“Shows what you know.”
“You’re a big fat liar.”
“Are too.” He crossed his big arms across his chest.
Calm down, Gracerina. He’s just a bully.
“Your only friend is invisible,” Austin laughed.
Grace was on her feet before she could stop herself. “You take that back, lardo.”
“Who’s gonna make me, you? Or your invisible friend?”
Grace punched him right in his piggy nose. He screamed like a baby and ran for the teacher.
Grace watched the kids huddle around Austin. They turned to point at her and then huddled again. Mrs. Skitter led Austin over to the ice chest, where she kept all her teacher stuff. In no time at all, Austin must have been fine, because he ran off to play hopscotch.
Here she comes.
Grace didn’t need Ariel to tell her she was in trouble. She leaned forward and rested her arms on her thighs.
She cocked her head up. Fine blond hair fell across her face. “Yeah?”
“May I sit down?”
Grace shrugged. “I guess.”
“You know you shouldn’t have punched Austin in the nose.”
“I know. And you’re gonna have to tell his parents.”
“And your dad.”
Grace sighed. “Yeah.”
“I shouldn’t have sent him over.”
“They don’t wanna play with me. And I don’t care.”
“Everyone wants friends.”
“I have Ariel.”
“She’s been a good friend to you.”
“She never makes fun of me.”
Mrs. Skitter nodded. “I’ve lived on this island a long time, Grace, and I’ve seen a lot of kids come and go. I used to know your daddy, did I ever tell you that? I worked in the lunch room when he was in high school. Anyway, the point is, everyone makes friends sooner or later.”
Grace shook her head. “Not me. No one likes me. And I don’t care.”
“Things change, Gracie. You’ll see.” Mrs. Skitter sighed, put her hands on her thighs. “Well, I was going to collect some beach stones. The pretty kind. You want to help?”
“I might not find any.”
“Or you might.”
Mrs. Skitter stood up, put her hand out.
Grace stared at her teacher’s white hand. A simple gold band on one finger meant she was married.
“My daddy’s not married,” she said impulsively.
“That’s cuz my mom is a super spy.”
Mrs. Skitter frowned seriously. “Really? How exciting. You must miss her.”
“I do. But I’m not s’posed to.”
For the next two hours, she followed Mrs. Skitter around, bent over, peering down at the rocks at her feet. One by one, the other kids went home, until finally it was only Grace and her teacher on the beach. Mrs. Skitter kept looking at her watch and making a tsking sound. Grace knew what that meant.
It was getting dark when Papa showed up.
“Hey, Gracie,” her grandfather said, smiling down at her.
“Grandma forgot me again,” Grace said, letting the fistful of rocks tumble from her hand.
“She’s not feeling well. But I’m here, and I thought I’d take my best girl for ice cream.” He bent down and scooped Grace into his arms. She clung to him, wrapping her legs around him like a little monkey.
He carried her over to Mrs. Skitter, and they said good-bye. Then he put her into the car seat in the back of Grandma’s big black car.
“You have something to tell me,” he said, starting the engine.
“I do?” She looked up, saw her grandpa looking at her in the rearview mirror.
“The fight with Austin Klimes.”
“Oh,” Grace said, sighing. “That.”
“You know you’re not supposed to hit other kids, Gracie.”
“He started it.”
“He did? How?”
“He kicked sand in my face. And he said I was stupid.”
“And he said a bad word.”
“Still, Grace, you shouldn’t be hitting kids.”
“I thought you only said I couldn’t hit girls.”
“You don’t think that.”
“Okay,” she said, slumping in her seat. “I won’t hit Austin Klimes anymore, even if he’s a butt.”
“You said that about Jacob Moore, too.”
“But I didn’t hit Jake.”
She could tell that Papa was trying not to smile. “We are not going through the kids in day care one by one. You can’t hit any of them. And before you look for a loophole, no hitting kids in kindergarten, either. Okay?”
“What’s a loophole? Is that like a hula hoop?”
“Okay. Are you gonna tell my daddy?”
“I have to.”
For the first time, Grace felt truly bad about what she’d done. Now her daddy would give her that disappointed look, and she’d get scared and snuggle up to him and hope he wouldn’t leave her. She didn’t have a mommy. What would she do without a daddy?
“Scared? What do you mean, you’re scared?”
Lexi leaned against the gray wall of her cell. After seventy-one and a half months in prison, she was finally getting out. She’d served her whole sentence—and then some, thanks to bad choices—so there would be no parole for her, no probation. She had a community service advocate who was prepared to help her “transition,” but the truth was that in a few minutes, she’d be just another citizen, free to go where she pleased. All she knew was that she was going to Florida to be with Eva; after that, her life stretched out like a desert highway with no end or turns in sight.
Strangely, now that the day was upon her, she was afraid to leave. This ten-foot square cell had become her world, and there was a safety in the familiarity of it. There were eight steps from the bed to the toilet; two from the sink to the wall; three from the bed to the door. The walls were covered with Tamica’s family photos—pictures of people that had become like family to Lexi. Her own pictures, of Aunt Eva and Zach and Mia, had been taken down years ago. Looking back was too painful, and a waste of time on top of it. She could never forget Mia’s smile, with or without a reminder.
“Lexi?” Tamica put down the tabloid magazine she was reading. “What do you mean, you’re scared?”
“I know who I am in here.”
“You don’t want to focus on whoever you became in here, hermana. Especially not you. You got so much life ahead of you.”
Lexi looked down at her few belongings. On the end of the bed were her prized possessions, all that she’d hoarded and collected in the past years: a shoe box full of letters—from Aunt Eva and to Grace; Mia and Zach’s senior pictures and a photograph of the three of them at a school dance; and a worn, often-read paperback copy of Wuthering Heights. No more Jane Eyre for her; why read about someone else’s happy ending?
A guard appeared at the door. “Time to go, Baill.”
Tamica moved slowly off the bed. In the past few years, as Lexi had whittled her own body down to a runner’s leanness, Tamica had packed on the pounds. She claimed menopause was the culprit, but prison food didn’t help.
Lexi stared at the sad, dark face of the woman who had saved her in here, had been a friend when she desperately needed one; if Lexi still knew how to cry, she would have. “I’ll miss you,” Lexi said, wrapping her arms around Tamica’s broad, rounded back.
“I’ll write to you,” Lexi promised.
“Send me a picture of you and Grace.”
“Tamica … I gave up that right,” she said. “You know that.”
Tamica grabbed her by the shoulders, shook her. “You know what I would give to be walking outta here with you? Don’t you dare be JELL-O. You made a mistake and you paid for it. Period.” She pulled Lexi into another hard embrace. “See your daughter, at least.”
“Come on, Baill,” the guard said.
Lexi let go of Tamica and walked over to the bed, where she gathered up her few belongings. She intended just to walk out, be as cool as possible, but she couldn’t. At the door, she paused and turned back.
Tamica was crying. “Don’t you come back,” she said, “or I’ll whoop your white ass.”
“I won’t,” Lexi promised.
As she carried her pathetic shoe box through the prison, women catcalled and yelled to her. She remembered how they had scared her at first, these women. She was one of them now, and she knew that no matter how long she lived or how much she changed, a part of her would be here, behind bars. Maybe a part of her always had been. A girl without a mother was a prisoner of a different kind.
At the desk, another uniformed guard handed her some paperwork and a bag with her own clothes in it, as well as a small manila envelope.
“You can change in there,” the guard said, pointing to a door down the hall.
Lexi went inside the room and shut the door. Alone, she stripped out of her faded, worn prison khakis and secondhand underwear.
Inside the bag, she found the wrinkled black pants and white blouse she’d worn to the courthouse so long ago, along with her own beige bra and black panties and a flattened patchwork denim purse. Black kneesocks and cheap black flats completed the old Lexi look. Or the young Lexi.
She dressed carefully, enjoying the feel of the soft cotton against her dry skin. The pants were too big for her now; they hung off her protruding hip bones. So was the bra. In her zeal to keep busy and get strong, she’d spent long hours in the gym, and her body had turned almost freakishly sinewy. Her boobs had all but checked out.
She buttoned up the black pants and tucked her shirt into the baggy waistband before turning to the mirror. For years, she’d imagined joy on this day, pictured it. But now, when she stared at her reflection, all she saw was a tired, stringy version of who she’d been.
She looked like an adult. More than that even, she looked at least ten years older than she was, with her pale skin, her prominent cheekbones and colorless lips. Her black hair had been cut off a few years ago by the prison barber, who had taken all of seven minutes to chop off twelve inches of hair. The pixie cut had grown out into soft curls that framed her angular face.
She opened the yellow envelope and found an expired driver’s license with a young girl’s face on it, a half-empty package of gum, a cheap drugstore watch, and her promise ring from Zach.
A knock on the door roused her.
“Baill. You okay?”
She put everything, including the ring, in her purse, threw the bag and envelope in the wastebasket, and left the room.
At the prison office, she signed one document after another and took the two hundred dollars that was her exit money from the state. How a person was supposed to start a new life with two hundred bucks and no valid ID was beyond her.
She followed instructions and did as she was told, until she heard a door clang shut behind her and she was standing in the open air, beneath a bright late-afternoon sky.