Chapter 1

 

 

I COULDN’T believe what I was hearing.

“Five hundred hours of community service,” the judge said.

Five hundred hours? That would take all year! For one little cracked window! Okay, it was a huge plate glass window of Thompson’s Hardware, and I smashed it beyond recognition, using one of their own sledgehammers…, which I stole in the first place. But I was pissed off. All I wanted was a job, and they wouldn’t give me one because I had a juvie record.

Okay, that might have also had something to do with getting such a harsh sentence from the judge. I’ve been in and out of court, and even in and out of juvie for the last three years… ever since I was fourteen. But it wasn’t like it was my fault. I have a lousy home life. My mother doesn’t pay any attention to me and my stepfather always yells at me. Worse yet, they won’t get me the things I need. I’d call that neglect.

I mean, everyone else has a cell phone, so I need one too. And when my cheapskate ’rents wouldn’t buy me one—not even for Christmas—I stole one. It’s their fault. All they had to do was buy it for me.

And that other time? That wasn’t my fault either. That kid had it coming. He was always picking on me. I just finally had enough of it and body slammed him into the sidewalk. How could I know he was going to be in the hospital for a week over that? It didn’t deserve six months in juvenile detention.

Six months for that, two months for the cell phone, and six more months before that for introducing my stepbrother’s head to the aquarium. Okay, I put his head through the aquarium, and he needed twenty-seven stitches in his head and face, and he almost lost his eye. But brothers fight. It’s what they do! Your own family shouldn’t press charges against you. Not ever. If that wasn’t more proof that they loved Pete more than me, I don’t know what was.

Pete’s not even my mother’s kid! He belongs to Allen… who hates me, by the way. Mom married my stepdad six months after Dad left. My father ran off with a nineteen-year-old when I was twelve and has never looked back. Mom had him in court a half-dozen times, trying to get child support. It wasn’t like the guy cared about me at all. He didn’t even ask how I was… not even any of those times he saw my mom in court. Well, who needs him? He’s an asshole anyway.

But, even after Mom got the money, she couldn’t be bothered to spend it on me. It was my money. I should have been allowed to use it as I wanted: to get those designer jeans I wanted and the Nikes that everyone else had. She made me a social outcast just because she said she needed that money for bills. It wasn’t like she didn’t have two jobs already to pay for crap like that. That should have been plenty. It was my money. So, that time I got a hundred hours of community service for stealing my mother’s ATM card and withdrawing a thousand dollars? Totally not my fault. All she had to do was give me my money in the first place.

Instead, she pressed charges, on her own son, and started taking me to a psychiatrist. Me! Going to a shrink! It was her that needed the shrink, if you ask me.

But, of course, no one ever did… ask me stuff, that is. The sperm donor didn’t ask before he ran off with Bimbo. Mom didn’t ask before she took a second job and left her recently abandoned twelve-year-old to fend for himself. I mean, yeah, she had the neighbor come over and stay with me until she got home at ten, but the neighbor lady was a hundred years old and stank. I might as well have been alone. I would have rather been alone. But she didn’t ask me about that either.

She didn’t ask before she married Allen Martin. Stupid jerk. He’s always giving me orders, like he’s my dad or something. And that idiotic kid of his. He’s a year younger than me, but they treat him like he’s the oldest. He just turned sixteen several months ago, and he already has a car. They won’t get me a car. Mom says I’m too hotheaded and that I’d probably wrap it around a tree. Allen says I have to save up and buy it myself like Pete did. It’s not my fault no one will give me a job.

The only silver lining in the community service crap was that now they’d have to get me a car, so I could get to and from the damned thing. I didn’t know where this community service was supposed to take place, but there was nothing around my shitty little house in the ’burbs, and I knew neither Mom nor Allen was going to take me anywhere. So yay! I’d get my car!

 

 

WELL SHIT. No car.

The social worker arranged for me to volunteer in the burn unit of Children’s Hospital. The burn unit! Like I want to be around a bunch of deep fried ankle-biters.

But the worse thing was… she arranged for me to take the bus. The bus! She got me a yearlong pass, so I can’t even say I don’t have the money for the fare. She introduced me to the driver and told him what was going on, so he was supposed to let me ride even if I “lost” my bus pass. Worse, he was supposed to call her if I didn’t show up.

What right did she have to tell this guy my business? Who was he to know all this crap about me? Nobody. That’s who he was. Nobody! But there she was, telling him everything anyway. That’s got to be a breach of confidentiality. She treated me like I was a criminal or something. And she thought she was so smart. Thought she knew all the tricks. Well, she might have twenty years’ experience in social services, but I could outsmart her. I’d get out of this community service shit somehow.

I just wasn’t sure how yet.

 

 

SO, IT was the first day of community service. I was condemned to work at this stupid hospital for five hours on Saturday and five hours on Sunday. That would take my whole weekend for the next fifty weeks! That was cruel and unusual punishment. Wasn’t that unconstitutional or something?

Of course, they said I could work it off more quickly if I came by after school for a couple of hours each day. And during Thanksgiving break and Christmas break and stuff, I could work up to five hours a day. Like any of that was going to happen. My time was my own. It was bad enough I had to give up my weekends. I was definitely not giving up any more time.

And what was up with this hospital anyway? It had a burn unit, an oncology ward, and a neurology section. It was the weirdest hospital I’d ever heard of. It was only for patients under eighteen, of course. I figured that out from the name. But, that wasn’t the weirdest part. It was actually more of a long-term care facility, but with all the machines and medicine and staff of a fully equipped hospital. The kids just stayed there, sometimes for years at a time, and received intensive treatment and therapy. So, not only did I have to give up my weekend to work at a hospital, it wasn’t even a normal hospital.

 

 

I ENTERED the facility, full of anger as usual, and demanded to see the person in charge of volunteers. She came right out. Seems she already knew all about me. Attila the Hun—also known as Mrs. Detrick, my social services case manager—had spilled all my secrets. I got even angrier. That lady was really pissing me off. She needed to stop telling people my business.

So, Groucho Marx here was telling me what my duties would be. Like I was listening. She was also telling me her name was Mrs. Barton and that I would be reporting to her each day. She had the thickest mustache I’ve ever seen on a woman—thicker than I’d seen on some men too, for that matter—so “Groucho” it was.

She took me upstairs to the burn unit and introduced me to Ms. Carol. I didn’t know if that was really her last name or if it was her first and they put the title in front of it for the kids to use. Maybe her last name was hard to pronounce or something. I didn’t really care. I planned to do as little as possible for the next four and a half hours—because I totally counted the half hour filling out paper work as part of my community service time—and then I’d get out of here until tomorrow.

Ms. Carol—I hadn’t come up with a nickname for her yet—took me to the dayroom, where most of the kids currently were. I expected to see them all parked in front of the TV. I mean, they were all burned, so how much could they really do?

Instead, I saw a mob of kids jumping up and down, or wiggling in excitement as a clown was doing lame magic tricks. A clown for Christ’s sake. Just shoot me now!

Ms. Carol must have seen that my attention was mostly on the clown, though thankfully she couldn’t read my thoughts about it.

“That’s CJ Calhoun,” she said proudly. “He’s been a godsend for the kids. He takes their mind off everything for a little while. God knows the poor little dears deserve all the happiness they can get.”

The clown was getting a little girl with wrapped arms to pull handkerchiefs out of his sleeve, and of course, the string of them went on forever. The girl was obviously having trouble grasping the thin material and moving her hands and elbows to pull the long things out of the clown’s sleeve.

“Why didn’t he ask someone else to do that?” I didn’t really care, but the nurse seemed to think the sun rose and set with this clown—and wasn’t that terrific? I didn’t even have to come up with a derogatory nickname. He’d already done it for me—but he seemed to be inconsiderate at best, or, at worse, downright cruel. “She’s obviously having trouble.”

Ms. Carol just smiled. “That’s why he chose her.” If she didn’t see my look of displeasure, it wasn’t for lack of trying on my part. But, she went on like she hadn’t seen it. “The little girl is Cissy. She was in a car wreck and was burned on her arms, hands, and torso, and a little on her face.” I hadn’t seen her face yet, so she couldn’t prove it by me, but Ms. Carol was still talking. “Her physical therapist is working with her on regaining the mobility in those areas, but PT is boring, or painful, for the kids, and none of them like doing the repetitious exercises even with the physical therapist, let alone all the practice they’re supposed to do between sessions.” She smiled with pride again. “CJ knows all the kids’ PT goals, and he incorporates them in his show.”

“What do you mean?” It still looked cruel to me.

“Cissy’s goals are to make a fist, flex and extend her elbows, and turn her torso from side to side. It hurts a little, as it stretches the scarred skin, and she doesn’t like to do the exercises, but if she doesn’t, the skin in those areas will heal badly, and she won’t be able to move in those ways after a while.” Ms. Carol paused like that was supposed to explain everything, but it didn’t as far as I was concerned, and she must have been able to see that, so she went on. “CJ tells them just how they’re supposed to perform the ‘trick’ they help with, so that they’ll be working on their goals. They all love being picked to help CJ, so they do exactly what he says. They don’t even realize they’re doing exercises.”

I watched as the clown moved on to three-legged races. He tied two kids’ legs together, then tied his own to a large boy’s. I didn’t see how any of that was working on PT goals, and said as much to Ms. Carol.

She laughed. “Tucker,” she said, pointing to the smaller boy tied to a little girl, “has mobility goals. His right leg is burned, and he doesn’t like to bend it. He can bend it just fine, but he doesn’t like to and is developing a rigid gait, which doesn’t do him any good at all. CJ tied Tucker’s good leg to Amelia’s right, so Tucker has to bend the right one to keep up. Amelia has to hold on to Tucker, to ‘help’ him, but really, CJ is getting her to stretch out her shoulder muscle.”

“What’s he working on?” I jabbed a finger toward the boy tied to CJ.

“That’s Evan. He’s working on an emotional goal, more than a physical one, though getting him to move at all is good. He doesn’t let anyone touch him since the accident. It took CJ three months to get him to come sit with the group. Another month before he’d squeak CJ’s nose, and it was a week after that before Evan would take part in any of the activities. He’s really come a long way, though, and doctors attribute it mostly to CJ.”

All right, so that did sound kind of cool—not that I’d ever admit that out loud. But still, what kind of loser do you have to be to have nothing better to do on a Saturday than to dress up in a clown outfit and hang out with little kids?

“He does this every Saturday?” I was just checking. There was a small amount of hope that the dickwad had some life.

“Oh, he does this as often as he can. He shoots for every day—somewhere. Either in this unit, in Oncology, or down in Neuro.”

Okay. It was official. This clown had no life. I rolled my eyes.

By then, the three-legged racers had gotten to our end of the room. I could tell the moment CJ saw me. His eyes lit up, and I knew that couldn’t be good.

After he untied all the legs, he came over to where Ms. Carol and I stood, barely inside the doorway.

“Well, who’s this?” His voice sounded young. Even this close I couldn’t tell his age, but I had assumed it was some old fart—in his thirties or something—trying to distract himself from the fact that he had no life, no job, and still lived in his mother’s basement.

“Russ Michaels,” I answered in a clipped, hostile tone. “What’s it to you?”

Instead of being intimidated and immediately finding someplace else—any place else—to be, as intended, his eyes just twinkled that much more.

“Hey, kids.” He turned toward the group. “We have fresh meat!” Then he waved his hands like a choir director and started chanting, “Fresh meat, fresh meat, fresh meat.”

The kids all started chanting along, as he’d obviously intended, and to the background chant, he added to me directly, “Come on, fresh meat. Help me out.” He grabbed my hand and started pulling.

“I can’t. I have work to do,” I answered, but it didn’t stop him from pulling with one hand, and waving the children to chant even louder with the other.

“They can spare you for a minute,” he said with confidence and kept pulling.

I looked back to Ms. Carol for help. “But I have a whole list of….”

She was no help at all. “Oh, we can count this as time served.” She grinned and waved me on.

He had gained some momentum with his pulling by then, and I found myself in the middle of a noisy bunch of rug rats, still chanting “fresh meat, fresh meat.” When he gently shoved me into an empty chair, they all cheered and I thought my eardrums were going to burst.

“So, what should we do with our fresh meat, now that we have him?” he asked the kids.

“Mummy!” one of them shouted out, and the others all took up the new chant.

“Mummy, mummy, mummy.”

CJ got a gleam in his eye again, and if I had ever thought anything called “mummy” in reference to “fresh meat” could possibly be good, I was disabused of that notion quickly enough.

“That’s a great idea!” CJ positively leered, and I knew I was doomed. “Kara, go get the bandages for me, would you?”

Kara, I noticed, was a little girl whose legs had been badly burned. She used a walker and shuffled along, but she didn’t seem to have any complaints about being asked to go all the way to the counter in the back of the room to get something when there were people both closer and more able-bodied. On the contrary, she seemed happy to have been chosen.

Way too quickly for me, Kara returned to the group with a big, black bag, which I had to assume contained bandages. CJ took out rolls of gauze and handed them to different kids. All of the kids here had some kind of motility issue, but I paid attention to his assignments.

The girl with burn wraps on her arms was asked to stand still and wrap my torso, which would require her to stretch her arms and shoulders and probably even some of the muscles in her upper body.

The boy with oversized slippers over pressure-bandaged feet was asked to walk around and around the chair wrapping me and the chair at the same time.

The child in the long robe, who was sitting in a nearby chair, was asked to hold the extra bandages and hand them to the others when needed. This child was a mystery, and by far the most physically deformed—to the point where I couldn’t even tell whether it was a boy or a girl until CJ called him Patrick. I couldn’t see much of his body because the oversized robe hid his trunk and extremities, but his hands were burned severely, though it had obviously happened a while ago, and his face….

My inner smart-ass wanted to make all sorts of comments about that, but not even I was that heartless. The poor thing had no ears! His entire head was burned so he had no hair at all, and no chance of growing it back, as far as I could tell. And the right side of his face was basically gone… melted like candle wax. His nose was disfigured, but still there, barely; and his eyelid had basically slid down over his eye, obscuring it completely. I had no way of knowing whether the eye itself was intact or not.

But here was this little kid—who’d obviously been through hell—sitting there, laughing and smiling and having a ball doing nothing more than holding gauze—which, from the looks of his hands, probably hurt like hell—simply because CJ had chosen him for the activity.

Maybe this guy wasn’t such a clown after all.

 

 

SO, BEFORE long, my body was completely wrapped in gauze and tied to the chair. I’d seen enough to know that CJ was getting the kids to take turns, no doubt targeting different skills with each appointment, but now the kids started to wrap my face.

“I don’t know about that, now,” I said, just as CJ laughed.

“Nah, let’s leave his face alone, kiddos. A face that pretty deserves to be seen.”

Now if anyone else had ever called me “pretty,” I would have knocked them into the middle of next week—gauze restraints or not. But, I could tell he wasn’t really being mean. He wasn’t using it as an insult. And, at this point, anything that kept the yard apes away from my face was okay with me.

Just then, a nurse came to the doorway and stood beside Ms. Carol. They talked for a short while, then Ms. Carol called, “CJ, they’re ready for you, hon.”

This was immediately met with protests from the peanut gallery.

“No, you can’t go.”

“Stay, CJ.”

“We didn’t play spider.”

“Are you coming back tomorrow?”

I thought surely he’d stay long enough to unwrap the bandages, but when he turned to leave, I joined the fray.

“Hey! You’re not just going to leave me like this, are you?!”

He chuckled. “I don’t know. You look kind of good that way, fresh meat.” And he started walking away.

“Hey! Wait!” I shouted and started wiggling in the chair.

The kids exploded in laughter, but apparently his leaving was all for show, because he came back, laughing.

“Well, I guess we should let him go, huh?”

“No!” they all chanted. “Keep him, keep him, keep him.”

But, fortunately, he didn’t listen to the little monsters.

 

 

WHEN I finally was released, and the kids were doing various other things in the playroom, and CJ had disappeared down the hallway, I walked back over to where Ms. Carol still stood, picking bits of gauze off my sweater.

“So what was up with that?” I gestured distractedly down the hallway. “Who was ready for him?”

“Oncology,” Ms. Carol answered simply.

“Why couldn’t he plan a little better than that? Have an ending time here and a starting time for his show there, or something.”

“He likes to stay until the last minute, so the oncology staff comes up to get him when it’s getting close to his turn for treatment.”

“Treatment?” I was confused. “I thought he was going to entertain the cancer kids.”

She smiled somewhat sadly. “He does that as often as he can too. But he has his treatment today.”

His treatment?”

There was that sad smile again. “He has cancer, hon.”