Cole hesitated. “It’s none of your business!”
“I know how you’re feeling,” Garvey said.
Cole leaped to his feet and glared at Garvey. “You don’t know how I’m feeling!” he shouted. “You don’t know what it’s like being hit over and over until you’re so numb you don’t feel anything!”
Garvey nodded slowly. “I do know what that’s like. Is it your dad who hits you?”
Cole turned to face the wall. “He drinks until he turns into a monster. Mom just gets drunk and pretends nothing has happened. It’s like a bad dream I can’t wake up from.”
Garvey stood up and reached into the brown paper bag he had brought with him. One by one he pulled out groceries and set them on the small cement table.
“What are you doing?” Cole asked.
Garvey ignored the question as he laid out salt, flour, eggs, baking soda, a bottle of water, sugar, butter, and molasses. Cole wiped sweat from his forehead. The stuffy room felt like a furnace.
“Okay,” said Garvey, finishing. “Taste everything on the table.”
“No way,” Cole grumped. “I’m not eating that crap.”
“You surprise me,” Garvey said. “You’re actually afraid of a little bad taste.”
“I’m not afraid of anything,” Cole boasted, standing and approaching the table. One by one he sampled each item, tasting first the flour, sugar, and baking soda. He purposely took big mouthfuls to prove nothing bothered him. Casually he drank some thick molasses. He stared straight at Garvey as he bit off a chunk of butter and swallowed it. When he came to the eggs, he picked one up, tilted his head back, and broke it raw into his mouth. He downed it with a single swallow. He finished by shaking salt directly into his mouth.
“So,” Garvey asked. “How did everything taste?”
“Gross.” Cole took a long swig of water from the bottle. “What did you expect?”
Garvey reached back into the bag. “I want you to taste one more thing.” He unwrapped a small baked cake with creamy frosting and broke off a large piece. “Here,” he said. “Eat this if you dare.”
Cole wolfed down the moist piece of cake, eyeing Garvey the whole time. “So what does all this prove?”
Garvey shrugged. “Did you like the cake?”
“It was okay.”
“I baked it this morning, using the same ingredients you tasted on the table.”
“Yeah, so?” Cole said.
“What ingredients should I have left out?”
“None,” Cole said. “That’s a dumb question.”
“But you said the ingredients tasted gross.”
Cole let his irritation show. “Not mixed together, stupid.”
Garvey stood and walked wearily to the door. His shoulders sagged forward as if tired from a long hike. Leaving the cake and all the ingredients on the table, he let himself out the steel door without saying good-bye.
Cole walked sullenly around the room. Cursing, he swept his arm across the table and sent the baking ingredients flying. Eggs smashed. Wrappings broke open. Plastic containers ricocheted off the wall. In seconds the small room looked bombed. Cole kicked at the butter, flour, sugar, and baking soda. Sticky molasses and egg whites coated his shoes as he picked up the cake and flung it hard at the steel door. “The cake sucks!” he shouted. “And so does my life!”
Inch by inch the billowing flames devoured the supplies and the shelter. Cole chuckled, then laughed out loud. As the searing flames surged and rolled higher along the sides of the shelter, his laughter grew hysterical. By the time the flames engulfed the wooden hut and licked up into open air, Cole had lost all control.
His wild laughter mocked the world and everyone he had ever known. It mocked the loneliness. It mocked every bully that had ever picked on him. He laughed at every time he had ever been teased, every time he’d been arrested, every time his parents had argued. He laughed at all the times he’d been beaten by his drunken father, or been ignored by his drunken mother. These were the ingredients in his cake, and they sucked! Cole didn’t care anymore. His life was beyond caring.
With Cole’s laughter, hot tears escaped his reddened and angry eyes and flooded his cheeks. This banishment was the ultimate hurt—worse than his father’s fists and belt, worse than his mother’s never caring. This was the hurt of being alone and unwanted.
The flames of the burning shelter rumbled like a freight train and sucked at the air. Thick smoke poured from the doorway and boiled upward from the blaze. Still Cole kept laughing like a madman. Not until the flames began to subside did his manic laughter fade. Only then did he let his attention stray from the fire. The first thing he saw was the at.óow, the brightly colored blanket given to him by Garvey. It rested unharmed in the grass nearby.
Shielding his face from the burning heat, Cole snatched up the at.óow, and with one swift motion, flung it toward the fire. In the same motion, he turned away from the flames and ran toward the shoreline. No one in the Healing Circle had known how strongly he could swim. Not even Garvey.
The only person who knew was his father. He was the one who had forced Cole to go out for the swim team because that is what he himself had done in high school. But no matter how well Cole swam, his father criticized him. “You swim like you have lead up your butt,” he’d scream as Cole swam—if he managed to show up at all.
Cole studied the bay as he removed his shoes and pulled off his clothes. He stood in his underwear and stared out across the waters. The boat had brought him west from Drake. Now, with the afternoon sun setting behind him, he fixed his eyes on the first island to the east. He could swim island to island, stopping at each to warm up, eat, and sleep. Sooner or later there would be a passing boat to take him back to the mainland. Nobody would ever find him, and no one would ever again tell him what to do.
Cole waded into the light surf. His breath caught when the waves reached his chest. The icy transparent water was colder than he had expected, but he plunged forward and began stroking. He knew he could not survive forever in the frigid water. Every minute counted now, and he needed to swim hard.
Rhythmically, he reached out, each stroke taking him farther away from his island prison. As Cole swam, he thought about Garvey and the stupid cake demonstration. And he thought about his application for Circle Justice. It had been a full three weeks after he’d submitted the application before Garvey had casually said, “Well, Champ, you’ve been accepted for Circle Justice. Now what are you going to do with this chance?”
“It’s about time.”
“I hope the committee knows what they’re getting into,” Garvey said.
“This was your idea,” Cole shot back.
Garvey nodded. “So, are you going to disappoint them?”
“Don’t worry about me,” Cole said. “How soon can I get out of this stink hole?”
“First the Keepers will prepare for the Hearing Circle, where everybody gets together to look for solutions.”
“Who exactly will be there?”
“Anybody who wants to help.”
“Who would want to help me?”
“Might be your parents, the lawyers, the judge, myself, community members, maybe even your classmates at school. Anybody can be a part of the Circle if they want to help find a solution.”
“My parents—that’s a joke,” Cole scoffed. “They don’t care if I’m dead or alive.” When Garvey didn’t answer, Cole asked, “Will Peter be there?”
Garvey shrugged. “It’s up to him. He may not be ready to forgive you.”
“I don’t care if he forgives me.”
Garvey rubbed the back of his neck, then glanced up toward the ceiling. “How come everything is always about you? This forgiveness isn’t for you. Until Peter forgives you, he won’t heal.”
“Maybe if he forgives me, everyone will forget about what I did and I can get out of this pit faster.”
Garvey stood to leave. “Forgiving isn’t forgetting, Chump!”
BY THE TIME Cole paused to catch his breath, he found himself outside the bay, angling toward the next island, maybe a mile away. The icy water numbed him deeper with each breath. He gulped at the air. He had to make it before he froze to death. His arms ached, but he continued stroking, even as his mind wandered.
Following Cole’s acceptance for Circle Justice, preparation meetings, called Circles of Understanding, took place. Each meeting was considered a Healing Circle but had a different name, depending on what was being discussed and who attended. There were Talking Circles, Peacemaking Circles, and Community Circles.
Eventually there would be Bail Circles and Sentencing Circles.
“Is everything always in a circle?” Cole had asked Garvey.
“Why not?” Garvey said. “Life is a circle.”
“Do I have to go to all these meetings?”
Garvey shook his head. “The organizers of the Circles are called Keepers. When the Keepers meet with people like Peter and his family, you’re not allowed.”
“Why do they meet with them?”
“If the Driscals realize that the Circle allows them to have a voice in decisions, and that forgiveness can help Peter to heal, they may also join the Circle.”
“You mean they might help decide my sentence?”
Garvey nodded. “Maybe.”
“They’ll hang me,” Cole said. “I’m dead.”
“I think you’ve already hung yourself,” Garvey answered.
Once preparations were ready for the first Hearing Circle, notices were sent out and meetings were held in the basement of the public library. Cole scratched nervously at his stomach as he entered the library the first night. He didn’t know what to expect as the guard removed his handcuffs outside the meeting room and let him walk in alone. The guard remained in the hallway.
The woman who called herself the Keeper met Cole and shook his hand. “Thanks for coming tonight,” she said pleasantly. She wore blue jeans and a flannel shirt, even though she was old enough to be Cole’s grandmother.
“I didn’t have much choice,” Cole mumbled, as he seated himself. He picked at the edge of his chair as he watched complete strangers file in and choose seats. The number of chairs made it obvious the Hearing Circle involved a lot more people than the other meetings. To make matters worse, Cole knew that tonight he might see Peter for the first time since the beating.
Each new arrival greeted him and all the others warmly. Everybody acted as if they were friends. Cole played their game and nodded politely, but he noticed that nobody sat beside him. Several kept eyeing him curiously.
He recognized one man as Judge Tanner. The last time Cole had seen him, the judge had been wearing a black robe at the arraignment hearing in juvenile court when Cole first pleaded guilty. Tonight Judge Tanner wore no robe and was dressed in blue jeans and a sweater.
Cole’s father and their lawyer, Nathaniel Blackwood, entered together, wearing dark three-piece suits and ties. They looked completely out of place. The lawyer looked as if he’d been dipped in plastic. The two nodded to Cole and seated themselves on his immediate left. Cole ignored them.
Cole’s mother arrived alone and seated herself on his right. She wore a party dress. Not a single hair on her head was out of place. That’s all this was, Cole thought bitterly. This was just another social event. She had probably spent a couple of hours getting ready. Nothing, however, could cover up the frightened look in her eyes. Cole guessed she had probably downed a few drinks before coming, something to calm her nerves. Cole squirmed in his seat. His parents hadn’t even acknowledged each other.
When Garvey arrived, he sat nearby. Shifting nervously in his chair, Cole nodded to Garvey as he watched more strangers enter and be seated. It seemed like the whole world was showing up. And why not? The Keepers had posted a notice on the library bulletin board with an open invitation to anybody who wanted to participate.
Cole tapped his shoe against the leg of the chair. Why hadn’t they just gone out in the street and hollered, “Hey, everybody, come help make fun of Cole Matthews!” At least none of his classmates had shown up, Cole thought. They probably knew what he’d do to them if they did. Then Cole heard more people come in, and turned, to see Peter walk in with his parents and their lawyer.
Peter walked awkwardly, shuffling his feet and glancing timidly around the room. His lawyer looked the same age as Cole’s mom but walked with her head up and shoulders squared. Almost immediately, she picked Cole out of the Circle and eyed him. He glanced down.
Nearly two dozen people had joined the Circle by the time the Keeper stood to begin. She smiled pleasantly. “Everybody please stand and hold hands,” she said.
As the Keeper bowed her head, Cole peeked and caught Peter peeking back. He narrowed his eyes threateningly, and Peter looked away. Cole grinned until he realized Peter’s lawyer was watching him.
“Great Maker and Healer, hear this prayer,” began the Keeper in a soft voice. “Tonight we gather because our community has been hurt. Grant wisdom and patience as we search for wellness. Amen.”
As the Circle sat down, the Keeper drew in a deep slow breath, looking around to acknowledge each person. Still smiling, she said, “Well, I see many new faces here tonight.” She glanced directly at the two lawyers and Judge Tanner. “Let me remind everybody, we are not here to win or lose. Justice often fails because it seeks to punish, not to heal. Jails and fines harden people.”
Cole found himself nodding.
The Keeper paused. “We call this Circle Justice, but we really seek wellness. We try to meet the needs of both the offender and the victim.” The Keeper looked directly at Cole and his family, then at Peter and his family. “Circle Justice is for those ready for healing. It’s not an easy way out. In fact, a healing path is often much harder.”
The Keeper held up a feather. “This feather symbolizes respect and responsibility. No one must speak without this feather. When you hold this feather in your hand, speak honestly from your heart.” She chuckled. “I hope I’m not being long-winded, because talking too long tells others that you don’t respect their right to speak. Respect others as much as yourself. When the feather comes to you, speak only if you wish to. This circle carries only two obligations—honesty and respect.”
The Keeper fixed her gaze on Cole. “Cole Matthews, you have a long history of anger, growing more violent until you severely injured Peter Driscal. Even now, Peter continues therapy for injuries.”
Cole squirmed in his chair. He didn’t like being talked to with a bunch of people staring at him.
The Keeper raised her voice slightly and turned to the group. “Our challenge is to return wellness, not only to Peter Driscal, but also to Cole Matthews and to our community. We’ll pass the feather several times tonight, introducing ourselves, expressing concerns, and offering ideas for healing and repairing the harm.” The Keeper handed the feather to the first person seated on her left side.
“I’m Gladys Swanson, and I’m the mother of four children here in Minneapolis,” the lady began. “I want to help make our community better because this is the community where I’m raising my own children.”
“I’m Frank Schaffer,” the next person said. “This is the first real opportunity I’ve had to help change the violence in our city.”
One by one, the people around the circle held the feather and spoke.
Cole’s mother fingered the feather nervously during her turn. “I’m Cindy Matthews, Cole’s mom,” she said. “I’m here because I don’t know what to do anymore. It’s gotten so hard.” She paused, her bottom lip trembling, then handed the feather to Cole.
The room grew extra quiet, and Cole’s face warmed. Squeaking chairs and shuffling shoes broke the anxious silence. Cole coughed to clear his throat. A lot depended on
his next words. “Uh, I’m Cole Matthews, and I’m here because I really screwed up,” he said. “I know what I did was wrong, and I want Peter to know I’m sorry for everything.” Cole sniffled purposely, rubbing at his nose for effect. “I want to ask this Circle to help me get over my anger.”
Cole handed the feather to his father as he glanced around the group. He liked the reactions he saw. People heard what they wanted to hear. Tonight the group wanted to believe he was sorry—he could see it in their eyes.
Cole’s father sat up taller in his chair. “I’m William Matthews,” he announced importantly. “I’m here to make sure that my son never causes problems again.” He turned and glared at Cole. “This is all going to end now.”
Cole ignored his father.
Next, Nathaniel Blackwood received the feather. He held it loosely in his fingers as if it were a cigarette and cleared his throat loudly. “Yes, what Cole did was wrong, but kids will be kids. Considering Cole’s detention to date, we feel he should be released to parole and to the supervision of one of his parents. He needs a family, not a jail cell.” The lawyer handed the feather on.
As the feather moved from person to person, Cole kept glancing at Peter. The thin red-haired boy stared at the floor. When he was handed the feather, Peter looked up fearfully and mumbled, “I’m Peter Driscal, and I’m here ’cause I got beat up.” His speech was slow and halting. His eyes darted around the Circle as he passed the feather quickly to his mother.
Cole studied Peter. Peter hadn’t sounded like this before. Cole wiped his sweaty hands on his pants. It wasn’t like he had meant to hurt anyone. Besides, this wouldn’t have happened if Peter had kept his mouth shut.
ONCE CLEAR OF the bay, Cole swam even harder. Misty rain roughed the water as waves washed over his head. When he stopped to rest, his breath came in ragged gasps. His numb limbs felt wooden and stiff, moving awkwardly as if disconnected from his body. Cole turned to look back.