Inspired by Alice in Wonderland
Tick…tick…tick…time is almost up before your new fave psychological thriller hits bookstores! If you loved ONE OF US IS LYING or THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS (and even THE BREAKFAST CLUB!) you will love this twisty turny thriller about a group of teens caught in their school when a bomb goes off. The problem? One of them is responsible. (Cue dramatic music here.)
Scroll down for an exclusive excerpt!
1:51 p. m.
“Don’t fight,” Cas said from the doorway that Frankie and Z had just disappeared through. Tears glistened in her eyes. “Can we turn the radio back on? Maybe they’ll tell us help is finally coming.”
Rashid clicked on the radio before heading over to help Tad. There was the buzz of static, then the announcer telling everyone that the firefighters were making progress. The fire was contained to the west side, and they hoped to have it out soon.
“With one person of interest being questioned, authorities are now working to find another individual they have confirmed is involved in this terrible bombing. A source confirms that the individual is one of the students trapped on the second floor of the school. With four bombs having already gone off, there appears to be one explosive device still inside the school that could detonate at any time.”
Another bomb was ready to go off, and the bomber was one of them.
Earlier That Day . . .
D i a n a
— C h a p t e r 1 —
All you had to do was smile and wear the right clothes, and everyone would think you were special. If you appeared successful, people would automatically assume you were successful. Her parents believed that. Her father had built a career on it. They wanted her to believe it.
Diana hated that she did.
“Perception is everything, Diana,” her stepmother said so often that Diana wanted to scream. But screaming wasn’t presentable. And, boy, did it make the wrong impression. This made screaming at the top of her lungs very tempting.
“Always take care to make the correct choice, Diana,” her stepmother said over and over again. “Everything you do is important and reflects on your father and the positions he takes. And think about what your father’s opponents would claim if you don’t do well in school or become a leader in the activities you’re in. They’ll wonder how serious your father is about education if his own daughter doesn’t do well in school. The other side is always looking for a reason to point fingers and show that your father isn’t worthy of his position. That we aren’t worthy. So you can’t allow your grades or your attention to detail to slide, or you’ll hurt your father and, worse, you’ll hurt the work he’s trying to do.”
Diana looked down at the clothes she’d chosen for the day. After sixteen years, she knew exactly what details would be noticed and what people would think when they saw her.
Stylish white jeans. A tasteful pink top. But nothing too expensive, because that made people jealous. Nothing too tight, because that gave people the wrong idea. And no wrinkles. Wrinkles made people think you were lazy. No one trusts a person who is lazy. To get what you wanted in life, you must inspire trust — even if you intended to break it.
Her father inspired trust with his perfectly tailored suits that were made less stuffy because he never wore a tie and always left the collar open.
Folksy. Friendly. Everyone’s idea of the perfect dad and former army-communications specialist who always puts his family and country first. At least that’s what people must have thought, because he got elected. He was working hard to make sure he got to keep his job for another term, and it was their family’s job — Diana’s job — to make sure she didn’t do anything wrong that could make voters question whether they wanted him back in office.
No pressure there.
“Katherine?” she yelled, knowing how much her stepmother hated raised voices. No response. She must have already gone downstairs. Dad would be in meetings already. Diana bit her lip as she reached for the gold studs Katherine gave her for her sixteenth birthday, then added the gold-cross necklace that had technically been from her father. She’d pretended not to notice when one of his aides handed him the box that he’d clearly been unaware of up until that moment.
“Little touches make all the difference,” Katherine insisted. “People notice the details.”
Yes, they did, Diana thought as she reached into her jewelry box and pulled out the ratty friendship bracelet she’d made for herself years ago, wishing she’d had someone to give it to and to get one in return from. No one ever assumed the popular girl needed to be given a gift. No one thought about whether the popular girl was lonely when she went home. Everyone assumed the popular girl had a million friends and a family who supported her.
Diana walked to her mirror and checked her makeup. Just enough to make her blue eyes look bigger. Nothing more, or people might question whether she was a good girl. And she was supposed to be a good girl. She ticked off her stepmother’s checklist one by one.
Good shoes. A nice home. Top grades.
Smart, respectable family tree. Perfect manners.
All signs of a strong, well-brought-up girl. A girl everyone claimed to know from school. One parents and teachers pointed to as an example to others. One who had been taught to calculate her appearance and demeanor down to the plain red color of her cell-phone case. One who was determined to use it all to show everyone that it was foolish to trust what someone wanted you to see.
And if she didn’t want to ruin her perfect image, Diana would have to get moving. Tardiness was not acceptable for a girl who was supposed to be without flaws. Tardiness implied a lack of respect for other people’s time.
Glancing at her watch, she shook her head and hurried downstairs to find her stepmother so she could get a ride to school for the yearbook meeting.
“Katherine?” she called.
No answer. Huh. Well, Katherine was probably in the backyard making sure the staff had polished the patio furniture to a shine so that guests could be invited back to the house after the event tonight.
“Your mother went out.”
“What?” She turned and spotted her father standing next to the porch swing with his cell phone pressed to his ear. Since there was no point in correcting him about Katherine’s relationship to her, she simply asked, “Where?”
He put up a hand to quiet her. “Yes, I’m here, and yes, I understand there’s been some pushback, but I can’t step back from the bill, or I’ll get hammered. The press will smell blood and it’ll be over, and we all know I’m right on this. I just need one thing to tip in my favor. You have to trust me on this.”
Diana started to speak again, but before she could get a word out, her father turned his back and nodded. She would have to get in line for his attention.
“Yes. I’ll make that distinction tonight, and don’t worry. The event will be the perfect place to highlight the positive points in the bill and to take charge of the conversation. If you have other things you want to talk about, I’ll be at the office in a half-hour. Good speaking with you, too, Tim. I appreciate your dedication. We’re going to turn things around.” Finally he hung up and turned toward her.
He was wearing perfectly pressed khakis and a red polo shirt under a deep blue sports coat — relaxed authority was what her stepmother called the look. But despite the clothes, Diana didn’t think her father appeared relaxed.
“That was Tim?”
Her father nodded. “He’s worried about the negative press my Safety Through Education bill is getting.”
Tim hadn’t been on her father’s staff as long as the others, but he was smart and perceptive, which is why her father’s chief of staff hired him right out of graduate school. And even though he was younger than the rest of the staff, Diana knew Tim was right to be worried about her father’s bill. The press was calling it an invasion of privacy. The law would require that students and teachers inform the administration if they thought someone in the school might be interested in doing harm to students, teachers, or school property. Any students reported would then have to hand over their passwords to social media and email accounts or face suspension and a potential investigation by federal authorities. Those who didn’t report suspicions before a harmful event could be charged with aiding and abetting.
Her father believed the law would turn everything in the country around and would finally do what no other laws had been able to do — make things safer. Any students interested in causing trouble would think twice about it if they knew their friends and teachers were watching them and ready to act on any suspicious activity. And by catching and circumventing threatening behavior early, there was a good chance of diverting those students toward a more positive path. Her father was certain that taking action in the schools and the education system was the best way of changing the escalating pattern of violence in the country.
“Was there another bad story in the press?” Diana asked. Not everyone agreed with her father’s thoughts on how to keep the country safe. Since the unveiling of the bill, there had been phone calls and mail and huge editorials about invasion of pri- vacy and people’s differing definitions of what a “threat” to society actually was. Diana had even gotten hate mail for her father’s idea. When she had tried to talk to her father about it, he had just told her to give the mail to Tim and ignore it. That everything would work out. But when Tim had sat with her and listened to her talk about the threats she’d gotten and how people made a point of telling her they were going to vote her father out of office, Tim had admitted the backlash was concerning. If the tide of bad press and angry editorials about the potential law continued, they both agreed that it would be sunk before it ever had a chance to be tested. And her father’s career — one she had been told was necessary to make the world better — would be sunk along with it.
Was it any wonder Tim wanted to pull out all the stops to make sure her father’s event tonight got the press’s attention, or that she was willing to do whatever it took to help? It was nice to have someone finally realize that she was capable of helping, and to finally listen to her when she had an idea. And Tim had said he was glad he could run ideas by someone without having to worry about her telling the senator that his ideas were too radical or that he wasn’t up to the job.
Her father shrugged and gave her his own practiced smile. “Some of my co-sponsors are wondering if we should shelve the idea for more study, but Tim has some polling that says retreating might do more harm than good. I’m not worried. Tim and the others have a plan to make this all come together.”
“If you need me —”
Her father held up his hand as the phone rang. The phone was always ringing. “I’ll catch this on my way to the office.” He looked at Diana and gave her a tense smile. “Your mother left a note for you on the counter. You can help by making sure you’re ready when she comes to pick you up. I need everything to be perfect if we’re going to turn this around.” Then, before she could say anything, her father put the phone to his ear and said, “Larry, I’m glad you called …” as he disappeared into the house.
Diana hurried after him, but he didn’t bother to look back. A minute later, Diana heard the front door slam behind him as he left before she could remind him that she needed a ride. And when she read her stepmother’s note, she knew she wasn’t going to get one from her, either.
I’ll be home to pick you up at four. Wear the
blue satin dress hanging in your closet and leave
your hair down. Please be on time. Tonight is very
important to all of us.
She stared at the letter.
Be on time.
Leave your hair down. Tonight is important.
But, clearly, driving Diana to school today was not.
She turned the bracelet on her arm again, looked at her stepmother’s words one more time, hearing each of them ringing in her head along with all the other things she’d said over the years.
“Keep your opinions to yourself, Diana.” Because they might differ from what she was supposed to think. And that wasn’t allowed.
“Remember that we’re counting on you.” Yes. They were.
Diana headed back upstairs to the antique toy chest in the corner of her room. Quickly, she dumped the decorative pillows and extra blanket stacked on top onto the floor, then lifted the lid. She pulled out two bags. In the side pocket of one of the bags, she found the list she’d made for herself a few weeks ago and put it in her pocket.
A quick glance at the clock told her she’d better get going or she’d be late for the yearbook meeting. Yesterday she’d moved the meeting to two hours earlier than originally scheduled. She doubted anyone would be thrilled that she’d asked them to change their plans simply to make them wait.
Diana turned, took one last look in the mirror and saw what her family wanted her to be. What she had tried so hard to pretend to be.
Perfect. Someone everyone expected to do the right thing and no one would ever suspect of doing something wrong.
Booting up her computer, she sent a quick message to Tim, telling him that she was going to school now. Then Diana carefully picked up her bags and headed downstairs and out the door. Her father thought the only contribution he needed from her was for her to nod and smile and look flawless — like their family was supposed to be. She was determined to prove him wrong.
R a s h i d
— C h a p t e r 2 —
“Why do you have to go to the school today?” his father asked, coming into the kitchen. Rashid had hoped to get out of the house before his father had gotten home from the hospital. So much for that idea. “Your classes do not start for another week.”
Rashid hefted the bag he had slung over his shoulder and explained, “I need a new school ID, Father.”
“What happened to your old one?” His father looked at him with a frown.
“I lost it when we were visiting with Sitto last month.” Technically, that was true. Although Rashid knew his words implied that he accidentally left his ID behind at his grand- mother’s in Palestine. “The office is open for new students to get IDs. I thought I should do it now instead of waiting until school starts.”
His father nodded, then glanced at the kitchen clock. “Will you be back by the start of Dhuhr?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I can call and see if the office will be open during the afternoon. If you wait, we can pray together, and then maybe you can take your sister. It would be good for her to see the school without so many people. It’ll help her get used to the idea of going there next year. You could introduce her to some of your friends.”
His sister already knew most of his friends, since they either lived nearby or went to mosque together. The others …
His father thought he understood what it was like for Rashid at school, but he had no idea. He didn’t listen. Or maybe Rashid’s cousins in Palestine were right, and it was Rashid’s fault he didn’t completely fit in, because he did not know who he was or what he wanted.
A few years ago, he would have brought his sister with him to school. But that was then. Now … so much had changed. He was different. His sister certainly was, and his friends … They all still enjoyed the comics and building robots, which held their friendships together. But Rashid could tell there were other things — like the facial hair that he had started growing earlier than anyone else in his class, and the adherence to his faith that prevented him from shaving it — that were creating an invisible wall between them.
He bit back the anger that seemed harder and harder to keep hidden and respectfully said, “Next time. I don’t know who will be there, and I don’t want her to have a bad experience.”
It was hard enough for Rashid to fit in, especially now. He didn’t want to bring Arissa. The hijab made her stand out even more than his untrimmed beard did. But Arissa didn’t seem to mind wearing it. More than once, she said that she liked the attention the hijab brought, and it helped her know exactly who her friends were. The hijab signaled who she was and that she was proud of her heritage. She said if people didn’t like it, they could just get out of her way.
Rashid wondered if it wasn’t easier for her because the hijab was so obvious and its meaning so clear. Since some of the other students chose to grow beards and mustaches, his own beard was sometimes interpreted as a personal choice instead of a mandate of faith. But it often raised questions he could see in people’s eyes that never got spoken aloud — not even by his friends. If he had been braver, he might just have sat down and talked to his friends about it and helped them understand. Instead, he let the silences get longer.
Now he felt he had only one option open to him.
“I should probably go now so I don’t have to stand in line all day,” Rashid said, feeling the weight of the bag pulling on his shoulder. “I will pray at school.” There were plenty of empty classrooms. Since it wasn’t a school day, he wouldn’t have to worry about people making fun of him washing in the bathroom first. “I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
His father smiled. “No need to rush. If you see people you know, you should spend time with them. You haven’t had the chance to see any of your friends this summer. The best life has balance. Maybe while you’re at school, you can see if there are any new clubs you’d like to join, although I still think you should take photos for the yearbook. The pictures you took this summer are very good.”
“I’ll look into it,” Rashid said, knowing he wouldn’t. He had other things to do. He just hoped his father would be able to understand.
“Good.” His father patted him on the arm and frowned. “Why are you taking your school bag?”
Rashid smiled to hide his nerves. “I’m bringing some notebooks and comic books and a couple of other things to put in my locker so I don’t have to bring everything on the first day. I like having stuff to read in study hall.”
He also read when his friends were late for lunch, to avoid drawing the attention of some of the football players, who liked to harass him.
“Using extra time for study is always good.” His father patted him on the arm again. “Do you have your Koran?”
“No,” Rashid said, shifting toward the door. “I’m leaving it here. I’ve got to go.”
“Wait a second.” His father disappeared out of the kitchen and returned holding a thick paperback that Rashid had no choice but to take. “You might be glad to have it at school with you.”
Rashid forced himself to thank his father, but he couldn’t meet his eyes as he walked out the door. He put the book in the bag and headed to school, still trying to decide if he was going to go through with his plan.
Was this really the time to draw the line in the sand?
He thought about the names he’d been called last year and how uncomfortable his non-Muslim friends looked when they pretended that they were all the same. That nothing had changed.
He wished nothing had changed. More than anything, he wanted to turn back the clock to before the beard and the suspicion it brought into focus. Things had already been hard then, but they had been better.
Hitching the bag so that the weight was better distributed, Rashid frowned and started walking faster. If he was going to change things, he had to do it today. He only hoped that he had the courage to do what needed to be done.
— C h a p t e r 3 —
“You’re Kicking me out?” Sweat pricked Z’s back and forehead. He should have had two more months. His mother had said they’d agreed. And now he was getting screwed.
Z turned his back on the landlord’s son. He couldn’t look at the satisfied smile on the jerk’s pimply face without wanting to deck the guy. Z felt like hitting something — everything.
“Not exactly,” Nick said. “I mean, I know my dad and your mom talked about trying to lower the rent over the summer to help you out, but my dad realized that if he changed the terms of the lease for you, he’d have to do it for everyone, and you know how that goes. It’s not like my father wants to do this.”
Sure he does, Z thought. He just doesn’t want to say he wants to boot the guy who’s just lost his mother to cancer. That would make him have to admit he’s a crappy person. But that’s what he was. All Nick’s father knew was that a guaranteed rent check was dead and buried. It was time to find a new one, and to hell with anything else. Yeah — Z knew exactly how that went.
“I’m sure this is breaking your father’s heart.” Z clenched his fists and looked out the narrow window over the sink. If he closed his eyes, he could still see his mother standing there, washing dishes … when she had been well enough to do something that normal.
“Hey, don’t be like that.”
“Like what?” Z turned and stared at the guy. Nick straightened his shoulders but took a step back, tugging at the hem of his dirty T-shirt. “Your father made a promise to my dying mom, and two weeks after she’s gone, he sends you to tell me he was just kidding.”
Nick took another step back and swallowed hard. “He’s really sorry about this.”
“Sure he is.” Everyone was sorry. Z was so tired of hearing everyone tell him how damn sorry they were. Only they weren’t. But they would be. Soon. Very soon. Z unclenched his fists and turned back toward the off-white fridge that his mother had plastered with photographs. “Tell your dad not to beat himself up about it. It’s no problem, Nicky,” he added, yanking open the fridge. The cool air washed over him, helping to tamp down the anger he wanted to let break free. Despite the open windows, the apartment was sweltering.
“Hey, kid, if it was up to me, I would let you stay. I know things are tough. After everything that happened, this really sucks, but —”
“It’s fine,” Z said, grabbing a bottle of tap water out of the fridge. It wasn’t fine. There was nothing fine about being told by a twenty-seven-year-old guy who lived in his parents’ basement and had Cheetos stains on his T-shirt that you had to clear out in three weeks. Adios, boy. Don’t let the door hit your long-haired, tattooed self on the way out.
“Look, my father would like to be able to let you stay. He really liked your mom. She was a nice lady.”
“Yeah.” Z closed the fridge and looked at the photo of his mother’s happy, healthy face pressed next to his five-year-old chocolate-coated one. “She was great.”
He swallowed hard while, behind him, Nick Mansanelli said, “I could talk to my dad about having you do some work on our cars in exchange for staying in their attic. It’s not the best place, but it would give you some time to sort out whatever it is you’re going to do next. I’m sure you could use the —”
“No need.” Z would rather sleep in a ditch than become slave labor for anyone. He uncapped the cold water and took a drink. “Tell your dad pretty soon he won’t have to worry about dealing with me ever again.”
Nick took another step back and rubbed his hand against the back of his neck as he looked around. “Can I … you know … help you do anything? Do you need some boxes or tape?” Nick turned toward the living room and nodded. “You got a lot of stuff to pack up around here. Why don’t I —”
“No.” Before Nick could step into the hallway that led to the bedrooms, Z stalked forward and blocked him. “I don’t need your help.” Z didn’t need anyone.
Nick frowned. “Are you sure? I mean, it’s no prob —”
“I’m sure,” Z said as the phone in his back pocket chimed. He pulled it out and looked down at the display.
YOU OK? DID YOU HEAR FROM YOUR UNCLE IN CALIFORNIA? I’M WORRIED ABOUT YOU. PLEASE TALK TO ME.
Of all the people who said they wanted to help, she actually did. But there wasn’t much more she could do or say. She kept telling him it was okay to be angry. That it would get better if he just gave it time. They all warned him about making decisions too fast. Urged him to give the relatives he barely remembered a chance to reach out. He had to give things time.
But time wasn’t going to change the fact that his mother was dead and that everything sucked.
Kaitlin had been there for him when everyone else had bailed. Extended family. Neighbors. Teachers. He’d tried to tell her to get lost when she followed him out of the school after he’d been in detention. But she dogged him all the way to the parking lot and insisted he give her a ride home. Her mother was a nurse at the hospital where his mother got treatments. It wasn’t as if he was going to say no, but that didn’t mean he was going to talk to her. Which was probably what Kaitlin wanted, since she had plenty to say. Kaitlin had been determined to be his friend, even when he didn’t want her to be. Even when he cut school more than he bothered to go. If it hadn’t been for her, he wasn’t sure he would have made it this far.
And now he was going to cut her loose before he dragged her down. She deserved better.
Z shoved the phone into his pocket and looked back at Nick. “Look,” Z said with a deliberate sigh. “If that’s all you came here for, I’ve got to get going. There’s a teacher I have to talk to
at school, and I don’t want to miss him.”
Nick slapped Z on the shoulder. The universal sign for I want you to think I’ve got your back, even though I plan on screw- ing you the first chance I get. “Hey, no problem. I just came by to see how you were doing and make sure you didn’t need anything before —”
Before you chucked me to the curb. Z again clenched his hands into fists at his side, and Nick backed up a step.
Finally, the guy turned toward the front door and said, “Hey, make sure to take care of yourself. And give them hell at that school. I never liked it much anyway.”
At last, one thing they could agree on.
Z chugged the water, then headed down the hall toward his room to grab his father’s old army duffle and the letter that had arrived last week. His cell phone chimed as he was slinging the bag onto his shoulders, but he ignored it. He had things to do.
In the kitchen, he grabbed the picture of him and Mom and slid it next to his phone. He then walked out of the apartment. No need to lock the door. If someone wanted to clear the rest out, let them. He was going to school, and he wasn’t coming back.
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