This is a work of ﬁction.
All of the characters, organizations, and events
portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or
are used ﬁctitiously.
Copyright © 2012 by Marta Acosta
Reader’s Guide copyright © 2012 by Tor Books
All rights reserved.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Paulette Jiles for the use of her
poem “Paper Matches.”
A Tor Teen Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
Tor ® is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
ISBN 978- 0-7653-2964- 6
First Edition: July 2012
Printed in the United States of America
Of my mother I have a faint remembrance: I lost her when
I was only seven years old, and this was my ﬁ rst misfortune. At her death, my father gave up housekeeping,
boarded me in a convent, and quitted Paris. Thus was I, at
this early period of my life, abandoned to strangers.
Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest (1791)
When I was six, I was entered into
the foster care system because there
was no one to care for me.
I was small and plain without the puppyish cheerfulness
that makes grown-ups love a child, so I was passed from one
miserable foster home to the next. I scurried in the shadows,
away from the predators in the violent neighborhoods where
I lived. I existed without love, without safety, without hope.
One sweltering Saturday in August when I was sixteen,
I said good-bye to my roommates at the group home where
I had spent the last four years. I picked up a ratty vinyl sports
bag that contained all my worldly possessions: thrift-shop
clothes, two pairs of shoes, a paperback dictionary, my SAT
workbooks, a worn leather-bound Bible that had belonged
to Hosea, and a tin box of trinkets. I had my life savings,
$7.48, in my pocket.
As I walked to the front door of the ramshackle house,
Mrs. Prichard grabbed my arm, her maroon nails digging
into me. Her spray-on orange tan scaled on her rough skin
while her inner arm was as pasty as a reptile’s belly. She
wore a purple t-shirt and new jeans with rhinestones and
“Jane Williams, aren’t you gonna thank me for everything I done for you?” Her yellow frizz of hair bobbed each
time she snaked her neck.
I jerked away from her grip. “Don’t you ever touch me
again.” I kept my eyes on her dirty dishwater-brown ones.
“You’ve never done anything for me that you didn’t have
to do so you could keep getting money from the state.
You would have thrown me in the street the second I aged
She ﬂushed under the fake tan, her cheeks turning copper red. “There was no use spoiling you when you’re gonna
wind up like the rest of these stupid girls, another babymama on the public dime, hooked on the pipe.”
“I never asked you for a single thing except kindness,
but that’s not in you. You don’t know me at all.”
“Don’t you put on airs with me! Your fancy book-learning
and phony manners might fool others, but I know that you’re
still what you always were—low-class garbage from noaccount people. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
My anger was cold and dense. I leaned so close to Mrs.
Prichard’s face that I could smell the stale coffee and strawberry gum on her breath. “And I know what you are. You’re
a heartless, soulless waste of human life. When I’m older,
I’ll make sure that your license is revoked. I hope you burn
in hell after what you did to Hosea. You’re the reason he
died, and I will never forget that. I will see that you pay.”
Mrs. Prichard’s lower lip quivered and she stepped back.
I felt a spark of something unfamiliar: it was power and it
warmed me as I imagined a mother’s caress might.
Outside, the sun blazed on the ugly street, revealing the
paint peeling on houses, dried blood on the cracked sidewalk, and trash in the gutters. The hood was a volatile mix
of the destitute, the dangerous, and the desperate. I knew
that the men on the corner, who seemed so nonchalant,
noticed me with my bag, because they noticed everything
and everyone. I kept my head down as I neared them.
One of the other men said, “Squeak, squeak, squeak,”
and they all laughed, but there was nothing I could do
x 16 X
I walked past the liquor store, the check-cashing shop,
and houses with chain-link fencing and pit bulls that lunged
and snarled. I made sure to keep close to the curb when I
went by a crack house, and then I reached a lot with junked
A tall, skinny Goth girl, incongruous in her short purple
tube-dress and platform ﬂ ip-ﬂops, smoked a cigarette and
leaned against a busted washing machine. Her straight waistlength hair was dyed black with shocking pink streaks. She
wore chalky makeup, but her shoulders and legs had colorful
When she spotted me, she shouted, “Janey!” and dropped
“Hey, Wilde!” I put down my bag and, as we hugged, I
felt the thinness of her body and smelled her sugar-sweet
perfume. My hand on her bare shoulder blade touched the
raised surface of one of the small round scars that marked
We ﬁ nally let each other go and smiled. The thick blue
eyeliner around her gray eyes and her sharp cheekbones made
her appear old. She said, “So you’re ﬁ nally making a prison
break from Mrs. Bitchard’s?”
I grinned. “Hosea hated when we called her that. Remember how he’d frown that way he did and say, ‘She’s
trying as best she knows.’ ”
“He was always schoolin’ us to act ladylike.” Wilde deepened her voice and said, “ ‘Sis, you’re too pretty to say such
ugly words.’ Heck, I still feel bad when I cuss.”
“Me, too.” We both were quiet for a moment. “The
school’s sending a car to get me.”
“High styling!” Wilde had a wide-open smile with a
small gap in her front teeth that made it special. “Well, good
“I’m going to miss you, girlfriend.” I wondered when
she’d last slept or eaten a real meal. “How are you doing?
How are you really doing?”
x 17 X
“Oh, you know. You know how you been riding me to
get my GED?”
“Because you’re as bright as a new penny.”
“That’s what Hosea used to say. Anyways, I’m gonna get
my degree and go to beauty school.”
“Seriously? You’d be an amazing haircutter. You’re working those pink streaks.”
She ﬂ ipped back her hair. “I did it myself. They’ve got
videos online about cutting and styling and the other girls
let me practice on them.”
“Wilde, maybe now’s a good time to clean up . . . because
when you apply for those beautician licenses, I think they
drug test you.”
Her eyes narrowed in warning. “Let it go, Jane. I already
told you, I’ll clean up when I clean up.”
“Sure, I know you will,” I said, because Wilde got defensive every time I brought up this subject. “Hey, I’ll come
back to visit when I can.”
“You do what you have to do and get settled in, baby girl.
I’m gonna be ﬁne even without you checking on me twice a
week, and don’t deny it. My man, Junior, takes care of me.”
I gritted my teeth so I wouldn’t say what I thought about
the midlevel thug.
When she gave me another hug, her hand snuck into my
front pocket. “Some cash for your stash.”
“Wilde, you don’t have to . . .” I began, but she cut me
off, saying, “Janey, you gave me running-away money when
I needed it.”
I gazed around at the dismal surroundings. “It wasn’t
enough to get you out of this place.”
“Well, you were always more ambitious than me. I got
away from Mrs. Bitchard and that’s all that matters.” She
shrugged her narrow shoulders. “Quid pro quo.”
Laughing, I said, “Where did you learn that?”
“My clientele. See, I can talk Latin, too.”
A gray Volvo slowed on the street and the car’s window
x 18 X
rolled down. The man inside leered at Wilde, who waved
her hand at him and said to me, “Sorry, Mousie, I gotta get
back to work. Now get outa here and show them rich girls
that Hellsdale girls got brains, too!” Hellsdale was what we
called our city, Helmsdale.
My friend sashayed to the car, swinging her hips widely
as she called out, “Need some company, sugar?”
In another life, Wilde would have been a model instead
of working the streets. I patted the bills she’d put in my
pocket and walked slowly back toward Mrs. Prichard’s foster
home. A shiny black Lexus was parked in front of the house.
The men on the corner stared at me as I hurried to it, and
I knew that they had already called in the license plate to
their informant at the police station.
A driver in a blue suit got out of the Lexus just as I
reached the front of the house.
“Hi, I’m Jane Williams. Sorry I’m late.”
“Good afternoon, Miss Williams. I’m Jimmy.” He tipped
his cap. “I’m a little early. Mrs. Radcliffe didn’t want me to
keep you waiting if there was any trafﬁc. May I take your
As he was placing my ratty bag in the trunk, I saw that
2Slim, the local boss, had joined the corner crew and was
now ambling toward me.
I told Jimmy, “I’ll be a minute. Do you mind waiting in
“No problem.” Jimmy glanced at 2Slim and got in the car.
I stood on the sidewalk and 2Slim seemed to take forever to walk to me. I admired the jaunty tip of his straw hat
and the creamy suit that was loose enough to cover a shoulder holster. His skin was a rich caramel and his expression
was friendly. “Hey there, Mousie. Going somewhere special?”
He’d never spoken to me before, and now I stood straight
and spoke respectfully, because I wasn’t out of here yet.
“Hello, sir. I’m going to Birch Grove Academy on a scholarship. It’s in Greenwood.”
x 19 X
“Birch Grove.” He hissed out a soft whistle through his
even white teeth. “I heard of it. We had another Hellsdale
girl go there before, a long time ago.”
The school’s headmistress hadn’t mentioned anything
about another girl from Helmsdale. My confusion must
have showed, because 2Slim said, “Nasty little thing left
and never looked back. I don’t like people who forget where
“No, sir, I won’t forget.”
“Rich folk. You know the difference between them and
I thought, Yes, education, money, manners, culture, decency,
and waited for him to speak.
“It’s not only that they talk like they just sucked a lemon
and dress uptight.” He pointed to a street memorial of plastic ﬂowers and posters for the victim of a recent drive-by.
“The difference is that we honest about who we are, what
we do. They hide the bodies and think they so clean and
nice.” His laugh had the staccato rhythm of automatic gunﬁre.
I smiled, because when 2Slim made a joke, it was best to
He said, “I remember when you came here, all skittery
and spitting mad, like you was rabid. Wasn’t sure if you’d
want to get in the game like your girl Wilde, but I didn’t
expect you to take the long view. You don’t have it all ﬁgured out yet, Mousie, so take care you don’t get your little
neck snapped in a trap.”
He reached into his pocket and brought out a gold
money clip holding a thick wad of bills. He counted out ﬁve
twenties and held them toward me. “Here’s some cheese for
little Mousie. No one from my turf’s gonna show up without a dime and shame Hellsdale. Can’t do nothing about
your clothes now, but at least you neat and decent.”
x 20 X
I took the money, feeling the thick crispness of the paper.
“Thank you, sir.”
“You remember me. You ever make good, you remember
me. You know my name.”
“Too light to ﬁght and too slim to win,” he said. “I was
like you, Mousie, puny, so I had to use other resources.”
He tapped one ﬁ nger to his temple three times. “But for
reals, the name’s Norton Barrows Blake. You remember that
and I’m sure gonna remember you. Jane Williams, Little
Mousie, the orphan girl with the spooky eyes.”
“Thank you, Mr. Blake.” I didn’t want to be remembered
as Little Mousie, the puny orphan girl who got shoved
around and hassled. I wanted to be someone else.
2Slim stared at me curiously. “You never been like the
others, you know. I could tell that from the start. Well, I
got business to tend.” Then he ﬂ icked his bony ﬁ ngers toward the car. “Go on now.”
2Slim stood there as I got in the front seat of the Lexus,
and Jimmy, the driver, said politely, “You can sit in the back
if you like, Miss. There are magazines and refreshments.”
I should have known to sit in the back. “I get a little carsick. Is it okay for me to stay here?”
“Of course, Miss Williams.” He moved to get out, but I
closed the door before he could do it for me. He started the
car, and I gazed out the window as we drove past a playground with broken swings and a toppled slide. We went by
dirty walls and street signs all tagged with WTH, Welcome
I’d heard that Eskimos have a hundred different words
for snow; we should have had a hundred different words for
ﬁ lth because everything in Helmsdale was covered with grit
Jimmy said, “You can listen to the radio if you want,
x 21 X
“Thanks.” I clicked it on to ﬁ ll the uncomfortable silence. It was preset to a news station, and we listened to the
entire broadcast twice as Jimmy steered along a series of
freeways that led away from the group house, through the
city, and beyond. I was conscious of my shabby clothes
against the leather seat, but the fold of bills in my pocket
Road construction slowed the trip, and three hours later
we ﬁ nally arrived in the town of Greenwood. It was set in
a small valley below wooded hills draped with gauzy shawls
Jimmy turned on his headlights. “This place is in a fog
belt. It’s overcast all year-round.”
I didn’t answer because I was too busy staring at a treelined main street with a row of shops, each with gleaming
windows and colorful ﬂower boxes. Jimmy took an avenue
up a hill where enormous older homes were set back behind hedges. The color green was everywhere: deep green
trees, vivid green lawns, and lush green bushes. I suddenly
felt queasy and closed my eyes, but I could still see green,
green, green, and I clasped my hands together and squeezed
my eyelids tight.
“Feeling carsick, Miss Williams?”
Jimmy’s voice snapped me out of the weird feeling, and
I blinked. “I’m ﬁ ne.”
“Here we are, Miss. Birch Grove Academy.”
x 22 X