From The Book of Cain, by Jeff Lowe
The kids call it “The Laz,” as in: it’s the laz place you ever want to be on the road from school to prison.
The Lazaretto Alternative School stands on an island in the middle of the Prevene River, with an almost Alcatraz-level of seclusion. The compound was built more than a century ago to be a leper colony, and darkened by the rain, its stone and brick buildings utterly defied all attempts to make it look like something else.
An early morning squall had blown through shortly before I arrived. The winds were still stiff enough to whip the tree branches and the parking lot was slick and puddled, but the rain had stopped and the storm cover had broken so that patches of blue sky showed here and there. To the east the sky was red, turbulent gray above, and to the distant west, after a stretch of blue, great white cumulus clouds were looming high.
I don’t recall seeing the rainbow at that point.
My name is Lillian Last. I am a psychiatrist. I had been to a lot of “alternative” and “special” schools, juvie homes, detention centers, and such places in my work with troubled teens, and I have witnessed the ways that environmental factors can influence their treatment, good and bad. If you have a kid with a paranoid fear of being strangled, you don’t treat him on the gallows. But that was exactly the sense I got of this ghastly place.
To enter it from the parking lot on the west riverbank, I had to walk across an ancient iron footbridge—the only access into or out of the place that I could see—through a locked gate surrounded by an impassable fence like a dragon’s collar halfway across.
A tiny guardhouse next to the gate was no longer in use. Instead, employees could open the gate using a key card while guests like me could use the intercom to talk to the receptionist inside. As she buzzed me through, I looked down into the river below. The water was brown and swirling from the hard rain. In it I saw something tumble, swept along by the current. I didn’t know what it was at first. Then I saw the teeth and the open mouth. It was the bloated carcass of a dog.
I don’t believe in omens, or I didn’t then, but the sight of that dog filled me with a sense of doom as I entered. The principal and school administrator had not yet arrived, so I asked the receptionist to show me to the office of Elton Ricks, the staff therapist assigned to my patient. As she led me down the hallway I noticed that among all the standard self-esteem and motivational posters on the walls were framed black-and-white photographs of residents and staff from back in the leper colony days. Some were quite graphic in their depiction of the physical ravages of the disease from back when there was no cure. I could only imagine the effect it had on the fragile psyches of the children here, and I mentioned that to Elton Ricks when I met him in his office.
“Well, as I understand it,” he said, “this company was able to purchase the property at a well-below-market price on the condition that we honor its history.”
“As a leper colony,” I said.
“Yes. So we’re obligated to keep the name, The Lazaretto, and certain relics like those photographs.”
Elton Ricks was a pudgy, pasty, prematurely balding man with a well-trimmed beard and thick glasses who looked like he should be wearing a tweed jacket even when he wasn’t. He had a sour countenance and seemed on edge.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to challenge you, Mr. Ricks,” I said, “but I’m just concerned about the effect all these environmental factors may have on the children here.”
“Well, Doctor Last,” he said, “I may actually share your concerns in that regard. But I’m not the architect or the interior designer and I don’t control the money around here. I’m just a lowly therapist. But I can tell you this. The client you’re here to see?”
He gave a sarcastic laugh. “Yeah, good luck calling him that. You’ve read his file?”
“Then it ought to be clear to you he is not a child. He’s seventeen going on thirty-five and he is a dangerous, unstable young man. He’s been here way too long and in all that time he has not made any progress, or even any effort, in therapy. Not an inch. Not an iota. And he still won’t even acknowledge his real name. Do you know what he calls himself?”
“Yes, it’s in his file.”
Ricks stood up and started pacing back and forth behind his tiny desk. “Cain. He calls himself Cain, Dr. Last. You know who Cain was, don’t you? The first murderer. If you read his file, you’d realize he really was trying to kill that Kernell kid. It wasn’t just some dustup between teenagers. Did you read the list of injuries?” He took a paper from the file folder on his desk and read from it. “Broken jaw, four teeth knocked out, broken orbital bone, four broken ribs, one of which punctured a lung, ruptured spleen, crushed testicles and a dislocated patella, not to mention too many cuts, abrasions, and bruises to count. Then the cops came. Four of them. Three wound up in the hospital. Three grown adult police officers. And your kid was sixteen years old. Sixteen! They said it was like trying to subdue a rabid dog. One of them actually pointed his gun at him, and the kid lunged at him and the cop actually pulled the trigger and guess what? The kid lucked out. The gun jammed somehow. And you know what your guy did? He took the gun right out of the cop’s hands. The cop said he used this lightning fast move, and next thing he knew the kid had his gun. Then the kid, your guy, says, “You can’t kill me. I am Cain,” and he handed the gun back to the cop. Lucky for everyone involved, one of the cops hit the kid with his stun gun right about then and they were able to restrain him. They thought for sure he was on PCP or bath salts or something.”
“There were no drugs found in his system, according to the toxicology report,” I said.
“I know that,” Ricks said. He was getting more anxious and angry as he made his case. “But that’s really the point, isn’t it? It was an unprovoked attack on a total stranger. And it wasn’t drugs that made him do it. Which means whatever it is that drives him to do this sort of thing can’t be fixed with a little substance abuse treatment, unfortunately. Look, here’s the point: We can’t help this client. We’ve tried, and he simply will not cooperate in his own treatment. All of us, every therapist employed at The Lazaretto, has signed on to the decision to remove him from here.”
“So you think he should be just shipped off to the adult prison population?”
“That’s what the court order requires, Doctor. That if he doesn’t show substantial improvement in socialization and attitude and moods, as determined by us, the therapists at The Lazaretto, by his eighteenth birthday, then he’s to be transferred to the adult prison system to serve out his time on the original charges. And to answer your question directly, yes, I do. I think he should be transferred out of here now, today. In my opinion he should have been tried as an adult, convicted, and sent to the adult system right away. He simply doesn’t belong here. He scares the kids, he scares the staff. He scares me. It’s not fair to any of us.”
“Mr. Ricks, has Richard Tyler ever actually attacked anyone here?”
“Yes. He attacked several other students. I thought you said you read his file.”
“I did. According to the report in the file, he was coming to the aid of a staff member who was being attacked by those students.”
He rolled his eyes and sighed. “That was Sarge.”
“Yes. To be honest, I can’t even remember his real name off the top of my head. Everybody has always called him Sarge. He’s an ex-Marine or something. But let me tell you. He’s biased in favor of the Tyler kid. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s a tough guy, macho thing. Sarge used to be the head of our rapid response team—until his support for your guy went a little too far for our comfort, so he was demoted. The guy we’ve got leading the team now is a lot more realistic about the danger your boy poses. He wants him gone too.”
“I’d like to talk to Sarge before I see Richard, if that’s all right.”
“Fine. Whatever. Look, Dr. Last, I must confess, I’m at a loss to understand why you’re here. In all other cases, the staff therapist makes the decision as to the client’s disposition. We don’t require some over-credentialed shrink, pardon my indelicate phrasing, second-guessing us. So. Why are you here?”
“I’m here by orders of the Governor.”
“That much I know. But nobody else gets this kind of privileged treatment. So why for this kid? Nobody really knows anything about him. There is a huge gap in his life that no one knows anything about, and he refuses to tell anyone. He may as well have been raised by wolves. Why is the Governor interested in him? What’s the connection?”
“Does it matter?”
“Come on, Doctor. Is it those two people from Harlington? It is, isn’t it? That sheriff and the kid’s aunt. They’re constantly bugging us, especially the aunt. They have some kind of political pull?”
“Sheriff McKenzie and the Governor were in the Marines together.”
Elton Ricks slumped into his chair. “I knew it.” He shook his head and scowled. “The Marines. Jesus. The governor, the sheriff, Sarge, and Cain. Does the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ mean anything to you, Doctor? And his aunt, what’s her name…”
“Violet Tyler. I’ve talked to her.”
“Yes, well, you know who doesn’t talk to her? Her nephew. Your boy. Richard Tyler. Refuses to talk to her. Has since the day he came here. She writes him letters every single week. He doesn’t reply. She calls. He doesn’t take the call. He refuses to have anything to do with her or with that sheriff. Look, these may be nice people, but they don’t know this kid. According to his file, his mother took him away from Harlington when he was, what, five years old? They didn’t keep up with him. They didn’t even know where he was until he got arrested for beating up the Kernell kid. And they never would have found out about that, either, because he refused to identify himself except to say, ‘I am Cain.’ And then one of the detectives working the case recognized that burn scar on his chest to be a cult symbol. And he checked the files and got in touch with Sheriff McKenzie who had apparently investigated the cult. That’s the only way they even found out who he was. And by the way, have you seen that scar? It’s absolutely hideous.”
“It was fresh when he was arrested. Freshly burned into his skin. I’m telling you, he never should have been sent here. The Lazaretto isn’t a prison, it’s a school. It is not set up to handle that sort of problem. And he shouldn’t be getting favoritism because of political connections, that’s for sure.”
“Mr. Ricks, Sheriff McKenzie and Violet Tyler are just being good advocates for the child. The fact that the other kids here don’t have support is not Richard’s fault.”
“If they’re such good advocates, why doesn’t he accept them? And why don’t they just become his legal guardians and make decisions for him?”
“Apparently because his mother is still alive. She would have to…”
“His mother!” Ricks laughed. “Doctor Last, here’s something that is not in his file that you should know. I have talked to the cops. Do you know what they think? They think Richard Tyler killed his mother and then dumped her body somewhere before he went and tried to kill the Kernell kid. It’s an active investigation. That’s why it’s not in the file.”
“Well, Mr. Ricks, thank you for your time and the information. It’s very helpful. You said on the phone the other day I could use your office for my session with Richard. Is that offer still on the table?”
He stood up. “Sure. I’m taking the rest of the day off. I don’t want to be here if that powder keg explodes, that’s for sure. And he may. No, let me rephrase that. He will explode. And people will get hurt or killed. It’s just a matter of when. I’ll tell you this, Doctor. The other therapists and I have talked and we agree. If Richard Tyler is still here by next week, we’re all quitting.”
“I am totally serious.”
“Did Richard physically assault any of the therapists?”
“Does he have to?” Ricks said. “He’s already shown he’s capable of extreme and unprovoked violence. None of us wants to be in a room alone with him. How can we do effective counseling if we have to have rapid response standing right there in the room with us? Do you know what he said to the cop when he was in the squad car after they arrested him? This isn’t in the file either.”
“What did he say?”
“The cop asked him why he beat that kid up. And you know what he said? He said, ‘indigo bunting.’ Now what the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“An indigo bunting is a bird.”
“I know an indigo bunting is a bird! But what does it mean? Either it’s some kind of cult code word or the kid is just unhinged. He hasn’t changed since he got here. You wonder why the therapists are afraid of him, even though he hasn’t actually bashed their skulls in? I’ll tell you why. Whenever we try to counsel him, he just sits there, in that chair where you’re sitting now, all quiet, but tense and twitching. He doesn’t answer any of our questions, he just glares at us, like he’s sizing us up, and you know what it feels like? I’ll tell you. It feels like he’s a predator and you’re his prey. It feels like you’re sitting in the same room with Travis the maniac chimpanzee who’s about to go ape and bite your face off. If we adults feel like that, how do you think the kids here feel? He needs to go. And he needs to go now.”
He let out a tired sigh and then picked up a handset and spoke into it. “Sarge? This is Elton Ricks. Can you come to my office? Cain’s shrink is here. She wants to talk to you.”
“OK, it’s all yours, make yourself at home,” he said. He stood and stepped toward the door. “Look, Doctor, we get tough kids in The Lazaretto all the time. Strong kids, impulsive kids, kids who like to fight, but in all those other cases we’re confident that if we need help we can call rapid response and they can come in and get control of the situation. But not with him. Not with Cain. He’s a different breed. Even the people on the rapid response team are afraid of him. Except Sarge. Sarge is a fool. Ask the others. They’ll tell you.”
(End of Chapter 1. Go to Chapter 2.)