“Where’s the other girl?” I look at Principal Wilson. “Why isn’t she here?”

“She was picked up by her parents half an hour ago and taken home. Dahlia Brown is an A student who swears she did nothing to bring it on. She has witnesses to back her up.”

There are always witnesses in junior high, and they always say what their friends want them to say. Surely Principal Wilson knows that. She also knows that Lanny is the new kid, the one who doesn’t fit in. That’s because my daughter has taken up the goth lifestyle in part as a control mechanism: pushing others away before she can be pushed. That, and in some strange way, she’s dealing with the secret horror show that is her childhood.

“I didn’t start it,” Lanny says, and I believe her. I’ll probably be the only one. “I hate this fucking school.”

I believe that, too.

I turn my attention back to the woman at the desk. “So you’re suspending Lanny, but not this other girl, is that right?”

“I really have no option. Between the dress code violation, the fight, and her attitude about the whole incident . . .” Wilson waits, clearly anticipating the argument to come, but I just nod.

“Okay. Does she have her schoolwork?”

Hard to miss the relief that slips over the principal’s face, that this parent who reeks of gunpowder isn’t going to make a scene. “Yes. I made sure she does. She can come back to classes next week.”

“Come on, Lanny,” I say, rising. “We’ll talk about this at home.”

“Mom, I didn’t—”

“At home.”

Lanny lets out a sigh, grabs her backpack, and slouches out of the office with her dyed-black hair hiding her expression, which surely isn’t pleasant.

“Just a moment, please. I’m going to need specific assurances before I let Atlanta back in classes,” Wilson says. “We have a no-tolerance policy, and I’m bending it because I know you’re a good person and want her to fit in here. But this is the last chance, Mrs. Proctor. The very last chance. I’m so sorry.”

“Please don’t call me that,” I say. “Ms. Proctor will do. Has since the 1970s, I believe.” I rise and offer her my hand. Hers is a moderate handshake, businesslike, nothing more. These days, I count merely businesslike as a positive. “We’ll talk next week.”

Outside, Lanny has chosen the very same chair her brother used; it’s probably still warm from his body heat. Do they mean to do it, or is it just instinct? Are they getting too close? Have my paranoia and constant vigilance made them like this?

I draw in a breath and let it go. The last thing I want to do is overanalyze the kids. They’ve had enough of that.

“Come on,” I say. “Let’s kick it, as the kids say.”

Lanny looks cross. “Ugh. We really don’t.” She hesitates and looks down at her boots. “You’re not mad?”

“Oh, I’m furious. I’m planning to eat all my feelings at Kathy’s Kakes. And you’re going to eat them with me. Like it or not.”

Lanny’s reached the age where being enthusiastic about anything, even skipping school to eat ridiculously butter-loaded cake, isn’t cool, so she just shrugs. “Whatever. As long as I get out of here.”

“Do I even want to ask where you got all this stuff you’re wearing?”

“What stuff?”

“Really, kid? That’s how you’re rolling with it?”

Lanny rolls her eyes. “It’s just clothes. I’m pretty sure every girl wears clothes to school.”

“Surprisingly few want to join Marilyn Manson’s backup band.”

“Marilyn who?”

“Thanks for making me feel like a crone. Did you order all this online?”

“So what if I did?”

“You didn’t use my credit cards, did you? You know how dangerous that is.”

“I’m not an idiot. I saved up and bought a preload, just like you taught me. I had it sent to the PO box in Boston and remailed. Twice.”

That eases a dark, anxious knot in my chest, and I nod. “Okay then. Let’s discuss it over calories.”

We don’t discuss anything, really. The cake slices are huge, and delicious, and homemade, and there’s no point being mad while eating them. Kathy’s Kakes is popular, and there are people all around us enjoying the treats. A dad with three little ones is rubbernecking on his phone, and the kids are taking advantage of his inattention to dump cupcake crumbs everywhere and paint their faces with vivid blue icing. In the corner there’s a studious young woman with a tablet computer; as she twists to plug it in, I see a tattoo on her shoulder beneath her tank top. Something colorful. An older couple sits at what looks like formal tea, with fancy china and a round cake tower crammed with tiny bites on the table between them. I wonder if having tea requires you to look like it bores you to death.

Even Lanny eases her attitude by the time we finish eating, and with her corpse-dark lipstick rubbed away, she almost looks normal as we talk, cautiously, about the cake, about the weekend, about books. It isn’t until we’re on the road, grinding gears back up the trail to Stillhouse Lake, that I am forced to spoil things. “Lanny—look. You’re a smart girl. You know if you stand out like this, pictures will get taken and passed around, and you’ll get posted on social media. We can’t have that.”

“Since when is my life a we problem, Mom? Oh, wait. I remember. Since ever.”

I’d done my absolute best to shield my kids from the worst of the horrors that had followed The Event, and so had my mother in her turn when I’d been tried as an accessory. I hoped that whatever Lanny remembered, or had learned, it was a shallow trickle instead of the toxic flood I’d been submerged in. My mother had been forced to tell Lanny and Connor—Lily and Brady then—that their father was a murderer, that he was going to trial and then to prison. That he’d killed multiple young women. She hadn’t told them the details, and I didn’t want the kids to know them. But that was then, and I know I can’t keep the worst of it from Lanny for much longer. Fourteen is far too young to comprehend the depravity of Melvin Royal.

“We all have to keep a low profile,” I say. “You know this, Lanny. It’s for our safety. You understand, don’t you?”

“Sure,” she says, pointedly looking away. “Because they’re always looking for us. These mythical strangers you’re so afraid of.”

“They aren’t—” I take in a breath and remind myself, again, that an argument does neither of us good. “We live by the rules for a reason.”

“Your rules. Your reasons.” She rests her head against the Jeep’s seat, as if too bored to hold it up anymore. “You know, if I go goth, nobody will recognize me anyway. They just look at the makeup, not the face.”

Lanny has a clever point. “Maybe not, but here in Norton, it’ll get you expelled.”

“Homeschooling is still a thing, isn’t it?”

And it would have been an easy answer, too. I’d considered it seriously, many times, but the paperwork took ages, and until recently we’d always been on the move. Besides, I want my kids to be socialized. To be part of the normal world. They’ve had too much unnatural crap in their lives already.

“Maybe there’s a compromise,” I say. “Mrs. Wilson doesn’t object to the hair. Maybe tone down the makeup, lose the accessories, don’t go full black on the clothes. You can still be weird. Just not weird.”

She momentarily brightens. “Can I finally get an Instagram account, then? And a real phone instead of these stupid flip things?”

“Don’t push it.”

“Mom. You keep saying you want me to be normal. Everybody has social media. I mean, even Principal Wilson has a lame-ass Facebook page full of stupid cat pictures and weird memes. And she has a Twitter account!”

“Well, you’re an antiestablishment rebel; work with that. Be different by refusing to follow the trend.”

That wasn’t flying, and she gave me a disgusted look. “So you want me to be a complete social leper. Great. There’s such a thing as an anonymous handle, you know. Doesn’t have to be my name on it. I swear, I’ll make sure nobody knows who I am.”

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