twenty-eight

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After my parents ranted about my secret ''thing" with that "horrible boy" and recovered from shock, Dad said, "You don't need to testify at the preliminary hearing, Ariana. They should have enough evidence to find probable cause and send him to trial."

Should have? "But what if Justin makes up a story about finding the ring somewhere?" I asked.

I could tell Dad was caught between a parental need to protect his only daughter and his legal knowledge of how to win a case. Like the good lawyer he was, the truth won out. "Yes, it would be better if you told them what he said to you," he conceded.

I didn't need to think about it anymore. "I want to testify," I said.

• • •

It was a hot June afternoon when my parents and I celebrated the court's decision to send Justin to trial. We were at Double Rainbow, and Mom was wavering between coffee crunch and rocky road when Dad's cell rang.

"Uh-huh ... yes ... that's what I expected ... right. Thank you," he said into the phone.

"What?" I asked, cookie dough ice cream paused at my lips.

"That was the prosecutor," Dad said. "They've agreed to a plea bargain."

I lowered my cone. "A what?"

"The attorneys have proposed a sentence that they'll submit to the courts in lieu of Justin going to trial." He looked at the expression on my face, the ice cream melting down my knuckles, and said, "Ninety percent of criminal cases are settled by plea bargain, honey. It helps keep the system from getting clogged up with trials."

"Does this mean he'll get a better deal?" I asked.

"Yes, that's the trade-off."

I couldn't believe it. Where was the justice in that? "How much better?"

"The court will probably suspend some of his sentence. My guess is he'll serve one year in juvenile detention, with three years' probation."

I was stunned. "That's all?"

"He's only seventeen," Dad said. "He might straighten out his act after being locked up for a year. Maybe he'll realize there's more to life than scaring teachers."

I seriously doubted that. But I couldn't argue the point, and I couldn't tell him about all the other things Justin had done, because I hadn't told anyone—not my parents or the courts—about the League or the other plans. Just as I'd thought, Justin hadn't revealed anything more than I had, protecting all of us in the process of protecting himself.

"Serious consequences are enough to turn most people around," Dad said.

He was right about the "most people" part. But none of these people knew Justin like I did. One day, they would learn, but by then, it might be too late.

Whenever help was requested with graduation setup, or ushers needed for the musical revue, or student tutors requested to offset final-exam freak-out, I volunteered. This was my own self-inflicted community service. It was all I could do.

...

It was a sweltering 101 degrees on Saturday, June 16th, the day I graduated from Kennedy High. Red and white balloons floated above speakers on either side of the stage, straight in the stagnant air. Sweat trickled down my neck, snaking under my gown. I scanned the symmetrical rows for Zoe and Richie. They were lost among an ocean of graduates in identical gowns and square hats. My gaze lingered on Justin's empty chair, two rows back and four chairs over.

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