“Is that Donnie?” McNamara asked.
“Yes.” Grant met the cop’s frustrated gaze. With a nod to the now quiet, but still trembling child, Grant made it clear he wasn’t answering any more questions until Carson was out of earshot.
McNamara seemed to get it. He waved a uniformed cop and a paramedic toward the prone man, then turned back to Grant. “Are Ellie and her daughter still at the rink?”
“They should be.” Grant shifted Carson in his arms and patted his back pocket. Damn. Where was his phone? He must have dropped it. “Mac should be there with them by now. Did you send a patrol car?”
“I did. The officer should be there.”
“I’ll call Ellie and make sure she’s all right.” Grant coughed hard and forced a shout out of his raw throat. “Hannah, do you have a phone?”
His sister checked her pockets and shook her head. “I must have dropped it in the house.” She gasped.
Her coughing drew the attention of another paramedic, who sat her on the car bumper and slid a mask over her face. When he tried to take the baby, Hannah bumped his hand away and hugged her tighter.
Carson leaned away from Grant’s chest. He wiped his running nose with his forearm. “I have a phone, Uncle Grant.” He held out a cell phone.
Grant took it. “Where did you get this, Carson?”
“It slid out from under the seat in the van.” The little boy lifted a skinny shoulder.
“Is that your mom’s phone?” McNamara asked.
Carson shook his head. “She has the I one.”
This was no iPhone. It was a burner phone, with camera and video capabilities. Grant passed it to McNamara. The cop used the hem of his jacket to accept it. He turned it on.
While he scrolled through the phone Carson had found, McNamara handed Grant a cell. “Use this to call Ellie.”
The cop stepped away.
Grant dialed Ellie’s mobile number. The phone rang. And rang. And rang. Panic slid through his veins.
“She’s not answering.” Grant dialed his brother.
Mac picked up on the first ring. “I’ve been trying to call you. I just got here a few minutes ago. There’s a cop here with me. We haven’t found Ellie yet.”
McNamara’s hand settled on Grant’s forearm. “Hey, Carson, could you go make sure your Aunt Hannah is OK?”
“Keep looking,” Grant told his brother. “I’ll call you back in a minute.” Reluctantly, he set the boy down. Even the weight of the small body in his arms wasn’t enough to convince him that everyone had emerged from the fire relatively unscathed. Hannah and Nan were both alert and talking to the paramedics. Donnie was handcuffed and being loaded onto a stretcher. Disaster had been averted. But Grant’s instincts stirred uneasily in his chest. Until he saw Ellie and Julia, safe and well, he wouldn’t relax.
McNamara held the phone between them and hit Play. Everything inside of Grant went cold as he watched the video.
Every day is the same, a complete misery. The pills I’m taking now numb me out a little, but not enough. They make me tired, too. I’m sleeping better, but I haven’t finished my homework in weeks. In fact, I could sleep all day long and wish I didn’t have to wake up at all.
I. Just. Don’t. Care.
The waiting room walls are thin. I listen as the psychiatrist and my mom talk about me switching schools. Maybe going to some private academy not far away or homeschooling even.
The doctor nudges my mom in this direction. “You have to think about what is best for Lindsay.”
But Mom has this “never give up” attitude ingrained in her soul. It’s how she finished college in three years, got grants for graduate school, and taught herself to speak Spanish.
For a smart lady, she is fucking clueless.
“Aren’t I teaching her to be a quitter?” she asks. “Aren’t I enabling these other kids if I pull her out of school? Most people get teased or harassed at some point in our lives. What kind of life lesson am I teaching Lindsay if we surrender? If I let her quit the skating team, the other kids win. Lindsay loses. She needs to learn to stand up for herself.”
I block the rest of the conversation out. I’m a big disappointment to Mom. I can hear it in her voice. She wishes I was stronger, more like her.
Well, I’m not.
I feel like I’ve been sent into battle empty-handed. I have no options. No friends to support me. No weapons to fight back. Really, what can I do? They’re smarter than me. All of them. I am worthless.
I want to give up. Surrender. Just don’t make me go back to Scarlet Falls High. This morning, I flat-out told Mom I’m not going back to the skating rink. She can’t make me. The arena has become my Guantánamo Bay. I’m surprised Regan and Autumn haven’t tried waterboarding me in the locker room.
I don’t want to go back to school either. Talking with the shrink always makes me feel raw, exposed, as if my clothes have been peeled away and left me naked. But back we go. Mom signs me in just after noon. From the looks on the teachers’ faces when I walk in, they think I’m a whiner. Regan and Autumn have them all snowed. They are top students with disciplinary records as perfect as everything else. There’s no proof they’re behind any of the bullying. Actually, except for the texts of anonymous origin, there’s no proof any of it even happened. It’s all my word against theirs.
Dad is just pissed. He’s been down to the school six times, and he’s argued with the director of the arena. Each time, he comes home more frustrated. He’s not a confrontational guy, though. So when he and Mom fight about the situation, which is all the time, she wins. Last night, though, I heard him say, “I’ll give you until spring break. If things don’t improve, she’s out of there.”
“Hamiltons are not quitters,” was her response.
I get through the day without incident. This doesn’t happen very often, but have no fear. My locker is jammed. By the time I hunt down the custodian to help me get it open, I’ve missed the bus. I have a choice: wait an hour for the late bus or walk home through the woods. At the most, the trek will take fifteen minutes, and the last thing I want to do is stay at school for another hour. This place is my prison. I just want to go home, but I’m not calling Mom or Dad. Besides, Mom’s job is the closest, and it would take her a half hour just to get here. She’d taken the morning off for the appointment with the psychiatrist.
My favorite hours are the ones between school and when my parents get home, before the questions about my day begin.
“What happened today?”
“Did you write it down?”
I’m supposed to keep a log of all the bullying, but I only put about half the incidents in the notebook. Writing it down is like living it all over again. Once is enough, you know?
I don’t want to lose my alone hours today. I shut my locker and sling my backpack over my shoulder. The winter air slaps my face as I head out the door. On the bright side, I avoided a nasty bus ride with lots of staring. Shivering, I cross the parking lot. The track team passes me, decked out in winter running tights and hats. And then I am alone.
I like being alone.
Once I cross the street and enter the woods, the trees protect me from the wind. This isn’t so bad. Maybe I should stop taking the bus home. Mom leaves first in the morning, and Dad has been driving me in on the sly. So walking home would completely eliminate the torturous bus ride.
Cheered, I speed up my pace. There’s a snowstorm forecast for next week, but today, the ground is clear, frozen like rock under my feet. A bird shoots out of the underbrush, startling me. I take a deep breath of pine-scented air and watch a rabbit dart across the trail. This is nice. For the first time since I started school here, I relax. I always considered myself a city girl, but maybe I could learn to be a nature lover. But my peace is short-lived.
They are waiting for me in a clearing. Regan, Autumn, and four other kids. Two of them are boys who want to get laid. They’ll do whatever the girls ask in exchange for blow jobs. Regan is famous in the junior class for giving head. I don’t understand how the teachers and administration can be so duped. I’d roll my eyes if I wasn’t so terrified.
I know instantly that me missing the bus was no accident. I walk right into an ambush.
I’m almost home. I can see the bright spot ahead where the trail opens to the meadow behind my house. If I ran, I could be on my porch in five minutes.
My heart sprints, mimicking the way my feet want to run away. But my combat boots are frozen to the ground. The muscles of my legs feel weak. Sweat rolls down my back and soaks my waistband.
“Hey, look who it is,” Regan sneers.
I make my feet move, backing up to try and get away from them. Over their heads, I can see freedom. My escape is right there. I can see in her eyes she has something special planned. This is not like in school or at the arena. No security cameras in the woods. No adult within shouting distance. There’s no limit to what they can do to me out here.
As the possibilities roll through my head, I turn and break into a run. I get maybe three steps before one of the boys has me by the arm. He drags me back to the small clearing.
Liquid drips down my face. Tears or sweat. I can’t tell which, not even when it runs salty into my mouth. My body is shaking so hard, my molars chatter.