To save her life, she must risk her heart . . .
For 18-year-old Sidney Shaw, life pretty much sucks. Her mom's a drunk. Her dad is worse. At school, she's bullied by her ex-best friend. And cutting no longer brings the relief she craves.
When Sidney is forced into group counseling, she meets perfect, popular Arianna, the type of girl who grieves over a broken nail. But Arianna has secrets of her own. She might prove herself a friend--if Sidney can let her guard down. Then there's Lucas, the sweet and funny new guy who sees straight through her tough, snarky façade.
But Sidney's wounds go deeper than anyone knows. When her secrets threaten to unravel her, Sidney must choose. How far is she willing to go to protect her family? And who can she turn to when the unthinkable happens?
Beneath the Skin is a gritty young adult novel exploring trauma and resilience, the redemptive power of friendship, and how we piece our broken selves back together, one shard at a time. For fans of Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls, Kathleen Glasglow's Girl in Pieces, and Ellen Hopkin's Identical.
A Strong at the Broken Places novel, this book is a companion to Before You Break. They can each be read as a stand-alone in any order.
*Trigger Warning: Includes mild language, self-harm, and non-graphic depictions of abuse. Recommended for ages 16+*
"In the top five favorite books I've read this year. I recommend it along with a box of tissues." -The Musings of a Book Addict
"About finding a way through even the darkest of times . . . a really heartfelt, ugly-cry read." -Nerd Girl Official
"A tour de force of pain and healing." -Craig Sears, author of The Shadow Over Lone Oak
"An important read!" -YA Books Central
"Raw and realistic . . . refreshingly brilliant . . . a really good read." -Jennifer Peacock Smith, author and blogger
Release date: April 21, 2018
Publisher: Paper Moon Press
Print pages: 334
Content advisory: PG-13 for mild language, self-harm, and non-graphic depictions of abuse..
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Beneath the Skin: A Novel
For half a second, I allow myself to believe I’ll get away with it. That for once, something will go right in my stupid, sucky life. I guess hope springs eternal, even for a diehard cynic. Until now, anyway.
“Sidney Shaw, please come to the principal’s office.” The intercom hiccups with static. “Sidney Shaw, you are needed immediately in the principal’s office.”
My heart jolts in my chest. The whole AP Spanish III class stops mid-verb conjugation and turns to stare at me. I stuff my book and papers into my backpack as Mr. Primero orders everyone to refocus.
I walk through the empty halls to the principal’s office, my stomach curdling with dread. The only sounds are the rustle and murmur of voices behind closed classroom doors and my sneakers scuffing the worn floor.
The secretary buzzes me through the locked door into the office suite. She’s in her twenties, but wears old-lady glasses. She peers at me over her cat-eye frames like she knows everything, as if she’s already formulating the gossip she’s going to spread in the teacher’s lounge during her next coffee break.
“Have a seat, Miss Shaw.” She pops her gum and gestures at the parallel waiting room sofas covered in some swirly floral pattern from the nineties. A frizzy-haired freshman curls up on one of the couches, her face an unfortunate shade of green.
I sit down on the cushion closest to the principal’s office. I’m twitchy, jumpy. My fists clench and unclench on my lap.
I can hear voices through the wooden door. Apparently, the meeting started without me.
“Honestly, I don’t know that another suspension is even going to get through to her,” the high-pitched voice of the principal, Mrs. Ritten‐ burg, says from the other side of the door.
“Clearly, something must be done,” says the vice-principal, Mr. Adeyemi, in his deep baritone.
There’s a new voice. Muffled, edgy, irate. “I’ve had enough! That girl is a menace to society. The seriousness of this offense warrants an arrest. I want her expelled.”
Mrs. Rittenburg clears her throat. “Yes, Mr. Cole. We’ll take your concern under advisement. Rest assured, we will take appropriate disciplinary action.”
I stare at my rings. Red splotches fleck the cheap metal and plastic. My knuckles still sting. It hurt more than I thought it would, the shock waves traveling all the way up my arm. And the sound of it, the soft squelch of my fist hitting flesh. I wince.
I try not to think about expulsion, a possibility that grows stronger with every passing moment. I’ve had plenty of detentions and a few suspensions over my high school career, but it will be some kind of record to get expelled less than two weeks into my senior year.
Frank will go nuclear if I get expelled. He’ll do more than that. Acid coats the back of my throat. I swallow hard.
My knee starts shaking. You can’t exactly put expulsion on your college applications. And I can’t stay here in this pathetic Podunk town full of cornfields and morons. I can’t.
There’s a pause in the ranting through the door. I can barely hear a fourth voice. I tilt my head without overtly looking like I’m listening.
“. . . calm down for a second.”
“Calm down for a second?” Mr. Cole bellows.
“. . . heat of the moment . . . overreacting . . . look at this from another angle.”
The fourth voice belongs to the guidance counselor, Dr. Yang. I’ve had weekly appointments with him since October of junior year, when I decided to take a stand for feminism. I may have flipped off the P.E. teacher for forcing me to wear my too-short and too-tight uniform. I may have also suggested Coach Taylor was a pervert for insisting on required activewear that showcased the adolescent female form. While I’ve been stuck with Dr. Yang for a year, I’m also allowed to wear my uniform sweatpants permanently.
I don’t think I’m getting my way this time. My knee shakes harder. Green-faced girl opens her eyes, glares at me for a second, then flips on her side and turns her back.
Dr. Yang is still talking. I’ve missed a large chunk of it. “. . . gifted student . . . shame to lose . . .”
“How dare you!” Mr. Cole cuts in. “What about the malicious assault of my son?”
“. . . not technically on school grounds . . . extenuating circumstances.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!”
Mrs. Rittenburg says something too softly for me to hear, something about “your responsibility.”
Mr. Cole slams open the door and storms out. It’s been four years since I last saw him, since I hung out with his stepdaughter and my ex- best friend, Jasmine Cole. He looks at me and curls his upper lip in a snarl of rage, but he keeps on walking.
Mrs. Rittenburg calls me in. She stands behind her massive desk, all five feet and two inches of her, hands fisted on her hips. Vice Principal Adeyemi towers next to her.
“Sidney, I’m sure we don’t need to tell you how upset Mr. Cole is,” Mrs. Rittenburg proceeds to lecture me, her voice grating my ears. “We have a zero-tolerance bullying policy. Do you understand? You need to seriously consider your future, young lady.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I nod, acting concerned and adequately contrite. My pulse pounds in my ears. The lights are too bright. I’m dizzy and sick to my stomach.
Then it comes.
They’re not going to expel me.
Relief floods through me, almost enough to wash the nausea away.
I murmur “Yes, ma’am” whenever the principal pauses, keeping my gaze glued to the faded orange carpet. If I let myself meet her gaze, she’ll realize I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry at all.
Dr. Yang taps my shoulder. “My office. Now.”
I follow him out of the principal’s office and down the hall without speaking. The counseling office is small and crowded with a laminate desk, some puke-green file cabinets, and a bulletin board stuffed with inspirational clichés like “Genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspira‐ tion” and “Everyone is a Winner.” There’s a photo on his desk of a pretty Asian lady with a wide, laughing smile.
I sink into the navy La-Z-Boy across from his desk and cross my arms over my chest. "That guy has a major case of male PMS. Am I right?"
Dr. Yang clears his throat and smooths his slightly rumpled gray suit. He’s Korean and somewhere north of forty, the first strands of gray threading through the black hair combed across his forehead. He rests his elbows on his desk and steeples his fingers under his chin. One finger taps against his jaw. “Are you ready to talk?”
“You do realize you’re teetering on the edge, don’t you?” He pauses as if I’m supposed to reply. “You were almost expelled today. Mr. Cole wanted to file an assault report. He still might.”
My breath hitches in my throat. “Yeah, I got that.”
He adjusts his glasses, squinting at me like he’s trying to analyze some foreign object for the first time. “Sidney. What in the world were you thinking, beating up a twelve-year-old boy?”
“I didn’t beat him up. We were clearing up a misunderstanding.”
“You still have blood on your rings!”
I glance down at my hands, surprised he’s noticed. “Okay, fine. I might have hit him.”
“I’m pretty sure he’s a demon’s spawn out to steal the souls of the impressionable young students of Brokewater Elementary.”
“And I’m pretty sure he’s not. Try again.”
I twirl my plastic ring with the blue flower around my middle finger. “Okay, fine. He’s an alien in child-form sent to earth to gather intelligence on us. He must be destroyed before the mothership returns.”
“Sidney, I’m on your side. When are you going to start believing that?”
I snort. No one’s on my side. I’m on my own. Always have been, always will be. “I couldn’t help myself. He has a punchable face.”
Dr. Yang’s finger keeps tapping his jaw. “What do you have to lose by telling me the truth?”
That one gets me. I don’t have anything to lose. And Dr. Yang saved my ass just now, whether I want to admit it or not. He’s been trying to save me for over a year. The fact that I’m beyond saving hasn’t regis‐ tered on his radar yet. “Okay, fine. Look, this isn’t some adorable little kid we’re talking about here, okay? That prick is a sociopath in training. He torments my little brother constantly.”
Every day since school started two weeks ago, eight-year-old Aaron has come home with red finger marks on his arms, bruised knees, rips in his shirt, and tiny pinpricks in his skin from the sharp jab of a mechanical pencil. Yesterday, a deep purple bruise pooled around his right eye.
He finally admitted the bully was Jackson Cole, Jasmine’s younger brother. When he spoke Jackson’s name, something cold and dark slith‐ ered into my brain. There was no way in hell I was letting another Cole mess with this family. Not again.
“Okay.” Dr. Yang nods emphatically. “I think I get it, but there are other ways to handle bullying.”
“You don’t understand. Aaron is … different. He can’t defend himself. Someone has to.” I tried to get Aaron to stand up for himself, but he couldn’t. He’s weak, soft in all the wrong places. He never fights back. Never. The world stomps all over him, and he just lets it happen. He’s going to be someone’s prey his entire life. I can’t let that happen. I won’t. He’s good—innocent and pure in a way no one else is. I want him to stay that way.
“If bullying is an issue, one of your parents should contact the teacher or the elementary school administration.”
I snort again. In what fantasy world would that ever happen? Ma and Frank don’t even put food on the table half the time. They’re either drunk or fighting or gone. It’s my job to protect my brothers. No one else will. “Are you serious right now?”
He sighs. “I do realize your parents aren’t the most . . . reliable, but you can’t just—”
“I had to take care of it myself, okay?”
And I did take care of it, just like I'd promised Aaron. The thought of Jasmine Cole’s brother hurting him burned like a white flame in the center of my skull. I needed to make sure Jackson regretted ever messing with my family, just like I made Jasmine regret messing with me.
I skipped first period this morning and waited at the bus stop on the corner of Elm and Broadview in the only upscale neighborhood in Brokewater. Jackson rode the 709 bus, the same one Jasmine used to take before her step-daddy bought her a new Camaro in junior year. A few younger kids milled around on the sidewalk, untucking their designer T-shirts and kicking at stray pebbles with their $80 shoes.
Jackson Cole slouched up to the bus stop in skater jeans and an over-sized orange shirt emblazoned, “Skate. Eat. Repeat.” He high-fived a couple of lookalike twerps. Before he could do anything else, I was on him.
I spun him around and got right up in his face. His eyes widened. “Look, you ferret-faced little monster. I’m going to say this once, and only once. You lay a hand on Aaron, or even look at him sideways, and I will come after you with a chainsaw and chop off those fancy shoes of yours. We clear?”
His surprise faded quickly. “Get your hands off me. My dad’s a lawyer.”
“That’s a big fat lie. I happen to know he’s a dentist. And a lousy one at that. Stay away from Aaron.”
“And what if I don’t?” He tossed his head, a fringe of highlighted blonde hair falling into his eyes.
I’d planned on just scaring some sense into him, not actually hurting him. But anger zapped through me like an electrical current. I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed his shoulders and shook him. “Don’t test me. I will rip your insides out and feed your entrails to you, piece by piece. Do you hear me? Leave. Him. Alone.”
“Get off me!”
I gritted my teeth. Where was the shy kid who used to spy on me and Jasmine through her bedroom door, who used to do cannon-balls into the pool right next to our lounge chairs? I pushed the images out of my mind. That boy was long gone.
The bus pulled up next to us. He glared at me in disgust. “That gay prick gets everything he’s got coming to him.”
That’s when I punched Jackson Cole right in his smug little face.
He dropped to the pavement, grabbing his nose with both hands, blood spurting between his fingers. The rest of the kids stared at me in shock, like I’d just transformed into a wild grizzly bear before their very eyes. The bus driver yelled, “Hey! Hey, you! Get back here!”
I walked away, knuckles stinging. A fat, satisfied grin spread across my face.
I grin again, just thinking about it.
“Sidney, you have to understand,” Dr. Yang says. “One more situa‐ tion involving violence, and we’re beyond expulsion. We’ll be having a conversation about arrest warrants and police records. Scratch that. You’ll be having the conversation—or worse—with cops, lawyers, and judges. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” And I do. Dread scrabbles up and down my spine. My knee starts shaking again, and I push it down with my hands. “Can I go now?”
Dr. Yang watches me for a long moment. “Sidney, your potential, your obvious intelligence—no one wants to see that go to waste. Your PSAT scores were quite good. You could easily get into a decent college. It would make us all very happy to see you pursue your higher education.”
I roll my eyes. “Well, if it’ll make you happy, I’ll definitely consider it.”
“You have to turn things around, clean up your record. This is your senior year.”
I know he’s right, and I hate that about him. How often he’s right, and I’m in the wrong. “Okay, fine. Whatever. I got it.”
“And your Phys Ed grade. You have to bring it up. You already have a D in badminton. And it’s only the second week of classes. Really?”
“Coach Taylor hates me.”
“Haven’t you given him good reason? I’m not sure why you signed up for another class with him when Coach Puglisi offers alternative P.E. classes.”
“Because I’m not a Zumba girl, okay? Can you really see me in a ponytail and spandex? And I’m pretty sure Pilates would kill me.” I’m also a glutton for punishment, apparently. “Can I go now?”
“No. Not yet. Did you hear the part about being suspended? You looked like you were doing your zoning out thing in Mrs. Rittenburg’s office.”
He surprises me again. I debate whether to admit it or not, but there’s no harm in coming clean now. I shrug. “I might have missed a few things.”
Dr. Yang nods. He looks tired. “One: three-day suspension. Two: a letter of apology to Jackson Cole. Three: twice-a-week counseling sessions.”
Heat flushes through me. “Why should I apologize to a bully? No thanks. I’ll pass.”
“You can always choose expulsion.”
I feel the walls closing in. I cannot be expelled. Not now, when it’s finally senior year and escape is within sight, the red blinking EXIT sign that is graduation. And not when I know how Frank will react, what he'll do. My mouth goes dry. I hate every word of what I’m about to say. I hate this feeling of capitulation, of defeat, of letting the bad guys win.
“Okay, fine. I’ll write the stupid letter, but only under official protest. But why more counseling sessions? You know how much I love these weekly gab fests with you, but they interfere with my studies. It’s my senior year, as you so graciously reminded me.”
Dr. Yang writes something on a notepad. “We’re going to try something a little different. Group counseling.” “That sounds horrifying. What is it?”
“You will continue to meet with me on Fridays during your free period at 10 a.m. But we’re adding a session on Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m. You and at least one other student will meet with me as part of a small group therapy session.”
I stare at him suspiciously. This really does sound horrifying. “Who?”
“Arianna Torrès, for one.”
I laugh out loud. He’s got to be joking. “No way.” “Yes.”
“What the hell do I have in common with Miss Beauty Queen? Is she in grief therapy because she broke a nail?”
“We’ll discuss things further at our next meeting. Your suspension is effective immediately. Counting today, tomorrow, and Monday, you’ll be back just in time for Tuesday’s session.”
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