Enjoy Chapter One of my YA Novel: Here’s The Truth
A rape, a stabbing and a secret get seventeen year old Danielle Elizabeth White, a talented artist, an thirty-month sentence to a juvenile correctional facility. A felony charge and prison time will kill her shot at getting accepted into the Portland College of Art, further damage the already shaky relationship with her mother, and prevent her from protecting her best friend, Kelsey, from her abusive stepfather. As Dani makes both allies and enemies with the juveniles, she realizes there is no limit to how much bad can happen to one person. When one of Dani’s closest friends dies in the facility, she settles into a deeper kind of truth: secrets can kill. With this new understanding, she finally discloses what really happened that day when she witnessed her best friend getting raped by Larry, the stepfather. Dani’s edgy, often humorous and visceral narrative takes the reader on her journey as she makes painful and insightful discoveries about life, love and friendships, allowing her to begin to mend the relationship with her mother and fuel a renewed hope in her future as an artist.
I used to think living was harder than swimming through glue. But now, since I’ve been locked up in juvie for the past three months, I realize that my pre-jail life was a freaking breeze. Jail will do that to you; change your mind about things. A person can do a shitload of thinking over the course of two thousand one hundred and forty hours. Trust me. I’ve thought A LOT about what I did to get myself tossed in an eight by ten foot cell, staring out the tiny window on the back wall. And there’s nothing to look at but the tall wire fence that wraps around the place like a giant handcuff.
Here’s The Truth: Love is not always hugs and roses or whatever. No. Love is more like mud. You sink into it and leave a light foot print or a dark boot print on a person’s heart. The foot print feels good and the boot print hurts. I know all about leaving behind the ones that cause pain. I left a deep one on my best friend, Kelsey’s heart. I left another one on my mother’s heart when I got arrested and shipped to the Maine Sea View Correctional Facility. (By the way, there is no view of the sea.) And, unfortunately for my mother, I don’t have a father, a grandmother, or any siblings that could help her through the whole mess.
On the day of my arrest, Wednesday, May 7th to be exact, I didn’t know anything about leaving painful boot prints on hearts. No. I had to learn this stuff in jail. If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve hit the pause button, taken a second to think about what I was doing and the consequences that would follow. Like, maybe I wouldn’t be the NOT-so-super proud juvie with a colorful rap sheet. I’ve been arrested. TWICE. The first time I was put on probation last February. The second time, I violated probation in a couple of BIG ways. You know that stupid saying that hindsight is 20/20? Well, it turns out, it’s not so stupid. There were three solid reasons why I should have known that something was wrong with my best friend Kelsey that fated day. First, she hadn’t returned any of my texts since the night before. Second, when I walked into art class there was no Kelsey. Sure. Maybe she was sick. I mean germs hung around the school like mosquitoes hovering above a stagnant pond. Seriously. It’s gross. But Kelsey NEVER missed school. And the third and most important reason I should have known was the presence of that weird tingle in my left hand that I get before bad shit goes down. I’ve always had it. I’m not psychic or anything. It just happens and I don’t have an explanation for it.
Plus, the other odd thing that happened was the strange, abstract questions my art teacher, Mr. I’m-All-About-Love Leeman asked five minutes after we walked into class. It was like a sign or something. Not that I believed in signs before, but I do now.
Leeman said, Love, can you give it color? And if you were able to wrap it around you and run your hand along its surface, what would the texture be? Lift the fabric to your nose, inhale deeply. What scent do you taste on your tongue?
What kind of a mind comes up with those weird questions? I wanted to say, “Hey, Mr. L, you smell a scent. You don’t taste it.” But I blinked instead as I stared at my blank paper propped up on a wooden, floor-standing easel. My charcoal pencils, the kind that peeled when I tugged on the string, lay in the easel drawer.
The more I thought about his questions, the more they collected in the back of my throat until I coughed. If he’d asked me to sketch hate, or anger, I could have done that without having to inhale it, or wrap some imaginary fabric around me like a cape. Besides Kelsey, anger and hate had been my best companions for a long time. But no, he asked us to draw love. Here’s what I loved: BIRDS. The letters—each one alone—took their shape. The long thin L—the neck of a swan; the perfect round O—a robin’s nest; the V—the formation of a flock of Canada Geese; and the E—the talons of an eagle.
“If you’ve yet to be bit by the infatuation bug,” Leeman smiled, “think of another kind of love. Don’t confine yourselves to romantic love.”
No problem there. I never had a real boyfriend, but I did have guys who were my friends. Friends only, like Richie. He worked next to me in that class. It was no secret (at least not to me) that he kind of had a crush on me. But NO WAY was I jumping off that cliff. It would’ve ruined our friendship. Plus, I made a pact with myself to never have a boyfriend for two reasons: 1. Once a guy gets sex, they leave, like my sperm donor did. And 2. I wasn’t going to turn out like my mother, have a kid I couldn’t afford, and go begging to the state for help just to get by.
Richie was cool though, as a friend, I mean. I liked listening to Dead tunes in his car after school sometimes. His uncle was a bona fide Dead Head. He hooked Richie and Richie hooked me. Even Kelsey could get into a couple of their songs, like “Scarlet Begonia.”
I glanced over at Richie and could tell by the frown on his face, Leeman’s love and fabric questions were a challenge for him, too.
He ran his lanky fingers through his Jesus hair and asked, “What about like lovin’ an instrument?”
Leeman said, “If that’s what your muse is whispering to you, go ahead and follow it.”
I muffled a laugh, turned my head to the right, and stared at Kelsey’s blank easel, the empty space where she should have been standing, rolling her eyes. I never really gave it a lot of head space before, but I did love Kelsey. And that’s when the tingle in my hand crawled all the way up my arm. I would have lain down on train tracks for her. I also loved my mom, but then, in the BEFORE-JAIL days as I like to call them, I was so busy being pissed off at her, I never got that warm fuzzy feeling when I was around her.
I let myself think about Mom as I picked up the fat gray-tipped pencil and rolled it between my fingers until it became an extension of my hand. A Weeping Willow took root on the paper, hovered over the park where the white-throated sparrows flew. I reached out my thumb, smudged the bark of the tree.
The light, thick foliage hung like Mom’s hair after one of her double shifts at the 7-Eleven when she’d drag her body around the apartment, sighing into empty rooms. Ever since my arrest in February, her sighs were so loud and heavy I could hear them from my room and knew it was thoughts of me that gave those sighs their weight.
All because of that kick-ass mural I painted on the outside back wall of my high school on a freezing cold night three short months ago. Took forever to paint those loons. Their round spots, cloud white against their black feathered backs, were perfect. With a few cans of paint, I sprayed them swimming in a clear lake, hemmed in by fat Cat O’Nine Tails. Added a couple of towering pines, too, shading those speckled birds as they hung out on the side of the school. As much as I freaking loved it, the mural didn’t go over so well. I was charged with vandalizing school grounds and suspended for a week. The judge placed me on probation for six months. Then he slapped me with an eight-hundred dollar fine, which was what it cost the school to have the mural grit-blasted off the brick. I spent ten Saturdays in a row scrubbing graffiti off the sides of buildings throughout Portland to work it off.
As Leeman walked from one drawing to the next, he paused and stared with a perpetual frown on his face. Not because he was depressed or pissed off, but because he studied our work like he wanted to understand where our ideas came from. Kind of like I wanted to understand where his came from. But still no luck there.
Standing over me, he tugged at his red beard hairs, cocked his head to the left, then to the right, crossed his arms, leaned in close, and then took a few steps back.
I clicked my tongue, waiting for Leeman to arch a brow that was always code for, “Maybe you should rethink what you’re doing.” I reached out with my charcoal pencil and darkened the sparrow’s wing and asked him what he thought about it, wishing like crazy that Kelsey would walk through the door. She was my biggest fan.
Leeman rocked on his feet, held his beard again. He was always doing that, like he was afraid it was going to fall off. “Very good. The shades of gray give a feel of sadness to the tree.”
A thrill rippled up my spine and then drilled through bone when Leeman said, “Dani, you’re talented. If you keep applying yourself, building your portfolio, you’ll be an excellent candidate for Portland College of Art.” He walked over to his desk, pulled out a drawer, grabbed a brochure and handed it to me. “I want you to read that. If you’re interested, I’ll give you a contact to set up an informational interview so you can learn more about the college and what they offer.”
I’d never wanted to be anything but an artist since I was six. “Thanks, Mr. L, but Mom doesn’t have that kind of cash.”
“There are scholarships and loans. Don’t worry about funding. Let’s get you in first.” He shot out a hand. “Deal?”
We shook on a dream that would never happen, because those kinds of lofty dreams didn’t come true for kids like me.
When the last period bell rang, I shoved my math book into my knapsack and hightailed it to my locker, searching the stream of faces for Kelsey. We’d been best friends for ten years, and I never let her down. There had to be a way for me to see her before her psycho stepfather got home from work. Even though she hadn’t told me everything that had gone down at home, I knew her stepdad knocked her around. He was a class A dick. Every time I noticed another bruise on her wrist and asked her what was up, she told me not to worry about it. Fat chance. I did. All the time.
Six months after her clueless mother, Lola married Larry, Kelsey started giving away her Raspberry and Fluffernutter sandwiches at lunch and dropped a bunch of weight. Believe me, Kelsey was not the Raspberry-and-Fluffernutter-sandwich-giveaway kind of girl. So that’s when I did something drastic. I drew the mural on the school. For her. I thought the white speckled birds might lighten the dark mood that had crawled inside her. But nothing changed. It got worse and I had to tell her to take a shower because she was starting to smell like that guy who worked with my mother at the 7-Eleven. Kelsey stared at me with that dull look in her eyes, and said, “Good. Maybe everyone will stay the hell away from me.”
Locker doors clanked around me as I spun my dial to five, around to nine, back to four, hoping Kelsey would magically show up. When I yanked down on the lock, it didn’t release. On my third try when I was getting ready to kick my foot through the door, it opened. I chucked my books inside then slammed it shut. The locker situation was a mild annoyance compared to the many hurdles I had to jump that day. If Mom didn’t have to work a double shift I would have been screwed. Here’s why: I was on probation and had to be in my house everyday by 3:00 p.m. unless I played a sport, which I didn’t, or if I needed to stay after for extra help, which I did, but had no intention of sitting with my scratch-your-eyes-out boring math teacher, Mr. Mind-Numbing Cummings, for a nanosecond longer than I was forced to. Mom was clear: if I broke curfew, she’d call Cheryl, my probation officer, herself.
Oh, yeah, another important point to mention. I was forbidden to see Kelsey. After I got arrested for the mural fiasco, Mom said to find new friends because my days of hanging with Kelsey were over. An angel face on the body of a demon, she said. I swore she had nothing to do with it, but Mom laughed. “Yeah, right, and I won Megabucks.” And sweet, loving Larry told Kelsey that I was no longer allowed to go to their apartment, because I was nothing but a white-trash felon. The felon part wasn’t true and neither was the white-trash part. Who knows what her mom, Lola, thought.
Outside of school, Kelsey and I snuck around like Romeo and Juliet to see each other, plan where and when to meet, mostly through texting. No. We’re not gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And, yes, I know Romeo and Juliet didn’t have cell phones. I just feel like their situation is a good analogy.
I ran out to the school parking lot, hoping I’d catch Richie before he took off. Maybe he’d offer up his wheels and help me out. I was so psyched when I spotted him leaning up against his beat-up ’98 Chevy. I jogged toward him and yelled, “Hey, Richie. Wait up.”
When I reached him, I knew he’d been smoking weed. His eyes were all bloodshot, as usual.
“Hey, Bird,” he said, smiling, “Wanna share a doobie?”
Richie was the only person who called me Bird. A nickname I earned because of my obsession with them. And he knew I wasn’t into weed, but he always asked me anyway, because he was sure one day I’d cross over to the blissful side.
“Mind giving me a lift to Kelsey’s?”
“Thought you had, to like, cruise on home after school?” He opened the back door, tossed his backpack in and closed it gently, because according to Richie, his baby is fragile.
“Thought maybe you could write me a note.” I tugged on the hem of my gray hoodie, and offered Richie the biggest smile I could muster up given how I felt. “You know, that I had to stay after for some extra help with math.”
“Damn, Bird. You know I don’t need any more hassles.” He reached a hand into his jean pocket and pulled out his keys that hung from a giant silver pot-leaf key chain. “And you don’t either.”
“I’m just going over there to check on her. I never heard back from her last night and she wasn’t in school. If I hurry, I can probably make it home by 3:30.”
Richie pulled a rubber band from his wrist, tied his hair back and sighed. “Girls,” he said as he walked around to the passenger side of the car and opened the door. “Let’s roll.”
I walked over, slapped him on the back. “Thanks, Richie. I totally owe you one.”
Kelsey’s apartment was less than a mile away, but I didn’t want to waste the time walking. Not to mention that I lived in the city and the way my luck had played out for a good part of my seventeen years on the planet, I would have been spotted by my PO. It’s sort of ironic when you think about it. If she’d nabbed me on the street, I wouldn’t have landed in here. Jail, I mean.
On the ride over, I called Mom and left her a message that I needed to spend extra time with my math teacher to prepare for an upcoming exam. Everything was working out perfectly.
When Richie pulled up in front of Kelsey’s apartment, he wrote a quick note for me, letting Mom know my math skills were improving. “You get busted, you weren’t with me. And I don’t know shit about that note,” he said. “Last thing I need is my dad up my ass.”
I made the sign of the cross over my chest. “Our secret,” I said. “You’re the best.” I shoved the note in my backpack and scanned the streets for Larry and Lola’s rusted-out gray Ford pickup. Nowhere in sight. I jumped out of the car, ran to the front door and booked it up the stairs to the second floor.
I knocked lightly, but Kelsey didn’t answer. When I turned the knob, it clicked and that damn tingling started in my hand again. I stepped into the apartment and snuck through the kitchen, grossed out by the dirty plates that were stacked a mile high in the sink. The coffee table was littered with empty Colt beer cans and an ashtray that overflowed with Old Gold butts. I could practically feel the stench of smoke stick to my clothes, like I did in our car when Mom lit up. Every time I walked into that depressing hovel, I wanted to pack up Kelsey’s stuff and take her to live with Mom and me.
One month after Larry and Lola tied the knot, the fat slug moved them out of our low income apartment complex because he said they deserved better. What a joke. Their place was a total dive. The mishmash of worn furniture was in worse shape than the couch and chairs Mom and I scrounged up from the Salvation Army. Not to mention the one-eyed deer head that hung on their living room wall. Who knows what happened to the other eye.
I walked quietly down the stained carpeted hallway. When I got to Kelsey’s room, her door was ajar. I pushed it open, but there was no Kelsey. I glanced up at Cinderella’s face, trapped inside the plastic-dome clock on her wall. It was close to three o’clock. Her room skeeved me out. It looked like it belonged to a five year old. She had never been to Disney World, but unfortunately for Kelsey, her step-cousin had, three times, and handed down Disney crap when she got tired of it. Snow White and her weird dwarves stared up at me from the bedspread. An ugly stuffed Minnie Mouse sat on one end of her bookshelf, while a plastic Donald Duck bank with a broken beak and chipped tail sat on the other. I felt like they were all glaring at me.
Kelsey hated her room as much as I did, but her mother forced her to keep all that junk on display, because they had been gifts from her generous step-cousin. Her mother’s favorite motto was, “You should be grateful. Not hateful.”
“I’m going to donate this stuff someday,” Kelsey said to me. “And Mom won’t be able to stop me.”
I stared at Minnie Mouse and said aloud, “Donate it? You should’ve burned it all a long time ago.” As I left her Disney-creep-show room, I heard Kelsey’s muffled scream come from the bathroom across the hallway. An invisible hand ran the tip of an icicle down my back. I tiptoed to the living room and stared at Larry’s hunting knives that lay in a neat row inside a long rectangular glass case. I slid the door to the left and grabbed the one with the longest blade. My left hand tingled like someone was poking my skin with a million needles as I headed toward the bathroom. I turned the knob slowly, opened the door and stepped into the L-shaped room.
Time slowed. A sneaker lay under the sink. The bathtub and toilet were around the corner, out of view. I walked toward the grunting noises, held my breath as I peeked around the wall. Larry had Kelsey pinned to the linoleum floor, her wrists held above her head with his right hand, and he clamped her mouth with the left, silencing her screams. Her cheek was pressed against the floor. The other sneaker was on her foot. Vomit traveled up my throat. Her faded yellow panties were bunched around her ankles. Kelsey blinked at me as if I was a stranger. The scar above her right eyebrow, where I nicked her with a stick playing swords when we were seven, stood out against her pale skin. I held a tingling finger to my mouth, praying she would keep quiet. Larry never heard me sneak up behind him because his pumps and grunts drowned out all other sounds.
I bowed over him, held the knife against his spine. “Get up real slow or I swear I’ll cut it off.”
Larry collapsed on top of Kelsey. “It’s not what you’re thinking,” He said, slurring his words. “She wanted it.”
The blade shook. I clasped my left hand around my right one to steady the handle. I swallowed, repulsed by his bare skin, by what he’d done. “Get off her.”
As he slowly climbed off my broken friend, Kelsey’s sweat-soaked hair clung to her forehead, tears streaked her milky skin. Half naked, she crawled across the floor, wedged herself between the toilet and bathtub, pulled her knees tight against her chest. “He’s drunk, Dani. He made me do it.”
Without taking my eyes off Larry, I said, “I promise he’ll never touch you again.” As Larry staggered while he yanked up his bleached-stained pants and tucked in his Stop and Drop dry cleaning uniform shirt, I said, “You’re a sick freak.” When the zipper on his trouser stuck, I fantasized about shoving the knife right through his heart.
I thought about it again when I glanced at Kelsey. She reached for her glasses beside the toilet, held them in her hand, staring at the frames as if she couldn’t remember what she was supposed to do with them. The circles under her eyes were so dark, they look bruised.
“Put them on,” I said. “And get dressed.”
Nodding, she shoved them on her face, cockeyed. She struggled to pull up her underpants and worn jeans that were too small like the rest of her clothes. Everything she owned (except her underpants and bras) was hand-me-downs from the same step-cousin who gave her all that Disney shit, which sucked for Kelsey, because her cousin was TWO inches shorter and THREE years younger.
Here’s what happened next as best as I can remember it: Larry spun around, grabbed my arm, and twisted it behind my back. He pulled the knife out of my hand. “You say a word and I can fuckin’ promise you, I’ll take a bat to your friend. Keep your mouth shut,” he said, gritting his teeth, “I’ll leave her alone. Won’t lay another finger on her.”
Kelsey, stiff as a garden statue, looked at me with numb eyes and that matted hair. “She won’t say anything. Please, Larry. Let her go.”
With his legs spread apart to anchor himself, Larry pinned me against the wall with a right arm under my neck. With his left hand, he held the edge of the knife to my throat and whispered, “It would only take one clean swipe.”
A scream caught in my throat. Sweat slid down my face, burned my eyes. Sometimes I can still smell the sick scent of stale beer on his breath that filled my nose when he said, “Right across the windpipe.”
I shifted my eyes away from his double chin and steel-gray eyes, sure he was going to run that blade across my throat. And that’s when Kelsey came up behind him and kicked him dead center between his legs. He was so wasted on Colt 45s, he stumbled back, dropped the knife, cupped his balls and coughed. “Bitch.”
“Run, Kelsey,” I said as I snatched the knife from the floor. But she didn’t move. Not an inch. She just stood there and stared at Larry with hate in her eyes.
He must have thought I was the one who kicked him, because he lunged at me. I held the knife out like a sword. My hand just thrust the silver blade into his stomach and sliced easily as if his flesh were the fine skin on a tomato.
Kelsey bit a knuckle, barely whispered, “We’ve got to get out of here.”
Larry clutched his wound, lost his footing and fell into the bathtub. Blood seeped through his fingers, dribbled on the white porcelain, snaked toward the drain. He writhed in the tub; his legs hung over the side. “For Christ Sake,” he moaned. “Get me some help.”
I threw the knife on the floor. Drops of blood splattered on my jeans. I grabbed Kelsey’s arm and yanked her from the bathroom. We ran down the hallway, through the kitchen, down the stairs and snuck out the front door. As two cars drove by, we waited until they turned a corner before we moved.
“What will happen to us if he dies, Dani?”
“He won’t. He’s too fat and the knife barley nicked him.” But the question that filled my mouth like a bag of marbles was how long did a person get for attempted murder? I shook it off, placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it lightly. “You’ll be safe at your aunt Sand’s.” Time was ticking away. I was sure Larry had already dragged himself out of the bathtub and called the Blues. “We have to hurry, Kelsey.”
We darted behind the apartment building, crawled through the broken slat in the fence, and didn’t stop running until we hit the wooded trail. Out of site, we stopped. My right hand, wet with Larry’s blood, trembled. I leaned over and puked on the side of the trail. A flock of crows squawked and burst from the pine tree. I wiped my mouth on my sleeve, picked up a handful of pine needles and rolled them between my hands. Kelsey backed up against a tree, slid down the trunk.
“How many times?” I asked her.
“I flunked my English test.” Red blotches dotted her skin. “Never gotten anything but an A in that class.”
There was an eerie vacancy in her eyes as if Larry climbed inside of her and snuffed out the sparkle that had always been there. I have to admit, at least three quarters of me wanted to go back and finish what I started, but I walked over to my friend, kneeled down beside her, and ran a hand down her arm. “I meant what I said, Kelsey. I promise you that he’ll never touch you again.”
“Swear on our friendship that you’ll never tell.” Kelsey slapped her hands over her face, revealing two bruised wrists. “He’ll beat me.”
“You saved my life in there.” I wrapped my arms around her, held her close. “I’ll never tell,” I said. “Never.”
Kelsey shivered in the cool air. She gently pushed me away. “You saved mine, too,” she said as she balled her right hand into a fist. I did the same and we touched, knuckle to knuckle, our way of making a promise.
Then, everything felt too small—my skin, Kelsey’s clothes, this life. I could feel time running out, like having thirty more questions to answer on a math test with only ten more minutes left to finish the exam. “Kelsey, we have to get our story straight.”
“Story?” She echoed.
“Listen, you weren’t there. You were never there.” I paused, looked up at the trees and back to Kelsey. “I’ll say that I came looking for you. The door was unlocked so I went in, but you weren’t around. And then Larry came home and freaked out because I wasn’t allowed to be there. We got into a fight. He pulled a knife on me. And then I’ll just say I kicked him and then tell them exactly what happened after that.”
“No,” Kelsey said. “I’m the only one who can back up your story.”
“Listen to me,” I said, placing my hands on her shoulders. “If you take my side and go against Larry, who knows what he’ll do to you. You weren’t there. Just tell your aunt that you felt like skipping school because you were bummed out about flunking that test. Say you spent the day at the park reading one of your books.” I shook her gently. “Do you understand?”
“But you’ll go to jail.” She wiped more tears from her face with a hand. “I can’t let you do this for me.”
“When I get caught, I’ll get out of it, Kelsey. Larry was drunk. The cops will believe me.” Even as I worked to convince Kelsey, somewhere deep inside of me, I wasn’t buying my own story. But it didn’t matter because I was doing this to keep Larry from beating her. And I owed Kelsey for saving my life. “I’ve got to try to see Mom before the cops find me.”
I helped her up and we ran through the woods. A small bubble of hope rose between my ribcage when we made it to the fence. We were only, like, five minutes away from her aunt’s house. From there, it would take me another ten minutes to get to the 7-Eleven. I clasped my hands together to create a step.
“I wish he was dead,” Kelsey said as she placed her hands between the wooden slats of the picket fence and stepped a foot into my laced hands. “Then he wouldn’t be able to tell the cops anything.”
“Then I’d get a murder rap,” I said, not knowing if I had killed him. I pushed the thought aside as I hoisted her up and gave her butt an extra shove to get her over the top, wishing I could believe that we were both going to be okay.
I wrapped my fingers around the top of the fence, anchored my feet to shimmy up the side when the sirens blew my hope apart. I swung my right leg over the post.
Kelsey pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Come on, Dani. You can make it.”
The cop car door slammed behind me. “Hold it!”
I thought about trying to make it over the fence, engaging in an all-out Bonnie-and-Clyde getaway, but the idea of a bullet ripping through my skin made me drop to the ground. I wasn’t Bonnie or Clyde. I had no car, no gun, just a pair of cheap sneakers. Plus, I wasn’t an athlete.
“Don’t move, Kelsey,” I whispered, “until I’m gone.” The wind picked up, brushed my face. I etched it into memory, afraid that I wouldn’t feel it again for a long time.