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Excerpt: 'After'

chapter one

The TV's on, some lame morning show. The reception's lousy, and the sound's off. But Devon isn't really watching, anyway. More like staring blankly at the screen, the figures passing before her eyes in pantomime, signifying nothing.

She is lying there on the couch, a blanket tightly wrapped around her. Her body drained, her mind empty. She hears drizzle brush the windows, a steady, soothing sound. The gray morning has seeped through the miniblinds into the room. But she doesn't mind. Somehow, to her, the gloominess feels right. Perfect.

Her eyelids droop slowly. Then close.

Keys rattle outside.

Her eyes snap open. She blinks, confused. Her arms, legs, stomach jitter from the sudden sound. She feels shaky and cold and sick. She just might puke.

"Damn it!"

A voice. Somebody's there! Devon jerks her head to look behind her, toward the door. Her body tenses. One heartbeat. Two.

"Oh, that's it! I have ... had it!"

But then ... Devon breathes again, collapses back into the couch. It's only her mom's voice, talking to herself. And accompanying the voice is the familiar sound of struggle, that fighting against the dead bolt because her mom's last boyfriend kicked the door in. Their landlord did the repair — a shoddy job — and the door's never been right since.

"I'm ... not paying ... that shyster ... another buck ... till he gets his worthless ... butt ... up here ... and fixes this door. I mean it! Not ... one ... more ... miserable ... buck!"

The thought that she should help her mom with the door vaguely drifts through Devon's mind. It's easier to work from the inside. Then another thought — that she should get off the couch, escape to her room — comes, too. But she just can't seem to make her body move.

"Yeah, I'll tell him where he can put his — "

The door bursts open, slams shut.


Devon pulls her blanket tighter around herself.

"You're not at school?"

Devon doesn't answer. She's turned her eyes back to the TV. Back on the grinning faces.

"Devon? Hey ... " Her mom yanks the cord on the miniblind nearest the door. Gray light eclipses the dimness and stretches for the darker corners of the room. "You okay?"

Clunk-plunk — Devon's mom has kicked off her shoes. Devon hears her mom heading her way, hears the muted footfalls across the stained carpet. It's not far to go, only about five steps from the door to the couch. In seconds, Devon senses her mom bending over her, feels that blonde hair pricking her face. Breathes in that mixture of dampness and cheap perfume, cigarettes and spearmint gum that makes up her mom's smell. Her mom had promised Devon that she had quit smoking "weeks and weeks ago." But here's the proof — she'd lied. Again.

"Come on, Dev — I slave away all night long and see my daughter for the first time in days, and there's not even one little 'hello'? Or something?" She waits a moment. "Not feeling good, hon?" She slaps an icy hand across Devon's forehead and holds it there briefly, considering. Then she shrugs. "Well, staying home's just not like you, Dev. But it's really nice you're here."

Devon turns her dark eyes upward to look at her mom, still leaning over her. Devon manages a smile, a faint one. Then shrinks away, deeper into the couch.

Satisfied somehow, her mom stands. "Sheeze. What a miserable night." She sighs loudly, slumping into the ratty recliner — the sole contribution that last boyfriend had made to the place and left behind when he'd split. "I'm telling you, one of these days? I'm quitting graveyard. You'll see ... "

Her mom blabs away about work, rehashing all the mundane drama from her night job at Safeway, but Devon isn't comprehending much. Can't hold on to the words. She keeps her eyes fixed on the TV, on the soundless Regis and Kelly miming a coffee taste-test — Starbucks, Peet's, Millstone, Seattle's Best — with open-mouth laughter, lips moving, eyes flirty, teasing each other.

Devon's mom gets up abruptly, startling Devon. Devon's eyes follow as her mom heads for the kitchen, still talking. "Oh, so get this — this morning. I step off the bus, right? And this place is like absolutely crazy. Ambulances, red lights flashing, everything. All these people just standing around ... "

Devon's mind struggles to keep pace with her mom's mouth. She can feel herself slipping away again, but she makes the effort to stick with her. She forces her eyes open, focusing them back on the TV — needing something to anchor her to the conscious world. A commercial flickers across the screen. Four women are playing tennis; the sun is bright in some warm place.

"So, of course I've got to know what the big deal is, right?"

Devon can hear the faucet running in the kitchen now, the banging open of a cabinet. Making Ovaltine, Devon thinks. Half water, half milk — like always. Her mom's "sleepy time" snack.

"So I see one of them. You know, in plainclothes? You can tell what he is by the haircut. So obvious. Do they even think they're fooling anyone? But not bad-looking by the way — "

The TV is pushing some health club now, a ponytailed woman with a huge smile and great abs kickboxes — kick, punch, jab.

" — putting up that yellow tape stuff around that garbage can out back. Not the one where we dump our trash, but the other one. The big one. You know, farther down the alley ... "

Her mom's voice cuts in and out. From far away, then very, very close. Dead air in between. Like a cell phone conversation with a bad signal.

" ... I go up to him ... ask what's going on ... "

The microwave beeps. Devon flinches. She hears the door to the microwave open then, hears it shut. Hears her mom stir in the Ovaltine, a spoon clinking against the sides of a mug.

"You won't believe this, Devon."

Devon thinks of the swirling brown milk. Swirling ... swirling ... a vortex of brown, swirling milk. She fights the dizziness ... closes her eyes.

"You just won't believe what they found in the trash."

Trash. Devon feels a vague anxiety slice through her mind. Trash ... something about that word ... And the thought seeps away.

"Poor helpless thing. Thrown out like last night's pizza crusts ... "

Pizza? How has the conversation turned to "pizza"? Devon's mind is still way back somewhere with some not-so-bad-looking guy and Ovaltine. And trash. Her body feels so heavy. So cold ...

"But I didn't get to see it because — check this out — it was still alive! They'd already rushed it to the hospital."

Pizza at the hospital? Devon's eyes are mere slits now, and they watch vacantly as her mom approaches from the kitchen. She's being careful with her mug, stepping delicately all the way back to the recliner. She stops at the couch, peers at Devon again. Brings her mug to her lips and slurps.

Please, Mom. Just go away. Leave me here alone. So tired ...

"The weird thing is, we probably know the person that did it. We've probably passed that person a million times on the way to the laundry or something. Or on the bus. That person probably looks one hundred percent normal, too. Creepy. There are so many freaking weirdos around. You just have no idea. They come through the checkout at the Safeway all night long ... "

Silence is what finally jars Devon alert, a complete void of noise. Devon shifts under her blanket, turning to look over at her mom. She's kicked back in the recliner now, her empty mug on the floor, carelessly dropped and rolled over on its side. Devon can see the ring of chocolate on the inside.

Her mom catches her eye and says, "Oh, this is just great, Dev. Don't you think? We can have some quality family time today. You should get sick more often." She laughs, then waits for Devon to say something.

Devon turns back to the TV.

"Well, I'm not all that tired yet. I've got a couple of hours of unwinding to do before I can even think about crawling into bed." She pauses. "So, what do you want to do?" She pauses again. "We could get a movie. I could make popcorn. We haven't done that in a long time. That would be fun, huh? A movie and popcorn?"

Her mom's voice is so hopeful and eager that Devon cringes at the thought of ruining it. Her mom, wanting to spend time with her. Only her. But Devon, she doesn't want to watch a movie. Or eat popcorn. Or do anything. Not today.

Her mom is quiet for a long moment. Or maybe it's way longer than that; Devon's not at all sure. Maybe it's many long moments strung together. Maybe Devon unwittingly fell asleep.

"Well, you're mighty chatty today." Her mom's voice has suddenly changed. Hopeful and eager are gone. Sarcasm has replaced them, a hint of hurt lurking underneath. But Devon can't fix things now. "You know ... fine. If you're just going to lie there like a rock, let's at least turn up the volume."

Her mom rocks out of the recliner, glaring down at Devon on the couch. "I mean, I'd like some kind of a conversation here. I really don't think that's too much to ask. You're not lying there dying or anything ... "

Devon closes her eyes.

"And I'm going to put on my show. I can't stand these idiots. Where's that damn remote?"

Someone knocks on the door. Three loud raps.

Devon's eyes fly open, dart toward the door.

Her mom huffs and stomps over to answer it. "Ever think that maybe people are sleeping right now?"

She wrestles with the dead bolt. She yanks the door open. "Yeah?"

Devon shudders, buries her face under her blanket. Only her dark eyes and black hair, damp and matted, are exposed.

"Well!" Devon watches her mom do this little head toss, left then right. "Hey, guys!" Her tone is 100 percent altered now. Higher. All flirty. Just like that.

Devon can't make out who's out there, who her mom's so excited to be talking to. A shape of a person is all.

"The alley out back, right?" Devon's mom casually leans up against the doorframe, one hand on her hip. "I asked you what was going on, remember?" She cocks her head to one side. "You were putting that tape out there?" She flips her long blonde hair behind one shoulder. "That yellow stuff?"

Yellow ... yellow. The color of Devon's mom's hair. The color of a sun break through the flat gray clouds. Of a lemon drop. Devon allows her eyes to droop closed for a moment.

"You remember me, too. Don't you?" Devon's mom giggles. "Oh, yeah, you do; I can see it in your eyes ... "

"Yes, ma'am. I, uh, seem to remember speaking with you earlier ... "

A voice other than her mom's. A stronger, deeper voice.

It's a man her mom is talking to. Of course.

"But now, for why I'm banging on your door at this early — "

"Bang, bang, bang." Devon's mom laughs. "I thought you only do that with your ... um ... gun."

" — uh, yeah." He clears his throat.

Devon feels herself relax. It's just her mom, turning on the "charm." But as usual, way too strong. And cheap. It only attracts one kind — losers.

"Sorry to be bothering you, ma'am," the man goes on, "but this should only take a second. Let me introduce myself. I'm — "

Devon allows the grogginess to settle over her mind. Her eyes, directed at the door, start to glaze over.

"Ron." Devon's mom nudges the door open a little wider with her toe. "And you said you're Bruce, right? So, it's Ron and Bruce. And I'm Jennifer Davenport. Come on now, write it down in that little book you got there, Ron. And listen — take as many seconds as you need. Seconds, minutes, hours. For you, I got all day."

Devon opens one eye. Why doesn't her mom just take down those guys' numbers and make them go away?

"I like that attitude," the male voice says. "Anyway, we're just out here canvassing the area, trying to find out anything we can about — "

"Yeah, what a sicko." Devon's mom's voice turns pouty. She pulls at a long strand of hair and twirls it around and around her finger. Her long red nail pokes out of the blondness. "Poor little thing."

"We're just wondering if you've seen or heard anything unusual this morning."

The fog in Devon's brain is thick and heavy now. Through that one open eye, she watches her mom. Watches her mouth — open, close, smile. Her fluttering hands, the long red nails. Her bare feet, playing with the door. That little black snake tattoo slithering around her anklebone.

"I just got off the bus ... made a beeline for you ... a man with some answers ... Ron ... wish I could help you ... maybe my daughter ... "

At "daughter" Devon stiffens, both eyes suddenly sharp. Why is she being pulled into this conversation? She can see that the door's yawning open now, and her mom is nodding in her direction. Her voice bends funny, like she's standing at the far end of a tunnel, trying to relay a message. Devon concentrates hard, picks out the words.

"She's been around all morning. Home sick." Leaning close to the man, her mom whispers conspiratorially, "Or so she says."

"Really. Hey, that's great, ma'am. Mind if I talk to her?"

"I'm not a 'ma'am,' Ron," Devon's mom says, making a small move sideways. "Stop calling me that. Please! I'm not that old!"

"My apologies." The man steps into the apartment. His eyes do a quick scan of the room. Then they lock on Devon.

Devon watches the man move past her mom, taking the five steps from the door to the couch in about three. She can now see the other person her mom was talking with — another man, but this one is wearing a uniform. Familiar: dark blue, gold badge. He hangs back, near the door.

Devon's mom trails in behind the first man. She's all smiles, like she knows she's got the winning hand and the next play is hers. "Please ignore the mess, Ron. Devon's the typical teenager — no help at all ... "

The man is bending over Devon now. She breathes in his smell — clean, like soap. And he's smiling at her. "Hey there. You're Devon, right?"

Devon looks up at him. His words come out muffled. Like he's speaking to her underwater. She can feel her body tense. She squints.

"I'm Police Detective Ron Woods. How you doing?"

Devon's head feels strange. She shakes it, looks at the man closely.

She sees that he's got some surfer-boy blond hair, cut short. Brown eyes. Tan face. Wearing some kind of thick fleece jacket from REI or something. What did her mom say earlier? That she'd met some guy outside who wasn't bad-looking? Devon focuses on his smile. It's his best feature — nice teeth. Nice and white.

The man squats down to Devon's level and puts out his hand, doing that routine greeting thing. He waits a second for Devon to take it, then drops his hand, unshook. "Feeling kinda crummy today, huh?"

Devon just stares at him, her eyes dark and unblinking. She can't process why he's there, exactly. Why he's looking at her. Is he just being Mr. Polite before he makes his move on her mom? Pretending he actually likes kids or something? Devon's seen that routine before. Plenty of times.

"Devon!" Her mom is beside the man now, and her smile is gone. "Sit up and show some respect! What are you trying to do, embarrass me?" Angry lines crease her face, but she makes a fake, nervous laugh. "Come on, answer him! He's a police officer, for God's sake!"

Police officer. Devon's eyes widen as the words register. Her eyes flit to the man near the door, the one in dark blue. Two police officers.

"Hey! Are you listening to me?"

Devon can't move, can barely breathe.

"Well?" Her mom steps forward, flicks this quick, embarrassed glance at the man, then glares back down at Devon. "Hey, I don't care how sick you are" — her mom reaches down — "there's no excuse for — " Her mom snatches the blanket. It flips up and away, like a flag blowing in the wind.

Her mom jerks back. "Oh ... my ... God," she whispers. The anger melts from her face. Her eyes are huge, her mouth open. "Oh my ... "

The man sucks in his breath, hard.

Suddenly, Devon is very awake. Her eyes dart from his face to her mom's. From her mom's to his. Back and forth. The two faces are so different — one male, one female. One tan with light stubble, one pale with an end-of-the-day makeup residue. But the expressions are identical.

Devon draws her knees up and presses her hands down, between her legs, covering herself.

Her fingertips touch the fabric of her soccer sweats, and something else. Something warm. Sticky-slimy. And wet. Very wet.

She looks down to where her hands are.

And for the first time all morning she feels panic. Real-life, heart-pounding, want-to-run panic.

They see it. They see it all.

They see the blood.

Her eyes zip around the room, frantic, looking for something, anything. A way out. A place to hide.

And she's screaming. "Give it back!" Devon reaches out for her mom, fingers desperately grasping for that blanket. "Give me the blanket, Mom! Please!" Devon crawls across the couch, crawls across the pillow she was lying on, the now wet and sticky pillow she had hoped would absorb all the mess. She collapses, still reaching. Reaching. Now feebly reaching. The pain in her gut is intense. Tears slide down her cheeks, trickle into her mouth. Her arm drops to the floor. "I'm sorry, Mom," she whimpers. "I'm so sorry ... "

The man's head whips around toward the door. Toward the other officer waiting there. "An ambulance," he shouts. "Now!"

Devon can hear the crackle of a radio.

"No! No way! What are you thinking?" Her mom's voice is hysterical. "Are you ... do you think she — " She lashes out at the man. Wild arms flailing, red nails clawing. "Look! She's just home from school today. She's sick. She is not pregnant! Okay? She doesn't even have a boyfriend!"

Boyfriend. His face, his eyes with those long eyelashes too pretty for a guy's, materialize in her mind. His lips. She shakes it all back and away, deep inside. "No! Mom, don't!" Devon's voice is weak, quivering. She pushes herself up. "Please — "

"Don't you think I'd know if my own daughter's pregnant? What kind of mother wouldn't know her own daughter's pregnant? What kind of mother ... she's so responsible ... Do you hear me? Are you even goddamn listening to me?"

Devon quickly turns to the man. She wants him to understand. It's so simple, really. If he can understand, then maybe he'll go away. Her mom will stop screaming, and then both of them could go to sleep, finally get some rest. "I just had ... a really ... bloody ... period," Devon stammers.

The man is nodding at her. He does understand.

"I ... I didn't know what to do!" Devon continues, her voice growing earnest. "I tried ... but the tampons, they couldn't stop it ... way too much blood. I haven't had one in forever ... Please ... "

"No! Get out of here!" Devon's mom lunges at the man, grabbing his shoulders from behind, her long nails digging into his jacket. "Get the hell out of here! Are you hearing me?"

The other man, the one in the uniform, appears suddenly, pulling Devon's mom off of the first man. Lifting her up from under the arms, he drags her far away from him and Devon and the mess on the couch.

"Don't ... you ... touch ... me!"

"Mom ... I'm sorry ... " Devon whispers. "Don't be mad."

"I'm going to report you! You ... I'm going to press charges!" Devon's mom is raging from a distance now; she's in the kitchen, shrieking and throwing things. "I know my rights! I said, get your filthy hands off me!"

Devon squeezes her eyes shut, moves trembling fingers up to rub at her temples. Water, she thinks, I need water. She hadn't drunk for hours. Hadn't drunk all night.

"Devon," the man says. "Devon? Will you look at me? Hey, right here."

Devon opens her dark eyes, looks at him.

The man gently pulls her hands away from her head. "That's a girl." Then he cups Devon's face in his hands. They're big, strong hands. He leans closer. His eyes are intense, reaching deep into hers. "Okay, now, listen to me. Calm down and listen. Can you do that for me?"

His voice is steady. Soothing. Like the rain. Devon feels a wave of heat wash over her body. She closes her eyes again, then opens them. Everything's outlined in silvery white. Hyperbright.

"This is important, okay? Concentrate on what I'm saying to you ... "

Devon tries to do what he said, tries to concentrate, but she can feel herself slipping under, losing him. Metallic flecks flurry around the corners of her vision, closing in. She hears her mom, shrill and sharp, still screaming ... something about reports. About a boss.

"You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do may be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney ... "

The man's words flow over her. She feels apart from it all — his words, her mom's hysteria, her pounding heart. She watches his lips move. His nice, white teeth. She breathes in and out ...

And her world goes black.

From After by Amy Efaw. Copyright 2009 by Amy Efaw. Published by Viking Juvenile. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Amy Efaw