Sixteen-year-old Emily Keller, known by the media as Keller the Killer, is accused of causing the deaths of a family of four, including young children. Emily is one of the youngest females to be accused of a crime so heinous, making this the nation’s biggest trial of the year. But what really happened that fateful night—and who’s responsible—is anything but straightforward.
Living in a trailer park in Baltimore with her twin brother and alcoholic mother, Emily’s life hasn’t been easy. She’s had to grow up fast, and like any teen, has made questionable decisions in a desperate attempt to fit in with her peers. Will her mistakes amount to a guilty verdict and a life in prison? It’s up to the jury to decide.
“Kathleen Fine has written a compassionate, thought-provoking thriller that will have readers asking themselves big questions about redemption while also turning the pages with breathless anticipation. From her opening pages, Fine grabbed my attention and didn’t let go until I closed the book, hardly twenty four hours later. Fine’s story reminds us that everyone has a backstory and that the root of empathy involves discovering the particulars of someone else’s history with an open heart and mind.”
~ Christie Tate, Author of Reese’s Book Club and NYT bestseller GROUP
“Readers will be on edge as Emily’s decisions lead her to become involved in and vulnerable to dangerous situations… The epilogue brings the roller-coaster ride to a satisfying conclusion…. Gripping, tragic, but ultimately hopeful.”
January 12, 2022
“The only reason I come to this meeting is for my weekly caffeine high,” Tiffani with an i admitted. Emily nodded at her friend as she took a sip of her lukewarm, watered-down coffee, a taste she’d gotten used to. A taste she now associated with healing.
“I’m not no strung-out addict or nothin’,” Tiffani continued and then focused on Emily, remembering that Emily, in fact, wasn’t there just for the coffee. “No offense—wasn’t tryin’ to say nothin’ bad about addicts. It’s just they don’t give us caffeine inside, ya know?”
“No offense taken.” Emily smiled as she wrapped both hands around her coffee cup, relaxing her tense shoulders. She’d become used to Tiffani’s candor and had grown to appreciate the woman’s raw honesty. She watched as Tiffani sprinkled some sugar into her undersized paper cup and stirred it with the plastic spoon tied to a container with blue yarn. Tiffani glanced around the room and then untied the yarn, placing the spoon into the pocket of her gray, state-issued sweatpants. Emily bit her lip, debating if she should stop her, but then decided not to. Tiffani was going to do what Tiffani wanted to do—she always did and always would.
“I gnaw on the edges of this enough and it gives me a sorta sharp blade.” She gave Emily a wink as she patted her pocket, keeping the new weapon safe as she took a seat in the circle with the other women.
“One minute, ladies,” the guard announced to the group as the chatter quieted down and the women took their seats in the circle. Emily picked up an NA book from the only empty seat in the circle that Nikki left for her as a placeholder. She sat down in its place, shifting uncomfortably in the metal chair. She moved her eyes toward the group secretary, Darlene, as she flipped through a stack of papers on her lap.
“Hello, I’m an addict and my name is Darlene. Welcome to the Lincoln Juvenile Correctional Center’s group of Narcotics Anonymous. Can we open this meeting with a moment of silence for the addict who still suffers, followed by the serenity prayer?” Emily closed her eyes and took a deep breath as she tried to stop her palms from sweating. She still got anxious even though she’d been attending the meeting every week for the past year. How has it been an entire year? she wondered. So much has happened in only twelve months.
“Is there anyone here attending their first NA meeting or this meeting for the first time?” Darlene asked. “If so, welcome! You’re the most important person here! If you’ve used today, please listen to what’s being said and talk to someone at the break or after the meeting. It costs nothing to belong to this fellowship; you are a member when you say you are. Can someone please read, Who Is an Addict? and What Is Narcotics Anonymous?”
“I will,” Chantelle volunteered as she reached across the circle, grabbed the paper from Darlene, and began reading aloud to the group.
“Yo, Em,” Nikki leaned over and whispered in Emily’s ear. “You celebratin’ today?” Emily nodded at her timidly. She didn’t like speaking in front of people even if it was a group of women she trusted.
“You’ll do great,” Nikki whispered as she punched Emily lightly in the arm. Emily peered around the circle to make sure no one was paying attention to Nikki’s whispers. They weren’t supposed to have side conversations during the meeting—the guard would send them out of the room if he caught them.
When Chantelle finished the reading, Darlene thanked her and said, “Now can someone please read Why We Are Here and How It Works?”
Emily watched anxiously as the paper was passed down to Trina. She closed her eyes and listened to Trina’s words, clenching her jaw tightly.
“I used last night,” Nikki muttered so quietly, Emily wasn’t sure if she was meant to hear her. She glanced over at Nikki, who was staring down into her coffee cup shamefully. Nikki had been the first person to introduce herself to Emily at her initial meeting, making her Emily’s OG friend in the group. Emily furrowed her brow and placed her hand on top of Nikki’s. She wished Nikki had told her about the relapse earlier—then she could have had an actual conversation with her about it. She wondered where Nikki could’ve gotten her hands on anything since she’d heard a rumor the guards had been doing weekly bunk checks.
One day at a time, Nikki had told Emily, so many months before when she’d been a broken shell of herself. “One day at a time,” Emily whispered, trying not to let the guard hear their buzzing.
Seeing Emily’s tentative face, Nikki mumbled, “My roommate snuck some smack up her papusa. Had her boyfriend’s kid bring it in when he visited her. Whack, dude. Whack.” She shook her head and rubbed her buzzed hair with her rugged hands. “She’s a bad influence on me. I gotta get a new roommate.”
Emily frowned, aware that there was nothing she could do to help Nikki. Nikki had to want sobriety for herself, just like Emily had wanted it. She squeezed Nikki’s hand tightly and whispered, “Glad you’re here.” As much as Nikki’s relapse upset her, it gave her a tiny bit of strength to share her story. Maybe she could help Nikki even a little bit today by sharing her own struggles.
“No touching,” the guard yelled from across the room, eyeing Nikki and Emily. As if being scolded by a teacher, Emily reddened and instantly pulled her hand away from Nikki’s.
Darlene reached below her chair and lifted a shoebox to her lap. “This group recognizes length of clean time by handing out key tags. If you have one coming to you, please come up and get it. The white one is for anyone with zero to twenty-nine days clean and serene.” Darlene opened the box to reveal a white key tag and dangled it in the air. Nikki glanced at Emily and then hesitantly stood up to collect her tag. The group clapped and whistled wildly as she crossed the circle and took her tag. She gave a couple of the women fist bumps as the group chanted, “What do we do? Keep coming back!” Emily put her fist out as Nikki gave it a bump. She hoped this small gesture, this modest group of women cheering for Nikki, would be the reason she’d quit for good this time.
“The orange one is for thirty days clean and serene.” Emily watched as two women got up, collected their tags, and sat back down. Applause and chanting “What do we do? Keep coming back!” vibrated the room.
As Darlene handed out the tags for two months, three months, and so on, Emily gripped her chair, knowing her turn was coming. Her palms, damp with her sweat, began to slip along the chair’s metal sides.
“The yellow one is for nine months clean and serene,” Darlene announced.
Nikki peered at Emily and nudged her bicep. “Your turn is coming up soon,” she whispered. Emily smiled at her, trying to give the façade of bravery, but she felt anything but brave. What she really wanted to do was run as fast as she could out of the room and into the parking lot.
“The glow-in-the-dark one is for a year clean and serene.” You can do this, Emily thought as she unsteadily stood up and walked toward Darlene. All the women in the room clapped loudly and chanted as she took the tag and went back to her seat, her face flushing with pride.
Darlene placed the box back under her chair and collected the sheets of readings from the women who had read. “Today, Emily is celebrating her one-year anniversary with us. You ready, Em?”
The women’s applause quieted and all eyes turned toward her. Clenching her fists tightly, she felt her beating heart rise to her throat. She scanned the room at the women and girls before her. Addicts, inmates, and friends. My people, Emily thought as she said, “My name is Emily, and I am an addict. This is my story . . .”
Trial Day 1: January 7, 2019
The alarm on Emily’s phone chimed just as Sophie whispered in her ear, “Wake up, Emawee. Wake up.” She opened her eyes widely, her body covered in sweat, her sheets soaked yet again. “Time to wake up.” She heard Sophie’s whisper get farther away, humming distantly from somewhere in her dreams.
From somewhere in her nightmares.
As she turned off the alarm, she tried to overlook the numerous text messages that’d surfaced from numbers she didn’t recognize.
“You’ll pay in hell for what you did.”
How can people I don’t even know want me dead?
With shaky hands, she deleted the texts as a CNN report popped up on her screen, updating her on the “Trial of the Year,” that was beginning that day:
CNN Breaking News
The Biggest Trial of the Year Begins Today, January 7, 2019. Emily Keller, also known by the media as Keller the Killer, is accused of causing the deaths of four family members, two of them small children. Only 16 years old, Emily is one of the youngest females to be accused of a crime so heinous.
Emily buried her face in her pillow, taking a deep breath. She tried to hold back the habitual tears that were creeping out from the corners of her eyes. I have to be strong today; no crying, she told herself as she rubbed her temples slowly. I need to put on my protective armor, or I’ll never make it through today alive. She reached under her mattress, grabbed her orange pill bottle and gave it a shake, the rattling sound of the tablets comforting her. She poured two pills onto her clammy palm and placed them gently on her tongue. Protective armor.
“Emily?” her brother, Nate, quietly inched open the bedroom door, “You awake? It’s time to start getting ready for court.”
Without looking up at him, she nodded as she rolled out of bed, trying not to think about how wrong the prosecution had the facts and how she could be sent to prison because of it. As she attempted to walk toward the door, her ankle monitor snagged on her lavender bedsheet. She yanked the sheet off in frustration and dragged her feet to the bathroom to prepare for the first day of her new life.
Debbie and Nate were already waiting for her in Debbie’s rumbling Toyota Camry when she stepped out of the trailer.
“It’s your turn for shotgun.” Emily opened the door to the backseat where Nate was already buckled in.
“You can take it today,” he muttered, avoiding eye contact with her.
“I don’t need pity shotgun just because I’m on trial for murder, Nate,” Emily replied curtly as she reluctantly sat down in the front seat. As she buckled her seat belt, she already regretted scolding Nate for doing something kind. I’ll apologize to him later, she told herself. Nate had been up with her until three o’clock that morning, listening to her cry and consoling her. I don’t deserve him, she thought, squeezing her eyes shut.
She rolled down her window and took a deep breath of fresh morning air as her mom lit a Virginia Slim, her hands trembling. “Morning vodka shot hasn’t kicked in yet?” Emily muttered under her breath as she turned on the radio. Or maybe one shot doesn’t cut it anymore, Emily thought.
“What hasn’t kicked in?” Debbie asked as she ashed her cigarette into an empty coke can, oblivious to Emily’s disrespectful comment.
“Coffee hasn’t kicked in yet?” Emily corrected herself as she investigated her face in the cracked side mirror of the car. The face staring back at Emily was swollen from weeks of nonstop crying. Although she’d put on some of her mom’s waterproof mascara, she still looked like someone had run her over with a truck. You’re so repulsive, she thought as she tried to comb her drab chestnut hair with her fingers, squinting at her image through the cracked glass. She wanted to disappear. Sink down into the seat of the car and disappear forever.
As she pinched her upper cheekbones to give her face some color, she glanced at Nate through the corner of the broken mirror, hoping he couldn’t tell she was staring at him through the mosaic lens. Since he had headphones in his ears, she assumed he was listening to a news podcast about the trial. The expression on his face looked like it was straining to stay calm, but she could read his emotions no matter how hard he tried to hide them. When you shared a womb with someone, you knew everything they were feeling.
There was actually supposed to be three of them. Her dad had left when he’d found out Debbie was pregnant with triplets. He’d said since he didn’t want one baby, he definitely didn’t want three. Emily used to sometimes think about how different her life would’ve been if their other brother hadn’t died at birth. Maybe he would’ve punched Tom Swanson for dumping her two years ago since Nate didn’t do a thing about it. Maybe he would’ve taught Emily to throw a football since Nate was anti-athletics.
Maybe he could’ve stopped Emily before she lost herself. Maybe he could’ve stopped this whole situation. Maybe no one would have died.
“Valerie told us to meet her around back when I spoke to her on the phone last night,” Emily directed her mom as they pulled up to the courthouse. Debbie nodded as she navigated her ancient car around to the back of the building, avoiding the crowd hovering at the entrance.
“Shit, look at all of the people,” Nate announced as he stared at the crowd and cameras surrounding the front of the building. No one seemed to notice their rickety car escape past the swell to the rear parking lot. Maybe they were expecting some sort of official-looking black SUV like you see in crime movies and not our pathetic piece of tin, Emily speculated, thinking about how some seniors at her school owned nicer cars than her mom’s. She peeked down at her gray dress and nervously picked little lint balls off it as her mom parked the car.
“You look fine, Em,” Debbie insisted as she opened a mini bottle of vodka from her purse and took a swig, “That dress looks lovely on you.” Debbie had spent her tip money to buy Emily “new” thrift store clothes for the trial. Emily was now pulling at a seam on the edge of the dress, making it unravel.
As she waited for her mom to finish her shot, she felt around for the phone in her purse to make sure it was turned off. She’d turn it on later that night once her mom and Nate were sleeping so she could read through her texts and the news in privacy. That way, if she cried, no one would see her. Strong people don’t cry, she told herself.
“You need a pill?” Debbie asked as she fumbled through the large purse on her lap. The Valium Emily had taken that morning was beginning to set in, and she was starting to feel unreasonably calm.
“I’m good.” Although I’ll need another one soon, she thought. It hurt her too much to live in reality.
Emily’s lawyer, Valerie Anderson, was standing at the back entrance of the building, propping open the heavy metal door with her bright red heel. As Emily stepped out of the car, Valerie waved her hands frantically, “Quick, before they catch on that you’re back here!” she shrieked as she lifted her long, hot pink nails to her mouth.
“We better hurry.” Debbie grabbed Nate’s and Emily’s hands, tugging them toward Valerie.
“Wait,” Emily urged as she struggled to catch up to her petite mom’s gait. Without warning, her black heel wobbled to the side and she stumbled, falling onto the hard concrete. Before she had the chance to assess the damage to her knees, Nate dropped his mom’s hand, grabbed Emily up by the arm, and quickly escorted her to the door. As they approached Valerie, all eyes looked to the blood running down Emily’s knees. Emily was surprised the wounds stung so badly even though the rest of her felt numb.
“We’ll have to find some Band-Aids ASAP before we converse.” Valerie’s heels echoed in the hallway as she led them to their room. Emily slouched over even more than she had been as she followed Valerie, spying the name Keller stuck to a metal door with a yellow Post-it. As they stepped inside, the heavy door slammed behind them with a loud thud.
Excerpt from Girl on Trial by Kathleen Fine. Copyright 2023 by Kathleen Fine. Reproduced with permission from Kathleen Fine. All rights reserved.
Kathleen Fine received her Master’s in Reading Education from Towson University and Bachelor’s in Elementary Education from University of Maryland, College Park. She is a member of the Maryland Writers Association and Author’s Guild. When she’s not writing and selling real estate, she enjoys spending time with her family, travelling to the Outer Banks, and of course, reading anything she can get her hands on. She currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland with her husband, three children, and Sussex Spaniel. Girl on Trial is her debut novel. You can read more about Kathleen and check out some of her short stories on her website and on Instagram where she posts short stories and book reviews. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.