Chapter One Only

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When the clock strikes ten on the eve of June eighth, the floodlights surrounding my house switch on, throwing a glare in my room. And so the annual ritual begins. Somewhere close by, Dad's phone rings and he barks out a rushed hello.

Night air pushes through the screen in my window, moving the curtains and giving me a glimpse of the truck beeping as it backs into the driveway. The rear door clanks open and a ramp falls out. Two men unload wire fencing and painted signs, calling to each other as they assemble a barricade to hold back the incoming crowds, threatening to trample our lawn. I turn on my white noise machine and select the ocean setting, drowning out the distraction with a calming sound. A semester's worth of history notes sit in front of me, but the words seem to blur together and lose their meaning.

Dad's voice rises above the commotion; there's an edge of exhaustion cutting through his carefully composed tone. He's spent most of the day declining media requests and dealing with angry neighbors. The residents of Chestnut Street despise the complications of June eighth. Reaching over my desk, I yank the shade down, but the taunting floodlights still creep through the one inch gap.

"Leanne?" Mom taps on my bedroom door before pushing it open. "Is Callie picking you up in the morning?"

"With the traffic detours, she won't have time." Leaning back in my chair, I twist my hair into a knot on the top of my head. Then I poke my pencil through the heavy coil—my favorite at-home hairstyle. "I'll set my alarm early and walk through the woods." Or run. "Sister Bernadette said I could wait in the library until class starts."

Mom steps closer, glancing at the notes spread over my desk. "Are you ready for this to be over?"

I'm not sure if she means exams, the school year ... or just the next twenty-four hours. My anxiety has been growing for weeks and I'm about ready to capsize under the stress of June eighth.

Squeezing my shoulder, she breathes a quiet sigh. "Maybe this year will be better for you."

"Yeah. Maybe." I pick up a yellow highlighter, hoping to regain my focus for one last hour of studying. "It's not that I don't appreciate everything—"

"I'm not saying that. I know this is hard for you." Mom glances toward the window. "The attention. News cameras. All of it."

We rehash this same awkward conversation every June eighth eve. It's a Strong family tradition, like decorating the Christmas tree.

When I dare a glance at my mother, I notice the redness in her eyes. My fingers tighten around the highlighter until my knuckles turn white. I hate when she cries. She remembers a time when I was not the person I am today and I hate that too.

"You're truly a miracle, Leanne," she whispers.

Miracle. The word makes me cringe, even though the label is somewhat accurate. I'm Leanne Strong, the girl who was born with a debilitating spinal defect which doctors predicted would cause constant pain and make walking difficult. Not exactly the life my parents envisioned for their only child, born after years of infertility.

Mom moves to the bed and fluffs a pillow, trying to act as if she's not hovering. "Go right to school in the morning. Ask Callie for a ride home."

I'm only half-listening as my eyes zip down a list of World War II battles. "Okay."

"Keep your phone with you. I downloaded that new location app. If you run into trouble, text me and I'll find you."

"Stop worrying, Mom." I heave an exasperated breath. "Who'd hurt me on June eighth?"

She turns down my blankets, her mouth pressed into a thin line. "No one would purposely hurt you. But with all the excitement ... I worry. It's what moms do."

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