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Read The First Three Chapters Of Allegedly

Tiffany D. Jackson’s Allegedly is Orange Is the New Black meets Walter Dean Myer’s Monster. This gritty, twisty, and haunting debut by Tiffany D. Jackson follows the story of a girl convicted of murder seeking the truth while surviving life in a group home. Keep scrolling below to start reading the first three chapters of ALLEGEDLY before the book goes on sale January 24th, 2017, and don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads shelf!

CHAPTER 1

Excerpt from Babies Killing Babies: Profiles of Preteen and Teen Murderers by Jane E. Woods (pg. 10)

Some children are just born bad, plain and simple. These are the children that don’t live up to the statistics. One cannot blame their surroundings or upbringings for their behavior. It’s not a scientifically proven inheritable trait. These children are sociological phenomena.

This type of child is perfectly depicted in the classic 1950s film The Bad Seed, based on the novel by William March. It is the story of an eight-year-old girl, sweet and seemingly innocent, the prize of her picture-perfect family, whose mother suspects is a murderer. The adorable Rhoda, a blue-eyed, blond-haired princess skips around the film in pigtails and baby doll dresses, killing anyone who won’t let her have her way.

The film was horrific for its time, a villain played by a young girl, appearing as innocent as any other. People couldn’t conceive of a child being capable of murder. Even in present day, the act is unfathomable.

This is how Mary B. Addison became a household name. Mary is Rhoda’s story, personified, begging the question: was there something that made her snap, or was the evil dormant all along?

A fly got in the house on Monday. It’s Sunday and he’s still around, bouncing from room to room like he’s the family pet. I never had a pet before. They don’t let convicted murderers have pets in the group home.

I named him Herbert. He’s a baby fly, not one of those noisy horseflies, so no one notices him until he zooms in front of your face and lands near your orange juice. I’m surprised in a houseful of delinquents, no one has killed him yet. I guess he has survival skills, like me. Keeps a low profile, never begging for unnecessary attention. Just like me, he wants to live a quiet life, nibble on some scraps, and be left alone. But just like me, someone is always coming up behind him, shooing him away with the back of a hand. I feel for Herbert. Being a chronic unwanted guest can really suck.

At night, Herbert sleeps on top of the crooked molding that frames my closet, home to the few items of clothing I own. Three pairs of jeans, one pair of black pants, five summer shirts, five winter shirts, one sweater, and a hoodie. No jewelry. Just one of those ankle bracelets given by the state so they can follow me around like the sun.

“Mary! Mary! What in the hell are you doing? Get down here now!”

That’s Ms. Stein, my . . . well, I don’t know what you’d call her, and hopefully you’ll never need to. I climb off the top bunk and Herbert wakes, following me into the bathroom. I’m the youngest, so of course I get the top bunk. That’s the rules of the game. In one month I’ll be sixteen. I wonder if they’ll do anything to celebrate. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Celebrate birthdays, especially milestones like sixteen. I was still in baby jail on my last milestone, my thirteenth birthday. They didn’t throw me a party then either. My birthday gift, a black eye and a bruised rib from Shantell in the cafeteria, just for breathing in her direction. That chick was mad crazy, but I’m the one with words like “rage tendencies” all over my file.

Anyways, I’ve been in this home of seven girls for the past three months and not one birthday has ever been mentioned. Guess birthdays don’t mean nothing in a group home. I mean, it kind of makes sense. Hard to celebrate the day you were born when everybody seems to wish you were never born at all. Especially after you come into this world and fuck it all up.

I can name several people who wish I was never born.

Some chocolate cake and ice cream, maybe even some balloons would be cool. But that’s what the stupid girl I used to be wishes for. I keep reminding myself she’s dead. Just like Alyssa.

“Mary! Mary! Where the hell are you?”

The showerhead is a slow drizzling rain cloud. I hate showers. In baby jail, I only got to take one five-minute shower every other day, the water like a fire hose, whipping my skin like towel snaps. I never took showers before, always baths, playing in bubbles made from lemon dish soap in white porcelain tubs.

“Mary! Goddammit!”

I swear that woman can drown out water. Herbert buzzes around my wet hair, drawn to the gel that helps slick my brown ’fro back into a curly ponytail. Wish I was a fly. Like be a real fly on the wall, staring with kaleidoscope eyes at particles floating in the air, trash blowing in the wind, singling out snowflakes and raindrops. I do that now anyways. I can spend hours entertained by my own fascination of nothingness. It’s a trick I learned in the crazy house, to look like I was stone-cold dead to the world so they would stop asking me so many damn questions.

But I can’t be a fly, not today. I have to prepare. Be on high alert and focused. Because in a few hours, the most dangerous, most diabolical, most conniving woman in the world is visiting me today:

My mother.

Transcript from the December 12th Interview with Mary B. Addison, age 9

Detective: Hi, Mary. My name is Jose. I’m a detective.

Mary: Hi.

Detective: Now, don’t be afraid. Your mom said it was okay for us to talk to you. Can I get you anything? You hungry? Would you like something to eat? What about a cheeseburger?

Mary: Uhhh . . . cheeseburger.

Detective: Okay! Great, I love cheeseburgers too. Now, don’t be scared. Just want to ask you a couple of questions about what happened last night. You’ll be really helping us out.

Mary: Okay.

Detective: Great! So now, Mary, how old are you?

Mary: Nine.

Detective: Nine! Wow, such a big girl. Do you know how old Alyssa was?

Mary: Momma said she was three months old.

Detective: That’s right. She was a very tiny baby. What did you do when you helped your mommy take care of her?

Mary: Umm . . . I fed her and burped her . . . and stuff.

Detective: Okay, so now, Mary, can you tell me what happened last night?

Mary: I don’t know.

Detective: Your mommy said you were alone in the room with Alyssa. That she was sleeping in the room with you.

Mary: Ummm . . . I don’t know.

Detective: You sure? Your mommy said she was crying.

Mary: She wouldn’t stop crying . . . I couldn’t sleep.

Detective: Did you try to make her stop crying?

Mary: I don’t remember.

I’m on kitchen duty today. That means I have to scrub and wash until Ms. Stein can see her fat white face in every pot and pan. Ms. Stein doesn’t know how to clean but she sure knows how to criticize.

“Mary, does this look clean to your dumb ass? Clean it again!”

It took the state six long years to realize I wasn’t a threat to society before they ripped me out of baby jail and put me with Ms. Stein. From one prison to another, that’s all it was. Understand, there’s a big difference between baby jail and juvie, where the rest of the girls in the house come from. Juvie is for badass kids who do stuff like rob bodegas, steal cars, maybe stupidly try to kill someone. Baby jail is for kids who’ve done way worse, like me.

Anyways, some social worker dropped me off and said, “This is Ms. Stein,” and left right before I met the real Ms. Stein. Most of my life, no one has bothered to explain anything to me. It’s been one “’cause I said so” scenario after another. I stopped asking questions and in six years I have not run into one adult who would do me the common courtesy of explaining why something is happening to me. I guess killers don’t deserve respect, so I’ve stopped expecting it.

Ms. Stein limps into the kitchen, her bowlegs fat and swollen. You’d think someone would change their diet after they reach over two hundred pounds. But not Ms. Stein. She still eats an entire box of Entenmann’s crumb top donuts a day.

“Mary! You move as slow as molasses. Why does it take you so long to wash some damn dishes?”

I don’t know why God sent me to Ms. Stein. I don’t know why God does a lot of things. But Momma always told me not to ask questions and to keep praying. Even for fat, mean white ladies like Ms. Stein.

“I still see grease on that counter! If I can see it why can’t you?”

That is the only advice Momma ever really gave me. Keep praying. God will work everything out. It never occurred to her that maybe she should try to work some things out for herself. Sometimes I wanted to shout “God’s a little busy, Momma! He can’t find your keys for you all the time!” She was always lazy like that, expecting everyone else to do everything for her.

God and I share the same problem.

Tara, one of my roommates, drops more breakfast dishes in the sink. She’s big, and black as tar, so I call her “Tar-ra.” But only in my head, because I don’t talk to anyone. Talk gets you into trouble and these girls are looking for trigger words to be set off. As far as everyone is concerned, I’m a mute.

“Clean it up, psycho,” she grunts and bumps into me with the hardest part of her hunchback shoulder. Tara tried to kill her boyfriend. Stabbed him ten times with a pen Scotch taped to a ruler. When asked why she didn’t just use a knife, she said, “Knives are too dangerous.” Seventeen but has the mental capacity of a five-year-old. She, no lie, still colors in coloring books and counts on her fingers, using her knuckles when the number goes above ten.

Kisha comes stomping, slippers scratching against the floor, with her nail file in one hand and curlers still all up in her hair.

“Oh my God, this place is so wack! I’m mad bored! Ain’t nothin’ out here! You know that’s why they got us here, right? To keep us all trapped and shit.”

She isn’t really talking to me. She’s just talking out loud with an audience. Kisha is from some projects in East New York. I’ve never been there. I’ve never been to a lot of places in Brooklyn. Momma said everywhere else outside our home was too dangerous. Kinda funny how our home wound up being just that.

“Dumb bitches won’t catch me slipping,” Kisha mumbles, checking her eyebrows in the microwave. This is a girl who threw a desk at her math teacher, paralyzing her from the waist down, just because she didn’t answer a question right. Most of the crimes the other girls in the house committed are like that. Crimes of passion, “snapped” moments, and good ole fashioned wrong place-wrong time situations. My crime was more psychotic. I was the nine-year-old who killed a baby.

Allegedly. That’s the word they always used.

Everyone in the house knows what I did. Or thinks they know what I did. No one asks though, because no one really wants to hear how I killed a baby. They don’t even want to know why I killed a baby. They just want to pretend they know for knowing’s sake.

Excerpt from People magazine article “Girl, 9, Charged with Manslaughter in Baby’s Death.”

An unnamed nine-year-old girl faces manslaughter charges in the death of little Alyssa Richardson. The case is generating controversy and tough questions about blame. Who should decide the outcome—the criminal courts or mental health experts—and can such a young defendant be judged competent to stand trial?

The girl, who is the daughter of the babysitter charged with Alyssa’s care, is currently in state custody, due in court at the end of March. If found guilty as a juvenile, she could face the maximum eleven-year sentence, locked in a state penitentiary until she is twenty-one years of age. A second option would be to keep the child in a juvenile facility until she is twenty-one, at which point a judge could consider sentencing her to an adult prison for the maximum term.

The group home is always muggy, like we live in an old shoe, smelling like corn chips mixed with roach spray. I never call the group home “home” really. It’s not a home. No house where you fear for your life can be considered a home. It’s in Flatlands, by absolutely nothing. From the outside, it looks like a two-story brick-face house. There are four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room/dining room, kitchen, office, and a half-finished basement. The sitting room looks like a doctor’s waiting area. It’s for visitors like family, social workers, or parole officers.

“Mary! Quit your goddamn daydreaming and mop them floors! Here, make ’em shine.”

The mop. A stringy black wig attached to a faded yellow pole. She pours a mixture of bleach and Pine-Sol on the warped floor, the burning stench inching down my throat like a knife forcing me to gag, eyes leaking.

“What’s wrong with you! You pregnant or something? You better not be pregnant!”

The yellow linoleum becomes blacker, years of dirt bleeding back into the floor. I wonder how many girls used this same mop before me. Stupid, because no matter how much she makes us clean, it doesn’t stop the army of mice and the swarm of roaches from visiting us in our rooms at night. Dust covering our lungs like plastic, sitting in cat-piss-soaked furniture, with dark panel walls leaving the house in a constant shadow. Let’s just say I’ve lived in better conditions. Then again, I’ve also lived in worse.

The doorbell buzzes. It’s not a friendly buzz, more like an angry dryer finishing its load.

“Reba! Get the door!” Ms. Stein hollers next to my ear.

Ms. Reba is security, Ms. Stein’s second in command, also known as her sister. She’s the taller, thinner version of Ms. Stein, with greasy gray hair and giant breasts, wrapped flat so she can pretend she doesn’t have them.

“Alright. Alright,” she hollers from her post on the living room sofa. She wears black wrist guards and one of those weight belts that sits right below her bulging gut, yet I’ve never seen her work out or lift anything but food to her mouth.

The front door has seven bolt locks, one key lock, and a bar that takes her at least five minutes to open. “It’s for safety,” they say. But it’s really to make sure we don’t run away in the middle of the night. Not that I’ve ever thought of it.

You can hear her whimpering before the door even opens. It’s the new girl.

I shuffle by the kitchen doorway to get the first look at her. Mousy- looking white girl with dark pink lips and long, tangled brown hair, clutching a familiar state-issued bag of new clothes. Winters, my parole officer, escorts her in.

“Morning, Judy. Reba. Meet your new guest, Sarah Young.”

He passes her file off, then pats her on the back as if to say “good luck.” New Girl is crying. Real sobbing, snot nose tears. I’m jealous; I haven’t cried in six years. The tears are frozen inside with the rest of my emotions. She probably doesn’t think she did anything wrong. I was that girl too once.

“Thanks, boss! We getting any more?” Ms. Reba asks, pressed for more minions to rule over. Ms. Stein signs his clipboard like he’s a UPS driver delivering a package.

“Not sure, can’t say.”

“Well, come on, child. Let me show you your room,” Ms. Stein says before hobbling down the hall, the mousy girl following behind her.

“Thanks, boss. We won’t let you down,” Ms. Reba says.

He nods and adjusts his belt. From what I heard, he used to be in the army until he got shot in the leg or something, so he always walks with a limp.

“Any problems?”

“Not on my watch. No sir.” She tucks her thumbs into her pockets and stands like Superman, smiling with teeth the color of corn, sharp enough to eat through rock.

Winters smirks then glances down the hall in my direction, and nods.

“Addison.”

I nod back.

Winters had zero patience for me from the moment we met. “You’re gonna give me problems, Addison, I can tell,” he’d said. I’d wanted to ask why, but he’d looked like he wasn’t in the business of explaining himself to anybody, especially not to teenage girls.

“Staying out of trouble?” he asks.

I nod.

“Any problems?” His eyes dart to Ms. Reba then back at me. Ms. Reba turns, giving me a sharp look, a warning. One wrong answer could land me on bathroom duty for months. I shrug.

“Humph. Alright then, I’ll leave y’all to it. Social services here tomorrow, yeah?”

“Yup, yup! I’ll walk you out, boss!”

I go back in the kitchen, finish mopping, and head to my room. My bedsheets are piled on the floor in the hallway, sneaker footprints like tire tracks. The usual. I dust them off, remake my bed, and grab the Harry Potter book off my dresser. That joke of a bookshelf has the same crap they had in baby jail I’ve inhaled three times over and I’d kill for something—anything—new to read. But I’d never say that out loud. I’m a killer after all; they’d probably think I’d really do it. Figures of speech are luxuries convicted murderers are not allowed to have.

I sit and read about magic spells, waiting for the demon I was spawned from to arrive.

Excerpt from The Devil Inside: The Mary B. Addison Story by Jude Mitchell (pg. 21)

Dawn Marie Cooper was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1952. The oldest of five children, she was forced to drop out of school at age fifteen to take care of her growing brothers and sisters.

“I was always taking care of babies. All my life.”

Her youngest brother, Anthony, died as an infant. The coroner ruled the cause of death as sudden infant death syndrome. Her brother’s passing inspired Dawn to become a registered nurse. It is unclear where she received her training, but she worked exclusively in a neonatal care unit for many years.

Dawn moved to Brooklyn, New York, with her youngest sister Margaret Cooper. Margret wanted to pursue a career in the fashion industry and Dawn was worried about her living in a big city alone. Dawn found work as an elderly caretaker. She met her first husband, Marc Addison, at a bus stop on Flatbush Avenue. Although Marc was twenty years her junior, they fell in love and were married within three months. Marc was killed on his way home from work by a drunk driver. Shortly after, Margret died of HIV-related complications. A devastated Dawn went into hiding.

Mary Beth Addison was born in October. Dawn testified that she had given birth at home, only bringing Mary to the hospital to get a birth certificate. She was forty-one.

When describing what happened that day, she stated, “It was a cruel and painful birth. I knew something was wrong with her from day one.”

“Yo, I can’t believe this dumb shit. There ain’t no trains, no White Castles, no corner stores. Some bullshit!”

Kisha complains about the group home every single day. She could go out, but chooses to stay inside, combing and straightening her hair every ten minutes like she’s about to see someone new. Momma is like that too. Hair always has to look right, permed and hot-combed perfect. She would get all dressed up in heels to go to the corner store and never left the house without her lipstick, cranberry brown. Smells like crayons.

“And it fucking stinks in here,” she says, trying to open a window to let out the stench of rotting food. Ms. Reba pokes her head in our room.

“Mary, your mom’s here.”

Like clockwork, Momma arrives at 2:35 every other Sunday, right after church. This has been her commitment to me ever since I was locked up. I’ll always remember what she said in the courtroom. “I’ll come see you every week. Well . . . on second thought, maybe every other week. Every week may be a bit too much for my pressure.”

And sure enough, every other Sunday, she would be in the visitors’ center at baby jail, cheerful and bright as cotton candy. One of the officers working my cell block said she deserved mother of the year, for all the love she showed a little psychopathic killer like me.

Mother of the year? Hilarious.

“Baby!” she squeals in the sitting room, arms extended wide, waiting for her hug. Her hot-pink skirt suit is paired with a matching bag and shoes that could almost blind you. Her cream church hat is centered, a regal crown. Momma is all about appearances.

I walk into her hug and she wraps her arms around me as tight as she can, kissing my face like always. I pull away, the remnants of her burgundy lipstick burning my cheek. She smells like my childhood: pepper, pomade grease, and laundry detergent mixed with that purple lotion from Victoria’s Secret one of her boyfriends gave her.

“How’s my baby girl doing?”

I have to give it to the woman. She puts on a show, through and through. Even when no one’s watching.

“I’m fine,” I croak out. My voice is scratchy and feels funny from not talking for so long. But I can’t keep up the silent treatment with Momma. She’d nag me to death until I spoke at least five words.

“Well, come on, baby, let’s sit. Talk with your momma for a while.”

We sit on the old blue couch. Everything in the room is a hand-me-down, thrift store find. It’s like me and Momma’s first apartment, except warmer. Momma wraps her arm around my shoulder, smiling ear to ear. She was always so happy. All my life, she was the happiest person I’d ever met. Inside her bubble, nothing or no one could get her down. She smiled during evictions, smiled after Ray would beat the shit out of her, smiled when we were dead broke, and even smiled during my manslaughter sentencing (“See, baby, it’s not so bad. At least it’s not murder!”). She’s the most optimistic person on earth. Even when she’s visiting her daughter in a group home.

“Baby, your hair is getting so long,” she says, looping her finger into my kinky curls, pulling at the ends like a bouncing spring. “You may need a trim soon.”

“It’s fine,” I snap, shooing her fingers out of my hair.

She folds her hands in her lap with a closed-mouth smile, glancing around the room, bobbing to some mystery music in her head. She is waiting for me to ask about her. I’m an irrelevant factor to these visits, she’s here to make herself feel good.

“So . . . Momma, how are you?”

Her eyes light up and sparkle big like stars, as if she was waiting her whole life for someone to ask her that question.

“Oh, I am so blessed, baby girl. Just so blessed! I wish you’d been at church today. Boy, pastor had an amazing service for our truly awesome God. Oh and last week, we had . . .”

I stop listening and stare, counting the wrinkles on her face, trying to find pieces of myself in her. She has dark skin, small brown eyes, big lips, a wide nose, and a sharp pointy chin. Her black hair never grew past her ears. I have light skin, big hazel eyes, a narrow nose, and a round face. My dark brown hair has always been long and curly, lightened in the sun. She says I’m the spitting image of my father, but I’ve never seen a single picture of him to prove it. And while I rarely do it, when I smile, I see her smile. That has always scared me.

“. . . And the youth ministry is putting on a play next week for the church’s fiftieth anniversary. Oh, and baby girl, they’re so excited! They asked me to make the refreshments and I told them only if they behave ’cause they just about fought over my banana pudding at the . . .”

The day after they locked me up, Momma jumped into the deep end of the Baptist church and was born again. “The devil tried to get to me through my daughter and I wouldn’t have it!” The church took pity on her, of course. No good decent woman like her would ever be responsible for raising such a monster. “That devil must have came from her daddy’s side.”

“So, young lady? Aren’t you gonna ask about Mr. Worthington?”

Mr. Troy Worthington, my new stepdaddy, owner of a soul food restaurant and apartments in Brooklyn. They met at church of course; he’s one of the deacons. She married this one only six months after my sentencing. They honeymooned in Hawaii. She brought me back a seashell. I’ve never met him and don’t really need to either.

“So how is—”

“Sit up straight, baby. You always look better when you sit up straight.”

“SO MOMMA, how is Troy?”

“Mr. Worthington. And yes, baby, he’s doing just fine. We went out the other night to this beautiful . . .”

Momma did it. She finally married rich, so she could be what she has pretended to be for years. Mr. Worthington has money. I know by how Momma dresses. Never in the same outfit twice, diamonds in her ears as big as marbles, shoes in every color. Never been in her car, but I’ve seen the key chain, a BMW. Meanwhile, I’ve been in baby jail for four years, seven months, sixteen days, nine hours, and forty-three minutes before dumped in this group home the past three months. And she has never bought me a single thing. Ever.

“And then he said, ‘Well, we shouldn’t let good wine go to waste.’ Ha! Lawd, that man is just too much. He so funny and smart . . .”

She’s still talking about Troy but I know what will shut her up quick.

“Sounds great, Momma!” I smile and cozy up to her. “Hey, you think I can come to church with you some time?”

Her face drops and she wipes it away with a nervous smile.

“Well, now, baby . . . Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You need permission and it’s—”

“But we could ask, and Troy could—”

“Oh baby, I plum forgot,” she says, glancing at the watch she isn’t wearing. “I was supposed to pick up Mr. Worthington’s dry cleaning. You know he needs his suits for his . . . well, the place closes in an hour.”

She jumps up, straightening her skirt, pulling a marked-up Bible out her purse.

“And I still need to drop these flyers off for the church picnic next weekend. But before I leave, scripture for you. Ready? It’s from 1 Peter 5:8. It reads, ‘Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks around as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world.’”

Still trying to cast that devil out of me, I see.

She smiles and puts her Bible away.

“Now, I will see you in two weeks. Same time now, okay?”

She kisses my other cheek, leaving the same war paint mark against my skin before rushing out. And that’s it. Her fifteen minutes is up. Like clockwork.

“Why the hell did you use my deodorant, you dumb bitch?”

“I didn’t use anything, you stupid puta!”

Marisol and Kelly are fighting for blood in the hall again. Almost once a week Kelly is fighting someone. She’s a real monster, with the bluest eyes and the blondest hair. If she stands still and doesn’t talk, she looks like Barbie. I heard she was captain of the cheerleading squad at her high school before she ran into two girls in the school parking lot with her Range Rover, something to do with them missing practice.

Ay, coño! Quítate de encima, stupid! I didn’t touch your shit!”

The tussling blond and black ball of hair ram into the wall, dust flying. Another hole, another doorway for the mice. That’s fifteen on the second floor alone with ten downstairs.

“Yes, you did! Get her, Kelly!” That’s Joi, Kelly’s shadow. She is the gossiper, knows everything about everybody’s business. Skinny as a straw, her nappy hair can’t grow past an inch with bald patches where the perm burned her. Joi pushed a girl into a moving train for talking to her boyfriend. Except he wasn’t really her boyfriend.

“I didn’t use it,” Marisol says in her thick Dominican accent. “The new girl did!”

Uh oh. Poor New Girl. Not even six hours in the house and is already being blamed for something. Kelly lets go of Marisol’s hair and storms into the bedroom, looking for New Girl.

“Where is the little bitch?”

Kelly drags New Girl off the top bunk and into the hallway while she screams. I watch from the safety of my own top bunk.

“No, please! NO!”

“Shut up, you little cunt!”

“Get her, Kelly!”

She drags her down the hall by her hair, the others cheering like it’s a football game. I go back to my book. Mind your business and you won’t get hurt. That has always been my motto.

“What’s going on!” Ms. Reba screams from the bottom of the stairs. That’s the kind of “enforcer” she is, always a good ten minutes late to the party. Just like in baby jail, the COs were never around when I needed them.

Ms. Reba breaks up the fight (or the pummeling, however you want to look at it), and brings New Girl down to the kitchen to get fixed up. Ice for the black eye, Band-Aid for the cut forehead, aspirin for the pain.

An hour later Ms. Reba returns New Girl to her room, next to mine. Hearing her cry into her blanket through the walls reminds me of my first night in the group home.

Except I didn’t cry. I never do.

CHAPTER 2

Excerpt from What Happened to Alyssa? by Star Davis (pg. 34)

The New York juvenile court retained jurisdiction, despite intense public pressure to try her as an adult in hopes of a death sentence. Mary was held in the children’s psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital under close surveillance.

With the circumstantial evidence mounting, as well as inconclusive testimony from three separate child psychologists, Judge Maggie Brenner allowed a plea bargain, sentencing Mary to a period of up to ten years in an adult state correctional facility, where she would be kept in isolation as opposed to a lesser restrictive private treatment program. Ms. Cooper-Addison was, willingly, stripped of her parental rights, making Mary a ward of the state until she comes of age.

The institution of choice was kept a closely guarded secret, given her age and the multiple death threats that have accompanied this case. Brenner ordered state officials to devise a long-term, comprehensive treatment program.

Even as her future was being determined around her, Mary never said a word.

“Ayyy, he so beautiful! Have you ever seen someone so beautiful in your ’ole entire life?”

Marisol flips back her long silky black hair, staring up at the pictures and posters of Trey Songz surrounding her bed like wallpaper. He stares down at her, lust in his eyes, even while she sleeps. He stares down at me now, on the floor by her bed waiting for Ms. Carmen, our social worker, to finish room inspection. Short, skin roasted by a Spanish sun, she goes through my stuff like one of those sniffing police dogs.

“He’s gonna be on 106 & Park tomorrow. I want to go, but I can’t skip work.”

Trey Songz. That’s all she ever talks about. His CD is on repeat again, singing about sex. That’s all he ever sings about, like he knows nothing else.

“Ayyyy, but if I was there . . . all he need to do is take one look at all this and it’d be a wrap, yo. I’d have his baby. His son!”

She pushes her chest at his picture with a kiss and he sings back. Marisol is so gorgeous that she may be right. He may take one look at her thick ass and huge tits and be sprung. If he were smart though, he’d stay clear. She’s only seventeen and is always in love. That’s how she ended up in here; in love, doing stupid things for stupid boys.

“You like boys?”

I shrug.

“Me neither. I like men. REAL men. Real men take care of you.”

Ms. Carmen stops to look at her and says something in Spanish. Marisol rolls her eyes.

“Mary,” Ms. Carmen snaps at me. “Why do all your underwear have holes in them?”

I shrug and flick a clump of dirt off my sneaker. She curses under her breath and calls Ms. Stein as Trey Songz sings “Panty Droppa” in the background. Marisol laughs.

“Judy, have you been giving Mary her allowance? All her panties have holes in them.”

Ms. Stein holds up a pair, sticking her fat fingers through the rips and glares at me.

“Why haven’t you bought some underwear? What did you do with all your money?”

I shrug.

“Who cares?” Marisol says. “Not like she has a MAN to see them.”

Ms. Carmen nips at her in Spanish again.

“Damn it, Mary,” Ms. Stein flusters. “You can’t walk around with holey underwear. Now, don’t you feel stupid?”

Not really. It only bothers me a little when Ted sees them.

“Make sure she buys underwear next week,” Ms. Carmen says. “If someone sees these, they’ll say we’re mistreating her or something.”

They leave the room, complaining about how stupid I am. As soon as they’re out the door, Marisol shoves me away from her bed.

“Disgusting puta! You smell like pussy through your holey panties.”

I straighten my side then put my money, cell phone, and pocketknife back in their hiding spot.

There is a lot that goes into reforming a teen felon. I’m reminded of this every morning when I look at my weekly schedule. As part of our parole program, we have fitness on Mondays and Wednesdays, and group therapy on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Fridays, we’re given our weekly allowance of thirty dollars, which goes toward any personal items, like tampons, underwear, MetroCards, and lunch during the week whenever we’re not at the home. Sundays are for educational field trips that we never go on and visitations. Our only day of freedom is Saturdays, after we finish our chores, but we still need approval to leave before checkout.

I also have to prepare for the GED, pick a trade, and go to vocational school. It’s Ms. Carmen’s job to advise me on my options. I think she is my eighth social worker, but I’m not sure. I’ve lost count. The other social workers I’ve had stopped by baby jail once a month, if they could remember, dropping off animal coloring books, reading and math work sheets, and crossword puzzles. I’d eat through them like air. They’d also leave board games and cards, but for what? There was no one else like me. There was no one for me to play with. Baby jail was what they called my cell block, but I was the only baby there.

“So, Mary,” Ms. Carmen asked in a dead voice during my first week at the group home, fiddling with her rosary like a candy necklace. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

At first, this gave me hope. No one had asked me what I really wanted to do in years, but I knew the answer: I wanted to be a teacher. When I was little, I used to line my toys up in front of an imaginary chalkboard and give reading lessons. I’d even sit Alyssa on my lap and teach her the ABCs. Momma would say, “She’s too little, baby. She can’t even talk yet.” But I didn’t care. Alyssa was going to be smart. I was going to see to that.

When I wrote Teacher on a piece of paper and showed it to Ms. Carmen, she’d chuckled but wasn’t actually amused.

“Well . . . I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Ms. Carmen is one of the names on a long list of people who don’t really like me. Which seems ass-backward, since she’s responsible for my well-being. I think it’s because she is super Catholic and I killed a baby or something.

Allegedly.

She made it very clear I would never work with children, that no baby killer would ever be able to work with children. Ever. I’d scratched out teacher then wrote Nurse.

“Welllll . . .”

Oh right. The pills. Can’t touch those either.

After an hour of discussing what is left to do with my life at the ripe old age of fifteen, it was then determined that the safest career path for a psychopathic baby killer is cosmetology. That is what she chose for me. Another brilliant decision made by a government official. So I sit in GED class for two hours pretending to know nothing, then learn about perms and curling irons for another four hours.

Checkout is a pain in the ass. Ms. Reba has to write down the date and time we leave, where we’re going, and a description of the clothes we’re wearing. But she writes slow as shit and can’t spell worth a damn.

“Gray sweatshirt, blue jeans, gray sneakers, pink smock. Uhhh . . . wait, how you spell smock again?”

Every day, we have to be checked back in the house by nine, or they’ll call the marshals, track us by our anklets that won’t let us go more than a three-mile radius away, and throw us in juvie. No questions asked. Ms. Reba calls it AWOL, when girls don’t come home on time. Don’t really know what that means though.

Another part of my parole is twenty-five hours of community service a week. They assigned me as a candy striper at Greenview Nursing Home, where I change pissy sheets and feed diabetic ice cream to the dying. It’s actually the most peaceful part of my week. No one bothers me and I’d rather be surrounded by the semi-dead than what passes for the living at the group home.

There are five floors at Greenview: first floor, assisted living, for those who still have their senses but can’t be bothered with the real world. A hundred-dollar cable bill would give them a stroke. Second floor, old and tired, for those whose batteries are dying, becoming slow-moving toys no one wants to play with. Third floor, hospice, for those literally knocking on heaven’s door, waiting for someone to answer. Fourth floor, purgatory, for those slowly losing their sense of self; and the fifth floor, hell. Otherwise known as the dementia ward, for those possessed by demons who took over the bodies of the people you once loved. I prefer the fourth and fifth floors. Familiar circumstances.

It’s five o’clock, time to meet Ted.

The dining hall at the nursing home smells like baby jail; like old cafeteria food, piss, and moldy flesh. He is at our table under the vent, bobbing his head to some music. He jumps up and glances around before kissing me, his lips lingering. I fall into his hug, wishing I could stay folded in his arms forever. There is literally nothing better in the world than his hugs.

“Hey,” he says.

“Hey.”

“Class was fun?”

“Fascinating.”

He chuckles, and we sit down to eat. Turkey meat loaf, mashed carrots, chicken broth, and a white roll.

“Babe, you missed it,” he says. “Lady from 207 rolled up on the lady from 110 for flirting with her boyfriend.”

“By rolled up, you mean . . . in her wheelchair?”

“Yup! They were about to throw blows before Ms. Legion stepped in.”

“I thought he was messing with 420?”

“Nah, that was last month. She caught him pinching some nurse’s butt in the TV room. Now she can’t even remember his name. And he got 121 sneaking him cupcakes when he knows his blood can’t take all that sugar.”

“Damn, 211 is a pimp.”

Ted’s smile fades and he slides an extra milk on my tray.

“Still no period?”

I sigh.

“Still no period.”

My period is now ten days late. We both know what it could mean but refuse to acknowledge it. Life is hard enough as it is.

The first time I ever saw Ted, wheeling a woman from the second floor into the community room, all I noticed was his knuckles, cut up and scarred like he’d been punching through brick walls all his life. He reminded me of a Hershey’s Kiss with his rich, smooth, dark chocolate skin, slick with Vaseline that glowed under his pink scrubs. Pink meant he was a candy striper from a group home, like me. You’d have to be stupid to volunteer for this type of work. Our eyes locked for a moment too long. I’d buried my hot face back in my book because I’d felt them, the butterflies Momma always told me about, terrifying but exciting.

“Anyways, I got you something.” His voice snaps me back to the now as he digs into his book bag, pulling out a black plastic shopping bag, placing it in my lap. It’s square, thick, and heavy.

“What’s this?”

“Something you wanted.”

I slide the bag half off. A book, Kaplan SAT Strategies, Practice & Review. My smile is so wide it feels unnatural. I make sure no one’s watching before I kiss him.

“Thank you.”

His rough hands caress my face, eyes soft and searching. He always looks at me like that, like I’m the most amazing thing he’s ever found. He is sort of amazing too. Who knew I would find the one person who understands me, no words necessary, among the half-living.

“You know your feelings are showing?”

He grins.

“I know, right. My bad.”

I kiss him again, the sparks addicting, and his hands rub against my thigh under the table. I can feel the new Band-Aids on his fingers, probably from school. Ted is studying to be an electrician, out of juvie six months for a crime he won’t tell me about but swears he didn’t do. I don’t pry; don’t want him knowing what I’ve done either.

“So,” he says, nuzzling behind my ear. “What’s it like being the baddest chick in the old folks’ home?”

“The baddest?”

He laughs, eyes widening.

“Calm down, babe! Baddest, like the hottest. Like, beautiful.”

“Oh.”

“I’m saying, I don’t wanna have to fight 211 over what’s mine.”

My face burns and I shy away from his stare.

“I’m sure you can take him.”

I flip the book over. The price, thirty-nine dollars and ninety-five cents.

“Whoa, how’d you get this?”

Ted rolls his eyes.

“Don’t worry about it, aight. You need it, don’t you?”

Ted’s allowance is like mine. There is no way he could afford a forty-dollar book and still live.

“But, where’d you get the money?”

“Baby, just—”

“Did you steal it?”

He sighs, playing with my hair.

“You really wanna know?”

Thoughts wander but I don’t flinch at them.

“No. Not really.”

We finish dinner and head to the elevators, standing side by side like a pair of parallel lines. He moves his hand an inch closer, brushing his knuckles against mine. My eyes close; the slow static shock stings my fingers, leaving me warm and breathless. Doors open. Ms. Legion, the nursing home director, steps out and we part like the Red Sea.

From the Deposition of Ms. Ellen Rue—Mary Addison’s Fourth-Grade Teacher

The best way I could describe Mary is gifted. She was one of the brightest, most brilliant students I ever had. She could read at an eighth-grade level and excelled in mathematics. I once gave her a math test fit for a sixth grader. She finished it in thirty minutes, scoring a 90 out of 100.

There are 756 pages in the SAT prep book. If I study fifty pages a week, I’ll be ready to take the exam by December. That’s if the mice don’t eat my book first. They’ve already nibbled on the edges.

Ted and I have a plan. Since he’s older, he’ll be off parole before me, hopefully by the time he finishes school so he can get a job and an apartment. I won’t be released until I’m nineteen, maybe longer. Until then, I’ll take half of my allowance each week and save for school. That is fifteen dollars a week for fifty-two weeks, which comes out to $780. Times that by four years, I’ll have $3,120 by my first semester. Ted will take care of us while I go to school and study business. Then we’ll open up our own hardware store, get married, and put the past behind us.

I wrote the plan out in my cosmetology notebook.

In order for colleges to potentially overlook my conviction, I have to fall in the ninety-eighth percentile, 200 points less than perfect. Verbal I can handle with no problem. I read the whole dictionary one time because I didn’t have anything better to read. Math will be tricky. Sure, I’m real good at counting in my head. I always counted out the rent money Momma kept in the coffee can above the stove. We were always short, and Momma would yell at me for counting it wrong. I counted right; we were just short. But the SATs have these graphs, shapes, and formulas I’ve never seen before, and my GED class only covers the basic stuff. I’ll have to learn the rest on my own. On top of all that, I don’t want the girls or Ms. Stein knowing what I’m up to. They’ll only screw up my plan. So this has to be in secret.

“Aye! What you doing?”

Damn, I really hope Tara isn’t talking to me. But the room is mad tense and quiet, so I know something is up. I keep my back to them, bedsheet like my own personal tent, and continue flipping pages. Maybe if I just ignore her, she’ll go away.

“Aye. Psycho! I said, what you doing?”

She yanks the sheet and the book falls off my bunk, slapping the wooden floor. I can’t untangle myself fast enough to jump down and grab it before she does.

“What’s this?”

The whole room is staring at us but I can’t focus on anything else besides the book Ted gave me in her fat, greasy hands. It’s like she’s touching him, my Ted. Just the thought of that makes me itch from toes to fingertips. My tongue detaches itself from the roof of my mouth and pushes out some words.

“Give it back,” I mumble.

The whole room freezes and Tara’s mouth drops. They’ve never heard my voice before. Someone in the background whispers an “Oh, shit,” and Tara grins.

“Or what?” RIPPPP! She tears the cover.

“Give it back,” I say, wishing I could talk louder or at least sound dangerous.

Laughing, she rips the first pages, crumbling them into balls on the floor.

I grab for the book and she holds it over her head, knocking me right on my ass. RIPPP! Another page. That itch in my toes sends a shock through my whole body and I launch at her feet. She topples over slow, like a black domino, screaming. The house shakes when she lands.

“Fight! Fight! Fight!” the girls scream, giggling. But this is a David and Goliath type of battle I have no chance of winning. So I jump up with the book and run out of the room toward the stairs, Tara clambering to pull herself up and chase after me.

“Fucking bitch! I’m gonna kill you!”

I tuck the book under my arm and race down the stairs. Tara comes thundering down the hall after me, each step like an earthquake. I can’t stop fast enough before slamming into the front door. Locked. It’s after nine; the door is bolted shut for the night. Tara trips down the stairs with a scream. I buckle back, jumping over her, and race to the back of the house. With all this noise, where is Ms. Reba?

Tara is at my heels. I duck into the kitchen, throwing a chair in her way. She falls again. Shit. She’s really mad now and I’m trapped. I claw at the window, but the lock won’t budge. Where the hell is Ms. Reba? The noise had to wake her up by now. I know she’s always ten minutes late to the party, but damn! Tara gets up, madder than mad. It hits me that I’m hiding in the kitchen, near all the knives. Not the smartest move but Tara isn’t bright enough to even consider that. This was the same girl who taped a pen to a ruler for Christ’s sake!

“Fucking bitch!”

Clutching the burning radiator pipe, I cower in the corner, chipped paint splintering up my nails. I pull myself into a little ball on the floor and squeeze my eyes shut. Tara yanks at my shirt, trying to shake me off the pipe. She bangs on my hands, trying to loosen my grip. Screaming, she gives up and starts beating me, fists slamming against my back like a raging gorilla. I clench the pipe and start to pray. The last time I prayed this hard, Alyssa wasn’t breathing.

Why won’t you breathe, Alyssa!

The lights come on and the fists stop. I look up and Ms. Reba has Tara in a chokehold, all out of breath from trying to beat me to death.

“Calm down! Calm down!”

Ms. Stein comes limping in.

“Jesus Christ, what’s going on?”

The book, sandwiched between the pipe and me, topples over as I let go, falling on my back with a gasp. Pain rips through me as I stare at the ceiling, catching my breath. Herbert flies over me and for one insane moment, I wonder how he is surviving in this place while I’m the one being batted down like a fly.

Ms. Stein bends quicker than I thought she ever could and picks up my book, examining it like a Rubik’s Cube. I sit up and lean against the stove, the movement unbearable.

“What’s this?”

The floor is full of dust and belly-up water bugs. I don’t say nothing. Ms. Reba drags Tara into the living room, trying to calm her down.

“I’ll kill you! I’ll fucking kill you!”

“I said, what is this, Mary?” Ms. Stein barks.

I’m fighting to breathe and losing. Breathing hurts my lungs, which hurts my back.

“It’s . . . it’s a book.”

Ms. Stein’s eyes go wide and her head snaps to Ms. Reba. They’ve never heard me talk before either.

“Wa . . . wait. What did you say?”

“It’s a book,” I mutter again.

Ms. Stein doesn’t know how to react, thoughts all jumbled and thrown off by a few words. She frowns then blows out a huff of hot smelly air.

“I know that, dummy! What the hell you need a SAT book for, Mary? All this fighting and carrying on, waking folks up in the middle of the night over some book for a test you too stupid to take!”

A knot rolls into my throat and I try to swallow it back.

Don’t snap, Mary. Don’t.

I wouldn’t go to baby jail if I killed Ms. Stein. I’d go to prison, a real prison. I’d never see Ted again.

“You’re never gonna get into college! They don’t take killers in college!”

Don’t kill her, Mary. Don’t. Kill. Her.

Ms. Stein flips the book over and looks at the price.

“Where’d you get this?”

“It . . . it was a gift.”

“Bullshit! Ain’t no gift. Who bought it for you then?”

They can’t know about Ted. No one can know about Ted.

Ms. Stein puts her free hand on her hip. “Well?”

I guess I’ll have to lie. I hate lying but I’ve been doing it all my life. No sense stopping now.

“I bought it.”

“You BOUGHT it? You bought a forty-something- dollar book? You expect me to believe that? Okay then. Where’s the receipt?”

I can’t think. My back hurts too much to think.

“I . . . I don’t know. I . . .”

“Rule number five, Mary! Anything you buy, you have to show proof. And that means a receipt. We can’t have you stealing shit and bringing it in here.”

She stands smirking at me and my mind goes blank.

“So you don’t have the receipt?”

Eyeing over her shoulder, the entire house is in the kitchen, watching. New Girl looks straight frightened. There is no way out of this. There is no way I’m going to get my book back. I shake my head no.

“You steal some book you too stupid to read and cause all this goddamn commotion!”

“I didn’t steal it,” I mumble toward the floor.

“Oh really? Well, I’m just gonna hold on to this. And when you find that receipt, you can get it back.”

Ted finds me in the walk-in freezer, leaning my back against the icy wall. He pulls me out and takes me to one of the empty rooms on the third floor where a patient died this morning.

“Let me see.”

Wincing, I lift my arms and he slowly removes my smock and my undershirt. He unhooks my bra and turns me around. A quick breath whistles through his teeth and I’m happy I can’t see his face.

“Shit, baby . . .”

“I’m okay.”

“Your back is purple.”

I sigh and it hurts. The room smells stale of diapers, old shoes, and death.

“Just . . . lay down,” he says. “Hurry, we don’t have a lot of time before Ms. Legion comes looking for us.”

I climb into bed, whimpering with every movement, and collapse on my stomach. He runs out, returns minutes later with a few ice packs and gently places them on my back, covering them with a damp towel. The cold stings like hell, but it’s better than nothing. He slides into the small twin bed with me, and our noses kiss. Having him near me, I start to heal.

“You aight?”

“She took my book.”

He frowns, but doesn’t pry. It’s what I love most about us. No questions, no explanation needed. He rolls on his back and pulls me on top of him. Chest to chest, I breathe with him, his heart a drum in my ear. He sits his chin on top of my head and plays with my hair.

“It’s okay to cry, you know. You can cry in front of me.”

“I don’t cry.”

His fingers graze my cheek.

“You a bad liar, Ma.”

I exhale a calming breath and close my eyes.

“If I was, I wouldn’t be here.”

Two days later, Ted finds the receipt at the bottom of his book bag. He didn’t steal it after all. Which makes me wonder how he afforded it in the first place, but I don’t ask. I get to the house before dinner and slap the receipt on Ms. Stein’s desk. We stare at each other. Now would be the time for her to apologize, but she doesn’t. Instead, she opens her drawer and hands back my tattered book. I snatch it and walk straight to my room. Maybe Ted and I need a new plan, because I have to get the hell out of here. Soon.

The unfinished basement is the exact size of the visitors’ room above it, with a storm door leading to a junky backyard. Dark, damp, and always cold. I hate it down here. I hate therapy.

“Hi, ladies!” Ms. Veronica says in a nasal voice. She always reminds me of the lady on that show I used to watch with Momma, The Nanny. She looks like her too, mad tall, long black hair, and super white skin with lots of makeup. We sit in a circle of metal folding chairs while she runs at the mouth.

“How was everyone’s weekend? What did you ladies do? Who wants to share? Anything exciting? Well, I had a really nice dinner with my hubby on Saturday. We had Indian for the first time.”

First, let me tell you about Ms. Veronica. She is straight up the most un-relatable person to have ever entered the group home. Ever. She doesn’t belong here. But every Tuesday and Thursday she leads us in group sessions about anger, trying to make us discuss our feelings in order to find what she refers to as “peace.”

There is no such thing as “peace” in a group home.

Why is she so un-relatable? Because she is too damn happy all the time, mad optimistic. Thinking that everything will turn around with a snap of a finger and we’ll all live happily ever after. Sweet, but unrealistic. Some of these girls still use their fingers to count.

“Okay, ladies, let’s take out our journals. Who wants to be the first to share?”

Our “feelings” journals; notebooks we’re supposed to write in three times a week about our “feelings.” No one writes in them. No one has feelings in here.

Ms. Veronica starts talking about sadness and what it means to be sad and how sadness makes us do terrible things. I overheard Ms. Stein talk about her once. She is from Staten Island, married young and rich, so this little therapy job is sort of a joke.

“So, does anybody want to talk about a time they were sad? I mean, really, really sad?”

No one says anything for a while, then China raises her hand. She is always the first person to speak.

“My moms . . . she kicked me out when she caught me with my first girlfriend. Pretty little light skin thing with curly hair . . .”

She glances at me and I stare at the floor. Kelly rolls her eyes and mouths “Ew.”

China is the manliest person in the house. She wears nothing but boy clothes, even boxers, which seems like overkill. Momma would be disgusted at the “nasty lesbian” I’m living with. She hates anything that is not in the Bible, which seems like everything.

“How long you been a rug muncher for?”

“Joi! Inappropriate,” Ms. Veronica says in a shaky voice.

Joi rolls her eyes and the others snicker.

“Anyway though, she kicked me out the house and I was, you know, on the streets for a little while before I linked up wit my crew.”

“Don’t you mean your ‘gang,’” Kelly corrected.

“Blood or Crip?” Kisha asks.

“She’s a Blood.”

“WAS a Blood. Not no more.”

The room goes silent. Ms. Veronica, wide-eyed, nods for her to continue.

“Anyways, I linked up wit my crew, and started getting into things. Then, like a couple of months later, I ran into my boy who lived on my block. Said Moms was in the hospital. So I go to check on her and she was in this room wit all these machines and stuff hooked up to her. She looked real bad. Doctor said she had cancer. When she woke up and saw me, she started screaming, ‘Get that bitch out of here. I don’t want to see her!’

“It’s like, damn, yo. She didn’t even want to see me on her deathbed. She died like a month later. Didn’t have the right insurance to keep her. It hurt, you know? ’Cause I was always the one taking care of her. She wasn’t that smart so she didn’t keep a job for too long. A week after she died, I got caught.”

“What did you do?” New Girl asks and the whole room stares. It’s the first time she has opened her mouth. I think she even shocked herself.

“China likes slashing people’s faces for fun,” Kelly snickers.

“Yo, why don’t you mind yo’ fucking business!”

“Make me, you dyke bitch!”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, ladies! Language! What did we talk about?”

The room erupts and I stay still, thinking about how I took care of my momma. She needed watching after. Especially when she was having “a day.”

I was falling off a building.

Or that’s what it felt like. Falling to my death off my bunk. But I didn’t fall, I was yanked. My feet hit the floor, balance off, eyes still closed. I can barely stand up straight before I’m dragged out of the room.

“Get in there now!”

Ms. Stein grips my arm so hard she leaves half-moon imprints with her nails, blood throbbing to break through the skin. She throws me in the bathroom, eyes still crusted with sleep, a black mop in one hand and a hairy, rusty sponge in the other. The sun hasn’t even got up yet.

“Well, don’t just stand there,” she snaps from the hallway. “Clean up!”

We stare at each other, because she knows I’m on kitchen duty this week. She knows I shouldn’t have to clean the bathroom. But this is punishment. She had to do something. She couldn’t let me get away with outsmarting her. Not in front of the other girls.

“Hurry up! I want that toilet shining!”

My hand tightens around the mop, ready to shove it in her fat mouth. But then I remember the cement blocks of my cell in baby jail, and slowly lift up the toilet seat. A ring of shit splatter circles under the rim. I dry heave the moment the stench hits my nose.

“Ohhh, quit your bitching! It’s your own damn food! Here, put a little bleach on it.”

She dumps some bleach in the bowl and it splashes on my pajamas. I can taste last night’s dinner in the back of my throat, hot dogs and broccoli. My back stings as I hunch over, wiping the shit with a sponge. Small chunks fall into the water, pieces splattering on my hand. My eyes are so watery from the coughing and heaving that I’m almost blind. It’s too hot . . . I need air.

“Wash off that sponge. It’s still good to clean the tub. And take out that garbage too. It fucking stinks in here! Hurry up, Mary, I ain’t got all day!”

The garbage reeks of old rolled-up pads with dry period blood and Kisha’s empty Noxzema jars. The smell hits the bottom of my stomach and I heave so hard my chest aches. SPLAT! Pink and white vomit covers my bare feet, slime seeping between my toes, even as chunks still hang off my lips.

“Eww! Mary, that’s disgusting! Well, you gotta clean them floors anyway. Here, use some of this bleach. Make them floors shine!”

Interview with Correction Officer at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility: Anonymous

A little black girl who kills some little white baby? Man, that kid was famous, face all over the fucking news! And that was the problem. She couldn’t stay in the youth detention center or she’d be eaten alive and she couldn’t be with the adults, ’cause they no better. So what do you do with a kid who murders a baby? Where do you put her? What do you feed her and when? No one knew. And you can’t have some ten-year-old little girl skipping around the yard, now can you? So yeah, she spent a lot of time in the hole, but if they didn’t know what to do with her, how were we supposed to know? It ain’t like she could go crazier than she already was. You ask me, we were doing her a favor.

Dinnertime. It’s Kraft macaroni and cheese day, made from powdered cheese and water. Reminds me of the first meal I had in baby jail. Served with a side of peas and carrots on a square plastic blue plate, like a TV dinner. I’d never had TV dinners before, or Kraft mac and cheese. I’d seen commercials for the stuff between my cartoons after school, but Momma would “humph” and say things like, “That stuff is so fake. All them preservatives and chemicals . . . you like your momma’s mac and cheese, don’t you, baby girl?”

Momma made the best mac and cheese. The best fried chicken, the best collard greens. I miss her food more than her. She cooked most everything and was always ranting about “fake food.” Problem was you had to have money to buy “real food,” and she’d rather us starve than eat a pack of ramen noodles. So we did a lot of starving.

After dinner and cleanup, everyone runs to the TV room to watch reality shows. I’m no therapist, but it doesn’t seem like a good idea for girls with raging tempers to watch grown women fighting on TV. My favorite show is Law & Order: Special Victims Unit but no one else in the house likes it.

“Shit is mad fake. Cops don’t care like that!”

“And those trials are mad fast. I didn’t get offered no deal like that!”

But I think it’s real, it has to be. Detective Olivia Benson, the lady cop, seems so, I don’t know, smart and mad nice. She can always tell when someone is lying. Always making friends with the victims and doesn’t stop until she gets the real bad guy. Sometimes, I imagine what life would’ve been like if she was the person on my case. She would’ve said, “Mary, it’s okay. I know you loved that precious little girl. My gut tells me you didn’t kill her. And I promise you, I won’t stop until I find out the truth.” Then a week later I would be free, because her gut is never wrong. Maybe even stay at Benson’s house, because she likes me so much and wants to protect me. Would she adopt me? Could she? Damn, my life would’ve been so different if I had Benson and not the man that gave me the cheeseburger.

In the shower, I find another freckle. Or beauty mark, I’m not really sure. That makes twenty-three. So pale and bony, nothing about me screams “black child.” I don’t mind though, just makes me wonder if my daddy is white. Whenever I tried to ask about him, Momma would act like I was crazy and say, “What are you talking about? Ray is your daddy.”

Ramon, “Ray,” stepfather number two, was a five foot three Dominican. Even Momma was taller than him, but he’d beat her down to his eye level all the time. His skin like honey wheat toast, he wore glasses that would fall off his face and break whenever he came home drunk. He was also missing about four of his front teeth. I looked nothing like Ray. And thank God for that.

But my real daddy, he is out there, looking for me. No one wants to be that kid in the orphanage, waiting to be rescued by her real parents, like in Annie. But some nights, I dream about him. In my dreams he is a big, tall, rich, handsome white man. He’d pull up in his limo, walk through the door, wrap his arms around me and say, “I’ve been waiting my whole life to meet you.” Then, he would save me from this place, and Momma.

There are two computers in the corner of the basement we’re allowed to use for thirty minutes at a time. This is where I find New Girl hiding out in her pajamas. Do I say something? Maybe? It’s only us and she is a wet noodle compared to the others.

“What are you doing?”

She yelps, jumping from the chair and turning off the monitor in one swift motion, backing away, eyes wide and white as lightbulbs.

“Listen, I’m not gonna hurt you,” I chuckle. “You’re too old for me to hurt anyways.”

Her eyes grow wider, hands shaking like I’m a cold wind. I have scared what little color she has right out of her. Bad joke, I guess. I shrug and walk to the opposite side of the room, giving her space. I’m used to being a leper, so my feelings aren’t hurt.

She waits until I’m seated at the other computer before returning to hers, fingers flying fast across the keyboard. They didn’t let me take computer classes in baby jail. I don’t know why. I bang on the mouse, but the screen stays black. Thought you just moved it and it would turn on? Maybe it’s broken? But New Girl’s is working.

“Um . . . you know how to . . . turn this on?”

New Girl’s mouth drops, eyes blinking a few times. “You never used these before?”

Why she got to ask like that, like I’m stupid or something?

Still, I can’t meet her eye, it’s mad embarrassing. She hesitates before creeping over, clicking a button on the back of the black box.

“Thanks,” I mumble as my screen comes to life. She scurries back to her seat, still eyeing me like she doesn’t know what to think while I click on the Google logo. I’ve seen Ms. Carmen on it before. She would type in something, and all this information would pop up so I punch the letters S A T with one finger.

“I . . . uh . . . Googled you,” New Girl says, a tremble in her voice. “I remember. I was ten when you . . . when you killed that baby.”

I let out a sigh before turning to her.

“Allegedly.”

She swallows hard, eyes returning to her screen. Honestly, I’ve never thought about looking myself up before. What did she see? The stories, the TV shows, pictures . . . maybe pictures of Alyssa! There are probably tons of pictures of her on Google. They wouldn’t give me a picture in baby jail. I was put on cell restriction for even asking. Matter of fact, I was always on cell restriction. The COs were never eager to open my cell. They’d rather keep me locked up all day, staring at the gray cement, thinking of Momma and Alyssa. It’s easier to keep an animal in a cage than to play with it.

But I’m not in baby jail anymore. All I have to do is type my name, and then I can see her! I delete SAT and type M A R Y A . . .

“There was a lot about you though. About how you did it.”

How I did it? Did what? Oh right.

I didn’t mean to throw her.

“Are you . . . Googling everybody?” I ask.

“No. Just you. You’re the celebrity. That’s why they hate you.”

“Who?”

“The others girls.”

“Oh.”

I thought the whole world hated me. They probably do, like the ones in front of the courthouse. All those people, yelling and screaming, Alyssa on big posters and T-shirts . . . there will be pictures of them too. Backspace. Backspace. Backspace.

“They all seem crazy. The others. Don’t they?”

I know crazy. I’ve lived with it for a long time. But none of these girls are crazy. They’re just stupid. They made stupid decisions for stupid reasons. I guess you could say I’m stupid too.

“I guess.”

“Do you ever think about . . . that night?”

My eye twitches and I sigh.

“Every day.”

Excerpt from the Final Autopsy Report of Alyssa Richardson:

Description of Patient: 12-week-old Caucasian female. Brown hair, blue eyes. 13 pounds 5 oz.

Time of Death: Approximate time of death between 7:30 and 9:30 P.M.

External Examination: Bruising on forearms, upper right thigh, and center forehead. Ecchymosed bruising under the left eye.

Cause of Death: Asphyxia due to strangulation.

Stomach Contents: Colostrum’s lactate (Breast milk), Methylphenidate (Ritalin), and Clonidine.

Manner of Death: Homicide.

The moaning through my thin walls wakes me up. Momma and Ray, sexing again. Why does she have to be so loud? When he’s done with her, he’ll come for me, I know it. He’s coming, he’s coming, he’s coming . . . the tremors start, body shaking from my toes to my ears. I should try to hide again, but I’m too afraid to move. How bad will it be if he finds me this time? Where’s bear? I reach for him, feeling for his stiff clump of fur, but find I’m alone, my sheets rough and scratchy. This is not my bed, this isn’t my room.

Where am I?

The smell of Tara’s stank feet brings me back to the group home, but I still hear moaning. Marisol’s bed is empty; she must be next door with China, another night visit to her bunk. Poor New Girl has to witness it.

“I told you it ain’t my fault!”

“I don’t want to hear it! You know the rules!”

I roll over, away from the door and cover my head with a pillow, but I can still hear Joi and Ms. Stein screaming downstairs. It must be really late, because lights-out was at least two hours ago.

“But there was a fire on the tracks at Union Square. All the trains were stopped! I was waiting for almost an hour. How else was I supposed to get home?”

“You expect me to buy that? It’s one in the morning! Check-in is at nine! Where the hell were you?”

“I told you! I was waiting for the train.”

“Fine, you don’t want to tell me, then tell the marshals.”

“But I came home!”

“You’re late! You went AWOL!”

“Yo, I didn’t!”

“And you changed your clothes,” Ms. Reba adds. “That’s not the outfit you had on this morning.”

“I . . . it . . . it got dirty.”

“Strike two, Joi! You’re on house restriction for the rest of the month. AND bathroom duty.”

“WHAT! Yo, that ain’t fair! I didn’t do nothing!”

Damn, house restriction is the worst. It’s like real house arrest, you can’t leave for nothing except school and even then they escort you back and forth like COs. I was on house restriction for a month when I first got to the house. Once they figured out I wasn’t a threat, they gave me a MetroCard, subway map, and pointed me to the direction of the bus. Kisha said we lucky; she’d been in another group home where they were on house restriction all the time.

Marisol moans louder; China must almost be done with her. Joi is hollering for her freedom. I pin the pillow tighter to my ears, nauseous and feeling anything but lucky.

“You know, I was thinking,” Ted says, his arm wrapped around my waist, sitting on some crates in the low light of the janitor’s closet. “We should get out of Brooklyn.”

Snuggling under his arm, I lean into his chest, breathing easy. I can imagine us like this, in the apartment Ted always talks about getting for us once we’re out.

“And go where? The Bronx or something?”

He laughs. “Nah, like leave New York. For good. Get you in a school some place out of here. Maybe down south. Or California. They ain’t got no snow out there.”

I don’t know what to say. I mean, all we know is Brooklyn. We can’t just leave all we know.

He peeps my face and shrugs. “Mad tired of this place. Always something. What’s wrong? You scared? You think I’d let anything happen to you?”

I’m not scared. I know wherever we go, if Ted is there then I’m safe. But . . . what about Momma? How could I be so far away from her? What would she do without me? Or would she even notice I’m gone.

“We’ll be straight, Ma. Just you and me,” he says and kisses my forehead.

I swallow, thinking of my missing period, hoping it really will just be him and me. But maybe going away would be good. The farther we are, the less likely he’ll find out that I killed a baby.

Allegedly.

“Oh snap, I almost forgot.” Ted pulls a crumpled piece of yellow paper out of his pocket and irons it out. “They having a practice test at Brookaylyn Tech on Saturday.”

FREE SAT PRACTICE!!!

Saturday, September 26th

Come practice for the real thing!

Brooklyn Technical High School

“You should go,” he says.

I stuff it in my pocket with a shrug. I am about a third of the way through my book. The vocab isn’t too hard, though I can always learn more words. The math isn’t too bad either, since it turns out I’m pretty good at geometry, but there is still a bunch of stuff I don’t know.

“What if I fail?”

“It’s just practice, right? And you ain’t gonna fail. You mad smart.”

“But what if I fail,” I say again, without looking at him.

“You won’t. Chill.”

He eases me onto his lap, tickling the back of my neck with kisses.

“I don’t even know where Brooklyn Tech is.”

“I got you, babe. I won’t let you get lost, no need for an Amber Alert.”

I laugh. Ted remembers everything, like how I hate being lost, afraid I’ll never be found. He keeps me safe, warm and grounded, even when I want the earth to swallow me up.

During that first week at Greenview, I could feel Ted watching me. In the halls, in the kitchen, and patients’ rooms, staring, heat in his eyes. I mean, I was curious about him too. I kept thinking, is this what boys do, make you feel naked with all your clothes on? And the way he smiled at me, like he was honestly happy to see me, reminded me of a time when someone wanted me. I would have given anything to have that again.

The next week, in the dining hall, he planted himself at my table without asking, slurping up soup and crackers. His presence was like a space heater, the feeling confusing. Too nervous to hold a spoon steady, I rubbed my feet against the carpet, desperate to run and hide. This went on for a week, every day him sitting next to me, calmly eating his food, me frozen in terror. Maybe it was the way he didn’t push me to talk, but by the next week, my muscles, tense and hardened from baby jail, began to ease. I started eating again, enjoying his silent company, no questions, just the comfort of knowing he was there and didn’t want a thing from me. Then one day, he slid his milk onto my tray without looking up and said, “I love your eyes.”

It was the nicest thing anyone had said to me in years . . . and I panicked. Always alone in my cell, I didn’t know how to talk to people. I mean, how do you tell someone you’re a mute for Christ’s sake? But for some reason, with him, I couldn’t just say nothing either. So I stared at his knuckles and blurted out the first thing I thought of.

“What did you do?”

I’d slapped my mouth shut, horrified. Shit, what a stupid thing to say!

He’d smiled and said, “So how long you been out?”

And then my whole universe had opened up and he became my sun.

Saturday comes fast. I leave the house at six thirty in the morning to meet Ted at the station. I lied and told Reba I volunteered for extra hours so she’d unlock the door for me. We take a bus to the L train, transfer to the C train, and get off at Lafayette.

Ted holds my hand as we walk down the brownstone-lined block, under giant trees toward the park. Momma told me only millionaires live in these brownstones. I didn’t believe her. Why would rich folks want to live in Brooklyn? But it’s so pretty and clean over here, the houses so huge. No crack heads, no bodegas, not even a liquor store. Just wine shops. So maybe she’s right.

Brooklyn Tech is big. I mean, it takes up a whole city block; it’s the biggest school I’ve ever seen. The roof touches the clouds. The windows, maybe a thousand of them, are covered in mesh metal . . . no escape. There are other kids, like me, walking through big metal doors that slam hard behind them. My chest feels funny. I try to pull my hand away but Ted grips it tighter.

Big like hospitals . . . Big like baby jail . . . White rooms . . . Don’t leave me . . .

“I have to throw up.”

Ted lets go of my hand as I rush in between two parked cars and puke everything out of my stomach. I recognize the blueberry muffin and cranberry juice I had on the train ride over. Two dollars and twenty-five cents. I wipe my mouth with the tissue in my bag and rub my hands with sanitizer, free from the nursing home. Ted watches, his face a stone. I know what he’s thinking. Still no period.

Ted clears his throat. “Maybe . . . we should come back another day.”

CHAPTER 3

It’s Tuesday. Now twenty-five days and still no period, so I’m pretty sure I’m pregnant. I’ve never missed before. Never even been a day late. It always came on time. Punctual. Just like Momma.

I didn’t tell Ted I used my savings to buy a pregnancy test. Thirteen dollars and forty-nine cents for a generic one at Duane Reade. But the only private place to take it is in one of the patient’s bathrooms at the nursing home.

The lady in room 408 sobs in the corner, talking in circles. I close the door so no one would hear and change her piss-soaked sheets for the third time this week. Poor lady is not ready for the fifth floor just yet.

Before Ted, I didn’t know anything about sex but what it sounded like. Momma had lots of sex with Ray and a bunch of other guys. She used to make all these wild noises, like someone was hurting her. Ray would talk to her in Spanish, she would holler back in English. Our last neighbor, Mr. Middlebury, was the worst of them. Sweaty, lumpy, and smelled like he bathed in Head & Shoulders shampoo. Soon as he’d walk in, I’d run in my room and close the door before the smell could seep in. He’d scream like a girl in Momma’s room and the whole house would stink for days. Every time I saw his wife, I’d wondered how she could stand it.

Ted and I talked about sex a lot. He kept saying I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to, but I was ready to chase the numbness away. And I wanted Ted to be my first. If it had been up to the devil, I would’ve lost my virginity to Ray a long time ago. But I fought back. And that made me crazy, impulsive, and my favorite misdiagnosis, “hyperactive.” Go figure.

We decided to do it during dinnertime, while the nurses were busy making sure no one choked. The only free bed was in a room share on the second floor, with a patient that never ate in the dining room. So we waited, made sure he was asleep, snuck in, and pulled the curtain closed around us. Ted had been with girls before. But the way his big eyes searched my face, gently moving, making sure I was okay, made it feel like it was his first time too. His lips soft, sweet like pancake syrup, skin smelled like cocoa butter and soap, his arms locked around me like handcuffs; I never wanted to escape his prison. I was better than okay. Not like I am now, in this bathroom.

It took four minutes to confirm what I already knew with two blue lines. I wrap the test in 408’s pissy sheets and throw them in the trash so no one will know either of our secrets.

For the rest of the day, I avoid Ted, hiding on the fifth floor. The look on his face when I threw up in front of the school . . . I don’t know how he’s going to react. Other than Alyssa, I haven’t kept anything from him. I’m sick just thinking of telling him that secret too.

What if I just got rid of it? He would never know.

But an abortion would make me a baby killer. Again.

New York Police Department First Responders Report—Officer Ricardo Hernandez—67th Precinct, Brooklyn

On December 11th, at approximately 19:17 hours, I was dispatched to 330 E 181st Street in reference to a home disturbance. As I arrived on scene, I observed a woman, later identified as Dawn Cooper, screaming in the front yard. When questioned, she said a baby wasn’t breathing.

The smell of eggs frying in butter makes my stomach heave. I run, but can’t make it to the toilet before throwing up last night’s dinner in the sink. Morning sickness. This is it. I really am pregnant.

“Kisha, hurry it up or you’ll be late,” Ms. Stein barks downstairs. “And where’s Mary?”

“She still upstairs.”

“That lazy brat! Mary! Mary! Reby, go get her.”

Shit!

I scoop up the chunks and slime with my hands quick, shaking them off in the toilet. Reba knocks on the door.

“Mary!”

Flush, down my secret goes. I use half a roll of toilet paper and wipe the sink clean.

“Come on, Mary! Let’s go! Now.”

My forehead is wet, hair sticking to my neck. Ain’t no air in here to help me breathe right. I wash my hands, change for school, and head downstairs.

“Hey, what’s wrong with you?” Ms. Stein snaps. “Why you look like that?”

One whiff of the girls eating fried eggs, sucking and mashing on them like cows, and I hurl by the stairs. SPLAT!

“Ew, Mary! That’s disgusting! What’s wrong with you?”

The girls scatter like roaches. I drop to my knees, frantically sopping up chunks with a rag, like I can make it all disappear. But it’s too late. They’ve already seen.

“Are you pregnant?”

Shit.

Ms. Stein is the last damn person I want to know. I shake my head.

“Are you lying?”

“No?” I say.

“Get in here now!”

I follow her to the half bathroom, the girls whispering behind us. She pulls out a pregnancy test, the mad professional kind, and makes me pee in front of her.

Five minutes later, she confirms what I already know.

“See. I knew it! Dumb little girl can’t keep her damn legs closed. Get to school! I’ll deal with you later.”

Continued—First Responders report—Officer Ricardo Hernandez

I was led to a back bedroom in the house. Upon entrance, I found a Caucasian female infant wearing a pink onesie and lying face up on a bed. I asked Cooper the baby’s name, and she identified her as Alyssa. Cooper stated the baby was not hers. I alerted dispatch, brought the baby into the living room, and began CPR.

Ted is mopping in the community room on the fifth floor, his back to the patients. I watch from the door, my chocolate prince. Should I really ruin his life with this? Could I be this cruel?

Ted turns, but is unrecognizable. Under his dark skin, a black eye is forming. His lip is split open and it looks like a cheese grater cut across his cheek. I run across the room.

“What happened?”

“Long fucking story,” he snaps, pushing my hand away, his eyes another shade darker. I flinch. Same way I used to when Momma got mad at me.

Alyssa . . . he knows? But how?

Blood rushes to my feet, heart pumping the life out of me while Ted barely looks at me. I don’t know this Ted; he’s never snapped at me before. I feel like a moon drifting farther away from my sun, lost and growing colder. He pinches his eyes closed and with a groan drops the mop, wrapping his arm around me.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean that,” he whispers. We rock slow for a minute and he kisses the top of my head. “I always feel better when you’re around.”

“Me too,” I say into his chest, relief washing over me. And it’s true. He dulls the pain of missing someone who doesn’t want me.

It’s okay. He’s not Momma. He won’t hurt me.

Letting my heart slow down, I focus on his sneakers. Once blue, now blackened from wear, the laces frilled at the ends.

“I’m pregnant.”

Ted stops breathing and freezes. I was afraid of this. If this is the last time he’ll ever speak to me again, I want to remember and touch every part of him, so I hold him tighter. He untangles himself, stepping back with this tense stare, his hands cupping my face.

“It’s okay, babe. Aight, we’ll . . . figure it out.”

I relax and melt back into his arms. He inhales deep.

“Don’t worry. You’ll make a great mom. You won’t let anything happen to our baby.”

I stare back down at his sneakers, at the dried mud crusting around the bottom.

If he only knew the real me.

Continued—First Responders report—Officer Ricardo Hernandez

Shortly after moving the baby, Officer Robin Blake arrived on the scene. A young girl wearing pink and white pajamas with no shoes, later identified as Cooper’s daughter, Mary Addison, ran into the living room from the back entrance of the house. I observed her running toward the infant’s room. The front of Addison’s clothes appeared to be wet and covered in black mud. She was visibly shocked to see us. Brooklyn EMT arrived and took over CPR. They pronounced the child dead on scene.

On the bus ride back to the group home, some kids jump on near the high school and I pretend to be invisible, dipping lower in my seat. Normal teenagers. Boys in baseball hats, baggy jeans, dreads, short cuts, and boots. Girls in expensive sneakers, purple book bags, straight hair, long braids, and pink lips. They’re loud, talking about some football game they just came from, midterm projects, and music. Eating Rice Krispies Treats, drinking soda, laughing and smiling. Going home to their mothers or fathers, maybe both. They don’t have to worry about cells with no windows or COs raping them. They probably never had to worry about money for soap or deodorant or taking pills until they can hardly taste the rat shit slipped into their oatmeal. They don’t have to worry about group homes, fat foster mothers, or turning eighteen. There are no social workers hating them, roommates trying to kill them, or parole officers looking for any excuse to throw them back into baby jail. And they don’t have to worry about having a baby at sixteen. Wish I could be them, but I’m not.

I’m gonna have a baby.

And Ms. Stein knows, which means everyone is going to know soon enough. This makes my stomach turn. Where the hell am I going to live with a baby? The group home? It’s too dangerous. Strollers, diapers, baby food . . . where am I going to get money for all of that?

I’m gonna have a baby. A real baby . . . like Alyssa.

It’s going to grow and come out of me. I’ll be its momma and can make all the rules. I’ll be able to do all the things I couldn’t do with Alyssa; hold her, feed her, change her diaper, read to her, play with her all the time, all day long, whenever I want. Ted and I, we’ll be real parents, like Alyssa’s momma and daddy. They were the best parents. I used to wish they were my parents. If they were, then maybe I wouldn’t be here.

One of the kids starts talking about the SATs and my ears perk up. It’s the one thing I have in common with them, the only thing that keeps me normal and separates me from the animals. I can’t help but smile.

I’m gonna have a baby.

When I get back to the group home, social services is parked out front. Right on time. Ms. Stein is an award-winning snitch. Ms. Carmen and Winters are in the visitors’ room, waiting. I sit and take one hard look at Ms. Stein, who pretends not to notice.

“So,” Winters starts. “How the hell did this happen?”

This doesn’t seem like the type of talk I can keep quiet for but I shrug anyways.

“Ha. Sure. You have noooo idea,” he says.

“Do you even know who the father is?” Ms. Carmen says, rolling her eyes.

This is a tricky question. Ted is eighteen. I’m fifteen. I shake my head no.

“Of course not,” Ms. Stein mumbles. “So . . . what do I do with her?”

“What do you mean?” Ms. Carmen snaps. “You keep her, until the baby is born! You’ll have to move her to a bottom bunk though.”

Ms. Stein purses her lips. She wanted to get rid of me.

“We’ll start the adoption proceedings immediately,” Ms. Carmen says to Winters. “Make this quick.”

“Adoption? Someone’s going to adopt me?” I blurt out. I’m surprised at how quickly the thought sparks hope in me. Like, me, adopted, someone actually wanting me.

Winters does a double take then leans back in his chair, the wind knocked out of him. Ms. Carmen, momentarily shocked by the sound of my voice, turns my way, irritated and disgusted, as if she forgot I was still in the room.

“No, no, adoption for your baby.”

There is a brief pause as the world comes crashing around me. Windows break, buildings collapse, people screaming and drowning in the rising sea, and yet somehow I still hear Herbert, buzzing nearby.

“What?”

“Mary, you are still a ward of the state, which means your baby is now a ward of the state. Both Winters and I have the final say in what happens to your baby. And given your crime . . . we cannot in good conscience put another life at risk.”

A tightness pinches around my lungs, face hot and tingly. My baby, my Alyssa, they want to take her away from me?

“You don’t get to keep your baby in prison,” Winters says.

Is this prison or a group home? I guess they’re one and the same. But I didn’t do anything. I’ve been good! That’s why they let me out, right?

“But I . . . I’ve been—”

“Now, we can’t make you do anything you don’t want to,” Ms. Carmen says. “If terminating the pregnancy is something you’d like to explore instead, we can schedule that. But if not, we will have to make adoption arrangements.”

I’m dizzy from holding my breath for so long, maybe for years. And something ugly, hidden deep inside me is threatening to erupt. I can’t hold it back anymore. How do I make it stop before it’s too late?

“Well, Mary? What you got to say for yourself?” Ms. Carmen asks.

I open my mouth, but nothing comes out. My lungs are about to bust, body shaking.

“What is it, Mary? Spit it out.”

The hot stingy sensation on my face makes my head hurt, the buzzing louder. I can’t keep my baby? All ’cause of Alyssa? But Momma said . . . damn, should I tell them? No, it’s too late. You can’t! But it’s MY baby. It’s me and Ted’s baby, NOT theirs. They can’t do this. It’s not fair. It wasn’t my fault.

I didn’t mean to throw her . . .

“I didn’t do it.”

“Didn’t do what?” Winters snaps.

A dam opens, and I realize what the sensation is. Hot tears, dripping down my face, eyes a leaking facet. I am crying. I never cry. And everything clinched up inside me releases before I say her name out loud for the first time in years.

“I didn’t kill Alyssa.”

Winters scoffs. “I’m sure.”

No one moves or says anything, but their faces all say the same thing: they don’t believe me.

“Mary, would you excuse us? I’d like to talk to Winters and Ms. Stein alone,” Ms. Carmen says.

Still can’t feel my legs, but somehow I walk out, every breath wheezing. I stand in the hall and listen.

“Well, this is a fucking mess,” Winters says.

“That girl has been trouble from the start! I told you it was too soon to let that animal out,” Ms. Stein barks.

“You were supposed to be keeping an eye on her!” he screams.

“Don’t tell me how to do my job! You don’t think I know—”

“Would you calm down,” Ms. Carmen snaps. “Nobody is blaming you!”

“So what do we do?” Winters asks. “I have to report this, obviously.”

“You can’t make her get an abortion?” Ms. Stein asks.

Winters laughs. “She ain’t like the others, Judy. She ain’t stupid.”

“What about the baby?” Ms. Stein asks.

“What about it? You heard what I said,” Ms. Carmen scoffs.

“But you can’t just take a child away from someone, can you?” Ms. Stein asks.

Ms. Carmen chuckles, evil like a witch. “With her record, parental rights aside, she’ll be delivering that baby straight into ACS’s hands. I’ll make sure of it.”

From the Deposition of Charles Middlebury—Dawn Cooper’s Neighbor

Mary . . . that Mary . . . such a weird little kid. She never blinked. Never made a sound, but was always staring with those cold-blooded eyes of hers. Her momma was always screaming at her, she was always getting into trouble.

I was watching my programs when my floodlights came on in the backyard. I get up to look, ’cause sometimes boys be cutting through my yard on the way to the ave., only it’s Mary I see out there. She was outside by the big tree, digging. I tell you she was trying to dig up a grave for that little baby. Digging like a dog trying to hide his bone.

Poor Ms. Dawn. Shame she had such a bad little thing. People always want to blame the parents, but Ms. Dawn’s the sweetest lady you’d ever meet. She’d never even hurt a fly.

There was this girl named Ariel, like in The Little Mermaid; had the smartest mouth in baby jail. Very small, but very pregnant. Once she got too big to walk, they kept her in my cell block for safety. But when her water broke, safety didn’t mean shit. She was lying on the cement floor, screaming and begging for hours. I watched it tear her in two, the floor covered in gooey water and blood with that funny metal smell. The COs didn’t care. They took their sweet time letting her out. She ended up giving birth in the infirmary, handcuffed to the bed. They took her baby right away and she was back in her cell two days later, crying for weeks.

“They’re not supposed to do that,” she said. “They’re not supposed to just take him away like that. I didn’t even get a chance to hold him!” But that was the scariest part. They CAN just do that. They can do whatever they want.

So at two o’clock on Sunday afternoon, I am doing something I’ve never done before. I am eagerly waiting for Momma.

Herbert flies in circles around my head, a little slower than usual. Maybe he’s getting old. I have no idea the life span of flies, but Herbert’s a survivor. He’ll be okay. We’ll be okay.

At 2:35, I hear Ms. Reba greet Momma at the door, searching her bag for any weapons or drugs before leading her into the room.

“Baby! Isn’t this a surprise?”

I have to act fast. I only have fifteen minutes before she disappears.

“Hi, Momma!”

I run into her hug, almost toppling her over.

“Lawd! What has gotten into you?”

She backs away, smoothing down her dress. It’s a royal blue church suit today, black trim with a black hat. Her ugly green Bible clashes, but she’ll never stop carrying it. It was her mother’s. I pull her over to the couch and yank her down.

“Momma, do you love me?”

“Well, of course I do, baby, you know I do.”

“Well, I’m sorry, Momma, but it’s time. You have to tell the truth.”

“The truth about what, sweetie?”

“You have to tell the truth about what happened to Alyssa.”

She stiffens with a hard blink, her smile fading. She opens her crocodile purse and pulls out a tube of hand lotion, thick and white as frosting. Her hands are always rough and dry. She can take hot cake pans out the oven without flinching.

“I . . . I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You know what I’m talking about. The night Alyssa died. You have to tell them . . . your plan. I just can’t do it anymore.”

“What’d you mean?”

“Momma . . . I’m pregnant.”

She blinks hard. Nothing but pure blankness. This isn’t a good sign. Tense and rigid, she stands and walks to the window, staring out into the sun.

“They’re gonna take my baby away if you don’t tell them the truth!”

Nothing. She looks gone. She can’t be gone though. I need her here.

“Momma, please say something.”

Nothing. The woman is frozen and my heart can’t take the waiting. Then, without a word, she picks up her purse and heads for the door, as if I said nothing at all.

“No, Momma, stop!”

I jump, grabbing her sleeve, pulling her back. She spins around and slaps me, hand like lightning. The grease of her lotion sticks like oil to my flaming cheek.

“Now you listen to me, little girl,” she says, finger in my face, voice seething. “I know the devil got inside you and made you kill that little girl, but I didn’t raise no ’ho! You know better than to open your legs up and let some boy inside you!”

The devil got inside me? She’s lost it. She’s absolutely lost it.

“Now, I have to go. You’ve upset me. My blood pressure must be sky-high and Mr. Worthington will be all worried sick about me.”

I grasp at her sleeve again, struggling to hold her.

“Momma, don’t do this to me! I’ve done enough for you. You have to!”

“There ain’t nothing for me to do! I didn’t do anything wrong. You’re gonna have to accept the consequences of your actions, Miss Missy!”

She breaks free, eyes glaring. Then she snatches one of the visitors’ magazines, rolls it up, and before I can stop her . . . SMACK! Herbert is a smudge of legs and wings, plastered to the wall. My heart sinks to my feet.

“Pesky little thing,” she mumbles, throwing the magazine away.

And with that, she straightens her hat, storming out. All I can do is watch, accepting the consequences that I let her go free. Again.


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