A Shadier Future, the monthly news bulletin for Shady Place Rest and Readjustment’s staff, said that juvenile drug offenders are ten times more likely to end up in prison as adults than those juveniles who don’t get involved in drugs, or at least don’t get caught. And with early intervention, positive reinforcement, patience and understanding many teenagers have a very encouraging response to peer group recovery situations. That particular issue also listed the schedule of new staff self-defense and CPR courses in light of Dr. Leanne Tate’s unfortunate paper-weight whipping at the hands of teenage resident Brenna Williams, a two hundred-and-thirty-pound huffer who grew agitated when her Magic Marker stash went missing. Dr. Tate’s husband, Roland Greenflick, told the bulletin, “I’m positive my wife will wake from her coma at any moment and continue her duties as facility director, and while I’m grateful for the well wishes from Shady Place’s staff, Leanne is an atheist and wouldn’t approve of their prayers.”
Me and Myles sat at a chest high counter parked at the intersection of three linoleum tiled hallways, our base of operations for running the graveyard shift on Shady Place’s adolescent ward. Management called it an aid station, but as far as I could tell that just meant we had a half used tube of ointment for body lice and an unopened bottle of wart removal. You had to see the intake nurse on the adult ward for any ailment that didn’t grow under your skin.
For a buck and a half over minimum wage we kept watch over twenty-seven boys and fifteen girls, forty-two cynical and insuranceless pre-criminals who’s families – those that had them – couldn’t afford treatment at a facility with the word serenity or passages in the name. Most of the juvenile residents were trying to avoid real life kiddy jail by agreeing to the state subsidized ninety day drug rehabilitation program. Their court appointed public defenders suggested they either show a willingness to change their behavior under the care of Shady Place’s trained and qualified staff, or start wearing magazines under their shirt to protect against a shanking in the state prison cafeteria.
I perused the daily incident log and saw that “Swift” Chris Sefuentes had been written up for jerking off in the middle of group therapy again, said he couldn’t help himself whenever a girl cried. Shy of the public masturbation, I thought, we’re not so different. Girl tears have always given me a boner. I blame Heidi Grubbs and her soft, feminine whimpers at the loss of Cluster, our fifth grade class’s hamster. Ms. Atwood, our teacher, put the dead Cluster in a shoebox used for viewing lunar eclipses while I gazed at Heidi and pressed my hard-on against the metal leg of a desk. I spent the rest of that school year following Heidi around, hoping she’d get some bad news, shed some tears and accidentally touch my penis. Like a lot of things in my life, it didn’t pan out.
Myles tugged at his sleeveless jean jacket, scratched the patches in his beard and made notes in his Narcotics Anonymous Big Book. I sipped my third can of Coke that night and watched him.
“What step you on?”
“Secrets aren’t healthy.”
A high-pitched laugh boomed off the floor in the darkened girls hallway. Then a coughing fit. Neither me or Myles moved.
“That’s Ashley and Heather,” he said and sniffed at the air. “Do you smell cigarettes?”
“I’m not going down there. They sleep in their panties and try to fuck me when I’m doing room checks,” I said.
“They don’t try that with me.”
“You’re an addict. And a murderer.”
Myles spent six years in Huntsville State Penitentiary for involuntary manslaughter. “My meth lab mishap,” he’d told me. It decided to blow up during a routine bake, caught the biker gang clubhouse on fire and cooked ten of his passed out cronies to well done. The judge showed leniency in his sentencing because every one of the deceased had outstanding felony warrants which, the bench felt, showed deep and abiding flaws in their overall moral character and that society might well be better off for their demise. Myles discovered NA in prison, found it less violent and polarizing than joining a gang with either the Christians or Muslims, or the Northern Mexicans who flat out rejected his application, something about his being a gringo and a puta. He’d been sober for twelve years and just finished his parole when he got hired at Shady Place. “I’ve served my time and respect my disease,” Myles told management. “I want to give back some of the peace I’ve been forced to swallow.”
They put him on the graveyard shift that night.
I got a job at Shady Place after doing it with Phaedra Timms, a psychology graduate student who did her internship there. We met at a rodeo supply store. I’d been in the market for some good luck and wanted to hang a horseshoe over my door, thought it might turn things around. She’d needed a new saddle. We bumped into each other in the stirrup aisle. Phaedra had tight curls and white thighs. She took me on horseback rides in dry pastures where we’d dismount, lay down as close as we could bear to ant hills and fuck. She was allergic to fire ants, but the risk of anaphylactic shock made her wet. I got stung on the scrotum once and came so hard I went on a vision quest, saw feathered dream-catchers floating in a cloudless sky. Phaedra called it a seizure, albeit one with a cliché hallucination. When her boyfriend returned home from Iraq one-eyed, angry and misshapen she felt guilty about being my lover. So she referred me to the facility director for the graveyard shift opening as a consolation prize. It’s the best paying work I’ve ever had, but I miss Phaedra’s fleshy legs and those fire ants.
Billroy, Shady Place’s graveyard maintenance man and janitor, shuffled out of the cafeteria in blue coveralls, cupping a handful of roasted nuts. He tossed one in his mouth, rested an elbow on the aid station and winked at us. Myles closed his Big Book and leaned back in the chair.
“You smell like pot, Billroy.”
“That so, convict? I’m not the one with the problem,” he said, pointing at Myles’s book. “You got two teenies in their panties smoking cigarettes down the hall.”
“How do you know?” Myles said.
“I was outside…janitor business. Saw ’em through the window,” Billroy said, popped another nut in his mouth.
“I bet you were out there peeping on underage girls.”
“I bet your ass has been stuffed with bags of prison dick.”
“Alright. Jesus,” I said. “I’ll go down there. It’s my turn anyway.”
I grabbed the Mag-light off the desk, not just for its illumination, but because experience taught me that you never entered residents rooms in the middle of the night without some sort of weighty weapon close at hand. Dope fiends hate surprises when they’re sober. That’s why my father left. I must’ve been five, or maybe six years old. He walked out while I watched “Sesame Street,” an episode brought to me by the letter Y. “I’m surprised I’ve stayed this long. Been so high I didn’t notice how ugly you were,” he said in to the darkened hall where my mother launched an empty whiskey bottle at his head. It just missed. She came out and locked the door behind him, told me through soggy makeup and Winston cigarette smoke not to worry, that Sticks wasn’t really even my father. “Believe me, I’m the only one you can trust,” she said, but then she gave me up to the state two days later.
My sneakers squeaked to a stop outside Ashley and Heather’s room, quieting the giggling coming from inside. I knocked with the flashlight.
“If you guys flush the cigarettes and kill the lights I won’t write anything in the incident report and no one will toss your room tomorrow,” I said.
Heather swung open the door and posed against the frame, the blue painted toenails of her right foot pointing at the ground. Besides a savvy smile, all she had on were green underwear and a tight white tank-top, her breasts spilling out of the sides. The only clue her body gave that it might not fully be a woman’s were the patches of freckles across her smooth cheekbones. They reminded me of the sprinkles that sometimes come on top of a cupcake, the kind you lick off before you have your way with it.
“We’re not tired yet,” Heather said. Ashley sat Indian style on the bed behind her and tittered. “But you should come in. You know you want to.”
She had me there. I wanted to put a do-not-disturb sign out and give in to the clutches of this girl-demon. She could practice the sex magic she’d learned in her recent and damaged upbringing, be the abuser for once and use all that pent up rage and shame against me. I imagined she’d leave me quivering, cold and covered in a talcum scented sweat. Instead, I turned back to the aid station, my dick at half-hard and the girls cackles trailing me.
Myles leaned on the counter and carved filth from beneath his fingernails.
“That’s my penknife,” I said.
“I’m gonna call the fucking cops on Billroy. Peeking through minors’ windows like that is perverted. Probably out there stroking it with one hand and getting high with the other,” he said and moved the blade from his index finger to his thumbnail.
“They were putting a show on for him,” I said. “Give me back my knife.” Myles wiped his jeans with the dirty blade, passed it over and glared at me.
“How come they don’t do that for me?”
Just then Mike Nichols strolled by us at the aid station in pajamas tucked into oxblood colored, twenty-hole, knee high boots that were untied and slapped the linoleum floor with each step. He didn’t bother looking at us.
“Hey, partner,” Myles said. “It’s lights out. Where you going?”
Mike stopped, but didn’t turn around.
“Me neither, but that’s because of all the meth I did, the people I killed and the night terrors I have from serving time in the pen.” Myles thought he could scare the kids straight with tough talk, took a course on it during his stay at Huntsville. His first time out he got in the face of a twelve year old black male who head-butted him and broke his nose. The Scared Straight program wouldn’t give him a second shot. They said word had spread through juvenile hall and the kids called him their bitch.
“You want to see the nurse, Mike?” I said.
He shook his head.
“Also, the food in prison is shit,” Myles said.
Mike Nichols had come to the unit three weeks ago, his shaggy blonde hair covering an acne warped face and eyes that pointed straight at the ground. He rocked in place, wearing a black concert shirt that couldn’t hide the deep horizontal cuts on his arms. His foster dad brought him in after he’d found Mike inhaling Freon from the air conditioning unit on the side of the house, said it’d taken all summer to figure out why the AC hadn’t been blowing cold. “Been sweating my fat ass off,” he’d told the counselors.
Dr. Leanne Tate conducted Mike’s intake interview and concluded that his history of mental illness and self-mutilation exacerbated tendencies towards drug and alcohol abuse and that under careful monitoring in Shady Place’s healing and tolerant environment he’d have the opportunity to flourish. In his fourteen day progress report, Mike’s case manager noted, “Mr. Nichols has not spoken a single word during any of the daily group therapy discussions, nor has he been seen speaking to any of his peers. His silent convalescence and ability to get along with others is appreciated in this chaotic atmosphere.”
“Let’s get you back to bed,” I said. “You should get some sleep.”
Mike did a slow about-face, never bringing the angle of his eyes off the glossy linoleum tiles. We made a patient march back to the room he shared and crossed the threshold, the beam of my Mag-light tracing the wall, passing the bathroom on the immediate right and landing on a sleeping “Swift” Chris Sefuentes. He had his hand in his underwear, his mouth held in a wide, open smile as if he dreamt naked angels were dropping sobbing virgins in his mouth.
Mike climbed to the top bunk and laid down. I thought about telling him to take his boots off, but realized I’d never seen him without them on. Maybe they were the only thing he loved, something held over from a life before the one he existed in now, like the Subaru Brat Sticks left me after he died three years ago. He’d been my father after all, at least according to the lawyer who’d told me about the car, though I hadn’t seen him since the day he walked out. I remember riding around town in the plastic seats bolted to the back bed. Sticks strapped me in because we were always bouncing over the train tracks, stopping at one house or another. I’d sit in the back, practice my numbers by counting the empty Budweiser cans rolling around my legs and wait for him to return. Sometimes he’d take forever and I’d get through all the cans. Though a few times he came out at a sprint, in a hurry to drive away, leaving me to guess at the amount of waste rattling around me.
I decided to let Mike keep his boots on.
Moonlight dribbled through the window at the end of the boys hallway. I stood there, saw Billroy in the parking lot crawling on his hands knees like he’d dropped something too small to see from a standing position. He pushed up to his knees and scanned his surroundings like a prairie dog making sure there weren’t any lingering predators about. After a moment he put his hands back to the pavement and continued his four-legged search.
Working at Shady Place made me grateful I wasn’t mixing hog feed for Russell Howard anymore, standing on a ladder over a giant steel blender, pouring in crushed grains and the hormone Trenbolone Acetate for the Hefty Hog blend. I wore a mask so I didn’t breathe the dust like Mr. Howard, who’d been inhaling the soot for forty years. He’d cough and spit orange lumps into the floor drain. Working late one night he had a heart attack, fell into the blender and got shipped out in a batch of the Slender Sow. The USDA conducted an investigation and closed the mill temporarily. They found that bits and pieces of Mr. Howard were mixed in six tons of feed and sent to more than nine hundred farms over three states. However, the agency determined contamination to the tri-state food chain unlikely and had received no reports of any ill swine to date. Mr. Howard’s sons took over the mill and fired me when I asked if we should call the customers and let them know their pigs ate Russell.
The rooftop air-conditioning units kicked up to a clatter and the familiar smell of teenage feet, malt vinegar mixed with feta cheese, wafted over me while I strolled down the hall, pushing resident’s doors open. I shined my light in their rooms for a brief moment so they knew someone cared enough to look in on them. This job gave me purpose, to mind the sleep of forty-two reckless and broken souls. I felt comfortable among this wrecked percentage of the population. It reminded me of home, of my mother. The graveyard shift also gave me a reason to sleep during the day, the hours when I did most of my worrying, the sunlight pointing out my array of mismatched flatware and lack of any long term life plan.
Myles rocked back and forth on his steel-toed work boots, his arms crossed tight against his chest at the reception window overlooking the parking lot. I sat down at the aid station and pulled out the incident log.
“I’m going to let the counselors know Nichol’s isn’t sleeping good,” I said.
“The hell is that crazy-ass janitor out there slithering around the parking lot for?”
“Don’t know. Must’ve lost something.”
“Yeah, his fucking sense.”
I rolled my chair next to Myles at the reception window just as Billroy palmed whatever he’d been looking for and hopped to his feet. He turned to us, grinned and raised a triumphant fist. I waved and pushed the glass door open for him. He jogged in, patted me on the shoulder and walked to the aid station, breathing heavy from minimal exertion.
“Found it,” he said and held up an almond between his dirty forefinger and thumb. “Took twenty nuts from the cafeteria. Six cashews, ten peanuts and four almonds. But I only had a sense memory for eating three almonds. Knew I dropped it somewhere and had to retrace my steps.”
“You fucking kidding me?” Myles said.
“Hell no, Ad-Seg. My body knows.”
“Quit with the prison talk, Billroy,” Myles said. “You never served time.”
“And proud of it. Been a law abiding citizen my whole life. Never once had to suck a cock for protection.”
“You two should kiss and get it over with,” I said.
A violent metal crash bellowed out of one of the halls and brought us all to silence. We moved to the aid station and paused, waiting for a hint at which direction the noise had echoed from.
A few of the guys peaked out of their rooms, wondered if morning had come quicker than usual.
“No, LeVon. Four more hours. Back to sleep,” I said.
At the end of the hall “Swift” Chris Sefuentes bolted from his room and ran towards us. He looked scared in that way people do when they know something bad is about to happen, a roadside bomb noticed seconds too late or your lover’s boyfriend coming back from the war.
Me and Myles met him halfway.
“Mike is in the bathroom, sir,” he said, pointing behind him.
“What’s that mean?” Myles said, but we didn’t wait for the answer.
The sound of coarse chokes and hard kicks leaked from beneath the locked bathroom door. They made my stomach curl and my legs shake. We banged on the heavy door.
“Mike, let me in,” I said. “You’re not in trouble.”
Myles shoved me to the side, backed up and smashed the door’s handle with the bottom of his boot. Then he slipped and banged his head hard against the floor. His eyes got glassy and he rolled to his side.
“Fuck,” he said.
Chris watched just outside the door. He had his hands over his genitals, on the outside of his underwear, as if too many things were going wrong to leave something that made sense to him unprotected. I knew the feeling.
“Sefuentes, run down the hall, tell Billroy to bring me a hammer and a flat-head screw driver.”
I got on my stomach, looked under the door. Mike’s legs were tangled in the downed shower curtain, thrashing behind his body. His torso curved upward and out of my sightline, but I could see his hands slapping at the green tiled floor just out of his reach.
“We’re coming, Mike. Hold on. Just hang on, buddy,” I said through the crack, my heart trying to make it’s way up my throat and out of my mouth. I thought about the horseshoe I’d bought at the rodeo store, wished I hadn’t left it at Phaedra’s.
Myles pushed himself to a sitting position, his back against the wall and threw up in his lap.
“Fuck,” he said.
The rasping and bucking from inside the bathroom began to fade. Myles got to his feet. Billroy passed me the tools. His hands were trembling. Mine were, too.
“The panty smokers are out of their room,” he said. “So are all the kids.”
“Call 911, Billroy. Tell them to hurry.”
I wedged the screwdriver in the door jam next to the handle, gave it three whacks with the hammer. The wood splintered. Myles pushed me aside again, rammed the door with his shoulder. It swung open fast, hit the sink behind it and bounced back to meet him in the face.
Mike hung from the steel towel rack anchored to the painted cinderblock wall. Long, braided bootlaces cut off his windpipe and dug deep into his skin. His eyes bulged out of their sockets and his lips were pale blue. Myles hoisted him at the waist, and I used my penknife to cut the laces from his neck. We set him on the floor and he began gagging. I let loose a sob when he breathed some air in and started to cough.
The ambulance’s sirens howled at a distance, and I felt like things might be okay, or as okay as they can be when someone trying to kill themselves is saved and forced back into a painful world that tried to hang them in the first place.
I shivered and wiped at the sweat rolling down the back of my neck at the same time I saw the blood soaked floor tiles.
“Where’s the blood coming from?” I said, and turned to Myles. His nose sagged sideways, viscous streams of blood fell from his nostrils and dripped from the separated bone and skin at the bridge between his eyes.
“Fuck,” he said in a tinny falsetto.
I leaned on the shower wall, watched Mike breathing on the ground, the color coming back to his face and the gash around his neck swelling. Billroy rounded the corner with the paramedics. They stopped in the doorway and gaped at Myles sitting on the toilet in a heap of blood and vomit. I pointed at Mike on the floor.
“Him first,” I said and got out of the way.
All of the adolescent ward’s residents were up, some at the aid station, others milling about the hall or just outside their rooms. They grouped up in their regular cliques and wondered what had happened. Heather and Ashley spotted me and darted over in their long night shirts, tears running down their cheeks.
“Oh, my God,” Heather said. “That Mike boy killed himself?”
“Who told you that?”
“Chris,” Ashley said, wiping her face and pointing at Sefuentes, who just shrugged when I shook my head at him.
“Listen up, everybody,” I said. “No one died, but Mike is…hurting. He’s going to be okay though. We’re all here to get better…and you need sleep to do that. Back to your beds. Sefuentes, you’re in with Luis and TJ for now. I’ll be doing room checks in ten minutes. So, lights out.”
I glanced at Heather and Ashley.
“And pajamas on,” I said.
When the halls were quiet again, LeVon stepped out of his room, yawning and scratching his scalp.
“Three more hours, LeVon.”
The paramedics rolled Mike Nichols out on a gurney while me and Billroy stood at the aid station. He had an oxygen mask over his mouth and a brace strapped to his neck. His boots were on, but there were no laces in the holes. They were still tied to the towel rack. Myles wobbled out behind with one hand on the gurney for support, his nose taped up and overflowing with shafts of dark red cotton.
“Gotta take them both in,” one of the paramedics said.
Billroy put his hand on Mike’s chest, leaned in and smiled.
“You take care of this felon,” he said and nodded at Myles who grimaced with pain. “Every door in the state has a beef with him now.”
Myles made something resembling a smile, a laugh that came out as a grunt, but then he had to tilt his head back, the cotton dam in his nose beginning to give way.
The ambulance pulled out of the parking lot and Billroy walked towards the cafeteria.
“You going to clean up that room?” I said.
“Yep. Gotta get some nuts first.”
At the aid station, I peered down the darkened halls. The only noise came from the intermittent flickering of fluorescents lights overhead. I put my feet on the counter and leaned back in my chair, thought about my vision quest, those feathered dream-catchers the fire ants had gifted me. I remembered the silence, the gripping quiet of purgatory, and then the sensation of my presence being reanimated, brought back from an event I wasn’t quite sure happened. When I awoke, Phaedra’s round face hovered over me, strands of curly hair caressed her cheeks and bare shoulders. “Hello,” she’d said. I pulled the incident log out, dated an empty page and wondered where to start the night’s story.
According to the next month’s issue of A Shadier Future, bath salts, a common over-the-counter product found in many homes, contain powerful synthetic, stimulant powders with methamphetamine like chemicals that shocking numbers of adolescents steal from their parents’ bathrooms and abuse as an inhalant, but by simply locking up products such as Eucalyptus Spearmint or Lavender Fields, and supervising their use, this insidious temptation can be avoided. That particular issue also noted Dr. Leanne Tate’s indefinite hiatus while she worked on regaining her speech and motor skills, lost after her beating at the hands of teenage resident Brenna Williams, who’s now being charged with attempted murder and tried as an adult. Dr. Tate’s husband, Roland Greenflick, told the bulletin, “I have no doubt Leanne will learn to walk and talk again. She’s never been one to quit, and while I’m grateful for the well wishes of Shady Place’s staff, we could really use your prayers. The situation is bleak. She can’t walk or talk.” And in the updates section of that edition, the editors of A Shadier Future wrote that the entire staff of Shady Place Rest and Readjustment are excited and look forward to working with their new facility director, Dr. Phaedra Timms.