Read an Excerpt
Life stinks sometimes.
That's what Daniel's psy psychoid That's what the stupid doctor his uncle made him talk to said. Life could stink, for kids most of all. But when you get through the bad stuff, Dr. Steve said, there's a world of good things waiting on the other side.
Just wait and see.
Life will get better.
Trudging down the hallway of White Elementary School, headed for the principal's office for the second time that week, Daniel rolled his eyes. Dr. Steve didn't have a clue.
Daniel had to get out of this place. But where? Where did he have to go? Back to his uncle's home? There was only there or here, which left Daniel exactly where he'd been for the last four months.
Forget Dr. Steve.
There was no bright side just around the corner.
Daniel's mother was dead. His chest heaved from the sharp pain that came, even as he shoved the memory aside. His dad had split years ago, never to be heard from again. Living in Sweetbrook, South Carolina, with his uncle wasn't working, no matter how hard Daniel tried.
Life stinks. Period.
He turned left at the end of the hall and shuffled into the bustling school office. His sneaker caught as he stepped from the tiled floor onto carpet. Arms and legs flailing, he managed not to fall on his face. Barely. But now every person in the room was staring at him, when what he really wanted was to be invisible.
"Have a seat." Mrs. Lyons pointed to the ugly couch the kids called death row. "Principal White's expecting you, but he's on the phone."
Mrs. Lyons had worked here for over forty years, he'd heard. She'd worked here when his uncle was in elementary school. Rumor had it his uncle had done his own time on death row. Maybe she'd pointed that same bony finger at him. Maybe she'd stared him down like he was trouble, too.
Probably not. What could his perfect, by-the-book uncle have done to match the mess Daniel made out of school every day?
He dropped onto the couch and gave Mrs. Lyons his best glare. He kept right on staring, until she looked away. He knew exactly what she was thinking. What they were all thinkingthe teachers and everyone. He'd heard them talking when they didn't think he was listening. He'd seen the looks on their faces, just like the one on Mrs. Lyons's now. And he hated them all. Hated their nosey questions, the way they pretended to understand .
He's always been such an angry little boy . But he could be such a good student. Before his mother's accident, he was starting to settle in . It's just so sad! And his poor uncle can you imagine trying to deal with a troubled child he barely knows on top of everything else?
What did they know?
What did he care?
"Daniel." The door to the principal's office opened. As usual, the man was wearing freshly pressed dress clothes, plus the frown he didn't even try to hide from Daniel anymore. "Ready to step inside?"
Daniel decided staring at his shoes was a better plan. Not because he was afraid. He wasn't afraid of anything in this nowhere town. Adults found unresponsive kids annoying, Dr. Steve had told him, and being annoying suited Daniel just fine today. He reached a finger down to tug at the hole in the trashed sneakers his uncle had forbidden him to wear to school.
"Daniel? In my office. Now."
Principal Joshua White shut the office door as ten-year-old Daniel threw himself into the guest chair that was practically his second home.
Shrugging off a wave of discouragement he couldn't afford, Josh rounded his desk, giving the scared, defiant kid dressed in jeans and a dirt-smudged T-shirt his space. Josh remained standing as he reread his notes from the phone call he'd just concluded with Becky Reese's grandmother, Gwen Loar.
Becky and Daniel had mixed it up in class again today, and according to their fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Cole, Becky had instigated their latest tussle. Then Daniel had taken things way too far, as usual. Before Mrs. Cole could intervene, the confrontation had escalated into classroom warfare, complete with the kids throwing anything they could lay their hands on at each other.
Josh and the girl's grandmother had discussed Becky's role in the altercation, trying to formulate a plan for better settling her into her new school. For compensating for the fact that a month ago Amy Loar had shipped the little girl off to live with Grandma, so Mom could dedicate 24/7 to her career in Atlanta.
Josh's memory produced an image of his childhood friend. Dazzling in white, her auburn hair a soft cloud of tousled curls, she was smiling at him from across the dance floor at their senior prom. Somehow she'd blossomed from his pal since kindergarten into the most beautiful girl in the room. A girl he'd suddenly wished he hadn't wasted so many years being just friends with.
After graduation, they'd left for their separate colleges, and their friendship should have slowly faded away.
If only it had been so simple.
Amy had always been ambitious. Growing up poor in the South had left its mark on her, and she'd been determined to do better. To be better. To ensure that she and her mother never again went without anything they needed. He'd always admired her beauty, brains and ambition. Right up until the moment she'd produced a big city fiance who Josh had known instinctively was all wrong for her.
And how had he handled the situation? He'd done the unforgivable, made a jerk out of himself, and they hadn't spoken since.
She'd achieved her success, he'd heard. She'd carved out the dream life she'd wanted. Except her wealthy husband was out of the picture now. And as far as Josh could remember, being divorced and a single parent to boot hadn't been part of Amy's plans.
He refocused on his young visitor, shoving aside the unwanted trip down memory lane. It was April in South Carolina, and the kids in school were beside themselves with spring fever. All of them but this child. A study in shaggy blond hair and intelligent green eyes, Daniel sat sprawled in his chair, digging at the monstrous hole in the toe of his right sneaker. No doubt waiting for Josh to make the first move, so the kid could ignore him some more.
Well, let him wait a little longer. Nothing else had worked. Not exactly what they taught you at principal school, but it was worth a shot. Josh continued to flip through his notes, still standing.
"So?" Daniel finally sputtered, making eye contact for the first time.
Josh sat as if he was in no particular hurry to get to the point. He exchanged Becky Reese's file for Daniel's even weightier one. He didn't have to read through his notes. He knew Daniel's issues by heart: the struggles to conform and get along in the classroom; the confusion; the emotional explosions that so quickly built from simple disappointments. And the kid internalized each failure, each bit of negative feedback, making it that much more difficult for him to try the next time.
"So." Josh braced his elbows on the desk. "You and Becky got together this morning and decided to toss your classroom?"
Daniel shrugged and picked some more at shoes that looked like last year's Salvation Army rejects. "She started it," he mumbled.
"Someone else always does."
Josh shifted his shoulders, shrugging off the lingering weight of his own personal failures. The guilt still remained from the mistakes he'd made the last few years. The relationships he hadn't been able to save. But he was learning to let the past go and focus on making the best of now.
At least that was the plan.
But helping a child as angry as Daniel understand that loss and crushing defeat were just part of the game was a different story. What could he say that wouldn't sound like a bunch of psychological hooey?
Welcome to the club, kid. Life bites. Get used to it.
He gave his head a mental thunk.
"We've talked about throwing things in the classroom," he said. "We can't keep you with the other kids if we have to worry about one of them getting brained with a book" he flipped through Daniel's file "or your backpack. Or your shoe"
"I didn't hurt anyone."
"You're down here almost every day, and you don't get along with any of your classmatesespecially Becky Reese."
"She's a pain in the"
"She's not your problem."
"She said that your mom was as big a loser as hers." Josh sighed. "Mrs. Cole told me, and
I just got off the phone with Becky's grandmother. The girl owes you an apology, but you can't completely lose it every time someone mentions your mother. You and your therapist have talked about that."
"Good old Dr. Steve."
Cynicism sounded awful coming out of the mouth of a ten-year-old.
"If you can't keep it together with the other kids in class"
"No one talks bad about my mom."
"Having temper tantrums isn't the answer." Josh was as disturbed as Daniel by what the little girl had said. It made him want to throw things himself, when up until a few months ago he'd been a pro at keeping his emotions and his job separate.
Everyone at school, including the kids, knew what Daniel had been throughat least part of it. A year ago, he'd come to them an unhappy child, after his mother moved them to Sweetbrook, a place Daniel had never seen before. Then she'd died in a single-vehicle car accident on New Year's Eve while driving under the influence. Rumors had spread in the four months since that perhaps she'd aimed for that telephone pole, after all, leaving folks in the community to pity even more the lost little boy left behind.
Sweetbrook might be small and antiquated by most standards, but tiny South Carolina communities took care of their own. People wanted to give Daniel the break he deserved. Everyone except Becky. From her first day in school, the child had seemed determined to bait Daniel with the one thing she knew would hurt him the mosttrash-talking the boy's mother right along with her own.
Josh resented Amy Loar for dumping her problems in Sweetbrook, while she kicked back and did whatever she was doing in Atlanta.
"I know Sweetbrook has been a bum deal for you," Josh said with care. Sounding soothing and understanding was tough, when he understood next to nothing these days. "Moving here to be near family you don't know. Starting over. Then losing your mom the way you did."
Daniel's scowl rearranged itself into something fiercer. Something near tears.
Josh's chest burned. "But you have to keep your hands and things to yourself if you want to stay in school."
"When did this become about what I want?
I don't want to be in trouble all the time, but that's what keeps happening." The kid looked up then, his green eyes glistening. "Maybe everyone would be better off if I wasn't here."
"That's not an option, Daniel."
Josh refused to let it be. He watched resignation crowd out the grief on Daniel's face, and he knew exactly how the boy felt. The situation everyone in Sweetbrook expected Josh to handle like a pro was speeding from bad to worse with each passing day.
He'd grilled the Family Services caseworker assigned to Daniel after his mother's death. He'd read every book available on dealing with kids with Daniel's issues. Josh was using all the tools at his disposal to help the little boy believe he was wanted. That he belonged here. That he could succeed. But the demons that drove Daniel to strike out every time someone got too close, every time the vulnerability he tried to hide swam to the surface, were unfortunately about so much more than losing his mother.
Josh's well-thought-out plans to help Daniel weren't making a dent. The boy's behavior was defying every logical step Josh took, just as his ex-wife's had, when she'd left to build the life she'd wanted away from him and Sweetbrook.
"It's going to get better, you know," he finally said, following Dr. Steve Rhodes's lead, even though the words sounded ridiculously shallow. Maybe if Josh kept saying them, he could will the platitude into reality.
Daniel's total lack of reaction announced that the kid wasn't born yesterday.
Josh checked his copy of Mrs. Cole's schedule. "Your class is at recess. You think you and Becky can retire to neutral corners until the end of the day?"
A mumble and a shrug were all he got in response.
"Give it your best shot." Josh stood and walked around the desk, his stomach tightening at the realization of just how close he was to losing Daniel to whatever dark place he'd gone to after his mother's death. "We'll deal with the rest later."
He reached to smooth Daniel's bangs out of his eyes. The boy flinched, and Josh dropped his hand, fresh out of next steps.
Daniel inched to his feet, putting more space between them.