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Chapter 16: The Montgomerys


       "Why do I have to go to a group home ? Why can't I stay at Eagle Crest if they're not going to let me go home?" I ask Jerry. He just grunts and leans over the steering wheel of the van, looking for an exit sign off the freeway . Sam's slouched over on a back seat, half-napping. He got his orders the same time I did, right after we got back from the rafting trip.

       We got all the usual lectures and warnings from Dan. Then Corrie went over the same stuff on our exit interview. "You've got a lot to lose here. Don't mess up if you hope to get back home any time soon. You'll be faced with a lot of temptations. Kids trying to get you into trouble. Others trying to get you to do bad stuff with them. All I can tell you is resist . Hang in there. Don't spoil your chances of going home."

       "Here it is," Jerry says. "The big, little town of Kenwood ."

       Sam rouses up and looks out the window. "Whoever heard of this dinky place?" he says. "If my grandma ever does come see me, she won't be able to find it. I bet there ain't three hundred people in this town."

       "Four hundred eighty-five," I say. "Saw it on a sign back there before we hit Main Street."

       "My grandma don't even drive a car, and I bet no bus ever comes here."

       "Enough already," Jerry says. "It's right off the freeway . She'll find you." He drives on, looking at each place we pass. "At last. There's the Montgomery place. Get your stuff together."

       I pull my two paper sacks up off the floor and look out at the old house. Feels like we're being dropped off like bags of groceries. A heavy-set woman and a man with a bushy dark-gray beard stand in front of the porch that runs around three sides of the house.

       Sam pulls over his old red canvas bag and looks out, sizing up the place . "Don't seem too bad. Lots of trees and bushes. And a hammock . I could go for laying around there. Whad'ya think?"

ThinkLink: What do you imagine would be different if you lived in a house with adults that you didnít know yet?

       I try to get a better look at Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery. They're old-fashioned looking. She's wearing an apron over a dress and he's got gold-rimmed glasses and overalls on. Like they're dressed for a barn dance. "Maybe they'll be OK," I say. I hook my thumb at Sam. "Come on, let's give it a try." Like we have a choice. I twist the paper sacks around in front of me, and don't see a crack in the walk. I stumble right at their feet.

       "Watch it, young man," Mr. Montgomery says to me. "We don't want to lose you before we get you in the front door." Jerry sorta chokes. He sure doesn't want to lose us before he hands us over.

       Mrs. Montgomery pushes her hair back off her forehead. "Let's not all stand around. Come on inside with your things. Put them in the front hall until we take you up to your room."

       We file past her through a dim entry hall and into an old-time parlor . I look around at the brown woodwork and the faded overstuffed furniture . Dark-green drapes cut out part of the light that filters in through the tall, narrow windows.

       Everything may be old, but it's clean Ė real clean Ė too clean. It's nicer than our house on the ranch . Grandpa Steele never did fix it up much, and Red and Pete haven't done one thing to it since they got the place from him. Mom does the best she can, but Pete won't cut loose for paint or curtains.

       Jerry's making polite talk. "Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery, I'm Jerry Krider from Eagle Crest Forest Camp. Here's John Hanson and this is Sam Phillips."

       Mr. Montgomery takes my hand and squeezes hard, and then he leans over and grabs Sam's. "Get to know a man by his handshake, right off. You two will do fine."

       "Now, don't just stand there," Mrs. Montgomery says, "Sit down. Jerry, I'll get you a cup of coffee and maybe the boys would like some Kool-Aid after their trip."

       Kool-Aid? "Yes, ma'am," I say.

       Mrs. Montgomery beams at me. "It's so nice to have a boy who knows his manners. All of you sit right down here in the parlor, and I'll be right back."

       Mr. Montgomery points us toward the faded couch. "Jerry, I appreciate you bringing us two such promising young men." He stands in the middle of the room looking down on us. "I'm sure this will be a positive experience for you boys, and you should look on this as your opportunity for proving yourselves."

       He doesn't seem like he expects an answer, so I just look around. Ever since we got here a funny feeling's been building up in the pit of my stomach . I don't know why. Montgomery acts nice enough. Actually, he's a big talker. Even after Jerry finishes his coffee and starts down the front walk, Mr. Montgomery follows after him, talking all the way.

       "Come on, boys," he says, as he comes back in the front door. "Pick up your things. We'll drop them off upstairs and then I'll give you a tour around the house."

       Mr. Montgomery leads us up the stairs and into a long, narrow bedroom that stretches across the front of the house. Four beds stick out into the room, with a little chest of drawers between each one of them. "You're the only ones here, right now," he tells us. "We expect three or four more later this month. Choose a bed and put your things down. You can unpack later." I put my sacks down on the floor next to the bed by the window. "You kids don't come with much, do you? Well, we've got a closet full of clothes downstairs. Some we picked up at garage sales, and there's duds other kids left behind. We'll find things you can wear." Yeah, sure. Like I'm gonna wear stuff from his ragbag . He leads us back down and into the dining room. It's as gloomy as the parlor, with no sun coming in under the porch roof. There's an old, stuffy smell, as if the windows haven't been opened for a long, long time. A big mahogany table with high-back chairs around it fills up most of the middle of the room. A few dishes sit on shelves in the built-in cupboard that covers one wall.

       "Cowboy," Sam whispers to me, "this is one creepy place."

       Mr. Montgomery eyes Sam, who shuts up and looks at the ceiling. "We take our meals in here on Sunday, after Sunday school and church. The rest of the time we eat in there," Mr. Montgomery says. He pushes a swinging door open and leads us into the kitchen. I blink. The fluorescent lights on the ceiling are so bright I squeeze my eyes half-shut just to see. Glossy light-gray enamel paint covers just about everything except the floor, and that's shiny gray linoleum. Walls, doors, cupboards, even the big square table in the middle of the room are all painted with the same gray paint.

       "Come on in, boys," Mrs. Montgomery tells us. She looks at my feet. I look down, then Sam does and Mr. Montgomery, too. "Looks like dried mud on those shoes, John. You'll have to look after that. And look around where you've walked to see if any's dropped off." She looked around this shining glory of a kitchen. "This is where you help get the meals and clean up after. Good experience for your future life. You'll be well trained by the time you leave here."

       Sam and I stand next to the long, empty counter. Every cabinet has a little padlock on it. Even the big white refrigerator has a keyhole above the handle. Mr. Montgomery sees us staring at them. "As you can see, we've been forced to lock up the cabinets, and we carry the only keys to the refrigerator. Unfortunately , some greedy young men forced us into this by eating everything in sight." He laughed that TV kind of laugh. "Ha ha. Practically ate us out of house and home."

       "You'll get used to our routine," Mrs. Montgomery says. "We only eat at meals and snack time. You be in here by seven in the morning to help get breakfast on the table and you clean up the dishes right after. Tomorrow, you can take a sack lunch to school. When Mr. Montgomery signs you into school, he'll see you get free lunch tickets."

       "Might as well get everything that you state kids are eligible for, right?" He laughs again. I look close to see if he's joking, but behind his glasses, his pale blue eyes are as cold as ice cubes. "After school, you come back in here for a snack. Mrs. Montgomery will have some bread and margarine out for you, and Kool-Aid to drink."

       Mrs. Montgomery nods. "Now, I'll want you back here in the kitchen at five o'clock today to help with dinner. We eat right on the stroke of six every night. After you've cleaned up the dishes and swept the kitchen, you go back in the parlor to do your homework. Not tonight, of course, but after you start school tomorrow. Tonight you can read a book. When the other boys get here, it won't seem so lonesome ."

ThinkLink: Have you ever met anyone like Mr. Montgomery? What would your first thoughts be?

       Mr. Montgomery looks impatient . Like it doesn't matter if we are lonesome . "When you're not in school, you're to be right in this house. Understood?" He waits for us to nod. "Mrs. Montgomery and I see that we have been led into a ministry to set you boys back on the right road in life. We're here to show you the way, and to give you a respectable God-fearing home to live in. Don't abuse this opportunity ." He glares at us, and then his face straightens out and he laughs again. Maybe it's just his way, laughing at everything he says, but like Sam says, it's creepy.

       After dinner, I walk through the parlor and tap on the glass door that opens into a little room Mr. Montgomery calls his office. "Welcome, John. Join me. What can I do for you?" He swivels around from the roll top desk and leans back in his oak captain's chair. His beard spreads out over his chest and his glasses slide down on his nose, making him look like some scary-movie Santa Claus. He tilts back in his chair. "You have some questions?"

       "No, I mean, I'd like to make a collect call home to my mother. I want her to know where I am."

       "I don't know about that. Let me look at the papers that fellow Jerry left with me." He thumbs through a file folder on the desk. Surprise. They have a folder on me here, too.

       "Here it is. Yes, you're allowed." He looks over his glasses at me. "Some boys can't contact their homes, you know." Montgomery dials and waits while the call goes through. Why doesn't she answer? Where the heck are they? Somebody should be in the house this time of night.

       Finally, Montgomery hands the phone to me. "A man accepted the call. You can talk for five minutes. No use tying up the phone or running up their bill." He walks through the open glass door and stands where he can still hear.

       It's Pete who answers. He yells at me. "That you, John?" He always talks too loud on the phone. He thinks he has to get his voice all the way to where the other guy's calling from. "You there, John?" he booms. "I don't know about accepting these charges. Your mom's not here. I suppose that means I have to pay for..."

       I break in. "Pete, you gotta listen to me. Where's Mom? Has something happened to her?"

       "She's OK. Far as I know."

       "I need to tell her I've been moved to a group home . It's the Montgomery place in Kenwood , a little town off I-5." I read off the address and phone number. "Pete! Are you there? Pete!"

       "Hold your horses. Looking for some paper and this pencil's busted." I hear him shuffling through stuff. "We thought we'd be hearing from you one of these days. Keeping your nose clean ?"

       "What about Mom!" Getting stuff out of Pete's like getting teeth out of a hen.

       "Yeah, about your mom. She don't live here any more."

       "She what?" I suck in my breath. "Where does she live? Where are Nick and Lori?"

       "She moved out. Left with baggage and both kids."

       "Left? Where'd she go? When did she...?"

       "Got married."

       "Married?" I flop down hard in Montgomery's desk chair. He sticks his head in and gives me a dirty look.

       Pete's rambling on. "Said she married that Ryan. The one over in Philmont County . Ran off just like she did the first time with your dad. Only this time, she's got two kids with her. Some honeymoon , I call it." He snorts so loud I hold the phone away from my ear. "I warned her, just like I warned her the first time, but did she pay any mind to ..."

       "Pete, where is..."

       "She'll come running back, though, mark my words. Just like before. And I'll tell her 'I told you so,' but it won't do no good, any more than it did before."

       "Pete! Tell me. Where is she?"

       "If I hear from her, I'll tell her you called."

       "Didn't she leave a message for me? How about a phone number?"

       "Nope. She said she'd call you later."

       "What's her address?"

ThinkLink: What do you think you would do if you were in Johnís shoes? What would be your biggest worry?

       "Address? She just said she'd send it later. Haven't got it yet. She tried to call you down at that forest camp , but no luck. If she calls me, I'll tell her where you are. Bye, kid." And Pete hangs up on me.

       That bastard . I bang the phone down and stomp back into the parlor. I flop down in an easy chair and it scrapes along the hardwood floor.

       "Look here, young man!" Montgomery takes a couple of big steps over to me. "You'll lose points around here for that kind of behavior . You watch your temper."

       I groan out loud. "Not points. Not here, too."

       Montgomery grabs me by the arm and pulls me up out of the chair. I try to sit back down, but the old man holds on tight. I'm surprised by how strong he is.

       " You'll rue the day you defied me, boy. An apology is in order. Now."

       It gags me to say it. "Sorry,"

       "That's better. Now you go to your room and examine your conscience . I expect a repentant boy down here in the morning."

ThinkLink: Do think that John is lonely? What has made you feel lonely before?


I wad up a pillow and lay there for a long time, trying to figure things out. I had this one big thing in my life, getting back home, and now there's no home to go back to. It's like I went to bed in Oregon and woke up in Kansas. I punch my pillow and roll over and then back. Bed feels like it's got a board in it.

       When I hear talking downstairs, I get up and walk real quiet in my stocking feet out to the top of the stairs. A board squeaks under my foot, and I move off it quick. No one comes out in the hall to look so I lean over. I can see the front hall and a corner of the parlor. Sam's scrunched up in the corner of the couch, trying to stay out of harm's way. Smart guy.

       The old man's jawing at him. "Mrs. Montgomery and I don't believe in TV," he says. "You'll read books here. Books you can learn something from. We bought some at the flea market over behind the grocery store. Pick one from those shelves next to the window." I can't see Montgomery, but he must've turned away, because Sam rolls his eyes and makes a face.

       I listen for a couple minutes, but nothing more happens. I creep back into the bedroom, and go over to the window to look out over the porch roof. A street lamp on the corner gives off enough light for me to get a good look around. There's a strong-looking tree growing up over the edge of the porch. I see the moon coming up through the branches. I pull up on the window sash, but it sticks halfway. I tug on it, an inch at a time, until it's open as far as it'll go. The screen is easier. I pull out the hook at the bottom and wiggle the frame around to loosen it up. I push it free and it swings out on its hinges. The roof looks strong enough to hold me and not too steep.

       I sink back down on the bed. I can't go back to the ranch , for sure, now. And I don't even know where Mom is. Or where exactly in Philmont County Norman Ryan has his ranch. I get this hard lump in my throat and my eyes fill up. If I run, I know Mom'll feel bad, but if she doesn't have me to worry about, she and the kids can be happy at Norman's ranch.

       I go back and stand at the window looking at the night and think about what Tony'd do. Run. What Johnny'd do. Run. So, what's left for me to do? Run. It decides itself. I hear footsteps coming up the stairs. I pull the screen almost closed, get into bed, clothes and all, pull the spread up over me and try to look like I'm asleep.

       It's only Sam. He undresses in the dark and climbs into bed without saying anything. I wait a long time after I hear the Montgomerys climb the stairs and go down the hall to their room. The old house creaks once in awhile, but that's all. At last, I ease out of bed and stand next to the window. I'm shivering even though it's not cold. I push on the screen, an inch at a time, and it tilts open. I tie my shoelaces together and hang my shoes around my neck. I duck my head out of the window and crawl out onto the porch roof. I reach in for my sacks, ease them out the window and hold them both with one hand. When I look back at Sam, he's got his back turned to me and he's breathing deep.

       I start down the roof. Slip a few inches. My legs scrape on the shingles. I press my heels into the roof until I stop. A minute ... two minutes ... no sound from inside. Down the road, a dog barks. I scootch on down toward the tree. A big black bird flies off a branch and squawks at me. I listen for Montgomery again. It's quiet.

       When I get to the corner of the porch, I stop and put on my shoes and drop my sacks off onto the lawn below. I look down. What if Old Man Montgomery's down there, ready to grab me? I grab a branch and hang from it. It creaks, but it holds me. I drop off into the black. When I hit the ground, I look around one more time before I lope off toward the freeway .

       This afternoon in the van, it seemed like we got to the Montgomery's just a couple of minutes after we left the freeway . After I've been walking eight, maybe ten minutes, I wonder if I'm headed the wrong way. Then I see the on-ramp . I worry about walking under the lights, but how else can I hitch a ride into Portland ? People in a little town like this will let Montgomery know right off if they see a strange kid wandering around in the dark. I've got to get out of here before daylight.

       I duck below a concrete barrier and wait. I did it. I'm free. No ornery old man's going to tell me every breath to take. I look at my watch. Almost midnight. Five minutes pass. Ten. No cars. While I hunker down, I get a sinking feeling I shouldn't have run off so quick. Maybe I will turn out like Johnny. Hit the road as soon as things get tough. Can't go back, though. I'd sure wake Montgomery up, trying to break back in. Hell, what if he's looking for me right now? I shudder. He might be out in the yard or calling the police. He'll wake Sam up, yelling at him, "Where'd he go? You know. Tell me."

       A white sedan comes up on the ramp, and I crouch down lower. Might be a state patrol car . Unmarked. Or a local cop. I stay down behind the barrier until it's far down the freeway . A few minutes later, a pickup slows down at the intersection below and turns onto the ramp. I step out onto the edge of the pavement so the driver can see me. "Going to Portland ?" I call to him through his open window.

       He pulls over and stops long enough for me to get in. "Sure am. I'd be glad for the company. Where you going this time of night?"

       I slide onto the plastic-covered seat. "I've got to get back home so I can go to school tomorrow. I've been visiting my cousin." One thing I learned from the guys at Fire Oak, always have a good story ready. It must sound all right to the driver, because he talks on and on, about places he's fished, his pickup , his girlfriend. The faster he talks, the faster he drives.

ThinkLink: If John spent an hour driving with the guy in the truck, how far do you think Kenwood is from Portland?

       About an hour later, he stops in the middle of a story about a deer-hunting trip. "This is the off-ramp to downtown. I'm going on to Vancouver , across the river, so I'll have to let you off here."

       "Thanks a lot," I tell him. "This will be fine. I'll walk down into town and get a bus home." I hear myself lie as good as Randy. Creepy thought. I climb down out of the pickup and walk toward the lights of downtown.

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 Updated on 9/30/03

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