Seventeen-year-old Charlotte barely escaped from her abusive parents. Her little brother, Sam, wasn't as lucky. Now she's trying to begin the new life she always dreamed of for them, but never thought she'd have to experience alone. She's hired a techie-genius with a knack for forgery to remove the last ties to her old life. But while she can erase her former identity, she can't rid herself of the memories. And her troubled history won't let her ignore the little girl she sees one day in the park. The girl with the bruises and burn marks.
That's when Charlotte begins to receive the messages. Threatening notes left in her apartmentwithout a trace of entry. And they're addressed to Piper, her old name. As the messages grow in frequency, she doesn't just need to uncover who is leaving them; she needs to stop whoever it is before anyone else she loves ends up dead.
Cut Me Free, a chilling YA novel by J. R. Johansson, is a riveting read full of darkness and hope.
"Johansson, author of the paranormal Night Walkers series, which includes Paranoia, immerses readers in an urban landscape of sadistic violence against girls and women. . . . This chiller for older teens offers an exceptional, albeit highly disturbing, narration by a survivor of abuse." VOYA
“A superb blend of mystery and romance, it’s never what you expect. A masterpiece.” Jennifer L. Armentrout, #1 New York Times–bestselling author of the Lux and Covenant series
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||14 - 18 Years|
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Cut Me Free
By J. R. Johansson
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 J. R. Johansson
All rights reserved.
The city embraces me. Shiny rectangles so tall I can barely make out where they end and the sky begins. They wrap me in shadow. Hiding me. Holding me. In this single moment, I feel safe here, and I don't remember the last time I felt safe anywhere. The sun sets against an unseen horizon, but I don't head back to the hotel. No one waits for me there.
The sounds and smells of this place are like a different world. It smells like people, so many people. I'm accustomed to the smell of emptiness, but it would be foreign in a place so full. No, it's more than full. It is bursting with life. The scent of Rittenhouse Square fills the air around me, green and lush. I'm encircled by millions of breaths taken at once—surrounded by life. The best thing the Parents ever did for me was to go down without giving me much trouble. At least I only had to escape once. I'm not positive that they're dead, but I certainly tried. And I really can't think about that now.
Instead, I need to live. Everything I've ever known is death and pain; being drenched in life feels good.
Closing my eyes, I extend my arms and the warmth of the city flows around me, flows through me. No more pain. No more clawing fingers dying to break another bone or raise another bruise on my pale skin. No more cruel eyes and words twisting my world. Now they are dying. Now they are dead.
And I don't regret what I've done.
I open my eyes and squint at the statue across from the bench I'm sitting on. It depicts a battle—fierce combat, lives at stake. A massive lion crushing a serpent beneath his claw in the final victory of a fight to the death. In some ways, I relate more to these animals than to the people in the park around me. I struggle to move past my own battle, still remembering every moment of the fight for my life yet never able to celebrate the triumph.
Lifting my wrist, I check the time on my watch. It's a digital one I found in a kids' section of a department store. I haven't quite figured out the twirling hands of its more confusing counterpart. And the adult ones were all loose on my too thin wrists. There aren't many people in this section of Rittenhouse Square, and all of them were here when I arrived fifteen minutes ago. He's late. Only five minutes, but that's five minutes too many. There is nowhere I need to be, but it doesn't matter. He's my fourth attempt. The first didn't show up. The second, I left the minute he let his eyes wander a little too freely. The third didn't seem intelligent enough to entrust my future in her hands. If I'm going to hire this Cameron Angelo person, I need to be sure he will do what I ask, when I ask. I need to be certain he knows his business.
If this doesn't work out, I'll move on to the next name that my money can buy me in a shady bar or dark alley. Illegal services are easy to obtain, especially in a big city like Philadelphia. If you can find the right places to search and are okay with paying for the information, you can get anything. The books Nana used to slip me in the dead of night were more educational than I ever imagined. The ones she'd let me keep taught me the most—Flowers in the Attic, Oliver Twist, and Kidnapped. She'd been planning my escape for a long time, but neither of us thought I'd be doing it alone.
We'd shared a favorite quote. The paper that held it had been as yellowed and wrinkled as Nana's hands, but I still wish I'd brought it with me. She'd ripped it from an old tattered book of English poets. Only two lines from a poem, but Nana said it should bring me hope.
"Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night."
I mutter the words three times under my breath, my heart holding tight to the quote with a grip stronger than my fear. There is nothing I need more right now than hope. I shove aside the aching pit that replaces my insides whenever I think of Nana or Sam and get to my feet. Switching my suitcase to my other hand, I squeeze it until my fingers stop trembling. I couldn't leave it in the hotel—it holds two hundred and thirteen thousand reasons not to. Only ten thousand less than it had when I packed it. Not bad for over a year on my own, but living under the radar doesn't exactly play well with extravagance anyway. Even now, it feels weird dragging my suitcase behind me when I know what it contains. I can feel everyone looking at it—at me.
A young girl walks past holding hands with a man and a cold rush spreads through me, like an arctic wind starting at my feet and blowing up through the winding tunnels of my veins. As plain as the city around me, I see her pain. She tugs down her pink sleeve, but it still isn't long enough to cover the bruises beneath. Her hand is wrapped in his, but it's limp, not holding on for support. It's trapped, ensnared.
Millions of memories of Sam pelt my brain, and my free hand digs around in my pocket for the black metal bolt I always carry with me. I rub my thumb across its worn ridges as I struggle to keep the images entombed. The past I wish I could bury forever crawls out of the darkness to haunt me again: Sam and me cowering in the dark corner of the attic, the Father's breath hot on my face as he pins me to the wall, the Mother ignoring my pleas to leave Sam and take me instead as she drags him down the stairs and slams the door, later followed by tears on his face and mine when he comes back with new bruises and cuts I couldn't prevent. I'd watched him sleep every night and dreaded the next week, the next day, the next hour, when it would begin all over again.
I force a choked breath in silent agony. The memories are too painful to touch. I skirt away from them and barricade myself in a corner of my mind, trying to pretend this little girl isn't suffering the same way my brother did.
The man with her reminds me of the Father, but the similarity isn't outward. It's like the same darkness radiates from him. I focus on the details, driving back the ache of confusing emotion with the unfaltering black-and-whiteness of logic. They look nothing alike. This man is younger, maybe forty, and his hair is dark. The Father had blond hair, like Sam and me, and his paranoia made him stay trim and in shape. This man is an overweight slob.
He stops to scratch his shoulder and she flinches when he raises his arm. Her dirty, dark hair falls across her face the way Sam's used to. She's hiding and no one else sees. She's dying and no one else notices. I battle through a wave of nausea and try to keep breathing.
I watch them walk away. Sam's small voice pleads in my head—tells me to save her.
No one will save her but you.
Like a magnet, I'm towed along in their wake and fighting the desperate need to do what I couldn't do for Sam. To stop this man before it's too late. I know I have to ignore it. I can't get involved. I must pretend I didn't see, but Sam won't let me.
She needs you.
I follow them to the edge of the park, keeping my distance. Just watching.
All I can do is watch—at least, for now.
"You give up too easy." A deep, warm voice speaks from behind me and I whirl to face him. My hands fly up in the defensive posture I know too well.
"Whoa, slow down." He takes two steps back and stares at me until I drop my arms to my sides. "Sorry. I just didn't want you to leave. You're"—he glances down at his phone—"Piper, right?"
"Yeah." I pivot to one side, keeping him in full view, but glance toward the back of the little girl disappearing from sight. The guilty feeling that I'm losing her is almost as strong as the surge of relief that she's gone. No longer my responsibility.
No one else will save her.
I suppress a shudder and ignore Sam's words. Focusing on drawing a single deep breath, I release the bolt and draw my hand out of my pocket, fix my attention on the guy in front of me. It didn't take me more than a few days after I ran away to learn that noticing the details keeps me alive—both in and out of the attic. This situation is no different.
Cameron is tall with broad shoulders and chin-length brown hair. Olive skin, nose slightly broader than it should be. His jeans and red short-sleeved shirt fit him well but don't look new. He's confident, poised, and calm.
His stance tells me that he can more than hold his own in a fight, but that's not what I need help with. A genius is what I need, a criminal wizard. The hazel eyes returning my gaze are inspecting me as well. I can't deny the intelligence there. He might be smart, but he's too young. Not what I'm looking for.
"Thank you for coming, Cameron, but it's not going to work out." I turn and walk away, my suitcase wheels clicking rapidly on each crack in the sidewalk. Click, click, click, click—the rapid pulse of a city that seems as alive as the people that reside here. Each part of Philly is different. One section is a cozy tree-lined neighborhood, the next a bustling center of business. It makes me feel safe, like death can't follow me here. Even though deep inside I have no doubt death can follow me anywhere.
A second later he's walking beside me, his long legs easily matching my fastest pace. "Call me Cam."
"Fine, Cam." I don't miss a step even though the name is a little too close to my brother's for my comfort. "It's still not going to work out."
He glances at my luggage. "Looks like you gave up on me before we met. Either that or you're the youngest flight attendant I've ever seen. You have a flight to catch or something?"
"No. I just think we're done here." I shift my suitcase to my other side so I can be between him and it. Any future I might build depends on keeping it safe.
"And can I ask why?"
"You're too young."
He laughs, but it sputters like a dying car when he sees I'm serious. Then he lifts an eyebrow. "When you're the best, age doesn't matter. Besides, how old are you? Fifteen?"
"Seventeen." I don't admit that I'm not entirely certain. Time was so hard to track in the attic. And even before I'd been stuck in there when I was six, one of our neighbors—an old woman whose name I wish I could remember—was the only person who'd ever wished me a happy birthday. There is very little I can remember from the time before the Father. It wasn't good, but it was better. The pain was still there, it was just different. Exchanging hunger pains for bruises and scars wasn't my idea of an upgrade. Six years with the Mother and her addictions, then ten years with the Father and his.
"Then we're even. Not a good enough reason."
I stop and face Cam. A million instincts tell me to keep walking and ignore him. He'll give up eventually, but something about him makes me reluctant to leave. "Because you were late."
"I was here before you were."
"No." An image of every person who was in my section of the park when I arrived flashes through my head. "You weren't."
"May I?" He grins wide and then steps carefully behind me. Raising an arm, he indicates a small break in one of the hedges on the other side of the statue. It would be nearly impossible to see from where I'd been waiting, but from that spot he could see this entire section of the park. I release my breath. Very smart.
"Fine." I turn around to face him and immediately take a step back. The smell of soap, mint, and something warm and woodsy overwhelms me—too close, way too close.
"So, am I rehired?" He leans forward and grins wide.
"To be that, you would've had to be hired to begin with."
"Then why are we meeting?"
Lifting the suitcase, I walk to a nearby tree and sit on the grass. When he sits down, he's again too close.
I squirm for a moment before scooting a little farther away from him. The guy has no sense of personal space. "This is the interview," I say.
He looks down at the now slightly larger gap between us and I'm surprised by how irritated I am when the corner of his mouth twitches. "Okay. An interview then. Shouldn't you ask me some questions?"
"What's your fee?" I toy with a single blade of grass by my knee that is longer than the others around it.
"Straight to money. You don't mess around, do you?"
"No, I don't." I meet his eyes. "And if you do—"
"I get it, I get it." He raises his hands and gives me an easy smile. "You're extremely strict and serious. I can handle it."
His sarcasm comes through loud and clear. Somehow he thinks he's in control of this situation, this conversation. I don't like it. He seems nice enough, but I don't know what to do with "nice." All I need is someone who will get the job done and then leave me alone. I only met him two minutes ago and already Cam doesn't strike me as that kind of guy.
"This isn't a joke to me." Brushing the grass off my hands, I shift my weight to my feet and begin to stand when he grabs my forearm. Panic and adrenaline slam through my system and I can't breathe. I can't see him anymore. He's a shadow, a remnant of the Father. With one move, I twist my wrist, jerk it back, and break his grip. He shouldn't touch me. He has no idea what I'm capable of. Gasps of air escape my chest. I see Cam's eyes widen as fear and anger clash inside me, but his words cool them both immediately.
"Okay, slow down and breathe ..." His voice brings clarity and eases my panic slightly. It's strong and firm like the Father's, a man's voice, but without threat or malice. "I understand. You want a new identity. That's what I can provide." Cam's tone is low and steady. He raises his hands in surrender and leans back a few inches. His gaze holds mine, and any trace of humor is gone. "I'll give you a different past and you can turn it into any future you want. I'll help you live under the radar—to live invisibly. I'm the best. My fee is seven thousand and I guarantee it's worth every cent."
His confidence sets me at ease. I relax back onto the grass and stare at the park around me. Like so many times since I escaped, I feel like someone is watching me. But it's not possible. Even if he survived, the Father couldn't have followed me—no, I have to ignore the feeling and instead focus on what I can control, on the decisions I have to make ... on Cam.
Three different sources told me he was the clear choice and the only one to go to. That Cam was my best option. I'd only waited this long to contact him because I don't like taking the obvious path. It makes me feel predictable and vulnerable. But his connections and hacking skills are supposedly unmatched.
Plucking the extra-long grass blade from the ground, I run it across the back of my hand. He was here first, watching me and waiting. He seems to pick up on cues that I don't even realize I'm giving him. I'm beginning to see why he, even at his age, is the first name they gave me. Without looking his way, I give him my answer. "Fine. Meet me here tomorrow morning at ten. We start with a new identity, then an apartment. My hotel sucks."
It's getting dark. The nearby walkway lights up as the power to all the streetlamps comes on at once. The city prepares to fight off even the coming night. The light casts a strange glow in Cam's eyes as I get to my feet.
"Wait," he says.
"What?" I stare down at him, already impatient to leave. I don't like holding still for too long. Stillness reminds me of the attic. Unsurprisingly, I'm not a huge fan of small spaces either.
Cam sits forward and wraps one long arm around his knee. "I have questions for you."
"No? What do you mean?" His expression is incredulous, but I'm not going down this road. The sooner he understands that, the better.
"Did the meaning of the word 'no' change recently?" I keep my voice light as I rub my hands together, the chill of the evening coming faster than I expected.
"You aren't going to answer any questions? An interview goes both ways, you know." His eyes are piercing. "I haven't decided yet if I'm willing to help you."
The people who'd recommended him had suggested something like this was a possibility. Apparently, in the last year, he'd become very picky about the kind of clientele he was willing to take on.
"Two questions." I nod and try not to show how tightly wound this one concession makes me. "I'll answer if I can."
"Do you have a record?" His expression is grim.
"No. Last question." That was easy. Hard to have a record when no one knew we were in the attic in the first place. I wait for him to speak.
"Is anyone after you?"
Excerpted from Cut Me Free by J. R. Johansson. Copyright © 2015 J. R. Johansson. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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