“They’ll be at recess now, laughing, playing, knowing that they’re not in trouble and they won’t suffer in the least. I remember when I was one of those kids. Bouncing carefreely out the door, straight As, never in trouble. Of course, that doesn’t appeal to me now. Ever since–”
I open my eyes. Fluorescent lights above, voices chattering, desks scraping. I sit on a hard wooden seat while a tall figure looms over me. It waits until the talking ceases, the tables settle, and then it speaks. A low, gravelly voice, sending chills up and down my spine. The voice is shrouded by itself, but not unintelligible.
“Where is your paper, Wilson?” Here he pauses, and it seems like my math teacher is rising in size. “Taylor? Davis?”
The kids next to me, also jammed in desks, seem to shrink in their seats as the monster turns to each of us. All the other students have left, leaving three of their peers to face the wrath of this beast. I wonder about those other students. They’ll be at recess now, laughing, playing, knowing that they’re not in trouble and they won’t suffer in the least. I remember when I was one of those kids. Bouncing carefreely out the door, straight As, never in trouble. Of course, that doesn’t appeal to me now. Ever since–
“I announced it three times yesterday,” the voice jolts me back. With a whimper, the kid on my right, Jordan Davis, begins to speak, but is silenced by the creature’s next words. “Three times, Davis. Close your mouth.” The figure turns away in disgust. “You will see me after school. Three thirty. Do. Not. Be. Late.” His words, though not loud, leave our ears ringing as we murmur our consent, rise from our seats, and quietly file out of the room.
“Bro, Grossman’s a beast!” Prince Taylor, my best friend, says.
“Yeah man, you don’t mess with the Grossmonster,” I say, punching him back lightly on the shoulder. “I thought Jordie was gonna pee himself!” Prince cracks up, playfully nudging our timid friend on the shoulder.
“Yeah, yeah.” Jordie’s pale skin flushes, and he brushes his blond hair out of his earth-colored eyes. He used to be a teacher’s pet, but hasn’t fully conformed to our system.
“Man, you need a haircut!” I say, grinning.
The kid’s eyes roll again. “At least I don’t look like some military-school dropout!”
We all laugh at this. Before my mom got depressed, she tried to send me to some hardcore “Academy for Troubled Teens” or something. Prior to leaving, she shaved my head, but then she couldn’t make me leave the house after that. My hair is still growing back, leaving me looking like a small, hazel-eyed Justin Timberlake.
“After all that trouble, I don’t think I want to endure the lunch monitor screaming at me for no apparent reason,” I say, smirking. “Wanna skip?”
“Sorry, man, we got English next period, and you know Mrs. Jones calls parents,” Jordie says, and Prince nods.
“Alright, see you in detention.” I stroll down the hall nonchalantly towards the back entrance of M.S. 13.
Suddenly, someone comes out of the classroom on my left so quickly that I have no time to react. She plows into me, knocking me to the floor.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!” I look up from my spot on the floor to see a girl with long, black hair and deep, olive eyes. She’s wearing faded jeans, orange Converse, and a Penn State sweatshirt. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I say, embarrassed, hurrying to my feet. I try to step past her outside, but she moves, blocking my only way out.
“Where are you going?” she asks me suspiciously.
“I, uh, think I left my water bottle outside.” For some reason, I’m thrown off by this girl’s sharpness. Mostly, the hall monitors let me pass, but she’s different.
“I think you’re lying.” She says this definitively, no doubts about her statement.
Relax, D. I think. She’s just another seventh-grade student who probably won’t care too much if I sneak off. After all, it doesn’t affect her in the least. Why should she worry?
Offering her a lazy smile, I begin to continue past her down the hallway.
As I’m about to open the door, I hear a whisper.
“If you do that, I’ll tell Mrs. Jones,” The girl stage-whispers, turning the heads of some students working on laptops in the hallway.
I sigh. There’s no reason to argue with this girl. What’s the point? I would just get in more trouble.
D, maybe there’s no point in skipping. You’re broke and will get caught by the security guard anyway. There’s nothing to do without Jordie and Prince, so lay off it.
I cast the girl a glare, and march off towards the cafeteria.
“Dude, we thought you had chickened out on skipping or something!” Prince says. “So this girl stops you?”
“That’s right, man,” I respond. We stop in front of Grossman’s classroom. Jordie knocks, and approximately fifteen slow seconds tick by until the daunting man opens his door. He grins, and leads us to three desks in the middle of the room. “You will sit here in silence for half an hour. If one of you talks, ten minutes will be added to your sentence.”
Sentence. The last time I heard that word was in a courtroom. My dad stood in the middle, head bowed, hands shackled behind his back. The judge banged his gavel. “Mr. Wilson, you have been sentenced to four years in federal prison for breaking and entering, theft, and the injury of other citizens.”
Next to me, my mother burst into tears. “Why, Frank, why?” I heard her mumble through her grief. My father’s lawyer, Bill, turned to me. He looked angry. He opened his mouth to speak, but what comes out is Mr. Grossman’s voice.
“Wilson, if you want to stay, by all means, be my guest. Your friends would be disappointed though, I’m sure.”
I jerk awake, and look up to see my evil teacher towering above me. I grab my bag and race out the door as fast as my legs can carry me, beating my friends outside by ten whole seconds. We joke around for a couple minutes, but soon we have to go.
As Jordie, Prince, and I part ways, I sit on a bench in front of the bus stop, staring down at the floor. I hate detention, but I hate my father even more for being in jail and doing all those stupid things. I dig around in my pocket for the unfinished math homework, checking the bus schedule as I pull it out. While I was stuck in detention, the bus came and went, so I have half an hour to wait. Shrugging and checking around for any classmates that may catch me doing work, I begin on the algebraic equations. They’re actually not that boring, and by the time the bus comes, I’m almost finished with the paper. Smiling to myself, I complete the last two problems on the short bus ride to my house.
When I get home, I find Mom crashed on the couch, bottle of wine more than half empty next to her on the floor. Previous stains are located on other places of the old green rug that Dad gave to Mom when they got married. I don’t bother hiding them under old newspapers anymore, they’ve basically become a part of the shaggy piece of cloth. Mom’s still in her waitress uniform when I cover her with a blanket, the soft corners falling over her sleeping form. Her breath wafts up to me, the alcohol heavy, as I kiss my mother on her pale, overworked cheek. Turning away, I lug my schoolbag down the hallway to my room, not one thing out of place. Everything is tidy and neat, unlike the rest of the apartment. I fall asleep twisted in sheets that offer no comfort to my dreams that night.
I’m standing in the middle of my math classroom. The Grossmonster is standing there with that annoying girl from the hallway. The teacher sneers. Your father’s in prison? Detention, see me at three thirty. I start to protest, and then I hear laughing. I turn around to find Adam and Jordie laughing their heads off. What happened? I cry out, and suddenly the whole school–Hannah from Biology, Toby from History, Alex from English–they’re all there, surrounding me, laughing their heads off. It’s maniacal laughter, their heads thrown back and fingers pointing. I look down at myself, and realize that I’m not wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants anymore. My outfit has changed drastically. I’m dressed in a gray jumpsuit, no pockets and a number tacked to my chest. The walls of the classroom begin to transform, forming a cell, but my classmates are with me, closing in…
I wake up covered in sweat and shaking. It was just a dream, I tell myself. I get up and shuffle around in complete darkness, my hand shaking as I grope around for my cell phone. It’s 5:24 AM, so I do what I always do after a nightmare–I search up my father’s case.
Wednesday, November 16, 2010-–Marcus Wilson, with a history of federal offences and warnings, has finally been convicted of theft. The crime occurred earlier this year, when two armed, masked figures stormed a jewelry store and stole two diamond necklaces, one sapphire stone ring, and three pairs of pure gold earrings, three inches in length. One employee was injured in the process, receiving a broken wrist after being roughly shoved into a glass cabinet and falling to the floor. The other workers survived with minor injuries. Marcus Wilson and Anthony Johnson both pled guilty and were sentenced to four years in federal prison. Marcus has a wife and child, and Anthony has no family members that we were able to contact. The suspects and their families were not available for comment.
I shut off my phone and walk to the living room, where my mother is watching the local news.
“Morning, Mom,” I say, rubbing the last bits of sleep from my eyes. “You’re feeling better?”
She gives me a watery smile. “I love you, Dashiell. You are your father’s son…” Her half-lidded eyes return to the TV, and I nod to please her, now pondering the thought of what my dad was like as a young man. When he wasn’t involved with drugs, gangs, crime… I plop down next to her and put my head in my hands, unable to get the thoughts about my father out of my head.
“Hey Mom, how long has it been since we’ve visited Dad?” I know the answer. The last time we visited, I got really angry at him. We got into a yelling fight, and the visit was canceled early. It’s been over nine months.
“Honey, I don’t know. Sometimes things go by in a blur, or they drag out slowly…” Her words are beginning to slur, so I take the bottle of wine from her hand and set it aside. We watch TV until I realize I’m going to be late for school.
“Bye, Mom!” I shove last night’s paper into my schoolbag and run to catch the bus.
I decide that after school, I’m going to do something that I haven’t done in nine months.
I square my shoulders and walk into my dad’s temporary home. The guards pat me down, I sign some papers, and since I’m thirteen, I don’t need a parent or guardian here with me. The big security guy leads me through the familiar hallways, down the metal stairs, and into the basement, where Block C is located. We pass a couple doors, I read the numbers. J-9873. M-4277. O-3858. I wonder how all these men got here. What did they do? Do they have families that visit, or do they just waste away in their cells for fifteen years? Are they actually guilty, or were they framed for a crime? I realize all the questions and words buzzing around in my head are making my hands sweat and my mouth dry. I lick my lips and take a deep breath. We stop outside a door that reads W-8309. I know that number very, very well.
“Wilson, you got a visitor!” The guard yells at the door. I can hear shuffling inside the cell, and there’s an awkward silence.
“He’s being pretty good. He could be out soon.” The guard continues. I nod, and then two hands are placed gently through the gap in the middle of the door. I stare at my dad’s hands. They look pretty normal, no scabs or scratches. That’s good, I tell myself reassuringly. The guard cuffs Dad’s hands quickly, expertly, and they withdraw. The door is opened.
My father stands, head down, hands cuffed in front of me. He’s wearing a gray jumpsuit like the one I had in my dream. My father raises his head, and I look him in the eye for the first time in months. His face is hollowed and gaunt, his eyes sunken and his cheekbones quite prominent.
“Dad?” I ask, my eyes already filling with tears. He’s unable to speak, I see his eyes light up with shock and sadness, and I can’t help but rush to him, hugging, loving, wanting. We stay like that for a long time, until I pull away.
“You’ve grown so much, Dashiell. I haven’t seen you for such a long time…” He says, voice hoarse. His shaggy brown hair falls into his face, and he wipes it away, along with a stray tear.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper.
He looks at me for the longest time. Finally he whispers, “There’s nothing to be sorry for, Dashiell. I should never have gotten involved with Anthony and those guys. I’m sorry for being hard on you. Will you forgive me?”
Without hesitation, I hug him again. “Yes, yes, yes,” I say. We end up moving to a table inside my father’s cell. He asks about Mom, and I tell him she’s a bit of a mess. He gets up, takes something from under his pillows, and returns. He gives it to me. I examine the bundle. It’s a stack of letters, bound by a piece of twine.
“I wrote these to your mother,” Dad says softly. “I’ve decided to work on the better me. When I get out of here, I won’t look at the gangs and my old buddies again. I’m going to be a new man, Dashiell. A new man.” He seems delighted with himself, so I smile as well. We chat for a little more, and of course we reach the inevitable subject–school. I spill everything; skipping school, the trouble my friends have got into. When the guard signals that our two hours are almost up, my father takes my hand.
Looking me in the eye, he says, “Son, you may not be the most well behaved kid at school. Actually, it sounds like you and your buddies are the troublemakers. And it sounds cool at the time, but you’ll start getting into serious trouble. You’re definitely going to regret what you did, and there’ll be consequences. That’s exactly what happened to me, and I beg you not to go down that path. Please, son, choose what’s right and be the better person. Stay away from people who lead you down a dangerous path. Remember, I love you, and your mother loves you too, so please avoid situations that are.”
He squeezes my hand, and the guard escorts me out of the room. As the door closes, I wave and say just loud enough for him to hear; “I love you too, Dad.”
When D got home, his mom was snoozing on the couch. He gently shook her awake.
“Hey, Mom. I… visited Dad today.” Feeling tired, he left the letters next to her bottle of Bud Light and retired to his room early. When he woke up and strolled down the hall the next day, the smell of eggs and bacon reached his nose. Rubbing his eyes hard, D saw his mother making breakfast in the kitchen, a pile of open letters on the counter. As he got closer, he saw the letters contained his dad’s handwriting.
“How much bacon, D?” his mother asked.
D went back to school that day. He walked in with Katie and a smile on his face. Looking the feared math teacher in the eye, he held out a neat, fully completed homework assignment. When Prince started making cat noises during the lesson, D didn’t join in. Jordie and Prince came up to him later that day.
“What’s up with you, man?” Jordie looked concerned, but Prince had a menacing look on his face as he stood defiantly behind Jordie, arms crossed.
“I… don’t want to do this anymore. I’m sick of playing around, getting in trouble, and never taking anything seriously. We’ll get into bigger trouble, you know.”
Both his friends’ expressions hardened.
“I thought we were real friends, Dashiell,” Prince spat at him. They walked away, wanting nothing to do with him anymore.
It was sad to watch his old friends ignore him, but Dashiell started hanging out with other kids after that, grades improving as well as his various relationships.
A few months after D’s visit, his father went on trial for the last time and the judge let him go. D’s life was finally piecing back together, especially since his father came back.