IT’S THE END OF JUNE. A Friday. Like any other day, except hotter. I take my usual shortcut home from school through the alley, where the air is dense and unbreathable, saturated with the raw smell of overheated dumpster garbage. I can taste it in the back of my throat like an illness coming on.
But this is the last time I’ll ever need to take this route, I remind myself. Almost instantly that invisible yet ever-present straitjacket begins to loosen its grip just enough for me to breathe a little easier. I’ve been counting down the days for years. Not that school itself was ever the problem. It’s all the people in the school who are the problem. Or maybe, as I sometimes think, the problem might have been me all along. Occam’s razor, and everything. Isn’t it simpler that the problem should be one person versus hundreds, rather than the other way around? Logically, maybe. But then, if I’m really going to think about it—which, I’ve decided, I’m not—me being the problem is the opposite of simple.
As I step out of the shaded alley and onto the sidewalk, the sun blasts down in a cascade of heat and light. I stop and roll my jeans up to my knees, while my shadow pools at my feet like a small gray puddle. When my brother, Aaron, and I were little, we always kept a vigilant watch over our shadows, convinced that one day they’d splinter off like in Peter Pan and run amok, committing all sorts of treacherous deeds without our consent.
But that was a lifetime ago. I doubt he even remembers.
As I stand up, my forehead is instantly beaded with sweat, the back of my shirt dampened under the weight of my backpack. Usually I can’t stand the heat, but today it doesn’t bother me. Nothing can right now. Because I just aced my AP Bio final. I’m officially done with Riverside High. And I’ll be starting my junior year, the most important year, at Jefferson—the special charter school that’s had me wait-listed since eighth grade—with all new people. Where no one knows me. Where I can focus, get ahead, and start my life already. I’ve wanted to go there ever since I found out about all the AP classes they offer.
I’ve thought about it for roughly a million hours. I worked out a plan and now it’s finally happening: I’ll graduate from Jefferson, get in to an amazing college somewhere far away, and then get out of this hellhole for good. I feel a hitch in my step. I involuntarily skip ahead on my toes. This feels like a moment I should be celebrating with my friends, if I had any. Because I’m free, almost.
A siren chirps once.
I look up just as the red and blue lights begin spinning, in time to watch the patrol car go from parked to sixty in a matter of seconds, the noise shifting the heavy air around me. The heat radiates from the pavement through the rubber soles of my flip-flops as I skip over the crumbling blacktop, sidestepping the potholes I’ve practically memorized over the years. The sirens fade into the distance, but within seconds that patrol car is followed by five more, then a fire truck, then an ambulance, leaving the air too still in their wake.
I follow the procession of emergency vehicles, systematically reviewing my answers on DNA and RNA and the endocrine system, and cell division: prophase, metaphase, anaphase. For six blocks of brick and cement and glass-window storefronts, the sun beats down on my hair and face, my shadow following along behind me the whole way. I only wish I could’ve known that these were the last relatively carefree moments of my life, because as my heel turns ninety degrees on that last corner to our apartment, nothing will ever be the same again.
The six police cars and the fire truck and the ambulance are all jammed into the narrow alley next to our building. Although there are seven other apartments in our building, I can feel it in my bones and skin and blood, this is not about any of the other people behind any of those seven other doors.
This is about us.
I try to run but it feels like I’m moving through water, my feet sinking into wet sand, my legs getting tangled up in strands of seaweed wanting to pull me under. I don’t care that I’ve lost my flip-flops, or that the sunbaked asphalt is boiling the soles of my feet, or that somehow my backpack has shuffled off me and is now lying in the middle of the road like a dead animal, with all those precious study materials inside. I race through the door and up the stairs, calling her name over and over again.
I make it up only to the first landing before I’m caught by the waist, a voice shouting in my ear to “calm down, calm down.” I try to fight him, but it’s no use. “Brooke,” he says firmly, calling me by my name. “Hold still, all right—wait!” I know exactly who it is without even having to look. Tony. He told me I could call him that when I was in fourth grade and one of our neighbors had called the cops on us. It was the time Dad broke Mom’s collarbone and Mom convinced the police she had fallen down the stairs. That was one of the few times I’d ever seen him cry about what he’d done; he melted into a puddle, and swore—swore to all of us, swore to a god I’m not sure he even believed in—never again. I didn’t know which version of him scared me more, the crazy one or the sorry one.
We’ve been through this enough times to know that the cops don’t pull out all the stops like this for a simple noise complaint from a neighbor, especially when that neighbor is a cop himself. Which can mean only one thing: It’s finally happened. Aaron always said it was only a matter of time.
Tony opens his mouth, the words to explain escaping him. Mrs. Allister, in 2B, inches her door open, the chain-link lock pulled taut in front of her face. She stares out at me with her wide, red-rimmed eyes. “I didn’t know what to do,” she pleads in her own defense. “I didn’t know what else to do.” Mrs. Allister was always the one to call the cops, until the one time when I was in seventh grade and I barged into her apartment, yelling about how even though she thought she was helping, she was only making things worse. Calling the police never did any good, I tried to make her understand, because he was one of them. Mrs. Allister cried then, too. As far as I know, she never called again. Until now.
“Ma’am, back inside right now!” Tony demands. And Mrs. Allister retreats like a turtle back into its shell. The door clicks shut, the dead bolt sliding into place.
Then suddenly a whole swarm of cops in bulletproof vests barrel down the stairs toward us, shouting, “Outta the way, move, outta the way, get her outta here.” I think they mean me at first, but before I even know what’s happening next, Tony has my back pinned against Mrs. Allister’s door, shielding me as they pass by us like a hurricane of bodies.
That’s when I see her, my little sister, like a ghost encircled by these gray uniforms, each one with a hand on her. Her hair swings forward over her shoulders as the cops jerk her body down the stairs. She’s still wearing her baby-blue T-shirt and her favorite cutoff jean shorts, which she isn’t allowed to wear to school, just like she was when I left this morning. I remember because she kicked her feet up and sprawled out on the couch, grinning in that stupid, goofy way of hers, taunting me because she was already finished with her exams. “Summer starts now, sucker!” she said as she flipped on the TV. But now her eyes stare ahead, wide and empty, unfocused.
“Callie?” I call after her. “Callie!” I shout her name as loud as my voice will let me. She doesn’t even look back. I struggle to get out from under Tony’s arms, but he holds me in place.
“What did he do?” I want to scream it, but the words drown in my throat. I search Tony’s eyes for an explanation, but I can’t force myself to ask the real question: Is she dead? But I need the answer. I need it now. Because even though I know she has to be dead, there’s this hope still chiseling away at my heart. His arms envelop me, and for maybe the billionth time in my life I wish that he were my father, that he were taking me out of here. For good. Away from all of this. I feel myself slinking down against the wall and melting into the floor, my legs twisting under me, suddenly unable to support the weight of my body.
Tony crouches down next to me, instructing, calmly somehow, “Breathe, Brooke. Breathe.” Over his head a figure has emerged. I blink hard. There, on the landing at the top of the stairs—alive. She’s alive, and life can continue, and we’ll be fine, we’ll be fine because she’s there and alive, and that’s all that matters. “Mom,” I whisper, scrambling to my feet. “Mom!” I yell
She lifts her head as I call out to her. Her face is tear-and-mascara streaked. I break away from Tony, my flimsy arms and legs struggling to crawl up each step. I reach out to her, but she doesn’t reach back. I watch as she unfolds in bits and pieces, like my brain is suddenly working in slow motion to understand, unable to take it in all at once.
There’s a legion of cops surrounding her, holding her arms behind her back as they walk down the stairs in rigid, jerky movements. Her eyes hold mine as she comes closer, mouthing the words, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” as if she no longer has a voice. And I’m shoved out of the way like I’m not even there. As she passes, I see her arms twisted behind her back, the shiny silver handcuffs locked around her wrists. Her hands look like she dipped them in red food coloring and didn’t wash it off before it stained, the way our fingertips used to look after coloring Easter eggs when we were little.
I think my heart actually stops beating. I swear, I die. A temporary little death. Because that’s when the whole picture shifts into focus, the puzzle pieces fitting together, yet the picture they form making no sense at all.
“No,” I breathe, trying to shout the word. But no one’s listening. No one understands.
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