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Send

Redemption is all he wants…

Daniel Clements knows nothing he’s done or will do can ever absolve him of the sin he committed when he was twelve: he clicked Send and ended a child’s life. He served time, changed his name to protect his parents and now preaches against cyber-bullying at schools across the country. Yet, people still see only the bully he once was.  He meets Julie Murphy, a school counselor, and falls hard into love even though he senses Julie is hiding a secret of her own. It’s bad; Dan was the bully who drove her brother to suicide ten years ago. It gets worse; hiring Dan, getting to know him? It was all a plot devised by Julie and her father to find Dan and make him pay. But falling in love with him wasn’t part of the plan.

Chapter 1

My stomach was clenched in a tight fist. I stared into the dark abyss of faces in the dim audience and waited for my cue. I figured enduring the few million butterflies drilling holes in my stomach had to count in some small way toward atoning for my sins. I ignored Kenny’s sneered, “As if” or tried to, at least. No matter how many speeches I make, stage fright attacks me like it was my first.

Dread crawled up and down my spine as I scanned the rows I could see in the low light, marking the familiar faces. I didn’t actually know any of these kids, but I sure recognized them. The mocking grins on the popular kids’ faces. The rolling eyes and giggles from the air-heads. The rapt attention and pain-filled eyes of the ones already victims. The stony silent glares of the ones who think they know it all already, but grace you with their presence because it beats sitting in class. Since I’d started Daniel Clements, Inc., I’d seen the same expressions on dozens of faces, in dozens of schools, in dozens of towns across the country, at assemblies just like this one.

I tugged at the knot of my tie and wiped my sweating palms down my suit jacket. The mid-May preview of summer heat in an auditorium that was not air-conditioned had me wishing for blizzards. Igloos. Hockey games. Anything but a room full of seventh graders.

I was afraid of them.

And I’m not embarrassed to admit that. In fact, I was terrified. I knew exactly how mean a seventh grader could be.

I’d been one once. Not just a seventh grader. A mean one. I would spend the rest of my life in hell because of it.

Kenny sneered again. “We were’t mean. We were cool.”

I ignored him again. Listening to Kenny was what got me into trouble in the first place.

“…please welcome Daniel Clements.”

A polite round of applause echoed around the auditorium at the Sagamore Middle School, in the Long Island suburb of Holtsville. I would be on Long Island for the rest of the month, making the middle school rounds.

I loved my work – loved that I had found good, meaningful work to do with my life. But a part of me looked at it as performing my penance. Kenny called it punishment.

I wasn’t listening to Kenny anymore.

I took a deep breath, stepped to the podium, shook the principal’s hand, and smiled at the kids. Show time.

I touched the medallion I wore under my shirt and prayed. Just one, God. Please.

“Hi, everyone. Before we get started, I’d like to do a quick survey. Who has a computer at home?”

All hands went up. Not surprising.

“Excellent. Okay, one more.” I took my cell phone out, held it high. “How many of you have one of these? Go on, take them out, let me see them.”

Among stifled giggles and nervous glances at the teachers seated among them, the kids revealed the phones they were not permitted to take to school, but did so anyway.

“Wow. Pretty much everybody. Impressive. Okay.” My smile faded. “Last question. How many of you know that, in your hands, you hold one of the greatest weapons mankind has ever devised?”

“Weapon? Really?” Kenny kept trying to goad me.

I waited for the expected snickers to subside, but I had their attention now.

“I should know. I killed someone once with one of these.” I held my own phone high again and thought of Georgie Murphy.

“Oh, come on, man. Laying it on a bit thick, aren’t you? Georgie killed himself.” Kenny rolled his eyes. I quickly looked away. It did no good to argue with him. Kenny was still twelve, still convinced that what we’d done really wasn’t that big a deal.

I knew better. Georgie Murphy would still be alive today if we had just left him alone. Kenny doesn’t think about Georgie, but I do. I think about him all the time. I wonder what he’d be like, what he would have become. Those thoughts haunt me. They’ve haunted me since the seventh grade because no matter what Kenny says, Georgie would still be alive.

If we hadn’t killed him.

I waited for the barage of regrets pummeling me to abate. I wished I’d known. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have done it. I swear, I wouldn’t have done it. My last image of Georgie, a scrawny dork with greasy hair and enormous feet changing after gym class, was burned onto my retinas. He’d stripped off his sweatpants and when the whoops of laughter from the other kids began, he’d stood frozen, wearing nothing but Scooby-doo underwear. His cheeks were flaming from the mortification but that hadn’t stopped us from laughing at him. Even today, a decade later, I can still see the humiliation in his eyes. Kenny snapped a picture with our brand new camera phone. The camera hadn’t caught the sob Georgie had managed to choke off, but I’d heard it. Heard it and ignored it. And then, I let Kenny plaster that picture all over the internet.  No. None of it had stopped us. We were twelve, cool, popular, and Georgie was just a dork that nobody liked.

Just a dork.  My stomach heaved.

The next day, he was dead. Suicide. I squeezed my eyes tightly shut, wishing I could do something – anything – that would change history, let me go back in time.

I would have forced myself to like him, even though he was a dork. I’d have risked my popularity, my coolness. I swear, I would never have put those pictures on the internet.

If I’d known.

I nearly choked on the bile that rose in my throat whenever the thought struck – and it struck often – that I could have known, if only I’d stopped for a minute to think about Georgie, instead of myself.

I glanced at Kenny then. His eyes met mine and I shivered. There was still no remorse, no regret in those eyes.

A loud cough shook me out of my self-flagellation. My eyes shot to the floor just off-stage, where my team members stood. Paul Oliva, a child development expert and Lisa McKenna, a career counselor, were trusted friends and partners in Daniel Clements, Inc. now.

My only friends. I huffed out a dark laugh at the irony.

Paul was rolling his hands, urging me to get back on track.

I swallowed hard and picked up where I’d left off.

“I didn’t mean to hurt anybody. I’m not evil. I was just like you – trying to be cool and having some fun. I just didn’t know how much power I had. You guys are in seventh grade, right? That’s why I’m here. To tell you all about a mistake I made when I was about twelve years old. It’s a mistake I can’t undo, can’t make right, no matter how many times I say I’m sorry. Believe me, I’ve tried. So now, I talk to kids so you won’t screw up like I did.”

I glanced across the front row, gauged their reactions. I was boring them. Okay, shift gears. I took the handheld mic, left the podium, and walked across the stage.

“Have you ever heard people say, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”? That’s the song opponents of gun control legislation have been singing for years. They believe that if you just teach people to respect the awesome power of the gun, there’ll be fewer accidental shootings.”

I held up my phone again. “I figure if I can teach you all to respect the awesome power of the phone…of the computer…of the internet…then maybe I’ll keep one of you out of prison.” And, God willing, keep you alive.

“I thought you said you were in juvey.” A voice from the crowd shouted.

There’s always at least one wise-ass in every group.  Some things just don’t change, no matter how many years pass.

“Oh, you don’t think juvey is the same thing?” I put my phone away, took off my suit jacket and tie, and then walked down the stairs at the center of the stage so I was eye level with those sitting closest to me. “Juvenile detention is prison.” I unbuttoned my shirt as I spoke, keeping my voice carefully casual. I hated this part and ignored the murmur rising across the room. Oh, my God, he’s taking off his clothes.

“Yeah, it’s jail for kids but it’s like a vacation.” The same voice answered, full sneer.

I tilted my head. “Not exactly. It’s prison. It may be for kids, but it’s still prison. In a lot of ways, it’s even worse than prison.” My voice grew soft as I remembered. “In juvey, everybody looks like a kid. A normal, every day kind of kid. But they’re not. They’re murderers and gang bangers and rapists, and kids who like to watch stuff burn, and kids who like to tear the tails off dogs… and kids who like to carve up other kids.”

My face heated when I took off my shirt, tossed it to the stage, and wandered up one aisle and down another across the auditorium, letting everybody get a look at the souvenirs from my vacation. I heard a few startled gasps. I also heard a few whistles, cat calls. Once the kids saw past the muscle I’d had to build just to live to the next day, they saw the scars that crossed the length of my torso like routes on a Hagstrom map.

The room went silent.

I glanced at Kenny; even he was uncharacteristically quiet. He stared back at me, gray eyes defiant. He was waiting for me to say what he already knew; I blamed him for the scars.

I went back to the stage, put my shirt back on, buttoned it, and waited.

I waited until the silence grew uncomfortable and the nervous laughter started again.

“You’re probably wondering what I did to get tossed into juvey and carved up like this.”

I glanced to my left, searching for the smart aleck, but my attention was caught instead by a good-looking blonde. Not a student and not a teacher, since she wasn’t sitting with a class. She stood alone at the side of the auditorium, her hands clutching a manila folder like she wanted to tear it in half. She was half in shadow, but that didn’t mean I was in the dark.

Beautiful. Probably the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. She couldn’t have been that much older than the students…maybe nineteen or twenty. Blonde hair scraped back into a pony-tail. Great legs revealed in a flowy skirt. I saw the glint of glasses, but her eyes were obscured. Were they the bright blue I was imagining? I couldn’t wait to get close enough to find out.

When the snickers and murmurs started again, I felt my face grow hotter and quickly tried to recover. I looked down at my shoes and spread my arms out, an exaggerated shrug.

“I clicked Send.”

I walked to the chair I’d asked to have left on stage. I scraped the chair to the side of the stage, the same side where the shadowy blonde stood, and sat.

“I know that sounds insane, but that’s all I did, really. I posted stuff online about this kid in my class. Pictures, stuff that was…mean. It was lies, taunts, and it was just mean.”  I had to swallow the lump of shame that always choked me at this part. “What sucks is I knew it was mean. And I didn’t really care. All I cared about was getting everybody laughing at somebody else.”

I leaned over my knees and stared at the floor, trying not to shiver.

“And by ‘everybody,’ I meant my friends. But I didn’t understand the power of the internet back then. I didn’t respect it. I didn’t appreciate how quickly lies can go viral, or how long-lasting and far-reaching their impact. It started with people grabbing the pictures I posted and making videos out of them. Then, the videos were downloaded and played all over the place. People from all over the world joined me in tearing this kid down. What’s worse is the internet never forgets. More than ten years have passed since this boy’s death and you can still find my work with a simple Google search.” I shook my head and winced.

I laughed, a short hiss of sound that held more scorn than mirth. I laughed not because any of this was funny. I laughed because I was young and dumb and if I didn’t laugh, I’d start to cry again.

It took me years to stop crying.

“Can you believe I actually thought all of this was funny? I had no idea that kid was sitting in front of his own computer. Dying! Because of what I did.”

I looked for Kenny but he was hiding now.

Coward.

“The next morning, I got to school, figuring I was this conquering hero, you know? The kid who lit up the entire internet. But instead, I found out the kid I picked on was dead. Killed himself sometime during the night. While I was busy congratulating myself for being so cool, he was dead at twelve years old.”

The auditorium was eerily silent now. I glanced up at one of the kids I’d labeled a wise-ass before. He stared at me, his jaw slack.

Good.

I turned my gaze toward the blonde in the shadows, but I still couldn’t see her clearly. I could see her hands. They were clutched so tightly on her file folder, it was creased. I could see her chest. It was heaving, like she was trying to calm herself with yoga breaths. I could see her jaw. It was clenched tight, her mouth pressed into a grim lime.

I was upsetting her, I concluded, and decided to change tacks, and emphasize what happened to me as a result of my clueless activities in seventh grade.

“In front of my friends, I laughed. I even said it was good he was dead, saved the world from wasting oxygen on a loser. And ducked into a stall in the boys’ bathroom, where I threw up my breakfast. I tried to pretend nothing was wrong and just get to class but they wouldn’t let me.

“As soon as I left the bathroom, a teacher was waiting, told me the principal wanted to see me. When I got to the principal’s office, there were two guys wearing dark suits waiting for me.”

I stood up, faced away from my audience, and locked my hands behind my back.

“The suits turned out to be the FBI. They called my parents. They told them – me, that I was under arrest. They handcuffed me, and marched me through the school, told  me I was a sex offender.” I turned, paced the stage with my hands clamped behind me.

Kenny had shouted at them, trying to look cool, while I had been cringing. Even today, my face still burns at the memory, entirely deserved but completely unjust.

“I’m not embarrassed to tell you I cried. I tried to tell them it was a mistake. I wasn’t a pervert. I wasn’t one of those guys peering up girls’ skirts when they walk upstairs. I’m not a rapist. It didn’t matter.

“All I did was post a picture of this kid changing after gym class. All of us just about died laughing when he took his pants off. I took a picture with my brand new camera phone. Then, some of the other kids thought it would be funny to pants the kid. When they had his underwear in their hands, I took more pictures.

“Turns out posting naked pictures of kids online – even pictures of yourself – is considered child pornography. I didn’t know that. How many of you know that?”

Nobody raised a hand.

“See, the laws we have today were written long before anyone ever dreamed up cell phones, computers, or the internet. The laws that define child pornography make no exceptions for kids like me, who didn’t know any better, didn’t sell anything and sure as hell didn’t mean to kill anyone.” I shook my head and huffed out a loud sigh. I didn’t remember pulling the phone from my pocket, but there it was, in my hands.

“I ruined more than one life with this thing. Besides tormenting that boy to suicide, I had to go to court, testify. I tried to explain that I didn’t know, I didn’t mean to, but none of it mattered. They sentenced me to five years in juvenile detention. I thought that was it, the end of my world and then they did something even worse. They called me a sex offender and forced me to add my name to the national database. I didn’t know.” I curled my hands into fists and gritted my teeth. “I didn’t know that even if you take pictures of yourself, it’s still considered kiddie porn. So, to this day, my name is on the national sex offender registry – up there with the real offenders, the rapists, and child molesters and will stay on that list for another two years.”

My twenty-fifth birthday will be the celebration of the decade. I can’t wait for it to arrive.

When I was sentenced, the judge had labeled me a level one offender, which acknowledges her belief that I was unlikely to repeat my crime. Nevertheless, she forced me to register. I was fortunate; some level one offenders are sentenced to a lifetime on the list. But by the terms of New Jersey state law, since I was under fourteen when I committed my crime and have not repeated it since, I was permitted to appeal the decision after I turned eighteen. I celebrated my eighteenth birthday in court, doing just that. This particular judge agreed I no longer posed any threat and reduced my registry time from life down to thirteen years, including time already served. That was just seven years following my release. It was sort of a probation, I guess. I agreed to the new sentence and looked forward to my twenty-fifth birthday when my name would no longer be associated with the real deviants, perverts, and predators.

I tried to take comfort in the court’s assurance that the names of first tier offenders like me are not made public. Yet, that hadn’t prevented the harassment. The snubs. The rocks through windows. The gossip.

“I never made it to seventh grade. Or high school. Never went to a school dance or made the football team. Never got a yearbook or had a graduation. You know, I just got my driver’s license. That place taught me all the things I didn’t know pretty damn fast.

“I showed you my scars. But I didn’t tell you how they happened. My first night, on vacation,” I added with a pointed look at my heckler. “Some guys grabbed me, stripped me, held me down while the lead guy made the first cut with the sharpened end of a toothbrush. Then they ran before the guards caught them. I was twelve years old, stood about five foot nothing and weighed ninety pounds dripping wet. I screamed until the guards came. One of the guards knelt down, put his arm around me while I cried and cried. I figured he was there to help me, you know? To protect me. But then he backhanded me across the face, grabbed me by the throat, and demanded to know who cut me. He let me bleed until I told him.

“That was my first lesson in juvey. Never trust anybody. It took thirty stitches to close the long line, the one that goes from here to here.” I traced the line down my back to remind them. “The next night, it was worse.”  My hands curled into fists and I didn’t – I couldn’t – tell the kids about the other tortures I’d endured. Hands on me. Mouths on me.

I shuddered.

“Even though I never ratted on them again, this went on for weeks. Then, one night, I don’t know…something woke up inside me. I got mean. I got dirty. I became… like them. I learned to protect myself and you’ll just have to trust me on this, what I learned is pretty inventive.  Luckily, I grew fast. I got pretty tall and built up some muscles. I even made a few friends. We learned to watch out for each other. I …I had to do a lot of things that make me sick, so I won’t tell you about them.

“Just believe me when I say, this place was the furthest thing from vacation I’ve ever had.”

I turned to the wise-ass. He couldn’t look me in the eye. Good.

“They let me out a few months before I turned eighteen.”

May seventh. Another day I would celebrate every year for the rest of my life.

“Even though we had classes inside, I didn’t have the grades to graduate. It took me a long time to get my GED. It took even longer for the nightmares to stop.”

They hadn’t stopped.  But I wasn’t comfortable admitting that, at twenty-two years old, there are still nights I wake up crying for my mother.

“I applied to a few colleges but with the whole registered sex offender thing on my record, not too many acceptance letters came my way. My name is on that list until I turn twenty-five. All these years, my family has had to pay for my sins.”

I whirled and stalked to the edge of the stage, my face furious. A few girls in the front row cringed.

“I thought once I served my sentence, I’d be able to put all this behind me and just forget about it. Start my life over again. But it doesn’t work that way. People posted stuff about me on the internet. It didn’t matter if it’s true or false; all that matters is it’s up there…for the world to see. It’s a life sentence. You can’t escape from it. Have any of you read The Scarlet Letter?” I saw a few kids nod. “When people who meet me find out I’m on the list, they treat me like I’m Hester Prynne. Or worse, some kind of a monster. Like the guy who ties old ladies to their beds, or snatches little girls from their bus stops. I keep trying to tell them I’m not, I’m just a kid who clicked Send, but it doesn’t matter. And my parents have it worse. Rocks through the windows. Slashed tires. People even spit on my mother at the grocery store and refuse to serve my grandfather at his favorite diner.”

I was ill remembering it all. Knowing that I caused it, that I couldn’t undo it. That it was some twist of karma that I deserved. Killed with my own sword, so to speak.

“I’ll tell you this…if I could go back in time, I would. I wish I never took those pictures. I wish I never posted them online. And I wish…more than anything…I wish I’d stopped to think about the other kid’s feelings. If I had, he wouldn’t have had to kill himself to get away from me.

“But I can’t go back in time. I can’t change the past. I regret it but all those years I spent locked up, crying over my fate, accomplished nothing. I much prefer doing rather than regretting. So, this is the work I now do and even as I stand up here, talking to kids, I wonder how many of you are going to listen to me? Would I have listened to someone like me when I was twelve? I hope so. I really hope I wouldn’t have believed that at twelve years old, I knew all the answers to life’s questions.”

And then I asked one of life’s questions – a dangerous one.

“What gives me or you or anybody the right to decide who’s cool and who’s not?”

I had help in the assembly for this one. Prior to my arrival, every teacher had been briefed on what to expect. All teachers were scanning their students’ faces, looking for tells. Obvious shrinking down into seats, tears, or accusing glances toward others – or, laughter directed toward a specific individual, arrogant smirks.  It was a good way to identify the bullies and their victims.

“Come on, admit it. We all do it. We all look at everyone around us and label them. ‘Cool.’ ‘Pretty.’ ‘Loser.’ We even join in when others label people and nod our heads, like it’s a sport. ‘Yes. Playing that game or wearing those clothes or listening to that music makes that kid a loser.’” I held my fingers up in an L over my forehead.

I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. My leggy blonde was stalking up the side aisle, about to exit the rear door of the auditorium. That was a first. Judging by the astonished faces of the kids and the disapproving faces of some of the teachers, my audience was about as happy by her departure as I was.  I’d obviously hit a nerve and resisted the rising need to chase after her and apologize.

One penance at a time, I reminded myself.

“We don’t understand that those labels hurt. Sticks and stones? That old saying is a myth. Words can hurt. And today, words have more power than they ever did before because they no longer just fade away after they’re said. No. Today, they’re on the internet, in text and email messages, tweets and blogs. Those words stick in people’s minds better than favorite memories. Just as bad, the internet and those texts, emails, tweets and blogs mean you don’t get to outgrow your mistakes. Everything’s preserved. Forever. I wish I knew that. I wished I’d known that the kid I labeled for life decided his had to end that night.”

Gasps rose from my audience. I strode back to the podium and swallowed some water over the burn in my throat. Somehow, I got through the next hour, and then, the question and answer portion, even though I couldn’t stop thinking about the angry blonde. I had to fix this…I had to speak to her, make sure she was okay.

I have a slight problem with over-obsessive behavior. Pretty sure it developed during my incarceration.

After the applause, I strode from the stage to find her. My little entourage was waiting for me with grins and high fives, but I shook my head.

“The blonde…did you see her?”

Lisa McKenna shook her head full of dark curls. Lisa was my rep and publicist. She used to be a career counselor. In fact, it was with her help that I considered public speaking in the first place. I’d met her in juvey. She’d asked me what I’d like to be when I grow up. The fact that I’d be grown up – at least under the eyes of the law – when I was released infuriated me. I told her I would have liked to have become a lawyer, so I could change the laws that punish kids for doing things kids do. She stared me down and finally suggested that I try changing the kids, instead of the law.  I loved the idea of helping other kids prevent my fate from becoming theirs. She arranged for me to address a local middle school. Things just sort of snowballed after that. She helped me incorporate and then signed on to manage Daniel Clements, Inc.

Paul Oliva, a psychologist, helped me design my presentation. He was a child development expert who’d once testified on my behalf. My parents and my lawyer believed I was being railroaded, made an example of. I was a good kid who did a bad thing, not the deviant predator described in the court transcripts. It hadn’t done me much good at the time, but I knew Paul believed in me. He was a trusted friend now.

Paul jerked his head up a corridor.  I headed in that direction.

I caught up to her outside the principal’s office, where the man was berating her.

“Ms. Murphy, you were required to be present at this assembly because of its subject matter. Those children needed you to recognize precisely the behaviors Mr. Clements discusses. Not only did you display disrespect for what this man’s been through, you exhibited a complete lack of professionalism. You’ll need to apologize to him immediately and do whatever is necessary to ensure he returns to complete the remaining presentations.”

Murphy?

I heard Kenny’s amused chuckle.“Dude, you are so screwed.” I nearly did a one-eighty and ran.

Why did she have to be a Murphy? I know the name is certainly a common one, but it wasn’t like I didn’t have enough daily reminders of Georgie to make me hate myself. I drew in a deep breath and prepared to face her wrath.

“I’m very sorry. I know I upset you and-”

She whirled with such fury, the end of her ponytail nearly drew blood when it slashed me across the face. Her face, out of the shadows, was as beautiful as I’d thought. Her eyes were blue, the irises rimmed in black and glared at me from behind fragile wire-framed glasses. Her full lips pulled into a frown. The air surrounding her was exotic, tropical, familiar somehow. Seeing her beauty, smelling her scent, her impact on my senses staggered me. For a moment, I couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything beyond exert every ounce of strength I had to not do what I most wanted to do.  I wanted to touch and be touched. I wanted to hold and be held. I wanted to lean in, bury my face in her hair, and suck in a great big lungful of her, wanted it as badly as I wanted to change my past. She spoke and her voice, though venomous, wrapped around me like a silk stocking, binding me in place.

“What could you possibly know about me?”

The loathing in her voice penetrated the intensity of my reaction to her and picked at my scabs. I knew a hell of a lot; that’s why I have a job. Paul often told me I was very perceptive, almost empathic at times. It was my most valuable skill, he said. I wasn’t sure about that. I just got good at reading people.

It was a survival instinct I’d had to develop.

I fortified my defensives and tried again. “I’m sorry if you were under the impression my speech was going to be full of rainbows and hugs and feel good sing-alongs, but this is what I lived through.”

Her beautiful blue eyes narrowed. “What you lived through.”

Her emphasis on the personal pronoun clearly conveyed her disgust with me. Ah. Now, I understood her indignation. She thinks I’m exploiting the situation to my own benefit. And, I suppose there is some truth in that. But that wasn’t the only reason I do this work.

Both Mr. Morris, the principal, and Paul Oliva, my advisor, looked ready to pounce on her.  An intense need to step in front of her, to protect her from their ire, hit me. It was almost an instinct.

I swallowed the giggle that bubbled up at the irony; the tormentor had become the protector.

I put up my hand to stop them, and let her continue.

“I’m curious, Mr. Clements. What do you suppose that boy’s family lived through – or is still living through? Do you ever think of them? They had to bury a child.”

Kenny laughed and my stomach pitched.  “Oh, man, if she only knew!”

I thought of them all the time. I can’t stop thinking about them. I didn’t know Georgie’s family – only his father had shown up at my trial. But I’ve tried to find them – the letters are returned, unopened; the checks – uncashed. I know, I know. Nothing would ever make things right. But I had to do something.

“They had to deal with their grief and then help their other children deal with theirs.” She kept going. And going.

Other children? I had no idea if Georgie had siblings. God.

“…and I’m sure you’ve never considered the divorce rate for parents who’ve lost kids is tripled. You’ve got all these children hanging on your every word but all we’ve heard is you, you, you. What about him? What about them?”

My hand found its way to my chest and tried to soothe my heart, where my guilt sprawled like an aging St. Bernard, but I couldn’t reach it. Only her accusations could reach that deep.

I wished I could tell her, explain it so it made me sound a little less insane. Every day, every minute, every second I live, I despise myself a little more than the day before for what I did, wondering if I hadn’t done what I did, what would Georgie be like today. A lawmaker? A medical professional? What potential did I obliterate with one press of my finger? But, sadly, kids don’t really want to hear about my victim. Paul knows kids; he convinced me they’d much rather hear about me.

Something told me the pretty Ms. Murphy wouldn’t care to hear it either. So I cleared my throat and settled for flippant.

“That’s why I’m here.”

The frown that puckered her beautiful face indicated puzzlement.

“My job is to educate kids, prevent them from making the mistakes I did so nobody else ever feels as desperate as – ”  I clamped my mouth shut. I could not afford to speak Georgie’s name aloud. My parents’ welfare – and mine – depends on keeping our identities hidden. Daniel Clements is not my real name.

“No. You’re here because you think it’ll make what you did all better.”

She had a point. Perceptive.

“Do I hope this earns me some forgiveness points? Absolutely. But that doesn’t change the facts. If I stand up there and lecture them with my finger wagging and the same stern expression you’re wearing right now, nothing’ll change.” I stopped, waited a beat. “You’re a professional…you must know all the guidelines tell us is the best way to reach a kid is to relate subject matter to them in terms they understand.”

She put her hands on her hips, rolled her eyes and settled them on me in a burning glare intensified by her glasses, but said nothing.

“That’s what I was doing.”

“You were completely self-“

“Yes. I was. Because kids are completely self-centered. I can cite chapter and verse as to why bullying is wrong, and maybe touch a small percentage of them. So instead, I outline down to the smallest gory detail what will happen to them. They don’t care that much one way or the other about what happens to other kids, Ms. Murphy. All they really care about is it’s not happening to them.”

She stared at me, but the little pucker between her brows disappeared. She was thinking. She was listening and she was considering my points. I could almost see her mind refuting them, one by one. But then kids began to file out of the auditorium and she was distracted.

It was personally gratifying to get high-fives from more than a few of them, and even a few shy smiles. But when one skinny boy with stringy hair and a hole in his shoes stopped, offered a heartfelt thank you before darting away as the pack of cool kids approached, something must have shown on my face.

Whatever it was, it changed the way the furious Ms. Murphy regarded me. She was still staring at me, but she wasn’t as hostile.

I frowned. “Who’s that boy? He worries me.”

Mr. Morris, the principal, overheard me. “Julie, handle Mr. Clements concerns. After you apologize.”

Julie. The sound of her name caressed my ears. She must be older than I’d first guessed. Maybe my age, twenty-two or so.

“Fine.” She muttered through clenched teeth and shoved her hand out. “I apologize.”

“Oh, this is gonna be good. Don’t let her off the hook too easy,” Kenny suggested and this time, I listened.

I grinned and shook her hand. “Nice to officially meet you, Julie.”

“Ms. Murphy.”

I grinned wider, tempted into goading her. “Now, Julie, I’d like to talk to you about the boy who just went by.”

Her teeth clenched so hard, I saw a blood vessel pulse in her neck. “That was Randy Cohen. What about him.”

“Did you see his face?”

Her expression softened as she looked down the hall, though the boy had disappeared. She nodded, adjusting her glasses. “I know what you’re thinking. I’m thinking it, too.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” If she knew what I was thinking, I should have no reason for concern. If she knew what I was thinking, she’d have already taken every possible step needed to fix what I just saw wrong.

Her head snapped around. “Excuse me? I do this for a living.”

“So do I.” I angled my head, challenged her. “Then tell me what you’re thinking. Tell me what you think I’m thinking.”

“I don’t have to prove myself to you.”

“I’m not asking you to prove yourself to me, I’m asking you what you saw.” My grin disappeared.  This wasn’t a contest. Why didn’t she understand that? “That kid. Randy. He’s setting off all kinds of alarms for me.”

She looked at me sideways. “What do you mean, alarms?”

Was I not speaking English? I shifted my weight, waved my hand. “Alarms. You know, hunches. Gut feelings. Intuition.”  Two more minutes of this nonsense and I will chase the kid down myself, I swear.

She remained silent, but continued studying me.

I huffed out a breath. “Okay, look. You know the expression, ‘takes one to know one?’ I’m one.” I thumped my chest with my thumb. “He’s one.”

Her gaze hardened. “No. You’re wrong. Randy Cohen is no bully.”

No. Crap. That wasn’t what I meant. I should have assumed that’s exactly what she’d think, though. I shook my head and frowned. “No. No, Ms. Murphy. I’m not talking about bullies. I’m talking about victims.” I’d been the victim for much longer than I’d been the bully. I had the scars to prove it.

When she continued staring at me as if I’d just stepped off  the alien spacecraft that landed in her front yard, I gave up. “Okay, forget that. I’m trying to tell you, Ms. Murphy, that boy, Randy, is being regularly targeted and beaten.”

Kenny rolled his eyes and smirked. “Oh, get a clue. Happens all the time.”

I ignored him and watched her, my eyes narrowing, and suddenly, it was clear.

She knew all about Randy.

And wasn’t planning to do a blessed thing about it.

“Chill, man. There’s nothing that can be done about it. It’s a natural part of growing up.”

I glared at Kenny and resisted the urge growing in me to grab Julie Murphy, shake her, and demand to know why the hell she hadn’t done anything to help the boy. Because it was there. In her eyes.

Acquiescence.

“You know, don’t you.” It wasn’t a question; it was an accusation. “You know he’s being beaten up. You know it’s been a regular occurrence for months. I wonder, do you know he’s this close to his last straw?” I held up a hand with the fingers touching. “Do you know he’s planning to retaliate?”

She only stared at me. I wanted to make her understand I wasn’t trying to out-do her. I just wanted her to focus on Randy.

“Let me tell you what I’m thinking.” Suddenly, I was pissed off by her refusal to admit I was right only because I am a former bully. “You don’t see what’s right in front of you. Randy walked past you and you saw only the obvious, the kid with no friends, straight A’s, and a hygiene problem. Maybe you feel sorry for him.”

She interrupted me with an upraised hand. “Okay, I get it. You ‘know’ kids.” She made those irritating air quotes. “And maybe you are truly concerned. But you don’t understand.” And when she looked up at me, her eyes told me she was… pissed off.

Hmm.

“I can’t do anything about it because Randy won’t talk to me. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve contacted his parents. I’ve even tried to follow him a few times. I’ve noticed the blotches on the side of his face and neck, where his collar ends. And I’ve noticed the careful way he was walking so that his arms don’t swing to aggravate the row of bruises I’m sure he’s got along his shoulders. And I damn well noticed the hiss of breath he sucked in when the pack of cool kids passed him. But unless he tells me who’s hurting him, I can’t stop it.” She drew in a long breath. “I can’t stop it.”

The heat was gone from her eyes. Finally, I saw what I should have seen – worry. Frustration. Fear.

I looked down at my feet. I owed her an apology.

I’d already tried that. Crashed and burned.

I collected myself, stood up a little straighter. Closed my mouth. Nodded. “Well. As long as you’re…um… aware of the situation.”

She whirled and stalked down the corridor.

“Nice job, jerk-wad.” Kenny snickered.

“Shut up.”

Kenny flipped me off, strutted to his room and slammed the door. The sound rattled my teeth and I clenched them together to keep from screaming back at him.

A touch to my shoulder broke my trance. Paul Oliva was beside me.

“We should get going. We have a lot to do tonight before tomorrow’s presentation.”

Paul’s expression was worried. He leaned in, spoke in my ear. “Dan. How many times did you see Kenny?”

I shrugged him off. I know Paul only wanted to help me but I have no intentions of discussing the voices I hear in my head with anybody.

“Let’s just get out of here.”

Tomorrow, we were addressing the sixth grade class. There were some modifications to the program Paul liked to make for younger kids. I strode to the exit, but my thoughts were still churning over the furious Ms. Murphy.

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