1 Chapter 1

The clock over the door indicated he still had a few minutes to wrap up, but the glazed look in his students’ eyes confirmed he’d already lost them. He sighed, once again wishing the administration had held the assembly at the end of the day, rather than after lunch. Especially when there was only one period left. The kids never quite got back on track when that happened.

“Okay, that’s enough for today. Remember your assignment is due next Tuesday and be ready for the final next Thursday. Talk amongst yourselves, but keep it down.”

Amazing how quickly the fog seemed to lift from his students’ minds when given the opportunity to socialize. Anything but learning. He chuckled to himself. He’d been one of those teens.

As a teacher, Rafael knew ninth grade was about much more than book-learning—it was a transition year. Fresh out of middle school, their world had opened up to endless possibilities and they were also learning how to navigate the social hurdles constantly popping up.

Rafael understood that, and even with all the drama, he still loved teaching freshmen. Most of the time. Not to say he wasn’t internally cheering that school would be out in just over a week. He’d also chosen not to teach summer school, as he had for the last three years, and looked forward to the nice break.

The bell shrilled through the speakers, and the kids were out of their seats and out the door in seconds.

“Be safe,” he called.

“Bye, Mr. Patino,” several of them said.

Rafael smiled, eager to leave himself. For the first time in weeks, he was ahead in his planning, had no homework to grade, and anticipated a night in with his remote, a cold beer, and a pizza

His plans would have to wait, though, because he noticed Daisy Warner still in her seat, her petite shoulders hunched, her head down, looking as if she bore the weight of the world.

“Daisy?” His voice rang loud in the nearly empty room. “What’s going on?”

She shrugged, averting her eyes.

The girl had been a source of worry for Rafael since the first day she’d arrived in his class. She rarely spoke, but her assignments were always flawless and turned in on time. The essay she’d written on the current political divide had blown him away, and he’d let her know it had been college-level material.

But she was so frail, as if a strong wind would blow her over. While she’d never had bruises or broken bones, Rafael still worried she was being abused and had spoken with Rita, the school counselor assigned to her, about his concerns. Unfortunately, Daisy had never opened up to them, and her mother, the only parent listed on the enrollment forms, had never attended any meetings. The one time Rita had been able to get Daisy to let down her guard, the girl had sworn she wasn’t being abused.

From her unkempt clothes, often the wrong size, and her ratty shoes, it was clear she was being neglected. Rafael understood being poor—he’d lived it as child—and wouldn’t hold that against anyone, but her clothes were always rumpled and dirty. At times it was clear she hadn’t showered, either, and he knew some of the kids made fun of her for that. He had strict “no bullying” rules, so it hadn’t been an issue for her in his class, but he knew the halls were a minefield for kids like Daisy.

Apparently Social Service’s had been out to her home more than once, finding nothing that could be construed as abuse. According to Rita, the mother worked, there was food in the refrigerator, and the house was relatively clean.

Rafael still couldn’t shake the feeling something wasn’t quite right, though. In his eyes, Daisy’s mother was doing the bare minimum required of a parent, possibly less. He knew from experience that was never enough.

He settled into the desk next to hers. “Are you supposed to be catching the bus today?” He knew she sometimes stayed for math tutoring.

She shook her head.

“You want to tell me what’s going on? You can tell me anything, Daisy, I promise.”

A sniffle escaped and she finally looked at him, her lashes wet with unshed tears. His heart panged in his chest and he tried to keep the worry from his face.

“I broke my tablet.” She made her confession in a shaky whisper.

Relief flooded through him. If that was all that was wrong, it was an easy fix. The school district provided students with a tablet during the school year—a great program, allowing a level playing field for all students.

“Do you have it with you?”

She pulled it from her threadbare backpack, the crack on the screen easily seen.

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