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But when Kaleb and Ashleigh go through a bad breakup, Kaleb forwards the text to his baseball team. Soon the photo has gone viral, attracting the attention of the school board, the local police, and the media. In the midst of the scandal, Ashleigh feels completely alone — until she meets Mack at community service. Not only does Mack offer a fresh chance at friendship, but he’s the one person in town who received the text of Ashleigh’s photo and didn’t look.
Acclaimed author Jennifer Brown delivers a gripping novel about honesty, betrayal, redemption, and friendship, as Ashleigh finds that while a picture may be worth a thousand words . . . it doesn’t always tell the whole story.
Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of Torn Away
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The community service I'd been court ordered to complete was held in one of the downstairs classrooms at the Chesterton Public Schools Central Office. Central Office, where my dad worked and where I'd spent many afternoons hanging out after school waiting for a ride home, would now be the place where I'd get a daily reminder that I'd massively messed up.
I walked the mile and a half from school, hoping the fresh October air would relax me, help shake out my nerves. It didn't work. I still had no idea what to expect and could only imagine myself locked in a painted-cinder-block room in the basement, something that looked a lot like the juvenile detention center where I'd learned, back in September, that big trouble was headed my way.
Sixty hours. Sixty impossibly long hours of community service to pay for a crime that I hadn't even known I was committing when I committed it.
Sixty hours of being in the same room with people who were real criminals, who'd probably done things like sell drugs to children on playgrounds or steal money from cash registers; nothing like I'd done. Real criminals who would most likely take one look at me and eat me alive.
I wasn't sure if I had sixty hours in me.
But the court said I had to, so I walked to my fate, sucking in deep breaths until I was dizzy, and shaking my hands out until my fingertips tingled.
Mom had told me that morning to catch a ride home with Dad after community service, and I was nervous about that, too. Dad and I hadn't been alone in a room together, much less in a car together, since the whole mess started. Dad wasn't doing a lot of talking anymore, but he didn't need to do a lot of talking for me to know what he currently thought of me. My face burned with embarrassment every time I had to pass through a room he was occupying.
When I got to Central Office, I snuck back behind the receptionist's desk and into the inner offices where Dad and other personnel worked, wandering through just as I'd done a million times before. I could see Dad in his office, his face bathed by the blue glow of his computer screen, a phone planted against his ear. He was nodding and kept repeating, "Right, right," but if he saw me he made no show of it. I thought about waiting around for him to get off the phone so I could wave to him or say hi or do something to try to break through the barrier that jutted between us, but decided it was probably best not to make a spectacle of myself, especially given why I was there. I made my way back out to the main foyer and headed downstairs.
All the lights had been turned off, so the corridor was dark, but a rectangle of fluorescent light spilled through an open doorway at the end of the hall. I could hear voices coming out of that doorway. Room 104—the room I was supposed to report to. I walked toward it, reminding myself that I had been equally nervous going back to school that morning and I had weathered the day just fine. I paused at the doorway, took another deep breath, and stepped inside.
"… him to get his ass out of bed or he'd be goin' back to jail," a skinny blond girl with a big, pregnant belly and feather earrings was saying. She was bent over a piece of paper, carefully coloring something with a marker and talking to a woman who was standing by her table. The woman was nodding as if to agree with the girl, but when the girl glanced at me, the woman turned in my direction.
She had on black pants and a black jacket with a white dress shirt underneath. Her hair was super-curly and stuck out around her head in pomade-laden chunks. Her lipstick was a deep, dark red and her lips full and pouty.
"Hello," she said, all stiff and businesslike, walking toward me. "You must be Ashleigh Maynard."
She held out her hand. "I'm Mrs. Mosely. I oversee the Teens Talking program. You're here for community service hours, correct?"
I nodded again, putting my backpack down on a desk and digging through it until I found the piece of paper I was supposed to give her. She would have to sign it every day I worked, until I'd satisfied my hours, and then I was to turn it in to Tina, my lawyer, who would make sure it got filed with the court. The paper was all that stood between me and putting everything behind me. And I was more than ready to put everything behind me. Even if sixty hours seemed like such a long time. A lifetime.
The blond girl assessed me quickly, then went back to her coloring, shaking her head as if I'd done something despicable by walking into the room. I ignored her and turned my attention to Mrs. Mosely.
She took the paper and laid it on her desk, then turned and leaned back against the wooden desktop, crossing her arms over her chest.
"So you're to create some literature about texting, is that correct?" she asked.
The blond girl made a low "oooh" sound, but Mrs. Mosely acted like she didn't hear it. I whipped my head around to glare at the girl.
There were two knocks on the doorframe and a guy I recognized from school popped into the room. He was wearing black jeans, way too big for him, and a leather jacket. He had a pair of headphones hanging around his neck like DJs do, and was carrying a comb in one hand.
"Yo, Mrs. Mose," he said. "What's up?" He tossed a paper that looked like mine onto Mrs. Mosely's desk as he walked by.
Another boy followed him in, very large, very quiet. He said nothing. Just headed over to a computer cubby in the back of the room. He dug some earbuds out of his pocket with his big, hammy hands and sat down.
"Hey, Darrell," Mrs. Mosely said. Then louder, "Hey, Mack." But the big kid in the back simply lifted his chin once in response, stuffing the earbuds into his ears and clicking the computer mouse diligently. Another girl walked in, her jeans so tight they cut into her belly, which wobbled behind an equally tight shirt with every step she took. She sat down next to the blonde.
"Hi, Mrs. Mosely," she said. "Wait till you hear what my moms said this morning about that thing we were talking about yesterday."
Mrs. Mosely held her finger up in a "wait" position, then turned back to me. "You'll probably want to start on the computer," she said. "Get some facts. Some statistics. Are you good at doing research?"
I nodded, thinking about how I used to be good at a lot of things. Before. Good at school. Good at cross-country. Good at making friends. Good to Kaleb.
Now what was I good at? Hiding from crowds? Ignoring catcalls? Staring down disgusting-minded jerks? Apologizing?
"Okay, excellent. Read news stories. Read blogs. Everything you can get your hands on. If a website exists that talks about it, I want you to know about that website and read it. That should take you at least a couple of weeks, okay? You will not be done researching in a day, so don't try to convince me that you are. You need to be armed with information. By the end of this, you will be an expert. As you may or may not know, you're going to be creating resources for schools. Posters, booklets, that kind of thing."
Before being assigned to work for Teens Talking, I'd already been familiar with the program. I remembered getting Teens Talking stuff when I was in junior high. Pamphlets about drugs or gangs or bullying or reckless driving or weapons. I never really read them. Just saw them on the guidance office's literature rack or received one in an assembly here or a seminar there. I'd always assumed they were written by people who worked in my dad's office or by the school psychologist. I never knew it was offenders writing them. And I certainly never would have guessed that I would someday be one of those offenders.
Mrs. Mosely continued. "We need these resources to be factual and reliable, so accuracy is important. When you're done gathering facts, you can start writing a rough draft. I'll proofread it. And then when it's all good to go, you can start creating the layout of your pamphlet or poster or PSA or whatever it is you decide to design. You can do some of the artwork yourself, like Kenzie is here, or you can design it all on the computer. After you're done with that, we'll look it all over to make sure it's ready to print. By then you should have your hours. Okay?" She leaned over her desk and signed my paper, then handed it back to me.
"Okay," I said, taking the paper, but my head was swimming and I wanted to go home. I could feel the girls' eyes on me, and even though Darrell never gave me more than a passing glance, I was sure he knew what had happened with me, because he went to school at Chesterton High. He'd probably seen the picture that had landed me in community service, maybe even had it on his phone right now, and that made me really uncomfortable. I'd hoped to at least get away from the constant feeling of humiliation here.
Mrs. Mosely cut into my thoughts. "Everyone in this group is on a different timetable, so it's not a race. Kenzie and Amber have both finished their research and writing and are down to creating artwork now. Darrell is in the writing stage. Mack is busy on the computer. And where's Angel?" she asked the room at large.
"I heard she got arrested," Amber said.
"Nah, man, she's just skippin' out," Darrell said. "I saw her over at Manny's house last night."
"What were you doing over there?" Mrs. Mosely asked, looking stern. Darrell laughed like what she'd said was a big joke. He gazed back down at his paper, shaking his head.
"Yo, Mose, how you get the word 'violence' if there ain't no 'i' in it?" he called out.
"It has an 'i,' stupid," Kenzie said. She and Amber shared a giggle.
Mrs. Mosely pretended she hadn't heard Kenzie's comment, or their laughs, and walked over to Darrell's desk. She pointed to the paper. "It has an 'i.' See? Right here before the 'o.' "
I took that as my cue and went over to the bank of computers in the back corner. I sat at the one next to the big guy Mrs. Mosely had called Mack. His finger was clicking the mouse rapidly. I wanted to get done so I could go home and curl up under my blankets and sleep. Today had been so tiring, and tomorrow promised to be just as emotionally wrenching. Every day would be, until all this—the name-calling and teasing, the catching up on schoolwork I'd missed, the community service, the wondering if I was still friends with Vonnie, the worrying about the board meeting that could be the end of my dad's career—blew over.
I logged on to the computer and got online, feeling a little more in my comfort zone than I'd expected. I'd done a ton of research papers for my AP English class, so in a way, community service didn't seem all that different from school. The very thought brought tears to my eyes. I had gone from researching English papers to writing community service warning pamphlets alongside a guy who couldn't spell "violence," even though I was pretty sure violence was exactly why Darrell was in here.
Before I became the subject of all the gossip at Chesterton High School, there was a rumor that Darrell had beat up his stepdad pretty badly; the guy had supposedly spent a week in the hospital with his jaw wired shut and a collapsed lung, and Darrell was lucky that all he got was some time in juvie followed by community service. If his stepdad had died, it could have been a lot worse. But anything Darrell had done was nowhere near as juicy as what I had done.
I bit my lip and tried not to think about it as I typed in the words "sexting and teens" and hit "search." Articles popped up, one after another, and I groaned inwardly.
Most of them were about me.
OMG Ash what are you thinking?!
Vonnie's annual end-of-summer parties were legendary. The kind people were still talking about in December. The kind where someone spends three hours on hands and knees in the grass looking for lost car keys, the diving board gets broken, and somehow—though nobody will admit to doing it—the pool water is pranked with a grocery bag full of blue Jell-O powder.
I never missed Vonnie's parties. Even if she hadn't been my best friend since sixth grade, I still wouldn't have missed them. Her parties were where all the best stories were born, and where everybody who was anybody hung out.
But when I got there this year I wasn't exactly in the partying mood, partly because Coach Igo had decided summer break was officially over for cross-country athletes and had practically killed us doing hill runs in what felt like an oven pushed up to a thousand degrees. But I had other reasons for not really feeling like partying.
"You're late," Rachel Wellby said as soon as I walked through the front door. Rachel was Vonnie's friend from the volleyball team, and while I knew her from hanging out with Vonnie, there was something about Rachel I didn't really like all that much. She had an underlying air of bitchy competitiveness, especially when it came to my relationship with Vonnie. I always felt like Rachel didn't care for me, either, even though I never exactly knew why, and like she'd be thrilled if Vonnie decided to one day dump me. Honestly, I didn't get why Vonnie was such good friends with her, but it didn't matter. Vonnie was friends with a lot of people. I didn't own her.
Rachel was swaying in front of me, her wet swimsuit dripping in the entryway, a chlorinated puddle forming on the very expensive-looking throw rug. I could practically hear Vonnie's mom shouting all the way from their Cancún timeshare that the rug had been handwoven by an elderly craftsman they'd stumbled across in a little village in some foreign country I couldn't pronounce and that he'd died exactly nineteen minutes after weaving it and she could never get her memories of that amazing trip replaced, so get your wet clothes off it. "We're practically already sunburned," Rachel slurred. "And you missed the pizza. I don't think there's any left."
"Trust me, I know I'm late," I mumbled. My skin felt so hot I thought if I looked down I might see steam rising from my legs. The scent of the pool on Rachel made me all the more antsy to get into the water. I kicked off my shoes and rooted around in my gym bag for my bikini. "And I'm already sunburned, thanks to Coach Igo's love of torture."
"Whoa, somebody's crabby," Rachel said, then singsonged, "Don't worry. Kaleb will make you smile again."
"I don't think so," I said. "He's got a game."
This was the real reason I was cranky. Not because of an exhausting run, but because instead of dancing or drinking or floating lazily on a raft with my boyfriend, I was going to be doing those things alone. And this definitely wasn't the first time. It seemed like I'd been doing everything alone all summer.
Kaleb had been playing on a baseball team in a neighborhood league for something like twelve years. The guys on the team were like brothers. They did everything together. And this was their last summer on the field. Josh was going off to the marines in two weeks. Carlos was heading to some private college in Illinois. Daniel had started his new job a month earlier, and he never had time for anything anymore. And Jake, in a total surprise move, had shown up one day with a one-way ticket to Amsterdam and a plan to stay over there until he'd hooked up with enough sexy European girls to make him forget Katie, who'd broken up with him the last day of senior year.
I need to hang with my boys, Ash, Kaleb had told me when I suggested he blow them off for the most epic pool party of the summer. I only have a few more weeks with them.
But you only have a few more weeks with me, too, I'd argued.
No way. I have you forever.
Kaleb was exactly the kind of guy I'd want to have forever with. And I really wished I could believe him when he said stuff like that. I used to. At one time it really felt like forever might happen for us. But somehow we didn't feel so foreverish anymore. We felt temporary and dramatic and like we were always away from each other.
What seemed like forever was how long he'd been choosing his "boys" over me. All summer I'd practically had to beg for alone time with him before he went to college. In a few days he would be living four hours away. I'd be stuck at Chesterton High to finish up what were likely going to be the slowest two years of my life, and he would be partying with God-knew-how-many girls. College girls. Girls who would be impressed by his athletic build and his academic scholarship. Girls who were more ready for forever than any high school junior could ever be.
I continued pawing through my gym bag, trying to shake my irritation and my crummy boyfriend situation so I could have fun like everyone else at the party. I glanced up at Rachel, but laughter in the kitchen had caught her attention and she'd already turned to follow it, giggling before she even knew what was so funny. Typical. I was surprised she'd stuck through a conversation with me as long as she had.
I located my swimsuit and trudged to the downstairs bathroom to change. I peeled off my smelly running clothes, threw on my suit, then made a beeline for the pool out back.
Vonnie was sprawled backward on a chaise lounge, her feet propped on the reclined back, her head lying where her feet should have been. One hand trailed off the edge of the lounge, her fingers delicately tracing the lip of a red plastic cup. Cheyenne and Annie sat on towels next to her. Cheyenne played with strands of Vonnie's hair, braiding them into teeny wet braids that would probably take ages to undo later.
"You should take your sunglasses off," I said, plopping onto the empty chaise next to Vonnie's. "You're going to get a tan line."
She turned her head to look at me, and after a couple of seconds, registered who I was. "Ashleigh!" she squealed, sitting up and throwing her arms drunkenly around my neck. "You came!"
I laughed—as if I'd ever not come—hugged her, then was practically pulled onto the ground when she flopped back onto the chaise. "Sorry I'm late," I said, trying to untangle myself from her hug. "Run went long. Igo about killed us today." I picked up her drink and took a swig. It was warm, and the sweetness made my jaws ache.
She waved her hand in front of her nose. "Phew! So I smell!" She and the other girls burst into laughter; then she flipped over onto her stomach and called, "Stephen! Ashleigh needs the same treatment you gave me earlier!"
I had no idea what she was talking about, but after a second, Stephen Fillman and his friend Cody, both of whom had graduated last year with big-time football scholarships to state universities, pulled themselves out of the deep end and loped toward me, rivers of water coursing down their hairy legs and off their trunks and landing with loud splats on the concrete pool deck.
"No!" I squealed as Stephen bent over and wrapped my kicking feet into the crook of his arm. Cody came around the lounge and grabbed me by the waist. "Stop!" I yelled, gasping at how cold the water dripping off them felt on my skin. I playfully smacked at Cody's hands. I dropped Vonnie's cup on the pool deck, heard her curse and yell, "You owe me a drink, woman!," but I honestly couldn't even really register the words because the boys were carrying me and then swinging me in arcs over the deep end of the pool before letting go.
I free-fell into water so crisp and cold it startled me. I blew bubbles through my nose as soon as my head went under, letting the water caress my limbs and pull me down to the painted pool floor. My hair drifted around my face and I waved my arms, slow and dreamlike, then found the floor with my feet and pushed myself back up toward the sky, which looked impossibly blue filtered through the water.
I came up sputtering and laughing, feeling weightless, like any worries, any fears, anything heavy I might have been holding on to were sliding off me and collecting on the bottom of the pool like silt.
It was the last moment I would feel that way for a long time.
have u seen the txt that's been goin round by
chance? if not u better look.
As the sun started to go down, someone suggested a game of pool volleyball. I played on the boys' team: a bunch of football players and runners, most of whom had been drinking pretty heavily for a while, versus a rotation of girls from our state-title-winning girls' volleyball team. The guys needed me—the girls were killing us.
But we didn't care. It was fun losing. Adam took a spike directly to the head, twice, and we all laughed while he made the culprit, Cheyenne, kiss it. I sat on Stephen's shoulders to get the high shots. Vonnie had cranked up the stereo inside the house, setting the speakers in the open back door, and the game took on a rhythm that matched the music.
Everything felt different at this year's party. We were all older now. We were upperclassmen. Masters of our own destinies. We could do this. We could handle whatever came our way.
But then Rachel's new acrylic was ripped off. There was blood dripping from her finger into the water, which grossed Vonnie out and caused her to start gagging, and Rachel was making a huge wailing deal out of it. She staggered to the upstairs bathroom and the game broke up, everyone wrapping themselves in their towels or pillaging the kitchen cabinets for snacks or showing off on the diving board.
Cheyenne and Annie and a bunch of the guys tossed around a Frisbee that one of them found in the crawl space under the deck, and someone had lit the tiki torches that lined the patio. I found myself stretched out on the chaise next to Vonnie's again. She still had her sunglasses on, though the sun had gone down. Her hand had knocked over the fresh drink she'd poured for herself and she hadn't even noticed that the pink puddle was stretching toward the pool's edge.
"I think Stephen's into you," she said after a while.
I took a sip of a drink Cody had poured me earlier and made a face. "What are you talking about? No he's not." My mouth felt numb and I found myself laughing at everything, which was so annoying and I knew it, but I couldn't help it. This was the best I'd felt all day; maybe all summer. I wished Kaleb had come with me. It would've been nice to have a good time with him for once.
Vonnie sat up. "Yes he is. He was totally rubbing your legs during that game."
"He was holding on to me. I would've fallen off," I said. She leaned forward and slid her sunglasses down her nose, staring at me over the top of them cynically. We both cracked up. "Okay, maybe," I said. "But I'm not interested. Remember Kaleb?"
Vonnie pulled off her glasses and rolled her eyes. "Who isn't here, by the way. Just in case you didn't notice." Vonnie hadn't had a boyfriend since Russell Hayes broke her heart last summer. She'd said she was swearing off teen romance and would wait for the real thing somewhere down the road when guys started maturing. In the meantime, her idea of a committed relationship was whatever relationship was available at the moment. Earlier I would have bet there was a good chance Vonnie was going to strike up a "relationship" with Stephen that night, so why she was grilling me about him when she knew I was dating Kaleb was beyond me.
"He had a baseball game."
"Which is interesting, given he's not actually on a baseball team."
"Von, I told you, it's an informal league. They've been playing forever. And everyone's—"
"I know, I know." She recited in a bored voice, "Everybody's splitting up because half of them are going away and the other half are stuck at Chesterton and it's going to be all sad and horrible because he won't get to see them again for a really long time." She turned toward me, her face serious. "But what about you, Buttercup?"
I smiled at the nickname Vonnie had been calling me ever since fourth grade, when we'd gone through a phase of being obsessed with the song "Build Me Up Buttercup." "I'm here, aren't I?" I took another swig and gazed at my pruny toes. The nail polish I'd put on the day before was all chipped and ugly, but I felt too floppy and relaxed to do anything about it.
"Of course you are. I didn't mean that." She leaned over to put her head on my shoulder, but the gap between our chairs was too wide, and her chair tipped sideways, spilling her onto the concrete. She laughed, her fingers digging into my arm. "I sat in my drink," she giggled, feeling the puddle under her butt with her other hand.
"Ow, you're shredding my arm, cat lady," I said, barely feeling her grip and laughing too hard to care.
Rachel came out of the house, dressed in street clothes, her finger wrapped in a huge bandage. She righted Vonnie's chaise and sat in it, leaving Vonnie on the ground between the two lounges. Rachel eyed us with a frown.
"She is messed up," Rachel said, as if she hadn't been equally messed up before the Great Nail Calamity.
"I am not," Vonnie said, letting go of my arm and lying back on the concrete. She waved her hand at Rachel dismissively. "I'm concerned for my best friend. What kind of friend would I be if I didn't worry about my best friend?"
"Why, what's up with you?" Rachel asked me.
"Nothing," I said, exasperation creeping into my voice. "Everything is fine. She's worrying for no reason."
Vonnie held up one finger drunkenly. "Reason. She's passing up the chance to be with Stephen because she's in love with a guy who isn't even here."
"You and Stephen?" Rachel said, her eyes getting big.
"No!" I said. "There is no me and Stephen. I'm with Kaleb."
"No you're not," Vonnie said. "You're here, and Kaleb is with his baseball team. Because he doesn't want to forget them." I got what she was saying. I had thought the same thing many times over the past few months. It seemed like I was always alone, only seeing Kaleb from a lawn chair out in a field somewhere. I might get a wink from the dugout. I might get a little slap on the butt or quick hug after a game, while he was on his way to grab a burger with the team, never inviting me to go with him because it was "boys only."
He was going to miss them. He wanted to rack up all the face time he could with them. But was he going to miss me? He didn't seem the least bit concerned about that.
- * "Thousand Words is a powerful, timely, and compulsively readable story...This is an excellent choice for book discussions and a must-purchase for all libraries."—VOYA, starred review
- "Brown brings her characteristic raw honesty to this wrenching story....Sensitive and genuine."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Apr 1, 2014
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers