I don’t want to be back here. I didn’t miss jail at all last night. Not for a minute. And I don’t plan to be on the wrong side the bars again. Ever. But here I am, back where I never wanted to be. I’m outside the prison, but still… I’m wearing jeans, sneakers, a t-shirt, and a tracking bracelet on my ankle. The boys standing in line are still in prison garb. They haven’t been officially released from the youth program yet. But this volunteer program is their first step toward that.
Doors open in front of me and I step onto the bus, sliding into the front seat, pushing myself close to the window. I put my backpack with my meager belongings in the seat next to me, hoping the bus isn’t so crowded that someone has to sit with me.
A young man behind me sits forward in his seat. “You going to the farm, too?” he asks. His breath smells like he’s been eating the ass end out of a mule.
“Dude, sit back,” I grumble. I admit it. I’m a little hung over.
He leans back and I lay the back of my head against the window and stretch my legs along the length of the seat. But then his nose pops up near the crack between the seat and the window, right by my face. “You’re going to the farm, right?” He breathes heavily right by my ear. And it was two mules. Not just one ass that he ate. Good God, somebody better get him a Tic-Tac. I reach into my backpack and pull out a roll of breath mints, and pass him one. He pops it into his mouth and smiles.
“Yeah, I’m going to the farm,” I say quietly.
“Me too. Cool, isn’t it?” He grins. He’s even younger than me. I’d guess he’s eighteen, compared to my twenty-one.
“Yeah, cool,” I mutter.
“What were you in for?”
They know I was in prison? For some reason, I thought I was coming as a mentor of sorts. Not as an ex-con.
“Lay back and get some sleep,” I say, closing my eyes.
I really want to know what the kid was in for. But I would never ask. That would just be rude.
“I killed somebody,” he says. I open my eyes and see that he’s smiling. His eyes are a little maniacal, and they bounce from one place to another.
“Sure you did,” I mutter, but fuck it all… Now I’m intrigued.
“No, really,” he says. He’s suddenly excited, and he rubs his hands together. “Deader than a doornail.” He holds up his finger like it’s a gun and points it, then makes a pfewww sound with his mouth.
“Mm hmm,” I hum, closing my eyes again.
“Have you been there before?” he asks. He’s kind of like a puppy. A puppy that can kill people. Maybe a cocker spaniel. Those always were fucked up little dogs. My neighbor, Mrs. Connelly, had one and I used to walk it. That thing would bite you as quickly as it would look at you.
“Where?” I ask.
“The farm,” he says, getting all excited again. I hear him moving in his seat like he can’t sit still.
It’s actually called Cast-A-Way Farms, based on the brochures I saw yesterday. I force my eyes open. “No. Never been.”
“Me neither. But I know someone who went last year. He said it was nice. Except for the sick kids and the ones that are retarded.”
I fucking hate that word. “They’re not retarded,” I say. “They’re deaf. And some have MS. And some have autism. And lot of other things that make them special. But they’re not retarded.” I fucking hate labels. My brother, Logan, the one who is deaf, has been called more names than I can count.
“Oh, okay,” he says. He nods. “Okay.” He repeats himself.
“Don’t use that word again,” I warn.
“Okay,” he says. He nods, his head bobbing like a dashboard dog.
The bus driver gets on the bus and my parole officer enters, carrying his clipboard. He sits down in the seat opposite me and flips through his paperwork. He’s big and beefy and he’s packing. He’s dressed in a V-neck shirt that stretches tight across his shoulders, and khaki pants. He looks over at me and his brows draw together. “You Reed?” he asks.
I open my eyes. “Yes, sir,” I say. We actually met at the prison, but he must not remember.
“How’d you score this program?” he asks.
I shrug. “No idea.” I have a good idea it had something to do with Mr. Caster, but I don’t know what happened. He acts like this is an honor, or something.
His brows pucker again and he reaches for his clipboard. “You’re the one whose brother is deaf.”
I glare at him. “Yep.”
He nods and sets his clipboard to the side. “There will be a few hearing impaired kids at the camp. And there’s one boy who has MS and has a tracheostomy, so he can’t talk. You’ll be working with him as a translator.”
I nod. “Sounds good.”
“How long have you been signing?” he asks.
My brother lost his hearing when he was thirteen, and that was ten years ago. “About ten years?” I say. I’m not completely sure. I’ve been signing so long that I don’t even realize I’m doing it most of the time.
He turns so that his knees are facing me. “What were you in for?” he asks quietly.
I nod toward his clipboard. “You already know,” I say. I close my eyes again.
He grabs my foot and shakes it. I jerk my leg back. That’s something one of my brothers would do. “I’d rather you tell me.”
“Possession with intent,” I say quietly. I really don’t want Tic-Tac behind me to hear me.
He extends a hand to me. “My name’s Phil,” he says.
I grip his hand in mine. “Pete.”
“You’re not going to be any trouble, are you, Pete?” he asks.
“No, sir,” I reply. No trouble at all. I want to go home when this over.
He nods. “Fair enough. I may need for you to help me with some of the younger kids.” He jerks a thumb toward the back of the bus.
I nod. I’m the oldest one here, aside from Phil.
Phil gets up and sits down across from Tic-Tac and goes through the same drill. I see him do it with everyone. There are about ten young men on the bus, all under the age of eighteen, if I had to guess. There’s one younger boy who doesn’t look older than sixteen.
I heave a sigh and close my eyes. I cross my arms over my chest and try to sleep. If I’m correct, we have a few hours to go until we get to Cast-A-Way Farms.
The pool is wonderful. It’s too bad it’s surrounded by assholes. I squeal and cover my head when another one jumps into the water right beside me, drenching me with water, despite the fact that I specifically said I didn’t want to get wet. I have somewhere to be when I leave here.
Chase pops his head up out of the water and rests on his elbows right beside my head, his nose almost touching mine. “Didn’t get you wet, did I?” he asks. He looks at me just long enough to make me uncomfortable. Or make me want to punch him in the nose. I shrug to myself. Whichever comes first. He has been dropping these sexy hints ever since I went out to dinner with him two weeks ago. If I could do it with anyone, it wouldn’t be Chase Gerald. Besides, he doesn’t know what happened to me my first semester at college. Nobody knows about it, except for my family, Peter Reed, Rachel and the man who turned me off sex forever.
I want to tell Chase to fuck off, to tell him that he can just stop trying, because I’m never going to be the easy girl who will fall into bed with him. But I can’t tell him I was raped, because then he’ll look at me with pity. That’s the last thing I want.
I pretend like I didn’t hear his comment about getting wet. The type of wet he’s talking about isn’t even in my vocabulary. Chase grunts, and pulls himself from the water. I don’t know why I invited him over. He brought his buddies, and I don’t know which one of them gives me the creeps more. Even worse, they brought their girlfriends. These are the same girls who look at my little brother like he’s some kind of carnival side show.
Chase stands over me and shakes the water from his hair. His kneecap is directly beside my head. With a leg swipe, I could take him out…
His eyes narrow and I hear the rumble of a bus coming up the driveway. I stand up and grab my towel, dry off really quickly and then I pull my clothes on over my bathing suit. “Sorry, Chase. I have to go.”
“Are those the camp kids?” he asks.
I twist my hair up into a messy pony tail.
“Yep.” This is my favorite part of the summer. My dad has been holding his camps here since my brother was three, when we realized there wasn’t a safe place to send him to camp where he could be what he is – a normal little boy with autism.
The first year we did it, we invited only autistic kids. Through the years, it’s grown. Now we have kids with challenges like Down’s syndrome, autism, processing disorders and this year there’s even a group of young boys coming who are deaf. I’m excited. These boys need me. And they don’t threaten me. I don’t dream about them hurting me… Not like the others.
“Is that a prison van?” Chase asks.
“Yep,” I say.
Every year, my dad invites young men from the local youth detention center to come and volunteer at the camp. They’re not violent young men and are screened carefully, and they’ll come with their own director. But they all do have a criminal history. They get community service hours at the camp.
“Are you sure that’s safe?” Chase asks.
“Yep,” I say. I’d be more worried about Chase than I would them. “You guys can see yourselves out, right?” I ask over my shoulder, not really caring about their responses.
I step into my flip flops when I get to the gate and I see my dad coming toward me. “You ready to go meet the new campers?” he asks, dropping his arm around my shoulders. He’s one of very few people I allow to touch me. If anybody else grabbed me like he does, I would have to take him out. Dad smiles at me and kisses my forehead.
My mom comes around the corner of the house and catches up with us, and she has my brother Lincoln in tow. Link doesn’t like to hold hands with anyone, and he rarely looks anyone in the eye, but he looks like your average kid in every other way. Only he’s not average. He’s autistic. He speaks when he wants to speak, and when he doesn’t… well, there’s not much of a chance of getting anything out of him. We’ve had a lot of kids with autism at the camp and they all have different challenges, and not one is like another. I hold out my hand for Link to give me five. He grins in that sideways way he does, and it still makes my heart turn over even after all these years.
“The prison bus is here,” my mom warns.
“I’ll go talk to them,” my dad says. “You go unload the kids and help them get settled.”
I really want to go and find Pete, but instead I have to help settle kids into their cabins. Some of them have caregivers. Some of them don’t. Some of them have a parent with them. The ones who don’t will have a camp counselor assigned to their care. They’ll sleep with the boys and hang out with the boys and make sure they eat, drink, take their meds and shower. The counselors are all from the local hospital. Some are medical students. The youth offenders won’t be responsible for the kids’ needs at all. They’ll interact with them, but in a very small way.
My mom gives me a clipboard and we pin color coded name tags to all their shirts so we will know who the non-verbal ones are at all times. I read through the descriptions, see what their challenges are, and make notes in my head about each of their special needs.
The boys are always fun. We had girls here last month, and the girls are more of a challenge. They always have drama. Boys are just boys, and they want to ride the horses and swim in the pool and have a good time. They want to be boys in the most basic sense of the word. And this is where they can do it.
When the kids are all settled, I go to find my dad. He’s sitting on the top of a picnic table with his elbows on his knees, his hands dangling down between his thighs. He’s giving them the speech I’ve heard every year since I was eleven.
“You’ve been given a lot of responsibility, and I just hope you’re up to it,” he says. He holds up a single finger. I stand behind a tree and smile, because I know this part of the speech. “I have one rule,” he says. “If you break it, I’ll send you back to the center immediately.”
The young men all look at him with expectant faces. “My daughter is home for the summer from college. If you touch her, if you look at her, if you talk to her, if you think inappropriate thoughts about her, I will chop your nuts off while you sleep.” He picks up a hatchet he had on the picnic table for dramatic effect and slams it into the wood. He waits for a minute and I see the young men all ball into themselves. I cover my mouth to hold in a laugh. It’s always the same routine. He threatens and then they spend the week avoiding me.
I stand there a little longer, until I feel like he’s done, and then I get ready to go and talk to my dad. He’s with the parole officer so I wait. I turn and lift my foot to take a step, but the tip of my flip flop gets caught on a tree root and I trip, my hands flailing as I careen toward the ground. But before it happens, strong arms catch me and I tumble into something solid.
I roll over and look down. I brush my hair back from my face. I’m laying half way across Pete and he’s holding his hands out to the side to keep from touching me. I scamper to roll off of him.
“Shit,” he grunts as he lumbers to his feet. “Ten bucks says you’re the daughter.”
I close my eyes for a second and try to control my breaths. I have wanted to talk to this man for almost two and a half years. But he looks at me like he doesn’t know me.
“And there go my nuts.”
My gaze slices to meet his. His eyes twinkle.
He jerks his thumb toward my father. “He was serious about the hatchet, wasn’t he?”
He looks so worried that I feel a bubble of laughter building within me, replacing hurt that came with him not recognizing me. “’Fraid so,” I say, biting back a grin.
“Figures,” he mumbles, and he walks toward his cabin, shaking his head. I watch him walk away. He doesn’t remember me.