First Teen in Governor’s “Second Chance”
Program Chosen; Pleads Guilty for
Robbery and Attempted Assault
By: Jane Trident, Associated Press
The Lexington teen who was arrested for robbing a neighborhood convenience store at gunpoint and possessing an illegal firearm has pleaded guilty and is the first teen selected for Governor Monroe’s Second Chance Program.
The program, which is currently under heavy fire from critics, has promised to end the “school-to-prison pipeline.” This pipeline is defined by the American Civil Liberties Union as “policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”
In an effort to help slow the rising crime rate among teens and the number of these teens funnelling into the adult prison system, Governor Monroe kept his campaign promise and has created the Second Chance Program. This program is focused on therapy, specialized educational programs geared toward the individual needs of the teens while incarcerated and a leadership program that will help prepare the teens
for when they return to their homes.
Critics point out that the money used for this program is needed to fund other programs in the state.
One high-level source, who remained anonymous, stated that the people of Kentucky don’t want to see their tax dollars used on teens who can’t be helped, and instead prefer for their tax dollars to be used on students who are driven and want to succeed.
Many eyes will be on this program, and many feel that the governor’s political future will be tied with the program’s success or failure.
“Everyone says you have a blank slate.”
My brother, Axle, sits beside me on the ground, arms resting on his bent knees, and he stares at the bonfire I built with my own two hands with only flint and sticks.
It’s one of the many tricks I learned over the last three months. That and how to survive on my own in the middle of nowhere.
Trees and bears I can handle. It’s not knowing who I can trust, now that I’m home, that’s the problem. Axle knows this. It’s why he’s next to me as our friends and family walk around the backyard for the impromptu “Welcome Home” party I told Axle I didn’t want.
Someone in this yard is the reason why I spent a year away from home for a crime I didn’t commit.
My neck tenses, and I roll it in an attempt to release the anger. It took me close to eight months to find some Zen, and it has taken less than thirty minutes for some of the old underlying rage that followed me around like a black thunderhead to return.
Across from us, two girls I used to go to school with are roasting marshmallows. They’re waiting for me to talk to them. That’s who I was before: the smooth talker, the guy who made girls laugh and caused them to light up with a few specially chosen words. The right smile dropped at the right time, and panties would be shed. But I don’t feel up for conversation and I don’t feel like manipulating anyone anymore.
Crazy—I used to thrive when surrounded by people. The more, the better. But after being in juvenile detention for nine months and spending three in the wilderness taking part in an Outward Bound program for troubled teens, I’m more at ease by myself in front of a fire.
“They’ve all confirmed you’re walking out of all this with sealed records,” Axle continues.
He’s leaving out the part of how those records only remain sealed if I uphold my end of the plea deal—the agreement I made with the district attorney after I was arrested. I agreed to plead guilty, and the DA didn’t charge me as an adult and send me to hard-core prison. Considering we had no money for a lawyer to help prove my innocence, the deal sounded like the better of two bad options.
“You’re getting a massive second chance,” Axle says.
It was rotten luck that got me into this mess, but it happened at the right time. Our governor was searching for screwed-up teens to use for his pilot program. Someone
high up in the world thought I stood a chance at turning my life around, but that second chance comes with a price. A price my brother is currently breaking down for me.
“This is a good thing. A blank slate. Not many people get one of those.”
Blank slate. That’s what I’m scared of. I may not have liked parts of the person I was before I was arrested, but at least I knew who I was. This blank slate, this chance to create someone new, scares me. This is a new type of pressure. At least I had a good excuse for being a delinquent before. Now, if I mess up, it’s because I’m truly broke.
The fire crackles then pops, and embers rise into the late May night. My younger sister laughs at the other end of the narrow yard near the aging shotgun house, and the sound is like an eight-eight beat with a high hat cymbal. It’s welcomed, and it’s the first time this feels like home.
She’s sixteen now, grown up faster than I’d prefer, and she’s one of the four people I love more than my own life. She’s also the only reason I’m still out here instead of holed up in my room. According to Axle, it was Holiday’s idea to set up the party.
Old Christmas lights are strung from one towering oak tree to the next, zigzagging green, red and blue across the yard. Most people brought their own chairs and a dish to share. My first meal as a free man and it’s hamburgers, hot dogs and potato salad. I don’t have the heart to tell her I would have given my left ball for a slice of thick crust pizza.
“She missed you,” Axle says, catching my train of sight.
“I missed her, too.” Those are my first words since we pulled in the driveway. I used to be the life of the party, but that was before, and as I said, I don’t know who I am
anymore, so for now, I’m quiet.
“I missed you,” he says in such a low tone I barely catch it. “We weren’t the same without you.”
I take a deep breath because I’m not sure any of us will be the same again.
“Is that jerk still coming around?” I ask.
Axle watches Holiday as she punches my best friend, Dominic, in the shoulder. They’re both all smiles, and he places her in a fake headlock, but she easily slips away.
Then, because when one speaks of the devil, the devil appears, Holiday’s bastard ex-boyfriend shows up. His black hair is in uneven waves, he’s wearing a Styx T-shirt like he has the right to claim anything related to rock ’n’ roll, and he has a smile that makes me want to knock his teeth into his throat. According to the therapy I went through this past year, I shouldn’t enjoy my sense of satisfaction at his crooked nose and scar. Those features were courtesy of my fist from my life before. He deserved it then for how he treated my sister. I’m betting he deserves it now.
Holiday beams when Jeremy slinks up beside her and wraps his arms around her waist like he’s too familiar with parts of her I’m going to pretend he’s never touched. Even though the kid has a slight build, he looks sickly white, especially against Holiday’s healthy glow and brown tone.
My sister looks a lot like her mother, at least in the pictures I’ve seen of Holiday’s mother when she was younger. She was a black woman with dancing eyes and a smile that could light up the darkest night. Holiday’s skin is lighter than her mother’s, but other than that, she’s a spitting image.
Jeremy eases my sister away from Dominic, away from the lights, away from anything good in the world. I can still see them in the shadows, and I consider re-breaking his nose.
“I thought you said she broke up with him.”
“She did,” Axle says. “Six months ago. But then he came crawling back two months ago claiming he’s changed. She took him back last week, and I told her there were rules. I’m going to need you to remember the rules. If she breaks them, then we’ll have to stand firm.”
A twenty-six-year old roofer, attending night school to be an EMT, and me, a seventeen-year-old juvenile delinquent, are now raising a just-turned sixteen-year-old. That’s got to be the picture of dysfunction. “Is one of those rules he can’t be within a hundred feet of her? A restraining order?”
“She swears he’s changed.”
Changed. That’s what I’m supposed to be. In the forest, the therapist talked forgiveness. Does it mean I haven’t changed because I don’t forgive the guy who made my sister cry?
“Did he change?”
Axle’s lips flatten, and he tosses a stick into the flames.
Within seconds it’s engulfed and will soon be ashes. Yeah. That answer is a kick in the gut.
“I say too much, I push her away and into his arms,” Axle says.
I’m the living proof of this. I got into it with Holiday over this jerk before I was arrested, and the entire situation exploded in my face.
“I keep quiet, it’s like I’m the one auctioning off her soul. No one handed me a playbook on raising a teenager when Holiday’s grandmother signed custody over to me. Holiday didn’t have rules before. In my house, she does. The rest of it I’m playing by ear.”
I glance at my older brother out of the corner of my eye, waiting for him to explain that’s how he felt about me before I was arrested. Except, I wasn’t falling into the wrong person’s arms. I was the asshole parents hated.
“But you’re back,” Axle continues, “and you can help keep an eye on her. Moving her in full-time means I can finally set some boundaries. Rules. At least limit her time with him.”
“Think she’ll listen?” I ask. “To the rules?”
“She may not listen when it comes to Jeremy, but she listens to everything else.”
Translation—Holiday’s not me. “Are you laying down rules for me?”
Axle snorts. “Do you need them?”
Probably, but I only lift my fingers as a response.
“How about you don’t screw up again.”
“Got it.” At least I hope I do.
“What’s up, Axle. Drix.” A friend of mine from when I used to play gigs at local clubs offers Axle his hand and me a nod. The two of them exchange how are you’s and fine’s. I alternate between watching the f lames of the fire licking up and glancing at them as they talk.
My older brother is now my court-appointed guardian. I did too many stupid things while living with Mom, and Dad’s not reliable. Axle is nine years older than me, has a
decent job and inherited all the recessive responsible genes neither Mom nor Dad possessed.
Axle and I favor Dad. Dirty blond hair, dark eyes and we both used to be hard-core metal boys. I guess we still are when it comes to music, but not so much with style anymore. He has the tats up and down his arms, and earrings in his ears. Earrings and tats were never my thing, and I used to wear my hair to my shoulders where Axle has always kept his shaved close to the scalp.
First thing that happened when I entered juvenile detention was a shaved head. While mine’s not shaved anymore, it is cut close on the sides, has some length on top
and naturally sticks up like I styled it on purpose. As Holiday told me when I walked in, I got the good boy cut with the bad boy stride.
Our friend leaves with a fist bump to Axle and a pat on the back to me. Way to go, bro. You survived time on the inside and then time on the outside in a forest.
“It’s weird not hearing you jump into a conversation,” Axle says.
It’s weird not being in the thick of things. Not being the one telling the story, sharing the joke, or the one in the crowd laughing the loudest. I used to be the guy who drank to get drunk, threw a punch, then threw too many punches, and then dealt with the guilt in the morning.
Thanks to one year of group therapy, I’m different now. Seven months of that therapy was while I was living behind bars, then the other three months of therapy was in the wilderness. Three months of hiking, three months of paddling along forgotten rivers, three months of climbing up and down mountains, three months of being too damned exhausted to remember who I had been before they handed me a backpack that weighed fifty pounds and too damned exhausted to even contemplate if that was a bad or good thing.
As much as I hated parts of who I had become after I went to live with Mom at fifteen, there were parts of me I liked. Don’t mind so much losing the bad, but there’s an uncomfortable shifting inside me at the thought that I also lost the good.
“How does this play out?” Axle asks. “How do I make this better for you? Easier?”
Axle isn’t talking about the party; he’s talking about living here with him and Holiday. He’s talking about how I readjust to parts of my old life and adjust into the new life the plea bargain has created. He’s talking about the thing we never mention aloud after the night I was arrested.
That we both think someone we know and love is the one who really committed the crime.
We both think it was Holiday working with Dominic or Dominic on his own, but neither of them could have survived being behind bars. I’m tough. I could handle the fallout, and all that mattered to me was that my family believed I was innocent. They did, but the police didn’t, and they had a crap load of evidence that pointed in my direction. This is where Axle would say he’s thankful for plea bargains.
“It’ll be good to have you playing again,” Axle continues, desperate to find the easier. “No one can play the drums like you.”
The drums. For months, I’ve dreamed about playing the drums. Being away from my family and the drums was the equivalent of someone chopping off my arms. Part of the reason I didn’t want this party was because I wanted to come home, go straight to the garage, sit in silence on my stool behind my set, then play. Feel the beat in my blood, the rhythm in my heart, the music filling an empty soul. Just me, my drums and the comfort in knowing that at least one good thing about me didn’t change.
But the thought of playing the drums also causes my stomach to dip. If I play again, do I become the same asshole that I was before?
“When is the press conference?” I ask.
Part of my penance, part of the deal, is that the state needed ten troubled teens, and out of those ten, they needed a poster child to prove to the public their hard-earned tax dollars were going to stop the school-to-prison pipeline. In other words, the voters need proof that this program could prevent teens, who don’t do well in school and get expelled, from wandering in and out of juvenile detention, and after eighteen, beelining it straight to prison.
Last year, Axle had lost his mind when the DA had mentioned if I didn’t accept the deal and plead guilty they would charge me as an adult. My brother then begged me to agree to anything they were offering, including them owning me for my senior year of high school. Appearing whenever they want, saying whatever they want, all while I keep my nose clean. Can’t say terror didn’t seize me at the thought of being charged as an adult. I might be strong, but real prison has never been on my bucket list.
Axle pops his knuckles, and my stomach sinks. I’m not going to like his answer.
“The press conference is tomorrow.”
Bullet to the head. “Where?”
“May Fest in Louisville. I guess they already had a general press conference planned, and when they found out you’d be out in time…” He trails off.
Makes sense to go from one prison sentence to another.
“It won’t be bad. They said they’ll have what you need to say written out. Ten minutes. Twenty, tops. I thought we’d all go together. Spend some time on the midway, bring a change of clothes for you, get it done and then we’ll head home.”
All in a neat package, to be done and repeated until I graduate from high school. That’s the deal, and it’s the deal I’ll see through. The only reason Axle agreed to take on custody of Holiday, getting her out of her crap situation, was because I agreed to come home and help him take on the burden. Financially, emotionally and whatever the hell else it requires to be a parent, since our biological parents can’t find their way out of a wet paper bag.
“Guess I should get a good night’s sleep, then,” I say.
“You probably should.”
But neither of us move. Instead we keep staring at my fire. Both amazed I created this. Both scared of what the future is going to bring.
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