The Fixer Page 1

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CHAPTER 1

As far as I could tell, my history teacher had three passions in life: quoting Shakespeare, identifying historical inaccuracies in cable TV shows, and berating Ryan Washburn. “Eighteen sixty-three, Mr. Washburn. Is that so hard to remember? Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in eighteen sixty-three.”

Ryan was a big guy: a little on the quiet side, a little shy. I had no idea what it was about him that had convinced Mr. Simpson he needed to be taken down a notch—or seven. But more and more, this was how history class went: Simpson called on Ryan, repeatedly, until he made a mistake. And then it began.

As Mr. Simpson railed on, Ryan stared at his desk, his head bowed so far that his chin gouged his collarbone. Sitting directly to his left, I could see the tension in his shoulder muscles, the sweat starting to bead up on his neck.

My grip on my pencil tightened.

“Where is that incredible promise I hear my colleagues chatting about in the teachers’ lounge?” Mr. Simpson asked Ryan facetiously. “You have a lot of fans at this school, Mr. Washburn. Surely they can’t all be mistaken about your intellectual capacity. Perhaps the emancipation of every enslaved human being in this country is simply not significant enough to merit a student of your remarkable caliber taking note of the date?”

“I’m sorry,” Ryan mumbled. His Adam’s apple bobbed.

Something inside me snapped. “It wasn’t all of the slaves,” I said evenly.

Mr. Simpson’s eyes narrowed and flicked over to me. “Did you have something to share with the class, Ms. Kendrick?”

“Yes.” I’d long since shed the Southern accent I’d had when I’d moved to Montana at the age of four, but I still had a habit of taking my time with my words. “The Emancipation Proclamation,” I continued, at my own languid pace, “only freed slaves in the Confederate states. The remaining nine hundred thousand slaves weren’t freed until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in eighteen sixty-five.”

A muscle in Mr. Simpson’s jaw ticked. “ ‘The fool doth think he is wise,’ Ms. Kendrick, ‘but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ ”

I’d been up working since five that morning. Beside me, Ryan still hadn’t managed to raise his gaze from his desk.

I leaned back in my seat. “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

“Want to tell me why you’re here?” The guidance counselor scrolled through my file. When I didn’t provide an immediate answer, she looked up from the computer, folded her hands on the desk, and leaned forward. “I’m concerned, Tess.”

“If you’re talking about the way Mr. Simpson victimizes his most vulnerable students, I am, too.”

The words victimize and vulnerable were guidance counselor kryptonite. She pressed her lips together in a thin line. “And you think inappropriate backchat”—she read the phrase off the slip Mr. Simpson had written me—“is the most constructive way of expressing your concerns?”

I decided that was a rhetorical question.

“Tess, this time last year, you were on the girls’ track team. You had nearly perfect attendance. You were, by all reports, sociable enough.”

Not sociable, but sociable enough.

“Now I’m getting reports of you falling asleep in class, skipping assignments. You’ve already missed five days this semester, and we’re not even three weeks in.”

I shouldn’t have stayed home when I had the flu, I thought dully. I’d given myself two days to recover. With absences racking up, that was two days too many. I should have kept my mouth shut in Simpson’s class. I couldn’t afford to draw attention to myself. To my situation. I knew that.

“You quit the track team.” The guidance counselor was relentless in her onslaught. “You no longer seem to associate with any of your peers.”

“My peers and I don’t have much in common.”

I’d never been popular. But I used to have friends—people to sit with at lunch, people who might ask questions if they thought something was wrong.

And that was the problem. These days, friends were a luxury I couldn’t afford.

It was easy enough to make people give up on you if that was the goal.

“I’m afraid I have no choice but to call your grandfather.” The guidance counselor reached for the phone.

Don’t, I thought. But she was already dialing. I gritted my teeth to keep from reacting and tipping my hand. I forced myself to breathe. Gramps probably wouldn’t answer. If he did, if it went badly, I already had a stack of excuses ready to go.

You must have caught him getting up from a nap.

It’s this new medication his doctor has him on.

He’s not much of a phone person.

The fifteen or twenty seconds it took her to give up on someone answering were torture. My heart still pounding in my ears, I pushed back the urge to shudder with relief. “You didn’t leave a message.” My voice sounded amazingly calm.

“Messages get deleted,” she said dryly. “I’ll try again later.”

The knots in my stomach tightened. I’d dodged a bullet. But with Gramps the way he was, I couldn’t afford to sit around and wait for round two. She wanted me to talk. She wanted me to share. Fine.

“Ryan Washburn,” I said. “Mr. Simpson has it in for him. He’s a nice kid. Quiet. Smart.” I paused. “He leaves that class every day feeling stupid.”

It shouldn’t have been my job to tell her this.

“Do you know what we do out at my grandfather’s ranch? Other than raise cattle?” I caught her gaze, willing her not to look away. “We take in the horses no one else wants, the ones who’ve been abused and broken and shattered inside until there’s nothing left but animal anger and animal fear. We try to break through that. Sometimes we win.” I paused. “Sometimes we don’t.”

“Tess—”

“I don’t like bullies.” I stood to leave. “Feel free to call my grandfather and tell him that. I’d say it’s a good bet he already knows.”

CHAPTER 2

My gamble appeared to have paid off. The phone didn’t ring that night. Or the next. I kept a low profile at school. I got up early, stayed up late, and held my world together through sheer force of will. It wasn’t much of a routine, but it was mine. By Thursday afternoon, I’d stopped expecting the worst.

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