Time for another installment of The Ex-Files...except, I'm debuting my newest YA novel, BLOOD ANGEL, this week. You'll have to wait for the next chapter of The Ex-Files until next week. But you can catch up with the chapters if you need to: OBLIGATORY STATEMENT: This is part of the wedding promotion. I promised my daughter I would finish this chicklit novel (begun while she was in Madagascar in the Peace Corps, and mailed to her chapter by chapter...until chicklit died and I turned to writing my YA novel The Salem Witch Tryouts). She is now home, has earned a Master's Degree in Public Health from the University of Michigan, and is engaged. So, really, I owe her.
Brief recap of the premise of The Ex-Files: Emily is a young woman with a life plan, who hits thirty without making her milestone of getting married. Her friends say she’s too picky and that she probably overlooked Mr. Right because he folds his socks wrong. Her boss says, “That would make a great story — write it.” So Emily is required to revisit her 7 longest relationships to see if she overlooked Mr. Right. And write about it for a national magazine. With the moral support of her two best friends, Emily is about to reexamine everything she ever thought was a must-have quality in her Mr. Right.
The Ex-Files, Chapter One The Ex-Files, Chapter Two The Ex-Files, Chapter Three The Ex-Files, Chapter Four The Ex-Files, Chapter Five The Ex-Files, Chapter Six The Ex-Files, Chapter Seven The Ex-Files, Chapter Eight The Ex-Files, Chapter Nine The Ex-Files, Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen
Now — please welcome BLOOD ANGEL to the book world. This is a book of my heart. A story about a school shooter who was a good kid until circumstances made him snap and do the unforgivable. Now he’s haunted by his ex-best-friend and victim as he moves through a justice system determined to grind him into oblivion for his heinous crime. A tough book to write. When I got the idea, I said, “No way. I can’t write that!” But Amy was insistent that I tell her story. So I took up the challenge for a NaNoWriMo a few years ago. My agent loved the book, and we almost sold it several times. But, as it is my 13th published book, it seemed to be under a curse.
I hope to break that curse, starting today. As you can see, I have a fabulous cover that is a collaborative effort between my cousin Bridget Hunke, who took the photograph, and Kelly Pernell, who designed the cover using Bridget’s picture. I feel honored to have such a beautiful cover for my book.
You can find the book at Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes and Noble. It is in ebook only form, although I will debut a paperback in three months, for those of you who haven’t embraced the digital model just yet.
So, here’s the first chapter as a sample. I hope you see why Amy finally persuaded me to tell her story.
That anyone survives high school, when I think about it, is a tribute to the power of mind over murder. I know it’s tempting to ask why so many, but maybe the better question is why so few? So many minds seeking escape. So, relatively, little murder.
If I were going to paint high school, I’d need a canvas the size of the Atlantic ocean. Angular cement block buildings shaded some faded mix of puke and dinge best called Dismal Days. Fake wood desks with metal legs so shiny and hard-edged you can practically hear the echo when they scrape against the tiled floors. Metal lockers that special shad of grime gray that instantly recalls the frantic between-class open and shut clang. Oh, and high out of reach bells and big faced clocks that count off the seconds between eruptions that go off in some design only God and the principal understand, but which everyone – even the janitor – responds to like poor Pavlov’s dog.
The round black bombs with fuses springing from the top that cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote use? That’s how I’d paint the students. Bombs with backpacks. And maybe some teachers, too, although they’d be bigger, slightly more sophisticated and capable of triggering all the little bombs wedged into rows of desks.
I’m not usually a cynical person. I try to see the good in people, and even in necessary evils like school. I believe in God and I go to church every Sunday. Divine Redemption on Fourth Street. After my weekly confession, I do the penance that Father Kelly sets for me, even though he’d never know if I didn’t until he got to Heaven and God told him. If there is a God. Not that I’m not sure there is. Just…I think we can’t know what he looks like, or says, but if he exists, he has way better things to do with his infinite time than to rat out a kid.
So, really, I’m a good person, a positive person. Maybe I was a bit of a time bomb, but getting my braces off and growing a decent set of boobs my junior year kept my fuse way too damp to blow. So how fair is it that I got to be there when one of the ticking time bombs went off?
It’s funny. You go along, planning and waiting and counting down until you’re an adult and free, and then some kid you’ve known since kindergarten steps in front of your first period World History class with a gun and everything melts away like fresh spun cotton candy on your tongue.
I don’t know what sparked the fuse on the bomb that was Jamie that day, but when I looked into his eyes, I could see the fuse burning down in them as clear as I could see the peach fuzz on his chin. There wasn’t time to ask him why. Or maybe there was and no one thought of it because we were all busy wondering if we were going to die.
I still needed to know, even though knowing wouldn’t change anything. So I sat down across the table from him in the jail. It wasn’t anything like what I thought a jail would be. A little like what they show on TV, but the smells–disinfectant and despair. Kind of like I’d imagined detention would be, if I’d ever had one. Which I hadn’t, because my mom would have killed me. Irony much?
Jamie was wearing one of those loose orange jumpsuits with short sleeves and his arms stuck out skinny and pale. Orange wasn’t his color, but he was still beautiful. For some reason, that made me madder than I already was. Why after the geek had started to turn gorgeous had his fuse blown? If you’re beautiful, you don’t have to go around ruining everything by blasting at it with a shotgun.
A million things went through my mind before I said, “Orange isn’t really your color. If I were in charge of the universe, I’d make you wear shiny black tights with Captain Destructo across your chest in lipstick red.” It sounded stupid when I said it, like the naked truth sometimes does.
“Payback’s a bitch, isn’t it?” He sat there staring at me like he wished he still had a gun. I hadn’t expected that. I’d expected him to turn pale. Swallow hard enough for his Adam’s apple to bob, like it always did when he was nervous. Maybe even pretend he didn’t see me.
I focused on the fact that he was there, sitting in front of me. Looking at me. I leaned closer. “Why?”
The jaw muscles just under his ears bunched tight. His Adam’s apple bobbed. He looked away from me, toward some other orange suited guy crying to the tired looking woman across the table from him that he was sorry. It would never happen again.
Just when I thought that Jamie would refuse to look at me, to hear me, forever, he said, “Aren’t you the popular girl with all the friends? All the answers?”
I concentrated on a chip at the edge of the stained and scarred table between us. There was nothing he could do to me now. Not here. So I took off my polite church girl face, glad that Father Kelly couldn’t see me. “You’re pathetic. No wonder I stopped being friends with you.” Letting go the full blast force of my anger made me wonderfully hot and light and sharp, all at the same time. “If I knew why, do you think I’d be here asking a murderer?” I let him see all the rage and confusion I had learned to keep tucked under a smile since I graduated from the Terrible Twos. He wasn’t the only one who could do a personality backflip.
I waited for the satisfying moment when his unjust anger gave way to the massive force of my righteous fury. As long as I’d known him, Jamie had hated to have anyone mad at him. The bullies and whiners at school had always been able to shake him loose from his extra cookie at lunch. Today, my anger crouched between us, like a fiery ball of steel wool on the verge of going molten. But he didn’t melt down into apologies, or excuses, or…anything. He just sat there, as if I’d asked him what flavor ice cream he liked and he had to think about it.
My anger grew, hard and sharp, the coils painfully tangled in a tumble of good memories that now seemed impossibly false. Strangely, I could see it glowing red and smoking in the air between us. “Why?”
He put his hands up. They looked fake and plastic in the flickering fluorescent light. “The cops think I did it because I’m a punk. My mother thinks I’m just a loser. My lawyer says maybe the diet pills made me do it. Stupid. Lazy. Crazy. It’s choose-your-own-answer time.”
A guard looked his way and Jamie put his hands back down on the table. “Right now, talking to you, I’d say crazy is looking pretty good.” His fingers trembled, until he knotted them together. I wished I could cry. Not that I thought tears would dissolve his anger – or mine.
My magnificently molten anger turned cold and black in an instant.A lump of coal in a bad child’s Christmas stocking. But Jamie deserved coal, not me. I appealed to the boy I’d seen rescue a kitten caught in a tree. “I have to know.” That sounded pathetic. “You owe me.”
“You’re the one who messed everything up.” Why wasn’t he sorry? Where was the boy who had sat and cried his eyes out with me when Sandy took his last doggie breath on Earth? That boy I could have crushed into oblivion with the harsh truth of what he’d done. And I wanted him crushed. Dust. Gone.
But he just sat there. Going nowhere. Just like me. “Because I got Old Skinnybutt’s rat blasting shotgun and blew a few holes in the ‘Best Little Town by a Dam Site’ image of Drisdale, South Carolina?” His voice got high and mean. “How did that mess up anything that wasn’t already messed up?”
“Oh my God. You don’t even care, do you? Not about the people you hurt. Not about your mother. What about Daniel?”
He winced when I said his little brother’s name. Good.
“Are you proud that he’ll probably have to move away just to escape being the little brother of a murderer?” Funny, I hadn’t thought about Daniel until then. He was just a kid. How would I have survived if my big brother Drew had gone off the deep end of the gene pool? Not by staying in Drisdale, South Carolina, that’s for sure.
“Shut up about Daniel.” The molten knot of steel wool hung between us again. I could see one small sign of the old Jamie, who had cared about people. About doing the right thing. His chin lifted, a sure sign he was about to make some lame excuse.
I still had a chance to get him to tell me why. To tell me he was sorry. Whatever. “Are you going to give him the thumbs up when he watches you get fried in the electric chair?”
“They don’t use the electric chair anymore, they do lethal injection, moron.” He looked away, toward the man and woman, who were both crying now, very soft and bubbly, like the white noise Ms. Anderson played for us during our French tests.
How many times had he and I called each other that over the years and it had never hurt? Never made me angry. Until now.
“Who’s the moron? You could have just hung on for another stupid year of stupid school and you’d be free of all the stupid rules and regulations. And now you’re going to be stuck with a life sentence of bells and whistles and guys with uniforms and guns forever.”
“There’s no such thing as forever.” He kept looking at the crying couple, their hands stretched toward each other, even though they weren’t allowed to touch. “Besides, people are tired of sending their kids to school to play the shotgun lottery. My lawyer says they’re going for the big DP.”
DP. Death penalty. “They can’t. You’re not even eighteen yet. That’s not fair.” Not fair to die so young…yeah, the irony did strike me. Not fair was what you said when you got grounded for nothing worse than rolling your eyes. Jamie and I had agreed, over instant message the summer we were thirteen and simultaneously grounded, that everyone should be free to roll their eyes, even minors.
He almost shrugged, but stopped himself before his shoulders did more than twitch. “Everybody dies, Amy.”
A chill passed through me. My grandmother would have said someone walked over my grave. “Some of us don’t want to die.”
“Since when does that matter? I’m a test case. They’re tired of punks decimating the Honor Society.” He couldn’t suppress his shrug this time. His shoulders barely moved the stiff orange fabric. He turned away from the couple to stare down at his fingertip as he traced a faint reddish stain that marked his side of the table like a faded birthmark. “Besides, everybody dies.”
How could he be so casual? Dying was a big deal. You weren’t supposed to do it until you were old and creaky and so tired of living your heart just stopped. Like my Great-Grandma Kate, or even my dog Sandy. Getting hit by a bus, or having cancer, those were accidents that stole away life before the will could be written and the goodbyes said. Bad things. Unfair things.
Like being so angry that you not only pointed a sawed off shotgun at someone, but you pulled the trigger. “Not everybody kills, for gosh sakes, Jamie. Most people get in a brawl, or drink, or run away. Aren’t you even a little sorry? You killed people. Mr. Applegate, Sam–“
He slammed his hand on the table. BAM. Right over the birthmark stain. “So? This isn’t kindergarten, Amy. Saying sorry doesn’t make it all better. It doesn’t change anything.”
The crying couple stopped crying and stared at Jamie. The closest guard started to come toward us.
The guard hesitated as Jamie settled back down, his head in his hands. I needed…what? An apology? To understand? Was it even possible? I leaned in, knowing I had to make this question count. Too soon he’d be gone. “Did it make you feel better?”
He closed his eyes. “When I had my finger on the trigger, and everyone looked scared, it felt like I owned the world.” He opened his eyes. “When I pulled on the trigger, I wanted that feeling to last forever. I–“
A buzzer sounded and the scrape of chair legs against cement floor drowned out his last words. If there were any last words. I think he might have stopped talking, even if the buzzer hadn’t gone off.
He looked over my shoulder for a moment. “Guess Mom had something better to do.” He stood up and I wanted to cry. He was going away and I didn’t have what I needed. It wasn’t fair, and it was all his fault. “I hope you’re happy. You, the guy who wanted to change the world to be a peaceful place. You’re going to be an entry in the “What not to do” section of the history books.”
He laughed, an angry bitter laugh that sounded like his mom when she was fed up from a hard day. “And you? You’re dead? So why aren’t you, the good little Catholic girl who goes to confession every week, in Heaven instead of here hassling me?”
That was harsh. “I don’t know why I’m here. Believe me, it’s the last place I’d choose to be.”
I guess he knew how that felt. Because the molten coiled ball of steel wool flamed, charred up, and the ash fell away. It wasn’t my emotions I’d been seeing. It was Jamie’s. The coil formed a Jamie outline for just a moment, before balling back up. And it was beautiful, just like him. Beating purple and red, with a thick black webbing of veins.
I noticed, then, that everyone in the room had one of those coiled balls of color hovering over them. The prisoners leaving, the visitors lingering to wave goodbye. They reminded me of my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Atkinson, and her description of auras. Except auras were supposed to be like body halos, not separate, pulsing spheres – not that I’d ever seen one when I was alive.
I tried to go with him, but I couldn’t. I could feel myself weakening, fading. My voice was a whisper, “I don’t know why I’m here.” I guess I still had the old Jamie superimposed over the new, angry Jamie, because I hoped he’d help. “I don’t want to be here.”
“That sucks,” he said, and then turned and joined the sea of orange filing out of the room.