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R.A. became the pious public Christian, attending teen fellowship meetings, studying Scripture, reciting prayers, turning on his heel when the guys started joking or bragging about sex. He let no one get close enough to spot the dagger. He became Tennessee's high school baseball player of the year.
All of that kept R.A.'s and Kayla's families and friends from ever going there. But it left one thing to seal off. Their own minds. Any moment left unfilled by practices, workouts and school, any pause could become the ember that sparked the forest fire. Fantasy was their extinguisher, stories of two heroic youths coming of age and triumphing in distant worlds that were pulsing with danger and evil. Kayla hurled herself into a series of books of that era about a boy with magical powers: Harry Potter in the car on the way to practice, Harry Potter on the couch at home, Harry Potter on her bed till 1 a.m. She read all seven books at least five times, some of them nine or 10 times, and watched all the movies 10 to 20 times. What is it? What's the number at which a parent's pride in a child's dedication and imagination must turn to that first whisper of worry? I used magic to make everything go away, Kayla would realize later. I wanted to live in Harry Potter's world and be a wizard or a witch.
R.A. lost himself in Luke Skywalker and a series of movies known as Star Wars, watching the first three movies 30 or 40 times each, devouring five- or 10-minute bites when that's all the time he could spare, memorizing scenes and dialogue so that when it was just him and his mind, no video nearby, and the first floating ember of the old fire appeared, presto, he could tap rewind again and again. Abruptly he'd be Luke trapped in a trash compactor inside the enemy's Death Star, the walls closing like jaws—precisely how R.A.'s life felt—screaming through his com link to a robot companion named C-3PO, "Shut down all the garbage mashers on the Detention Level, will ya? Do you copy? Shut down all the garbage mashers on the Detention Level!" Or Luke being taught by an old warrior named Obi-Wan Kenobi how a Jedi uses his mind and his light saber to conquer evil: "Trust the Force, Luke.... Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him."
I pulverized it, R.A. would understand later. The minute the thought crept in—gone! I made it so it never happened. Magic.
Harry's powers began to weaken when Kayla was 15. He kept waving his wand and uttering his banishing charm—Depulso!—but her horror reappeared in front of her every day at practice, recurred when her coach got her alone. Her magic had to be more cunning than R.A.'s. She had to believe that in a few years, maybe when she turned 18, she and her coach would get married. She had to convince herself that they were in love.
For a while that worked. But now her eyes had begun to adjust to reality's tricky light. This couldn't be: a life with a verbally abusive man twice her age who built her up as the world's next great judoka one minute and tore her to shreds the next? But this had to be. She needed him like air, was sure she couldn't win without him. It had to be, for the rest of her life, or she was guilty of something dreadful ... or she was exactly what a future Olympian, a world-class martial artist, could never be: a victim.
She realized she was trapped. It was too much shame and rage for a kid to lock inside; she had to off-load it somewhere: Mom. She screamed when her mother questioned or refused Daniel's demands. She locked herself in her room and tore everything off her walls when her mother threatened to keep her home from judo practice as punishment. She called the cops when her stepfather had to hold her down to restrain her. She moved into her grandparents' house. She moved back to her mom's. Hormones? Adolescence? That's all Jeannie could figure had happened to the bubbly little pleaser she used to know. I HATE MY LIFE! I HATE MY MOTHER! Kayla scrawled across the pages of her journal. She quit high school and began taking online courses so she could train longer and harder. Her friends vanished. She began to think of ways to kill herself.
The Force began to ebb when R.A. was 17, and all the deadness inside him began to drive him out to the fringe of the human pack. Six years earlier he had shoved some clothes into a bag, walked right past his sobbing mother and gone to live at his father's house not far away. But he felt even less connection there, so now on Friday nights, when he couldn't bring himself to ask his high school friends if he could stay at their homes again, he began to sleep in the back of his car. And then to study the classified ads in the newspaper, circling the addresses of houses for rent, finding them and casing them for cobwebs to confirm that no one had been there for a while, and searching beneath welcome mats and flowerpots and rocks till he found a key.
He felt alive when he took a risk. For a few hours, in some place other than a ball field, he could steal back what the two predators had stolen from him: the present moment. He'd park a few blocks from an empty house, slip inside with his sleeping bag and pillow and settle in on the floor, never turning on the lights, knowing that the sun and his fear would awaken him at dawn so he could exit in secret.
Headlights flashed in the driveway one night. He froze, fumbled for his belongings, began scrambling toward the back door. What would become of his eligibility, his impending scholarship to Tennessee, his whole career if the state's high school player of the year were arrested for breaking and entering?