Who’s the real victim here? This tense and gripping novel explores of the consequences of cyberbullying.
Late at night Tori receives a random phone call. It’s a wrong number. But the caller seems to want to talk, so she stays on the line.
He asks for a single thing—one reason not to kill himself.
The request plunges her into confusion. Because if this random caller actually does what he plans, he’ll be the second person connected to Tori to take his own life. And the first just might land her in jail. After her Facebook page became Exhibit A in a tragic national news story about cyberbullying, Tori can’t help but suspect the caller is a fraud. But what if he’s not? Her words alone may hold the power of life or death.
With the clock ticking, Tori has little time to save a stranger—and maybe redeem herself—leading to a startling conclusion that changes everything…
Random ONE They’ve been pounding on the front door for more than an hour, which is exactly how long it took for Dad to make his famous garlic mashed potatoes. He’d slammed the masher down time after time, BAM! BAM! BAM! with his lips drawn tight as Mom took measured steps between the stove and sink while making Italian meat loaf.
It feels like a last meal.
“I just want to ask a few questions, Victoria!” this one reporter keeps shouting through our closed door. Her name is Allison Summers. I’ve never met her face-to-face, still don’t know what she looks like, but I know what she thinks of me, and what she made the rest of the world think of me. So she can stay out there and melt in the rain like the witch she is, for all I care.
None of us inside speaks. We just do our routine jobs, but without saying a word. Normally Mom would be singing R.E.M. singles, or Dad would be reciting a stand-up routine from some dead comedian, or my brother, Jack, and I would be debating about whether or not Olympic athletes were “superhuman.”
Tonight: a vast silence, like standing in an empty gymnasium.
Jack, in particular, makes it a point to not even look at me. I’m not used to this treatment from my older brother yet, even though he’s been doing it for weeks. Mom and Dad are letting him do it too. That doesn’t make me feel any better.
“Jack, where’s the green napkins?” I ask as he pulls down plates.
He doesn’t even point. I can see his jaw muscles working as he clenches his teeth, making his deep, pitted acne scars look like pulsing lunar craters. Jack had cystic acne all through high school, and people always called him all kinds of terrible names, even up till he graduated last year. Krakatoa, Pus Factory. Even Zit Face.
I never called him anything. He doesn’t seem to remember that.
“Please, Miss Hershberger, this might be your only chance to set the story straight,” Allison-the-reporter calls, pound-pound-pounding on the door some more.
“Check the other cabinet for the napkins, Tori,” Mom says. She tries to make it casual, as if there aren’t a bunch of reporters on our lawn in a light spring rain, but her voice is tight and strained.
So I check the other cabinet, and there are the green napkins, just where I knew they’d be. I’d asked only to see if maybe Jack would forget he wasn’t talking to me and say something.
With Dad’s potatoes done finally, we sit down around our small dining room table just off the kitchen. It’s more of a nook than a room. We eat here six nights a week. Even now. Mom tries to smile at me as she gestures to the meat loaf, urging me to serve myself first.
“Victoria?” Allison Summers calls. “I’m on deadline. I’m filing a story tonight whether you talk to me or not, so you might want to think about telling people your side of things.”
Another voice, male, shouts, “Have you decided on a plea?”
Dad’s chair flips backward when he stands up. My stomach contracts and pulls me taut against my chair, and Mom drops a fork. Jack doesn’t move, just sits there staring at his empty plate.
Dad races to the front door. I hear him fling it open.
“Get off my property!” Dad shouts. “Now! Every single last one of you, out!”
“Mr. Hershberger, I just want—”
“Out! I’ll call the police on all of you, get out!”
“Go!” Dad roars, throwing a giant mother-F-bomb out with it. “You’re nothing but a bunch of bloodsucking vultures! Get off my property and leave my family alone!”
I’ve never heard Dad swear before. Or yell. He’s a grumbler, not a screamer.
“Thought we were supposed to ignore them,” Jack whispers, not lifting his eyes.
“Easy for Mr. Halpern to say,” Mom says, her voice wrenching a bit tighter. “He’s probably having a quiet dinner.”
I hear muttering at the front door, and a moment later it slams shut. Instead of coming back to the table, though, Dad stalks past us and goes down the hall and into he and Mom’s bedroom. Another slammed door twists my stomach again.
At least the knocking has stopped. After a few more minutes I hear a couple of car engines start up and drive away from the front of our house.
I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. Jack takes his napkin from his lap and tosses it on the empty plate.
“Are you even sorry?” he says.
I look up at him, blinking. These are the first words Jack’s spoken to me in weeks. So of course I screw it right up.
“What kind of question is that?”
“A simple kind,” Jack snaps. “Just answer it. Are you?”
“Jack,” Mom says, “maybe now isn’t—”
I’m too angry to let her even finish. I shout back at him, “Of course I am, Jack! God!”
Mom says, “Kids, please . . .”
Jack leans over the table, resting his forearms on the top. “Sorry you did it, or sorry you’re in trouble?”
“What’s the difference?”
Jack snorts and pushes his chair back. He stands up, takes one step, stops.
“God, Vic,” he says. “I don’t even recognize you anymore.”
I try to come up with something to shoot back and come up empty. Plus, I kind of know what he means. I haven’t felt much like myself.
“Jack,” Mom says again.
“I’ve got homework,” he says. “Might as well do some while I’m still enrolled.”
“It’ll work out, Jack,” Mom insists. “Don’t overreact.”
Jack shrugs sarcastically. “Maybe overreacting is exactly what we should be doing,” he says. He shoves his chair back under the table and goes down the hall to his room. He doesn’t slam his door, but it doesn’t latch quietly behind him either.
I look at Mom. She’s rubbing her temples with two fingers each.
Outside, a car passes by, going fast, it sounds like. Someone in the car performs a drive-by cussing, screaming out an open window before disappearing down the block.
Mom’s forehead, already creased, tightens.
“Um . . . nothing,” I say, and get up. “I’m not very hungry.”
Mom doesn’t say anything. So I go to my room and close the door.
Maybe I should just plead guilty tomorrow. Maybe that’ll make everyone happy.
Tom Leveen is the author of Random, Sick, manicpixiedreamgirl, Party, Zero (a YALSA Best Book of 2013), Shackled, and Hellworld. A frequent speaker at schools and conferences, Tom was previously the artistic director and cofounder of an all-ages, nonprofit visual and performing venue in Scottsdale, Arizona. He is an Arizona native, where he lives with his wife and young son.