Gecko Fosse is behind the wheel of a powder blue Infiniti M45 sedan, enjoying the thrum of the idling engine and not thinking. Gecko has elevated not thinking to the level of high art. He's almost as good at it as he is at driving, and that's very good.
Right now he's not thinking about the fact that he's too young to hold a license – that he's still got two years to go before he even qualifies for a learner's permit. He's not thinking about what his brother Reuben meant when he said he needed to “pick something up” at an electronic games store that closed two hours ago.
Mostly, he's not thinking about the bald guy in the rearview mirror, sprinting up behind him, waving his arms and yelling.
“Hey, that's my car!”
The bald guy grabs for the door handle, but Gecko is already squealing away from the curb, grooving on the burst of acceleration. It's his favorite feeling – that boost of pure power, like a titanic hand propelling him forward.
There's the store, coming up on the left. A flick of Gecko's wrist, a tap on the brake, and the Infiniti is right there. The place is dark. No sign of Reuben and his buddies. Gecko rabbit-punches the leather of the steering wheel, producing a staccato honk of the horn. Rueben leans into the window display of Wiis, waving him urgently away. Gecko stomps on the gas and wheels around the corner out of sight.
Reuben – there's someone to not think about. This is supposed to be his new ride. Gecko's gaze darts to the ignition, which has been ripped out, a pair of wires protruding from the column. No key. Reuben and his friends think they're so gangster, but they're really more like the Keystone cops. Leave it to them to steal a car and then wave it right in front of the guy who used to own it. And if they're dumb enough to pull something like that, who knows what they're up to inside House of Games?
He turns left and left again, circling back onto Jackson . It's effortless. The wheel is an extension of his hands, just the way he likes it. Gecko's the car, and the car is Gecko. Not bad, this M45 …
Uh-oh. The bald guy's dead ahead, and he's managed to flag down a traffic cop. The cop steps right into the Infiniti's path, holding his hand out like, well, a cop. Gecko slaloms around him and then floors it. In the blink of an eye, the Infiniti is halfway down the next block. Gecko grins into the mirror. The officer and the car owner scramble helplessly in his wake.
The smile disappears abruptly as his rearview changes. The door of the shop bursts open, and out stumble Reuben and his two cronies, weighed down with huge armloads of video games. One of them actually runs into the traffic cop, bowling him over in a spray of falling cases.
Gecko shifts into R. Now the acceleration is pressing on his chest, propelling him backwards. Uh-oh. The light changes. A solid line of traffic is coming at him from the other direction. He presses on the gas, steering with one hand as he peers over his shoulder at the tons of metal hurtling toward him. The gap disappears in a heartbeat, split seconds to impact –
At the last instant, a tiny space opens up between and SUV and a van. Gecko swerves for it, threading the needle. The passenger mirror shatters as the van passes too close.
Gecko slams on the brakes, and Reuben and company pile in, raining discs all over the backseat. The Infiniti screams away.
His brother is the picture of outrage. “What are you doing, Gecko? You trying to get us busted?”
Gecko doesn't respond. His not thinking kicks back in. He's not thinking about the stolen car, or what his brother has gotten him into again. From the first time Reuben saw him piloting a Go-Kart, Gecko's fate was sealed. A getaway-driver-in-training since age 9.
The passengers are taking inventory of the haul, squabbling over who gets what, when they first hear the sirens.
Reuben slaps his brother in the back of the head. “Get us out of here, man!”
Gecko is already up to eighty on the avenue, weaving skillfully in and around traffic, using the sidewalk when necessary. Without telegraphing his move, he squeals into an underground parking garage, dutifully taking the ticket from the machine. He sails through the tight rows of parked cars as if taking a Sunday drive on the widest boulevard in town. The exit beckons dead ahead, leading onto a different avenue, this one southbound.
The Infiniti blasts through the wooden barrier, splintering it and sending the pieces flying. In an impressive burst of horsepower, the car streaks through four lanes of moving traffic and whips around the next corner.
That's where it happens. An elderly nanny, pushing a baby carriage in front of her, steps off the curb to cross with the light. It's a split second decision, and Gecko makes it. He wrenches the steering wheel, and the speeding car brushes the back of the shocked nanny's coat. The right front tire jumps the curb and plows up onto an old mattress leaning on a pile of trash. With the passenger side climbing and the driver's side still on the road, the Infiniti flips over. For a heart-stopping moment they are airborne, hot video games bouncing around like ping pong balls.
Gravity reverses. A teeth-jarring crash.
Everything goes dark.
Gecko opens the dryer door and staggers back from a blast of arid heat that sears his skin and bakes the moisture out of his eyes, nose, and mouth. He reaches in, burning his fingers on the metal snaps of at least thirty orange jumpsuits.
The industrial size equipment in the laundry room of the Jerome Atchison Juvenile Detention Center must be powered by volcanic heat, accessed straight from the earth's core, Gecko reflects, trying to blink some tears back to his eyes.
Strange that it would be hard to cry in a place like this. It took all his strength to hold himself back from bawling on day one, when they marched him through the tall gates topped with razor wire. Only thoughts of Reuben in adult prison kept him from completely going to pieces.
Atchison 's probably a picnic by comparison …
On the other hand, that's Reuben's problem. This whole mess is one-hundred-percent his fault. Gecko was the most surprised guy in the world to wake up in the inverted Infiniti and find himself in deep trouble. Grand theft auto; accessory to robbery; driving without a license. There weren't this many charges against Al Capone.
Their mother was so shattered by Reuben's fate that she barely even noticed her younger son sinking into similar quicksand. And as for his court-appointed lawyer – at the hearing, the guy seemed relieved that Gecko would be off the streets for a while.
Probably drives an Infiniti …
Eventually, the jumpsuits are cool enough to be handled. Gecko teeters under the weight of an enormous armload, drops it on a table, and begins the process of folding. In thirty seconds, the sweat dripping from his brow is dotting the orange cotton. At that, the laundry is considered one of the better jobs at Atchison . The road gangs come back with nasty blisters and worse attitudes, and the kitchen crews lose their appetites for months.
The attack is so sudden, so unexpected, that he's captured and immobilized before he has time to utter a sound. A pillowcase is pulled down over his head and past his shoulders to imprison his arms.
He knows exactly what's coming, and it terrifies him. This hazing ritual is legend at Atchison . He's been waiting for it – dreading it – for two months.
He tries to shrug out of the hood, but strong, rough hands clamp around him. A voice snarls, “Don't even think it, punk!” He's aware of at least four or five people around him.
The first blow catches him on the side of the head, just above the ear. It feels like the impact of a Tomahawk missile, although he knows it's just a bar of soap being swung inside a sock. “Classes” at Atchison are a joke. No one – teacher or student – expects any learning to take place. But the inmates here could write a set of encyclopedias on how to inflict pain.
The second shot is to his ribcage. It's astounding that a mere bare of soap can hurt this much. It starts his heart racing, but no faster than his mind. His panicked thoughts are of a boy he never met – street name: Q-Bone – who was beaten so badly this way that he died of a heart attack at age fifteen. Or so the story goes.
Another explosion of pain, and Q-Bone's fate isn't hard to believe. Will Gecko Fosse be the next rumor?
All at once, the hands imprisoning him melt away, the beating stops, and there are scurrying footsteps.
Gecko struggles out of the pillowcase. Mr. Bell, the so-called school's so-called principal, is standing in the doorway of the locker room. He's also the so-called guidance counselor. But from the sidearm he wears, everybody can tell he's just like all the other adults in this place – a jail guard.“What are you fooling around for, Fosse? Don't you know I have to write you up for this?” Here at Atchison , attempted murder is the victim's fault.
It never even occurs to Gecko to try to explain the situation. These people are in a business where the customer is always wrong. Besides, ratting – even on nameless, faceless kids you can't identify – earns you more than a bar of soap in here.
“Sorry,” Gecko mumbles finally.
Bell sighs in exasperation. “Follow me. There's someone to see you in the office.”
All through the labyrinth of corridors, Gecko wracks his brain. Who came to see him? And why not during regular visiting hours in the usual meeting area? Mom? No, not with her working two jobs, and home a hundred and fifty miles away. Reuben? He's behind bars of his own, guarded by men with even bigger guns.
They pause at the security gate and wait for the attendant to buzz them through. He does, and pats Gecko down for sharp objects.
The office door is open, and Gecko cranes his neck eagerly to peer inside. His visitor is – he frowns. A total stranger.
The fear races back. It's all a mistake. They've called the wrong kid. I'm going straight back to the laundry, where those guys can finish the job! I have to figure out a way to defend myself …
The stranger stands up. “Graham Fosse?”
“All right, Gecko. Come on in. Have a seat.”
Warily, Gecko sidles into the room and perches on the edge of a chair.
The newcomer turns to Bell . “Thanks. I can take it from here.”
Bell is reluctant. “I don't think that's such a good idea.”
“Don't worry. I can handle myself.”
Bell doesn't budge. “He's outside lockup. Regulations say he has to be accompanied.”
Gecko sizes up his visitor. He's about five-nine – not tall, but not short either, and neither thin nor fat. His hair is kind of sandy – not blond, not dark; red, maybe. He doesn't have a single distinguishing feature, like a scar, birthmark, or mustache. Even his eyes are not quite blue, not quite brown, not quite green. Gecko can't imagine anything more difficult than being asked to describe him. He's practically an un-guy.
“I'm Douglas Healy.”
Gecko waits for more. It doesn't come.
Should I know this person?
“I'm the one behind this new program you've been hearing about – the alternative living situation.” Healy frowns. “Well, surely you've been told you're a candidate for …” His voice trails off. “No?”
Gecko doesn't know how to respond. He doesn't want to get himself into any more trouble, but he's never heard of Douglas Healy, and has no idea what the newcomer is trying to say.
Healy's nondescript eyes flash with anger as he wheels on Bell . “It's taken more than a year to get this program approved! To get the funding in place! I've been talking to parents, for God's sake! Are you telling me that nobody even bothered to mention to Gecko that he's being considered?”
Bell shrugs. “This is the first I'm hearing of it. You want to see if the superintendent's in? He'd be the one to ask.”
The newcomer lets out an exasperated breath. “The last thing I need is more red tape, thank you very much.” He addresses the teenager in the orange jumpsuit. “Gecko, how'd you like to get out of this place? I mean right now – today.”
Gecko is wary. When something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. “With you?”
“I've received a New Directions grant from the Garfield Foundation to create a living situation for boys in the juvenile detention system. A halfway house, if you will.”
“Halfway to where?” Gecko asks suspiciously.
Healy smiles. “Here's how it works: You live with me and two other boys in an apartment. You go to school; you go into counseling; you do community service. To be blunt, you work your butt off, and keep your nose clean. If you're looking for a vacation, this isn't it. But it also isn't Juvie. ‘Halfway' means halfway home. You do your time with me, and you walk away from all this. Mess up, and you're right back here.”
Outwardly, Gecko betrays little emotion. Inside, though, his brain is processing feverishly. Could this be real – a chance to get out of Atchison ? To erase the nightmare of the last two months? To escape the torture that awaits him in the laundry room, if not today, then soon enough?
A dozen possible problems appear in his mind. “What about my family – my mom?” he corrects himself. It's unlikely that Reuben will be a factor in anything for the foreseeable future.
Mr. Bell supplies the answer to that one. “When you're in the system, the Juvenile Justice Department is your family. We can transfer you at our discretion. From our perspective, a halfway house is just an extension of our facilities.”
Gecko tries hard to keep his voice steady and his expression unreadable. “What if my mother comes to visit me and I'm not here?”
“I spoke to your mother,” Healy says quietly. “She understands that you're being given a once in a lifetime opportunity. You won't be seeing her anytime soon. No contact at all for the first six months. That's a condition of the grant. No phone calls, no e-mails, no letters.”
“And if I say no?”
“You won't,” Healy replies confidently. “Living in jail or living free. It's not much of a decision.”
Gecko nods. He made the decision back at right now – today. To avoid a return visit to that laundry room, he'll happily follow this un-person to the end of the earth.
Brilliant sunshine turns the choppy waters of Narragansett Bay to diamonds. It's a perfect New England scene – blue sky, whitecaps, even a family of seals basking on an outcropping of rock.
It means less than nothing to Terence Florian. He stands on the deck of the motor launch, never looking back at Lion's Head Island , where he has lived for the past seven months – or five hundred years, depending on whether you go by calendar time or how long it feels.
“You're an idiot,” the counselors told him time and time again. “Lion's Head is one of the top alternative detention programs in the nation. There are thousands of applications for the spot we're wasting on you. Do you realize what life is like in a federal juvenile detention center? Those places are torture chambers compared to the way you live here.”
Probably true – if you don't count the boredom.
Natural beauty? Try a useless rock in the middle of the ocean, too small for the seagulls to use as a poop target. Try milking cows, planting seeds, feeding chickens, and shoveling out barns. Try no TV for seven months, no contact with the outside world. For a Chicago kid, born and bred, it's like being exiled to the moon.
In his opinion, the only beauty in this ride is the fact that it's taking him away from Lion's Head. Where to? That's not important. He'll cross that bridge when he comes to it.
The terminus of the ferry service is a ratty ancient dock that's destined to sink into the ocean at any moment. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen today. It would be a great farewell to this dump.
Kellerman, the counselor, reaches out and hands him ashore.
“Grab your gear. We've got a long drive ahead.”
Terence doesn't ask where they're heading. He's not giving Kellerman the satisfaction of knowing that he cares. He tosses his duffle in the back of the pickup truck. The biggest tragedy of his life so far isn't Juvie; it's the fact that everything he owns in the world fits inside one little pack. Not that he's got big dreams; dreams are for suckers. His old man taught him that lesson fairly early on. The jerk never understood that while shouting, smacking, and cursing the dreams out of Terence, he was also giving Terence a dream of a different sort – the dream of putting several hundred miles between himself and his father. So far, so good on that score.
He climbs onto the flatbed after his stuff.
Kellerman laughs mirthlessly. “Sure – I'm really going to let you ride back there. You'll be gone at the first bend in the road. You know the rules. Get in the front.”
Terence isn't offended. He doesn't expect to be trusted. He's not trustworthy. “What do I care about the rules? What are you going to do – kick me out? I'm already kicked out.” He grins. “Hey, Kellerman, what did I do, anyway? How come I got the boot?”
“You're kidding, right? You know the policy. Three strikes and you're out.”
“That's the whole point,” Terence persists. “I got probably fifty strikes. What was so bad that it made even you guys give up on me? Or was it quantity, not quality?”
The counselor starts the engine and pulls onto the gravel access road. “Your new placement came through.” He won't meet Terence's eyes.
Not a good sign, that. In spite of everything, Terence knows there are some pretty horrible whistle-stops on the Juvie express. But he's determined to play it cool. “Whatever,” he says with a yawn. For Terence, it's more than a word; it's a philosophy of life. If you've got it, you can survive equally at Alcatraz or Club Med.
Growing up with dear old Dad, if you make it past ten, you're a survivor.
He leans back in his seat and gazes idly out the window. Same old nothing, only now it's green instead of blue. And it goes on forever.
He breaks the long silence. “It was that state senator's visit, wasn't it? Like I was going to keep his stupid wallet. What was I going to spend it on, anyway?”
Kellerman shoots him a cockeyed glare. “So what was the point of taking it if it wasn't for the money?”
Terence shrugs. “Maybe this is the point. I'm out, right?”
The counselor sighs. “I know it's a waste of breath to tell you this, but a lot of us do what we do because we honestly want to help kids.”
“Come to think of it,” Terence muses, “it was probably just the lobster in the toilet bowl.” He's reasonably sure Kellerman turns away so he can smile.
He dozes off, and when he awakens, they're still nowhere, although the highway seems wider and busier. Then they round a bend, and there, on the horizon, is a vast city skyline.
For an instant, he wonders if they might have driven all the way to Chicago . But no. He recognizes the Empire State building, the Chrysler building –
“Is that New York?”
Kellerman keeps his eyes on the road.
“You're putting me in Juvie in New York ?”
“There's an experimental new program here. Just three boys.”
Terence is astonished. “And they picked me? After the lobster thing?”
“Mr. Healy asked for you by name. Listen, Terence, I realize you never pay any attention to what I say, but hear me out: If your life isn't that terrible yet, it's only because you're the luckiest fool on the face of the earth. You just hit the lottery twice, and you don't even know it. There are only twelve placements on Lion's Head, and you frittered one of those away. Now you've been handed one of only three spots in this new setup. For God's sake, don't blow it!”
Terence makes no promises. Visions of the Big Apple are spinning in his head. Blow it? Maybe; maybe not. The important thing: there are definitely no cows in New York City.
Copyright 2007 by Gordon Korman, used by permission