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Some days when the morning light stole softly through the window behind Cristy Haviland's bed she believed, just for the moments before she came completely awake, that she was still a girl in the Berle Memorial Church parsonage. Sunlight filtered through pink organdy curtains had always given her childhood bedroom a rosy glow, and so many mornings she had lain quietly and watched the color warm and brighten the room until her mother came to wake her.
There was nothing rosy about the room where she awakened now. The concrete-block walls were a dingy beige, and the windows had no curtains. Nothing about her life was rosy now, but for that matter, her childhood hadn't been rosy, either. How many times had she wished she could tear down those ruffled curtains, throw open the window and drop to the ground below to begin a new life anywhere else?
Now she knew that, sometimes, wishes came true.
Although some occupants of the room were beginning to stir, the woman on the bunk above Cristy's was still sleeping. From the shaking of the bed and the groans, Cristy knew her bunkmate was having a nightmare. Nightmares were as ordinary here as the sobs that punctuated the darkness and the angry words that punctuated the daylight. It wasn't possible to jam thirty-six women together and force them to share narrow bunks and lockers, not without outbursts. Add day after monotonous day, when heat, hunger and exhaustion drained away whatever humanity had been left them, then put it all together and that was life in the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women.
Fully awake now and all senses in gear, Cristy sat up quickly. Another woman was approaching her bed, sliding her feet along the floor like a skater. When the woman's face came into view, Cristy went limp with relief. She made room beside her, and Dara Lee, who slept against the far wall, heaved her considerable bulk onto the mattress.
"You remember you be leaving today?" Dara Lee asked.
Cristy gave one shake of her head. "Not when I first woke up. I kinda feel like I've lived here all my life."
Dara Lee had a rich, throaty laugh. She was dark-skinned, dark-haired and plump-cheeked, a cheerful face marred only by a jagged scar that went from the corner of her left eye to the corner of her mouth. Even early in the morning she smelled like prison-issue soap and the precious jasmine-scented oil she used to condition her hair.
"You just passing through, girl. You been here, what, six months?"
"Eight," Cristy said.
"You'da been here less, you acted a lot sorrier. You my kind of girlfriend."
Cristy had to smile at that. Had the word "girlfriend" been uttered by some of the women in this dorm, it might have struck fear in her heart. But Dara Lee had befriended her in her first months in prison for what seemed like no good reason at all. Cristy had her theories, though. Maybe after taking one look at the new, fresh-faced white girl, Dara Lee had known that Cristy needed a few lessons in survival. Or maybe Dara Lee just missed her own daughter, who was twenty-two, like Cristy, and hadn't been to visit for years.
"You gonna miss it here?" Dara Lee asked.
"I'll miss you for sure."
"You say that, but you'll forget all about me before long. I seen it happen over and over. If you remember your friends, then you got to remember this place. And maybe it's not so bad, but maybe it's not so good, either. It's for sure not a place you want to think about when you're outside."
"How much longer do you think you'll be here?"
"Long enough to get gray and lose all my teeth."
That, like so many things here, seemed profoundly unfair. During an episode of particular brutality at the hands of an abusive boyfriend, Dara Lee had shot and killed the man who had fathered her two children. The abuse had been chronic. Ten years later she still wasn't sorry for anythingexcept not getting away before the police had arrived.
"You'll be out before then," Cristy said. "Just don't get into fights. Don't hang out with the wrong people. Do your job, and say please and thank you to the officers."
Dara Lee hoisted herself off the bed. "You write me, you get a chance."
Cristy watched Dara Lee glide away. As hard as it was to believe, Dara Lee, who was the only friend Cristy had made in prison, had never caught on to the obvious. Cristy wouldn't be writing her. Cristy didn't write anybody. That was just part of who Cristy was.
The first thing Georgia Ferguson did when she arrived at the Buncombe County Alternative School campus was to back her car into her parking space. Rank came with privileges, and as principal, her space was close enough to the front door that she could easily haul in the neverending boxes of books and other supplies that were destined for shelves and file cabinets.
Six months into the school year she was still finding things to bring in. Today she had boxed up information about similar schools all over the country. She had done the research at home. BCAS was a new addition to the Asheville school system, but there was no point in reinvention. She wasn't above using other people's ideas. She even hoped one day somebody might use hers.
BCAS, pronounced "because" by everyone connected to the school, was a low-slung redbrick building that sat on a three-acre campus off the Leicester Highway west of Asheville. The facility wasn't new; in fact it was considerably older than Georgia's forty-eight years. Before a long, sad vacation, the school had housed elementary, then middle school, students. Then last year, when it seemed doomed for demolition, the school board had voted to turn the building into an alternative school for middle and high school students. Renovations had brought it up to code, but little else. Money was tight, and a new school was a brave venture.
At the front door she set down the box to find and insert her master key in the lock, but their youngest custodian, Tony, who was doing a dance step down the hallway, saw her through the window and came to help. He was wraith-thin, with blond dreadlocks and a red soul patch that looked like a strawberry sprouting from his chin.
Once she was inside, Tony lifted the box out of her arms and followed her as she headed halfway down the corridor to her office. "You're here early, Mrs. F."
"So are you." That was the real surprise. Tony was rarely where Georgia thought he ought to be. Tony had framed their first months together as a test of her leadership abilities. The next phase had been an attempt to "educate" her about the real meaning of his job description. Most recently he seemed bent on ingratiating himself.
Tony had finally realized that not only was his new boss not a pushover, she was also perfectly capable of having him fired if necessary.
"I unlocked it already." Tony stopped outside the school office, and Georgia pushed open the door.
The first thing that greeted visitors was a banner strung over the reception counter printed with the school's motto. Because You Can. Because You Will. The second greeting was the smellpart mildew, part decay. The offices weren't yet ready to give up old habits.
She preceded Tony and wound her way behind the counter toward the far wall.
"I wanted to get the kitchen floor mopped before the lunch ladies get here and mess it all up again," he said, glancing at her to calculate her reaction.
Tony sucking up was an improvement over earlier behavior, but at least partly dishonest. The cafeteria staff were as tidy as surgical nurses, and Georgia suspected that sometime in the past twenty-four hours they had cornered the young man and insisted he do a thorough mopping or his head would roll. They were the only staff members in the school that Georgia was afraid of, too.
"You're in charge of cleaning my office, aren't you?" she asked.
"I'm the lucky guy."
Of the four full-time custodians, she'd picked the winner. "A good vacuuming after school this afternoon, please. And I don't think my trash has been emptied this week."
"I been meaning to get to that." He shook his head and blond dreadlocks flopped in emphasis. "It's on my list."
"High on your list, because it's going to happen today, while I'm at the faculty meeting."
"It sure is."
Georgia unlocked her office door, gesturing for him to go first.
"Where'd you want me to put this?"
Because it had been one of those weeks, Georgia's desk was piled high. She yearned to have an hour without anything more pressing, so she could file and toss papers. With luck she would have an hour like that sometime in the late twenty-first century.
Georgia pointed to an empty space, one of the few. "Stick it on the bookshelf over there, thanks."
He obliged her. "Unless you need something else, I'd better go finish the floor."
"You'd better," she agreed. "The lunch ladies get here early."
He boogied out the doorway, and the sound of his whistling grew fainter until eventually she couldn't hear it at all.
Georgia unsealed the cardboard flaps and began to remove files. She liked the silence of an empty school building. Sometimes she even thought she heard laughter from former students echoing through the hallways.
She stopped and listened. Something besides laughter seemed to be rattling along this particular hallway. She wondered if Tony was dragging the wheeled mop bucket from the storage room to the lunchroom. But the sound was louder, and seemed to pass quickly, growing quieter, then louder again a few moments later.
She tried to remember whether Tony had locked the front door behind them and couldn't.
Her cell phone rang, and once she'd rummaged through her purse a glance told her the call was from her daughter.
She put the phone to her ear. "Hey, Sam."
"Mom, just checking to make sure we're still on the same page today?"
The rattling in the corridor began again. She forced herself to concentrate.
"Taylor's going to drop off Edna this afternoon, and hopefully my faculty meeting will be over when she gets here. If not, Marianne will let her wait in my office, and she can do her homework." Marianne was the office manager, who always stayed late. Edna was Georgia's twelve-year-old granddaughter.
"Great, we're all set then."
"Are you already on your way to Raleigh?"
"About an hour out of Asheville. The roads are clear."
Georgia knew it was too late to change her daughter's plans, but she had to ask. "I know we've all been over this together, but you still feel settling this young woman at the Goddess House is the best idea?"
"We don't have any guarantees, but I think it's the right thing to do. She doesn't have anyone, Mom. And she needs to be near Michael."
"That's what she named the baby."
"She's still not planning to bring him with her, then?"
"For now he's settled with her cousin in Mars Hill, but she'll be close enough to visit. She has a car. It's already parked at the Goddess House. Taylor and I drove to Yancey County and got it, along with her clothes and everything else that had been stored for her. There wasn't a lot. I don't know if I've ever met anybody who has so little to show for her life. She's so alone."
Georgia knew exactly how that felt, although for three decades now, she hadn't been alone herself. She had Saman-tha and Edna, and in the past year, she had developed strong friendships with a small group of women who had banded together to see what kind of difference they could make in the world. The difference was extraordinary, but nobody who had faced the world without support ever forgot how frightening a place it could be.
She was nodding, which she realized didn't help. "Then get her settled, and Edna and I will drive up after school. We'll bring groceries."
"I like her," Samantha said, just before she hung up. "Cristy's hard to get to know, and she shares as little as she can get away with. But there's something about her."
Georgia dropped her cell phone back in her purse just as the noise in the hallway began again. Shaking her head she made her way through the tidy outer office, lifted the pass-through at the end of the counter and headed out the door, just in time to see Dawson Nedley skateboarding toward the front entrance.
She stood in the middle of the hallway, arms folded, and when he turned and started back, he saw her.
For a moment it looked as if Dawson planned to simply scoot to one side and continue to the other end without so much as a hello, but at the last moment he jumped off the board and grabbed it before it could continue the trip without him. He jammed it, wheels still spinning, under an arm and cocked his head, as if to ask, Is there a problem?
"There are so many things wrong here," she said.
He shrugged. Dawson, a junior, was dark-haired, dark-eyed and tan from hours working on his family's farm. On the rare occasions when he smiled, he was a pleasure to look at, lean and strong and growing taller every day. She imagined he would easily top six foot this year and just keep going.
Most of the time, though, Dawson's scowl was the most noticeable aspect of his face. Lots of teenagers were angry, for a variety of reasons, some of them as mundane as curfews or zits. Dawson took anger to a new level, or at least he seemed to. To look at him, anyone would think the boy's fury was about to boil over into something destructive. Today no one who walked through school doors anywhere had forgotten the lessons of Columbine.
Georgia knew better than to be taken in by appearances. She believed, backed up by psychological testing and the careful monitoring of his teachers, that Dawson was only a threat to himself. Not that the boy was suicidal. There was no hint of that. He was simply determined to destroy any possible hope for a satisfying future.
Dawson's IQ was in the genius range. He read voraciously and could, if it suited him, quote long passages from Sartre and Camus, as well as Bob Dylan and entire episodes of South Park. When he wasn't harvesting hay or feeding chickens, he was teaching himself Latin or Chinese for fun. His parents were pleasant, churchgoing people who wanted the best for him, but so far nobody had been able to get through to him. Dawson sabotaged every effort. He refused to turn in papers or homework. He never completed projects. If a test seemed silly, he turned in a blank page. He was determined to ruin his life.
The skateboarding was an excellent example.
"How did you get in?" Georgia asked.
"The way I always do." He paused, and when she didn't respond, he elaborated. "Through the front door."
"Our fault, then. But what are you doing here so early?"
"You know us farmer types. Up with the roosters."
"There are no roosters in this hallway."
"I figured if I got here early, my father couldn't find anything else for me to do at home."
That, she suspected, was the truth.
"So you came complete with skateboard?" she asked.
He shrugged again.
She held out her hand. "No skateboards at BCAS."
"The rules here get dumber and dumber."
"Don't hang yourself on this one."
"Who am I hurting, anyway?"
"Dawson, it's clear to everybody at this school that you try to deflect your bad behavior by arguing. I won't play that game, and neither will your teachers. Hand me the skateboard."
"What are you going to do with it?"
"I'm going to store it for you until the end of next week, when you can petition me to get it back."
"Are you fu" He caught himself. "Are you kidding me?"
"Pay attention. I don't kid."
She watched him debate with himself. She imagined the colorful conversation inside his head. The boy was rapidly going through all the alternatives and consequences, and he wouldn't miss a one.
Scowling, he held out the board.