With Emily Raymond
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When four teens are accused of crimes they didn’t commit, they team up to investigate everyone at school who could have set them up.
Theo Foster’s Twitter account used to be anonymous — until someone posted a revealing photo that got him expelled. No final grade. No future. No fair.
Theo’s resigned to a life of misery working at the local mini-mart when a miracle happens: Sasha Ellis speaks to him. Sasha Ellis knows his name. She was also expelled for a crime she didn’t commit, and now he has the perfect way to get her attention: find out who set them up.
To uncover the truth, Theo has to get close to the suspects: the hacker, the quarterback, the mean girl, the vice principal, and his own best friend. What secrets are they hiding? And how can Theo catch their confessions on camera?
I honestly don’t know how I got here.
I understand, of course, that actions have consequences, and that bad actions have bad consequences (thank you, Principal Dekum, for that pearl of wisdom). But I’m still unclear on the chain of events that have landed me, Theo Foster—B+ student, school newspaper editor, bookish but essentially normal eleventh grader—at my own high school expulsion hearing.
I’m wearing a tie for the second time in my life, and my armpits are drenched with sweat. The room is hot, it smells like six different kinds of BO, and there’s a panel of Pinewood School District board members shooting eye-daggers at me like I’m some perp in a low-budget episode of Judge Judy.
The hearing officer—a small, round man in a too-tight suit—clears his throat. “We are now in executive session,” he announces, “and the matter at hand is the behavior of student Theodore James Foster. The Arlington High School administration recommends his expulsion for the remainder of the school year, for the offense of educational disruption. It will be up to the board to determine if this is appropriate disciplinary action.”
I can’t help it—I glance at the empty seat next to me.
“Are you expecting someone, Mr. Foster?” the hearing officer asks.
I’ve heard that some kids show up to expulsion hearings with lawyers. Probably, at the very least, they bring a pissed-off parent or two.
“My mom’s at work,” I say.
“And your father?” the hearing officer asks.
“I’m sure he’d love to be here,” I answer, and though I know I should stop there, I don’t. “The problem is that he’s dead, so I don’t think he’s going to make it.”
“Mr. Foster passed away ten months ago,” Mr. Palmieri, the assistant principal, informs the hearing officer.
I hate the euphemism pass away—it sounds like a square dance move from middle school gym class. Do-si-do your partner now, and pass away on down the row! Incidentally, I also hate dancing.
“Regrets,” the hearing officer offers in a monotone. “I will now ask the administration to read the charges and present information regarding the incident in question. A copy will be sent to Mrs. Foster for her signature.”
Palmieri pops right up, salivating at his moment in the spotlight. If I’d thought mentioning my dead father would get me a shred of sympathy from anyone in this room, I was wrong.
“Theo Foster is the creator of a secret Twitter account that has been the source of gossip, rumor, and innuendo,” Palmieri reads. “Although school administrators did not approve of his immature posts”—Objection, I feel like crying, mischaracterization!—“we did not pursue disciplinary action until he maliciously posted a photograph that permanently tarnished the reputation of a star athlete and our entire high school community.”
The board members nod grimly. They’d have to live underground not to know what Palmieri’s talking about. And though a couple of them do look grubby and subterrestrial, I’m pretty sure they live in houses and have access to the nightly news.
Then Palmieri pulls out Exhibit A: the picture I supposedly posted, which he’s blown up and mounted on poster board. It’s such an incredible photograph that I almost wish I had posted it—or, better yet, had been there when it happened.
The snap was taken at night about a week ago, in the grassy area between the school parking lot and the football field, right near the ARLINGTON HIGH SCHOOL, HOME OF THE FIGHTING TIGERS sign. In the foreground is Parker Harris, our star quarterback, drunk and shirtless. His chiseled pecs practically glow in the light of the flash. He’s got a bottle of Jack Daniels in his right hand and the bare breasts of an unidentified female in very close proximity to his left. The girl is mid-twirl, so her swinging hair covers her face (her identity, naturally, has been the source of relentless speculation). Behind the happy twosome, someone wearing the big tiger head of our school mascot is captured, midstream, peeing on something that looks a lot like Parker’s number 89 football jersey.
In other words, the picture is the platonic ideal of teen debauchery, and it’s still being talked about on every TV station in the state so aging anchors can use it as proof of a “recent but steep decline in adolescent morality and values.”
I can’t help it; a tiny smile flickers across my face. I never liked Parker Harris, and I’d pay good money to know who took the picture.
But I’d also like to kick the ass of whoever’s trying to make me take the fall for it.
Palmieri slaps the table in front of him. “This is no laughing matter, Mr. Foster,” he yells. “What is wrong with you?”
That, honestly, is a question that’d take several hours to answer.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I mumble.
“Do you have anything to say in your defense?”
“I didn’t post the picture,” I say, earnestly now. “I know it’s my account, but I didn’t post it.”
Palmieri’s eyes narrow. “Does anyone else have the password to the account?”
“No, but it’s not that hard to figure out someone’s—”
“Do you have an enemy, Mr. Foster, who would post something to your account? Is that what you’re suggesting?”
We stare at each other. My only enemy’s you. I shake my head no.
“You posted the picture, assuming you could claim innocence,” Palmieri says.
“The IP address,” I say. “Did you check it? That’ll prove the post didn’t come from me!”
Palmieri shakes his head. “Actually, Mr. Foster, all your posts originate from the same IP address. The picture was uploaded from your computer.”
I’m stunned. I wasn’t prepared for this, and I have no idea how it could have happened.
I look first at Palmieri and then at the glowering members of the school board. They don’t know me at all, but it’s obvious they’ve already judged me. It all becomes clear: there’s no one on my side and no way of getting out of this mess. I don’t know why I bothered with the stupid tie.
“I didn’t post the picture,” I repeat.
Palmieri shakes his head, like I’ve disappointed him yet again. “In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Everybody, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences.’ I hope you are prepared for yours, Theo Foster.”
The school board robots debate for approximately forty-five seconds before they come back with their decree: I’m expelled, forbidden to attend school or set foot on school property for the final three weeks of the school year.
And that’s how quickly it happens: I go from promising junior to up-and-coming deadbeat.
Happy birthday to me.
A belated wave of shock nearly doubles me over in the hallway. I’m leaning against the wall, trying not to hyperventilate, when I hear someone call my name.
I look up. If the wall weren’t keeping me vertical, I might’ve collapsed.
Sasha Ellis—the Sasha Ellis—is also at school district headquarters on a Thursday night. More importantly, Sasha Ellis is talking to me.
Sasha’s in my homeroom, but she talks to no one. When she glides through school, eyes straight ahead and earbuds in deep, kids make way for her, just like minnows do for sharks. It’s not that Sasha doesn’t like anyone else—I don’t think—it’s more like she barely notices they exist.
Sasha pushes her dark hair out of her face and gazes at me with glacial blue eyes. She’d be incontestably beautiful if she didn’t always look like she was on the verge of a scorn-induced migraine, but the sneer takes her down to a 9, tops.
“What are you doing here?” I manage.
She ignores the question, and everybody knows why I’m here. “I saw the picture. It’s amazing.”
“That’s one way of describing it,” I say. “Considering it just ruined my life.”
“Seriously, it’s like a Dash Snow polaroid or something.”
Sasha rolls her eyes at my ignorance. She’s crazy smart and possibly crazy, and—full disclosure—I have basically loved her for three years straight without her ever saying a word to me before this very second.
Well, love is maybe an overstatement. But the feeling is stronger than like and more complicated than lust, and so far I haven’t figured out the perfect word for it.
“Whatever,” I say. “You don’t have to explain your references to me.”
“He was this totally wild artist in New York. When he was, like, our age, he stole a Polaroid camera, and then he started taking all these insane party pictures, mostly so he could remember where he’d been the night before.”
“Did he ever get anyone expelled?” I ask bitterly.
She ignores this question, too. “He was pretty famous,” she says.
“What happened to him?”
“Let’s just say it didn’t end well.”
I’m fine to drop the subject. “Okay. Seriously, though, why are you here?”
“Those are my tits in the picture,” she says.
My mouth falls open.
“Just kidding,” she says.
“But you and Parker—”
“Are nothing,” she says. “That was almost three years ago.”
In our freshman year, before she stopped talking to anyone, Sasha wore short bright dresses and kept her toenails painted like tiny pink shells. And, yeah, she dated Parker for a while. Most of the Arlington girls have, but Sasha was the first. People say he still loves her, but personally I doubt he is capable of such emotional stamina.
“It’s my birthday,” I blurt.
Sasha looks at me in surprise. “Really? Happy birthday.”
“Not really,” I say.
“It’s not really your birthday or it’s not really happy?”
“The second one.”
For a split second she looks almost sympathetic. “Are you bummed about getting kicked out of school? All the cool kids are doing it, you know.”
“If you’re talking about me and Jude Holz, I don’t think cool’s the right adjective.”
She raises a dark slash of an eyebrow. “Jude got expelled, too? Our darling little school mascot?”
“Yeah. It wasn’t him wearing the tiger head, though, just like it wasn’t me who posted the picture. But neither of us could prove it.”
“Didn’t Parker know who he was partying with? Couldn’t he have said that wasn’t Jude under the tiger head?”
“According to Jude, Parker’s testimony was something along the lines of ‘I was so drunk it could have been Tinkerbell under that head.’ He had no idea who was with him that night.” I kick halfheartedly at the cinder-block wall. “Principal Dekum’s zero tolerance policy blows.”
Sasha smiles. “I’m out, too. Does that make you feel better?”
“You are? What for?”
“It’s a long and boring story. The important thing is that this is a momentous occasion. They’ve never had this many expulsion hearings at once. Think of it—you’re part of Arlington High School history.”
“Great. Scandal and infamy is what I’ve always been after.”
Her blue eyes bore into mine. “What are you going to miss?”
“Uh, final exams?”
“No, I mean miss as in long for.”
What I longed for had nothing to do with school. I shrug.
Sasha nods like the matter’s settled. “There you go. You’re better off. Summer vacation starts three weeks early for you. You can, like, lie around in your basement with Jude and play Dark Souls 3 or whatever.”
“That’s not what I want to—”
“I said or whatever.” And then she pops her earbuds back in and opens her book, like I’ve just been dismissed. Which I guess I have.
As I walk away down the hall, though, I feel the tiniest bit better. If getting expelled could have a sliver of a silver lining, it’d be having something in common with Sasha Ellis.
I don’t expect a homemade birthday cake with seventeen candles waiting for me on the kitchen counter when I get home, which is good, because there isn’t one.
There’s only a note.
I had to go back to work. I'm sorry, but the freezer's a wonderland of dinner options. Just don't eat all the salted caramel ice cream or there'll be hell to pay.
Love you to pieces,
I honestly don’t think she knows what day it is, and I don’t blame her—she’s seriously overextended. She works at a bank all day, and at night she does bookkeeping for a bunch of local churches. Once I asked her if she felt hypocritical, seeing as how she’d been a socialist atheist at UCLA, and she told me that if I had any more stupid questions I could keep them to my wiseass self.
Maybe I thought she’d hold on to me tighter now it’s just the two of us left. But mostly it seems like the opposite. Like she’s running away from the memory of him and the reality of me—both. Sometimes I think I’ll wake up one day and she’ll be gone. Not dead, like Dad. Just not here.
It’s probably not healthy, but I try not to think about him too much—otherwise, I don’t know if I could even get out of bed in the mornings. No one told me that sadness hurt. Like all the way into your bones.
I take a lot more Advil than I used to. I sleep more, too. Unconsciousness, like ignorance, is bliss.
I’m heating up a frozen burrito when a text comes in from my friend Jude.
Just typing the word expelled makes my appetite instantly vanish. I don’t want to talk to him, either, so I turn off my phone, chuck my burrito into the trash, and head outside. It’s dark now, and everyone’s holed up in their little ranch houses, blue TV light flickering against the closed curtains.
I walk east toward the edge of town, feeling twitchy and depressed. For a long time it seemed like nothing had ever happened to me—that my life was a boring but fundamentally acceptable slog toward graduation and my supposed bright future, whatever that was.
But in the last few months it seems like a lot of things have happened, and none of them have been good. Some, on the other hand, have been downright horrific.
So what the hell am I supposed to do now? If I can’t take my exams, I’ll fail my junior year. And then what? Will I be stuck here forever? Probably the answer to that question is yes. Because what college wants a kid who flunked grade eleven? Certainly I won’t be scholarship material anymore—and without a scholarship, college is a financial impossibility.
My mood grows even darker. Maybe I should just give up and start working at the 7-Eleven with all the other juvies. Maybe it’d be less painful to crush my own dreams before the world does it for me.
My aimless, agitated wandering eventually brings me to the city park I used to play in. Someone’s shot out the streetlights again, so the sad little swing set and the plastic tube slide that’s knocked out the front teeth of generations of six-year-olds are just dim, lonely shadows.
At the far end of the park is the Pinewood water tower, surrounded by chain-link fencing and NO TRESPASSING signs. Jude says there’s a hole in the fence, hidden by blackberry bushes, and that if you can stand a few scratches you can get in.
And sure enough, he’s right. I make it through the chain link with only a little thorn-induced blood loss, and then I’m standing at the base of the water tower. The ladder stops about five feet above the ground, but I can grab the bottom rung and swing my legs up.
Now comes the hard part—the part I never thought I’d have the guts to try.
Gritting my teeth, I haul myself up the ladder, counting the rungs to keep from flipping out over how high I’m getting. Three-quarters of the way to the top, the wind picks up, and the porch lights seem to spin below me. I take a deep breath and keep going, 156, 157, 158.
Suddenly I can’t go any farther.
Not up, not down. My arms and legs quiver and throb.
I close my eyes tight. Will myself to keep breathing. It’s only a few more feet, Theo, I tell myself, which is a lie because it’s ten yards at least.
But somehow I manage to start to climb again. And in another few moments, I’m on the deck of the water tower, breathless and awed. I’m all alone on top of the world—that’s what it feels like.
There’s a metal walkway all around the water tank itself and a railing to keep me from falling to my death. I sit down, my back against the tank. My feet dangle over the edge, and my heels touch thin air.
Behind me are spray-painted messages from those who climbed before me: Fuck school, Jason loves Lindsay, Billy is a Boner Sniffer. Down below, everything is different shades of darkness: the bluish black of the streets, the charcoal black of the trees, the glittering black of car hoods. Above me, it’s nothing but stars.
When I was ten, a senior from Arlington took a swan dive off this tower. I shudder at the memory, but I can’t help wondering how he did it. How he coaxed himself to the edge and then leapt into the air.
How, in this case, is an easier question than why.
But that’s what I’d ask my dad if I could: Why’d you do it?
I know the how, after all, because I was the one who found him—and the gun.
I stay up there on the water tower for a long time. At first I’m tripping on the silence and beauty—the swooping bats, the faraway stars—but pretty soon I’m just working up the courage to leave.
Don’t look down, don’t look down—I told myself that while climbing up. The problem with descent, though, is that you have to look down.
By the time I make it back to earth in one piece, my head’s spinning, my legs are shaking, and I’ve lost all feeling in my fingers. I reek of fear sweat. I rip my shirt in the blackberry bushes.
In other words, it’s time to call it a night.
So I really can’t explain why I don’t go home. Why I start walking in the opposite direction instead, past the Shell station at the corner of Pine and Osage, which is the dividing line between the nice side of town and the less nice side. The Shell’s also where you can shoulder-tap for beer if your fake ID sucks. Mine—a gift from Jude—looks like a first grader made it with Scotch tape and crayons, and it should go without saying that I’ve never been dumb enough to try to use it.
On the nice side of town, big elm trees line the streets and the houses are Tudors instead of ranches. Automated sprinklers mist the lawns and gardens, and I swear the air feels cleaner. Cooler.
This is Sasha’s side of town.
A left, then a right, and this is Sasha’s street.
And now I’ve obviously gone crazy, because I’m walking up the pathway to her front door.
And knocking on it.
On a list of things I thought I’d one day do, this would be pretty near the absolute bottom—like, become Batman might be the only thing below it.
The door swings open, and there’s a tall, dark-haired man looking at me coldly. “Good evening,” he says. “Can I help you?”
“Oh! Uh,” I say, taking a big step backward in surprise. What were you expecting, Theo—Sasha in a skimpy nightgown, asking you to tuck her in?
“You don’t look like the Domino’s guy, so I’m going to guess you’re here to see Sasha,” the man says. “Would you like to come in?” The way he asks it makes it seem like he wants me to say no.
“Uh,” I say, because I’m a miracle of eloquence. “Please?”
He sighs and reluctantly opens the door a few inches wider. “Sasha’s in the kitchen.”
And just like that, I’m in Sasha Ellis’s house. And there she is, almost within arm’s reach: she’s sitting on a bench in a little breakfast nook, and she’s knitting.
I don’t know why, but this strikes me as highly bizarre. I thought knitting was for little old ladies and people who need to fake productivity when they’re binge-watching Game of Thrones, not for brilliant seventeen-year-olds who barely ever take their noses out of works of great literature.
The other weird thing is that Sasha looks different. Smaller somehow, and maybe even younger. She’s wearing sweats and a pair of fluffy white slippers. When she glances up at me, her expression is wary. “Hi,” she says. She slides her needles and yarn into a basket under the table and crosses her arms across her chest.
“We were just talking about the poetry of Theodore Roethke.” Sasha’s dad pours expensive-looking whiskey into a heavy crystal tumbler. “Cheers,” he says. He lifts the glass at me and takes a sip.
“He was talking about the poetry of Theodore Roethke,” Sasha corrects.
“‘The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy; / But I hung on like death: / Such waltzing was not easy,’” he quotes. Then he turns to me, smiling icily, and suddenly he doesn’t look like a small-town dad; he looks like a really handsome actor impersonating a small-town dad. It’s unsettling. He’s also possibly drunk.
“Matthew’s a lit professor,” Sasha explains. “It’s important not to encourage him, because otherwise he’ll go on quoting poetry all night.”
Matthew—or maybe I should call him Professor Ellis, since his own daughter calls him by his first name—swirls the ice in his glass. “Well, it’s not as if you need to wake up early for school, my pet.”
“Touché,” Sasha says. “Theo got expelled, too, you know.”
“Yes, but I—” I start.
“I’ve got two delinquents in my kitchen?” Matthew exclaims. “My cup runneth over. Sasha thinks she’s too smart for school. Tell me, young man, are you of the same opinion?”
I wasn’t, but I didn’t want to have a conversation about it. I was sorry I’d come.
“I should probably go,” I say. “It’s late.”
Matthew shrugs, then turns to top off his glass. “Whatever floats your dinghy,” he says, his voice the epitome of apathy.
I meet Sasha’s eyes. “Youshouldcomehangoutwithus
tomorrow.” I say this in a rush, before I lose courage.
“Me and Jude—”
“Jude and I,” Matthew interrupts.
I swear I can practically hear Jude’s voice: Dude, that’s a grammar cockblock!
I grab a pen and Post-it from the counter and scribble down an address. “Here,” I say. “If you want to. If you can. If you…” I let the sentence die.
Sasha takes the note and folds it into a tiny square. “Thanks,” she says.
“Sure,” I say. “See you soon.”
Even though I doubt I will.
It’d be a miracle if Sasha Ellis showed up tomorrow, and everybody knows there’s no such thing.
I have to unlock three deadbolts
"A Breakfast Club-like novel for a new generation, filled with mysteries and twists right up until the very end...fans of Pretty Little Liars will be hooked in this drama."—Booklist
"Fast-paced and suspenseful...full of humor, romance, loss, and enlightenment. Patterson and Raymond don't disappoint."—School Library Journal
"A contemporary novel with a little something for everyone... Reminiscent of The Breakfast Club, the story challenges stereotyped perspectives of teens, while providing clues to the characters' motives and secret conflicts."—Publisher's Weekly
"A quick, entertaining coming-of-age story that challenges teen stereotypes while providing a mystery."—VOYA Magazine
- On Sale
- Oct 23, 2017
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- JIMMY Patterson Books