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return to paradise
By SIMONE ELKELES
FluxCopyright © 2010 Simone Elkeles
All right reserved.
Some people are damn lucky. Unfortunately I've never been one of those people. In fact, I think I'm one of those guys destined to always be caught in the crossfire. As I sit in the back of a squad car with handcuffs digging into my wrists, I think back to the first time I got arrested, almost two years ago.
I'd been drinking.
I was wasted.
And I was arrested for a crime I didn't commit.
Didn't matter, though. I got locked in juvie for a year anyway, mostly because I pled guilty to the hit-and-run drunk driving charges.
This time I'm getting arrested for drugs. Except I didn't smoke, inhale, ingest, snort, shoot up, or buy the shit. Okay, I admit I was living in a drug house. It was either keep a roof over my head and ignore the illegal stuff going on around me, or live on the streets.
I chose the roof. Looking back, maybe it wasn't the wisest choice. Living on the streets sounds mighty tempting right now. Nothing is worse than being locked up like a caged animal and relinquishing control of your own life. Being told when to shit, shower, shave, eat, and sleep isn't my idea of paradise. But then again, Paradise, where I grew up, wasn't paradise either. I'm wondering if paradise is just some word in the dictionary with the definition: this doesn't fucking exist.
I lean my head against the back seat of the squad car, wondering how I'm gonna get out of this. I have no money, no real friends, and my family ... well, I haven't had any contact with them since I left Paradise eight months ago.
When we arrive at the police station, the cop escorts me to a lady who has the exciting job of taking my mug shot. Then the cop orders me to his desk and introduces himself as Lieutenant Ramsey.
"Don't try anything stupid," he tells me as he unlocks the handcuff on my right wrist and secures it to a metal hook on his desk so if I wanted to flee I'd have to lug a fifty-pound desk with me. Needless to say, I'm not going anywhere.
After asking me a bunch of questions, he leaves me alone. I look around for Rio, one of my five roommates. We all got busted at the same time, when Rio and another one of our roommates were selling a crapload of meth to three guys who, if you ask me, looked like undercover cops who were just dressed up as badass gangsters. I think it was the gold tooth on one of the guys that gave it away. It looked like it'd been glued on and I could have sworn it became loose at one point and he swallowed it.
That was right before they pulled out their guns and yelled for us to kneel on the ground and put our hands on our heads. I'd been watching some reality show about a pawn shop, because the last thing I needed was to be involved in Rio's business.
Rio had asked me to help him make some runs a couple times, and I did. But I don't get off on selling drugs to guys who're so desperate to get high they'll give me their last dime to get it. The last time I was supposed to sell drugs for Rio, it was to a guy with three kids. He brought his three kids to our house, and when I saw their long, drawn faces and their ragged, torn clothes, I couldn't do it. I refused to sell him the stuff. Not that that makes me a good person or anything, especially because I know if I didn't sell it to him someone else would.
"Listen, Caleb," Ramsey says as he opens up a file folder with my name on the tab at the top. "You've got yourself in big trouble. Chicago judges aren't lenient on repeaters, especially when they're living in drug houses with over fifty thousand worth of meth and Z-tabs."
"I'm not a dealer," I tell him. "I work at Chicago Recycling."
"Just because you've got a job doesn't mean you don't deal." He picks up his phone and hands me the receiver. "You get one phone call. Tell me what number to dial."
I put the receiver down on his desk. "I waive my right to a call."
"Family? Friends?" he suggests.
I shake my head. "Don't got any."
Ramsey rests the handset back on the phone. "Don't you want someone to bail you out? The judge'll set bail later today or tomorrow. You should be prepared."
When I don't respond, he flips through my file. He looks up after a couple of minutes. "It says here Damon Manning was your transition counselor."
Damon Manning was supposed to make sure I stayed out of trouble back when I got released from juvie. He was a big black guy who scared my mom to death when he walked in our house during his scheduled visits. Damon assigned me my community service job and constantly drilled me on how to transition from being in jail to being back at home. He wouldn't take one-word responses or silence for an answer. The guy was a hardass who didn't take shit from anyone, and whenever I fucked up he let me know I better shape up or he would be personally responsible for telling the judge to lock me back up. I had no doubt that he'd do it, too.
Ramsey jots a number down and sets it in front of me.
"Damon Manning's phone number."
"And why would I want it?" I ask him.
"If you don't have family or friends to bail you out, I suggest you call him."
I shake my head and say, "No way."
Ramsey pushes the phone toward me and leans back in his chair. "Call him. If you don't, I will."
"Because I read Damon's reports on you, and he's rarely wrong about his assessments."
"What did he write?" That I was a complete fuckup who deserved to be locked up permanently?
"Why don't you call him and ask him yourself? You're in big trouble, Caleb. You need someone on your side right now."
I look at the phone and shake my head in frustration. Ramsey doesn't look like he's giving me a choice. I pick up the phone and dial the number.
"This is Damon," a deep voice answers.
I clear my throat. "Umm ... this is Caleb. Caleb Becker."
"Why are you callin' me?"
"I kind of got in trouble," I say, then clear my throat. I take a deep breath and reluctantly blurt out, "I need your help."
"Help? I didn't know you knew that word."
I briefly explain the situation. He sighs heavily a bunch of times, but says he's on his way over to the station. After my call, I'm escorted to a holding cell and wait for him. An hour later I'm told I have a visitor and am led to what I assume is one of the interrogation rooms. Oh, man. If things weren't bad enough, I have a feeling they're about to get worse as a very pissed-off Damon walks through the metal bulletproof door.
"What the hell did you get yourself into, Becker?"
"A shitload of trouble," I tell him.
Damon crosses his arms on his chest. "I could have sworn you were a guy who made one mistake and was going to turn his life around." He gets a distant, almost sad look on his face, but it's quickly masked. "I got to admit you reminded me of myself when I was your age."
"Yeah, well, you were obviously wrong."
He narrows his eyes at me. "Was I?"
This isn't the way it was supposed to be. I left Paradise to make everything better, but all I've managed to do is fuck things up for myself. I look Damon straight in the eye. "I didn't do it," I tell him. "I'm not a dealer."
"Why should I believe you?"
"Because it's the truth." I let out a breath, knowing it's a lost cause to plead my case but doing it anyway. "I don't expect you to believe me."
"Have you lied to me in the past?"
I close my eyes and shake my head. I can't tell Damon that I wasn't the one who hit Maggie. I told Leah I'd take that secret to the grave. I can't betray my own twin. Not now, and not ever. "Forget it."
"You're on the wrong path," Damon tells me.
"I didn't have a choice." I let out a long, slow breath and decide to level with him. About some stuff, anyway. "I found out my mom was addicted to meds. I think me being home made it worse. She kept expecting me to fake it that everything was okay. My entire family went along with the bullshit. I couldn't. Maggie was the only one keeping me sane, but I couldn't see her without getting shit from the cops, my parents, her mom, and even you. You once said I should get out of Paradise instead of getting close to Maggie. So now I'm here."
"Living with a drug dealer isn't a better option," Damon says, stating the obvious.
"It was a roof over my head."
"There are always options other than living with thugs," Damon tells me.
"Yeah, right." I look down at the red mark the handcuffs left on my skin. I seem to be all out of options right now.
"I'm really disappointed in you."
Disappointed is better than angry. I've seen Damon angry. He stiffens up like a bull with a thorn up his ass. Hell, when I got suspended from school for fighting, Damon looked ready to single-handedly kick my ass. The guy is huge and must weigh close to two-eighty. I'm not a lightweight, but he could sit on me and crush my bones.
"I'll be right back," Damon says, then leaves me alone in the room.
Ramsey comes back a half hour later, with Damon following in his wake. The officer sits on the edge of the small table in the room and looks down at me. "You're lucky, kid."
I'm about to be tossed in jail. I'm not feeling lucky right about now.
"I just talked to Judge Hanson," Damon says. "You'll have your arraignment this afternoon, and I'll pay any bail set. I'm friends with the district attorney who'll help you."
"Why would you do that for me?" I ask.
"Because someone did it for me a while back. There's one condition," he says.
Here it comes. The ax is about to fall. "What?" My ex-transition counselor has a stern look on his face. "You join Re-START."
"It's a group of kids whose lives have been affected by reckless teen driving. We're traveling for a month together, and each participant shares their story with various groups of kids in the Midwest. We'll be roughing it, so don't expect fancy hotels or the royal treatment. We'll be staying in dorms and campgrounds. This arrest isn't about drugs, Caleb. It's a direct result of your accident in Paradise. Join the program and help others. If you don't agree to come with me, I'm out of here. If I leave, I have no doubt they'll lock you up for good and throw away the key. You're eighteen now. If you thought juvie was awful, I guarantee that adult lockup will be one hundred times worse."
"So I really don't have a choice?"
"You do. Stay here and enjoy the fine hospitality of our state prisons, or get off your ass and follow me."
So there isn't a choice. One of the options is something I'd do practically anything to avoid. Even if it includes spending time with my old transition counselor.
We don't speak much the entire one-and-a-half-hour drive out to Redwood. He tries to ask me questions and I do my best to dodge them. When we pull up the driveway of a one-story duplex, he explains, "You'll sleep at my place tonight, and meet up with the rest of the group tomorrow afternoon."
Inside, I drop my duffle next to a faded plaid couch. On the mantle above the empty fireplace is a picture of Damon with a little boy, about eight years old, in a Little League uniform.
"Is he yours?" I ask him, wondering how this guy ended up living alone in a small town in the middle of the boondocks of Illinois. Paradise isn't too far away from here.
It's obvious from the look of the place he lives alone. There's no artwork on the bare white walls. The place isn't like my house back in Paradise - it's too plain and too unused, like he just comes here to sleep and that's it.
"You divorced?" I ask.
"You gonna stop asking questions? I think I liked you better on the ride here, when you didn't talk at all."
After Damon makes a surprisingly good dinner of chicken and rice that reminds me of my mom's cooking, he heads down a narrow hall to bed. It's quiet in the house. I'm not used to this much silence. At Rio's place, there were always people partying or coming in and out at all hours. I didn't mind, because I don't sleep much anyway.
I turn the light off although I know I'm not going to get much sleep tonight. It'll be like usual ... every fifteen minutes I'll wake up and stare at the ceiling and pray for sleep to come. It does, but in such short spurts I wonder what it'd be like to get a full night's sleep with no interruptions. That hasn't happened for years ... since before the accident.
In the morning I'm eating some healthy whole-grain type of cereal when Damon walks into the kitchen. I can't help but ask, "Why did you help me?"
"Because I think you're a good kid," he says, his back to me as he stands in front of the stove and fries some eggs. "You just have to make better choices."
In the late afternoon, we throw our bags in the car. Damon stops off at the Redwood community center, where a big white van is waiting for us. He gets summoned into the building and tells me to hang by the van and introduce myself to the rest of the group. There's two other guys and three girls standing there waiting with their baggage.
When one of the girls moves aside and I get a glimpse of the person she was shielding, my entire body goes numb.
Excerpted from return to paradise by SIMONE ELKELES Copyright © 2010 by Simone Elkeles. Excerpted by permission.
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