Marcus looked him up and down, like someone scrutinizing a suit to buy, or one of the customized cars in his Popular Mechanics magazine. “I can see that.”
They waited until after dinner to talk alone in the dorm, while almost everyone watched television or went back to the gym or shouted out to the girls. When Jaleel said he’d been fingerprinted and had his photo taken, Marcus only nodded. He said he’d guessed as much when he saw the detective and the other cop in the morning.
“Man, they fuckin’ with you,” he warned.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. I’ve escaped from this place three times, and three times they drag my ass back, but they can’t do anything too serious with me. Robbing gas stations and boosting cars, shit, that’s why half of us are here. They gonna stick you with a murder charge. Just waiting for the right moment to arrest your ass.”
“I’m going to see an attorney,” Jaleel vowed.
“You got a better chance growing wings and flying to the moon.”
“It’s the law.”
“Suppose it is, most everywhere else. You’re in Peartree. An attorney for a punk-ass kid?”
“Then I have to get out of here,” Jaleel said, as if the conclusion was foregone. The dorm began to fill with bodies. He lowered his voice. “Why don’t you come with me?”
“Why would I do that? In eleven months, I’m eighteen years old. Unless they want to put me in a real prison, the state can’t keep me. I’m emancipated!” He laughed, like someone who’d finally outsmarted the system, if only by default.
“Then what? How are you going to make a living?” Jaleel pressed. “You have a high school degree?”
“I’ll make a living just fine. In America, more folks get by on a smile and bullshit than they do brains.”
Jaleel tried to think quickly. “Okay, I understand. Just show me the way out of here.”
Marcus arched his brow. “You’re not even thirteen. Which you gonna do, buy a bus ticket or steal a car? You even know how to drive? How much money do you have? Where exactly are you heading? Who’s going to meet you?”
“I have a plan,” Jaleel boasted, with the same certainty with which Marcus had proclaimed he had a future.
“Jesus, where have I heard that? Wait a day or two, think everything through.”
“You just said they can charge me any time they want.” He had gone to the library dictionary and looked up “forensic.” He wished he had never touched his father’s gun in the dresser drawer.
“I’m not going to wait,” Jaleel said.
Marcus was staring at him, wagging his head. “You’re a crazy nigger, nothing I can do about that.”
“Will you help me?”
“You mean tonight, don’t you?”
Marcus sighed. “I figured that. Get some sleep. We gotta wait till eleven at least. That’s the last dorm check.”
“I won’t be able to sleep,” Jaleel protested.
“Suit yourself. But you’ll need your energy. You’ll be doing a lot of running once you’re out of here.”
While Marcus closed his eyes, Jaleel pulled the newspaper from under his mattress, stole a last glance at the headline, and marched deliberately to a trash can. He never wanted to see the paper again. He stayed in his clothes, pulling the sheet up to his chin to hide his plans. It seemed forever before a man in a green uniform marched down the dark aisle, sweeping a flashlight beam cursorily over the bunks. Jaleel thought Marcus was asleep, but he sat up quickly when the man had left and the door closed behind him. They listened to the key turn in the lock.
Marcus pulled a screwdriver from under his mattress frame and led Jaleel toward the bathroom. On his tiptoes, Marcus pried open a transom window across from the toilets. Then he boosted Jaleel’s foot in his cupped hands. Jaleel’s fingers found traction on the window ledge.
“Thank you,” he grunted, gazing back at Marcus.
“Keep your head. When you get out, there’s a light above the gate, so don’t get too close. About thirty feet to the left of gate, that’s where you need to go. Here—”
He kept Jaleel’s foot in his catcher’s mitt of a hand as his free hand reached into a pocket to retrieve his penlight. “A going-away present,” Marcus said, handing it up. “Look for a small piece of red cloth tied to the bottom of the fence. The chain-link is loose there.”
“Who left the red cloth?”
“I told you, I saw the detective this morning. I knew what you’d be asking me sooner or later. Live free or die, right?
“Just be sure you hide the cloth,” Marcus added, “else they’ll come after me. Nobody will miss you until the sun comes up. If I was you, I wouldn’t stop until I was far away from Texas. Time’s your enemy.”
Jaleel began squirming through the narrow opening of the transom. He couldn’t adjust his head to look back at Marcus. For a moment, he didn’t think his shoulders would slide through. “Keep going, you got it,” Marcus whispered. Jaleel kept wiggling his shoulders, right until a welcome breeze glided over them, then the rest of his torso. It was eight or nine feet to the grass. He torqued his half-freed body so that when he fell, he landed on his side, but nothing felt broken or bruised. He gazed back at the open window.
“You okay, Jaleel?” The disembodied voice comforted him.
“Better get your ass moving.”
“Thanks for everything.”
“High school degree or not, don’t count me out,” Marcus had the last word, his voice jumping like a frog through the window. “Maybe our paths will cross again. Now go!”
Jaleel pushed himself to his feet, thinking how much Marcus’s exhortation was like his father’s. A solitary light on a tarnished pole shined on the gate. The darkness swallowed everything else. Jaleel turned on the penlight. The narrow beam of light found the red cloth tied to the fence, just as Marcus had promised.
Once Upon a Lie a new novel by author Michael R French will debut on March 15th, 2016. Reserve/buy your copy today.
Michael R. French
Michael French is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University. He is a businessman and author who divides his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.