CHAPTER 1

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She was not the kind of kid who could be arsed to pay attention to the rules, but when the judge decided that Elsbeth's community service hours would be spent working for some old bat who was laid up in bed, she almost lost her lunch down the front of the preppy blouse she'd pinched from her mother's closet. And no one, but no one, called her Elsbeth.

Since fourth grade when Miss Dippety-Do tried to push her around in remedial reading and she'd lathered the chalk brushes with Vaseline, her classmates called her JC. JC Penney. After that she'd let her stringy, beige hair grow long to cover her face and wore baggy jeans that dragged on the pavement, fringing at the bottoms. Escalating pranks eventually landed her in deep shit with the rule-makers and this weirdest punishment. Piece of cake. Snap. JC only hoped that the old battleaxe didn't smell.

"You'd better not show up there dressed all in black," puffed her mother around a dangling cigarette as JC passed the spot in the kitchen doorway in which she'd propped herself. "She'll think you're the angel of death come to claim her. Give her a freakin' heart attack!" Her mother's cackle turned to coughing so JC spun on her heels and slunk back down the hall.

Just wanna get this over with. Gotta be better than jail, she thought as her mother hollered, "And take that ring outta your nose."

JC waded through the crap that littered her scuffed floor and snatched the belt loop of her favorite jeans. She lifted them for the sniff-test and when they passed, she peeled off her Goth persona, tugging on the denim. She felt like a window shopper on Christmas Eve, searching for something to slip over her plain, white bra. Picking things up and dropping them. Her mother wouldn't let her out of the house in something navel-revealing or see-through or even studded, so JC finally settled on the wrinkled "Coldplay" T-shirt that she kicked free from a pile of old homework. It barely passed the test. She grabbed her jean jacket for cover from the hook on the back of her bedroom door and stepped into her peeled-back sneakers. JC was out the door with a "see ya" before her mother could crank her head around.

Out on the sidewalk, JC fished in her pocket for a smoke. She slid it from the pack and rolled it between her thumb and forefinger as her sneakers smacked along the cement to the bus stop. She shoulder-checked to see if any of the creeps from school were around to witness her boarding the bus that pulled up. She was damned if she was going to run. Let it wait.

JC peeked, grateful she knew no one on the bus. Sure, it irked her to have to ride, but a 12-block walk? Very uncool. She tucked the cigy back into her pocket and scooped out her fare as she ambled on board.

JC slunk to the wide backseat, leaned into the cool vinyl and let the jostling lull her eyelids down. She willed them to flutter open with each ding of the let-me-the-hell-off bell. Then they drooped. Three more blocks. The engine roared and the breaks squealed. Ding. She clutched her purse and slung it across her torso. Stop, echoed in her mind, but there was no stopping life now.

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