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Chapter 12: Escape from Fire Oak


ThinkLink: Has anyone ever given you a hard time because they thought you were trying to act smart?

       I push the workbook across the table at Pat. "Page 46." No wonder Pat can't read three syllable words. Lab's for reading, and Pat does anything but. Tutoring him is like pushing a mule from behind.

       "So what's your excuse this time?" I ask.

       He slams down his workbook. "Can't be bothered." He looks around and leans across the table. " Something's coming down ."

       "Yeah? What?"

       Pat rakes his overgrown bangs off his forehead and pushes the workbook at me.

       I push it back. "You think I'm gonna snitch ? I showed you I could keep my mouth shut."

       "Yeah, but this is different." Pat paws through the papers spread out in front of him. "What's it I'm supposed to be doing?"

       "Forget it," I tell him. "The bell's gonna ring." While Pat fools around, putting his book and papers into his folder, I watch a kid across the room. His head's down and he looks like he's sound asleep. "What's with him?"

       "You mean Dumbo there? He's all doped up."

       "In here? He gets stuff in here?"

       "He could if he wasn't such a stupe , but staff gives him pills. He's on loan from the state mental hospital . Tried to bash a staffer with a chair, so they say they can't do nothing with him but send him over here."

       "No better place than this for him?"

       "He likes it OK, I guess."

       "I bet." I look around, "You see Tony? He said he wasn't going to the hospital today. I thought maybe he'd be in here again, like he was when they called off his shift yesterday."

       Pat looks at me funny. "Tony? Nah. He's got other stuff to do."

       I feel like a dope when I remember what I said to Tony when he came in yesterday. "I could tutor you along with Pat."

ThinkLink: When did Tony say this?

       Tony gave me one of his gazing-down-off-the-mountaintop-at-the-little-people looks. "Me? You think I need Tutoring ? Me, who tutored Pat here?" He sat down at the table, across from me. He picked up the workbook Pat'd been struggling with. "Level C. How you doing in this?"

       Pat screwed up his face. "I can flick it off in nothing flat, but I got other things on my mind. I can't think so good."

       Tony laughed then and drummed his fingers on the table. "Do I ever know."

       Now, Tony ignored me totally. Last think Ineeded was him mad at me. "I didn't mean nothing. About the Tutoring ."

       "You think you're the only smart cat around here. Give me a subject. I can tell you about it one, two, three. I even won an essay prize once." He snapped his fingers at me. "You that smart, Cowboy?"

       "I never won a prize."

       "I knew that," he said, and went off to look through some magazines.


Tony was still looking right past me at breakfast this morning. Not like he was mad at me, but like he had something else on his mind. Something big. Or weird. Or both. It was like electricity crackling in the air.

       For once expert-on-everything Pat's not talking.

       "You sure Tony isn't supposed to be back in here?" I ask him again.

       "Nah. He's finishing his G.E.D. today."

       "His what?"

       "You take this test and pass it, you get a high school diploma even if you don't have the credits."

       I look at the clock. Three minutes to twelve. "Time for lunch and I'm starving."

       The bell rings and Mrs. Warren calls us over to line up at the door. She steps out in the hall and I look over her shoulder. Mr. Logan, the vice-principal is coming down the hall, walking fast. He stops at our door. "Everyone back in class. Shut your doors. Wait until you hear another bell releasing you. Back in the room." He goes down the hall saying the same thing over and over.

       After she sends us back to our chairs, the guys start in. "What is it, Mrs. Warren?"

       "What's going on?"

       "It's lunch time. I'll starve."

       "You gotta let us out. It's the law ."

       "Yeah. They can't keep us here."

       Me, I just slouch down and tell my stomach to be quiet.

       "All right, there's the bell," Mrs. Warren says. "Line up, but don't bolt out the door ." She sticks her head out, leans back into the room and waves us through . Mr. Logan's standing with a security guy, looking at each one of us as we file out into the hall and toward the outside door.

       "There's both Davis and Ferguson," Pat says. "That means the shit's really hit the fan . But they won't tell us nothing. Never do. But what ya want to bet some guy's made it outta here? Even money ."

ThinkLink: Do you know anyone who has run away? How does it make you feel?

       "You'd win. You're in on everything." I get this shiver running up and down my arms and back. Maybe some lucky guy did make it out today. If only I could find out how he did it.

       Back in the dayroom at Taylor, we sit around waiting for lunch to come over from the main kitchen. I'm all psyched up , waiting to find out what's going on. I look outside. Nobody's out on the grounds. Usually Pat hunkers down against a wall somewhere, not moving any more than he has to, but today he goes from window to window, like he expects to see something. He stops to say something to one guy, and then moves on to another one. They talk excited-like, but real quiet, so's not to get the staff down on them.

       Davis give a whistle. "Listen up. security people are out there waiting to pick up someone dumb enough to try an escape. None of you leaves Taylor until it's cleared by Administration . If there's any trouble, you'll all lose TV privs for the week. Stop milling around . Find a place to sit and stay there."

       Pat sits down next to me and whispers. "It's Tony. He's gone on the run and they haven't found him yet! He made it. swear to God, he made it!" He slaps his hands down on his knees. Davis looks over at us, so Pat slides back down and does his Zombie act.

       "You sure?" I lean over so I can talk in his ear. "Shit, he was going to…" I shut my mouth. No use Pat knowing I wanted to get out of here with Tony. Wanted it so bad I ached all over.

       Davis moves on and Pat comes back to life. "I know it's Tony," he says. "Maybe it looks easy to run from here, no big walls or fences, even, but there's a road that goes all around this place. security drives it all the time, and they got these two-way radios ."

       "So how'd Tony make it out?"

       "One of the guys saw him. He says Tony was the first one out of the testing room door when the bell rang. He made for the front hall. The staff guy at the outside door turned around to talk to somebody and Tony walked right out. Took off toward the Ad Building. Had a car waiting for him."

       "How could he get a car to come here? Tony doesn't make any calls. He doesn't even get letters."

       Pat grins. "When my brother was here with my Mom last Sunday, Tony had me pass Kenny a note, all folded up and taped shut. Kenny stuck it inside his shirt, and no one even seen him do it. Kenny's a slick one."

ThinkLink: Would you be as excited as John? What would you be thinking?

       Pat twists around on the couch and looks out the window across the field of grass. "The message was to a guy to pick him up today. Tony figured they wouldn't expect a break, right at noon, right out the front drive. Guts. That's what he's got. Guts."

       "Won't be the same here. Without Tony, I mean." I'm thinking about Randy and Hi-Lo.

       "Guys come, guys go. Can't count on them being around long." Pat hunches down and goes back to staring out the window.

       Finally lunch comes in on carts, and I bolt it down. Everybody's telling their favorite Tony story, like we were at his funeral.

       "You guys remember the Labor Day barbecue?" Doc says.

       Pat laughs. "Yeah, that's the day they brought girls over here from Meadow Springs School ."

       I snort. "Girls? They bring girls here? Nah." I don't believe this story already.

       "Sure. Meadow Springs is like Fire Oak, only it's for girls. They bring some of 'em over when special stuff's going on," Pat says. "Somebody in the Ad Building got the big idea of putting on a big barbecue here. They had TV guys with big cameras on their shoulders and reporters all over the place. Some high rollers from Portland made speeches and shook hands with everybody. Gonna show what nice guys they was, entertaining the poor, unfortunate delinquents ."

       Randy hollers over from the next table. "You're leaving out the good parts. There's this skydiver with a colored parachute jumping out of a airplane. Clowns juggling stuff. I never seen such a day." His squinty little eyes shine. "And a band. There's this big stage for the band to play on, two, maybe three feet off the ground, so's you could see 'em from all over. They had speakers so big..."

ThinkLink: How is this different from a party at your school?

       Pat growls. "Shut up, Randy. I'm telling this." He leans over to me. "That's when Tony and two girls dive under the bandstand. Oom-pa-pa! Oom-pa-pa!" Pat swings his arms like he's leading a band.

       "You're putting one over on me again, right? Besides, I bet you weren't even there. Didn't see a thing."

       " swear to God, it happened," Pat said, raising his right hand. "I wasn't exactly there, the band was too noisy for me, but I know guys who saw it."

       "Yeah? Who?" I try to pin him down.

       "Nobody that's here now. Nobody you know."

       "Yeah. Like they're going to bring girls over here and turn them loose so Tony can take 'em under a bandstand."

       " swear to God," Pat says, but he doesn't sound so sure now.

       Outside, I hear sirens wailing, then everything gets quiet. Everybody stops talking and listens.

       "I don't know," Pat whispers to me, his face all tragic . "No more sirens. Too soon for them to stop looking. They must've got him."

       Right after cleanup, Davis calls us back into the dayroom . "Everything's over. Go back to your regular schedule . And don't get in trouble yourself. If you have classes or a job at the school, line up with Mr. Ferguson by the front door."

       I shuffle along at the end of the pack. If Tony can't make it with all the times he's been on the run no use me thinking about it. All I can do is follow McGill's pro-o-gram.

ThinkLink: Has anyone ever told you they were doing something to help you out, but you thought maybe they weren’t helping?


Over in the library, Mrs. Morgan starts to ask me about the sirens and what's happened when the phone rings. "That was Mr. McGill. He's coming over here to talk to you," she says.

       The staffing. I forgot. McGill's supposed to tell me how it turned out. Maybe they've cleared me to go home. I move closer to the doorway, listening for those fancy leather shoes to click up the hall. Mrs. Morgan scowls a little, or as close as she comes to a scowl, but I stick my head out the doorway anyway and I see McGill coming around the corner.

       "Good to see you, John. I thought we could talk here in the library today." He walks me over to a table in the back. " Administration passed the word to cut down on the traffic today, and this gives me a chance to see you at work."

       "Is it Tony?" I ask. "It's gotta be Tony. He wasn't at Taylor for lunch today."

       "No use speculating and it's you I'm here to talk about." He sits down across the table from me in one of those straight library chairs. He stretches his legs out alongside the table. "Everyone at your staffing was very positive. Except for your stay in Howard, you really haven't had any really bad reports. Care to explain what happened?"

       I think about what Tony'd think of me snitching and shake my head.

       " Code of silence ? You learned that soon enough. Mr. Davis says he was in the kitchen that night. He didn't see the actual beginning of the fight, but he did say that just before it started you were washing pans and had your back to the other kids. He said it appeared that you hadn't started anything. Is that true?"

       "Yes, sir."

       McGill's mouth twitches . "I get called 'sir' about twice a year ... usually when someone's trying to sell me a car or new shoes. It sounds good. Now about your staffing..."

       "Do I get to go home?"

       "No. I'm sorry, John. I haven't been able to change any minds on that one. Although, when your mother called me after you lost your tags, she did say she was meeting with a new lawyer. In the meanwhile ... "

       "You talked to my mother? What did she say? Did the new lawyer talk to Judge Shields?"

       He shakes his head. "It all takes time."

       "Does that mean I'll have to stay here?"

       "As a matter of fact, that's what I came to tell you. There's a slot open at Eagle Crest , our forest camp over on the coast. The one I told you about. It's a special kind of place."

       "I'm getting farther and farther away from home."

       "If you do well, you won't be there too long. I'll check up on you regularly, and I'll be on the lookout for a place for you in a group home here in the valley or up in Portland . That or a foster home. We'll keep our options open."

       "A foster home! No."

       "Settle down, John. I still hope you can be released to your mother when everything is worked out. One of the camp staff will be here at ten tomorrow to pick you up."

       That's the one all the way across state, all the way to the ocean. I thought McGill was scaring me, talking about sending me all over so I wouldn't do anything to get me in trouble. I didn't figure he'd really do it. "Will you let my mother know where I'm going?"

       "OK, and I'll give her the good news about your staffing. Another thing, if you ever need to talk to me, ask the staff there to get a message through to me. Here's a card with my Portland office number on it. We have an answering service up there that can reach me most of the time."

       He stands up and holds out his hand. "Good luck, and make me proud."

       I almost don't take his hand. "Yeah, Mr. McGill."

       Maybe he thinks I should thank him for the big favor. The hell with that. He's sending me farther away than ever from the ranch . Thanks for nothing, McGill.

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 Updated on 9/30/03

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