Lance Tucker had always hated ladders, but between climbing up and down a ladder in the recreation hall and sitting through another one of Mrs. Stone’s endless GED classes, there was no contest. Climbing the rickety ladder to decorate the nine-foot Christmas tree was definitely the lesser of two evils.
Lance was five months into a six-month sentence at the San Leandro County Juvenile Justice Center facility in the Hill Country some fifty miles northwest of Austin. All his life he had hated having a December birthday—hated having whatever he was getting for his birthday and Christmas lumped into a single gift that never measured up to what other kids got. This year, though, his turning eighteen on December 18 meant that Lance would be out of jail in time for Christmas—out and able to go home. The problem with that, of course, was that he might not have a home to go to.
The last time he’d seen his mother, on visiting day two weeks ago, she had told him that she was probably going to lose the house. She’d finally admitted to him that she’d had to take out a second mortgage in order to pay the king’s ransom he owed in court-ordered restitution. Now that her hours had been cut back at work, she wasn’t able to keep up the payments on both mortgages. Which meant that, most likely, the house would go into foreclosure.
That was all his fault, too. Ears reddening with shame, Lance climbed down the ladder, moved it a few inches toward the next undecorated section of branches, picked up another tray of decorations, and clambered back up.
Don’t think about it, he told himself firmly. What was it the counselor kept saying? Don’t waste your time worrying about things you can’t change.
This definitely fell into the category of stuff that couldn’t be changed. What’s done was done.
He heard a burst of laughter from the classroom. It was just off the dining room. The kids were probably giving Mrs. Stone hell again. He felt sorry for her. She seemed like a nice enough person, and he knew she was genuinely trying to help them. But what she was offering—course work leading up to earning a GED—wasn’t at all what Lance wanted. It had never been part of what he had envisioned as his own future.
A year ago, just last May, his future had been promising. As a high school junior honor student at San Leandro High, Lance had been enrolled in three Advanced Placement classes and had done well on his SATs, coming in with a respectable 2290. With the help of his beloved math teacher, Mr. Jackson, Lance had been preparing to lead his computer science club team to their third consecutive championship for that year’s Longhorn computer science competition.
Now his life had changed, and not for the better. Mr. Jackson was dead. Lance’s mother had told him that San Leandro High had won the Longhorn trophy after all, but without Lance’s help, because someone else was the team captain now. As for doing his senior year in the top 10 percent of his class and getting to wear whatever he wanted to school? That had changed, too. Now Lance found himself locked up twenty-four hours a day and with nothing to wear but orange jumpsuits. The state of Texas offered college scholarships to kids in the top 10 percent of their respective classes, but he wouldn’t be able to take advantage of that, either. Lance was now officially considered to be a high school dropout with an institution-earned GED as his best possible educational outcome. No matter what his SAT score said, trying to get into Texas A&M, or any college, with only a lowly GED to his credit wasn’t going to work.
The problem was that the GED class was the only one offered inside the facility. Some of the other kids were able to take online classes, but since Lance’s sentence stipulated no computer or Internet access, those classes weren’t available to him. His court-mandated restrictions made the GED the only route possible. It was also boring as hell.
Lance had looked at the questions on the sample test. He already knew he could ace the thing in a heartbeat without having to sit through another dreary minute of class. Mrs. Stone probably understood that as well as he did. That was why she had let him out of class yesterday and today. That way he got to deal with the Christmas-tree issue, and she got to look after the dummies. Not that his classmates were really dumb, at least not all of them. Several of the guys spoke no English. He suspected that several of them probably had issues with dyslexia. One of those, a fifteen-year-old named Jason who couldn’t read at all, filled his books with caricatures of Mrs. Stone. The pencil drawings were realistic enough in that you could tell who it was. They were also unrealistic in that Mrs. Stone was usually pictured nude, and not in a nice way.
All of which left Lance dealing with the Christmas tree. It was big and came in four separate pieces. It was old—ten years, at least, according to Mr. Dunn, the grizzled old black man who was in charge of maintenance at the facility. He was the one who had enlisted Lance’s help to drag the tree and the boxes of decorations out of storage.
“No money for a new tree,” Mr. Dunn said. “Not in the budget, but at least I got us some new lights. By the time we took the tree down last year, half those old lights had quit working. We’ll have to restring it before we put it up.”
That part of the project had taken the better part of a day. First they’d removed the old strings of lights. Then they’d taken the new ones out of their boxes and wound them into the branches, carefully positioning the plug-in ends close enough to the tree trunk so that all the lights could be fastened together easily once the pieces were dropped into place. It was time-consuming, tedious work, but Lance liked the careful way Mr. Dunn went about it, his methodical method of testing each new string of lights before letting Lance take them out of the box. “No sense in putting on a defective string that won’t light up the first time you plug it in,” Mr. Dunn muttered under his breath.
The way Mr. Dunn talked as he worked, more to himself than to anyone else, reminded Lance of Grandpa Frank, his father’s father back in Arizona. Lance missed Grandpa Frank, but his grandfather, along with his entire collection of aunts, uncles, and cousins, had disappeared when his parents got a divorce. It wasn’t fair. Just because parents couldn’t get along shouldn’t mean that the poor kids involved had to lose everybody.
Lance’s favorite memory of Grandpa Frank was going with him to the state fair in Phoenix, where he ate so much cotton candy that he ended up getting sick on the Ferris wheel. The attendant had given him hell while cleaning up the mess. At the time, Lance had been beyond embarrassed, but Grandpa Frank had laughed it off. “Look,” he said. “Crap happens. You clean up your own mess, tell the world to piss off, and get on with your life. You want some more cotton candy?”
Lance had not wanted any more cotton candy. Ever. And he wished he’d been able to talk to Grandpa Frank after he got into trouble. His advice probably would have been a lot like some of the things the counselor said, only more colorful. Unfortunately, sometime between the divorce and now, Grandpa Frank had dropped dead of a heart attack or maybe a stroke. Lance didn’t know for sure. If his parents had been able to talk to each other, Lance might have had more information—might even have been able to go back to Phoenix for the funeral—but that didn’t happen. Grandpa Frank was gone without Lance even being able to say goodbye.
“You gonna hand me another string of them lights?” Mr. Dunn asked. “Or are you gonna stand there all day staring into space?”
Jarred out of his Grandpa Frank reverie, Lance fumbled another string of lights out of a box and plugged it in to the outlet. The new one lit right up, just as they all had, but as Mr. Dunn said, “Better safe than sorry.”
“I didn’t know prelit trees could be so much trouble,” Lance remarked.
“They are if you think you can keep ’em forever,” Mr. Dunn replied, “but with budgets as tight as they are, we’re lucky to get the new lights.”
When the tree was finally upright and glowing with hundreds of brand-new multicolored lights, Mr. Dunn studied it for a moment and then shook his head. “Tomorrow’s my day off. Ms. Stone tells me you’re gonna be the one putting on the decorations.”
Lance shrugged. “Fine with me,” he said.
“Before I take off tonight, I’ll leave everything you need in the closet next to my office, and I’ll make sure the guy who comes in tomorrow knows what’s what. The flocking’s looking pretty sorry these days. I got us some glitter and some self-adhesive glue. Before you put on the decorations, spray some glue on the tree and toss some glitter on it. That’s supposed to make it look a little better.”
“Okay,” Lance said. “Will do.”
Mr. Dunn turned to him. “You seem like a good kid,” he said. “Not like some of them other ornery ones. What the hell are you doing here?”
Lance bit his lip. That was the whole problem: He was a good kid. He never should have been locked up here, but he didn’t want to go into it, not with this old man. “Long story,” he said.
Mr. Dunn shook his head sadly. “Aren’t they all!” he said.
Which brought Lance to the next day, when he was working on his own. Marvin Cotton, one of the guards, had opened the door to the closet next to Mr. Dunn’s office. Had Mr. Dunn been there, he for sure would have helped Lance carry all the stuff into the rec room. Marvin was only a couple of years older than Lance. The guy was thick-necked, stupid, and surly, and he probably didn’t have a college degree. He wandered in and out of the rec room from time to time to check on things, without saying a word or even nodding in Lance’s direction. But then there were plenty of guards who acted like that—who treated the prisoners as something less than human.
Rather than worry about Marvin, Lance concentrated on the tree. For as long as he could remember, decorating Christmas trees had been high on his list of favorite things to do. Not this time. At home, they always had a live tree, although his mother usually bought them late on Christmas Eve, when they were already marked down and cheap. That meant that the trees they had were the rejects—scrawny, uneven, and downright ugly, but his mom made sure they always did the decorating together: all four of them, Lance, his mom, and his two younger brothers, Connor and Thad. Connor was only six and believed in Santa Claus. Lance and Thad no longer had that option. At home, decorating the tree was a joyous occasion with laughter and joking around and plenty of popcorn and homemade cookies. Here, although it was a solitary chore, it was preferable to suffering through the agonies of Mrs. Stone’s class.
A few people besides Marvin had come and gone while Lance worked, so he didn’t turn to look when the metal door clicked open behind him. Intent on having lost the wire hanger to one of the Christmas balls, he was staring into the tree branch, trying to find it, when he heard an unexpected hissing from the glue can he had left on the table with the other decorations. Just as quickly, he felt the cold in his legs as the aerosol spray hit, freezing his pant legs to his skin. Lance glanced down then. “Hey!” he demanded. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
All he could see below him was a hand holding one of the spray cans of glue. Then a second hand came into his line of vision. It took a moment for his brain to register what he was seeing. The second hand held a cigarette lighter. Lance had time enough to register the flash of flame from the lighter, then the very air around him seemed to explode in flame. Writhing in pain, he attempted to lean over and pat out the fire on his legs. That was enough to tip the shaky ladder. The next thing Lance knew, he was falling and burning.
Mercifully, for a long time after that, he remembered nothing.