If I had to eat this horrid food every day, I’d be suicidal too. Today, lunch looks like that plastic “play” pizza you’d find in a pretend kitchen at a daycare somewhere. I’m sure if I were to leave a slice on a little plastic plate next to the pretend oven, no one would know the difference.
We do everything we can to help these kids — cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, play therapy — whatever suits each kid best. We put them on horses, we take them fishing, we bus them to the orchard and let them pick their own apples. We bus them back, teach them how to make pies. Slicing apples with “no-cut” knives is as counterproductive as it sounds. I would not recommend that. We watch what we call “positive-value” movies while we wait for the pies to bake. We teach the kids how to package and sell the pies, so they can pick up another skill as they transition from life at the treatment center back into the real world. This, all in one weekend.
All I’m trying to say is that if we ordered the kids a box of fucking Dominos every once in a while, it’d be a reminder that contentment is attainable at times. You don’t always have to hop-and-skip nine self-help steps to not want to kill yourself. You don’t always have to gaze into the eyes of a maned, one-ton animal that could just as easily do the job for you. Sometimes you just order a pizza.
That’s not to bash the program. The structure — it’s good for them. I’ve always heard that routine is a killer, but no one ever talks about what freedom can do.
I should have been here when I was younger. It just wasn’t around yet. When I was young, you got caught and you went to jail, or you got your ass beat by your parents. But, unlike these kids, I never got caught doing dumb, illegal shit. Fortunately, I was blessed with encountering a few angels along the way, and they grabbed me firmly by both of the shoulders and yanked my head outta my ass.
I was lucky.
They helped me because they truly cared about me. Not because they had to. That’s really the only difference between me and these kids. They aren’t all that eager to believe that we care about them. They think we’re only here because we have to be, just like they are. And I don’t blame them for thinking that way. But they’re wrong. The hardest part is showing them that you genuinely care without coming across as soft. There is a sweet spot and it’s called tough love. Too much tough and you’re not getting through. Too much love and you’re just bedazzling a ticking time bomb.
The group has been good today. Suspiciously good. I can tell they want something, but I’m not sure what yet.
They’re all just sitting there. Quietly. Eating their pizza. Typically, they come up with some really wild metaphors to describe just how terrible it is. On bad days, they’ll rear back and lob a slice at the window, or against the wall. Pizza shouldn’t bounce, but here it does.
Sometimes they’ll throw it at each other, and we have to evacuate the cafeteria while staff members subdue the culprit. Food fights here are not like what you see in the movies, or what you may have experienced at school. There is no cheering and smiling in slow motion. Just red faces and restraints.
I hope I haven’t painted them as monsters. They’re not. They’re wonderful, lovable kids, with charming personalities. They just happen to be heavily constrained by their pasts, much more so than you or I. It was Phillip Larkin, I think, who wrote it in a poem:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.
Well. When it comes to most of these kids, many of the horrors they experienced were neither accidental nor unintentional. The parents field their child’s scheduled phone calls from the comfort of their homes. Some of the “parents” should be calling from prison. Some of them do.
A boy named Tiki burps and nudges his plate toward the center of the table.
“Mmm,” he says. “Pretty good. I like supreme.”
He’s a terrible liar.
I reach out and he gently places a fork in the palm of my hand.
I’ll have to count the forks later. When people are desperate to hurt themselves, they get creative. After Christmas, we had to reconsider putting candy canes in their stockings because we realized they could be fashioned into a point.
A few moments later, I’ve got five forks in my hand and all the boys have finished eating. There are four unused forks, which means I’m missing one.
“Alright buckos,” I say with squinted eyes. “Where’s the last fork?”
We all eye each other for a couple of seconds until Phil, a fifteen-year-old from California, jabs a finger in my direction. It was my fork we were missing, tucked beneath my elbow.
“Retard,” Phil jeers. All the boys laugh.
“Hey,” I say. “Language.”
“Yeah, Phil” Tiki says. “They don’t wanna be compared to him.”
More laughter and I let it go, because at least they’re all getting along. Some of the staff are a little bit more liberal with the language here, because ugly language is better than ugly action, and I agree. Sticks and stones may break my bones, and my insurance doesn’t kick in for another four weeks.
“Alright, boys. Line up.”
They form more of a zigzag. From left to right it’s:
Parker. Seventeen. Gold chain necklace. Goes for the “hood” look because it’s the only defense he can muster. Sweet as pie. Caught selling meth with his dad three times. It’s his third time back here. I’m convinced that he keeps coming back because he misses us. He insists otherwise.
Tiki. Also seventeen. From somewhere down in Florida. Does not fit in well with the group. Never shuts up about his girlfriend even though we’re all pretty sure she doesn’t exist. Has trouble understanding anyone or anything that doesn’t come blaring through a pair of earbuds. Caught him crying when he found out XXXTentacion died, even though it was several months after the fact. (Hyperlocal news spreads quickly here. The national doesn’t always make it in). I wanted to suggest other rappers he could listen to, but it didn’t feel very “positive-value” to do so. So I let him cry.
Phil. Fifteen. Terrible acne. Bad enough to where it dictates other facets of his personality, which is a shame because without it I’m sure he’d be glowing. Gets along well with just about anyone — until he doesn’t. Very violent when we can’t avoid his triggers. Sexually abused for at least four of the years that he hasn’t managed to repress yet.
Rider. Thirteen. Mullet. I asked him if the barber missed the back, but he said it was on purpose. By far the youngest, and smallest, kid in the lodge. The newest too, so I’m not sure what his story is. Looks like a little rat, but in a cute way.
Glen. Black kid. Sixteen. Will definitely grow up to be a hermit. Very bright. Bitches about the book selection back at the lodge, and I don’t blame him. One arm. I don’t know what happened to the other one. Seems much more mature than the rest. His anger is of the bitter variety. Father was in jail when he was born, but he had the chance to meet him a couple of times growing up. He’d have been better off a stranger.
He raised his only arm. “Can we play basketball?”
I glanced past him through the windows of the cafeteria. It was snowing, and the sky was white. My back hurt.
“It’s snowing,” I offered, knowing this wouldn’t change anything.
“There’s no snow on the ground,” he countered. “It’s all still in the air.”
The others took his side instantly. I had a Sandra Bullock DVD, loaded with positive-values back at the lodge, and the boys were well aware of that. They’d rather freeze.
They argued over which Team Glen would get to play for on the way back. He wasn’t very good (he’s got one arm) but they’d come accustomed to building him up without really even knowing that they were doing it. It was too cold to get all misty-eyed, so I walked in silence and listened to the boys bicker.
I halted the group outside the lodge and leaned into Rider while I searched for my keys.
“Ok. You need to get the ball quietly and come right out.”
“If the other boys see you, they’ll want to come too and then our ratio will be all messed up. Hurry.”
He returned with the basketball and a remote-control car.
I shook my head at the car, and his eyes grew wide with panic.
“But it’s my day,” he whined. “How come they get to play basketball but I can’t play with my car?”
“Leave it,” I said. “I can’t watch all of you if you’re zipping that thing all over campus.”
In a flash, Rider’s eyes fell from wild to dull. He stared at me for a moment and then whirled around, flinging the car through the doorway back into the lodge. It cracked against the wall and bounced off the floor. He turned back toward me and stared into the cold cement, as if he were trying to summon demons through the cracks to murder me.
“Gonna be hard to drive it ever, if it’s broken,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “Let’s go.”
He lifted his eyes towards mine, slowly, his face as blank as the winter sky above us.
“You know what, Wyatt?” he said. “I know you’ve been going through a rough time lately, but I’ve been praying for you.”
I rolled my eyes and gestured for the group to move.
“No, no,” he continued, “I really have. I can tell you’ve been having a hard time outside of work and you’ve carried it into work with you and that’s okay. And if you need to take it out on me, that’s okay, I get it, I really do, I’m here for ya, Wyatt.”
He started bouncing the ball as we made our way toward the court.
“I pray for ya every night, Wyatt, that whatever it is that’s been bothering you, that God can help you through it. I pray each and every night. I know you think you’re all big and tough, always trying to control and manipulate us, but everyone has their problems and that’s okay.”
He was still going when we finally reached the court. His speech running faster and faster, like the fast forward button got jammed. His squeaky voice, gradually rising in pitch. The other boys struggled to stifle their laughter.
I dropped my backpack onto the picnic table just behind the hoop.
“And if you can’t handle watching all five of us, that’s okay! Maybe someone else can come in and do it for you.”
I laughed, unsure of whether to reprimand him or praise him for his condescension. It was impressive for a thirteen-year-old. So much mouth for a little mouse.
He froze when he saw me smile. He picked up his dribble and turned toward the foot of a hill, where a creek snaked through the middle of the campus.
“Go fetch, lil bitch,” he spat, as he flung the ball down the hill. It bounced twice before it splashed into the creek.
“What the fuck, Rider!” Glen hollered. “That was my ball.” He brought his hand to his face in a state of agony.
I pictured Glen staggering through the icy water, trying to scoop up the ball with his only arm.
“Wait here,” I growled. “Don’t go anywhere. Or there will be consequences.”
The ball floated slowly, but it bounced against the river rocks and drifted to the other side of the creek.
The water was only a few inches deep, but it was cold enough to send chills up my spine as I struggled to wade through it. I really did feel like a “lil bitch” in that moment, lunging into the water to grasp the ball before it could go beneath the bridge. My pants were soaked up to my knees when I returned, livid and embarrassed. I whipped my backpack from the picnic table.
“You’re done, Rider,” I said flatly. “You can kiss your car goodbye for the next month.”
The boys said nothing. They all looked into the asphalt.
Except for Rider. He smiled at me.
Nobody said a word the entire walk back.
Agony is contagious here.
Rider stomped into the therapist’s office as soon as we returned to the lodge. I could hear her from the milieu, desperately trying to de-escalate the boy. Reminding him to breathe. Suggesting a plethora of the coping skills she taught him in the three weeks he had been here. It was like trying to throw a weighted blanket on an angry bull.
The rest of the boys were with me in the milieu, trying to watch the fourth Harry Potter movie. They grew frustrated at not being able to hear the submerged song of the Golden Egg over Rider’s wailing. I could sense the tension, transferring from body to body.
Tiki closed his eyes and cupped his ears with his hands. He began rapping one of his favorite songs, repeating the same lines over and over again, completely undeterred by the angry demands from the others to pipe down.
Day and night, on my mind, please don’t kill the vibe. Oh, no, I swear to God, I be in my mind.
I saw the look, like lightning, strike Phil’s eyes, but could not make it there before he cocked back and slapped Tiki, hard, in the side of the head.
“Rooms, now!” I bellowed, instantly relieved, (and slightly surprised) when Parker, Glen, and Phil darted down the hallway and into their rooms.
Tiki chose to remain in the milieu, pacing back-and-forth with his fists clenched.
Landon, my fellow staff member, came bounding in from the kitchen just in time to see Tiki trudge up to the TV stand.
He held both hands up, open-palmed, and murmured, “Tiki. Let’s go for a walk. Just you and me. Get some air.”
We both knew that Tiki wouldn’t hear him. He could only hear the cacophony, amplifying as it ricocheted throughout the parameters of his mind. Auditory shrapnel.
We also knew it was going to be a long night, when Tiki gripped both corners of the old tube TV and ripped it off the stand, face-down onto the wood floor. It sounded like a gun went off — sparks zigzagging across the hardwood and plumes of smoke spiraling up toward the ceiling.
Landon nodded at me as Tiki raced into the seclusion room.
I yanked the protective foam pad from a hook in the office and followed Landon down the hallway. Tiki had already closed the door behind him by the time we got there. He slammed his body into the wall and sunk into a crisscross on the floor.
Landon peeked through the window. The seclusion rooms had mirrors angled at each of the corners, so staff could always keep an eye on the youths. They would try to scoot across the floors, trying to find a spot where they couldn’t see us in the reflection of the mirrors, looking back at them.
Whenever I tried to imagine being the one in the seclusion room, I wondered whether it might be better to give youths their privacy. I recalled being in my early twenties, when I felt like I was losing it. I would run to the mountains where I knew no one could find me. Where no one could see me.
When we heard the dull thuds, vibrations bouncing from wall to wall, I was reminded of why our invasive eyes were necessary.
Landon squinted through the window. “It’s just the bottom of his fist,” he said calmly. “We’ll give him a minute.”
“But still, call EST.”
I pulled the flip phone from my pocket and dialed four digits. I had to yell into the phone, as the thumping got progressively louder. When the thumps suddenly sounded more like cracks, I turned to Landon, who brought his index finger to his forehead.
“Bring the mat,” he whispered as we slipped through the doorway.
The sound of his skull, rapping against the wall, spilled into the hallway and echoed throughout the lodge.
They fired me the next morning. Right before I could clock in. A member of the Emergency Support Team caught three of the boys smoking cigarettes in one of the bedrooms while we were stuck in the restraint with Tiki.
Cigarettes, with a lighter, that Parker had fished from my backpack while I was in the creek. Cigarettes that I had frantically searched for on the drive back home that night in my cold, wet pants.
All tobacco products are prohibited from the property of the Center, my boss told me. Even in employee vehicles. You know that.
Damn near every person working here smokes, I pleaded. We have to.
You left five minors unattended. For a basketball.
I couldn’t argue that.
And then I saw Rider, little rat-faced child, as I got into my truck and left the parking lot. He stood in the grass, just above the curb.
The remote control in his hand.
I don’t know if he did it on purpose. Zipping the car right out in front of my tires.
I don’t know why I braked.
Instinct, I guess. It would have been a nice way to exit. Retribution.
When I stopped there, Glen came running up to my window. He glanced over his shoulder and pulled something from his pocket.
“I’m sorry you got fired, Wyatt,” he said somberly. “I stashed these in the cap of my deodorant.” He reached his arm into my window.
Two cigarettes. One of them broken in half.
“Thank you for saving my basketball.”