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Authors: Jennifer Brown

Thousand Words

BOOK: Thousand Words
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For Scott

DAY 1
COMMUNITY SERVICE

The community service I’d been court ordered to complete was held in one of the downstairs classrooms at the Chesterton Public Schools Central Office. Central Office, where my dad worked and where I’d spent many afternoons hanging out after school waiting for a ride home, would now be the place where I’d get a daily reminder that I’d massively messed up.

I walked the mile and a half from school, hoping the fresh October air would relax me, help shake out my nerves. It didn’t work. I still had no idea what to expect and could only imagine myself locked in a painted-cinder-block room in the basement, something that looked a lot like the juvenile detention center where I’d learned, back in September, that big trouble was headed my way.

Sixty hours. Sixty impossibly long hours of community
service to pay for a crime that I hadn’t even known I was committing when I committed it.

Sixty hours of being in the same room with people who were real criminals, who’d probably done things like sell drugs to children on playgrounds or steal money from cash registers; nothing like I’d done. Real criminals who would most likely take one look at me and eat me alive.

I wasn’t sure if I had sixty hours in me.

But the court said I had to, so I walked to my fate, sucking in deep breaths until I was dizzy, and shaking my hands out until my fingertips tingled.

Mom had told me that morning to catch a ride home with Dad after community service, and I was nervous about that, too. Dad and I hadn’t been alone in a room together, much less in a car together, since the whole mess started. Dad wasn’t doing a lot of talking anymore, but he didn’t need to do a lot of talking for me to know what he currently thought of me. My face burned with embarrassment every time I had to pass through a room he was occupying.

When I got to Central Office, I snuck back behind the receptionist’s desk and into the inner offices where Dad and other personnel worked, wandering through just as I’d done a million times before. I could see Dad in his office, his face bathed by the blue glow of his computer screen, a phone planted against his ear. He was nodding and kept repeating, “Right, right,” but if he saw me he made no show of it. I thought about waiting around for him to get off the phone
so I could wave to him or say hi or do something to try to break through the barrier that jutted between us, but decided it was probably best not to make a spectacle of myself, especially given why I was there. I made my way back out to the main foyer and headed downstairs.

All the lights had been turned off, so the corridor was dark, but a rectangle of fluorescent light spilled through an open doorway at the end of the hall. I could hear voices coming out of that doorway. Room 104—the room I was supposed to report to. I walked toward it, reminding myself that I had been equally nervous going back to school that morning and I had weathered the day just fine. I paused at the doorway, took another deep breath, and stepped inside.

“… him to get his ass out of bed or he’d be goin’ back to jail,” a skinny blond girl with a big, pregnant belly and feather earrings was saying. She was bent over a piece of paper, carefully coloring something with a marker and talking to a woman who was standing by her table. The woman was nodding as if to agree with the girl, but when the girl glanced at me, the woman turned in my direction.

She had on black pants and a black jacket with a white dress shirt underneath. Her hair was super-curly and stuck out around her head in pomade-laden chunks. Her lipstick was a deep, dark red and her lips full and pouty.

“Hello,” she said, all stiff and businesslike, walking toward me. “You must be Ashleigh Maynard.”

I nodded.

She held out her hand. “I’m Mrs. Mosely. I oversee the Teens Talking program. You’re here for community service hours, correct?”

I nodded again, putting my backpack down on a desk and digging through it until I found the piece of paper I was supposed to give her. She would have to sign it every day I worked, until I’d satisfied my hours, and then I was to turn it in to Tina, my lawyer, who would make sure it got filed with the court. The paper was all that stood between me and putting everything behind me. And I was more than ready to put everything behind me. Even if sixty hours seemed like such a long time. A lifetime.

The blond girl assessed me quickly, then went back to her coloring, shaking her head as if I’d done something despicable by walking into the room. I ignored her and turned my attention to Mrs. Mosely.

She took the paper and laid it on her desk, then turned and leaned back against the wooden desktop, crossing her arms over her chest.

“So you’re to create some literature about texting, is that correct?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

The blond girl made a low “oooh” sound, but Mrs. Mosely acted like she didn’t hear it. I whipped my head around to glare at the girl.

There were two knocks on the doorframe and a guy I recognized from school popped into the room. He was
wearing black jeans, way too big for him, and a leather jacket. He had a pair of headphones hanging around his neck like DJs do, and was carrying a comb in one hand.

“Yo, Mrs. Mose,” he said. “What’s up?” He tossed a paper that looked like mine onto Mrs. Mosely’s desk as he walked by.

Another boy followed him in, very large, very quiet. He said nothing. Just headed over to a computer cubby in the back of the room. He dug some earbuds out of his pocket with his big, hammy hands and sat down.

“Hey, Darrell,” Mrs. Mosely said. Then louder, “Hey, Mack.” But the big kid in the back simply lifted his chin once in response, stuffing the earbuds into his ears and clicking the computer mouse diligently. Another girl walked in, her jeans so tight they cut into her belly, which wobbled behind an equally tight shirt with every step she took. She sat down next to the blonde.

“Hi, Mrs. Mosely,” she said. “Wait till you hear what my moms said this morning about that thing we were talking about yesterday.”

Mrs. Mosely held her finger up in a “wait” position, then turned back to me. “You’ll probably want to start on the computer,” she said. “Get some facts. Some statistics. Are you good at doing research?”

I nodded, thinking about how I used to be good at a lot of things. Before. Good at school. Good at cross-country. Good at making friends. Good to Kaleb.

Now what was I good at? Hiding from crowds? Ignoring catcalls? Staring down disgusting-minded jerks? Apologizing?

“Okay, excellent. Read news stories. Read blogs. Everything you can get your hands on. If a website exists that talks about it, I want you to know about that website and read it. That should take you at least a couple of weeks, okay? You will not be done researching in a day, so don’t try to convince me that you are. You need to be armed with information. By the end of this, you will be an expert. As you may or may not know, you’re going to be creating resources for schools. Posters, booklets, that kind of thing.”

Before being assigned to work for Teens Talking, I’d already been familiar with the program. I remembered getting Teens Talking stuff when I was in junior high. Pamphlets about drugs or gangs or bullying or reckless driving or weapons. I never really read them. Just saw them on the guidance office’s literature rack or received one in an assembly here or a seminar there. I’d always assumed they were written by people who worked in my dad’s office or by the school psychologist. I never knew it was offenders writing them. And I certainly never would have guessed that I would someday be one of those offenders.

Mrs. Mosely continued. “We need these resources to be factual and reliable, so accuracy is important. When you’re done gathering facts, you can start writing a rough draft. I’ll proofread it. And then when it’s all good to go, you can start creating the layout of your pamphlet or poster or PSA
or whatever it is you decide to design. You can do some of the artwork yourself, like Kenzie is here, or you can design it all on the computer. After you’re done with that, we’ll look it all over to make sure it’s ready to print. By then you should have your hours. Okay?” She leaned over her desk and signed my paper, then handed it back to me.

“Okay,” I said, taking the paper, but my head was swimming and I wanted to go home. I could feel the girls’ eyes on me, and even though Darrell never gave me more than a passing glance, I was sure he knew what had happened with me, because he went to school at Chesterton High. He’d probably seen the picture that had landed me in community service, maybe even had it on his phone right now, and that made me really uncomfortable. I’d hoped to at least get away from the constant feeling of humiliation here.

Mrs. Mosely cut into my thoughts. “Everyone in this group is on a different timetable, so it’s not a race. Kenzie and Amber have both finished their research and writing and are down to creating artwork now. Darrell is in the writing stage. Mack is busy on the computer. And where’s Angel?” she asked the room at large.

“I heard she got arrested,” Amber said.

“Nah, man, she’s just skippin’ out,” Darrell said. “I saw her over at Manny’s house last night.”

“What were you doing over there?” Mrs. Mosely asked, looking stern. Darrell laughed like what she’d said was a big joke. He gazed back down at his paper, shaking his head.

“Yo, Mose, how you get the word ‘violence’ if there ain’t no ‘i’ in it?” he called out.

“It has an ‘i,’ stupid,” Kenzie said. She and Amber shared a giggle.

Mrs. Mosely pretended she hadn’t heard Kenzie’s comment, or their laughs, and walked over to Darrell’s desk. She pointed to the paper. “It has an ‘i.’ See? Right here before the ‘o.’ ”

I took that as my cue and went over to the bank of computers in the back corner. I sat at the one next to the big guy Mrs. Mosely had called Mack. His finger was clicking the mouse rapidly. I wanted to get done so I could go home and curl up under my blankets and sleep. Today had been so tiring, and tomorrow promised to be just as emotionally wrenching. Every day would be, until all this—the name-calling and teasing, the catching up on schoolwork I’d missed, the community service, the wondering if I was still friends with Vonnie, the worrying about the board meeting that could be the end of my dad’s career—blew over.

I logged on to the computer and got online, feeling a little more in my comfort zone than I’d expected. I’d done a ton of research papers for my AP English class, so in a way, community service didn’t seem all that different from school. The very thought brought tears to my eyes. I had gone from researching English papers to writing community service warning pamphlets alongside a guy who couldn’t spell “violence,” even though I was pretty sure violence was exactly why Darrell was in here.

BOOK: Thousand Words
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