Determined to keep what's left of her shattered family together, Kiara gets emancipated. With the help of family they never knew they had, can Kiara finally heal from her past, or will her inner demons cause her to lose everyone she loves?
Trigger warning: This book contains strong elements of child abuse as well as themes of sexual abuse.
“Happy sweet sixteen, sweetie. I made you cupcakes to take to school for your friends,” Mom says, standing in my doorway.
“Thanks, Mom, but I don’t wanna go to school.”
“You’re going. Birthday or not, you’re going.”
“No fair! None of my friends’ parents make them go to school on their birthday!”
“Well, lucky for them, I’m not their mother.”
I pull my red hair back into a ponytail and look myself over in the mirror one last time. After deciding I look cute in my jean shorts and white tank top, I throw my backpack over a shoulder and head out into the living room.
Maddy and Charlie are sitting on the couch, looking bored.
“Mom’s being mean and making me go to school, so I’ll see you guys later. Love you both.”
Maddy looks up at me with her bright blue eyes as a smile slowly spreads across her face. “Can we go with you, Kee? Since it’s your birthday?”
“No, Maddy, you can’t. You hafta go to your own school. Mrs. Goldstein is gonna take you, just like usual.”
“I can get myself to school. I don’t need a babysitter. I’m eleven, not three.”
“School is too far away for you to walk. You want to ride the smelly school bus?”
“It’s better than having Mrs. Goldstein take us.”
“Take it up with Mom.”
“We’ll discuss it later,” Mom says.
Charlie looks up at me. “Happy birthday, Kee.”
“Thanks, Charlie. I’ve gotta go. Give me hugs. I’ll see y’all this afternoon.”
Maddy and Charlie stand and throw their arms around my waist. I squeeze them gently then lean down and kiss the top of their heads. “Love you both to the moon and back.”
“Love you more than all the stars in the sky,” they say in unison.
Mom follows me out of the house and to her beat-up Chevrolet. The car has always embarrassed me, but I try not to let it show. The once blue paint is mostly gray, the windows only work half the time, and it constantly smells like gas. Mom says she’s saving up for a new car, but I somehow doubt that. I wish we had a better car like Morgan’s parents or even Shannon and Lacy. They get to ride to school in a limo.
“Mom, when we gonna get a new car?” I ask as I get into the passenger seat and put my seatbelt on.
Mom looks at me from the driver’s seat with those sad blue eyes of hers. She’s always sad since she married Patrick. I miss my old mom.
“As soon as I can afford one, Kiara. I’m doing my best.”
“I know, Mom. I’m sorry. It’s just embarrassing showing up in a car like this when all my friends’ parents have brand new cars or limos.”
“I’m sorry I can’t do that for you, Kiara.” Mom keeps her eyes on the road, but I see the tear as it falls down her all-too-pale skin.
When we pull up in front of the school, Mom smiles at me.
“Isn’t that the boy you like by the front doors?”
I look around at all the kids walking into the building and see the boy she’s talking about. He’s standing next to the front doors, looking at something. He’s perfect with his choppy brown hair and hazel eyes. At least I think they’re hazel. I stole a glimpse of him in the hallway the other day. They looked to be the perfect mix of brown and green. I wish he’d notice me. I know he’s got girls way prettier than me falling at his feet.
“Yes. Isn’t he perfect, Mom?”
“He is very handsome. You should talk to him.”
“No way he’d be interested in me. Like, all the girls in school throw themselves at him.”
“He’d be a fool not to like you, sweetie. You’re a great person and will be a great catch for anyone. If he can’t see that, then he’s not worth it. You deserve the world. Promise me you’ll never settle for less.”
“I promise, Mom.”
“Have a great day, sweetie. I’ll be here at three sharp to pick you up.”
I grab the pink and white cupcakes from the backseat and shut the door. As I blend in with the students walking into the school, I can’t help but notice my crush is staring at me. Omg, he’s looking at me. Is there something on my face? I bet there is. He’s probably thinking how stupid I look. I’ll just keep my head down. Maybe he won’t say anything.
“Kiara, right?” He stands in front of me, keeping me from being able to pass him.
How does he know my name? We’ve no classes together. What do I say?
“How’d you know my name?”
That was stupid, Kiara. He finally speaks to you, and that’s the first thing you say?
His laugh sounds something like what I think angels singing sounds like. I feel my cheeks getting warm as I look away.
“You’re the prettiest girl in school, everyone knows your name.”
“Oh.” Kill me now, please. Let the ground open up and swallow me whole. I sound so stupid. Wait, he said I’m the prettiest girl in school. Why would he say that when it’s obviously not true? Shannon and Lacy are so much prettier than me.
“I’m Dakota, in case you didn’t know. What’re we celebrating?” He nods to the cupcakes in my hands.
“It’s my birthday. Mom insists on making them for me every year.”
“Happy birthday. May I carry your bag and walk you to class?”
I beam up at him as I nod. “I’ve gotta go to my locker. Morgan’s probably tapping her foot by now wonderin’ where I am.”
Dakota takes my backpack and throws it over his left shoulder. “Lead the way, Ms. Kiara.”
Morgan is standing next to my overly decorated locker grinning like a Cheshire cat. Pink, white, and blue balloons are tied to the top with a big “Happy Sweet 16, Kiara” hung over a few lockers. Streamers and confetti go everywhere when I open my locker.
“Morgan, you’re crazy, but I love you. Thank you for making my day better.”
“What’s wrong?” Her brown eyes look at me with concern.
“My mom is such a drag. She made me come to school on my birthday!”
“Well, if you hadn’t come, you wouldn’t have seen your awesome locker. Besides, who would I hang out with if you weren’t here?”
“Shannon and Lacy’s moms don’t make them come to school on their birthday.”
“Shannon and Lacy walk all over their moms so they can do whatever they want,” Morgan says as she rolls her eyes at me. “Who’re you?” Morgan looks over at Dakota with her arms folded across her chest. I can’t help but smile as she stands closer to me.
Dakota flashes her a winning smile and offers his hand. “Dakota Masterson, at your service.”
I bite my lip to keep from laughing as Morgan tries not to smile. “I’m Morgan, Kiara’s best friend since we were four. Why’re you carrying her backpack? She’s not handicapped.”
“My grammy taught me you always carry the girl’s books and make her feel special.”
My face has got to be beet red by now. He’s so sweet. I wonder what he wants. No one is nice just because. They always want something.
“Kee, we should probably get to your class. We’ve got like five minutes before the final bell.”
I reach out to take my backpack from Dakota, but he steps back. “I’ll carry it for you, no problem.”
“You’ll be late to your class.”
“I’ve got study hall first period, it’s fine.”
When we get to my class, Dakota hands me my backpack. “I’ll meet you after class, if you don’t mind.”
“Yeah, that’s fine.”
Morgan waves as she enters her class next to mine.
During math class, I keep glancing up at the clock every few minutes. Ugh, why won’t 3 pm get here? I want outta here. I’m so ready to start getting ready for the party Mom and I have been planning for like three months.
When I hear my name called, my head snaps up and I feel my face turning red.
“Kiara, please work the problem on the board.”
I drag my feet to the board, ignoring the snickers from my classmates as they always poke fun of me and easily answer the problem. Putting the marker down, I drag my feet back to my seat.
“Thank you, Kiara. Great job, as usual.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Jonasen.”
I suffer through the rest of my classes. Dakota insists on walking me to each one and carrying my backpack. A few times, he’s tried to put his arm around me and I’ve moved out of the way every time. I don’t want him touching me.
He’s cute and really sweet, but he’s a guy. Guys are bad, so I can’t let him get close.
When the last bell of the day rings, I rush outside to find Mom waiting in the car with her sunglasses on. There’s only one reason Mom wears sunglasses.
“So, that idiot you married been drinking again?” I roll my eyes as I get in the car, slamming the door.
“Actually, no. He thought I was being too friendly with Mr. Goldstein.”
“Eww. He’s like 200, Mom.” As I get my seatbelt on, I turn to look at her. “Where’re Maddy and Charlie? They okay?”
“They’re with Mr. and Mrs. Goldstein, they’re fine.”
I stare at her for a long time as she puts the car in drive and heads toward the house. “Mom, I’m sick of this. Why don’t you make him leave?”
“I have to be more careful.”
“Mom, he’s hurting you and he’s hurt me. This has to stop.”
“When has he ever hurt you?”
“Are you kidding?” I ask with wide eyes. “You seriously think I fall or run into walls on my own?”
Mom falls silent for a minute as she looks over at me. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“He said if I told, he’d kill Maddy and Charlie.”
Mom pulls over to the side of the road and turns her head to look at me. Tears fall down her face as she speaks.
“Sweetie, it’s not that simple. These things have to be planned.”
I roll my eyes as I turn away from her and look out the window. What does she mean by this stuff has to be planned? Why can’t she just make him go away? Life was so much better before him.
Mom pulls back onto the road and heads for home. When she pulls into the driveway, I stare at the red brick house with its perfectly manicured lawn, the perfect flowers and shrubs that Mom and I spent hours planting when I was five, and the wooden deck that Mom and I built together right before Patrick moved in.
I hate this place. Patrick ruined it for me. Sure, it’s nice on the outside, but the inside is full of hurt. There’s no more playing games and being silly with Mom.
When we walk into the house my stepdad, the father of the twins, is passed out on the white leather couch. I go straight to my room up the stairs and begin working on homework. Sometime later I hear shouting coming from my mother’s bedroom.
“I know you’re cheating on me. I see the way you look at that guy down the street. How many times you sleep with him?”
I roll my eyes as I hear the same old argument. I’m so sick of this. If she’s not going to do anything about it, I am.
Grabbing my aluminum baseball bat from my closet, I head down the short flight of stairs and walk into Mom’s bedroom. As I stand in the doorway, Patrick is punching Mom in the face.
“Leave my mother alone!”
“What you gonna do, little girl?” Patrick walks toward me with a sneer on his face. When he gets within reach, I swing with all my might at his right kneecap.
“Hit you with my baseball bat, you idiot. Maybe next time you’ll listen to me when I tell you to leave my mom alone, jackass.” Pulling the bat back, I swing again, aiming for his left kneecap. I barely even flinch when I hear the sound of bone being broken.
Patrick hollers and screams in pain from the floor. Walking around him, I go to Mom to make sure she’s okay. Mom’s left eye is swollen, her lip split, and she’s lying on the floor.
“Call an ambulance, dammit! I think you broke my kneecaps!” Patrick shouts.
Looking over my shoulder, I tell him, “Call them yourself,” then turn my attention back to Mom. “Mom, you okay? You need ice.”
I help Mom to her feet and down the stairs to the living room. After making sure she’s comfortable on the couch, I head down the three steps to the kitchen and open the fridge. The cake that was for my party tonight is sitting on the top shelf.
So much for that party. I should’ve known it was too good to be true.
Stuffing the anger that I feel, like I always do, I grab an ice pack we’ve had on hand since I played sports years ago and slam the fridge door. Heading back up the three steps to the living room, I hand Mom the ice pack.
“Mom, don’t cry. Everything’ll be fine”
“You hit your father with a baseball bat. How can you say everything will be fine? I failed at being a mom.”
“He ruined yet another birthday party that you swore I could have no matter what. Since you won’t do anything about it, I did. Besides, he’s not my father. My father doesn’t know about me, remember?”
“You’re still upset about that, aren’t you?” Mom looks at me with her face all battered.
“What do you think? You keep me from my father for sixteen years and I’m supposed to be thrilled? Seriously?”
“I have my reasons, Kiara.”
“Yeah, yeah. To make my life miserable, I know. Nothing new. I’m going to get the twins. I’ll call 911 again while I’m there.”
I walk down the steps to the front door then count the houses as I pass them. Mr. and Mrs. Goldstein have the only white brick house on the street. Fifth on the right. I’m surprised there aren’t worn marks as many times as I’ve walked this path.
Mr. Goldstein opens the door as I’m getting ready to knock. His silver hair is going thirty different directions as per usual and his white tee shirt has food stains on it.
“Is everything okay, Kiara?” His black eyes look at me with warmth and compassion.
“Not really, Mr. Goldstein. Our phone is still out, may I use yours, please?”
“Of course. Come on in. The twins are watching Jeopardy with Mrs. Goldstein.”
“Make sure they stay distracted, please.”
Mr. Goldstein stands out of the way, and I enter, heading straight for the phone on the hallway table. The house always smells like a mixture of old people, medicine, and chocolate chip cookies. Mrs. Goldstein is a bit of a neat freak, so everything’s so shiny you could eat off it. The pictures of their kids are hung in a way that they form a heart. Normally this brings me comfort. Tonight though, not so much.
When I call 911, the operator tells me a call has already been placed and officers are on their way. That can’t be right, we don’t have a phone. Who could’ve called? And why?
The dispatcher insists on keeping me on the line, so I call out to Mrs. Goldstein. When she walks into the hallway, I hand her the phone. “Please, talk to her. I’ve got to get back to Mom.”
Mr. Goldstein stands in front of the door. “Kiara, what’s going on?”
Before I can answer, we hear sirens. “I’ve gotta go, Mr. Goldstein. Something’s wrong with Mom.”
“Are you sure you don’t want the twins to stay here?”
“No, they need to be with me where I can keep them safe.”
Taking the twins’ hands in mine, I all but drag them up the street. When we get to the driveway, two uniformed officers are getting out of their car.
“Evenin’, Miss. I’m Officer Hutchenson and this is Officer Thompson. We got a call about a disturbance here.”
I cock my head to the side as I study the two officers in front of me. The taller one, Officer Hutchenson, looks a lot like what I think Mom would look like if she were a guy. Blond hair, crystal blue eyes, and a babyface.
“The 911 operator said a call was already placed when I went to call. Where’s Mom? Is she okay?”
“We just got here, so I’ve no idea. I was going to ask you the same thing,” Officer Hutchenson says as Officer Thompson steps into the house.
“Mom! I’ve got to protect her.”
Before I can move toward the stairs, Officer Hutchenson stands in my way. “I’m sorry, Miss. You can’t go inside right now.”
Raising an eyebrow, I fold my arms across my chest. “Why not? I hafta protect my mom. Move, please.”
“Not until we are sure it’s safe. My partner is upstairs securing the scene.”
“We’re talking about my mom. She could be seriously hurt,” I say.
Officer Hutchenson looks at me. “You still can’t go upstairs. What’re your names?”
“Kiara. This is Maddy and Charlie.”