Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a young adult (YA) novel-in-progress.
CHAPTER ONE: Day 1
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 girl 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 footprint or a dark boot print on a person’s heart. The footprint 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 who 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 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 bitten 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: First, once a guy gets sex they leave, like my father did, and second, I wasn’t going to turn out like my mother who had a kid she couldn’t afford, and then begged 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. I could tell by the frown on his face that 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 kickass 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 property 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’d 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 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 on 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 cigarette 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.
Susan Casey, MSW, MFA is a Licensed Mental Health Clinician and fiction writer. Throughout the past 18 years Susan has worked both in in-patient and home-based settings with adolescents with severe behavioral and mental health issues.
Here’s the Truth has won awards in the following contests: Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance Literary Contest: Honorable mention in Novel Excerpt category; Green Rivers Writers National Literary Contest: First Place in Novel Excerpt category ; PEN/Nob Hill Soul-Making Literary Contest: First Place in the Novel Excerpt category. Now completed, she is seeking representation.