It was basically the seventh circle of hell. People taped notes and cards all over Noah’s locker and left flowers and teddy bears on the floor in front of it.”
“Woodley is full of attention whores. Getting kicked out of that place was a relief.” Lex has been expelled from four private schools in two years, beginning with Woodley—not easy to pull off when you’re the daughter of a senator. Lex takes pride in her academic rap sheet because every expulsion embarrasses her mother with her socialite friends.
She turns onto Bellflower Parkway, where the garden apartment complexes end and the nicest of the low-income developments in the Downs begin. Tan brick buildings with barred windows line the street, identical except for the collections of plastic high chairs, toys, and tricycles piled on the balconies.
Monroe High is only a few blocks away, in the good section of a bad neighborhood. But barred windows are barred windows.
Lex rakes her fingers through her hair, messing it up a little. “At least we’re finally at the same school again.”
A few months ago I would’ve loved the idea. But now I just want to start over. As much as I love Lex, that’s harder to do with her around.
She glances at me, her lips pressed together.
Crap. That was my cue to act excited. I suck. “I know you have other friends at Monroe, Lex. I don’t expect you to hang out with me all the time.”
A hint of disappointment flickers across her face. “If you keep dressing like that, I won’t. Your shirt looks like it came from the donation pile at the Salvation Army.”
I used to waste hours shopping. Not anymore. “Think of it as my attempt to fit in.”
She eyes my frayed white button-down and faded skinny jeans. “With who? Meth heads? Are you trying to ruin my carefully crafted image at Monroe?”
Lex reinvents herself whenever she switches schools. Judging by her smudged eye liner and the combo of skinny jeans and kitten heels, she has rocker chic nailed.
“So what did you go with this time?” I ask. “Rich and Misunderstood Hottie? Or Unattainable New Girl Who Doesn’t Give a Shit?”
She gives me a mischievous smile. “Scandalous Bad Girl with a Secret. A triple threat.”
“I guess that makes me Screwed-Up Girl with Secrets She Can’t Remember.”
Her smile vanishes. “You can’t change the past.”
Not if you can’t remember it.
Lex pulls into the parking lot. “A new school is a clean slate.” “I hope so.”
Instead of tennis courts and a swimming pool, Monroe has drug-free zone signs posted every ten feet and temporary classrooms that look like orange shipping containers on the front lawn.
“Are you ready for this?” Lex asks. “Ready is a relative term.”
“You could get a private tutor instead,” Lex teases. “It’s not too late to guilt-trip your mom into letting you come home.”
“Yes, it is.”
It was too late the moment Noah’s head hit the ground. Once the rumors spread through the Heights like bird flu, too late came and went.
The only thing left is now.
In Lot B, we drive past dozens of restored muscle cars and rusted-out Hondas. A vintage black pickup with yellow flames painted on the sides eases into a space in front of us, and Lex stops.
Outside my window, a group of guys stand huddled around a midnight-blue Mustang, checking out the engine. Noah and his friends from the lacrosse team used to form an almost identical huddle whenever one of them showed up with a new car. Except they were more interested in the upgrades inside than what was underneath the hood. Noah and his friends lived in lacrosse T-shirts or wrinkled button-downs with the sleeves rolled, and they all projected the same brand of confidence that comes from growing up with money.
In Lot B, there isn’t a button-down in sight except mine. Instead, the guys wear low-slung jeans, have tattoos, and they are marked with the kind of confidence you earn.
The dark-haired guy standing closest to the Fiat leans over the side of the Mustang, looking under the hood. The black ink on his arm catches my eye. A pile of skulls begins at his wrist. Above them, more tattoos snake their way over his light brown skin—a tree twists up from the skulls and one of the branches transforms into the stem of a black rose. Tribal lines curve from its center and disappear under the sleeve of his dark gray T-shirt.
He looks over as if he senses me watching him. Dark eyes lock on mine. I stop breathing for a second. Guys at Woodley don’t look like this—rough, inked, and muscular. His hair sticks up in the front like he started spiking it and lost interest halfway through the process.
He tilts his head, and a ghost of a smile crosses his lips.
The Fiat lurches forward and Lex swears under her breath. “Are you insane, Frankie? We’re not in Kansas anymore. You can’t stare at people from the Downs. They’re not like the kids at Woodley.”
I’m not naive. Washington Heights and Meadowbrook Downs didn’t get their nicknames by accident. Money is the dividing line—the street you live on, the type of car you drive, and whether your family has a country club membership matter more than anything else.
Lex gestures at a Chevy with a spoiler that looks like it’s worth more than the car. “I mean, who puts a spoiler on a piece of junk like that? You have to walk into this place like you know you’re better than them, or they’ll eat you alive.”
“Are you listening to yourself right now? Because you sound like my mom, and that’s scary. And hello? Your dad is from the Downs.”
“That’s the reason the Senator spends so much time trying to clean it up. If he knew I was driving you to the rec center, he would freak.”
“But you and Abel went to some Monroe parties last year when I was out with Noah.” I push away the memory of sitting in a movie theater with my head on Noah’s shoulder, our hands bumping in the popcorn bucket.
Lex turns into Lot A and slips into an empty space between an Audi and a Lexus. “Most of those parties were near your dad’s apartment, and one of them was up the street from my house. We’re not the only people from the Heights at Monroe. All the private-school rejects go here.”
“I know how it works.” Everyone does.
Parents in the Heights are always bitching about it. The county is divided up into zones based on income, and every public school has one wealthy neighborhood and one poor neighborhood that feed into it. The rest fall somewhere in between and make up the difference.
A zip code in the Heights means you end up at Monroe. Technically, we’re only ten miles from the Heights, but it feels like ten thousand. That’s why parents send their kids to private schools like Woodley Prep if they can afford it.
“So you’ve never been to a party in the Downs? Not even once?”
Lex glares at me. “You couldn’t pay me to show up at one of those parties.”
“Do you know elitist that sounds?”
She flips opens the visor and checks her makeup in the mirror. “I’m a realist, and you sound like a Peace Corps volunteer. Let’s see how elitist you think I am by lunch.”
I stare out the window, hoping to check out the other students . . . or the hot guy with the tattoos. Lot A doesn’t look much different from the parking lot at the country club. Aside from a few Acuras, Honda SUVs, and Jeeps, it’s packed with Audis, BMWs, Mercedes, and random sports cars like the Fiat. Judging from the jocks dressed like Abercrombie & Fitch models and the number of people holding Starbucks cups, no one from the Downs parks in this lot.
The cups are the real giveaway.
Dad’s partner, Tyson, complains that the Downs is the only place on earth without a Starbucks.
“Is there assigned parking at Monroe?” I ask.
Lex gets out and adjusts the black studded leather bag on her shoulder. “No. Why?”
I look around. “It doesn’t seem like anyone from the Downs parks here.”
She locks the car. “They don’t. By choice. They probably think we’ll ding their custom paint jobs. Who knows?” She heads for the main building on the opposite side of the street. “Most Monroe students hang out with people from their own neighborhood. And don’t give me that judgey look. I only transferred here last year. I’m not responsible for the social hierarchy.”
“Social hierarchy? Wasn’t that a vocab term from our SAT prep class?” I’ve missed teasing Lex.
I follow her across the quad in front of a huge redbrick building, along with what seems like half the student body. Ahead of us, two girls dressed in Marc Jacobs drink Frappuccinos and text a few feet away from three guys wearing their jeans so low that I can read Tommy Hilfiger’s name on their boxer briefs. To their credit, the guys hike up their jeans whenever they slide down past the halfway point on their asses. Give them belts and they’re practically ready for cotillion.
Ass-riding jeans aside, Monroe isn’t as bad as the private-school crowd thinks. I expected metal detectors and drug dealers handing out dime bags on the lawn.
This I can handle.
Before we make it to the sidewalk, the shouting starts.
“Marco! I heard you were trying to get with my girl.” A huge guy wearing a Baltimore Ravens jersey steps in front of a curvy redhead spilling out of her tank top—most likely the girlfriend in question. He stalks across the grass in our direction, looking big enough to be a linebacker for the Ravens.
Lex throws her head back and sighs. “Now we’re going to be late for class. I don’t know why these losers can’t beat the crap out of each other off campus.”
“Is it like this all the time?”
She rolls her eyes. “Only on slow days.”
I catch a glimpse of his target . . . the linebacker called him Marco.
It’s the guy with the tattoos who smiled at me in Lot B, and up close he’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous. I try not to stare at the black ink on his arm. I’ve seen tattoos before, but his are different—powerful and hypnotic.
He doesn’t notice me.
A girl with a thick mane of black waves pulled into a high ponytail stands beside Marco. The combination of her delicate features and the way she’s staring down the linebacker with her arms crossed gives her a pretty but tough vibe. Her white tank, dark jeans, and old-school gray-and-red Nike high-tops are borderline tomboy.
It’s a look I wish I could pull off.
“Leone!” The linebacker points at Marco. “I’m talking to you.”
The pretty girl with the ponytail grabs Marco’s sleeve. “Walk away. He’s a little bitch.”
Marco’s expression is calm and calculating, as if he knows something the rest of us don’t. He crosses the lawn and stops in front of the linebacker, only a few feet away from Lex and me. “You really want to do this, Coop?”
The other guy’s jaw twitches. “Nobody tries to take what’s mine.”
What’s his? He’s talking about the redhead like she’s a personal possession—a jacket or a textbook he can toss into his locker.
“It’s not my problem if you can’t keep your girl happy,” Marco says. “But don’t worry. She’s not my type.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” The linebacker’s hands curl into fists.
Marco cracks a cocky smile. “I’m not into girls who only look good from the neck down.”
The guy in the Ravens jersey throws the first punch, and it catches Marco above the eye. Marco staggers, his feet criss-crossing.
Lex tries to yank me back, but there’s a wall of people behind us now.
Marco regains his balance and charges. He jabs an uppercut into the linebacker’s stomach, and the guy keels over, groaning and clutching his gut. Marco stands over him. “If you come at me like that again, you’ll end up with more than a couple of scratches on your face.”
As he turns to walk away, the linebacker pushes himself onto his knees. “I’d still look better than your sister.”
The girl with Marco gasps and covers her mouth. I have no idea what the guy means, but everyone else seems to know. Whispers ripple through the crowd, and a few people call out.
“No, he didn’t.” “Beat his ass, Marco.”
Marco’s cocky grin instantly vanishes. He charges and grabs the linebacker by the shoulders of his jersey. Marco jerks the linebacker down and simultaneously brings up his knee to meet the guy’s nose. The linebacker’s head snaps back violently on impact, and blood sprays across the grass.
I suck in a sharp breath, and the sky tilts.
Deep breath. Don’t freak out.
A wave of dizziness crashes over me. My mind spins. I hear the crowd urging Marco on, the crack of bone against bone, as my vision blurs. . . .
I’m in the parking lot next to the club.
Noah gives me the look—the signal that means, don’t come over here. I drop to my knees and duck between two cars. The wet asphalt smells like beer and stale cigarettes, but I don’t care. I have a clear view of Noah, and that’s what matters.
The guy closes in on him. Why can’t I see his face? He’s talking to Noah.
No . . . yelling at him.
Heavy boots hit the asphalt. Cars speed by on the street behind me. An arm swings. A fist hits Noah’s jaw, and he staggers.
I can’t see him anymore. Where is he now?
Something moves under the streetlights, and I see it—his baby– blue shirt. But it’s not blue anymore. It’s red.
Another fist rockets toward Noah’s face. I don’t hear the crack, but I swear I feel it.
One thought runs through my mind over and over. . . .
I can’t let him hurt Noah again. I have to do something.
The linebacker has his back to me, and I lunge at him from behind, pulling and clawing his shirt.
“Frankie!” Lex yells.
The guy pivots in my direction without looking, and his elbow catches me in the stomach.
A jolt of pain hits, forcing the air out of my lungs, and I gasp.
Flashes of color, faces, the sky—it all spins by me in a split second—and I’m falling.
My back hits the grass. I hear Dad’s voice in my head: If someone gets you on the ground, roll into a ball and keep your face covered.
I shield my face, but my stomach cramps, and I can’t pull up my knees.
Voices bombard me from every side. “Someone help her!”
“Holy shit.” “Is she okay?”
“I didn’t see her.” A guy’s voice. “I swear.”
I open my eyes, expecting to see cars, streetlights, and the side of the club’s marquee with The Sugar Factory lit up in neon pink. Instead, sunlight blinds me. It’s not dark outside. A guy leans over me, blocking the sun . . . a guy I recognize. A redbrick building looms behind him. I’m not in the club parking lot.
Think. I try to clear my head. I’m at Monroe. With Lex. Lot A. The fight. A hot guy with tattoos . . .
“I thought you were one of his boys.” His chest heaves like he’s still out of breath from the fight. The hot guy . . . Marco.
My heart pounds, echoing in my ears.
“Are you okay?” Marco reaches for me, then pulls his hand back.
“Yeah.” I nod in case he didn’t hear me.
A trickle of blood runs down his cheek from a cut above his eye, but he doesn’t wipe it off. The girl who was hanging out with Marco before the fight stands behind him, watching me. “Did she hit her head? She might have a concussion.”
“Move!” Lex yells, shoving people aside. She puts herself between me and Marco. “Get away from her!”
Marco sits back on his heels, arms hanging at his sides as if he’s waiting for her to punch him. He looks younger and less dangerous. “I didn’t see her,” he repeats.
“It was an accident.” The girl with Marco rests her hand on his shoulder.
Lex drops down beside me. “Did that psycho hurt you?” “I’m fine.” A dull pain throbs in the pit of my stomach. The guy in the Ravens jersey groans and rolls onto his side.
Blood spatters cover the front of his shirt, and one of his eyes has swollen shut. Two of his friends drag him to the nearest tree and prop him up.
Without the bleeding linebacker next to us, I’m the main attraction. Just what I need on my first day at a new school. On the upside, getting knocked on my ass distracted the crowd. Hopefully, no one noticed me zoning out.
I stand up too fast and my legs turn into Jell-O. The ground slips out from under me, and Marco springs to his feet. He reaches for my elbow, but Lex beats him to it.
She slaps his hand away. “Don’t touch her.” The pretty tomboy raises her eyebrows.
Marco steps back, his eyes locked on mine. The intensity of his gaze—the way he’s staring directly at me—isn’t helping my Jell-O legs situation.
“You okay, Angel?” Another question lingers in his eyes, but I don’t know what he’s asking.
“Clear this area now!” a deep voice thunders across the quad. Within seconds, a man about Dad’s age, with strong features and salt-and-pepper hair, crosses the lawn. Judging by his turtleneck and pressed jeans, he’s a teacher.
He points at Marco. “Not you, Leone. Stay right where you are.”
Marco raises his hands and clasps them behind his head like he’s under arrest. “Whatever you say, Mr. S.”
Mr. S takes one look at Lex shielding me from Marco and shoves him toward the sidewalk. Then he turns to me. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” How many times do I have to say it?
“Are you sure?” He has kind eyes and a soothing voice, now that he’s not shouting.
“She’s okay, really, Mr. Santiago.” Lex hooks her arm through mine.
Mr. Santiago notices the guy in the bloody Ravens jersey near the sidewalk. “Why aren’t I surprised to see you here, Mr. Cooper?” He snaps his fingers at the linebacker’s friends. “Take him to the nurse. I want him out of my sight.” Mr. Santiago zeroes in on Marco and points at the main building. “Start walking, Leone. You know the way.”
With Marco safely on the sidewalk, Lex grabs my shoulders. “What were you thinking, Frankie?” She closes her eyes for a second. When she opens them again, I see it in her eyes. Pity. “Don’t answer that. Come on. I’ll drive you home.”
Lex thinks I’m too fragile to hold it together, but she’s wrong. I’m like a broken bone that wasn’t set correctly. I might not heal perfectly, but I will heal.
I brush off my shirt and pick up my purse and backpack. “I’m not leaving.”
“Do you always have to be so stubborn?” I respond by crossing my arms.
Lex sighs. “I should’ve asked Mr. Santiago to write us a note.
We’re late for class.”
“Is he the principal?”
“Security guard.” Lex leads me across the quad, her arm looped through mine. “Welcome to Monroe.”
Beautiful Bad Boy
“Blue slip.” My English teacher—Mrs. Hellstrom, according to my schedule—extends her hand without so much as a glance in my direction. Lex insisted on walking me to my first class, and now I’m standing in the front of the room while everyone stares.
“I don’t have one. Just my schedule.” I hold it out to her.
Mrs. Hellstrom doesn’t look up from the book in front of her. She’s a serious-looking woman with pasty skin and thin, penciled-in eyebrows. “You need to go to the office. I can’t add you to the roster without a blue slip.”
A few students take advantage of the distraction and whip out their cell phones. A guy in the back is asleep, with his head on his desk. The girl sitting next to him has violet-and- brown ombré hair, and she’s painting her nails a matching shade of purple. None of the girls at my old school would’ve had the guts to dye their hair like hers.
At Woodley, standing out wasn’t a good thing, unless it involved scoring the “it” bag of the season or putting a unique spin on the currently accepted style. I always played it safe, choosing skinny jeans—from the dozens of almost identical pairs stacked in my closet—a simple top or tee under a fitted leather jacket, and cute flats or boots. I never cut my hair too short or grew it too long.
Pretty enough without stressing about it—that was my look.
At Monroe, the old sneakers and ratty button-down I’m wearing would fall into the category of not trying at all.
Mrs. Hellstrom notices everyone messing around and smacks her book shut. “People, this is not study hall. You can complete the questions on the required summer reading book in class now or in detention later. The choice is yours.”
A chorus of groans travels through the room, followed by the sound of papers rustling. Two girls in the front row stare at my tiny purse and laugh.
Mrs. Hellstrom turns to me. “Front office. Blue slip.”
I close the door and consider going back to Dad’s apartment, but I don’t have a car anymore, and I’m not busing it. I shove my stupid purse that probably screams the Heights into my backpack.
Finding the office isn’t easy. Monroe is four times the size of my old school, and the hallways look identical—rows of powder-blue lockers, white cinder-block walls, and bulletin boards decorated with a tiny bearded leprechaun in a tailcoat, holding up his fists. Yeah, that’s the mascot every high school wants.
I spot the office. A banner with the leprechaun in the corner hangs over the door: JAMES MONROE HIGH SCHOOL, HOME OF THE FIGHTING BARONS.
Behind a long counter inside, a lady with teased blond hair and an armload of brassy charm bracelets reads a magazine. Dad wasn’t kidding. She looks exactly like Dolly Parton.
Dolly Parton notices me and tears herself away from the magazine that she pretends she’s not reading. “Shouldn’t you be in class? If you need the nurse, she’s down the hall.”
“It’s my first day, and my English teacher, Mrs. Hellstrom, sent me here to get a blue slip.”
She pushes her hot-pink reading glasses higher on the bridge of her nose and lets out a long breath. I’m clearly cutting into her reading time. “Take a seat. I’ll be with you as soon as I finish this paperwork.” I’m assuming that’s code for magazine. “Thanks.” Hopefully, she won’t finish until English class is over.
I choose a chair in the corner and close my eyes. This day feels like it will never end, and it’s only first period.
Door hinges creak, and my eyes fly open.
A woman stuffed into a gray suit that’s at least one size too small steps aside to let someone leave her office. “Don’t go anywhere, Mr. Leone. We are not finished here.”
Marco saunters out, hands in the pockets of his low-slung jeans, his black high-tops untied. My eyes are instantly drawn to the tribal lines inked on his arm, the intricate details beckoning me to come closer.
“Yes, ma’am.” He flashes her a lopsided grin. There’s no sign of the angry fighter I saw in the quad earlier. He taps on the counter as he passes Dolly Parton. “What’s up, Mrs. Lane?”
Mrs. Lane scowls. “I’m tired of seeing you in here. Why don’t you try behaving yourself for a week and see what happens?”
“I’d miss you too much.” Marco grins at her, and turns away from the counter. He sees me and the dimple vanishes. His gaze darts between the empty chairs.
If there is a god, please don’t let this guy sit next to me.
My mouth goes dry as he approaches. Marco drops into the vinyl chair across from mine, which is worse than if he sat next me, because now I have nowhere to look except at him.
Apparently, God is alive and well, and he has a sense of humor.
Marco rubs the back of his head, where the hair is cut closer to his scalp. It’s longer in the front, and I like the way it sticks up all over the place. He seems nervous and clears his throat. “Are you—?”
Not again. “I’m fine.”
I hold up three fingers in the shape of a W. “Girl Scout promise.” I cringe. Those words did not just come out of my mouth.
He raises an eyebrow, and his cocky attitude returns. “Are you here to give your testimony?”
“The fight. Did you get called in to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, Angel?”
Why does he keep calling me that? It must be an insult.
“No one called me in. I need a blue slip.” Why am I explaining myself to him? Or talking to him in the first place?
Marco leans forward and props his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands between his long legs. “So are all the schools in the Heights full?”
“Just wondering how you ended up at Monroe. Nobody from the Heights wants to transfer here.”
How am I supposed to respond? Say something funny and risk offending him?
“I needed to start over,” I blurt out.
“I can get you that blue slip now,” Mrs. Lane waves me over, her brass bangles jingling.
I pick up my backpack and rush toward the counter. In a graceful move, I bump into Marco’s leg and almost trip.
“Sorry,” I mumble without turning around.
At the counter, I hand Mrs. Lane my schedule and watch as she writes each word. Anything to avoid looking at him. Marco’s eyes burn into my back, and warmth spreads through my cheeks. Another minute and I’m out of here.
Mrs. Lane hands me the blue slip, and I snatch it out of her hand.
I’m halfway out the door when Marco calls after me. “See you around, Angel.”