Death’s Head In B Dorm
Caden Lewicki, age eleven, was unusually young and small to be in the Declan County Juvenile Detention Facility. He knew this because he had heard his mother say to the judge after the hearing: “He’s so young and small! Are you sure he’ll be all right?” The judge had scratched the giant wad of fat on the back of his neck, which looked almost ready to erupt into a second head, and said: “Well, it’s only a week, but I want to respect the wishes of the parents in a case like this,” and then Caden’s father Mr. Lewicki had cut in saying: “I hope he gets the snot kicked out of him a couple of times. God knows he needs it.” Then everybody had fallen silent looking unhappy, except for Mr. Lewicki whose eyes held a glint of righteous anticipation.
While Caden was getting booked into Declan, he saw a tall popsicle-stick-thin kid in handcuffs being led out the side door to a waiting police car. The kid wore yellow scrubs, like the ones Caden had just put on, with DCJDF in blue letters on the back. He stared straight ahead, holding his face and body completely rigid. One of the police officers put a hand on the tall kid’s head and pushed him down into the back of the car.
“That’s Jamie Menendez,” said Sergeant Morris, the booking officer, handing Caden a pair of flat slip-on sandals. She fixed Caden with a meaningful look. “The Rockford shooter. Killed his parents, then drove to school and shot three kids.”
“Oh,” said Caden. He remembered the Rockford shooting quite well, even though it had happened in the next district, because his own school had been shut down for the day and he had seen pictures of the tall blank-faced kid on TV. He craned his neck after the police car until the outer door fell shut. “Where is he going?”
“Emory,” said Sergeant Morris, “for a thirty-day psych evaluation. He might not come back here.”
She grabbed Caden’s wrist and clipped a plastic band around it with his name -- LEWICKI, CADEN -- the words B DORM, and a lot of numbers. “You got a lot going for you, Lewicki -- more than most,” she said. “Don’t be stupid.”
The band cut into his skin and he wanted to ask her to make it looser, but he didn’t say anything.
“So what your charges?” asked Tay. Tay was the de facto leader of B Dorm, all eight bunk beds of it. He brought executive experience, having most recently run a gang in Parkintown, on the Eastside.
“I killed my dad,” said Caden. He darted a quick glance at Tay to see if he looked impressed.
“Ha,” said Tay. “You lying.”
“Shot him with a nine-millimeter, right in the head,” Caden pursued.
“Naw, man, you playing,” said Tay. He was a well-built and handsome kid, pulsing with awareness of himself. “I saw your momma and daddy when they brought you in here.”
“Those weren’t my parents,” said Caden.
Tay cracked his knuckles one by one. “Tell me this, then,” he said. “Tell me when you getting out of here.”
“Next week,” said Caden. “I go home on Monday.”
Tay leaned over the edge of his bunk bed. “You hear this, Irving?” he demanded. “Boy say he go home Monday for killing his daddy.”
A shadowy figure looked up from a nest of blankets in the lower bunk. “I hear it,” said a creaky voice.
“We gon’ let him play us like that?”
With a great rustling, Irving emerged into the light, an ancient-looking teenager clad only in his off-white undershirt and shorts. He squinted at Caden for a second. “He ain’t lying,” he pronounced after a minute. “He just special.”
“Special K,” said somebody from a bed on the other side of the room.
“My name is Caden,” said Caden.
“Special K,” repeated Tay. He nodded approvingly to himself.
Caden looked at the officer sitting against the wall by the door. The officer just grinned at him.
That night he lay on his back with a single scratchy blanket over him, no pillow, arms at his sides. His mouth tasted acid and fuzzy because he hadn’t brushed his teeth. B Dorm, which he had envisioned having barred windows like a jail in a western cartoon, was windowless and thus completely dark. He could hear all around him the heavy breathing and the endless shifting and creaking of bodies on bad mattresses as his fellow inmates pursued the impossible task of getting comfortable.
Caden felt anger crawling down from his scalp, prickling his hair and throbbing in his forehead. The anger flowed over the surface of his body like electricity but could not get down to the dark hardness within, and he lay protected in his anger like an AM radio inside the Faraday cage he had made out of aluminum foil in physical science class.
At home, when he felt this angry, he would scream until his throat scraped raw, or run around the house smashing things. Once he had grabbed his parents’ wedding portrait, the one in the heavy frame, from above their bed and hurled it to the floor, shattering the glass and gouging a splintered streak in the hardwood. He could not remember now why he had done this, but he remembered his father yelling at him afterwards, and remembered having to look up the word “psycho” in the dictionary.
Caden felt tears burning into his eyelids like the floor polish his mother had slathered on that ugly scar at the foot of her bed. He lay rigid on his bunk, trapping the sadness inside the bright carapace of his rage. He wadded the edge of his sour-tasting blanket into his mouth so Tay would not hear him scream.
He’d thought he wouldn’t have to do school in jail, but the teachers had sent his work ahead, even Miss Williams. In the morning after breakfast (gray rubbery eggs) he had to sit with the other citizens of A Dorm and B Dorm in the activity room, each at a desk that was turned against the wall so nobody could see anyone else, and do math.
Caden got all the work in his folder finished in just a couple of hours. According to the rules, he was then permitted to pick a book from the little library shelf at the end of the activity room and sit with it quietly. He chose a book about astronomy, the only thing that didn’t look religious or like a girls’ book.
He noticed that inside the front cover of the book, someone had sketched using very light pencil a death’s head in deep perspective, with delicately shaded flames lurking in the eye sockets and a yawn-sized grin. The work covered the entire page and was signed in the corner, “Jamie M.”
He stared at the picture for a long time, tracing the outlines with his thumb until they smudged. He remembered that the Rockford shooter was in something called “psych evaluation” at the county seat in Emory, and he wondered if that was the same thing as being a psycho, noun, informal, a psychopath.
When he walked out of B Dorm into the visiting area in his flapping yellow scrubs, sandals smacking against the cold floor, his mother made a gasping sound and said “Oh, Caden,” but his father just measured him with a penetrating stare.
“So how’s jail?” asked Mr. Lewicki.
“It’s okay,” said Caden, sitting down at the table across from them. “It’s better than your house.” He deliberately avoided his father’s eyes.
“Oh, that’s … that’s a nice attitude,” said Mr. Lewicki. He jabbed a finger toward his wife. “You’re killing your mother, you know that? She’s going crazy with worry and you come in here and talk like that.”
He grinned sardonically at Caden, stretching his lips wide without changing the expression of his eyes. “You’re a real man, son. Proud of ya.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Mrs. Lewicki mumbled, putting her hand on her husband’s arm. “Are you feeling okay, sweetie?” she asked Caden. “Are you taking your medicine?”
“Sure,” said Caden.
“Look at your mother when you talk to her,” said Mr. Lewicki.
Caden possessed the ability to squeeze the blood vessels in his skull, using only the little muscles behind his ears, so that his head filled with a roaring sound and he couldn’t hear anything else. As his father began to yell at him in a meticulously quiet voice, he made his ears roar and stared at the table, concentrating on the checkerboard and the backgammon board that were stenciled there even though there were no playing pieces anywhere in the visiting area.
After his parents left he felt angry again, really angry, and kicked the concrete wall of the dorm with his open-toed sandals until he messed up a toenail and had to go to the nurses’ station. The on-duty sergeant gave him his medicine that was supposed to make him calm, and it did, for a while.
Every afternoon B Dorm received an hour in the exercise yard, a small paved court with a basketball hoop. Tay and most of the others ran and shouted with a ball, skidding in their flat sandals.
Caden had no talent for basketball. He sat on a curb and looked at the chain-link fence around the yard. The fence stood about ten feet tall and wore a coil of barbed wire at the top like his mother’s hair curlers.
Irving sat near him, not with him, eating gummy bears one by one out of the breast pocket of his scrubs. He saw Caden evaluating the fence. “Don’t even think about it, Special K,” he said. “They catch you easy, then you got a escape charge. I know.”
“You climbed the fence?” said Caden skeptically, looking at Irving’s rickety limbs.
“Naw. Not me. That boy Jamie, before he went to Emory. He climb up and jump.”
“How’d he get over the barbed wire?”
“He cut himself up pretty bad. I seen the blood.” Irving indicated his lower legs.
Caden stared through the fence at the blur of Highway 60 beyond, imagining Jamie’s tall figure perched where he sat now, watching the officers out of the corner of his eyes, waiting, measuring his chance -- and then off, kicking away his sandals as he ran, swarming up the rattling ringing fence with his elbows and knees shooting out on all sides like a spider’s legs. The amazed outraged shouts of the officers and inmates sounded below him, too late to heed, too close to ignore, and he felt the Rockford shooter’s stab of terror as he balanced in his socks on the top of the fence with the barbed wire cuddling his legs. Then -- what? Jumping, rolling, bleeding, down the embankment? There was no place to hide.
“How far did he get?” asked Caden.
“He didn’t get nowhere,” said Irving. “They tased him. Whole dorm was on lockdown for two weeks.”
Caden sat still, wearing the feeling of Jamie Menendez’s brush with freedom on his skin. He remembered once, several years ago, standing at the edge of a public swimming pool while his father waited in the deep end, holding out his arms and telling Caden to jump to him. Caden had jumped, had felt that exhilarating freedom for a second as he fell. The feeling turned to horror when his father ducked away and he landed in the pool alone, dragging in a breath of chlorinated water and splashing panic in all directions. He had eventually seized hold of someone’s floating boogie board and hung there, toes dangling in the deep. He saw through streaming eyes his father gazing at him with the same direct challenge he’d thrown at Caden in the visit at jail. “Show me your weakness,” the look dared him, and Caden had understood for the first time how much he hated his father.
“Man,” said Irving, chewing reflectively on a green gummy bear. “After two weeks, that B Dorm smelled like musty ass.”
At dinnertime the next day, going through the food line, Tay said: “When I get out of here, I know what I’m doing. I’m going straight to Mickey D’s and eat a Big Mac, and then I’m going to Burger King, and then I’m going to Pizza Hut. That’s all before I go home.”
Caden laughed out loud. “Those aren’t even good restaurants,” he said.
Tay turned around slowly and stared at him. “What would you eat, if you so good?” he demanded.
“My mom makes good food,” Caden said. He poked at the beige-colored macaroni on his beige plastic tray. “I like what she cooks.”
Tay smiled. “How ‘bout your daddy, Special K?” he said. “He like your momma’s cooking too?”
“Sure,” said Caden. “I guess.”
“Ha!” said Tay. “Thought you killed your daddy.”
“Maybe I did and maybe I didn’t,” said Caden, starting to walk away.
Tay turned to Sergeant Morris, who sat in a chair at the side of the room with her feet up, doing a sudoku puzzle. “Morris!” he shouted, pointing at Caden. “Special K say he killed his daddy.”
Sergeant Morris gave a hoot. “He lying,” she said.
“Maybe I am and maybe I’m not,” repeated Caden. His voice came out just above a whisper.
“He threw a little baby tantrum,” said Sergeant Morris. “He took an iPad out the teacher’s hands at school and smashed it on the ground. His momma and daddy sent him here to learn him a lesson.”
“That isn’t true,” said Caden.
“Ooh, Special K,” said Tay. “You a liar. You a little baby liar.”
“My name is Caden,” said Caden. His hands clenched around his food tray.
He felt the inhabitants of B Dorm crowding around him, sweaty and unfriendly, breathing into his face. “What’s the matter, Special K?” they said. “How come you throw a tantrum, Special K?”
“My name is Caden,” he repeated, more loudly this time. “Caden is my name. Not Special K -- Caden.” He felt the roaring in his ears growing, only this time he wasn’t squeezing any muscles, it was just his brain getting hot all by itself. “My name is CADEN!” he shouted, and he swung the food tray through the air in a short vicious arc and caught Tay right where his windpipe jutted out of his neck, and Tay made a strange choking sound and fell to the ground on his knees with beige clots of food clinging to him like eczema.
Caden threw the tray down and flung himself on top of Tay with both arms flailing. He could feel the anger burning brightly over his body, the way it had when he smashed his parents’ wedding picture, the way it had when Miss Williams had looked up from her iPad with that fake smile and asked him if he was “getting help at home”, but this time the bright anger got mixed up in his mind with Jamie Menendez’s death’s-head drawing so that he felt the rictus grin spreading on his face and blue-green flames flickering up from his eye sockets. Dimly through the roar in his ears he heard other people shouting and felt Irving’s winglike arms pulling at him. He thought he could smell the crushed fruity odor of gummy bears, which was odd because B Dorm was going on lockdown and there would be no gummy bears for anybody tonight.
He sat across the table from his parents in the visiting area again. This time they had a stranger with them, a man in a dark suit who said he was a lawyer.
“How did it happen?” his mother kept repeating. “Did they bully you? You were bullied, weren’t you?”
“Stop, Jan,” said Mr. Lewicki. “Just stop.”
“We’ve agreed to a psychiatric evaluation, Caden,” said the lawyer. He looked at a paper. “Thirty days in Emory. This may help reduce your assault charges.”
“You are a complete and total psycho,” said Mr. Lewicki to his son.
Caden found he was able to meet his father’s eyes directly. He saw there a kind of guarded respect mixed with real alarm. He stared back, holding his gaze even though his left eye was swollen nearly shut from Irving’s elbow, until his father looked away.
“I’ll be all right in Emory,” said Caden. “I have a friend there.”