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Chapter 2: Settling in at Fire Oak


       Kelly lets a guy with a big cart in through the steel door. Smell of food leaks out and my stomach growls. He lines us up and we walk down to tables at the end of the dayroom . The other guys go first, grab trays off the cart and clamber over benches bolted to the table. I get my mine last and sit alone at the end. For a minute I watch them shovel food in and then I start. The only noise is slurping and chomping , until they slow down and start to talk.

       The one who'd been asleep earlier yells across the table, "Hey, Tony, where'd they find you this time? Under some babe's bed?"

       They whoop and the black guy with muscles laughs, too. "I wish, man. Breaking and entering. This guy comes up to his house, sees a broken window and calls 911 from a neighbor's. Cops grab me when I run out the back door. Still had the stuff I took in the dude's pillow case." He grins, making a big show of it. "Took me straight to JDH . McGill jerked me back here right after my hearing ." He waves his hand around. "So here I am. Home again." He waggles his fork at the first guy. "What's with you, Pat? Pushing or using?"

ThinkLink: Have you ever heard someone brag about doing a bad thing? Who was it? How did it feel to listen?

       Pat pulls his head down, acting like he's embarrassed, but he's grinning . He's got that good-kid kind of face, pasty-skinned with bright pink cheeks like he could've had his picture on the cover of Boy's Life . Light brown hair hangs down over his eyes, like a little kid with bangs. Pat looks about my age, fifteen. "Both," he says. " Cops pulled me in while they was checking ID. I was too zoned out to take off." He scowls and rubs his eyes. "Time for another rest cure ."

       Next to him, the guy they call Randy, the stocky, mean-looking kid, growls something at Pat and then stuffs the last of the gingerbread into his face. Tony gives him a look to melt him down and Randy turns away.

       Tony points a fork at my end of the table. "Who're you?"

       "Me?" I look up, surprised. It's been more like I was watching an old jail movie on TV than being part of the talk.

       "Yeah. You."

       "Uh, John. John Hanson."

       "What they got you in for?"

       I just look at him. No use telling more than I have to.

       "Hey, man, what's the secret? We all got a sheet on us. What's yours?"

       "Nothing. I mean it's a big mistake."

       They laugh and howl like it's the funniest thing they've heard for days. "Yeah," Tony says, "we all got them big mistakes. So what was yours?"

       I wait some more, hoping he'll drop it, but now they're all watching me. "This guy says I was robbing his gas station , but I wasn't. I was just getting what was mine. He got hurt, though, and he called the sheriff ."

       Tony lets out a low whistle. " Assault during a robbery, huh? You packing when you done it?"


       Kelly's been drinking a cup of coffee over by the counter but now he moves in closer. "Zip it up, Tony. Everybody. Clean up the table. Trays and forks go back on the cart. Scrape off the garbage in the can. You, Tony, grab that broom and sweep the floor. You know the drill."

       "Yeah, yeah." Tony passes the broom back and forth over the floor a couple of times and then shoves it off to Pat who runs it around in a circle. The rest of us push up to the garbage can. The ornery -looking one, Randy, digs an elbow into the middle of my back. "Tough guy, huh?" he says real low. "We'll see how tough you are." He moves away too quick for Kelly to notice.

       "Watch how you put those trays on the cart," Kelly says, leaning close in to watch. "Do it even or they fall off." The guys roll their eyes and jam their trays every which way but straight. We follow Kelly back to the other end of the room where he reads off a clipboard. "Doc's here tomorrow morning, dental checkups the day after. You'll be in Intake from three days to a week until you get your cottage assignments . You'll see your PO some day this week. One hour here in the dayroom and then lockup for the night. Any questions?"

ThinkLink: Did you ever have lots of questions, but were afraid to ask? What did you do?

       I got lots of questions, but nobody else says anything so I don't either. I go over and sit down on one end of a sagging couch. Tony stretches out on the other, one arm along the back of the couch. I take a sideways glance at him. He's got medium dark-brown fuzzy hair, light golden-brown skin and greenish eyes. Really built and he knows it. He rolls the sleeves of his T-shirt up so his muscles show. I look away but not soon enough.

       "What you staring at? Something don't suit you?"

       "No," I say. "I mean I'm not. Staring. I'm just looking around."

       "Don't sweat it, man. I don't beat nobody up for looking." He grins. "A gas station , huh? How'd you get caught?"

       "Bad luck," I say. No use getting laughed at again, and I don't really know how myself, it all happened so fast. Fletcher just came at me from nowhere. I didn't even hear him coming.

       I change the subject. "What goes on here? How do we find out where we're going? I mean who do I talk to about getting out of here?"

       "The way I see it," Tony says, and I can tell there's nothing he likes better than telling everybody how he sees things, "there's two ways of getting out. Me, I usually do a rabbit and run. The other way you work out a program with your PO. It's hard to get a hold of him, though. Mine's usually only here on Tuesdays. You learn the ropes, then watch for a chance to run." He pokes his chest with his thumb. "Watch me. You'll catch all the stuff you need."

       Tony's got my full attention now. Guys can run from here? He gets up before I can ask him more about it and walks over to talk to Pat. It's hard to believe he's for real. I look at the steel door. This doesn't look like an easy place to get out of. Wonder how many guys make it.

       I sink back on the couch and imagine a rabbit running, only it's a jackrabbit, running across the field behind our place. Not exactly ours. It belongs to Pete and Red now. Red says my great-grandfather built it, with boards he milled himself. It's an old house, white once, rained and snowed on enough years to make it gray.

       I remember the first time I ran away from the ranch . It was five years ago last summer, the day after I got a bike from my mom for my birthday. It was an old-fashioned bike, kind of banged up, but new to me. I had to pedal backwards to work the brakes and the only gear it had was pedal harder. I loved that bike. The only other thing I got was a card from Pete and Red, one with a big 10 on it. That was back in the days when we all talked decent to each other sometimes.

       Then, the morning after my birthday -- it was one of those great blue-sky days in July and the sun was already hot -- I walked down to the road to pick up the mail. I found a square yellow envelope with my name on it. No return address, but the postmark said Harlow Junction . That isn't really a town; it's a crossroads near the ranch where our county road meets the freeway and an on-ramp to a bridge over the Columbia River . The only people who live there run the truck stop and a grocery store with a little post office in the back.

       I stood at the mailbox, turning the yellow envelope over a couple of times before I opened it. On the front of the card was a kid on a trike. He had a ten-gallon hat on and he wore a toy gun in a holster. I saw it was from my dad. Right then I got mad, because my mom knew I was old enough to ride a two-wheeler and my dad still thought I was a little kid. He printed in it, like I couldn't read regular writing, "Happy Birthday, Cowboy. Love, your Dad, Johnny." Cowboy is what he used to call me when he still lived with us.

       A note and a twenty-dollar bill fell out, and I got real excited because I thought it was for my birthday until I read the note.


Dear Marilyn, Thursday is my last day on the job here.
I heard of a freeway job in Texas. I leave on Friday. Should last
six months or more. This twenty is all I can spare until I get a
paycheck down there.
Say Hi to the kids. Johnny.

ThinkLink: Have you ever had an unhappy birthday?

       Pete'd gone to town to pick up a part for the tractor and he drove up while I was blubbering because all I got from my dad was a little kid's card a day late. I dried my eyes off real quick, but he gave me a funny look, figuring something was up. He grabbed the mail from me through the pickup window.

       "Your old man take off again?" He never has had a good word for Johnny, but it makes me mad when he's right.

       "You can go to hell," I told him. I'd learned early to hand him right back what he dished out.

       "Feisty little brat, ain't you?" He reached his hand through the window and batted at my head. He missed, but he laughed, so I guessed he was in a pretty good mood because he was right about Johnny again.

ThinkLink: Did you ever feel like running away from home? Did you?

       The next morning I got a map out of the pocket in the door of the pickup . Red had showed me once where we are on the map and where the Columbia River is. I looked along the river until I found Harlow Junction . It was only a couple of inches away. Back in the house I told Mom I wanted to go exploring on my new bike over by Deadman's Creek , a mile or so down the road from our place. "Should be all right," she said. "The creek's dry now and you can't get lost if you keep to the road. Don't stay away long."

       I peddled right past Deadman's Creek . Red told me it was named that because some early settlers crossed the creek right there. They found a dead man face down in the water. No one knew who he was, so they just buried him there and named the creek after him. Deadman. Red knows all sorts of stories like that. Sometimes I think he makes them up, but later I'll hear them again from one of the men waiting around down at the hardware store in town.

       I rode and rode what seemed all day, but the sun was still hot and pretty high overhead. I pumped up one little hill and coasted down the other side and then up the next one, sure I'd gone most of the way. Finally, I saw a man standing along the side of the road next to his mailbox.

       "How far to Harlow Junction ?"

       "Oh, twelve, thirteen miles to the river, then another ten or so to the Junction. You're not planning on riding that thing all the way to the river, are you?"

ThinkLink: What is the furthest you have ever been from home on your own?

       I shook my head. My shirt and pants stuck to me. Sweat made tracks down the dust on my face and I couldn't pedal that bike one more turn. I felt like I'd never see my dad again if I didn't catch him before he left, but I knew I wasn't going to make it. I asked the man to call the ranch and see if someone would come and get me. Before too long, Red showed up with the pickup . I told him I was exploring, looking for signs of the early settlers and I went too far. He thought that was pretty funny. "Well, you missed eating," he said. "We waited for you, like one hog waits for another." He hoo-hawed out loud. He talks like that a lot, like Grandpa used to. I guess he thinks we still live in the Old West .

       Red hardly said a thing more about me being gone all day: I got bawled out good by Mom, though, who was scared when I didn't come home, and by Pete, who likes to tell people off whatever the reason. Nobody guessed I was running away or trying to find my dad. But I figured then that someday I would find him and I'd get him to come back home to us.

       Tony comes back to the couch and I'm about to ask what he means we can run from here, when there's a scramble in the middle of the room. Randy's punching at the tall kid he'd been talking to earlier, pawing the air and circling around. When they get to where we're sitting, Randy reaches over and before I can duck he jerks me up by my shirt. He pulls me in between him and the other guy, holding me around the neck with one arm and jabbing the tall kid with the other. "Watch out," he yells, "or tough guy here'll lay you flat."

       The tall guy snorts. "Shee-it! I'll take him out, then I'll get you." The three of us shuffle around like we're doing a dance, me in the middle. I sidestep with them, trying to keep my balance, trying to keep from being hit.

       Out of the corner of my eye, I see Tony jump up. "You frigging lunatic ," he yells at Randy. "Let go!"

       Randy unwraps his arm from around my neck and pushes me away. Kelly must've pushed the buzzer, because two guards run in. Almost as fast as it starts, it's all over.

ThinkLink: Have you ever gotten caught in the middle of someone else’s fight?

       " Lockup for you two," Kelly tells Randy and the tall kid. "Forty-eight hours to cool off." Kelly's panting a little as the guards walk them off. He swings around toward me. "See what happens if you don't keep away from trouble? And you, Tony, butt out next time. We take care of things here. Stay back when something starts." He glares at both of us and walks back to his desk.

       "It's a freaking nut house here." I sit back down on the couch next to Tony, rubbing my neck and listening to my heart pound.

       "You hurt?"


       "Why'd you let him grab you?"

       I don't have an answer so I just sit there and puff.

       "Good thing I was here. They know better than to mess with me." With that he leans back on the couch and drums his fingers on the metal arm to some music I can't hear.

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 Updated on 9/30/03

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