Henry unclenched his fists and took a deep breath. As he approached the door to the confinement cell, he could hear screaming and angry expletives interspersed with sobs. “How’s he doing?”
The fifty-something guard outside of the doorway lowered his newspaper. “You don’t want to go in there. That kid’s a lost cause.”
Henry didn’t respond, but pulled the keys from his belt unlocking the door and bracing himself for the onslaught. The sight of the boy crumpled on the floor, blood covering his shirt from his swollen, broken nose, broke his resolve to be hard and detached.
“Gene, you can’t keep doing this.” Henry closed the door and filled the space with his 6’7” frame. “You’re losing all your privileges and you’re gonna end up at Wilkers if anything happens again.” Might as well get straight to the point. After weeks of seeing improvement and gaining hope that the kid was actually getting it, hearing about his latest eruption had called it all into question. “What were you thinking? Has this all just been a game for you?”
“Well?” Henry continued, hoping to see some remorse in the hardened youth. Three months without any problems had to mean something.
“Well what?” Gene shot back. “I gotta let them know I ain’t someone they can mess with. I’s just making a point is all. That ain’t no crime, is it? You ain’t gonna send me anywhere. You know it’s not my fault. They’ve been setting me up.”
The boy rolled his eyes. Maybe that was true. The older boys had decided pretty quickly Gene wasn’t gonna fit in. But there was plenty of blame to go around.
“You started the fight this time, Gene. And this isn’t like all that little stuff you got into when you first came here. You crossed a line. Mr. Turner said one more strike and you’re out,” Henry warned.
“Are you kidding me?” He jumped up from the floor. At fifteen, Gene had already broken 6 ft., but he was as skinny as a rail. “That’s not fair, and you know it.” Tears threatened his eyes, but his anger must have kept them back. “I’ve done everything you said. I go to those stupid counseling sessions. I sit through all of that crap, and I get in one fight and they’re gonna ship me off? This is a joke. I guess it really is all about the money.” He turned away.
Henry glanced at the surveillance camera. They were listening. They were listening, but they weren’t hearing. Gene was right. Turner and the chief catered to the clientele. A bunch of rich daddies whose kids got in some bad trouble and needed to do their time quietly. Gene shouldn’t even be here, except that he was technically too young for Wilkers, and the other boy’s penitentiary was beyond capacity. “They’re not shipping you off yet,” Henry cleared his throat and made sure the tapes got every word. “They can’t just turn you over to Wilkers without data to prove you should be there.” Gene put his hand on the wall, shook his head, and didn’t turn around. Henry pressed on, “This is up to you. If you get shipped off, you’re only going to have yourself to blame.”
“You better believe I’m right,” Henry growled and turned the kid to face him. “You got a chance here that you wouldn’t have anywhere else. You think they have counselors like this at De Paul’s? They sure as hell don’t have them at Wilkers. You have a chance to turn it all around here. Don’t throw it away.” As he finished, he realized his hand was pinning the kid’s shoulder to the wall. He let him go with a pat.
Gene’s eyes dissected the words. Anger mingled with disbelief and a spark of hope. But then he shook his head and walked slowly to the other side of the little white room.
Words escaped Henry. He couldn’t make the kid see his potential. There wasn’t anything that could do that. You can’t make a person have hope. It’s like faith. They either choose it or they don’t.
Henry sucked in another deep breath. It helped him stay calm. He should be on I-5 right now half way home to sweet Annie, little Bunny Boo, and a Christmas tree in desperate need of some lights and tinsel, but instead he’s here watching a smart, gifted boy be angry at the world for causing him to drink, do drugs and making him steal some guy’s lousy i-phone and designer man purse.
Blocking the boy from the camera, he lowered his voice this time. “You’re different Gene. I can see that. The other boys in this place are going to grow up and learn how to steal and lie better and make money from it, and they’re going to get away with most of it too. You’re not going to get away with any of it, though. You’re the one who’s going to take the blame. And you’ll spend your life trying to feel better about yourself, but you won’t. You won’t because you’re always going to be waiting for someone else to fix this, but no one else will. You’ve got to do this yourself. You’ve got to want it.”
The boy glared. He was a hurt, caged, cub.
“You’re fifteen. You’re not a kid anymore. And whatever’s happened to you. It doesn’t decide where you go from here. You do that.” Henry tried to offer a hopeful smile, but his hope was starting to run out for this one. The kid didn’t flinch. Henry let the buzz of the lights take over the room and waited, willing the kid to see the light, but Gene kept his stony silence.
“Okay, then,” Henry conceded. “I’ll see you in two days. You’re going to spend Christmas in solitary.” He probably said the word “Christmas” too loud for the powers that were watching, but he didn’t care. This kid needed some Christmas.
Henry wanted to hug him. Just grab those skinny shoulders and pull them into a bear hug, but instead he nodded his head and kept looking until the kid met his gaze. There was something there this time. A pinprick of hope shining through a black wall of distrust. Gene didn’t say anything just gave that one look and walked over to the cot in the corner, but it was something. And at this point a pinprick is a super nova.
Henry stayed for about five more minutes. Neither of them spoke, but the tension melted. Kids come and go through here, and until now all of them hadn’t appeared to learn a single thing, except that money can make even serving a court-ordered sentence seem like taking a long vacation. Gene stood in the face of all of that. Bad life. No family. No apparent future. But not without hope. Henry could see that.
* * * * *
“Told you he was a lost cause. I’m not sure how that white trash even made it in here.” The guard had put his newspaper aside and was working through a Sudoku now. It was apparent he hadn’t been listening at all. Like everyone else, he had already made up his mind about the kid.
Henry locked the door and turned around, but before he could respond to the little thoughts of a narrow mind, Gene shouted at him through the wall. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Banner.”
“You too, kid,” Henry called back, ignored the guard, and then headed for home.